As the Delta 757 touched down on the runway at Dublin Airport, the sound of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" filled the cabin.
The song is not new, and this was an older version. And, to be perfectly honest, my travels to Ireland in the past have not always been in the best of times. There were the Troubles and the economic downturn witnessed in past visits.
But these days, Irish eyes really are smiling as the streets in Dublin and the villages I visited were filled with locals who exuded a sense of optimism and appreciation for both the present and where Ireland seems to be headed.
I am curious about the speed with which Ireland has emerged from its potato famine past to its current status as one of Europe's culinary capitals, a country where, suddenly it seems, every foodie is headed because of both technique and the availability of pristine products free of chemicals and adulterated whatever.
In past visits going back 30 years, I've explored Dublin, Ireland's castles and the traffic-clogged Ring of Kerry.
In 1972, trying to understand the violence, I took a train to Belfast. When I arrived, I set out for the tourist office. It seemed empty, but then a kindly woman came out from the back, seemingly shocked to see anyone. She was concerned about my welfare, and she warned me three times, "Whatever you do, don't get on any bus that says 'Falls Road' on the front."
It took me about 20 minutes to find one of the Falls Road buses, and I found myself crouching down in my seat in the hope that I might avoid stray bullets. It was like sitting in a theater that slowly moved through a war zone.
But that was then, and I needed to see Ireland as it is today. Step back and think about it. How many countries on this planet can you name that simply decided to take on the challenge of sectarian violence and then, successfully, set about ending it? For this alone, Ireland should be a shining example to the world. But as this trip showed, there is so much more.
The Ireland I will long remember from this trip began outside the gates of Adare Manor. We had planned our itinerary carefully over the course of a year and a half. It would take our clients/friends through some of the most beautiful parts of the Irish countryside, concentrating on areas off the beaten track. We would avoid cities. There were 33 of us seeking the "untold Irish story."
Adare Manor is a gracious estate outside the thatched-roof village of Adare on the banks of the River Maigue. It is one of the very top properties in the British Isles, and it served as the home of the Earls of Dunraven until well into the 1980s. It has gone through a meticulous renovation and it is, I think, one of the best preserved neo-Gothic hotel properties in the world.
We had set up a special dinner in the Carriage House the first evening and invited bestselling Irish author Turtle Bunbury to prep us a bit on what we might encounter on our travels.
Bunbury pointed out that we were in a country with a literacy rate somewhat higher than our own back home. The average income in Ireland last year was about $57,500, which compares quite favorably with our own. Unemployment is nil, and healthcare and education are available to all.
But there is something else that Bunbury said we would notice in our travels. With all of its social progress, Ireland is green, shockingly green, a deep, vibrant, lush carpet of green. This is a country that is still agrarian. Most of the population is, in one way or another, still involved in farming.
And that is, I believe, what is so amazing about the place and so uniquely Irish. All that this great land has accomplished in the past several decades has been accomplished while the rural nature of the place has changed little.
I said that the Ireland I will remember began just outside the imposing gates of the Manor. Our wonderful guide stopped the bus and asked us to stare across the road. There were cows. But they were beautiful.
"Now look at these cows," she said. "Look into their eyes. They are actually smiling. If you look carefully you will see that. These are happy animals living a good Irish life."
I stared at the cows -- and there was something different. The entire environment was different, and it was unending. Like a string of precious pearls, the deep, green rural landscape divided movie-set perfect villages and then more cows, more perfectly manicured fields. And always, the cows smiled at us as we passed.
On that first day, I realized what was so unique about this place and just what it was that caused members of our group of seasoned travelers to wander back into the local village to try to pick up real estate materials. If Whole Foods were a country, it would be Ireland. The entire country seems to be organic. The beef and poultry is raised outdoors, and harmful additives are outlawed. The chefs have some great skills, but they also have raw materials that are just hard to find in large cities within Europe.
In Ireland, the animals graze freely. There are mostly what the Irish call "soft days," which means a predictable light shower that bothers absolutely no one in the country. It is a small price to pay for what those soft days produce.
Along the rural roads, one sees small trucks selling Wexford strawberries, prized for their sweetness. The locals know their whiskey, and, yes, they like a pint now and then. No one ever has to say they want a Guinness. It is understood.
But they also know their strawberries, their cheeses and the source of almost anything else they eat. The Irish still patronize the local butcher. We saw signs hanging in a shop that read, "Today's beef is from the McNally farm." There were similar signs showing where the day's lamb and poultry were raised. The locals would know McNally's, and if they didn't care for the particular taste of the family's beef, they would likely pass and come back to the shop in a few days. That is how specific it gets, and that is just how deeply sourcing what they eat matters to the Irish.
Driving from the airport, we passed a Burger King. They had a huge sign in the window proclaiming, "We use only 100% Irish Beef." They would never sell a single hamburger in this country were that not the case.
On our second day in Ireland we went to visit some residents in their home along the water in the town of Killaloe. We ate fresh oysters and went out on a yacht to experience the beauty of Lough Derg. We then forged on for a tasting of local cheeses and homemade chutneys at a lovely 18th-century Georgian property. Later, we walked through a secret door to a private shebeen, once an illegal drinking house on the property whose purpose was to avoid the steep taxes on alcohol. We tasted award-winning craft gins and watched two talented local girls demonstrate sean-nos, old style Irish dancing.
The trip was already having an impact by the third day. Clearly, half of us were addicted to Irish artisanal blue cheese. We found out from the cheesemakers that one should always let the cheese stand out for about 24 hours before consuming. It should never be eaten out of the fridge. We also heard enough "do you really eat margarine" comments to know that, once home, we would never again buy anything but Kerrygold butter. It was that good and that different.
I've met some of the cows that made it. They were, indeed, smiling.