Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

(Please click on the image to see it as it's meant to be seen.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Four Days Off the Grid

The forced-air furnace doesn't work without electricity, so Ft. Harrington's only heat for the past four days was from the wood-burning stove in our barn of a living room at the far end of the structure.

When our gasoline-powered generator died last year, we decided not to go to the expense of repairing or replacing it. A long time had passed since there had been a power outage longer than a couple of hours here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and we figured that PG&E had beefed up the grid sufficiently that the expense wasn't really justified.


The wind started to pick up a bit around midday last Wednesday, the last day of November, while I was at work. Diane tells me that the power went out here in the mountains at about 3:30, and we were a little surprised that it was still out when I got home after dark. We settled in for a pleasant evening by candlelight, warmed by the wood-burning stove in the living room.

Diane and Kelsey by candle- and stove-light.

The "pleasant" part of that stopped at about midnight, as December came in like a dragon. My friend Paul, the meteorology guy at our college, told me the next day that winds had topped hurricane force at the tops of several mountains around the Bay Area that night. While not that strong down here in Ft. Harrington's hollow, it was plenty strong enough. The sound of small branches hitting the roof was almost nonstop for a while in the wee hours, and the characteristic rifleshot-crack of redwood limbs separating from their trees, followed by the whoosh as they fell their hundred feet or more through other branches, followed by the thud (or worse) when the widowmakers hit the ground punctuated the night.

25 feet long and having fallen about 100 feet, this "widowmaker" redwood branch fell in about the best place it could have, causing only minor damage to a grape arbor (at left) and the rose garden area (at its far end).

Things had settled down a bit by dawn, and it was evident that we had been very, very lucky, as had all of our immediate neighbors. While there was lots of damage to peripheral structures, nobody's house was crushed. (At last report, though, at least four homes were destroyed by falling trees elsewhere in these mountains.)

Crunched deck railing.

The electrical power grid had been devastated overnight. Both main lines into the San Lorenzo Valley, one up from Santa Cruz to the south and the other over the mountains from the Bay Area to the west, were so badly damaged in wilderness areas that crews and equipment had to be brought in by helicopter to essentially rebuild large sections of them. It took nearly four days for power to be restored here; the Fort was off the grid for 93 hours and 15 minutes, ending at 12:45 this afternoon.

Old Kelsey and I keep each other warm. (Photo by Diane Harrington.)

The lack of a generator made things a bit more inconvenient and uncomfortable than we would have liked, but we mostly feel like we dodged a bullet -- or an RPG -- or two, and know how lucky we were. The two big "widowmaker" redwood branches that fell on our property only damaged a deck railing and a grape arbor -- far less damage than they would have worked if less considerately placed. Also, this was a dry wind, not a rain storm. If it had been a typical wet winter storm, with the ground soaked, that fierce wind would have toppled whole redwoods, not just pieces of them. That nightmare would have been just horrendous -- but it didn't happen.

Seven minutes before the power came back on: Jax (lower) and Cooper (upper) keep the old man warm and vice versa. We didn't keep the fire going except in the evenings, and -- while not cold by northern December standards -- the temperature in the house during the day was generally in the upper 40s and lower 50s Fahrenheit.

No, it didn't happen this time. But it will. And you can bet we'll have a generator when it does.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Old Dog Makes Another Comeback

Kelsey and Jax this evening. Note the shaved places on Kelsey's forelegs: they were for intravenous ports' insertion during his time under general anesthesia three days ago.

About a year and a half ago, we had a cancer scare with old Kelsey-the-Dog. Further testing ultimately showed that the scary initial test results were due to something considerably less dire.

This week we had another big "whew" episode with our stalwart friend and guardian of Fort Harrington. A couple of weeks before, he had developed a bit of a yeast infection in both ears, and his veterinarian put him on a course of topical antibiotics for ten days. By the time we took him in for a follow-up, it was clear that he had lost all hearing in both ears.

That follow-up visit with the vet was three days ago, the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving. The infection had cleared up completely -- but his ears were hurting him so badly that a standard visual inspection proved impossible, even with me and a burly vet tech gently but firmly trying to keep him immobile. Since he had recently had a routine blood panel that showed good kidney function, we decided to put him under general anesthesia to try to see if the cause of the pain and deafness could be ascertained.

He made it through the anesthesia well (though it ultimately took him two days to shake the unsteadiness and grogginess) -- but no progress was made on diagnosis. The vet took a head x-ray while he was unconscious, and made arrangements for consultation with a radiologist next week.

I picked him up on Wednesday morning, and the vet was convinced -- as was I -- that his deafness was complete and permanent. We had a short conversation about coping strategies for living with a deaf, aged dog, and I took him home. I made a brief post about his condition on Facebook before heading off to work.

When I came home after work that night, the poor guy was shaky and miserable. Diane said that she had tried all sorts of test noises during the day, and he hadn't responded visibly to any of them. I took him outside to do his business in the darkened front yard.

While we were out, someone up the hollow whooped and hollered at something, the noise echoing down the draw. I glanced at Kelsey, and saw he had his head up, alert in his standard vigilant-alert pose. He was ahead of me and to my right, about ten yards separating us. I clapped my hands once, hard.

His head whipped around. The wrong way, but it whipped around nonetheless.

That night, we continued making noises, testing him and confusing the spaniels mightily. Some things he seemed to notice, most not.

Thanksgiving day was a different story. Hourly, it seemed, his responses to sounds increased. By evening, he seemed to be almost completely back to normal, and today, "Black Friday," the recovery seems to be complete. Not only that, but the pain is gone, too.

We have another appointment with his vet tomorrow, and it will be interesting to hear what she has to say. My completely unprofessional guess is this: he's a geriatric dog (the chart on the vet's wall says that a rough human equivalent age to his is 85), so maybe his body just doesn't recuperate as quickly now after things like infections as it used to. Whatever the reason, he's shown his resilience once again, and we had a much happier Thanksgiving for it.

He's still hard of listening sometimes, but he's always been like that. I think it's the Akita in him; they have a reputation of hard-headedness.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two Astronomers and the Forest of the Iroquois

I had a hard week at work last week. It was nothing particularly epochal or even unusual -- just a confluence of typical trials, round budget pegs to be pounded into square bureaucratic holes and the like. Friday's afternoon wasn't so much like a liberation as it was like a temporary reprieve, knowing, as I do, that Monday comes soon after, and verbal cheese like "Student Learning Outcomes" will, again, become hash to be taken seriously.

I stopped by the grocery store on my way home, depleted and stone-brained dull. As I pushed my cart into line, something in the soundtrack of the audio pablum of Safeway's muzak caught my attention. By the time I reached the front of the line, my skin was all a-goosebump, and I had to concentrate on stopping tears lest the checker judge me to be dangerous.

"Sailing to Philadelphia" was playing as I waited to pay for my wheat chex.

The song is a hauntingly beautiful duet by Mark Knopfler and James Taylor. In it, they reprise an imaginary discussion between two Englishmen in the 18th century who took on a surveying job in the new world: surveyor Jeremiah Dixon and journeyman astronomer Charles Mason. Their "Mason-Dixon Line" marking the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, between America's South and North, even today has a greater societal impact than a geographic one -- but Jeremiah and Charlie couldn't have known what their line would demark in the larger world of future politics. They only knew that they were headed into a wilderness.

I am, personally, a product of their divide. My father's family is from the North, my mother's from the South, and both sides go back several generations, and both sides sacrificed sons in battles with the other's sons.

I am also, like Charlie, an astronomer of little note but with great appreciation for the science and its beauty. The roots of that appreciation lie in my younger eyes' view of dark, sparkling, starry skies in upstate New York, afforded by breaks between the trees in its forest, the forest of the Iroquois.

So this verse, sung by Taylor as I fumbled for my Safeway Discount Card at checkout, damn near broke me to tears:

You're a good surveyor, Dixon,
But I swear you'll make me mad.
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad.
You talk of liberty --
How can America be free?
A Geordie and a baker's boy
In the forest of the Iroquois?

I grew up in the Forest of the Iroquois, and might not have without Jeremiah's and Charlie's efforts. And then I went on to be an astronomer.

Sherwood in the Forest of the Iroquois, 1961. Photo by Lynn Harrington.

The Safeway checker wouldn't have understood that I was fumbling for a card with Charles Mason's name on it, so I didn't tell her. I just paid cash for my wheat chex, and then drove off toward my home in the Forest of the Ohlone.



Saturday, October 1, 2011


Doug Harrington (1 October, 1966 - 14 November, 2006) stalking crayfish at his great-aunts' house in Upstate New York, summer, 1975.

That's his brother Adam's hair, fuzzy in the left foreground. Adam has put together a celebration of his brother's life in video-slide form and posted it on YouTube today. Please go visit, if you have a few minutes to spare.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Afterword

412 years ago, my 10th-great grandfather, John Harrington, included the following in a report to his godmother the Queen on his recent deployment to Ireland:
I have informed myself reasonably well of the whole state of the country, by observation and conference: so I count the knowledge I have gotten here worth more than half the three hundred pounds this journey hath cost me.
If I ever meet Sir John, I'll tell him that I got the other 150 pounds' worth.

I'm not going to be as bold as he was with my assessment after two deployments, though. While I think this pair of Harringtons is now reasonably well informed about certain aspects of Ireland that we knew nothing about before, we are also well enough informed to know that the "whole state" of any country, even one as small as that one, is beyond us.

Our first reconnaissance is done, though, that much is certain. What comes next will be very different from exploration of geography -- I doubt very much that any future visits will lend themselves to a daily account or mapping. Instead, what I think lies ahead for Ireland and me is some in-depth research on some very specific topics. The precise form of what comes out of that research will depend in large part on what's uncovered in it, but I know who its central figure will be, and he's not one I would have expected before this second trip to Birr.

Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse, may not have been a riveting intellectual giant like his father or a reckless technological and industrial giant like his younger brother, but by virtue of time and position he ties together a parade of fascinating personalities and a sea change in the way we all live our lives. His time spanned from the first automobile tragedy to the runup to WWI's mechanistic horror, his astronomy bridged from the gentility of a country gentlemen's avocation to the first mountaintop professional observatory run by a modern university, the geography of his story spans from Birr to Santa Cruz. The next steps in research are to try to get a sense of the man himself beyond his brusque diary entries and to fill in more details concerning his week in Northern California in 1891 -- including trying to crack the mystery of those four blank diary pages.

As concerns the latter, I'm anxiously awaiting the re-opening of the Lick Observatory Archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz, just down the road from my home here in Boulder Creek. The archives have been unavailable for many months due to facilities renovation, but should reopen before the end of the year, and I'm anxious to see if I can find more about the Fourth Earl's interactions with the Lick staff of the time, including the Observatory's blustery (and largely unpopular) first Director, Edward Singleton Holden. I know a little something about that particular cast of characters already, having worked as an editor and archivist for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, an organization founded by Holden in 1889.

As concerns a sense of the man himself, I suspect that will require getting dusty in Armagh and Trinity College, Dublin for starters. The archives at Birr, fascinating as they are, primarily show only one end of conversations: letters received. Letters from Lord Rosse to the astronomers at Armagh and writings of his during his long tenure as Chancellor of Trinity College should help give more insight than his short diary entries do.

This will be fun.


A few footnotes:

A big difference:

The biggest difference to us between our 2006 visit and this one four years later is not a hard call: it's the ease of getting around Ireland on the roadways. The reach of "dual carriageway" superhighways from Dublin now radiates to all of the island's other major cities, and no place in Ireland is more than a couple of hours by car on good, modern roads from Dublin, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, or Waterford. It is as though all of the US had made the transition from 1930s roads to a complete modern interstate network in less than a decade, and the effects on the character of Ireland will be profound and permanent. The network was just in its finishing stages in August, 2010. The following video clip shows eight minutes of a drive along the M7/N7 toward Limerick, and gives a pretty good flavor of the magnitude of the transition. The first third is along a new superhighway (the M7), the middle third is along a new connecting road from the superhighway to a village, and the final third is along the N7. The connecting road is typical of new non-superhighway roads which have also proliferated across the island, and its breadth and clear sight lines bear little resemblance to the narrow, hedgerow-walled roads they replace. The N7 from Birdhill westward in the last part of the clip is typical of what constituted a major national highway during our 2006 visit.

(The banter between Diane and me at the roundabout refers to a joke I had cracked during a visit with Lord and Lady Rosse about how American tourists might be miffed that the Irish seem to be intent on not remaining picturesquely impoverished and quaint.)

Photos in a trice:

A link to this has been posted on this blog before, but it's sensible to repeat it here: all of the 700-plus photos in the albums of this trip over on can be seen in rapid-fire on this YouTube video in only six minutes:

Plans gang agley:

Back in July of 2010, this SherWords post invited readers to hold on to a map of our intended travels to compare with what actually happened. Just in case you've lost yours, here are the two maps -- planned on the left and actual on the right.

Evidently, a major ankle injury tends to sag one's peregrinations down and to the right.

Which leads to this closing note: I knew before that my wife is a tough cookie who doesn't let a little pain stop her. I just didn't quite appreciate the magnitude of her grit. If it had been me taking a tumble off that stile in County Antrim, I can guarantee you that a lot more of our days would have looked like August 26.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Across the Western Ocean

Day 35 of 35: Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones stayed in the room next to ours the night before our departure. He's 19 days older than I am, but looks 19 years older, at least, and I guess that's what comes of packing so much fun into your life. No rock star shenanigans that night: the only noise coming from that direction was the occasional knock on his door by what we figured was his manager or agent, shouting "Ronnie! You have to be at [xyz] in [abc] minutes!" Carlos Santana didn't look like he needed such shepherding, but, then again, Carlos is a whole month younger than Ronnie and me. We didn't bother Mr. Wood beyond simply nodding to him as we passed him in the lobby.

Homeward bound:

To the airport, early morning. To American immigration (which no other foreign country has at the Dublin airport.) To Aer Lingus. To Chicago. To United to San Francisco, to Adam, to the pickup truck, to home.

US presence in Dublin's airport. (This is the "old" passenger terminal; the new one opened just a few weeks later and incorporates the most comprehensive US Customs and Immigration station outside the Western Hemisphere.)

Aer Lingus's "St. Aoife" at the Dublin Airport as we awaited departure. This was the aircraft that brought us from Chicago to Dublin weeks before – but here it was about to take people to Boston; ours was to be the next flight out after that.

The trip home was largely uneventful, unlike last time, and gave no opportunity for a dramatic end to this narrative.

And that's fine by us.

All of the sets of additional images from this trip can be accessed through this index page over on

Next and last -- Afterword (to be posted after a few days' break)
Previous: September 6, 2010 -- Dublin in the Rain
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Dublin in the Rain

Day 34 of 35: Monday, September 6, 2010

Our last full day in Ireland this time was a very rainy one, spiked by the obligation to return our rental car by the middle of the afternoon. Fortified by our experience on Saturday, we braved Dublin’s traffic by driving into the city in the morning, parking in a garage near Saint Stephen’s Green. We left the big, expensive camera back in the hotel because of the rain… and Diane’s little Canon point-and-shoot didn’t work well, so we have very few photos of this day. It’s just as well; we were so sad to leave that the mist and the gray and the drizzle fit our mood better than any photo could capture.

Park Lake in the rain, St. Stephen's Green.

Sherwood (blue jacket) shopping on Nassau Street.

Back in the hotel, starting to pack.

The full set of slideshows from this trip will be linked at the end of tomorrow's installment.

Next: September 7, 2010 -- Across the Western Ocean
Previous: September 5, 2010 -- The Mountains of Mourne
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ireland Revisited: The Mountains of Mourne

Day 33 of 35: Sunday, September 5, 2010

Drifting in the rain on Carlingford Lough.

Postponed to last by circumstance, we finally drove up from Dublin toward Belfast and swerved right at Newry in County Down (UK) into the Mountains of Mourne. Diane had wanted to see this storied part of Ulster for a long time, and we had initially planned to go there early on in our trip, but circumstances kept pushing us back toward the end.

The day was wetly gray, and seemed played in a minor key. As we drove, we kept turning the car's radio on to get news of something we knew nothing about a few weeks before: the All-Ireland Hurling Final being played in Croke Park, Dublin. The match on this day, roughly the Superbowl of the GAA, was between Tipperary and perennial powerhouse Kilkenny. Both county colors -- black and amber for Kilkenny, blue and gold for Tipp -- had been on prominent display in flags and pennants all over both counties throughout our travels, and we couldn't help but get interested in what was going on. Tipp won in an upset.

In the Mountains of Mourne.

Southward-looking panorama from near Hilltown, County Down.

After a misty ramble through County Down’s highlands, we drove down southward toward the coast at Kilkeel:

… and then westward and northward along Carlingford Lough back toward Newry and the border, then back to the Republic. (Despite the sound of its name, Carlingford Lough is not a lake, but rather an inlet of the Irish Sea. It forms the easternmost part of the border between counties Louth and Down, between Leinster and Ulster, and thus at present between Ireland and the U.K.)

Deep water port equipment at Greenore, on the south side of Carlingford Lough, in the Republic.

Along our drive back through the rain to Dublin, we took a detour toward the border near Dundalk, looking for a settlement named Drumboat for our friend Ronnie Peterson, part of whose ancestry comes from there. We were not successful in locating the place, and rain was coming down so hard by then that we abandoned the search after wandering into Northern Ireland once again, but we know where to look next time!

More images from this rainy day in the mountains and around Carlingford Lough are available here.

Next: September 6, 2010 -- Dublin in the Rain
Previous: September 4, 2010 -- Moving Day
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Moving Day

Day 32 of 35: Saturday, September 4, 2010

Moving day. Sighing day.

Heading out the door, September 4th.

We left the Bothy today, headed back to Dublin and ultimately to Boulder Creek, and, as four years ago, sadness hung around us like a mist. We love this place.

Ready to go.

The day was taken up with the now-short drive (thanks to the new M7 motorway) to Dublin and checking back in to the Radisson Blu hotel at the airport (or “rad-ISS-un SASS” in the funky dialect and outdated business vocabulary of our satnav’s speech imitation routine.) Rain began to pick up pick up as we left Birr, and intensified as we approached Dublin. The weather had almost precisely coordinated with the calendar in switching from high-tourist season in August to September’s lower expectations. It felt comforting, in a way.

Not a rocky road.

As we approached Dublin, we decided to drive into the center of the city instead of using the ring-road M50 superhighway to avoid it. We wanted to see, on this weekend day, if driving there would be comfortable. We still had two full days ahead of us before our flight home, and wanted to spend one of those days in the city; driving would be a more efficient use of our time for that than the bus would, but only if we thought we could tolerate it.

We're glad we did drive through Dublin on this rainy Saturday. It was a nice way of sightseeing, and traffic was light. From our experience, Dublin isn't a particularly harrowing city to drive in, as long as one is accustomed to driving on the left (as we were by then.) In fact, it's pretty pleasant compared to large American city centers.

More images from September 3 and 4 are available here.

Next: September 5, 2010 -- The Mountains of Mourne
Previous: September 3, 2010 -- Last Full Day in Birr
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Last Full Day in Birr

Day 31 of 35: Friday, September 3, 2010

Hornbeam hallway in the Cloisters, Millennium Gardens, Birr Castle Demesne

Our last full day in the Demesne was mostly spent in the Bothy packing and cleaning; Diane's ankle was too sore from yesterday's trudging up and down the Hill of Uisneach to do much beyond that.

I took a last early-morning walk, including a visit to the brick bridge over the Little Brosna and, of course, to see our friend near her new palace.

The annual trimming of the Millennium Gardens' hedges had been completed the day before, and they looked mysterious in the early morning mist (top) and grand in the later morning’s full sunshine.

In mid-morning, I went over to the Castle, where I had invited myself to take snapshots of our host and hostess. Lady Rosse offered to take a photo of me wherever I wanted; I chose the “Yellow Room,” where we all had a great time two Fridays ago. Especially given the pioneering achievements in photography by a previous Countess of Rosse, I am tickled to have a photo of myself in Birr Castle taken by the current Lady Rosse. (The fact that it's a really nice picture helps a lot, too!)

A count, a countess, and a no-account.

They are delightful people, and we’ll miss them.

I finished the benches’ panoramas project with views from two near the castle, favorably illuminated in evening’s sidelong sunlight. Along the way, I took one more look at the reconstructed Leviathan, still not operational but still a stirring sight for those who know its story.

When we arrived in early August, the castle's ivy was all a lush green. As we prepare to leave, its walls are well along the way to changing their seasonal wardrobe.

More images from this day will be available in a two-day set that will be linked at the end of tomorrow's installment.

Next: September 4, 2010 -- Moving Day
Previous: September 2, 2010 -- The Hill of Uisneach
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ireland Revisited: The Hill of Uisneach

Day 30 of 35: Thursday, September 2, 2010

Uisneach Denizens

This was to be our last true vacation day headquartered in the Bothy; Friday, our actual last full day, would be taken up mostly with packing to leave early the following morning. Today broke with clear skies and a light mist on the ground.

Two-panel panorama of the Bothy in the early light of September 2nd.

After I took a brief trip to the library and its internet connection, we set out for the Hill of Uisneach near Mullingar, said to be the ancient center of Ireland.

Along the way, we took an unplanned detour to see the southernmost tip of Lough Ennell through which the River Brosna flows (Mullingar is at the northern end.) The lake appears to be a great recreation asset for the local people, well away from tourist attractions and, of course, beautiful.

This area at the lake is called “Lilliput,” because of Jonathan Swift’s connection to the region: he frequently retreated to this area in general and this lake in particular to gain solitude for writing. A sign near the shore at this place provides a map of the Mullingar region for bicyclists and reads:
It’s time to take things slowly… Quiet country roads with stunning views of rich pastureland and beautiful lakes provide the ideal backdrop for your cycle routes. Enjoy some fresh air, peace and tranquility. Mullingar is your starting point. A busy market town with excellent facilities and amenities, Mullingar is finely situated on the River Brosna near the ancient centre of Ireland. Visit the beautiful Renaissance style Catholic Cathedral and admire breath-taking frescoes. Visit the local tourist office at the Market Square and see the statue of the late Joe Dolan, commemorating the life and music of Mullingar’s own and internationally renowned singer and entertainer. Venture north to Lough Owel and on to Multyfarnham with it’s [sic] 13th Century Franciscan Friary. Follow in the steps of ancient Irish warriors on the Táin Trail and cycle alongside the Royal Canal, built in the 1800s, and now a recreation amenity and wildlife haven. Cycle south around Lough Ennell, relax at Lilliput amenity area and visit the 18th Century estate at Belvedere where bike parking facilities are available. Whichever route you choose you will enjoy a pleasant cycle in a gentle landscape rich in lake and canal, lore and legend.
I’m sold, but I have no bicycle.

From the lake, we backtracked to our original destination, the Hill of Uisneach (pronounced “Oosh’-nuk”.)

The hill is not on public land, or administered by the OPW. It is on a working farm, and permission to enter should be obtained from the owner. The farmhand who gave us our map of the hill (left over from a Mayday celebration there, an annual New Age spiritual gathering called "the Festival of the Fires" at the traditional center of Ireland) also gave rather ambiguous directions for the easiest walk to the top. Against Diane’s better inclinations, she followed her husband on what turned out to be a very circuitous and rather arduous trudge through pastureland up the 600 feet or so of vertical relief. Not bad for someone on a bum ankle.

Clockwise from upper-left: Parking area and sign on the R390 road west of Mullingar, Diane trudging, more Diane trudging, and curious cows.

The summit features a variety of recent structures, mostly wicker – and an incredibly stunning 360° vista to the far reaches of Ireland. From that point, it is easy to understand why this place has been special in a number of ways for thousands of years.

More images from September 2nd, including a very large, 360° panorama of the view from the top of the Hill of Uisneach, are available in this slideshow on

Next: September 3, 2010 -- Last Full Day in Birr
Previous: September 1, 2010 -- A Midlands Ramble
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ireland Revisited: A Midlands Ramble

Day 29 of 35: Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dominican Priory ruins, Lorrha, Co. Tipperary

As we headed into our last three full days in the Irish midlands and I had finished my time in the archives for this trip, the urge to do a lot of running around to many places became almost overwhelming. Before Diane got going on this morning, I made a quick trip to the little village of Lorrha at a nexus of very back roads between Birr and Terryglass on Lough Derg, through which we had driven the previous evening on our way back from dinner at the Derg Inn. Lorrha turns out to have a number of attractive ruins in its vicinity, including the Dominican Priory, established in the 13th century and now serving as a graveyard adjacent to a modern church.

Details, Dominican Priory, Lorrha.

Once Diane was ready to go, we started on a three-county, generally west-to-east meander across nearby parts of the midlands. We started in Portumna, County Galway, a familiar town to us because we had traveled through it many times in 2006 and on this trip. We had always intended to visit Portumna Castle, but never seemed to have the time. We did so, finally, on this day.

Portumna Castle.

The castle – really an Elizabethan-style mansion – was built in the 17th century as the Irish headquarters of the English Clanrikarde family. It was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1839, leaving only the stone outer walls intact, and was abandoned. The ruin was taken over by Ireland’s Office of Public Works (which administers and operates Ireland’s public antiquities sites) a few decades ago, and the OPW has been slowly restoring the place to an approximation of its 1700s state since the 1960s. Progress is slow because funding is sporadic. So far, only the ground floor is in shape for the public to visit.

From Portumna, we meandered back through the rural environs of Lorrha in North Tipperary, to look at a tower house in a farmer’s fields (Lackeen Castle), and then on to the town of Banagher on the Shannon in County Offaly.

Lackeen Castle (top) and Banagher's bridge across the Shannon.

Finally we followed the Shannon eastward and upstream to the ancient monastic ruins at Clonmacnoise. We had visited Clonmacnoise in 2006, and returned this time as much for its view of the Shannon as for the ruins themselves.

Clonmacnoise, the Shannon, and a fellow visitor.

And, then, finally home to Birr, the Demesne, and the Bothy. An evening stroll gifted us with a short visit with Miss Kitty, another with Lord Rosse (who was driving back from somewhere in the Demesne’s far reaches), and…

… two sociable horses and some of the last vestiges of the weekend’s fair.

More images from this day's wanderings are available in this slideshow on

Next: September 2, 2010 -- The Hill of Uisneach
Previous: August 31, 2010 -- Back to Brú na Bóinne
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Back to Brú na Bóinne

Day 28 of 35: Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We set out nice and early (but not uncivilizedly so) from the airport hotel to re-visit our friends the cows along the banks of the River Boyne. As long as we were there, we decided to nose around a part of the area’s megalithic wonders that we hadn’t seen four years ago.

OPW shuttle bus at the Brú na Bóinne site. Despite its destination sign, it's at the staging area for Knowth.

Cows at the Boyne, burial mounds at Knowth.

In 2006 we toured the largest of the 5,000-year-old passage tombs, Newgrange. This time, we took the blue OPW shuttle bus from the Visitors' Centre to the more distant Knowth cluster of mounds, including the largest and highest one, which you can see a bit of in the top photo on this post.

The passage tombs have been restored to various stages, allowing visitors to see the inner structure of some and the likely working appearance of others. The largest tumulus has two long passages toward chambers near its center (unlike Newgrange, which has one) aligned due east and west (the Newgrange passage is aligned with the winter solstice sunrise point instead). The outer end of the eastern passage can be viewed from a small room near its end, but the passage itself is off-limits to visitors.

Ireland's OPW has provided a path to the top of the largest tumulus, not the first time that a subsequent civilization has constructed things atop the builders' artificial hill. Archaeological evidence shows that it has been used many times over the past 5,000 years by different people as a fortress and even the site of a small village.

At left above, Diane (just to the right of the wood posts, a partial reconstruction of what was probably a ceremonial structure) lends perspective to the size of the large tumulus. The sweeping view from its summit of the Boyne valley is a lovely one; at right we are looking westward along the Boyne.

After our stay at Knowth and the Brú na Bóinne complex, we drove back to Birr along a leisurely route, one designed more for its own sake than for speed. Major highways in Ireland, including the new superhighways, are laid out like spokes radiating from Dublin toward the other relatively large cities on the island. We purposefully worked our way across that plan, traveling an arc across the midlands. Our time in Ireland was dwindling toward its end as August prepared to give way to September, and we were in no rush.

More images of the Knowth complex are available in this slideshow on

Next: September 1, 2010 -- A Midlands Ramble
Previous: August 30, 2010 -- Powerscourt and Howth
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2