I had to throw away my favorite soft-sided briefcase in Ireland because the Irish food was so good and so generous. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me say that Audrey Ann Marie Boyle and I, who have been to Ireland twice before, took a two-week trip to the land of our grandparents just as summer turned to fall.
Because I still have the fake knee that has been attached to me for more than a year, I threw caution to the wind and we traveled Super Executive class on Aer Lingus. The flight attendants are charming, dressed in green or blue chemise dresses. They have the faculty of making you feel you're at home in Ireland before you leave the ground.
The food was beautifully prepared and started with the best smoked salmon we had on the trip. On the flight, I also had poached salmon and Audrey Ann Marie had veal with mushrooms and we both had baba au rhum. Then the stewardess came around with Bel Paese cheese and water biscuits. I simply could not eat the satin cheese, which came in a little foil cup, but Audrey assured me that I would wish I had had it the next night when we were in our hotel room at cocktail time. So I carefully wrapped it in tissue and put it in my purse.
But that isn't why I had to throw away my soft-sided briefcase, which I was using as a purse. That is why I had to throw away my purse-sized hairbrush, made of genuine boar bristles. Because, in tossing the briefcase around, the Bel Paese came unwrapped and worked itself into the hairbrush. Let that be added to those clever little hints the travel writers prepare: Eat the Bel Paese or leave it on the plate.
Need I tell you that our first night in Ireland, Audrey Ann Marie popped her Bel Paese out of her purse like a particularly adroit magician pulling a scarlet silk kerchief out of a rabbit's ear and seemed to enjoy it thoroughly with a touch of the spirits we had bought at the duty-free shop at Shannon Airport. Oh all right, she shared, but it was not the same.
The first night, we went to Longueville house, a country house built in 1720 overlooking the Black-water Valley. It's about a two-hour drive from Shannon, but we have found that we like to get out in the country as fast as possible rather than stay at a modern cookie-cutter hotel near the airport. There are times when those are great, but not the first day when the adventurous juices are bubbling over.
The Longueville house stands in the middle of a 500-acre estate and is 64 miles south of Shannon Airport. The lands were originally owned by Donough O'Callaghan and later lost to Oliver Cromwell, who laid waste to much of Ireland, while preserving the most beautiful parts for himself or his followers.
We were greeted by a slender woman named Catherine Nolan, who must be pure gold for the O'Callaghans. She ushered us into the dining room and insisted that we have a cup of tea and some of their own homemade nutty bread before we went upstairs. Our room looked out over the stable and farm buildings built in a hollow U and centered with a manicured maze of hedges.
When we went upstairs to have a jet-lag nap, we each had a comforting hot water bottle tucked into our beds. This bit of hospitality was repeated when we went upstairs after dinner.
From the dining room of the current house, with its Georgian entrance hall and band of molding as carefully set in place as crocheted edging on a banquet cloth, you can see the ruins of the O'Callaghan Castle. The tall gray towers and stark chimney appear through the soft mists to be floating in the meadow of grassland, looking as if they might disappear entirely when the rain stopped and the sun rose high in the sky.
To the south of the house is a vineyard and right in the middle of the vineyard is a formal fountain, which indicates the land must have held a formal side garden.
The house has 20 rooms and has now returned to the O'Callaghans after more than 300 years. Michael and Jane O'Callaghan are now the owners of the fine country house. Jane herself is in charge of the kitchen and cooks often, supervising every plate as it leaves the kitchen. The vegetables grow on the 500-acre farm and had that dewy freshness that just-picked vegetables do. I had the Longueville lamb, which was wonderful and which I do not care to discuss because the sheep and lambs are all over the meadow, their silly tails frantically flying in the breeze.
Next to the dining room is a Victorian conservatory with a high roof of arched glass. White wrought-iron furniture makes a lacy background for hanging baskets of flowers.