When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.
– James Joyce
Once, I went to Ireland. My best friend had gotten a new job and as luck had it he had to go to England for a few months for training though he would be working in Maryland. Though I’d only been to Europe once, and never by myself, I decided to visit him. I had to. It was in the summer, but it was back when you could still get plane tickets for a reasonable price, and so I booked a trip to London on the red-eye from Washington, DC.
I landed early in a cool July morning and somehow got myself to Paddington, I’m sure looking the bemused tourist lugging the ubiquitous backpack. He wasn’t done with work until the afternoon so I stashed my bag in the station, went to the Tate Modern without asking for directions (I hate asking for directions), and wandered the collection in a jet-lagged haze. I bought a sandwich — probably brie-and-apple, pre-made — and walked along the Thames marveling that I was finally in England after years of wishing for it. I passed St.-Martin-in-the-Fields and longed to stay for a candlelight concert (I did on another trip and it was marvelous), sat by the fountain in Trafalgar Square, got caught up in the lunchtime crowds by the Parliament.
As the day waned I took a train to the suburb in which he was staying and was immediately whisked off to dinner somewhere in the country. We careened around narrow back roads calling to the grazing sheep while I took in all that green — so much brilliance my eyes were full up with it. The next night we drove to Bath and had a delicious vegetarian dinner that unfortunately I remember not a bit of; I think I was too stunned by the massive splendor of Stonehedge to be good for much more than that. It was an all-too-brief stretch of days that nonetheless was one of my best vacations ever — maybe because I’d traveled a far distance on my own for the first time or because I was there with a beloved friend. We were silly and goofy and just had such fun.
Then we went to Dublin for the weekend.
When I’d announced I’d be visiting England I also announced that we should go to Ireland.
Simon, I said, whiskey. The Jameson distillery. James Joyce. Beans on toast. Need I say more?
I didn’t have to, really, because he took my idea and ran with it all the way to booking two flights to Dublin — just Saturday morning to Sunday night. This was during the height of the hoof-and-mouth crisis and we were required to wipe our shoes before leaving and entering England, which almost caused us to miss the flight out (that we were also late for the return flight cannot alas be blamed on that but on a pub and too many pints, though as we dashed madly through the airport with bags banging against our knees I almost hoped we wouldn’t make it so we would be forced to stay longer. And in the end we were put into first class — Is that alright? the stewardess asked, very concerned, as if we might decline — where we ate decent ravioli and drank red wine and I talked to the photojournalist sitting next to me about the golf tournament he’d just shot.). We did make it, however, and so landed up in a cool, gray Irish morning before 10a.
First, we had breakfast. In a dim restaurant near the Temple bar I ate my first beans on toast and drank a hot, milky pot of tea, sopping up bits of fried egg with crumbling crusts of bread. After, we walked over the River Liffey and I stuck my hands into my pockets and wished for a warm jacket or at least a pair of gloves (it was mid-summer so I didn’t think I needed warm things). We took a bus tour and hopped on and off at various points along the way (I had a cold and was too sick — and did not yet appreciate — to partake in the copious tastes of Jameson offered at the distillery; if ever there was a reason to go back to a place that would be a fine one), passing Trinity college as I imagined all the great writers who had walked through its gates.
Ireland was: gin and orange at a pub near the hostel before we turned in for the night; knobbly cobblestone streets; July weather than reminded me of San Francisco July; pints of lukewarm Guinness with shamrocks pressed into the foam; James Joyce’s house glimpsed through the gloom; the Writer’s Museum I have vowed to come back to one day since we didn’t have time to visit; not enough warm clothes; a hand-knit scarf in all the colors of the rainbow; street music that made me want to stay and listen for hours; green, green hills and an iron-gray ocean that shook and tossed itself onto the shore; Seamus Heaney; whiskey, enough to fill all the glasses in the world. It’s a place that beguiles and entices as much for its physical beauty as for its complicated and complex history. There are so many places across the globe I have yet to visit but if I had my way I’d go back to Ireland for longer than two days, to Dublin and the north, both, before not-too-long.
Last year I baked a Guinness chocolate cake for St. Pat’s Day but this year I baked bread — not soda bread, as it turns out but a sweetly-scented, cake-like thing that filled up my whole apartment with the goodness of it. Studded with raisins and currants and faintly redolent of butter, it’s exactly the right thing to have on a drizzly morning with a cup of tea (Irish breakfast, if you please), enough milk added to make it turn pale.
Rain pattered down gently on the street outside as I savored my slice, and for once I wished to be not in San Francisco but the green fields of my great-great-grandmother’s country — Ireland, home at last.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
— W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I thought I’d make soda bread, but as I was going to bring it in to work I thought I’d cater to my coworkers’ collective sweet tooth and make a sort of Irish fruit cake. Barm Brack is traditionally eaten at Halloween but I think it was OK to make for St. Patrick’s Day nonetheless. I scoured the Internet to find an ‘authentic’ recipe and came across this one, published in the 80s in the New York Times. Of course I ate my slice with a cup of strong tea, and spread it thickly with butter and jam.
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon superfine granulated sugar
1 cup lukewarm milk
4 cups unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups golden raisins
3/4 cup dried currants
Grated rind of one lemon.
1.In a large bowl mix the yeast with the teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of the milk. Set aside to proof.
2.In another bowl mix 3 cups of the flour, the salt and spices together. Blend in the butter with your fingertips, then blend in the 1/4 cup of sugar.
3.When the yeast mixture has begun to bubble, stir in the remaining 3/4 cup milk and beat in the eggs. Add the flour mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Add enough additional flour to form a ball of dough and knead in the bowl, adding additional flour as necessary, until pliable but fairly firm.
4.Knead in the raisins, currants, and lemon rind. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size.
5.Line a 10-inch round baking pan with wax paper. Punch down the dough and transfer it to the pan. Cover and allow to rise for 30 minutes.
6.Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the cake for 1 hour, until browned. Turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Yield: 1 large loaf.