Sean Williams

2018 in Dublin

posted on 23 Dec 2018 at 11:02 am

(Featured image: ruined stables of Bantry House)

(Other essays you might like: “Three trips to the Ring of Kerry“, “From the ‘Angry Shilling’ to the ‘Jealous Wall’“.

There is a fine city called Limerick.
Supposedly nothing will rhyme with it.
I did get an “orange” in,
after much foragin’
For poesy and puns most illiterate.

Enjoying a fine repast

That’s my last attempt at humour (probably). For anyone who missed the news that my wife Amanda was the 2018 Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History at University College, Dublin, and that I moved with her to the Emerald Isle, well, you’re now well up to speed. We packed up our house in Adelaide, left friends and family behind (with some trepidation on my part) and embarked on an adventure that was part-holiday, part-professional rejuvenation, and part-honeymoon. This was the first year we’ve spent together without kids (except as passing visitors) and that really gave us a chance to get to know each other better. I can see how empty-nesting sometimes causes the break-up of some long-term relationships. For us, it had the opposite effect.

Here is a summary of our year, plus the odd photo (you can find many, many more of the latter here). At the end is a list of everywhere we went, inside and outside Ireland. Probably everywhere. There’s a lot to remember. I’ll be amazed if I’ve caught it all.

Reflecting on the delightful Dodder

Before moving, we knew two things about Dublin: it’s expensive to live in (more so than London, these days); and good, affordable accommodation is hard to find. Suitably braced, we hit the ground running in our quest for the residence we would call home for a year. We saw several places in quick succession (encountering the same prospective renters more than once) and settled on a furnished apartment in suburban Ballsbridge, which turned out (we later realised) to be the coolest possible choice. Ballsbridge is a nice walk into the city centre, is full of fine shops and restaurants, is close to public transport, and has a river running through it. Our apartment was small but perfect for our needs: it was like living in a ground-floor hotel suite (the tiny second bedroom functioned as my study) with views of trees through every window, a balcony, and high fences and gates to keep the occasional revelling mob at bay. (For concert-goers and sports fans, this area also has a lot to offer.) The only weird part of the process was having to write a pitch-document (that’s what it felt like) to convince the owners to let me live there. Amanda, no problem: she had proper employment and a letter from the university. Me: just a writer. Still, that counts for something here.

We binge-shopped at IKEA to fill the inevitable gaps (desks, pillows, baking dishes, etc), set up internet, power and gas accounts (water is free, yes, FREE), settled Amanda into her office at the university, and we were off.

Some contrasts between Adelaide and Dublin were immediately obvious. The difference between the seasons is considerably heightened, compared to home, and we arrived in winter, so it was cold–gloriously, magically cold! Sufficiently so for ice to form on the windshield of our hire car overnight. But more misty than rainy, and rarely snowy or windy, so it was very easy to walk about the place while keeping dry and comfortable. The coolth got into my blood: I haven’t felt so wired since Antarctica.

Immortalised in Sandymount Square

I liked the long, long nights, too. We just missed the solstice, arriving on New Year’s Eve (and immediately crashing: I was in bed by 7pm) but the transition from sweltering Adelaide days to Dublin nights was more terrific than terrifying. I’m a natural cave-dweller, so I loved that the sun didn’t come up until 9am, went down again at 4pm, and in between just wandered around the lower quarters of the sky looking disinterested in earthly proceedings. Perfect.

In the diary I kept for our first couple of weeks, I wrote this: “few swings of weather, wild swings of light”, which sums up that aspect of the Dublin environment for our first few weeks. People here complain about the weather all the time, but really, it’s very clement. Rarely cold enough to snow. Rarely hot enough for an air-conditioner. Every hour is different and yet equally magical.

Winter in Herbert Park (nice hat!)

We’re told we experienced an odd year, though, so judge this account accordingly. The 2018 summer was dry enough to warrant water restrictions, and there were some powerful storms that led to flooding across the island. It also snowed heavily for a few days in March, more heavily than it had in thirty years, during which time the city pretty much shut down. Dublin is not like London or New York, where such snowfalls are regular disturbances that can easily be worked around. Here, there were no flights, no buses or trains, no schools or government offices, hardly any shops–but gas and power still worked, thank goodness, making it a blissfully cosy apocalypse for us. We went walking every day to watch kids making snow-creatures and igloos, like visitors to Narnia.

My favourite street art in Dublin

We walked a lot in Dublin. It’s largely flat and the inner-city streets are delightfully rambling, narrow and picturesque. This makes driving, for someone used to Adelaide’s regular, wide, right-angled streets, a bit of an adventure. We soon learned how to get from A to B, but getting from B to A often required a very different route. Getting my head around this non-Euclidian navigation took a great deal of practice. Turns out, I can remember routes reasonably well but have no head for street names. Or pub names either–and that’s how a lot of Dubliners navigate, it seems. Thank goodness for Google Maps (and Amanda, who is the exact opposite to me).

Dubliners are very friendly, like Adelaideans but at the same time unlike them. Whenever I went home (which I did twice, once for a wedding and once for a funeral) I was struck by how readily South Australians say hello to random strangers in shops, on the sidewalk, even from car to car at traffic lights. In Dublin, there’s less of that, but people (especially taxi drivers) will have a chat at the slightest opportunity, something less frequent in Adelaide. So while one culture values casually transactional greetings, the other fosters storytelling. I found that interesting, and possibly quite telling.

Here are some things I particularly liked about living in Dublin:

  • Robotic fallen angel public art

    The inhabitants of this country have a sensible number of legs. By which I mean, there are few to no spiders, mozzies, roaches, or ants anywhere.

  • The smell of coal (or is it peat?) burning in a thousand chimneys on a wintry night is like stepping into a historical novel.
  • Blackbirds own the skies in winter.
  • Writing really is considered a viable, even normal career here, as evidenced by the large number of bookshops, the many people who know (or are) writers, editors and publishers, the extraordinary resources given to writers throughout the Republic, and statues of or monuments to literary figures all over the place.
  • Dublin’s public art has a unique megalomaniacal bent, by which I mean things like the Spire (a lethal silvery needle 120m high) and the Convention Centre (a tilted tube that looks like it’s about to shoot a laser beam at the Moon), and more.
  • Terrifying “Bin the Poo” signs do their best warn dog owners to pick up or else (here’s a particularly nightmarish example) but like everywhere in the world pretty much fail to convince a hardcore few.
  • When you look out over a crowd, any crowd, you know you’re in Ireland because there’s so much red hair. (The whiteness of said crowds is less appealing.)
  • Clothes-washing machines live in kitchens. This seemed weird at first, but now I think it perfectly sensible.
  • Instead of postcodes, the post office uses unique “Eir” codes that guide deliveries right to your door (which is very handy for finding AirBnBs in the middle of nowhere, let me tell you).
  • Political fan service

    There are more Star Wars references per capita here than anywhere else in the world (or so it appears sometimes).

  • We were able to buy Vegemite in Tesco, and many more different types of Quorn than at home, something I greatly appreciated.
  • Salt and vinegar crisps are different in Ireland (but delicious in their own way) and they have Truffle and Guinness flavours too. Peppercorn flavoured chips were probably our favourite.

Some places in Dublin that we particularly liked:

  • Aviva + Xmas lights + the Dodder River = Awesome

    The Aviva Stadium, by night or day, is a futuristic sci-fi prop that was visible every time we left our house. Surrounded by quaint terrace houses with upraised chimneys in rows, it’s like an intrusion into the past from some fabulous far-off future.

  • The Chester Beatty Library is an incredible collection of books from all over the world that, taken together, trump the Book of Kells (plus it’s free and comes with a delicious café). It’s also right next door to Dublin Castle, which is less a castle, more fabulous rooms of state/art gallery that’s open to the public when the government is impressing someone.
  • The Long Room at the Trinity College library is definitely worth a look. And, yes, the Book of Kells, because it is cool if you’re prepared to pay, book in advance, and negotiate endless crowds.
  • The Dodder River was another landmark near our house, along the banks of which we enjoyed watching a new generation of swans grow from eggs to near-adulthood. There’s also a giant metal hippopotamus standing midstream, for no reason I ever learned.
  • Poolbeg lighthouse – like something from a Shaun Tan book

    Dublin Bay, picturesque in its own right, is also home to the iconic Poolbeg chimneys and lighthouse, two local landmarks, the former of which defines Dublin’s skyline.

  • Merrion Square is lined with gorgeous Georgian buildings (of which there are many in Dublin) where lots of famous people once lived and worked, including Sheridan le Fanu, William Butler Yeats and Erwin Schrodinger. You’ll find James Joyce plaques everywhere in Dublin (no surprise there).
  • Herbert Park is gorgeous in any season, and on Sundays there’s a market that we regularly frequented for organic vegetables, bread, and snacks.
  • The Ruins of St Kevin’s was a nice find in the CBD, one of those ancient nooks that remind you how much history Dublin possesses.
  • The Hugh Lane Gallery houses a wonderful collection and a fine café as well, like so many public places in Ireland. Tourists will never starve here.
  • There are Christmas Flea Markets in Point Square that beat most markets I’ve ever been to.
  • The tour through the Guinness Storehouse is fantastic even if you don’t like Guinness.
  • In half an hour, the Little Museum of Dublin will bring you up to speed on everything you need to know about the place, and allow you to peruse a collection of weird and wonderful artefacts to boot.
  • Dublin’s most perplexing pyramid

    Dublin Writers Museum is right next door to the Irish Centre and a short walk from Poetry Ireland, all on the beautiful Parnell Square, north of the River Liffy (itself a very beautiful landmark–or should that be “watermark”?). They really love their writers here.

  • The Bray Head Cliff Walk is so delightful even I, a dedicated non-ambulant, enjoyed it.
  • The museum of Natural History in Dublin, the National Gallery of Ireland, and National Museum of Ireland (home of the bog people!) are classy, fascinating places worth visiting more than once.
  • While I didn’t actually go into the Irish Museum of Modern Art, I was an extra during filming there one day, and the grounds are wonderful.
  • Kilmainham Gaol museum is a grimly moving shrine to Ireland’s troubled past.
  • I also enjoyed climbing Victoria Hill, which is home to the unexpected “Pyramid of Dublin”.

Right from the moment we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and friends of the Australian embassy, at whose many events we had wonderful times and drank far too much Australian wine (they also kept our taste for pavlova and Milo very much alive). One of the first things I did on landing in Dublin was buy a suit, because turning up without one would have been very bad form, even for a writer. The ambassador, Richard Andrews, was a keen support of Amanda’s work, and mine too, allowing us to engage with our peers and the public in new and challenging ways.

Christmassing with the ambassador and his wife

These events included:

  • holding a launch for new books by me Garth Nix in the embassy
  • arranging a donation of Australian kids’ books to a local homeless hub, at which Ambassador Andrews and I spoke
  • helping visiting concert pianist Gabriella Smart perform Cat Hope’s “The Fourth Estate” in the official residence, Abbey Lea (my instrument was the double AM radio)
  • Amanda giving the ANZAC address at the 2018 dawn service
  • carolling at the Xmas barbecue one rainy evening in December

It’ll come as a surprise to none that Dublin is a very social place, with snug little pubs everywhere for people to gather in and drink gin or Guinness, or whatever takes their fancy. A lot of them feature music, traditional and modern or a mixture of both. I never saw a single fight, but I’m sure they happen, like anywhere, and the morning after a big Friday or Saturday night drinking sees the streets strewn with the usual detritus. I imagine it’s a good place to spend a night on your own, meeting new people. There’s always someone willing to talk

Celebrating the new year in style

We’re natural homebodies but we did get out to the odd event.

  • We watched the St Patrick’s Day parade from new friends’ balcony (this year, it featured at least one actor from Game of Thrones (Liam Cunningham, the guy who plays Ser Davos)) and sang, drunk and danced much later than we intended. The following morning’s hangover was totally worth it.
  • We roamed Dublin on Bloom’s Day but didn’t dress up or read or anything. Next time, for sure!
  • We attended the opening of the Gaze LGBT Film Festival (a screening of an Australian feature, uncannily) and came back for a night of wonderful short films.
  • Culture Night is an annual, Dublin-wide occasion on which everything is open and free for visitors of all ages, from galleries and museums to . . . whatever! Some other new friends we met here made sure we went out to enjoy the evening, and we were grateful for the push. So great to see families with their kids exploring everything the city has to offer.
  • One of the first things we attended was the New Year’s festival on the banks of the Liffy. The day was icy so we didn’t stay long, but walking to and from gave us a revealing cross-section of the CBD, including St Stephens Green and Temple Bar.
  • We went to several big concerts, including Steven Wilson and Gary Numan at the gorgeous old Olympia Theatre, Flight of the Conchords and Star Wars Live at 3Arena, the Eels in Iveagh Gardens, and They Might Be Giants at the Button Factory. Not much Irish there, alas, but we did go to a couple of local plays that ranged from the nostalgic to the utterly bleak, which I hear is the national flavour.

Kealkil stone circle in the mist

Outside of Dublin, there’s a whole country to enjoy (two countries, bearing in mind that there’s the Republic and the North). We feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface, despite having a good old crack at it. We saw red squirrels and sheep with tails. We glimpsed foxes and hares. We stayed in very comfortable AirBnBs with hosts more than happy to help if our car got stuck halfway up an icy hill (that happened, derp). We stumbled across random ruins and hearty hamlets, thanks more often than not to Google Maps taking us on counterintuitive laneways far from the boring thoroughfares that would have got us to our destination faster but less inspired. We walked hundreds of miles, through bog and forest–and I still found time to read multiple books by Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L Sayers (my twin literary projects this year).

Gateway to a graveyard (in Glendalough)

Apart from the random ruins, there were innumerable ruined abbeys, churches, graveyards, and so on (to quote myself: “it seems sometimes you can’t walk ten steps without tripping over a wedge tomb or stone circle. This creates a serious hazard, and not just for pedestrians.”) plus the many villages we stopped in for lunch or afternoon tea, whose names I haven’t recorded.

Among certain of my friends, on the culinary front, Ireland gets a bad rap, and maybe that was deserved in the past (certainly, Amanda and I didn’t have amazing meals when we briefly came through in 2007) but it’s much improved. Really! Every restaurant or pub we went to, bar two the whole year (one was called The Bleeding Horse, so I should have known), either had multiple vegetarian and/or vegan options, or were willing if they didn’t to accommodate the needs of a non-meat-and-cheese eater like me. And they catered well, too–so much better than in Adelaide, where vegetarians often get the same old options dusted off delivered with a you-ought-to-be-grateful-for-this-muck attitude (if I have to eat one more vegetable stack or bland pasta . . . )

One of many gorgeous forests

Certain staples recurred: vegetable soup (of various different kinds, always homemade), fantastic bread, the best butter I have ever tasted, delicious handmade chips (the soggy kind, from “chippers”) with brown vinegar and ordinary salt (none of that “chicken” crap), all washed down with Guinness or one of the many excellent gins you can buy here. (Glendalough Winter might be my favourite gin, but further research is required. Listoke is pretty good, too.) “Flapjacks” are a kind of slice that you can get pretty much anywhere and is usually delicious, like the local scones. Every stately home or castle seems to come with its own café, often cooking with local produce.

And then there’s potatoes, of which Ireland can be justifiably proud.

One of many gorgeous ruins

When it came to cooking for ourselves, we did eat a lot of taters (spiced with garlic and paprika more often than not, with a dash of butter or ghee), Brussels sprouts (except over summer, when they disappeared from the supermarkets, even the freezer section), fennel and kale in curries, sweet potato and mushroom frittatas, simple stir-fries, and more. I perfected a dhal and experimented with different blends of Ras El Hanout spice mixes. What bliss being able to crank up the oven without cooking the entire house!

We did struggle to find good Thai food, at first, but that was sorted once we discovered the Saba chain. We didn’t get to the Vegan Butcher at all, alas. Otherwise, our culinary experiences in Dublin have been overwhelmingly positive.

Here are some of our favourite eateries, bars and shops, in case you’re ever passing through:

  • Lott’s Deli (for hard to find ingredients, fresh vegetables and great bread)
  • Donnybrook Fair (high end supermarket)
  • Burdock’s (on our very first taxi driver’s advice) and the Embassy Grill for fantastic chips
  • Camden Kitchen (French)
  • Mulberry Garden (fine, ethical dining)
  • Damascus Gate (wonderful Middle East cuisine)
  • Pickles (Indian – the best dhal I’ve ever eaten)
  • Juniors (great informal vego food, meat as well)
  • The Old Spot (modern Irish, right under a train line)
  • Eathos (brekkie and lunch from the Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook)
  • Bibi’s (super for breakfast)
  • 57 The Headline (excellent ales and gin as well as food)
  • The Butler’s Pantry (bakery with prepared meals)
  • Press Café (ANZAC slice and delicious hot chocolate)
  • K C Peaches (a lunch chain that makes reliably good cakes and slices)
  • Rathmines Inn, the first bar we went to in Dublin (real candles on every table and Star Wars ornaments hanging above the bar)
  • The Bridge 1859 (reliably pleasant bar, although the vego options seemed to vanish across the year)
  • Pipers Corner (traditional Irish music bar)
  • Avalon (fine dining)
  • Ely Wine Bar (great for wine and tapas)
  • Ely Bar & Grill (fine dining in an enormous old cellar space)

I’m sure there other places that we missed. Because we had no car, there are whole areas we didn’t get to explore.

And I’ve hardly mentioned chocolate, but that’s for one important reason. The subject gets its own list!

  • Hungry eyes

    Butlers is the Haigh’s of Ireland, and it’s pretty good too (but not as good, of course). The Gunpowder Gin block is particularly tasty. (Co. Dublin)

  • Chocolatey Clare (Co. Dublin)
  • Lorge Chocolatier (handmade chocolates in Kerry)
  • The Hungry Crow (Co. Cork)
  • Hazel Mountain Chocolate (Co. Clare and Co. Galway)
  • Chocolate Garden Garden of Ireland (Co. Carlow)
  • L’Art de Chocolate (Co. Kildare)
  • Mystille (France)
  • Quarre de Chocolat (France)
  • Une Histoire de Chocolat (France)
  • Bean Geeks Craft Chocolate (Denmark)
  • Chocolat Factory (Barcelona airport – appears to be part of the Hotel Chocolat chain)
  • Coco Pzazz (giant chocolate buttons from Wales)

So far, I’ve hardly mentioned my job. You’d be forgiven for thinking I haven’t done any work at all, but that’s far from the case. Where better to write than Dublin? Literature is celebrated here in a way I’ve never experienced before (see my comments earlier). It’s a UNESCO City of Literature, no less, so I have no excuses.

If a haunted ship guarding the site of a religious pilgrimage doesn’t get my imaginative juices flowing, nothing will

Since January, I’ve written and sold two new short stories that are coming out next year: “Mutata Superesse” (with Jason Fischer) and “The Second Coming of the Martians”. I made a mashup that made it to Boing Boing (“Mawson on the Moon”), penned a travelogue about trying to get to the Rings of Kerry, and composed an essay called “Her Name is Cordelia” for a forthcoming book about the TV show Angel. I’ve written a whole new middle-grade fantasy novel from scratch (Her Perilous Mansion) and made extensive notes on another set in the same world (Honour Among Ghosts). I’ve also made many drafts of the beginning to a novel loosely based on the experiences of my father, who died waiting for a heart transplant many years ago. I’m hoping these latter projects will find homes soon.

In terms of public appearances and existing works, I have come out of my cave for the odd literary event and even joined a writers’ group. Two pieces of flash fiction were published in Daily SF: “Seeking the Great Current” (with Matthew Cropley) and “Loopholes in Light”. I’ve promoted the releases of Have Sword, Will Travel and Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, two new books co-written with Garth Nix. I’ve also edited my solo book that’s coming out next year, Impossible Music, a book about deafness and music that’s a complete change for me.

As for the future, I’ll be returning to something completely different in Adelaide, revitalised and ready for a whole new year of challenges. More on that soon!

There once was a man from S.A.
Who sat down to write an essay
About living in Dublin:
The word-length kept doublin’
Because he had so much to say.

Based on a true story!

Decidedly not where we lived

Visits from friends and family rated highly for us, as did calling home on Skype. It’s hard being so far from Adelaide. Even though I knew I would be going back at least once, the gulf yawned enormously between us and loved ones, some of whom got married this year, and one of whom died. Thank goodness for modern communications!

There’s a long list of things we didn’t do, ranging from the Game of Thrones pub doors to various Star Wars locations. There were also some things we did but didn’t enjoy. Here are some of this category (without harping on too much, I hope):

  • Sorting out our working permits and ID cards etc was a tedious bore, involving lots of sitting around waiting for our number to be called–but that’s probably not an experience limited to Ireland (also, not helped by us forgetting to pack our marriage certificate) and is far better than the process experienced by refugees trying to get into Australia, I’m sure.
  • We never entirely got our head around the concept of central heating.
  • Car insurance is insanely high: this, plus the existence of GoCar (a car sharing/pay as you go company), tipped us in favour of going without (a car, I mean, not insurance).
  • Paracetamol is impossible to get in quantity over the counter (I live on the stuff, carefully), as are certain kinds of anti-inflammatories (ditto) and antihistamines. We could have gone to the doctor for a prescription, but without health insurance it would’ve been costly, so we relied on visiting friends or trips back home to make up a regular supply.
  • Similarly, certain staples at home were hard to find: for instance, dried apricots (!), cheese crackers (I missed Vita Wheat like mad), solid miniature chocolate eggs, plain crisps, Australian salt and vinegar crisps (the kind that melts the inside of your mouth if you eat too much–yum) and others. Substitutes were not always available. Tupperware, also, was hard to find – until we learned that it’s sold at hardware stores.
  • Hot cross buns come in packs of four, not six: ripped off!

Traveller caravan interior (click to see detail of the paintings)

All that said, the experience of being in the Republic Ireland as temporary citizens was very positive for us, overwhelmingly so. Dublin in particular, being about the same size as Adelaide, was very liveable (apart from being so expensive), with a lively summer, if that’s what you go for. The Republic has a writer for a president, and its people twice this year voted sensibly in referendums (once in favour of legal abortions, and the other time to decriminalise heresy). The environment feels inherently lived-in, with a deep sense of history (that pales in comparison to the length of Australian indigenous history, but still) and a multicultural flavour (if often largely white) that stems from multiple invasions down the years, both military and economic (with Google and Facebook both headquartered where we lived, the latter is definitely in full swing). There’s an openness to the Irish that is perhaps a survival trait reinforced by so many tragedies in the last couple of centuries: one doesn’t survive the famines or the British yolk without welcoming the new. This includes people like us, who appreciated the gesture.

Mysterious hipopotamus

Such has been the breadth and brilliance of our experience in Ireland this year that for all I’ve written on it (and kudos to anyone who’s gotten this far) I have necessarily omitted much from this account. Did I mention the antique Traveller caravan we got to poke our nose into at the back of a place we were staying? No. What about the dream I had about discovering a treasure-trove of second-hand Gollancz yellow-jackets that sadly never came true? Speaking of dreams, I spent every night of the first month cycling through all the people I left behind, like I was subconsciously saying goodbye to them, one by one. (Maybe I’ll do the same thing with our Dublin friends when I’m back in Adelaide?) I haven’t even mentioned the glorious (and varied) accents, or the endlessly confusing traffic lights and horn honking habits of all native drivers. Then there’s the way bicyclists don’t wear helmets or use their bells . . . The substitution of N plates for P plates (N for Novice, it turns out) . . . The phrases “Give it socks” (put your back into it) and “What bitchery is this?” . . . The ancient porch-cat I befriended in the complex we lived in . . . The fairy tree-houses in every garden . . .

But I do have to stop before this post reaches six thousand words. Dublin, and all of Ireland with it, has been so good to us. Apart from all the things we’ve seen, there’s a large number of people who have made it especially wonderful, new friends who welcomed us into their lives with such goodwill that trying to capture our gratitude would fail to do it or them justice.

Good advice from Galway

Here are their names, with our sincere thanks for their generosity, and in the hope of seeing them all again in the future.

Barrie and Siobhan
William and Kate
Ed, Kendra, Ollie and Nick
Richard and Saovanee
Ivar, Marnie and Ivar Will
Porscha, Robert, Oscar and Louis
Simon and Bindi
Vanesa, Evandro and Davi
Andrew and Linda
Susan and Sinead
Chris and Jo
Alissa, Alex, Theresa and everyone at the Australian Embassy
June, Dermot, Kate and everyone at WORD
James, Catherine and everyone from Octocon
MaryBrigid and everyone at Hodges Figgis bookshop
Jackie Lynam and everyone at Pearse Library
Peadar O Guilin, Catie Murphy, Gordon Snell and the other Dublin writers I met but didn’t spend nearly enough time with.

A place is defined by its people. By that measure Dublin, is beyond super. We’re looking forward to coming back soon.

Oh yes, the list!

Planning our next outing in Donegal

Here are the places we visited in 2018, listed by order of county, with the occasional note about what we saw or did there. Each county is subtly different, of course. Some are hilly, others flat; many sport stone walls that demarcate fields (some of those walls are thousands of years old); several counties are renowned for their weaving or other crafts. All, in our experience, offer much for the passing tourist, from the bucolic to the urbane.

Co. Armagh

  • Slieve Gullion Forest Park (mountain with a stone circle on top)

At the Giant’s Causeway, wearing my hat from Antarctica (don’t be fooled by the blue sky – it was fucking freezing!)

Co. Antrim

  • Belfast, city, briefly (great chips, grim history)
  • The Giant’s Causeway (fourth greatest natural wonder in the UK, justifiably so)
  • Kinbane Castle (worth the trek up and down the stairs)
  • Dunluce Castle

Co. Carlow

  • Brownshill Dolmen (one of the biggest in Europe)
  • Duckett’s Grove (expansive ruined estate house)

Co. Clare

  • The Burren as a whole is amazing
  • Tobar Chronain (atmospheric holy well)
  • Corcomroe Abbey (one of so many ruins we stumbled across purely by happenstance – we got lost and saw the sign)
  • Father Ted’s House, near Kilnaboy (obligatory!)
  • Temple Cronan (ruined church and tomb, part of a picturesque walk across the Burren)
  • Poulnabrone Dolmen (famous and haunting)
  • Caherconnell Stone Fort in The Burren
  • Cliffs of Moher (too many people by far)
  • Kilfenora, home of a cathedral, some ancient crosses, and St Fachnan’s Well (also, much of Father Ted was filmed there)
  • Dromore Wood (like wandering through a fantasy novel)

Co. Cork

  • Kealkill Stone Circle (caught it on a misty day – so inspiring)
  • Bantry House and Garden (one of our favourites)
  • Macroom was

    Terrific tomb in the Burren

    the first town we stayed near in Ireland, and came complete with ancient castle (Lynch’s Bakery is the oldest family bakery in Ireland)

  • we only flew through Cork, alas, but saw the old asylum (which is like something out of a gothic thriller)
  • Carriganass Castle
  • Gougane Barra (a settlement said to have been built by St Finbar in the sixth century)
  • Blarney Castle and Gardens (yes, I kissed the stone)
  • Barangowlane West wedge tomb in Mealagh Woods (another terrific walk, partly because we got lost again and stumbled across an unexpected stone circle)

Co. Donegal

  • Portnoo (town)
  • Beltany (one of the largest stone circles in Ireland)
  • Glenveagh Castle (national park)
  • Glencolmcille (village)
  • Slieve League (mountain)
  • Castle Coole
  • Donegal Castle

Co. Dublin

  • Newbridge Estate (another stately home – we saw a lot!)

Co. Fingal

  • Malahide Castle and grounds (it’s touristy, but within easy reach of Dublin, so we went more than once)

Kylemore – one of many inspiring places

Co. Galway

  • Galway (of course)
  • Connemara and the Sky Road (when it’s not cloudy, the view is amazing)
  • Roundstone (village)
  • Cliftden (village)
  • Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands (site of Dún Aonghasa, a fort built right onto a sheer cliff edge)
  • Kylemore Abbey (worth visiting twice, which we did)

Co. Kerry

  • One thing we didn’t do properly was the Ring of Kerry. Here’s an article explaining why.
  • Bonane Heritage Park, which includes Dromagorteen Stone Circle and Ring Fort (another happy discovery)
  • Conor Pass
  • Castlemaine (village)
  • Inch Beach
  • The Lios, a ring fort on Dingle Peninsula
  • The Famine Cottages on Slea Head Drive, also Dingle Peninsula

Co. Kildare

  • Windows within windows at Bantry House

    Kildare, of course

  • Castletown House
  • Burtown House and Gardens (we ate at the Green Barn)
  • Mullaghreelan Wood
  • River Barrow (flooded at the time)

Co. Kilkenny

  • Kilkenny: a medieval town featuring a castle, cathedral, abbey, modern art gallery (Butler House), stately home (Rothe House), nice bakery (cakeface) and great Asian restauirant (Aroi)
  • Graiguenamanagh (village, home of the excellent Pomegranate Café)
  • River Nore (also flooded when we visited)
  • Jerpoint Abbey
  • Kells Priory (not the home of the book, which is Abbey of Kells in Co. Meath) and St Kierans Church

Co. Limerick

  • Limerick (naturally)

Co. Louth

  • Cooley Peninsula

Co. Mayo

  • Misty & magical

    Westport House (one of our favourite stately homes)

  • Clew Bay (we ate at Cronin’s Sheebeen, and enjoyed it)
  • The Deserted Village at Slievemore, Achill Island
  • Keel (a village that’s home to Ronan Halbin and his superb sculptures)
  • Caislean Ghrainne on Clare Island (one of Grace O’Malley’s many castles)
  • the Museum of Country Life (the only national museum outside of Dublin) which includes on its grounds the original manor house and ruins of Turlough Park
  • Croagh Patrick, aka Patrick’s Stack or “the Reek”, one of many mountainsides I spurned (instead, I explored the spooky Famine Memorial at its base)

Co. Meath

  • Celebrating Christmas, Brussels-style

    Newgrange is a grand passage tomb that’s a must-see for anyone coming to Ireland (it’s also the first site we visited)

  • Trim Castle
  • Mary’s Abbey
  • Navan (town)

Co. Roscommon

  • Strokestown Park, which includes the National Irish Famine Museum (and a great café)
  • Tulsk Priory (worth stopping for if you’re driving through)

Co. Sligo

  • Lissadell House (fascinating)

Co. Tipperary

  • The Rock of Cashel (castle)

Co. Westmeath

  • Belvedere House, Gardens & Park (plus a deliciously spiteful folly)
  • Mullaghmeen Forest (once Europe’s largest commercial beech plantation, now left to grow naturally)

Co. Wicklow

  • Enniskerry (home of Poppies café, our first outside of Dublin)
  • Powerscourt Estate (a must-see)
  • Glendalough Mines and Monastic Site (the latter built in the 6th Century by St Kevin)
  • Tomnafinnoge Wood
  • Kilmacurragh, the National Botanic Gardens (which we visited twice in two days because the food was so tasty)

We did leave Ireland sometimes. Reluctantly. One occasion was to tour a new book. Another was to catch up with friends. There were more. Really, though, we loved Ireland so much there had to be an extra reason for us to leave the very edge of Europe and go exploring elsewhere, because it’s so much easier to hire a car and drive nearby than do the whole Ryanair thing–which, ugh, but mostly wasn’t as bad as we feared. The novelty of being able to fly anywhere in this part of the world for tens of dollars never lost its novelty.


  • Nerdy boys (David Levithan, me, and Garth Nix) enjoying the music of John Williams performed by the LSO in Royal Albert Hall

    Swinbrook (Oxfordshire)

  • Speke Hall (Liverpool)
  • Long Meg and Her Daughters stone circle (Cumbria)
  • South Tynedale Railway (Cumbria)
  • Brougham Castle (Cumbria)
  • Cambridge
  • Oxford
  • London
  • the Iron Men (Liverpool)
  • the biggest brick building in the world (a tobacco warehouse in Liverpool)
  • Theatre by the Lake (Cumbria) – we saw the hilarious “Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense”
  • the Tolkien Exhibition at the Bodleyan (Oxford)
  • the music of John Williams with the LSO at Royal Albert Hall
  • plus we picked berries in Cumbria


  • An Iron Man gazes wistfully to the West


  • Loch Ness, including Invermoriston and Urquhart Castle
  • River Oich and Neptune’s Staircase (Ft William)
  • the “Parallel Roads” (actually loch terraces) of Glen Roy
  • King Arthur’s Seat (Edinburgh)
  • The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (twice in two days)
  • Stewart Tower Dairy (great ice cream near Edinburgh)

Isle of Skye

  • Portree
  • Eilean Donan (castle)
  • Old Man or Storr (very picturesque rock)


  • Bodelwyddan Castle & Park (featuring a Williams family monument – no relation)
  • Brecon Beacons (more mountains I didn’t climb)
  • Powis Castle
  • Rhonda Valley (where I deposited my father’s ashes)
  • Clun Castle


  • Tycho Brahe’s fabulous legs

    Quarrè-les-Tombes (Burgundy)

  • Saint-Léger-Vauban (Burgundy)
  • Parc Naturel Regional du Morvan
  • Le Chateau de Bazoches-du-Morvan
  • Fontainebleau
  • Avallon
  • Auxeme
  • Arcy-Sur-Cure-Les Grottes (fantastic caves)


  • City Hall (home of Jens Olsen’s World Clock), the Danish Music Museum, Rosenborg Castle, and Botanic Gardens & Butterfly House (Copenhagen)


  • La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, La Rambla, Montjuic Castle (Barcelona)


  • New York (for publicity stuff, and to catch up with editor, agent and friends – plus, I ate an Impossible Burger!)

And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed this account. I’ve written it partly for my own reference (memory being what it is) but also to guide anyone thinking of going to Ireland for a holiday, or even to live. Think about it. If you do, I hope you enjoy it as much as we have. We’re hoping to go back in 2020. More on that in due course.



One of my favourite ruined walls, at Bantry House


Sky portrait in ruin


IMMA, where the climax of The Irish Woman Who Shot Mussolini was filmed


Inspiring motto from the Dublin Writers Museum