Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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).
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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 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
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.
The Herbert family had become owners of Muckross Estate in 1770, the result of amassing fabulous wealth from copper mining in the area. A descendant, Colonel Henry Arthur Herbert (married to watercolorist Mary Balfour), commenced building the present 65-room Muckross House in 1839. It was completed in 1843, just two years prior to the Great Irish Famine.
Certainly the most significant social event at Muckross House took place in 1861, when elaborate preparations were carried out for a Royal visit by Queen Victoria and Albert, Prince Escort. Tapestries, mirrors, Persian carpets, silverware, musical instruments, linen, china and servants’ uniforms were specially commissioned for the occasion. The curtains, which still hang in the dining room, were specially woven in Paris for the occasion.
The precarious financial situation of the Herbert family in the late 19th century is probably a direct result of the outlay spent on that occasion. In 1897 the Herberts were refused any further loans from the Standard Life Assurance Company. A year later, the Estate was forfeited to that company and the long association of Muckross with the Herbert family ended.
In 1899 Lord Ardilaun, a member of the Guinness family, purchased the estate, but used it rarely; it was let out on an annual basis as a shooting and fishing lodge. In 1910 Muckross was rented to Mr. William Bowers Bourn, a wealthy American. He was owner of the Empire Gold Mine and Spring Valley Water Company of California. A short time after, his only child, Maud, married an Irishman, Mr. Arthur Rose Vincent of County Clare. Her father then purchased the Muckross property as a wedding present to them. From 1911-1932 enormous sums of money were lavished on the house and gardens. At the same time Mr. Bourn built a vast California estate house, Filofi*, near Stanford University, planting the gardens there with clippings from Muckross. After the death of his wife, Mr. Vincent and his parents-in-law, the Bourns, donated the entirety of Muckross Estate to the Irish State in 1932 in honor of his late wife Maud. At the time only the gardens were accessible publicly, until the manor house reopened in 1964.
Killarney National Park was formed from the Muckross Estate lands, and the park was substantially expanded by acquisition of acreage from the former Earl of Kenmare's adjacent estate. Muckross House, overlooking two of the Lakes of Killarney, is located four miles south of Killarney Town, gateway to the Ring of Kerry.
*Filoli, now a property if the National Trust for Historic Preservation (USA), was the house used as the Carrington mansion in filming the TV series, “Dynasty.”
(click photo to enlarge -- I dare you!)
The Cliffs of Moher are located near Doolin, County Clare, south of Galway. The cliffs range in height from 400 ft. above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag's Head, to a maximum of 702 ft just north of O'Brien's Tower, five miles away. The cliffs boast one of Ireland's most spectacular views. A visitor center is bermed and built into a hillside, so as not to disturb the natural beauty of the site. Over one million people visited the Cliffs in 2006.
The Cliffs are currently one of the 28 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of Nature; the official list will be declared in 2011.
A collection of ancient-looking structures, which date all the way back to 1989, was designed by Irish sculptor James Scanlon to adorn this village in County Kerry (southwest Ireland). They were executed by local stone workers and sit overlooking the Sneem River near St. Michael's Church. This group is called “The way the fairies went” and includes a stone that was a gift from Egypt. These pyramid shaped structures pay homage to the ancient stone beehive-shaped huts and stone monk’s cells found in this part of Ireland; timber was in short supply in early times, so they were built of stone without mortar, as are these modern day sculptures.
Below is an Irish beehive-shaped stone hut, called a Clochán, dating from the Bronze Age in Ireland (750 BC). Structures such as these were erected up until the early Middle Ages.
Friday, March 19, 2010
For seven and a half centuries Dublin Castle was the fortified seat of British rule in Ireland, until a handover to Michael Collins in the Upper Yard of the castle in 1922, the culmination of the bloody Irish Uprising that began in 1916 (Easter Rebellion). The handover marked the formation of the Irish Free State, when twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland left the dominion of Britain. The Irish Free State has now become a Republic, and the remaining six counties form Northern Ireland, still part of Great Britain.
The round medieval tower shown in the above photo dates back to the thirteenth century, but the Chapel Royal to the right of it was not constructed until the nineteenth century. The River Poddle, a tributary of the Liffey, now flows under the castle in a channel designed to divert it, but the confluence of the Poddle and Liffey rivers was a naturally defensible site when construction of the castle began in 1204 upon the order of King John of England. This castle, completed in 1230, replaced a Danish Viking castle which had stood on the same site.
The castle stands on the highest point of ground in Dublin, which gets it name from Dubh Linn (Black Pool; dubh = black), which was on the site of the present castle gardens and coach house. The castle contains splendid State Apartments and the renowned Chester Beatty Library. Additions and remodelings continued through the twentieth century.
The octagonal clock tower shown in the above photo is known as the Bedford Tower, which occupies the site of the original Norman gate. The regalia of the Order of St Patrick, the “Crown Jewels” of Ireland, were kept in the Office of Arms in this tower facing Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard. The jewels were discovered missing on July 6, 1907, four days before the state visit of England’s King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. To this day they have never been found.
The Chapel Royal shown below is a Victorian era nineteenth century replacement of an earlier chapel. The organ was a gift of Prince Albert, escort of Queen Victoria.
In the adjacent Dublin Castle gardens the circular grassy middle lawn is embellished by a large-scale ancient Celtic emblem (photo below) formed by brick pavers. The design is best seen from the terrace of the Chester Beatty Library. This lawn is actually used as a helicopter landing pad on occasion. Ogham designs (Irish writing symbols) decorate the benches facing the circular lawn. Strangely, most tourists overlook this welcoming spot.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Peat is partially carbonized vegetable matter formed by decomposition in water. It is the earliest stage in the formation of coal. Peat is generally formed from partly decomposed roots, branches, leaves and seeds. Peat bogs are prolific in Ireland (15% of surface area) and were the principal source of cheap fuel from the 17th century onwards. Harvesting peat is called “cutting turf” in Ireland, and once it is cut and set out to dry (usually in long squared-off logs), peat can be used as fuel. These photos are of the peat bog in Connemara, the western portion of County Galway, on Ireland’s west coast.
Thoroughbred horses are an important part of the Irish psyche. Just south of the town of Kildare, the Irish National Stud at Tully covers roughly 1,000 acres, where some of Ireland's best horses are conceived and cared for. Of the 140 registered stud farms in Ireland, this is the only one open to the public. Just a 30-minute drive southwest of Dublin, County Kildare is the center of horse racing culture and home to two of Ireland’s leading flat race courses, Punchestown and The Curragh. The latter, at the eastern edge of Kildare, is the start of the largest tract (5,000 unfenced acres) of natural grassland in Europe, which attracted horse breeders as far back as the 13th century. The Curragh racecourse stages up to 20 events each year, and bloodstock sales take place at Kill, just to the northeast (Kill is the Gaelic word for church, and Kildare means "church of the oak").
Visitors to the National Stud can see horses being exercised, and the foaling unit is active between February and July. Established in 1900 by Colonel William Hall-Walker, the National Stud was bequeathed to the British Crown in 1915 and became Irish state property in 1943. When the Colonel, who was heir to a Scottish brewing family, deeded his property to the crown, he was rewarded with a title and became Lord Wavertree.
In addition to the horse museum, visitors can enjoy two gardens and the Wavertree restaurant. St. Fiachra’s garden, set adjacent to a lake, was installed to commemorate the millennium, honoring the patron saint of gardeners. It has a much more natural feel than the celebrated Japanese Gardens, which are considered the finest of their type in Europe.
Famed Japanese gardener Tasso Eida designed these gardens for Colonel Hall-Walker between 1906 and 1910, with the aid of his son and 40 assistants. 2010 marks the centenary of the completion of these world famous gardens. A modern link to Tasso Eida, who died on his return trip to Japan in 1912, was broken until a Japanese visitor in the 1980s declared to the staff that he had returned to see his grandfather’s work. Approximately 150,000 visitors a year tour these gardens.
Kildare Town, population 7,500, is home to St. Brigid’s Cathedral, which commemorates the saint who founded a religious community here in 480, when nuns and monks lived here under the same roof. The monastery became one of the three most important Christian strongholds in Celtic Ireland. Adjacent to the cathedral is the tallest stone round tower (a 108-foot-tall 12th century bell tower) that can be climbed in Ireland. The photo illustrating the view of St. Brigid's Cathedral is from the top of this tower.
Situated in the cathedral grounds is an oak sapling. In pre-Christian times a sacred oak around which Druids gathered to pray grew in the grounds behind the present Cathedral, rebuilt in the 19th century. In the 5th century St. Brigid built her church near this oak. Hence Kildare – Cill Dara in Gaelic – the Church of the Oak.Also on the grounds of the cathedral are the foundations of an ancient fire temple, a pagan practice of burning a perpetual fire. The fire temple was surrounded by a ring fence of twigs, and "no male" was allowed to enter, since maintaining the fire was the exclusive domain of the nuns. A 12th century writer mentioned that this fire had burned for centuries before, and that, miraculously, ashes never accumulated. The fire was extinguished in the 16th century, when monasteries were suppressed, but plans are afoot to rekindle it. Annually, on February 1, the feast day of St. Brigid, the flame of St. Brigid is relit. The restored fire pit foundations are shown below.
A sheep-dog trial is a demonstration of how highly skilled and trained dogs respond to whistle commands to bring in sheep from the fields into a holding pen. Border Collies guide the sheep down a hill or across a field, and the bond with their masters becomes evident as the dogs go about their work and pant happily at the conclusion of a successful trial. We’ll spot some rare sheep breeds amidst the flocks in the fields at Kells, overlooking Dingle Bay, where local farmer Brendan Ferris will introduce us to his sheep dogs and demonstrate their skills.