Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Sparkling Stories, Sparkling Wine

Day 17 of 35: Friday, August 20, 2010

Diane approaches the Birr Theatre & Arts Centre.

The repercussion in pain for Diane of our excursion to Kilkenny on Tuesday chastened us into sticking close to home for the remainder of the week. Luckily for us, this week of extremely limited mobility coincided with Birr's annual Vintage Week and Arts Festival, so there was a wide variety of things for us to experience nearby. Going to an antiques show and suddenly finding ourselves surrounded by more than 30 Rose of Tralee contestants on tour, for example, is something that doesn't happen in Boulder Creek. At least not often. (Concerning that "on tour" link: camogie is like hurling, but played by women.)

On this day, Friday, we attended a midday session (with sandwiches!) with storyteller Niall de Burca at the Birr Theatre and Arts Centre. The theatre is on Oxmantown Mall, a pretty one-block street connecting the main gate of the Birr Castle Demesne and St. Brendan's Church of Ireland.

North side of Oxmantown Mall.

South side of Oxmantown Mall.

The north side of Oxmantown Mall is lined with stately Georgian houses, shoulder-to-shoulder. The south side of the Mall has a wide grass border between it and a variety of different kinds of structures, including the Theatre and the modest house that contains Birr Castle Demesne's business office in its basement.

Approaches to the Birr Theatre & Arts Centre (left) and Birr Castle Demesne office on Oxmantown Mall.

On our way to the Theatre, I showed Diane the street entrance to the Birr Castle Demesne Estate Office, where I had gone on Monday to transact some business with Lord Rosse's assistant, Jessica. To reach the office, one walks through this gate, all the way past the building, and through the gate at the far end of the path. From there, turning right takes you along the edge of an abandoned yard to a low door on your right to a sub-basement hallway. At the end of that hallway is a T-intersection with another hallway; turning right and walking several more paces brings you to the estate office: a bare space with a small window near the ceiling that looks out at ankle-level at the path you can see in the photo above, since the previous path has taken you on a downward, spiral trajectory of 270 degrees. Exposed pipes add a sense of dungeon (though the place was spotlessly clean), but Jessica seemed bright and cheerful and happy with what she’s doing.

De Burca, the storyteller, is a tall, handsome young man with a rubber face, and is a charmer (as anyone who bills himself as a "storyteller" has to be.) The audience for this lunchtime performance was very small -- my guess is that there were no more than 30 people in attendance -- and we sat at a table right in front of the stage. His stories were transporting and classical in their delivery, no props, just a stool on a bare stage. By the time he finished, we were convinced of two things: that the 30 people behind us could laugh and applaud like 300, and that we have to find a pooka, danger be damned.

When he was done, De Burca came directly to our table and sat and talked with us a while. Obviously he had us pegged as being from Elsewhere, though he feigned surprise that we weren't local. We chatted about what a treasure tourists from abroad miss if they never travel to the Midlands (as most don't) and about how much he enjoyed our part of California when he was there. As I said, he's a professional charmer.

That evening we had wine and a very nice visit with Lord and Lady Rosse in the “Yellow Room” of the castle. Lord Rosse was especially interested in what I had found in his great-grandfather’s diaries – specifically of his interest in the redwoods, since he (a dendrologist of worldwide renown) had no idea that the 4th Earl had even a passing interest in trees. He and Lady Rosse were also curious about the four blank pages I had found in the Northern California part of the 4th Earl's 1891 travel diary, and said they would look among the family photo albums for more records (not in the archives) of that trip.

Later that night, back home in the Bothy, as Diane and I talked about the people we'd spent time with over the past few days, we chewed over a perception of the American political landscape that both Lord Rosse and Campbell Black had expressed: a dismay at what one of them (I forget which) characterized as a "growing celebration of ignorance." That confluence was a little striking, given that one of them is a self-described "Bolshie," while the other is one of the last remaining relevant members of the old Irish aristocracy. It was hardly the only evidence we saw in 2010 of a growing Irish concern about the land "across the western ocean," though. I noted before in this series that American flags, while not absent, are not as common in Ireland now as they were four years earlier, and commentary on RTÉ frequently noted that American economic difficulties were a big part of the Celtic Tiger's demise. "When America sneezes," as we heard a commentator say one night on the Bothy's little TV, "Ireland catches a cold."

More images from August 18, 19, and 20 are available in this collection on

Next: August 21, 2010 -- Clare
Previous: August 19, 2010 -- Tea in a Tower
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2


ronnie said...

Holy smoke! Google Reader, the app I use to track new blog posts by bloggers I follow, just burped up 40 new posts on several blogs I had no idea about! I have a lot of reading to catch up on - AMAZING photos and storytelling, Sherwood!

Sherwood Harrington said...

Thanks, and welcome aboard, ms. cat! You're welcome to hop on and off whenever you want, you know. No charge.