Sunday, May 9, 2010

Powerscourt House and Gardens

Click photo to enlarge.

Powerscourt is one of the great country houses of Ireland, located just 14 miles south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountain region. Even the avenue leading to the Palladian great house echoes the magnificence of the whole estate, being a mile long and lined with 2,000 beech trees. The 47 acres of gardens are remarkable for their grandeur of scale, striking design and views of Sugar Loaf mountain. Built around the shell of an earlier castle, the Palladian country house we see today was built in the early 1700s by Englishman Richard Wingfield (1697-1751), a direct ancestor of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York.

Tragically, the house was gutted by fire in 1974, leaving only the exterior walls standing. At the time of the fire the house contained some of the finest 18th-century interiors in Ireland. Today an on-site exhibit brings to life the rich history of the estate, and the double height Georgian ballroom has been restored to host weddings and other events. The elaborate gardens attract thousands of visitors annually. The Terrace Café serves dishes from the Avoca Cookbook, and shops offer Irish crafts, clothing and furnishings.

We will visit Powerscourt on Wednesday, June 23, on a coach tour that includes the scenic coast southeast of Dublin and a portion of the Wicklow mountains on the return to Dublin (coach tour details at end of post).

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is the great-granddaughter of Mervyn Wingfield (1880-1947), who in 1904 became the eighth Viscount Powerscourt of Powerscourt House. This relation is through her mother’s side of the family. Ms. Ferguson, however, has far more important bloodlines on her father’s side, being a descendant of both the royal Stuart and Tudor houses, most notably as a direct descendant of King Charles II of England. Charles II was a tolerant Prostestant (married to a Catholic), who chose to convert to Catholicism on his deathbed, having summoned a priest to his palace.

Sarah Ferguson, who intends to be buried here next to her grandmother, was married to England’s Prince Andrew for ten years, 1986-1996. Her children, Princess Beatrice of York and Princess Eugenie of York, are fifth and sixth in line of succession to the British throne.

June 23 coach tour details:

We’ll tour Dublin's beautiful south-east coast from the comfort of a double-decker touring bus. We travel along the great sweep of Dublin Bay, from Dun Laoghaire's elegant promenade and yacht-filled harbour past a Martello Tower (1804) at Sandycove, admiring magnificent sea views. James Joyce, who lived in the tower briefly, made it famous as the setting for the opening of his novel Ulysses. Since 1961 the tower has housed the James Joyce Museum. Our last glimpse of the coast is Dalkey, an attractive village whose charming villas give it a Mediterranean feel, and the holiday resort town of Bray.

Photo below: Sandycove

Turning inland, our tour climbs into the beautiful Wicklow Mountains and continues through the enchanting Victorian village of Enniskerry with its landmark clock tower (1843), a monument to the Wingfield family, owners of nearby Powerscourt House (1730) and gardens. This estate, in its spectacular setting, is among the finest European country houses, with gardens that attract thousands of visitors annually. Terraces south of the manor house afford sweeping views of the Great Sugar Loaf mountain. An on-site café serves up amazing pies, cakes and salads. Powerscourt is the ancestral home of the Wingfield (maternal) family of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. The duchess intends to be buried here, next to her beloved grandmother.

Before returning to Dublin the tour passes northwest through the dramatic geographical fault known as The Scalp, a wild, steep and narrow boulder-strewn ravine formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age, and the ever-changing dramatic scenery of the Wicklow mountains.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Macroom Castle

Macroom Castle was the boyhood home of William Penn, after whom the U.S. state of Pennsylvania is named. The town was once owned by his father, Admiral Sir William Penn.

The remains of Macroom Castle dominate the town to this day. Probably dating from the reign of King John, the castle passed from conqueror to conqueror over the centuries. In the 17th century, the castle was lost to Cromwell, who gave it as reward to Admiral Penn. The stone castle arch leads to the picturesque castle grounds, with many wooded riverside walks (photo below). Macroom lies midway between Cork and Killarney.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dublin's Post Office and the 1916 Rising

The General Post Office (GPO) is Dublin's principal post office, but it has become a venerated symbol of Irish nationalism. Sited in the center of O'Connell Street, the city’s main thoroughfare north of the River Liffey, it is one of Ireland's most famous buildings, the last of the great Georgian public buildings erected in the capital. The architect was Francis Johnston (1760-1829).

During the Easter Rising of 1916, the GPO served as the headquarters of the uprising’s leaders. The assault by the British forces extensively damaged the building, and it was not repaired until the Irish Free State government took up the task some years later. The original columns outside are still pocked with bullet-marks, as is the case of the facade of the Royal College of Surgeons opposite St. Stephen's Green. An original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic is on permanent display inside the GPO, and the building has remained a symbol of Irish nationalism.

Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic in front of the GPO on Easter Monday, 1916. Pearse (1879-1916), an Irish teacher, barrister, poet and writer, was a leading nationalist and political activist who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. Shortly thereafter he and his brother were both executed by the British for their roles in the failed uprising.

Horatio Lord Nelson's Pillar, also designed by Francis Johnston, was formerly located in the center of O'Connell Street adjacent to the GPO; however the Nelson Pillar was destroyed by the IRA in an explosion in 1966. The Spire of Dublin now takes over this dominant position on the site of the former pillar.

The etching shows the Nelson Pillar and the front columns of the GPO circa 1830.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland

Summer Lunchtime Concert: Tuesday June 22, 2010; 1:05 pm
National Concert Hall (Main Auditorium, above); €10 reserved seating.

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
Musical Postcards: Northern Lights
Gavan Ring, baritone• Gavin Maloney, conductor

Sibelius: Finlandia
Mozart: Hai già vinta la causa (The Marriage of Figaro)
Mendelssohn: It is enough fom (Elijah)
Sibelius: Oriental Procession (Belshazzar's Feast)
Bellini: Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei (I Puritani)
Leigh: The Impossible Dream (Man of La Mancha)
Sibelius: Karelia Suite

In 1981, the National Concert Hall opened near St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin. It is home to the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. A student of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, 22-year-old Irish baritone Gavan Ring (photo) hails from Cahersiveen (Ring of Kerry), County Kerry, Republic of Ireland. He performs opera, oratorio, art songs, musical theatre and traditional Irish songs. On April 14, 16 & 18, 2010, Mr. Ring will be featured in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Dublin's Victorian Pubs

The Stag’s Head
Although this pub dates back to 1770, the interior you see today is authentic to an 1895 redo. It’s the real deal. No thumping music, just original stained glass windows, red leather chairs and a most liberal use of mahogany.

Great bartender and solid pub grub: bacon and cabbage, bangers and mash, Irish stew and toasts (open face sandwiches). Traditional music Thu-Fri-Sat-Sun. Clientele: James Joyce, Quentin Tarantino, Brendan Behan, and Michael Collins. In the thick of the Temple Bar area, at the corner of Dame Ct. and Dame Lane, west of Grafton and east of Dublin Castle. The stag’s head behind the bar comes from Alaska, in the year 1901 – in spite of what the bartenders will tell you. Look for the stuffed fox. Complain to the manager about the recent addition of a TV in the corner (visible in photo at top of post). Open from 10:30a daily; food served from noon to 6 pm.

The Long Hall
The twin striped awnings and plain brick facade do not prepare you for the ornateness of what’s inside (photo above). Long Hall is one of Dublin’s handsomest Victorian era pubs (est. 1840), reeking of atmosphere – old lanterns, clocks, and odd prints lining the walls, chandeliers and huge wooden arches – all are a sight to behold. The whole place screams of grandeur from another time. No blaring, piped in music, and no TV! Unfortunately, no food, either. Packed to the rafters on weekend evenings, yet quiet enough to read your newspaper during the day (opens at 1 pm Thu-Fri-Sat; from 4 pm other days). Little known fact: the River Poddle runs underneath. Unlike many pubs, the Long Hall does accept credit cards. A bit south of the tourist-clogged Temple Bar area at 51 S. Great Georges Street, Dublin.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dublin Bridges

The Samuel Beckett Bridge across the Liffey River in Dublin opened to motor traffic in December, 2009, connecting the Convention Center to the south bank in the eastern part of the city. It is unusual, in that it is a swing bridge that rotates 90 degrees to allow river traffic to pass under it. The architect is famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, based in Valencia. Calatrava's inspiration was the shape of the Irish harp, a Guinness trademark.

Calatrava's first Dublin bridge opened on Bloomsday, June 16, 2003. It honors another literary icon, James Joyce. This bridge, located along the western banks of the Liffey, has a cantilevered glass bottomed pedestrian span along each side of the traffic lanes, and it bears a remarkable similarity to Caltrava's footbridge in Bilbao, Spain.

The cast iron arched pedestrian-only span known as Ha'Penny Bridge has been a Dublin favorite since 1816. For one hundred years a half penny toll was charged to those who crossed it. It was recently restored to its former glory, and the trademark pointed iron arches surmounted by coach lamps invite north siders to cross over into the Temple Bar area of the south bank.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Belleek Pottery and Porcelain

In 1849 John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited the Castle Caldwell estate, which encompassed the village of Belleek (just across the border in Northern Ireland). Mindful of the plight of his tenants in the aftermath of the potato famine, he sought to provide some form of worthwhile employment. An amateur mineralogist, he ordered a geological survey of his land. To his delight it revealed the necessary raw materials to make pottery: feldspar, kaolin, flint, clay and shale.

The village of Belleek was a natural choice to locate the enterprise, because it provided the best opportunity to exploit the power of the River Erne to drive a mill wheel strong enough to grind components into slip, the term applied to liquid potters clay.

Bloomfield acquired partners in the venture, an architect from London with a keen interest in ceramics and a wealthy Dublin merchant. Next he pulled strings, lobbied and practically paved the way single handedly for the Railway Service to come to Belleek. By rail, coal could be brought in to fire the kilns. and the finished Belleek product could be sent to market with ease. Raw materials, power, capital and transportation all in place, plans for the construction of a pottery plant were drawn up. In 1858 Mrs. Bloomfield laid the foundation stone.

The Belleek Pottery Factory as seen today.

Young apprentices and capable workmen were found locally, but 14 craftsmen were brought in from Stoke-on-Trent (England), since the partners knew that success hinged on experienced and talented craftspeople. Stoke-on-Trent was the epicenter of fine pottery and china production, home to Wedgwood, Spode, Royal Doulton and Minton.

This shamrock-shaped lattice basket is typical of the superior designs and craftsmanship of Belleek porcelain.

The pottery's early production centered on high quality domestic ware – pestles, mortars, washstands, hospital pans, floor tiles, telegraph insulators and tableware. However, from the beginning the partners wanted to make porcelain, not only to utilize the available mineral wealth, but also to give full scope to the craftsmanship developing in the plant. By 1863 a small amount of Parian porcelain was produced, although earthenware remained the principal product at Belleek until 1920.

Porcelain is a mixture of kaolin clay and feldspar. The descriptive name that stuck — Parian — was coined by Herbert Minton, after the Greek isle of Paros, the marble quarry for much of Greek statuary. Minton porcelain (now part of the Royal Doulton group) is produced in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Early commercial Parian porcelain products were typically molded designs of classical statuary; Parian porcelain is an unglazed marble-like product that became the rage during the Victorian era.

The years marched on, and so did the affairs of the nations. The Belleek plant struggled through the war years, with restrictions on exports taking their toll. World War II brought traumatic times to the factory, as coal for firing the kilns was rationed. Belleek ceased earthenware production entirely in 1946. In post war years electricity transformed the manufacturing process as water turbines and imported coal were retired from use. Belleek designs and craftmanship achieved a world-wide following from collectors who demanded the finest.

Ready to be painted and fired.

The 1980s and 1990s saw new ownership and an infusion of operating capital, culminating in the acquisition of Galway Crystal, Aynsley China, and Donegal Parian China. The Belleek Group today employs over 600 people with a yearly turnover of €40 million.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dublin – City with 3 Cathedrals

Christchurch Cathedral (above)

Cathedral count: 2 protestant, 1 catholic

Dublin has three Cathedrals: St. Patrick's and Christchurch, both Church of Ireland (Protestant), and St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral (Catholic). St. Patrick's is the national cathedral of Ireland, and Christchurch is the cathedral of the city of Dublin. Both were originally Catholic, as they pre-date the reformation by hundreds of years, but became Protestant under Henry VIII in the 1530s and have remained so ever since. As Christchurch retains the status of the city Cathedral, the Catholic St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral cannot be a full cathedral, hence the name (pro-cathedral means “acting cathedral”).

St. Mary's (photo above) was built between 1815 and 1825 on the site of a 12th-century Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary. The church is noted for its Palestrina Choir of men and boys (established 1903). The cathedral is built in the Neo-Classic Doric style, which provides a distinct contrast to the Gothic Revival look of most other churches of the period. St. Mary’s is located north of the Liffey River on Marlborough Street, one block east of O’Connell.

Pew carving detail at St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral.

St. Mary's is not an official cathedral, even though it functions as one. Back when Christchurch Cathedral was built, the pope consecrated it as the Catholic cathedral of Dublin. Although Christchurch has been Protestant since the 16th century, no pope has ever revoked its original designation. Since a city can have only one Catholic cathedral, St. Mary's cannot enjoy that status until Christchurch's cathedral designation is revoked.

Both St. Patrick's (c. 1191) and Christchurch (c. 1030) Cathedrals are located south of the Liffey near Dublin Castle. St. Patrick’s is headed not by a bishop, but by a dean, the most noted of whom was Jonathan Swift, who served from 1713-1735 (when he wasn’t writing Gulliver’s Travels); Swift is buried inside. St. Patrick’s draws chapter members from each of the twelve dioceses of the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland Archbishop has his seat at Christchurch Cathedral. There was rivalry and animosity between the two religious institutions until 1300, when Archbishop Ferings of Dublin arranged an agreement between the two cathedrals, the Pacis Compostio, which acknowledged both as cathedrals and made provisions to accommodate their shared status.

From 1688-90, King James II of England and his fellow Roman Catholics briefly repossessed St. Patrick’s Cathedral (photo above). James, who was the last Catholic to rule over England, Ireland and Scotland, attended Mass services there with his Jacobite supporters during this time. However, the victory of the Protestants during the Williamite war meant that the cathedral was restored to Anglican ownership in 1690; James II abandoned Dublin after his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, living out his days as a pretender in France.

There is no precedent for a three- cathedral city. In this regard Dublin is unique.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Kissing the Blarney Stone

a.k.a. Tourist Trap Hell
Seldom has so much hokum been lavished on one place. Just about five miles north of Cork sits a tall square roofless stone box next to dozens of tour coaches, which belch out a steady stream of gullible visitors. Said tourists duck inside the stone ruins of a second rate castle to make an arduous climb up stairs – up, up, up to more and more steps – to find that they’re at the end of a line that moves at the pace of continental drift. There is no protection from the sun or elements, and a day with rain and wind only adds to the misery -- I mean fun.

There’s this parapet thing that follows the perimeter of the roof line, but there’s no floor to the part that projects out from the castle walls. All the better to cast stones upon the heads of an approaching enemy. Those waiting in line bond with their inner vertigo. Suddenly the guy behind you gives your shin a kick, and you realize it’s your turn. At last! You sit down on a floor mat with your back to the wall (literally), while a complete stranger grabs you where you haven’t been grabbed in some time and pushes on your shoulders until you are bent over backwards (again, literally). Next you find yourself face-to-face with a dark stained slightly slimy block of stone that you’re encouraged to kiss, maximizing the opportunity to share the germs and God-knows-what diseases of those who have come before you. Someone snaps a picture, which you cannot preview (there are no alternate poses). Later, you pay a rip-off price for a snapshot that is guaranteed to be the most unflattering pose ever captured on film. Not to worry, however, because now you are possessed with the “magical gift of eloquence.” Right.

But wait – there’s more! After staggering down stairs and more stairs you follow the signs outside to the next opportunity to make a fool of yourself – the Witches’ Hole. Here you must walk backwards down the hole with your eyes closed – and then walk back up (backwards, of course) out of the mangy place. The payoff is that the wish you made while doing this foolish business will come true. Worked for me, because my wish was to be able to get the hell out of the musty place, all limbs intact. I made another wish, which also came true – that no one I knew would see me performing such foolishness.

It somehow seems appropriate that the next assault on the tender tourist is a march through the adjacent Blarney Woollen Mills – everything 50%-75% off! Right.

Post script: as of June, 2010, scaffolding obscures much of two sides of Blarney Castle, so much cropping of photos will be necessary, sad to say.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Celtic Traditions: Cross and Language

A Celtic Cross is a cross with a ring surrounding the intersection of the two straight lines. It is a symbol for a blend of medieval Catholicism and ancient Celtic cultural traditions. The Celtic Cross was often carved from stone, but by the 15th century new examples ceased to be created. The Celtic Revival movement in the 19th century brought about a reinstatement of Celtic Crosses, particularly as cemetery monuments. Since the Celtic Revival, the ringed cross has become an emblem of Celtic identity, in addition to its more traditional Christian religious symbolism.

Irish Gaelic is a Celtic language still spoken in western portions of Ireland, particularly in County Galway (west central), County Donegal (northwest) and to a lesser extent County Kerry (southwest) in an small area of the Dingle Peninsula.

The Republic of Ireland is officially bilingual: Gaelic (first language) and English (second language).