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.
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.