Monday, December 18

whirlwind tour of ireland

My very own irish tour guide and I left County Wicklow on Tuesday morning and set off in a Foster family car (thanks to Alan and Caroline) on a whirlwind trip across parts of Ireland. The general plan was to see the west coast for two days and make it up to the Giant's Causeway in the north and back down to Dublin via Belfast by the weekend. I had maps with my wish list of places to visit marked out, and to help us take the right off-ramp.

Tuesday - our journey from Dublin over to the West Coast

There's not much you can do about traffic jams even if you have maps, so after passing our jammed up exit to Limerick we took a detour, which in 1 and a half hours had us near Clonmacnoise, a major site of religion and trade - founded in 548 by St Claran on the banks of the River Shannon.

Like Monasterboice, high crosses and a roundtower are featured at Clonmacnoise with a museum on site that holds many of the more delicate relics, including some well-preserved decorated grave slabs. The museum also provides a good illustration of how round towers were used with pictures of the clergy running up the tower by ladder to escape the viking, irish and Anglo-Norman raids. On each occasion Clonmacnoise was invaded (well over 20 times), the community there would re-build. However, it was finally reduced to ruins by the English garrison in 1552.

It takes about 3-4 hours to cross Ireland on the amazing new motorways that are spreading across the country like weeds (including the toll gates to pay for them). Our next stop was Bunratty Castle - about three quarters of the way to Liscanner, where we planned to stop for the night. Bunratty is unique in Ireland as the only castle completely restored to its original state, although we only had 30 minutes to see the uniqueness of the place before it closed - so we ran it (and had sore legs in the morning).

They say that good things come to those that wait. As I write this it's my birthday here in the northern hemisphere, and while I’m not telling how long I’ve had to wait – I can now say I've sat in front of a roaring fire, with a real irish guinness, in a real irish country pub, on a wintery Christmas night, with my irish boyfriend - what more could a girl want? After our long day of driving we stopped for dinner at a pub called Vaughan’s in the small seaside town of Liscanner near our B&B – I had monkfish stuffed in a red pepper – yum! I'm also loving the Guinness which has a different taste than at home, not as bitter.

At least I didn't have to wait as long as these unlucky creatures – take a look at this clever advertisement for Guinness. Thanks everyone for the birthday messages!

Wednesday – Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and Galway

We stayed the night at Carrig House a fun B&B overrun with Christmas decorations and with the biggest irish breakfast ever seen the next morning - black and white pudding, fried bread and more of that brown bread, it just keeps coming, but we like it - so its all good!

Our feast for breakfast set us up well for the morning out at the Cliffs of Moher and a climb over “the burren”. The Cliffs are a natural phenomenon and rise straight up out of the Atlantic Sea to a height of 400 feet/120m in places. Controversially, the area is being re-developed with a viewing platform being built into the hillside and glassed in. Locals have been concerned about the earthworks ruining the natural landscape and horrified at the 8 euro ($16 NZ) that will be charged to visitors once the new facility is opened.

When Glynn was young you could climb all over the cliffs, up to a roundtower and out to a concrete platform that hung out over the cliffs. Now viewing options are far more restricted, partially due to the redevelopments, but much has changed with the way the area is managed given the large number of tourists that visit daily. Sadly this still hasn’t stopped people taking risks, and tragically just last month a young Polish girl climbed over the barriers to the edge and the wind swept her off the cliffs.

You have to be careful on a windy day and with gale force winds on the cliffs that morning we stayed just long enough to get some pics and experience the atmosphere of the place – it was wild and just magic - and hope to come back someday to experience the incredible views promised by a fine sunny day.

Around the west coast the landscape changes quite dramatically and later that morning we drove into an area known as ‘the Burren”, around 300 square kilometres of limestone karst. A famous English Parliamentarian Edmund Ludlow - who during the irish campaign in the 1600s was responsible for hunting small bands of irish “tories” and “destroying food stuffs and crops” – once famously complained “It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him”. It is an inhabitable place that's for sure. However, it is a great place to climb and when Glynn was at Trinity the climbing club would drive over on a Friday for the weekend and camp, climb and soak up the atmosphere of the burren. We stopped by the road at Ailladie and enjoyed a safe climb down to the sea, albeit windy and wet, and I enjoyed seeing one of Glynn’s favourite college crags.

Around mid-afternoon we stopped at Poulnabrone which is the most photographed, and one of the world's best known, megalithic dolmens or portal tombs.

One of the greatest things about travelling around Ireland is the friendliness of the people, and after hugs from our B&B hosts as we left in the morning it was nice to meet some more irish hospitality at a small café in Ballyvaughan. We had a great talk to the owner of the café, an ex-fisherman, about the fishing industry in Ireland. Fish is expensive here because stocks - especially on the Atlantic Coast - are depleted. The EU while opening up many opportunities for Ireland, also opened up its coastal fishing zones to European fishing vessels, and many regions have been over fished. It became too difficult for Ireland to police the large number of fishing vessels off the coast, that flouted the restrictions and now many species are lost. Recommendations from locals have also been handy, and the owner of the café told us about a central city hostel in Galway called Sleepzone where we ended up staying for the night.

Galway is a great city – they call it the cultural capital of Ireland and I can see why. We had dinner at the Kings Head pub - with a kiwi and an aussie maning the bar. A taste of irish music at another local, just what I imagined an irish pub to be.

We took a walk around the lights at Eyre’s Square (the main town square) and saw the remains of a window where the Mayor of Galway hung his own son for murdering a Norman. See below the tasteful picture of Glynn. Despite this hilarity Glandular Man (he's now tested positive for glandular fever) was taking a break from alcohol to try and aid his recovery, so it was an early night for us in Galway.

Thursday - drive to Northern Ireland through the floods

We got up early the next day, with Glynn feeling better, and took a pamphlet from Sleepzone advertising another hostel in Downhill, Northern Ireland - very close to the Giant's Causeway. We made it our aim to get there by the end of the day. It was a long drive and we were slowed in our journey by flooding (the worst Ireland has seen for 50 years), bad drivers (Patrick they are everywhere - we need to talk when I get home) and tractors - about 50 of them Myra, so I've well and truly checked them off the list of things I was to see while in Ireland.

We headed north via Cong and Ashford Castle (near where Glynn's dad goes fishing in the summer, and also where Pierce Brosnan got married).

After being turned back because of flooding we retraced our steps from Cong back to the main roads and on to Sligo and then to Donegal for coffee and a walk around the town. The west coast in winter is quiet and we haven't had to queue with some places open shorter hours for winter. Unfortunately O'Donnell Castle in Donegal was already closed, so after an afternoon coffee we moved on into Northern Ireland. In Londonderry we stopped to get some Irish sterling (150 pound sterling from around $500 NZL - its killing me). We bought some things to make dinner at the hostel in Downhill. The hostel turned out to be a real gem and would recommend it to anyone. We made dinner, drank red wine (Glynn's self-imposed alcohol ban lasting all of 24 hours), and listened to vinyl records specifically Pink Floyd, and Dad, some Roger Whittaker.

Friday - Dunluce Castle, the Giant's Causeway and Belfast

The next morning we headed out to Dunluce Castle about 20 minutes up the road from the hostel. Dunluce is perched on the edge of a cliff (in the centre of the photo above) protected on all sides by sheer drops and access is only by drawbridge and imposing gateway. One night in 1639 part of the castle fell away from the cliff into the sea killing many of the servants and causing the Duchess who lived there at the time to leave the castle never to return. You can still see where the castle walls fell away.

On a cheerier note it was then off to the Giant's Causeway - the one sight that Glynn was most keen to see. We both enjoyed the audio visual presentation which explained the legend of the causeway, and then walked down to the rocks. The hexagonal causeway rocks were formed by vulcanic activity and appear to lead into the sea like a pathway.

The legend explains it slightly differently with two giants, one scottish and one irish taunting each other across the strait between Ireland and Scotland. The irish giant builds the causeway and invites the scot across to Ireland to do battle. However, as the scottish giant makes his way across the causeway the irish giant sees the actual size of his opponent and in fear disguises himself as a baby. When the scot arrives he sees the size of the baby and decides if that's the size of the irishman's baby son, he'd stand no chance against the irish giant. So he rushes back across the causeway to Scotland destroying it as he crosses so his opponent can't follow him home - I much prefer the version of the legend rather than the science.

Finally our last stop was down in Belfast. While waiting for our bus tour we wandered through the amazing Christmas markets at City Hall drinking mulled wine browsing the wine, cheese, fudge, pastries, sausage and many other european delicacies.

The tour began with the shipyards where the Titanic was built, which at one time employed over 30,000 workers. As part of the city's regeneration post 'the troubles' the shipyards are providing a new focus for development based on the history of the Titanic. Consequently, a huge commercial park and museum is planned in the old yards. The bus also drove down past the famous murals depicting political figures and events, the IRA memorial, and we saw many of the peacelines that still remain on the skyline even today.

However, the regeneration of the city was the focus of the tour, which was evident even when driving through areas where most of 'the troubles' occurred. There are construction and roading developments down almost every street. I really enjoyed Belfast and think it will be interesting to return in about 5-10 years time, which is when they predict most central city developments will be completed. It looked stunning as we left with the Xmas lights through the main street down to City Hall.

A quick trip home to Wicklow from Belfast that night with a stop in Dublin for dinner and a brief orientation. I have now spent the early part of this week acquainting myself with the capital city, but that will be a blog entry for another day.

What a great tour - this country is beautiful, and in many parts reminded me of Otago. I cannot believe the amount of roading and construction work going on everywhere you look, even on many of the roads out west. It really helped having a native irishman as a guide, and couldn't possibly have seen as much without him, so thanks to Glynn, and to everyone we met along the way who gave us directions, recommendations and friendly advice.

Tuesday, December 12

a round tower, an abbey and a passage tomb

One of the differences between Ireland and New Zealand is the evidence of history going back 1000's of years in ruins, buildings and at heritage sites just about everywhere you look. Evidence of New Zealand's relatively recent past seems almost like yesterday in comparison to the story of Ireland.

On our way back from Carlingford Edu, Lydia, Glynn and I stopped at Monisterboice and Mellifont Abbey - two monastic sites dated around 900 and 1000 AD.

The round tower and high crosses we found at Monasterboice are similar to those found throughout Ireland. Monks would run up into the round towers and pull up the rope stairs behind them to protect themselves as the vikings approached.

The hexagonal shaped lavabo at Mellifont Abbey, shown in the photos and link above, is now only remnants of an area where monks washed their hands before meals. It is the only ruin of its kind in the world, and it must also set the record for being (in its day) one of the largest wash basins on the planet.

We travelled further down the old irish back roads following the River Boyne to the 5000 year old neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange. Newgrange is a well-organised commercial operation, but it still doesn't take away from the surreal atmosphere of the place. Used as a tomb for cremated remains, a passageway leads to a small chamber and both are covered by a large mound of stone and earth which blends into the crest of the hill. The neolithic artisans had a good grasp of astronomy, for like many passage tombs around Europe it aligns with the sun on a certain day of the year. Newgrange however is famous for being one of the oldest passage tombs and is now designated as a World Heritage Site.

On December 21st (the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere) at around 9am for 17 minutes a beam of light shines down the passageway through a roof box at the entrance, lighting up the inner chamber. Tickets to the event every year can't be obtained by an average kiwi girl like me (even with an irish boyfriend) and only VIPs, dignitaries and politicians ever get to see the actual event nowadays. The chamber itself is small and only held our tour group 17 at a time. While archaeologists and historians don't actually know what this lighting of the chamber meant to the neolithic people, we do know that the roof still doesn't leak after 5000 years - so they were smart, practical people who could probably teach a kiwi builder a thing or two. Newgrange was accessed in 1699 when the tombs were raided and many of the bodies and artefacts were stolen. When it was properly excavated in 1962 only five bodies remained and a good amount of graffiti circa 18th Century.

It was fun to be able to go there with Glynn's sister Lyd and boyfriend Edu, and it was another opportunity for me to get to know them better before they left to return home to Spain the next day. Glynn and I enjoyed the tour, especially when they dimmed the lights in the passageway and simulated the sun entering the chamber albeit with a 40 watt bulb. The tour guide's voice was sufficiently spooky to make the hairs stand on the back of the neck (a little bit). It was late in the day when we visited and with the sun setting low in the sky as we left we got a feel for the winter solstice on the 21st.

It's pretty wild to realise that globally we all probably share in the ancestry of the original Newgrange people - and while we can all celebrate how far we've come since our neolithic ancestors were walking the planet, there is no way that Glynn's flat will still be standing in 7006. There's probably a lot more we could learn from the neolithic people than just how to put on a good roof.

Monday, December 11

a castle wedding in carlingford

We arrived in Carlingford after a two hour journey from County Wicklow on the motorway north. Both Glynn and I are still suffering from jetlag and found ourselves wide awake at around 3am so decided to drive up early to miss the traffic and make sure we had plenty of time to get ready before the wedding began at midday.

Carlingford is located on the eastern coast of Ireland just south of the old border into Northern Ireland, and exposed to the winds off the Irish Sea. It's a quaint fishing village with many of the old historic ruins scattered throughout the township, an old mint, gaol and entranceway to the town pictured above were the highlights for me. We met a cool breeze when we got out of the car but the sky was clear and it stayed blue and dry for the wedding, which was grand - as irish folk would say - and a bit of a miracle given the previous day of stormy weather.

In New Zealand you can get married in a church, or in a garden, or even at the beach...but here in Ireland you can be married in a 'fair dinkum' castle. Duncan and Denise chose to be married at Narrow Water Castle in an intimate ceremony with only a small number of close family and friends. The castle has passed through the generations and is still owned by the original Hall family, who provide it as a venue to help pay for the upkeep of the buildings.

It was special to be invited having never met Duncan and Denise, and was made to feel welcome. Photos were taken with the bride and groom as we arrived at the castle. I found myself ushered into the family photos before even having met the bride, who looked just stunning.

Those who attended the wedding were invited to a special lunch in Ghan House, an old homestead, and I found myself sitting next to Denise's brother a policeman (or Garda) and we talked about NZ v Irish justice policy (specifically the execution of warrants of arrest and diversion schemes) over seafood chowder, beef main and chocolate truffles - yum!

Following a quick nap back at our B & B we then attended the evening reception with extended family and friends at the Four Seasons Hotel. A huge buffet meal with guests 8 at a table. Lydia, Edu, Glynn and I were seated with Glynn's father's old rugby friends Tony and Harry and their wives Helen and Barbara. While we could hardly eat a thing because of the size of the lunch we'd had, I managed a guinness kindly purchased for me by Tony who used to be MD of the famous brewery before he retired. You can't turn down a guinness under those circumstances, and found it wasn't as bitter as the guinness you get at home. I'm looking forward to sampling more of the local brew as we journey around Ireland.

The rest of the evening I was introduced to the extended family. Glynn has many Aunts and Uncles - his father was one of seven. I talked about trains with Norman for some time and tried to convince him to make a trip to New Zealand to take the trans alpine railway from Christchurch to the West Coast. It was great to meet all of Glynn's immediate family too, his Mum and Dad, Tim and Bob and their new baby Ella, Duncan and Denise, and Lydia and Eduardo.

Even though New Zealand is as far away as you can get from Ireland the ceremonies are much the same with the reception, speeches, cutting of the cake and dancing to a band afterwards reminding me very much of my sister's wedding back home. Such a great day and by the end of the night the best cure for the battle with jetlag, with Glynn and I both sleeping right through the night since first arriving in Ireland.