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Troy Hightower
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Onboard the Grand Hibernian

The long line of old-style European round-top railcars in signature glossy Royal Blue curves out of sight in Dublin’s Heuston Station. Liveried staff and GM JP Cavanaugh greet us with glasses of champagne as an Irish piper and fiddler play a lively jig. The eclectic group of travelers board the rear observation/lounge car, elegantly decorated in muted tones and wood paneling for the trip briefing and indoctrination. 

Our group of 30 or so train buffs include people from France, Switzerland, England, Australia, Mexico, and various parts of the US - including Houston where they are escaping from the flooding of Hurricane Harvey. There are physicians, a managing partner in a major consulting firm, global head of card services for an international bank, the chairman of a British utility, two retired professors, a couple of photographers, a writer/journalist, a few businessmen or entrepreneurs, and an English knight and lady. 

There is no circular rail route of Ireland as there is in Scotland. The system, JP explains, is more like the fingers of a hand, with the palm in Dublin, and the fingers splayed south, west and north. So we’ll literally criss-cross the Emerald Isle to see various interesting and beautiful places.

 

 

 

 

Daily life aboard.

Cabins are tight, but elegantly furnished, with a compact but complete bath/shower/basin at one end. Each next day's schedule is left in the cabin with nightly turn-down service, detailing times of meals, train departures and arrivals, and excursions for the day.

Breakfast is taken in cabin on tray by a few like Troy, but most congregate in the two dining cars. Available for choice are fresh juices, coffee/tea, porridge, granola, fruit and any and all combinations of fulI Irish breakfast: eggs any style, bacon, ham, sausage, black pudding, grilled tomatoes and mushroom, and Loch Duart turf-smoked salmon.

Around ten, we might detrain to board a coach for an expedition—for example for a tour and of the historic Jameson distillery at Midleton in County Cork, followed by a most instructive whiskey tasting. Or on another day to head to Blarney Castle in Cork to climb up the 128 steps to kiss the stone which gives the gift of gab, and then tour the extensive castle gardens.

Lunch back on board (though on a couple of occasions taken at a unique restaurant while touring) is three courses—perhaps grilled quail and asparagus salad, followed by cod, cockle and mussel chowder, finished with a micro chocolate tart with creme anglaise. Portions are restrained, which is appreciated by all, with this many formal meals and courses. There are vegetarian options at every course for those who require them.

The afternoon might be leisurely, sitting in the bar car while the train rackets along, chatting and learning about fellow travelers, reading, or watching the lovely bucolic Irish countryside go by: farms, fields, forests and rivers, small stone towns, and at times lonely beaches and the grey Irish Sea. Or there might be another excursion, such as to Killarney National Park, to de-train and pile into pony traps for a half hour wander through the park to Ross Castle and the edge of Lough Leane, over which broods Caurantoohil Peak in Mcgillicudy’s Reeks mountains. And then on to a leisurely and lovely one hour boat tour around the lake, with musical accompaniment of guitar, bodhrán and irish pipes.  Finally return to the train to freshen and perhaps smarten up a bit for dinner.

Drinks are taken with passed canapés in the bar car, for an hour or so, then the group moves into the two dining cars—the first contains four tables seating six, and the second five tables seating four. Over the five days, dinner table compositions ebb and flow, as people get to know each other in different combinations.  Dinner begins with a starter such as crab salad on shaved fennel, followed by perhaps rare duck breast with potato galette and to finish— pineapple tart with coconut ice cream. A dessert wine is always served to finish, and cheese - local Irish of course - is always an option.

Wines are well-selected if not great vintages, and include Spanish Rioja, California Pinot Noir, South African Chardonnay, French Viognier, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, French Chablis, and more.

Three kinds of fresh rolls are baked daily on board, as well as sandwich and toast loaves, and croissants and mini pastries for breakfast. It's very impressive what comes out of that miniscule galley manned by just two people.

After dinner, guests retire to the lounge/bar car for drinks and entertainment. The small bar manned by Ronan and Dylan is well stocked with all the necessary basics, as well as a broad selection of Irish liquors - 4 or 5 each Irish gins and vodkas, and a good cross section of Irish Whiskies - nothing like the 200+ malt whiskies on the Royal Scotsman, and hence a number one can possibly get all the way through over the course of five days.

Nightly entertainment usually runs from ten to eleven or a bit later, and over the day's runs the gamut of Irish music, song, storytelling and poetry. There is virtuosity from interesting musicians on harp, fiddle, Irish accordion, bodhrán—the backless Irish drum, mandolin, guitar, flute, pennywhistle, and voice. The quality of music is top notch. There is much clapping, and some whistling, hooting and cheering at the end of each performance. Then off to the narrow but comfy beds, perhaps with a final whiskey, to turn in.

The train stables nightly in a place that is (mostly) quiet and out of the way, and sometimes fully dark, although some stations are lit all night and the cabin curtains can't quite keep out a tiny line of light. Nonetheless, we sleep well, after each full and interesting day.

 

Hibernian Journey Highlights

Blarney Castle was built in the 1400’s by a great Irish chieftan, Cormac MacCarthy. One hundred, twenty-eight steep narrow stone steps spiraling upward lead to the famous Blarney Stone, which is set in a part of the wall below the crenellations. To kiss the stone, one leans backwards from the parapet walk, grabbing hold of an iron stanchion—all to receive the “gift of gab”. The extensive gardens include acres of rolling lawns, mature exotic world-representative trees throughout the arboretum, herbaceous borders, a tropical garden, Himalayan walk, and outside the castle ruin, a Poison Garden filled with toxic plants.

Blarney House, on a different part of the estate, is a 19th c. Scottish Baronial style manor house of several bedrooms still occupied 9 months of the year by Sir Charles and Lady Colthurst. June through August they vacate to a house on the far side of the estate, to allow tourist visits - a method commonly used these days to finance the large costs of keeping up stately houses and estates. The nearby Rock Close Gardens are a mysterious place where dark brooding yews and oaks surround an old druidic settlement. Blarney village features picturesque cottages around a large green tree studded square, and the Muskerry Arms on the square provides us a short respite from walking and a neat Black Bush Whiskey and pint o’ Guinness.

Kylemore Abbey, at the edge of Connemara National Park in county Mayo is an imposing granite and stone Manor House in a dramatic setting up against the steep base of Druchruach Mountain by the side of Lough Pollacapul. The manor was originally built as a an enormous 33-bedroom private home in the late 1800’s by MP Mitchell Henry. Kylemore was subsequently owned by Duke and Duchess of Manchester, who lost it in a gambling bet. In 1920 the Irish Benedictine Nuns bought the house to create a school for girls. There is a very lovely neo-Gothic chapel built by Henry Mitchell in memory of his beloved wife, Margaret, after she died of dysentery on the River Nile. A 15 minute walk away from the Abbey there is a large 6-acre walled Victorian gardens that’s a delight to stroll around.

Ashford Castle in Connemara National Park was originally a medieval castle, and is now a jumble of styles, including a fortified keep and French chateau, having been added to in stages over the centuries.

 

There is a falconry on the extensive grounds, which raises and trains primarily Harris Hawks, but there is also an imposing European eagle owl and a venerable eagle that is pretty somnabulent. We’ve seen several falconry displays over the years, but this one is unique: styled a Hawk Walk, a dozen visitors walk for an hour through the forested grounds with a trainer and hawk - in this case Sadiqh. One by one, we don an elbow-length arm glove on which Sadiqh perches, and from there is launched and flies into the trees to look around for prey (not infrequently spotting something) When finally whistled in by the trainer, he glides back straight toward you, flares at the last instant, and lands gently on wrist to then beak the morsel of meat that has been held in the hawker’s hand.

The Grand Hibernian arrived in Belfast overnight, where one of the visit highlights was the Belfast Black Taxi Tour.  This tour—by traditional British Black Cab—takes in the Republican/Catholic Falls Road area, and Loyalist/Protestant Shankill area of Belfast, separated by the Peace Wall – an 18 foot tall, and running from downtown 21 miles inland to separate the two areas. The wall is decorated on the Loyalist side with murals and graffiti reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, and was the outfall of the peace accords over 20 years ago. Three gates provide access between the Protestant and Catholic areas, and they are astonishingly still locked at 6 pm every day, preventing nighttime access between the two areas at odds with each other, even 20 years after the peace treaty that officially ended the Troubles.

 

Curraghmore House in the historic Viking port of Waterford is home to 9 generations of the Waterford family, with the young 9th Marquess and Marchioness of Waterford the current residents. The huge 2,500 acre estate—the largest private demesne in Ireland— is part of a much larger original land grant to the Waterford ancestors by Henry II in 1177. The original castle with 12-foot thick walls was enclosed in the late 1700’s, and Edwardian, Victorian and Georgian influences are all present.  Curraghmore means great bog in Gaelic, and this is a grand stately house with fine neoclassical rooms, but much water damage is evident and needing of repair. While unstated, it seems clear that this is a not atypical case of the inheritance of a grand estate and stately house, without accompanying fortune. Tourist visits through the year are a means to generate income to maintain the estate. After the grounds and garden tour, we are led into the main dining room for tea and pastries, joined by the most charming young Lady Waterford herself. 

The grounds comprise a formal parterre, expansive tiered lawns, a lake, huge arboretum and kitchen gardens. It is a most impressive setting. Nestled in the arboretum is a stone folly built in 1754 by Catherine, Countess of Tyrone, known as the Shell House, as it’s interior is covered in thousands of various seashells, all placed by the lady herself, and some of which have been declared by marine biologists to now be extinct.

In Waterford, we debark to take the Waterford Crystal factory tour.  Our young guide leads us through the various stages of turning silica sand into glass in glowing red furnaces, watching master glass blowers turn reddish molten lumps of glass into perfect, clear bowls and vases, then on through the detailed application of designs, and the intricate hand diamond-wheel cutting, engraving and etching and finally through buffing and polishing to the gleaming finished product. There is of course a salesroom at the end of the tour, and we purchase as a final souvenir of our train journey a set of six unmatched low whiskey tumblers—patterns that are mostly not made as sets any longer, and some of which date back decades.