Monday, 11 August 2008

On castles, charters and counties.

August 10th and 11th, Days Eleven and Twelve.
The day dawned on our last full day in Ireland to find us all fast asleep. However, this condition didn’t last very long and we were soon packing the car to head down the N24 away from Limerick. The day began quite showery but this cleared up after a while, only for us to experience showers again. This pattern covered the entire day. As always, some of the names of the towns and villages continued to amuse, with our particular favourite today being Oola, which reminded us of both the movie ‘The Producers’ and the disastrous year that David Lettermen hosted the Academy Awards and kept trying a joke introducing Uma (Thurman) and Oprah (Winfrey). Fortunately, we also had some disco music to play in the car and must have made quite a sight as we drove singing along to ‘Play that Funky Music’ and ‘Blame It on the Boogie’.

The other aspect of Ireland which we will no doubt miss will be the opportunity to spot old ruined castles just appearing by the side of the road. While we have commented on many of the ruins that we have explored, there have been many more that have not been mentioned, simply because they are just so numerous. There are many reasons behind this, one of which is to do with the impact of Oliver Cromwell on Ireland, and the destruction wreaked during that period. The Williamite invasion also played a part in seeing some of the defensive fortifications about the country being ruined. A third is the tax placed on the English who held property in Ireland. Because part of that tax was based on the number of inhabitable dwellings on a property, and the definition that an inhabitable dwelling meant one with a roof, the owners deliberately removed them, or allowed them to fall into disuse. Is it any wonder many of the Irish don’t like the English very much.

Kilduff Castle was built in 1550 and originally associated with the MacBrien’s, who were descendants of Brian Boru (the king of all Ireland). From 1617 it was inhabited by the Hurley family but during the Cromwellian settlement they were moved to Connaught and dispossessed of this estate. In 1667 it was given to the trustees of Erasmus Smith’s Charity Schools, however it was destroyed during the Williamite invasion and remained uninhabitable since that time. What is nice is that the government are still concerned to preserve these elements of their heritage, and so the ruins are looked after and there are signs explaining the history of the site.

Our first stop for the morning was the fabulous village of Tipperary, possibly well known to many of our readers because of a song which mentions the name. We had been warned beforehand, however, that we should not sing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ while visiting the town. While part of this was no doubt because of the fact that it is an old joke that has worn thin with the town’s inhabitants, the main reason is the association of the song. It was adopted as a virtual anthem by the Black and Tans, the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, who were sent to Ireland in 1920 to try and quell the uprising which would eventually result in Home Rule for Ireland. Because of this, Irish Republican viewed them as virtually an occupying army, and they were treated as such. To this day Black and Tan, or even Tan, is a term of abuse for many in the south.

Like Donegal, despite being part of a County with which it shares a name, Tipperary is not the county seat of County Tipperary. The county is divided into a North and South, with administrative centres in Nenagh and Clonmel respectively. However, the town has been around since medieval times and became a centre of population during the reign of King John. As you enter the town from the south along Main Street, you come across a statue to the ‘Maid of Erin’ celebrating the traditional picture of Ireland as a woman. Slightly oddly, this statue was erected to commemorate the actions of a group of 3 men, known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, Allen, Larkin and O’Brien, who were part of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. On September 18, 1867 they participated in the rescue of two other members of the Brotherhood in Manchester, England, and a policeman was killed. They were publicly hanged on November 23rd, 1867, before an enormous crowd. Their execution raised an enormous amount of indignation around the world and inspired many people to join the fight for Irish independence. Consequently, as well as the monument in Tipperary there are others in Limerick, Kilrush, Clonmel, Birr, Ennis, Dublin and in Manchester itself.

The rest of Main Street is also very picturesque and particularly colourful on this day as the Hurling and Gaelic Football finals were taking place in Dublin this afternoon. Indeed, even though it was still fairly early in the morning there were already a good collection of men standing outside the pubs and betting shops, no doubt ready to settle down and enjoy an afternoons viewing. Because we were driving in the direction of Dublin ourselves we encountered numerous vehicles prior to lunch time which were obviously headed to Croke Park as part of the crowd. Unlike many of the towns we had previously travelled through, Main Street, Tipperary, was wide enough to pull over and park, so we were able to wander up and down taking photos.

From Tipperary we journeyed further North East to another lovely named town, that of Golden. The river that passes through Golden is the River Suir and we were able to see some of the consequences of the rain that had fallen in the previous 24 hours. Indeed, on the South East coast of the country there had been considerable flooding with a couple of towns evacuated, which was not entirely surprising given what we had experienced the previous day in the South West. As you might see from the photographs we took, the River was right up to the limit of its banks and flowing very quickly. The bridge at Golden, was the scene of an historical event in 1690, when King William II renewed, by means of a letter he wrote himself, the Royal Charter of the city of Cashel. This was in gratitude for the hospitality received by his followers from the people of Cashel following his attack on Limerick. Situated on the island in the centre of the Suir is a medieval castle, now in a ruinous state, but impressive nonetheless. Among the castle ruins is a memorial to Thomas MacDonagh,(1878-1916) Tipperary-born poet and leader of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Next stop up the road was the town of Cashel (where the aforementioned letter is still preserved), perhaps best known for the Rock of Cashel, another ruined castle (but this time much more extensive and better preserved than many of the others that we had seen) which stands on the summit of a hill in the centre of the town. Carraig Phadraig was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster (one of the four provinces in Ireland) for several hundred years before the Norman invasion. However, it has been built and rebuilt upon so that today the majority of buildings date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Cashel is also supposed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick in the 5th century A.D. Cashel is dominated by the rock, which isn’t surprising when you know that its Irish name, Caiseal Mumhan means ‘Stone Fortress of Munster’.

Another interesting fact about Cashel is that Robert Peel (the founder of the British Police force, which is why they have been called both ‘Bobbies’ and ‘Peelers’ during their history) began his parliamentary career as Member of Parliament for Cashel. Sadly, although he was concerned to stop crimes such as robbery that hasn’t necessarily translated across to today. While the Stone of Cashel is one of the most popular tourist attractions in modern Ireland (owing in part, no doubt, to its proximity to Dublin) it is also one of the most expensive places we came across during our time in the country. Even walking up (cars were not allowed) without entering the site cost money. Given that we had many other places to visit during the day we decided to leave Cashel without visiting the Rock, which in many ways is a great shame because it is meant to be as extensive and well preserved as any similar site in Europe.

We are getting used to pubs in England with combined names, like the ‘Crown and Anchor’ or ‘The Fox and Hounds’, what we hadn’t expected was a town with such a name. However, not long after leaving Cashel that is exactly what we came across in the form of Horse and Jockey. There is not much there, indeed the town is dominated by a ‘Hotel with Function Rooms’ but it must make for interesting reading on signs pointing to the town and make the naming of businesses quite complex. It is part of the Golden Valley which surrounds the town of Cashel and which is particularly good for the breeding of livestock, which goes in part to explain the name.

By this time we were all starting to think of lunch, so a decision was made to continue on to Port Laoise to buy some food. Unlike Tipperary, Port Laoise is the county town of Laois and used to go by the name Maryborough. Although it has the name Port, it is closer to the centre of Ireland and the reason for this vague confusion is that, in Irish, the name actually means ‘Fort of Leix’ or ‘Fort Protector’ and you can still see the remains of the old fort in the centre of the town. In 1557 Queen Mary granted the town’s charter and the town changed name (as did the county to Queen’s County). It was only in 1922, following the Irish War of Independence that the town reverted to its older, Irish name. A number of people with Australian connections originated in Laois, these include; Charles Beale (1850-1930), founding president of the Federated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia; James A. Graves (1827-1910), Australian commissioner of trade and customs, 1881-1883; and perhaps the best known, Peter Lalor, who led the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat.

Because parking was, shall we say, interesting in Port Laoise we took our food (purchased from the main shopping centre) back to the car and drove in to Kildare to look for a space in which to stop and eat. Kildare also has Australian connections with Damian Leith (who won Australian Idol having come from there) and it seems like quite a nice town, although getting close enough to Dublin that it seems to be a bit like a suburb. Certainly, many of the people who live there commute to Dublin for work because the wages in Dublin are higher but the cost of living (for the moment) in Kildare is comparatively less. As we were meandering around the back streets of the town we came across a cycle race in progress and ended up in the middle of a group of riders which somewhat limited our speed. Spotting a park ahead we turned in and found a spot to stop where we could eat. Meg and Wayne stayed in the car (the wind was a little chilly for Meg’s liking) while Brock and Quinn decided to go for a bit of a ramble.

Little did we know at the time that what we had ended up chancing upon was the Curragh. The Curragh (Irish: An Currach) is a flat open plain of almost 5,000 acres (20 km²) of common. It is the home to the Irish National stud and the famous Japanese Gardens. Also located here is Pollardstown Fen, the largest fen in Ireland. This area is of particular interest to botanists and ecologists because of the numerous bird species that nest and visit here. Many rare plants also grow here. It is composed of a sandy soil formed after an esker (a long, winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel, examples of which occur in glaciated and formerly glaciated regions of Europe and North America and which, because of their peculiar uniform shape, somewhat resemble railroad embankments) deposited a sand load and as a result it has excellent drainage characteristics. This makes it a popular location for training racehorses.

During pre-Christian times the Curragh was used as meeting site and consequently is shrouded in a mist of mythology. The hill north of the Curragh is called the Hill of Allen (Almhain) and is the meeting place of the mythical Fianna. Legend has it that in about 480 AD, when St Brigid wished to found a monastery in Kildare, she asked the High King of Leinster for the land on which to build it. The king laughed at her request and told her that she could have as much land as her cloak would cover. St Brigid then placed her cloak on the ground which miraculously covered the entire Curragh plain. It has also been a common site for mustering armies. During the 1798 Rebellion there was a massacre in the Curragh at Gibbet Rath. The Curragh Camp (where the Irish Defence Forces undergo training) is now located there so sections of it are off limits to members of the public. It is such a useful place for military exercises that it was chosen as the site for the shooting of the battle sequences in ‘Braveheart’.

Almost next to where we parked Kylie is a natural bowl-shaped amphitheatre known locally as Donnelly's Hollow because, in 1815, the Irish champion boxer Dan Donnelly defeated the English champion George Cooper, before a large crowd. Donnelly reach was famous and (grotesquely) the remains of his arm were on show until recently in the Hideout Pub in the nearby town of Kilcullen. To our surprise what emerged from it on this day was a great flock of sheep, pursued by a shepherd and couple of sheep dogs. They surrounded the car and ventured up on to the road, causing more disruption for the poor cyclists, one of whom had to come to a complete halt while sheep manouevred around him. It gave the boys, who had wandered over in that direction, something to take photographs of (although Brock was more intent in taking a picture of his name, which he had scratched in some gravel).

Pulling away from our carpark we still had a couple of (obviously slower) cyclists to negotiate as we travelled around the rest of the Curragh back out toward the N7. Just before the main road was the Curragh Racecourse which is the most important of the thoroughbred race tracks in Ireland. The first recorded race at the site dates back to 1727, although there were almost certainly races held there before that. In 1868 it was declared by an act of Parliament to be a horse racing and training facility. It hosts the Irish Derby Stakes, the Irish Oaks, the Irish 1,000 Guineas, the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the St. Leger which are the five most prestigious events on the Irish racing calendar and the course has a train station which opens during the racing season. Being a Saturday there had obviously been something on at the track because there were still a large number of people in attendance, although our suspicion is that it might have also been a site where people could gather to watch the Gaelic Football and Hurling broadcast on a big screen.

As we continued on the road past Newbridge and Naas toward Dublin we started to come across roadsigns warning us of problems on the M50 (which is the ring road which goes around the city). There had been substantially more rain on the northern side of Dublin and the tunnel, which the road passes through before the airport and port turnoffs, had been badly flooded, banking traffic up for miles. The traffic authority advice was to avoid the road at all costs, however, because we didn’t have any really detailed maps of the area and we were going to be turning off the M50 before the tunnel, Wayne decided to risk it. This proved to be a better decision than some of his other navigational ones during the trip as, although the traffic was heavy, very little of it was turning up the N3 and we were not really delayed as we headed up to our next stop.

The Hill of Tara is an archaeological complex north of Dublin near the town of Navan. Legend has it that it was the seat of Árd Rí na hÉireann, or the High King of Ireland and it certainly contains a number of ancient monuments. It has also featured in a lot of fiction, being a key landmark in Eoin Colfer’s ‘Artemis Fowl’ series as well as the place after which the family plantation in ‘Gone With The Wind’ was named. Because it had begun to rain again we tarried in the gift shop, looking at postcards, pottery and woollen products before venturing up the hill itself. Partway up was an old church (which now operates as a tourist information centre) and a large statue of Saint Patrick. To enter the church yard there was a gate but Quinn, in his excitement to keep moving, decided to climb the fence and had some difficulty getting over as a result (this was not to be the last of his adventures in this place).

At the summit of the hill is an oval Iron Age hilltop enclosure, measuring 318 metres (1,043 ft) north-south by 264 metres (866 ft) east-west and enclosed by an internal ditch and external bank, known as Ráith na Ríogh (the Fort of the Kings, also known as the Royal Enclosure). The most prominent earthworks within are the two linked enclosures, a bivallate (two ringed) ring fort and a bivallete ring barrow known as Teach Chormaic (Cormac's House) and the Forradh or Royal Seat. In the middle of the Forradh is a standing stone, which is believed to be the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) at which the High Kings were crowned. According to legend, the stone would scream if a series of challenges were met by the would-be king. At his touch the stone would let out a screech that could be heard all over Ireland. Sadly, there was no screeching when Meg, Wayne, Brock and Quinn touched the stone, however there was some to come.

While Meg and Wayne were busy taking photographs, Brock and Quinn were busy playing ‘I’m The King of the Castle’ up the ridges of Cormac’s House. Because of the rain this proved to be easier said than done as the mud was quite slippery. There were also a flock of sheep grazing not far away and, despite Meg’s pleas to leave them alone, the boys decided to chase them (partially to keep warm because, despite the sunshine, it was quite chilly). Brock leapt after one sheep and caused not only his own family but lots of other people to laugh at him because the sheep turned back toward him and he let loose a squeal not unlike the one we imagine the stone might have made. Quinn fared even more unhappily as, coming back from chasing a couple of sheep, he slipped onto his rear right in the middle of a patch of sheep droppings. By the time we returned to the car he needed to remove his trousers, so we all stood with our backs to him, to discourage other people from looking while this action was performed.

From Tara we made our way up to Navan and then followed the Boyne River across toward Drogheda. In places the river has carved a deep gorge through the valley, a feature which we had noticed on our drive between Dublin and Belfast, many days earlier. We were searching for another site which had been highly recommended to us by our friend Julie while we were staying at Moneyrea, the location of the Battle of the Boyne. After an interesting drive along some roads which at times were just wide enough for one car and across more than one bridge over the Boyne river itself we found ourselves at what was an impressively large site (and discovered there had been a much easier but less scenic route to the place).

The Battle of the Boyne is one of those significant moments in the history of England and Ireland that had much wider impact than just the battle itself. In 1688 King James II of England and Ireland (James VII of Scotland, and a Catholic) was deposed by parliament and replaced by his nephew and son-in-law William III (a Protestant). James wasn’t best pleased about that and set about gathering armies to try and take the throne back by force. On July 12, 1690, their armies met outside of Drogheda in Ireland and the battle was decisively won by William and his supporters. Even though the armies themselves were a mixture of religious sympathies this battle entrenched the position of protestants in Ireland (originally placed there by Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell) and played some part in the sectarian conflicts that racked Ireland on and off for the next 300 odd years.

Julie was absolutely right in that the site is really well set out and has obviously had a lot of money spent on it. The main building contains audio-visual and other displays which really did a good job of explaining everything from the background, to the battle itself, and to the impact that it has had on Irish history. There are beautifully restored armaments and other machinery, as well as replicas of the clothing that was worn. Out on the fields in front of the buildings there were reenactments of the key elements of the battle and illustrations of just what it would have been like to be a soldier in the army. In the old stables at the back of the house there was information on the role that cavalry played in the battle as well. All in all it was an amazing experience which did a lot to put together many of the things that we had seen over the previous ten days.

From the Battle of the Boyne we drove the 6 kilometres to Drogheda so that we could have a look around before heading into Dublin. Drogheda was the town that Pierce Brosnan (a former James Bond) was born in, although he grew up in nearby Navan. Another interesting things about the town is its crest which features, among other things, a star and crescent moon. Apparently these are there as a gesture of gratitude to Sultan Abdul Mecid who donated three ship loads of food to the people of Drogheda during the Great Famine. We got to see the St Lawrence gate, which also features on the coat of arms, and some of the bridges which characterise this port town but it had started to rain once more and we were all hungry so, rather than stopping, we decided to drive back down to Dublin.

Our ferry was due to leave early the next morning so the plan was to have dinner and then catch a movie or something similar. Sadly this plan was slightly derailed by the end of the Gaelic Football and Hurling finals, the traffic from which was still causing congestion in the northern suburbs of Dublin as we were driving in. Eventually we made it in to the Dublin City Centre and found a good parking spot. This enabled us to look one more time around Dublin’s fair city as we took newspapers and laptops to McDonalds for an evening meal. This was opposite a Nightclub/Restaurant called 'The Church’ which also gave an opportunity for people watching for a few hours. Various circumstances related to finance and accomodation meant that when McDonalds closed we drove across to the Port where we could park Kylie and rest before the ferry arrived.

It was an interesting night, made memorable by Meg saying to Brock and Quinn, at about 3am, “for God’s sake go to sleep” (a phrase which they still use to draw a laugh). In the morning we had another good ferry ride back to Holyhead in Wales, before driving up to Wrexham for lunch. The rest of the trip back to Hoddesdon was only eventful by the misdirection which saw us driving around Liverpool for a little while before eventually finding our way back to the M1. It had been a big 12 days, we had travelled through 27 of the 32 counties in Ireland and Northern Ireland and seen some of the amazing places that those countries contain. We had met lots of fabulous people and had experiences that we will never forget.

For the next ten days after our return Brock and Quinn were sleeping in one of the dorms at Hailey Hall School, while Wayne and Meg had a mattress on the floor of Wayne’s English classroom. At the end of that time we were able to move in to the house that has been provided for us at Hailey Hall and our travelling life has settled back down (for at least a little while). Brock and Quinn are able to walk to their school and are both much closer to friends from there, while Wayne and Meg are onsite and, consequently, able to do much more at work and make better use of the facilities that the school provides.

No comments: