Sunday, September 26, 2010

In and around Kenmare

Kenmare is a pretty small town located on the southwest coast of Ireland. It was suggested in the Rick Steves guide (by this point in the trip being referred to as "The Book of Steves") as an alternative base to Killarney for exploring both the Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas. Being the ancestral home of many Irish-Americans and the jumping off point for tours of the famous Ring of Kerry, it is a very busy place, jammed with souvenir shops, tour buses and "jaunting cars" as the horse drawn open carriages are called. Preferring somewhere a little more low key, we opted for Kenmare.

With its brightly painted storefronts, a circle of standing stones just outside town, a lovely harbour and a pleasant walking trail through the countryside at the edges of the village not to mention the pubs with live music spilling out the doors, it is a pleasant place to walk about, browse the shops and stop for a pint when fatigue sets in. There are several town and rural B&B's including the lovely five star Park Hotel which overlooks the water, lots of pubs with live music, and a range of restaurant fare from fine dining to pub food. A few recommendations in no particular order of preference:

P.F. McCarthy's - lively pub, great atmosphere, live music
Packie's - great decor, delicious food, good service
The Coachman's - atmosphere leaves something to be desired but food is good and prices reasonable
Foley's - great food, crowded, good service, very hot the evening we were there

On a second floor up a narrow stair from the tourist office is the Kenmare Lace Museum. It documents the work of the Poor Clare order of nuns who came to Kenmare in the 1860's and taught the young women of the town to make lace so they could contribute income to their families in a time of severe unemployment. Kenmare lace, a technique in its own right, was world famous in its day. Queen Victoria purchased a piece and one wealthy American woman bought a coverlet and pillow covers for a price that would buy a very nice house today. The making of the lace is extremely time consuming, a single flower motif from the examples below taking about 20 hours of painstaking work to complete. Needless to say, it is now a dying art although many hobbyists keep the craft alive, including the volunteers at the lace museum who demonstrate the different techniques of Kenmare lace, bobbin lace and Point d'Irlandaise or crochet lace. The museum has many fine vintage pieces of this beautiful work.

Different kinds of lace at the Kenmare Lace Museum

Kenmare Harbour

Circle of Standing Stones

This was one of the few stone circles we saw that was maintained and where we didn't have to skip through cow pies to get to it....not very atmospheric but still worth a stop on an evening walk.

Travelling companion with large stone

Green, red, green - Kenmare back alley


And many months go by, so so quickly! I have excuses but won't bore you with them...suffice to say that there have been some bumps in the road this year which I may or may not choose to share at some point. For the moment, I'm trying to remain positive, not stick my head in the sand but focus on dealing with what is in front of me and burn those bridges when I come to them. And my apologies for the metaphor mangling.

It has been a long time since the Ireland trip but I want to share what ended up being my favourite part of the trip which was the southwest coast of Ireland. First part of this adventure was to equip ourselves with a car. We took the bus back out to the airport to do this, reasoning that on our final day we could drive straight to the airport and drop the car off before our flight - that turned out to be good strategy, by the way. Our trial by fire (especially for my trusty driver) was to be dumped out onto the busy motorway, driving a right hand drive on the left side of the road. It wasn't so bad at first because on a divided highway, driving on the left was not a factor. Of course the traffic was insane as this is pretty much the biggest chunk of modern highway in Ireland.

As the day wore on and we crossed the country, the roads became progressively narrower until, as we approached Kenmare, there was barely room for two cars to pass by each other. There was so little clearance that the wild fuschia and ferns sprouting profusely from the head high rock walls lining the road was ticking against the rear view mirror on my side of the car making me cringe away in fear. Speed limits in Ireland seem excessively optimistic but local drivers weren't hard to spot - they were the ones driving huge SUVs and flooring it. We had a tiny Twingo (doesn't that sound like something that runs off an elastic band?), one step up from the even smaller car we had reserved but which the agent talked us out of as not a good choice for the distance and the roads we planned to travel. Fortunately, we took his advice.

Iveragh side road

Our room at Hawthorn House in Kenmare, booked on the fly earlier that day, turned out to be a separate cottage affair behind the main building and was lovely and quiet and unlike most B&B rooms in Ireland, roomy. After the usual warm Irish greeting from the proprietress, we set out in late afternoon to explore the town. Most of the very colourful buildings were arranged along two long streets set at an angle to each other in a "V" shape. After poking about in a few shops and a very large knitwear store, we passed by a tiny pub and heard strains of "trad" music issuing forth. Without hesitating, we turned and walked in, beguiled by that irresistible sound and found a room jammed full of locals, a few tourists and a pickup group of local musicians who did a session there each afternoon before going on to their paying gigs.

Downtown Kenmare

It was fabulous! We immediately ordered a Guinness and settled in for an hour or so to listen and observe. There was a group of 30-somethings at the bar next to us who were conversing in Irish, some families having an early supper of Irish pub food at the few battered tables and musicians arriving to sit in for a number or two and then take their leave. We couldn't have been happier with our introduction to the pub music scene which we were to experience almost daily during that part of the trip. This tradition seems happily to be very much alive in that part of the world.

Next day dawned reasonably clear so, full to bursting with eggs, sausage and toasted soda bread with jam, we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and "do" the world famous Ring of Kerry, the magnificent circle route of the Iveragh Peninsula. We took Rick Steves advice and set out in the opposite direction to the one the tour buses take, clockwise as opposed to counter clockwise although I see this tactic is discouraged on some "official" websites. With some judicious dekes off the main route to look at archeological sites that are inaccessible to large vehicles, it is possible to avoid getting stuck in a diesel fumed snail of traffic and allow the bulk of the opposing traffic of the day to go by. Since we were in Kenmare and most of the tours leave from Killarney, it also meant that we were dodging oncoming buses at the end of the day but it was still worth it.

Our first stop was the Staigue Fort a few miles out from Kenmare, one of the so-called "faerie forts" or stone ring forts of unmortared stone. The view of the sea and surrounding countryside, stony sheep pasture for the most part, was spectacular and it was not difficult to imagine the strategic value of the site or to admire the engineering ability of the Iron Age people who built it.

Staigue Fort

Sheep pasture & top of the wall at Staigue Fort

The rest of the day was just as sensational...I won't try to describe it all but the photos below will give you the general idea. Unfortunately we didn't have time to take a tour out to the Skelligs, those pointy islands off the tip of the Iveragh with the stone beehive huts where very dedicated (or deeply antisocial) monks lived out their lives. Even if we had not been time challenged, the boat tours that day were cancelled due to rough seas. We gathered this was a fairly regular occurrence, not surprising given how exposed this coast is to the open Atlantic.

Spectacular cliffs near Waterville

Famine houses overlooking the Skelligs

Contented Irish cows

Friday, January 29, 2010

Langeville to Dublin

It all seems so long ago...well I guess that's because it's been well over six months now since I met up with my guy at Dublin Airport. There he was in the arrivals area, having made his way from home to Heathrow then to Dublin to our B & B in Dun Laoghaire and back to the airport on the shuttle to be waiting the moment I stepped into the terminal. What a guy! In the interests of catching up to present day, the rest of the travelogue won't be a timeline so much as an expanded highlights spread over several posts with a section on up-to-the-moment stuff. It has been pretty daunting to think about having to write my way from last June to now, to the point I avoided writing at all. Ahh, the excuses we make to procrastinate...

My first impression of Dublin was how modern it felt for such an old city. The curvy futuristic looking airport terminal was still under construction, many old buildings have been repurposed for flats and concert halls and public spaces and there are plenty of brand new glass and steel office buildings. We were to learn from the locals that many of the new places were standing empty as a result of the downturn in the economy and the banking crisis. There was even talk of pulling down the miles of new or stalled-out construction around the airport as it didn't look as though it would ever be occupied or even finished.

River Liffey in downtown Dublin

One of our favourite activities during our stay in Dublin was a bus tour out to Newgrange, part of the complex of Neolithic passage tombs or celestial clocks or ceremonial mounds in the Boyne Valley...opinions are mixed as to their purpose. That they remain somewhat of an enigma is not surprising considering they were built over 5,000 years ago (predating the Pyramids by 2,000 years!) and extensive exploration and protection only started in the 1960's. It is a very impressive place when one catches sight of it from the road leading in, very large and gleaming white on its emerald green hilltop. If its creators meant it to impress, they are still pulling it off.

Ian, our wonderful tour guide who regaled us with history, sang to us and told us storyteller style of Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) and the Magic Salmon


All visitors must pass through the Brú na Bóine visitor's centre and in groups limited to 50, take a shuttle bus up to the site for a one hour visit, one group leaving as another arrives. The passage and chamber can only be accessed in groups of 25 at a time, accompanied by a guide. Inside, the passage runs uphill and is so low and narrow that I was obliged to duck beneath the roof stones and turn sideways at one point to allow my shoulders to pass through. Those with claustrophobia issues are well advised to skip this part. The centre chamber, domed with concentric circles of rock, held all 25 of us, but very cosily. There is artificial lighting but at one point it was extinguished leaving us in velvet blackness with not a glimmer from outside, invited by the guide to imagine ourselves notables of an ancient cult, awaiting the arrival of the light on winter solstice. On that day, provided the sun is shining, a rectangular opening over the exterior door lines up perfectly with the sun's position, the passage and the central chamber, allowing light to run up the path and, for a few minutes, illuminate a polished stone bowl which stood at the centre of the chamber.

Curving entry area with roof box over exterior door to let in the solstice sun

It is thought that these moments were used for some special yearly ceremony but it's anybody's guess. One theory involves the bowl holding the ashes of the deceased so that the touch of the sun's rays at the moment when the days begin to get longer sends their spirits to join the ancestors. Another holds that fertility rites were enacted for the coming year's harvest. Should you wish to experience this moment for yourself, you must enter a lottery and if you are chosen, pray that the Winter Solstice isn't clouded over....bit of a long shot given Ireland's reputation for rainy weather.

Standing stone overlooking the Boyne River Valley

The outside of the mound is decorated with white stone and the base is lined with huge stones laid on their sides and decorated with triskells (three joined spirals) and other runic symbols. The slope down from the mound had several standing stones and a sort of chapel built entirely of stone. As you can see in the photos, the countryside is lushly green and dotted everywhere with sheep. County Meath is an exceptionally productive agricultural area and we were surprised to learn that dairy and other farm products are one of their biggest exports. I had the best butter I've ever eaten while we were there and I should probably devote an entire post to the phenomenon that is the full Irish breakfast.

Stone chapel at Newgrange

Newgrange detail: white facing stone and monolithic lintel slabs

I was surprised to learn how new archeological inquiry is in Ireland, especially given the rich historical and mythic tradition that continues to this day. It was not unusual to hear ordinary people talk about fairies and ghosts, and about bad luck coming from disturbing the "faerie forts". Perhaps it's due to centuries of domination and persecution or perhaps with such a profusion, ruins are taken more for granted than they would be in North America where similar sites would be roped off. There are ruins everywhere, tumbledown castles, famine houses, ring forts and tombs and very few have been documented or excavated to any extent. It was wonderful having such open access to these ancient sites, able to scramble over the same stones where 5,000 years ago, people took shelter, to look out at the same view from the vantage of a fort wall.

Lintel Stone with triskell and other designs