Sunday, 10 August 2008

On quaffing, quiet and a quarrel

TotS Irish Adventure

August 8th , Day Nine
All of us are big fans of movies, whether it is for escapism, intellectual stimulation or simply a little light entertainment as a distraction. Because of its size, its relative positioning in relation both to the United States and to the United Kingdom, and the fact that the inhabitants speak English, Ireland has long been a place where filming for movies has taken place (even if the movie itself was not set in Ireland). Before the break Wayne’s senior English class had been watching the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan which (although set on the Normandy Beaches of France) was filmed at Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe in County Wexford. The Cliffs of Insanity from the fabulous film The Princess Bride, as actually the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, was used for the filming of The Italian Job (the original 1969 version) as the jail that held Mr Bridger.

We all slept in this morning but once up and awake were able to eat the fabulous breakfast already mentioned in the previous blog. It was a lovely sunny morning which made the first part of our drive down the N5 to Westport a very easy one to negotiate. Westport is one of only a very few planned towns in the country, having been designed by James Wyatt in 1780, at the commission of Lord Sligo, as somewhere for his tenants and workers to live. Interestingly, the people in the area are known (somewhat disparagingly) as ‘Coveys’ and there was a whole separate dialect in existence until very late last century. Although we spent quite a bit of time in the town here we were unable to hear (or perhaps distinguish) any remnants of this.

Parking the car we got out and walked along the Carrowbeg River, which runs through the centre of town. Like so many other towns we have visited during our trip, flowers feature heavily in the public decorations. Here there were plantings in baskets on either side of all the bridges across the river, as well as a number of pots outside the post office. Old stone buildings and bridges added to the picturesque nature of the place, as did the various types of birdlife that we saw in the river and by its side. One of the houses had ivy taking up the entire wall facing the street. You might have heard at the beginning of the year that Westport was the first town in the world to be featured in 3-D on Google Earth, now that we have visited we can understand why it was chosen. Some of the photos that we took are now on the Google Earth page for Westport so you can see exactly where we were.

Also interesting was a statue to Major John MacBride, who was born and raised in Westport. Involved in the early days of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Celtic Literary Society he was labelled a “dangerous nationalist” by the ruling British authorities and eventually moved to South Africa where he fought on the side of the Boers and rose to the rank of Major. Returning to Ireland he took part in the rebellion of 1916 in Dublin, almost by accident in that he was in the city on the day it began. He was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin on 5 May 1916, two days before his fifty-first birthday. Facing the British firing squad, he refused to be blindfolded, saying "I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African war to fear death and now please carry out your sentence." His death features in the Yeats poem ‘Easter, 1916’ although it is not overly complementary as Yeats secretly loved MacBride’s ex-wife, Maud Donne. Their son, Sean MacBride, went on to become a prominent Irish politician and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

We drove through the main shopping district of the town on the way out to our first detour of the day and were impressed by how colourful everything was. Shops, pubs and houses were all painted in lively colours and featured decorations to make them even more interesting. Even the statue of St Patrick at the Octagon in the centre of the town had floral decorations around it. One of the members of the musical group ‘The Chieftains’, Matt Molloy, owns a pub in the town and it was today that Brock commented on the fact that so many of the pubs throughout the country featured the name of the proprietor. We were to continue to notice this for the rest of our trip. It was interesting in contrast to pubs in England which tend to have more obscure names.

From Westport we travelled out to the much smaller hamlet of Murrisk which is at the foot of Croagh Patrick. The top of Croagh Patrick is 764 metres above sea level and is another site of pilgrimage for Catholics within Ireland. St Patrick apparently fasted on the summit of Croagh Patrick for forty days in the fifth century and built a church there. At the end of Saint Patrick's 40-day fast, he reportedly threw a silver bell down the side of the mountain, knocking the she-demon Corra from the sky and banishing all the snakes from Ireland. However, there is some debate about this last detail with a number of other places in the country claiming to be the site of the snake banishment. They have built a chapel at the top and there is a flourishing trade in climbing equipment at the base. With his recent climb to the top of Mount Snowdon fresh in his mind, Wayne would have liked to accompany Brock and Quinn (who both purchased walking sticks) to the top. Given that it would have been at least a three hour climb, during which Meg would have been left at the base, we opted not to do the climb, but may return at a later date. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Croagh Patrick is that, when gold was discovered in significant quantities during the 1980’s Mayo County Council decided not to mine, reckoning that the gold was ‘fine where it was’.

Murrisk is also the site of the National Famine Monument which takes the form of a ship made from, and crewed by, skeletons. It was designed by the artist John Behan and represents the loss to Ireland both of the people who actually starved to death during the famine, and those who fled the country to other parts of the world as a consequence. Despite the seeming gruesomeness of the image, the was a sense of serenity in the place, which also had a fabulous outlook across Clew Bay. We took some time both to view the monument and to walk around the parkland that was part of the area, which had been opened by Irish President Mary Robinson in 1997. Sadly, and we are not sure that we would prefer it to have been tourists or locals, there was graffiti scattered around the park.

From Murrisk we went back into Westport, looking to take the R330 through Partry down to Ballinrobe. Unfortunately, while Westport was beautifully laid out, some of the signage suffered from the problems we have encountered in much of the rest of Ireland. Meg, looking at the map, got quite confused and ended up passing it back to Brock. We found ourselves heading along the road down toward Leenaun and the Connemara National Park. While we would have loved to have gone there out to Clifden, time was against us and we have determined that we weren’t going there. This part of the trip was made more interesting as we encountered the town of Drummin. Over a stretch of about 10 miles it felt like we were continually passing turn offs to Drummin, all with the appellation ‘3 miles’ attached. While it felt like we were in an episode of ‘The X Files’ it was explained by the curvature of the road and soon we were able to turn at Leenaun, down through what is known as Joyce Country and out along the edge of Lough Corrib.

In 1952, John Ford won the Best Director Oscar for the fourth (and last) time and, once again, it was not for a Western (despite that having been the genre that he most frequently worked within). Instead, it was for ‘The Quiet Man’, a movie starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald about a champion American boxer who returns to Ireland, the country of his birth, after accidentally being responsible for the death of a man in the ring. While it was set on the island of Innisfree in Lough Gill, County Sligo, much of the filming was done in the town of Cong and particularly at the nearby Ashford Castle. From our impression of the town it would seem that they have been living off this brief moment of fame for the following 56 years because almost the whole economy seems to be based on tourism related to ‘The Quiet Man’. We elected not to take any of the multiple ‘Quiet Man’ tours on offer, but did look through ‘The Quiet Man’ gift and tourist information shop where, unsurprisingly, among other items for sale were DVDs, Soundtrack CDs, postcards, posters, coasters, pins, stuffed toys and probably (although we may be exaggerating at this point) commemorative ports celebrating the movie, ‘The Quiet Man’.

Ashford Castle now combines the roles of 5 star hotel and clubhouse for an amazingly scenic golf course. As we were driving through the grounds we crested a rise and were blown away by one of the more beautiful castles that we have come across since we left Australia. If we could have stopped and watched someone play a few holes (or better yet, played a few ourselves) we would have done so, but the road was one way down to the Golf Course Car Park and then out on a different road. This led through another fabulous stretch of woodland and, crossing an old stone bridge, past the remains of a ruined abbey into the town of Cong. As a means of entering a town, it would be hard to beat.

If it is ‘The Quiet Man’ economy that has meant that Cong (and Ashford Castle) have been so beautifully preserved, then every small town should have someone make a famous film within it. You can’t fit two cars down one street in opposite directions, so all the roads we encountered within the town were one way. Although the abbey is in ruins (thanks to King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell) they are lovingly looked after ruins, containing fascinating graves dating back centuries. Some of the houses still had thatched roofs and, probably for the sake of tourism, some of the townsfolk were dressed in clothing that wouldn’t have looked out of place 50 years ago. This nicely contrasted with some of the other tourists (many of whom were American) who so flawlessly captured the stereotype of bermuda shorts, loud hawaiian shirts and even louder voices. We even saw someone wearing a safari suit!!!

Leaving Cong saw us head down through Cross, Headford and into the city which was to provide our biggest disappointment of the entire trip. Galway is a name which both Meg and Wayne had associated in their minds with some of the beauty for which Ireland is renowned. There are old songs related to Galway. You can catch the ferry from Galway out to the beautiful Aran Islands of Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. One of the bigger of Irelands airports is in Galway. In fact, Galway is the fastest growing of Irelands cities with a population (as of the 2006 census) of 72 414. However, our initial impressions of the city (perhaps because of the direction from which we came) was that it was very industrial. Approaching from the north on the N84 one of the first sights that we saw was a McDonalds. In fact, as a city, Galway wouldn’t have looked out of place in England, America or Australia. Perhaps this is why it is growing so much and it is obviously popular with young people but it seemed to us to have lost a little of the distinctiveness of Ireland in the process. Maybe we need to give it a second chance.

It was getting late in the afternoon as we travelled further down inland through Ennis and Shannon to our destination for the evening, the town of Limerick. Apart from prompting a sudden outpouring of verse of the ‘There once was a man from Nantucket’ style, Limerick also restored our faith both in the beauty of Ireland and in the confusion of its maps and signage. It seemed like only seconds after entering the environs of the city that we were crossing the picturesque River Shannon over one of the impressive stone bridges that span its meanderings. We had a map and a set of directions provided by an earlier tourist information office but strangely nothing seemed to fit. We pulled over outside King John’s Castle and St Mary’s Cathedral which are opposite one another, virtually in the centre of town, and Meg went to ask directions from a truck driver. Our suspicions that Irish people, in their desire to be friendly and welcoming, will give directions to somewhere even if they have not a clue where the place itself is, was reinforced at this point because even though the truckie drew another map, it bore little resemblance to what we confronted by.

Trying to follow the directions we had been given did at least give us a good look at Limerick, even if they did very little as far as finding the hotel at which we would be staying. The city itself dates from at least the Viking settlement in 812. The Normans redesigned the city in the 12th century and added much of the most notable architecture, such as King John's Castle and St Mary's Cathedral. During the civil wars of the 17th century, the city was central. It was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in 1651 and twice by the armies of King William in the 1690s. It became a key shipping port during the latter part of the 18th Century, but the Act of Union and the Famine devastated the region so that Frank McCourt’s ‘Angela’s Ashes’ describes a place in the 1930’s and 1940’s that is crippled by poverty. Fortunately, the phenomenal growth of the Irish economy in the 1990’s benefited Limerick particularly and, despite the presence of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ tours, there is little remaining of the way of life that he describes, so that there is even some resentment of the portrayal of the city from more recent locals.

As we headed south of the city we drove past the University and were struck by the fact that the International Baton Twirling Championships were taking place at the University that week. Meg also noticed a lady walking down the street who had a haircut that captured what she wanted to have done to her own hair upon our return to England. By this time it had passed 5pm and we were in the middle of peak hour traffic so we maintained pace with the pedestrians for a couple of blocks. Eventually Meg took some photos to take back and show the hairdresser while Brock, Quinn and Wayne did their level best not to look like stalkers.

After significant frustration at being caught in such traffic, being unable to find our way, and running very low on fuel we eventually spotted a services where we were able to solve all three problems at once. Within minutes we found ourself at the Maldron Hotel (which was very impressive) and had Kylie parked in the undercover car park. With Brock and Quinn firmly ensconced in the room (which had both television and WiFi access) Meg and Wayne decided to take a walk across the Southern Ring Road to some local shops and a supermarket to see if they could get something reasonably cheap to eat for dinner. On their way back, with some hot food ready to go, they happened to witness an accident. There were three cars present but only the middle one had made contact with the car in front. However, when they crossed the road they found the driver of the middle car claiming that she had been pushed into the car in front by the driver behind her. Not wishing to allow an injustice, particularly given that the accused driver was a Learner, they stopped to intercede on that drivers behalf and wait for the Guarda to arrive. The lady in the middle was still prepared to argue with them until another pedestrian (who hadn’t actually witnessed the events at all) heard us and convinced the woman that with 5 people against her (the driver at the front was appalled at her behaviour and sided with everyone else) she would be better simply exchanging insurance details with the front lady and leaving.

Happy that they had in some way helped in seeing right prevail, Wayne and Meg returned to tell the boys the story. On the way they noticed that many of the competitors and their families from the Baton Twirling Championships were actually staying in our hotel (a fact which would soon come back to haunt them). After a somewhat cooler meal than originally anticipated and some time on the internet for everyone to catch up with emails that had not been looked at almost since we left England, it was then time to get some sleep with not too many days left of our holiday remaining.

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