Strangers who board the Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s new luxury train, won’t stay strangers for long.
Not, that is, unless they do themselves out of a treat by avoiding the two restaurant cars, where tables are set for four or six but not for cosying couples.
The management are fond of quoting a line from one of Ireland’s literary giants, W B Yeats: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”
When my wife and I walked onto the concourse with other passengers at Heuston station in Dublin, following a kilted drummer to a Champagne welcome at the train door, I had in mind some other words from Yeats:
‘Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.’
The train itself, and the £8 million (€9.53m) investment behind it, are signs that we’re learning to govern our fanatic hearts.
When I travelled on more workaday trains from Co Derry, where I grew up, to Cork in July 1997 — nine months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement — I had to go from Belfast to Dundalk by bus.
Rail services had been suspended because a signal box had been blown up on the line. This time, we crossed the border twice and I didn’t even register we’d done it.
Ireland, post-Good Friday, is a healthier place. But what about post-Brexit? Will there be a “hard border” again? Will things get trickier for tourists?
That was a question raised by many strangers meeting on our train — strangers from Connecticut and Texas, from the Cinque Terre in Italy, and Staines-upon-Thames. All any of us could do was guess.
The train made its inaugural journey on August 30, three weeks later than Belmond had initially planned, and made its final one for the season in mid October.
We joined the two-night “Taste of Ireland” trip (€3,160/£2,825) travelling north from Dublin to see the award-winning Titanic Belfast, which has turned maritime disaster into tourist triumph, and then south to the Waterford Crystal factory and Curraghmore House, a run-down but fascinating remnant of aristocratic Ireland.
Other passengers were on longer itineraries, making the most of this country-house-on-rails, with its excellent restaurant and cosy bar, and windows from which they could be looking out on one day towards the waves and on another on the lush, horse-breeding country of the Curragh.
Many passengers had travelled on other trains run by Belmond (the company previously known as Orient-Express Hotels), and were curious to try out the new one. Some, whose notions of Ireland and Irishness were shaped early by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man, filmed in 1951, were in the process of updating them.
Others had more personal motivations. Dr Doug Willingham, a dentist from Salado, Texas, travelling with his wife, Carol, and their daughter, Sofia, told me they loved trains, took “any opportunity not to fly” and would be returning home on the Queen Mary 2.
He had a particular reason for wanting to visit Belfast — he’d been fascinated by the Titanic story since seeing the 1953 film as a nine-year-old, and had later discovered he was distantly related to one of the victims, Major Archibald Willingham Butt.
Unlike other Belmond enterprises, such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Royal Scotsman, the Grand Hibernian isn’t a heritage train. Rolling stock is from the eighties, painted a gorgeous midnight blue. Furniture and panelling draw more on lacquered MDF than burnished mahogany, but they are finished and decorated to a remarkably high standard.
The 16 twin and four double cabins, all of them en suite, are designed to reflect the colours of the county they are named after (ours, called Leitrim, had accents of red); dining cars are light and airy; both private and communal rooms are a showcase for contemporary Irish art in oil, watercolour and lithographic print.
Throughout the train — on carpets, ceilings, crockery and cutlery, on the keys given to passengers and on the badges worn by staff — is the motif of the Celtic knot. Passengers are left in no doubt that they’re in Ireland.
As for the “taste” of the island promised in the tour title, that was in evidence in such dishes as Skeaghanore duck leg confit at dinner and Donegal turf-smoked salmon at breakfast.
There was no Guinness on tap in the bar — not enough space for kegs — but there was Guinness Draught in cans, with widgets to produce a creamy head, as well as an excellent selection of Irish whiskies and lethal-sounding gins, among them Bertha’s Revenge, “made with Irish cow’s milk”, and Gunpowder.
The attractions we visited are certainly not places that Belmond has to itself, but we went in at times when it seemed that they might be, outside normal opening hours. At Curraghmore House, as we tucked into an afternoon tea, Lord and Lady Waterford put in a brief appearance to say hello. He inherited the title on the death of his father last year, and has plans to revitalise the place by restoring houses in its grey and gloomy courtyard and opening them as holiday lets.
His ancestors (the de la Poers) arrived in Ireland from Normandy in 1170. Originally from South Africa, Basil Croeser, moved here in 1998, having married an Irish woman. He got a job as butler to the eighth Marquis, serving him for a dozen years. “We don’t have butlers where I come from,” he said, “so it was rather a steep learning curve.”
He led us into a house that would send a National Trust curator into a headspin: full of Old Masters, but also of sun-bleached stuffed lions, and badly in need of some TLC. In the grounds is an extraordinary Georgian folly, whose interior is totally covered in seashells.
The lady of the manor at the time, Catherine de la Poer, who is immortalised in a marble sculpture in its centre, claimed to have done it all herself in 261 days in 1754. Basil reckoned she might have had just a little help from her 15 children.
She — or they — used a glue made of animal blood, clay and pig’s urine, which he heartily endorsed: “I’ve been in here hundreds of times. I’ve yet to see a shell lying on the ground.” “There’s four just behind him,” whispered a sharp-eyed visitor.
Our 21st-century quarters on the train felt even more luxurious after that, though there were a few niggles. When the door to our bathroom was opened, and slid right back into its housing, we came near to breaking fingernails trying to close it again. The mirrors got misty quickly, and there wasn’t a lot of elbow room between loo and washbasin.
At mealtimes, we were impressed by the quality of the food and the wit, warmth and efficiency of the front-of-house staff, most of them Dubliners and recent graduates. We were surprised, though, that little consideration had been given to vegetarian options. When the main course was grouse and puy lentils, one couple had to be content with lentils.
The great advantage of Ireland’s railway system is that it’s not overworked, so the Grand Hibernian and its passengers can sleep away the night and the early morning alongside a platform without being barged out of the way by commuter trains. The disadvantage is that it’s not overly extensive, so to see some places you have to continue your journey by road.
Our longest coach transfer was under half an hour, but passengers on other itineraries had a different experience. Anne Acreman, a family doctor from Odessa, Texas, said she had spent a lot of time on the coach heading to and from sights including Ashford Castle and Blarney Castle. “Having said that, those were things we wanted to see, so maybe it’s down to the limitations of the Irish rail system.”
Belmond has already been made aware of some of these constructive criticisms. The company will hear cheerier reports about the evening entertainment it laid on, especially on the Sunday, when we stopped for the night (or “stabled”, as they prefer to term it) at Bagenalstown in Co Carlow.
The players in the observation car were Eddie Sheehan, playing guitar, Michéal Bolton on the fiddle, and Seán Byrne on bodhrán and harmonica. One of their numbers, appropriately, was ‘Follow Me Up to Carlow’. There were also hornpipes, a song or two in Irish, a special request (‘Dirty Old Town’) and a couple of songs made for hand-clapping audience participation, including ‘The Wild Rover’.
They finished with an old soldier’s song, ‘On the One Road’ (“I know we’re on a train — it’s a metaphor”), and, a few bars into it, walked towards the exit, beckoning us to follow them.
And so we did, down the steps and on to the platform, where, as the station clock ticked towards midnight, young staff shook a leg and quite a few not-so-young passengers were emboldened to join them, suiting action to the words:
‘We’re on the one road, sharing the one load, we’re on the road to God knows where. We’re on the one road, it may be the wrong road. But we’re together now who cares?’
Michael Kerr and his wife travelled as guests of Belmond (0845 077 2222; belmond.com) and Tourism Ireland (ireland.com).