ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 83


HIKING IN COUNTY WICKLOW

After yesterday’s history-filled outing we decided our brains were too full for any more of THAT today. Instead we chose to take ourselves down into the Wicklow Mountains to do some hiking and just enjoy the glorious weather Ireland turned on for us. We didn’t feel like tackling one big hike today, but instead chose a route that would allow us to visit 3 different parts of County Wicklow and do a short hike at each stop. We had a great day, enjoying the very best of Irish weather and scenery!

 

 

County Wicklow lies just south of Dublin city. Sometimes referred to as “The Garden of Ireland”, this lush region was home to wealthy English landed gentry in centuries gone past. Today the area is a mixture of picture-postcard perfect villages, beautiful mountain scenery, and impossibly green farmland.

 

 

The principal farming activity in Wicklow is sheep grazing, so as we left Dublin behind the roads and commercial buildings of the outer suburbs were replaced with narrow country lanes and green fields dotted with shorn sheep.

 

 

The Wicklow Mountains quickly asserted themselves in our fields of vision. This mountain range occupies the centre of County Wicklow and, although not very high*, makes for a great place to hiking. Especially as there’s a wide variety of terrains and trails to choose from, and a village pub is never too far away.
*The highest peak in the range, Mt Lugnaquilla (924m), is really more of a hill than a mountain.

 

 

Driving through the Wicklow Mountains the landscape revealed itself to be a mixture of heathers, moors, bogs, native deciduous woodland, reforested evergreen pine forests, rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

 

 

Deep glacial valleys have been carved out through the Wicklow Mountains, and it was to one of these valleys that we headed first. Glencree Valley cuts across the mountains in an east-west direction and contains numerous hiking trails, including the one through Crone Woods that we followed.

 

 

 

 

The trail took us through woodlands and up a hill to a vantage point from where the whole valley was visible. We stopped at the view point for a while to enjoy the scenery.

 

 

Crone Woods is supposedly home to a variety of animals including deer, foxes, badgers and red squirrels. We were obviously a bit noisy today, though, as we didn’t get to see any of these furry critters on our walk. Still, it was lovely walking under the shade of the tress, enjoying the serenity.

 

 

Not far from Crone Woods is the small village of Enniskerry. We’d spotted the village from our vantage point at the top of the hill and decided this looked like a good place to go for a coffee and a snack.

 

 

Enniskerry was once home to the workers who served at, and maintained, Powerscourt Estate*. Today it’s far more gentrified, and seems to cater predominantly for the well-heeled crowd and Dublin weekend visitors. Not that we fit into either of those groups, but still, that didn’t stop us form enjoying a surprisingly good macchiato whilst people-watching along the main (i.e. only) street.

*A large estate owned by the Slazenger family (think tennis) that USED to be owned by the Norman La Poer family. The La Poer’s ruled the area from Powerscourt from the 13th century to the 20th century. Today the estate contains a 5 star hotel and a golf course; its formal gardens are also open to the public for visits. We had wilde rplaces in mind to visit and so by-passed Powerscourt, but by all accounts, the gardens are pretty cool.

 

 

From Enniskerry we headed up into the mountains to Lough Tay. Along the way we passed Powerscourt Waterfall, which at 121m is the highest waterfall in Ireland. There wasn’t much water there today though.

 

 

Lough Tay is small, but incredibly beautiful, glacial lake high in the Wicklow Mountains. Enclosed by mountains on every side, the lake forms part of an estate belonging to the Guinness family. We could see the Guinness family mansion below us, near the lakeshore, as we walked across the mountain ridge above Lough Tay. The views down into the valley from our vantage point were incredible – absolutely breathtaking!

 

 

 

 

Even the vegetation around us was fascinating – a whole mixture of hardy plants, growing low to the ground protected  winds that howl through those mountain areas.

 

 

As we walked along the ridge, at one end of Lough Tay we could see a little cluster of huts. Zooming in with his camera lens, Shane could make out that they looked very much like “olde worlde” thatched huts. We really didn’t know what to make of them and only found out later that the huts were purpose-built for the TV show “Vikings”. Seems much of the show is filmed in Ireland – like so many other period/historical dramas!

 

 

When we’d finished our trek above Lough Tay we made our way to Wicklow County’s most visited village: Glendalough. This tiny hamlet sits deep in a glacier valley, between two lakes. It’s a very pretty spot, and the walk we did through the valley and around both lakes was lovely.

 

 

 

 

Most people don’t come to Glendalough to go walking however; they come to see the ruins of a monastic settlement founded there in the 6th century by St Kevin. We stopped by the ruins and looked through the graveyard and ruined church, but didn’t linger as we’d gotten our fill of ancient monasteries yesterday at Monasterboice.

 

 

 

 

Instead we grabbed a snack and made our way home, back to Dublin for our last night in Ireland. We’ve had an awesome time in the Emerald Isle and, even though we’ve only seen half the island, we’re ready to move on. We’ve managed to get some good tickets on the ferry from Dublin to Britain and so are heading back over there tomorrow. See you then blog fans!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 82


UNEARTHING IRELAND’S ANCIENT HISTORY

We got a taste for the history of Ireland yesterday at the National Museum here in Dublin. Wanting learn more we set out today to explore the Boyne Valley, arguably Ireland’s most important historical region. This rich alluvial plain just north of Dublin was was the political centre of Ireland for thousands of year, from the Neolithic period to the 12th century. So important was the area that it was once said that “he who controls the Boyne, controls Ireland”. Knowing that this area contains more ancient archaeological sites than anywhere else in Europe, as well as a few good medieval ruins for good measure, we just had to go!

 

 

We decided to explore the Boyne Valley with a tour company that specialises in small group tours (much better than being on a big coach), and has a reputation for imparting lots of good information. We’re so glad we did it this way, because without the guide many of the sites may have been a bit…., well, boring. The Hill of Tara, for example, just looks like a grassed hill to the untrained eye (e.g. us), but with Terry guiding through, the site came to life for us.

 

 

The Hill of Tara, located near the River Boyne, was once the ancient seat of power in Ireland – 142 kings are said to have reigned there. Tara was the political and religious centre of Ireland for 5,000 years; and in ancient Irish mythology it was the sacred dwelling for the gods, and the entrance to the otherworld. Today the entire area is an archaeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with The King’s Seat and The Stone of Destiny at its core.

 

 

The Kings’ Seat looks like a hill, but this man-made mound was once a henge (like Stonehenge and Avebury in England) containing the residence of the High King of Ireland. In the middle of the royal seat stood a stone, the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny), where the High Kings were crowned. The stone stands there still, holding vigil over the Hill of Tara as it has done for millennia.

 

 

It’s no surprise Tara was such an important site; the hill affords great 360 degree views across the surrounding landscape and can easily be seen from miles away in this relatively flat, but very fertile*, part of Ireland. The earliest settlement at Tara have been dated to the Neolithic period, around 3,000BC, predating the great Pyramids of Giza by some 500 years.
*Thanks to its mild weather and rich soils, Ireland is incredibly fertile. During the years after the Industrial Revolution it was Irish grain that helped feed workers in English manufacturing cities like Manchester and London. Even today Ireland produces enough food to feed itself and 10 million more people.

 

 

As well as the central Kings’ Seat there are at least 30 other monuments, temples, and burial mounds around the Hill of Tara. Of these only a few have been excavated and only the area around the Kings’ Seat is open to the public. We saw a great exhibit at the museum yesterday which gave an aerial view of what the area looks like. We can only imagine how the town must have looked when there was a large wooden fortress atop the Kings’ Seat and houses built all around.

 

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Somewhat anachronistically there was also an 18th century church on the Hill of Tara. This late addition to the site was built by the English during the Protestant Reformation of Ireland to assert the church’s dominance over these ancient, sacred pagan sites. Church’s can be profoundly spiritual places and many are beautiful in their own right, but to plonk one down in the middle of such a significant place as Tara is just awful! Still, it was easy to ignore the church and focus on the things that make the Hill of Tara so unique and fascinating.

 

 

Not far from Tara, Brú na Bóinne further added to our appreciation of ancient Celtic history in Ireland. This prehistoric sacred site covers hundreds of acres and houses more than 40 Neolithic burial tombs and temples. It was here that the pagan Celts interred their royalty and celebrated the summer and winter solstices (i.e. the longest and shortest days of the year, respectively), and the spring and autumn equinoxes (i.e. dates when day and night are of equal length – forbearers to the Christian festivals of Easter and Halloween).

 

 

The archaeological landscape within Brú na Bóinne is dominated by 3 large passage tombs, Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, all built some 5,000 years ago. With its white stone decorations and vast dome, Newgrange was easily the most impressive of these tombs. The scale of Newgrange, certainly gave us the impression that this was a special place, where rituals and ceremonies were carried out and great powers revered,

 

 

The tombs at Brú na Bóinne were temples as well as tombs. This was where the ebbs and flows of seasons, of the sun and the moon, and of the heavens, were followed and marked. This is why Newgrange is aligned to the path of the sun at sunrise during the winter solstice. Partnered with Newgrange is another tomb/temple that we got to visit today called Fourknocks, which is aligned with sunrise during the summer solstice.

 

 

Much smaller and less touristy than Newgrange, it was great to visit Fourknocks as we had the site to ourselves and actually got to go into the tomb. Inside we got to see the intricately carved stone lintels above each sacred alcove and the entry, as well as where the ashes of the cremated dead were housed. It was pretty cool, standing under all that earth, imagining the pagan priests of ancient Ireland welcoming the sunrise early one June morning many eons ago and praying for a good harvest and the safety of their people.

 

 

 

All those pagan rituals gave way to Christian ones in the 5th century when St Patrick arrived from Rome and converted the High King and Ireland’s elite from their pagan ways. One of the first monasteries established in the newly baptised nation of Ireland was at Monasterboice, just a few kilometres from Tara and Brú na Bóinne. Now in ruins, Monasterboice was founded in the late 5th century and was an important centre of religion and learning for 600 years. Today it’s most famous for its 11th century Celtic crosses, the best preserved in Ireland.

 

 

Carved from stone and decorated with carvings these were used to teach an illiterate populace the Gospel centuries ago. Once painted and colourful, the 3 Celtic crosses at Monasterboice are today just stone, but in remarkably good shape given their age and exposure to the elements.

 

 

Moving forward in time through Ireland’s history, we then travelled to the cute little town of Trim where Ireland’s largest Norman castle dominated the landscape. So impressive is Trim castle that it caught the attention of Hollywood a few years ago and became the backdrop for Mel Gibson’s movie “Braveheart”.

 

 

 

 

Built in 1172, Trim Castle was a fortified stronghold positioned at the fringe of the Norman territories* of the day. Even now the castle is impressive, despite many of the outer walls and out-buildings being in ruins.
*In the early days of the Norman invasion of Ireland they occupied the area around Dublin, including the Valley of Boyne, Hill of Tara and Brú na Bóinne. To the west, however, was a vast territory of land still ruled by savage Celtic tribes. Which is why the Norman needed such an epic castle to defend against Celtic incursions.

 

 

 

 

Our final stop for the day was the village of Slane, most famous for its castle* and as the site of the Battle of the Boyne. Fought in 1690 between the armies of the Catholic James II and Protestant William III, the Battle of Boyne is often cited as one of the most important events in Irish history. The battle took place across the River Boyne near the town of Drogheda on the east coast of Ireland, and resulted in a victory for William**. This ultimately ensured the continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland and put the Irish Roman Catholics on a path to becoming second class citizens in their own country.

*Slane Castle has been the family home of the Conyngham family since the 18th century. It’s still privately owned and each year the family opens the estate for a series of concerts. Slane’s sloping lawns form a natural amphitheatre and have hosted performances from bands as diverse as U2, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Guns & Roses, and Oasis.

**It’s William of Orange’s victory that is celebrated every year on July 12th with the Orange Day parades in Northern Ireland.

 

 

The more modern aspects of Irish history (i.e. the years of English rule in Ireland) are familiar enough to us, after our weeks of travel through the country. It was great to visit some of the sites associated with Ireland’s older history however. Learning about the significance of places like Tara and Brú na Bóinne gave us a great appreciation for the roots of modern Ireland. As great as Monasterboice and Castle Trim were, the best parts of today were undoubtably those that revealed a bit of ancient Ireland to us.

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 81


DELVING INTO DUBLIN’S HISTORY

There’s no shortage of history in this 1,000 year old town. From prehistoric Gaelic settlement, to Viking town, Norman stronghold, and English Colonial capital, Dublin has had many incarnations. Today we set about exploring a bit of the capital’s history, and discovered along the way that we really like this place!

 

 

We thought that, when in search of history, a good place to start would be the museum. And so we set out for the National Museum of Ireland to see displays on prehistoric Ireland, the Vikings, and medieval periods. The history of Dublin (and Ireland as a whole) was revealed to us there, piece by piece.

 

 

 

 

We learnt that, although the area around Dublin Bay has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the actual city of Duibhlinn (forbearer of modern-day Dublin) was founded as a Gaelic settlement in 9th century. Following that the Vikings arrived in the 10th century and made themselves at home; then the Normans sailed across from France (via Wales) in 1169 and stamped their mark on the city. Finally, the English colonised Ireland and the small settlement of Dublin became the seat of British rule in Ireland.

 

 

 

 

It was the English that built Dublin Castle in 1204 as a fortified base from which to govern Ireland. We visited the castle too, expecting some monumental Medival fort, but finding instead a rather strange conglomeration of buildings from all different eras. Most of the castle dates from the 18th century, though The Record Tower, the sole surviving tower of the medieval castle, dates from 1228.

 

 

When Ireland gained independence in 1922, Dublin Castle ceased to function as the seat of government. It served for a few years as a temporary Court of Justice when the original one burnt down, but when that was rebuilt the castle languished in disrepair. In recent years it’s been refurbished and is now used as a conference centre, of all things!

 

 

The city remained a relatively small settlement throughout the Middle Ages. It was during this era of British rule, however, that some of the city’s best known buildings were constructed – including the 2 cathedrals* of Dublin: St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Christ’s Cathedral.

*At the time they were built there was no precedent for a 2-cathedral city and the competition for dominance between the 2 sites of worship was apparently quite fierce. Finally, in the year 1300, an agreement was drawn up that delineated how the 2 churches were to be used to ensure both were utilised concurrently and equally. Complicated business, the politics of religion.

 

 

Christ’s Cathedral is the elder of the capital city’s 2 medieval cathedrals. Founded in 1028, this large church had beautiful mosaic floors and a crypt below. The crypt is the largest in Ireland and houses some religious artefacts from the ages. The artefacts were interesting enough, but we went down into the crypt childishly hoping to find some macabre sights to gasp at. Instead we had to read and learn stuff!

 

 

 

 

Undaunted we continued on to St Patrick’s Cathedral, just around the corner. THIS cathedral, founded in 1191, is larger than the first and was built atop a holy well supposedly used by St Patrick to baptise pagan Irishmen. An ancient stone slab, carved with a Celtic cross, marks where the well once was.

 

 

 

 

St Patrick’s Cathedral was certainly the more impressive of the 2, though the best bit for us was the garden next door where we sat and enjoyed the transient sunshine for a while.

 

 

As the Middle Ages gave way to The Renaissance, Dublin’s fortunes grew and the city was, at one stage, the second largest in the British Empire. During this time of discovery and enlightenment, Trinity College was built. This last stop was easily our favourite of the day – especially the Old Library.

 

 

Trinity College is the oldest university in Ireland and one of the oldest in the world. Founded in 1592 the college stretches across 47 acres of land and is comprised of 3 faculties and 25 schools. Originally built outside the city walls of Dublin, Trinity College is now surrounded by the city but retains an air of elegance that many of the modern buildings around it cannot hope to match.

 

 

It was seen as the university of the Protestant elite for much of its history, and although Catholics were permitted to study there, they were never permitted to teach there or receive collegial scholarships. So tarnished was the university with its reputation as a “Protestant school” that the Catholic Church in Ireland forbade its adherents from attending!

 

 

Trinity College is one of Dublin’s most visited tourist sites; specifically, the Old Library at Trinity College is Dublin’s MOST visited site. Why do millions of people (including us) flock here every year? Because this vast deposit of books contains over 4.5 million printed volumes, including one of the oldest books in existence: the Book of Kells.

 

 

The Book of Kells is a manuscript created by Christian monks around 800AD. It contains the words of the Gospels in Latin and is extravagantly illustrated. Believed to have been created by monks living on the Scottish island of Iona, the book ended up at the Abbey of Kells* for safe keeping after Vikings raided Iona. It was kept there safely until 1654 when Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant forces swept through the land, at which point the book was brought to Trinity College. And there it has remained every since, its decorated pages perfectly preserved and now available for viewing to the paying public.

*Kells is a small town north-west of Dublin.

 

 

Given the book’s age and value, it’s no surprise that we couldn’t touch it or photograph it, but it was still cool being able to pear through the glass at a couple of pages of this ancient text. The decorated pages of the Book of Kells were far more colourful than we thought they would be, with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns drawn in amazing detail.

 

 

The rest of the library was very cool too, with its rows and rows of leather-bound volumes on display. It was fascinating looking at some of those books, thinking about the value they represent. Books used to cost so much, and the knowledge they contained often extremely hard to come by. That kind of importance seems almost inconceivable in today’s era of ubiquitous information, free access to facts, and ebooks. And yet, in the presence of so many centuries of learning, we couldn’t help but be impressed.

 

 

Trinity College was our last stop for the day before we crossed back over the River Liffey, our heads full of history and our feet sore from pounding the pavement all day. Given that our bellies were already rumbling we headed straight back out for dinner after a quick shower. We found a great gastro-pub* just around the corner and enjoyed an awesome meal before waddling home for a well-deserved rest. Dublin entertained us and fed us well today, that’s for sure!

*Pub that serves good food (not just pies and chips).

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 80


DUBLIN’S A VERY LIVEABLE CITY

Welcome to Dublin blog fans! This city of 1.2 million is the thriving commercial, political and economic hub of The Republic of Ireland; it’s also our home base for the next few days. We got here around lunch time and spent our afternoon exploring some of the city’s livelier areas, straddling the River Liffey. There’s so much personality to the city, and the compact town centre thrums with energy. It’s great! At the same time, however, it doesn’t seem TOO busy, and the pace is certainly not chaotic (granted, it’s not as laid back as in the smaller Irish towns we’ve visited, but it certainly isn’t hectic around here!). All round, this seems like a pretty easy city to live in!

 

 

We left Galway and the dramatic scenery of Connemara, Moher and The Burrens behind, speeding out of town by train towards Dublin. As we headed east and the cloudy Atlantic weather lost its influence, we found ourselves staring out across green fields and blue skies. Dotted with cows, sheep and farmhouses, the landscape really was picture postcard perfect.

 

 

 

 

We arrived into Dublin’s Heuston station and caught the tram across town to our hotel. Turns out our hotel is in Dublin’s Red Light district. *SIGH* Seems THAT’S why the room rate was so much cheaper than other hotels… Luckily the hotel itself is great – quiet, comfortable, safe and secure, with a full Irish breakfast thrown in every morning for good measure. We’ve found ourselves staying in some of the, shall we say, less salubrious parts of town previously* and it’s been OK (not ideal, but OK). We just avoid being out and about in the wee hours of the morning, and keep our wits about us during the day.
*For example: Zurich, where Shane got propositioned by a gender-bending “lady of the night”; and Copenhagen where a fat ugly naked guy revealed himself to us and made our morning… SHUDDER. It’s one of the pitfalls of booking stuff on the internet – you never quite know what you’re going to get!

 

 

We’re staying north of the Liffey River, in the part of town traditionally the bastion of the working class (south of the river has always been more gentrified). Some of those classist division went by the wayside with the economic boom years of the 1990s/2000s (i.e. the years of The Celtic Tiger, when Ireland’s became the IT hub of Europe and investment in the country sky-rocketed), but something of the north/south divide persists.

 

 

Once we’d dropped our bags off at the hotel we set out for some lunch and an afternoon of exploring. We started with our immediate neighbourhood and quickly discovered O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare. This wide boulevard has been the city’s main north-south road since the 18th century, and is lined with lovely buildings from every period of the last 300 years.

 

 

Named in honour of Daniel O’Connell*, there’s a large statue of the street’s namesake just near the river.
*Daniel O’Connell was an Irish nationalist leader of the early 19th century, often referred to as The Liberator. He’s revered here in Ireland for his work campaigning for Catholic emancipation, including the right for Catholics to sit in the Westminster Parliament. His work also led to the Act of Union (which combined Great Britain and Ireland) being repelled, paving the way for Irish independence in the 10th century.

 

 

Not far from the statue of Daniel O’Connell we also found one of Dublin’s newest monuments: The Spire. This 121m high steel needle is a relatively new addition to the Dublin skyline, and rather an odd one in many ways. Still, it makes finding our way home easy enough – we just look for the giant spire.

 

 

Crossing the river we found ourselves in Temple Bar, Dublin’s bohemian district. The area is named after the most famous bar in town (i.e. the Temple Bar), which is itself named after the street it’s on (i.e. Temple Street), which was named after Sir William Temple, one of 17th century Dublin’s most notable citizens. Famed today for its nightlife, boutique theatres, art galleries, and photographic studios, Temple Bar is pretty funky, though a little touristy for our taste.

 

 

 

 

Interestingly enough, during the 18th century Temple Bar fell from grace and became a centre for gambling, prostitution, and the like. By the 20th century it had become a derelict, decaying district, with little appeal. Government grants and some concerted efforts on the part of some proud Dubliners ensured that Temple Bar underwent a major reinvention during the 1990s, however. And to make the success story even better, today Temple Bar is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.

 

 

Continuing our wandering we ended up on Grafton Street, one of Dublin’s main shopping streets. Lined with elegant buildings, this street was thrumming with people.

 

 

 

 

We spent a lot of afternoon strolling down Grafton Street, window shopping and just getting used to being around so many people again. Eventually the mall ended and we found ourselves following the steady stream of people across the road and into St Stephen’s Park.

 

 

Dublin has more green spaces per square kilometre than any other European capital city, and St Stephen’s Green is one of these. This 22 acre park has been a focal point of Dublin life since the late 1800s thanks to the good work (and good moneys) of brewery baron Arthur Guinness. Given the beautiful weather we joined the locals and spent the rest of afternoon enjoying this lovely urban oasis of tree-lined pathways, meadows, flowers, and ponds.

 

 

A good start to our time in Dublin. We didn’t do too much sightseeing, but given the sunshine, it seemed a waste to send the afternoon indoors! Besides, we’re on holiday – what’s the rush?!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 79


MOUNTAINS, VALLEYS, LOUGHS, RUINS & CASTLES OF CONNEMARA

Connemara is a district in the northern part of County Galway. The landscape there is a mix of peat bogs, starkly empty valleys, deep black loughs (i.e. lakes), and glacier-carved mountains. The name Connemara comes for the Gaelic for “inlets of the sea”, in reference to the regions many bays and inlets, which have for millennia provided shelter from the wild Atlantic weather. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated part of Ireland famed for its desolate beauty and hardy residents (both 2- and 4-legged). The hilly, rugged landscape of Connemara is within easy reach of Galway City so we set out to explore it today.

 

 

We left Galway City under changeable skies knowing we would probably used our raincoats, winter jackets, AND sunglasses today (the weather that blows in for the south-west is famously mercurial). Driving north out of the city we got our first views of Lough Corrib. This huge lake covers 176 km² and is the source of the River Corrib which flows through Galway and into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

 

Continuing north the Maumturk Mountains and Twelve Bens mountain range gradually came into views and the starkness of the Connemara landscape revealed itself to us. The ground there is rocky on the slopes and boggy in the dells – not a great combination for productive farming. And yet, over the centuries Irish farmers have manually removed the rocks (using them to built their houses, barns, and fences), and used seaweed from the coast to improve the thin soil. Through their efforts the land, though still not rich, is at least fertile enough to support grass enough to feed livestock. Driving through Connemara today we definitely got a sense of how hardy the locals must be.

 

 

 

 

The first village we passed through was Maam Cross, a tiny hamlet built at the crossroads of 2 roads (now tarmac, once just sheep tracks). Maam Cross’s claim to fame is that it is the site of the annual Connemara Pony Show which brings pony fans from all over the world to see the best Connemara ponies on show. This small, hardy breed of horse is known for its strength, endurance and good disposition – makes sense in a landscape like this! Descended from Scandinavian ponies that the Vikings first brought to Ireland these hardy horses are now prized around the world. We saw a few Connemara ponies today, many of them with tiny foals at their side.

 

 

From Maam Cross the road took us through the vast expanse of the Inagh Valley. The steep, rocky slopes of the mountains there mean the land has never been improved – only the dense peat bogs of the valley have ever been used. Still today local farmers use sleáns* to cut up the peat. We saw neat triangular stacks of sod drying in the cool mountain air; the fuel will no doubt be dry enough to burn when winter comes.
*A sharp, long-handled tool used to slice up the peat.

 

 

 

 

Once through the Inagh Valley we came to the Connemara’s most iconic sight: Kylemore Castle. Originally built as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry, a wealthy doctor from London whose family was involved in textile manufacturing in Manchester, England. He moved to Ireland with his wife Margaret after they honeymooned in the area and fell in love with the unique landscape of Connemara.

 

 

Built in 1867, the castle in made of solid local granite and consists of a 33 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a dining room, a ballroom, the billiard room, a library, and various offices and domestic staff residences for the butler, cook, housekeeper and other servants.

 

 

 

 

Other buildings on the grounds include a small Gothic church and family mausoleum containing the bodies of Margaret Henry and Mitchell Henry.

 

 

 

 

When the Henry’s family fortunes dwindled the castle was bought by Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium in World War I. The nuns established an abbey and a girls’ school there in 1920; the school only stopped operating in 2010 and only a few nuns remain at the abbey.

 

 

 

 

Today Kyelmore Estate is open to the public and we joined hundreds of other tourists exploring the woodlands, Victorian gardens and lakefront of the estate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having sated our appetite for castles we continued on to the village of Leenaun. Situated at the end of Killary Harbour, this tiny village is only home to mussel farmers and sheep farmers for most of the year. During the summer though tourists descend in their thousands to cruise through the harbour and hike through the surrounding mountains.

 

 

Killary Harbour is a 16km long glacial fjord created during the last ice age. At 45m deep and surrouned by mountains just 800m high, it is nowhere near as majestic as those in Norway, but was still an impressive sight.

 

 

Turning southwards we then began our trek back towards Galway City, passing by Lough Nafooey on the way. Famous for the fishing opportunities it affords, the lough is set in a gorgeous steep-sided valley, surrounded by rugged mountains. It was definitely worth a photo stop!

 

 

 

 

By this stage it was time for a break so we pulled into the village of Cong for what has been an afternoon ritual here in Ireland: tea and freshly baked scones. This picturesque hamlet is built on the isthmus connecting Lough Corrib and Lough Mask and is surrounded by fresh water and woodlands.

 

 

 

 

Cong’s big claim to fame is that it was the filming location for the 1952 Oscar-winning film “The Quiet Man”. We’ve not seen the film but might have to look it up, just to enjoy the scenery if nothing else!

 

 

Before any Hollywood film stars graced its streets, however, Cong was a religious centre of some note. Built in the 14th century, the now ruined Augustinian abbey was once very wealthy and a fine example of medieval ecclesiastical architecture.

 

 

 

Exploring the grounds of the abbey we stumbled across the monks’ fishing house. Built on a platform of stones over the water, the hut had a hole in the floor which would have allowed for fresh fish to be caught, even in the worst of weather.

 

 

Our last stop before making back to Galway City were the ruins of Ross Eirley Abbey. This ruined medieval Franciscan friary was sitting in a field surrounded by cows, like so many of the ruins we’ve visited in Ireland. The abbey was huge – it must have once housed a significant community of monks. Like many other abandoned Christian sites in Ireland, Ross Errilly has continued to be used as a burial ground by locals. There were graves in there from the 1980s, 1990s and even a fresh one from just last month. We did our best to avoid stepping on any graves whilst we looked through the rooms of the roofless ruins. Medieval architecture really is awesome!

 

 

 

 

 

We’re now back in Galway City pondering where we might go tomorrow. What other parts of this Emerald Isle might be explore? There’s just so much to see here, and so many of the places we’ve visited for a day could entrance us for a week is we had more time! We’ve already decided that Ireland is on the “Must Return” list – it’s just too beautiful to visit just once!

 

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 78


THE BARRENS OF THE BURREN & THE MAGNIFICENT CLIFFS OF MOHER

Black and sheer, the Cliffs of Moher are formidable. Instantly recognisable, these 200m high precipices are iconically Irish and every year a million tourists visit the wind-swept western coast of this island to admire their rugged beauty. The cliffs are not far from Galway City and so today we joined the legions of visitors who have stood at the edge of Ireland and admired the spectacular Cliffe of Moher.

 

 

To reach the Cliffs of Moher from Galway City we first had to traverse The Burren, a seemingly barren region of limestone rock that seems to change colour depending on the weather and the mood of the day.

 

 

The name “Burren” comes from the Irish word “boíreann” meaning “a rocky place” – and apt name for this inhospitable expanse of mountainous terrain.

 

 

The rolling hills of Burren are composed of limestone pavements formed as sediments of an ancient ocean some 350 million years ago. Evidence of this are found in the fossilised corals, ammonites and other sea creatures littered all across The Burren.

 

 

The Burren’s hills of limestone are criss-crossed with cracks and crevices known as grikes. The grikes formed over millennia as rain water wore away the rock. It is only up close, when you pear into these grikes, that the real wonder of The Burren reveals itself. Because it is inside the sheltered grikes that soil has collected and sheltered micro-climates have evolved, allowing tiny ecosystems to develop in each crack. There are Arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants all growing side-by-side, in their separate little micro-environments.

 

 

It’s a fascinating landscape with few inhabitants. The small number of farmers who DO live in The Burrens are descendants of the hardy folk who, over the centuries, have manually cleared sections of rocky ground and created pockets of arable land.

 

 

Adding to The Burren’s unique appeal are the various archaeological sites dotted around the area; including Neolithic tombs, Celtic ring forts, and early Christian religious sites. We stopped on our way to the Cliffs of Moher at Poulnabrone, an ancient tomb dating back thousands of years.

 

 

Standing proud in the stark landscape of The Burren, Poulnabrone is a communal tomb, once used by local tribes people. The remains of 22 people have been found within the tomb; all of them disarticulated and showing evidence of burning, indicating that perhaps the ancient tribes of Ireland used to burn their dead before burying the bones.

 

 

In places the hills of The Burren meet the Atlantic. Here the limestone rock is even more pitted and worn with crevices due to the effects of the wind and salt air of the ocean. As we drove along the coastal road, across towards the Cliffs of Moher, we saw a few fishermen standing on the slippery rocks. These dedicated anglers were throwing their lines far into the turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean, hoping no doubt for some mackerel or other cold water fish for dinner.

 

 

After crossing The Burren we decided to stop in Doolin for lunch. This tiny coastal village straddles the River Aille, its harbour built where the river empties into the Atlantic. It’s from Doolin that the tourist boats and ferries bound for the Aran Islands depart. The isolated Aran Islands are wild and windswept, home to just a few hundred hardy souls, lots of seals and innumerable sea birds. They are supposed to be beautiful, but are not on our itinerary this time round (though we did get to see them, way off in the distance).

 

 

Given the windy conditions and rough seas we gave the Aran Islands a miss today and instead opted for the warmth and comfort of O’Connor’s Pub. Built in 1832 O’Connor’s Pub is a local institution, famed for its food and the traditional Irish folk music it hosts nightly. Unfortunately there was no music playing whilst we were there, but the atmosphere was still convivial and vibrant – great for enjoying our hearty lunch of Irish stew (served with the obligatory dose of mashed potato and a generous slab of thickly buttered soda bread).

 

 

Warm and replete after our substantial repast we contemplated forgetting the Cliffs of Moher and just spending our afternoon in the pub…. Eventually, though, we found the fortitude to brave the windy, rainy conditions and set off once again. Our courage paid off because the cliffs were spectacular!

 

 

The Cliffs of Moher are every bit as incredible as you might expect. The black shale of the cliffs makes for a dramatic counter-point to the vivid green grass growing along the top of the cliffs and the deep blue ocean below.

 

 

The cliffs take their name from an old fort called Moher that once stood on Hag’s Head, the southernmost point of the cliffs.

 

 

A round stone tower stands at the midpoint of the cliffs; built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O’Brien, O’Brien’s Tower was once a lookout post. Today tourists pay to climb it for views across the cliffs and out to the Aran Islands.

 

 

 

 

Being Ireland’s most visited tourist site, the cliffs were VERY busy. We quickly left the crowds behind though, simply by walking a little bit further along than most tourists are willing to do. Shane was walking right out along the cliffs’ edge while I watched from a slightly less vertiginous vantage point a few metres back. We walked all the way down to Hag’s Head and back to the main Visitor’s Centre, enjoying the calls of seabirds and epic views along the way.

 

 

 

 

Having thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Cliffs of Moher we started making our way back to Galway City around mid-afternoon. The views along the long road back were no less fascinating than on the way there, with the characteristic rocky slopes of The Burren gradually giving way to lush green fields as we neared the city. Every now and then we’d pass some unmarked medieval ruin – just sitting in some farmer’s back yard. The history in this place is literally littered all over the place – it’s so cool!

 

 

 

 

As we got close to Galway City the road began following curve of Galway Bay. Here we stopped one final time for the day at Dunguaire Castle. This 16th century fortress on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay once belonged King Guaire, the legendary king of Connacht. Today it’s a tourist attraction by day and a medieval banquet hall (i.e. restaurant) by night. Sounds like a terribly kitsch use of a beautiful old building! But then again if the hordes of feasting visitors, paying for the medival banquets, are helping to fund renovations and thus keeping the building alive, that’s not all bad.

 

 

Finally, around 6:30pm, we pulled back into Galway City. Two hot showers and a simple meal later we’re back at the guesthouse, reflecting on the awesome day we had. Equal parts mesmerising and terrifying, the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren are definitely one of Ireland’s highlights.

 

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 77


GALAVANTING AROUND GALWAY

We arrived in Galway today and already love this vibrant, artsy city. Strolling through town today we stumbled across street performers, buskers, religious street preachers, and a whole lot of touters advertising their wares. There seem to be more pubs here than a population of 75,000 could possibly sustain, or maybe we just don’t know Galwegians well enough yet… One thing’s for sure: this is one funky town!

 

 

About mid-way up the western side of Ireland, Galway is renowned as a party town with a real bohemian edge to it. A quarter of the population are university students and everyone seems to speak Gaelic as much as, if not in preference to, English. Steeped in history, the city started out a small fishing village located where the River Corrib meets the Atlantic Ocean. It later became a walled town in the year 1232 after the territory was captured by the Normans. We saw the last remaining section of the of town walls today as we went exploring around town.

 

 

Nearby we got to see Galway Bay under beautiful blue skies. The tide was out when we were there, but with the tide in big ships can come all the way in to harbour. The shelter of Galway’s harbour has been used by ships for centuries; during the 16th and 17th centuries this was the busiest harbour if Ireland, ferrying wool out to England, The Netherlands and Belgium and bringing imported goods in from Spain and Portugal.

 

 

 

 

Unique amongst Irish cities Galway was actually run by 14 merchant families for many years. A charter was granted in 1396 by Richard II which transferred governing powers to these families, known locally as the 14 tribes of Galway. Under their rule the city prospered for centuries and many great buildings constructed. Including the Church of St Nicholas which was dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of seafarers, in recognition of Galway’s status as a port.

 

 

However in 1651 with the arrival of Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical Protestant English forces the region entered a long period of decline. The city did not fully recover economically until the great Irish economic boom of the late twentieth century. Now it’s home to 2 universities, numerous IT companies and manufacturing plants. Despite the boom it hasn’t lost its character or soul, however. The city was a joy to explore with its busy cobbled streets, colourful shop facades and busy café culture.

 

 

We walked along the River Corrib which, at only 6km in length, is Ireland’s shortest river. Strolling along the promenade we saw lots of ducks and swans, and Galway’s cathedral in the distance.

 

 

 

 

The Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heave, commonly known as Galway Cathedral, is quite new as far as European churches go – it was only built in 1958 on the site of the old city prison. It’s an impressive building with beautiful stained glass windows.

 

 

 

 

Just near the cathedral we came across some gentlemen up to their thighs in the icy river water, fly fishing by the Salmon Weir Bridge. At this point the river cascades down a great weir which controls the water levels above it without impeding salmon from swimming upstream during their spawning season (which happens to be now – hence the fishermen).

 

 

Having explored a fair bit of the city, we found ourselves in a warm café enjoying a pot of tea with scones. Whilst we were there we overheard some people talking about a show that was on tonight – a show featuring some of Galway’s best traditional Irish music performers. Our interest was piqued so we went over the theatre to see if any tickets were left turns out they had 2 to spare. Perfect!

 

 

Traditional Irish folk music (referred to locally just as “trad”) is EVERYWHERE. We’ve stumbled across live trad sessions in many of the pubs around the country. Often it’s just a few guys with a fiddle, a flute, a banjo, and maybe a guitar or bodhrán (traditional Irish drum). Occasionally someone sings, but often it’s just the music*. And it’s always good fun, so we jumped at the opportunity to see a whole lot of performers on stage in one show!
*Historically singers of Irish foil music sang unaccompanied whilst music was played to dance to or just for the sheer pleasure of it. Combining music and singing only began in the 20th century.

 

 

We’re so glad we did – the show was AWESOME! There were fiddles, banjos, guitars, flutes, pin-whistles, bodhráns, a set of Irish bagpipes, a harp, and the human voice. The 25 musicians who entertained us played jigs, fast-paced reals, and poignant laments. Best of all, they seemed to be having a blast doing it!

 

 

Add in a hearty meal of fresh local Atlantic salmon and seafood chowder and we can happily say that our first day in Galway was a resounding success. We’re here for a few days, not just to enjoy the town, but to explore the sights around it. Starting tomorrow with a visit to Ireland’s most visited natural wonder: the Cliffs of Moher!