Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ireland 2016 ~ After thoughts

~ * ~

So my adventure ends. I'm still not sure what, exactly, I am to think of Ireland. When I first went to England, I expected medieval castles, ancient churches, old coach inns, red phone booths and mystical Neolithic stones. I found all that. When I first went to Scotland, I anticipated stone cottages, heather and highlands, kilts and sheepdogs and isolated lochs where sheep grazed next to tumbling, tea-colored streams. I found that, too.

But after returning to Ireland a second time ... I don't know what I was looking for. My great-great grandparents immigrated to America about ten years before the Famine. Everyone to whom I mentioned their surname - Barry - immediately said," Oh, yes, they're from County Cork." But I don't know where in Cork, what village or parish or town, or if they were Catholic or Protestant or what. Did they leave to seek greater religious freedoms in America, or did some other compulsion drive them to risk all and abandon everything they'd ever known?

Of course, there is still that idealistic vision of green Irish hills crisscrossed with stone walls, of musical pubs and old men on bicycles and whitewashed cottages crowned in thatched roofs standing along crooked little lanes. Last year, my first full glimpse of "the auld sod" turned unexpectedly emotional when I stood on the Hill of Tara and beheld the green, sunlit expanse of Ireland spreading for miles at my feet. "Mine...," my heart sighed. But as soon as we started driving towards Galloway ... what the hell? Where were my thatch-roofed cottages? Where were my quaint little farms? And why were all those big, ugly modern houses taking their place? I suspect a hazy wish to connect with my Barry roots, or at least somehow glimpse the Ireland of my forebears' time, colored my expectations and not finding that left me feeling a little hollow.

But in reality, I have no way to know if my great-great grandparents left with sighs of regret or tears of joy. When reading the history of Ireland, it can appear that often what seems like the simplest times were actually the most turbulent, with sectarian and religious divisions played out on a violent stage. The stereotypical view of Ireland wants to freeze her in amber, in a vision of romantic poverty that may have never really existed.

On one hand a person could think Ireland doesn't really value its more distant past. How else to explain ancient abbeys where locals have been digging up the floors as a graveyard for generations? Or a forgotten Norman castle among whose ruins modern houses squat, its only purpose now to limit access to a light house that takes all the tourist glory. But if one were to take the builders to task, perhaps they'd just be baffled, saying, "Well, why shouldn't we? Everything is right where it's stood, we just made better use of the place."

In another light, it could seem that a cosmic ax clove Ireland's history between the Famine and everything before that, and another cleaved time between the Rising of 1916 and the remainder of the 20th century. Perhaps Ireland is so layered in history, vigorous and dynamic and often still-green, that it's never had the luxury of wallowing in nostalgia. If an Irishman sings of heroes or battles, you have to listen close to discern if he's singing about something that happened in 1916, 1816 or three hundred years ago. The past is alive in Ireland's mind, a nationalism that builds its own myth and has little need of ruined old castles or haunted abbeys to keep those tales alive.

Which leaves us, the lost great-grandchildren of Ireland, possibly a little out of luck if we're looking for a stone to touch or a hill to climb and claim as our birthright. But maybe that's the point. Maybe our task is to embrace all of Ireland, with its convoluted history and mosaics of struggle and rebirth, and heroes who may also be villains, depending on the song.

Ireland is a complicated place with a complicated history and a complicated people, a land that reinvents itself every generation or so. I'm still a little disappointed at the scarcity of thatch-roofed cottages ... but I've gained a new appreciation for just how well the Irish have managed to proliferate and prosper in almost every corner of the globe. There's the old joke that God invented whiskey so the Irish wouldn't take over the world. But if you look close enough, perhaps they already have. And I've fallen a little in love with rural southern Ireland. :)


Ireland - June 2016 - Part 10

June 14th - DAY 10. I'm in a hotel in Dublin this evening, taxi booked for the run to the airport in the morning. We woke up this morning to sun peeking through the clouds and gorgeous views from our upstairs skylight-window. Oh, Ireland, how sweet you are in your gowns of patchwork green and sunlight. 

Clouds began to move in as I went out for a walk on the farm lanes while Cel took care of her morning ablutions. Across the road from our lodgings the local cows marched in a long, straggling line from their milking shed to pastures beyond. On the other side of the river I glimpsed another farmer moving his freshly-milked cows up another lane with the help of a quad bike. I tried to spend a little quality time in this last while with Ireland, walking one last narrow lane amidst acres of grain that nodded in the fields not occupied with grazing cows. Among the hedgerows birds twittered and wild roses wafted their perfume on the breeze.

I finally headed back to the house and breakfast. There Cel and I ate with a view of the garden where the sun briefly warmed the roses and petunias. Breakfast was delicious with all the fixin's and then it was time to bid the garden and the house with its beautiful conservatory farewell.

Rain showers punctuated by glimpses of sun escorted us northeast towards Dublin, but even now we weren't in any hurry to return the press of civilization. Celebsul opted to shift off onto the N81 and so we wended our way through little towns and rolling green fields. At Blessington heavier storms began oozing in from the sea and we stopped there for lunch, picking a traditional-looking pub and restaurant. There Cel introduced me to the wonders of chicken pate - actually very yummy when served with toast and a garnish of some kind of jam. I ate my fill, that's for sure! Then as the rain moved in again, we moved on.

At last we arrived in Dublin, maneuvering our way around the M50 highway that circled the city to find our lodgings at the Skylon Best Western Hotel. Let's just say that website photos may not be quite accurate. The place looked a bit tatty and *tiny,* tucked between taller buildings and we in fact missed it on the first pass. They had a parking garage but their pay-and-display kiosk was broken so we got to park for free. But the desk people were nice and a young man cheerfully hauled our luggage from the car to our room. The room was surprisingly spacious, more than enough room for the two of us and I reckoned it would do.

Once freshened up, Celebsul and I went into the city center on the bus and submerged into the boiling busy-ness that is Dublin. It's big, boisterous, cosmopolitan and avant-garde, the old dragged bodily forward in time by the new. On its busy streets I saw more varieties of human in the space of three hours than I normally see in a year. This city bustles, strides, teems, honks and lurches down narrow streets in two-story buses, and between it all whisk the derring-do on bicycles.

We took a brief, lovely respite from the throng by touring Christchurch Cathedral. It is indeed a bastion of peace and the keeper many tales. We explored it thoroughly, paid our respects to whatever Presence lingers there and even visited the historic catacombs under the building. Here amongst the displays of relics and shadowy but nonetheless ornate stone memorials to noblemen long forgotten, I was more than a little amused to find a gift shop down in those dark, stony bowels. I wondered just how much business the little gal minding the shop actually got. Back up in the waking world, I took a look at the black stone effigy of Strongbow and marveled at the stained glass windows. Then out we fared into the aged streets once more.

We rambled through a few cramped little shops and found a cozy little nook for supper, where besides yummy sandwiches they kept a mouth-watering display of baked goods. We resisted the temptation, however, and once fed we resumed our wanderings. Funny how just coming at the city from another angle makes it seem new all over again. I was here a year ago and yet the simple fact of a different hotel and a different bus route gave me a slightly disjointed sense of finding things strange and familiar all at once.

Dublin is too much city for me to stand for very long, but perhaps she is a fitting simile for Ireland today: a place with an ancient and storied past, but in far too much of a busy hurry reaching the future to fuss much about things that are gone. Except the Rising of 1916. On every lamp post and corner it seemed I saw banners or signs commemorating the century since Irish patriots - or perhaps Irish zealots, depending on who's telling the story - blasted their ill-fated way into history and perhaps carved a path towards Irish independence. One never loses track of the fact that one is, unequivocally, in Ireland.

Finally the hour began to grow late and we caught a bus back to our hotel. One more morning, one more long flight home and the great adventure is over. Thanks, Celebsul, my friend of many adventures, for coming with me on this incomparable journey through the land of my forefathers! Slainte!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ireland - June 2016 - Part 9

June 13th - DAY 9. Wow, it rained HARD all night. So hard the pounding on the roof woke us a couple of times. When we got up, I looked out the window to see heavy fog draped across the hills. But the time we headed downstairs the fog began to melt and a damp, dripping green world appeared.

Breakfast here was marvelous, the full Irish along with juices and cereal and jams. Our table mates were a retired couple from Oklahoma just beginning their Irish holiday and I found it a little strange to hear such thick American accents. I wondered if this was their first trip to the British Isles, as the lady kept remarking on how incredible she found it that people lived and raised a family in a house this old. Granted, Oklahoma doesn't have anything built by white men much prior to the mid-1800s.  ;)  They seemed like nice folks, though, easy company over breakfast and we enjoyed every delicious bite. So the fairy tale ended as we bid our host farewell, she inquiring after our plans for the day and bidding us safe travels.

Our first destination was another local spot, the natural caverns of Dunmore Cave, in Gaelic called Dearc-Fearna. Located out in vibrantly green rolling countryside, the visitor center told a tale of both natural and human history. The cave itself of course was formed over millions of years, the limestone eroding over time until a ceiling collapse opened it to human discovery. Human use and occupation may date back thousands of years, as the cave has long been known as one of "the darkest places in Ireland." But of note is a mention in the Irish Annals that Vikings massacred a thousand people here in 928 AD. Because I am just geek enough to look it up, here it is:

M928.9 pg 624-25

Godfrey, grandson of Imhar, with the foreigners of Ath-cliath, demolished and plundered Dearc Fearna, where one thousand persons were killed in this year, as is stated in this quatrain:
            Nine hundred years without sorrow, twenty-eight, it has been proved,
            Since Christ came to our relief, to the plundering of Dearc-Fearna.

In 1869, an archaeological exploration by a Dr. Arthur Wynn Foot and 2 companions revealed large quantities of human bones in the cave which were removed, catalogued and bequeathed to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, at which time the truth of the Annals' gristly tale became apparent. It's now believed that the victims were locals who tried to hide from the Viking raiders in the cave's deep fastness, but the Vikings pursued, killing men, capturing children and setting fires which filled the caverns in smoke, asphyxiating all who remained hidden within. (Dr. Foot's report to the Society, which I found online via Wikipedia's page on Dunmore, mentions explorations in 1748, 1771 and 1801 which also discovered quantities of human bones in one particular part of the cave system.) 1999, a cave guide discovered a horde of silver and bronze artifacts dated to 970 AD.

Anyhow, when we got there a gaggle of school children were inside the visitor center, merry as magpies even if well-behaved. For a moment we despaired of risking a guided tour, but the children were on their way out. So, we paid our entry fee, watched the 10 minute video and then joined our guide to descend into the earth. The cave indeed presents an ominous appearance, its only approach a steep slope of muddy stones thick with bracken and weeds that descends into a dark maw in the earth. The cliff walls framing our descent are also dense with bracken and small trees and as we trudged down the long metal stairs into ever-chillier air, we were harangued by the calls of countless crows and rooks. At the bottom of the steps, we looked back up at a circle of distant sunlight from our place in the underworld.

The cave itself isn't the biggest or even the most fancy I've seen, but the formations were intriguing and the tour informative. Our guide, whose name sadly escapes me, was polished and amusing in his talks as he described both what we were seeing and what had gone on down there over the centuries. He took special pains to point out the broken stub of a once-grand column of fluted stone. Decades before there were any safeguards on this place, some dimwit decided he wanted to remove the column for his own display - and used dynamite to break it loose for removal. Of course all that survived was the sheered stub hanging from the ceiling. It would rebuild, he said, if we wanted to come back a million years or so.

I tend to think of limestone as being a light-colored stone, but this cave was pretty dark even as caves go. Nonetheless, there were places of striped or splashed color or paler hues, si I guess minerals in whatever layers above lent their colors to water trickling down over the millennia. The formations themselves fascinated me as caves always do, with the notion that stone had somehow been poured and dribbled and spilled until it formed fantastical shapes and cast bizarre shadows that piqued the imagination. Of course our guide cut off the lights for several seconds so we could listen to the dripping silence of eternity. I found myself imagining the fearful breathing of those tragic souls 900 years ago who died here in the dark.

Once outside, it seemed we had missed a little rain shower but the sun shone as we sat in the car to study our map. Next on our itinerary for today: Kells Priory below Kilkenny. Another pretty drive down winding roads and rolling hills and farms. 

The village of Kells was no bigger than a wink but we found the priory on the other side of little river. They had a nice small car park with a bit of odd modern art and a plaque extoling village attractions. We saw a lady with her maybe-12-year-old son, but they disappeared and we had the place to ourselves. Through a little gate and there down a slopping sheep pasture ... wow. Just wow.

Kells Priory must be seen to be believed, a great sprawl of stone walls and silence nearly in the middle of nowhere, tucked amidst rolling green hills and farmland. As we walked down through a large flock of sheep in their overgrown, tattered winter gowns, it was just us and eight hundred years of history. These ruins are a majestic, huge place and we found nobody there. Well, discounting two workmen who showed up but never got out of their vehicle. The priory is entirely enclosed in a set of walls some twenty feet high, the whole place spread across three or four open acres. A plaque theorizes that the largest enclosed area was used to keep and graze the priory's livestock in times of trouble. Today, the gate is open for local sheep to come and go at will.

The priory proper is much ruined save for the outer wall and several towers, but there was safety fencing barring a couple places and scaffolding on a couple more where evidently repairs are ongoing. One inner tower had been restored enough to boast glass in a few windows but the door was locked. Possibly they kept things in there to further their work. Another little barred room looked like it would become an interpretive center, with signage and a collection of old gravestones set on display. The expanse of ruins offered much to the imagination, with the shapes of the buildings and walkways still framed in broken walls, stumps of columns and windows and archways opening to the sky.

Celebsul and I wandered the place for a good long while, pouring over the ruins and finding a tiny barred courtyard or roofless room with shelves *full* of broken, carved stone ornamentation. The world's biggest jigsaw puzzles waiting for placement? Another nook held a small graveyard whose stones were mostly illegible but in style suggested the mid-1700s to early 1800s. Someone had brushed a little white chalk or talc on a couple of the stones for ease of reading, which I thought a clever and harmless idea.

Then Cel chanced upon the crowning wonder of that place: a plain steel plaque mounted on a post overlooking the priory ruins, and on it was inscribed a poem. The poem at first glance seemed to have little do with the priory as it was, but the words were so wonderful that I have to share them here:

The Garden's Grumble

It is January.
Ice-shards in hoofprints. The dark way of silence.
Light lying down on the straw-coloured grasses.
We are cold and ill-tempered but dinner is pigs cheeks.
In the church they are eating the body of God.

February's Brigit's with spring round the corner
and hard on the spring comes the sweet smell of summer,
three o'clock matins then dawn wild with birdsong
and I'm in the garden, shape-changed to a blackbird
grubbing in the body of God.

~ Kerry Hardie

In those spare lines, I gazed down a vast tunnel of years to the humanity of the history here, to ordinary people who lived and breathed and felt things even as we do. It was a perfect moment in a nearly-perfect spot and I'm ever so glad we found it. Celebsul and I each found our own ways out of that sacred place, walking through gentle sheep who trod the same paths their many-times grandmothers did long ago.

We retraced our steps back into the village where an old mill stood, now housing a shop of local crafts. A restored millwheel turned in the race in a steady, melodic thumping, while a many-arched bridge carried the road above the stream's broad spill. In the millhouse, a lovely Irish girl sat blocking starched fabric hats, dainty, pretty things suitable for tea or any other excuse. She presided over a wonderful collection of locally-made things, from knit caps to carved wood to pottery. We nosed around a bit and chatted with her, and I came away with a small, pretty hand-turned wooden bowl. Plus Cel and I each just had to buy a clever little "fairy door" as whimsies to stick to a baseboard somewhere at home.

Finally we returned to the road, rolling on through green hills, fields and little villages. We stopped for lunch in Carrick-on-Suir, a bustling town where we just chanced to find a cafĂ© serving the nicest roast beef.  Then southward again down the R697, beautiful scenery gliding past our windows as the weather again turned showery, swathes of grey sweeping tall, rugged hills between emergences of rather soggy sunlight. We turned off briefly when a sign advertised a waterfall, but the track quickly turned narrow and we opted to go back. No more reversing down tiny one-lane paths for us! Above Dungarvan we bent northward again on the R672, following the back side of the hills we had followed south - the Comeragh and Monavullagh mountains, according to the map. Beautiful, rural with some forested areas between farmlands - what a lovely country.

Below Clonmell, we proceeded to get completely lost as soon as we left the R-road. We knew more or less where this night's lodgings must be, but the signs we saw just said "Glasha Accomodations" and the tiny roads wandered everywhere, so we soon found ourselves out amongst the grain fields and dairy cows. Finally a solitary yellow building appeared, advertising itself as "J Lonergan Wind and Spirits," apparently a local pub. Cel went in to ask directions and it turns out we were only a few hundred yards off target.  Across a humpbacked bridge and there we found it, Glasha Farmhouse. 

Wow. The butler or somebody is going to figure out I'm a lowly blue-collar imposter and toss me back out the door, right? But no, when we stepped inside, a nice lady greeted us and showed us up to our room. And I do mean UP! The house looks like it's only two stories high but somehow we clambered three and at the top of the final, very steep flight, we found ourselves in a lovely attic room with not one but two skylights - one of which we could open and stick our heads out to enjoy the view of cow pastures and wooded hills.

The beds had more pillows than any four people could use, too! I definitely looked forward to a good night's sleep here. Thankfully a nice young man schlepped our luggage up that alpine-esque staircase. Across the hills, low gray clouds dragged skirts of rain but we toddled out once more to scrounge a few nibbles in the village and then we returned to make ourselves comfortable in the Glasha House's most wonderful feature: a lovely glass conservatory between the lounge/living room and the garden.

This was pure indulgence, a beautiful, bright room with flower gardens and a fountain just outside and the door open while distant storms blew harmlessly past. Four other guests of the house joined us, Americans who were in Ireland for a conference but who had a couple days of sight-seeing to do, first. We ended up having a very nice visit, chatting over evening cocktails about this and that and nothing to upset the digestion. It takes a long time for evening to fall at that latitude, but at last twilight came to the beautiful glass room and we all toddled off to bed.