Food Feature: I'm with the band

All-American dreams fulfilled in Ireland

A good vacation allows you to test out roles your normal, ho-hum life doesn't offer. For my boyfriend and I, a trip to Ireland revived a classic teenage fantasy: being a rock 'n' roll singer.

First things first. The best way to enjoy Ireland is to stick to the summer festival circuit. All Irish cities, villages and hamlets, no matter how miniscule, host a summer festival during which just about every town member, age 7 to 70, is in the pubs. The adults sing, dance, get drunk and fall on the floor.

I learned that on my first trip to Ireland, at the annual Puck Festival in Killorglin. At evening's end, I was wearing goat horns made of flashing red neon and dancing beneath a spacious pen dangling high over the town square, which contained a "puck" — a male goat — wearing a jeweled crown.

Alas, this year's trip didn't coincide with Puck.

So my boyfriend Scott and I headed to the Galway Arts Festival. Hundreds of swans line the waterway at Galway's entrance. During the summer, the city center — about 15 blocks of pubs, restaurants and nightclubs — is jammed with street performers. Expect to see everything from girls dressed in skimpy Satan outfits performing flame-throwing tricks to traditional Irish musicians earnestly strumming out Oirish classics like "Streams of Whiskey" and "Waxie's Dargle."

After an afternoon spent gazing at "art" exhibits consisting of lumpy blankets hanging from the ceiling that were somehow supposed to "challenge the assumptions of the artist as subject," I needed a drink. Preferably somewhere unpretentious. We wound up in the Hollywood Bar, a dive on Forster Street. A ragtag group of musicians jamming on guitars at a back table were the only other customers.

Here, I discovered my new favorite drink: Ritz cider. It was bubbly and crisp, like carbonated apple juice. Even better, I could drink two Ritzes in the time it took to consume a Guinness. After three ciders, a band member grabbed my arm and insisted I join the band for a spell.

Ritz cider must be strong stuff. The next thing I knew, I was belting out "Knocking on Heaven's Door" in my own special yowl. The band taught us a few Irish ballads. Then, the lead singer said, "Well, we've got a special tune straight from Georgia, in honor of Y'ALL!"

Must be "Georgia on My Mind," I thought, slugging back half a cider.

An oh-so-familiar jingle-jangle chord was struck. The gray-haired singer started crooning, "Oh life ... is bigger, it's bigger than you and you are not me." Yes, folks, R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."

I dutifully joined the band on the only line I knew: "That's me in the corner, that's me in the SPOT-LIGHT!"

Several hours later, we staggered out.

Next stop: The Ardfert Festival. Ardfert is a quaint village about five miles north of Tralee, in County Kerry. Like many modest Irish villages, Ardfert consists of one small grocery, a post office and ruins of an ancient cathedral. Oh, and at least six pubs.

We were ensconced at McElliott's Pub with our new friends, Mary and Sandra Ryle, two sisters who were personality opposites. Sandra was the bubbly, vivacious party girl. Mary was the quiet one with the witty comebacks. Always fear the quiet one.

Mary plied Scott with Guinness and whiskey. We listened to the house band, and watched as the "Queen of the Ardfert Festival" accepted her crown.

Mary disappeared for a minute. Upon her return, she announced, "Scott must sing with the band."

The color drained from Scott's face. This wasn't Galway and a pick-up band in a dive bar with no other customers or audience. There were about 150 people in this bar. There was a stage. The band was actually good, not a bunch of ragtag losers.

The singer bellowed into the microphone: "Ladies and gentlemen, an American singer named Scott is going to join us. Let's everyone make him feel welcome."

The crowd started chanting, "Scott! Scott! Scott! Scott! Scott!"

Scott was visibly sweating as he was dragged to the stage. The band asked if Scott knew the words to "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." He didn't.

Scott asked if they knew any songs by the Pogues. Nope.

The conversation was taking place over the mic and the audience was getting restless. Finally, the guitarist shoved some lyric sheets in Scott's face. The only song he recognized was "Day Tripper" by the Beatles.

Scott pushed his hair over one eye, slugged his beer and began. "DAY TRIPPER, yeah!"

He needed about seven whiskeys to recover from his "performance."

Perhaps out of guilt, the next day Mary took us to her favorite spot on the Irish coast: Collins' Hot Seaweed Baths and Beach Cafe at Ballybunion Beach, about 30 minutes north of Ardfert. (Fast fact: In Ballybunion town square, there's a statue of former President Bill Clinton swinging at a golf ball. Why? Following his televised confession of "inappropriate" behavior with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton headed straight to Ballybunion for a round of golf. The Irish love Clinton.)

At the seaweed baths, each bather gets a private room. A regular-looking bathtub was filled with long gobs and strands of carefully cleaned seaweed (no critters left).

I lowered myself into the hot water and pulled some seaweed over my body.

The strands were covered with clear, mucous-like goo that is actually seaweed oil released by the water's heat. I sunk into the goo and felt like a character out of Ghostbusters — I'd been slimed. But seaweed oils are tres therapeutic, and the goo is considered a revitalizing beauty treatment. Post-bath, I'll vouch that my skin was soft and my hair super-glossy.

After a seaweed bath, you feel delightfully mellow for several hours, much like the aftereffects of a full-body massage. For 6 pounds (about $7 U.S.), this is a deal that can't be had in hoity-toity American spas.

Added bonus: It's an instant hangover cure. In Ireland, you just can't put a price on that.


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