One of my favourite success stories is the Greystones vegan grocer, The Happy Pear. It's owned and managed by the Flynn twins, Steve and Dave, who have established what is essentially a wholefood empire. They supply the Supervalu chain with readymade veggies and boast an organic deli that serves enormous portions. They have a Youtube channel, the following of a small army, three cookbooks, and rumour has it, a feature in a new Netflix show. I'd have loved the opportunity to intern in the kitchen, but unfortunately left Ireland too soon to be of any use this time around. Look out chaps, I'm coming for you.
It got me ticking
This business succeeds at what so many small enterprises in my hometown aspire (but fail) to do. Greystones is a blip on the map of an island of moderate population size. As I have repeatedly remarked, everyone buys local and supports local. Non-chain businesses are niche and bound to succeed, because similar gift shops or restaurants diversify to complement one another rather than competing with one another.
I assume that The Happy Pear developed within this sort of confidence. With space to dream and play, they established a unique brand intrinsically linked to 'The Hippy Pair' who start the day at 6am with a lengthy swim around the icy Greystones shore followed by an intensive yoga workout. If you want to feel inadequate about your lie-in purely because the ambient temperature was too cold to tolerate, look no further than their daily Instagram story.
I was hoping to interview the Flynn brothers on my arrival here, and even encountered them early one morning as they left the deli stocked with hot coffees and toasted breakfast wraps. However, as I was pelting downhill to catch a train, I nearly sent Dave flying to the left and Steve to the right. Deciding to make like Jack Sparrow and seize a more opportune moment, I scarpered on and boarded just in time. But the thinking didn't stop.
I landed on an expression in the early hours of a chilly weekday morning that encapsulated what I have been trying to get at: The Village Effect.
Sadly, a cursory Google search established that some sassy PhD lady, a certain Dr Pinker, has already had the audacity to coin the term, going so far as to publish a groundbreaking book on the subject. Taking a large mouthful of humble pie, I set out to educate myself, which led me deep into the psycho-sociology of small towns.
What is The Village Effect?
Forget for a moment small businesses and the thriving charm of low-population living. Pinker outlines the mass of quantitative evidence to suggest that face-to-face interaction impacts longevity. She lays out what we all know instinctively, for example how a child's academic capability is more influenced by the dinner discussion than the nutritional composition of the food on the plate.
This effect also impacts adults. Facebook's notorious algorithm updates are optimised to keep us endlessly scrolling and tagging, which doesn't trigger the same response in our neural reward centres. (In fact, one study reports passive scrolling has an active role in diminishing our perceived wellbeing when repeatedly confronted by all those glossy #squadgoals shots).
According to Pinker, we don't need to be happy to live to a ripe old age - we just need to talk person-to-person about, well, pretty much anything. She uses the example of the grumpiest and unhealthiest centenarians she has met and studied, and concludes that interaction is a greater contributor to length of life than joy or diet.
Her conclusions don't just apply to villages. Any community in which people are able to connect in a face-to-face manner displays the same pattern. Of course, villagers are more likely to support each other simply because there are fewer of them. It is estimated that the average person can only empathise with 150 people - the rest we categorise by stereotypes. This upper boundary is referred to as Dunbar's number, and simply represents the limitation of our brain capacity, rather than an innate human nastiness.
People are people the world over
Part of the Happy Pear's appeal is that it really is the local grocer. It grew organically, separate from the infrastructure that supports cleverly-located suburban businesses. Those customers who take the time to visit appreciate its limited floor space and patiently make conversation while they eye out the cake counter. By contrast, life in a city can feel hard-edged. It seems we automatically assume the worst of the millions we share our supermarkets and buses with. Everyone's presumed to be out on the cheap; trying to pull a fast one. We hold our bags between our knees. We keep our wallets out of sight. We swear in the traffic. Somehow we perceive danger (while of course always a possibility) to be pervasive and constant. We adopt a stranger-danger attitude.
I remember an odd interaction with a barista who asked me where I was born because I was 'very curious'. I don't think he's used to the excess of half-narratives and questions tossed across the counter in the time it takes to steam milk. Unfortunately verbal diarrhoea is one of my greatest afflictions, more so on a cheerful morning, and it stands out in cities.
How different, then, to turn the corner back to my host's cottage in Ireland, having let the kids run on ahead, and be approached by a woman who advised me that my little charge had turned right at the corner. Not only this, but that should he mention a stranger approached him, she had only done so to check that he was alright, and that there was no reason to worry.
Perhaps when we are given the benefit of the doubt, we automatically behave better. I don't have data for that one. What I do know is that people the world over do similar things, share largely the same fundamental values, and strive towards comparable goals. Perhaps the difference about a village is that we see more of the same people more often, and so develop trust and connection faster. That isn't so easy when the 'village' tally hits the millions.
Talk to people - it's good for your health
Dr Pinker has certainly assuaged my guilt for my lapses between WhatsApp responses, though I have realised how easy it is to maroon oneself in a sea of social media. The cliché of the modern age holds true. With all this immediacy, it seems acceptable to put off calling home or avoiding a weekly walk with colleagues.
Being as many thousand kilometres from home as I am means that I am more aware of any chance interaction with a stranger. The abundance of these momentary human connections is (to my mind) what makes a village feel cosy. So I'll continue to babble at baristas. It's longevity karma, don't you know.
E.L James got it wrong. There are in fact a thousand shades of grey.
I had ample time to watch them merge and converge between horizon and shingled beachfront. On Rathdown Road, hues change by the minute - something to do with the shimmering sea breeze and steel-streaked sky.
Whether or not grey is a flattering colour is inconsequential here. It is an austere and dignified colour, and therefore a perfect fit for this grande dame: a village that isn't quite a village, too stately to call a mere seaside town. Central Greystones comprises a population of around 18 000, and her close-knit hub buzzes throughout the day with the comings and goings of schoolchildren, pram-pushers and coffee fanatics.
Ireland in February is damp and dewy and cold. The chill settles into one's marrow if one stays seated too long. Coming from the balmy sunshine of Johannesburg, the change was precisely what I needed, and I was gifted a disproportionate number of sunny days between the two unseasonal snowstorms. The fields surrounding the village centre became my daily stomping ground, and my mid-morning walks to the Greystoneslibrary grew to be an indispensable part of my routine.
The town is found at the very end of the DART commuter line, placing her as far out of Dublin as possible (the journey north is roughly an hour), without quite escaping the city's fringes. For all the frost and sea spray around the heart of the original buildings, the people add a warmth to the Victorian streets stretching out from the Burnaby. It is a quirky hotspot of music, good food and artisans.
I fell in love with many aspects of Greystones. So much so, that despite the fact that my web hoster erased this article, I have painstakingly re-written it. Dedication to the cause, ladies and gentlemen.
1. The Greystones Guide
The blog speaks for itself. To my mind, this is top-calibre investigative journalism done right. The site is run and actively read by the town for the town. Anyone who wants to know anything about anyone or anything going on in the village reads the Guide. It's where I found out about the trad session and spice course I mention a little further down. My favourite posts are the exposé on the Greystones' Swingers Club and the archive of the town's roots.
2. Guys of Greystones
(Sorry girls! The name stuck before I met you all.)
I first encountered Cian and Sam at a weekly trad session, where, happily sipping away at a rather delicious chardonnay, I was under the impression that I was lost in a sea of strangers. Unbeknownst to me, I was actually the only newcomer to a group of musicians who share a long and harmonious history. It says a lot about the atmosphere of the town that instead of being excluded like the imposter I was, I was instead made to sing. Twice. I tried to refuse. But I lost. Twice.
This occasion foreshadowed the rest of our friendship. The boys took it upon themselves to ignore my protests, and instead extended the invitation to the many (and seriously chaps, there were many) sessions around Delgany and Blacklion. A 'session' can loosely be translated as 'a going-on or get-together involving a lot of beer, many midnight pancakes, open-mic jam sessions and fair amount of trance'. Despite the fact I cannot hold a note unaccompanied, and lack the capacity to estimate an arrival time when stomping across the country fields in the early hours of the morning, I was made welcome and unquestioningly included. To the people who showed me what they love about where they live, thank you for the music, your notorious humour, the hilltop chats, many potatoes, late-night walks, social debates and coffee recommendations.
These guys breathe music. They talk it, tweak it and share it. Check out Cian's 'cant get sick of' Spotify playlist of guilty pleasures the next time there's a slump day and the laundry piles up. If you can find a link to Sam's music, it is well worth it. Might be a challenge as he is a rather private lad, but talented behind the camera - his photographs highlight exactly what I love about his hometown (Instagram @aroundneweyes).
3. The Beachhouse and Baker's Table
I can't speak about Greystone's guys without mentioning their hangouts.
Though it is not the oldest pub in the village, the Beachhouse is certainly my favourite. It boasts a cosy interior and an incredible menu. Though the locals will look at you askance for ordering anything other than Guinness during the local Sunday meet up, the bar offers a jolly excellent wine selection too.
The best coffee I drank in Ireland was served at the Baker's Table. Were it not for the blustering wind that propels people and dogs through the door and into the awaiting wooden sanctuary filled with the warmth of freshly-baked bread, the café might pass for a hipster hidey-hole in Woodstock, Cape Town. I spent many happy hours tapping away with a cappuccino (and honey, Niamh) at my elbow.
4. The Hippy Pair of the Happy Pear
I like these guys so much I dedicated a post to them.
The queues outside the Flynn twins' vegan grocery extend down the street at lunchtime, as eager health nuts spill from the surrounding towns to load their trays with the litres of homemade hummus and Asian salads at the deli counter. Steve and Dave are Irish icons, pioneering the wholefood movement alongside chefs including Jamie Oliver, while managing to maintain good Youtube banter and Christmas craic all the while.
There is one issue, and that is the breadth of the brothers' enthusiasm for healthy living. It doesn't stop with raw food. Each day I awoke bundled against the temperate 2°C morning, only to open my phone and confront the inevitable reminder that the Hippy Pair had already been out for an hour-long swim rise, an activity that entails complete submersion in the dark ocean at dawn, followed by an impossible series of contorted yoga poses. These are meticulously uploaded with sunrise shots and motivational captions to the brand's Instagram story followed by vegan chocolate recipes and meal tips, all before my two feet have crossed the frigid floor to my host's coffee machine.
5. The Greystones cliff walk to Bray
I miss this most.
The 7km route is a strip of serotonin, and the residents who use it know that. In wet weeks, it becomes an obstacle course, and in dry ones a floral phenomenon, but the clifftop sights above the disused railway line are forever a surprise. I ran the trail everyday for two months and never once saw the same view.
Greystones gave me the room to think, explore and learn in a space that felt uniquely mine, a sort of secret, devoid of tourist trample and flashy brands. To anyone looking to get off the grid, this town has a lot to be proud of, and the charm of knowing how best to receive newcomers and invite them to make themselves at home.
There is only one thing I don't like about Greystones.
It's weird that this should be the spot that has stuck with me the most in my time here, given how poor my first impression was. Bear with me though - as the sleet got heavier my mood got lighter.
This tab's cover image was taken from the parapet of Blarney Castle. I doubt many tourists have been lucky enough to see these surrounds so empty.
What made me apprehensive was Blarney's heavy emphasis on tourism and mementos. Every signboard and guide suggests that the rich history of the site is clipped to simplistic nibble-sized nuggets designed to keep bored queues of children entertained for the time required to get to the castle, up to the stone, down to purchase the picture as proof of the trip, and back to the welcome warmth of the generic gift shop and cafe as hurriedly as possible.
The entrance alone came to €14 after a student discount, and I was encouraged more than once to purchase a photograph of myself kissing the Blarney Stone for a further €10. Being a sub-zero day in down season, this meant that two attendants had to stand duty in the frigid wind tearing over the parapet. Their role, it appeared, was to prevent an accident, but I suspect that they were also under strict instructions to prevent me - the only tourist - from taking a free selfie with the Stone.
The history is horrible and headachy.
The museum boards taught me a lot about the distinction between blarney and baloney, but not much about the castle's history.
Tracing the story between different web pages and Irish spelling conventions made it abundantly clear that the narrative is dense, but gory and gratifying.
In keeping with everything expected of a medieval fort of the Emerald Isle, Blarney has been the site of many a family feud and political deception. The Dermot McCarthy, King of Muscry (also 'MacCarthy' and 'Muskerry', depending on the source) was responsible for the construction of the stone castle in 1446, which was the third to stand in this location after the first two were destroyed.
In spite of the many acts of fratricide and patricide that resulted in the internal shuffling of ownership of the castle between the boys of the family, somehow the McCarthys as a whole managed to retain hold on the land for a record high of 257 years. This is probably a result of their political smoothness - they consistently backed the winners during incessant tensions with the English, again keeping with the triumphant side when King Henry VIII recaptured Ireland.
However, their fatal error was choosing the Catholic Jacobites over the Protestant Williamites.
The family lost the castle, which was passed around until it was eventually sold to Sir James St John Jefferyes (then Governor of Cork) in 1703. His descendants' relatives still have ownership today.
If there isn't a controversial myth, is it really Irish history?
The Blarney Stone is reputed to confer the power of eloquence and smooth-talk to those who kiss it. This comes at the testament of a witch who was saved from drowning on the estate. The stone itself was allegedly the same rock that Jacob slept on, delivered into Ireland by Jeremiah (dedication or myth? It's certainly no small stone). It was then used to select between candidates for the throne (think Hogwarts Sorting Hat) before supposedly being moved to Scotland, possibly split in two, allegedly delivered back to Ireland courtesy of Robert the Bruce, and built into the Castle's battlements at a bizarrely inaccessible spot, given its fame. If one wishes to gain the gift of the gab, one must kiss the stone the same way you might try read the underside of your bedside table while remaining seated in bed.
The McCarthys also owned a ludicrously valuable gold plate, which was displayed in their banqueting hall. When the castle went to the Jefferyes, it was thrown into the moat. Though the water has been drained three times since then, the plate has never been recovered.
The surrounds made the experience
The garden is what made this particular excursion one of the most memorable. I learnt what a real mandrake looks like (comically ugly) and took a sleety stroll across the stones into the hollowed-out hovels that are the basis of the site's folklore. Remember that witch? There's a witch's kitchen in one of those. Apparently her fire glows in the nighttime. She has wishing steps too. She's evidently a bit of a joker, since the visitor must descend into the waterfall below backwards, eyes closed, while focusing on nothing but their wish. I may have jinxed mine worrying about who would contact my folks if I tumbled backwards onto my neck.
The grounds are massive, which could enable visitors to sneak in via the arboretums should they wish to skip the hefty entry fee (you didn't hear it from me). Beyond the neatly bordered rosebushes, the garden runs wild and gnarled. Every sound is muffled by the saturated mosses clinging to the granite boulders, but the dripping expanse was never truly silent. Even more astounding was the colour. Green does something funny in that light. It is refracted and re-refracted back into itself from every angle and looks artificially saturated to the naked eye.
In the absence of mid-holiday footfall, the very ground drew breath. Metaphorical or no - mythology doesn't live this long without cause.
The would-be maddest craic of my year
The morning's flights were crammed as Europeans flocked into the city for the great event. Facebook and noticeboards have been exploding for weeks with tasters of the multitude of upcoming trad sessions and pub crawls and shows. Churches have, as far as vague allusion allows, waived the Lent fast (and alcohol restrictions) for the 24 hours of March 17th, and every square kilometre encapsulating more than 25 inhabitants has proudly planned its local festivities. The promenade at Bray has been replaced by a stretch of funfair; Greystones instead dolled up in greenery and spray paint.
The show must go on - come rain or come shine
St Patrick is no small icon in Ireland. Arriving as a missionary in the 5th century, he is credited both with relaying the Trinity to the Pagan Irish using the shamrock (three-lobed leaf) as an analogy, and for banishing the Irish snakes to the sea after they intruded on his 40-day mountaintop fast.
He is the patron of more churches, streets, societies, businesses (and pubs) than I care to count. Unfortunately, his bank holiday is typically a rainy one. While this may fare well for pub profits, it makes the grand parade a venture only for the committed. Nevertheless, I was stubbornly resolved to be a part of it all at its centre, a decision that made trying to get off work in time a multitasking marathon. Then came the sprint past the scarf-wearing brass bands lined one after the other on a desolate Trafalgar Road, and across into the train station. Though the biting cold kept the village clear, the frosted streets buzzed with that electric pre-event hush. As though in consolation, the usually empty train was filled with green-lipped grins and painted beards, and I recall feeling conscious of the sobriety of my practical black getup. The closing doors miraculously shut with me somehow wedged into the interior, the hour-long journey a comfortable prospect given my position between a green top hat and an Alice band that sprinkled glitter like dandruff.
In truth, the train terminated a full eight minutes later in Bray, on account of flooding on the rails. This should have been my first warning. Leprechauns and saints bounded in panic for the exit, darting about one another with as much haste as that polite Irish restraint allows. The nearest bus stop was 1,5 km away and the next service to Dublin an additional frigid forty-five minutes' wait. There weren't many locals remaining by my side when the bus eventually arrived, but I plunged on towards the capital undeterred.
To my surprise, I made it into the city and managed to catch the end of the parade, a triumph best celebrated with a famous Butlers hot chocolate. Having none of it, my backpack somehow acquainted itself with the mains switch of the chocolate store, and the building plunged into darkness. In case you're wondering, the only person who did not immediately realise that I was the culprit responsible for the blackout was, unsurprisingly, me. The fruitless mission was rapidly aborted, and in place of a warming cocoa I managed instead to lose a glove while executing my blockbuster-worthy escape.
Things to do in the snow on a day of obligatory fun
The crowd dissipated in a single puff. No corner concealed the festivity: bunting flapped feebly; the carnival on St Stephen's Green stood silent; the transformed Merrion Square seemed flatter for the footprints running through her. I met a friend and we resolved to forgo a pub crawl through the hubbub of Dame Street, instead angling ourselves further north towards the stormy clouds of the Howth Prawn Festival.
We should have turned back when it started snowing. But if we had, I would not be able to tell you of the stoicism of the market. Tents were pulled from the ground in the temperate -8°C real-feel, but stall attendants clung on chipper and keen, the PADI diving team even offering to take me out into the bay. I don't think they were joking..
Thank goodness for deep fried cajun calamari. I'll give it a 10/10, plus a bonus for warming my hands. Even eating off our laps in the car felt glamorous at this point.
Wind-chapped, swollen-fingered, we watched the cops skid past on the iced roads, sirens blaring in the direction of the revelry. I commend the bride-to-be's party who trotted past in crop tops and minis - I felt the night through my four jerseys. The Irish are made of stern stuff.
Some holidays are better celebrated as quiet days
And so I write this from bed, drowsy beside my mug of gluhwein, across from the fire, beneath the softest duvet I have come across (it's kind of stretchy, like a brand new t-shirt. Or perhaps the grungy favourite 'borrowed' from a sibling's closet).
My St Patrick's Day has been exactly how the locals would do it. It's cosy and comforting, the better for Guiness, and although Snapchat's location-detecting algorithms keep recommending that I upload a pre-formulated Paddy's Portrait, I'm secretly smug to snuggle down and see it all through the autoplay of Instagram's video uploads. I'm really glad I'm not out there tonight. Frozen toe vanquishes FOMO.
Wild and weathered. Here stereotypes hold true.
Ireland has seen its fair share of gore and war, which makes for an overabundance of Gothic forts and Romanesque cathedrals. The country's propensity for invasion began in the prehistoric era, which does not make for shabby sightseeing.
However, I am constantly reminded of Ireland's isolation. Despite visiting during the snowiest winter the country has seen in a decade and although I fell short on suitable footwear, the wild rambling countryside kept me outdoors, damp, and gleeful. I've run the same single stretch along the coastline more times than I cared to count, and haven't seen the same view twice. I have more shots of the Bray-Greystones trail than all of my other photos together. Tourism websites will tell you tall tales of the Irish pubs, whisky factories and mysterious fairy forts, all of which are heavily trodden by travellers with kids. Take it from me - if you want to see the best that Ireland has to offer, take a hike. Start from wherever you are and head for the hills. While I would love to return to visit the Ring of Kerry in summer, the footpaths worn into the hills by the soles of the local shoes that use around any town are remarkable just as they stand.
Why the preservation?
Looking back, I'm not too sure what I expected when I landed. I had heard that Ireland is 'great craic', and I guess that Dublin is exactly that. The humming pubs and live music scene makes for impressive nightlife, and seeing every museum, gallery, park and monument would take many more weeks than I had available. Dublin also boasts a booming property market, particularly along the pristine cobbled streets that remain stuck in the Georgian era. Economic turmoil, the Great Famine and a five-century-long struggle against British rule kept Irish architecture suspended in time as the rest of the world underwent industrial revolution and urban uglification.
Why is Ireland so empty?
To be honest, I don't quite know the precise balance of politico-economic circumstances that have led to the fine balance of the Island's seclusion. Something about being a member of the EU, separate from the UK and decidedly non-Schengen has allowed for tighter border restriction than the rest of Europe, and a preservation of Irish culture even in the hubbub of the capital. Unlike so many of world's 'international' cities, where everyone is from somewhere else, Dublin is certainly not spared her share of migrant influx. However, hit a corner on the north side and you're back in the thick music of the soft-spoken Celtic accent.
Despite the staggering population growth that now places Ireland at the top of the EU, Ireland is (still) expansive and empty. I did the maths: to get to this kind of emptiness, my hometown's 4,8 million residents would need to be distributed across an area 51 times greater in size.
The space is good for farming
Wicklow is not a stretch of monoculture. The average field can be crossed on foot in several minutes, and is usually inhabited by a garish flock of spray-painted sheep. If Farmer Murphy paints his sheep with the Irish flag, his neighbour (most likely a Fitzgerald, or O'Brien) will use an alternative code. Some sheep are fortunate enough to escape with the dignity of a mere two stripes, but the majority are more fluorescent than white.
Where does wool go?
Ireland has a legacy of unique fabric design and dignified woollen fashions. There are a surprising number of hand weavers and bespoke fabric suppliers - I visited many, including the bespoke Blarney Woollen Mills and Avoca outlets. Everything inside begs to be touched and appreciated for its existence, and dropped upon reading the price tag.
And the stuff in between?
In between the farms, and encroaching on their trim neatness from every side, is wild, close-quartered, in-your-face nothing.
The nothing is filled with forests, and the forests burst with life.
Everything grows. The trees aren't just trees. Rocks aren't just rocks. They're coated with enough lichen and dew to host an entire community of mosses and liverworts. It's impractical to try quantify the life within a cubic centimetre. There are no snakes, and though I have yet to encounter a nasty hairy or creepy leggy, I bet they're there. Soft leaves, damp, the sweet smell of sandy rot, birdcall, yellow flowers, and nothing but green and mud.
As a woman alone, to have it all to oneself, at any time of day, and not feel the need to check over a shoulder or remove an earphone is pretty much incomparable to any kind of freedom I've felt before. Wicklow has been used to backdrop several critical Game of Thrones panoramas, but the wildness of the dense foliage reminds me more of Narnia. There's a hazy sort of magic that I can only equate with the coming of Aslan or some such similar miracle. Ireland off-season exposes its supernatural underbelly.
My running shoes are muddied to the ankle, and my cheeks are raw with the icy hilltop wind. Though my camera roll is made up almost exclusively of amateur greenery and ocean shots, and every pair of trousers I own are stained with clodden dirt, I will be out there again tomorrow in my finest.
Thoughts on the sleepiest, creepiest town in Ireland
I jumped on the first train south I could find. Only to realise that it was a Sunday. Therefore this was one of the grand total of two trains, the latter of which had now by default become my return. This grand start left me with four hours to kill in town.
I thought this was too short. Little did I know what makes Wicklow tick.
I boarded the train by the skin of my teeth having run the kilometre to the station in flat-out bag-bouncing pelt, nearly sending the Flynn twins of the Happy Pear toppling as I sprinted between them (read more about this hippy pair on the Greystones post). I decided this wasn't the best time to ask for an interview, and raced straight aboard. As a devious granny had taught me, I boarded ticketless and awaited the delivery to Wicklow with the sweat running through my temples and pooling in my collar bones. Want to ensure a bad first impression? This is it.
The result was of course that I got caught out and ended up innocently offering the ticket officer a seat before realising my faux pas. I was obliged to make the guilty ticket purchase a mere 300m from the station. As a result I almost didn't disembark in time, and had to run to the window to confirm I hadn't left my purse. Also bad for first impressions. Luckily, today I was the chaotic tourist with a backpack to show for it, and we're exempt from first impressions.
With my purse €8 the lighter, I turned my nose to the awaiting village. There wasn't one. After a couple school sports fields, I met with a triple intersection. Chose the left fork. Opened Google. The ominous top hit was automatically filled as 'things to do in Wicklow in the rain'.
Lo and behold, the heavens opened. The village centre (when I reached it, dripping and damp twenty minutes later) was as cute and colourful as one may expect a sleepy Irish village to be. Every museum and church was closed or empty. The café windows were steamy. The roads were bustling with the town's few cars outbound in search of dryness.
I ended up at the organic farmer's market. It was so organic I didn't recognise the vegetables.
The rain had by this stage permeated my jeans, and encased my inner thighs in a damp embrace. My shoes squelched.
The smoke of a log fire drew me to the Wicklow County Gaol coffee shop and into the interior of the heritage site. For a museum that unashamedly spells out the horror of its history and is frequented by ghost chasers and seance parties, the exhibits are tastefully done. I have a deep-rooted fear of mannequins, particularly those dressed in wartime memorabilia. I will never understand the need to make a piece of shaped plastic resemble a humanoid being. I can't read posters with actual eyes on my back. It detracts from the whole experience.
The Wicklow Gaol, however, is populated by statues and artworks. They're no less creepy, but somehow more beautiful and truthful, having been designed explicitly for their purpose. You will notice that many of my photographs were nevertheless taken from the exterior of the cells. I have my limits. The prison is icy. The damp combined with the hard coldness of underground granite flooring rapidly worked its way to my sinew. When I finally emerged from the Paranormal Activity chamber, I was chattering and jumpy. Two Brits who appeared to be on a weekend bender (in Wicklow??) had followed me around the latter section, which did little to assuage my paranoia. My escape was hasty, my breath growing ever more solid the closer I got to the exit.
Jeans a-steamin', it was back to the village. Which is truly charming. My favourite spot was a speciality wine importer's, who was able to cater to a sum total of one seated tables - and whose menu consisted solely of two items: spiced olives on homemade sourdough or Arabica coffee, the Irish way. I must have worked my first impression magic again because the rather imposing Frenchman approached me while I was examining the New World vintages. I was forced to remove my earphones and in order to be gruffly offered a piece of dark chocolate.
I was again approached during the twenty-minute wait for the train by a gentleman named Peter who was headed to Arklow to visit his daughter and her family. A recent landslide had limited railway access, so he intended to overstay his welcome well past St Paddy's Day. The reserved manner of his banal conversation was, if anything, strained. I get the impression that there isn't much to do there.
Teenagers walk the streets with lollipops in hand, kicking cans in school sneakers as though they are on the filmset of a budget 70s movie. Wedding planning must be chaos. The Dublin-bound couple were practically hopping against the chill when the train arrived. The trai' may be late, but nah fear, the drivers arn' worried, pet. Pulling in to the station is the highlight of their slow, sloooow day.
It's a charmed town frozen in the past. But blame the spooks or the damp polo neck cloying my trachea - I was mighty chuffed when that train pulled up.
It takes time to assimilate into any new environment. My folks would counsel that it is only when one has established one's routine coffee stop and grocer, decided upon a favourite cracker brand and argued with a local that can one begin to think the local; to be the local. If you understand the streetsigns on top of that, you're golden. So that's what I set my mind to when I first got here. Earned my stripes.
I have come to realise that there are things the Irish like. And there are things the Irish most definitely do not like. While I'm still lost in the grey a little, this is what I have discovered so far:
Things the Irish like:
And heavens, there are a lot of them. Within a two kilometre radius of the village centre, I encountered three. We are not talking sheds with a crucifix on the front door. We are talking gracious Romanesque Revival chapels accompanied by their own hilltops and street names. All streets possessing a church are, of course, Church Road, a peculiarity that made my quest to find the local ruin a nightmare. I'll revisit this a little later.
I'm really not being brazen here. Bicycles apart, I have never seen so many wheeled people in my life. There are deluxe dual- and triple-carriage options, and they move in convoy. They are jogged up mountains and allowed to freewheel down the other side. The Wicklow Municipal District's 2016 commitment to improving pedestrian experience is not off to a good start. The Irish are trim and fit, despite their unparalleled taste for Guinness and potatoes. I have put this down to the fact that each adult has on average two prams and a dog that need walking twice a day, if not three, when the temperature deigns to hit 6˚C. The streets may be empty, but the sidewalks never stop.
3. Returning things
The hedges lead the way home. I was taken aback the first time I came across a miniature glove protruding from an arm-like branch on my first run. However, the next time I passed this particular point, the glove had been replaced with a pink bobby beanie the size of my fist. Considering this a residential quirk or an act of the occult, I quickened my pace, only to encounter a series of misplaced hats, gloves, and scarves, mostly those sized for pram inhabitants.
When someone forgets cash in the ATM, a village-wide announcement is made on Facebook. Our dog escaped her leash while I was taking the kids through homework. Oblivious to the chaos unwinding online, we trawled our way through the tedium of phonetics until I was contacted by the vet who thought we ought to collect the sassy pup. Needless to say, I am under strict instructions never to comment on the post or in any way jeopardise the owner's anonymity. The announcement obtained six shares in the twenty minutes before the vet called, accompanied by twenty-seven comments to the tune of "Pm us on this page if you’d like us to post up on Wicklow lost and found animals" and "you should get the dog! Well done!".
It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of islands happen to display an overrepresentation of certain hereditary diseases, a phenomenon termed 'Founders' Effect'. In brief, the first settlers to a body of land bring with them the total mix of genes that over time give rise to a new population. Probability dictates that generation by generation, certain recessive characteristics that were once few and far between in the original settlers (like red hair) become increasingly common.
The effect that befell Ireland is coeliac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten (a protein in wheat and other cereals). In chronic cases, the coeliac diet rules out all gluten - no bread, no pasta, no cereals, no wheat-containing sauces (you'd be surprised), no bulked yoghurt, and no beer. For a country that pioneers the brewing industry and produces enough breadsticks to construct its much-needed Dublin thoroughfare, the fact that every tenth Irishman suffers from this condition is heart wrenching.
5. Vitamin D
While I've seen a pleasant majority of sunlit mornings and two snowed-in weekends during my time here, there are signs that this may not be the standard state of affairs.
6. 'Grand' and 'good'
There is a nuance. Take heed.
If 'yer grand', you are not doing anything wrong. For example:
'Oh! I'm so sorry! Am I in your way?'
'Naht at all pet, yer grand.'
This does not mean that you aren't in the way, but rather that you have not yet quite crushed her toe. Many other things can be grand too: the weather (6˚C+), the groceries (cheap), the traffic (namely lack thereof).
If 'yer so good', you have surpassed the shining beacon of triumph. To elaborate:
'I see you're taking a selfie - can I offer to take one for you?'
'Oh yer so good! So good!'
Relish this. Not even a bank holiday that falls on a Monday is 'good'.
7. The Irish
The Irish love the Irish. The national pride is inspiring. It centres on people and counties, small towns and homegrown products. Wherever possible, people try to buy local, and suppliers actively seek out Irish businesses. I walked into the health retailer looking for stoneground rye flour. The owner had a Danish brand in, but preferred to direct me to a store that stocked an Irish variety than sell me her product. The support for local pubs, grocers, boutiques and salons is the reason so many villages thrive and retain their singularity generation upon generation. I really recommend taking a look at the Greystones Guide. Not only is the site witty, it provides insight into what makes the locals tick. The answer is: themselves, the community.
Things the Irish hate:
1. Street signs
Outside of Dublin, street signs are usually absent, or located at ankle height. While I have yet to discover what is so offensive about a conventional signpost, this absence stands in stark contrast to the well-kept emblems that beam proudly from the gatepost of each residence. Every house is meticulously titled with the painstaking care of first-time parents. No two homes within a county of each other share the same name.
However, if a road itself is lucky enough to possess some form of identification, the sign is usually hidden in line with one's sock and obscured by bush. This isn't really an issue however, because as I mentioned above, more often than not it is possible guess its name before checking. The result is a little confusing to newcomers. I took an incorrect turn off Church Road headed for Chapel Road, instead winding up on Church Lane in Delgany as opposed to Kindlestown. The entire circuitous backtrack between the three villages took just forty minutes on foot, but the ruin was so well hidden that I almost missed it anyway.
2. Right turns
I'm no city planner. But it does seem that half of Dublin's travel conundrum could be resolved if the the multitude of 'no right turn' signs were removed. There doesn't seem to be a link between the proximity of a sign to a blind rise or sharp corner, but as a pedestrian impatient to cross, I am not complaining that the city better caters to those on foot.
3. Junk mail
And I don't mean emails.
The Irish Postal Service is an exemplary institution. If one wishes to deliver an application to the government, one slips the envelope into the green tub I mistook for a fire hydrant, and four days later the official will reply by return mail. Heaven forbid however, that the arrival of the Irish Independent is hampered by advertising fliers. My host knows her postman by name, and so he delivers her mail to her hand - and if he can't find her, she doesn't get her envelope. It seems stern warnings simply aren't sufficient to stem the influx of junk mail in this troubled millennium.
4. The cold. The rain. The snow.
The first question I get when someone has determined the origin of my accent is 'Why the feck wou'd yer come 'ere? Aren' yer cold, pet?'
The country has recently emerged from a level red weather warning and national shutdown after 'The Beast from the East' merged with Storm Emma off the east coast and brought a 7°C drop and 20 cm snow to the island. Ironically enough, this caused us to miss a trip to the sunny Canaries as more than 250 flights were grounded at Dublin International. Nevertheless, my glee at finding myself up to the ankles in white stuff turned heads.
With all delivery routes blocked, the grocery shortages revealed how the country survived the six-day onslaught. First to disappear was the bread. Second, the beer and spirits. Then limes and lemons; next wine. The last to go were the blackened bananas and sad lettuces, but heaven help the mother who needed pasta sauce that week.
Nobody was excluded: state and volunteers alike fed and housed the homeless, and the government doubled fuel allowance to dependent homes over this period. There is a preemptive emphasis on welfare and social responsibility that goes beyond ticking boxes and fulfilling quotas.
I'm still discovering how far out of their way the Irish will go to make life comfortable for someone else, even a someone else with a funny accent and a taste for every type of tea except Irish Breakfast. My village is small and proud, which makes for good neighbourliness and personal connection. While the Irish are undeniably quirky in more than one respect, their famed hospitality makes it impossible to feel like a stranger. Many of the things I've discussed above I now take for granted. If I pass a scarf, it's second nature to hang it in the nearest tree. And when the second snow storm hit, I complained as bitterly as the locals and buckled down for the onslaught with even more cuppas and cookies than my host.