“My” Ireland

I’ve been four times in ten years now. I am trying to make it mine.

I know there are people who take “big” trips every year, but I’m not one of them; when I was a young married we didn’t have the money for such things, and then I was a single mom and really didn’t have the money for such things. So four visits to Eire in a decade seems miraculous to me, and I have wrung every possible thrill from them. 🙂

Already more trips are in the planning stages. And I’m thinking about what I want to see. Because things are always changing and evolving.

Recent changes were a bit of a surprise:

• At Brú na Bóinne, Dowth isn’t on the Knowth tour anymore. You can drive to it, if you desire (and can find it on your own; I always seem to get lost over in Meath). I don’t know what to make of this; is Dowth unimportant now?

• The National Gallery has been completely rearranged and modernized (since I saw it in 2006). Actually, the reburbishment is still ongoing, and as a result, there are certain key works that may not be available—like Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. Missing it last September was a huge disappointment. Also, to be frank, I loved the old-fashioned creaky floors.

• The Rock of Cashel has a fancy brickwork sidewalk and a paved road now; in 2003 it was much more rustic. I didn’t mind the old rough path; it felt authentic. However, I also didn’t mind that nice new bench at the halfway mark. 🙂

• There is a little car park at the Drombeg stone circle now. It used to be that you simply drove to the end of the lane, parked, and slipped through a break in the hedgerow—and there they were, the stones. These days you park a hundred yards or so further out, and walk. It’s nice, I guess, but just more evidence of modernization where none is needed. I mean, it’s from the Bronze Age, y’all.

• The bayside cemetery just outside Bantry town has a memorial now, with that spooky sculpture of drowning people. I didn’t like it much, and that has nothing to do with my resistance to change.

• When I stepped outside the graveyard at the cathedral at Kilfenora—to see the West Cross out in the field—I was shocked to see that some farm buildings had been built to the south and the field itself bisected into several cattle pens. The farmer can do what he wants with his land, of course, but it was still a bit of a disappointment.

• I’ve seen the Cliffs of Moher go through three iterations. In 2003, we parked in a field on the same side of the highway as the cliffs and walked about fifty yards out to the edge and looked over. Seriously, there was barely a handrail. The gift shop was a tiny shack. In 2006, they’d started the renovations, including moving the car park to the other side of the road; it’s a bit of a hike now (though in 2006 and 2012 I had pneumonia, so it would feel like a hike, I guess). O’Brien’s Tower was closed in 2006. Now, good Lord, the whole complex is like Disneyland—all bricked and curbed and gift-shopped to death. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm; I know it makes me sound like an old fart. 🙂

Glendalough has been subjected to the same Disneyland treatment, I’m sorry to say. The entrance is completely different; you no longer walk through the sanctuary gates first. In fact, I felt like we were coming in through the back door and was very, very cranky about it.

All of this changing and renovation is inevitable, I guess. And it won’t deter me from revisiting places (or seeing new sights). For example:

• I’d love to go back to Cork when I don’t have pneumonia. There’s a lot there I haven’t seen. I particularly want to go to the English Market and, you know, eat my way through it. 🙂

• Glandore village is calling my name. I want to check in to one of these places during the off season when it’s nice and quiet, and take all my meals in the pub so I can watch the water while I eat.

• I’ve grown to love Kilkenny and the surrounding area. I’d love to visit the farm shops around Mileeven Honey in Pilltown, and I definitely want to stop in at Nicholas Mosse again, maybe take the tour this time.

• Farm shops in general are something I’d like to make a tour of. There’s the Red Stables farmer’s market, Saturdays in St. Anne’s Park in Dublin, for example. And Sonairte, on the Laytown Road in between Julianstown and Laytown. And of course there are specialty food shops all over Dublin. OMG, now I’m thinking about cheese.

• I’d like to have a quiet vacation on one of the eastern beaches. Portmarnock, maybe, or someplace in Wicklow.

• I’m also very fond of Lahinch. It’s both small enough and big enough and I love everybody at Kenny’s Bar. I prefer the off-season, frankly, when things are down to a low roar. Late fall, say.

• I want to go back to the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin, Dublin. I only had sixty minutes to spend there, which means a lot went unseen. There are plenty of parks and gardens in Dublin I haven’t seen, in fact.

• There’s still a lot I’d like to do in Dublin. The Temple Bar Book Market, for example. Marsh’s Library. The James Joyce Centre and the Dublin Writers Museum. I’d like to revisit the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle.

• Finally, I have yet to see the Aran Islands, and I’d like to spend more time in Co. Donegal. Last time we sort of rushed through.

It’s a worthy list, don’t you think?

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The Glen of the Two Lakes and the Two Thousand Raindrops

Day 20, Sunday, 30 September 2012

Today we were going to make up for getting a little lost on the way to Clonmacnoise, so we picked up Gerry at ten o’clock with a plan to drive down into the Wicklow Mountains to see another world-famous monastic settlement: Glendalough. (Pronounce this GLEN-da-lock.)

It wasn’t easy to find either. That is, the signs to get us off the highway were perfectly clear. But then we got out on those little two-lane roads, and it became a little … less clear.

The Wicklow Mountains are beautiful and old, though. Gorgeous country. You’ll recall we could see them in the distance from the Portmarnock Hotel north of Dublin. Remember the Great Sugar Loaf? We drove right around the base of it. Fantastic stuff. It’s good to get out and drive around in the country like this. I always imagine myself living in … that house. Or maybe … that one.

I may get lost easily, but I do have a pretty good memory for what things looked like the last time I was here (partly because I take a lot of photos). And the approach to Glendalough (once we’d found our way there) was completely changed. I mean, changed like the Cliffs of Moher was changed: it was Disneyland Glendalough.

Standing at the entrance of the entrance office. The car park is somewhere off to the left, out of the photo. The sidewalk/path runs all along the outer edge of the lawn; you can see folks with umbrellas coming along it there in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

Standing at the door of the site office. The car park is somewhere off to the left, out of the photo. The sidewalk/path runs all along the outer edge of the lawn; you can see folks with umbrellas coming along it there in the center. You can click on the photo and click again to zoom in if you really want to see that lady in the blue jacket. (Margaret’s photo.)

There was a huge hotel, for God’s sake, that apparently has been there all along (though it has recently been enlarged) but which is now a main feature, since the entrance has been changed. You cannot miss it; the parking lot is huge.

Surely St. Kevin is rolling over in his grave.

So I was discombobulated. What I thought of as the “front” of the site (you know, like where the sanctuary gate—the entrance—is) is not the front anymore. And what I thought of as the back of the site—back where St. Kevin’s Kitchen is—is now what you see first. Have you been to Glendalough before this change? Does the fact that they removed that gorgeous old squeaky kissing gate distress you as much as it distresses me?

As you might have guessed by now, I was cranky when I got out of the car. Also: it had begun to rain. And not a light rain through which you might cheerfully press on. Although we did. 🙂

If I’d calmed down (and hadn’t been cold and wet) I might have appreciated this scenic approach :) but I wanted to get up to the ruins. (Margaret’s photo.)

If I’d calmed down (and hadn’t been cold and wet) I might have appreciated this scenic approach 🙂 but I wanted to get up to the ruins. (Margaret’s photo.)

At last, a glimpse of what we’ve come to see, still quite a way off. That’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church) on the left (near the pine tree) and the splendid round tower right in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

At last, a glimpse of what we’ve come to see, still quite a way off. That’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church) on the left (near the pine tree) and the splendid round tower right in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

Getting closer!

Getting closer!

There: the backside of St. Kevin’s church.

There: the backside of St. Kevin’s church.

I don’t know why they call it Kevin’s Kitchen, honestly, and I can’t seem to track it down. There’s no evidence it was used as one. Perhaps it’s because the little squat bell tower looks like a chimney.

Glendalough was founded by Kevin, who was born in 498, a descendant of the royal house of Leinster, the province in which Glendalough is located. Kevin rejected his life of privilege, choosing instead to live as a hermit in a cave here; later he founded a monastery on the site in the sixth century. The settlement was sacked repeatedly by the Vikings, yet it flourished for more than six hundred years. The age of the buildings still extant is uncertain, but most date from the eighth to twelfth centuries.

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 they were also places of refuge during an attack: the door was always on the second story, entered by a rope ladder which could be pulled up after the last monk was safely inside. The round tower at Glendalough is still all in one piece (the conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones) at 110 feet high.

The new approach to the Glendalough monastic site. Now we’re getting close; that’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church).

The new approach to the Glendalough monastic site. Now we’re getting close; that’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church).

A closer look at the round tower.

A closer look at the round tower.

At last, we cross the brook, and there it all is.

At last, we cross the brook, and there it all is. We’re standing about where the kissing gate used to be.

Have you seen enough of this little building yet? It’s all I’ve got, honestly. (Margaret’s photo.)

Have you seen enough of this little building yet? It’s about all I’ve got, honestly. (Margaret’s photo.)

It is, as you can see, quite ancient. (You can also see raindrops on the lens.)

It is, as you can see, quite ancient. (You can also see raindrops on the lens.)

They have Disney-fied the the perimeter, but inside it’s still quite wild and old. (Margaret’s photo.)

They have Disney-fied the the perimeter, but inside it’s still quite wild and old. (Margaret’s photo.)

Unfortunately, by this time it was pouring down rain and the wind was gusting, and though we tried, we just had to give it up: none of us wanted to walk around in the rain.

A last look; the rain is really coming down.

A last look; the rain is really coming down.

So we began to retrace our steps. We stopped in Roundwood (pop. 833), at the Roundwood Inn, right on the R755, for Sunday dinner. The Lonely Planet says the inn is in a seventeenth-century German house; Google+ says it’s been in business for more than twenty-five years. What I can tell you is they had a nice turf fire burning, and we snuggled up to it with a pot of tea while we looked at the menu.

It was pub grub, but it was hot and good. I had the roast chicken and chips. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was pub grub, but it was hot and good. I had the roast chicken and chips. (Margaret’s photo.)

Outside we were struck by the stunning window baskets with petunias and fuchsias and that little blue flower. (Margaret’s photo.)

Outside we were struck by the stunning window baskets with petunias and fuchsias and that little blue flower. (Margaret’s photo.)

Every window had a different selection, and the fuchsias were just gorgeous. This one is a double. (Margaret’s photo.)

Every window had a different selection, and the fuchsias were just gorgeous. This one is a double. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was quite a treat for the eyes. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was quite a treat for the eyes. (Margaret’s photo.)

After we left Roundwood we drove back toward the Avoca Handweavers shop in Bray, just off the N11. It’s quite a place—as the name suggests, they sell beautiful woolen sweaters, scarves, throws, and such—but it’s become quite touristy and pricey. But you can get wool goods there you can get nowhere else. We were glad we stopped, as this is the main location.

Back in Dublin we visited with Bridie for awhile, uploaded our photos, and I finished and emailed those editorial notes I’d been working on. By then it was getting late-ish, so Margaret and I drove back to Clontarf and our B&B. Later we had an evening snack of Cashel Blue (Irish farmhouse cheese: a “subtle creamy blue hand made in Tipperary”) spread on butter crackers, accompanied by fresh pears at the perfect ripeness, followed by a second course of homemade banana bread (brought from the B&B in Lahinch) accompanied by Butler’s dark chocolate with almonds. And it was very, very good.

Today’s Image

St Kevin chose Glendalough (“Glen of the Two Lakes) for his hermitage because it was remote and wild and beautiful. It still is. Even in the rain.

Glendalough in the rain, the last day of September 2012.

Glendalough in the rain, the last day of September 2012.

It All Started as a Little Cough …

Day 9 / Wednesday, 19 September 2012 (part 2)

Now … where were we? Oh yes—at Castletown House in Celbridge, just outside Dublin. Our destination was Kilkenny, where we would spend two nights. This would be my third visit, although in previous years I’d approached the town from Dublin via Glendalough (GLEN-da-lock)—a completely different route. It was fun to see some different countryside—and to get on the N7, a good-sized highway.

This is what the countryside looked like. (Margaret took this from the car.)

As we were tootling though Sallins, my passengers noticed a photo op, so we stopped and jumped out to take photos. As it turns out, this was a branch of Dublin’s Grand Canal, which connects the City of Dublin in the east with the River Shannon in the west. The first leg of the canal originated in Sallins; work started here in 1757. Cargo traffic on the canal ceased in 1960, and it fell into disuse until 1986, when control of the canal passed to the Office of Public Works. It’s been cleaned up now, and pleasure boat traffic has increased—certainly the case in Sallins.

The Grand Canal at Sallins: small boats and houseboats!

Here’s a zoom look. Lots of boats!

This was right on the N7, so we had to park and walk back. The most immediately available parking was a lot at Odlums, which, as you will see, produces McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal. (This brand isn’t sold in Ireland—and isn’t featured on the Odlums website—so when Gerry saw it in my pantry long ago, he doubted it was truly Irish.)

See, honey? McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal is, well, Irish. 🙂

Margaret had been suffering with her United Airlines-provided head cold for some days. Now I started to cough too. Oh boy! I don’t like to suffer with cold symptoms, though, so at the next opportunity—and that was Abbeyleix (Abbey-LEESH)—we stopped so I could run into a chemist’s (that is, a pharmacy) to buy some paracetamol (that is, acetaminophen). At one point, we had to turn around (a not uncommon occurrence), and discovered this:

Abbeyleix Church of Ireland. It’s lovely.

This would become a habit, this jumping out of the car to take a photo of something beautiful or interesting or beautiful and interesting, as was the case here. It’s the Abbeyleix Church of Ireland. Sources give two different dates for construction (1825, 1831), but both agree it was restored to its current state in 1865.

By this time it was mid-afternoon and we were anxious to get to Kilkenny, unload, and relax. Our B&B, we knew, was just a block or two away from Kilkenny Castle (on Castle Road, of course). We drove all through the town, a little lost … but it’s impossible to lose a castle, you know?

The main street in Kilkenny. (Margaret took this one.)

At last! Kilkenny Castle, sitting on the River Nore. Now … how to get to it? (Margaret took this one too.)

Our B&B, the Fanad House, was very nice, and I highly recommend it. If you’re not sick, it’s an easy five-minute walk into town. 🙂 But that wasn’t the case, so Margaret took a nap while Jill and Alli walked into town. I opened my computer and worked. Driving’s hard work! (It’s just as well we stayed in, because I was truly getting sick; I just didn’t know it yet. In hindsight, of course, I’d been getting sick for a couple days.)

The Fanad House, Kilkenny, Ireland. I’ll stay there again, please God.

Our host, Pat Wallace, had recommended a restaurant, Kyteler’s Inn (fortuitously near a parking lot), so we met up with Jill and Alli there later that evening. We were particularly excited that they offered traditional music that started at 6:30 in the evening. That should have been a tip-off to me: most pubs won’t get started with music—traditional or otherwise—until after nine o’clock. But I was tired, getting sick, and not on top of my game.

Kyteler’s Inn—good enough!

It turns out that Kyteler’s (pronounce this KITT-ler’s) was mostly populated by Yanks, and the music, while good enough, was clearly aimed at the tourist trade. We also had to listen to some patter about the ghostly history of the pub (it was established in 1324), which led to an epic poem (about same). But here’s the thing: the food was very good. I’d eat there again. And this was the last time we’d eat in an overtly touristy pub during the trip.

So we had a hearty meal, listened to some music, and found our way back to the Fanad House … and bed. By now I was really, really sick.

 Today’s Image

Ireland has a candy culture that has no equal in the United States. Go into any convenience or grocery store, and you’ll find a huge rack of every possible permutation of candy—most of it chocolate (um, hellooooo, Cadbury Crunchies). Resistance is futile.

I’m not kidding. 🙂 (Margaret’s photo.)

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!