Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bonnie Ireland: Castle-hopping, fairy folklore and a whole lot of Blarney.

I just lived a dream. It's times like these that you have to pinch yourself to make sure you're really awake. And I was, I really was! My dear husband surprised me with a trip to Ireland, fulfilling a fantasy I've had since I was knee-high to a leprechaun. If you've ever wanted to go and wondered a few things like when to go, what to see and where to say, look no further!
July and August is Summer for Ireland and it stays between 65*-72* and doesn't rain as much. We got lucky and missed the rain for 7 out of the 9 days we were visiting. The days it did rain, it was only a light drizzle that didn't even necessitate an umbrella. Because these months are so much warmer and dryer than the rest of the year, it makes it a prime tourist time.
       We arrived in Dublin on July 25th at 7 am in the morning after a 2 hour flight from Dallas to Georgia, a layover for another 2 hours, then a 9 hour flight from Georgia to Ireland. We flew through the night but got no rest as there was a screaming child on the plane that MAY have been quiet for 30 minutes of the entire flight.
It was dreadful.
So, we plugged in out trusty earphones and 3 movies later, I opened my shade and saw the shores of Ireland approaching.
Now, that was breath-taking. A misty fog hung over the shores and the sun glistened on the tiny little fishing boats on the sea reeling in the day's lunch special. From way up in my uncomfortable plane chair, I could see mountains dotted with grey boulders and white sheep.
       Once my feet hit Dublin soil, I realized I was living my dream and I couldn't see enough. Despite the jetlag that kept knocking at our temples, I pulled my husband this way and that taking pictures at every turn, side-stepping into dainty little shops and eateries and packing the day full of delicious pastries and whimsical activities.
       For lunch we found Temple Bar, a hip little block of town for people of all ages (during the day; at night it's geared more towards the younger crowds) and I had the most delicious cup of hot cocoa I have ever had in my life at a little cafe called The Brick Alley cafe.

       Once our bellies were full and we had a little more energy ("little" meaning just a tad above empty), we headed out to find more excitement. In Christ's Church Cathedral we got to hear an award winning bell choir from a NY high school play inside. Hearing those bells resonate against the walls of that cathedral was heart stopping. However, our fuel reserve was gone by now and we were beyond low on energy and kept falling asleep during one of the more soft songs they played. So, we decided it might be best, so as not be rude and dose off again during their beautiful performance, to find our hotel and catch a cat nap.
       Tucked away down a short winding path was Clontarf Castle, our first night's stay and our first of 3 castle experiences.

       It was an older castle that had been modernized some. There was an original wall inside the hotel lobby with a window and balcony, but other than that, it was very modern. The 2 styles collided beautifully, though. Behind the reception desk was a lighted wall lined with all the authentic past skeleton keys found and/or returned and donated. The castle was bought, restored and first made into a hotel back in the early 1960s. $10,000,000 recently went into the renovations and restorations it upholds today.
       We got into our little room and settled ourselves in for a quick nap. Although, it wasn't quick not by any means. We laid our pretty little heads down at 4:30 in the afternoon and slept our way through the night all the way till 9 am the next morning! Needless to say, jetlag was no problem for the rest of the trip.
        So, off to Co. Cork we went. We shopped down the tourist strip and found a gem tucked away in a little cove off the main street. Nestled in amongst trees and a waterfall that was wedged seamlessly between 2 tall buildings was The Greenes restaurant. The food was exquisite and priced reasonably. The creme brulee was to die for! In fact, I am craving it even as I write. *sigh*
From Cork we travelled to Co. Kerry and drove the Ring of Kerry, a scenic drive following the coast of the Atlantic for miles, taking you through Kenmare (one of my favorite little villages!), Sneem, Cahersiveen, and the Dingle Penninsula. Beautiful drive and worth the scenery alone.

       We spent some time searching for a place called the English Market as I had been told it was a "not-to-miss" experience. I had a list of things I should try that I could only get there, like homemade cheeses, breads and freshly harvested olives. After stumbling upon it quite by accident, we found ourselves in the entrance to the fish and seafood part of the market. Once you got past the initial gag reflex of the stench that hits you like a tons of bricks to the face it was quite enjoyable to watch Irish women and men order fresh tuna from the ships that went out that morning, to picking out bread, cheese and olives to compliment dinner.

       Also in Cork was the famed Blarney Castle and you know kissing the Blarney Stone has been on my bucket list for quite some time! Legend has it, that whomever shall kiss the stone shall be blessed with the gift of eloquence. So, off we went, sanitizer in hand, to kiss that stone and gain my little portion of eloquence that was due to me! In reality, the word "blarney" is an endearing description for a fine flow of eloquence with just a touch of good-humored exaggeration (now, I KNOW I'm Irish).

       Our next destination was the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare. This is Ireland's most visited natural attraction filled with wildlife at every viewpoint. Dolphins, mountain goats, puffins, and the rare Choughs or "celtic crow" make frequent appearances in the waters hundreds of feet below.

       Up until this point, I had not done much shopping. I was happy to take pictures on our scenic drives and window shop at our scenic stops. Please don't let this fool you. I am a shopaholic and shopping was definitely on my to-do list, but I was saving my money for a specific list of things I had to have and Co. Galway was the place! Here, I scored some collectible Galway crystal chalices, a piece of Belleek pottery and an authentic handmade Aran sweater. I also found some great things not on my list, like the Claddagh ring.

       It has long been used as a wedding ring in Irish tradition as it symbolizes love, loyalty and friendship.

       Galway was one of my favorite larger cities. We did however, manage to step away from the hustle and bustle of the main city and head off to a couple remote attractions. Kylemore Abbey in Connemara was beyond exquisite. A beautiful Abbey set beside a glass top lake with a mountain backdrop, the view driving up made us understand instantly why this is the number one attraction in western Ireland.  The Benedictine Community of Nuns have made Kylemore Abbey their Irish residence since they bought it as a refuge after their own abbey in Ypres, Belgium was destroyed in WWI.

       Then came Sunday, July 29th, the last Sunday in July - it's time for the main reason we came to Ireland: To experience the Irish Pilgrim climb, Croagh Patrick. I have some Irish heritage and who knows if my ancestors (who were mostly Quakers really), even participated in this very Catholic tradition, but I had to do it myself. It entails climbing a 2778 foot perilous rocky terrained mountained barefoot. This was to help the patron rid themselves of sins, sacrifice for the cause of a loved one, or just to show devotion to God. I read about this journey on several websites and told my husband we HAD to do this, with shoes, however. With Vibrams donned -

- we scaled the mountain and reached the top just 2 hours later. Waiting for us and the thousands of other people who had completed the climb, were completing the climb or had yet to complete the climb that day, was a small church where Mass was held and St. Patrick's bed (where he slept on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights).

       Exhausted and yet, completely stoked at our achievment, we realized quickly that we had to make our way back down.  

       Our second castle experience was a haunted one. Markree Castle in Co. Sligo is said to house a little ghost servant girl who died in the premises many years ago. She can be mischievious on occasion and has been known to move items from one room to another and even, on one occasion, knock over a glass of orange juice 4 times before the owner, Mary Cooper, decided she may not need the glass of oj that badly. Room 26 seems to get quite a bit of activity (we were in room 24 just next door) and it is said that upon asked to clean that room a young maid said she could not because there was a young girl in a grey uniform napping on the bed. Looking at the register, the room was rented out so the maid and her supervisor went to investigate and, of course, found no trace of the little napping girl. Room 7 gets most of the activity, though and years ago some American guests who requested that room specifically, got more than they bargained for when the lady of the room felt her hair being stroked in the middle of the night. She and her husband promptly fled the castle.

By far, my favorite big city was Belfast, where the streets were alive with street performers and one-man shows.

      There we found the Giant's Causeway, a natural wonder in its own right. With over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns fashioned from the intense volcanic and geological activity that occured there in years past, (not to mention the fact that it's over 60 million years old), it's no wonder it provides a glimpse into the the Earth's most ancient past.

       Our overnight in Belfast found us in the Malmaison, an ultra modern upscale hotel with a killer 4 star restaurant inside. It was magnificently comfortable and surprisingly affordable.

       Our trip was coming to an end all too quickly. We drove to county Westmeath to do some family history and find some gravestones (none of which were any relation to me, sadly, but extremely cool, nonetheless). That evening we winded our way down the typical lazy Irish roads to our final castle stay. It was the most extravagant of all. I don't mean the price was extravagant. It was actually our cheapest castle stay. Rather, the still family owned and run (by 3 brothers) estate is authentically real. At first glance, the castle seems to have remained untouched by most modern extravagances. However, upon further inspection, you can see they have made updates but have cleverly hidden these modern conveniences in the stone walls and such. Things like electricity and plumbing were brilliantly installed to bind the modern to the vintage. But the castle, as a whole, was original. Updating had been done and renovations had obviously taken place, but it looked straight out of the Viking Era.

       It is here, upon our arrival at Cabra Castle, that I almost had a heart attack. No, not from the beauty of the structure, but because of this stuffed animal:

       I walked in, suitcase dragging behind me, and saw this shaggy stuffed lion. I really thought nothing of it, lion symbols have been all over Ireland on banners and shields and crests. Except, in this case, I noticed that this "stuffed lion" was breathing. Now, those who know me, know that I am an animal lover. Big or small, it doesn't matter, I cuddle them all. BUT, upon seeing this "lion" breathing I was a little shaken and took a step backward (in all reality I tried runnig away to save my life and was  hindered by my luggage, and ended up falling but caught myself on the table behind me).
"It's a baby lion!" I shrieked to my husand who had just mosied in behind me.
       As soon as I said it, my brain kicked in (2 seconds too late) and I realized 2 things: 1- This establishment would not allow a lion on the premises even if it was toothless and had been declawed. And 2 - Unless, they had him imported from Africa, there were no lions in Ireland! Once my heart stopped pounding and I had a few seconds to nurse my bruised ego, I realized it was an old lazy Irish Wolfhound, (although, a rather mutantly massive Irish Wolfhound, if I do say so myself. Just throwing that out there). So, we all got a good laugh and I was able to go back to my natural animal cuddling self. Oscar was not nearly as impressed with me as I was with him.

       Our final day found us lazily driving down winding roads and turning around dozens of times so I could take yet another picture of yet another house or sheep or waterfall or ruins. That's the thing, castle and abbey ruins were around every turn in every city of every county.

       Our last night in Ireland led us back to Dublin where we explored the south end this time. We saw St. Stephen's Green;

and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

       We ate lunch at the historic Bank restaurant and later, went to a night of dinner, Irish music and folklore in the Brazenhead Bar. Philip Byrne, our storyteller, captivated us with his knowledge of Irish history, folklore and the superstitions that still play a role in Irish living today.

       For instance, fairy forts (or seemingly unexplained circular earthen mounds) are not to be messed with in Ireland as severe bad luck will soon follow. In 2007 Minister for the Environment Dick Roche signed an order destroying the Lismullin Henge, a 4,000 year old astronomical observatory and place of worship and hailed as one of the most important archaeological finds of the century in order to make way for a new M3 motorway. Despite the warnings he was given, Roche said he "was not concerned" and continued with the construction of the motorway.
Roche was since held up by an armed gang in the Druids Glen Hotel and also lost his job and was then demoted.
Martin Cullen, the then Minister for Transport, nearly got sucked out of a helicopter when the door fell off on one of his extravagantly expensive trips.
The chief Health and Safety Officer was seriously injured by a falling tree when construction began at in 2007.
A worker was killed when he became trapped at Fairyhouse where there have been many accidents on this stretch of road.
A human tooth was discovered in a digger which was used to destroy the famous ancient feasting grounds and gathering place of ancient Harpers at Baronstown. Shortly afterwards the stairs in the National Museum collapsed. Most of the Irish, whether true believers in the folklore of fairies or not, say Ireland will continue to be cursed if the government does not stop meddling with sacred ground.
(cite courtesy: Irish Central, 2010)

       All in all, I can't say enough about Ireland and it's rich culture and history. I want to go back and explore the more inland parts of the country that we missed while traveling the coast on those narrow little roads that were barely big enough for our little compact car (which, by the way, was barely big enough for my 6'3" husband to fit into, let alone our luggage. We barely had enough space for the severe tourist rubber-necking we were doing the entire time).
Long live my Bonnie Ireland!!

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