So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Let’s Go Shopping!

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a souvenir shop in Ireland, so sooner or later you’re going to find yourself in one, if for no other reason that to pick up some postcards. But what you really want is something nice to remember your trip by. Something lasting. Right? I know I do.

When you’re shopping for gifts for yourself or others (I like to do my Christmas shopping in Ireland), look for things you can’t get at home, or—in the case of international brands like Waterford Crystal or Belleek porcelain—that you can get somewhat cheaper than at home. (Particularly when the exchange rate favors the dollar.)

So here’s a quick list of things you might buy in Ireland:

• Knitwear: sweaters, scarves and more
You’ve seen the sheep, now buy something woolen. I buy sweaters and scarves every time I travel to Ireland; they’re available just about everywhere. And the range of colors and styles! Oh! They make lovely gifts.

• Clothing made from Irish linen or tweed
You can buy beautiful woven wool scarves, too—and tweed caps, jackets, waistcoats (you may call this a vest). Some shops sell piece goods so you can sew your own at home. Look for beautiful table linens and handkerchiefs and you’ll think of Ireland every time you sit down to a meal.

• Crystal and glassware, china and pottery
Waterford Crystal is the category leader but there are other good quality brands equally beautiful (research it before you go). Jerpoint Glass is one of my favorite places to shop (Co. Kilkenny) but you can find their pieces in nicer shops all over the country. I also love Nicholas Mosse Pottery, which is readily available. Check department stores for Royal Tara china or Belleek, for a lot less than you’ll pay for them in the States.

• Handmade arts and crafts
There is so much to choose from here: jewelry, pottery, prints and paintings … we could go on and on. Look for small art galleries, museum shops, individual studios (like Jerpoint Glass and Nicholas Mosse) and workshops … and larger outlets like Kilkenny Design Centre in Kilkenny and Dublin (which often, by the way, runs free-shipping-to-the-States promotions). Here’s a website that will give you some ideas. Steer away from those Philip Gray prints; aside from the fact that Gray’s the Irish version of Thomas Kinkade (a hack), these reproductions are poorly done on cheap paper. You’ll know real art when you see it.

• Books
Ireland is a nation of readers (and the home of many fine writers), so you’ll find a bookstore in every town of a few thousand or more. Look for books by Irish authors, photography books, books on Irish history or of local interest (architecture, say) in both new and secondhand shops. Or choose a cookbook!

• Music
If it’s in the budget, you can buy traditional handmade instruments (tin whistles, flutes, fiddles, pipes, bodhráns) from craftspeople in their workshops or in more traditional music stores. While you’re in that music store, you might be interested in sheet music or teaching CDs, such as the one I purchased the featuring a how-to on fiddling traditional Irish melodies and techniques. Music stores and record shops will feature the recordings of local musicians and bands, too; these are affordable and make one-of-a-kind gifts.

• Fashion, design, and up-market personal products
Ireland has a youthful population and has a growing reputation for fashion and design; a special item of clothing might be just the thing to take home. There are many Irish designers (research it) but lately I’ve been loving Orla Kiely; you can find her bags all over Ireland (and they’ll be different from what you’ll find in the States). I also love Moulton Brown hair care products (it’s a British company but I was exposed to the products in Ireland), and I make sure I bring some home from every trip.

• Antiques
Dublin has an antiques district but even small towns have an antique shop or two. Look for unusual prints, vintage jewelry, a teacup … something small and special you can carry home with you.

• Foodstuffs
I am a real sucker for farm shops as well as the upscale grocers you’ll find in larger cities and department stores. I bring cheese home on every trip. And chocolate (see below)! Other delights: tea, jams and jellies, Sarah’s Wonderful Honey, cookies … and did I mention the chocolate?

• Chocolate in particular
On the other side of the pond, chocolate must contain at least 20 percent cocoa solids. In the US, on the other hand, cocoa solids need only make up 10 percent. So there’s definitely a taste differential. My three favorite chocolate brands are Áine, Butler’s, and Cadbury. I stock up on the big bars to bring home for gifts, Christmas stocking stuffers, and so on.

• Little gifts for friends
As mentioned, chocolate bars are always a hit. Irish-themed Christmas ornaments are nice (you can find them in souvenir shops or department stores). And, frankly, though it may seem cliché, the Guinness line of trademarked souvenirs (T-shirts, hats, and so on) are generally of good quality, so if you’ve someone who’d like that sort of thing, go for it. Now … if you really want a nice, truly Irish T-shirt … you’ll have to drive to Lahinch, on the west coast, to the Celtic T-Shirt Shop. A family-owned business since 1979, these shirts (and other apparel) are original designs screen-printed by hand—and they’re gorgeous. Honestly, the website doesn’t do them justice.

See? You don’t have to let the souvenir market drive your purchasing decisions. Don’t buy the first thing you see. Look around! You’ll find something perfect. And don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Jameson’s in the duty-free on your way home. 🙂

A few things that came home last time: scarf from Avoca Hand Weavers, Nicholas Mosse mug, chocolate-covered cookies from Cadbury.

A few things that came home last time: scarf from Avoca Hand Weavers, Nicholas Mosse mug, chocolate-covered cookies from Cadbury.


Whatcha Gonna Do? Making the Best of It …

Day 10 / Thursday, 20 September 2012

I woke up around midnight with extreme congestion and problems breathing; I spent the rest of the night dozing, sitting up, as lying flat made it too difficult to breathe. I was awake every couple hours and knew I would have to see a doctor as soon as possible.

You see, this time last year, when I returned from a trip to California with a cold that became pneumonia, I noticed a pattern: every time I’d been on a plane since 2006 (about a dozen flights), I’d gotten a severe respiratory illness. It started with bronchitis, and these bouts got continually worse. I’d been diagnosed with pneumonia twice already.

The next morning I asked the innkeeper about a walk-in clinic; as it turns out, Kilkenny doesn’t have one. But there was a doctor’s office just a block away; an easy walk, he said. “I’ll call for you.” And while we sat in his cheerful dining room and ate his wonderful breakfast, he called and made me an appointment.

The Fanad House has a very cheerful dining room.

Jill and Alli headed off into town while Margaret and I lingered over a pot of tea until it was time to walk to the doctor’s office. Thank goodness it was downhill; I was in terrible shape. Thank goodness, too, it was just another block to Kilkenny Castle, which sits right across from the city center. I encouraged Margaret to go on down to the castle and take the tour without me (I’d been in 2003), since the doctor’s waiting room was packed (and with sick people! ha!) and I figured I’d be there for awhile. I told her I’d meet her at the Kilkenny Design Centre afterwards.

I have a wonderful guidebook I bought at Kilkenny Castle the first time I visited. It has three drawings that show how the medieval castle evolved from the time it was built in 1195 (the previous castle, a tower house built by Strongbow, was a wooden structure), through the seventeenth century as a Restoration chateau, to the Victorian country house it became in the nineteenth century. This is the aspect preserved in the castle now. Fascinating stuff, really.

The first stone castle was square with towers at each corner; three of these survive today. In 1391 ownership of the castle was transferred to James Butler, third Earl of Ormonde, and the Butlers continued to occupy the castle until 1935. Like the home we saw in Celbridge, Kilkenny Castle has a magnificent long gallery that should not be missed. (A long gallery—in which all the family portraits were hung—is roughly equivalent to our hallway hung with family photos. Only a lot fancier!) Admission to the castle is by tour only, and if you get the chance, I highly recommend it. If you’re the sort of person who is charmed by such things, it is very castle-y. 🙂

As it turns out, Jill and Alli did get a chance to see the castle grounds, so you can see this spectacular building even though I didn’t this time.

Gorgeous, isn't it? In the days when it truly was a castle, there was a fourth wall, although it's long gone now.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? In the days when it truly was a castle, there was a fourth wall, although it’s long gone now. (Jill’s photo.)

It took a lot of dough to update this puppy. Look at all those windows! That's Alli in the lower right.

It took a lot of dough to update this puppy. Look at all those windows! That’s Alli in the lower right.  (Jill’s photo.)

She’s admiring this garden.

She’s admiring this garden.. (Jill’s photo.)

A grey old castle on a grey old day! That’s Jill and this is her photo.

A grey old castle on a grey old day! That’s Jill and this is her photo.

In the meantime, I was at the clinic. The doctor listened to my respiratory history and to my lungs; the right lung, he said, was almost full: “You have pneumonia.” This explained so much: my lack of energy and my shortness of breath. It wasn’t good news, exactly, but at least I now had access to drugs. 🙂 I was prescribed antibiotics and low-dose steroids.

I figured Margaret was still on the tour (as it turns out, she wasn’t, and we missed each other) so I walked past the castle into town (High Street) to the chemist (every step was like I was dragging a boat anchor) to fill the prescription. Then I needed to take the pills with food, so I made my way back toward the castle, where I’d seen a little farmers’ market arrayed along the outer wall.

The chemist’s is about half a block behind me here on High Street; the castle is straight ahead, and the colorful tents are a little farmers’ market.

This gentleman’s vegetables were as fresh and as beautiful as anything I’ve seen.

I found a stall that was serving sandwiches, and sat down on a bench to catch my breath, eat, and phone Gerry, while I kept my eyes peeled for Margaret. I didn’t see her, but Jill and Alli walked by, with groceries, to have a picnic on the castle grounds.

After a while, I crossed the street to the Design Centre, which is absolutely one of my favorite places to shop. (It occupies the buildings that were once the stables of Kilkenny Castle.) I spent two hours there, working my way through the various shops … very slowly. Every ten minutes or so I went out and sat in the courtyard to rest.

The courtyard at the Kilkenny Design Centre.

Eventually I concluded I must have missed Margaret, and began to walk back up the hill toward our B&B. It took awhile. You no doubt would have walked it in five minutes without any problem; it’s not that steep and not that far. But it took me about twenty minutes. One interesting sight I passed along the way was St. James’s Asylum.

Kind of a scary thought—an asylum! But then it’s not what you think.

But it wasn’t for the insane, this asylum. No, it was an almshouse—for the poor. The building was constructed in 1805, endowed by James Switsir. It’s been refurbished and converted to what looked like condos.

See? Condos! Much cheerier! St. James’s Asylum, Kilkenny.

Finally I made it all the way back and found Margaret. While she read, I took a nice nap to recover from my (ahem) big day. At 6:30 we went out for dinner—I called a cab to take us the short distance because I didn’t have the energy to walk it; “Don’t laugh,” I said to the dispatcher—to the café at the Design Centre. Actually, after hours the café becomes the “Evening Restaurant,” and it’s a posh/modern oasis in this very old building. We caught their early bird special too.

The food was spectacular. Everything is cooked on site and sourced from local suppliers. I had vegetable soup, beef and Guinness stew (and, as the menu states, “each table will be served a bowl of seasonal vegetables”), and apple tart.

Beef and Guinness stew at the Kilkenny Design Centre Evening Restaurant.

Ooops! Forgot to take a picture first! At least I had an appetite. Apple tart in the French style.

The same taxi returned to get us and carry us “home” and to bed. Whew. It wasn’t the best day I’ve ever had in Ireland, but what can you do? Keep putting one foot in front of the other, that’s what. Slowly.

Today’s Impression

Irish table service is extremely slow. I don’t want my meal to be rushed but I don’t necessarily want to take three hours to eat a three-course meal and I really don’t want to wait thirty minutes for a check, which happened here and several other places on our trip. Margaret and I finally concluded that as Yanks we must not be giving the right signals to the server. Perhaps we have to specifically ask for the check? In the States, the server will bring the check and just leave it. No one interprets this as a subtle suggestion to move on, but I wonder if that’s what’s at play here. We never asked for the tab; we expected it to arrive.

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. 🙂