Old Glendalough

Saturday, 13 September 2003
Dublin, Co. Dublin – Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny

Today the big adventure starts—and no, I don’t mean the actual trip. Anyone who’s driven with me knows I can get turned around (read: lost) easier than just about anyone on the face of the planet, so the question facing us today is this: can one fresh-off-the-plane tourist and one nondriver find their way to anywhere once they leave Dublin?

The answer, dear readers, is a resounding “usually.” I got better at sign reading as I went along, and I got really good at making U-turns in tight places. Gerry learned to feed me enough information to keep me headed in the right direction; too much and I’d forget some of it, too little and I’d miss the next turn. And I made my peace with those roundabouts.

But all that came later.

This morning we were headed south out of Dublin, to Glendalough (pronounced: GLENda-lock), through the Wicklow Mountains. A Colorado native might scoff at the notion of calling the Wicklow range mountains, but the term is correct. These are much older mountains than the Rockies, softer, more rounded. When I drove Gerry across the Cumberland Plateau to Cookeville last summer, he said that Tennessee looks a lot like Ireland, and he was right: on the drive in County Wicklow that morning, I saw green fields neatly but irregularly bisected by trees, hedgerows or stone fences … I traveled roads that dipped down into shady glens and then emerged a moment later atop a ridge, leaving me blinking in the sunlight.

Nothing can prepare one for the tiny-ness of the roads, though. I quickly mastered shifting with my left hand (for most of the trip my hand just rested there, on the stick, as I was constantly downshifting—indeed, I rarely got above third gear—to deal with the tight curves), and became accustomed to driving on the left, but to be passed on a road just nominally wide enough for two when I was doing 50mph was downright unnerving!

Nevertheless, we made good time, and only got lost once, Gerry’s navigating being instinctive but generally unerring. You’ve no doubt seen photos of Irish road signs: those picturesque poles of perhaps a dozen small signs of various colors (and in both English and Gaelic), stacked atop one another and pointing in all directions—the sign literally points in the direction one needs to go in order to arrive at the destination inscribed on it. This sometimes means one would need to look at the group of signs from several angles before one could see them all, and even then the route might still be open to interpretation, necessitating a discussion with one’s traveling companion. It was not uncommon to arrive at a crossroads to find some fellow traveler idling there, studying the signs with all the intensity of a teenager reading the menu at McDonald’s.

All this became easier, of course, as we went along. I got better at reading signs on the fly, and knowing what I was looking for (signs for towns are black-writing-on-white background, although they are in the middle of changing those to white-on-green; signs for historic sites and other roadside attractions are white-on-brown). All distances are given in kilometers, so this trip was a chance to improve my math skills too.

Jamie’s Fourth Travel Tip: buy a really good road atlas, and get it locally. Gerry had purchased a book containing the entire country’s road maps, reduced to 60 or so quadrants. It had the national roads, the regional roads, and even the unnamed roads—and we could literally tell what curve of what road we were on at any given time. It proved invaluable.

Glendalough—in English, the Valley of the Two Lakes—is a place of incredible beauty and tranquility. (It could also be called the Valley of the Two Hundred Tour Buses, but that’s another story.) Founded by St. Kevin—born in 498, Kevin was a descendant of the royal house of Leinster, the province in which Glendalough is located; he rejected his life of privilege, however, choosing instead to live as a hermit in a cave here, and later founded a monastery on the site—in the sixth century, the settlement was sacked repeatedly by the Vikings, yet it flourished for over six hundred years. The age of the buildings still extant is uncertain, but most date from the eighth to twelfth centuries.

The grounds at Glendalough are a riot of headstones.

The grounds at Glendalough are a riot of headstones.

Jamie’s Fifth Travel Tip: The Heritage Service of Ireland operates most (though not all) of the major tourist attractions in the country, and almost all of them require admissions fees. They’re not expensive (the ones we visited ranged from 2.50 euro to 7.50 euro per person, with the majority falling in between), but if you visit several, the fees can add up. However, at any Tourist Centre you can purchase a family pass for €50, which allows two adults and “a reasonable number of children” access to over eighty sites for twelve months. In Dublin alone you could recoup the cost of your investment.

Speaking of Vikings, the round tower at Glendalough is one of the finest of its kind in the country. Landmarks for approaching visitors, round towers were, of course, bell-towers, but were also places of refuge during an attack: the door was always on the second storey, entered by a rope ladder which could be pulled up after the last monk was safely inside. The round tower at Glendalough—unlike others we would see around the country—is still all in one piece (the conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones) at 110 feet high!

The round tower at Glendalough, 2003.

The round tower at Glendalough, 2003.

I found the Gateway at Glendalough to be enormously moving (it’s now the only one of its kind in Ireland). You’ll recall from your history lessons that fugitives could claim sanctuary in holy places—and just inside the first of two fine granite arches, in the west wall, is a simple, cross-inscribed stone. This denoted that the rule of sanctuary began here, the boundary of the area of refuge. Very little remains of the enclosure wall, but this gateway stands firm: peace to all who enter here. (This is a lovely image of it.)

There’s an absolute riot of gravestones, high crosses, and old stone churches at Glendalough; to take it all in one would need to spend hours. There are some lovely hiking trails along the river up to the lakes, and it was here I received my first introduction to what’s called a kissing gate. (I just report these things, folks.) Essentially a hinged gate with the swinging edge enclosed by a curved fence that it cannot be free of, it only allows one person at a time to pass through … so there was quite a line on both sides!

(The gate is gone now. The place has been all cleaned up, cleared … a little too much concrete for me, honestly. But things change, I understand that. Here are a couple photos taken in 1973—thirty years before I arrived—and you may notice some differences.)

St. Kevin’s Kitchen, 1973. That rock wall is gone, for one thing.

St. Kevin’s Kitchen, 1973. That rock wall is gone, for one thing.

The cathedral at Glendalough, 1973. I have to tell you I don’t believe in standing on gravestones.

The cathedral at Glendalough, 1973. I have to tell you I don’t believe in standing on gravestones.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the value of such a gate: with so many historic sites sitting in the middle of private farmland, a farmer wants to allow tourists access to the land without having his gates open and shut (or not shut, allowing his livestock roaming privileges) by strangers. Thus the kissing gate, which is, in theory, too complicated for most livestock (tho’ there is one sheep in County Donegal that might well have learned to negotiate one … a story I’ll tell later).

Rather than take the hike, we drove up the valley to see the lakes, and this is where I really began to feel the spirit of Glendalough. In fact, this is where St. Kevin spent most of his time, and I can see why. There was a slight breeze rustling the trees, mist at the top of the hills, and utter quiet. It was magic.

Approaching the upper lake at Glendalough, 2003.

Approaching the upper lake at Glendalough, 2003.

We had the place to ourselves, just us and the breeze and the ducks. It was beautiful.

We had the place to ourselves, just us and the breeze and the ducks. It was beautiful.

The lower lake—closer to the monastic settlement—is smaller.

The lower lake—closer to the monastic settlement—is smaller.

From Glendalough, then, we made for Kilkenny, which was to be our stop for the night. Sitting in my living room at home, I’d looked at the map and calculated distances for weeks, marvelling at how close everything was (it’s perhaps fifty miles from Glendalough to Kilkenny)—but this simply doesn’t take into account the fact that these are country roads, with hills and hairpin curves and the odd tractor or two. It was quite an adjustment for me, but I did slow down and enjoy the countryside as we passed through it.

Somewhere between Glendalough and Kilkenny, 2003. I could look at these scenes all day.

Somewhere between Glendalough and Kilkenny, 2003. I could look at these scenes all day.

Kilkenny is (as they say there) a grand little town (it’s actually a city, I think). It rose to prominence in the thirteenth century, when the Irish Parliament often met at Kilkenny Castle (more about which in a moment). The Anglo-Norman Butler family came to power in the 1390s and held sway over the city for five hundred years (they had ties to British royalty); their legacy is still visible in the city’s historic buildings. On this day, everywhere one looked there were black and yellow flags fluttering, black and yellow shirts and scarves, Kilkenny’s colors, because the county team was one of the two finalists in the All-Ireland Hurling Championships, to be played the very next day, Sunday. County teams are formed using members of local clubs, and these all-star county teams compete against each other to play in the Championships. The sense of anticipation and excitement was just like Nashville when the Titans have a home game—they even attach those silly flags to their cars, just like Nashvillians!

See also those black and yellow signs? Yeah.

See also those black and yellow flags? Yeah.

We drove around a bit looking for our B&B—O’Malley’s Ormonde Court Guest House—which was situated right in the center of town. (Gerry likes to just “see if we can find it”; I like directions. Ha.) We arrived in the early afternoon, so we struck out for a walk and ended up at Kilkenny Castle, originally built in 1172 by the Norman conqueror known as Strongbow. The official guidebook says that the castle “has been standing for over 800 years … It was originally built as the symbol and reality of Norman control in this area, and has continued throughout many different periods of Irish history to symbolize the fortunes of one of the most powerful Irish families, the Butlers of Ormonde.”

Note that the book refers to them as Irish, although they were actually, as previously mentioned, an Anglo-Norman family who came to Ireland in the first wave of the Norman invasion in 1171. Over the next two hundred years, though, the Normans intermarried and integrated with the native Irish, becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves,” although the Butlers, politically astute, remained loyal to the British crown first and Ireland second. Having read quite a bit of history, and having come to the conclusion that the Brits have generally behaved very badly in their relations with the Irish, I’d pretty much eliminated anything having to do with them from my must-see list … but upon reflection, I’ve realized that history is what it is. The Brits—and the Butlers—played their part in Ireland.

So in we went.

A guided tour will never be my first choice of ways to visit a historic site … but sometimes it’s the only choice, and that is the case at Kilkenny Castle. The Butlers lived in it right up until 1935, but due to its exorbitant upkeep they eventually donated it to the nation in 1967. Now it’s been restored to its Victorian splendor (when it was extensively renovated prior to a visit from Queen Victoria), and I must say it is beautiful. My favorite spot was the Long Gallery, which was rebuilt in the 1820s to house the Butler art collection. It has an elaborately painted ceiling, filled with motifs inspired by the Book of Kells, but which also pays homage to another part of Irish history, as it is constructed to look like a Viking ship (turned upside down). It really was quite amazing; have a look at it here, which is what it looked like when we visited. (The official website, which touts the Long Gallery as a place to hold events, shows that the walls have been repainted, but it has several photos of the art on the ceiling beams here.)

The grounds are beautiful too. Kilkenny Castle, 2003.

The grounds are beautiful too. Kilkenny Castle, 2003.

After the castle, we mooched around town shopping (the Kilkenny Design Centre was quite nice) and ate dinner in the bar of the Metropole Hotel, right on High Street (Kilkenny’s main thoroughfare). On a Saturday night, there was plenty going on in town, and the streets were crowded with merrymakers. Later that night (it being unseasonably warm, windows were open in every place we stayed) I heard more than one tipsy conversation float up from the street. 🙂

Goodnight!

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