You’re not heading to the pub anytime soon. I understand. But ho-ho fear not, dear readers, for I have a near perfect solution. I'm bringing the chat directly to you. Now you can enjoy our virtual pub discussion right in your own home. It’ll be like you’re really there. So, go grab the beverage of your choice from the fridge, pull out a packet of Smokey Bacon Taytos and hoist up your legs on your favorite recliner. (Note: I am not responsible for any lost time in the reading of this column. I cannot reimburse wages if consumed while you’re supposed to be working, nor does it offer refunds of any kind, especially for you Larry, so don’t even try.)
CM: Cheers. Anyone sitting here?
Regular Patron: Doesn’t look like it.
CM (with a nod to the bartender and a raised index finger): Pint of Guinness, please.
The speakers behind the bar are softly discharging a glossy pop band inappropriate for the age group gathered at the establishment and yet no one seems to care. Yes, it’s wonderful to be in Ireland.
CM (to the regular patron): What do you recommend for a bite?
RP: An agitated Pitbull usually does the trick.
CM: What if I can’t find one of those?
RP: Soup’s good. Veg today, I think.
Several moments of silence.
Bartender (placing full pint glass in front of CM): Now.
CM: Cheers. Veg soup today, is it?
CM: Could I grab one of those as well?
Bartender: No bother. (Retreats)
Patron at the wall under a newspaper clipping (twisting around on his stool): Ronnie!
RP (spinning on his stool): …
PATWUANC: What’s that clown with the teeth again?
RP (Ronnie): Pennywise.
PATWUANC: That’s the one. Needs an orthodontist that one. And who’s the writer?
RP (Ronnie): Stephen King.
PATWUANC: The very man. (Spins back to face his cohorts)
RP (Ronnie) (turning to face the bar again): Sips from his lager.
CM: Never saw it.
RP (Ronnie): By it, you mean “It?”
CM: I do. Don’t really enjoy horror flicks.
RP (Ronnie): Well, your man’s just delving into them now. Can’t get enough.
CM: Just discovering them, is he? What’s his age?
RP (Ronnie): Oh, he’s near on eighty now.
CM: And he’s into horror movies.
RP (Ronnie): Not for the scare, mind you. For the laughs.
CM: Finds them funny, does he?
RP (Ronnie): Oh, aye. You’ll hear him across the room roarin’ and laughin’, and him recalling something from Netflix last night. “Don’t go in the room, ye stupid git!”
CM: Fair play to him.
RP (Ronnie): “They’re always splitting up! Why wouldn’t they stick together? There’s only one of them murderers out there and there’s six of them. Sure, they’d all still be kicking if they’d a brain amongst them.”
CM: I suppose he’s got a point there.
RP (Ronnie): Oh, aye.
CM: And his wife… is she still around?
RP (Ronnie): She is that. She’ll outlive us all.
CM: Does she enjoy the movies as well?
RP (Ronnie): Not like your man. They’ll put something on, but she’ll be reading a book all the while.
CM: Doesn’t see the humor in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
RP (Ronnie): She lacks vision, no doubt there.
Bartender (placing soup and bread in front of CM): Now.
CM: Thanks. (Sips Guinness and starts the buttering procedure—a process that can take an extended period of time according to some people with knowledge of CM’s eating habits.)
RP (Ronnie): That’s not looking so bad about now.
CM: It’s just what the doctor ordered.
RP (Ronnie): Brian!
Bartender (looks up from wiping a glass)
RP (Ronnie): You wouldn’t have a spare bowl of that stuff you’ve given him?
Bartender (Brian): Just the bit that’s fallen on the floor.
RP (Ronnie): Any chance you’d scrape it up and throw it in a pot?
Bartender (Brian): Will do.
CM (carefully opening the foil from a second pat of butter with his knife and eyeing the quickly cooling soup, still annoyed that the butter was refrigerated and tough to spread): C’mon yiz.
RP (Ronnie) (spinning around on his stool): What is it Patrick?
PATWUANC (Patrick): Come and give us a yarn.
RP (Ronnie): I’m just after ordering some grub.
PATWUANC (Patrick): What’d ye get?
RP (Ronnie): The soup.
PATWUANC (Patrick): It’s carrot, is it?
RP (Ronnie): Veg.
PATWUANC (Patrick): Veg, eh? Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
RP (Ronnie): That’s what I said.
PATWUANC (Patrick): Who’s your man up there?
RP (Ronnie): Dunno. (To CM): What do they call you?
RP (Ronnie) (to PATWUANC, Patrick): Conor.
PATWUANC (Patrick): How’s the soup today, Conor?
CM: Haven’t tried it yet. Still slathering on the butter, which is putting up a valiant fight.
PATWUANC (Patrick): Good man. Let us know how you get on.
CM: Nearly there.
PATWUANC (Patrick): Don’t hurry it. You’re doing the decent thing.
RP (Ronnie): Sure, they’ve warm butter out back too. Brian’ll fetch you some.
CM: That’s good news that could’ve been timelier. The job’s nearly done.
Bartender (Brian) (placing soup and bread in front of RP (Ronnie): Now.
RP (Ronnie): Cheers Brian. You wouldn’t have a bit of butter at a spreadable temperature for your man here?
Bartender (Brian): Yeah, sure.
CM: I’m all set, last few strokes.
RP (Ronnie): Well, I’ll have his then.
Bartender (Brian): Easy enough.
CM: Done (takes a bite of bread and a sip of soup). Oh, that’s nice.
RP (Ronnie) (to PATWUANC, Patrick): It’s a thumbs up on the soup.
PATWUANC (Patrick): That’s me sold. Brian, I’ll have a lepping of that as well.
Man across from Patrick: Make that two.
Woman next to man across from Patrick: Three.Bartender (Brian): You’ve started a movement, Conor. Well done.
Leslie Castle, above, in Glaslough, County Monaghan.
The haunted bed at Leslie Castle.
I had a friend ask me recently where to send some relatives who were going to be visiting Ireland. He wanted recommendations for a family spanning three generations, some of whom had been over prior, but who were by no means frequent visitors.
It was a hard nut to crack mainly because I didn’t know them and hadn’t a clue on what they might like to experience. He gave me a generalized itinerary though, that they’d be spending a day in Dublin, then heading south before looping around to the western coast to leave via Shannon Airport.
His request was well timed, because as we head into spring, Ireland will be blooming, flight prices will be edging up, but they won’t be at the summer apex.
As far as hitting the Emerald Isle, it obviously depends on who will be going and what they’re looking for. I’m generally content either hunting for new food venues or finding a small pub somewhere to while away the hours.
If I’m visiting a country for the first time, I’ll likely still want to see sites that the area is renowned for, but that’s becoming less and less important to me, especially as those spots are crammed tighter and tighter with other tourists.
Any number of sources will point you to the popular spots in Ireland, so I won’t waste your time repeating them. Instead, I’m going to pen the occasional column with a theme. If you ever see one you like, maybe you can grab a few tidbits to help in your planning. I’ll start with some of the hotels that are likely to reacquaint you with the hair on the back of your neck…
Renvyle House —Renvyle House Hotel, on the coast of Connemara, reminds me of an old hunting lodge. None other than William Butler Yeats is reputed to haunt this place, along with a few other scarier apparitions. He held seances there with attendees such as Lady Gregory, James Joyce, Augustus John and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Nowadays there are separate lodges for the more timid, but the main hotel has the ghosts. (It’s been called the most haunted place in Ireland). The main building has been rebuilt and burned down and rebuilt again. Note that it’s a great base if you’re interested in hiking around the Connemara Mountains.
During a haunted tour I helped to host more than twenty years ago, two separate guests reported that someone sat on their bed in the middle of the night at the same time… in two separate rooms. One of them slept in the hallway too frightened to return to her bed.
A quick rundown: Room twenty-four reputedly has had constant reports of footsteps; Yeats’ wife apparently saw a ghostly face at the window of her room; a housekeeper once saw a man entering room four, which was supposed to be vacant. When she opened the door to inform him he had the wrong room, it was empty. The poor woman eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Another housemaid witnessed a man disappear from the ground up in one of the corridors.
Suite eighteen is possibly the most haunted room. Guests often complain that there is a non-human “something” in it. While applying makeup, one woman reported seeing a man in the mirror staring over her shoulder. A dozen or so other women without prior knowledge of the hauntings, have claimed the same thing. A manager asked a priest to say a mass in the room to try to fix things, but word has it that a thunderstorm occurred and ended the mass abruptly. A couple once complained about a loud clinking sound coming from as close as their pillows. Rumor has it that this room was the site where a twelve-year-old boy hanged himself in the fireplace and a man strangled himself.
As a final note, I’ll add that one night at the hotel, I was sure I left my wallet on the top left corner of the television, but by the morning, it was in the middle of it.
Leslie Castle — As far as manor houses, an argument could be made that Leslie Castle in Glaslough, Monaghan is the most haunted in Ireland. Like Renvyle, it is also a hotel with servants’ quarters and a portion of the village converted into splendid rooms and rental homes. I received a tour of the castle by none other than Sir John Leslie (then in his late eighties) in the late 1990s and, while helping to host a succeeding tour, was treated to a haunted dinner by his niece in the castle’s grand dining room, where she recanted stories from around the grounds.
Sir John’s father, Sir Shane Leslie, was visited one night by his deceased Uncle Moreton; visitors have been known to levitate in what is known as the “haunted bed,” where a child was once reportedly murdered.
In 1995, a group of fifteen visitors all witnessed a ghostly coachman. He vanished, but they were each able to describe him in detail down to his shiny brass buttons.
Don’t be surprised if there’s a wedding on the grounds. It is, after all, where Paul McCartney was married in 2002.
Cashel Palace — If you’re visiting the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland’s most popular sites, perhaps you’d like to try out the Cashel Palace Hotel in the center of town. When five-thousand of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers sacked Cashel in 1647, they reputedly murdered a one-hundred-year old monk, who put a curse on Murrough O’Brien, the Earl of Inchiquin, the leader of the attack. The monk proclaimed, “You will come back as a hound of hell.”
Since then, a large black dog haunts the town. Indeed, the dog and a couple from the early twentieth-century are reputed to roam the halls of the hotel. In 1997, a Japanese businessman claimed that a young woman in Tudor dressing appeared before him. She touched his left arm and the spot it touched felt freezingly cold. The man shivered for some time after the woman had vanished.
The hotel is currently closed, but is slated to reopen in mid 2020 after renovations.
I had the great displeasure of running straight into laundry day this week. It’s an ordeal that corresponds with the absence of socks that also happen to be clean. From time to time, it dawns on me that I should just buy more socks, but the thought never really springs to mind until I’m out of the shower, freshly dripping.
I’ve also been taken with the wish to stop being so negative, to see the good in things—in other words to eschew my Irish heritage. So, when laundry day hit me this week, rather than stewing in my misfortune, I gave a thought to just how lucky I am to be washing my wearables in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Those of you smart (or lucky) enough to have successfully finished a load of washing elsewhere know of what I speak. You see, I’ve spent more than a few nail biting mornings trying to decipher the hieroglyphics of European washing machines and I have firmly concluded that we, in America, are either stupefyingly dense compared with the rest of the world or our appliance designers are infinitely more brilliant. (Or perhaps it’s just that I have an old washing machine.)
A few years back, I asked a college graduate in Galway what she’d studied in school. She replied that she’d spent four years learning how to do a load of laundry. “It’s easy enough once you realize it’s just a combination of the Seiberg–Witten theory and Henry Dixon’s later work. I charge by the load if you need assistance,” she said.
I stayed at a house in eastern Europe and couldn’t make heads or tails of the washing machine, so I downloaded the owner’s manual. (The internet was $9 a month, by the way, and faster than the cable provider I have in New Hampshire.) Unfortunately, the machine was Russian and so was the owner’s manual, so there was only so much I could glean. In the end, I put the first knob on the squiggly lines and the second one on 15, placed some soap in what appeared to be a storage bin and hit a few buttons until something started up. Whether it worked or not, I can’t say, but the soap disappeared and the clothes were wet when the beeper finally went off. And nobody in the area complained about my stench after three months. Of course, maybe they assumed everyone from America smells bad, but I’m going to take it as a win.
While we’re on the subject of clothes, is there anyone else who’s frustrated about American attire spreading across much of the globe? It wasn’t that long ago that the United States was the only place you were going to see adults wearing t-shirts emblazoned with corporate logos and sitcom characters. Not that I don’t enjoy a good sitcom like everyone else, but there used to be a definitive gap between what parents and their children wore. Nowadays, one can see 50-year old men in Dublin wearing Spiderman t-shirts. And they’re not tourists!
I have a photo of my parents on a plane in the 1960s and everyone was dressed up. (They had plane photographers!) Today, you’re just as likely to have the drifter next to you wearing flip flops. My grandfather beat flax seed out of the plant’s fiber for a living and he wore a tie to work for cripes sake. I’m not saying I wish there were more ties. On the contrary, they’re an abominable and useless piece of clothing, better for choking a man than anything else, but surely there’s some middle ground between a tuxedo and a pair of pajamas.
I think Jerry Seinfeld said it best. “You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society, so I might as well be comfortable.’”
Let’s see, what else? I wish there was more color in men’s clothing. For someone who shops at TJ Maxx and the like, the choices are underwhelming. Are colors more expensive to fabricate? Is a muted shirt more masculine? Are men aware that there are more colors than blue, gray and flannel? I suppose that’s where the tie comes in. That’s where we get to show our fun side. I’m looking out my window right now and the beautiful shades of autumn are all around. Then I peek in my closet and everything looks the same. Women can wear exciting tints, why can’t we?
My theory is that we men are too worried about looking foolish, that we don’t know what to do about separating our colors from whites and how to run the machine, and just like we won’t ask anyone for directions, we can’t be seen to be defeated by a machine. For that would be a John Henry—steel driving man—scenario, and no stinking machine is going to get the better of us. So, when someone asks what color our shirt was originally, we can look them square in the eye and say gray.
I sat down last week at a local restaurant and ordered the pancakes, eager to expand my waistline and foster a future case of diabetes. When the waitress brought the starchy goodness, my mouth was already watering. Then she asked if I wanted utensils. I glanced at the pat of butter melting on top and the plastic portion cup of maple syrup teetering on the edge of the plate and back to her, unsure if she was codding. Except that she wasn’t. “Yes, please,” I replied.
Until that moment, it hadn’t ever dawned on me that a fork wasn’t a prerequisite for flapjacks. And to boot, this was in the U.S. of A., not some backwards place like Alaska, where the only recognized utensil is a knife and everyone supplies his or her own… and has a spare.
It turns out there weren’t any clean utensils, so they had to wash some by hand and when she returned… well, what the pancakes lacked in warmth, the fork more than made up for in its sheer utility.
Anyway, I mention this only in way of introduction to our latest topic: hotels. “How’s he going to segue from pancakes to hotels?” you ask. Allow me to add another anecdote. I was staying at a hotel for the Pittsburgh Irish Festival in 2003 and outside of the hotel was a large public park, which just happened to be the staging point for the biggest emergency drill you’ve ever seen. Thousands of emergency personnel were training for possible terrorist scenarios (in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks). The FBI was there, mobs of firemen, police, military, you name it. There were mock victims on stretchers, men and women with radios. You get the picture.
So anyway, I had just finished a breakfast of, you guessed it, pancakes, in the hotel restaurant, and I’d run into an acquaintance who was part of a Civil War reenactors group. He’d just come down from his room and informed me that one of the elevators was stuck and there was someone in it. So, we turned around to the man at the reception desk, who countered that he’d taken care of it by calling the elevator repair company. “How long has it been stuck?” my friend asked. “Not sure the employee replied, “a couple hours maybe.” As far as the clerk was concerned, he’d done his part.
Incredulous, my friend marched to the front glass doors, opened them and shouted to a pair of firemen in full gear walking by, “Do you guys know there’s someone stuck in an elevator in here?” One of the firemen asked if he was serious, and he responded that he was. So after a comment into a radio, the firemen entered the building and had the elevator open in the neighborhood of fifteen seconds. The front desk clerk didn’t seem moved. I’m wondering now if he has any relations in the food service industry.
So that’s how I chose to segue into hotels, when all I really wanted to do was complain about my breakfast.
A hotel room is a bit like the lottery, isn’t it, especially when you’re abroad. Sure, there are national chains, which—like McDonald’s burgers—are disturbingly alike, but I consider hotels to be part of traveling’s allure and want one as unique as the destination. I’m almost always happier with the personal touches missing from the chains—the character, if you will.
So let’s dive right in to my likes and dislikes and feel free to make up your own list for fun.
First the bad (in no particular order)
Those tiny metal garbage cans with lids. Why? Because you have to step on a pedal to open it and the thing inevitably slides back against the wall and clangs into it. Then whatever scrap of tissue you’re trying to throw in catches a gust of air and misses the four-inch opening, meaning you have to bend over and grab it off the ground and gingerly place it into the can.
Liquid soap in the shower. I’m looking at you, Europe.
Stiff 70s and 80s style bedspreads. These aren’t so common anymore, but they’re still out there.
Remotes with dead batteries. I don’t know how many buttons I’ve completely crushed by pressing harder in hopes that physical pressure on the remote control will make the channel change, perhaps with kinetic energy. And while I’m on the subject, if you’re in Europe and you can’t get the TV to turn on, try hitting the channel up button on the remote. No kidding.
Those “smart” fridges that inform the front desk when you’ve removed an item. I mean, come on. The fridge has to narc on us so we pay $6 for a packet of Pringles and not pick up a replacement for a buck and change at the convenience store the next time we’re out?
Straight shower curtain rods. Does anyone else recall the old days when the shower curtain would spend most of its time attached to your skin before some godsend of a designer asked why nobody curved the rod?
A lack of sound insulation. This is a particular problem in Spain, where they make hotel walls out of cray paper. It’s not that any of our neighbors were particularly loud, it’s that the walls doubled as microphones. I’d swear that we could hear people breathing.
And now the good (I’m running out of room)
I’ll often judge a room based on the shower: clean, glass enclosed, good, steady stream of water with a constant, reliable temperature. Sometimes it’s the most enjoyable thing in town.
A good bed. Here’s a tip I learned in Romania: Buy regular fitted sheets for your bed, but then buy two sets of smaller top sheets and small individual comforters for you and your partner. You can be close, if you like, but when it’s time for sleep, everyone has their own set of sheets, and no one will inadvertently pull the covers off of the other. I can’t believe this isn’t common practice now. We put a man on the moon for cripes sake.
The rest (because I really am out of space): Location. Light switches by the bed (individual reading lamps are great). Fridges that don’t rat on you. Coffee and tea making facilities. Modern thermostats (enough of turning a knob on the radiator already). Easily accessible outlets. No one wants to reach behind the bed to plug in their phone. Eco-friendly practices. Free on-site parking.
New column in Ohio Irish American News
I was recently approached by John O'Brien, a friend who also happens to be the editor for the Ohio Irish American News about writing a monthly column on my travels, or music or whatever gibberish comes out of my mind and I was thrilled to accept. So starting, I assume, in February, you can find my column, An Eejit Abroad in this quality publication. Make sure to check it out and the rest of the newspaper as well.