Day 4: Cashel and Cork

My first Day 4 post got so long I just couldn’t go on writing, so here is an addendum. After Donaghmore we got back in the car, heading once again for Cork. But we saw Cashel on the highway signs and Beth remembered there was a big castle there, so we exited once again to take a look.

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Photo: Wikipedia

The Rock of Cashel is so huge I didn’t even bother trying to fit it all into a cameraphone photo. The castle sits on a giant rock — hence the name — on a hilltop, where castles tended to be built for defensive purposes. Donated to the church in 1100, it was in active use through the middle of the 18th century, and is more elaborate than the complex at Trim.

It’s hard to express the enormity of the place but this photo of Beth taking a picture of some fellow tourists will give you some idea.

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We didn’t take a tour this time; we just strolled through, looking at carvings and playing “name that saint,” a game Cathy always wins.

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In the very last room, just before we got in the car, we saw this marvel. It had no label or explanatory plaque at all. I have no idea who she is (I assume it’s a she but who knows?). Nonetheless, I love her. Like, stone-head-at-the-Archeology-Museum levels of love.

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Just look at that face!

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Finally we got back in the car and drove on to Cork, where, after going through several hundred roundabouts and getting lost on exceedingly narrow one-way streets once or twice, we finally arrived at the River Lee Hotel. It had a lovely view of Cork from the glass elevator.

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Tired and fact-crammed, we wandered downtown and had mussels, duck confit and a salad with beets and local cheese at a lovely place called Jacques. We spent much of the meal writing the screenplay for a fictionalized movie about the Dutch-Irish bog preservation effort, “The Bog in our Hearts,” starring Liam Neeson and Angelina Jolie. Don’t quote me, but I think we’ve got an Oscar-winner in the making.

Day 4: Our Guerilla Past

As we sat down to an Irish breakfast at the B and B in Trim, the male half of the couple that ran the place came in and began to chat. He told us he’d worked in intelligence and lived in all sorts of interesting places around the world. When we mentioned we had ancestors in Derrykerrib, Fermanagh, his eyes lit up.

“Oh, your people were IRA!” he said. “Back when I was just getting started, I was working around there and you couldn’t go to Derrykerrib — it was too dangerous.”

This made sense since Derrykerrib is right on the border and we’d heard rumors that our forerunners were involved in gun-running. Our grandfather, who came from that side of the family, had initially wanted to join with Germany and Austria-Hungary to fight against the English in World War One (he was persuaded to sign up with the Allies instead).

“Go hang around in Derrykerrib for a few days and talk to people,” our host advised. “I’m sure you’ll turn up some who remember your ancestors.”

Much like the ending of a summer blockbuster, this immediately laid the groundwork for Ireland Trip III — coming soon to a Boeing 747 near you!

After breakfast we hit the road to Cork by way of Donaghmore, where there’s an old workhouse that’s been converted into a museum. As we were driving through jewel-green fields edged by hedgerows, we began to see more and more bogs. We had become fascinated with bogs on last year’s trip so Cathy randomly googled “Visit bog ireland” and up popped the Bog of Allen Nature Center, just a few kilometers ahead!

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“In the heart of the bog and with bogs in our hearts.”

The nature center, which doubles as the headquarters of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, was excellent. It told the history of peat in Ireland, including its longstanding use as a fuel, which is bad news for the planet because peat is extremely rich in carbon so burning it accelerates climate change. It also described the alliance between the Netherlands and Ireland to preserve bogs. That partnership began when a Dutch bog scientist realized all the peatlands in his country were too compromised to be useful objects of study. He began an initiative to buy bogs in Ireland, where they were still plentiful, and give them to the government to preserve, while also educating the public about the importance of peatlands.

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Out back was a lovely demonstration garden showcasing ways to cultivate plants without using peat. And there the nice woman in charge of the place served us tea.

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Thus fortified we hit the road to Donaghmore, which turned out to be a handsome but melancholy place — not surprisingly, since it was a destination of last resort for impoverished, starving people. The famine-era Irish workhouse model seems like it went out of its way to be cruel. Families were separated, often for good. Your clothes were taken away and you were given a ragged uniform to wear. Work was compulsory because even though you’d been starved off your farmland, the assumption was that you were lazy.

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As we stood looking out the window of the former girls’ dormitory, it was easy to imagine gazing out as an inmate and wishing you were somewhere else.

Most of the upstairs rooms were empty but one of them had a mannequin in it which scared the living daylights out of me.

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It was an unquestionably tragic place. Many people died in these institutions, and others were scarred for life. But as I wandered through the quiet halls, I couldn’t help but question whether people 100 years from now would be walking through reproductions of homeless shelters, marveling at the cruelty. In present-day shelters, families may be separated, healthy people are often forced to share space with those suffering from severe untreated mental illnesses, substance abuse is rampant, and physical and sexual abuse is common. At least the poorhouse was a permanent living space, whereas most shelters demand that you leave in the morning because they’re only open overnight. In the judgment of history, I’m not convinced we will look any better than our Victorian counterparts.

The workhouse was closed in 1886. Decades later, a dairy cooperative took over the property. Thus, it is also an agricultural museum with lots of antique farming equipment that is hypnotically beautiful to look at. Take, for example, the hay-bogey, used to drag loads of hay in from the fields.

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Sometimes the labels on the machinery were less than helpful, which made us laugh.

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Day 3: Towers, Ruins, Etc.

Beth had done a fabulous job of driving last year on the one day we rented a car, so this year we planned to drive the whole time. While we felt a little regretful about the environmental impact, and about not being able to buy oatie biscuits and Barry’s Tea from the tea cart on the train, the car is so much more flexible and enhances one’s ability to wander.

So after a round of delicious Merrion oat porridge with stewed fruit, brown bread and most important, TEA, we went to the airport, picked up the car and set off for Newgrange.

Newgrange is an ancient mound with interior passages, built around 5,000 years ago in a beautifully green swathe of Irish countryside.

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The first thing you notice is the exterior wall — reconstructed, of course, so you can’t be sure of how it originally looked — but as best they figure it had this lovely pattern of white rock punctuated by round black rocks that stick out.

The entrance is guarded by this long rock with carvings of spirals. This apparently helped protect it from looting over the years as people were afraid to cross the rock and run afoul of whatever supernatural being(s) they feared — God, gods, spirits.

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You have to be on an official tour to enter the structure. You can only go in for ten minutes and photos are forbidden, which was kind of a relief because it means you’re wholly undistracted. You have to squeeze through a narrow stone passage before popping out into the interior room. It’s decorated with more spirals as well as diamond and triangle shapes. After we had a good look around, the tour guide arranged us expertly by height so we could all see, and then turned off the lights and turned on a simulated beam that shot into the room through a special window over the entrance. This is how light enters the interior during the winter solstice. It gave me goosebumps.

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We had lunch at the surprisingly delicious museum cafeteria, including some Junk Food of the Week-worthy Roast Beef and Irish Stout potato chips. They didn’t taste very much like roast beef or stout to me, but they were pleasantly spicy.

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We debated side trips to various stone towers, ruins etc. but finally decided to just drive on to our destination for the night: the old walled and castled city of Trim.

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The castle was built in the 1100s and used through the 1600s but it never really got a makeover, so it’s a fairly pure example of Norman architecture. We took a tour through the rooms and imagined toughing it out in a stone building on this windswept hilltop without central heating or plumbing. The tour guide showed us a grate-covered hole in the corner of the master bedroom where the ruler would allegedly pass solid waste. Said waste fell down the exterior of the castle, and its healthy color was meant as a warning to would-be attackers that the big guy was well-fed and strong.

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Afterward we went to our B & B and tried to warm up, but we couldn’t. It was freezing at the castle and cold in town and cold in our room and just cold, cold, cold. Finally we drove back into town to the Trim Castle Hotel and had a drink and a plate of local cheeses and meats in the bar. We looked out at the castle, which is lit up at night, and at last we got warm enough to go home and go to bed.

Day 2: Vikings and Catacombs

On Day 2, Monday, Beth was due to arrive in the morning. Cathy and I took a walk around Merrion Park, which was lovely, then awaited her in the drawing room in front of the fire. We went off to the Yeats exhibit at the National Library, which Beth had seen last year, while she supplemented her meagre plane sleep with a nap.

The Yeats exhibit is pretty great. They have audio of him intoning “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in singsong tones, which will ring in my ears for a while, and they do a pretty good job of untangling his love life — no mean feat. I hadn’t read Yeats in an organized way in a long time and I felt a little swoony reading/hearing his spare and beautiful language again:

No Second Troy

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
Then we went back to the Merrion and picked up Beth and went to lunch at Hatch, which was as wonderful as ever.
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We decided to go to the catacombs at Christ Church Cathedral so we set out in a meander-y way, seeing and losing and seeing and losing the spire as we navigated the twisty streets. When we arrived we noticed Dublinia Museum across the way and decided to check it out. This turned out to be an excellent idea because it’s a really fun museum, interactive and kid-friendly, that does a great job of describing Dublin’s early history. For instance, I didn’t know that most Vikings were farmers who only marauded in the offseason, or that their empire of looting gradually transformed into an empire of trading as their networks became more sophisticated. Most important, we got to dress up as Vikings.

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The catacombs were a little disappointing, to be honest. They were very clean, well-let and well-organized, and even boasted their own gift shop. Instead of bones and skulls they mostly displayed the opulent swag the church collected at the expense of the people. The only thing that saved them, and it took a long time to find it, was the display case featuring the mummified bodies of a cat and rat — known locally, of course, as Tom and Jerry.

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We wanted to get up early so we grabbed a light dinner at McGrattan’s pub and went to bed.

Ireland, Day 1: The Merrion

I’ve never given a damn about hotels. In fact, I’ve stayed in some places in Southeast Asia that were downright hair-raising — ones that seemed more appropriate for, say, murdering someone and stowing them in small pieces under the bed, than having a nice sleep and a shower. It’s always been a matter of indifference to me where I stayed. Until I met the Merrion.

My sisters and I stayed at the Merrion last year on our first time in Ireland. We had such a great trip we decided to come back for another week this year. There was no question we would stay in the Merrion while we were in Dublin.

I don’t know if it’s the thick carpets, which suffuse the place with a delicious quiet, or if it’s the fact that it always smells really good inside, or that the shampoos and soaps also smell really good — bearing in mind that I generally hate perfumes and scents of any kind — but there’s something special about the place.

They have artwork all over that is genuinely interesting and varied in style. They have elaborate gardens including a little memorial to James Joyce. They make excellent porridge. I don’t know. Maybe it’s pheromones, but I love the place, and so do Beth and Cathy. It is, of course, somewhat pricy, but when you split it three ways it’s not so bad.

Cathy and I arrived first to Dublin this year since Beth had to work Saturday night. We got on the plane at 7 pm at JFK and arrived at 7 am local time the next morning, with no meaningful sleep behind us and a long day ahead. We took the bus into town, hoping against hope that the Merrion would have a room available early. Alas, they did not, so we sat by the fire and drank a latte (me) and tea (Cathy) until the city began to awaken.

Our first destination was the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a ship that carried some 2,500 Irish emigres to the US and Canada during the famine. While many of these vessels had such high death rates from cholera and typhus that they were called “coffin ships,” the Jeanie Johnston had a reputable doctor on board and enough food and water to keep people healthy. She had a remarkable record of zero deaths on her many voyages. Down belowdecks the exhibit featured creepy fake people enacting common scenes: feeding a baby, sleeping in tiny berths, playing a fiddle.

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After the Jeanie Johnston we walked back to the Merrion, stopping by Sweney’s Pharmacy to see when their next James Joyce reading would be. The man behind the counter sang us a song in Gaelic. That’s when my still-muddled brain and body really began to comprehend that we were in Ireland.

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In the afternoon Cathy led us on something of a wild goose chase to the Martello tower in Howth where Ulysses starts. We got on the train at Pearse station and rode up to the shore. By the time we got off we were hungry so we got enormous boxes of fish and chips at Leo Burdock’s. Mine was smoked cod, and it was delicious.

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Afterward we walked to the tower. My phone died so I didn’t get any photos. There wasn’t anything on the outside about Joyce so Cathy went in to ask. Apparently when she said “Is this the tower from Ulysses?” the woman behind the counter answered “Oh no! Oh dear!” It turned out to be the wrong Martello tower in the wrong seaside town in the wrong direction from Dublin — we should have gone to Sandycove. (The next day, however, we would learn that Yeats went to Howth with Maud Gonne the day after his first of approximately a million unsuccessful marriage proposals to her — so it was still a literary pilgrimage, just not about the right person.)

We caught the next train back and arrived in time to go to the National Museum of Archeology, which has joined my list of Favorite Museums Ever, along with the Hirshhorn and the Van Gogh Museum. I’m usually not a huge fan of artefacts but the National Museum has really amazing stuff, including this stone head. I have thought about the stone head a lot since I met it last year, and I was looking forward to spending some time with it again.

Carved stone head

We were beginning to get a bit loopy with lack of sleep but we wanted to stay awake, so we decided to walk past the Little Museum and make sure our favorite restaurant, Hatch, was still there. We walked to St. Stephen’s Green and to our shock and horror the farmhouse table and chalkboard had been replaced with shiny white surfaces and bright overhead lighting and a menu of expensive seafood. We stood and wailed for about a minute until I looked up and said “Hold on — this isn’t the Little Museum.” We went a few doors down and there was Hatch, not open at the moment but very much alive and well.

We weren’t very hungry after our mountain of fish and chips so that night we continued the Joyce theme and went to Davy Byrnes’ where we got soup and, of course, a gorgonzola sandwich. We stopped by O’Donoghue’s on the way back, thinking it would be quiet on a Sunday night, but finding it instead crammed with musicians. We hung out for an hour until a sweaty seisun player put his arm around me and said “Aren’t you pretty.” That was definitely our cue to go back to the Merrion and crash out in sweet-smelling splendor.