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).

Rock of Cashel - Tipperary

The Rock of Cashel is a splendid sight, a limestone outcropping rising 200 ft. above the Tipperary plain of southern Ireland. This is one of the great historic sites of Ireland, important for both ecclesiastical and royal reasons. From 370 to 1101 it was the seat of the Kings of Munster, who ruled over vast swaths of the south. Most famously, it was visited by St. Patrick in 450, when he converted and baptized Aengus, King of Munster.

The great king and hero Brian Boru was crowned in Cashel in the eleventh century; he later became king of all Ireland. In 1101 Cashel was handed over to the Church and became an ecclesiastical site of the highest order; its bishops behaved and lived like kings. Cashel continued in this role until the time of Cromwell, when the cathedral was destroyed in 1647. The people who had taken refuge there were killed; several thousand people died that day. A century later its decaying buildings, costly to maintain, were abandoned in favor of St. John's church in the village below. The former bishop's palace (c. 1732) in the town now serves as a luxury hotel (photo below).

This picturesque complex of medieval ruins is one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art and architecture to be found anywhere in Europe. The walled area includes a round tower (circa 1100), Romanesque chapel, 13th century Gothic cathedral and a 15th century castle, as well as the whole craggy and wonderfully atmospheric ensemble in its venerable state of ruin.

The Round Tower is in excellent condition, the best preserved in Ireland. It is made of sandstone and stands 92 ft. high. The doorway stands 12 ft. above the ground. These round towers are a building form unique to Ireland. They were built as bell towers but frequently served as treasuries and places of refuge. For security, sets of ladders were used in place of stairs; once a ladder was used to reach the elevated entrance, those inside would pull up the ladder so that others would have no means of reaching them. The same ladder would then be used to access each of the interior levels.

Cashel (pop. 3,000) lies on the main route from Dublin to Cork, less than a three-hour drive southwest of Dublin. NOTE: Scaffolding and restoration work currently spoil a visit to the Rock of Cashel (as of June, 2010).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

St. Stephen's Green - Dublin

St. Stephen's Green (Irish: Faiche Stiabhna) is a 27-acre public park in central Dublin. The rectangular green space adjoins Grafton Street and a large enclosed shopping mall at its northwest corner, opposite Fusiliers arch (photo below), a stone entry gate erected in 1907 to commemorate the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in the Second Boer War.

Within the park are a large lake, footbridge, fountains, benches, bandstand, gazebo, an artificial waterfall and various statues and memorials. An unusual feature is a garden for the blind that features scented plants. The park, which dates back to 1664, is open only during daylight hours.

Prior to 1877 St. Stephen's Green was a private square for the use of the residents who lived along its perimeter, much as Fitzwilliam Square is to this day. In that year, through the generosity of Arthur Edward Guinness (of brewing family fame), negotiations were concluded for converting it into a public park. He paid off the park's debts and invested a further £20,000 in laying out the grounds as a park and garden.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Traditional Irish Music

The Rocky Road to Dublin
Performed by The Chieftains and Kelly Family in an Irish pub. Note the use of traditional Irish folk instruments: the bodhrán (hand-held goat skin drum played with a stick), uillean pipes (a variant of bagpipes), flutes and fiddles.
The opening narration of this video is spoken in German (not Irish!).

The uilleann pipes sound softer and sweeter than Scottish bagpipes, are often played indoors, and are almost always played sitting down. “Uuilleann” means elbow in Irish, a reference to the use of the elbow to work the bellows, which are strapped to the waist.

The Gaelic (Irish) harp is a triangular, wire-strung harp known as a clàrsach. The use of wires strings, as opposed to gut or nylon, gives the Irish harp a more penetrating sound. Harps have been played in Ireland since the 10th century. Note that Irish harps are played over the left shoulder, distinct from modern pedal concert harps. Smaller ones can be played while being held in the lap.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bloomsday in Dublin - June 16

The fact that we will arrive in Dublin on the 16th of June has special significance. Every year Dublin observes June 16 as Bloomsday, celebrating the life of Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941). The purpose is to revisit the specific locales in Joyce’s novel Ulysses, in which all events took place on the same day (June 16, 1904) in Dublin. The name Bloomsday derives from Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist. Specifically, Thursday, June 16, 1904, was the date of Joyce's first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, when they walked to the Dublin urban village of Ringsend. Accordingly, many modern day revelers dress in clothing appropriate to 1904.

The novel, considered by many literary critics to be one of the greatest books ever written, describes in florid detail a single day in the life Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly and Stephen Dedalus, a young would-be-writer – a character based on Joyce himself. Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman, spends the day wandering through the streets and offices, pubs and brothels of 1904 Dublin. Joyce himself said of Ulysses: “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed from my book.”

On the first Bloomsday observance in 1954, John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and magazine founder) and novelist Flann O'Brien organized what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route. They were joined by Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a dentist who, as Joyce's cousin, represented the family interest) and A.J. Leventhal (Registrar of Trinity College). The pilgrimage was abandoned halfway through, however, when the weary party succumbed to inebriation and rancor at the Bailey Pub in the city center. At the time Ryan owned the pub. In 1967, he replaced a door of the Bailey Pub with the original door to No. 7 Eccles Street (Leopold Bloom’s front door), having rescued it from demolition. John Ryan made an informal film of the attempted 1954 pilgrimage; the footage exists to this day.

Today’s Bloomsday celebrations include Ulysses readings and dramatizations, pub crawls and general merriment, much of it hosted by the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street. Enthusiasts often dress in Edwardian costume to celebrate Bloomsday and retrace Bloom's route around Dublin with stops at locales such as Davy Byrne’s pub (still going strong). Davy Byrne’s was where Leo Bloom had a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy for lunch. Can you guess what most folk eat and drink at Davy Byrne’s every June 16?

Hard-core devotees have even been known to hold marathon readings of the entire novel (more than 1,000 pages), some lasting up to 36 hours. The first celebration took place in 1954 (fiftieth anniversary), and a major five-month-long festival (ReJoyce Dublin 2004) took place in Dublin during the centennial summer of 2004. On the Sunday before the 100th anniversary of the fictional events described in the book, 10,000 people in Dublin were treated to a free, open-air, full Irish breakfast on O'Connell Street. As well, there have been many Bloomsday events in Trieste, Italy, where Joyce was living when he wrote the first part of Ulysses; a Joyce Museum was opened there on June 16, 2004.

The Brazen Head Pub, one of the sites visited in Ulysses, does landmark business on Bloomsday. It is reputed to be the oldest drinking establishment in the city; there has been a bar on this site since the 12th century when it was located in the medieval city, with the original tavern replaced by a coaching inn in the late 17th century.

As you enter (photo below) the first thing you encounter after passing stacks of kegs is the old courtyard, which turns into a beer garden in the summer. The Brazen Head has two bars that are strewn with old memorabilia reflecting the bar's long history in the city. It has played a central role in Dublin's history with famous patrons such as Irish nationalists Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Daniel O'Connell. Many Irish writers, not just James Joyce, frequented this place; Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan were regulars.

It has plenty of character and old world charm. Tourists love it (watch your head on the low threshold!), and they serve a decent dinner. You'll find plenty of lawyers here, considering its proximity to The Four Courts. On Bridge Street by the River Liffey, Southside Dublin.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bunratty Castle

Bunratty is the most complete and authentically restored and furnished castle in Ireland. The site, near Shannon Town in County Clare, dates back to 970, when there was a Viking trading camp on the premises. A castle dating from 1251 once stood on this strategic site, which afforded a view of boats entering and leaving the port of Limerick.

The MacNamara family built the present tall stone structure around 1425, but fifty years later through marriage it had became the stronghold of the O'Briens, the largest ruling clan in North Munster. The castle was surrounded by beautiful gardens and had a herd of 3,000 deer. The O'Briens were granted the title Earls of Thomond by Henry VIII and professed loyalty to the crown of England. The O'Brien rule was ended by Cromwell’s troops, and the castle and grounds were surrendered. The O'Briens later built a far larger and more luxurious residence called Dromoland Castle, which now operates as a 5-star tourist hotel.

Bunratty Castle and its lands were subsequently granted to various estate families, the last of whom were the Studdarts, around 1720. Admiral Penn, father of William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania), resided here for a time. The Studdarts left the castle in 1804, having built themselves a more comfortable country home, Bunratty House, on the grounds surrounding the castle. Bunratty castle eventually fell into such disrepair that the roof of the great hall collapsed. Fortunately, the castle was rescued in the twentieth century by Viscount Lord Gort, who carried out extensive restoration work in 1945. It was then offered to the public in 1960 as a National Monument open to visitors year round. Medieval banquets held in the Great Hall of Bunratty Castle feature maids playing Irish harps in period costumes, court jesters and food served as in the middle ages, accompanied by mead, a honey wine.

The adjoining Irish folk park has eight farmhouses, a village street with various shops and crafts being demonstrated, and some estate buildings, including Bunratty House, two mills and a blacksmith's forge.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spire of Dublin

The Spire of Dublin, officially titled the Monument of Light, is a stainless steel, pin-like monument 390 ft. tall, located on the site of the former Nelson’s Pillar on O'Connell Street in Dublin. The spire is an elongated cone 9.8 ft. in diameter at the base, narrowing to 6 inches at the top. It is constructed from eight hollow tubes of stainless steel and features a tuned mass damper to counteract sway.

In 1966 Nelson's Pillar, which had stood prominently on O’Connell Street, was destroyed in a bombing by former IRA members. In the 1990s, plans were launched to improve the street scape, and the centerpiece of this regeneration was to be a replacement monument for Nelson's Pillar, a 134-ft tall monument installed in 1808. The Spire of Dublin design was chosen through an international competition.

Book of Kells at Trinity College Library

The Book of Kells is a beautiful manuscript containing the Four Gospels in Latin. It is Ireland's most precious medieval artifact, and is generally considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe.

The Book of Kells was likely produced in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, to honor Saint Columba in the early 8th century. After a Viking raid the book was moved to the Abbey of Kells, Ireland, sometime in the 9th century. It was stolen in the 11th century, at which time its cover was torn off and it was thrown into a ditch. The cover, which most likely included gold and gems, has never been found, and the book suffered some water damage; but otherwise it is extraordinarily well-preserved.

In 1541, at the height of the English Reformation, the book was taken by the Roman Catholic Church for safekeeping. It was returned to Ireland in the 17th century, and Archbishop James Ussher gave it to Trinity College, Dublin, where it is on permanent display today in the Long Room of the college library.

Visitors to Dublin’s historic Trinity College marvel at the vaulted ceilings of the Old Library Building’s Long Room, under which is housed the Book of Kells and a rare first edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. The library serves as the primary place of study and research for the more than 15,000 students who attend Ireland’s oldest university.

The Book of Kells is usually displayed two volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. The folios are bound in four separate volumes. As many as ten different colors were used in the artistic embellishments to the texts (illuminations), some of them rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be seen clearly with a magnifying glass.

Above is the famous Chi-Rho page (folio 34r) which introduces St. Matthew's account of the nativity.

Moll's Gap

The view from Moll's Gap toward Killarney.

Moll’s Gap is a mountain pass on the Ring of Kerry route through the Iveragh Peninsula, offering fine views to the north of the Macgillycuddy's Reeks (mountains) between the towns of Kenmare and Killarney. Thousands of tourists visit Moll’s Gap every year to enjoy the scenery and nature. The rocks at Moll's Gap are known as Old Red Sandstone.

Moll’s Gap is named for Moll Kissane, an ancestor of John Kissane, who still runs a farm in this area. She ran a small pub (“sibin” in Gaelic) here during the construction of the Killarney-Kenmare road in the 1820s. In her time, Moll Kissane was popular for her illicit home-made poitín (whiskey), which she sold in her sibin.

Poitín is Irish whiskey, and the term is a diminutive of the word pota (pot), since Poitín was traditionally distilled in a small pot. For centuries, Poitín has been produced in pot stills under the bright moon, and thus became to be known as “the shine,” or moonshine. The home-brew was strong, sometimes as much as 160 proof. It had a distinctive dry, grainy flavor with a delicate aftertaste that became sweeter as it developed. Some rural Irish people still pour it on wounds and sores, as they believe it has disinfectant properties. With as high an alcohol volume as 80%, it certainly does.

Poitín is still popular among the student population of Galway. It was not uncommon for communities to leave the distilling of poitín to widows, in order to grant them a source of income.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gresham Hotel Dublin

The Gresham Dublin, the flagship of The Gresham Hotel Group, opened in 1817, making it Ireland's oldest hotel. It is a Dublin institution that operates today as a four star deluxe property offering 288 rooms and suites distributed over six floors. The Gresham is located on fashionable O’Connell Street Upper, near the Millennium Spire. Following a major refurbishment in 2006, The Gresham Hotel Dublin now offers all updated services demanding travelers expect, while building on its long established reputation for superior service and excellent facilities. The Gresham will be our home while in Dublin.

The Chieftains, the most famous exponents of traditional Irish music in the world, first performed in public together in the Gresham Hotel in 1964 as dinner entertainment for an Irish Harp convention, and they've become renowned across the face of the globe for their sparkling virtuosity and musicianship.

Thomas Gresham was a foundling child, abandoned on the steps of London’s Royal Exchange. He was named after the founder of that institution, Sir Thomas Gresham, a famous merchant-politician in the Elizabethan era. Upon coming to Ireland young Thomas worked as a butler before opening a hotel on the spot where it still stands.