My main contribution to the Irish Month, aka “Begorrathon” is the tour of the Republic of Ireland I took with a friend in 2002. This took place after a weekend in Cobh, and then a weekend in Dublin with friends.
Here’s the start of the tour:
In 2002, I flew to Ireland, first to spend a weekend in Cobh with a friend and then to Dublin where a group of us spent the weekend together, joined by my friend and coworker, Carole. After that, Carole and I took a week long bus tour around the Republic of Ireland run by Globus tours. Bus tours are not something that everyone loves but we did enjoy it though it was a very busy week. As part of the Begorrathon month, I’ll be posting my travelogue to that tour in parts throughout the month.
The first order of business after checking into the tour hotel is an orientation drive around Dublin with our guide. Our tour guide is called Bill Dalton and Alex is our driver. Bill, as I later found out, is from Dublin county but speaks with an educated British accent due to, as he says, the school he went to thrashing it out of him. He was very knowledgeable and very witty and he made the week very enjoyable. Our group is about 40 in numbers, about 9 Canadians, a couple from New Zealand and the rest from the U.S.A.
Our tour drove us around the main sights of Dublin and included a stop at Trinity College to see the famous Book of Kells in the oldTrinity Library. It is a decorated manuscript of the four gospels copied by monks circa 800 A.D. The experts believe the main illustrations, or illuminations as they are more commonly called, are the work of 3 or 4 men.
The exhibit had lots of illustrations and posters about the making of the book along with some other old manuscripts, totaling 4 other lesser known illuminated books, the books of Durrow, Mulling, Armagh and Dimma. The Books of Kells and Durrow are displayed open to elaborate pages under glass in a darkened room. The detail of the larger pages and the intricacy of the artwork around the writing is unbelievable. It’s difficult to really take it all in but I bought a book that has lots of the detail work enlarged.
We later viewed the Old Library at the college which was founded by Elizabeth I in the later years of her reign. The library used to be a single floor but was filled so they removed the roof and raised it about 150 years ago. It’s full again now. It’s a long room, with natural light streaming in between the shelves lined with over 200,000 valuable old books. The ceiling is high, soaring and barrel-arched and the aisle is lined with sculpted busts of philosophers and famous men associated with the college over the years. You can’t take photos and I *really* wanted to. The lines and light were truly a sight to drop your jaw and lighten your heart.
We walked around the college green afterwards, taking photos of the buildings from the various eras under clear blue skies. The rest of the orientation tour took us around O’Connell Street and Parnell Square north of the Liffey and the Grand Canal which, along with the Royal Canal, were built to connect the Liffey, Lee and Shannon rivers. The canals weren’t used for transport once the train system was built.
We got back to the hotel in time to sort out a quick change of clothes before a meet and greet in the bar before dinner. We used a smaller elevator that is usually used for luggage and the damn thing got stuck and wouldn’t open on our floor with just 6 of us crowded in to it. We buzzed and hollered and were heard by some guests who alerted the front desk who released us after about 15 minutes. Whew!
The tour proper began the next morning….And bloody early! Urgh 6 a.m. came too early! That’s one down side to bus tours, you’re always up early! It’s another sunny day though chilly this morning. The day’s activities include a stop in Kildare at the Irish National Stud to hear about thoroughbred horse breeding, then a stop to “view” the Rock of Cashel (that means a photo stop), and a drive west to Ennis, where we stay for two nights.
The Irish National Stud is on the site of an old Abbey, Black Abbey, where the monks bred horses for the Crusades, huge, muscled beasts. Horse breeding in this area of the country, thus, is an old tradition and Irish thoroughbred stallions command some of the highest stud fees in the world. The Irish National Stud is run by the Irish government though there are lots of private farms around as well. There are an enormous amount of regulations to the breeding of horses. Artificial insemination is banned and they even test the foals for DNA to prove their parentage to potential buyers.
We had one of the staff walk us around the barns and grounds to see the horses while he explained the history, traditions, and technical aspects of horse breeding. It really was interesting. We saw a couple of foals just born 6 or 7 hours before. One mare allowed the door to be open and us to watch as her baby nursed. Another mare, even though the door was closed, stood on guard over the sleeping foal with a glint in her eye when we peeked through the caged window. Nobody was getting close to that baby! We saw the stallion stables and paddocks and as large as the mares were, the stallions were massive! The neck on the top priced one, Indian Ridge, was so large and solid that I doubt very much I could get my arms around it, and I don’t have short arms.
There is a Japanese garden and another one dedicated to a monk, St. Fiachra and we had time to have a walk around and a coffee or a browse in the gift shop.
We drove for another hour or so south into County Tipperary to the center of Ireland through rolling hills to Cashel. The Rock of Cashel was originally a fortress built in the 4th C. on a 200 foot limestone mound that juts up out of a low flat valley. It was originally a seat of Irish Kings and was continually a military establishment but St. Patrick preached from there and created Cashel a bishopric in the 5th C. Cashel has had strong connections to the Catholic church as well as a result. We stopped on the highway overlooking the plain and the rock but unless you crossed the busy road, you ended up with the road in your photos. Not a great choice for a photo stop.
Just the same, we were having our lunch stop in the town of Cashel. We scattered to try out several of the different pubs and restaurants that Bill pointed out. Carole and I ended up at Mikey Ryan’s, in a building built about 1750-ish. It had several small rooms, brightly painted in yellow. The room we sat in had a huge black iron stove and a basket of peat and wood beside it. The soup urn was on the stove and a hutch full of old china and the dining room cutlery stood against the yellow wall upon which were hung old framed photos and softly glowing copper items. We had soup and a sandwich that were both delicious and far cheaper than we would have paid in Dublin!
After lunch we found the post office for stamps and then walked out and around the road that leads out of the town at the opposite end from the one we entered. We got a good view of the ruins of the Rock including Cormac’s chapel, the oldest structure. Carole walked up a footpath on the hill for a photo as well.
Back on the bus we traveled back north west through Limerick City, the fastest growing city in Ireland. There are a lot of poor “travelers” (it’s not politically correct anymore to use the term “gypsy”, by the way) that live in trailers (caravans) on the outskirts of Limerick, and elsewhere around the country but apparently this is a popular stopping point. The part of the city we drove through didn’t seem to have anything particularly warm about it, but it’s hard to tell just passing through.
We stopped across the Shannon river for a photo of King John’s Castle which was built around 1210 though no evidence King John actually oversaw the building of it. We also passed St. Mary’s Cathedral from around the same era. Can’t really say much more about Limerick as we didn’t see any more of it that that and it’s probably not a place I’d return to though I’m sure it’s just as nice as any other city.
We arrived at the hotel around 3:00 p.m., the Temple Bar Hotel in Ennis. It’s a lovely hotel that used to be a nunnery apparently though has been extensively renovated. Ennis doesn’t seem to be a really old town but that’s only relative. It’s probably still three-four hundred years old. There are a lot of newer homes and subdivision developments and it’s a popular area to live for commuters to Shannon and Limerick.
We aren’t seeing as many brightly coloured houses now, the shades are more pastel and warm hues of greens, blues, yellows and terra cotta dotted with an occasional bright yellow or deep red. A lot of the shop fronts and bar fronts are still painted lively colours in the traditional Irish pub style. There is very little neon that we have noticed even in the cities, where the shops have floodlights over the storefronts instead of glowing signs blinking at you.
We had a drink in the bar and then changed. Our optional (you pay extra) excursion for the evening is a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle. There has been a castle here since the Norman era but as it’s in a very strategic spot, it’s been destroyed and rebuilt on 8 or 9 occasions after battles. The Folk Park that’s been constructed here is a recreation of an Irish village from about 100 years ago, with cottages, shops and farmhouses and is a working museum with staff in period costume and working using the old traditional methods. The castle has antique furniture from the medieval period and is one of those large square towers seen all over the country. They do banquets as a dinner theatre experience as well.
We were led into the castle and up a steep narrow stone spiral staircase to the Great Hall where two court musicians played for us as we sipped honey mead. The harpist and violinist were seated at the front of the room while women clad in velvet gowns decorated with gold brocade mingled among the tourists and chatted with them. The young woman we spoke to said she does this as her summer job while she’s at university to become a teacher!
There was then a few songs by the assembled group of women and we were led into the dining area, which used to be the soldier’s barrack area. The tables were long with benches. The only implement you had was a sharp knife to add to the authentic feel. Soup is drank out of a bowl, you would use your fingers and knife with anything else. We did get a spoon for the cake with cream, though. It was all superb!
The costumed women served courses, and in between, entertained along with an entertaining butler, an actor of course, with heavy makeup and an obvious wig. But the crowd loved it and the women were remarkable singers. We were invited to take coffee in another room but it was too crowded so we went out to the courtyard where a piper was playing in the twilight. We walked back through the folk village, taking our time. Tomorrow is a trip up the west coast to the Cliffs of Moher, around Galway Bay and up into Connemara.
Stay tuned for the next part to be posted in a few days.