This week in checking in about my glorious two week Transatlantic Cruise, I’m going to talk about our stop in Ireland! For those of you just now joining us – hi! I went on a cruise from NYC to western Europe in April and I’m sharing my adventures and some pictures, too! These posts all standalone, but if you want to hear about other days and other adventures, do check out the Transatlantic Cruise 2018 tag!
So this week is Ireland, and Ireland requires a bit of backstory for me. Ireland has been at the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I adore its ancient history and the idea of green rolling hills and ancient burial sites (historian, gimme a break). Do a quick Google image search of Ireland and the photographs will amaze you.
There are certain problems with having such as idealized version of a place in your head.
We had two days at sea between Azores and Ireland. I spent the entirety of those two days:
- Wishing I had brought a hardcopy book because there was nothing else interesting in the onboard library.
- Thinking about how I was FINALLY going to Ireland.
Our ship docked in Cobh, which was the last port of the fated Titanic. There was an excursion about the Titanic that I tempted me, but there was no way you were going to get me to stay in Cobh when there were castles to be found.
We got a small taste of Cobh’s history with the Titanic right from our balcony! So that was awesome.
We bypassed the popular “Best of Ireland” and “Kiss the Blarney Stone” tours in favor of “The Rock of Cashel and Cahir Castle”. I had no idea what either Cashel or Cahir were, but listening to the other guests complain about their tours afterward (these passengers were the most unhappy, unappreciated lot of people I’ve ever met) I feel like we chose well.
Our tour set off across the Irish countryside, the sky overhead bleak and grey with the promise of rain later to come in the day. The tour guide spent a great deal of time talking about the Irish economy and the difficulties that the harsh winter would rain down on the country and how their agricultural schedules were all dreadfully behind. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate the whole of this, as I’m not an economics person, but the other people on the bus were incredibly interested.
She took us up to see the penny walls, which were built by day laborers during the potato famine. The idea at the time was that people needed to work for pay, so there were no handouts of food or otherwise. The laborers built walls to nowhere instead.
On the other side of the bus (where I was sitting), she showed us a small lake and told us the story of Maggie, who married two husbands but both died. She was declared a murderous witch and drowned, and is believed to haunt that lake to this day.
I’m all for ghost stories, but that one was not told particularly well. Oh! Since it was such a big question on three of the busses I was on this trip – that yellow flower is gorse. I got the impression it’s much like the American goldenrod in that it’s yellow, it’s a weed, it’s pretty, and it causes allergies.
Much of the Irish countryside we passed through looks just like this – brown with shrubberies and a speckling of gorse. Do I have n native Irish person in the audience? Does it always look like this, or is it just county Cork and county Tipperary? Or just because of the winter?
By the time we got to the Rock of Cashel, it was starting to rain.
Despite that, the Rock of Cashel was magnificent and by far my favorite part of Ireland.
The original site was founded in the fifth century, and you get the sense of mixing the ancient and the new as you walk on the grounds. It was the site of the Munster kings, then later in the 17th century it was attacked, its people massacred, and religious artifacts stolen. Like much of Ireland, there was blood spilled on this land.
Even though the existing buildings were erected between 1100 and 1300, the architecture is still remarkable.
We spent most of our time in the cathedral, as Cormac’s Chapel was closed for renovations. This, I found, is a common theme amongst historical sites in Europe. In the US, we are spoiled to think these places are always open and available, but the truth is, the ancient sites in Europe are hundreds of years older and require a bit more TLC.
I adore cathedrals anyway – I think they’re magnificent – so this is a non-issue to me. In modernity, we put more time and art into our business and government offices, but in earlier times the church was so central and important to daily life that these cathedrals had the most money and contracted the greatest artisans to come and fill them. Even in medieval times, the church was the central beacon of the town.
The thing is, the roof of this particular cathedral was removed in the 18th century to save money on taxes.
Ridiculous, right? This is the only bit of roof-ish left, and even then, you can just see the rain pouring down through it. As a result, the rain and weather is permitted wear away the stone. Although this is a slow process, eventually the finer points of this site will be unrecognizable. Already, nature is reclaiming it.
It breaks my heart, because there are conservation committees and such in place to help preserve these historical sites, but there is only so much that can be done about the elements until parts actually need to be rebuilt. Which is more or less what was going on in Cormac’s Chapel, since that was foolishly built of sandstone in the day, and sandstone is not the most reliable stone and requires a bit more care than, say, granite (which is the material of Cahir Castle, later).
We only really visited the cathedral and the graveyard in this site, due to crowds and repairs. I was surprised it was as busy at it was – it was a truly miserable day and I was soaked to the bone by the time we left this site, even though we were only there for 30 minutes or so.
The graveyard, though, was remarkable.
There’s this mixture of old and new, and the rain added solemnity to it. All in all, this place was the greatest fulfillment of my hopes for Ireland. It felt old and beautiful and sorrowful.
I don’t mean to say anything against Ireland as it is, by the way. It just didn’t pull me in the way I expected it to, but there was a great deal of beauty in itself.
After the Rock of Cashel, we stopped at a nearby restaurant simple called “The Rock” for lunch. After the Azores, I was a bit wary. Once again, the food turned out to be a bit bland. BUT. It was chicken pot pie, so tasted par-to-the-course for me! Also there was a lovely apple pie for dessert. And I had the best hot chocolate! Trust me, when you’re soaking wet and cold and miserable, it’s the little things like this that count.
Afterwards, we drove up to Cahir Castle, which is tucked away in the middle of a town, as though all castles sit comfortable beside a McDonalds.
As I said earlier, Cahir Castle is built right into a slab of granite, and built of granite as well. Granite is an awesome stone for buildings – it’s durable, strong, and gorgeous. 10/10 to granite. Also, thank you New Hampshire education for this knowledge as we are the Granite State! Huzzah!
Like the best defendable castles, Cahir has flowing rivers forming a natural moat on two sides. Water is a great deterrent if you’re building a defensive structure. The castle was first built in the 1200s, and since has been renovated over and over in the intervening years. It’s only been part of the Irish state since the 1960s, so it was privately owned and maintained by the family until then. I can only imagine how expensive it must have been to upkeep!
Brief aside: fantasy books talk about magnificent palaces and castles, all of which seem to revolve around beautiful architecture and secret hallways and grand ballrooms. If you’re reading a medieval era fantasy with knights and dragons and princesses, the palace really ought to look more like Cahir Castle!
One of the things Cahir Castle boasts is a working portcullis – that is to say – a castle gate that goes up and down in an authentic sort of way. Our guide gleefully told us they’ve had Hollywood on site multiple times to consider it, including Game of Thrones. It was used in Braveheart, but he said that it was all quite disappointing because they camera crew came in to film it going up and down a couple times, then left. Anti-climatic.
However, for anyone who watched The Tudors, Cahir Castle was a filming location!
In the great hall, we learned about the two cousins who came to palaver about inheritance, and one was brutally murdered instead. Apparently it was quite the scandal and brought the castle back to the public’s attention at the time (1627).
We also saw a set of Irish Elk antlers in the Great Hall. Which were pretty incredible – these are from an extinct species found in Eurasia, though the best and most complete skeletons were pulled from Irish bogs. The tour guide reminded us that these horns are ridiculously heavy, and there’s no way the Norman raiders (Vikings) could have put them on their helmets and still been able to move properly.
Our day in Ireland was concluded after leaving the castle, and we began the two hour trek back to Cobh. Our our bus was back a bit earlier than the others, so my husband and I sat on our balcony (well protected from the rain – woot!) and watched other people board.
This choice of activity was rewarded because….
Is that not the most gorgeous, perfect rainbow you’ve every seen? It always lifts me spirits to see a rainbow. It felt like a good omen somehow, like the universe was saying: it’s all uphill from here.
I left Ireland feeling very positive and happy, and truly, I loved all the rest of our stops!
Next week, I show you Winchester, England. It includes a few bookish things! Totally unplanned! I’m excited to share them with you, though!
Have you ever been to Ireland?
Are you interested in history?
What is your favorite book with a castle in it?