[Part 4 begins with August 15.]
Tuesday, August 8
To the Burren
We wandered happy as the poetic cloud along backroads from the midlands, through the Slieve Aughty Mountains, to Ballyvaughan on the Burren shore of Galway Bay this day, starting a three-day, two-night stay in County Clare.
All church ruins, it seems -- even very famous ones like Clonmacnoise or the Rock of Cashel -- are used as active graveyards. This ruin, dating from the 13th century, is home to many very permanent dwellers, even inside the buildings.
This night we had a reservation for Dunguire Castle's "Mediaeval Banquet," which Rick Steves touted highly in his travel books/tapes about touring Ireland. We didn’t take cameras, thinking (rightly) that it would be too much of a hassle. The banquet and entertainment were very good, and we had a pleasant time talking with a couple from
The “Castle” itself, while very photogenic (as many, many postcards attest), is surprisingly small: just one big room on each of the three stories of the tower, connected by a stone spiral stair, and one or two rooms off the tower on the ground floor.
Wednesday, August 9
Sherwood surveys the scene from the roof of the Aillwee Cave Visitors' Centre northward toward Ballyvaughan and Galway Bay.
Today was our first "tourist-y" day in Ireland, in that we spent it visiting famous tourist attractions. We found during our stay that Ireland is a little like a barbequed steak as far as tourism is concerned: the outer edges are well-done, but the inner parts are sweetly rare.
On this day, we visited some of the well-done parts -- and found that there are good reasons for their popularity.
After a morning visit to the Aillwee Cave, we wandered along the Galway Bay coastline (shunning the crowded August tourist routes) to the Cliffs of Moher (supposedly pronounced "More," but we heard locals pronounce it "MO-her," too.)
The Cliffs of Moher area was crowded with tourists on this day, mostly, it seemed, from other European countries, but a lot of American English could be heard as well. Diane and I took to calling the place "the Cliffs of Babel" after we'd been there for a few minutes. On this day, the most common language (to our ears) seemed to be Italian, followed closely by German, American English, and Spanish. Outside the visitors' centre and concession areas, we heard very little Irish English.
Wandering back to our temporary headquarters at the Hyland's Burren Hotel in Ballyvaughan, we visited the Poulnabrone Dolmen -- an ancient structure older than Egypt's pyramids -- and its surrounding karst landscape. Less crowded than our other stops, those places in the heart of the Burren were at least as enchanting to us.
The Poulnabrone Dolmen on August 9th, 2006.
Karst ground and flora.
For this day, especially, I urge the interested reader to go on to our slideshow, which includes (in addition to almost 50 slides with captions) links for further information about the places we visited.
After returning to our hotel in Ballyvaughan, we had dinner and spent the evening in the local pub, savoring the heavenly gift of Guinness as it is only on the island, listening to craic and spontaneous music, and, mostly, feeling very, very at home.
A Visit with Lord and Lady Rosse
Empty kegs outside our hotel in the morning -- a common early-day sight across the island at hotels' and pubs' delivery entrances. The black stripe denotes a Guinness keg, I'm told.
From our travel diary for the day:
The drive back to Birr was quick and easy, except for the short patches of main road which were very congested.
The remainder of this day was spent doing homey-type things. Diane did more cleaning and laundry, and I took some time in town at the Mid-Ireland Tourist Board’s computer to peruse the web for some items I’d been curious about. (Internet access in Birr is still fairly rare, but that will doubtless change very soon.) Tonight we are scheduled to visit Lord and Lady Rosse in the castle where I am not going to be so gauche as to bring a camera, so this is probably all the photos for today.
Later: we had an absolutely delightful couple of hours with Lord and Lady Rosse. The Castle, of course, is stunning. After champagne and easy conversation in the formal first floor area of the castle, they showed us around some of the second-floor living areas. Lady Rosse spent some time in her studio with Diane, and Lord Rosse showed me the archive room, where I perused some of J. L. E. Dreyer’s letters to the Fourth Earl concerning Dreyer's work with the Leviathan. The Earl invited me to come back on another day to spend some more time in the archives. I of course intend to take him up on that, and got his permission to bring my camera with me next time. The two of them also gave me permission to go through the construction fence around the reconstructed Leviathan some evening after the tourists are gone from the Demesne, which I also fully intend to do now. Actually, they seemed a little surprised that I hadn’t already done so.
Friday, August 11
The Hill of the Witch
The Loughcrew passage tombs are among the most significant megalithic sites in Ireland, surpassed in fame but not beauty and wonder by the heavily-visited Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth tombs on the River Boyne. We took a comfortable meander across the midlands to visit the site atop the highest hills in western County Meath.
The brief, official OPW webpage for Loughcrew notes that "the approach road is very narrow" and that "the climb [...] is very steep and visitors are asked to wear stout footwear and to be careful." That combination of factors, and Loughcrew's out-of-the-way locale, keeps this deeply impressive site from being at all crowded, even at the height of tourist season. ('OPW" stands for Ireland's Office of Public Works, which manages and staffs the country's national parks and heritage sites.)
In fact, when we reached the top of the hill and the intact passage tomb called Cairn T, the only other person there was the OPW guide for that day, a fellow named George. He took us inside the passage, and happily gave us a private interpretive tour.
George said that the pre-Celtic people who built this place probably practiced “excarnation,” in which the deceased would be left outside in the elements until only the skeleton remained, and some pieces of bone would then be deposited in the burial chamber.This is a view from the direction of the entrance inward along the passage. Various constrictions in the passage behind us in this view produce a square of light against the petroglyphs on the sunrises of the equinoxes.
This passage is also perfectly aligned with the Neolithic site at Tara; another site on a distant mountain to the north has a passage and chamber perfectly aligned with this site at Loughcrew. It strikes me that if light can only get into these passage chambers from one direction, it could also only get out in one direction, so these structures could have been a Neolithic secure communications network as well as just bone yards or sun worship sites. That might explain the hilltop locations of most of these places, too, since the whole island was densely wooded 5,000 years ago, making long sightlines in multiple directions rare.
Moving archaeological experiences aside, simply the view of the fertile, peaceful land of the upper Boyne and the grand and changing display of clouds on this day would have made our hike to the top of the Hill of the Witch -- and maybe even our entire trip to Ireland -- worthwhile. Sunlight danced with cloud shadows; lines of showers marched in the distance across fields of more varieties of green than we had ever seen in a single sight before.
Jim Dempsey's wonderful "Megalithic Ireland" website includes this two-page entry on Loughcrew, replete with extensive (and beautiful) photos. Our little slideshow from August 11, 2006, can be seen by clicking here.
The Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel (and a foreground residence) as seen from the field near Hore Abbey.
At the heart of the 13th-century Cathedral
It was in these buildings that as many as 3000 people were trapped and killed when the buildings were torched in 1647 by the English forces of Lord Inchiquinn. (This horrific event was treated in a little more detail with more pictures in the second half of this entry in SherWords.)
12th-century stone faces in Cormac's Chapel, the oldest surviving structure on the hill.
Click here for a 17-slide show with captions from our excursion to the Rock of Cashel and Hore Abbey.
Birr Heritage Week Parade
As in many agricultural parts of the US (including where I grew up), August is the time in Ireland for communities to celebrate their work and their culture. In the US, it's county fairs; in the Republic, it's agricultural "shows" (such as the close-to-Birr Tullamore show, sadly washed out in 2007 by the summer's unusual torrents of rain ) or "heritage" celebrations such as the Birr Heritage Week (now called Birr Vintage Week.)
A highlight of Birr's Heritage Week is its Sunday parade, which snakes its way through the town and which shows off... well, anything anybody's proud of, mostly, from cars (not necessarily "vintage"), tractors, bands, you name it. Diane and I staked out a place along Castle Street to watch, and here is about ten minutes' worth, broken into two YouTube-acceptable segments. There is no narration, only the ambient sounds and the occasional wisecrack from the camera-holder to his wife (and vice-versa):
Both before and after the parade, we enjoyed a peaceful Sunday at home, and did some more exploring within the walls of the Demesne (including a closer inspection of the Leviathan, as invited, after closing time at six.) Diane poached some flowers from the Earl's gardens to replenish the bouquets in the Bothy.
Monday, August 14
Birr Castle Archives
Today I took Lord Rosse up on his offer to spend more time in the archives, and spent several hours carefully perusing some of the hundreds of boxes of letters to the two astronomer Earls (Brendan Parsons' great- and great-great grandfathers) dating back to William Herschel.
I started out looking through the rich letters from J.L.E. Dreyer to his employer, the Fourth Earl, concerning operation of the great telescope in the 1870's. Dreyer has some fame in modern astronomy as the originator of the New General Catalog (or NGC) of non-stellar objects, and I have mentioned his work at Birr before in this blog.
But I also took a little side-trip into a few letters written to the Fourth Earl by a fellow I thought I knew a lot about: American astronomer Edward S. Holden. Holden was the founder of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, for which organization I worked for more than a decade. He was also the first Director of Lick Observatory, at which place I did a great deal of work in the 1960's and '70's (and for which place I have a great deal of fondness.) Lick went into operation with the world's largest refracting telescope (but only half the diameter of Birr's Leviathan) in 1888, and in the 1870's Holden was a young astronomer at the United States Naval Observatory.
The letter I found from Holden that rocked me back on my heels just a little bit was this one (you'll have to click on the images to read the letter, and the images have been adjusted for legibility, not aesthetics):
The thing that surprised me -- and gave me a laugh-out-loud moment in the archives room -- was what the younger version of Holden had to say about how dumb a place his future fortress of research was being built on (and that he got its locale wrong: Mt. Hamilton is East of San Jose, not South of it.)
Lord Rosse had left me alone with the archives, and when time came for me to leave, I made my way back to the castle's front door -- only to find it bolted shut with a lock that required an old-fashioned skeleton key to open from either side. After a few calls for assistance and looking for someone in a few nearby rooms, it became clear that I was pretty well alone (at least alone among those of the 88 rooms within earshot of the front door.) My cell 'phone saved me -- I managed to get in touch with Lady Rosse at the Castle business office in town and she had a good laugh over the situation before telling me where I could find the key.
Being locked alone inside a castle in Ireland isn't something I ever expected would happen to me.
For 36 captioned slides from these two days at Birr (but none of the parade!), click here.
Tomorrow: A Journey to the North and West begins HI-POD: Part 4