Saturday, 2 August 2008

On road signs, Saints and sponsorship.

TotS Irish Adventure: Day Three

August 1st

We would guess that there is a fair chance that very few of the people reading this email would have also read Round Ireland With A Fridge by Tony Hawks. This is a shame, because it is a very funny book about the adventures that Tony had when he accepted a bet to hitchhike around the Republic of Ireland (Northern Ireland wasn’t considered safe enough at the time) with a refrigerator. We mention this now because one of the funniest sections (where Tony and the fridge spend 2 nights in a hostel in Wexford, one of those spent sleeping in a doghouse) is set when Tony was intending to go to Waterford. After a good nights sleep at The Old Presbytery, Waterford was also our intended destination for the day.

This meant that we had chosen to, for the third time, make use of the N11 to travel down the east coast of Ireland, before heading across to Waterford. After breakfast we all jumped in the car and drove out of Rathdrum toward Arklow, where we intended to pick up some supplies for the day (rather than relying on the takeaway food which we had discovered is rather expensive in Ireland). This meant travelling through the village of Avoca in County Wicklow. At the end of the 1990’s both Wayne and Meg had watched a television series named ‘Ballykissangel’ and much of the filming of this series, including Fitzgerald’s, took place in Avoca. Sadly, it was raining once more as we travelled down through the mountains, so it was harder to appreciate the quaint nature of the village as we needed to concentrate more on staying on the road.

After picking up groceries in Arklow we motored down to Enniscorthy and turned once more toward New Ross. This elicited cries of despair from all those who remembered the previous days travels and the pain of driving up and down roads which only seemed to want to take us to New Ross rather than our intended destinations. In reality, New Ross is quite a lovely place, even if it did feature in the television series ‘Days of Our Lives’ (where Shirley Jones’ character reveals herself to be the true mother of John Black, sorry about the spoiler for those of you who watch). One of the most prominent features of the town is the Dunbrody Famine Ship which is moored at the main dock on the Barrow River in the centre of town. This ship is a reconstruction of the one used between 1845 and 1851 to carry victims of the famine to the new world of Canada and the United States. We spent quite a bit of time looking at the ship and in the Tourist Information Building before moving on.

Now that the adventure is over it is pretty much universal among the participants that Waterford was one of the loveliest places in Ireland. Many of our readers will have heard of Waterford Crystal (and the visitors centre in the city is one of the most popular destinations) but we were able to find so many other things to love about the town. We arrived in good time and were able to drive straight into a (very reasonably priced) car park in the centre of the city. Although the mall was crowded we witnessed two grown, bearded, men, wearing white wedding dresses and riding segues through advertising some event. Amazingly, what grabbed Brock and Quinn’s interest was the shopping. In a store called ‘Wacky Shoes’, Brock was able to find a pair of Converse which virtually made his trip. Quinn picked up, at the Euro2, an Irish flag, and some bizarre hats for he and his brother, which kick started his decision to collect the flag of every country to which he has been.

After searching for toilets in the main shopping centre we happened upon the Christ Church Cathedral. There has been a church upon this site dating back to at least 1050 and in the front entrance to the church there is an archaeological dig hole so that visitors can see for themselves the various foundations and features which have been built on as different buildings rose and fell. This included a Gothic Norman cathedral built in 1210 and the present building, which was begun in 1773. All of us read the account of the marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (which took place in an earlier version of the building in 1170AD) which ended the era of Viking influence in Ireland and the beginning of Norman/English involvement in the country. The differences in the pillars from one building style to another were graphically shown by the archaeological work. Most macabre was the tomb of James Rice which shows a badly decayed body, with worms crawling over it and a frog or toad feeding on the stomach of the corpse. Rice had been the Mayor of Waterford 8 times between 1469 and 1488 and commanded that his body be dug up 12 months after his death in order to model for the effigy on top of his tomb. Quinn came away saying he wanted to be an archaeologist.

One of the other fabulous things about the city of Waterford is that they really value their heritage and history. As you walk around the streets there are blue plaques on the walls of buildings which are notable because of a former resident or for some other reason. It was in looking out for these that we discovered that Raymond Chandler, the American crime writer and creator of Detective Philip Marlowe, had once lived in Waterford. We were even more excited to see the name William Wallace on another plaque. Sadly, this wasn’t the William Wallace of ‘Braveheart’ fame; instead it was William Vincent Wallace (1812-1886) the Operatic Composer who had lots of connections with Australia. Perhaps this concern for their history comes from the fact that, although Waterford is only the fifth largest city in Ireland today, it is the oldest city in Ireland, dating back to the time of the Vikings in 853AD.

Amidst these other qualities, Waterford is a very beautiful city with (in contrast to some of the other cities we have seen) a really good blend of old and new architecture. From what is referred to as ‘the Viking triangle’ (the oldest section of the city) which preserves parts of the old city wall as well as Reginald’s Tower; through The Mall, which has some of the finest preserved Georgian architecture in the country; to the most modern buildings, which the city planners have worked hard to make sure that they complement the buildings around them. In some cases, where the remains of the old buildings were in such a state that they detracted from the city, new buildings were built incorporating an aspect of the old, with a plaque to remind and inform about what had gone before. Even the presence of two people dressed up as Mickey and Minnie Mouse (which scares both Meg and Brock due to some undiscovered childhood trauma, no doubt) was not enough to spoil our love of the city.

After completing our walking tour of the heart of the city back at the car park, we decided to drive around some of the wider parts. This took us along the River Suir (which flows through the town and made it one of the pre-eminent ports in the country for most of its history) and past the Guinness Brewery. We went up on to the hill overlooking the town from the south and saw some of the lovely old terrace buildings. Finally, we went down into the south-east park region of the city which was set aside for the people in the 19th century. There we discovered a National Boy’s School, established in 1932, and named for Saint Declan. Declan was an early Irish Bishop who was said, by some, to have preceded Saint Patrick. Indeed, when choosing a patron saint for Ireland, apparently there was some discussion over whether Declan would have been a better choice because he was actually Irish. A giveaway to the fact that the movie ‘Braveheart’ was filmed in Ireland is the presence of Saint Declan’s cross in the wedding scene. This was a nice conclusion to our time in Waterford, reminding us all of Wayne’s boys, Callum, Declan and Ethan, back in Australia.

From Waterford we headed up the N9 then the N10 to another of our favourite places in Ireland, the city of Kilkenny. Apart from prompting a slew of South Park related jokes, Kilkenny is another really beautiful place. It received the name because a monastic school was founded there back in the 6th Century by Saint Canice (the word ‘Kil’ at the beginning of Irish words actually means ‘Church’). We parked Kylie on the outskirts of the city and walked into town, because Kilkenny is another town set up for pedestrians rather than cars. This didn’t seem a very long walk and we found ourselves in a charming city shopping district looking up at a very distinguished castle.

Kilkenny Castle is built on a prominent vantage point on the River Nore. Strongbow (we mentioned him earlier) first built a tower on the site in 1172. Twenty years later, his son in law, the Earl of Pembroke, built the first castle on the site of which 3 towers remain. Eventually the Butler’s (who controlled most of the surrounding area from the end of the 14th Century to the beginning of the 18th Century) made it their family seat. It has experienced some fabulous moments in Irish history, including being the centre of a Catholic Rebel movement in the mid-17th Century and being damaged in an attack by Oliver Cromwell. During the Irish Civil War in 1922, Republicans were besieged in the Castle by Irish Free State forces. The Ormondes (the Butler families Dukedom), together with their pet Pekinese, chose to remain in situ in their bedroom over the great gate, which was the main focus of attack. There was a machine gun outside their door. One man was injured but a great deal of damage was inflicted on the castle, which took many years to repair. In 1967, the castle was sold by Arthur Butler to the Castle Restoration Committee for £50 and a hand over party was held attended by, among others, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful.

As well as the amazing Castle building (which has now been refurbished and opened to visitors) part of the National Art Gallery is on display in the castle. There are ornamental gardens on the city side, and extensive land and gardens to the front. It has become one of the most visited tourist sites in Ireland and on the day we were there we saw hundreds of people enjoying the sun in and around the parklands. Graduate ceremonies for the Kilkenny Campus of the National University of Ireland are also held at the castle and it is a favourite spot for weddings. Indeed, on the day we were there we saw four separate wedding parties around various parts of the grounds and we had waved and cheered to another wedding party driving away as we walked into the town. Meg and Wayne took the opportunity to interact with the various brides, grooms, and attendants, much to their sons embarrassment.

Across the road from the castle, which was completely blocked by various hired Rolls Royces and other fancy forms of transport but still enabled sirened vehicles to get past, (Meg was quite disturbed by the number of sirens) was the former house and stables of the Butler family. This has been converted into what is called ‘The Castle Yard’ and contains multiple different Irish craft experiences. There are woollen creations, fabric and linen, crystal and glass, wood, and pottery exhibitions as well as opportunities to watch these things being made and then (of course) to purchase them. Perhaps it was walking around this area that gave Meg the shopping bug which saw us proceed up into the main shopping district.

The city is justifiably famous for medieval buildings, many of them built from the local ‘black marble’ (which has white fossils through it) and which has given it the nickname ‘the Marble City’. There is a wealth of architecture from Georgian facades to Tudor features; one which we particularly admired being a Victuallers, taking up a tiny space on the main street. In response to all of this Brock was heard to muse upon the topic of becoming an architect. What really grabbed Quinn, however, was the appearance of a shop called ‘Superquinns’ which turned out to be a local supermarket. He was even more impressed when we went in and bought some frozen pizza from there to cook when we got back to the hostel.

We then set out to walk back to the car. Along the way we passed the Tholsel, built completely of black marble, which now acts as the city hall. Similarly, we glimpsed the Black Abbey and St Canice’s Cathedral which is the longest cathedral building in Ireland. A pub drew our attention to the fact that Guinness had taken over the St Francis Abbey brewery, which had seen the monks brewing beer as far back as 1231, and promoted beers under the names of 'Smithwick's Draught' and ‘Kilkenny Beer’ which are sold around the world. Around this time we realised that the walk was taking a lot longer than we remembered it having taken on the way into town. That it was starting to rain also began to become a nuisance. We passed the glorious grounds and buildings of Kilkenny College (which educated Jonathon Swift, the author of ‘Gullivers Travels’ among others) where one of the national Irish sports, hurling, is practiced; making Kilkenny the leading hurling club in the country. Finally, we found someone who could direct us to Kylie (although we didn’t tell them that this was her name).

After the debacle of the previous day we had made sure that there were some maps in the car which gave us an indication of where we needed to go. As we travelled up the N9 looking for a turn in the right direction, we looked around for the maps and were unable to find them. Wayne tried to navigate using the signs on the highway but, as we have previously explained, this is not as easy as it could be. We eventually struck off on the back roads heading as near as we could guess to be the right direction and had one of the best adventures that we have yet had.

After some time we came to a village with the delightful name of Knockananna. This tickled our fancy so much that we decided to stop, take some photos and try once more to work out both where we were, and where we needed to go. Wayne, ever hopeful, took a careful look at the road signs. Meg, being more practically minded (and more willing to admit that Wayne had got us lost) asked a local which direction was the right one to travel. We had previously tried this approach, only to be met with blank stares of incomprehension or directions that neither made sense nor took us to where we needed to be. This time the truck driver that Meg spoke to happened to be going in the very direction that we wanted to be going ourselves and offered to lead the way. Unfortunately, he had not yet loaded his truck and we were going to have to wait a while in order to follow him. Stubbornly unwilling still to admit total defeat, Wayne decided to drive in the direction indicated by the truck driver hoping that we could follow the directions without his lead.

As we drove along the road to Tinahely, Wayne and the boys noticed a sporting event taking place at a football ground beside the road. Having previously discussed the intricacies of Gaelic Football all three boys really wanted to get out and watch the game. Although Meg would almost certainly have preferred to be heading back to the hostel she graciously encouraged us to get out and watch, while she read a book in the car. Perhaps it was the sight of the recently deceased fox which we had just passed that made her think that life was short and so we needed to experience what we could, while we could. Brock, Quinn and Wayne burst from the car and situated themselves amongst the crowd at the Wicklow Gaelic Football League Division 3 clash between Knockananna (wearing red and white) and Baltinglass (green and white).

It was fabulous to watch, so similar to Australian Rules football (a special ‘Hi’ to Michael and Angus Barr at this point) and yet different as regards the shape of the ball and the amount of physicality allowed in the tackle and at the breakdown. Sadly, we managed to offend the spectators closest to us when a young girl called out ‘Come On Knockananna’ in a broad Irish accent, and Wayne repeated (a little too loudly) what she had said at Quinn’s request. We were apparently standing amongst supporters of Baltinglass who did not take too kindly to having someone cheer for Knockananna while standing with them. Perhaps, too, some of the comments made by all three of the boys regarding how soft the tackles were compared to in Australia, and some remarks as to the height of the referee and his resemblance to a leprechaun were also interpreted in a negative light. Whatever the case, we began to hear muttered comments about Australians and felt somewhat threatened.

Nevertheless, the game was exciting. Even more so for Quinn because the Baltinglass team had the sponsors name ‘Quinns’ on the front of their shirts. Wayne still feels aggrieved that even though he was somehow held responsible for the thought that we were supporting Knockananna, Quinn takes credit for the fact that Baltinglass won the match (2-10) to Knockananna’s (0-5). The excitement of it all meant that, at the end of the game, we were still standing amongst the rather antagonised crowd rather than having fled back to the car. When we did arrive, Meg was kind enough to inform the boys that the truck had already passed and we no longer had anyone we could rely upon to follow if we got ourselves lost again.

It was now almost dark and as we made the turn we had been instructed to take at Tinahely we saw our first sign indicating Rathdrum. Home and dry Wayne thought to himself, foolish man! When we arrived at the next village, Aughrim, the road forked with no indication as to which of the two options was the one that we needed. We took a hasty vote, even more hasty because of the local drivers sitting hard on Kylie’s tail, and went to the left. At first this seemed like the right decision, but with each minute that passed without another indication that we were going the right way, we grew less and less confident. That the petrol gauge was moving steadily lower didn’t help anyone to feel more peaceful with the circumstances. As we rounded a bend into yet another small village with a name no one had ever heard of it seemed we were lost once more. Looking at the shops we noticed one named ‘M. Symes and Co.’ Wayne stopped to take a photo and, not long after starting again, we found ourselves rounding the bend into Rathdrum. The pizza proved to be very welcome, as did our beds, but despite all of the misdirection, we unanimously felt that we had experienced a wonderful day.

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