Irish Eyes Smiling in Rhode Island

The Irish are proudly represented in Rhode Island; at about 18 percent of the population, those with Irish ancestry rank second only to the Italians here. And overall, Rhode Island is ninth of all US states for citizenry with Irish blood.

Add six more, at least temporarily, as a half dozen tour operators were recently treated to Rhode Island food, drink, culture and more on a tourism junket sponsored by the state’s tourism department. The effort was to show the state to the operators who go back and sell Rhode Island’s attraction to its clients.

“The Irish have a huge presence in Rhode Island, and we’re working with operators from Ireland, and Norwegian Air,” said Mark Brodeur, state tourism director, and leader of the whirlwind four-day tour of many-things RI he personally conducted. “More Irish than ever are coming to Rhode Island.”

Representatives of Irish tour operators listen to Jane Loos of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council talk about the area’s attractions, while having lunch at Modern Diner in Pawtucket.

One reason, he said, is Norwegian Air recent foray into T.F. Green, the state’s airport, which is offering insanely low prices; on the day the group was flying back to their homeland, Norwegian advertised one-way flights to Dublin for $99. The airline flies direct to places like Cork and Dublin, as well as to the Caribbean. The Irish flights started in June, at an airport where Azores Airlines and Cabo Verde Airlines offer flights to the Azores.

And Norwegian Air’s presence in Providence may help fill a void left by Condor Airlines, a Germany-based low-budget carrier that flew from Green Airport on a seasonal basis for about a year, ceasing operations here last year and moving to Boston.

The group of Irish tour operators bounced all around the state, to places like Newport Vineyards, the seafood festival in Newport, Sons of Liberty Distillery, Roger Williams Park for the annual jack o’lantern festival, Federal Hill and many other places. They were struck by the variety of attraction in such a small state.

“The diversity really stands out,” said Darragh Conneely of Shannon Travel in Cork. “And it’s easy to get around. I particularly liked Newport, and its history.”

Darragh Conneely from Shannon Travel in Cork, Ireland, enjoying his first-ever dish of pancakes, this at Modern Diner in Pawtucket.

On the last day of their junket, they lunched at a Rhode Island culinary institution, the down-home Modern Diner. It was there Brodeur talked about, and introduced them to, a Rhode Island mainstay – coffee milk.

“Oh, you have to try this,” he laughed, ordering a round of small plastic cups full of the sweet coffee goodness those of us around here forever have come to know and love…well, forever.

Some liked it, some wrinkled their noses at it. But they all tried it. That spirit of adventure was evident one day at lunch at Matunuck Oyster Bar, where owner Perry Raso took them on a tour of his oyster farm.

Did any try raw oysters?

“I did, I really like them,” said Conneely, a young, rather trim lad who made quick work of a giant slab of pancakes and several pieces of bacon at Modern Diner, his first pancakes ever. “They were quite good.”

Diane Williams of Belfast, with American Holidays there, said her favorite part was the jack o’lantern spectacular at Roger Williams Park, which others in the group echoed as theirs as well.

“They were so creative, so beautiful,” Williams said. “And the autumn displays all over the state are quite lovely.”

“And the pumpkin beer,” intoned Conneely in his lilting Irish brogue. “That was very good.”

And it’s all part of the state’s quest to lure even more people from afar to a state where tourism is a $5.2 billion industry.

“We are,” Brodeur said, “opening the world to Rhode Island.”

Photos  by Paul E. Kandarian