Monday, 11 August 2008

On pecks, parking and pouring

August 9th , Day Ten
There was some discontent at our having to wake quite early this morning. However, it was important to get going early for a number of reasons and these would be gradually revealed during the day. We headed south down the N20 toward Cork. This is one of the best stretches of road in the country and we made very good time so that we pulled into the town of Blarney quite close to 9am. Meg and Wayne, however, both despaired that neither Brock nor Quinn had ever heard of Blarney Castle or the Blarney Stone and the ritual associated with it. However, if you were to ask either boy about totally fictional realms in the computer game World of Warcraft they could bore you to death on the topic. Honestly, if they weren’t both teachers they would be questioning what it is that the schools of today do actually teach.

Surprisingly, the ticket box at Blarney Castle only accepted cash! However, at this stage the car park was still relatively empty, so the whole family went for a wander across to the Woollen Mills and other shops nearby where we had been informed that there would be a cash machine. This proved to be true and gave Meg, Brock and Quinn an opportunity to browse through the variety of woollen products while Wayne got to wait in the queue behind a horde of German, English and American university students. Soon enough we had the requisite cash and headed back through the gate and into the gates of this beautiful castle.

The castle which we see today is just the keep of the third building which has stood on the site. In the 10th century the first building was a wooden one. This was demolished and replaced by a stone structure in 1210 which was itself knocked down to be used for the foundations of the current building, erected in 1446 by Dermot McCarthy, King of Munster. It was his ancestor, Cormac McCarthy, who is said to have assisted Robert the Bruce in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It was in gratitude for his assistance that half of the Stone of Scone was given to McCarthy, which half is reputedly the Blarney Stone which has become famous even till today.

There have been millions of visitors to Blarney Castle over the centuries, many of whom have kissed the stone. Some of the more famous ones include; Winston Churchill (in 1912), Laurel and Hardy (a few years earlier), Mick Jagger, Billy Connelly, Sir Walter Scott (in 1826), Tom Horan (who played in the first Test Match between England and Australia in 1877 and went on to captain his country), Nellie Bly (journalist who went around the world in 72 days, made sure she stopped at Blarney along the way), and Milton S Hershey (the American founder of the chocolate company that bears his name). More recently, the men from American Choppers visited in 2005 and Michael Madsen (an actor, famous for ‘Reservoir Dogs’ among other films) who has been this year.

Kissing the Blarney Stone is much more difficult than it sounds. After a delightful walk through the gardens which form part of the grounds there is quite a steep incline up to the castle itself. Once there, you have to navigate your way through the castle and up numerous flights of stairs. The stairwells are very narrow and quite steep, although there are some iron and rope railings to help you pull yourself up. Meg, in particular, found this to be quite a challenge, but she was determined that she was going to make it to the top. Once at the summit of the castle, you then have to negotiate your way around the battlement, lie down on your back, grab hold of two iron bars to steady yourself, then lean backwards and down (with an attendant holding your feet) in order to kiss the stone. While Brock and Meg had done fabulously well just to get to the top of the castle, the act of kissing the stone proved to be beyond them. However, Wayne and Quinn both managed it and have photos to prove it.

As it turned out, navigating our way back down was almost more difficult than making our way up the castle. The steepness of the stairs made moving down particularly tricky, and this was added to by the combination of a number of other visitors who (having successfully kissed the stone) wanted to get back down quickly, while others found the going much tougher. Meg sympathised with another lady who had twisted her ankle earlier in the week and who was finding the going particularly difficult and well as with some elderly tourists who had not expected the journey to be quite so challenging. Fortunately, it was compensated for by some quite magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.

As we made our way down from the castle through the grounds and back to the car one of the reasons for leaving Limerick early became very very clear. By now there were hundreds of tourists pouring through the gates into the castle. When we reached the carpark (after a couple of toilet stops) we found that it was full and there were a load of coaches which had not been there earlier. Another hint, just in case you ever come here, not only is it worth arriving early but it is also worth bringing your own camera and someone to take your photo while kissing the stone. There is a photographer at the top who takes photos of the moment, but of course the charge for the ‘official photo’ is quite substantial. In fact all of the souvenirs at the castle were on the expensive side compared to other places we had encountered in Ireland. So we jumped into Kylie and drove the last part of the journey to Cork.

Cork is another fabulous port city on the south coast of Ireland and (like Waterford before it, which is only 119 kilometres away) we loved it immediately. The city centre is on an island in the middle of the River Lee which runs into Lough Mahon and Cork Harbour, and the bridges crossing this give fabulous views of the water and the town. Cork Harbour is, apparently, the second largest naturally occurring harbour in the world (after Sydney Harbour, so we have visited the two largest harbours within 9 months of one another). Cork is also the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland (after Dublin) and the third largest on the island of Ireland (after Belfast). It is also one of the oldest cities, having been established as a monastic settlement by St Finbarr in the 6th Century. Like many of the other coastal places in Ireland that we have visited, it also boasts a connection to the Viking traders that operated in the area in the 10th Century. The city was also once fully walled, and there are still some remnants of the wall remaining today.

We had a phenomenal time driving around the city, admiring the architecture and going backwards and forwards across the bridges. Cork is particularly strong in hurling, so there was an enormous Cork Hurling team shirt hanging from a building, ready for the final of the hurling championships which was going to be taking place that weekend. There was an extraordinary amount of public art as well (even by Irish standards) so it was hard for the boys in the back to know where to look in order to take photos. Quinn however managed to find something called the Naked Bus on the other side of the river at one point and did succeed in taking photos of it. We had initially thought of having lunch in Cork (we had purchased supplies the evening before in Limerick) however, the distance which we still had to drive and the size of the place saw us put this thought to one side so that we might instead stop somewhere smaller in the next part of the route.

We left Cork headed west with the intention of doing a loop around the south-western corner of Ireland heading back up to Limerick where we were to stay a second night. Of all the west coast of Ireland, many of our contacts had told us that this was the most naturally beautiful part. This is largely true, although it is particularly so if the weather is fine. One of the things that we had learned (and another of the reasons for leaving early) was that if there was to be any good weather, it would be in the morning with rain tending to develop as the day progressed. Sadly, particularly after some glorious weather down to Blarney and then into Cork, as we drove out of the city we saw clouds ahead, which would (quite literally) put a bit of a dampener on the second part of our day.

Despite the impending rain, we made it down to Clonakilty in relatively good time (although it was noticeable that the traffic in this part of Ireland was considerably heavier than in most of the rest of the country). Clonakilty is another in a long line of beautiful Irish towns in which we wish we had had more time. Among other things, it is the home of Michael Collins (about whom a movie, starring Liam Neeson, was made) one of the leaders of the movement for Irish independence in the first quarter of the20th Century. It is well situated on a lovely river and brightly coloured, with the shops fronts in the city centre being particularly looked after in this way. Traffic actually within and around the town was extraordinarily congested, partly because of some roadworks, so once again we decided to skip having lunch here and to head for Skibbereen instead.

At this time we began to feel the unfortunate effects of another decision that we had made previously. Meg and Wayne had purchased large bottles of drink for the boys to have in the back with them in order to save having to constantly stop and spend money on buying drink. What they hadn’t counted on was that both Brock and Quinn, rather than limiting their fluid intake and conserving some for later in the day, would drink virtually all of their bottles before we even reached Blarney. As already mentioned, this led to more than one toilet stop at Blarney Castle alone, and the rest of the day saw both boys (but Quinn in particular) frequently asking to stop so that they could use the bathroom. At one point later in the trip, having only stopped 45 minutes previously so that Quinn could use the amenities, he was heard to ask once more if we could stop, and when his brother challenged him as to why, he stated that he had been holding on for over an hour!!

Much to our dismay, by the time that we reached Skibbereen the rain was bucketing down, so we are unable to give you much information as to how that town looked (other than that the toilets in the services were quite clean). It seemed like a nice place, and it certainly has a fabulous name which features in a traditional Irish song about both the famine and the impact of British rule upon Ireland. Once again we could not stop for lunch (we were beginning to regret having put the food in Kylie’s boot by this point) because of the heavy traffic which we experienced around the town and the amount of water falling from the sky. A few miles further on, after we had passed Aghadown but before we reached Ballydehob, we turned off the N71 on to a side road headed down to Roaringwater Bay. Among some farms, on an old dirt road, we found a place to stop under a bit of cover from some trees so that we could jump out, get the picnic we had prepared, and then jump back into the car to eat.

Brock and Quinn also took the opportunity for (yet another) chance to urinate by walking down the road away and finding some bushes. It was not long after they had got back that we noticed one of the mangiest dogs any of us had ever seen coming back up the road toward us. For those of you who have read Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ you might remember the scene where Atticus Finch is persuaded to shoot a rabid dog (and where the meaning of the novel’s title is properly explained). Both Meg and Wayne were reminded of that description by this old mutt as he shambled toward us. Despite his rather desperate look (and some fear expressed by Brock) he meant us no harm and Wayne was even able to get out of the car and feed him some biscuits before we went on our way.

Heading up the coast toward Killarney and Tralee presented us with a challenge. Part of the beauty of this area is the hilliness of the region, which gives way to breathtaking views down canyons into the bays and Loughs, filled with tiny islands, which constitute the coastline. As a result, the roads are quite steep and, at times, narrow and windy which is not conducive to travel at any sort of speed. However, it seemed that more local (we imagined) drivers were a bit more relaxed about the conditions and prepared to take more risks than we were. Wayne found himself (not for the first time) hoping for what Brock and Quinn call a ‘Wayne Lane’; a piece of road which we could drive along at any speed we felt comfortable with without drivers tailgating us and flashing their lights because we are sticking under the speed limit. That the weather was intermittently bucketing us with heavy rain was also not as fun as it might otherwise have been.

Despite all of the conditions, some of the views were absolutely astonishing. At times it felt like we were hanging directly over a valley or a bay which majestically appeared in front of us and was truly magnificent, even through a very wet windscreen. On another of Quinn’s comfort stops we were next to a large wooden statue of a druid overlooking a breathtaking valley which seemed to continue for miles in front of us, and which we were going to have to negotiate our way down into. While we cannot give you as much of a description of Killarney and Tralee as we would like (for much the same reasons we had for not describing Skibbereen) we can tell you that the scenery in this part of Ireland is stupendous and well worth visiting, especially if you can conjure up a sunny day. Wayne would also like to emphasise that there are still fingermarks in his leg from where Meg would clutch at it whenever she felt we were travelling too fast or where the land seemed to drop away from the side of the road at too precipitate a rate.

Because of the weather, the traffic and the roads, the trip around took us much longer than we had originally intended, so we consequently had to jettison a few of the possible destinations (such as Dingle, which is out near the westernmost point of Ireland) that we had wanted to explore. After an impressive drive but a slightly long and tedious one because of the inability to stop and walk around, we found ourselves heading back into Limerick. Brock and Quinn had slept quite a bit in the final few hours, so by the time we arrived back at the hotel they were full of beans, whereas Wayne and Meg wanted nothing more than to have some dinner then climb into bed. With that in mind, after we had eaten, Brock and Quinn were given the opportunity to do a little exploring around the hotel, possibly to find the reputed Playstation 2 which was supposedly part of the Games Room.

While the boys were out exploring, Wayne and Meg quickly checked emails and then, both being extraordinarily tired, climbed into bed at around 9:15pm. Meg thinks that Wayne fell asleep first, while Wayne is not so sure. What is apparent is that at 2am they were woken by the return of Brock and Quinn to inform us that they would be not sleeping in our room that night, but that they were going off to spend the night in the rooms of some girls that they had met as they explored. It seems that the people participating in the International Baton Twirling Championships tended to be aged in their mid teens and the boys had spent the previous few hours meeting up with, getting to know, and exchanging phone numbers and email addresses with a number of young people from different parts of the globe.

Among other things, Wayne and Meg were also informed that the next International Baton Twirling Championships were going to be held in Australia, possibly on the Gold Coast in Queensland. However, they were soon disabused of the notion that they were going to be sleeping in the rooms of girls that we had never met, without any parental supervision (we imagine that the parents of these baton twirlers were as tired as we were after a week of driving their cherubs to and from the championships). Instead, Brock and Quinn were ordered to say ‘goodbye’ to their new best friends and come to bed immediately. With muttered phrases to do with the unfairness of parents who were condemning them to lives of boredom, both boys complied and soon made it to bed as we all prepared ourselves for the penultimate day of our trip.

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