In which I discover that I have something in common with Sarah Jessica Parker
2016-06-28

I didn’t know anything about County Donegal when I signed up for a four-day, three-night bike trip in northwest Ireland with my family. I just wanted to go on a cycling trip with my husband and our two college-aged children, and the Ireland by Bike people, who had the best reviews of any of the cycling companies I contacted, only run trips in County Donegal.

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I am now a County Donegal convert. I will happily return, even to cycle in the rain, because the people are so friendly and hospitable, the scenery (when you can see it through the rain and fog)  is beautiful, it’s heaven for a knitter (I’m a knitter) and, apparently, if my timing is right, I may well run into Sarah Jessica Parker.

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SJP’s husband, actor Matthew Broderick, has been spending time in County Donegal since he was a child, and the couple own a house in Kilcar. Kilcar is the home of Studio Donegal, where Dave and Elizabeth and Noah and I spent about an hour and a half on Friday afternoon, admiring the beautiful woven fabrics, and learning about looms and yarn while waiting out a fierce downpour.

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The wool I bought at Studio Donegal. All but the mohair is produced by and for the business.

We did not discover the SJP-Donegal connection until after our visit to Ardara (pronounced “r-DRAH”) the following evening. Ardara is a charming little town where every other store sells knitwear (sweaters, scarves, hats, socks), tweed (jackets, scarves, dresses, coats, blankets), and/or yarn.

day 3 town of ardara

The walk to Ardara from our B&B took about 10 minutes and involved a nice downhill stroll (not so nice cycling up, however).

Our favorite shop was Eddie Doherty’s, two doors down from Doherty’s Pub (also owned by Eddie, and managed by his son).

Noah and I visited Eddie’s shop in the afternoon, after we’d dried and thawed out from our 30-km cycle in the rain from Sliabh Liag. (Elizabeth and Dave stayed behind at the B&B: they were still drying and thawing.)

The sign on Eddie’s door said “Ring the bell and wait one minute.” So we rang the bell and as we waited I peeked through the front window, taking note of the wool jackets, caps, and scarves, and waiting for someone to appear on the other side of the door to let us in.

You can imagine my surprise (or perhaps you can’t – but I encourage you to try) when a woman appeared next to me on the sidewalk, brandishing a key. She had come from up the street to let us in.

“Eddie will be right here,” she promised, unlocking the door and ushering us through.

Sure enough, Eddie appeared shortly thereafter. A charming septuagenarian (he will be 78 in November), he has been weaving in Ardara for more than 60 years. His tweeds, in every color of the rainbow, and every combination, are sold all over the world.

 

day 3 eddie at loom

Eddie didn’t mention SJP, but he did tell us about a customer who once watched him weaving and bought the fabric right off the loom. I understood the temptation: I wanted to buy his fabric right off the loom, too.

Noah and I fell for Eddie’s beautiful blankets. Each was about 4 x 6 feet, and cost €125. Given that only minutes earlier, in another shop, we had seen a tweed coat on sale for €250, that seemed like something more than a bargain. However, at the time we were on a recon mission, not an actual shopping trip. We agreed to come back later – but not until after 9, because Eddie was going to watch the Donegal football match and we didn’t want to interrupt.

Later that evening, Dave, Elizabeth, Noah and I walked back into town, looking for a place to eat dinner.

We wound up at Nancy’s, the strangest dining establishment I have ever visited. It’s in what clearly used to be a house, albeit one that hasn’t been renovated all that extensively since it was built – probably sometime in the late 1800s.

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Nancy’s is up the road, the white building on the right. 

When we first walked in and saw that the tiny dining rooms to our right and left were full, we figured there were no tables.

We kept walking anyway, hoping to find a hostess of some sort. When we reached the end of the entryway, we found ourselves in a bar/dining room, which was attached to two more dining rooms. Every seat was taken.

day 3 bartender at nancy

“Are there any tables?” I asked a server.

“Just hold on a minute,” she said, disappearing.

She returned shortly, with a smile, and said, “Follow me.”

I could not believe there was more space – but she led us through a back room, and then up some stairs, into a space with four tables — and two shelves overflowing with books.

day 3 view to downstairs at nancy

day 3 upstairs room at nancy's

The food was as eclectic as the place: Elizabeth had a “Louis Armstrong Sandwich,” which was basically the world’s cheesiest tuna melt, but made with smoked salmon and smothered with some kind of astonishingly delicious perfectly melted cheese. I intend to spend the rest of my time in Ireland trying to find a restaurant that makes the Louis Armstrong Sandwich.

Noah had salmon and corn mixed together with cheese melted on top. Dave and I had smoked mackerel. For dessert, we ordered Guinness beer cake, and then, because it was so good, and we’d cycled a lot that day, and it was 9 pm and all we’d eaten since breakfast was a scone, we ordered another piece.

day 3 devouring guinness cake

That cake tasted even BETTER than it looks.

After dinner we went back to Eddie’s, where we watched him weave, learned a bit about his family, bought a blanket and a scarf and some socks (the latter of which Eddie doesn’t make), and noticed an article on the wall with a picture of SJP wearing tweed.

day 3 eddie at till

Eddie rings up Noah’s blanket and a pair of socks.

I didn’t read the article: the print was tiny and the light was dim and the headline – “Weavers Prosper as tweed sales get set to rise and rise” — suggested that it was about economics (zzzzzzz) and the picture a mere tease.

When I sat down to write this article, however, I got curious. Why was there a picture of SJP on Eddie Doherty’s wall? So I googled “Eddie Doherty” and “Sarah Jessica Parker” and lo and behold, I discovered that the article was hanging on the wall because Eddie was quoted in it.

Apparently SJP has bought some of Eddie Doherty’s tweed, proving, yet again, that she has excellent fashion sense. (I, on the other hand, have very little fashion sense, but I know what I like, and boy, I liked Eddie and his tweed.)

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My beautiful scarf. A reason to look forward to winter! Thanks, Eddie. 

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The Longest Ride (not really)
2016-06-24

Today, Friday, we cycled (a mere) 20 km from Killybegs to Carrick, but we left at 10:45 and didn’t arrive until 3:30. Noah, who is in the best shape of the four of us, was mortified when he checked out the breakdown of our daily activities on the GPS (which our bike tour operators, Ireland by Bike, provided to us).

“We could have walked faster,” he said.

Not really – it took us such a long time because we kept stopping. (And, okay, I confess: it took us such a long time because there were a lot of hills on the shore route. And they were either long or steep or both. And not all of us can zip up hills like Lance Armstrong in the prime of his blood-doping years.)

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This is the flat part of the hill up from Fintra Beach.

dave, pre-bonking, on hill

Can you see how long and windy and hilly this road is?

But you’re not reading this to hear how out of shape I am. You’re not even reading it to hear about the trip. Admit it: you must want to see the scenery. And now you can understand why we took nearly five hours to go 20 km – we had to stop and gawp every 1500 meters or so (and also catch our breath and wipe sweat off our foreheads).

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Some of my favorite things: the ocean, and sheep. In the same place! (Even Cape Cod doesn’t have that.)

Our first stop was at Fintra Beach, just outside of Killybegs. On the way to the beach we passed a new housing development that looked like something I saw the last time I was at Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, about 15 years ago: boxy little houses on a windswept plain by the sea.

plimouth like houses

I apologize for the less-than-impressive photo of the boxy houses. We passed them while going downhill, and I didn’t want to waste the momentum. So you’ll have to imagine them from this long shot.

Actually, a lot of what we saw today reminded me of Cape Cod. Also, a lot of what we smelled (mildew, seaweed, salt air). I feel very much at home here.

From Fintra Beach we rode along the coast to Kilcar, where we stopped at Studio Donegal, a woolen mill that’s been run by the same man, Kevin, since the 1970s. The weavers – today they were three men who appeared to be in their 50s or 60s — make beautiful wool that’s used for hats, coats, vests, jackets, scarves, and blankets.

weaver in studio 180 threads?

This weaver is making a lot of scarves at once. The person cutting can tell where to cut them, because the wool separating the scarves is a different color.

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This is Kevin, who runs the mill. He was explaining to us how yarn is made from carded wool.

Kevin showed us around. Some of the equipment is nearly 100 years old. It’s maintained by a fellow from Britain who has lived in the area for many years.

wool on spindles

Wool on spindles.

Today’s big news is the Brexit vote: the Brits voted yesterday to leave the European Union. I was itching to know what people thought about it, but it seemed to me that most people we encountered, at least in our B&B at breakfast, weren’t interested in talking about it.

Dave and the kids and I talked about it – we were all shocked and upset (and for me, at least, worried about the implications for the US election) – but the other folks at our table didn’t join in our conversation. Maybe they were just as shocked, or maybe they hadn’t heard about it, or maybe they don’t talk politics with strangers on holiday.

However, Kevin’s son, Tristan, who was working the till, shared his opinion. He is convinced that Britain will keep holding referenda until they vote to rejoin the EU. He also said that he phoned their British employee this morning and joked (at least, I think it was a joke) that the immigration police were heading his way to kick him out of the country.

Instead of politics, we talked about wool. Tristan gave me a lesson about what makes good yarn (it has to do with the number of twists per inch, among other things), and showed me a number of different kinds of yarn for sale.

beautiful yarn on machine

This yarn is in the back room — not for sale to the general public. But you get a picture (literally) of the beautiful colors.

 

bags of wool

After we saw this room, with the dyed wool ready for carding, the song Baa Baa Black Sheep ran through my head for the rest of the day. But there were way more than three bags full of wool in the back room of Studio Donegal.

There’s a commercial knitting mill in town that spins yarn for Studio Donegal. Studio Donegal gets its wool from local sources, and also from New Zealand and Australia. Tristan has also bought the remaining stock from a local farmer who decided to get out of the mohair business (maybe something happened to his goats?).

We wound up spending close to two hours in Kilcar, most of it in the mill, because while we were there the sky broke open and the rain came down in a big way.

studio donegal outside

There’s a saying in Cape Cod: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The same applies to Ireland. I took this picture about 20 minutes after an hour-long downpour!

We were definitely more prepared than we had been last evening, when we got caught in a downpour and only Dave had rain pants.

We were prepared because we stopped on our way out of Killybegs at McGinleys, a nice little shop that sells sporting equipment and clothes. Now Elizabeth, Noah, and I are the proud owners of rain pants. But just because we own them doesn’t mean we want to be out there, cycling in the rain…

modeling our rain pants

My children fail to share my enthusiasm about our new rain pants.

And we didn’t have to, because by the time we left Kilcar, the rain decided to take a nice, long break. It didn’t start up again until about 7:30, by which time we were eating dinner at the Cook’s Pantry in Carrick, a 10-minute walk from O’Neill’s B&B, where we are hunkered down for the evening.

Tomorrow we will head out to Sliabh Liag, also known as Slieve League, or Slieve Leag, or Slieve Lieg (it’s the Irish equivalent of Hannukah –nobody agrees on how to spell the transliteration). It’s a 600-meter-high mountain at the edge of the ocean, with some of the highest cliffs in the country.

Not surprisingly, Noah wants to cycle up. Equally not surprisingly, the rest of us are less than enthusiastic about that idea. Brid (pronounced “Breej”), who runs O’Neill’s B&B, suggested we consider a boat tour around the cliffs.

However, given my propensity for motion sickness (I can’t even sit on a playground swing without wanting to throw up), when faced with the choice between a boat tour and a bike ride up a mountain, I think I’ll opt for a walk.

Stay tuned!