A Limerick Weekend of White Russians, Walking, Mushrooms, and Curved Stone Arches

Squalls of rain and galloping clouds followed me down the swerve of the N55, the straight of the M6 and the temptations of the M18 (Gort, Ennis, Ennistymon, Doolin). I was driving down to Limerick to spend the weekend with my son, Joe, last Friday. It was national ‘slow down’ day which encouraged me to stay at the speed limit, so I felt excited and virtuous when I arrived, laden with crusty, a gorgeous looking home-made quiche, bottles of Vodka and Kalhua, and my walking boots.

                Joe lives on Kings Island, so after a few white Russians and a light supper, we headed up to Katy Daly’s opposite the castle for a few. It’s a great local: blazing fire, burnished wood, people in full, Friday night flow of bon-hommie and chit chat.

                On Saturday morning, we headed out early to take Poppins Dog for a walk in the trails of Broadford, before lunching at Springfield Castle where one of Joe’s friends runs a The Green Café on a Saturday. Once we got to Broadford, we sought directions from an old man on a bike. He had few teeth and the thickest of Cork/Limerick accents. With extensive flamboyance, he gesticulated where the trails might start, one of which seemed to be the car park and the other which pointed us in the direction we were facing. So we followed his hand gestures and, after that, a series of blue arrows which led us a merry dance up and down winding, narrow country lanes, past barking rottweilers, and then disappeared (as signage in Ireland does) leaving us in the middle of nowhere in a bleak pine wood landscape and a farm of turbines. So, we stopped the car and headed up on what looked like a Coilte path to explore the windmills. After traipsing through cleared pine forests for an hour, we decided it was lunch time and to go to the Castle cafe just as it started to rain.

                Unfortunately, Google maps had put the X for Springfield Castle in the wrong place so immediately after performing a rather impressive hairpin turn, we ran into a sign which said this is not the entrance to Springfield Castle. Thankfully, the sign gave detailed instructions about turning back, bends, kilometres and stone arches. We knew we had arrived when we turned through above mentioned stone arch and jolted our way along the longest, straightest, gold leafed, tree lined, potholed avenue I’ve ever seen. After brilliant avoidance driving by Joe, we parked about 100 yards away from a fine gothic turreted, Virginia creepered castle in a park land of meadows, trees, ponds and walled gardens (with more stone arches). We followed another, more accurate, arrow through the arch into the walled garden. A middle-aged woman in mac and wellies, with head scarf and empty flower basket over her arm, greeted us with a smile and disappeared through a gate on the right and we turned left for the café.

                On entering, we gasped. It was massive, full of light and stone, with a huge black stove/BBQ structure where Dan, Joe’s friend, was cooking delicious smelling food from the kitchen gardens and farm. Dan had kept us a table and waved us towards it with a steel spatula.

                The grey stone wall was hung wooden pallets turned sideways and decked with green spider plants, ferns, Aloe Vera, and others. Silver dustbin lids, acting as lampshades, lined up high above the long and square tables that looked like they belonged in the dining hall of King Richard III. Old church organ pipes, decorated, hung on the wall, back lit in silver. Blankets were scattered around in case we were cold. The smell from the wild kitchen range was glorious, the tea was strong and served in solid large tea pots, and the staff were friendly and chatty. My skewers of chicken and roasted vegetables were moist (the meat that is, not the skewer) and served with a salad of fresh salad leaves, and an array of different coloured tomatoes. The chips were home made and tasted of potato. The chilli sauce and ketchup were also homemade and beautifully tangy. I wasn’t as convinced by the fermented aubergine, onions and beetroot served as a side dish, but Joe enjoyed his unusual veg hash of onions, potatoes, turnips and strange roots.

                After lunch, Dan suggested we walk around the farm and gardens, keeping Poppins on a leash as there were deer. We wandered into the walled garden, peering into large tunnels of flowers: lupins, marigolds, delphiniums, and through veg beds, all muddy, overgrown, full of weeds which is how I think a walled garden should look. The western tower at the back of the castle (it looks like St Kevin’s at Glenda Loch) looks ruined. The eastern one appears to have been restored and looks lived in. We walked through more stone arches and into a beautiful plantation of birch trees which was saturated with a silver light. We discovered the deer and worked our way around the castle to find ourselves at the front, admiring the luscious spread of deep green and bright red Virginia creeper climbing around and across the six full length ground floor windows and central, grand, stone arched front door. The six gothic turrets give the castle a fairy tale look. Three cars were parked in front, and we chatted to an older man emptying his boot of bags. It was soon obvious that this was Dan’s father. The timbre of the voice and the shape of his eyes matched. It is always startling to see such strong family resemblance. Anyway, Dan’s father told us that the house was originally built in the 1850s but had been burned down by the IRA during the Civil War, except for the servants’ quarters above the stables which had been an extension built in the gothic style. His wife’s great uncle had rebuilt the castle in the 1930s in that same gothic style. Next, their massive collie and black greyhound looking dog soon arrived on the scene and took a territorial dislike to Poppins and launched an attack. Joe plucked her from the growling fray of teeth, shouts and boots and we waved our goodbyes to the sound of frantic apologies.

                “An interesting place,” said Joe as he negotiated our way back down the drive.

                “Must be a nightmare to keep going,” I mused, “I really liked it.”

                I do recommend lunch in the Green Room Cafe if you are in the Limerick area on a Saturday. It’s good food, and interesting. I will go back…we still want to do the trails.

                It was a great start to my weekend which continued to pass in a convivial atmosphere of food, markets, walks and sunny adventures of mushroom picking in Cratloe woods…followed by a wary discarding of said booty. It concluded on the Sunday night with famous fiddler, Martin Hayes in conversation with poet, John Kelly in St John’s Church (not the Cathedral which has the longest spire in Ireland and is incredible gauche looking). St John’s Church is itself a discovery – a gorgeous old church in a splendid limestone fronted square built back in the 1750s by the famous architect, Francis Bindon. I don’t know much about architecture, but when you stand in the square, you know it is perfect. It is perfectly balanced. Fortunately, it was dark, so I couldn’t see the uPVC windows restoration work that I read about later on-line.

                Fortunately, there was no uPVC about Martin Hayes. I don’t know much about the fiddle music, either, but listening to Martin Hayes play was an exquisite experience. I closed my eyes, and it was as if there were a range of musical instruments. I would have said at least three. Martin Hayes does something with his bow which conjures up one melody which seems to dialogue, dance and dovetail with different tunes. It was like magic. He was a great conversationalist too, with many amusing anecdotes about life in the States, New York in particular. A perfect evening.

                We had started our Sunday earlier by having breakfast in Limerick’s Milk Market. I had wanted to visit the mushroom stall there (I need encouragement about my mushroom picking abilities). Sadly, it wasn’t there because apparently it was family relaxation day and not market day. An odd phrase, I thought, Family Relaxation Day, it doesn’t sound very enticing, but whatever…it summed up my weekend in Limerick with my son, walking, talking, eating and drinking, perfectly.

Joe and Poppins
Springfield Castle Tunnels
Birch Plantation
Springfield Castle
Martin Hayes, Fiddler
The Abbey River, Limerick

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