Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics, it is honour. So, even though I know deep-down that it doesn't really matter which fork I use, I still look forward to a formal dinner. I like to dress up, and watch the choreography between the diner and the server. I like to see the atmosphere consecrated to the point of serenity. Which is why I so loved the Earl of Thomond Restaurant in Dromoland Castle, where formal dining has been raised to an artform.
My wife Neris and I had booked for 7pm. But signposts in Ireland are heavily influenced by Einstein's theories of space and time, and work on the basis that there is no fixed reference point in the universe – not west of Cork, anyway. The fact that they are also bilingual just meant we got lost in Irish and English. But what a place to get lost. The last time I saw Ireland, the bog cotton on the peat looked like snow. This time the snow was real, and thick blankets of it were tucked around the pretty stone cottages.
Then we got lost in Limerick. Which, I have to say, is nothing like the sepia slum of Angela's Ashes. The producers of the film had to find their mean alleys elsewhere because Limerick, flush with hi-tech money, didn't have enough grim reality to go round. As we drove down Roden Lane, young boys who could have come straight out of the book (except that their shoes were too new), watched us with their knowing smiles. "He never lived here," one hollered, and ran off laughing.
So we were an hour late. Which wasn't a problem – local time can be anything between 10 minutes and three days behind GMT, depending on the position of the earth and the whereabouts of whoever has the keys. Willie, the porter, shook me by the hand as we handed over our overnight bags. "Welcome back," he smiled. Even though I had never stayed at Dromoland before. It could have sounded corny. Not from Willie – that man whistles far too much to be a fake.
Dromoland is no boutique hotel staffed by models and out-of-work actors. Reception is staffed by characters. And they make more of an impression than any marketing campaign could ever do. Take Eamonn, who works alongside Willie. Whenever he bids adieu to guests he gets out a handkerchief and starts crying. "It's not that they're going," he whispers. "It's the fear that they might come back." Guests (especially the Americans) like to ask for Eamonn by name.
The restaurant could have been daunting. The chandeliers! I used to think that chandeliers were over the top. Now I understand – that's the whole point. Portraits of the family looked down from the wall, supervising tables that were enrobed in thick Irish linen, hanging down to the ankle and laid with Wicklow silver. Neris and I sat down and everything simply unfurled. For more than three hours we rejoiced in a place that knew how to do it right – unobtrusively and with no fuss.
The restaurant staff removed the silver chargers with a flourish – even when the reveal was nothing more spectacular than a plate of potatoes. But these were the best potatoes I had ever tasted – mashed with butter and onions (colcannon), or grated and fried in bacon fat (boxty). They sat well with my Burren lamb with buttered spinach, brussel sprouts and lardons. In this shrine to leisured dining, Neris enjoyed ravioli of Doolin Bay crabmeat. Unpretentious, fresh, flavourful, local food for around €65 (£40) per head without wine.
Everyone had turned off their mobile phones; they understood that a good formal dinner is a cocoon. The best formal dinners I've ever had have always ended with Neris and I leaving the table and heading up to our hotel room; it's a natural progression. With a wine list truffled with so many treasures, you certainly won't be driving home.
Dromoland was once owned by an eccentric American. He flew someone over from the US just to change a lightbulb. Or so the story goes. And we know how much the Irish like a story well told. Now it is owned by an Irish-American syndicate – the ideal marriage of eccentricity and efficiency. It left me with a real desire to return. I flew back to England a fortnight ago, but still find myself saying "grand". I stop short of calling everyone Da. Thank God, sweet Jesus.
Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, Ireland (00 353 61 368144).Reuse content