Romancing Charlotte, by Colin Scott (Book Review)

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I’ve been lucky enough to snag a copy of the new novel Romancing Charlotte, by Colin Scott.  On the most obvious level, this is a charming page-turner of a romance set in modern-day Ireland.  With well-developed characters and touching but realistic familial relationships complimenting the various romantic plotlines, this is a great book to cozy up with on a chill evening.

That being said, there’s a lot more to this story:  Scott’s hero and heroine are no ingénues, and it’s refreshing and all too rare to read a romance about folks in their later years.  With a Downton-Abbeyesque twist, Charlotte is the lady of the local manor, while PJ, recently returned from living in the States, is descended from a humbler family.  This division is a tricky one anywhere, and it’s made even more complex in an Irish setting, what with issues of religion and politics.  Scott also weaves in a strong sense of place, and a subplot involving illegal turf-cutting in peat bogs, an issue that is similarly layered and three-dimensional.  While “Colin Scott” is – according to his own twitter profile – a pseudonym, it’s obvious that this Irish author is writing from inside the culture:  Romancing Charlotte takes place in the nuanced, complex world of modern Ireland, not some “top o’ the mornin'” Hollywood version.

The Verdict:  Romancing Charlotte is like a good raspberry cordial:  It’s sweet and goes down easy, but nevertheless can be quite nuanced and much more nourishing than you might think.  It’s a perfect choice for anyone interested in the subtleties of modern Irish culture, for anyone who’d like to take a trip abroad between the pages, and really for anyone looking for a good read that will neither traumatize nor patronize.

Castle Ellen, Athenry, Co. Galway

I’ve realized I’ve posted about several places I’d stayed or visited in Ireland, and neglected to mention one really special location.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get to stay for a couple of weeks at Castle Ellen in Athenry, County Galway.  This 200-year-old domicile is undeniably impressive, and is situated on some absolutely beautiful grounds.  There’s a gorgeous tree-lined avenue, and a large walled garden where I used to play hide-and-seek with Sydney, the resident terrier, when I was on a break from my writing.

The owner, Michael Keaney, is very gracious and has taken on the massive project of restoring Castle Ellen.  Michael opens the property to visitors in the summer, and I’d highly recommend a visit.  You can find out more here.

You can also learn something about Castle Ellen’s history – and see Michael and Castle Ellen on film – in this very interesting program from TG4, Ireland’s Irish-language TV station.  (Don’t worry!  It’s subtitled.)

Stonecutters Kitchen, Doolin, Co. Clare

If you’re on your way to Doolin or the Cliffs of Moher, be sure to stop by Stonecutters Kitchen.  It’s right on the main road between Doolin and the Cliffs, and has some of the freshest and tastiest food I’ve eaten in Ireland.  One of my favorite ways to pass a day on holiday in Doolin is to walk from the Rainbow Hostel, past Fisherstreet, uphill to this restaurant, enjoy some soup and tea and dessert while reading or writing, and stroll back downhill.

The owners and staff are very friendly, as is the resident sheepdog, and the views can’t be beat.  Their plates and teaware are made by a local potter (who, sadly, has moved out of the country) and are a pleasure to use.  Plus, the desserts are absolutely scrumptious.  My favorite is their banoffee pie – a wonderful concoction involving caramel, banana, a graham cracker crust (actually made of digestives), and chocolate.

Learn more and make sure to check out their hours (which vary by the season) at,  and keep track of their delectable specials via facebook here.  I wish I could stop by for lunch now!

Rainbow Hostel, Doolin, Co. Clare

In front of the Rainbow Hostel.
Photo by Kasia.

The first time I stayed at the Rainbow Hostel, I meant to come for a weekend and stayed for over two weeks.  I’ve been returning as often as possible ever since.  This past June was my most recent visit.  It had been four years since my last visit to Ireland, but when the bus dropped me off at the Rainbow Hostel, Carmel gave me a warm welcome, and I felt like it had been no time at all.

The Experience:

Hostel guests on Mattie’s tour.
Photo by Kasia.

Everything about this hostel is great, but Mattie and Carmel Shannon really make it a home away from home.  They’re both so welcoming, and wonderful resources if you have any questions about the area.  Carmel runs the hostel (and the B&B next door) beautifully.  Her delicious, fresh-baked scones are often available in the hostel dining area in the mornings.  Mattie leads fun, informative (and free) walking tours of the Burren.  He points out prehistoric and historic sites, geological features, and wildflowers and plant life that I never even would have known to look for.  They both go out of their way to help.

I’ve had some of the best conversations at this hostel and met an impressive range of people:  This last

Written in one of the many guestbooks
in the Rainbow Hostel’s common room.

year, I met a Polish couple who stood with me at the bus stop for twenty minutes – in the rain – even though they weren’t leaving that day.  I’m still in touch with them, as well as with a Japanese photographer, a French dancer and archeologist, and an American sculptor I met there, just to name a few.  Families, couples, individuals, and even the occasional big group all seem to settle right in at the Rainbow Hostel and become part of the ever-changing community there.  I know I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for this hostel:  The guest books (dating back to the mid-nineties) in the common room contain much the same message again and again:  The Rainbow Hostel is a home-away-from-home, a place where you’ll instantly feel welcome and at ease, someplace you’ll be eager to return to.  I know I am!

The Hostel Itself
The hostel is kept meticulously clean.  All the rooms feel spacious and light.  The bunk beds in the dorm rooms (where I usually stay) are solid wood, and are super-cozy.  The bedding is bright and fresh.  The showers have plenty of hot water.

The kitchen (recently redone) has three full stovetops, two big sinks, and everything you might need in the way of pots, dishes etc.  There’s also plenty of refrigerator space and spacious, lovely wood cubbies for storing food in.  You can find tea, coffee, and lots of other goodies on the spare food shelf, as well as on the top shelf of the fridge.  There are two solid wood tables to eat at, as well as some picnic tables in the back yard.

The common room is my favorite place at the Rainbow Hostel.  It manages to be both cozy and bright.  There is a small but very toasty woodstove, two cozy couches and several chairs, plus a bookshelf filled with titles in a range of languages.  The view out the door is of a stone wall, a lush hillside, and cows grazing outside the ruins of an old stone church up the hill.

A pint outdoors at one of the
pubs down the road.
Photo by Kasia.

The Location
The location is ideal.  The hostel is a short stroll from two pubs, a small food shop, and some restaurants.  It’s only a short walk to O’Connor’s, the convenience store, and several craft shops.  Gorgeous scenery is all around, including the Burren, farms, an incredible range of wildflowers, the ocean, and historic and prehistoric sites.  The Cliffs of Moher can be reached by a quick drive or bus trip or a hearty walk.  The pier (from which you can take a cruise to the cliffs or day trip to the Aran Islands) is an easy walk from the hostel.

Doonagore Castle, a nice walk or
a very short drive away.
Photo by Kasia.

If you have a car, there are tons of options for day trips, including Galway, Clare Archeological Center, the Burren Perfumery, and much more.  I’m just as happy without a car, in which case my favorite plan for the day is to have breakfast and tea, go for a long walk (perhaps across the burren, down the coast to the pier, or up past Doonagore Castle) with a picnic lunch, stop for tea and cake at one of the local cafes and spend the afternoon reading or chatting, come back to the hostel for a leisurely dinner and more great conversations, and then head to the pubs for some brilliant live music.

Thank you so much to Kasia, one of the brilliant people I’ve met at the Rainbow Hostel, for permission to use these photographs!

Dysart O’Dea Castle, Clare Archeology Centre

Watch Kristen flee the Vikings!
(A round tower used by monks to
escape from Viking raids.)

Dysart O’Dea Castle, part of the Clare Archeology Centre, may be a little ways off the beaten path, but it’s very much worth a visit.  While there are castles every which way in Ireland, most of them are closed to the public, since Americans seem so prone to suing people.  Dysart O’Dea Castle, however, is not only open to the public but contains a modest but fascinating museum of local artifacts, as well as a charming film of the history of the place.  The ground floor contains a small gift shop along with a gracious tea room.  When we visited last summer, we had tea and scones – in a castle!  As Americans, that’s quite out of the ordinary.  The tea service was very modestly priced, as was the entrance fee to the rest of the castle/museum.

Beautiful knotwork on a Celtic Cross
gravestone a short walk from the castle.

If that’s not enough, the grounds are packed with history.  The Dysert O’Dea Archeology Trail, despite being only about two miles long, “contains 25 original field monuments [dating] from 1000bc to 1850ad and include two Romanesque churches, the famous 12th century illuminated doorway and high cross of Dysert O’Dea, two 15th century tower houses, 1st millennium stone and earthen forts, holy wells, fulachta fiadh, proselytising schools, landlords houses, medieval roads and many more.”  We did a chunk of this walk, as you can see from the photographs.  The landscape was beautiful, and the monuments absolutely breathtaking.  I’d go back in a heartbeat, and I really can’t recommend this place highly enough for anyone who has any interest in history or architecture.  Check out Dysert O’Dea, and you’ll find history has flown from the textbook pages and is walking along with you.

Part of an archway in a Romanesque church a short walk from the castle.

Burren Perfumery, Co. Clare

As the days get colder here in the northeastern U.S., here are a few more photos from my midsummer trip to Ireland.  When I visited the Burren Perfumery in 2005, for whatever reasons I was nonplussed.  Not so this trip!  We visited the shop first, sampled all of their wonderful new herbal balms, and ended up bringing some borage balm home.  Then we had a walk around the garden, where I took these photos.  Finally, we met a friend at the tearoom for, well, tea.  Everything was so delicious that we stayed on for lunch.  The special was a spiced vegetarian dish served over quinoa, which was an unusual treat, since in Ireland healthy vegetarian options are often limited to a hearty carrot or potato soup.  The Burren Perfumery is out of the way, but well-marked.  If you’re in the area, I highly recommend a trip there, preferably on a nice day so you can enjoy the garden and then sit outside in the cafe.

Taking off from a borage flower.

If you look carefully, there’s a moss-man lying in the bed, and a fireplace to keep him warm.

A moss lady luxuriating in a verdant tub.

Tea in NWK

On the way home from Ireland, we had a layover in Newark.  There’s nothing to make you feel human – after seven hours on a plane and the culture shock of going from Shannon to New Jersey – like a good cup of tea.

(The tea is set on the sill to the right.)

Wildflowers in the Bog (Doolin, Ireland)

As the foliage here in Vermont starts to take on a golden tint, I’m still remembering the lush midsummer wildflowers of Doolin.  Here are a few photos, taken while walking through the bogland above the village.

Dandelion and, I believe, wild thyme.  Dandelions seemed much less prevalent in Doolin than in my hometown.  Perhaps because they thrive on challenges, and the locals in Doolin don’t fight them the way we do in the States!

Nettle and dock together:  The irritant and the anecdote.  (Of course, nettle is itself an anecdote for a lot of ills!)

Honeysuckle mandalas.

This is a thistle.

Tea on the Burren

One gorgeous day in Doolin, with an unexpected couple of hours to spare, we decided to have tea, at the mouth of a prehistoric souterrain in the burren.  You know you’re really lucky when you have the opportunity to sit out under a clear blue sky, surrounded by stone and wildflowers and ocean, and sip on a cup of tie guan yin while contemplating the stories that might live in that stone.  You know you’re a bit of a dork when you have a travel tea kit all set, just in case.

In previous years, I always had a horrible time finding this spot. This summer, I started to get better at seeing the individual features of the burren, and so, tucked away out of the wind, this became a favorite place to visit.

Bloody Cranesbill, a relative of geraniums, was growing over the entrance to the souterrain.

 The way it was described to me, this man-made underground passage would have been used for storing food (since it stays at a cool, consistent temperature), and possibly for hiding in. I was told that fourteen people had once fit in there during a downpour.  It must have been a tight fit!

A Hart’s Tongue Fern growing just inside the entrance, protected from the wind.