Day 6 of 35: Monday, August 9, 2010
The day's loop, traveled clockwise. The distance scale in lower-left can be made legible by clicking on the image to view it in a larger size.
This day was kissed alternately by gentle rain and brilliant sunshine with ideal temperatures for doing things that tourists do. We spent most of it driving a big loop through the South, one whose extremes are marked by Birr, Kilkenny, Waterford, and Tipperary. The main destination, which we approached with some trepidation, was the new Waterford Crystal factory and showroom, but the rest of the drive was beautiful as well.
Since our destination was Waterford, we had originally planned to take the "loop" bypass of the city of Kilkenny on our backroads wander south. We are very glad that we changed our minds and went through the city's heart. It charmed us into a resolution to return for a longer visit later in the month.
The new Waterford Crystal showroom and factory opened only a few weeks before our visit. It is in central Waterford City; the old one was a much larger plant, located in the outlying town of Kilbarry. The factory we knew from our tour four years ago collapsed financially and ceased operations in 2009 during the precipitous fall of the world's economy. All employees were let go; it was a disaster for the city.
An American investment group bought rights to the name, and the current ownership also controls the Wedgewood and Royal Doulton names in fine china and pottery. While most fine glass that now bears the Waterford mark is manufactured elsewhere, the ownership group did build the new plant in Waterford as a showcase and, presumably, a public relations gesture.
The new factory retains the old techniques and craftsmanship, but has far fewer employees. We noticed significant differences in appearance and demeanor along this year's tour from four years ago: the workers wear uniforms now, for example, and there was essentially no chatting among the workers (whereas lat time there was much banter and laughter.) While the men we saw this time were mostly dour, their work lacks nothing in comparison to the old Waterford's, as far as we could tell.
The showroom is every bit as spectacular as the old one. We bought a couple of small items. When they arrived in California a couple of months later, they were every bit as gorgeous as we remembered. They also, to our unwarranted surprise, had been made in Eastern Europe.
The drive back, wandering to the northwest via Tipperary, was of course pleasant and scenic. The occasional narrow-road sections with hedgerows crowding the asphalt only served to emphasize how much the character of road travel has changed in Ireland in only four years. New construction has made getting around much easier and significantly quicker (but, in some places, at the sacrifice of character -- just as it did in America half a century ago.) There has been a big change in signage practices as well: signs are now well in advance of intersections or roundabouts now in addition to right at them. I've had to stop my running jokes about Irish signs.
The light was spectacular for a little while upon our return to Birr, just as it was when we returned from our trip to Waterford on the 2006 visit.