Pic Update

I think that I forgot to mention the thing that shocked me the most about Clonmacnoise, and that is the fact that the name is prounounced pretty much just the way it is spelled. I was going to guess “Clomanock” or “Lomanock” or perhaps “Raymond Luxury Yacht”, but I was wrong on all three counts. It’s actually pronounced “Clonmacnoise”. See, just when you think you’ve got Irish Gaelic beat, it throws a curve ball at you. “An Meath” is pronounced “Ahn Wah”. Yet the “Meath” in Meath County is pronounced “Meeth”. Those ancient Celts had it in for us, I’m sure of it. I can just imagine them, sitting around, coming up with ways to pronounce things. “Hey, Bob, why don’t we pronounce that word it a sound that’s kind of a cross between a W, an F, and a Q. That’ll screw with them Romans.” And then, when someone was first transcribing the Irish language, they decided to confuse the matters even more. “Hm, that sounds kind of like a W, kind of like an F, and kind of like a Q. I’d better transcribe it with a capital B after a lowercase M. Just because I can.”

I’m right, you know. I’m sure of it.

Anyway, we finished posting the pictures from Clonmacnoise and Connemara. There are more from the strangely pronounced Clonmacnoise than I had originally thought, mainly because we took many pictures of grave slabs. And my camera decided to behave enough to take at least one good picture of the Nuns’ Church.

There’s only one picture from Corlea, primarily because there’s only one thing worth taking a picture of. We thought of taking pictures of the interesting plants and insects that make their homes in the bog, but we figured our readers would look at them and say, “Meh. More mud.”

We’re in Dublin now. We passed through Newgrange and Knowth on the way, and stopped by the Hill of Tara, where the ancient kings of Ireland ruled and where St. Patrick used a shamrock to convert Ireland to Christianity. I was more impressed by that than Jennifer was, I think. The King of Tara Hill was once considered to be the King of Ireland, and when you’re standing on top of the Hill, you can see why; the tour guide estimated that from that vantage point you can see approximately 20% of the entire country.

More on all that later. For now, I’d better log off before our money runs out in this Internet Cafe.


Nothing much to report from today. Galway is a wonderful city, but, alas, we had to leave that one too soon as well.

During our driving tour of Connemara yesterday, we discovered that most of the west coast of Ireland is composed of huge slabs of limestone. Some of these huge slabs simply push their way out of the earth and form large mountains (what we Americans call “hills”, or possibly “just a big boulder”). Others are used to make stone walls and houses and walls and monastaries and did I mention a hell of a lot of walls? We stopped at a gift shop which was supposed to feature a bodhrain maker in action, but he was out to lunch, so we bought souveniers instead.

After that, we made our way to the Glenfowla Mine, which advertises itself as “Ireland’s first show mine!” You can take a tour of the mine, which was pretty neat. I learned quite a bit about lead mining in Ireland after the Potato Famine that I didn’t know before (which is pretty much everything). The men in those mines worked ten to eleven hours a day, in very grim conditions lit only by candlelight, and they were only paid for how much lead/silver ore they brought to the surface — and if they brought no ore to the surface, they weren’t paid.

And these guys considered themselves lucky to have a job. Times were ugly in Ireland in the aftermath of the Potato Famine.

Pictures from Connemara, including the mine, are here.

Today we mournfully drove all the way from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast, where we have settled into a very nice, probably ill-advised (financially) B&B in the town of Slane.

Let no one ever fool you into thinking that Slane is any sort of thriving metropolis. Dixon is larger than Slane. Our bathtub is larger than Slane. Slane is nothing more than a very, very hilly town (the slope of the main street from north to south is roughly 20 degrees, I think) with nothing in it to speak of. For our Internet access, we had to drive to nearby Drogheda. Slane, I think, is nothing more than a quick stopping off point for people on their way to Newgrange. We will visit Newgrange and post plenty of pictures tomorrow, or possibly some other time. Who knows.

We didn’t drive straight across, though. We stopped at a couple of places; Clonmacnoise is the site of a number of churches and an abbey at the junction of the Shannon River and a major roadway. It stood there, prosperous (for a medieval monastary, which was, of course, quite prosperous), surviving eight Viking attacks, twenty-five Irish attacks, and a few English attacks. Of course, the dissolution of the monastic system under King Henry the VIIIth ensured the utter sack of Clanmacnoise, so by the time we got there there was nothing left but ruins. And a lot of gravestones. You can’t have a holy site in Ireland without a few dozen ancient grave slabs littering the ground. You can’t toss an empty Guinness can without it landing on some dead guy. Really. Some of the slabs had been in the ground for so long that they were mostly covered up with grass, exposing no more than a few inches of stone, even though the slab itself is still a meter or so long.

Pictures from Clanmacnoise are forthcoming. There aren’t many, though; you reach a certain point where all the ruins from medieval monastaries start to look the same, and you can only get a few unique angles and shots to distinguish, say, Jerpoint Abbey from the Nuns’ Chapel at Clanmacnoise. That’s not to say that they’re not all fascinating, of course, and offer a revealing look into the religious history of Ireland, which is so closely tied in with its political history; it’s just that, well, you run out of interesting ruins to photograph.

We also stopped at the Corlea Trackway, which is a few meters of ancient Iron Age roadway built by the Celts who inhabited Ireland. One might look at this (I certainly did the first time I saw it) and say, “So what, it’s just a road. Buncha boards on long branches.” But when you consider that the roadway was over a kilometer long, the sleepers were made of Irish oak which had to be cut and carried over several kilometers to get to the site, and the road was built on top of a genuine Irish bog, you begin to appreciate the scale of work that went into the construction of the thing.

What’s fascinating, to me, is that no one quite knows what the road was for. While the original archaeologist who investigated the road believes it was originally meant for wheeled traffic (and was an utter failure, therefore, because it sank a mere ten years after it was built), others point out the significant lack of anything resembling a wheelmark on any of the sleepers, and the lack of anything resembling a wheeled cart buried anywhere near the site. They did find a cart, but it had no wheels. So other archaeologists are more inclined to think that the road had a more ritualistic purpose. It did, after all, lead from a hill where many of the ancient Celtic kings ruled to a cave system which the Celts thought contained an entrance to Tir-na-nog, the world of the spirits (to put it very simplistically). Personally, I like the idea that it was commissioned and built for one of those Celtic kings; they’ve found massive tombs for some of those guys that could rival the Egyptians for complexity and sheer engineering talent, after all. So why not built a long road over a bog for a king to be carried from where he ruled to the gate of the underworld? Makes sense to me.

Pictures from Corlea are forthcoming.

Jennifer pointed out to me today that today is the last full day that we’ll have our rental car. Tomorrow night we turn it in to the car rental place at Dublin Airport. I’ve been thinking about the differences in parking behavior between the US and Ireland, since finding a place to park has often been an adventure in itself, and sometimes negotiating a tiny two-way street made narrower by the presence of parked cars on the side was such a fun thing to do.

So, a couple of thoughts regarding parking differences.

  • In the US, when considering a parking spot in a major city, you note whether it’s a legal spot. If it’s not a legal spot, you move on. In Ireland, when considering a parking spot in a major city, you note whether it’s a legal spot. And if it’s not you say, “Feck it” and park there anyway. I’ve only seen one car clamped during our entire trip.
  • In the US, when you park on the side of the street, you make sure there’s plenty of room after you’ve parked for traffic to get past in both directions. In Ireland, you make sure there is at least one lane’s width of traffic. If you’ve blocked half the road, feck it and park there anyway.
  • On a country road in the US, no place is an acceptable place to park. On a country road in Ireland, your lane of traffic is an acceptable place to park.

This is complicated by the sheer number of different painted lines next to the sidewalks which mean different things depending on the day of the week. And the fact that in almost all of the parking lots we’ve been to, there have been no lines on the lot to indicate individual spaces; in a way, this has been nice, since there are far too many parking lots in the US that expect a Chevy Suburban to park comfortably in a spot that would be tight for a Geo Metro. In Ireland, you just park wherever the hell you want, and you’re good. At least I haven’t seen anyone double-parked. Of course, we’re only here during the shoulder season; during high tourist season, the whole situation might be more grim.

I don’t have much more to share this evening. We’ve finished uploading our pictures from the Aran Islands. We leave in less than a week, and I’m very sad about that; I feel at home in Ireland, and it’s neat to be in a place that’s just drowning in so much history. After all, Ireland has been invaded and conquered and reclaimed and fought over and fought for so often in the past few millennia, it’s amazing that any sort of cohesive culture, especially one so heavily influenced by the Celtic peoples who vanished from Ireland so long ago, emerged at all. There are certainly differences from town to town and from west coast to east coast, but the Irish are all, to a one, definitively Irish. Most of them are fiercely proud of their country and their history, though you occasionally get one, like James Joyce, who take being Irish as a sort of personal tragedy, rather like being born with no arms or legs. Even then you can take fierce pride in that; “I may be Irish, but at least I’m still human, dammit!”

Nothing much in writing news. I have written nothing more on “The Divergents” since the last time I mentioned it. I have ideas brewing still for An Cerith, though I don’t know what I’ll ever do with the setting. I’ve had ideas for The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster, and I can’t wait to get home and start working on that again.
That’s all for tonight. More to come later.

An Irish Monkey, well braided

This entry will be lacking in details, historical tidbits, and, sadly, anything remotely resembling a sense of humor. It’s currently 11:30 p.m., and I’ve just had a couple of pints. More details will be coming later. For now, just kind of… deal.

So with tears in our eyes, we left Ennis, vowing that one day we would return. And in time for a music festival which includes a good ceilidh. Or ceili. I don’t know how it’s actually spelled; I suspect that the proper spelling depends on who’s drawing up the flier.

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted, and I’m sorry about that. Things have been moving quickly; we’re drawing into the last week of our trip, which is making me pretty sad, and we’re working on catching more things.

After Ennis, we made our way to Galway, via the Cliffs of Moher (which were so shrouded in mist that we coulnd’t see anything, so I took this picture instead just to amuse you) and the Burrens (which was prefaced by Kilfenora). The Burrens was not as barren and desolate as the name would have you believe; but the landscape was made primarily of the same limestone which makes up just about the entire west coast of Ireland. The principal site of interest, I thought, was the portal stone which still stands, after thousands of years. Here ancient Irish folks would bury their dead in a pit under a tomb designed to look like a doorway, facing east. Imagine the sheer force of will involved in lifting and moving that capstone. It’s unfathomable.

Galway, I’ve decided, is probably my favorite city in Ireland, if not the world; it’s a university town, for one thing, which is always a plus in my book. There’s an energy and dynamism in university towns that is lacking in other places. Street performers litter the town. One fellow we encountered had dressed himself up entirely in silver, in an outfit which I think was meant to look like a statue of Oscar Wilde (or maybe not; you decide, as his picture is here). We also came across a pair of girls singing along with what I presume was their younger brother. Included in their repetoire was the ubiquitous “Fields of Athenry“.

We spent Saturday just kind of bumming around town, exploring the city and seeing what it has to offer. This is my favorite part of traveling in a strange place; getting lost in town and seeing what’s there. Galway is as ancient as any other town in Ireland, and, as in every other place in Ireland, the ancient mixes with the modern. Part of the original city wall still stands, for example, and now serves as part of the infrastructure for Eyre Square, a large shopping mall. Saturday night I wandered through the city, watching people and looking for music, but finding none (except for three forlorn musicians in the back of a tiny pub whose name I couldn’t begin to pronounce; the crowd was so noisy, though, that the musicians could barely be heard).

Some (but not all) of our pictures from Galway are here.

On Sunday, we took a ferry out to the Aran Islands. We took a tour of Inis Mor on a horse-drawn buggy (because nothing screams “TOURIST!” like a horse-drawn buggy), but after that was done there wasn’t much else to do. We did explore Dun Aonghasa (pronounced, in the bizarre logic of written Irish which insists that “Siobhan” is pronounced “Shivon”, as “Dun Angus”). The cynical part of me says, “Yawn, another 3,000 stone fort built by some ancient Celts”, but the truth is that I’m still awed by the engineering marvels that these structures are. The fort is solid, well built, and includes not an ounce of mortar. Inis Mor, like every place else in western Ireland, is made of limestone, so there is certainly no lack of building materials (what do you do when your field is full of rocks? Make a house out of them! Duh!), but finding the right rocks and piling them up into a wall which will protect you and yours from attack for millennia is a feat that we just can’t seem to replicate these days. We sat at the harbor and waited for the ferry to take us back to the mainland, because most of what’s worth seeing on the island was too far away for us to make it on foot.

Some of our pictures from Inis Mor are here.

We returned to Galway, and spent a pleasant evening in our B&B, relaxing and watching Irish television. Which was mostly just imported American television. Go figure.

Today we drove around Connemara, enjoying more of the limestone scenery, and having a good time. More details and pics to come.

And after we made it back to our B&B, I decided to go back into Galway to look for more music. I found it in the same pub I went to on Saturday, but this time the musicians were in the front of the pub instead of relegated to the rear, and I could actually hear the music playing. One guy stood in the doorway and danced to the music, lifting his beer in salute to anyone who glanced at him. Me, I sat at the bar with my pints of Guinness and got into a word game with some of the locals (and a young dark-haired woman from London who kept asking me if I was married, and who couldn’t quite grasp that my marital status simply did not change from moment to moment). I’m not positive what the point of the game was, but it had something to do with euphemisms, and finding the most bizarre general use euphemism. I think we agreed that I won with “Braiding the monkey“, when I explained how the term had come about and what it meant (which is, basically, whatever you want it to mean when you use it). Who knows? Perhaps it will become part of the Irish vernacular now. But somehow, I doubt it.

At any rate, it’s shortly after midnight now, and the two pints of Guinness that I had this evening have apparently impacted me far more than I thought they would. So I’ll leave you with this final bit of wisdom: Braid your own monkey, because in this wacky world of ours, no one else is going to braid it for you. That, and you can never have too much Guinness.

The Real Heart of Ireland

By the way, pictures from Killarney are here. There are only two of them. Killarney wasn’t all that inspiring, I guess.

So anyway, Quin Abbey started out, originally, as a castle for the MacNamara clan, until it was burned out during one of the innumerable invasions that England inflicted upon Ireland. Afterwards, it was turned into a Franciscan abbey — or, technically, a friary, since by that time the monastic lifestyle was no longer as popular — and was used for many years until King Henry VIII dissolved the monastic system in Ireland and England in, uh, 1341. It’s the largest, most complete abbey of its time and size still in Ireland, and it’s remarkable primarily because it’s mostly intact, to the point where you can even walk around in the upper level. As always, just about every inch of floor space on the ground floor was littered with grave stones; as one of the tour guides earlier on said, “You can’t step anywhere in Ireland without walking on some dead guy.” I quote him verbatim. The graveyard outside and the tombs inside featured some remarkable carved high crosses. Some of our pictures from Quin Abbey are here, but not all; there’s a bizarre and annoying little permissions issue going on with the pictures, so I can’t seem to get them to upload to our server. Blast. And I had such a great picture of a Celtic high cross, set beautifully against a window in the sacristry. I’ll post it when I get these pictures sorted out.
Off, then, to the Craggaunowen Project, which, as I’ve mentioned, wasn’t as impressive as the Irish National Heritage Park. The folks at the Heritage Park, I think, did a better job of recreating the stone age and iron age dwellings and making them look more authentic. Both Jennifer and I are pretty sure, for example, that the Irish of the Iron Age did not use large wooden pallets to stretch and dry their animal skins.

Pictures from the Craggaunowen Project are here.

We made it into Ennis last night, as I mentioned in my previous entry, and found that it’s host to a traditional music festival this week. It’s an annual thing, so we’re going to make sure that when we come here again, we’ll make it here at this time of year. There’s traditional music playing over the PA system in the town, which is kind of haunting in its own way, and random musicians in the streets. The highlight for us was the ceilidh (or is it spelled ceili? I’ve seen it spelled both ways here in town) which we went to last night; a full evening of music and dancing in the ballroom of a large hotel in downtown Ennis. The fact that the sun doesn’t fully set until nearly eleven o’clock at night has definitely had an impact on Irish social life; the ceilidh started at ten at night, when the sun was still up.

I’ve been to a few ceilidhs in the US in the past, but I was expecting that this one would be different; it was in Ireland, after all, and not some college town in California. However, aside from the ages of the people involved (I’m used to seeing a pretty young crowd at these events, and this event had people of all ages but was heavy on the older side), it was pretty much the same as any other ceilidh I’ve been to.

I can’t do a jig or a reel to save my life these days, and I only remember one dance from the Irish dance class I took ten years ago; the “Siege of Ennis”. They danced that one at the very beginning, but we sat it out because I didn’t remember it was called the “Siege of Ennis”, and I wanted to get a feel of how the other people were going to do. I was about to ask Jennifer to dance for the next set, but she was swept away from me by some Irishman in a red shirt, who led her through two more sets. I was volunteered for the next couple of sets, because they’re always short of men at these events (which seems kind of strange to me, because you’d think that more men would figure out that these events are a perfect venue for meeting women). I was paired up with a high school girl from Texas, and we both stumbled our way through the set (I can’t remember what the dance was called, but involved a lot of stars and switches). After two more I excused myself and went and had a Guinness.

Jennifer was swept up by another Irishman and pulled into a couple more dances. I danced with another high school girl from Texas (there was apparently a whole troop of them there that night), and then excused myself from any more dancing because my asthma was starting to flare up. Damn lungs. I went and sat down, had a pint of Harp (because there’s nothing better for your asthma than Irish beer). I stood and watched the dancing for a bit, and was even more annoyed by my asthma when the girl I’d danced with earlier came up and asked me to dance with her again. There’s very little that can be more flattering to a man my age than to be asked to dance by an attractive girl about half your age, especially when she knows (from having danced with me in a previous set) that I’m a crappy dancer. I cursed my lungs and explained that I couldn’t dance any more. And I’ve set myself a new fitness goal: to be able to accept such an offer in the future.

Jennifer says she doesn’t mind. And I hope not, since she was being swept away regularly by other guys.

It was an exciting and wearying night. We walked back to our B&B after a couple of hours, exhausted and happy to have experienced part of the real heart of Ireland.


Camera’s fixed, so I celebrated by taking thirty pictures at Quin Abbey near Ennis. None of them have been transferred to the computer so my regular readers, all three of you, are going to have to wait to see them. Ha ha ha, I’m such a bastard.

We did a lot of driving today, and my brain hurts. We stopped at the tourist information office in Killarney to buy some trinkets before making our way out of town, and then drove in a meandering sort of way up to Ennis via Limerick. Limerick was frightening in a way that only Cork had managed to be so far, but the excitement was enhanced by the presence of an armed guard in full camoflauge standing in the middle of a downtown intersection. I’m not aware of any situations in Limerick that might require an armed presence, but I’m not entirely up to date on my Irish national news. Perhaps there have been some troubles. At any rate, he was the only one I’ve seen so far, so perhaps he was just a random soldier who got lost in Limerick. Lord knows that’s easy to do.

We made our way through Limerick and staggered into a cafe for lunch, where our hypothesis that an Irish style lunch is generally enough to feed a platoon received further confirmation (perhaps that soldier had gotten lost on his way to lunch?). Then we drove further north, drove through some more tiny country roads (not as tiny as the one in Skellig, viewable here), and saw Quin Abbey, which was absolutely fascinating. The host on site gave us quite a lecture in the history of the abbey and some of its archaeological features, and we discovered one or two that he didn’t know about himself. Then we went to a heritage park whose name I won’t even begin to try to write here (it was Irish, that’s all you need to know — and it started with a C), but which was less impressive than the Irish National Heritage Park. Then we came to Ennis where there is apparently a traditional music festival going on. We plan on attending a ceilidh tonight.

At any rate, the point is, I don’t have a lot to say this evening. Hang tight.

Slow news from the Emerald Isle

During a tour we took of Charles Fort yesterday, the guide mentioned that a young man had been beaten to death somewhere in Ireland last week for the crime of being Catholic. Not to make light of this tragedy, both Jennifer and I sort of scoffed. “That’s kind of a daily occurence in the US,” we told him. “Though it isn’t necessarily over Catholicism.”

It’s a sad truth that human beings will use just about any excuse to feel superior to other people and try to kill them for it. I mentioned this to the tour guide, and he said, “True. People will use any excuse at all. I, for example, could claim that I am superior to you because…” He paused, and then held up his walkie talkie. “I am superior to you because I have this walkie talkie.”

Jennifer replied, “I bow to your walkie talkie!”

I turned to the two others in our small group (both woman from the US) and said, “I say we beat him up and take his walkie talkie.”

Anyway. So yesterday we left Cork (have I mentioned how much I hate driving in Cork? I haven’t? Well, I really fecking hate driving in Cork!) and drove to Charles Fort, which is one of the star-shaped forts on the Irish coast. Built originally in the 1600’s to help defend English interests in Ireland against the possibility of a Dutch invasion — or possibly the other way around, since European politics of the time are just a bit, shall we say, Byzantine, to say the least. It was a well built fort and served its purpose soundly for centuries. It was taken a couple of times, and helped defend the Irish against the English when the English decided to take back Ireland from the rebels (or, possibly, the other way around — again). Alliances could shift according to which way the wind blew across the Irish sea.

At any rate, the fort also saw action during the first World War (did you know that the average life span of a British officer after being sent to the front during the first World War was approximately nine days?). In the 1920’s it was burned by Irish anti-Treaty forces (said treaty being the one that separated Ireland into the Republic and into Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK to the consternation of various groups that fight on today) in a fit of pique over a battle lost with the Irish Republican Army. Or, perhaps, the other way around.

The point is, Charles Fort was an active and manned fort for nearly 400 years, until it was abandoned in the 1920’s. More of that continuous history that is such a part of Ireland that I find so fascinating. The history is everywhere! You can’t swing a dead leprechaun without hitting some sort of medieval abbey or something. Many Irish noblemen during the medieval period built tower houses, sort of mini-castles that stood in the middle of an easily defended field. Over a thousand of these little tower houses still stand today in various states of repair. Some of them are in the middle of farmers’ fields. The cattle graze right next to them, and the farmers curse the obstruction to their plowing.

Pictures from Charles Fort are here.

After Charles Fort, we made our way to Blarney Castle, where neither of us felt particularly inclined to kiss a stone which hundreds of thousands of other people have kissed over the past couple of centuries. I figure I’ve had enough good luck over the past few years; I don’t need any more right now. The castle itself is the closest thing to a tourist trap that I’ve witnessed here in Ireland; it’s centuries old, of course, and in the inner bailey you can find a booth selling little ceramic leprechauns and T-shirts that say, “I kissed the blarney stone!” In case you needed one. I prefer the other kind of historic site, the kind where a tour guide will guide you around the site, telling you the history of, say, a particular chimney and how the Butler family used it (because the Butler family did everything in Ireland), and put it into context so you can see just how that fireplace played a pivotal role in the development of the fighting groups in Northern Ireland today. Blarney Castle lacked such history, interpretation, and context. Still, I suppose we had to go, just so we could say we could.

However, Blarney Castle did feature a really neat cave that made me wish seriously that I’d brought a flashlight. And dungeons. Actual dungeons! How cool is that? I thought to myself, “This must be what God feels like when he runs a D&D game.”

Pictures from Blarney Castle are here.

We checked into our B&B in Killarney after that. And here we are now.

Today after waking up, we drove the Ring of Kerry, a 120+ mile drive around the Kerry Peninsula. Notable mostly for excellent scenery, small towns, daring sheep, and herds of tour buses which will drive you insane if you end up driving behind them. We stopped in Skellig and learned about the monastary on Michael Skellig (which included tiny little stone huts, and a stone staircase that ascended in steep steps 200 meters above the surface of the water — there go those wacky medieval monks again), and then pushed out little car to its absolute limits as we ascended over the highest drivable road in Ireland and then down again to find the Skellig Chocolate Factory just by the Fiobhan Bay. Excellent chocolate, if you ever feel a perverse need to find this place on your own.

We also went to visit a stone fort located on some farmer’s field. Technically we were supposed to pay €1 to “trespass” on his field to visit the fort, but we never saw a box for money or anyone collecting the money. The fort has stood in that spot for nearly 2,000 years. It stands almost six meters tall, and the walls are four meters thick. And there was not a single ounce of mortar involved in its construction, and that’s the part that blew me away. Because, as I mentioned, the fort has stood, intact, for nearly 2,000 years. I poked at some of the smaller stones in the walls, and while you can shift them back and forth, you can’t really pull them out of their spot. The engineering ability of those ancient Celts was truly overwhelming. I stood in the middle of the fort, looking around at it and marveling at the skill and determination it took to build it. The fort, it appears, was originally built as a home for a wealthy family; the interior grassy area was probably full of huts and tents belonging to the family members or their tenants. Built into the walls themselves were two chambers which might have served as living quarters for people who really get their kicks out of sleeping in the mud on cold rainy days in Ireland. I’m guessing it was the monks again.

After the Ring we came back to our B&B in Killarney, then drove into town for dinner and a little Internet time. And that’s where I am at this very moment.

It’s fortunate that Jennifer brought along her digital camera, by the way; almost all of the pictures in our on-line album are hers. I brought along a camera of my own, but the card seems to have died an early death, and now every time I turn my camera on it insists on formatting the card. This Internet cafe, fortunately, has the facilities to possibly retrieve my photographs from the card, and then sell me a new one. Let’s just hope it’s the card, though, and not the camera itself which has blown a bit of silicon.

Today’s pearl of Driving-In-Ireland wisdom, by the way, is this: never, unless you are on one of the major motorways, get comfortable with any gear above third. You will not spend more than a few minutes in fourth or fifth at a time. Especially if some damn tour bus is in front of you making its way from Killarney to Waterville.

Or, possibly, the other way around.

Pictures from the Ring of Kerry are here.

If it's Monday…

…It must be Cork. Or Waterford. Or Cashel. Or… I dunno. I’m sort of losing track. Was it just the other day that we wandered through the Treasures of Waterford museum, learning all about the history of Waterford, from how it started out as a Viking fort and eventually made it into the major city (major for Ireland, at least) that it is today?

Yeah. Yeah, I think it was. Since then we’ve made our way through Cahir, Cashel (where we saw the awesome and spectacular Rock of Cashel), stayed the night in Cashel, driven through more of Southeast Ireland, saw a wildlife park, and made it here to Cork. Pictures from Cashel are here. We were going to upload pictures from Waterford, but we’ve had some technical difficulties.
Speaking of Cork, I should mention that driving in Cork is probably one of the most terrifying experiences that the average American driver can go through. Not only are the streets narrow and packed, they are narrow and packed and one lane wide and two-way traffic with people parked on the side of the road, leaving you a usable driving space approximately the width of your car. No problem, until you have to deal with opposing traffic at the intersection. When you hit that situation, you’re probably better off abandoning the car and making your way back to Cashel to live as a monk. Or you could chew your leg off. That might help relieve the stress.

I’ve compiled a few tips for Americans driving in Ireland, though. First, you must drive on the left. That means that when you make a left turn, you really, really have to check to the right to make sure there’s no oncoming traffic, not just to the left. Second, you must overcome your desire to have your view of the road be to the left side of the road. You want to stay to the center of the lane, which means to the right. There’s a lot less car on your right than you’re used to, and you’re going to tend to drift to the left because of that. Resist this urge. Overcome your desire. It is nothing but vanity and maya. Om.

Actually, the most important tip of all is not to panic when your wife panics. I think that’s pretty much says it all.

We ended up in the suburbs of Cork while hunting for our B&B, and stopped in a pharmacy to ask for directions. Fortunately for us, there was a grey-haired fellow there who offered very kindly to lead us to the B&B in his car. So we made it safe and sound. The Irish are very friendly.

Back to Waterford. Having been thwarted in my attempts in Kilkenny to find good live Irish music, I ended up on Saturday night at a pub called T&H Doulan’s in downtown Waterford. There happened to be a band playing that night called Homebrew. Two guys on guitar and a guy on a banjo. These guys rocked. Even with their small band, they managed to sound more like Dropkick Murphys than Golden Bough. Even the mournful ballad “Fields of Athenry” was delivered with a driving beat that made my heart want to sync up with it (I assume, actually, that it’s some sort of mournful ballad; the words certainly seem that way, but the only versions of it I’ve heard are these guys and Dropkick Murphys, who add a hardcore punk sound to it). At the end of the evening, I wound up with my ears ringing and my head throbbing. Those are the two marks of a really good night of Irish music.

I drank two pints of Guinness. I danced (sort of — all of the dancing I do is just sort of dancing) and flirted shamelessly with an older woman (I think she was in her 50’s) named Margritte. She was from France, and I don’t think we understood more than 10% of the conversation we had.

More fun than that was the cute brunette who was accidentally shoved up against me by her friends, with her face in my shirt. She informed me, in the really cool Irish accent that I love so much, that I smelled good. I thanked her, and she started to talk to me some more; I casually dropped the words “My wife” into the conversation, and she moved on.

Have I mentioned how friendly the Irish are?

Guinness, loud music, friendly people. The castles, abbeys, ruins, wildlife parks, and countryside are all lovely and well worth the trip to Ireland. But it’s evenings like Saturday that I think is the best part of Ireland. Getting friendly-like with the locals and getting to know a few people, even if you have to shout at the top of your lungs over the band’s rendition of “Danny Boy” to do so.

In Waterford

The last time I was in Ireland, in 2001, it seemed to me that Parliament had passed a law requiring that every single pub and restaurant in the nation should be playing “It’s Raining Men” on constant repeat. It got to the point where I just laughed every time I heard it. In Westport, in this little tiny pub at the foot of Mount Patrick, there was this pub full of huge Irish working men, muscles widing than the horses they drove, beards out to everywhere. You didn’t want to mess with these men. They could break you in half just by looking at you. And yep, the music playing when we went into this pub was “It’s Raining Men”.

This time, the theme is apparently American classic rock. I’ve heard more Bob Dylan since coming over here than I ever did in America. In Kilkenny the other night, we went to a pub called Kyteler’s Inn, named after a woman who was accused of witchcraft (she escaped burning at the stake by fleeing, I think, to Wales; her serving maid was therefore burned in her place). I had seen that there was going to be live music playing, and I asked the waitress about it. She said, “Acoustic stuff. Definitely Irish.” So I was expecting, you know, a traditional pick up jam session. I was not expecting a couple of guys who did covers of Cat Stevens, the Beatles, and other such artists and tunes. It was kind of disappointing, in a way, even though they were very good musicians. Jennifer and I shared a table with a woman and her son, both from Surrey, and complained about the music and compared travel horror stories and griped (just a little bit) about politics.

We left Kilkenny yesterday, having felt like we’d tapped the city dry for entertainment purposes (for our relatively low-key brand of entertainment, at least). There was a bit of excitement when it came time to pay for our stay at the Celtic House B&B; they wanted cash, so Jennifer told me to put the suitcases into the car while she took care of the payment. What I didn’t know was that she didn’t have enough cash so she went to an ATM to get more. So when I got back into the B&B, I couldn’t find her anywhere, and neither the innkeeper nor his wife had seen Jennifer leave. We spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out where she was; and when she came in, cash in hand, there were hugs and exclamations of joys all around. It was very friendly.

We drove down to Waterford after that, stopping through New Ross to see the Famine Ship (a fascinating reconstruction of one of the famine ships that carried fleeing Irish to North America, complete with actresses portraying historical women whose names were drawn from the passenger records of the original ship). Then we got lost in Wexford looking for the Irish National Heritage Center, which featured recreations of structures dating back to the Stone Age and through the Norman Conquest. Nomadic tents to round towers, in other words. It was fascinating to see the ways in which technology has advanced in the past few millennia.

We also drove to the Hook Head Lighthouse, a lighthouse which has been in continuous use for at least 800 years (and the head served as a signal point with monks tending huge fires for about five hundred years prior to that). The drive there was probably the most boosting I’ve had since we’ve gotten here; I only nearly fatally crashed twice. We were delayed at one point because of a small flock of sheep that were wandering into the road, followed by a pair of very annoyed-looking young men. Damn sheep. The lighthouse itself was built by a bunch of monks, who lived there and carried sacks of coal weighing over 100 pounds up and down the stairs to keep the signal fire burning. We’ve come to learn that medieval monks lived for this kind of thing. Sometimes, they came down with severe respiratory infections, the guide said. I can only imagine the ecstasy that the monks must have felt: “Not only do I get to carry all these loads of coal up and down these stairs in sub-zero winter temperatures while a storm rages outside, I’ve got pneumonia to boot! Am I the luckiest monk in the world or what?”

Hard life, those monks had. On the other hand, it was the 14th century, when the harsh life of a monastary was better than life outside by several orders of magnitude. The vow of poverty wasn’t a hardship since no one owned anything anyway; and the vow of celibacy was easy as well, since the Black Death had killed off anyone you’d want to break that vow with anyway.

We made it safe and sound to Waterford, which is a different experience yet from either Trim or Kilkenny. The woman who owns the B&B where we are staying is friendly and a good cook, but the room we’re in is miniscule. Jennifer slept on the floor, closer to the door because she figured she’d have to get up more often during the night than I would. I slept on the bed, because I’m that nice a guy.

Waterford is swimming in history, from when the Vikings established it as an encampment back in 800 something (probably earlier, I can’t remember) through its adventurous years as a pawn between the monarchy of England and the various pretenders to the world-class glass manufacturing center that it is today. We visited Christ Church Cathedral (our B&B is right next to it), saw the old French Church, and toured an undercroft underneath the street. That part fascinated me; it was like a D&D setting. What intrigued me the most about it, though, was the way in which the undercroft had been discovered after centuries of disinterest. An historian was visiting some friends; the dialogue was essentially something like this:

HISTORIAN: Hey, what’s this six hundred year old staircase in the corner go to?

HOMEOWNERS: Dunno, never really thought about it. We just throw our trash in there.

It exemplifies perfectly, to me, the way in which the Irish take so casually to the thousands of years of history that they see around them every day.

And that pretty much brings things up to date.



Jerpoint Abbey

New Ross

Irish National Heritage Park

Hook Head and the road thereto

Photo Alert!

One of the brilliant ideas we had before coming to Ireland was to buy a supercheap laptop and throw Linux on to it so that we’d have a mini “photo studio” to process our pictures with as we took them with our digital cameras. After some fussing with the fact that Krita, the standard imaging tool in KDE, is glacially slow on this computer, I finally remembered that Linux distros normally ship with a suite of programs called “Image Magick” which can let you process images from the command line. So with a shell script I could resize all of the images in a directory at once, making it not only much faster than resizing a few dozen images in Krita, but faster than doing the same in any Windows based program as well.

Cool, huh?

Anyway. We’ve thrown up over 100 pictures that we (mostly Jennifer) have taken. They are located at:

Crawford Ireland Trip 2006

Note: I think that this is my favorite picture from Trim.

Driving the Hills

We’re currently hanging out in Kilkenny, in County Kilkenny. We finished up our stay in Trim yesterday morning and headed south. Along the way we stopped and explored a few more historical attractions. We stopped first at Castletown House and took a guided tour. It was an impressive Palladian house, opulent and often overwhelming. It was fascinating to hear about the history of the house and how it related to the history of both Ireland and Great Britain, and the sheer size and scope of the place were awe-inspiring. Seriously, our entire house could have fit into the grand entrance of Castletown.

Next up was the gardens at Powerscourt Estate. We didn’t go into the house itself, thinking it might be a letdown after the immensity of Castletown, but the gardens were huge and overpowering. They covered many acres, and encompassed a variety of themes; a Japanese Garden, an Italian garden, an enclosed garden, and so on. There was one spot called Tower Valley, with a small tower resembling a castle tower. It’s called “Pepperpot Tower”, and apparently was modeled after Lord Powerscourt’s pepperpot. Who would have figured? The view from the top of the tower was nice, but the best part of it was the tiny little private cemetery that we could see from the top. We clambered through some undergrowth trying to find our way to the cemetery itself, but, alas, it was blocked off.

My favorite part of the garden was the tiny little rock grotto hidden away from everything else, just to the side of the Japanese garden. I could have easily sat in there for hours, just enjoying the quiet and the stillness, but Jennifer would have none of that. We hiked our way through the Rhododendron Trail, past the Pets’ Cemetery, and away from the estate.

After that was the ancient monastic site at Glendalough, after a harrowing half hour drive through the hills of Wicklow County, during which Jennifer very kindly pointed out every sheep and cow that we passed by. I enjoy going to these old monastic sites and ancient churches, and wish we could spend more time at them. There’s something awe inspiring about the stone buildings, and the dedication that those ancient monks must have felt to God. I was especially enchanted with the huge round tower, and the cemetery, which, after nearly a thousand years, is still in use. I took a picture of a gravemarker from 2003 planted right next to another gravemarker that was so old it was mostly eroded away. There was a nominal cathedral at the site, but it had been “de-cathedralized” in the 1200’s. The roof had fallen in and been completely removed at some point, and the building was now mostly just another place to put graves. Graves littered the site everywhere.

We took plenty of pictures at Glendalough; we will be posting them (and others) at our on-line gallery.

After Glendalough we took an even more harrowing two-hour drive through yet more mountains, negotiating more roundabouts (we think we have the hang of them now, though — make note of which spoke you want when you see the sign for the roundabout, count the number of spokes you pass, and pray to God that you aren’t forced into the wrong one because you had the misfortune to be in the wrong lane; you might end up driving again on the M50 in some direction that you didn’t think had been invented), down to Kilkenny.

Kilkenny is a very different experience from Trim. While Trim was mostly a workaday sort of town, not much to attract tourists (aside from the castle, of course), Kilkenny is a large city with busy streets and people darting back and forth from the many pubs and businesses. Buildings and homes are packed closely together. But just as with Trim, you could walk less than half an hour to find some green countryside. One end of the town is marked with Kilkenny Castle; the other end is marked with St. Canice’s Cathedral. The castle was interesting, what with its history of being populated by the same family for almost six hundred years, but I enjoyed the cathedral more. Or maybe that was just because I’d had a pint of Guinness right before visiting it. We took more pictures at the cathedral, and will post them soon. Assuming our server plays well.

Things have felt pretty rushed so far this trip. I’m hoping that things will settle down soon and we can take some more time to enjoy the sites and relax at them. Of course, the fact that it has been raining almost the entire time we’ve been here has kind of lessened the allure of spending lots of time in outdoor gardens and ruins.

On driving in Ireland. I feel less stressed about it now, though I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. I have a tendency to drift over to the left of the road, probably because I’m so used to seeing the right hand side of the lane through the window. I’m getting better at that. I most enjoy driving the highways and country roads here; it’s relaxing, and only occasionally very terrifying when a huge bus approaches you, taking up the entire width of the lane, and you have to somehow squeeze to one side of it.

Driving in city traffic, however, is another experience entirely. In Kilkenny we encountered congestion; nothing to rival what you’d find in Sacramento or San Francisco, of course, but unnerving nonetheless since the road is really only wide enough for two cars, and doesn’t account for the number of cars parked halfway on the sidewalks. And just as in California, half the streets are in a state of permanent reconstruction. We had no idea where our B&B was in Kilkenny and ended up asking two different couples where it was. Fortunately, the people here are as friendly as anywhere else in the country, so getting directions was not hard.

I suspect that within a week or two I’ll feel very comfortable driving in Ireland. Of course, according to the clerk at the car rental place, most Americans who have accidents in Ireland have them during their second or third week. A good number to keep in mind, I suppose, designed to keep me on my toes, but still nervewracking.

And that’s pretty much it for now. Will post more sometime soon.