Archives for the month of: August, 2012

Ireland’s history is ancient.  Ireland’s history is recent.  The Republic’s independence from England came under a hundred years ago.  And a good chunk of the country was kept by the British.  Northern Ireland, or as I also heard it called, the north of Ireland, is still part of the UK.  The British pound is the currency and the Union Jack flies over it.  And this foreign country can be reached without a passport via a two hour train ride.

I could write and write about how it happened that a quarter of this island is not a part of Ireland, but I would have to go on Wikipedia first, and you can really do that yourself if you want.  Let’s keep things simple.  For twenty-five years, from the 60s through the 90s, Northern Ireland was at war.  Those wishing to stay a part of the UK, often Protestants whose ancestors were “planted” by England, were in a terrorist conflict with those who wished to unite with the Republic, mostly Catholics whose ancestors were converted by St. Patrick.  This period of violence and terror made Belfast a dangerous, divided city.

After years of effort and with the help of Americans like Bill Clinton, though, the two sides agreed to a peace in 1998.  Yet Belfast remains divided — a literal wall called the Peace Line runs through the city between the two sides.

Marc and I were picked up by Ken Harper who has been showing tourists these areas for many years, explaining both sides of the conflict and letting us see for ourselves the wall and the murals and the memorials bred and nurtured by an uneasy peace.  Ken himself remembers seeing houses being burned when he was a teenager in the 60s, their owners running down the street, abandoning there homes and cars to gypsy looters.  

It’s hard to explain what it feels like to walk around in a city that seems at once a tidy, modern, historical European capital but is also be a place that monitors its citizens on CCTV, divides its neighborhoods with high walls and barbed wire, and teaches hatred to its children by depicting violence on the sides of buildings.

Some Irish mysteries puzzle and challenge the mind and invite curiosity.  Some sit like a lump in the throat and squeeze you behind the eyes.

Photos are HERE.


Like Molly Malone, Marc and I wandered the Dublin streets broad and narrow pretty extensively.  The city center is not large, so we managed all of our touring on foot.  Our first day left us particularly sore-footed with our multiple walking tours.  We toured Trinity College and learned from our student guide that Trinity shares a characteristic with the University of Virginia – they are the only two schools that make living on the historic campus a privilege for exceptional seniors.

Trinity is the home of a stunningly beautiful, if a bit small, illuminated manuscript, a copy of the gospels created by Scottish and Irish monks during Ireland’s golden age during the first millennium, the age of saints and scholars.  The book’s provenance is mysterious, and its history includes its being stolen by Vikings and abandoned in a field where it was later found “under a sod.”

We queued up to see the book behind its glass case.  Sadly, the systematic control of the hordes broke down at the door, and the glass case was in the middle of a small, darkish room, so it required some elbow dexterity to see the book.  The build up to the Book of Kells meant with certainty that actually seeing it had to be a letdown.

As little as it was, and as poorly lit and crowded with tourists as it was,  it is an object of nearly unbelievable intricacy and tiny delicacy.  I was happy to have seen it.  How incredible to look at something made so long ago that, with its winding strands of brightly colored decoration, aligns perfectly with modern taste.  That perfect workmanship, its graceful endless knotting, does not get old, and like other mysteries of Ireland, occupies the mind with wonder.  What are these woven knots — seen in illustration, knitting, decorative arts, in music, in textiles, and in literature?  What does it mean?  It make a nice metaphor, though, for so many things.  Think about it.  Let your eye follow a knot and contemplate its beginning, its turns, and its ends.

Our trip is coming to its tail end, or mine is anyway.  A few other Dublin highlights were our historical walking tour, a visit to learn about Guinness and how to pour the perfect pint, an Oscar Wilde play, A Woman of No Importance a tthe Gate Theater, and a literary pub crawl where we were treated to performances of scenes from Waiting for Godot and other Irish literature.

We at some terrific meals in Dublin, too, most memorably at The Church on our last night.  This 18th century church was turned into a restaurant several years ago — a gorgeous galleried church with stained glass windows and an organ and a history of preachers and congregants including John Wesley, Jonathan Swift, and Handel.  Now it has a nightclub, a cafe, fine dining, and a huge bar where the pews once stood. Perhaps this is the best idea yet for combatting dwindling church attendance:  situate a well-stocked bar in the nave.

My understanding of William Butler Yeats is slim. A poet from Sligo. Had a patron named Lady Gregory. An Irish revolutionary. So…not a lot to go on. Marc, on the other hand, is a world expert with his two-week Yeats Institute Summer School attendance.

But, since I had a day in Sligo, off I went to the famous burial place of Yeats, where his body may or may not be interred in the churchyard at Drumcliffe. The thing about his grave that seems to bring busloads of package tourists, most of whom probably know less than I do about Yeats, is that a poem he wrote late in life commands his burial spot and his epitaph. He wanted to be buried under Ben Bulben, a sort of cliff above land that lords over the entire region, visible nearly everywhere. And his epitaph is just so enigmatic — a puzzle yet to be solved. What does it mean?

Here, have a go. I’m guessing your interpretation is about as good as anyone’s.

Cast a cold Eye

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by.

A few days after visiting the Yeats site, we went to the 5,000 year old Newgrange site and were presented with another Irish mystery carved into stone on a burial mound. The swirling carvings guarding the entrance to the passage tomb is another of Ireland’s wonders. No one can say with certainly what these drawings represent. These places share a common thread. What were their creators trying to say? What is the message left behind? These contemplations stretch the mind and take over thought during a long walk or a tedious drive, in the shower, or waiting for dinner. What does it mean? Maybe the wonder is the object. Maybe we just need to be reminded we don’t know and we can’t know. Maybe we just need to relax and have a pint.

Photos of Ben Bulben and Drumcliffe Church are HERE.

We found the castle quickly and checked into room 31.  The we headed off to the town’s main street for a casual dinner at a bar.  The world seemed better after a pint and a burger.  By the time we’d returned, the main staircase leading up to our bedroom had been lit with pillar candles all along the steps, giving the whole place an elegant, medieval feel.  That impression might’ve been emphasized by the full suit of armor standing in the window on the landing, or maybe the ornate chandelier above us, or possibly the wood panelling everywhere.

We still didn’t know anything about the castle, but we were starting to put together the details.  A portrait hung of a man in a sort of olden-daysie hunting outfit, a tunic with a belt.  But this was new–maybe the castle’s current owner?  As we walked out to gather our bags, there he was in the flesh, now garbed in a football jersey.

Turns out he wasn’t exactly descended from an earl.  His father,now deceased, had purchased the place in the sixties for a few thousand pounds.  It had been sitting derelict since tuberculosis was cured — its previous use had been as a sanatorium.  

I learned all this and much more about Belleek Castle from my tour guide, Karen.  I joined an Italian mother/daughter pair for an hour’s walk through of the whole structure.  Among the nuggets of information I pieced together from Karen, who’d only just finished school and was on her third day as a tour guide, and her valiant efforts to teach us a bit about the house and its wildly various contents.  This is where I really started to understand the Celtic knot that is Irish history, with the cords of its stories of the past constantly being pulled through a loop into today and then diving back and reconnecting with another once-upon-a-time.

So here are a few bits of yarn:

Belleek Castle was built by and Englishman called Knox in the 1830s over the ruins of a medieval castle.  When, a decade or so later, the potato famine decimated Ireland, this landlord offered work to the men of the town in exchange for a small wage and a bowl of “Indian Meal” each day.  He had them building a lovely stone wall near the River Moy on the edge of the property in a spot where he and his family liked to picnic.  The wall separated nothing from nothing else, enclosed not a bit of land, and actually served no purpose whatsoever.  It was just a little pointless public works project that may have saved hundreds of lives in its construction.  It has a sign labeling it “Famine Wall.”  

Afterwards, the family sold its lovely home and it passed through the hands of the County council and was eventually made into a hotel where tourists stay and the Irish marry.  But more than that, it became a monument to its owner and a repository of his eccentric enthusiasms.  ???, whose name changed when he acquired a forged American passport, had loved the sea and worked as a merchant marine, sailing between England and America.  He had “socked away” a wad of extra cash by smuggling nylons to the British after World War II.  He apparently hid them between his ship’s double hull and waitied until after the ship passed through customs to throw the lot overboard to be gathered up by his posse and sold on the black market.

Mr. ?’s enthusiasms included the Spanish Armada, medieval armor and weaponry, and fossils.  He collected antiques during his travels and throu newspaper advertisements  More than one room in the castle is done up as a ship, complete with walls made from wood salvaged from wrecked ships.  A marble sculpture in the bar depicts Hernando Cortez and dates from his lifetime.  My tour took me to the basement to see the armor and weapons in a near-garage-sale style jumble, the highlight of which is a decorated, but functional, French crossbow.

Much of the old lands have been given over to tract housing, but a dark fairy tale woods separates the castle from the rest of the neighborhood and contains trails and signage placed by the county.  

See photos of Belleek Castle and Ballina HERE.




After our short visit to Belmullet, it was time for our drive to Ballina.  We navigated our way to the Downhill Inn.  I’d had a bad feeling aout this place ever since I saw its name on our itinerary.  Just didn’t sound good.  And it wasn’t.

The halls smelled of smoke and our room was decorated in Pre-Modern Hostel.  It really wasn’t what we had in mind.

We needed to find another hotel, but, as we’ve found to be a fairly typical feature of the Irish hotel — despite the Celtic Tiger and the “prominent place of Ireland in the modern technological era –” the wifi only worked in the lobby.  So off to the lobby we went and searched for a room in town.  We were able to find a vacancy at the Belleek Castle.  More on that to come!

We departed Lahinch on a lovely day and headed north to the town of Belmullet.  We were definitely outside the touristic track now.  First up was finding a laundry–the girl was willing to give our stain problem a go.  (Did I mention that I left a Burt’s Bee’s lip balm in my pocket, so the previous laundry load had red stains all over it?  Strangely, the lip gloss is almost invisible on the lips.  Marc was particularly hard hit by the lip balm disaster and, poor guy, had to pick up some swanky new clothes at the Ballybunion pro shop.)  The girl in the laundry managed to scrub out some of the stains and save a few of Marc’s pairs of pants.

Once Marc was delivered to the golf course, I headed to tourist information to get a walking tour map.  I had read about Erris Head, only a few kilometers away.  I drove in the described direction, looking for the promised sign to Erris Head.  I guess we were firmly in the Gaeltacht, though, because the sign to the trailhead was in Irish and shared maybe two letters with the English name.   And naturally, the map from tourist information was only in English.  I sailed past my turnoff, but quickly started to doubt I was in the right place.  I dug up a bilingual map to confirm, and then did a nice reverse U turn.

The parking area, packed with a minibus, a motorcycle, and several cars already, was at the top of a cliff.  In fact, the whole walk was in a free field perched on top of a rocky peninsula rising up sheer cliffs from the Atlantic.  It is one of Ireland’s furthest western points–important to navigation by air and sea.

The only way to get out to this point is by foot. I climbed a tall ladder/stile and walked among the sheep who had probably originally  made the trail.  The day had turned pristine after a spurt of a shower convinced me to wear a rain jacket on my hike.

Like so many places in Ireland, photos do not do Erris Head justice.  I took a couple of hours and walked the path around the circumference of this protrusion of land, the way marked by a series of arrows.  In Ireland, grass soon covers any attempt to carve a “real” trail, I guess.  I met some tourists on a walking tour of Ireland, most from the US midwest.  Just as I finished my circumnavigation of the headland and rejoined the outbound trail, the phone beeped:  Marc was ready to be picked up.  Perfect timing.

Photos of Erris Head are HERE.