This St. Patrick’s Day, I’m reminded of all the folklore, wisdom, and history I learned on my month-long trip to Ireland several years ago. Take a walk with me…
First off, this is Croagh Padraigh or the mountain of St. Patrick, where the Irish say that St. Patrick threw his bell and rid the country of all snakes and insects when he was sent there to convert the populace to Catholicism.
You park at the bottom of the hill and can walk up to the monument. Many make a pilgrimage each year further up the mountain. The drive further south along the coast is breathtaking as you wind around the mountains. Every turn you discover a new pocket of lakes, tiny villages, rolling green hills, and nowhere to make a pit stop!
Here is Blarney Castle, which contains the famous Blarney stone embedded in a wall on the top floor of the castle. The grounds of the castle are lovely and well-maintained with flowers galore, complete with a gift and coffee shop. The Blarney House is just adjacent to the property and is much newer, but has an exquisite gothic/castle appearance to it that is even more photogenic than Blarney Castle.
If you’re brave enough to kiss the Blarney stone (Winston Churchill did, so you’d better be!) then perhaps the same old man is still working there, who held my feet so I would not plummet to my death some three stories down. You lie on the stone floor of the top of the castle and lean back, while he holds your legs. It is supposed to give you the gift of gab or a “silver tongue” as they say. I’m just a smart ass so perhaps I missed the stone in fear of cracking my head open.
Roughly in about the center of the Republic of Ireland (There are 2 Irelands for those who don’t know – the British dominated Northern Ireland, and the southern Republic of Ireland) I recommend stopping at a place called Strokestown Park.
Strokestown Park was owned by a family in the region for at least 200 years and the last inhabitant did not change a thing inside of the house. When it was sold at auction, the neighbor bought it for the land, not realizing he got the house in the deal. When he discovered the wealth of untouched history inside, he opened it as a museum. You will never see anything else quite like it. It’s like a family got up and left a hundred years ago, leaving all of their belongings behind. They even have “piss pots” in hideaway sections of the dining room walls which were passed around to the men when they didn’t want to get up from their drinks after the women had left the table. Wowza!
Here is the dark and ominous building from the front…
The grounds of Strokestown park are bewildering. The mistress of the house even had in-ground greenhouses so that she could grow pineapple trees. I was there in May and not a lot was blooming, but I was still overwhelmed.
The tour guide at Strokestown Park, a lovely older woman, had a wealth of information on the history of the family who lived there and Irish history in general. She told us all sorts of gems. For instance, there was an appliqued decoration next to a chair by a fireplace that was mounted on a thin wooden pedestal and stood on the floor. I asked her what it was and she explained that women wore wax on their faces. They believed the wax would protect them from smallpox, which could horribly disfigure people (and actually did disfigure one of the family members). These “face screens” were placed in between where a person sat and the fireplace, to prevent this facial wax from melting. And that, my friends…is where the phrase “saving face” comes from!
Strokestown Park is conveniently located next to the Famine Museum, which explains the potato crop failure which led to the great famine. It describes what life was like for families during that time. If I remember correctly, a person ate about fourteen pounds of potatoes mixed with milk each week to survive upon, and thus why the rest of Europeans thought the Irish were so sturdy of build–also why the famine was so devastating to the population.
As you venture on, a favorite of film-goers will be to stop at Trim Castle–this is where the film “Braveheart” was shot. Unfortunately, the castle does not look exactly how it did in the movie as the film crew added a lot of out buildings to achieve the desired effect. However, if you have a morbid sense of humor like me, you can venture all the way up to the top inside and see the window where the king’s son’s lover was thrown from, but it is covered by a grate in case you get the urge to do that to your spouse.
If you make it to the south-west of Ireland, you can see the famed Cliffs of Moher. Their majestic beauty absolutely cannot be captured in mere photos, but I will show one here. Another word that comes to mind when describing them is Windy, Windy, Windy!!
In the southern county of Waterford, you will find the Waterford Crystal factory, but if you don’t want to break the bank or piss of the locals, don’t shop there! It is not owned by the Irish any longer, but rather foreigners and much of the crystal comes from China. Venture instead to the nearby village of Dungarven (30 minutes from Waterford) and you can find a shop called Comeragh Crystal which is one of the few shops left in the country that uses crystal made in Ireland and actually etches the crystal by hand. The Waterford factory often uses patterns to do the etching. The owner of Comeragh and his son were lovely fellows and even offered my friend and I tea. The owner was considered a master engraver who designed crystal personally for Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
Nearby is the Jameson whiskey distillery. Also, you can see several other interesting bits of history: the last port of call of the Titantic, the sinking site of the Lusitania, and the Cobh Museum, which features history on both of these events as well as ample history on the migration/immigration history of the Irish to various parts of the world.
Apparently, the Irish would have an “Irish funeral” for those who were leaving to immigrate to America because they knew they would never likely see their loved ones again as the journey was so far. The Irish funeral consisted of ample drinking, as you ca imagine.
Cobh was the last port-of-call for the Titantic, where they stopped before it sank. There is a wealth of information including passenger lists and histories of some of the passengers. One man survived the Battle of Normandy and to the end of WWII, but died on the Titantic-luck of the Irish! There is also information about the prison ships where the British sent Irish they deemed criminals-they were locked in these ships, which sat out in the sea and people would come out to dump food in and take out the dead bodies of those who perished inside. Others were sent to prison camps and communities in Australia, as portrayed in the BBC show “Banished.”
This is the statue outside of the museum at Cobh, pronounced Cove, where you can learn all these tidbits.
A memorial for the Lusitania is just a short drive away, in Kinsale, and you get an eerie feeling as you view of the sea where all these people lost their lives. Here is the marker…
And as I looked out over the sea as I stood next to this memorial, I had a serendipitous moment upon seeing this rainbow…
And if you schmooze with some of the locals at the pub–just a warning, they don’t go out early! Don’t plan to go to the pub until about 10pm if you’re looking for nightlife. Also, they will lock you in around 2am, but no worries, that’s only so the garde, police, don’t shut them down. You can probably stay and drink until 5 or 6am!
One particular local I met in Galway told my friend and I, his version of Irish immigration history. He said that Newfoundland is part of Ireland because when these ships would sail to America, often they would stop there and “throw all the fucked people overboard. You know, all the ones who were dying and got sick on the journey-they were fucked.” So he said that some of them didn’t die and thus populated Newfoundland. And do not argue with the Irish if they tell you the Irish built all of Boston, New York, New Jersey, or anything else. Additionally, many of them have been to New York or have family there.
If you’re not afraid to drive on the narrow roads, I recommend renting a car as your big expense. Ireland is not that big, so you can rent a house or cottage in the north and venture out an hour in any direction each day to see a wealth of sites. Then rent a different cottage in the south and do the same. I rented a cottage for a week for only 400 euro, it was 5 bedrooms with a fully equipped kitchen and a fireplace. The fuel prices are what will get you.
And last, but not least, look out for traffic jams…
Hope you have as much fun as I did and be safe at night if you go out on the town-don’t let the “tinkers” pick your pocket like they did me!