We drove back to the castle and had an hour to get ready before dinner. I took another long shower to calm my nerves and got dressed. Before heading to the restaurant, we were to meet Paula and Niall in the castle’s very own movie theater. I was dressed up and ready to go… except for my tie. I had never tied one before, nor was I going to waste my time pretending like I knew how. When I got to the movie theater, I saw Niall and asked if he could do my tie for me. I f igured that Niall, being a grown man who literally runs a castle, would be my best bet. But no sooner than when he started making the knot, Paula ran over.
“That’s not how you make a knot for a tie! This isn’t a rope!” She said as she shooed him out of the way. Paula both delights and terrif ies me at the same time, and I f ind her extremely endearing because of that. She’s the castle’s true matriarch.
After everyone arrived, we made our way to the dining room for a multi-coursed dinner. The George V is impeccably flawless. It’s ornate, as if you’re dining inside the Her mitage. It’s formal, as if you’re dining with the queen herself. And the food is delicious, as if the castle has its very own team of chefs, which they most certainly do.
As we sat down, Niall looked over at me. “When you sit in a suit,” he said, “you don’t leave it buttoned. Undo the jacket and brush down the sides, so your shirt and tie can be seen.”
I felt like Jack in the dinner scene from Titanic. Technically speaking, my worst fear of being a rube had come true, but there was no pretension or judgment. Everyone seemed more than happy to help teach me the ways of formal society.
Course one was brought to the table. There were eight of us, along with eight waiters. They would place the dishes in front of us, covered with a silver lid. Then, all at once, the waiters would lift the lids, revealing the treasures underneath. The first course was a light bite of roasted eggplant with toasted wheat crisps. Then came a savory lime sorbet, followed by roast duck with artichoke and garlic potatoes, and finished off with a peanut butter parfait. The meal was concluded with wine, espresso, and tea that was served alongside a cart of truffles and petit fours, which was brought to the table by the castle’s very own pastry chef and chocolatier.
At dinner, we got word that Trump had just instated a travel ban to mainland Europe, and was considering banning travel from Ireland and the UK too. So, all of us ate like it was going to be the last meal of our lives. In fact, at the time of writing this, I do believe the George V is still the last restaurant I’ve eaten at.
But that night was so magical. We were a group of strangers, all feeling so close and connected because we were sharing such a unique moment during such a wildly erratic time. I can still remember the entire table bursting out into laughter when I told them the story about how my shirt was actually borrowed from an oyster farmer, and that up until a few hours before dinner, I had nothing to wear. We also commiserated on the insanity that was the Trump administration. I was once again told that I looked Irish. And we all just laughed and enjoyed ourselves as much as possible, almost as if somewhere deep down, we knew the year ahead was going to be rough. But what a final night of freedom it was.
When it was time to leave the castle and head home, there was a sense of sadness and fear in the air. Was it even safe to fly? Remember, this was before mask mandates became a thing, so we were all about to hop on a transatlantic flight, during the pandemic, without masks on…which, looking back, sounds like we were making a suicide pact, but at the time we had no idea how dangerous the coronavirus truly was.
Shannon airport was deserted. There wasn’t even anyone at the checkin counter. Trump had just included the UK and Ireland in the travel ban, but it was clear that most tourists had already cut their trips short days beforehand. There was a distinct and undeniable feeling that we were on the last flight out of Ireland.
Our plane was only about 30 percent full. There wasn’t a single passenger in business class. They even had to move us around for weight distribution. As we took off, I could feel myself being hauled back into the real world. Into the madness of living in New York City during a pandemic. We had no idea that just a few days after returning from Ireland, the city would spiral into the disaster we all now remember: bodies being thrown into mass graves, naval hospital ships docking on our shores, a field hospital in Central Park, the endless sound of sirens blaring down every street, and the constant anxiety and depression, mixed with fear and anger.
Looking back, was going to Ireland at the onset of a pandemic reckless and dangerous? Yes. But we didn’t know any better at the time. I can’t judge myself for not understanding the true severity of the virus.
Plus, I wouldn’t trade that trip for the world. In the dark and dismal year that 2020 was, that trip to Ireland was a profound bright spot. It was full of love, light, joy, and happiness. The people of western Ireland were friendly and caring beyond words. Before we left, Paula even said we could all stay in the castle throughout the lockdown if something happened with the flight. It’s not every day you meet someone who genuinely cares about you that much.
Plus, I got some more clues about my heritage. Being Irish now feels much less abstract. I’m now able to admit that it’s not just some weird fantasy in my mom’s head. From what I learned on the trip, we’re definitely Irish, at least to some extent. And even if we’re not, and even if all those things are mere coincidences…Ireland is an awesome country filled with amazing people. It would be an absolute honor to come from that country. It’s a place of goodness, of excitement, and of endless beauty.