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Trip Report Visiting Castles in Ireland - 2011

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Another overdue trip report. I'll do better, I promise.

This first installment of the log covering our month long trip to Ireland in May 2011 was written by my (14 at the time) daughter.

Hello everyone!

Right now we're at Carton House - a beautiful royal house converted into a modern hotel. This is one of the palaces my mom and I have read about for months in anticipation of seeing its marvelous rooms. Almost the entire grounds have been groomed into a world-renowned golf course but luckily, the owners decided to preserve the Duchess of Leinster's shell cottage. It wasn't easy to find but with the help of hotel personnel and some diligence, we found it. The interior of the cottage was covered with exquisite shells from all over the world. That was the highlight of the day. :-)

The weather is windy, misting, and in the low fifties for the most part. Apparently, its supposed to get up in the low sixties in this upcoming week! YAY!...wish I'd brought long johns though... :)

The people are lovely and very friendly to Americans. The scenery is greener and more breathtaking than we ever imagined. The roads (the driving in particular) is...well...interesting... We're back in the land of roundabouts and driving on the other side of the road, with my dad on the other side of the car...pretty weird but we'll get used to it soon hopefully.
Our gps seems to be on countryside mode as it keeps taking us down tightly winding roads.

The food has been delicious - mostly very familiar dishes.

So far, we've visited mostly mansions. Today, we visited Russborough house. In our guided tour, we saw marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, and intricate furniture from all over the world. This house, with its famously valuable art and antiquity collection, was robbed three times in the last 40 years (once in the 1970s, once in 2000, and once in 2002). Fortunately, all stolen valuables were retrieved and restored back to the house. Later, due to not being able to adequately protect them, several of the more famous paintings and other artworks were moved to the National Gallery in Dublin.

Later, we saw Glendalough Abbey - an old abbey built in the 6th century. The church and turret still stand among the other ruined buildings. We walked through the old tombstones and found some interesting Irish names. This area was situated in a valley, in the Wicklow Mountains, and was especially lush and green. The road leading to this site wound through the valley with lots of blind hills and corners.

After that, we drove to Maynooth to see Maynooth castle. This is a ruined castle. We stopped for quick pictures and then headed back to the hotel where we saw the Shell Cottage.

Yesterday, we left the airport with our rental car (a comfy, little Ford Focus) and drove directly to Malahide Castle. This castle had the best surviving wood-inlay room in Ireland. The walls were completely covered with dark black wood with beautiful carving and the furniture was equally impressive. The tour led us through a child's nursery filled with toy boats, cars, and rocking horses. The house also had an 18th century bathroom with tub, sink, and chamber pot and a note about the evolving acceptance of washing oneself in that time.

Our next stop was the 6,000 year old megalithic burial site of Newgrange. Set on top of a hill, this circular complex was built with a precise geometric plan. Above the entrance of the uphill passage leading to the above-ground chamber of three tombs, there is a large square window where the sun may enter. Our guide explained and showed to us when we reached the chamber, how the sun could shine through the square above the entrance on the winter solstice, onto the tomb floor - because of how slanted the passageway leading to the tomb was. The chamber with the three tombs and passage was shaped like a cross. According to our guide, each individual tomb may have had a specific theme. The tomb to the right of the entrance may have represented the sun and showed circles, arcs, and lines. The tomb to the left showed many of the same techniques but also included a fern carving - perhaps to demonstrate the Earth. However, the tomb directly facing the entrance had only one Megalithic carving, that of a three spirals in a trinity shape. Apparently, this is the most symbolic Megalithic design representing the afterlife. The decorative entry stone (which originally covered the entrance to the passageway) is covered with this spiral design.

After that, we found our hotel (the same one we are in tonight). In order to save it, Carton House was converted into a hotel and golf course in order to keep up with costs for repairs and maintenance. Fortunately, the old house was left intact and the hotel was added onto it. The rooms were opened to visitor's viewing pleasure, although most of the furniture was removed and the rooms are now used for business meetings and weddings. The Library (with its awesome secret door covered by fake books), the Duke's and Duchess' studies, the bell room (displaying the original bells calling the servants to specific rooms where they were needed), two drawing rooms, the rose parlor, and the Tyrconnel room, among others. One of the hotel staff pointed out that the bell from the Duchess' study rung so much that it was nearly worn through. One of the drawing rooms had a portrait of revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the son of the Duchess of Leinster, who was very involved with the Irish revolution. Much later, Carton House was nearly destroyed by IRA men but upon being shown the portrait of the patriot Lord Edward Fitzgerald they left Carton unharmed. Several other mansions connected with British nobility were destroyed.

The Chinese Boudoir (where Queen Victoria slept during her stay at Carton House) was locked but was later opened upon request by a member of the hotel staff. This magnificent room was covered with cobalt blue wall coverings. Ornamenting the blue, were about fifteen Chinese wallpaper cuttings (these varied in size). It was fun to explore the open rooms and get pictures of all we could.

Arriving at our hotel last night (the same one we're in tonight) was a relief as we were all very tired.

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    Today began with a visit to Trim Castle, which we hadn't had time to visit the first day but really wanted to see. So, we made time this morning and headed back. We were glad we did. The keep was viewable only by guided tour and our guide had a lovely sense of humor and a great pace. The interior requires some imagination to reconstruct mentally, but the flipside is it is very authentic. It had been left as it stood when it collapsed hundreds of years ago, and was respectfully cleared out once the government took it over and decided to open it to the public, so it is like a time capsule of the 1200’s, when it fell into disuse. Fireplaces and fortified walls, windows, and Barbizon access in the walls, spiral staircases with shallow stairs, crenellated rooftops, green walls from trees and lichen that grew through the middle of the castle after the roof collapsed during the hundreds of years it was abandoned. Very neat. And very windy.

    We then took off to Castletown, a highlight of our trip for its historical significance as the home of the self-made wealthiest commoner in Ireland, William Connelly, whose nephew, Tom Connelly, married the great granddaughter of the King of England, Louisa Lennox, of the aristocratic Lennox family. The Lennox sisters were the subject of Stella Tillyard’s book based on the letters between the sisters which were found after Louisa’s death, despite her request that they be burned. Thank goodness they weren’t, as they offer an invaluable insight into the life of nobility at that time. See her book or the miniseries based on it, The Aristocrats. Carton House, where we stayed our first two nights, was the home of Emily Lennox, who married James Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, and subsequent Duke of Leinster. Later this trip we’ll see their Dublin house, Leinster House, which was ultimately turned over to the government and houses Irish legislative bodies. Another of their homes, Frescati House, is gone forever, and was the catalyst for Ireland actively protecting its historic houses.

    Castletown was amazing to see, from the two story entry hall, and rooms created by William Connelly in a formal “colonial” style, to the later style adopted by 15 year old Louisa in her renovations, including plasterwork in a more playful rococo style with greek and roman gods, glass chandeliers created on Murano Island in Venice, and colorful wallpapers and silk wall coverings. The Palladian style mansion is
    The Irish National Stud was next, where there were many foals and mares, stallions, the nursery, museum, well… Daughter can give more detail on that upon request.

    Down the road a bit was our B&B in Kildare, and a short walk to a medieval church, St. Brigids, with the tall spires and stained glass. Interestingly, the church’s namesake is the first (only?) woman to be ordained a bishop accidentally when the head bishop pronounced the wrong rites on her, later claiming that it was divinely directed.

    Had some normal Irish food (Carton House food, while delicious, was a bit gourmet) at Flanagans Lounge and after resting and writing this, are off to seek some traditional music at a few of the many pubs here.

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    We have been visiting a variety of private and public, known (like Blarney Castle(yes, daughter kissed the Blarney Stone) and Rock of Cashel) and off-the-beaten-path castles (like Cahir Castle) and stately homes (like Bantry House.) It baffles me that stately homes like 16th century Elizabethan home “Ormond Castle” and 18th century “Castletown” and “Emo Court” are virtually empty, while less intact examples of cathedrals and private castles that are well marketed and on the tourist trail are packed. OPW (office of public works – aka “old people’s wives” according to husband) runs the public properties and does a fabulous job. They hire archeologists to excavate and provide informative tours for the public. They operate the properties at a high standard, protecting the properties vigilantly, trying to keep things authentic and, where rebuilding is necessary, doing so using materials and methods used originally. It can be difficult to determine the original time period to employ due to the fact that most of these castles spanned hundreds of years and most were rebuilt or changed many times by the many generations that lived in them. In every castle we visit, we see or learn something new. I thought I’d pass along some of the accumulated knowledge passed on to us by the archeologists leading our tours of primarily 12th-16th century castles.

    Huge mats made from branches were placed over large rooms in a castle when building the ceiling, over which the stone structure would be built, much as was done in roman times. The actual mat still exists in many places, and mats reconstructed by OPW appear as barrel vault ceilings above the great rooms of some castles. Floors reconstructed by OPW are made with Irish oaks cut by an adze and held together with dowels as they would have been originally. Animal intestines were stretched over windows frames and animal grease spread over the intestines to make them opaque and water resistant. The wood shutter on pivot hinge also helped to keep the cold out. Holes under slit windows were for allowing intruding water to drain out.

    Surprisingly: Garderobe means literally, “guarding the clothes.” This is because clothes were hung over the toilets on a clothes line so that the ammonia that blew back up through the waste chute would kill lice and other bugs that were ever-present in a society that didn’t believe in bathing. Water was too precious and they believed washing would cause disease. Another revelation was the origins of the word “cubby hole”. Cubby derives from a latin root meaning “youngster” (we still use cub to refer to some young animals) and referred to a niche backing up to a fireplace chimney where the bunted newborn would be placed to stay warm at night. Fermenting straw was piled on the stone floors of the keep to provide heat for everyone else who slept on the floor. Body heat also was relied on in small keep bedrooms with no fireplace.

    Castle walls were created with mortar made of animal blood and hair and lime. Then to keep vermin and illness at bay while the mortar decayed, they kept the walls painted with white lime. Poor ventilation and air quality caused by smoke and lime painted walls made people living in the castles pretty congested, so they slept sitting up against the walls of the castle. The lord and lady were the only ones with a bed; four postered with a canopy to keep the bugs and moisture from dropping on them, and curtains to help keep in the warm. These beds were much shorter than ours today, because they were shorter than we are and they also slept sitting up (the congestion, and they also didn’t want to sleep as though they were dead – sleeping laying flat is a relatively modern invention.)

    Steps are much smaller than we are comfortable using because their average shoe size was a 4, consistent with them being much shorter. Spiral staircases were always oriented going up in a clockwise manner because the sword was wielded from the right hand and it was much easier to defend from above with this orientation than to attack from below. Most staircases included higher or uneven steps called “trip stairs” to make attacking more difficult. Doorways were even smaller than needed for the shorter people, and narrower to make attack by armed men difficult; again, easier to defend from within, than to attack from without. Murder holes above every entry gate, cross timbered doors studded with sharp studs facing outwards, doors installed at the time the stones of the castle were being set, huge bolt holes for bolting the door against intruders, and arrow holes for shooting invaders in passages just outside entry doors, are all examples of defensive mechanisms.

    The day before yesterday, we began the day visiting Torc Waterfall where we ran into my fellow board member who was also vacationing in Ireland. We joked about finding each other here ahead of our respective trips, but actually did meet up completely accidentally. What are the chances? We then took a guided tour of Muckross House, an 18th century home that was given to the Irish people upon the death of the daughter of a S.F. water magnate. Interesting to see the servant quarters and learn how serving took place and also see the children’s quarters. We then went on to Ross Castle which was magnificently appointed in terms of really showing how every feature of a medieval tower house had a defensive purpose.

    By then it was 3pm and husband spontaneously decided that since we were experiencing a rare sunny day and had a full tank of gas, we should do the Ring of Kerry. We have read that it is a touristy crowded spot, but we have decided it got that way because so many people found it to be spectacular, as we did. The advantage of going at the end of the day was that we were virtually the only folks on it, no tour buses to worry about, nobody behind us to mind if we stopped for pictures. It was excellent and soooo beautiful. Blue lakes (because we had blue skies) and seas, green rolling hills and mountains, bucolic countryside, wildflowers and sheep, and really the most beautiful countryside we’ve ever seen. I doubt our pictures could do it justice. We made it to the Skellig Experience Centre describing the 5th century monastic settlement created on Skellig Michael, a very rocky, foreboding island off the coast of the Iveagh Peninsula. They carved 2300 steps up the mountain and created the monastery at the top. They had us at 2300 steps, so we confined our exploration of Skellig Michael to the movie in the visitor centre.

    We went further up the road and paid 10 Euros to park and walk to the edge of the cliff on the ring. Wondering if we were going to find that we also needed to pay to leave as we walked, we were pleasantly surprised that the view was actually better than promised and unique. Excellent view of rocks, cliffs, Skellig Micheal, and the waves crashing against the rocks. We then headed up the road to see if we could enter the Staigue Fort, a stone ring fort from 200 B.C. It is on private property and cared for by OPW. It was open and the coin box outside the gate was on the honor system “1 Euro per person for right of trespass”. And we and one other man were the only ones there. It is a round fort 10 feet high and around 10 feet thick with two rooms within the walls and staircases all along the interior, as well as a slender opening. It was erected without mortar and has survived over 2200 years in relatively great condition. Its owner must have been a very high chieftain. Upon our return to Kenmare, we went to O’Donnabhains Pub for Beef and guiness stew (excellent) and brown bread before turning in exhausted. It was a very long but glorious day.

    Yesterday, we crossed the Gap of Dunloe with its beautiful, rugged upturned rock formations, wild grasses and flowers, sheep on the road, old stone bridges over picturesque creeks and rivers. We went on to an unsupervised OPW site, Ballymalis Castle. Neat to run through a castle on our own by ourselves. We then headed to the charming small town of Listowel to see Listowel Castle for a very interesting guided tour (see info above) and then visited another unsupervised OPW castle, Carrigafoyle Castle. All three were tower castles – we are getting a workout climbing up lots of spiral staircases on this trip! We then headed to Dingle on the Dingle Peninsula, another beautiful peninsula. Greenmont House is a lovely B&B and a fun splurge. We had pizza at a jazz bar and dessert crepes at a creperie – small break from Irish food.

    Today, daughter went riding on a Frisian up a mountain and then galloping on the beach. She loved it until Bob bucked and she took a spill off the English saddle on the hard sand. We were waiting for her return at the barn, when we received this cryptic email from her.

    "Hi
    I'm at the B&b. I fell off the horse on the beach and someone from the barn came and picked me up and brought me here. mary has offered to wash my soaked, sandy clothes in her washer and dryer along with your guy's laundry. I wasn't sure what you wanted to do so I said I wasnt sure. my shoes are still at the stable and i have their boots. let me know what you wnat me todo. mary has also offered her hot tupb to me for use

    luv u"

    (added comment) Daughter had ridden for years, but not English. She took a hard fall and we were so grateful for Mary's care for her in that moment. We would have returned to Greenmont House in a heartbeat regardless - everything was absolutely perfect - but Mary's kindness and tender care for our daughter inspires our gratitude to this day, and was one more reason we loved the Irish people. Mary is a lovely person.

    Next day:
    We took it easy today and started down the dingle peninsula around 6pm. We saw the Gallarus Oratory, an 800-1200 year old stone church built without mortar. We also saw the stone beehive huts built by the ancient Celts. The Blasket Islands were rugged and beautiful off the coast and the famine houses and fallow fields on the hills of the peninsula (not planted since the potato blight) provide warning against monocultures in farming.

    We have met so many lovely people here - countless examples of graciousness in action. The climate is somewhat harsh – even the locals say the wind is unusual for this time of year. It has been sunny for the most part though. It is 10:30 here now and we are watching the last of the sunset over hot chocolate from the picture window of the B&B.

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    Question: Why did the sheep cross the road? Answer: Because daughter asked them to. Seriously though; apparently, I didn't pay enough to have more than 2 sheep in the road at a time (daughter was hoping for a flock or at least 10 cows or so like Amy Adams encountered in Leap Year.) We exceeded 3K kilometers today. It has rained almost daily but thankfully it has been sunny when it mattered.

    Vegetable soup here is great! So is the seafood chowder. Had a break from restaurant food in our self catered flat in Galway for a few days. Pub grub is actually pretty good. Pizza, beef and lamb stews, fish and chips, etc. Bill had the lightest most delicious fried fish. The Irish seem to follow American cuisine more closely than British cuisine. The tumultuous history between Ireland and Britain is evident everywhere we go. It will be interesting to visit Northern Ireland and see how things are viewed there.

    We took a short flight over the Aran Islands and Cliffs of Moher. Definitely a great way to view the stone walls and forts, the endless green pastures and blue ocean (yes, we had an hour of sunlight for our flight - preceded and followed by clouds and rain!)

    My friend will be pleased to know that her Princes of Ireland book is a world traveler and received a passport stamp upon entering Ireland. Now if I could just finish reading it before I get home!

    We stayed in a land agent's cottage on the western coast of Ireland in Donegal County that was built before U.S. independence. The walls are at least 2 feet thick. Fortunately for us, electricity and modern bathrooms were installed sometime between 1770 and today but unfortunately, the windows were not airtight and it was very cold and drafty. Felt like we were in a Jane Austen novel (which was wonderful, actually.)

    Our next Irish Trust property was a lighthouse keepers cottage on the Antrim coast (you can see Scotland across the channel) built in 1901 which was warm and cozy with views for days. We visited Belfast from there and through our guided tour into both segregated areas (and their murals), came to some painful realizations about the troubles, the "peace wall" (similar to Israel's wall) that divides the sides, and the current situation there. A highlight was attending a Wed evening church meeting in Belfast, a thriving church since 1937, just 15 years after partition.

    Now we are above the old stables in Merrion Square in Dublin - right in the middle of everything. Very lively bustling city that feels like an old Georgian village. Our trip is almost at an end. We have seen 38 castles, abbeys and churches, 18 historic homes and gardens, and 21 national parks and other historic sights. We'll visit Leinster house tomorrow, the home of the Dukes of Leinster before granting it to the government for governing bodies to meet in. We'll wander around taking it all in.

    It seems to be sunny whenever we need it to be, for which we've been so grateful. But the wind blows incessantly and it is cold almost all of the time. We really miss home at this point, as it should be. We have all agreed this is one of our favorite adventures so far.

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