Ireland

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The Irish in America

August 15, 2014

  

Did you know there are more Irish- Americans than there are Irish?

Teresa's mother's family came from Ireland, and I have no doubt the impact of the Ingram family in America has been huge.  As an example, just one Ingram, Sister Marilyn, was single-handedly responsible for founding what is now the largest regional hospital in Santa Maria, California.  (click to see)

Yet for some reason we've never made it to Ireland, an omission I had planned to correct this month.  Of course, Katie Rose has had a love affair with Ireland for many years, so we couldn't imagine not having her with us.  

We were all set to go, but to my dismay, I suddenly experienced a detached retina last month, so now I don't know if I'll be joining them.  We're slated to head for Dublin via Aer Lingus next Saturday, August 23rd, but I won't know until the last possible minute if I'll be on that flight!

 

 

August 26, 2014:  A Pirate in Dublin

So here I am in Dublin after all... wearing a black eye patch over my right eye no less!

I'm happy I got to go - a last minute reprieve from my doctor - but I have to admit to some trepidation.  More about that in a minute!

I went to see Captain America last month and carefully studied how Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) wears his eye patch - over his left eye with the elastic strap below his left ear then running up and across his shaved head! 

Pretty cool!  But for the life of me I can't fathom how he can manage a high speed car chase with only one eye!  I'm still bumping into doors!

Soo... this is a challenge.  I've been making my way around Dublin... along the River Liffey... through the Temple Bar District...  Grafton Street... O'Connell Street... all the while hanging on to Teresa while trying to dodge light poles, trash bins, assorted random objects and... people... lots and lots of people!

It's only Tuesday and we've covered a lot of territory. 

Shortly after getting checked in to our hotel Sunday afternoon, we joined a historical walking tour.  Our guide, a not-so-recent graduate of Trinity College, led us around central Dublin while providing a fascinating historical perspective.  Much of what he described focused on the not-so-friendly relationship with Britain over the course of many hundreds of years.  He described the formation of the United Kingdom in 1801 - not much input from the Irish side, then gave us blow-by-blow details of the 1916 Easter rebellion and the civil war that ended with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. 

Later in the evening we enjoyed our first authentic Irish pub meal at O'Neill's in the Temple Bar District - roast pork and potatoes and mashed vegetables served cafeteria style washed down with pints of O'Hara's and Smithwick's on draft.

On Monday we drove about an hour north to Bru na Boinne (also known as Newgrange) to check out archaeological ruins dating back more than 3000 years - these huge grassy mounds were built (presumably) to serve as burial grounds and there are underground tunnels that served as crypts for the dead.

Later that evening we joined a musical pub crawl - during the course of three hours we visited three different pubs and listened to the most wonderful range of Irish music imaginable accompanied by more Irish history and folklore.  And of course we downed more than a few pints of beer!  It was nearly midnight when we found ourselves at Gogerty's Pub for a late meal of Shepard's pie and fish and chips!

And today - a late start but we managed to fit in several more historical sights:  First, a tour of Trinity College, founded by the Anglican Church several hundred years ago but boycotted by the Irish Catholic Church until the early 1970's.  We learned about the Book of Kells, a handcrafted copy of the New Testament, written in Latin, replete with elaborate calligraphy created by monks acting as scribes.  Then we toured the college library with its long narrow hallway and high-ceilinged arches - apparently it was also portrayed as the Jedi Archives in Star Wars.

Later in the afternoon - Dublin Castle - former repository of British power (until 1922).  This is where the leaders of the Irish provisional government were held prior to their transfer to Kilmainham prison in 1916 after which they were executed (by firing squad) - this event triggered the Irish Civil War.  Dublin Castle is, ironically, now the seat of government for their successors - the Irish Republic. 

We were taken on an underground tour of the courtyard beneath the castle where we viewed the ruins of the original towers as well as the secret waterway used for bringing in supplies for the palace elite.

It was an early meal this evening highlighted by bangers & mash.

 

August 28, 2014:  Onward to Kilkenny

Oh-oh... first day on the road for Teresa! 

We got our car Wednesday morning, first thing - the nice young man at Enterprise gave us a rundown of what to expect - narrow roads, disappearing side mirrors, blowouts, etc.  Not to worry, but would you like to buy extra insurance?

I went for the extra collision coverage - only €250 if she totals the car!  No need for the road hazard coverage - I can save a few bucks!

Courage fortified, Teresa got behind the wheel - right side - Katie navigating next to her - me crouched low in the back, holding my breath!   No problem!  After a short drive we made it to Kilmainham Jail!

This jail, abandoned at the end of the Irish civil war in 1922, proved to be exactly what you'd expect given its horrendous history - children as young as 5 years old locked up in 1847 for stealing bread during the Great Famine - forced to sleep in unheated corridors on straw-covered cinderblocks.  This was where the leaders of the 1916 provisional government were executed by a firing squad in the courtyard - by order of the British government!

Just after noon we headed out of Dublin, south toward Kilkenny through the Wicklow Mountains.  In about half an hour we passed the town of Enniskerry and stopped to stroll through the Gardens of Powerscourt, a several thousand acre garden preserve planted during Victorian times.  As we followed the narrow footpath surrounded by a jungle-like explosion of flora, what had started as a light drizzle gradually became heavier.

Back in the car the sky grew dark and the rain got heavier, becoming torrential as the road turned narrow and twisty.  We crawled along the winding road, barely two lanes wide, then just as the storm seemed to hit its peak, there was a loud bang followed by a clattering sound telling us we'd hit a huge pothole!

One quick glance and we knew the news was bad!  But with a fierce wind inverting our umbrellas, the one-eyed pirate changed the blowout in record time, then retreated to the back seat, soaked and covered with mud. So much for saving a few bucks!

We stopped at Glendalough, where we braved the storm to see the ruins of St. Kevin's Monastery -- dating back to the sixth century - then soldiered on for several more hours, finally getting Kilkenny after 7 PM - we were exhausted, nerves askew!

So we medicated ourselves at Matt the Miller's pub, gulping down pints of Smithwick's and relaxing to some fine Irish tunes and grub!

In the morning, our hyperactive B&B hostess Katherine directed us to a one man tire repair shop, only a mile away.  He took a look at the large sidewall tear and slowly shook his head.  But then he assured us he had what we needed and it was ours for only €90!  (A bargain, I assured myself!)

We spent the rest of the day checking out Kilkenny, a quaint town easy to navigate on foot.  We spent the morning at Kilkenny Castle, then browsed the Kilkenny Design Center and enjoyed a picnic lunch in their garden.  Later, we climbed the 100 foot Round Tower at St. Canice's Cathedral for a magnificent view of Kilkenny and the countryside. 

Then we retrieved our car - looking good!

 

August 31, 2014:  The Road Trip Continues

I've realized over the past few days that a major problem with blogging on a road trip is that you can't write while you are driving - worse yet, you really can't write while you're sitting in the back seat on a winding road!

Nearly all of my journeys the past few years have involved getting around by bus or train, allowing me to keep up with my posts while someone else gets us to our next stop. 

But I'm finding on this trip that there's just not enough time to keep up with the blog -  by the time we get back to the hotel or B&B it's very late - and most days we need to get going on our itinerary early the next morning.

I usually like to write about things right after they happen  - when my recollection of the day's activities are still fresh in my mind.  That's the main reason I started keeping a journal - I long ago appreciated that within a few days memories fade, and within a week or two it's all a blur!

So, in this situation, I'll just have to provide a recap of the last few days' events as best I can recall them!

On Friday morning (August 29th) we encountered another blustery day as we made our way to St. Patrick's Rock of Cashel, the rock being a patch of high ground where a castle fortress was first erected sometime around the third century (A.D.), then later turned into a cathedral around 1100 A.D.

After an initial 45 minute guided tour (during which we cowered under our umbrellas), we wandered the ruins of the castle then descended about a mile on a narrow path to the abandoned ruins of a monastery on the plain below - remarkably well preserved.  There were no gates, railings or ropes and we were free to explore the remains of the various structures.

Katie and Teresa headed off on their own to Ballymaloe Cooking School, about an hour away, where they spent the afternoon in a classroom with the school's owner, Rory O'Connell, older brother of celebrity chef Darina Allen (http://www.cookingisfun.ie/)

Bob and Katy S. (our traveling companions) and myself arrived later on, and after buying some cheese and bread at the school's small store, we headed into the adjacent gardens to enjoy a picnic lunch.  No ordinary garden, this is where the school grows it's own fresh fruit and vegetables - the garden is enormous - it also includes an acre sized greenhouse so that there are fresh tomatoes, chili peppers, zucchini and squash year round!  I was astonished to see ten foot tall tomato plants hanging from the glass ceiling with clusters of ripe tomatoes!

Later in the evening we arrived in Kinsale, a quaint coastal town not far from Cork, and immediately headed to Kitty O'Shea's for food and live music, not to mention several rounds of Smithwick's which is brewed in Kinsale.

When we rose Saturday morning we were shocked to find the sun shining for the first time - no fog - only a few high clouds!  We started the day with the historic walking tour recommended by Rick Steves, and Don Herlihy regaled us with stories of Kinsale's fabled past, primarily due to its strategically located harbor. 

In the afternoon we hiked several miles along the harbor inlet, eventually arriving at Charles Fort, formerly a British redoubt originally built to guard the water approach to Kinsale from foreign invaders, but eventually abandoned then burned by rebels during the Irish civil war.

Our last stop was the Desmond Castle next door to our B&B - built in the fifteenth century, it served first as a customs house, then an armory, then as a prison, and the current partially restored ruin now serves as a wine museum.  Odd!

The grand finale was dinner at Fishy Fishy, a fresh seafood restaurant operated by local celebrity chef Martin Shanahan: http://www.fishyfishy.ie/.   Aside from the most delicious chowder I've ever eaten, I particularly enjoyed the giant photo of the braying mule with the caption: Celebrity Chef my ass!

 

September 2, 2014:  An Irish History Lesson

I vaguely recall learning about the Irish potato famine in high school - in a very hazy and unclear sort of way.  I remember a question on a history test about what caused the famine -  simple answer:  potato blight.  I also remember a question about the Fenians - who were they, etc.  But it never made a whole lot of sense to me and that's kind of strange since I had an unusual interest in history as a teen.

But I think I finally get it, forty-five years later. 

We'd arrived in Dingle Sunday evening after a long drive around the Ring of Kerry.  Once again, the weather was awful, with rain and fog all day - I've resigned myself to admiring the breathtaking vistas of the Ring of Kerry featured on the 2015 scenic Ireland calendar!  We did make one brief stop at theStaigue Ring Fort, a circular stone structure built at least 2500 years ago - it's hard to believe the history of the region dates so far back!

But the history that interests me the most is the ongoing struggle for control of Ireland that began nearly a thousand years ago when the mostly Catholic native Irish population tried to resist domination by mostly Protestant English invaders.  In 1801, when Ireland was forced into a union with Britain, Scotland and Wales to form the United Kingdom, the majority of the population became part of a very unequal partnership. 

So, once again, what caused the Irish potato famine in 1845?  Was it potato blight?

This was the simple answer I was given long ago.

But the correct answer is this:  Agricultural production, other than potato farming, was almost wholly controlled by landowners of British descent.  The bulk of the population, due to anti-Catholic laws passed by the British government, lived as subsistence tenant farmers, growing potatoes to feed themselves, while the bulk of the food production went to Britain.

And for reasons that seem to be primarily ideological, the government in London refused to provide help long after it became clear that the Irish population was starving, because the potato blight had destroyed their main food source.  So, during a five year stretch, the population dropped from six million to four million.  Half the loss was due to emigration abroad, and half was due to starvation. 

And the Fenians?  As I understand it, they were the original Irish nationalists who demanded independence from Britain - precursors to the IRA, I assume. 

We spent much of the day on a slow drive around the Dingle peninsula, stopping at the many historically significant sites.  One of these was theSlea Head Famine Cottages, a small cluster of rock dwellings dating back to the famine.  These were the primitive shelters that housed the Irish subsistence farmers before they were evicted by the landowners when they became unable to pay their rent.  Posted on the interior walls were the stories, some hand written, of what had happened and what had been dire consequences for the local population.

Another major stop, unrelated to the famine, was the Blasket Islands Visitors Center, which told the story of the inhabitants of the Blasket Islands, an island community just off the mainland.  By 1953, the last of this small community, 4 women and 17 men, left the island - most of their children had emigrated to America to join the expatriate Irish community in Springfield, Massachusetts.

We made several other stops, including the Dunbey Fort, most of which has fallen into the ocean; the Beehive Huts, which (duh) look like stone beehives; the Gallarus Oratory, a stone chapel 1300 years old that could accommodate 12 monks for prayer; and the twelfth century ruin of Kilmalkedar Church and cemetery.

A lot of history for one day!

 

September 5, 2914:  Driving in Ireland

We'd planned another long drive on Tuesday, this time from Dingle to Galway.

This got me to thinking.

By the time we return to Dublin next Sunday evening, we will have completely circumnavigated Ireland.  That's a lot of driving and it makes me question if this is the best way to see Ireland.  And if it is, how much time should you realistically allow to see what you should see?

I know that most visitors usually spend a week to ten days which is far less than ideal (in my opinion) but I also appreciate that this mirrors the time (and money) that most people can spare. 

And getting around is not easy.  Train service is limited so you'd have to rely mostly on buses if you didn't have your own vehicle.

Although we'd chosen to rent a car, I'd had some serious reservations about this.  After all, most of the roads are only two lanes and very narrow - hardly enough room when a huge truck is approaching from the opposite direction!

The main alternative to driving, unless you've got a lot of time on your hands, is to join an organized bus tour.  And with this scenario you see whatever the tour organizer has in mind for you.

Although I'd originally intended to do the driving - admittedly somewhat reluctantly - my eye injury forced this task on to Teresa, who was even less enamored of this than I was.  And, in fact, it has proved to be very stressful. 

When we last rented a vehicle, several years ago in Provence, the driving was tough, even on the right side of the road.  Since any travel is inherently stressful - after all, it generally involves fear of the unknown - adding a vehicle to the mix can add so much anxiety that you can end up regretting the whole endeavor.

So what is the solution?  Most of Europe has good train service, which allows you to relax and enjoy the scenery, wander around and eat at your leisure.  Although you may bypass some of the smaller towns, I think you'll probably enjoy yourself more.  But Ireland doesn't have this level of rail service - you have to rely on buses - not the same experience.

With lots of time to spare, I think I'd prefer to see Ireland without the benefit of a car, although it would probably take a full month to get around.  Of course, the problem is not just the time - Ireland is not inexpensive and the cost of accommodation adds up.  Although I've noticed a few hostels, these are too basic for most folks.  And B&B's, which cost less than hotels, still run upwards of 60 to 75 Euros a night.

So there really is no simple answer.  While Rick Steves claims that driving in Ireland is "basically wonderful" - on this issue I think he is way off base.  Based on our current experience I would caution anyone from the U.S. who is considering renting a car in Ireland to anticipate some very stressful driving.

 

September 8, 2014:  From the West Coast to the North Coast

We've covered a lot of ground the last several days, constantly on the move.

From Dingle we headed north across the Shannon River via ferry:  "Is this the right one?" asked Katy S.  "If we're in Bristol in a few hours we'll know it wasn't!" I replied.

Soon after, we found ourselves at the Cliffs of Moher which run along the west coast for about five miles - the cliffs are a sheer, several hundred foot drop to the ocean and there is a trail that follows along the top of the cliffs.  The brave (or foolhardy) can follow the unprotected path that runs just by the edge, while the sensible (or cowardly) can follow a second path that runs about 10 or 12 feet away from the edge and is protected by a raised berm.  (Teresa insisted I follow the latter - what's a one-eyed guy to do?)

Heading inland, we passed through the Burren, a vast expanse of badlands covered by sedentary limestone that had been on the ocean floor several million years ago.  We stopped at the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a large table-like edifice constructed by the Celts' ancestors some 5000+ years ago - it is built from enormous boulders - I can't imagine how they were able to lift into place these giant rocks that must weigh several tons each!

We stayed in Galway just long enough to arrange a side trip by ferry to the Aran Islands, while spending the evenings roaming the bustling Latin Quarter with its multitude of shops and quaint restaurants.  OnInishmore, the largest of the islands, we arranged a private day tour with Martin, who told us he'd worked for 37 years as a fisherman.  As we rode in his minivan, he provided a compelling narrative of life on the island.  We stopped at the Dun Aenghus Castle, an enormous stone fortress of Celtic origin built next to the sea overlooking towering cliffs.

The following day we bade farewell to Bob and Katy S. who headed for the Connemara region, just north of Galway along the coast, while we made our way northeast toward Sligo, then crossed the border intoUlster, the northernmost province that is still a part of the U.K.

Our subsequent stop proved to be one of the most compelling of our perimeter road trip around Ireland, the city of Derry - also known as Londonderry - located on the banks of the River Foyle.

Derry, in Northern Ireland, was ground zero for "the Troubles" for more than 30 years - it's the euphemism for the civil war that pitted the Irish Republican Army (the Nationalists), against the Ulster Defense League (the Unionists) - and it was 30 years of brutal bombings and killings.  We stayed in the Bogside, the Catholic neighborhood just below the walled old city:  You are now entering Free Derry reads the ominous message on the stone wall at the entrance to this area.

This greeting marks the site where Bloody Sundayoccurred in 1972 - a confrontation between unarmed demonstrators and the British Army that led to numerous deaths and injuries when the military opened fire on the protestors - only recently did the UK government admit, after a lengthy and much-delayed commission of inquiry, that the military response had not been justified.  Apparently, the original inquiry 30 years ago had proved to be a whitewash and had contributed to an escalation of the violence. 

We viewed the Bogside Murals, twelve huge murals painted on the sides of various Bogside structures that line Rossville, the main street - these commemorate the sequence of tragic events in which thousands, from both sides of the conflict, lost their lives. 

There is now a tenuous peace agreement in place and it is apparent that members of the local community are trying to transition to a peacetime tourist economy.  However there remains a palpable level of tension and there are only a handful of tourists.  (Question:  Are we brave or foolish?)

In the evening we traversed the Peace Bridge, a pedestrian walkway over the River Foyle built by the European Union only three years ago as a symbol of reconciliation between the two communities. 

The following day we walked the stone walls of the old city where the British had several army garrisons overlooking the Bogside neighborhood - including monitoring devices and heavy weaponry that was only dismantled and removed the last few years.  We spent several hours in the Tower Museum which provided a relatively unbiased yet detailed timeline of events dating back nearly 2000 years - starting with the original Celtic inhabitants, the invasion by the Normans (i.e., Norsemen / Vikings) and eventually the British effort to establish settlements to control and later suppress what was then a predominantly Catholic local population.

Heading off to Belfast we stopped at a couple of touristy destinations, including the seaside community of Portrush, with its amusement park and extensive sandy beaches, then the Giant's Causeway, a very odd geological formation that runs along the north coast and is characterized by hexagonal pillars or columns rising straight from the ground - apparently these were formed from molten lava that had abruptly crystallized millions of years ago.

We arrived in Belfast late Saturday afternoon only to find that the B&B where I'd "confirmed" our booking in early July had given away our room "in error", although it quickly became clear that the owner had sold our room to someone else for more money!  Apparently a local boxing event that Saturday evening had caused virtually every Belfast hotel to sell out.

I contacted Booking.com who had confirmed our reservation but they were unable to find anything comparable to what we'd initially arranged.  We finally decided to move on to Dublin as we'd only planned one night in Belfast and it hadn't been a high priority for us.  With some "gentle" persuasion, Booking.com located a room in Dublin and agreed to cover the full cost.  At first they refused - I reminded them that since they'd been sold to Priceline ("name your own price") two years ago, I wouldn't hesitate to go after them for additional compensation when I got back to lawsuit-happy California.  I suspect this story isn't quite over!

We got into Dublin late, but fortunately all the pubs and restaurants were just getting under way - after all it was a Saturday night.  We quickly made our way to Gogerty's Pub in Temple Bar where we'd had a terrific evening with Bob & Katy S. two weeks ago - once again we were not disappointed.

We enjoyed our free buffet breakfast Sunday morning - courtesy of Booking.com - then planned our afternoon around a visit to the National Archeological Museum, which we'd hoped to see previously with Bob & Katy S. - we'd been unable to make time for it two weeks ago. 

We spent the rest of our last day on some late shopping then reprised our wonderful Sunday evening meal at O'Neill's Pub - this was also my last chance to toss back a Guinness!

Dropping off our rental car the next morning was a great relief for us all - Teresa was exultant as she handed over the car keys to the Enterprise agent - and she was astonished to learn she'd driven more than a thousand miles, an adventure in left side driving she won't soon forget!