We laughed about it all the way back to the river, and continue to do so. The charm of this part of Ireland is that its soul presents itself at every other turn; any attempt to amplify it, frame it, or put it out on display risks caricature—or worse. And that charm, that soul, is something that the Irish in 2008 seem motivated to preserve. Even the state-funded Irish Dairy Board knows that its talented people make great cheese. Its smart pocket guide to the country’s best wheels—which likely cost less to produce than a harpist’s day rate—has its heart in the right place and is distributed free in most Irish markets.
We repaired to the Weir Bar, at Jurys Cork Hotel—very New Ireland, it’s a chain of businessmen’s hotels with the blandness of urban boutique lodgings. But it had a few delights as well, like a library of books by Irish authors in the lobby, and an airy bar overlooking the river. The bar was abuzz with people of all ages—birthdays, family reunions, business meetings, grandmothers, grandkids—and it occurred to us that this was what has taken the place of the classic old pub. Paddy’s granddad wouldn’t recognize the Herman Miller furniture, but the craic (fellowship and good fun) and the booze would feel familiar.
In fact, we encountered scant evidence of the pub’s demise in our travels. Certainly, our friends had witnessed some agonizing closings, but it seemed to us that the landscape of pub culture was changing, with each establishment distilling its particular character. You had your quiet An Teach Beag, with traditional music and the feel of Old Ireland, and you had your new-age pubs like the Weir Bar, with plate glass and sleek iron fireplaces. The day before, we’d ducked into a roadside pub that had looked appealing from the outside, but inside it was dark and musty, with an indifferent barkeep pulling flat pints with the telephone clapped to her ear, and a lone patron mashing the button of a video poker game. Maybe there are pubs whose passing nobody would lament?
To us, the future of food and drink in Ireland seems promising, and the young, do-ragged chefs at Café Paradiso turning out perfect fried samphire with raita and a zesty tomatillo-and-cucumber green gazpacho herald the next generation. The following morning, when we dropped in on Exciting Breads, a class taught by Rachel Allen (granddaughter-in-law of Myrtle, Ireland’s Giada De Laurentiis) in a loftlike demonstration kitchen at Ballymaloe Cookery School, 20 miles outside Cork City, we felt we’d glimpsed the future too. Allen was a superb teacher, eloquent and confident, attentive to variations, and mindful of the rapport between an old recipe and its modern interpretation. She made a staple food as rustic and homespun as bread seem contemporary. Later that night, when we took dinner at the Ballymaloe House itself, we found the place to be in need of a strong draft of Rachel. Compared with the nimble lightness of Good Things Café or Gleeson’s, Ballymaloe seemed mumsy and old-fashioned. And we felt the service’s hurried air would have been employed to better effect in the kitchen, as every dish that arrived on our table, save the cheese plate, was woefully overcooked.