All Windy on the Western Front

Day 16 / Wednesday, 26 September 2012

My body clock goes off very early, and I wish I knew how to reset it. At home I tell myself it’s because the felines wake me up … but the truth is, even with a bed all to myself, I am awake at 5:30 almost every day.

Not that I mind. I get to see the sunrise most days. This is the view from our window at Craglea Lodge in Lahinch. All three homes on the left side (one you can’t see) belong to Kennys.

Not that I mind. I get to see the sunrise most days. This is the view from our window at Craglea Lodge in Lahinch. All three homes on the left side (one you can’t see) belong to Kennys.

Nine years ago September was warm and pleasant, but these last few days in the 2012 September were windy and cold. (It was, in fact, far too windy for an Aran Islands trip—but we’d known that was a strong possibility.) Of course, we didn’t stay in Lahinch nine years ago. No, Gerry and I came here in 2006 … in February. And February on the western shore of Ireland, my friends, is a chilly proposition.

Nonetheless, I fell in love with this town. It’s small (pop. 600), and the folks are really friendly, particularly during the off season. During the on season, it’s a popular resort town with 1) a gorgeous beach on Liscannor Bay that’s perfect for surfing and 2) the world-famous Lahinch Golf Club. It’s much more crowded then, and I’m not sure I’d like it as much.

Lahinch beach at low tide. You can see Liscannor (pop. 71) across the bay.

Lahinch beach at low tide. You can see Liscannor (pop. 71) across the bay.

For comparison, here’s high tide.

For comparison, here’s high tide.

Edel told us last night she’d normally be closed by now, but when I’d contacted her about our visit, she’d decided it was worth staying open for two rooms for three nights. And then because she’d made the decision, she accepted a few other lodgers. We saw one group in the dining room the next morning. (Sometimes you really can spot Yanks a mile away: this group—two women and a man—were all wearing ball caps, all talking very loud.) They left this morning, though, and by evening we were the only ones in the house.

I’m glad Edel decided to keep Craglea Lodge open. It’s nice. And her help serves homemade scones warm out of the oven every morning. 🙂

After breakfast we headed out for the Cliffs of Moher because we’d been advised that in spite of the heavy cloud cover and fine mist, the strong gusts of wind would drive it all away and visibility would be fine. I’ve been to the cliffs three times now, although the first—in 2003—I didn’t see anything because the mist was so heavy. You really do have to be prepared with a flexible schedule (and that year we weren’t) to allow for the possibility of poor visibility. I’d been very disappointed and made certain to plan flexibility on this trip.

Things have changed a lot since that first misty visit. In 2003, we parked on the same side of the road as the cliffs and walked about fifty yards out to the edge. I mean, literally to the edge. There was a small shack that functioned as a gift shop.

The approach to the cliffs in 2003. A short railing was all that stood between visitors and the sea (once you’d turned right or left, the walk along the cliff was virtually unimpeded, except for the warning signs). That’s a busker playing a tin whistle, with the entrance to the gift shack just beyond him to the right.

The approach to the cliffs in 2003. A short railing was all that stood between visitors and the sea (once you’d turned right or left, the walk along the cliff was virtually unimpeded, except for the warning signs). That’s a busker playing a tin whistle, with the entrance to the gift shack just beyond him to the right.

This is what I saw in 2003. That is, not much.

This is what I saw in 2003. That is, not much. You can’t get close enough to see this slab now.

When we’d visited in 2006 (on a windy, sunny day), we’d seen the scale model for everything that was planned for the new, modern site; it was very ambitious. But that year everything was a bit of a mess—just missing the “Pardon our construction” signs.

Take this, for example: the trademark Cliffs of Moher view was obstructed by fencing in 2006.

Take this, for example: the trademark Cliffs of Moher view was obstructed by fencing in 2006.

At the same time, if you wanted to get to the edge and jump off … no problem. Look how short the barrier is. Not that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to protect potential suicides from themselves. (Yes, I cut myself out of this photo; hate my hair color from that period.) 2006.

At the same time, if you wanted to get to the edge and jump off … no problem. Look how short the barrier is. Not that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to protect potential suicides from themselves. (Yes, I cut myself out of this photo; hate my hair color from that period.) 2006.

Danger indeed! This is the sidewalk up to O’Brien’s Tower in 2006.

Danger indeed! This is the sidewalk up to O’Brien’s Tower in 2006.

 O’Brien’s Tower in 2006. It was closed to visitors that year, so no spectacular view from the top; all we could do was walk around it. They’ve stabilized it now.

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006. It was closed to visitors that year, so no spectacular view from the top; all we could do was walk around it. They’ve stabilized it now.

It was shocking (in a good way, I guess) to see the finished product. Now it’s like Disneyland: all bricked and curbed and neat and clean … and with a fake signpost for people to take pictures of.

Look, honey! The Cliffs of Moher—thataway! Thank goodness they’ve got this sign—we’d never have found them!

Look, honey! The Cliffs of Moher—thataway! Thank goodness they’ve got this sign—we’d never have found them!

Don’t get me started on this atrocity. I’m not certain that’s even wood. (Jill’s camera.)

Don’t get me started on this atrocity. I’m not certain that’s even wood. (Jill’s camera.)

That said, there are many nice things about the site. (Although, interestingly, none of us took a photo of the setup on the way in.) The new visitors centre is actually embedded in the hillside (which is a great, green choice), as are several little craft shops that line the walkway. And the shop is quite large, unlike the tiny shack from 2003.

This photo is actually taken from atop the visitors centre, looking back the way we came in. The tour buses are parked where everyone parked nine-plus years ago. The car park is now across the highway in the far distance. The cliffs themselves are just out of the fram to the right; the craft shops are just out of the frame to the left. The entrance to the visitors centre is on the lower left, where the lady in the red coat and the big purse is about to go.

This photo is actually taken from atop the visitors centre, looking back the way we came in. The tour buses are parked where everyone parked nine-plus years ago. The car park is now across the highway in the far, far distance. The cliffs themselves are just out of the frame to the right; the craft shops are just out of the frame to the left. The entrance to the visitors centre is on the lower left, where the lady in the red coat carrying the big purse is about to go.

See? Here they are, just out of the frame to the right, the Cliffs of Moher. :) This concrete “roof” is terraced, like an amphitheater. (Margaret’s photo.)

See? Here they are, “just out of the frame to the right,” the Cliffs of Moher. 🙂 This concrete “roof” is terraced, like an amphitheater. (Margaret’s photo.)

The Cliffs of Moher, September 2012. (Pronounce it like “mower.”)

The Cliffs of Moher, September 2012. (Pronounce it like “mower.”)

It’s a view I can’t get enough of, frankly. (Margaret’s photo.)

It’s a view I can’t get enough of, frankly. (Margaret’s photo.)

There are paths along the top of the cliffs; you can walk all the way out there to Hag’s Head, which has a Napoleonic-era watchtower; you can see it here in this zoom photo. I think it’s a couple miles in that direction (south).

There are paths along the top of the cliffs; you can walk all the way out there to Hag’s Head, which has a Napoleonic-era watchtower; you can see it here in this zoom photo. I think it’s a couple miles in that direction (south).

I’m on the terraced roof. You can see how much taller the barrier is now.

I’m on the terraced roof. You can see how much taller the barrier is now.

Jill and Alli took off right away, and walked both north and south along the tops of the cliffs. I couldn’t keep up with that ambitious walk with my pneumonia-lung.

The stairway up to O’Brien’s Tower (on the left in the distance).

The stairway up to O’Brien’s Tower (on the left in the distance).

Gorgeous day, though! (Margaret’s photo.)

Gorgeous day, though! (Margaret’s photo.)

The observation tower—O’Brien’s Tower—was built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O’Brien for no other reason than to view the cliffs to the south. (Some say he built it to impress women he was courting!)

Taken on the walk up to O’Brien’s Tower; note the stairs on the right. (Jill’s photo.)

Taken on the walk up to O’Brien’s Tower; note the stairs on the right. (Jill’s photo.)

Looking north from O’Brien’s Tower. (Jill’s photo.)

Looking north from O’Brien’s Tower. (Jill’s photo.)

Eventually we all ended up back at the visitors centre, which had a large gift shop, some exhibits, and a really nice café upstairs with fantastic views of the cliffs.

The café at the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered here for awhile before getting back in the car.

The café at the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered here for awhile before getting back in the car.

There is so, so much to see in this small area, much of it in what’s called the Burren—a karst limestone region that seems, at first, quite bleak, but which has a beauty all its own. I’ve been told botanists come from all over the world to study what grows there among the rocks (arctic, Mediterranean, and alpine plants). And it is rich with history too. There are more than ninety megalithic tombs (including Poulnabrone), several ring forts (Cahercommaun and Caherconnell, to name two), ruins of medieval churches (Carron, Oughtmama, Corcomroe Abbey, Dysert O’Dea, and others), caves, cathdrals, abandoned castles … You could spend days seeing it all. (And I have. If you looked at the link for Carron Church, you’ll see a photo of a dog; I met her, too, on a rainy day in 2006.)

But we only had hours, not days, so first we went to the cathedral in Kilfenora (pop. 169)—St. Fachtnan’s. Built around 1189 on the site of Fachtnan’s original monastery, this small church, by a quirk of language, actually belongs to the pope. (Yes, that pope. He’s the bishop here. Don’t ask me to explain.) This would be my third visit.

Interestingly, because it was my third visit, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in years past, although some are very different. This one, for example, which is the backside of the church. Some gravestones can be seen through the open gate in the wall that surrounds the churchyard.

Interestingly, because it was my third visit, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in years past, although some are very different. This one, for example, which is the backside of the church. Some gravestones can be seen through the open gate in the wall that surrounds the churchyard.

This is the north side of the yard. You can see a relatively new grace on the far left; the one in the foreground is nineteenth-century. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the north side of the yard. You can see a relatively new grave on the far left; the one in the foreground is nineteenth-century. (Margaret’s photo.)

What you see ahead is called the Lady Chapel.

What you see ahead is called the Lady Chapel.

Between our visit in September 2003 and our return in February 2006, the Lady Chapel, once roofless, was spruced up with a glass roof. Frankly, I love it. It makes no pretense about belonging; at the same time, it doesn’t distract from the old stone structure.

St. Fachnan’s main claim to fame is the marvelous high crosses associated with it—now just three are still extant. (You can read about all eight of them here; it’s very interesting.) So there are three: the Doorty, the North, and the West, or High cross. Now two of them have been moved inside—to the Lady Chapel, under that glass roof—from the churchyard, to preserve them from the elements. This has been going on all over Ireland, an attempt to keep the intricate carvings on these precious artifacts from eroding. Generally they are housed right on the premises, as here; sometimes they install … um … fakes, back out in the churchyard. 🙂 Not here, though. On my 2003 visit, I saw these crosses in the yard.

This is the Doorty cross; that’s a bishop, St. Fachtnan.

This is the Doorty cross; that’s a bishop, St. Fachtnan.

The reverse of the Doorty cross, showing Christ. (Margaret’s photo.)

The reverse of the Doorty cross, showing Christ. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the front of the North cross. (Jill’s photo.)

This is the front of the North cross. (Jill’s photo.)

From the Lady Chapel we walked into the still-roofless chancel. It’s lovely. (This website has some interesting photos of Kilfenora’s little church, possibly taken in the 1980s. You will see that many artifacts have been removed—I’m not sure where they are now; perhaps locked up inside the part of the church that is still roofed and unavailable to us tourists? That’s a bit of a disappointment.)

This wall faces east, thus the rising sun would stream through these windows, in front of which would have been the altar.

This wall faces east, thus the rising sun would stream through these windows, in front of which would have been the altar.

This is, I believe, a sedile (a seat for the priest), although it could be a piscina (a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels). Note the bishop’s effigy above it. You can find references to this specific artifact being a sedile (or sedilia, since it would seat more than one) all over the web. But I’m not sure. It’s too small to be a tomb. Perhaps when I’m next there I can find someone who knows definitively. :) (Margaret’s photo.)

This is, I believe, a sedile (a seat for the priest), although it could be a piscina (a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels). Note the bishop’s effigy above it. It seems too small to be a tomb. Perhaps when I’m next there I can find someone who knows definitively. 🙂 (Margaret’s photo.)

The bishop in his mitre, right above the sedile. He looks rather determined, don’t you think?

The bishop in his mitre, right above the sedile. He looks rather determined, don’t you think?

There are still some interesting gravestones in the chancel. This one is in Latin, but has dates in the 1680s, ’90s, and 1700; apparently it represents several members of a family. Don’t forget you can click twice to zoom in on photos.

There are still some interesting gravestones in the chancel. This one is in Latin, but has dates in the 1680s, ’90s, and 1700; apparently it represents several members of a family. Don’t forget you can click twice to zoom in on photos.

Some praying clerics at the top of a column.

Some praying clerics at the top of a column.

The best, for me, is the West cross—and it’s not even on church grounds anymore. I did get a bit of a shock, though, when I saw the large open field of my memory had been sectioned into a half-dozen livestock pens.

Looking out the churchyard gate into the lane. Can you see the cross in the distance? It’s quite large. Let’s walk out there.

Looking out the churchyard gate into the lane. Can you see the cross in the distance? It’s quite large. Let’s walk out there.

Looking back the way we’ve just come.

Looking back the way we’ve just come.

It’s nearly fifteen feet tall. And isn’t it just gorgeous? This face depicts the risen Christ.

It’s nearly fifteen feet tall. And isn’t it just gorgeous? This face depicts the risen Christ.

We drove on into the bleak Burren for our final stop of the day: the Poulnabrone (pronounce this POWL-na-BRONE-ah) dolmen. It is arguably the most famous in Ireland, and its iconic silhouette can be seen everywhere. (Remember, we saw an inflatable of it in Dublin!) The site dates back to … well, who knows. I’ve seen dates ranging from 4200 BC 2500 BC. It was excavated twenty or so years ago, and contained the remains of both children and adults, most under the age of thirty. (It was a very hard life.) Still, we can only speculate about the actual purpose of this tomb.

First sight of Poulnabrone. It’s near the road but you have to walk in to see it.

First sight of Poulnabrone. It’s near the road but you have to walk in to see it.

This is the iconic silhouette. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the iconic silhouette. (Margaret’s photo.)

A different view. (Jill’s photo.)

A different view. (Jill’s photo.)

You have to be really, really careful where you put your feet out here. It’s a twisted ankle waiting to happen!

You have to be really, really careful where you put your feet out here. It’s a twisted ankle waiting to happen!

The Burren. Designed by glaciers.

The Burren. Designed by glaciers.

This is typical Burren landscape.

This is typical Burren landscape.

It was really, really cold!

It was really, really cold!

When it’s that windy and cold, you get tired quick, so we headed back to Kenny’s in Lahinch for grub and the free wi-fi. Password is kennysbar.ie in case you’re ever there.

I had potato and leek soup and a salad. I loved the way the cook piled different interesting things in the salad with a dollop of homemade coleslaw and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Tasty. (Margaret’s photo.)

I had potato and leek soup and a salad. I loved the way the cook piled different interesting things in the salad with a dollop of homemade coleslaw and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Tasty. (Margaret’s photo.)

The cook heard there were Yanks about and came out and spoke with us. I should say, he had quite a conversation with the cool Californians in our group! Ha! Margaret and I might as well have not been there. :)

The cook heard there were Yanks about and came out and spoke with us. I should say, he had quite a conversation with the cool Californians in our group! Ha! Margaret and I might as well have not been there. 🙂

Our room at Edel’s was really nice, with a pair of barrel chairs snugged in under the eaves, which have a window looking out on the Kenny compound (grandparents and siblings all live on this little lane). From there I watched the sun go down.

Sundown at the Kenny compound in Lahinch. Again, that’s Liscannor you see across the bay.

Sundown at the Kenny compound in Lahinch. Again, that’s Liscannor you see across the bay.

Today’s Image

This morning I sat in this same chair while Margaret slept, watching the ravens on the peak of the roof of the house in front of the B&B (the small one on the right in the photo above). It was very windy, a steady wind, and the birds were all facing into the wind. One spread its wings and lifted its feet … and then it was flying in one place, just enough to rise up and drift backward onto the edge of the chimney, about two feet higher than he was. Smooth move.

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Oh-o, It’s Magic (the Cars Version)

Day 6 / Sunday, 16 September 2012

When we were in Bettystown last night, Margaret noticed a little restaurant that served breakfast, so that’s where we headed this morning after Margaret had a nice lie-in (which was great, since she’d been sick with a cold). The Red Rose Café was small and busy, but the service and food were grand.

We’d decided to head to Brú na Bóinne (pronounce this BREW-nah-bowANN) today. This translates as Palace (or Mansion) on the Boyne—the Boyne being a river bisecting a beautiful valley in County Meath. A historic river, I should add: the site of the Battle of the Boyne in July of 1690, the outcome of which set the stage for more than three centuries of sectarian violence in Ireland. And the Orangemen still march in Ulster.

It’s all quite peaceful now, this valley. And long before that #&%@!! Dutchman came along, Stone Age men were building cairns, chamber tombs, standing stone circles, henges, and other megalithic structures in a roughly 1900-acre area along the north side of the Boyne.

You may know it as Newgrange (see this too), but the site also includes Knowth (pronounce this NOE-th), Dowth (DOE-th) and many smaller mounds. These are called passage tombs—a cruciform chamber in the center of a mound of rocks, connected to the outside by a long passage. Tomb is a misnomer, as it is not believed the dead were interred here. The mounds are aligned with the sun: at sunrise of the winter solstice, light shines directly along the long passage into the chamber at Newgrange for about seventeen minutes. It’s too precise for this to be accidental; the builders of the cairns knew exactly what they were doing. These mounds exist all over Western Europe, but this is quite a collection here in a bend of the Boyne.

I had seen Newgrange before (in fact, I lost a beloved necklace there; eventually that story will be in the archives) in 2003, so we opted for the Knowth tour. You can see either or both; in 2003 Dowth was included with Knowth but it isn’t now, although you can visit it if you can find it. (If you’ve been to Ireland you are laughing now. Finding it is the issue.) Regardless, Newgrange and Knowth are guided tours only. (Unfortunately, the woman who sold us our tickets also sold us each a 50-cent explanatory brochure—in German, which we didn’t notice until we’d gotten home. What a disappointment!)

It’s beautiful country, the Boyne River Valley.

You have to cross the Boyne on a foot bridge to get to the tour bus.

It’s a fantastic, rustic site of six or seven mounds; Knowth1 is the largest.

Here are a couple of them. I wish I’d photographed all the kerbstones.

I have a photo without the guy, but here you can see the size by comparison. It would’ve taken awhile to build this.

Some haven’t yet been excavated.

This is one that has collapsed; the cruciform shape is there: the “arms” are just past the fallen rock. This is what they all look like inside.

This is Knowth1, the largest at this site.

One of the most appealing features, of course, are the kerbstones that surround Knowth1 (and Newgrange). Imagine prehistoric men carving these shapes into rocks, using other rocks as tools!

Concentric circles and spirals are a symbol used frequently by the ancients.

More kerbstones. Can you see the triple spirals on this one?

This one seems to illustrate a plan for a henge, seen from above.

Hold a straight stick in the hollow from which the lines emanate here, and you have a crude sundial.

We were allowed to climb to the top.

They’ve carved a tiered path out of the cairn. It’s steep; those chain handholds are there for a reason.

Gorgeous view, though! That’s the Boyne again.

At the end, we were allowed to climb through the “back door” into the chamber inside. It’s a completely different experience from Newgrange, which is significantly larger (the passage from the front door to the central chamber is sixty feet) and much more fixed up, but I am really glad we saw Knowth.

And our docent was very well-informed and interesting. Something she mentioned set in motion our plans for the rest of the day: the land on which the mounds lie was a part of a large monastic settlement—the Abbey of Mellifont, which was the first Cistercian house in Ireland, founded in 1142. It “replaced,” in a sense, the much older Monasterboice (pronounce this MON-a-ster-BOYSE), which was formed in the fifth century by St. Buithe. Monasterboice had been in decline since its last abbot died in 1117; when the highly organized Cistercians arrived, that was truly the end of Monasterboice.

The ruins of Mellifont were just two kilometers away (and Monasterboice just 2km further), so we dashed into the Brú na Bóinne gift shop and the café for bottled water, then hit the road to Mellifont Abbey.

You drive in at Mellifont and you think, Um, there’s nothing here. I mean, there are a lot of old piles of rocks in Ireland (ahem: ruins), but of all the ruins I’ve seen, Mellifont is the most ruined of all.

This is what you see when you arrive at Mellifont. Meh.

And then you take another look. It was late afternoon, which was lovely light.

The lavabo (where the monks washed their hands). Look at those long shadows. Soon to get longer.

Take a closer look.

Closer. Lovely hearts and fleurs-de-lis top this capital.

We walked around and around. It was peaceful.

The sky darkened. Storm’s coming. Somewhere.

I just like the interplay of light and line.

And then we saw our first rainbow. Magic.

Rainbow! It’s there!

From there we drove to Monasterboice. It was harder to find, and the last little bit of it was on a one-lane road with high hedges. (Driving in Ireland can be exciting.) Now the sun was very low.

Honestly, there’s not much left at Monasterboice, either. A round tower. A piece of a wall. A large cemetery.

There’s not much left here either … except this magnificent cemetery.

There are five members of one family buried beneath the cross in the foreground; the last died in 1950.

And then we saw it: a “Celtic” cross. We could tell immediately it was important. Further investigation yields this: it is Muirdach’s Cross, and it dates from 900–923 AD.

Muirdach’s Cross.

It’s gorgeous. That’s a bishop, though, not Christ. He’s on the other side.

Remember, these crosses were intended to tell the gospel story to an unschooled population; every panel tells a story.

What Bible story do you think this tells? Those are the tonsured heads of monks, but are those snakes? Dragons? The head of the upper snake looks sort of fox-like, don’t you think?

In their time, crosses like this would have been brightly painted too. I think they’re lovely now, but imagine what they might have looked like in living color!

Muirdach’s isn’t the only important cross here. There’s the West Cross and the North Cross.

West Cross. It was getting dark very quickly. This isn’t great, but the best of those I took.

North Cross. This simple crucifix is similar to one we’ll see at Kilfenora.

Back of the North Cross.

These are some other Monasterboice images I liked:

At Monasterboice.

IHS: the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus, iota-eta-sigma.

Muirdach’s Cross again.

Detail on a cross at Monasterboice.

I just liked the way this turned out, with the sunspots and all.

Eventually it was just too dark to take pictures, and we were hungry. We came home through Drogheda and stopped at the Black Bull again for dinner. The pear and blue cheese salad I had was delicious.

At the end of our trip, Margaret and I were discussing some of our favorite moments and this day—every bit of it—was the first thing that sprang to my mind. It was as nearly perfect as a day can be. Magical.

Today’s Image

Monasterboice at sunset was … indescribable. Indescribably beautiful. Surrounded by shade trees that brought the dark on quickly and filled with monuments to the dead that had unimaginable grief still clinging to them in words and visuals. If you ever get the chance, you should see it. I’m glad I did.