Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ireland - June 2016 - Part 5

June 9th - DAY 5. We decided on staying closer to home and just meandering about exploring local sights. First we went into Skibbereen where we decided to try breakfast in the Church Restaurant. In keeping with Ireland's apparent penchant for making the old new, this was a 1830s Methodist church that had gone out of use about 1993 and was gutted by fire in 1996. Since then it had been purchased and re-purposed as a restaurant whose fixtures included various historical pieces, such as old alter rails and an antique staircase. The place was very nice and the food good, but I had to wonder if we ate our traditional Irish breakfasts above the lost graves of forgotten church goers ...

After that, we briefly visited the Skibbereen historical center dedicated to the history of the Famine's terrible impact on the Cork region. However, the center was quite small, the displays taking just a single room, and we left as a tour bus full of pensioners came in. Our next stop was, at least to me, a more palpable and poignant remembrance of the human toll: the mass Famine gravesites at Abbeystrowe. 

This is the site of a now- vanished 13th century Cistercian abbey, long since used as a graveyard. Among the scattering of aged and modern stones, there was but a single, newish marker for the 9,000+ souls buried here, the mass graves themselves marked only as a broad greensward that bore the faint indentations of big rectangular shapes. I stood there a time and tried to imagine what sort of holes, how deep they must have been and how hideous, to accommodate so many human bodies in what was actually a fairly small space. Perhaps I'm blessed that my imagination could not conceive it and I left that place of ghosts and untold stories with my peace of mind intact. 
From there we just wandered along the coast and little roads south of Skibbereen, seeing few people beyond random locals and the occasional ubiquitous farm tractor. Again the country rose as a high, rolling plateau with the broad sweep of sea to the south. Sometimes the road dipped down to little stony beaches or a tiny village, then up again into hedgerows and fields. 

At one point we spotted a strange, lone tower and we stopped to give it a look. The map called the area Fort Hill, but we could find no indication of its history. Celebsul reckoned that most likely it was a Victorian folly, built to resemble a greater antiquity but itself of little more purpose than whimsy. 

It was a strange thing, though, standing out there with no manor house nearby to account for its presence. I scared some Holstein heifers grazing there when I balanced atop an overgrown stone wall to get a couple photos. The heifers and a few crows seemed like the only ones who noticed us up there and a few hundred yards on, the road petered to an end with its destination some farmer's homestead. We turned around and were met by a local with a startled look on his face, who nonetheless backed up to give us room to pass. We had to wonder if maybe a neighbor had called that a couple tourists were lost amongst Farmer McNally's cows and needed a little guidance! ;)

Back on the slightly larger R-roads, we stopped for tea at Lis Ard Estate & Restaurant which was a rather odd experience. The sign advertised a restaurant and we drove up to see a lovely Georgian manor house set well up a long, lovely green drive. When we went in, rather than the expected collection of venerable antiques, we found the interior oddly sparse, the entry hall and rooms very bright and clean with wooden floors and a few pieces of modern art. 

Rather than the cozy sense of history I'd anticipated, the modern esthetic just struck me as rather cold and uninviting. The restaurant downstairs looked closed and we are about to leave, but nice young lady met us and told us of course we could have lunch. It got odd again when we asked where we should sit, she said, "Oh, any room." We looked about and could see various drawing rooms and a library and I'm not sure what all, so we picked the library (whose shelves held more DVDs or CDs than books) and sat down. Again I noticed the odd juxtaposition of a very old house but with sparely-designed, rather square-looking modern furniture and art to match. We sat alone in the library and when someone else took the next room, they discreetly closed the door between us. So it was kind of like people were isolated in little quiet rooms of retreat, saved from interaction with each other. We could hear voices down the hall as if there were some sort of gathering going on out of sight, but it all seemed a little surreal.
Anyhow, a lovely young man very painstakingly waited on us, everything handled just so from the placing of the silverware to serving our tea, in the sort of self-consciously exquisite care that made us think he might be new there. The food was lovely, though, the tea delicious and we went on our way afterwards feeling as if we'd briefly stepped into some scene from a very odd movie.

Our next and final destination was Knockdrum Fort, a Neolithic site not far away. Online reading said it had been rebuilt in the 1860s so I wondered if perhaps it would be a bit short of authentic. But the photos looked as if we would at least have some good views. 

We'd marked the turnoff in previous travels, just a little stony farm lane that turned off into a copse of trees. The lane was narrow but seemed passable enough so we inched our way along. It felt like we'd gone about half a mile, though in reality it was probably only two or three hundred yards, when we noticed the lane had turned to grass. And then it stopped. Meaning the lane simply ended. As in there was nowhere else to go and stone walls on all sides. And there was certainly no place to turn around.

Well, for crying out loud! Nothing on the internet mentioned that!!  Furthermore, we could see a flight of stone stairs clambering up the hillside to some point out of sight - another point I didn't notice while reading online! Now there we were, stuck in a rental car at the end of some farmer's road. Actually, the farmer probably turned off at that wide spot that went into a ploughed field a little ways back.  *sighhhh* So, rather than leave Celebsul to sort out the mess, I got behind the wheel and she walked behind me as I sloooowly backed the car out.
Except I kind of forgot to take off the parking brake which she'd set when we got out to examine our predicament. And I kind of rode the clutch pretty hard, because Reverse left to its own devices went at a near-gallop. So by the time I'd inched the car about halfway back, I began to smell some rather warm rubber. Oops. Another car came in behind us about that time, and Celebsul hastened to warn them against going any further. They immediately reversed out of there and we never saw them again. I turned the car around at the farmer's demarcation spot and Cel nursed the poor vehicle back to a wide spot near the road and parked. Hopefully it would do the car some good to sit and cool off its overworked parts!

Bless my good friend with a thousand blessings, even after all that, she was still game to walk back and see the stone fort! So, off we went and up the 99 steps (or however many there really were) until we clambered at last, considerably winded, to the top of a Neolithic world. Knockdrum Fort itself isn't as remarkable as one might hope, mainly due to the obviousness of the rebuilding. But within the stone ring there are a couple works of visible antiquity, including an iron grate barring a set of stone stairs that descend to a room beneath the earth and an upright stone with a weathered Medieval cross carved into it. The best part, though, was as I hoped - the views. From the fort site one can see a 360 degree panorama of the peninsula of Toe Head, from the gray sea's horizon to hazy inland farm fields and indeed, if we'd known where to look, a crows-eye view towards "home" at Castletownshend. Perhaps a little too much drama attended this little detour, but the views were certainly worth the trip!

We ended the day with a walk up the street to the local pub called Mary Ann's. A light rain had begun to fall so we carried our umbrellas but it was still a warm and gentle evening. Celebsul said the place had a reputation for 5-star meals and wow, they did not disappoint. With its low ceilings, quirky sea-captain's d├ęcor and 18th century architecture, combined with a steady trickle of regulars whom the bartender called by name, you might never guess to look. But this place is a little piece of gastronomical heaven masquerading as an Irish local pub. I ordered the salmon (along with a half pint of Guinness) and when my plate arrived it was almost too pretty to eat! The flavors were as sublime as the presentation and it's been a while since I so thoroughly enjoyed the simple act of eating. It was definitely a meal to remember.

At last we wandered back to our lodgings and tucked in with a nightcap and our now-customary evening talk as a light steady rain settled in for the night.

No comments: