Sunday, 31 May 2015

Glendalough. In St Kevin’s Footsteps.


In St Kevin’s Footsteps.
Last Friday week, I walked in the footsteps of St Kevin in Glendalough. Well maybe not exactly. Nowadays you can walk around the two lakes of the Wicklow beauty spot partly on a boardwalk, partly on a stoney road.

Kevin is reputed to have founded the monastic settlement here in the 6th century but the majestic valley was carved long before that by a glacier. For six centuries after Kevin’s death in 618, Glendalough flourished and the Irish Annals contain references to the deaths of abbots and raids on the settlement.

Today’s “raiders” come in buses and cars. It is not too far from Dublin so, in the holiday season, you’ll see big groups of tourists and schoolchildren. And rightly so, as this is an important historical sight. It is very close to Dublin, so if you want to enjoy the peace and quiet of ancient times then maybe you should head there in the off-peak months or early in the day.

The remains of the settlement, now called the Monastic City, are mainly close together. And the 30 metre round tower is the outstanding feature. I read there that the tower was the campanile for the community, that the bells were rung to call the monks to meetings and prayers. I always thought that these towers were a refuge against raiding Vikings. Perhaps a bit of both?
Upper Lake
Having visited the City, we headed off for a walk. There are quite a few of them here and in the adjacent Wicklow National Park. We started on the Green Road, our destination the Upper Lake. At a fork, we took the boardwalk (much of it goes through boggy ground) past the Lower Lake; the boardwalk made it easy for us, kept us nice and dry.

At the Upper Lake, there are fine views of the water, the mountains and a waterfall in the distance. Of course, you may walk around the Upper Lake as well! There is also the opportunity for refreshments here, an opportunity heartily indulged by the bunches of schoolchildren.

We completed the loop (about 3 kilometres) by taking the Green Road back to that fork mentioned earlier; now we were on slightly higher ground all the while with the forest all around us. A very pleasant walk indeed. From the fork, it is a very short distance back to the car park.

Admission to Glendalough, open all year round, is free though there is a charge to enter the Visitor Centre which has an interesting exhibition and an audio-visual show. French, Italian and Spanish guided tours are available all year by advance booking.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Beautiful Gardens at Powerscourt Estate

Beautiful Gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Enniskerry, County Wicklow
Life size horse sculpture, one of a pair by the Triton Lake
Spectatular views all around at the Powerscourt Estate last Thursday, the blue sky a bonus as we strolled through the various gardens, every now and then stopping and turning to look back at the restored house on the hill.

The Estate, there is also a waterfall nearby, is just an hour or so from Dublin but now, with the improved motorways, it is just two and a half from Cork. Use M8, M7, M50, M11 (to Wexford) and that will leave you with just a few miles of country road to reach your destination.

Don't forget to look behind you every now and then!
The gardens here have been voted number three in the world by National Geographic. The house itself was burned down in 1974 and was still a wreck when I last visited but by 1997 it had been restored and opened to the public. One of Ireland's most popular destinations, it is thriving today. There is also a large and well stocked garden centre, a golf course and a five star hotel on the grounds.
We were mainly interested in the walk through the many gardens, the views out to the Sugar Loaf mountains, and the views back to the house. From the house itself you stroll down through the Italian Garden and on towards the Triton Lake and its high water spout, with huge trees on both sides. Keep an eye too for the signs to the Japanese gardens created in 1908.
In the Japanese Garden
As you go around the lake, take the Rhododendron Walk and then head for the Pets Cemetery, one of Ireland's largest. This is the resting place of many of the family pets, including dogs, horses and cows!

On your way to the Walled Garden, do take in the Dolphin Pond, bought in Paris in the late 19th century. Watch out for the intricate ironwork of the English Gate and indeed other gates nearby. The Walled Garden, in between Spring and Summer, wasn't really at its best the other day but will soon be in full bloom.
The ground floor of the house is a base for Avoca. Here they have Tea Rooms and a shop. And part of the shop is a marvellous food hall, with many Irish products on display. We were on our way to dinner but still couldn't resist some sweet things, including Aine’s Chocolates and DP Connolly’s old fashioned boiled sweets (Rhubarb and Custard for me). And I also helped myself to a tin of Gentleman's Relish!

  • The adult ticket price is €8.50 and you’ll get a family ticket for €25.00. More info here  
See also: Tasting Menu at Strawberry Tree

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Castlefreke and Rathbarry. The Castles And The Wood

Castlefreke and Rathbarry
The Castles And The Wood
Rathbarry is a lovely little village a few miles off the main road between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery and has been prominent in the Tidy Towns awards in  recent years. On the way to Durrus the other day, I decided to make a visit to Castlefreke wood and, at the same time, take a look at the castle on the hill which was a ruin the last time I saw it.

In 2000, Stephen Ralfe Evans-Freke purchased Castle Freke, bringing it back into the ownership of the Freke family, as well as surrounding lands and also Rathbarry Castle. Rathbarry was first to be restored and since he has turned his attention to restoring Castle Freke.
Bottom left: a panel from the high cross
 I turned off at the Rathbarry signpost and soon arrived at the village. Just beyond the village, on your right, you’ll see a lodge. I thought this was a private entrance but is is a public road - you'll see the road markings at the exit/entrance. So I came back and drove through.

There are a number of walks on the woods to your left. A few minutes in, there is a car park on the left, informal and v-shaped, with a gate into the wood. On your right, you have a terrific view of Castlefreke Castle on the hill.

Owenahincha beach from the road below Castkefreke Wood.
Galley Head is behind the camera.
We walked into the wood and followed the sign-posted path up to the high cross that stands at the highest point. It is some 30’ high and was erected in 1902 as a memorial to the local Lord Carbery, an ancestor of the current owner.

Here too you have quite a view over the ocean, all the way from Galley Head on your left to the entrance to Rosscarbery Bay on the right. But there is an even better view, as we would soon find out.

We retraced our steps, through the trees and the bluebells, back to the car park and then drove out of the park at the other end, again by another lodge. We turned left on the road and this took us right to the edge of the sea. From this elevated position, the view was broader and grander. Quite splendid in fact on a sunny day. Enjoyed our snack here before heading off for Sheeps Head Peninsula and our second walk of the day.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Walking On The Sheep’s Head Peninsula

Walking On The Sheep’s Head Peninsula
The Sheep’s Head peninsula is one of quite a few beautiful areas in West Cork but what makes this special is that here, you do it yourself. You walk, that is. Of course, you may drive and see the beautiful scenery at each side of the peninsula but it is hard to beat the satisfaction of walking up there in those hills.

But it can be very unsatisfactory if you don't know exactly where you are going and sometimes you are half afraid to set out, even on a sunny day. But arm yourself with the easily obtainable information on the many walks here (and, of course, on what you should take with you). Do that and much of it becomes much more accessible. Here is an excellent resource courtesy of The Sheep’s Head Way. The main walk, by the way, which starts in Bantry is about 90 kilometres long!

Somewhere between the impetuosity of youth and the caution of old age, there is a path for you, maybe more than one!

We had a year previously made our amateur way from Bernie’s Cupan Tae cafe at Sheep’s Head out to the lighthouse, a tough enough walk (lots of mud and surface water that day) but very enjoyable. Last week we were looking to do something different. We didn't have the information about the various routes mentioned above when we stopped up on the viewing point at Seefin.

So, from the car park, we followed the marked posts along the rocky ridge and were rewarded with remarkable views to the left, starting with Kilcrohane village below in the flat, Dunmanus Bay huge in between, Three Castle Head hiding Mizen Head further away, right out to the Fastnet Lighthouse in the ocean. On our right as we walked, the blue waters of handsome Bantry Bay beckoned, Bere Island (lots of publications term it Bear Island) lay at peace and just beyond was the gorgeous Beara Peninsula with the Caha and Slieve Miskish Mountains, and hints of Kerry in the purple distance.

The posts are well spaced, easily seen and the track along the ridge was easy enough, my walking stick coming in handy. But it was our second walk of the day and after half an hour or so we reluctantly decided to turn back. Still it was an exhilarating walk with incredible views.
Bantry Bay
So we were feeling quite happy with ourselves as we got back to the car park. There a young man on his mountain bike, accompanied by two big black dogs, started cycling up the ridge (in the Bantry direction). We kept an eye on him, even got the binoculars out. At one point he put the bike over his shoulder and continued, walking onwards and upwards. Our exhilaration could well have been deflated. But not a bit of it. We were full of admiration and perhaps a little jealous!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

House of Light. Castlecoote in Roscommon

House of Light
Castlecoote in Roscommon

Sometimes in the late evening, Kevin Finnerty strolls around the grounds of Castlecoote House, with the River Suck for company on three sides, and he is thinking about the next stages of the restoration. He bought this place in 1996 when it was a total ruin, stripped of everything worth taking, including all its old fireplaces.

Sometimes, more often than not, the walk will take him into the old orchard at the rear of the house (some say the rear looks even better than the front). Here there are no less than 41 varieties of apple. There are three very rare ones, including one called White Crofton, George Bernard Shaw’s favourite apple!
A new window, with foliage outside
Now, close to twenty years later, Kevin and Theresa have restored the Georgian house, faithfully. The latest big project is the restoration of the bridge (the original was destroyed in the Williamite Wars) across the Suck at the front of the house. This is already underway and may be complete in 2016, perhaps in time for the annual Percy French Festival.

Kevin made one magnificent window from two here,
one of just two alterations. The other is the round window above.
The Festival, established by Kevin, has taken place annually in Castlecoote since 2009. Kevin’s father was involved in the Percy French festivals of 1957 and 1958. The festival is about the music of French but over the years has played on his name to focus on a particular subject and examine aspects of Irish life in detail.

The title for next July’s festival is Through a French Mirror. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Now I see warts and all”. Over three days (8th-10th), life will be examined by a list of speakers that includes: Robert Ballagh, Lucinda Creighton, Professor William Reville, Kevin McStay, Dr Olga Cox Cameron, Dr Síle de Cléir, Bishop Kevin Doran, and Adelle Hughes. Musicians performing are Jon Henderson, The Mulligan Sisters and Johnny Duhan. Information and tickets here.

Family crest
If you can't make it for the festival, it is possible to visit Castlecoote, one of four heritage house in the area, throughout the summer. You'll be amazed by the light inside. “There is not a dark corner in the house,” Kevin told us as he guided us around and explained how the windows were constructed, including a technique called splaying, to make the best of the light. The big room, where the lectures for the festival take place, is typical.

In 1989 the house, which incorporated some of the original castle, was gutted by a fire and only the outer walls remained. Today, thanks to the Finnertys, the 20,000 square foot six-bedroomed house (still incorporating parts of the castle - you’ll see the thick walls!) has magnificent stucco ceilings, marble fireplaces, oak floors, beautiful staircases and hand-crafted astragal sash windows. All the craft-work, all true to the original, was carried out by local craftspeople.

Kevin showed me the family coat of arms in one of the windows. It is also the coat of arms of the Mageraghty clan who, in the 1500s, had a fort on this site. Amazingly, they are the same family. And a link here to Cork. In 1603, Donal O'Sullivan the lord of Beare and Bantry was coming towards the end of his famous long march and was met near here by the Mageraghtys.

Ceiling detail
Castlecoote House is situated in the village of the same name, a few minutes drive from Roscommon town, which is two hours from Dublin, three from Cork.

In the orchard at the rear of Castlecoote
See also: The Arigna Mining Experience
Clonmacnoise. An Important Site for Centuries
The Maltese Supper in Gleeson's Roscommon

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Man of Arigna. Black Spit. White Spit.

Man of Arigna.

Black Spit. White Spit.
Following Jimmy underground

Jimmy was our guide on our recent tour of the Arigna Mining Experience, a walking tour in what was Ireland's last working coal mine. Indeed, all the guides here are ex miners.

It was tough going but had its compensations, according to Jimmy. The big attraction was that those who worked at the coalface were well paid, more than teachers.  “Three weeks wages would buy you a Honda 50 and a Honda 50 would get you a lady!”

A visitor sees the narrow seam of coal.
 But there was a major down-side. Dust. No so much the coal dust. Jimmy filled us in.
That covered you from head to toe during your shift. All you could see of a miner as he clocked out was his eyes and his teeth. When he spat out coal-dust, the spit was black. But when he spat out the silicone dust, the spit was white. And it was the silica that led to the pre-mature death of many of the miners.

Jimmy spent thirteen years on the coal-face. Perhaps you needed a sense of humour. “A miner was a great catch. He was well paid and died young and she got the money.”  It is often said: “There was money in Arigna when there was no money elsewhere”.

Jimmy explains how the workings of the mine
 The coal seams in Ireland, as a whole, were much smaller, and so much more uncomfortable to work than those elsewhere. There are still many thousands of tons of coal there but it is not economical to shift it anymore. The mines closed in 1990 (after over 300 years of mining) and this visitor centre opened in 2003.

This tour is one of the best you are likely to take. It takes you, hard hat and all, right to the heart of the coal-mining, right down to that narrow seam where the miner lay down to work. Imagine a coal seam of about 20 inches high, a yard or so in depth with a length of five to eight yards. This was your workplace for the shift. If you go there, you won't have to imagine it. You’ll see it right there.

That narrow seam again
The coal had been loosened by the work of the night shift. Your job now was to get it out to your colleague who loaded the loose coal onto a hutch or a little wagon. Your tool was a shovel with a big square face, maybe 16” square, and the handle was about 15”, anything longer and you wouldn't be able to manoeuvre. Your helper’s shovel did have a slightly longer handle.

So you lay down there, sometimes in a couple of inches of water and worked the coal, shifting it out sideways. Your colleague loaded the wagon. When it was full, he attached his tag, and the wagon was hauled out by a rope system. Outside, the wagon was weighed and you were credited via the tag. You were paid by the weight. The shift finished when that five to eight yards of coal was cleaned out. Jimmy said a good pair of men would shift five tons a day, every day, five days a week.

Deep down
 Tough going, tough men but the Silicosis got many. It was a precarious business, as it was in other parts of Ireland and as it still is in other parts of the world. Here, the men of Arigna are remembered.

Over two hundred thousand people had visited by June 2014. Why not go there while Jimmy and his colleagues are still there, “mad alive” as he says himself, to guide you. This is one of the best tour experiences I've ever had! Very Highly Recommended.

Lie down here to work. Cramped conditions.
Date of Tour: 2nd May 2015.
See also: Clonmacnoise. An Important Site For Centuries

Monday, 4 May 2015

Clonmacnoise. Important Site for Centuries.

Leaning crosses, straight towers

Important Site for Centuries.
Nowadays a peaceful multi-acre ruin on the banks of the Shannon, Clonmacnoise was once an important religious site at the crossroads of one of early Ireland's main “roads”, the Eiscir Riada route from east to west. The Eiscir Riada were used both as routes and borders at the time. The monastic site is off the main road nowadays but hundreds of thousands visit annually.

Ruins now abound on the picturesque spot. Look closer though and you’ll see that conservation work is also proceeding and some of its most famous Celtic crosses are preserved within the interpretative centre. Perhaps in the 5th century you may have been asked to pay a toll, so today you will need to pay a modest fee to enter both the centre and the site.

Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site, was founded by St. Ciarán in the mid-6th century. He died shortly afterwards but, despite many attacks (by Irish, Vikings and Normans), Clonmacnoise went on to become one of the most important sites for centuries afterwards, a major centre of religion, learning, craftsmanship, and trade.
Temple Finghín & McCarthy's Tower

High crosses in visitor centre
I have long wanted to visit and got my chance last weekend as I headed up from Cork to Roscommon and made the short detour from Birr. The remains of the buildings (churches and round towers) and the hundreds of grave stones (some of them quite recent) are not that visually remarkable at all. But the site and the story is. People still visit for spiritual reasons and a group were singing in the sheltered spot where the pope visited in 1979.

The interpretive centre is very useful and you should start with the video, though you may have to wait awhile for one in your chosen language. The building also houses many artefacts from the site, most importantly a few of the original Celtic crosses and very impressive they are.

There is parking for cars and buses, also a coffee shop in the centre and Clonmacnoise is easily reached from towns such as Athlone or Ballinasloe.
At prayer in Clonmacnoise May 1st 2015.
This 1979 structure is the Pope's Shelter.

Grave slab in centre
See also: The Arigna Mining Experience