August 2011

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Max's restaurant in Kinsale. Photo by David Lansing.

Damn me if I can understand how it is that Mr. Lynch and I keep getting lost in a town so small that a fire in the hearth of a house on one end of town can be used to make tea in a house on the other end. This and Mr. Lynch keeps telling me he knows Kinsale. Been here before, says he, leading me up a hill over the harbor, neighbors sitting on their stoops smoking a fag or just enjoying the fine evening.

Another five minutes and we’ll be at Old Head, I tell him. Hard headed Mr. Lynch refuses to acknowledge he’s lost so it’s up to me to ask the old gent suspiciously watching us meander in circles how to get to Max’s restaurant. Down them stoney steps, says the old gent. Pass that house there.

I thought you knew this town?

I do, says Mr. Lynch. But it’s confusing. Built in a circle. Besides, I’m left handed.

Can never understand how being left handed accounts for no sense of direction.

Down the stoney steps and sure enough, there’s the wine red Max’s, blackboard in front with pink chalk putting up the “Catchs”: lobster, john dory, hake, ling cod, salmon. Gawd I’m hungry. Busy inside. Only table left is the one by the fireplace reserved for us. Have you any oysters? I ask the waitress. We do, says she. Local. Give us a dozen then while we look at the menu. And a bottle of the Entre Deux Mers. A very unpretentious wine, I say to Mr. Lynch, but grand with oysters.

For the main I get the ling cod and Mr. Lynch orders their special seafood soup with mussels and scallops and big chunks of white fish in a light broth. Lovely.

Cheese plate and port to finish. Older couple, all dressed up, sitting next to us. They’ve been listening to our conversation. About how the menu here lists who and what caught all the food. It’s John O’Brien, license no. C362, who brought in the lobsters and crab today, and Jamie O’Dwyer, who produced the oysters, mussels, and scallops. We’ve Matt O’Connell to thank for the ling cod and Quayford Company on Market Street for the fine creamy Cashel blue cheese.

I’ve been lusting over your Cashel, says the dark-haired woman in a red dress at the next table over. Can never get that back home.

Where’s home?

Boston, she says. Though I was born in Ireland. Near Killarney. Left when I was three. The husband and I are celebrating our 27th anniversary, she says, holding up a glass of red wine in front of her face. Her silent husband, raises his own glass and dips it towards us.

Congratulations, says Mr. Lynch. That’s a fine accomplishment, 27 years.

Gawd yes, says the woman, who appears to be half-tight. She turns her chair towards us and tells us how she and her husband come back to Ireland almost every year. Big family reunion here this year, but they decided to go off on their own before the family arrives to celebrate their anniversary. Everyone says, why would you go to Kinsale for an anniversary? It’s charming, isn’t it?

Very charming, indeed.

That’s what we thought.

Just about to ask for the bill when another, younger couple, sitting on the other side of the room, comes over and tells all of us that they’re also here celebrating their anniversary. Our ninth, says the doughy boy. We live in Oysterhaven. Just down the road. With three little ones, it’s not easy to get out for an evening.

Well that’s something, says the older woman. Let’s get a glass of wine and toast to that. To anniversaries. There’s only a touch of red wine left in the bottle so her husband quickly calls over the waitress and orders another. Insists on giving Mr. Lynch and I a glass as well. Fine Bordeaux. Much nicer than my Deux Mers. Probably expensive. Much toasting and long stories. Everyone in the restaurant except the six of us have left. Our waitress, her head resting on her folded arms, sits at the bar, waiting. We pay but the two other couples seem in no hurry to finish the evening. They’re ordering up another bottle of wine as we shake everyone’s hand and congratulate them once again. Fine evening. Now if we can just find our way in the dark back to our hotel without getting lost.

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An aperitif in Kinsale

Kate Sloyan of Aperitif, walking the dogs. Photos by David Lansing.

Fine evening walk along the Kinsale harbor. Children playing along the low wall as their mother calls to them to stay within sight. Older gent sitting in a decrepit lawn chair on the bow of his dirty sailboat—Do-More—sipping a drink. Whiskey? Red-faced, purple nose, thread-bare sweater the color of new hay, faded old baseball cap on his head. By himself. Still. Not half bad. Does he ever sail the old girl, I wonder, or just use it to get away from the world and enjoy his sunset dram in peace?

Could never live on a boat. Everything damp, wet. Closed quarters. Too much time with yourself is what it is. Bad company to be with yourself so much. But the drink is inviting. Should find a nice little bar before dinner. Have a glass of wine or something.

Hardly anyone out in town. Tourists have all gone home for the day and must be too early for the locals. On the corner is a white building with a little mural of a waiter in black vest and bow tie carrying a glass of wine. Apéritif. Pop in. Nice looking place. But nobody here. What time is it, anyway? After five. When do they start drinking in Kinsale?

Two women inside: one drinking, the other pouring. The one drinking has the most shocking bright red hair I’ve ever seen. The color of a candy apple. Just as bright and shiny. Pale, freckled skin. Maybe fifty. Maybe sixty. Never good at guessing women’s ages. Twinkle in her blue eyes. The other—the bartender—looks Scandinavian. Blonde, dark eyes, perfect teeth (now that’s a rarity in Ireland, isn’t it?). Busty.

Do you serve wine by the glass? I ask.

We’d better; we’re a wine bar, says the candy apple redhead, laughing. Sticks her thin, pale hand out. Kate, she says. I run the place, although there’s not much to run at the moment. Laughs at her own joke, takes a sip of her white wine.

What is it you’re drinking, I ask her.

Pinot gris. It’s not much but it’s all right. Fancy a glass?

Why not.

The young blond bartender has yet to say a word. She grabs a bottle stuck in a tub of ice and pours me a glass while turning down the music on an iPod.

Awfully quiet in town, I say.

It’s a bit early, says Kate. Not for me, of course, she says, sipping her wine. And where are you from then?

California, I tell her.

Sophie, the bartender at Aperitif in Kinsale.

I love California, says the bartender, drying wine glasses. She introduces herself. Sophie. Sophie Kavanagh. Shakes my hand and it’s cool and delicate and very white. The three of us get to talking and suddenly I’m telling them stories about getting lost trying to find my hotel when I could see it from the tourist office and Kate laughs and slaps the bar and says, I don’t believe you! It’s true, it’s true. I stand up to go and Kate grabs the bottle of wine from behind the bar and says, Let’s just top this off a bit—on the house. What are you doing in Kinsale then?

I’m a travel writer, I tell her. Here for a few weeks in Ireland. Gawd I’d love to have your job, says Sophie, putting up a bowl of nibbles on the bar. Did you like Dublin then, says Kate. It was grand. I tell her about getting lost trying to get out of Dublin and how we grabbed the GPS monitor off the windshield and threw it in the boot because the gal giving us directions was a bit of a bitch.

I don’t believe you! says Kate, laughing. God, she’s a good one to tell a story to. I tell her I should probably be going and she puts a hand on mine and nods to Sophie and the bottle comes out from the ice tub and my glass is topped up again. Where are you going from here? she asks. Tell her about Dingle and the Cliffs of Moher and the gypsy caravan. Although, I say, I’ve been told you can’t say gypsy in Ireland.

Bloody rot, says Kate. Say it if you want. We won’t tell. But I’ve never heard of renting a gypsy caravan. Where’d you say this is?

More stories. More wine. An hour later I tell Kate and Sophie I really do have to go or I’ll need a long nap before dinner since I’m already half-tight. Guttered. Sozzled. Oh, that’s a good one, isn’t it? says Kate. Sozzled. Haven’t heard that in awhile. Do you know your way home? asks Kate. Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’ll find it.

I don’t believe you! says Kate. Give her my card. Take hers. Take Sophie’s hand and thank her for the wine. Enjoy your evening, she says, flashing me her brilliant white smile.

I already have, I tell her, making my leave. I already have.

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Headed the wrong way up a street in Kinsale. Photos by David Lansing.

We should stop in the tourist office, I say to Mr. Lynch as we slowly make our way up the old Pier Road in Kinsale.

Whatever for? asks Mr. Lynch. I’ve been here before. Besides, the whole town is nothing but three short blocks. You could walk it in less than five minutes.

Yes, well, but wonder if our hotel isn’t exactly in town? What if it’s somewhere out in the boondocks?

It won’t be, says Mr. Lynch confidently. I specifically requested a hotel that was within walking distance of the town.

I still say we should stop at the tourist office and get directions. It’s right on the corner here. You can stay in the car and I’ll just run it. Only be a second.

Still grousing, Mr. Lynch pulls in to the public lot behind the tourist office and I pop out of the car. A fine light mist has just started to come down.

Can you tell me how to find the Old Presbytery, I ask the young woman sitting behind the desk in the empty office, her hands folded on her lap. She jumps up from her chair and uses a pencil to point out the window. Just up the street to the top of the hill, she says. Near the Desmond Castle.

Lovely. Have you got a map?

Yes, she says, but you don’t need one. It’s right there.

Well, maybe a map for wandering around the town later.

The Old Presbytery, Kinsale

She reaches for a stack of folded maps on her desk, opens it up, and uses a green pen to mark the route from the tourist office up Market Quay to the Presbytery. Simple as pie, she says, handing me the map.

The mist has turned to cold rain. The wipers only partially mask Mr. Lynch’s bored face behind the fogged windshield. Well? he says when I get in.

Make a right at this corner and then a left up Market Quay, I tell him. It should be just a couple of blocks.

That’s what I said, says Mr. Lynch indignantly.

The wet map open on my lap, I trace the route with my finger as Mr. Lynch heads up the hill on Market. We come to a one-way street and, going the wrong direction, are forced to go down a narrow alley that might or might not allow cars. The lane dead-ends. Back part way and then a turn away from the harbor and suddenly we are on an unmarked road heading down the backside of the hill.

I think we’ve gone too far, I tell Mr. Lynch. The rain has increased. Fat plops smack the windshield making it hard to see.

How can we have gone too far? You said it was just up the hill.

Yes, and now we’re going down the hill.

Didn’t she say it was by the castle? Look for some ruins.

There’s a tower up ahead, I tell him. That must be it. But it’s not a castle. It’s a church. St. Johns. Listen, I think we should head down the hill back towards the harbor.

We drive for several more minutes. No idea where we are. How can we be lost when you could see the hotel from the tourist office? It’s a mystery.

Now the rain has stopped. The sun is back out. Blue skies. What a strange country. You get several seasons of weather all in twenty minutes.

Stop a young woman walking her dog. Can you possibly tell us where the Old Presbytery is?

She doesn’t say anything. Just points across the street. To a white building with a red door with a sign next to it: The Old Presbytery. Ah. Seems we are there.

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Breaking in to Old Head

Old Head golf course in Kinsale. Photos by David Lansing.

When you get to Kinsale, says Mr. O’Connor, you should wander out along the coast to the Old Head golf course. It’s stunning. Just have a wander out to the lighthouse. Shouldn’t be a problem. Just tell them you want to have a look.

So off to Kinsale we go, winding along the road as it dips down to the harbor and then out to the green countryside, following the signs to Old Head. Reach a gate thrown up between some stone ruins and a young lad comes out of a guardhouse, clipboard in hand. When he asks for our name Mr. Lynch tells him we’re not here to play golf, just to have a look around. Have a look around? repeats the young lad. Sorry but it’s a private course, says he.

Oh that alright, says Mr. Lynch, we’re journalists. We’ve been advised by Fáilte Ireland to come here. Said it wouldn’t be a problem. Fáilte Ireland? repeats the lad. Right. But here’s the thing. It’s a private course.

We don’t want to play the course, I tell him, leaning across Mr. Lynch and poking my head out the window. We just want to have a look at it. Five, ten minutes at most and we’re out of your way.

One minute says our nervous charge. He runs back into the guardhouse and rings up someone on the phone. A few minutes later he’s back. So you’re journalists? he asks. That’s right, we tell him, showing him our cards. He holds them in his hand without looking at them and says, Right, but the thing is, this is a private course.

Come on now, says an exasperated Mr. Lynch. Five minutes is all we want. The lad runs back into the hut, gets on the phone, has a long chat and returns to our car several minutes later. Quickly, he says, opening the gate. Very quickly, please.

God, what was that about? says Mr. Lynch as we drive out the peninsula, the Atlantic Ocean visible on all sides. Willie and Kate aren’t in Ireland, are they? Does Willie play golf? I ask. Maybe not, says Mr. Lynch. Should do, though. I’ll bet Kate would look fine standing over an old putter, don’t you think?

The guarded entrance to the clubhouse at Old Head. Photo by David Lansing.

William and Kate may not be here but something is going on. There are beefy looking men in suits and sunglasses with earpieces staring at us as we park and a Scottish bagpiper is warming up next to a long limo. Best be quick about this. Past an imposing clubhouse guarded by two stone mastiffs at an entrance warning it’s only for Members and Guests—neither of which we are. Down the hill to the cart path leading to the 18th green. I start to head down it. I wouldn’t go down there, advises Mr. Lynch. Nonsense, I say. Just want to have a quick look. Not advisable, says Mr. Lynch.

A foursome is just coming up the green with their caddies. One of them—a lad no more than 17 or 18—sees me walking down the path. Hey! he shouts. Hey! As if I’ve just stolen his car. I fire off two quick photos and quickly retreat as the caddy continues to yell Hey! Hey!

Off we go, I tell Mr. Lynch. Hustle back past the stone dogs and to the parking lot where the men in suits and sunglasses are now standing around our car. Mr. Lynch smiles at them and says something about it being a lovely day. Silently they part to let us in our car. We grin like idiots as we pull out of the lot.

When we get back to the guard shack, the young lad is more nervous than he was when we first arrived. We roll down the window. Thanks much, says Mr. Lynch. You didn’t go out on the course now, did you, asks the lad. Of course not, says Mr. Lynch. And the gate is shut and locked behind us.

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Frank Hederman’s salmon

Alex at Frank Hederman's.

So you work for Frank, I say to the tall stately blond carving out tiny bites of smoked salmon from a filet the color of the fleshy insides of a ripe cantaloupe. Well, you might say that, she says. I’m his daughter, Alex. Would you like a taste?

Would I not. Frank Hederman’s smoked salmon is the kobe beef of seafood and at 50 euros a kilo almost as expensive. But god it’s lovely. So delicate and melt-in-your-mouth rich, like a pat of Irish butter. It doesn’t seem possible that the handsome full-grown woman stabbing wild salmon with toothpicks could actually be Frank’s daughter. Then again, how long has it been since Frank started up the Belvelly smoke house in Cobh? Must be going on thirty years. By god, it has been.

You should get some of this, I tell Mr. Lynch when he strolls up. Salmon? he says dismissively. I should take salmon back to Nova Scotia? Are you daft? This isn’t just some crude smoked fish, I tell him. This is Mr. Frank Hederman’s celebrated beech smoked salmon and it’s the finest thing you’ll eat in Ireland. Try it.

Alex holds out the cutting board to Mr. Lynch and he takes a round the size of a lifesaver. Good lord! he exclaims. That is nice. How much is it? The young woman holds up a small vacuum pack of thick fleshy salmon and says something about seven euros and change. Mr. Lynch hesitates. I tell Alex to give it to me. It’s worth every cent, I say in disgust. She wraps it in delicate tissue paper, as if it were a bunch of Jersey lilies, and puts it in a small bag with Frank Hederman’s signature running up the side.

I’m not sharing this at the hotel, I tell Mr. Lynch. Just so you know. If you want some, better get your own. Mr. Lynch hems and haws but refuses to dig down in his pocket for the ten euro note I saw him squire away after lunch. He’ll be sorry later.

Have you any of the smoked eel today, I ask Alex. All out, she says. But we’ve got the smocked mackerel. It’s delicious too. And the smoked mussels, cured in an olive oil vinagrette. Tell you what: Give me some of the smoked mussels. Just put them in the bag here. And as we walk away, I’m already thinking of what wine to get to go with my feast. None of which will be shared with Mr. Lynch. If you’re too cheap to buy the good Bordeaux, you don’t get to sip from my bottle.

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