AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY

 

BACK to Kinsale again, where the Spanish commander Don Juan d'Anguila had once declared, I hold the town for Christ and the King of Spain".

As it happened, he held the town for nobody; the melancholy Gaelic tale of dissensions and treachery caused a triumph for Mountjoy, the ultimate vanquishment of the earls and the departure of the Don. He might have been more determined in his occupancy had he been staying in Ireland's finest hostelry, the Blue Haven Hotel, which by now must be one of the jewels in the crown of Irish hospitality.

The history of the Blue Haven since I first stayed there in 1979 on business for The Irish Times is a microcosm of the development of tourism in Ireland. Then it was a delightful country hotel very much of its time, its narrow corridors creaking each morning with the slippered scurrying of dressing gown bedecked figures heading for the bathrooms and shared toilets.

That was the norm in those days. Even expensive urban hotels like the Shelbourne obliged their guests to shuffle outside shared plumbing; and few things provide such an inauspicious start to the day as the lavatory seat already warmed by strangers about whom we know nothing other than the fragrance of their rather intimate odours and, by the plimsol line they had just left around the bath - for in those days, not even showers were standard.

Unique culture

What distinguished the Blue Haven then was a unique culture of energy and hospitality. One felt that if one woke at four in the morning and pattered downstairs, there would be revelry in the bar, with a Cronin or two keeping the crack going.

Brian and Ann Cronin had taken over the Blue Haven in 1975, when Kinsale was pretty much a run down resort for sea anglers; they have kept a virtually sleepless vigil there ever since, though Brian was once seen to nod off at six in the morning and Ann has been known to retire to bed for as much as two entire hours without rising once, apart, that is, from preparing breakfast for 20 singing Germans who were going on a route march, and then polishing the brasses before putting her head down for another quarter of an hour's nap.

Back in 1979, Kinsale was embarking on that culinary revolution which helped transform both the town and cuisine in Ireland. Despite the then modesty of its decor, and the warm, steamy intimacy of shared bathrooms, the Blue Haven was in the forefront of that revolution. Then the restaurant was hat sized, but the food was good and seemed something of a revelation to a visitor from Dublin.

Regular visitor

I have visited the Blue Haven regularly since then, and the culture of cordial, indefatigable energy and the omnipresence of the Cronins and, of course, the unique and blessed figure of Margaret Kelly make the hotel unique.

Ah yes, Margaret Kelly. Let us talk of Margaret Kelly, who is a shy figure, strangely so for the hotel business; yet she defines quiet efficiency, and her heart is as good as her demean our is silent. Great hotels need Margaret Kellys running things in the background; they are as rare as truffles in concrete airport runways.

Margaret, Brian and Ann (aided by staff like their current manager, Noel Costello) have kept the Blue Haven in pace with the changing demands of hotel life. Now of course all rooms are en suite and the gowned figures scurrying to a disappointed, slippered shuffling outside a locked bathroom door are as much ghosts as the de Cogans, the de Courcys, Don Juan d'Aguila and others who figure in the history of Kinsale.

The superb Blue Haven restaurant now boasts one of the finest wine lists in Ireland, with a splendid emphasis on the Irish founded chateaux of France. The earls might have flown following their surrender at Mellifont after Kinsale; but their retinues, and others who followed, were men of distinction and managed to prosper in France in a way which their religion and loyalty prevented them from doing in Ireland.

Too sentimental

It is easy to be too sentimental about the earls - Tyrone, after all, who was predominantly a man of the brutal and uncompromising Spanish counter reformation, warned his fellow Catholics of the towns of Ireland, those of Anglo Norman origin, that he would destroy them unless they helped him make Ireland a totally Catholic country.

Yet it is still possible to enjoy how the cycle has turned, five years before the 400th anniversary of Mountjoy's victory at Kinsale. Those who departed and those who were later forced, to depart finally have an honoured place in the town which they left in ignominy. The Anglo Norman Lynches and the Gaelic MacMahons, Kirwans and Hennessys now belong to two traditions, the French and the Irish; and it is worth pondering upon the alcoholic potency of the name Angus, which gives us O hAonghusa, from which we get Hennessy, and Mac Aonghusa, ditto Guinness.

Through Irish history there has been a marvellous renewing vigour to the inter action of Gaul and Gael in which Kinsale has been a microcosm. Normans and French made Kinsale. The Desmond castle of one epoch became the French Castle of another, housing prisoners of war of the Napoleonic times.

That same castle keep is now being turned into a museum to celebrate franco hibernian cultural and trading history, as represented most of all by the wine business. At the heart of the renewal of the Desmond Castle as a wine museum we can of course behold the mild nuclear glow of the Cronin energy field.

Eminent residents

We live, we pass on. Two of, the eminent residents of Kinsale when first I went there, Vivian the sexton of St Multose, and old Mr Coe, a worshipper in the little church above the bay, gentlemen both, have retired to spend the rest of time beneath those churchyards, there joining that vast community which once inhabited Kinsale, its cobbled wynds and its winding cobbles climbing those neat and steeply terraced houses to the hills which make the town a natural fortress.

Kinsale's military days are over, let us hope, for all time for an equal period may it remain one of the jewels of Ireland.