"What time is breakfast?" we asked hesitantly. Our awareness that we were staying on a working farm was reinforced by mooing cattle and the businesslike bustle of the owners and their sons.
"You're welcome anytime," Joan Nugent replied with a laugh. "But the later the better," she quickly added, "since you're on holiday."
It was just what we needed to hear. We had spent a week doing two weeks' worth of things in Ireland and we wanted a place to unwind for a few days over Easter weekend before heading home.
Irish friends from Dublin had suggested that our family join theirs at the County Waterford farmhouse where they had been spending holidays for years. And now here we were -- four adults and five city-bred boys age 11 to 19 -- unpacking our bags in a cozily renovated 15th-century farm castle just outside a hamlet that consisted of two tiny pubs and a gas station -- with rain falling, a fearsome weather forecast weighing heavy on our minds and at least one of us wondering if we'd made a big mistake.
But as frequently happened on our 10-day visit to Ireland, the rain suddenly halted, the sun came out to ignite the countryside into a warm emerald glow, and our sons Peter, 13, and Tim, 11, joined their Irish friends to explore the farm, meet the animals and test a compact tennis court that was to get a lot of use over the next few days.
After a bountiful supper of mushroom soup, a delicious fresh whitefish (because it was Good Friday), potatoes, diced carrots and parsnips, stewed celery and home-baked brown bread with thick, rich butter, followed by ice cream with pineapple and a homemade butterscotch sauce, my wife Mary Lou and I chatted briefly with the owners, Joan and Emmett Nugent, and the other guests and then headed sleepily for bed, certain that the day's activities were at an end.
About 10:30, hearing our sons still in animated conversation in the parlor downstairs, I called to them to come to bed. "No, Dad," Peter called back. "Mrs. Nugent's just made some scones and she's bringing them to us."
Freshly baked scones. Thirty feet away. And us already in bed. We looked at each other for a long moment, but fatigue won out. We promised ourselves that tomorrow we'd stay up for scones. And we congratulated ourselves for having taken up our friends' invitation to spend Easter weekend with them at the friendly farmhouse in a peaceful valley in the west of County Waterford, surrounded by cows, sheep, stone walls and archways and the greenest meadows we'd ever seen.
We wouldn't have gone there on our own. Rural west Waterford is well off the familiar tourist route of Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle, Galway. Even Dubliners, when they take time off, are more likely to head elsewhere. "People look at you like you're crazy if you say you're going to west Waterford on holiday," Frank Geary, our Dublin friend, had warned. "But they just don't know what's there."
One thing that's there in abundance -- and even watched over by the clergy, it turned out -- is hospitality. At the local church during Easter Mass, one of the other guests told us, the priest stopped abruptly in mid-sermon, fixed him with a curious stare, and then declared: "You're not from here. You must be staying with Joan. Is she taking good care of you?"
Within a few minutes' drive we had countless Norman towers and castles, ornate churches and monasteries from a variety of eras, some of Ireland's most attractive fishing harbors and an undulating landscape that ranges from the gorse-covered Knockmealdown Mountains to the lacework of streams and rivers that are home to swans and ducks and provide some of Ireland's best salmon and trout fishing.
The pace had been brisk during our first week in Ireland. While our trip had no long list of tourist objectives, we did want to visit with several friends, see our own ancestral towns and explore whatever we could of the country in the time remaining.
After four busy days of sightseeing, visiting and dining out in Dublin, we had made a hurried dash across the country for a brisk look at the Ring of Kerry and a hike at the Lakes of Killarney, then promptly reversed course the next day for County Cork and a look at Macroom and Ballyvourney, both filled, judging from signs on shops and pubs, with my wife's Kelleher namesakes.
That night -- in what turned out to be a dress rehearsal for our weekend -- we were expected at the farm home of Eddie and Nellie Delahunty, at Fethard in County Tipperary, whom we had never met but who had written us a warm invitation. My ancestors were Delahuntys and emigrated from Fethard in the 1860s. On a trip several years ago, my parents had been welcomed as next-of-kin by Eddie and Nellie, although any actual relationship is distant at best.
Their farm, standing grandly on a hill outside Fethard, seemed a peaceful-enough setting for a quiet overnight before meeting our Dublin friends. But we hadn't reckoned on the energy of Eddie, whose world travels during four decades of sheep and dairy farming hadn't dimmed his love for Tipperary's scenic riches.
In 24 whirlwind hours, we had a driving tour of Tipperary's lushly meadowed stud farms and 12th-century Norman towers, visited the famed Rock of Cashel with its imposing fortifications, attended Holy Thursday and Good Friday services at two ancient churches, visited four of the grown Delahunty children and a man who had known my last Delahunty relative in Ireland, downed stout in a lively Fethard pub, put away three of Nellie's sumptuous meals, and viewed the site of the long-vanished hamlet from which my ancestors had left for an unknown New World 130 years ago. In between, Peter and Tim helped with the farm chores, made friends with neighboring twin girls and, the next morning, helped care for a calf born while we finally slept.
Initiated into Irish farm living and convinced that we liked it (Peter declared he was coming back to Fethard to work when he was old enough), we headed south for what we hoped would not be a pale commercial imitation of the warm hospitality we had just experienced. Happily, we were not to be disappointed.
The Nugents' Castle Farm sits on a hill overlooking the small, rocky Finisk River, where a quiet visitor can spy on herons, wagtails and sometimes a dipper -- a shy bird that, as its name suggests, dips its head into the water to find food. From the road, a lane with 10-foot-high stone walls on either side guides the visitor to the farm.
The "castle" is a homey-looking two-story-plus structure that at first glance hides its massively thick walls and 500-year-old origin. The oldest section of the house, which contains the dining room, was built in the 15th century and its stone walls are four feet thick. Two parlors, with bookcases, a television, crucifixes and photographs of family, friends, priests and nuns, complete the public portion of the ground floor. Upstairs are five spacious guest bedrooms with bath and toilet.
Depending on the work demands of the 120-acre dairy and sheep farm, any of the four Nugent children might show up to serve breakfast or supper, prepared by Joan and hired help. Hearty breakfasts -- porridge, cereal, juice, eggs, thick bacon, sausage and brown bread -- fortified us for the day's activities. Even heartier suppers -- beef, chicken and fish were served, with a vast array of side dishes and desserts -- settled us properly for a good night's sleep.
Rain is the price Ireland -- and its tourists -- pay for the emerald of the isle. It can come as a drizzle, it can come in torrents, it can come laced with hail and sleet and it can be a maddeningly steady patter, all in the same hour, and then the sky can turn dazzlingly sunny with a rainbow on one horizon and bright puffy clouds on another. And then it can start all over again.
The Irish take it in stride. "Ah, good, freshen things up," Frank Geary would say if it was raining in the morning when we got up. If it was still raining in the afternoon, it was, "Ah, fine, a day for growth."
Saturday began with rain and wind, but by mid-morning the skies cleared and Catherine, 15, the youngest Nugent, produced two ponies for the children to ride. This show of activity was what it took to roust the adults from the long-cleared breakfast tables and soon plans were being made for the rest of the day.
With the Gearys we took a leisurely drive through the scenic Blackwater River valley, stopping first at Lismore, site of the turreted, fairy tale-like Lismore Castle, built by King John in 1185 and, 50 years ago, the home of Adele Astaire, then Duchess of Devonshire.
Beyond Lismore, where the Blackwater and the River Bride meet, Frank stopped the car at a seemingly empty meadow, led us over a stile into some damp grass and, after a tramp of a few minutes, pointed to a clump of upright stones with series of irregularly spaced lines gouged in them resembling an ancient prefiguration of the Universal Product Code. These were the Kiltera Ogham Stones, bearing inscriptions in ogham, a written form of archaic Irish used in the 5th and 6th centuries. Ours, according to a plaque, told of "Collabot, son of Lug, son of Lobchu," and apparently had been a tombstone, left undisturbed there for more than a dozen centuries.
Well past lunchtime we reached our goal, Youghal (pronounced Yawl), a fishing harbor and resort on the south coast known both as the home of Sir Walter Raleigh, its mayor for a time, and as the place where, in 1954, the movie "Moby Dick" was filmed. Aherne's Seafood Restaurant, luckily for casually dressed travelers like us, has a pub that shares the restaurant's renowned kitchen, and we had a tasty seafood chowder and open-faced sandwiches, washed down with Smithwick's Ale.
Back at the farm that evening, word spread that O'Brien's Pub, just down the road, had come to life. Three visitors, on their way from somewhere to somewhere else to commemorate "the events of 1916" -- the Easter rising in Dublin that put Ireland on the road to independence -- had stopped to intensify their preparations.
"Sing us a song," one of them demanded of Frank as they all crowded together in the tiny one-room pub, which doubles as the village's convenience store, with toothpaste, canned goods and udder ointments on shelves lining the walls. (When one of us asked the proprietor if he had any birthday cards, a selection of three was produced from under the bar.)
Frank's refusal to sing prompted the rejoinder that "you must be from Houth," a snooty section of Dublin, "I can tell by your accent." Next it was Mary Lou's turn for inspection. "And you look like you're from across the border," was the judgment, clearly a reference to British-ruled Northern Ireland. Then one of the trio, sensing Americans, began to croon, "Oh, America gave us de Valera, a hero brave and true" -- but after three tries couldn't get beyond the first line and gave up, redirecting his attention to the bar and preparations for the commemoration of 1916.
At 7:30 on Easter morning, the sun was shining and a layer of snow glistened on the distant mountains as Mary Lou and I slipped out of the silent farmhouse for a walk. The farm's two dogs decided to accompany us, noisily clearing a path through a herd of cows standing stolidly in the road.
There was no traffic in Millstreet, the pub was battened down and the peaceful land gave no immediate evidence of human life as we walked, breathing in the chill air with its pungent scent of burning peat -- or "turf" -- from the chimneys.
At the farmhouse, when we returned, an intense discussion was underway across the breakfast tables. The subject was Mass times. The idea, it became apparent, was to find a Mass in the direction one was heading for the day, at a convenient time, and preferably one short on ceremony. We settled on the 11:30 service at Cappoquin, a few miles west, which not only would head us in the direction we wanted but also had a reputation for being a no-frills service, performed with dispatch.
With Mass over shortly after noon, we headed for Mount Melleray, an attractive Cistercian monastery, modern by European standards, having been built in 1832, by monks expelled from France.
Inside, I stopped a hooded monk to inquire about a statue and, as we chatted, asked him his name. "Well," he said, "I'm Father Lawrence, named for St. Lawrence O'Toole, one of only three properly canonized Irish saints. Do you know who the other two are?"
Aha. Trivial Pursuit, right here in a Cistercian monastery in the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains. "Patrick?" was our first guess, clearly destined to be wrong since it was too obvious. No, Patrick, while revered as a saint by the Catholic Church, was never formally canonized. A few more guesses and it was clear Father Lawrence had us.
Besides O'Toole, a 12th-century archbishop of Dublin, the others, I now know, were St. Malachy, a pioneer of monastic reform in Ireland, and St. Oliver Plunket, a 17th-century archbishop who, for his ardor, was hanged, drawn and quartered by the English.
We drove up and through the "Vee," the sweepingly beautiful cleft in the Knockmealdown Mountains where Waterford and Tipperary counties meet. The rounded mountaintops are bare of trees, but covered with gorse, in bright yellow bloom when we visited, and heather, which would bloom later. Trails crisscrossed the rolling terrain and hikers plodded by.
Shortly, we were in Tipperary, where we spent the rest of the day exploring Cahir (pronounced Care) Castle, a well-preserved fortification on an island in the River Suir. Parts of the vast structure date from the 13th century, but most of it was built in the 15th. Walls, towers, hidden passageways and staircases, prison cells, trap doors and a huge, perilous-looking portcullis guarding the entrance provide hours of adventure and absorbing study for children and adults. An audio-visual theater offers a historical and architectural survey of southeast Ireland's antiquities.
Don't plan on an early getaway from the Nugents'. All of the weekend guests were leaving Monday, most of them to go home to Dublin and we to Rosslare and the ferry to Britain. The Nugents' farm is a frequent stop for bus-loads of tourists, breaking their trip to the west with morning tea and scones and an hour of Irish farm home atmosphere. There had been no buses over the weekend, but we had been forewarned one was expected Monday at 10:45. We took that to mean we should be gone, but we were wrong. "Oh no, just stay, there'll be something for you after," Joan insisted.
Soon the bus arrived and disgorged its 38 tourists, most of them Americans. They quickly filled the dining room and both parlors and went to work with gusto on the offerings. Forty-five minutes later, as quickly as they'd arrived, they left, with effusive thanks to the Nugents -- and even to us, whom they took to somehow be part of the setting. Then Joan turned to us with the invitation that had preceded the nightly scone sessions: "Ready for a cuppa?"
There was a mound of scones and pots of steaming tea and bowls of homemade preserves and suddenly it seemed that there was still much to talk about, even after our many chats over the past three days. But at 1 p.m., it all came to an end.
Almost apologetically, we asked for our bill, and, almost as an afterthought, Joan produced it: $326 for our family of four for three nights, three breakfasts, three suppers, four scone snacks -- and a wealth of warm memories of the evening conversations on politics and life, the excitement of the farm and its animals, the friendliness of the many Nugents and the opportunity to taste a bit of the world that had produced our forebears.
With a round of God blesses, we were gone, down the lane between the high stone walls, past the pub where great events and small can be relived nightly, through a new and equally scenic gap in the Knockmealdown Mountains and back to a world that needs, at regular intervals, a place like Castle Farm for a family to unwind. WAYS & MEANS GETTING THERE: A car is a virtual necessity for staying at a farmhouse in Ireland, both for getting there and for moving about during the day. Car rental rates and gasoline are both expensive. After comparing prices, we rented a mid-sized, four-door Toyota Carina from Dan Dooley Car Rental in Dublin. The cost, with unlimited mileage, was $345 for seven days, including a $37 drop charge to leave the car at the ferry port in Rosslare and CDW (advisable, we thought, given the narrow roads, unaccustomed left-side driving and limitations of many U.S. insurance policies). Dan Dooley's U.S. phone number is 1-800-331-9301. The major U.S. car rental companies operate in Ireland, as do other local companies, including Bunratty (1-800-524-0555). Cars can use either leaded or unleaded gas, both of which are widely available, at about $3.50 a gallon. WHERE TO STAY: Rates for the Nugents' Castle Farm (Millstreet, Cappagh, Dungarvan, County Waterford; the telephone number is 058-68049 from within Ireland, 353-58-68049 from abroad) are 13 Irish pounds a night (about $21) per person for room and a sumptuous breakfast. Package rates including supper are available for weekends, holidays and longer periods. Rates are reduced for children. Our spacious room, with a double bed and two singles, easily accommodated the four of us, although a family with older children or staying a longer time probably would want two rooms. INFORMATION: The Irish Tourist Board (757 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, 212-418-0800) can provide a hefty, telephone-book-sized official accommodations guide, "Ireland's 1990 Guest Accommodations," that lists approved hotels, guesthouses, town homes, farmhouses and hostels throughout Ireland. It also offers a free farmhouse guide, as well as a "Tracing Your Ancestors" instruction sheet and other publications. -- Richard Homan