Two Very Old Churches

Sunday, 14 September 2003
Kilkenny town, Co. Kilkenny – Kinsale, Co. Cork

The weather remained fantastic: in the mid-70s and breezy, brilliant blue skies with stunning cloud formations. The windows of every place we stopped had been open to catch the breeze (and thus I’d been surprised a time or two by spiders—and I didn’t care if they were Irish spiders, I’d still squish ’em).

The dining room of our Kilkenny B&B was filled with groups of sports fans on their way to Dublin for the big hurling championship. Luckily for us, we were headed away from the capital, so while the oncoming traffic was bumper to bumper—like being on I-40 headed to Knoxville on a Saturday morning in the fall, right down to the team flags fluttering from the car windows—we had only an open road ahead of us. We were glad we weren’t in Dublin that weekend!

Hurling is Ireland’s national sport—and it’s wild. A little bit like hockey, a little bit like baseball: the ball is batted with hurling sticks. The players wear no padding (although some do now wear helmets), and they emerge from these games bloodied and bruised. And this is not professional, they are not getting paid; it’s strictly amateur, strictly for the pride of the county.

Our first stop that morning was Jerpoint Abbey, just nineteen kilometers down the road near Thomastown, and, it being Sunday, the place was nearly deserted (which was a nice change of pace from Glendalough).

Early morning sunlight made these weeds growing on the edge ot the wall look a little like flames.

Early morning sunlight made these weeds growing on the edge ot the wall look a little like flames.

The official brochure says Jerpoint is one of the most interesting Cistercian ruins in Ireland, and I have to agree. Founded in 1160, and built—and rebuilt—over the next three hundred years (following the traditional layout with a cruciform—cross-shaped—church as the central building), it is filled with tombs and compelling carvings, many of them along the cloister walk.

A door for tourists was added in the side of the cathedral wall.

A door for tourists was added in the side of the cathedral wall.

This is where the altar would have been; to the left is is a smaller chapel. There are two carved tombs.

This is where the altar would have been; to the left is is a smaller chapel. There are two carved tombs.

This is the chapel on the right side of the altar. Note the slab carvings on both sides.

This is the chapel on the right side of the altar. Note the slab carvings on both sides.

This is one of those slab carvings. It may be Felix O’Dulany, who was a bishop of Ossory (the diocese); you can see his crozier. It dates from 1202.

This is one of those slab carvings. It may be Felix O’Dulany, who was a bishop of Ossory (the diocese); you can see his crozier. It dates from 1202.

While walking from the tourist gate to the Abbey itself, a bird <ahem> pooped on me! Well, mostly on the camera … and while Gerry tried to console me by saying that the Irish believe that being pooped on by a bird is good luck (nice try, Ger), I still think that bird poop is bad luck, albeit fleeting. Still, I’d rather be pooped on in Ireland than in Nashville, I guess. 🙂

We strolled quietly, soaking up the peace and spirituality of the place.

This is opposite the altar, so it would have been the back of the cathedral.

This is opposite the altar, so it would have been the back of the cathedral.

The abbey is a bit off the beaten path (the town of Jerpoint having quietly died a couple hundred years earlier), now inhabited only by blackbirds and the shades of those buried under the high crosses in the graveyard. There is much fine detail left, even though the place is open to the elements; you have to look in every nook and cranny, or you’ll miss something delightful. I took loads of photos at Jerpoint; I just found it amazing that these ancient craftsmen, with their humble tools, created work of such delicacy and humanity. It was very personal.

The cloister walk was lined with carving after carving. Look above the monk in the foreground: is that another head looking down on him?

The cloister walk was lined with carving after carving. Look above the monk in the foreground: is that another head looking down on him?

This one is St. John the Baptist.

This one is St. John the Baptist.

From there we were off to Cashel (pronounce this CASHel with the same emphasis as you would use in the word castle). I was finally starting to get the hang of driving on the left, and, more importantly, the hang of reading Irish roadsigns. As I’ve explained, they are a variety of colors and styles, and are all askew in a myriad directions … so one approaches and quickly scans the plaques for the needed information, prepared to react at a split second, left or right. “He who hesitates is lost” is never more true than on a driving trip in Ireland!

But we drove right there with nary a wrong turn, Gerry merrily taking photos from the car as I drove.

Jamie’s Seventh Travel Tip: When I returned from England with ten rolls of film, it took a considerable amount of thought to reconstruct what each photo actually was, days and weeks after the fact. This time, I brought a tiny notebook (and a Sharpie, to number the film canisters), and kept track, frame by frame, of each photo. This may sound time-consuming, but it actually went very quickly, and was well worth the effort. The notebook was also handy for jotting down things heard on the radio and other notes for my journal, which remained packed during the day. (UPDATE: Now, of course, you’re using digital cameras. But it’s still a good idea to jot notes as you snap. Even if you download them every night, as I do, it’s probably been a long day of unfamiliar sights, so a few notes might help.)

The Rock of Cashel is a cathedral set on a tall hill in the center of the town of Cashel. We saw it from miles away, sitting up there like a fortress. In fact, it is a fort, and the word cashel means “stone fort.” The sight of it is, not to put too fine a point on it, astonishing. Its origins as a seat of power go back to about the fourth century (although no structure remains from that time), and it was as a seat of political power that it first rose to prominence, being the home of the Kings of Munster, who ruled over the southern half of the island from the fourth to the twelfth centuries, as the O’Neills ruled over the northern half, from Tara.

The Rock of Cashel, 2003. It’s really something.

The Rock of Cashel, 2003. It’s really something.

However, woven into the history of the Rock is an impressive ecclesiastical fabric that spans the Middle Ages. In the fifth century St. Patrick converted the king of the time, and made Cashel a bishopric; later, in 1101 a different king granted the Rock to the Church. In 1127, the bishop Cormac MacCarthy (actually, Cormac Mac Carthaigh) started work on a chapel that survives to this day and is the most remarkable Romanesque church in the country; a round tower was added about this time, too. The largest building on the Rock is the thirteenth-century cathedral, and all in all, the complex represents the most impressive medieval collection of buildings in Ireland.

Taken inside the cathedral; I suspect those are tombs, though I’m not sure why they’re so high up.

Taken inside the cathedral; I suspect those are tombs, though I’m not sure why they’re so high up.

The round tower. Note the scaffolding: maintenance work at these ancient sites is ongoing.

The round tower. Note the scaffolding: maintenance work at these ancient sites is ongoing.

All my walking at 4:30am started to pay off on this day, because that was one heck of a hill that had to be climbed in order to enter the site! The view from the top, however, was worth it, stunning. I took a lot of photographs, of course, though the postcards I bought give a better overview.

A view of the valley from the churchyard at the Rock of Cashel, 2003.

A view of the valley from the churchyard at the Rock of Cashel, 2003.

Gerry and I skipped the guided tour: we’d found that walking around with large groups of people was just not our cup of tea, so instead we’d purchase a small guide book and do it ourselves. Neither of us had the patience for trooping from spot to spot and standing docile-y, listening to a docent who might or might not be amusing or interesting.

Thus we found ourselves exploring on our own, lingering where the spirit moved—and being outraged by some of our fellow tourists. You see, in these ancient cemeteries, gravestones are often coffin-sized, and laid flat on the ground … and we were shocked (and yes, outraged) to see people walk right across these stones, heedless of what lay beneath their feet. Aside from the sheer disrespect—someone is buried there, after all—do they not realize that the only reason that we can still read 500-year-old headstones is that for the previous 499 years other sightseers had the sense and the courtesy to walk around them, rather than over them?

This still makes me mad when I think about it.

The churchyard at the Rock of Cashel, late afternoon. Note that “monument” at the back would have been a cross at some point.

The churchyard at the Rock of Cashel, late afternoon. Note that “monument” at the back would have been a cross at some point.

From Cashel, we struck out for our evening’s destination, Kinsale, passing through Cork. My journal entry says “I’ve decided that the reason I’ve been so exhausted at the end of the day is that this type of driving is hard work. I’m constantly downshifting, constantly turning, upping and downing and curving—much more demanding than rush hour on I-24!” In retrospect, I would add that we did plenty of walking, hill walking in particular, and that might also have had something to do with it! Ha!

The traffic on the road to Cork (to pronounce this like a native, say “kark”!) was quite light, as many people were either in Dublin for the hurling match, or in a pub to watch it on TV. (Cork is the second-largest city in Ireland, so light traffic was a blessing.) In fact, we arrived at our B&B around 3:30, only to learn that our hostess was sitting in the stadium in Dublin (we called, when no one came to the door). However, she had arranged for a friend to come by and check us in later, so we drove back to town and wandered around.

It’s pretty! But the streets are very, very narrow.

It’s pretty! But the streets are very, very narrow.

Situated right on the coast, Kinsale is considered one of the prettiest towns in Ireland; it is known for its many restaurants, and foodies come from all over to dine here. (Pronounce it “kinSALE.”) The town dates from the sixth century, when it was a monastic settlement; its position on the estuary of the Bandon River also gave it great importance, as the river is tidal as far inland as Innishannon (about twelve miles) and, of course, water transport was dominant until the eighteenth century.

The Bandon River just outside Inishannon.

The Bandon River just outside Inishannon.

And this is what the river looks like at low tide.

And this is what the river looks like at low tide.

Its long history is reflected in the names of local businesses (The Spaniard restaurant, The Armada pub), and even in the looks of the locals, many of whom are quite olive-skinned and Spanish-looking. You see, as part of the European conflict raging between Catholic Spain and Protestant England, the Battle of Kinsale, fought in late December of 1601, and lost through tactical blunder, permanently destroyed Ireland’s hopes of independence during that time … and also destroyed, as it happens, the Spanish Armada. In Kinsale, it’s obvious that some of those Spanish sailors made it to shore safely.

We shopped a bit (I found a corner store selling stamps, so I was able to mail my postcards), although some stores were closed because it was Sunday. Still, I had a blast walking in the narrow streets, filling my eyes up with the brightly colored stores and curious little alleys. Finding your way through these very old towns has to be by instinct; you can’t just walk, or drive, “around the block”—because blocks don’t exist the way we Americans think of them. Neither do street signs! “Go past the garda station and then look for the third turn on the right” was a perfectly valid direction.

After we checked in at the B&B and had a leisurely cup of tea, we went back to town armed with the directions above and a couple of recommended restaurants. We ended up at Jim Edwards’ Pub & Restaurant, which was as good as we’d been led to believe. Later we strolled around town in the late dusk (the sun seemed to set late in Ireland … it was probably 9pm when the last rays of sunlight finally disappeared into twilight) before finding our way “home.”

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