By Andrea Cleghorn
There are plenty of reasons to make the journey to Ireland: Uncover your roots and then cope with what you find. Prove that you have no problem driving on the left side of the road even though your rental car records may prove otherwise. Come face-to-face with seasickness and then conquer your fear of heights by paying a visit to one those pretty islands you see in the guidebooks.
Seriously, once you have decided to go, where will it be? For me, Ireland is all about the small towns. And, as with the U.S., there is something special about the coasts. It supposedly rains twice as much as in the Sunny Southeast as the West, but no one comes here for the weather.
Kenmare in County Kerry has won the national Tidy Town award time after time. But it is more than tidy; it is beautiful to look at, has great little shops like Brenmar Jon, art galleries, outdoor tables, a handful of truly wonderful restaurants, live music in the pubs and, most of all, the friendliest people anywhere and the craic is mighty.
Drive less than five minutes in any direction from the Square and you are in the wild beauty of Irish landscape. In town or out, it’s all good. Therefore, here are 10 reasons to go to Kenmare, loosely based on a qualitative study with information gathered from personal observations, bartenders and random O’Sullivans who have been here for generations.
1. Better than Epcot
Spend an evening at Molly Gallivan’s Cottage and Farm, a quick drive to Bonane for a truly great evening. Learn to make poitin, the home brew that is an Irish tradition. Then be served a classic homestyle dinner of blended vegetable soup, lamb stew and apple crumble. This is all preamble to the main event, “The Homecoming,” a performance that depicts an Irish family welcoming home a son who emigrated to the United States 35 years before. With singing, dancing, storytelling, it takes place in the small, 200-year-old stone cottage where the family lived.
The cottage and the stable-turned-tea shop,as well as the farm around it, has been faithfully restored by Stephen O’Sullivan who grew up right across the road. He and his wife Frances employ professional actors, neighbors and family members for the show. And, even better, guests are encouraged to join in to the wild ruckus, just as they would have for generations. Last night one member of the audience read his own poetry, another sang a song in the Irish language. Everyone danced, everyone sang, every drank Irish coffee at the end of the four hours.
2. Crisps, not potato chips
Cheese & onion or salt & vinegar? Tayto crisps are by far the overwhelming top choice when it comes to a salty snack. Ask for a glass of “Smitticks” (spelled Smithwicks) lager or double the pleasure with a pint, grab a table on the street and see what turns up. (Leave it to the Irish for creating the potato-themed amusement destination, Tayto Park in County Meath.)
For 35 euro you can get a case of 60 bags and post them home, a lightweight souvenir. Survey results give the nod to cheese and onion, but this visitor likes the vinegar bite. And the more bites the better, but maybe not 60 bags’ worth.
3. Chips, not fries
You can get a burger or onion rings but nothing compares to a bowl of chips covered with melted cheese and streaky bacon. It is enough to warm your heart if it doesn’t clog all your arteries before you remember to eat some green vegetables.
4. Lovely leaves
Christened by Patsy Healy of Kenmare Antiques about a decade ago, it started out served in a smallish bowl but she liked it so much she requested it be super-sized. It consists of red onion, cucumber, egg mayonnaise, red cabbage, shredded carrot and tomahto (sic) alongside mixed leaves from Billy Clifford’s organic farm. A celery stick never gets close to a Patsy Salad. It comes dressed with balsamic vinegar and a bit of oil. Eat it with a couple of small slices of brown bread with a lashing of Kingdom County Kerry butter for a satisfying lunch.
5. Improbable name
When it comes to satisfying, it’s a good thing to treat yourself to what 99 person of those queried call the best restaurant in town. Packie’s does sell liquor, but the name comes from its origins as a grocery store run by a Patrick nicknamed Packie.
Turned into a restaurant in the early ‘90s by his niece, Maura O’Connell, it is now the domain of the extremely talented Chef Martin Hallissey, who has been there for half his young life. This summer Peter O’Shea, who trained at Packie’s and has literally been around the world (restaurants in Bali and Mexico) is back home. Martin has the most beautiful fish – red monkfish is a favorite – or shellfish, beef or lamb.
It is impossible to get a bad meal there and the experience is always stellar. Credit the naturally elegant simple stone cottage décor and professional, friendly service as well as the food and wine.
Did I mention the frosting on the cake? Martin says some days he gets a call on his mobile with a voice booming, “Martin! I have chanterelles for you today – meet me at 11!” And Martin does. He prepares the frilly golden mushrooms in a creamy herbed sauce as a starter. The Packie’s menu varies according somewhat according to the time of year, but items such as lamb might be just sauced differently from season to season. The vegetables are organic and everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.
6. Not your grandfather’s Irish breakfast
Think fresh, think strawberries. The traditional Irish breakfast will keep you full for days, with its egg, tomato, mushroom and black pudding and white pudding (sausage). But there is a 200-year-old pancake cottage called The Strawberry Field that has aged beautifully. It does not at all resemble the typical fried feast or even your father’s IHOP.
Located a few kilometers north of town in the impossibly gorgeous, mountainous Moll’s Gap, the chrome yellow-and-red strawberry décor is a blast to the senses. Cook Claudio Guastavino says he couldn’t flip a flapjack four months ago and now he is the master of 47 different ones.
Choosing sweet or savoury will get you to the right menu and from there are lists and lists of variations to top the standard 11-inch crepe. Like fruit? Strawberries, kiwis, bananas, pineapple. Sweet? Chocolate chips or baby marshmallow. Or go for one of the many bacon choices or salmon, spinach, leak and sour cream. If you want a break from porridge, and enjoy classic statuary with a fruity flair or just taking in the bold colors, this is your place. You will be inspired to hop on that Aer Lingus flight back to Logan, dig the crepe pan out from the back of the cupboard and ditch your tasteful Benjamin Moore painted kitchen in favor of a coat of latex a wee bit more adventurous.
7. Staying in touch
Some say Wi-Fi is all the same, but in Kenmare the connection ranges from poor to fair to (occasionally) good everywhere you go. There are not many Internet cafes around anymore, most of us are left to our own devices.
The Atlantic Bar does share whatever connection it has, along with delicious coffee, sandwiches, and space in the back room to work, with even an occasional editorial suggestion from the nicest staff in town.
8. Down by the Riverside
Whether it is relaxing after a day of exploring the Ring of Kerry to the north or hiking around the Beara Peninsula south of Kenmare, the best seats in town are on the terrace of the Sheen Falls Lodge.
If you’re lucky enough to get a mellow sunny afternoon, sit with a glass of wine or a pot of tea as the day melts into a long Irish summer evening. The Sheen River flows under an ancient stone bridge on one side, cascading over the rocks to a small waterfall in front of you, and the Kenmare River is behind you. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of Oscar, the Grey Heron (not the blue of the Concord, Assabet and Sudbury), who is the namesake of the Lodge restaurant.
9. Local production
It may not be everyone’s favorite, but Foley’s Guest House and Bar has become our local, with consistently great live music, good-natured and efficient waitstaff and some of the most entertaining bachelor parties in town. Nobody does stag parties like the Irish, with men in veils and bunny ears. Oh, except the Irish brides and her cronies whose hen parties put our American bridal showers to shame, with our yawn-producing endless opening of gifts and G-rated decorum. But the grooms and their 17 attendants prefer Foley’s and so do we. Original owner Peg Foley is around Foley’s, a benign presence she turned Foley’s over to one son, and the two pubs across Henry Street to two others. Patrick and his wife Marion are the owners now and work as hard as the staff, he in the kitchen and she on the floor.
10. Munching mussels
Miss Molly Malone may have been hawking her live cockles and mussels from a pushcart on the streets of Dublin, but the mussel traps that line the shallow water heading south out of Kenmare town are even fresher.
Don’t let the name Sailor’s Bar make you think you will get a steaming portion of salt brine. This bar and restaurant is good at everything it does, even if it’s just a Guinness, but the mussels are pieces of heaven in black shells.
Eat your mussels inside or on the airy porch, but if you sit outside on the deck, there are views of mountains, water and you can almost imagine you can see the little fellows’ surviving relatives.