There comes a time in a man’s life when he suggests to himself that “I’ll have one last lash”. It has been a while in coming, slowly and recently I have begun to have a distaste for a session down the pub, a bellyful of booze. Pints of Guinness now mean nothing to me after a lifetime of adoration at the altar of Arthur. So one last lash seemed not only necessary but also an offering to the God of Plenty. It came at a time a milestone was approaching and an important milestone at that. How I have reached the age of three score and ten without some mishap is beyond me, whilst more sober, sensible beings have foundered. I have pulled the strings of my lifeline violently and it is only God’s will that keeps me here in good health, that is of course if there is a God and if not some Darwinian gene has kept all my pieces intact.
So with my 70th birthday approaching and daughters descending I thought one last lash will do no harm. On the Monday of last week a daughter from Muslimia arrived, a lump of pig was ordered and we sat for hours devouring this part beast. For her being devoid of this meat since her last visit was a bonus. Never does pig taste as good as when you are forbidden to eat it. It was smothered with champ (mashed potato and scallions) and washed down with Argentinian Malbec and a bottle or two of sparkly for the missus from the Jura in eastern France. Bed finally beckoned only for us to set off early on our travels.
First stop was Knock Airport to pick up another daughter who happened to have been born on my birthday only 37 years apart. With her was her first husband and two delightful blonde haired hulks who I first thought were her security men but was then told were her children, my grand kids.
We set off for the west, the west being Westport. Once the home of famine ships 170 years ago but now the home of the decadent branch of Ireland who have survived the austerity years of recent times to have ended up even richer than when the shit hit the fan eight years ago.
We arrived on a fine west of Ireland day, teeming rain, low cloud and the sense of more to come. We past on tourism and headed for the bar and lunch. We had booked ourselves into an extremely comfortable hotel, Knockranny House, luxurious and slightly dated, exuding an air of tres calme. It was obvious that austerity had certainly passed this place by but it was not brazen because of this fact but almost telling us we were their most important guests this year. Booked into a room with a massive four poster bed which was wider than its length with room to get four or five more in besides ourselves and then have a game of five a side on the carpet beyond.
Seated round the bar we ordered conservatively knowing our evening meal was only hours away, however our portions were enormous, my chowder was the best I have ever tasted with half a boatload of fish from Clew Bay swimming around in it. However we finished our task, belched loudly once or twice over a pint or two of Guinness and lazed back in our chairs. Most of us decided to brave the elements and went for a tour but somehow or other saw nothing only window wipers briskly working away. Croagh Patrick, the sentinel of Westport and home to the saint for a while had disappeared, obviously on its day off. We stumbled on Westport House, an important and impressive structure bound down by debt. Probably this town’s offering to NAMA, the friendly government bank which accepted all the bad debt of the good years and seem to have turned it into golden profit as we exited the paucous past and strode out into the future with a brand new tiger.
NAMA has it up for sale, hoteliers are interested but the government has it in its powers to return the house to the community as a gift to the people. It is an important heirloom of the Browne family that should be preserved for history, so that people can understand how some had it easy in their defence of the British Empire whilst most did not have a pot to piss in.
Back to rest, relaxation and a brush up, followed by snifters aplenty before our repast. Some people and I have to include myself in this bunch think a meal is not a meal without abundant aperos. We approached the dining room carefully and concentrated on our wonderful five course spread, washed down with Italian, Argentinian and French vintages, followed by the staff making a little fuss over my anniversary to the embarrassment of myself and the titter of other diners. However what was done was done and we repaired to the bar where the tapster had already become an old friend.
To bed late and awake to a different country, the sun shining and the snow covered hill of St Patrick standing carefully to attention feeling, I would imagine, sorry for his absence on the day before. It was like a scene in the Alps and worth coming the miles just to see its majesty. But away from the view serious work to be done, a luxurious breakfast to be eaten, as good as anything I have ever eaten. Everything from the Irish countryside was there, washed down by Greek yoghurt, oriental teas and coffee from the Indies. I settled our bill and we continued our journey through the Mayo interior. If any reader finds themselves near Westport, there is no better place to take your feet out of the stirrups than Knockranny House Hotel. My thanks to all the staff concerned.
We headed north to Newport at the north east corner of Clew Bay to shop at the world famous butcher, Kelly’s of Newport. I came away with his renowned pork and seaweed sausages, steaks from the Newport hinterland and his own and inimitable black pudding and thoughts of meals to come.
We headed for Castlebar and a welcoming bar and restaurant where we had booked lunch. I had heard lots about this place and it lived up to its reports. We were in the delightful old town looking for the place. I thought it was called Bar 10 and asked at a nearby pub, I was told I meant Bar 2 just down the road. In fact it was Bar 1 but what harm. A lovely nosh and fancy local beer from a nearby brewery and then off to Foxford by way of Ballavary, but first a stop in the village of Straide to visit a museum dedicated to a man I think was the greatest Irishman the country has produced. Reared in abject poverty, evicted with his family at the age of four and forced into emigration, fetching up in Haslingden in Lancashire, where at the age of nine in 1855 he was working 60 hours a week in the local mill and where at the age of 14 he had his right arm ripped off in an accident with some machinery. Michael Davitt spent two spells in prison under British authority and emerged as a writer, politician and grand socialist, helping form the Land League which eventually gave Irish land back to Irish farmers. He travelled the world explaining the woes of Ireland and imbuing himself in the socialist cause wherever he went. A true man of the people.
Although I have to say there can be nothing wrong with eviction English style as the Irish government in the form of their banks and judiciary are doing it to thousands of families today. How I wish Michael Davitt could resurrect himself. My family left Straide enlightened and impressed with this Man of the West who spoke in a Lancashire accent like me but did not live to an age where he could have one last lash, dying in Dublin in 1906.
We headed for Foxford just up the road and its famous Woollen Mills for a little care free shopping. Lush brushed cotton sheets and pillow cases for the birthday girl and a dark brown, wide brimmed trilby for me from that famous Dublin hatter Jack Murphy. Then home to bottles of beer and wine, aperos of vodka and freshly juiced blood oranges and a meal of immense proportion, towers with champ mashed potato cakes as a base and layer on layer of slices of pig, poached eggs and Kelly’s black pudding prepared by beer mad son in law. We then settled down to an evening of banter whilst one or two security men were put to bed.
The following day, Thursday, one daughter had to leave for her north Africa flight from Dublin, entirely replete from her little sojourn in the West whilst we continued the fray. Son in law more than once expressed a passing interest in real ale, micro-breweries and drink in general. He is a partner in a brewing enterprise in Didsbury in Manchester, The Burton Road Brewery and is thus implicated and interested in the quest for the best beer and I think we found it.
I took him 12 miles north of Boyle to the lovely little town of Ballymote in South Sligo. A brewery had opened up there two years ago and was winning prize after prize at the various exhibitions and festivals. The White Hag Brewery is run by two American chaps of Sligo and Belfast lineage, who decided enough was enough in the shit hole they call America and ran for dear life when the opportunity beckoned. They are beer afficionados, brewing several lines of the stuff. I was enthralled with their Scotch malt whiskey barrel aged Black Boar stout at 10.2% proof. Joe Kearns, the master brewer, writes on the side of the 750ml bottle “The contents of this bottle began life 15 years ago deep in the heart of Appalachia as a mighty oak tree. From three years in Bourbon country, 12 years in the rain lashed hills of the Scottish Highlands, to the salt-sprayed shore of Co Sligo. I present to you this very special beer. You can almost taste the history.” He guarantees it will be good in 25 years time, I bought a bottle and guarantee it will not be here in 25 years. We had been welcomed like long lost relatives, shown around the brewery and as we talked we shared a bottle of Black Boar. The taste is incredible, like velvety liquorice with overtones of whiskey, smooth, dark as hell but as rich as heaven.
Back home we devoured a wonderful slow cooked shoulder of lamb washed with beers from Ballymote and cheer from the West of Ireland. Late to bed and up early to Knock Airport for birthday girl had another do that evening and son in law was in charge of catering helped in a small way by my youngest son who denied himself the trip in order to study. A martyr to the cause.
Meanwhile I set off for Dublin on the 11.30am train, I was not done yet, the lash was still on. Youngest daughter was starring in a one woman play that she had written herself which had been commissioned by the Smock Alley Theatre to show the best of young Irish talent. The play was a sell out and what a performance. I was never as proud as watching this crowd of fancy Dubs gathered round her after the show, kissing, hugging and gently wanting a part in her glory.
The play The Mancunian Candidate was partly true about a young girl from Manchester who had problems at home and was shipped out to an aunty in Dublin. To a town with a strange language, strange ways, a little grasp of history and no Vimto. Eventually she finds herself and takes control. Offered back home by her parents, she refuses, she is in Dublin for the long haul. She loves it and its people. It was all spoken in a broad Manchester accent, with Manchester adjectives and Manchester invective. She had the crowd laughing, crying and cheering and she was my daughter. They say it went even better on the second night but I was at home recovering. My legs had given way after the long last lash. I have now retired from the social world. I am happy that at 70 years of age I managed to stay the course. Just about: I pushed the boat out and it did not sink.