Beyond the Basics: How to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Toronto now

Celtic cross at MonasterboiceOh, North America! You have a lot of things to answer for, least among them the secularization of St. Patrick’s Day. But one thing at a time. Really, you don’t have to be religious or Irish to celebrate the gifts Ireland’s bestowed upon the world. Being curious and engaged, though? That helps.

Instead of my regular rapid-fire Tuesday post, here are six St. Patrick’s Day swaps to help you make the most of today.

  1. Instead of green beer, try some proper Irish craft beer. I like O’Hara’s Irish Stout, now available in bottles through the LCBO.
  2. Instead of Jameson, try a dram from Dublin’s newer distillery, Teeling. I highly recommend the rich and spicy Teeling Small Batch, a blend, and I’ve read nothing but good things about their Single Grain and Single Malt.
  3. Instead of whiling away the hours in an outpost of one of those franchised faux-Irish pubs, visit the real deal. I humbly suggest the family-friendly Galway Arms, which draws Irish ex-pats and Canadians alike with its warm service and companionable clientele. Bonus: draught Smithwick’s!
  4. Instead of wearing an offensive-sloganed novelty tee, try on some Donegal tweed or an Aran knit. This is a great time for Irish design, with all sectors of the industry poised for increased international attention. In Toronto, you can see what the fuss is about at the Irish Design House, an excellent source for all manner of Irish goods. Well worth the trip to Leslieville!
  5. Instead of James Joyce, read Donal Ryan or Maeve Brennan. Ryan’s The Thing About December and The Spinning Heart movingly chronicle life in Tipperary, roughly bookending the Celtic Tiger. Ryan’s writing cuts to the marrow of contemporary Ireland, but it’s not without humour or sympathy. You’ll laugh and cry at alternating sentences, and long to return to the characters after the covers have closed. Unfortunately, the glorious Maeve Brennan can only be given short shrift in a post like this; she commands volumes of her own. Though very much a woman of her time, Brennan’s voice continues to resonate today. Hers is the voice of the ex-patriot (though a very particular, very privileged kind of ex-patriot), and her stories and essays are essential to anyone looking to better understand contemporary diasporic writings or how the Irish shaped North America in the 20th century.
  6. Instead of The Mahones or Flogging Molly, listen to The Undertones or Rudi, stalwarts of the 1970s Ulster punk scene. Musically, there were lots of interesting things happening at the height of The Troubles. The Undertones and Rudi provide a glimpse into what it was like to be — or to try to be — a normal teen despite the conflict. At the very least, if they don’t have you rethinking your St. Patrick’s playlist, they’ll give you pause the next time you think of mixing Jameson, Guinness and Bailey’s. If a trad session is more your speed, though, check out The Gloaming — all the extraordinary musicianship you’d expect from traditional folk musicians, but with arrangements that are modern and frequently unexpected. And Iarla Ó Lionáird has one of the most hauntingly beautiful voices you’ll ever hear!

Saturday Spotlight: Extreme Ireland

Given last Sunday’s post on climbing Croagh Patrick, it seems appropriate to devote the first Saturday Spotlight to my favourite Irish tour operator, Dublin’s Extreme Ireland.

For our first trip to Ireland, A and I scheduled most of our time in Dublin, but we knew we wanted to take a couple day-trips out of the city. “When will we have another opportunity to see the Cliffs of Moher or Blarney Castle or the Hill of Tara?” we reasoned.

After several hours of research spearheaded by my master-planner husband, we settled on three tours with Extreme Ireland: one to the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren; one to the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, and Cork; and one through the Boyne Valley with stops at the Hill of Tara, Trim Castle, Loughcrew, Drogheda, Monasterboice, and the Jumping Church.

Right off the bat, we were impressed by the variety of destinations Extreme Ireland’s tours covered, and the ease and flexibility of booking — we could buy tickets online or in person at their office — but the best was to come. While Extreme Ireland certainly can’t take credit for the country’s lush terrain and rich history, it can lay claim to expertly curated day trips and some of the most knowledgeable, engaging driver-guides you’ll ever have the pleasure to travel with.

My husband, A, is notoriously hard to impress. But I knew even he was won over when half way through our Boyne Valley tour he turned to me and said, “You know, these guys do multi-day hiking trips, too.” Very high praise indeed.

Higher still: we returned to take one of those hiking trips the following year. We wouldn’t have climbed Croagh Patrick or Diamond Hill — highlights of my life so far — without Extreme Ireland, and for the planning and expertise of their guides, I’m extremely grateful.

Into the Reek

The sun is bright for late September and the breeze drifting across Clew Bay is teasingly summery. This may be one of the last truly lovely days of the season, and we’re going to make the most of it.

“It’s not a bad climb,” we’re told, “But the last bit is quite steep.”

A and I are four days into our week-long hiking trip through the west and north of Ireland. Our legs are feeling stronger, more solid than they did after Monday’s climb up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park, when they felt more like unset gelatin than limbs. Whether it was the ride up from Clifden or a temporary lapse in memory, we’re eager to get moving. This is what we’ve come for. Croagh Patrick.

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Terse Tuesday 9

The thing about genealogy is that the more you learn, the more questions you have. What lead my great-grandparents to leave Ireland? How did they scrape together the money for passage? How did they reconcile leaving so much, and so many, behind?

Or today’s question: were any of my great grand aunts, uncles, or cousins involved with the Rising’s Ulster front? How so? As I read how Ireland prepares to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, I can’t help but wonder…

For those with Ulster roots who want to do some wondering of their own, this great RTE podcast, first broadcast over radio in 1964, is a great place to start: “1916 in Ulster.”

They’re crafty

Ah, those cunning marketers!

While browsing one of my favourite online women’s magazines, Ireland’s IMAGE, I came across a post on a recent marketing campaign supporting Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel. With the whiskey’s iconic barrels and the artistry of master cooper Ger Buckley as inspiration, four Irish artisans created pieces celebrating both the Jameson brand and their own artistic heritage.

The pieces–a leather apron, a trestle table, a holster bag, and a tweed cap–are lovely in themselves, but what really struck me were the resulting ad spots highlighting these partnerships. There’s a romantic, almost sensual, quality to them, but they still seem quite masculine. (Maybe the company’s decision to go with male artisans has coloured my perception? I wonder what partnerships with female artisans would have produced?) I couldn’t help but be taken in by these ads. The pride in Irish craftsmanship and tradition feels genuine to me, and confidence is so very attractive. I may now have to buy a bottle of Select Reserve for my collection.

So well done, marketers. Or as they say in Ireland, fair play to you.