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Rained on at Charles Fort

Clouds gathering over Charles Fort in Kinsale. Photo by David Lansing.

I’m not big on Irish castles. Too many of them. And they’re pretty much the same, don’t you think? Cold, damp, and cramped. Lovely to look at but really not very interesting to tour. Worse than castles: military forts. Like Charles Fort, which Mr. Lynch is anxious to visit. It’s quite impressive, says he, buttering his toast at the Presbytery Inn. I pour myself some tea. Such a lovely morning, say I, maybe we should do a walk around the harbor out to the end of Pier Road to see what the fishing boats are bringing back this morning.

Mr. Lynch wrinkles his nose. You want to go look at dead fish when you could learn some Irish history at perhaps the finest star-shaped bastion fort in Europe? I don’t say anything, but, yes, that sounds preferable to me. Followed by perhaps a dish of mackerel and a pint along the water. But I don’t put up a fight. After all, we’re headed for Blarney later just so I can kiss the stone, something Mr. Lynch will not do. So after we check out of the hotel, we drive along the water’s edge pass Scilly and Summercove, up the hill to Charles Fort.

Do you need a jacket? asks Mr. Lynch. Not at all. It’s gorgeous out. Quite warm. Mr. Lynch shrugs and grabs a raincoat out of the boot. Bernard has told us to ask for a Karen Healy at the ticket counter. Which we do. Ah, Karen’s just gone out with another tour, says the woman, but if you don’t mind, you could just run out and catch her going down the hill. Fine with us. But a young gentleman comes out before we can get out the door. You must be the journalists, he says. They’re going to catch Miss Healy’s tour, says the woman behind the counter. She’s just started.

Not a problem, says the young man. I’ll take them myself. But they’re supposed to be with Miss Healy. I said I’ll take them myself, says he. The young man leads us out to an open space with a tile map of the fort. Fine example of a star-shaped fortification he says. Do you know why it’s star-shaped? No idea but I’m sure he’s going to tell us. And he does. Something about rammed earth and defenses and William of Orange. I’m not listening to a word. Just taking in the view back across the harbor, wishing we were walking along Pier Road just now looking for a place to lunch.

The young man has an encyclopedia’s knowledge of the fort. All the comings and goings. Who got paid how much and what sort of uniforms they wore. Parade grounds and barracks and officer quarters and powder houses and chapels. Something about men being whipped and something else about hangings and such. Can’t keep it all straight. Sounds fascinating, though. Not really. Still rather be tucking into a nice piece of mackerel. And just then it starts raining like god’s own. Coming down in buckets. Tour over. Back to entrance to stand around and wait for the showers to pass. God how the weather does turn quickly in this country.

Our tour guide departs, apologizing for truncating things. Not his fault. Rain slows and Mr. Lynch dashes out to the parking lot to bring the car up to the front so my camera doesn’t get soaked. Awfully nice of him. Maybe he’s feeling guilty for insisting on this stop. Never mind. Hop in the car. Thank god for the showers, I say. I was quite enjoying the tour, says Mr. Lynch. Really? Yes, really. Well, each to his own.

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A trad session at Daltons

Daltons Bar in Kinsale. Photo by David Lansing.

Stumbled in to Daltons around midnight. Jammed. Nowhere to sit. Everyone mostly standing around the bar, listening to a loose collection of men and women spread out across a brown leatherette booth in the corner. Maybe eight or nine players and singers, all over fifty, some closer to eighty, Santa Claus beards, blue suspenders, a red tie here, a golf shirt there, playing button accordion, tin whistle, violin, flute, the bodhrán, even a banjo.

What’s the name of the group, I shout to the middle-aged woman slopping around a tray of beers.

Live music, says she, moving deftly through the crowd.

A plain looking farmer’s wife stands up and sings an a capella version of No Place Like Home. Hard to believe such a sappy song could bring tears to everyone’s eyes, including mine. Then the banjo player sings a limerick and there’s one Irish song after the other although thankfully there’s no Danny Boy. Roundabout singing of the Sloop John B (is that originally an Irish song?), which sounds so much richer and thicker than anything the Beach Boys ever sang.

But the crowd at Daltons is divided. There’s the younger group at the bar, mostly ignoring the singing while they lob de gob at their oul dolls, and the older crowd pushing right up against the trad players who keep shusshing the youngsters making out at the bar. Keep getting the feeling that a fight is about to break out. Older woman next to me, lushed, is looking for a pen to write something out for the bleary-eyed man next to her. I hand her mine. She looks at it like it was a gold coin. Have you anything to write on as well? she asks. All I’ve got is my business card. Which she takes. Writes down a phone number. Gives it to the grinning man. Who now has the older woman’s phone number on the back of my business card. That should confuse him in the morning.

A Power’s? asks Mr. Lynch. Why not, I tell him. Sip our drinks, listening to Santa Claus, who appears to be the chairman emeritus of the trad musicians, giving a nod here and there to determine who gets to perform next. Don’t have any idea what he’s saying since it’s in Gaelic but whatever it is, it’s enough to make me cry. Or maybe it’s the whiskey.

Some young man at the bar is getting upset as he watches a young tart being mashed by an ox of a man. “Relax de cacks, Tommy, an’ take a chill pill,” says his mate, holding him back by the shoulder. “I’m gonta bayte de head offa dat lang,” says the upset young man. He shoves the ox in the shoulder. The ox deposits the tart on a stool as if she were a child and throws his chest at the young man. The Irish trads play on.

Might be time to leave, says Mr. Lynch. Might indeed, say I. We swallow the last of our Power’s and slap the glasses on the bar just as the first punch is thrown.

Now that’s a true Irish night at a pub, says Mr. Lynch.

Indeed. And the music was grand, wasn’t it?

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Looking for good craic

Blue Haven, Kinsale. Photo by David Lansing.

Walking around Kinsale’s square, looking for the farmer’s market, when I come across Kate Sloyan, the proprietress of Apéritif, out walking her dogs. She’s with her daughter, an attractive twenty-something, who is miffed at her mom for dragging her down to a juice shop that isn’t open. You still have to take me out to lunch, says the young woman, only now I get to pick.

Kate just laughs. Apparently nothing bothers Kate. Lovely attitude. I ask her about the farmer’s market. Ah gawd, she says, waving a hand in disgust. Who knows? They’ve moved the days, moved the location. I think it’s on Wednesdays now, but god only knows where. Used to be on the Short Quay. Perfect there. Very popular. Then the city said it had to be moved. For health and safety issues. What health and safety issues? you ask. No one knows. I think everyone is disgusted with the whole thing now. Maybe they’ll move it back to the Quay, which is where it belongs.

Kate’s daughter is looking very bored by this conversation. Don’t blame her. She wants to go eat. Fishy Fishy, she says. Not there again, says Kate. I like their fish ‘n’ chips, says the young woman. I ask Kate where Mr. Lynch and I should go to listen to music tonight.

Well, says Kate, there’s a trad session at Dalton’s tonight. Good craic.

What’s a trad session?

Traditional Irish music. The real thing at Dalton’s. Not something brought in for tourists. In fact, you might be the only tourists there if you go. Good craic, she says again.

Off goes Kate, being pulled by her white dogs and her daughter, waving back at me. I wander down the street to Blue Haven. Sign out in front lists their music line up. Billy Crosbie & Friends “singing all your favorites” tonight. Not sure how Billy Crosbie knows what my favorites are. Can he do Florence + The Machine, I wonder? See him if he could. Tomorrow is Crazy Chester. Lousy name, that. “Rocking Kinsale as fans of Johnny Cash, Neil Young & Bob Dylan.” Doesn’t that sound deathly. Looks like it’s Dalton’s. For a trad session and some good craic.

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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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