Trip Report: Bus Tour of the Emerald Isle, part 2
Day 6, Tuesday, June 25th - The Ring of Kerry
I was awake at 0545, but there was no rush this morning. I was finally out the door at 7:00. Since I could not get a wifi connection in the room, I headed to the lobby to check email, but first opted to go out and get some pictures as it looked like the sunrise might be interesting. Once outside I figured a little walk was in order and headed toward the national park. I went down the trail that the jaunting cars used yesterday to access the park. I took the main path as far as the abbey ruins, made a quick detour to the park entrance looking to see if the Red Deer were visible across the road but there were none in sight, and then worked my way back along the trails along the lake shore. A few joggers were also on the trail, but overall it was pretty quite. Not a lot of wildlife, just a few fidgeting birds. I was hoping to get a shot of the Red Deer somewhere in the park, but no luck this morning; just some cattle grazing in the fields. I was back at the hotel for breakfast just before 8:00.
Breakfast…different place but the same fare. Well except that the eggs were sunny-side-up instead of scrambled and there was a better selection of fruit. I made a ham and egg sandwich. Hey, if I can put a meal between two slices of bread, I will.
On the bus at 9:15 and we’re off! There were a few short stops before the main event for the day. First we drove through the town of Killarney and made a quick stop at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Another beautiful, old church. Established between 1846 and 1855, the cathedral was used as a hospital and shelter during the famine and is considered as the finest example of Gothic Revival in Ireland. The stained Glass windows tell stories of the bible and the lives of Irish saints. The huge redwood tree next to the tree was planted as a memorial to the children who died during the Famine.
Next we headed up to an Aghadoe overlook above town for the view of the park and the lake. It was a bit overcast, so the vista was not that great. It was here that something that Pierce had been saying finally clicked. Pierce had told us that there would most likely be a local photographer at the overlook to snap a group photo; he suggested that we just take the photo, then it was up to each of us to purchase the photo or not. No big deal. After we had milled about a bit, enjoying the view and snapping a few photos, Pierce called us in for the group photo. He called for the bus 1 “family” to gather for the photo. “Family.” I’m pretty sure that he had used that term already in the trip, but it was not until we were all together and lined-up for the group photo that it really just made sense. I reckon we were a family of sorts, at least while on the trip.
Once we were all arrayed for the photo, the group called for Pierce to join us. Hey, if we are now a family, I reckon he must be the patriarch (even if he was the youngest person on the bus, other than the two kids). Our chanting worked as Pierce ran into the photo and took a relaxed pose. Now we have a family portrait!
Our next stop was at a shop outside of town for a look around and to use the facilities. I did not catch the name of the place, but their gimmick is free Irish coffee to everyone who comes in the shop. Jewelry, woolen products, clothes and souvenirs were the loot in the shop. I reckon the theory is that the Irish coffee might loosen your purse strings a bit. We escaped with no damage to the credit card.
Now it is on to the Ring of Kerry, one of highly anticipated days of the trip for me. Pierce explained that the tour buses are requested to drive the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. He was working the timing so that we would be at the end of the line of buses and therefore have the drive more or less to ourselves. He was also taking the weather into account, figuring that better weather would arrive later in the day, since it was very overcast this morning. Sure enough, the skies cleared as the day went along and we ended up with blue skies, light winds and warmer temperatures; just more good planning on his part. The seat rotation on the bus also worked out well for Lynn and me, as we were on the right-hand side of the bus, which was the side with the views. I’d rather be lucky than good!
Speaking of the seat rotation, here’s the deal. For the first real day on the bus, the drive from Dublin to Cork, everyone just sat where they wanted. No assigned seating. But what we did from that starting seating location was that each day we rotated our seats around the bus (the folks on the driver’s side moved up two rows and the folks on the other side moved back two rows). By doing the rotation, everyone has a shot at the front seats (not they were really that big of a draw for Lynn and me). He cited an example from a trip a few years ago where there were a couple of little old ladies were coming out to the bus at six in the morning to ensure they were first on the bus, even though the bus was not leaving until after 8:00! That’s just crazy!
Back to the Ring of Kerry. Looking at a map, the road loops around the Iveragh Peninsula with Killarney as a sort of the entry/exit point. Along the loop is a grand variety of things to see and do (the drawback to the bus tour is there was not a lot of doing, but the seeing was outstanding). The loop that we took was about 110 miles and covered some amazing country and interesting culture and history. This was a day for photo stops as we made several all along the route, plus I got a few drive-by photos from the bus. Some of the highlights, of which there were many, are marked on the map and described in more detail below:
- Pierce also discussed the use of renewable energy in the European Union, and how Ireland is supposed to be at 14% of its energy consumption coming from renewable resources by 2014. Well, they’re not quite there, so the Irish officials argued that peat is a renewable resource, and the EU bought it. Forget the fact that the regrowth rate for peat is about 1 mm per year.
- The drive along the north coast of the Iveragh Peninsula provided several photo opportunities at vista points, as marked on the map. The first of these was just after the bog lecture stop where we had a nice view of a bend in the River Caragh and the surrounding farms and fields of green. There were also some locals selling, well, miscellaneous junk and a boy with a donkey posing for photos. Pierce told us a tale about the old man who used to live by the river and was basically a panhandler, but he amassed a fortune over the years, although you would have never guessed from his house and appearance. When the old man died, he left the fortune to his only daughter, who had been estranged from the man for years. She donated her inheritance to a charity for the homeless.
- We stopped at the Thatch Cottage for lunch at about 1:30. Good food and a stout; I like vacation meals! Pierce recommended the pie, apple or rhubarb. I tried the apple; good call!
- The theme of statues continued even out here on the somewhat remote area. Shortly after lunch as we were coming into Caherciveen, we saw the Skellig Monks, which commemorates the monks who, in the year 588AD, set up a monastery and hermitage on Skellig Mhicheál, a rocky island 12 miles off the coast. Further around the coast in Waterville is a statue of Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp. Seems that Chaplin vacationed in Waterville in the early 1970s.
- There was beautiful scenery all along the route but my favorites were along the rocky cliffs along southeast coast of the peninsula. The weather was ideal to get the best of these vista points. The colors were simply vibrant. The rocky shores and green rolling hills flowed right into the blue water of the North Atlantic. These were the kinds of views I hoped to see on this drive.
- Our next stop on this little road trip was the little town of Sneem, primarily for a rest break. Sneem is a pretty little town with the colorful buildings set along the river. We walked about a bit as it was nice to get the legs stretched. As we crossed the bridge over the River Sneem, Lynn noticed the interesting rock formations in the water below the bridge. They looked like gouges in the rock; maybe these are glacial in origin? We also saw a new bird; it was black and white, sort of like a blackbird dressing in a skeleton costume for Halloween…hey, I call ‘em like I see ‘em. We later learned that this was a Pied Wagtail. Possibly the most important find in Sneem was at the little market; yep, Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate! We looked for a bag of bite size chocolates to share with the rest of the family, but alas all there was were bars. So we went with those. Pierce was right, this is good stuff!
- From Sneem, I think we diverted from the King of Kerry road and took the Killarney Road sort of cross country. The only way that I’m really sure of this is from the one drive-by photo of the countryside that I took from the bus, at vista point number 9 on the map. This photo is featured as the banner image at the very top of the page. After the trip, I was able to pinpoint the location using Google maps. I reckon Peirce took this route as it was a bit shorter and it was getting late in the day and we still had a stop to make. No matter as it was still a pretty drive and the countryside was enchanting.
- Along the route, Lynn spotted a feral goat. She said it looked like King Puck. She checked with Pierce who confirmed that usually a goat seen roaming free is feral.
- Our last stop for the strip was at Ladies View which overlooks the lakes of Killarney National Park. This viewpoint, along with the road from Muckross House to access the view, were built by Henry Arthur Herbert as part of the Queen Victoria visit debacle. He also built the church just past the view point for the Queen’s visit. No wonder the poor guy went bankrupt. But the view was very nice, although the skies were starting to darken a bit.
- Remember the monster rhododendron that we saw at Blarney Castle? Well as we were driving down the hills through the park the road was lined by many large rhododendron bushes. Peirce commented that these were an invasive species and because they were so dense that nothing could grow under them. Apparently there is an effort to cut out the rhododendron…good luck with that! Just look at the kudzu issues we have in the south or the tamarisk problem out in the Moab area. It is tough to remove these invaders once they get entrenched. I’ve always liked rhododendron; one man’s flower is another man’s weed.
What a great tour! Wonderful scenery throughout the drive, good food at the Thatch Cottage, some historical and cultural background, and chocolate. Plus the weather was nearly perfect. Not a bad deal.
We were back at the hotel just before 6:00. We were on our own for dinner tonight, so we could either get something at the hotel or make our way into town. Pierce had offered to provide a ride into town for anyone who wanted to go. However Lynn suggested that we go for a walk in the park after dinner, since the days are so long (this time of year the sun does not go down until around 11:00 PM!). So we just ate at the bar in the hotel pub; Murphy’s and fajitas (we are in southwest Ireland, so I guess that’s appropriate). Not bad, even though there was no cheese and the sauce was more of a BBQ.
We hiked the trail into the park; the same one that we took with the jaunting cars. It runs right across the road from the hotel. We left about 7:00 and just enjoyed the nice evening as we ambled through the park. We walked to the Muckross House then on down to the lake and along the nature trail. Again not much in the way of wildlife, but we did see several folks out walking their dogs and there were a lot of cattle grazing in the fields along the trail. On the return trip, there was one little dog barking at the calves who decided it would be good “stampede.” The cows trotted over to make sure everything was in order and to round up the little hamburgers.
Lights out at 10:00, but still plenty of light outside. That’s kinda cool in the summer, but I bet it is a drag in winter.
Here’s the gallery of photos from the drive around the Ring of Kerry and our evening hike in Killarney National Park. Many big vistas today.
Day 7, Wednesday, June 26th - The Cliffs of Moher
Wow, what a day! We started in Killarney and ended up in Galway, and in between we visited my most anticipated stop on the tour, the Cliffs of Moher. So a lot of ground covered and we saw a lot of wonderful things. And now the rest of the story….
Up early as breakfast is at 0700 and we have an 0800 departure. I went down to the lobby to connect to the wifi before breakfast. The photographer from Aghodoe Heights was there selling copies of the group picture, so I got a copy for us (10 Euro). Just cereal and fruit for breakfast today. I tried a mix of Irish cereals. They have your standard corn flakes and such, but there was one that was a mix of various flakes and grains and also included peanuts. It was actually quite good. I also took a chance, that is, chanced my arm, and looked in the vending machine for snacks for the bus ride. Lo and behold there they were, Cadbury Dairy Milk bars! I stocked-up for the day.
Our two nights at the Killarney Oaks Hotel were nice and relaxing. No issues with the accommodations at all. The room was good size and clean. There was free wifi in the rooms however the signal was very weak, although it worked fine in the lobby (at least that was the case using my smart phone). Good food in the restaurant and pub. The pub looks to be recently update. Great location for access o the National Park or to town as it is about a 2 mile walk to Muckross House or the center of the village. Overall a good place to stay. Our short time in Killarney was very nice. Certainly more time would have been better; another day just to check out more of the park perhaps.
So we were on the road about 8:15 or so. As mentioned, the main event today, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the Cliffs of Moher, but we also have a stop this morning at Bunratty to explore the castle and surrounding historical park. We only made a couple of stops before reaching Bunratty. The first was not far outside of Killarney for a photo op. I must have missed the significance of the stop, as it was not particularly spectacular from a scenic perspective, but I did get a nice photo of a Swallow resting on a fencepost. Then we headed to Adare to take a break, arriving about 9:30. The plan was also to visit the bank for anyone who needed to exchange dollars for euros. Unfortunately the bank was closed for training today…best laid plans.
Adare is quaint little town. Peirce stated that it is a bit different from the other towns we have visited as there is more of an English influence that is particularly noticeable in the architecture; many thatched roof buildings. Lynn and I just took a walk through the park and along the main street and stopped in a couple of the little shops. We again avoided buying any trinkets. Also in town we saw the Trinitarian Priory, the only recorded Trinitarian monastery in Ireland and built in the 13th century. Today it is called the Holy Trinity Abbey and is the local Catholic Church.
We were back on the bus and heading out of town about 10:30. On the way out of town we saw some ruins along the River Maigue. We got a very good view of Desmond Castle, also from the early 13th century, and further in the distance the tower of the Franciscan Friary that was established in 1464.
Our first major destination for the day was Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, just west of Limerick in the sprawling metropolis of Bunratty. It is quite the attraction, but just a tad on the touristy side. There seems to be something for everyone: the castle, the village, shops, cafes, animals, gardens, pubs and farm equipment....
Pierce pointed out the castle as we approached on the highway at just before 11:00. As we pulled into the park, he also mentioned the surrounding retail area, with the big wool outlet. The plan for this stop was to explore the castle and the village, maybe check out the shops and find some lunch. You guessed it, “busy, busy, busy!” Peirce suggested Durty Nelly’s pub as an option for lunch. He quickly got our tickets sorted and at about 11:00 we were off touring the grounds. Pierce suggested starting with the castle, then touring as much of the village as we liked. Never argue with your caddie.
Over to the castle we went, pausing briefly to check out the cannon on the palisade. On entering the castle we were greeted by two lassies in period dress. Unlike the ruins of Blarney Castle, the floors at each level of Bunratty were in place and all of the great halls and smaller rooms were furnished and decorated. This provided a completely different perspective to life in the castle.
The castle was built around 1425 and is the last in a series that was built on the site. During the 16th and 17th centuries it was an important stronghold of the O’Briens, the kings in this area and later the Earls of Thomond. The central block of the keep has three floors, each consisting of a single great room. There is a tower at each corner of the main block, each with 6 stories. To access the upper levels of the castle we ascended a very narrow spiral staircase at one corner of the building. The higher you go, the narrower the passage…and the traffic on the stairs was just a little bit of a mess but then again, the castle was not built to accommodate 100s of tourists tramping through the old stone corridors.
Most of the furnishings and decorations in the castle are from the 15th and 16th century and include tapestries of French, Belgian and Flemish origin. My favorite room in the castle was the south solar due to the very ornate ceiling (it is partially a recreation but still very cool). We made it all the way to the battlement of the castle which provided a very nice view of the Ralty River and surrounding countryside.
We spent the rest of our time walking through the village portion of the park. It seems that many of the structures were collected from other locations, sometimes as a means of preserving the structures when they were in danger of being destroyed for new buildings or road construction. The village makes for a pleasant stroll and I think it probably provides a good likeness to life a century or so ago (so not exactly the same time frame as the heyday of the castle). There were some very nice photo ops with the colorful buildings and farm equipment, the flowers around the houses and in the gardens and of the critters. Overall a nice afternoon walk. However we were starting to run out of time, so rather than trying Durty Nelly’s for lunch, we just grabbed a quick bite in the tea room inside the park (and they do not take credit cards, so we had to dig into our stash of euros).
We headed for the exit about 1:15. Some of the family was already on the bus and the others were on their way. Sean was already on the bus and serenading folks with Irish tunes on his pipe.
I think the folk park, particularly the village area would have been more interesting if there had been more living historians or other docents around to provide more of the background time periods represented in the park. I only recall a couple of folks who were providing this type of information. I was also a bit disappointed that the mills were in such disrepair. I did not expect to see operating mills, but it would have been nice to have seen the machinery at least restored to represent an operating mill. But even with these minor points it was still I nice park and an interesting way to learn about some of the history of Ireland.
Back on the road and heading for the coast. The country landscapes that we drove through provided more of the forty shades of green that I was expecting in Ireland. We made a couple of quick stops on the way, plus I got a few decent “drive by” shots from the bus. One of the short photo stops that we made was one of the more poignant of the trip. About a mile west of Ennistymon along the road to Lahinch is a memorial to the victims of the famine of 1845-1850. The memorial is known as An Gorta Moir, Gaelic for the Great Hunger, and was dedicated on August 20, 1995, the 150th anniversary of the tragedy. I found the following information about the memorial via a quick internet search:
The monument was designed by an artist from Co Kerry and depicts an account found in the Minutes of the Meetings of the Boards of Guardians for Ennistymon Union held in the County Archives. The account centered on a note that was pinned to the torn shirt of a barefoot orphan boy who was left at the workhouse door on the freezing cold morning of February 25, 1848. The note read:
Gentlemen, There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about to be buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve. -- Rob S. Constable''
One side of the memorial depicts a child standing before the workhouse door, while across from that is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched in frustration or anger above the sorrowful text of the pleading note.
Back on the bus, we continued through the green fields toward the coast. Mostly grazing in this area. Pierce said that the best land for growing crops was more to the east. We also cruised past a golf course with an old castle ruin adjacent to one of the greens.
One last short stop at a Marian Shrine (one of the seemingly endless shrines to the Virgin Mary in Ireland). There were some locals there with a religious statue that they were blessing by dipping in the fountain of the shrine. Peirce told us later that these folks were Tinkers/Travelers/Gypsies/Itinerants. More of these folks later in the trip.
We have arrived. The Cliffs of Moher. It is 3:00 in the afternoon and the weather is perfect. The downside is that we only have a little over an hour to explore this amazing area, and there is much too see! Pierce gave us some pointers for the visit and suggested that once we get to the edge that we take the trail to the left as the lighting should be better looking back along the cliffs from that direction. So let’s see…the cliffs are 5 miles long, there’s the tower, the visitor center and plenty of birds…choices will have to be made at this destination.
When we were planning our first trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I made a list of the 10 “must have” photos, things like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Mormon Row barns. While I did not make such a list for the Ireland trip, mainly because of the lack of control on where we would be stopping for photos, the Cliffs of Moher would have certainly been on the list. Even without an official “must have” list, there was one sight that I was hoping to see while at the Cliffs: Puffins! I blame Lynn for this, but I like trying to spot birds, although I’m hardly a hardcore birder. So the focus for today will be on the natural beauty of the cliffs and the possibility of seeing Puffins and other coastal birds like Razorbills.
As we were walking out to the cliffs, we passed a piper playing for tips. I was tempted to give him a few euro if he would quit playing for a while. He just kept playing the same chords over and over. Sort of annoying really. Once we got to the first overlook area, there was a second musician, a young lady playing the harp. That was very nice and just sort of flowed with the surroundings. But we had much to see and could not afford to stay long to hear her serenade.
We only had time to walk about a half-mile along the trail, heading south along the cliffs. There is one section of the trail that is very narrow and runs between low rock walls, so it is slow going. There were several folks who were bypassing this section of trail and walking right along the edge…not too bight in my opinion. But once out of this trough of a trail, the path opened up and there was access to the views along the edge of the cliffs. I wasn’t getting close to the edge, not with my healthy respect for edges with steep drops. Shoot, this was not a steep drop, it was a shear precipice of 700 foot to certain death on rocks below. But even with that, I did manage to crawl out close to the edge for a nice shot of the cliffs looking north with some wildflowers in the foreground. It was not a spectacular shot, but it was an accomplishment for me to get it!
As I was admiring the view along the cliffs, I was wondering what movies might have been shot here. The Guns of Navarone seemed like an obvious choice. And the Cliffs of Moher could have certainly played the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride. Sure enough, the Cliffs of Moher was used for both of these films, plus many others, including Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
There were hundreds of shorebirds flying about. Most were down at the water level and came up perhaps half-way up the cliffs although there were a lot of gulls soaring at the top of the cliffs. A few were foraging in the farm fields adjacent to the trails along the edge of the cliff. The farmers were bringing in hay and the birds were getting the loose seeds. Most of these were Herring Gulls, but there were certainly others. I got a decent shot of two Fulmars huddled in a nook in the cliff below the edge. And we saw Puffins! And Razorbills as I learned upon examination of the photos once back in Ohio. They were well off in the distance in the cliff well below us, but I was able to use my new Canon SX50 HS and the 200x digital zoom as a spotting scope. The photos were not great, but good enough for the situation. I figure the Puffins were about 880 feet away, best I could figure (say 800 feet out and 350 below the rim, do a little trig to get 880 feet , or 0.165 miles). I just had a little flexible-legged tripod which was inadequate for the situation as it was hard to aim the camera and just did not provide quite enough stability with the wind. But I figured that this would be the only time that I would need a tripod so I did not want to haul the big one halfway around the world. Still, the photos aren’t that bad, as long as I don’t enlarge them. There were scores of the Puffins in the rocky sloped areas of the cliffs. I spent a fair amount of time on the return trip just watching the birds. I had set up near one of the park docents who was pointing out birds to an Australian couple; there was a Kestrel nesting down along the cliffs as well, but I could not find it. Oh, well, I saw my Puffins, so I’m declaring success.
Of all the places that we visited on the trip, this is the one that I really would have liked to have more time. We had great weather for viewing the cliffs and the wildlife, something that Pierce said you do not always get. I would have liked to hike more of the trails, but we’ll just have to save that for the next trip. The visit today, albeit short, was outstanding.
Back on the road about 4:20 following our nice visit to the Cliffs of Moher. We continued through the lovey Irish countryside and along the coast as we made our way to Galway for our base for the evening. We made a few photo stops along the way, just to enjoy the views. Pierce also continued to educate us about various aspects of life in Ireland. Today’s lecture included a discussion on the thatched roofs that are featured on so many of the old cottages. Pierce said that his sister was looking to renovate her house and wanted to change to a thatched roof. But that is not an inexpensive proposition. Turns out that thatch is more expensive to install, does not last as long as shingles (I think he said thatch will last about 15 years if properly maintained) and does take significant annual maintenance. He also mentioned that a property owner can get funding from the government for a thatched roof, but I believe that the owner has to show that building had historically had a thatched roof. Different country; same goofy government programs.
Our first photo stop was about midway between the little bergs of Lisdeenvarna and Ballyvaghan at the start of a stretch of road called “the corkscrew” as it was a series of switchbacks working down toward the coast. The vista was very nice and provides a view all the way to the sea beyond Ballyvagahn, probably 4 miles to the northeast. We also had a nice view of the bald, limestone hills. Erosion had stripped these hills of their soil such that they were now just barren rock. Interestingly, the stone fences are still standing on these bare hills marking how they were once used for farming and grazing.
Back on the bus, Peirce showed his driving prowess and nerves of steel as he got the bus down the hill via these very tight switchbacks. Fortunately, we did not meet and buses or large farm machinery coming up the hill at any of the pinch-points. Along the coast at Galway Bay we saw another of the Martello Towers silently watching for Napoleon. Our last photo stop for the day was at an overlook above Galway Bay. We got double our money’s worth at this stop since looking out over the bay and of the stone fences dividing the grazing lands above the road.
We arrived at the hotel in Claregalway at 6:30. We dumped our stuff in the room and headed immediately back downstairs for a drink in the bar. Swithwick’s was the beer of choice for this evening. Nikki and Jack joined us at the bar then we all went in for the family dinner at 7:15. Another very good meal (I had the shrimp salad, hake with mashed potatoes, carrots and green beans and chocolate cake…plus Nikki’s apple pie!). Lynn and I took a short walk after dinner, heading north from the hotel across the river to the ruins just across the bridge. On the east side of the road were the ruins of Claregalway Castle and to the west were the ruins of Claregalway Abbey. We also spotted some birds skimming along the surface of the river. I think they were Citrine Wagtails. We called it a night after our walk.
For more views of the Cliffs of Moher and the other fascinating places we visited today, check out this gallery of Day 7 photos.
Just a note on the lodging: What is up with the electrical? I understand the voltage differences between the US and Europe so that is not an issue there since we borrowed a converter from Kamana. The odd part to me is turning the power on in the room. It just seemed sort of…odd. You have to use the room key to power up the room. And each hotel has a different twist. In some, the power goes off if the room key is removed. In others, the key is just needed to turn on the power, but can then be removed from the key slot. And there were a couple of places that did not need the key to complete the circuit. We figured out how to get power in room quick enough, but there were a couple of lamps that we could never get to switch on.
Day 8, Thursday, June 27th - Kylemore Abbey and the Road to Bundoran
Rut-Ro-Raggy! No water in the bathroom this morning. Seems that there was construction that cut the water to the hotel. We finally got water back about 6:45 so we were still more or less on schedule for 0700 breakfast and bag pick-up. Just a quick shower and we were off and running.
Cloudy morning; could be a rainy day but we’ll see. Can't complain as we had perfect weather when we needed over the past couple of days.
Today is a road trip to Bundoran with a few stops along the way. This was one of the less intriguing looking itineraries for the trip, but it turned out to be a much more interesting day then I expected. Slow start to the drive due to traffic through Galway, but Pierce kept us entertained with his monologue on a variety of topics…his kids finishing school, Irish history and local folklore. For example, we passed a clock tower in the center of Galway that only had clock faces on three sides. Pierce indicated that years ago one clan pushed another out of the prime land and forced to the south. Later the victorious clan erected the clock tower but did not put a clock facing toward their rival clan to the south, thus giving rise to the phrase “I would not give him the time of day.” Sounds plausible.
Our first stop for today was at Celtic Crystal in the village of Moycullen, just a few miles from Galway. I thought this was going to be a total bust and something completely touristy and commercial. Well, I was wrong as it actually turned out to be an interesting stop. Celtic Crystal was founded by Mary Munnelly in 1972, and let me tell you she rules the roost! We got to meet her and she provided an overview of the shop. The craftsmen here are making amazing art and they are world renown for the pieces they create. No wonder, the crystal pieces in the show room were spectacular! The colored pieces (blue, red, green and purple) were particularly amazing. There are only eight master craftsmen and two apprentices at the shop. An interesting point is that the craftsmen are limited on the number of colored pieces produced each year due to eye strain. For example, I think that each master craftsman was allowed to make maybe two blue pieces per year, so there are only 16 of these colored pieces produced annually.
Lynn bought a couple of crystal wine glasses. Very pretty; I just hope we can get them home without breakage! I headed outside to enjoy the cool morning before we got back on the road. There was a Connemara pony in the field next to the shop. Chunky little guy, but a nice looking horse.
We were back on the road about 10:00, heading for our next destination, Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. The Abbey is out toward the coast, so we were in for an interesting cruise. The overcast was getting thicker and the clouds were hanging low over the hills, with some spitty-spotty rain. The low clouds made for some interesting landscapes. Along the way we got a drive-by view of the bridge used in the John Wayne classic The Quiet Man. Just a fleeting view, but long enough for a quick photo. We also made a couple photo stops as we drove through the countryside and again when we were driving along Killary Fjord. Pierce stated that Killary was the only fjord in Ireland. It was used by German U-boats during WWII unbeknownst to Ireland. We saw a fairly extensive mussel farm out in the fjord. Interesting process; there were rows of barrels in the water all linked together by ropes or chains. Dangling below each barrel was a long rope and it was on this rope that the mussels grew. It takes about 3 years before a crop is harvested. Apparently the combination of sea water from the Atlantic and the fresh water draining into the fjord made for very tasty mussels…not that I’m going to be eating them.
At one stop Pierce pointed out a Fairy Tree. This is probably a good time to round up the commentary on Fairies and Leprechauns during the trip. This facet of Irish folklore came up several time during our tour. The short story, according to Pierce, is that Fairies and Leprechauns are not the nicest of critters. More recent depictions show fairies and leprechauns as friendly even benevolent, but folklore says that they are devious creatures and not to be trifled with. In fact, much of the folklore about fairies revolves around protection from their malice.
A leprechaun is a type of fairy, usually taking the form of an old man, clad in a red or green coat, who enjoys partaking in mischief. The Leprechauns are shoe makers and are quite good at their craft such that they amass a nice fortune which is supposedly hidden in a pot at the end of the rainbow. If ever captured by a human, the Leprechaun has the magical power to grant three wishes in exchange for their release.
Back to the Fairy Tree. These are said to be places where the Fairies and other mystical creatures lived. It is considered to be extremely unwise to disturb a Fairly Tree. Farmers are known to plow around the trees. Pierce told us a tale about a road construction project that was routed to go right over a Fairy Tree (I believe this was when we were passing through Limerick). Anyway, the Irish workers would not disturb the tree, so a non-Irish crew was brought in for the job. To make a long story short, a series of misfortunes struck the crew in a very short stretch of time and they abandoned the task. The road was routed around the tree.
We continued westerly along Killary Harbor then along the north shore of Kylemore Lough and then across the bridge traversing Pollacappul Lough. That is where we got our first glimpse of the castle turned abbey at Kylemore. There was a little chop on the lake, so I was wondering if we would get the beautiful view of the ornate building reflected in the water.
It was another “busy, busy, busy” visit for the family. We arrived just before noon and Pierce stated that we had two-and-a-half hours to tour the buildings and the gardens plus grab some lunch. There were dining options at the visitor center in the entrance area as well as a tea room up at the gardens. So lots to see and do while we were here. As for the reflection shot, no worries, as that is the first view that you get when walking from the parking lot to the visitor center and entrance to the grounds. I can see why the castle was built here as it is simply a lovely setting. More on that later.
We opted to start with the gardens so we went directly to the shuttle stop and made the short drive up the hill. The Victorian Walled Garden was beautiful and immaculately maintained. The restoration work had certainly paid off. We walked around the entire periphery of the garden. The garden is situated in a sort of bowl, with a creek running through it. The effect is such that there is higher ground on either end to provide nice vistas over the entire garden as well as interesting views from the middle looking back up the hill. There was an enormous variety of flowers and plants in the garden which made for some great photos. I guess we went clockwise around the garden (we turned left upon entering the garden, following our normal pattern) so one of our last stops was the keepers house and the glass houses.
We decided to walk back to the Abbey, but first grabbed a bite to eat at the tea room adjacent to the garden. Timing is everything, as we arrived when there was no line, but by the time we got our food and got a table, there was a herd of folks looking to get lunch. We split a ham Panini and a piece of cheesecake, both of which were very good. Lynn had tea and commented that the Irish know how to make a good cup of tea as the water is very hot, which I guess is a key ingredient.
The walk about to the Abbey was uneventful. We took the longer route along the Woodland Walks trail. The trail went along a couple of pastures, were there were some cattle grazing and drinking from the creek, then looped back to the main trail along which the shuttle runs. The Woodland Walks is mostly long a dirt road, so it is probably the maintenance access for the facilities around the garden. While it was a nice walk, it was not particularly pretty, just a stroll through the woods.
As we still had plenty of time, we figured we would walk the paved trail down to the Gothic Church at least, then visit the abbey on the return trip. We ended up going on down to the mausoleum. Along the paved walkway we found several signs identifying the local wildlife. I took pictures of these signs and they were very helpful in figuring out the birds that we had seen throughout the trip. The walk along the lakes and past the buildings is quite lovely. Even though there were a fair number of visitors along the trail, it was still a peaceful walk. The day was still overcast and somewhat dark, which also made the mood of the visit somewhat quiet and subdued, but that seemed appropriate for this destination.
As we walked through the grounds we read the placards and the information on our map. We learned that the Castle was built by Mitchell and Margaret Henry over the period of 1867 to 1871. It seems that the Henry’s visited Connemara while on their honeymoon and were enchanted by the area and so decided that they should have a residence here. We also learned that Margaret died in 1874 during a trip to Egypt. The Henry’s final resting place is in the mausoleum on the grounds of the estate.
Kylemore is home to a community of nuns of the Benedictine Order who came here in 1920 after their abbey in Ypres, Belgium was destroyed in World War I. Settling at Kylemore, the Benedictine Community opened a world renowned boarding school for girls and began restoring the Abbey, Gothic Church and Victorian Walled Garden to their former glory. The school operated from 1923 but was closed in 2010 as it was no longer cost effective.
So we started retracing our steps once we reached the mausoleum. On the return walk we stopped in at the Gothic Church which had a beautiful interior. Of particular interest were the columns made of various types and colors of marble. The church was built by Mitchell Henry in memory of his wife. We also stopped briefly at the small graveyard in front of the church were the nuns are buried. Pierce had mentioned that the nuns were long lived and sure enough there the headstones that we read all indicated ages from the late 80s to well into the 90s. I guess that says something about living a simple life.
Back at the Abbey, we made a quick spin through the rooms that were open to the public. I reckon there were a half dozen rooms on the ground floor that we walked through. Restored and decorated in period pieces to you get an idea of life in the old castle.
I noted the word “PAX” in the entry of the Abbey. Turns out that “PAX” is the motto of the Order of St. Benedict and it means “peace.” It just reminded me the movie “Donovan’s Reef” which is another John Wayne flick.
After our walk through the Abbey we headed for the exit, but we still had time to check out the shops at the visitor center. Along the way I got a few more refection shots of the Abbey and also some boats moored on the lake shore. Once back at the bus, Sean was playing his pipe, which made for a nice end of this stop. We were on the road shortly after 2:30, once Peirce had rounded up a wayward member of the family.
The rest of the afternoon was just a drive through the Irish countryside on our way to Bundoran. The weather toyed with us as it alternated from overcast to drizzle to breaks of blue sky. That just added a bit more variety to the changing landscapes outside the bus. We made a pit stop in Westport at 3:30 and hit a pub for a Guinness. The Irish Open was on the TV which seemed rather appropriate.
We rolled into Bundoran at 6:00 and we were sitting in the pub by 6:30. We would have been in the pub sooner, but it took three tries to get a room get that worked! Pierce saw us in the pub and commented that we were doing things right by not waiting in the room for the luggage to show up…enjoy the time!
Dinner with Jack and Nikki, Luther and Katy and Sean and Mary. One more drink after dinner with Jack and Nikki in the pub. The entertainment tonight was a duo playing Irish folk music. We listened for a short while then packed it in for the night. The weather had turned to rain so decided not to explore Bundoran this evening.
Here’s the link to the photographic highlights from today’s road trip.
Day 9, Friday, June 28th - Ulster-American Folk Park
Another day, another adventure in the shower. The Irish must have hired the Leprechauns to do the plumbing as only those devious little folks could come up with so many odd facet designs.
Even though we slept in a bit today and all we did yesterday was ride in the coach, I’m feeling a little beat this morning. I reckon I need a little exercise. Hopefully we can get a walk in before we depart this morning. The weather is iffy at best. Generally overcast and while it is not raining at present, it is windy and the Atlantic looks angry.
We are right on the coast. Bundoran is a resort town and is known for its beach. We were not seeing the town at its best due to the weather, but it had a bit of a rundown feel to it, at least where we were situated.
After getting the “family portrait” that was taken in Killarney, I got to thinking that we need a list of names to go with the faces. I asked a few folks about this over the past couple days and everyone thought it was a great idea. So this morning a breakfast I started making the rounds. While it did take most of the rest of the trip to get all the names, everyone did sign up. Sean mentioned that it would be nice if we had a website for sharing photos and memories of the trip. Well, that should be easy enough to do. Looks like there might be more to this family thing than just a name.
Just a quick breakfast of cereal this morning then we went out for a walk along the headlands. The alley adjacent to the hotel provided access to the beach. Once we reach the paved trail that parallels the shore we turn north and had a short walk to the first point overlooking the North Atlantic. The trail also ran along a golf course, but the conditions were brutal. Links course on an exposed area right on the Atlantic coast…no place to hide! But there were plenty of golfers out this morning. Hey guys, better you than me!
We turned around after taking in the view along the coast looking north from the first point. We would have gone further, but the weather was really threatening. It was raining by the time we got back to the alley.
The family was loaded and on the road at 8:50 heading for our 9:15 tour of Belleeck Pottery. This will be our first stop in Northern Ireland. Bundoran is only about 15 minutes from the border with Northern Ireland and Belleek is just across the border. Pierce pointed out the heavily fortified border checkpoints and police station as we crossed into Northern Ireland. The fortifications are no longer needed, but they are a stark reminder of the not too distant violent history of Ireland. This is a subject that we have discussed throughout our journey and there will be more to come, so just hang on to that thought for a while.
A steady drizzle was falling by the time we reached the pottery factory. This was another stop that I was leery of, but the Celtic Crystal tour was worth the time, so I went to Belleeck with an open mind. Besides, with the current weather, as it started pouring by the time we got inside, an indoor activity was a good call. So we split up into smaller groups for the factory tour; Lynn and I ended up in the group that was a mix of Bus 1 and Bus 2. Nothing against the Bus 2 folks, but the Bus 1 family was just a more fun group, plus we knew how to listen to the rules. I don’t know why, but it bugs me when folks can’t follow simple instructions (like “stay on the trails” or “don’t feed the wildlife”); maybe the little Asian woman from Bus 2 thought that “please don’t take any pictures during the tour” applied to everyone except her. Usually I say something to folks as the rules are usually there for their own good, but I just let this one pass.
This was another pleasant surprise as the tour of the factory was very well done and we got to see a lot of their process. Took me back to my Junior High School shop class when I learned about pottery (I wonder if Mom still has that beer stein that I made…I sure hope not!). The nice thing about the tour is that you could talk to all the artisans along the route that was taken through the factory which made for a very interesting time. And we did get to take photos in the area where the craftsmen and women were making the very delicate ornaments that adorn some of the pieces.
The tour of course ended in the gift shop (don’t all tours end in the gift shop?). The tour itself was about a half hour, so there was time to shop, grab a snack in the café or walk into town to find the ATM and get some pound notes for our time in Northern Ireland (different country so a different currency). We had the right kind of money so Lynn and I did not have to do any banking which was a good thing as it was still pouring outside. So after a look through the gift store, we got a drink and a snack and sat in the café.
We caught a break in the rain when Pierce brought the chariot around for boarding, but the skies opened up again as we continued our drive to Omagh. However, by the time we reached Omagh, the rain had stopped and the skies were starting to clear.
We drove through Omagh to get to the Ulster-American Heritage Park. This is a bustling little berg and resembled a small town in the US; strip malls, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and the ever present Subway. We’ve seen these American fast food giants in all the larger towns, but Subway is everywhere. Well, if there has to be fast food, at least Subway has some healthy options. Let the record show that we did not eat any of these places during our stay in Ireland!
Pierce provided some of the more disturbing history of Omagh as it was the site of the most deadly terrorist bombing attack in Irish history. Twenty-nine people were killed an 100s wounded when the Real Irish Republican Army detonated a car bomb in the center of the shopping district on August 15, 1998. The RIRA claimed credit for the bombing. However the attack was condemned by leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein (the IRA’s political wing) and the UK.
Pierce also continued the lecture on the overall history of Ireland the various conflicts that have gone on over the past several centuries. It is one thing to think about the fighting, oppression and liberation (depending on one’s point-of-view) that took place 300 years ago, but the Omagh bombing was just 15 years distant. That is still a current event.
Since we entered Northern Ireland, we’ve being seeing new flags. The Union Jack of the United Kingdom is now the dominant standard, but there are also areas where the green-white-orange strips of the Republic of Ireland is followed. And we are seeing a new flag know as the Red Hand of Ulster, which is the flag of the Provence of Ulster. But why a red hand? Pierce’s version of the myth was that the king of Scotland told his sons that the first one to reach Ireland would be the king. As the sons raced in their boats to Ireland, the son who was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to the shore — thus winning the kingship. The hand is most likely red to represent the fact that it would have been covered in blood.
There is so much history and it is so interwoven that it is difficult for someone who has not been immersed in it for their entire life to really, fully understand. Lynn and I discussed this several times during and after the trip. We tried to draw parallels with the American Civil War, with the “Legend of the Lost Cause” and how “the south will rise again” but it really is not the same. At the end of the day, there is no Confederacy and when push comes to shove, we are all Americans. In Ireland, there is still disagreement over the national boundaries on the island and the disposition of the 6 counties that make up Northern Ireland. The Unionist-Loyalists (those flying the Union Jack) wish to stay part of the United Kingdom while the Republican-Nationalists (those following the green, white and orange banner of the Republic of Ireland) want those six counties to be brought into the fold so that there is one country on the island. It’s more than just the territory, but that sort of draws the boundaries of who is where on the map. Most, but not all, unionists are of one of various Protestant backgrounds. Nationalists are mostly of a Catholic background. However, these are generalizations, because there are both Protestant nationalists and Catholic unionists. More on this later; back to the tour.
We arrived at the Ulster American Heritage Park right about noon. Peirce went over the plan for the afternoon and then got our tickets and maps in order. You know the drill, “busy, busy, busy!” We have until 3:00 PM to grab some lunch, tour the park, look through the indoor exhibits and possibly visit the Center for Migration Studies. Pierce had given us an overview of the park, so I had a better understanding of what we were going to see; it was actually just enough of an explanation of what to expect that I got a lot more out of the visit. The short story is that this is a living history museum about the Irish emigration to the United States and more specifically the emigration of the Ulster Scots from Ireland to the US.
Pierce suggested that the entire family NOT all head to lunch at the same time as there was only a small café available. But Lynn and I got lucky and were near the head of the line, so we were able get into the cafeteria with just a short wait. I think I had a bowl of chili and Lynn had a loaded baked potato…it was not a memorable meal. You know, that is one thing that was a bit of a problem with the logistics of the trip, we were usually having lunch at one of the tour stops and eating in cafeteria settings. I would have preferred to have been able to try more of the local eateries. But overall getting a quick meal at the tour stop provided more time touring, so it really worked out for the best. With all we had going some compromise was required.
After lunch we headed outside for a walk through the grounds. When we got to the start of the trail we again started by heading to the left. I mentioned before that turning left was our usual procedure. We picked this up prior to our first trip to Disney World; a friend suggested turning left and touring in a clockwise direction, as the vast majority of visitors will go straight ahead or turn to the right. So we turned to the left. Going to the left took us to the United States part of the tour, so we went through the timeline in reverse order, not that it really made that much difference. The way the park is laid out you ideally start in the Irish village buildings, then to the port where the immigrants left for the New World and finally the buildings that represent the frontier in the US where many of the Irish settled. Note that the frontier at this point in time was the Appalachian Mountains so western Pennsylvania, western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Actually, I think starting in the US and going back to the Irish countryside worked well for me since I began with what I was familiar with and moved up the learning curve as I went back along the timeline to Ireland.
We had great weather for the walk through the park, other than one brief shower as we were walking around the Pennsylvania log cabin. But since all the buildings in the park are open there never seemed to be a long stretch between shelters if we had needed it.
The park was very interesting and tied the whole Irish migration together very nicely. The flow of the park from the Irish countryside to the port town, the ship, the US town and finally the US frontier (or in reverse order for Lynn and I) provides some idea of the path the immigrants took on their journeys. Many of the structures were moved to the park from their original locations in Ireland and the US; the newest structure in the park was a log house built in 1827 in Cabell County, West by God! How cool is that! While the buildings tell part of the story, the living history that is presented throughout the park really made the visit special. The folks we talked to really knew the history of the era.
In addition to the learning opportunity, the park is also very scenic and provides some interesting photo opportunities. It was also a good place to spot birds. I got a nice shot of a Chaffinch on the springhouse in the Pennsylvania farm grounds. There are also some very nice views of the forty shades of green from the high ground vantage points above the Mellon homestead in the old Irish part of the park. Plenty of interesting smaller images as well; along the country lanes, in the city streets, chickens in the farmyard and the old rusty farm equipment.
We spent the majority of our time in the outside part of the park, but we did make a quick cruise through the exhibits inside the museum. More history of the Ulster Scotts and the migration from Ireland to America. The most interesting parts to me were the contributions to United States history such as helping to settle the frontier to fighting in the Civil War…for both the north and the south.
Overall, this was a very nice living history park. It is well done and authentic. It was a busy time, but I think we covered the outdoor exhibits in pretty good detail. I learned a lot about the migration of the Ulster Scots from Ireland to America, a facet of history of which I knew very little. Wow, an educational vacation.
We were back on the road heading to Belfast at about 3:00. Fairly uneventful drive, but we did see a really big bird that we’re pretty sure was a Golden Eagle. I did a little research upon returning home and it seems that the Golden Eagle has been reintroduced to Ireland in the Donegal area on the northwest coast, but that birds have been spotted in upland areas throughout Ireland. Pretty cool.
We arrived at our hotel in the heart of Belfast about 4:45. We’re staying at the Holiday Inn Belfast for the next two nights. I believe this is the nicest lodging of all the places we have stayed and the location is great for exploring the city. But tonight we’re going to take it easy.
After getting settled in the room, we went downstairs for a drink before the family dinner. We joined the sisters, Betsy and Kati, in the lounge, then Nikki and Jack pulled up a couple of chairs, and soon after others of the family were gathered around the circle. There was actually quite a lot of activity going on in the hotel this evening. Pierce was in the lounge when we arrived and he pointed out a former US welter weight boxing champion; seems there is a boxing match tonight and this guy is the promoter. He was a tough looking SOB; big guy, bent nose, lots of tats and a couple hot babes in his entourage. There was also a wedding taking place in the hotel that looked as if it would turn into quite a party. Finally there were these four young ladies dressed up in quite unusual costumes; sort of Popeye crossed with Strawberry Shortcake and blended for the Playboy Mansion. I was not sure exactly what their game was. I asked Pierce if they might be Travelers but he explained that they were just having a “hen’s party”, the Irish version of a bachelorette party. We’ll they were having quite the time and it was still really early! As for Travelers, more on them later.
When we first arrived in the lounge, I went up to the bar to get drinks for Lynn and me. The young lady tending bar tonight had the most striking eyes. When I ordered, I said something like, “I’d like a Bass, you have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, and a glass of white wine.” Yeah, I’m a real lady killer. I’m not one to take photos of random people, but there were three shots that I wished I had taken during this trip, this young lady, the hens and Sinéad from Muckross House. I think photos of these young ladies would have made a nice collage depicting the some of the people of Ireland.
Family dinner tonight. We sat with Jack and Nikki. Good meal, good company and a nice relaxed evening. After dinner we got another beer from the bar but took our drinks up to the room for a quiet evening. I was a beautiful evening outside; sunny blue skies. We had the window open to enjoy the pleasant evening. The city noise was not too bad, but the gulls certainly made a raucous!
Here's a collections of photos from today's adventures.