Friday, July 20, 2012

Wrapping Up our Wet Irish Adventure

We arrived home in Vernon last night in the early evening after about 15 hours in transit.  Just as we expected--what a contrast in weather.  It was hot and dry so off came a few layers for the drive home from the airport.  I stayed up until my usual bedtime last night, but of course woke up disgustingly early this morning (4 AM) which is why I've decided to do a final blog post.

I have a few images of Belfast to share.  These were taken while sightseeing Tuesday on a double-decker bus in the rain--one of those buses where half the seats upstairs are under cover, which is where we were of course!
A sculpture on the Belfast waterfront, affectionately known as
"The doll on the ball".  Her real name is Beacon of Hope.
Belfast is sprinkled with public art and reading the comments at Beacon of Hope gives a sense of the controversy surrounding the murals still on display.  Here's one such mural:

This is the face of Bobby Sands who was elected as a local MP shortly before
he died of his hunger strike.
These murals are in Belfast's neighbourhoods, and clearly mark out sectarian territory.  Common themes of the Loyalist murals are King William on his white horse at the Battle of the Boyne, the current Queen, the "red hand of Ulster" which refers back to the Battle of the Somme in 1916 where many Ulster soldiers died, and "No Surrender!" slogans. Common images in Republican murals are of the hunger strikers and broader world political issues such as support for Palestinians.  Both sets of murals include unpleasant military images such as men dressed in balaclavas and carrying machine guns.  And both sets include a lot of graffiti which is present in any city in the world.  According to the Lonely Planet, since the peace accord, there has been an effort to replace some of the more aggressively partisan murals with those celebrating non-political subjects such as Belfast-born football star George Best (the airport is named after him) and the Harland and Wolff shipyards which is where the Titanic was built.

Moving along from Belfast now (and it's a real shame that we gave this great city such short shrift), we spent Wednesday morning at Glendalough in the Wicklow mountains.  This ancient monastic site was established in the 5th Century, was very powerful by the 9th C, but started to decay and fall into ruin in the 15th C.  Lloyd was really taken with the round tower which is in near perfect condition--just the roof was replaced in 1876 after a lightening strike.  The wooden floors and ladders inside have however disintegrated.  

The Lonely Planet says "you won't find more evocative clumps of stones anywhere" and I agree. 
Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest of Glendalough's
seven churches.
One of the great things about this site is that it's nestled in forest amongst the Wicklow hills and there is an extensive network of trails.  We walked along "the Wicklow Way" for a few kilometres to the Lower and Upper Lakes and then back to the Visitor's Centre, enjoying the fresh air and misty rain...  The soft misty Irish rain that feels gentle on your face!

Still in rain jacket...

Clambering under fallen gravestones--note jacket has been shed,
the sun had come out.
This is still an "active" cemetery where people are still being buried but these particular gravestones are 200 years old.

We then drove to Tullow in Co. Carlow for lunch with new friends in their home.  Susan had written to me in June asking for advice on making liturgical stoles from neckties so after a pleasant lunch Susan and I had a great sewing session while Lloyd, Andrew and the kids went for a walk to an ancient hilltop ring fort nearby.  Unfortunately Lloyd didn't have his camera!

When we left, they suggested we visit the largest dolmen in Europe, just outside the city of Carlow.
This is about 5000 years old.  The granite capstone is estimated to weigh  100 tonnes.
We then made our way to north towards Dublin, again in the driving rain which makes motorway driving very unpleasant.  Both of us had frayed nerves by the time we arrived in Maynooth at 6:30 PM where I had booked our accommodation at St. Patrick's College.  Unfortunately their electricity had been knocked out by a lightening strike so we couldn't check in.  Oh well, we went off for "a pint and dinner"...  Lloyd's last pint of Guinness!  My last glass of Bulmer's apple cider!

And so ends our Irish travels.  We have lots of great memories and stories to share.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Along the coast of Northern Ireland

Catching up with what is likely my last posting from Ireland...  We started off yesterday with another marvelous Irish breakfast and a big pot of tea. Well fortified we began our sightseeing at the ruins of nearby Dunluce Castle.  The first castle was built on a rocky crag above the beach in the 15th Century and added on to over the next couple hundred years before being abandoned in the mid 17th C.
In the lower mid-ground is a cavern that is open to the sea behind.
Unlike other castles we visited in the republic, this one was not built by Normans--rather it was first established by a Gaelic lord who was then ousted by one of the Scots families (the MacDonnells) who had been brought over from the Hebrides as mercenaries.

We then hustled along to the Giant's Causeway which had been one of the main reasons for travelling to this coast.  An absolutely marvelous site of basalt rocks and columns!

Lloyd sitting on the Giant's Boot
Standing in a column of basalt rocks.  These were formed by
volcanic action 60 million years ago.
It's easy to see why there are so many of these hexagonal rocks in the local walls and buildings!

We finished off our visit on the north coast with a visit to Old Bushmills Distillery where they've been making Irish whiskey since 1608.  I don't really care for spirits, however their liquor which has been made with honey was quite delish!

And then we made our way to Belfast via the coast road which was a bit gripping!  Narrow roads...agricultural tractors...tourists, including cars with German and French licence plates, meaning that they're left hand drive cars, driving on the left side of the road...scary!

Last night we stayed at the Park Inn in Belfast--a very pleasant hotel and centrally located that we booked on the website  We woke up to MORE RAIN this morning but in spite of that walked over to the Titanic exhibition, only to discover that the earliest tickets we could buy were for 4:20 PM!!  Should have checked the website a few days ago!!  Anyway, back to the main part of the city we went, and in consolation we took a 90 minute sightseeing tour on a double-decker bus.  We learned a lot and were really glad we went. It included quite a bit of political history of the origins of Northern Ireland (which is 6 counties of the original province of Ulster--the rest went with the Republic of Ireland in the split of 1922.)  The guide was very good about covering both sides of the recent "Troubles" and emphasized how these feelings are still bubbling below the surface but everyone appreciates the peace they have now.  There was one particularly good example--a building on one side of the road still surrounded with baricades and thick cement wall while on the other side of the road a new office tower with glass walls--this much glass would not have been possible before.  The bus travelled the whole length of the "peace wall", which separates the Loyalist (pro United Kingdom) and Republican (pro union with Republic of Ireland) neighbourhoods.  We noticed that she very carefully did not describe people by their religions.

We have felt very safe here, and indeed have found people to be extremely friendly.  On the streets, there has been a lot of eye contact and friendly greetings.  On the roads, drivers wave and acknowledge us when we pull over to let them pass.  It has been a little surprising however to drive through villages and towns in Northern Ireland fully decked out with red, white and blue flags, Union Jacks, flags of the cross of St. George but with a red hand in the centre (aka "the red hand of Ulster, symbol of the Ulster Freedom fighters, a symbol of Ulster's loyalty to the British crown), pictures of the Queen, images of King William on his white horse (from the Battle of the Boyne)...and realize that these are "Orange" towns, i.e. Loyalist/Unionist and have just celebrated July 12th, the day that King William of Orange defeated James II in 1690.  We did hear about some incidents on the 12th--some young yahoos were arrested and other "marchers" were criticized for marching with their band in front of a Catholic church while there was a service going on.  And then there are other towns and villages where there isn't a Union Jack in sight so we assume these folks are mainly Republican or maybe they just don't observe July 12th...

We drove down the east coast of Ireland in driving rain!  Yet again!  We're now in Wicklow town at a great hostel, Captain Halpin's Bunkhouse, with very welcoming hosts.  Our fellow guests are a diverse lot and include several long-haired men with bushy beards who are either actors or extras in a Viking movie being filmed in the area.

We'll be home Thursday night.  It'll be good to have some sunshine and heat but I must say that this humid temperate climate is good for the skin.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

From Donegal to Derry and Northern Ireland

I'm sitting at the window of Asdee B and B near Bushmills (yes, the town of the distillery fame) staring out at the western sky as the sun sets over the ocean.  This is a lovely quiet house, a bit off the beaten track, but still very near the Giant's Causeway which we'll visit in the morning (along with the distillery).

We've given Donegal short shrift I'm afraid--it's a lovely part of the world and worth exploring, but we're nearing the end of our journey.  Today we passed through some breathtaking countryside--steep valleys with bare hillsides, rock walls trailing away up to the ridges, and all dotted with sheep.  Along the edges of the road there was lots of peat being cut and dried for next winter's fuel.

We stopped in the town of Adara, billed as the heart of Donegal weaving, and luckily (for a Sunday) there was one weaving shop open at 10:30 AM--all the rest were closed up for the day.  I bought another bag of lovely tweed remnants--maybe there's a patchwork tweed jacket in my future...

On towards Northern Ireland, and the only indication that we'd crossed an international border was a sign stating that the speed limit was now 60 MPH rather than 100 KMH.  And soon we arrived in Derry, also known as Londonderry.  Again, too bad it was Sunday because the museums were either closed or on reduced hours.  We arrived at the Tower Museum just a half hour before closing, and like you I'm going to have to read through the website to see what I missed!  We were only charged a very modest admission (one pound each, and had to put that on Visa because we hadn't found an ATM yet).  We were hoping to get a better understanding of the history and context for "The Troubles", and I suppose we are now a little better informed but still confused!  The Unionists (usually Protestants) tended to have the power and control, while the Nationalists (usually Catholics) were poorer and disenfranchised.  That may be a huge generalization.  Unionists were/are for union with Great Britain as part of United Kingdom, and Nationalists are.were for an independent Ireland, or maybe I should say union with the Republic of Ireland (aka Eire).  The Unionists refer to their city as Londonderry and the Nationalists use the original name of Derry.  We did walk around the entire city wall--it's the only city in Ireland with an intact city wall--and saw some of the murals of the Bogside area, homes of Nationalists.
The neighbourhood of Bogside, a mainly Catholic area, just outside the city walls.

The "Peace Bridge" is lovely, and today it was full of families strolling back and forth across the river.

The western sky is now a soft orange, and it's almost 10 PM Sunday night.  This bodes well for tomorrow's weather--as one of our hosts said to us, "it's about time we had some settled weather" which was an interesting phrase.  I certainly use the term "unsettled" when describing weather but don't think I've ever used the opposite.  We're having fun with the different ways English is spoken!

Sligo and into Donegal

We're covering a lot of ground in this little island.  After yet another scrumptious Irish breakfast cooked to order by our host, we drove south west of Sligo town to walk up Knocknarea, described by Lonely Planet as Sligo's ultimate rock pile.  It's popularly believed to be the grave of legendary Queen Maeve and may be similar to the tomb at Newgrange.  It's never been excavated and an entrance has never been found.  It took us about 30 minutes to hike to the top and apart from one man we had the place to ourselves.

First view of the cairn from the trail.
To give you an idea of the size of this cairn, that's Lloyd in the centre.
The 360 degree view from this hilltop was spectacular but our pictures didn't do it justice.

We next went to Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, just a few kilometres away.  This is one of the largest stone age cemeteries in Europe--some 60 monuments have been identified and include stone circles, passage tombs and dolmens (large stones set in a circle with an even larger stone perched on top as a cap).   Some of these monuments are older than Newgrange by about 700 years.
Lloyd is sitting on one of the stones in the circle, and in the middle is a dolmen.  In the
background is Knocknarea.  You can just make out the cairn on top.
We stopped for lunch in Sligo town.  The poet W.B. Yeats loved this town and the surrounding countryside, and he is celebrated all around here.  There's a fascinating statue of him in the town centre.

The lovely texture is words, and I assume these are his poems--someone who knows his
poetry would enjoy giving this statue close scrutiny.  The only line I could remember
is "the lake isle of Innisfree" and try as I might, I could not find this...
We drove north into Donegal, home of Donegal tweed and the only spinning mill in Ireland.  We stopped in the centre of Donegal town--the place was packed with people enjoying a festival in the main square.  I made a beeline for Magee's and enjoyed stroking all the wonderful tweeds.  I was tempted by a beautiful purple tweed, however I am also remembered the beautiful Harris tweeds that I bought on spec in the Hebrides 8 years ago!  So I contented myself with buying a little packet of remnants instead....

We then drove west to the village of Kilcar where I knew the only active spinning mill Studio Donegal in Ireland to be.  We were in luck--we arrived 10 minutes before their posted closing time, and were able to chat with the head hand-weaver.  He also showed us the carding machines and the spinning mule but they weren't operating--this was after all, 4:50 PM on a Saturday!  After some delightful browsing in the shop, I picked up 3 skeins of Donegal tweed yarn, and then had a wonderful chat with the owner at the till who described the spinning mule with great detail--it was clear that he is passionate about it and his company, and it was wonderful to feel his optimism.  He said there are about 170 people in the Kilcar area directly employed in textiles, whether that's at this mill or in their homes.

We then drove even further west and checked into Slieve League Lodge for the night.  After dropping our bags in the room, we drove out a very narrow and twisting road to the cliffs at Slieve League proper--these are spectacular cliffs, 600 metres high and thought to be the highest in Europe.  We were lucky to see them with the western sun glinting on them.
This view was well worth the trip!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Another grand day in Ireland...

We can't believe our good fortune, and neither can anyone else.  Today was a day without rain!

This morning we explored the Aughnanure Castle just outside Oughterard (good luck pronouncing both of those names--we probably mangled them too).  This castle was built in the 1500's and was home to the "Fighting O'Flahertys" who controlled the region for a few hundred years after they successfully repelled the Normans.  It has been extensively restored.

We were able to walk up into the top story of the big tower.
Lloyd was entranced by the dogs sitting on the walls...

And by my reflection in the river as it bent around the castle...

Next stop (after coffee and a scone...) was the head of Ireland's only true fjord, Kilary Harbour at Leenane.

This was also the site of a very good private museum, The Sheep and Wool Centre.  There were spinning and tweed weaving demos by a very knowledgeable spinner/weaver as well as a good video on the local industry.  For about 75 years (from about 1890 - 1970) local people were able to make a good living with spinning and weaving.

We are managing to navigate these roads successfully, and sometimes it's a challenge!   The roads can be narrow with hedges and rock walls without shoulders (verges) or wide with a shoulder wide enough for cars to pull over so others can pass.  The speed limits are surprisingly high--80 and 100 km/h.  I do have to occasionally remind Lloyd to stay to the left, and I try not to gasp too loudly if he gets close to a rock wall...  Our car is large for these roads unfortunately.

We're now outside Sligo town for the night, and have checked into The Links B& B at Rosses Point.  We have just had a delicious dinner at the Waterfront restaurant and we think it was one of our best meals here.  I had cous cous topped with roasted vegetables (zucchini, peppers, onions and roasted tomatoes) topped with arugula tossed with a basil pesto.  Yum!  All washed down with a glass of sauvignon blanc.  Lloyd had carrot, potato and parsnip soup followed by a salad topped with tandori chicken.

The view from Rosses Point back towards Sligo tonight--the mountains were highlighted by the sun in the western sky...
There was a little rain shower behind these mountains and we saw a fragment of a
double rainbow on the right.  It doesn't show up in this picture.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

From the Midlands to Aran to Connemara

We've covered a lot of ground over the last couple of days.  From Athlone yesterday morning we found our way along back roads of the Shannon River valley (very swollen flood waters) to Clonmacnoise, an important monastic site established in the 6th Century....and extremely busy.  We arrived just as a huge coach was disgorging its load of tourists, and saw that there were another 5 coaches already in the parking lot at 10:30 AM.  Apart from Dublin and Newgrange we have been accustomed to having these important sites to ourselves!!
This ruined castle just outside the Clonmacnoise monastic site seems to be about to topple down completely.
Clonmacnoise--to be buried in this graveyard guarantees one's place in heaven...
and it's now is the neighbouring cemetery.
One of the dramatic stone high crosses which is now installed inside the
visitor's center.  This dates from about the 9th Century.
A view of one of the round towers on the site--perhaps used as a shelter when under attack,
perhaps used as a bell tower...perhaps neither.  There isn't agreement
amongst the archeologists and historians.
We drove to Doolin, on the edge of the Burren, thinking of catching a ferry to the nearest of the Aran Islands the following day.  The fellow in the tourist office suggested we take advantage of the weather (sunny) and go on the next ferry at 5:30 PM.  He arranged our accommodation and sold us ferry tickets and off we drove to the pier.  We arrived with 5 minutes to spare--managed to park, put a few overnight things into our day packs and ran to the boat.  The crossing was rough but manageable.
On the ferry to Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran islands.
We stayed at Tigh Ruairi in a luxurious suite (quite a change for our usual hostels).  I even had a bath before bed, just because I could...

We dropped our bags and set off to explore the island because it was still wonderfully sunny.  There are dry rock walls everywhere you look, enclosing very small pastures.

That rusted ship in the background was thrown up on the rocks in bad weather about 50 years
ago.  Miraculously all aboard were saved by the islanders.
Sunset at about 10:45 PM--the view from our room.
After a hearty breakfast, we set off on another walk amongst the rock walls and within an hour the clouds rolled in along with the inevitable drizzle.  So we hustled back to the guesthouse, collected our belongings and caught the next ferry back to Doolin.

Sheltered from the wind and drizzle, knitting socks...
Beautiful flowers amidst the rocks of The Burren, a very desolate rocky landscape.
We spent a couple of hours in the centre of Galway at the museum and art gallery (a good rainy day activity), and then drove out of the city into "The Connemara" district where we have checked into Canrawer House.  We are sharing the hostel with a couple from Croatia and a family from France.  Everyone is continuing to complain about the weather--our host figures the number of tourists is way down, and won't recover this summer.  He seems very pessimistic.  Galway city was very busy as was Dublin.  Maybe most of the tourists are sticking to the main roads and cities where there are more indoor activities.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In the Midlands of Ireland

First the weather report!  Yesterday was mostly cloudy and blustery with occasional showers and a teasing bit of sunshine.  The showers happened when we were on an exposed hilltop "Lough Crew", another of Ireland's many Neolithic passage tombs.  We could see the shower approaching and there was no shelter.
The rain passed within about five minutes.
This was our destination--a restored passage tomb in the background.  In the foreground,
is one that has crumbled.
This is the art at the back of the passage.  The sun hits this spot at sunrise only on the
spring and fall equinoxes.
One popular local folk story involves a witch.  This is her "seat"...
I'm sitting on one of the kerb stones of the passage tomb.
We also came upon another archeology site at Bective Abbey, established by a wealthy Cistercian order of monks from Normandy in the 11th Century.  This crew is digging outside the walls of the abbey looking for evidence of the local economy--what they grew, raised and traded.  The chief archeologist says she is thankful no human bones have been found because that really slows down the work.
This is a project of University College Dublin.  They've found the original garden, barn and
cereal kiln.
Our next heritage stop was the Corlea Trackway, an Iron Age bog road which is the largest of this kind to be uncovered in Europe dating from 148 BC.   
This is the preserved section on display at the visitor's centre.
Close-up of the timbers.  
We spent the night in Athlone at The Bastian B&B and it's every bit as good as the website promises.  I was up at 6AM to have some quiet knitting time in the comfy lounge, drinking tea.  The sun is shining and the day looks promising, however the weather forecast is similar to yesterday's.  So what else is new!

And finally, another interesting utility cover...
Another attractive utility cover plate on an Athlone pavement.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Wet Day in Trim

Everyone we meet complains about the weather--this is the wettest summer on record in Ireland, or so "everyone" says.

We spent the morning in the medieval castle, and by far the most interesting part was the guided tour of the keep with a fellow who grew up here in Trim.  Once again, he was a guide who verged on the political.  This is an "Anglo-Norman" castle, that is it was built by the Norman conquerors in the 12th Century and added onto for the next several hundred years until it was severely damaged (as was most of the town) by Cromwell's forces in the mid 1600's.  Even as a ruin, however, this castle continued to be owned by an absentee English family until sometime in the 20th Century thus representing English Protestant power in Ireland.  Our guide said that as a boy he didn't dare climb over the walls to explore.

Walking up to the main gate of the castle at Trim.
The Norman keep
Inside one of the gates of the castle wall.
We took a break from the rain back at our hostel.
The view from our room
This is a view of the hostel from the bridge--our room is the large 3-paned window on the left.
The kitchen window is the little one below.  The lounge window is blocked by the shrubbery.
Knitting in the lounge watching the river...waiting for it to stop raining.
Hey, it stopped raining for just a bit, so out we went again.
Wrought iron gate handle.
And then we got caught in the rain again and this time we were soaked!  Finally found refuge
in the ruins of St Peter and Paul Cathedral. 
The tomb of the "jealous" man and woman, so-called because the stone figures don't
touch each other.
We also paid a visit to the archeological dig happening just up the hill.  There are several students staying here at the hostel who are excited about all the bones they've found in the last couple of weeks.  They are excavating a site of a Blackfriars' monastery that existed just outside the old town walls for probably 400 or more years.  It was dissolved by Henry VIII and since then has crumbled to bits.  They think they are now excavating the crypt but because the site was vandalized, used as a quarry for building materials, and then as a garbage/dumping ground for a few hundred years, it's a little challenging to work out just what was where.  Understandably the students are sure getting tired of the rain!  It's a very muddy site.