Archive for the ‘Trips/Holidays’ Category

Guinness Beef StewWell, it finally happened…

After four long weeks on the road, we finally found GOOD food. I mean REALLY good food.

Up till now we’ve been subsisting on fast-food, chain-food, and any and all kinds of rubbish-food. It’s been awful and we’ve become increasingly crankier by the day. The final straw came this morning, when we decided not to visit Yellowstone National Park because the traffic jams and crowds felt too overwhelming. You could say we didn’t have the stomach for it.

We needed real food…and soon…but where?

Heading into Butte, Montana, last night, I felt certain we weren’t going to find what we were looking for…sustenance. Aging headframes, derelict buildings (complete with ghost signs), and a 90-foot statue of the Virgin Mary glowing eerily in the distance doesn’t exactly scream, “Good-food served here!”.  But in Butte, the uptown is the downtown, the high is the low, and the locals know there is plenty of great-food ~ from Irish Pasties to creamy Guinness Stew ~ ready for the eating.

Known as “The Richest Hill on Earth”, “The Sodom of the West”, “Ireland’s Fifth Province” and, more recently, the town that is “A Mile High and a Mile Deep”, Butte was once a rich mining community filled with immigrants from around the world, particularly Ireland.

Butte Montana MinersThe first to arrive hailed from Mayo, Donegal and Cork, especially, the Beara Peninsula. By the early 1900s, Irish immigrants, mostly Catholic, made up one quarter of the population. Remarkably, by the turn of the last century, Butte was the most Irish-populated city in America. Almost every able man made his living in the mines, including Marcus Daly of Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, who was known the world over as the Copper King. As co-owner of the Anaconda Mine, Daly was second in American wealth only to Rockefeller.

Though they came for the chance to strike it rich, the Irish never truly left Ireland behind. In Butte, they arrived and promptly built neighbourhoods with names like Finntown, Corktown, and Dublin Gulch. They kept their cultural and ethnic traditions alive through language, celebration and food.

It is the food, in particular, that interests me. As you recall at the start of this post I was lamenting our need for good-food on this road trip. To find it…and then have it be Irish-food…in the middle of Montana…is, well… fascinating. The meal we ate last night at Casagranda’s Steakhouse was as good as any I’ve ever had…and that’s not just hungry road trip talk!  Casagranda’s is known for its perfectly seasoned, hand cut, Rocky Mountain grown beef {which by the way is delicious} but it was the Guinness Beef Stew that bowled me over. Creamy, rich, hearty, and ever-so-slightly sweet, this stew is not like any other I have ever tasted.

The Bertoglio Building, Home of Casagranda’s Steakhouse

I spoke with Lisa Casagranda Randall, co-owner of Casagranda’s Steakhouse, by phone to ask her for a copy of the recipe and to ask if, by chance, she had Irish roots running through her family. Her last name sounds Italian but it turns out Lisa’s great grandparents were both from Ireland, Cork and Donegal to be exact. They came to Montana for work and ended up building a life. Lisa spent many of her summers in Butte visiting family and eventually moved permanently to the area. With her sister Carrie Casagranda Leary, Casagranda’s was born 11 years ago. The Guinness Stew I had last night originally started out as an appetizer served on bread. People liked it so much however, that it eventually became a permanent dish on the menu, with bread served on the side. And though she hasn’t had the chance to visit herself, Lisa hopes one day she’ll make it back to the home of her ancestors across the sea.

Truth be told, from what I saw of Butte, Lisa is living as close to Ireland as someone in America can. It’s very hard to put into words but Butte feels more authentically Irish than any place I’ve been: it’s not like Boston or New York or Chicago. I, for one, hope to make it back soon: perhaps for St. Patrick’s Day 2014. It would be great craic (fun) to see how they do it there. In the mean time, if you are on a road trip and going through Montana, be sure to call in to Butte. Not only will you get a delicious meal at Casagranda’s but also you will find lots of Irish charm, history, and culture at every turn.

Casagranda’s Steakhouse Guinness Beef Stew

Serves 6 to 8


900g/2 lbs stewing beef, trimmed of fat and cut into 2” (bite-size) pieces

50ml/¼ cup canola oil

2oz/¼ cup all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

1 can Guinness Draught (not Guinness Stout, which is too bitter)

500ml/2 cups beef broth

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1oz/ ¼ cup packed dark brown sugar

80ml/ 1/3 cup red wine vinegar


1. Spread beef evenly across a sheet pan.

2. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sift flour over both sides of meat and evenly coat.

3.  Heat canola oil in a cast iron casserole dish until very hot.

4. Add the floured and seasoned beef and sear until golden brown on all sides.

5. Combine Guinness, stock, mustard, sugar and vinegar and mix well. Pour over beef and bring to a rapid boil.

6. Reduce heat to low and simmer until meat is very tender.

7. Serve on its own or “traditional style” over mashed potatoes.


Related Articles:

Great Photos and a list of things to do in Butte at: http://theroadtriphound.com/2013/07/29/when-an-uptown-goes-underground-keeping-the-history-alive-in-butte-montana/

An Irish Times article about Butte at: http://www.ktvq.com/news/butte-most-irish-town-in-america-/#_

A road trip guide to Butte at http://biggestballofstring.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/36w-jan-9-butte-montana/

More great photos and information about Butte at: http://www.ramonaflightner.com/2012/09/04/butte-montana/

Butte’s Irish Language Immersion Programme at http://uhblog.ulsterheritage.com/2010/04/loading.html

An Irish woman’s view of Butte at http://missoulian.com/news/local/an-irish-woman-s-story-of-chance-leads-to-butte/article_59bef3f6-8eb7-11e2-b714-001a4bcf887a.html

The life and death of an Irish copper heiress at http://observer.com/2013/09/odd-but-not-out-of-it-eccentric-heiress-huguette-clark-had-her-wits-about-her-says-new-book/

Marcus Daly at http://dalymansion.org/history/mrdaly.php

NY Times Death Notice for Marcus Daly at http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F10F1FF73B5E14728FDDAA0994D9415B808CF1D3

Butte Today at http://www.mainstreetbutte.org

Interior designer, Bob Richter visits and reports on Butte for the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-richter/rich-in-history-land-and-_b_4095295.html

Timothy Egan writes about his recent trip to Butte for The New York Times at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/12/true-irish/?_r=0

Rants and Reflections on Butte at http://fl250.blogspot.com/2006/06/butte-montana.html

Tried and True Recipes from Three Sisters from Butte at http://tseas.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/tried-and-true-recipes-of-butte-montana.pdf

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IMG_4192As we round out week three on our epic road trip across North-West America, our foursome has become a threesome. My wonderfully gifted, beautiful, sweet, funny, eldest daughter is staying at Concordia for an extra immersion experience. She loves languages and has proficiency in three of them, including Irish. We’ll pick her up in less than ten days and return home to Ireland, but it was with a heavy heart that I kissed her today and said good-bye.

She’s growing up fast…this baby girl of mine…faster than I expected. Not yet a real teen, she is looking beyond the safety of our home and wondering about the world around her.  Secondary school, boys, make up, fashion, parties, dating…I can hardly believe it’s time for us to address these issues in depth. Heck, what I mean to say is it’s hard to believe we’re actually having to LIVE these issues in depth. We’ve talked about them plenty. The dress rehearsal is over and the real show is just beginning. Where has the time gone?

DSC_0100I remember her Baptism day like it was just yesterday. She wasn’t even a month old. I was doing up the pearl buttons on the back of her Irish Christening gown, while my husband held her to his chest. “Why are you crying?”, he asked. “Are you ok?” My lovely husband…so concerned and so bewildered at the same time. “No, Love. Don’t you know? This is the first of her five white dresses.”, I choked out between sobs. “Her what?!”

Her five white dresses.

Growing up a Catholic girl, I can define my life in a series of dresses…all of them white. There’s the Baptism gown, followed by the Communion, Confirmation, graduation, and, finally, the wedding gown. On that special day so many years ago, I realised that our daughter’s Baptism day was the beginning of the end. The first time I understood that precious babies, placed carefully in our arms, are only ours on loan for a {brief} period of time. These amazing children we so desperately want and love are ours by the grace of God and we don’t get to keep them. He gives them to us and then demands we let them go.

We’re only two dresses into her life right now, but I am already struggling with the idea of letting go. Three dresses remain. Most likely she’ll leave our Irish home long before she dons the final dress. It makes me sad and I can hardly bear thinking about it. But, I must…for her sake…and for mine.

Little by little, I let the sadness escape. I liken it to fiddling with a balloon. Because you don’t want to let all the air out at once, you pull back on the sides of the mouth piece and let a little out at a time.  Today was one of those times. We hugged. We kissed. I imparted a few gems of wisdom and then turned completely on my heels {with a glance or two back}, got in the car, waved, and drove away. Through tears, I could see her in my rear view mirror, standing in the gravel car park, waving back.

IMG_4142The last few weeks have been tough. Four of us, strong personalities, in a car traveling the highways of North-West America. Those roads are pretty dull, yet our experience has been anything but. We’ve argued. We’ve cried. We’ve shouted. We’ve smelled bad. We’ve been sick. Through it all…we’ve been together. I know it has not always been easy but it has been special. There’s still several hundred miles ahead of us. I don’t have to wonder any more whether this adventure has been worth it. I already know that it has.

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Gathering round the evening campfire.

Gathering round the evening campfire.

It has been several weeks since I last blogged but you’ll understand when I explain that our traveling four-some has been deep in foreign-language country.

Technically we were in north-west Minnesota, at a camp run by Concordia Language Villages, but the immersion of the camp was so deep that we might as well have been abroad. From food to spoken word, we were in another world.

Language learning through crafts.

Language learning through crafts.

So how was it? It was wonderful. Interestingly, each of us had a different experience. The two girls seemed to thrive because they did what all kids do…they just got out there and spent time with their peers. With no real effort, their language proficiency grew with each passing day.  And God bless my dad, after three years of taking a foreign language at his local university, he had no problems whatsoever with the cultural shift. He found the adult group talks about politics, religion, and social issues a very pleasant and invigorating way to test his skills. Getting sick mid-way through the camp didn’t even set him back much. As for me…I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride of exhaustion and breakthroughs the entire time. For a few days, I was fine and then, suddenly, I was unable to think or speak. Our camp administrator said this was a perfectly normal adult reaction to full language immersion. In other words, “Don’t give up, Love.”  Sure enough, about every three days, I hit a wall and then, after a good night sleep, was able to translate words in my head and speak them with relative ease.

Camp counselors hamming it up.

Camp counselors hamming it up.

If you’re not familiar with Concordia Language Villages, here’s the scoop: Concordia is the premiere language and cultural immersion program in the United States. For 50 years they have helped learners develop a deeper appreciation and skill base for going out into the non-English-speaking cultures of the world. Concordia offers courses in 15 different languages and uses skits, songs, meals, games, activities, class sessions and general conversation as their teaching methods. From the minute you check into a camp, you feel as though you have left the United States and entered into the country whose language you wish to learn. There are programs for youths, adults, and families, and classes are available year round.

Remarkably, few people have heard of Concordia. Case in point, while we were staying in Detroit Lakes we mentioned to people that we were on our way to a foreign immersion camp nearby. No one we spoke with knew there was a clutch of foreign language schools just a few hours away! Such a pity.

Meringues (14)If you’re interested in a foreign language immersion experience that isn’t in the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking region of Ireland), perhaps Concordia Language Villages is the place for you. We certainly enjoyed it.

And, speaking of things this Irish family enjoys…today I am passing along this easy-to-make recipe for mini-meringues. They keep well for weeks in an airtight container or ziplock bag and are a great snack in the kid’s lunch boxes or for when you want a little something sweet with a cuppa. They even make an adorable pudding (dessert) when served sandwich-style with a dollop of cream, caramel or jam between two of them. Mmmmhhh….wish we’d brought some along for this road trip. Enjoy!


Makes 24


2 egg whites, room temperature

½ cup/4oz/100g caster sugar (granulated sugar)


1. Preheat oven to 225°F/110°C. Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper (parchment paper).

2. In a spotlessly clean bowl, whisk the egg whites and sugar with an electric mixer until it forms stiff peaks. (You know you’ve whipped it enough when the mixture holds a stiff  a peak that looks like shaving foam.)

3. Using two teaspoons, spoon 24 little blobs on the greaseproof paper. Bake for 40 minutes or until crisp. Turn the oven off and leave the meringues in the oven for another 5 minutes, if you like your meringues crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, or 20 minutes, if you like them crispy inside and out.

4. When completely cool, put in an airtight container. Meringues will keep for weeks.

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Day five of a road trip is a good time to stop and take a break. So today we are resting in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota {which has absolutely nothing to do with Detroit, as my eldest daughter keeps pointing out}.

Image from Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce Magazine

Image from Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce Magazine

At first glance this little town of 8,600 is another American tragedy, with strip malls and fast food restaurants to greet you as you exit the highway. Head down to the lake shore area, however, and a  wonderful little village of shops and restaurants opens up. Located just 40 minutes east of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes is in the heart of Minnesota’s famous “lake country”. There are some 400 lakes within 25 miles. Today, I care only about this one.

Driving with my dad and two daughters across the country has been more difficult than I thought it would be. The moment my father disciplined my youngest with a stern, “Because your mother said so!” and she replied with an equally stern, “I wasn’t speaking to you!”, I wanted to find the eject button in my car and fly myself someplace less stressful. You see, my youngest child and my dad are birds of a feather who definitely can’t flock together for too long. Both are strong willed and short tempered. I have been the little piggy in the middle more than once and I am not sure how much longer I can go on without a burst of tears to clear the air. Family road trips…don’t you just love them?


Sun Setting Over Detroit Lakes

As I sit here at the lake, watching the sun set, I’m trying to figure out if this family drive was a good idea or a bad one. Are we really only half-way through it? In this exact moment, this trip feels like a bad idea but, maybe {just maybe}, when time has sanded the edges off the harsh reality that is four people, three generations, two kids all in one SUV, I will be glad we had this time together. Thank goodness the car isn’t smaller.

I’m being called for S’mores on the beach. Gotta run. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Just one last question for the night…do you think there’s any chance those S’mores will come with a side of wine?

Related Articles:

Pairing Wine with S’Mores at Sunset.com, Wine and Good Food, and Real.Good.Wine.com

Semifreddo S’Mores Recipe at Food & Wine

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The Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota

The Corn Palace

To a writer, the open road and a blank page are a lot alike: both are ideal spaces for creating a good story. As I climb into bed with my laptop tonight, I wonder what kind of story we will have written by time this epic holiday is over: a thriller, a horror story, a comedy, perhaps?

The first two days have gone well. The kids are delighted with the movies I bought a few days ago at Walmart. They have watched them back-to-back nonstop since we left. Some of you Dear Readers may abhor this idea, thinking kids should be looking out the window at all the lovely changing vistas before them but to that I say: “Ha! You clearly haven’t been on a road trip since your parents last took you!”

Yes, my friends, road trips have changed. Back in the dark ages {that’s when you and I were kids} there was nothing to do in a car except look out the window, listen to whatever radio station your parents deemed appropriate, play classic car games like Spot the License Plate, play cards with your siblings {when you weren’t wishing them dead for bothering you} or go to sleep.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial

Nowadays, particularly in America, but also in Ireland, cars and parents are equipped with so much modern technology that kids are used to and expect to live in a bubble of full-on entertainment. And, while I know there’s been no scientific research done on this, when forced to stare out the window for long periods or listen to our music or deal with one another for hours on end, modern kids may actually spontaneously combust! I don’t know…I’m just saying…

My dad is a young 70-year-old. He remembers, very well, driving my mother, two brothers and me across America in a two door Mustang many years ago. I can tell he’s not completely happy with the way families today road trip. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very thankful my girls aren’t fighting like cats in the back seat, but he wants them to SEE America. Several times, in the last forty-eight hours, he’s stopped their movie-viewing pleasure with comments like “Girls! Do you see the cows?” and “Hey, look, antelope!” I haven’t the heart to remind him that, when you live in the country, live-stock and wild animals are something you see every day, and that I’m ok not having to bring peace to the middle seats while driving at 85+ miles per hour.

The other thing I can tell my dad’s not really au fait with is spontaneity. He’s much more of a “we’ve decided to do X, so that’s what’s we’re going to do” kind of guy. Right now he’s tolerating our unplanned stops and no-hotel-booked-laissez faire attitude but I’m not sure how much longer that will last.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Since leaving yesterday, we’ve ticked Wyoming, South Dakota and a wee bit of North Dakota off our “states of the north-west” trip. We’ve stopped for our first chocolate dipped ice cream cone at Dairy Queen, had our fill of fast food, and visited the Badlands, The Corn Palace, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore. We did not stop at Wall Drug Store, the Ingall’s Homestead (of the Little House on the Prairie book series), Custer State Park, the Jewel Cave, the 1800 Town, the Wind Cave or many other local attractions because there just wasn’t enough time. Who knew there are so many beautiful, historical, interesting, and kitschy places to see along U.S. Highway 90?

Tomorrow our plan is to drive to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Before I sign-off this evening, I’ll leave you with a recipe we saw at Mount Rushmore for Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream. It dates back to the 1780s and was served to guests at a state dinner in 1802. Enjoy!

jb_progress_icecream_2_m[1]Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream Recipe

2 bottles of good cream

6 yolks of eggs

½ lb. of sugar


1. Mix the yolks & sugar.                                                                                                                                                                                        2. Put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of Vanilla.
3. When near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar. Stir it well.
4. Put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s sticking to the casserole.
5. When near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
6. Put it in the Sabottiere (an ice cream mold).
7. Then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
8. Put salt on the coverlid of the Sabotiere & cover the whole with ice.
9. Leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
10. Then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes.
11. Open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabotiere.
12. Shut it & replace it in the ice.
13. Open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides.                                                                                                                    14. When well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
15. Put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
16. Then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
17. Leave it there to the moment of serving it.
18. To withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.

Related articles

* Recipe information sourced at: http://www.mtrushmorenationalmemorial.com/jefferson-ice-cream-8850.html, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/ice-cream, and http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-thomas-j-10903.

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Dear Friends…I’m a little behind in my posting so please excuse the delay as I work towards present day. I have been writing regularly but because we have been on a family road trip {often without internet service}, I have been unable to get those musing uploaded. What follows for the next little while will be a series of delayed posts until I can bring you back up to speed with what’s been happening In {our} Irish Home.

Road Trip America: Destination…North Western States


June 8th – When you’re an American mom with Irish American children, there’s a certain niggling feeling of wanting your children to better understand their “other” home country. With that in mind, I have decided to take the kids and my dad on a road trip across north-west America. {note: the lovely husband has decided not to join us…could this be because he’s wiser than I am?}

We’ll be following no particular agenda, but rather blazing a path through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. You may be wondering, “why this particular route?” In a nutshell, my children have been very fortunate to see the glitz and glamour of America. From surfing in Maui to ferrying past the Statue of Liberty, they have seen it all and now I think they need to see “the middle bits”…the not so chi chi miles in between.

Another reason for this particular trip is we are planning to immerse ourselves in a foreign language. By that, I don’t mean English! Following the Irish tradition of kids going off to Irish summer colleges, where students live the Irish language for a few weeks, we are heading off to immerse ourselves in a foreign language at Concordia Language camp in northern Minnesota. In reality, I know we should probably be sending the girls to the Gaeltacht to learn cúpla focal (a couple of words) in Irish but that wouldn’t suit my goal of getting them better acquainted with America, now would it.

And so, today we’re off. The car we keep at our home on the edge of the Rockies is packed to the brim. We have snacks (see the recipe for Irish Flapjacks below) and water and road side emergency at the call should anything go wrong. Our musical selections have been uploaded to our iPhones and iPods. My dad has even brought a big box of c.d.’s for our listening pleasure. New memory cards have been inserted into everyone’s camera. We have maps and movies. I only hope we haven’t forgotten anything.

The things I’m most looking forward to include: finding some great places to eat, having a DQ chocolate dipped ice cream, stopping at some of the “World’s Largest”…whatevers, seeing Mount Rushmore, driving through Yellowstone National Park, and, of course, being on the open road.

Road trips in America are epic. I’m ready to share the experience with my daughters and dad. Wish us luck…here we go!

Irish Flapjacks

Makes about 24


24 tablespoons/12oz butter

2 tablespoons golden syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup/4oz brown sugar

½ cup/4 oz sugar

1/3 cup+1 tablespoon/3oz flour

4 cups/13oz jumbo rolled oats


1. Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C.

2. Melt butter in a large sauce pan.

3. Add golden syrup, vanilla, and butter. Bring to a simmer and stir.

4. Remove from heat and add flour and oats. Stir well and spread into a Swiss roll tin or deep baking tray approximately 10 x 15in (25 x 38cm).

5. Bake in the oven on a middle shelf for 20-25 minutes or until golden.

6. Cut into squares while still warm. Remove from the tin and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

7. Store in a container with a tight fitting lid.

Related articles:

On online guide to offbeat American tourist attractions: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/blog/

Follow the Elliott family as they travel, slowly, across America: http://awayishome.com/

For thirteen months, this Florida family of six travelled all 50 states: http://www.hoamteam.com/Hoamteam/Welcome.html

Sticking with the family road trip theme, this family of four have made visiting America’s “World’s Largest” sites their driving goal: http://gobigorgohomeblog.com/912

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Darina Allen by Koster Photography.jpgI don’t know how I missed it!

Every now and again for the past year, I’ve been googling “Darina Allen” looking for a blog. Surely Ireland’s most celebrated cookery writer and founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School would have one. Then, last month, I noticed a comment about Darina Allen and her relatively new blog whilst looking at the Irish Food Bloggers Association website.

It seems Darina started blogging on 14th June last year. In her own words, “it was a rough start initially” but in the last eight months she’s really taken off…literally. Darina’s blog reads more like a journal of food travels than recipes. To date she’s taken us to such places as Cambodia, New York, Sri Lanka, Mexico and, of course, all around Ireland in search of discovering food trends.

For those who don’t know her, Darina is to Ireland what Alice Waters is to America. She is credited with starting up the first Irish farmers market a decade ago. There are now over 150 of them across Ireland. Three years ago, she and Waters put forward an idea that lead to the Slow Movement’s Annual Grandmother’s Day, with the hope that grandmother’s Forgotten Skillscould help end child obesity by teaching their grandchildren to plant and cook dishes made with fresh local ingredients. She is author of 16 books, including Forgotten Skills of Ireland, Ballymaloe Cookery Course and, an old standby, Simply Delicious.

I had the good fortune of meeting Darina while attending the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shangarry, County Cork many years ago. She’s a quick wit, a wonderful teacher, and a food activist in Ireland and beyond. Ballymaloe is one of the only cooking schools in the world located on an entirely organic farm. In fact, it was my time spent at Ballymaloe which led to me developing organic kitchen gardens at our home in Ireland and in America.

If you visit Ireland and have an interest in cooking, consider a trip to Ballymaloe…there is a 12 week certificate course, over 60 shorter courses, and many afternoon classes to enjoy. And, if you’re just a fan and want to know what Darina’s getting up to, check out her blog.

And, if by chance you’re visiting the Cork area this weekend, Darina is hosting the first ever Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine at the Grain Store, Ballymaloe House and Ballymaloe Cookery School.

BallymaloeLitFestFoodWine250[1]There will be an incredible line-up of over 40 speakers including: Alice Waters, Madhur Jaffery, Claudia Roden, Bill Yosses (The American White House Pastry Chef) Stephanie Alexander (from Australia), Claus Meyer, Camilla Plus, Rowley Leigh, and David Thompson. Jancis Robinson MW and her husband Nick Lander are coming over from the U.K., as are Joanna Blythman, and some of the new young voices in food: Thomasina Miers, Stevie Parle, Alys Flowler, and Claire Ptak. And, that’s just the beginning. This international cast will be matched by a strong Irish presence. You’ll have to look at the Litfest.ie website to get the whole picture. It’s quite a tempting line-up!

Happy reading and cooking.

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It’s been two weeks since Irish filmmaker Nick Ryan won the Sundance Film Festival Editing Award for a World Cinema Documentary for The Summit. The night before the award was announced, Nick spoke with me and photographer Michael Coles at length about the making of the film and the shocking tragedy that left eleven of twenty-four climbers dead or missing on K2 in August 2008.

You haven’t been asked much about your personal life but given I have many readers who live in or are from Ireland, I know they’ll be curious to know a bit about you. Where did you grow up? Many places in Dublin: I’d say Cornellscourt, Cabinteely, for most of my life. I also lived in Delgany, when I was a kid.

© 2013 Michael Coles

© 2013 Michael Coles

What about Secondary School and University…where did you go? I went to Blackrock College and then I went to Dun Laoghaire Art College, now Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology. I studied graphic design there.

You went from graphic design to film? What happened there? Simply…I always made films but it didn’t seem, at the time, when I went to art college, a particularly good route to follow career-wise. There weren’t many real jobs back then for film makers in Ireland so I figured I’d go to art college and learn a trade.  Graphic design was something I was always interested in and that was the career path I thought I’d take but I never really practiced graphic design. After college I went directly into computer graphic animation, then through to visual effects, commercials, music videos, and then short films.

This next question may not seem relevant but it will be later on. Are you married and have you a family? Yes, I’m married and no we don’t have children.

Now, we’re done with the personal stuff, let’s talk about The Summit. This is your first big film, isn’t it? Yes. It’s my first feature. There were two short films before The SummitBlue Sky and The German. As I was finishing The German in 2008, this story (The Summit) was brought to me.

I read an article where you were referred to as a “freshman” filmmaker. How does that sit with you? Was this in a lovely Variety review, perhaps?

© 2013 Michael Coles

© 2013 Michael Coles

Yes… I take it you’re not amused! {laughter}

You have to admit, you’ve gone from doing two shorts films to making a really big film in The Summit. That’s an enormous leap, don’t you think? It’s not really. Well…I suppose it is and it isn’t. It’s an entirely different approach, without a shadow of a doubt.  I tried to employ all the narrative skills I have to tell this story.  I’ve always been a narrative story-teller and this one was just so big, hence the structure of the film and the way it is shot. It’s definitely a film for a big screen and not just a “television film”, if you know what I mean.

You worked with the writer Mark Monroe. Yes. Mark Monroe… he’s a very talented writer. He wrote a film called The Cove and also Who is Dayani Crystal which is here at Sundance. We worked very, very, hard on this film. It was such a complicated story to tell.  Basically everyone had a story on the mountain and we tried to deal with the complexities of those stories but do so in a manor…without sounding crass because it was an event where many people were killed… that would keep people engaged the whole time.

The Summit could easily have been just another “talking head” documentary. Yes, it could have been but this is really a story about adventure and human tragedy and that fascinated me. I thought it worked better as a narrative rather than a {traditional} documentary.

Some say you’ve crossed a new boundary with The Summit into something that’s never been done well before in documentary film making. Critics have described it as “dynamic”, “irresistible” and “compulsively watchable”. We knew from the beginning there was archival footage from the mountain taken by Ger and the other climbers. But there was obviously some footage that was never taken. I wanted to recreate that without being sensational about it. In all there were quite a few sources. The reconstruction we shot in the Eiger, Switzerland and then there was the aerial photography on K2. And, of course there were the interviews. Robbie Ryan, my cousin, did the cinematography for the film and it is really amazing.

Your cousin? Well, yeah, he happens to be my cousin…but he also just happens to be one of the best cinematographers in the world. He’s shot all of Andrea Arnold’s movies.

© 2013 Michael Coles

© 2013 Michael Coles

So you and Robbie are related. Is that how you got him involved? No, no, no. Robbie shot my previous film, The German. And, he was the right fit for what I was trying to do on the mountain.  Robbie’s style is very visceral and loose and he’s …you know… he’s just one of the best. It wasn’t nepotism. He didn’t “need” this gig, shall I say.

No, of course he didn’t. Emmh, no. He’s just one of the best and he also happens to be my cousin.

How did this film come to you? It started very soon after the actual events on the mountain. Pat Falvey, who was a friend of Ger’s, came to us. They had climbed together before and in 2003 they went to Everest and Pat’s life had been saved by Ger and Sherpa Pemba Gyalje.  At the time of the accident, Pemba hadn’t gotten much recognition in the media for the amazing work he’d done on the mountain and the world wasn’t aware of anything Ger had done yet. And so, at first, we were really looking into that but then by December 2008, Pemba was on the cover of National Geographic and was named Adventurer of the Year so it was a little disingenuous to suggest that he wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved for his heroic deeds.

About that time the mystery surrounding Ger McDonnell’s last movements came to light. I’d interviewed so many people and all the stories were just that little bit different…which is one of the effects altitude can put on people. It was all these divergent points of view that struck me as, “Wow! This is interesting. There’s more to this story than meets the eye.”

How many hours of film did you have to go through in order to make The Summit? Roughly about 500 hours.

You are not a climber yourself. No. I am not. I’ve seen the mountain with my own eyes and it’s impressive. It’s scary. But, I’m not a climber. I got sick after being up there. I spent one hour and twenty minutes in a Pakistani helicopter, at over 7,000 meters, without oxygen. Not that they didn’t give it to me. It was at my feet but I was holding and controlling the camera system that required two hands and I was looking at a screen, so I wasn’t able to hold something to my face and breath.

What’s it like up there? It’s absolutely incredible. You know, at that altitude you think you wouldn’t be able to breathe but it feels the same as it does right here. You don’t feel the difference or changes happening to your body.

© 2013 Michael Coles

© 2013 Michael Coles

You look out there and it is three miles down and K2 is right there beside you, it’s just amazing. When I strapped myself into the helicopter that morning, I remembering thinking “What am I doing? What am I doing?” But literally an hour later, by the time I was up there, it didn’t even concern me anymore.  I should have known something was up when I wasn’t scared in the slightest. That was truly the give-away. I was scared until I got up there and then it all went away and that was a sign that things were not right.

Were you loving it? No, I just remember being, almost, euphoric. There were so many factors going against us ever seeing the mountain…time, no money to do this… and then it was all pure luck the way it came together. The weather was in our favour. The pilots themselves said, “We’ve seen the top of K2 and we’ve seen the bottom of K2, but we’ve never seen the whole thing at one time.” When we saw the whole thing, the pilots said to me, “The gods are smiling on you!”

Yes, about those pilots…Well, I sort of got them into trouble because when we returned I said, “I can’t believe we got to 7,500 thousand meters” and the station chief, the head of the base, turned around and said, “You did what!?”

That’s a thousand meters above the actual operating ceiling of the helicopter in terms of safety. You know, those pilots were great. They knew what we were trying to do and they helped us. They were incredible. You could actually feel the helicopter straining at times.

I know people are really fascinated by that element but really this is a story about these people’s lives. It’s a tragedy. In one way I love talking about the technical aspects of making the movie but, underneath it all, it’s about them.

It’s been said that you broke a world record for flying up K2 for the making of this film. Have you contacted Guinness World Records yet? No. There were no officials up there to record what we did but I’m sure if we triangulate from the cameras we can prove we were there. We also have the Pakistani pilots to confirm it.

Although you’re not a climber, it seems you’ve employed the same intensity in the making of The Summit that a climber uses when attacking a mountain. What would your wife say? I don’t know really but one of the more interesting aspects and one of the “draws” for me…which I haven’t really discussed with anybody…is the statistics of K2. I don’t mean to sound like I’m glossing over the horrific deaths but, you know, only 1 in 4 successfully summit and make it back down K2. At first I was dismissive of why anyone would put their lives at such risk but by July 2011, some three years into this, I found myself having to go to the mountain see it for myself.

© 2013 Michael Coles

© 2013 Michael Coles

I’d spent a year getting visas to fly with the Pakistan military to 7,500 meters and basically the odds of that trip being successful was 1 in 3 so it would be pretty hypocritical of me to turn around to the climbers and say, “You know, you’re an idiot! Why are you taking such a risk?”

I had to tell my wife those statistics, actually, I don’t know if I gave her a full example, but I did have to meet her one Friday and say, “Look, here’s a card for a solicitor. You need to go and sign a will. What we’re doing is dangerous.” Primarily because everyone was telling us that going through the northern territories of Pakistan was a huge terrorism risk. In the end, it was absolutely fine.

In your opinion, what kind of person takes on the risks of a mountain like K2? When we started, I wanted to know what kind of person does this and why. As it turns out there are many reasons why they do what they do. K2 is surrounded by obsession. Wilco, the Dutch climber…this was his third attempt. Ger, this was his second. He was nearly killed in 2006. It just takes a certain kind of intense personality.

Ger McDonnell is a huge part of this film. What did you learn about him through this process? Ger wasn’t a commercial climber. He climbed for the spirituality and the love of climbing. He didn’t do it for sponsorship. He was embarrassed to tell people that he’d even climbed Everest. He wasn’t the kind of guy to go out and shout around what he’d accomplished. That’s why Ger was so central to the story. He was a little different from most of the other climbers. Some people climb for a living. You’ll see them in this film. You know, like the Sherpas and the western climbers. Some climb for a living and then go around giving motivational speeches and telling everyone about it. They are the professional adventurers. Ger was different. He wasn’t like that.

If you could give me a few words to sum up the essence of Ger, what would they be? He was a great guy, full of life. He was a real gentle man…a diplomat on the mountain. He was well liked and kind and accepting. I’d also add that I don’t believe he was hardwired to be a K2 climber. The unwritten code of the mountain is that if a climber gets in trouble or goes off course, he’s on his own.  Ger just couldn’t leave those guys on the mountain to die without trying to help them first.

© 2013 Michael Coles

© 2013 Michael Coles

What has been the high point of the Sundance Film Festival for you? The Festival has been absolutely incredible and I’m so proud to have been able to show The Summit here. Also, the audiences are astounding. We have been playing to packed audiences and people have been getting turned away at every screening.

How have you enjoyed Park City? Absolutely. It’s a great place. Very beautiful.

Nick Ryan, thank you very much. It’s been lovely to meet you and learn more about the process of making The Summit. You’re welcome.

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Irish Producer/Director Nick Ryan won the Sundance Film Festival Editing Award for a World Cinema Documentary this past weekend in Park City, UT for his thrilling film The Summit.

Flying to an altitude of 23,500 feet (7,162m) on K2, a mountain more challenging and dangerous than Everest, Ryan operated a Cineflex camera system mounted to a Pakistani Army helicopter, filming aerial footage of the shoulder above Camp 4 and the Serac. His film chronicles “the deadliest day in modern mountain climbing history,” and sheds light on the still-unresolved 2008 expedition in which 11 of 25 climbers died. The story focuses on Irish climber Ger McDonnell, originally from Kilcoran, Co. Limerick, who risked his own life to save others.

The Summit will première in Ireland at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on Sunday, 24th February, at 2.30pm at the Savoy.

Praise for Ryan’s film includes:

“This remarkable film puts us in their shoes – literally between the world’s most ferocious rock and the icy hard place of imminent death. As such, The Summit dignifies the actions of the surviving climbers by putting their earth-bound detractors in their precipitous plight. Similarly, the technical contributions merge in ferocious splendor: Howling winds, topped off by Nick Seymour’s edgy musical score, acclimatize our senses to the deep drops and harrowing heights of The Summit.” – The Hollywood Reporter

“Remember Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 action film Cliffhanger? Well, it’s nothing like that. The Summit is a hell of a lot more intense, and it’s a way better all around film with an intriguing story.” – Geektyrant.com

“The Summit…, it’s well worth catching on the largest screen you can find. A fascinating insight into the lives and deaths of those driven to conquer the world’s most ‘perfect’ extremes…The Summit is informative and diligent film-making. it’s never less than engrossing.” – Twitchfilm.com 

“The alluring imagery, thorough research, and emotive content does ensure a gripping and distinctly human story. The result is a brutal but fascinating affair. – Thehollywoodnews.com

“The project attracted some of the most talented names in documentary filmmaking. Writer Mark Monroe (of Academy Award-winning The Cove and The Tillman Story,) and Academy Award-winning executive producer John Battesk (Searching for Sugar Man, Restrepo, The Imposter). – Siliconrepublic.com


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Still from the Irish film, The Summit, directed by Nick Ryan.

Still from the Irish film, The Summit, directed by Nick Ryan.

“Curiosity will conquer fear more than bravery will”, so said Irish poet and novelist James Stephens.

Yesterday I was curious, fearful and brave nearly all in one breadth.

Here’s what happened…Around lunchtime it occurred to me that I was blessed to be in Park City, Utah attending what is, without a doubt, one of the most prestigious film events in the world. Enjoying films, educating myself and attending some parties is absolutely brilliant but I started thinking about what a waste it would be to not use this opportunity to reach out to the Irish community at Sundance. What a bigger waste not to tell you, Dear Readers, about the cinematic work the Irish brought to Sundance.

So, I wrote a blog about the “short” film called Irish Folk Furniture. I linked the story to YouTube so you could see the film and mentioned how director Tony Donoghue had won the Short Film Special Jury Award in Animation.

Next, I set my sight on the other Irish entry, The Summit, which has been nominated for the World Cinema Documentary Award at Sundance. It’s been a good year for the Irish at Sundance!

Figuring out how to see The Summit and meet director Nick Ryan had me stumped. I tried to purchase tickets to the film weeks ago but had been unable. It was completely sold out. I even went to the Sundance Box Office on several occasions and had been told “not a chance”. Seeing the film wasn’t my only desire, however. I wanted to meet Nick Ryan. I wanted to interview him for In an Irish Home. I wanted for you to learn something about Nick and The Summit that wasn’t already printed somewhere else. That was my curiosity.

My fear is that I don’t see myself as a journalist. I see myself as a writer. Even if I could get an interview with Nick Ryan, would he see me as a joke? Would he feel I was wasting his time with my trite questions? Is my blog too small for someone who’s achieving such big success? Doubt filled me with fear.

Then something happened. I decided to let curiosity win over fear. Bravery stepped in too. I decided what I needed was to try and, if necessary, fail. After all, isn’t that what I’m trying to teach my daughters? So I went back up to Park City’s Main Street and marched into the Sundance Box Office once more. While I walked I asked God to “please let me meet a ‘real’ journalist so I could pick his or her brain and learn {quickly} how to be a good interviewer”.

Once again the Box Office told me “no dice”. So, somewhat dejected but also very determined, I did what any Irish writer might do…I headed to the nearest Irish pub. In this case it happened to be Flannigans. I marched up to the bar, ordered myself a Baileys on ice and, quite by accident, sat down next to my friend David Germain, from Associated Press! Wow…God could I also have a million dollars?

David is a dote. He listened as I shared my curiosity and my fear. He encouraged me to keep trying and then he did something utterly wonderful. He picked up his phone and sent a message to Nick Ryan’s publicist asking her for a ticket to the film for me and, better still, asked if Nick had time to meet me.

I was gobsmacked.

The next few hours flew by and before I knew it, I was offered a ticket and a meeting for Friday evening.

As any Irish story goes, this one just gets better. While at a party last night I was talking with photographer Michael Coles. And, after hearing my story, Michael asked if he could come along and photograph Nick for the article.

And so, Dear Readers, I think James Stephens was nearly right…curiosity did conquer my fear but bravery definitely helped. I am terrified to meet Nick but I’m going to do this for me and for you. I’ve got my questions ready and a world class photographer to hold my hand. Wish me luck and say a little prayer for me, won’t you?

I’ll follow up with a post on Saturday and let you how it went.

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