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Irish Eyes Have Plenty to Smile About

October 12, 1986|Zan Thompson

We left the soft, rolling hills of County Cork and drove to County Kerry, which has taller mountains and deeper valleys and everywhere "the 40 shades of green." That's an Irish boast but they're about 40 shades short; you can stand anywhere and count shades of green until you weary of it. But the green is so soothing to the eye, it's no wonder God made all of the grass and trees that brave color.

In Kenmare in County Kerry, we visited our two friends Tom and Sherry Nicholson. They live in Ireland for six months a year in a peaked-roof house with arched windows that stands in a flower garden, looking out on Kenmare Bay. Sherry has collected at least a dozen kinds of heather, from the deepest imperial purple to the softest lavender like the lining of a kitten's ear. She has white heather, which I had never seen before.

They bought their house from some people who had used it for a vacation house and allowed a neighboring farmer to drive his cattle into the Nicholson meadow. It was from Tom that I learned that in Ireland, the phrase "in a fit of pique" covers every kind of problem, from a minor annoyance to a murder. When the Nicholsons bought the house, they did not know of the cows' habit of tramping over the plot where Sherry planned the garden.

They had a chalk-white fence built, crowned by a fine, tall gate. The next day, the farmer who was the steward of the wandering cow ladies, came in with his tractor and knocked the new gate down.

No charges were brought because the local constable explained carefully to Tom that the farmer had done it "in a fit of pique."

This is the omnibus excuse for anything at all. The constable rather implied that Tom and Sherry should be happy the "fit of pique" had not extended to knocking down their fine new house.

The Nicholsons live the other six months in McLean, Va. He told us that when he comes back to Kenmare in the spring, everyone in the village greets him with, "Welcome home, Tom."

In talking about the country houses and cattle and the scenery like a little bit of heaven, it is too easy to leave out the Irish people. They are friendly, warm, funny, hospitable, love dogs and seem willing to open their hearts to strangers. Poor things. They've had to open their country to marauding strangers since the 13th Century.

Tom drove us to the Caha Mountains through the heart of County Kerry over Tom Healey Pass. I think Healey was a president. No matter, he has a beautiful mountain road named after him whoever he was. We drove for miles along the top of a forested mountain pass, while the valley flowed away from the road, down into a skein of lakes, waterfalls, squares of cultivated land, natural beauty which has never known the depredations of progress.

Maybe the lady in the thatched-roof cottage longs for a plastic shingle roof and I hope she gets it. I am just glad I have the thatched cottage imprinted on my mind, along with a border collie industriously herding his cattle and sheep. I don't know how the small dogs have the patience to work with the sheep. The attention span of the wooly boobs is that of a flight of thistledown.

In Kenmare, we stayed at the Park Hotel because of the manager, Francis Martin Brennan, who is a friend of the Nicholsons' and indecently young to be the master of the magnificent 125-room hotel. He holds a degree from Trinity College and took his hotel work at the prestigious Dublin College of Catering in Cathal Bruagh Street. He is in his early 30s, looks 12, and has the charm of a man who has learned everything there is to be known about hospitality, fine food and wine.

Brennan's philosophy is, "We run the hotel downstairs as if we had 12 rooms upstairs."

The Park was built in 1886. Paintings and antiques, four posters, sleigh beds, a sea of snowy table linen, a cozy library with a fire for a before-dinner drink, a man noodling show tunes on a piano, made me feel like a character in a Frederick Lonsdal play.

Brennan's touch and that of his assistant, Elizabeth O'Mahoney, are everywhere. I was pleased to find that his office looked about like mine: Six months of brochures and correspondence made a slithery top to his desk and piles of books leaned on the floor.

In the lobby is an Italian water tank about six feet tall that rests on dolphins in the middle and has a Pegasus at each end in gold-leaf. The sides of the tank are a frieze of gods and goddesses frolicking, one can only imagine, in anticipation of a bath. It would distinguish a museum. It's an explosion of Latin exuberance.

The dining room looks out on a navy-blue estuary, bordered by flowers and trees. Baskets of tuberous begonias hang from wrought-iron broderie anglaise along the edge of the porch outside the dining room.

We drove, talked, ate and drank with the Nicholsons all day long, none of us wanting the day to end. Especially, we did not want to leave the warming smile of Francis Brennan.

You will think I am making this up, but I swear on my mother's grave, we ran into Charles and Helen Langmade. Someone in this group has good taste or we're in a rut. Or there was a close-out on the tour of Irish country houses and hotels.

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