For years we’ve had a plaque that hangs beside our fireplace with an old Irish saying; “Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán fein,” it reads. “There is no fireside like your own fireside.”
Most evenings this past winter, with the wind howling and the rain falling and the sun setting at 4:30, we sat on the couch in front of our little wood stove, curled up and reading our books, passing an occasional comment to one another. Lucy perches atop the cushion midway between us, sound asleep. Every half hour or so, I feed another log into the stove, fine hickory and ash supplied by Thomas the farmer down the road. It’s a quiet winter life that we love.
But even this idyllic life of leisure can grow tiresome. When that happens, we head off to Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara to sit in front of a different fire for a few days. Ballynahinch is an ancient house in the midst of Connemara with a history that goes back to the O’Flahertys in the 14thcentury. It has, thankfully, been updated since.
Our first visit to Ballynahinch is lost in the haze of memory. “Was it ’85 or ’86?” we ask each other on the drive north, not knowing for sure, but we do agree that we’ve been there more than thirty times over the years.
Others may opt for the sandy beaches and tropical breezes of a Caribbean isle, or an all-inclusive resort in Mexico sitting by a pool in the sun, but we long for 700 acres of wooded estate with a fast-flowing river where we can wear wellies and waxed cotton rather than flipflops and swimsuits.
When we arrive after the four hour drive from Dingle, we are greeted with hugs from Freddie and Kathleen at the reception desk. Bríd from the dining room runs out to greet us and ask how we are keeping. Michael the porter is there to help with our bags and we’ll see Pat at breakfast in the morning and James in the walled garden in the afternoon to inspect the flowers and vegetables. Patrick, the manager, comes loping around a corner to bestow more hugs. It’s like coming home to family.
“Your room is waiting for you,” Freddie announces.
We have been staying in the same room, number 38, for over twenty years, and we joke that they are allowed to let the room to others whenever we are not in residence.
Number 38 overlooks the river at the back of the house. A king bed, loveseat, a comfortable chair, and coffee table fill the room. A television is in the corner, but we never turn it on. The only sound you hear in the night is the rush of the water as it flows around the small island in the middle of the river.In the morning we sit on the loveseat with a cup of coffee, watching the trout and salmon rise and, if we’re lucky, a heron wading around the island hunting for its breakfast.
Most nights we eat in the pub at a table near the fire. On the drive from Dingle to Connemara, Sara and I discuss what to have the first night.
“I love the lamb burger,” Sara says.
“Their pork belly with white beans is excellent, too,” I answer. “And I really like the duck with green lentils. I’m not sure what I’ll have tonight.”
A few minutes pass.
“But it has to be the lamb burger,” I say, and we both sigh thinking about it. We always have the lamb the first night.
There are roaring log fires throughout Ballynahinch–in the reception area, Hunts room, Fisherman’s Pub, dining room, and Ranji room–named after a former owner of the house, Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanager, better known as Ranji, Prince of Cricketers.We have enjoyed all of these fires over the years, but our favorite is in the library, where we find ourselves after dinner on the first night. Bottle-green walls and bookshelves surround us in the small room and, above the mantle, a portrait of Richard Martin stares down at us. Martin was the founder of the SPCA and at one time owned most of the land and, by extension, the tenants of Connemara. Ballynahinch was his country home. Martin‘s nickname was Humanity Dick, but that applied more to animals than to his tenants.
We sit in the library much as we do in our lounge back in Dingle, with Sara on one end of the couch and myself in a club chair, a drink, tea or wine or a whiskey, on the table in front of us and a book in our hand. Lucy, sadly, is with her dog sitter back in Dingle, frolicking with the Labs and Whippets and occasionally being dragged through a stream or mud puddle in the forestry against her will. Every twenty minutes or so a porter comes by to poke and prod the fire and feed it a log, then moves on to the other fireplaces to perform the same ritual.
A couple comes in to join us, he on the other end of the couch and she in the club chair opposite me. We nod and smile pleasantly and return to our books. They do not have books. Silence settles softly around us.
If there is one thing the Irish cannot abide, it is silence.
“Have you been here before?” the fellow finally asks, unable to contain himself any longer.
We look up from our books. Posh accent, Dublin I’d say. We lower our books to our laps resignedly.
“We have. Many times,” we reply. “And you?”
“We come up from Dublin once or twice a year.”
And we’re off. Another round of drinks is in order and the books are put aside until later. We have new friends to get to know.
The days are spent exploring Connemara by car, walking on remote beaches, shopping in Clifden, or visiting the smokehouse in Ballyconneely to order smoked salmon to take home to Dingle. If the weather is not too wet, we pull on our wellies and walk the paths around the estate. There are walks along the river and through the woods, following the route of the old narrow-gauge railroad that ran between Galway and Clifden. Our favorite, though, is around Ballynahinch Lake. On an island in the center of the lake is an ancient fortress that belonged to Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connacht who married into the O’Flaherty clan. The surrounding mountains, the Twelve Bens, are perfectly reflected in the crystal clear water. We stand on a dock watching in awed admiration. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem calledBallynahinch Lakethat runs through my mind:
So we stopped and parked in the spring-cleaning light
Of Connemara on a Sunday morning
As a captivating brightness held and opened
And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake
Entered us like a wedge knocked sweetly home
Into core timber.
When we arrive back at the house we pull off our muddy wellies and settle down in front of the fire in the reception area for a restorative cup of tea.
The next night after dinner–the duck was lovely, by the way–we find ourselves in the library once again, in the same couch and chair. We chat with the porter as he tends the fire and then dive back into our books. Patrick, the general manager for the past twenty years, appears and takes a seat on the couch, stretching his long legs in front of him towards the flames.
We like to tease Patrick that we were coming to Ballynahinch when he was still a schoolboy in short pants. We trade stories about his three kids and our children and grandchildren, all of whom he has met over the years. Lulu, a sharp young woman from Brittany who runs the pub now, comes by and Patrick decides a round of drinks is essential to fuel the conversation.
Lulu is a bit nervous to take an order in front of the boss.
Sara orders a Cosmo and Patrick a glass of Guinness.
So far, so good.
“I’ll have a Dingle Gin martini,” I tell her.
“Up or on the rocks?” she asks.
“Up,” I reply.
“Lemon peel or olives?”
“Shaken or stirred?”
“Stirred,” I say. “Anticlockwise, please.”
She goes off to the pub, bemused.
After Lulu delivers the drinks, (the martini was perfectly stirred), Sara, Patrick, and I toast our stay and over the next half hour proceed to solve all the problems of the U.S. and Ireland and, as a bonus, Brexit. If only people would listen to us.
After setting the world right, Patrick has to run off to watch his elder son’s rugby match, so we say our goodbyes.
“We’ll see you in October,” we tell him.
Sara and I settle back into our books, passing the occasional comment and listening to the crackling logs, utterly content.
In the morning we must leave our beloved Ballynahinch and return home to Dingle where we have our own fire to tend and a muddy Lucy to collect.
Until the next time, dear Ballynahinch family.
Keep our room ready. And the fire burning.