Day four of our tour was focussed on shopping and “bling”:
Weather not too bad today. The day was hazy bright most of the time. This is our shopping day, or morning, that Bill has been banging on about all week, reminding us that the huge woolen mill shop will have the best prices for things we’d want to get. Considering that the guide gets a percentage of purchases when we stop at most places like factories and visitor centers, the cut he gets from Blarney must be better than most. My friend Rose (she lives in nearby Cobh) told me that even she, as a taxi driver, will get a percentage or discount if she takes a customer there.
We drove across the south interior of Ireland in about 2 and a half hours through the Kerry Mountains, farmlands and the rolling patch-worked hills. They grow a lot of sugar beet here and there’s also a sugar refinery. We arrived in Blarney at 10:00 as expected.
This was the longest stop of the tour, at 2 and a half hours during which we were expected to get lunch as well. Our time was our own. If anyone wanted to visit Blarney Castle and kiss the stone of eloquence, they should allow about 3/4 hour at least to walk through the park, climb the staircase and wait in the queue. All I had thought was to take a photo of the castle but you have to pay 5.50 euro just to get into the grounds along with the castle visit. We didn’t bother. I had no interest in kissing a piece of rock that millions of tourists had also laid their lips on. I never had a problem finding words to say what I wanted to convey. And more besides! (as you can tell!)
Carole wanted to shop so she walked back to the Blarney Woolen Mill. I decided to see if I could get a photo of the castle in the distance from some vantage point. I crossed a small river or brook and walked along a brick wall. Over top of the wall, at one break in the vegetation behind it, I could stretch up and see the castle in the distance and with the tree branches framing it, it actually turned into a lovely photo.
I walked back towards the town, stopped in a supermarket to get some batteries, and spotted a little cemetery so I had a look in there at the stones. There are a lot of Celtic crosses in cemeteries in Ireland. We’ve driven by some that seemed to contain nothing but!
Over to the woolen mill. I hadn’t really planned to buy too much other than maybe some more linen. The shop really is large, on two floors and has everything organized in sections. I ran into Carole who had already bought, paid for and arranged for shipping for her purchases. Now she was in search of smaller, general items.
The prices did seem to be reasonable, certainly no more expensive than some of the shops we’d been in outside of Dublin. I haven’t been in any of the shops that sell similar items in the city so I can’t really compare but it stands to reason it would be cheaper than in Dublin.
In the end, I bought a few things, linen and souvenirs, some china and a thick red and black plaid scarf that I still wear today on really cold days. I spent far more than I expected even with the 14% you get reduced for the tax and I have no idea where it’s all going to fit in my cases! I didn’t get it shipped because I do have that spare fold up carrier bag I can use if need be.
Carole and I met for lunch at 11:30 in front of the complex which also houses a hotel, bar and restaurant which is cafeteria style where we went to save time over searching for somewhere in the village. The complex was in fact a mill at one time and there are artifacts around the grounds and in the stone buildings.
You should have seen the number of shopping bags that were carried back on board the bus! That didn’t count the stuff quite a few people had shipped! Everyone chattered amongst themselves, showing and telling about their treasures and bargains while we made our way over to the east and then north through Cork City and the county country side heading north along the coast through some pretty towns along the route to Waterford.
Our included visit this afternoon was to the Waterford Crystal factory where we will get a tour. As usual, off the bus, into the loo. We were shown a short video that showcased the various millenium celebrations around the world and ending with the one in New York City where the traditional Times Square Ball was that year made of Waterford Crystal and wired for a light show. The presentation ended with a replica descending in front of a black screen with a city skyline behind it. Impressive with the lights flashing in patterns and colours and ending in full brilliance.
We then split into two groups and headed into the factory proper. Here then is a condensed version of Waterford Crystal: It was founded in 1783 by brothers George and William Penrose. The factory has been at the present location, on the edge of town near a community college since 1971 and employs 1600. The craftsmen have a minimum 5 years apprenticeship and normally 3 more for the masters in the various fields of glass blowing or cutting and engravers do 3 years at a local cottage before training for 10 more.
Crystal is made from silica sand, potash and litharge and is heated to a molten state in gas ovens to 1400 degrees. The first room was where the ovens are. Most of the blowers and cutters seem to be men, and the guide said it wasn’t a reflection on women, it’s just that women rarely seem to choose this field. There are women that work in other support roles in the factory, quality control etc. The molten crystal is pulled out of the oven in a blob, the size depending on what will be the end result. The blowers all know exactly how much to pull out of the fire for what they are making. It’s on the end of a 5 foot long or so metal rod.
The item is shaped using wooden tools soaked in cold water to gently give it a starting point. It is then lowered into a wooden mold below the feet of the men and they blow through the long tube and the molten crystal expands to the shape of the mold. When it comes out of the mold it now looks like glass and it’s smoothed and sanded lightly. It’s broken off the tube and laid on a conveyer belt. The crystal is cooled for up to two days and then checked for flaws. If there is the slightest mark, it’s smashed and melted down again.
We saw the crystal shells marked with a grid pattern and then watched some of the cutters grind the classic Waterford patterns into bowls and glasses on a diamond tipped wheel using the grids as a guideline. The actual patterns are not marked on the glass unless it’s a special one of a kind or limited edition design. These are all master craftsmen that have had to memorize all the 60 or 70 standard patterns during their training. We saw another room where the carvers work on solid pieces like figurines (and cottages!). They create a clay model for these as a guideline. The wheels used to carve the solid pieces are stone with small diamond tipped ones for the finer detail work.
We saw the engraving room. This kind of engraving comes out looking like frosted inset sections etched into the crystal. Engraving is the most time consuming and difficult of all the jobs. The artisans make their own copper tipped tools, softer than diamond tipped. One tool we saw was made from a copper coin! The room wasn’t brightly lit overhead though each work station had good spot lights. We then had a more personal demonstration from a veteran cutter who talked to us and answered questions about his career and the working conditions and shifts.
We had a half hour or so in the showroom and gallery which was interesting. They had replicas of some of the most spectacular pieces like a lot of the trophies for world famous tournaments such as the World Cup, the Super bowl and the PGA golf. We saw a large chess piece that stood about 4 foot high and outside the gallery was a full size crystal mailbox and a full size crystal grandfather clock! Wow! It was quite a fascinating visit.
While we were in there, Alec and Bill took the luggage to the hotel in Waterford. It looked like a city with some interesting spots to explore, just judging from the drive through. We had a nice view from our hotel room over an inlet on the city side of the hotel. We had signed up for a visit to an old country pub before dinner tonight so there was only time to change and freshen up with a cup of tea before we left.
We drove to Kilmeaden where the Cozy Thatch pub was. It has been voted tops in an annual Irish Heritage Pub of the Year contest several times going by the plaques displayed This is a low white thatched roof building, some of which dates to 1475. It was purchased by a family called Horton in 1780 and turned into a public house and it’s never been sold since, having passed down through the generations. It has two fireplaces burning peat, and is in an L shape.
The pub also doubled as the local funeral parlour for the village soon after it was established until 1969 when the government passed a law forbidding wakes in pubs. In the room at the back where the deceased would be laid out is a large bed that dates before the Horton family bought the building (because it was built inside the room and too big to get out of the house) and family and friends would gather here to wake the dead. Having the wake in a pub just solved both of the pressing needs. The Irish have always celebrated the life of the deceased with memories, music and drink. Only seems convenient to have the two under one roof!
The family that owns the pub (the publican’s mother was a Horton) also brews their own lager on the premises and lives there as well. We sat down in groups and ordered the first of our two drinks that came along with the price of this excursion. I opted for the local lager and it was very nice! We were then entertained by a singer called Tommy Commerford who does this for all the tours I believe. We enjoyed the music, the atmosphere and the drinks. I really like the smell of the peat fire though I’m not sure I could describe it. It’s a pungent aroma but not quite like a fragrant hard wood or pipe tobacco. It burns hot and for a long time too apparently.
We arrived back at the hotel for about 8 for dinner. There was another tour group from Trafalgar there just on the beginning of their tour. Dinner was fine, we were seated at long tables which to me makes it feel more like a convention or something. I prefer the smaller tables of 4 or 6 or even 8 where it feels a bit more private.
Stay tuned for our last tour day on the bus.