The Green Miles
Put a father and son in a compact car with two sets of golf clubs and a poor sense of direction, and let them loose in Ireland. It's bound to be the trip of a lifetime-and maybe the makings of the next great independent film.
It sounds like a pitch for a feel-good indie movie: a father and son reunite after several years for an Irish road trip where they’ll bond over their love of golf and, in so doing, learn something…about each other. I’d see that movie. Maybe cast Martin Sheen as the dad and James McAvoy—no wait, Clive Owen—as the son. But it’s day one and my dad (a full head taller than Martin Sheen) and I (still waiting to be confused with Clive Owen) are standing on the eighth green on Dublin’s famed Portmarnock golf course, and we’ve somehow strolled onto the set of Twister 2, navigating the course in a full-scale tornado. This production may be trickier than I first thought.
The basic plot is true. My dad and I have rented a car and we’ll be driving to some of the greatest courses in Ireland. He does love golf and I suppose the pre-kids me did, too. And while we see each other several times a year and enjoy a pretty solid relationship, I’m not foreclosing on the possibility that we might learn something about each other. (Just this morning, for example, on the way to Portmarnock, I learn that notwithstanding his navigator’s position in the car, I will not be able to rely on him for much in the way of navigation.)
One of the many great things about golfing in Ireland is how the locals can be serious about the game without treating it as some sort of religion. At Portmarnock the pro shop is jammed into a room the size of a small closet (an American course of the same renown would be decked out like Tutankhamen’s tomb with logoed gear everywhere) and while it’s by no means cheap to play (green fees start at 125 euros) they don’t act like the place is St. Paul’s. As we stand on the first tee, the wind is blowing so hard we start to chuckle a bit—it’s clearly not ideal for golf, but it’s great for making memories in a way no sunny, 23-Celsius day ever can be. By hole number eight it’s become more of a black humour. I chip my ball into the hole from about 50 yards—something I never do, but the flagstick is blowing so hard that it’s pinning my ball to the side of the cup, refusing to allow it to drop in the hole. My dad and I look over it for a while. Neither of us has seen anything like it. Then the wind blows my hat off my head and by the time I chase it down and make it back to the green, he’s persuaded the ball to drop in the cup.
At round’s end we’re presented with a complimentary sandwich—evidently this is where devilled ham entered witness protection all those years ago. It’s an odd but welcome complement to a tough round of golf, and it goes perfectly with a pint of Murphy’s (my dad loves saying Mar-fees in an Irish accent, so we consequently end up having it wherever it’s on tap) and a Bushmills for warmth.
The short drive back into Dublin is beautifully eerie. The first part is because of the built-up new council houses that throng the city—mostly empty—that hearken back to the Celtic Tiger days of a few years back, when Ireland’s economy was the envy of all Europe. But once you’re into downtown it could be 200 years ago, the city is so unchanged: Grafton Street is bustling, Trinity College full of students with only the dress and the Starbucks to differentiate the scenes that might have played out six generations ago.
The streets are still empty as we navigate north out of the city the following morning. It’s such a joy to drive here—little villages, pubs with active chimneys—but thanks to the recent good times, the per capita BMW ownership would make Kerrisdale, Elbow Park or anywhere in Saskatoon these days envious. Part of the pleasure in planning an Irish road trip is that, by Western Canadian standards, you can get everywhere quickly. We’re heading next into Northern Ireland for Royal County Down, just south of Belfast, and it only takes 90 minutes—and that includes the crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland, an event that happens with such a curious lack of fanfare that you might be forgiven for wondering (in the quiet of your own rental car) what all the fuss was about.
My dad had been to Royal County Down before, but he had stayed at a private home and, as a result, we both experience the Slieve Donard Hotel for the first time. I feel like a German tourist gawking at the Banff Springs: it’s adjacent to the golf course, and all oceanfront red bricks and baronial heft. It immediately transports one back to a time when this corner of Ireland was an economic powerhouse, just a few years from sending the Titanic (“in good shape when she left,” everyone jokes) toward Southampton.
We retire to the bar and, after establishing that they don’t have Mar-fees, my dad decides to call an audible and uncharacteristic order of a Jameson’s, the Catholic whiskey. The barkeep pauses slightly, smiles and says, “Unfortunately we don’t carry that particular brand, sir.” Another pause. “Strained through the wrong bible.” And now it feels like we’re in Northern Ireland. It’s an old line, and while 20 years ago it might have caused a donnybrook, here it’s played for a laugh—a change that tells you all you need to know about modern Ireland. Bushmills it is.
The golf course is a short walk through a giant hedge from the hotel and, where we had Portmarnock to ourselves, Royal County Down is a different story. It’s arguably the finest golf course in the world and, as such, it attracts pilgrims in the way Santiago de Compostela did 1,000 years ago. Most everyone milling about on the first tee has travelled a great distance at great expense, and the mood is all excited jitters like a track meet—but one where most of the middle-aged participants couldn’t finish a 100-metre dash. It’s expensive to play ($250), but considering it’s the pinnacle of a sport prone to fanaticism among its devotees, it’s a relative bargain.
The course is soooo hard. It’s on the ocean, but it’s also in a series of small ravines that alternate between calm and crazy, with the one constant being you’re always going up or down. The carries—the distance from the tee box to the start of the fairway—are wreaking havoc on the old guy, but thankfully our caddy has convinced him that smoking might be the solution, and as I put together a decent little round I occasionally notice the pair of them—the 77-year-old lawyer from Edmonton and 22-year-old seasonal caddy from Hilltown, Northern Ireland—having a grand old time bonding over how hellishly hard the golf course is and how bad John Player Specials are for you.
If we were diehard golfers we’d point ourselves north to Royal Portrush or south to Ballybunion, but we’re also hell-bent on seeing the countryside, so we decide to choose some place off the beaten path. We head across the top to where Londonderry, Northern Ireland, becomes Derry, Ireland, and then head farther north into County Donegal and Ballyliffin, the northernmost golf course on the northernmost tip of Ireland.
In reality we’re only about a 50-minute drive from Londonderry, but civilization falls away quickly in these parts and while the town does have one nice family-run hotel, there’s not a ton else. But the lack of variety just helps focus on the place. Immigrants from small towns like Ballyliffin settled our country, but today most of us live in cities in Western Canada and go years without ever stopping by a true small town (and ski towns don’t count). The mayor doesn’t come out to meet us and I don’t make quick friends with the fellas at the pub, but the pace and the outlook of the people is different enough that the long drive is well worth it.
We tee off the next morning in another gale-force wind, but that’s one of the major draws here. There aren’t any trees to deaden the blowing from the Atlantic and the round has that wonderful sense of accomplishment that our first round at Portmarnock did, but without the ability to slip back into Dublin for a drink at the Merrion Hotel or a stroll on Grafton Street. Instead it was a pub and nods from the locals about sticking it out in such conditions—the sort of recognition you never get in a city.
No doubt there are 25 other towns with 25 other golf courses that we could drive to next, but we both have wives at home and jobs and the like. Plus it’s always best to end a road trip when it’s going well. We choose to make our way back to Dublin, but, now feeling like locals, we opt to break up the 275-kilometre trip—so we choose a country hotel, Lough Eske Castle, Hotel and Spa, to stay for the night. It turns out to be the perfect ending to the film. It’s the blend of old, luxe, private and professional that not only doesn’t exist anywhere in North America, it doesn’t exist anywhere in Europe anymore. It’s the Brigadoon of lodging, and as we finish a formal meal of venison and lamb ribs in a near-empty dining room my dad says, “This is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed.” It’s not, of course, as he’s spent 77 years travelling to all sorts of great places, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true at this moment. Me too, I say, and the imaginary camera pans back, leaving the two of us to finish our bottle of wine in silence. —WL
Where to lay your head as you traipse across the Emerald Isle, plus a few goodies that will make you feel like a local.
Where to Stay
Dublin has London-calibre hotels at Manchester prices. Of the three Grand Dames—the Shelbourne, the Westin and the Merrion—each evokes a glamour of a different sort. The Shelbourne’s too crowded, the Westin’s too new, but the Merrion’s just right. It’s just far enough from the bustle of Grafton Street, but has impeccable, understated service. The choice of President Obama when he’s in town, it’s like Dublin’s version of Claridge’s.
It takes a lot to impress Western Canadians with castle-like hotels, but Slieve Donard in Newcastle does it. If you’re playing Royal County Down, any other option is giving you half the experience. The early morning walk to the course gives you some time to contemplate the murderously hard round ahead of you.
Slieve Donard looks like a castle, but Lough Eske is a castle, albeit one that’s been refurbished to a sublime degree. It’s not really anywhere, but part of the luxury is that a place this nice has no business being in this relatively remote location. A true destination hotel.
What to Buy
The ultra-low-production Green Spot Whiskey is impossible to find even in Ireland, but James Fox Whiskey, right at the entrance to Trinity College in Dublin, usually has a bottle or two if you ask nicely. They also stock the even rarer Yellow Spot if you have room in your bag.
Magee of Donegal has been the quintessential Irish country store before J.Crew told us that Barbour, Hunter and tweed were hip. I picked up a bag of Donegal tweed roll ends that are so thick they could stop bullets. I have no idea what I’m going to do with them, but whatever it is, it’ll be pretty impressive. In Donegal and Dublin.