Now that I’ve squeezed through the chinks of a wall of large American tourists there are just a few millimetres of glass between me and the 9th century. The Book of Kells, on display in the Library at Dublin’s Trinity College, is an illuminated manuscript that grabs the viewer by her collar and pulls her into its pages.
But far from the pages of pious art I expect to adorn the gospels, there is only one nativity scene where a rather startled Madonna holds up her prodigy for viewing. The rest is a celebration of the secular by a mad, brilliant, funny, rocket scientist of an artist at work, or should I say at play. Who else could have invented the alphabets that morph themselves into birds, fanciful creatures, gargoyles, dogs, fish? Start tracing a line from its beginning and you lose yourself in a maze of patterns; step back and lo! it’s a creature.
The book, I realise, is proof that the collision of cultures — in this case, the pagan and Christian — doesn’t always have to mean violence. St Patrick brings the Father, Son, Holy Ghost and the art of penmanship to Ireland in the 5th century, and the Irish, though obliging are also tenacious; they keep their fairies, their leprechauns and their fey ways. For this they are deemed barbaric by (who else but) the English. Starting with Henry VIII who vented his fury on the Irish Catholics, a series of monarchs attempted to crush the Irish spirit. Some even forbade reading and writing. The ground where I stood was once an institution for Elizabeth I’s loyal protestant subjects. If a Catholic wished an education at Trinity he had to renounce his faith.
When the Penal Laws eased in the mid-18th century, a new Irish middle class burst into the scene and with it, centuries of repressed creativity expressed itself in new art, literature, theatre and music. Like millions of other students, I came of age carrying the genius of that age — volumes of Swift, Shaw, Wilde, Yeats and Joyce — under my arm. To Beckett, I was unswervingly devoted — when it came to the toss up between playing Vladimir and plugging physics, I shrugged my shoulders. Life devoid of art, after all, was the Theatre of the Absurd.
Ireland’s creative impulse never petered out. You can still feel its echo in Dublin today and not simply by chance. It has been kept alive by a people proud of their culture. In Dublin, turn a corner and you walk into a statue of a poet, a playwright, a journalist, a philosopher; walk further and you’re on a road named after a novelist. A pub is famous (Davy Byrne) only because Joyce wrote here; a hotel (The Imperial, Cork City) is famous because Thackeray and Dickens lectured there.
In Dublin, two days aren’t enough for a culture-vulture. If I managed the Writers Museum, the foot-stomping, electrifying performance, Riverdance at the Gaiety Theatre, the excellent Yeats multimedia exhibit at the National Library, the Hugh Lane Gallery where I stood transfixed by Harry Clarke’s jewel-like homage to Keats’ poem, The Eve of St Agnes in stained glass, I missed and cursed missing the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery and the National Photographic Archive.
I would have missed the Chester Beatty Library too had it not been for my guide who interrupted my dawdle at St Stephen’s Green, dragging me by the arm at a gallop. Fifteen minutes to closing time and we arrive gasping for breath, begging to be let in. Hearing that I’ve come all the way from India the guards oblige. I race through the two floors, a treasury of priceless art from across the world handpicked by Beatty, an oddity — an American with money and taste, who after making his pile at the turn of the 20th century, spent the rest of his life and his fortune on art.
I wanted to weep. Do I spend a few more seconds in front of this sublime Burmese Buddha or dash back to the 17th-century Armenian jewelled binding for a second glance or hide behind the Rouleau Vaseand cosh the guard with the 18th-century Rhinoceros Horn Cup so that I can gaze upon the exquisite Ottoman miniatures of the veiled Prophet Muhammad?
I have examined cuts of beef, various sausages and cured meats, 40 types of breads, wines from as far off as Chile and Australia, olives from Spain, Greece and Italy, tasted Irish cheeses and compared them with the English and French, scrutinised the gills of trout and Atlantic salmon, appraised the quality of quail’s eggs, langoustine, organic red peppers and fennel. Why? Because food tastes better in Ireland and after stuffing my face half a dozen times a day, eight days on the trot, I am now convinced, standing at the English Market in Cork city, that the secret lies in the quality of the ingredients.
The Irish mean business when it comes to food — cookery shows dominate television and dozens of cookery schools turn out hundreds of innovative chefs every year. Perhaps it’s a response to history when there was none and a quarter of the population starved to death; perhaps it’s suddenly discovering that they are part of Europe and cooking can mean more than boiling things to death.
When I told a friend in India that fine dining was on my list of things to do, she squawked, “In Ireland? But they’re poor and only eat potatoes.” She could be forgiven. In Ballydavid, Vincent and Síle, who run the wonderful Gorman’s Clifftop House, recalled Ireland of the not-too-distant past: no running water, no electricity, kids who went to school unshod and returned to slave on the farm. Almost like India but for the miserable weather and bogs, and ‘the squelch and slap/of soggy peat’ (Seamus Heaney), Irish stew and potato famines, the IRA and ‘a nation of clodhoppers’ (James Joyce). Until the 1970s, that is, when it cocked a snook and leapfrogged out of the British Isles into the European Union. Geography cooperated. “Ireland is the western-most country of Europe,” someone told me. And describing the new economy someone else called it the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Who could deny it? Not me, ricocheting in an E-class Benz between boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, golf courses and galleries.
I had read enough to expect good food in Dublin, so when my host treated me to the amuse-bouches at Dylan’s, a small, new boutique hotel, I wasn’t expecting to be surprised. But chef Padraig Hayden had a few cards up his sleeve. It had to do with the unusual combinations of flavours, that worked quite like music: sometimes in synchrony, sometimes contrapuntally and often with the slightest note of dissonance to make the whole score more interesting.
Starting with duck foie gras with peach chutney, peach and thyme jelly with toasted brioche, I waded through six courses that included scallops, caper and golden raisin dressing, cucumber with cauliflower purée and quail’s egg, sea trout fillet with samphire and brown shrimps, free-range guinea fowl breast girolles, pomme purée and cep sauce, finishing off with white chocolate mousse terrine with blackberry sorbet, blackberryjelly and lemon curd, and then waddled back to my hotel room, convinced I had found a cure for anorexics.
It wasn’t simply the fine food at fancy restaurants that impressed, but places I dropped into just by chance: a scone with butter and honey with afternoon tea in a small tearoom in Kinsale, a convenience store run by Pakistanis in Dublin where I had a surprisingly good cup of coffee and a muffin, the delicious red beer at the Franciscan Well, a microbrewery in Cork, and lunch at Blair’s Inn, by a rushing stream near Blarney, where I devoured a warm tart of St Tola goat’s cheese, smoked salmon and creamed leeks, some fresh Cromane mussels, a slice of corned beef and a rib eye steak.I did refuse the dessert.