Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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lrish idyll

After a week in your own cottage in the hills, you may never want to leave

I don't know about you, but my Irish idyll — dreamily hackneyed — is the thatched-roofed whitewashed cottage, peat smoke spiralling from the chimney and inside a flickering fire, two dozen Galway Bay oysters and a pint o' the "black stuff" that pulses through Irish arteries and fuels those smiling Irish eyes.

Happily, this idyll isn't a fantasy, it's absolutely available. Two thick brochures from the two Irelands list hundreds of properties — cottages, farmhouses, converted barns, coach houses, townhouses, grand manor houses — for rent to visitors who warm to the idea of settling in and living as the Irish do.

There are sensible reasons for renting a house. It's larger and much less expensive than hotel accommodations. You can bring the family or share with friends and still maintain some privacy. You only unpack once. You shop at local markets for superb Irish products, and cook as you like, saving a fortune on breakfasts alone. You become part of a community. The neighbours are friendly; they'll walk you to the pub.

We weren't sure whether to rent in the Republic or Northern Ireland. I turned to my ancestors, Irish on both sides, for a clue. As it turns out, they're from north and south, Protestants and Catholics, puritans and renegades. So what were we to do? With sound advice from Tourism Ireland, we booked cottages on both sides of the border.

Our first rental lay in the village of Spiddal, half an hour from Galway on Ireland's west coast. It was the idyll and then some: Sean Teach (Old House) was built in 1830, and was home to seven generations of Gaelic-speaking fishermen and farmers. Under its thatched roof was a cathedral ceiling, a living room and two-storey-high fireplace with a bucket of peat bricks. There were three cosy bedrooms, two upstairs with sloping ceilings and pine-board floors. There was an Irish country kitchen completely equipped right down to the corkscrew. The water heater, cleverly, was a recycled pot still.

This Old House
Sean Teach provides a marvelous base for exploring the Irish west — the wild country of Connemara, that stark realm that sent more than its share of immigrants to our shores in the famines of the 19th century. Indeed, Connemara, displaying more stones than you've ever seen in your life, suggests nary a potato could survive here. Yet its moods, governed by shifting cloud and sudden sunlight illuminating brooding skies, has a lonely, riveting grandeur.

If Connemara was our country, easygoing Galway was our town. A stroll in the city's old quarter spoke of Galway past. Its 15th-century walls were erected by the presiding Anglo-Norman aristocracy to keep the "tribes" — the Irish, that is — at bay. St. Nicholas Cathedral, built in 1320, is Ireland's longest-running church, unusual because it is Protestant, courtesy of Henry VIII. Christopher Columbus once attended a mass here. It might have been in Galway that he heard of St. Brendan's sixth-century travels to America and thought, "Hmmm."

Entombed in the church is the real-life Jane Eyre, not the Charlotte Bront‘ heroine, but a paragon of Anglo-Norman womanhood. The inscription tells us she bequeathed £24 to "36 poor objects" — the Irish, that is — on Sundays. Nearby is the modest row house of another woman who influenced the course of literature: Nora Barnacle, the chambermaid who dominated the life and lust of Dublin writer James Joyce.

Saturday morning in Galway boasts as much joie de vivre as any city in France. The multicoloured facades of High Street and Key Street — a gauntlet of shops, restaurants and pubs — recall Mediterranean Europe. The King's Head pub was established in 1649, after Cromwell lopped off the head of Charles II. The market unfurls on Saturdays around St. Nicholas' Cathedral, a happening to delight all foodies.

Irish ingredients are impeccable: lamb, raised in sea-splashed salt meadows, is a contender for finest in the world. Irish salmon bows to none. Oysters from the Atlantic, Irish and Celtic Seas, with their sweet-salty cucumber nuances, are enough to make a Parisian drool. Fish range from blue Irish lobsters to voluptuous scallops. Even the humble spud, the legendary mainstay, makes North America's cunningly engineered strains taste like packing chips by comparison. But now, in the first century of prosperity in its history, Ireland is learning — and learning fast — what to do with them.

 

The freshest fish in all Ireland may be at McDonagh's on Quay Street. McDonagh's, which doubles as fish market and restaurant, buys whole catches from local fishermen and has them on the shelf a couple of hours later: John Dory, mackerel, sole, squid, mussels and scallops in garlands of coral.

At McDonagh's, we tucked into pound-size pieces of caught-that-morning cod enfolded in crisp batter and sided with alps of golden-brown spuds that had never seen a freezer. We crossed the street to fetch the obligatory pints from the nearest pub, washing everything down with foaming Guiness and found ourselves halfway to Galwegian heaven.

The Irish sky turned pink at the edges for our last dinner in the cottage. We began with 12-year-old whiskey from Jameson's, and it went down as smoothly as olive oil. My wife Carol shucked local oysters with her Swiss Army knife. The mollusks were sweet and juicy with that fresh, lingering cucumber aftertaste. We sipped New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which was shockingly easy to find in this prosperous new Ireland.

Carol seared the scallops and their gorgeous rings of coral in sweet butter with indecent lashings of garlic. The smoke detectors went off in a chorus of shrieks. The scallop roe was as rich as foie gras. Our peat fire sent out a mellowing fragrance. Giddily, we grinned at the Irishness of everything.

For Peat's Sake
The journey to our second house took us up through County Leitrim, where beauty goes wild in the mountains, and past Ballymena, which gave the world Timothy Eaton and Liam Neeson, on to the northeast of Northern Ireland. Our house was called Dobbins Cottage, a two-storey stucco building overlooking the Glen of Glenarm.

Again, there was a fully outfitted country kitchen. Off the kitchen was a living room and a sitting room with a peat-burning fireplace and DVD system. Northern Ireland is not where I expected to run into The Wild Bunch and L.A. Confidential. We sank into couches and drifted off before Russell Crowe threw his first punch at some Los Angeles punk.

Our days in the glen left us as placid as the fluffy white lambs that salt the hillsides. There was no better beginning to any day than the divinely unhealthy Irish breakfast prepared in our kitchen. And serendipity had it that on our journeys, we had wandered into Patrick O'Doherty's butcher shop in Enniskillen.

Patrick O'Doherty is a man with a mission: a warrior for purity in the face of mass production, he's proven his perfectionist point. Harrods of London trumpets his "black" bacon, a delicate back bacon from organically raised pigs. O'Doherty routinely wins awards in the order of "best Irish food product." His customers drive 160 kilometres on Saturdays, from Belfast and Dublin and Galway.

Our breakfast had to include O'Doherty's sausages — plump pork sausages, spicy sausages, blood sausage, thick slices of back bacon, Cashel blue cheese from the Republic and farl, the Irish potato bread my wife crisped in butter since there was no bacon fat handy. I confess, my own favourite was O'Doherty's pork sausages stuffed with apple and double-wrapped in streaky bacon, a product so full of guilt and sin, it might fuel a week in the confessional.

From Dobbins Cottage, we explored the Glens of Antrim, a territory that rolls and dips ever so majestically, its hue greener than a Balinese rice terrace. Created as a famine relief project in 1834, the Antrim coast road is simply one of the world's most ravishing scenic drives. It took us on dizzying turns through a terrain of plunging chalk and basalt cliffs similar to the corniches of the Côte d'Azur. Farmlands sloped near-vertically to the edge of the Irish Sea. At Torr Head, Scotland was a blue shadow across the water. The great stone boulders of the Giant's Causeway itself seemed like an understatement at the end of such an eye-popping ramble.

As a local told me in the lyrical way only the Irish have, "There's beauty wherever you throw your eye."

 

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