Castles & Abbeys & Jigs, oh my—Southern Ireland

I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Travel, I’ve had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere

–Johnny Cash, played on our Backroads tour bus

You’re very welcome to my final blog about our 16 day trip around the Emerald Isle – I became fond of that Irish expression so much warmer than the generic “Welcome to…”. We went to Ireland to pursue an authentic experience of the culture and the forty shades of green and were not disappointed. Across the southern half of the country, we traversed lakes and mountains, wandered through castles and ruins aplenty, and soaked up enough local music to keep my feet tapping days later.

Not another bl*dy castle

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Kilkenny Castle

It became the standing joke of our little tour bus by the time we had gone in and out of Kilronan Castle, Kilkenny Castle, and Blarney Castle. But American history is too young for castles, so we find them fascinating. We do have forts among our American National Parks, so I found Charles Fort Kinsale Harbor a more familiar site. The fort design is a classic star shape with well protected views of the picturesque harbor. My favorite view, however, was of the local Cork resident practicing his hurling with his dog.

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Hurling practice at Charles Fort, Kinsale Harbor

Kinsale also boasts the best seafood restaurant in Ireland, and it was. Fishy Fishy combined the best of Irish fish with cooking techniques learned from – wait for it – northern California! We had a lovely chat about places we know with head chef Martin Shanahan’s wife at the cash register where she talked about living in Noe Valley and the Castro, while he was head chef at San Francisco’s Huntington Hotel. The seafood chowder – bowl number six of the eight we sampled across the country – was infused with Asian five spice and leaned more shrimp than clam. The mussels were meltaway fresh and smothered in basil. Well, and butter.

Kilkenny castle was grander and less ruined than some of the other roadside relics among our photo stops. Bustling Kilkenny was also far more modern and in some ways less interesting than the quieter towns of Dingle and Galway on the west. The gardens of the castle were immense but comparatively plainer – more soccer field than garden, really. The river walk was pleasant and in the evening, we enjoyed walking past the large NO SKATEBOARDING sign only to see skateboarders who had brought their own rail and were taking turns at sick tricks along it. Just like home!

We actually stayed in a country house/hotel called Kilronan Castle in Ballyfarnon. The hotel owners have turned it into an Estate and Spa, so although suits of armor were plastered along the stone walls, it felt like a movie director’s version of a castle. The giveaway was the giant TV screen in the sitting room that ran an endless loop of wedding ads against a soundtrack like a poor man’s Carmina Burana – how can a choir possibly sound loud and trashy?  I much preferred the uncastly Beech Country House in Derry even with three flights of stairs – you could walk around the owner’s original plantation and breathe in ancient mossy forests spread with bluebells. The walk around Kilronan had everpresent tire tracks etched in the mud.

Twas indeed a lot of Blarney

First off, I did not kiss the Blarney Stone and neither did my traveling companion. I did walk up the eight flights of chipped circular stone stairs, wondering after a couple of flights why I was doing it. I am severely acrophobic – I can’t even climb a tall ladder – so I had one of those what were you thinking moments as I plodded after the rest of those brave souls in our merry little group. They did, bless ‘em, hang upside down 90 feet off the ground to do the deed. I delicately stepped around them and hightailed it for the downward steps. As I popped out from around the Gift Shop, to find my spouse taking photos in the Poison Garden, sure enough, she began, “What the hell were you….” “Just don’t ask,” I said. “Let’s go look at the rest of the gardens.”

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Fairy’s eye view of the Blarney House (not castle)

The rest of the Blarney spread – the fairy glade, the Blarney House, the gypsy wagons, and the extensive flowers – was delightful. We even had a minor adventure when the tour guides locked us in and drove away while we were waving and yelling. Eventually we found the heavy metal subway-style turnstile around the side, bars which had to be turned this way not THAT as we experimented with a little panic. It made a lively story at dinner!

I liked Blarney, both the castle and the town. Our hotel food, one of the few restaurants in this tiny town, was Irishly tasty. What else but seafood chowder, hake, and beef – ah, but 80% of our party ordered beef that night and well, the cook had forgotten to order the beef. So a lot of hake all around, and all good. The after-dinner walk showed that even the Blarney strip malls looked medieval and Irish, with picturesque stone walls and sturdy construction above the Chinese restaurant and nail salon.

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A strip mall in Blarney

The Jig is indeed up

The best part of Blarney was the exhibition of local music and dancing, put on either for our tour or because our tour is always there on Wednesday, probably doesn’t matter which. John at the keyboards looked a hundred years old, but his fingers were lively on everything from the Irish reels to Danny Boy. Another older fella called Dan in dockers and pink oxford shirt danced “with a brush” i.e. broom, and leaped high over the bristles with serious concentration.

The treat was Mags McCarthy who fiddled, danced, and then danced with the fiddle. Mags has her own website and blog, and is well known both for her Irish Dance school and for dancing for the Obamas when they visited. Mags will become famous-er someday, you read it here first!

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The singing and dancing was less a performance for us than an integral part of the community. Many places that show you “authentic dancing” feel completely staged for tourists, but this tiny hotel ballroom seemed to preserve this as a timeless part of their culture. The locals spent as much time putting on the show as getting the crowd up to dance a reel or two.  A lady who looked like my Aunt Irene was exhorting all of us to get out of our seats; she clearly comes every week. Even I can be persuaded to do the Hokey Pokey when it has an Irish lilt to it.

I must also mention the group recommended by a music shop owner in Westport:  GOITSE. Their music was rollicking, a blend of what sounds to an American like bluegrass and country stomp. The shopkeeper was pleased that we asked about the music she was playing, and it turns out this band has won numerous awards as Irish Group of the Year. Check out the beginning of “Tall Tales” off the CD “Tall Tales and Misadventures” and you’ll be tapping your feet in no time.

Ruins & Circles – Light and Darkness

In the final two days, we visited two church-based settlements – notably the Rock of Cashel and Glendalough Abbey. The Rock is a spectacular archaeological site in County Tipperary, towers and spires rising up on a limestone hill. As we explored the ancient cathedral and Romanesque chapel, our tour guide fought to be heard over the lawn mower which followed our group around the immense grassy plain.

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Rock of Cashel

She seemed particularly delighted to point out the sheela na gig that we asked about at tour’s end. With a secret smile, she walked us over to the side of a building and knew exactly where to point: from the top of the wall, eight stones down and two in. The stonemasons carved this pagan fertility symbol in the rock they used for this Catholic edifice. We’d been tipped off that the sheela na gig symbols, reflecting a much older religion, were carved all over churches, temples, and tombs across the country, and we were thrilled to finally find an example.

In Glendalough Abbey built among the Wicklow Mountains, Saint Kevan created a settlement originally to support a hermit’s lifestyle. This idllyic valley was meant to be shared, though, so it grew into a larger monastery over the 9th and 10th centuries. The round tower is visible for miles; up close, I couldn’t help but wonder if Rapunzel left a comb or two among the cobwebs on the top floor.

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Homeward bound

‘Cause I’ve seen blue skies, through the tears
In my eyes
And I realize, I’m going home
–Richard O’Brien

There was, of course, much more to tell of Powerscourt and the Bantry House, the lakes of Kilkenny and Jameson whiskey… but I could fill a book. Though I did not kiss the Blarney Stone, regular readers know that I am never short for words, so no need to get more of the “gift of gab” for these entries.

Our journey back to California was delayed with multiple breakdowns in customer service along the way. Going home is always like that. I consider it payback in exchange for good weather. All I can do is click my heels like Dorothy. Eventually home appears and I can sigh with relief when the house key pops open the door.

I have learned a few things with these past few trips.  Northern Europe in April is a hidden jewel. Before the busy season, it will be chilly, but when the sun pops out it seems like a jackpot and a blessing. No matter where you are, something will be blooming. You don’t have to fight with crowds to get the picture of the flowers, either.

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Fringe benefits of April travel

The following things were surprisingly useful: 6 inch Bungee cords; duct tape; an extra charging cord; many clear ziplocs. I am convinced you can’t bring too many zippered bags. A travel credit card that doesn’t charge a fee for foreign exchange. I appreciated bringing my own hand lotion, since many of the hotel samples smelled either like my grandmother or a French fille de joie. Layers. Bring many clothing layers – don’t bring heavy sweaters. The day you don that sweater thinking of the wind in the ruins, the next minute, you’re roasting in the car, bus or a café. Layers are more practical and take up less room in the suitcase.  Then there was my post-trip Facebook outburst, which seemed to get a universal chorus of approval.

My goodness, that’s a big pile of laundry. Wow… where does all this stuff we brought in our suitcases go back? Really? You bought three boxes of THAT at the airport gift shop? Crud, this crack in the suitcase will require some duct tape now. Where’s the mail they were supposed to deliver? What’s that smell in the refrigerator… oh, we forgot about that yogurt… geez, I really don’t want to make a to-do list yet. Hmmm, what happened to the attachment that goes with this thing, did we leave it somewhere? No, no, for heavens sake, DON’T GET ON THE SCALE NOOOOoooooo!!

Weren’t we just there yesterday?
–After Trip “Hangover” Post

I can close my eyes and still see and hear the land. Magnificent spires. Rocks across the burren and along all the walls; rock houses, rock abbeys, rock landscapes but always with flowers and green green GREEN growing around and among the cracks. Air with extra oxygen because of all the green; air with the memory of green. Cheery faces and the din of conversation across a bowl of seafood chowder. An accordion, a fiddle, a lone whistle always playing, always carried on the breeze across the trees and rocks and across my memory.

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