Monthly Archives: September 2019

Ireland in Four Days (and Five Years). Day 4. Wondrous Wicklow.

I left you at the end of Day 3 with me pulling into a parking bay at Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains at around 2 am.  That was my bed for the night.  After a very broken four hours of, what could only loosely be described as sleep, during which my poor little car was buffeted constantly by winds and rain, my hopes (and my reason for spending the night up here) of glorious sunrise shots were somewhat dashed.  The rain had stopped but the hills were lost in mist and only the sheep seemed to be happy.

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Good Morning.  Sally Gap, Wicklow

It was now 6:30 am. I was here now, and sun was predicted to arrive around midday.  So there was nothing for it but to wait.  I walked, I drove and, once my fingers had warmed up I practiced the whistle. And waited at the Roof of Wicklow, until eventually the sun began to make tentative forays.  The plus side of it was that there was a lovely soft light for photographing the hills and valleys, waterfalls and the gorgeous heather and I tried to make the best of that.

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The wild mountain heather in the early morning mist

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Will ye go Lassie go?

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To pluck wild mountain thyme

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All around the bloomin heather

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By yon pure crystal fountain

By 10 am I was rewarded, and I discovered Lough Tay sparkling in the dappled light.  Lough Tay is also known as Guinness Lake (because of its resemblance to a pint of the dark stuff complete with its creamy head).  The sand though is not original.  It was brought in from the coast by the owners (surprise, surprise, the Guinness family).  There is no doubt it deserves its spot as one of the most photographed views in Wicklow.  It is a corrie lake that lies in a glacial valley at the foot of Luggala Mountain.  Luggala Estate, historic home of the Guinness’, is part of the estate and lies in the verdant valley to the north.

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Lough Tay, Guinness Lake.  The Guinness mansion (the only building in the picture) is on the far right.

I am glad I waited, but it was time to move on now and I headed on to Glendalough.

The main purpose of the visit was to see the old mine workings.  But as I drove through the tiny village I heard the sound of pipes.  I had to stop.  I stood and listened to the lone piper sitting under a blue sky, next to a spectacular double arched gateway.

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Pat Connery, lone piper at the gateway to Glendalough

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Singing and playing the pipes is not easy.  Pat Connery at Glendalough

This was Pat Connery and it was beautiful playing, lost for the most part on an unappreciative crowd, who would scurry past, stop to snap a selfie and head up the steps and through the gate, intent on getting back to the bus on time.  I chatted to to Pat, who has been playing this spot for years.  She was using a set of C pipes, which for the uninitiated have a deeper more plaintive sound than the regular concert pitch pipes.  She also sang beautifully, while playing (no mean feat).

Thanking Pat I too headed up those steps.  What I hadn’t realized was that this was the portal to the Glendlough monastic ruins.  In fact it is Ireland’s only surviving example of such a medieval gateway.  I hadn’t intended to stop as I had visited five years ago but hey the music, the sunshine, a warm Irish day; how could I not pop in for another look.  I never posted photos of Glendalough back then because I wasn’t happy with them.  Here was my chance to fix that.

Glendalough is truly special.  Wandering its many sites and catching glimpses of its magic mountain setting will be, despite the fact that half of Europe, America and Asia are there with you,  one of your treasured memories of Ireland.  Even the name is evocative as it comes from the Irish Gleann da locha (Glen of the two lakes)  The site was founded by St Kevin and most of the surviving buildings date from 10th to 12th Century.  That’s old.  Since then it has experienced attacks from the Vikings, the sacking of the monastery in 1214 by the Normans  and its total destruction by the English in 1398.  Reconstruction of some of the ruins was started in 1878 and now you can visit a round tower, seven churches, two High Crosses and much more.  I’m not going to go through all its attractions but I have selected just a few pictures to give you, my readers,  some idea of the extent of these ruins and the calming ambience that you will feel when you are there.

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One of the best round towers in Ireland.  Beautifully preserved and original except that the roof was rebuilt in 1878 from stones that had fallen.  Built 10th century.

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View of Glendalough past St Kevin’s Kitchen (wasn’t a kitchen) to the mountains beyond.

 

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View of the cathedral, built between the 10th and 13th century.   THe round tower perfectly framed through the window.

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St Kevin’s Kitchen I.  It was in fact a church.

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St Kevin’s Kitchen II.  Note the corbelled stone roof.  Same technique as used in beehive huts.

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Inside the cathedral showing beautiful stonework on the archway.

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One of two high crosses.  One is in the Visitors Centre.  This one sits in place in the cemetery.  It is unadorned and known as St Kevins Cross and was carved from a single piece of granite.

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The Priests’ House.  Reconstructed from the original stones based on  a 1779 sketch. Compelte with romanesque arch.

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Archaelogy at the site continues today with a team at work from UCD.

Now I headed to the trailhead for the Miners Way.  It leaves from the eastern end of the Upper Lake where there is a beautiful beach (this time natural I think) and skirts the northern bank.  I had the tall straight timbers of a Scots Pine forest on my right and the deep blue waters of the lake on my left.

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View from the beach at the east end of the Upper Lake at Glendalough.  Looking west.

 

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The Miners’ Way walk takes you along the northern bank of the Lake through a Scots Pine forest

As I approached the end of the lake it opened up to a stunning U-shaped valley carved by a glacier 15,000 years ago.

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At the western end of the Upper Lake.  A classic U shaped valley carved by a glacier.

Another kilometre on and the ruins of the mine buildings come into view.

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View of the ‘Mine Village’.  Actually the mine processing plant.

They call it the ‘Mine Village’ but its not really.  It is the ruins of the processing plant the ore extracted from the surrounding hills was processed and the lead and silver removed. No one actually lived here; it is believed the mine workers walked in every day from Larragh a distance of 6 km.  What is preserved here are the remains of the ore dressing floor (dressing is another name for processing whereby the ore is crushed, chemicals are added that assist in separating the ore from the waste, and then it is filtered and dried).  The most prominent building is the ruin of the the Cornish rolls crusher house, built in 1855. Part of it was recently rebuilt in an effort to forestall further deterioration.  The rolls crusher mechanism itself is well preserved and lies a short distance away on the valley floor.  It is such a thrill to wander round these ruins. 

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View of the crusker on the left and mine buildings on the right.  Old shafts and mullock heaps can be seeon on the ridge,  A tramway (nothing remains) brought the broken ore to the crusher

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A view of the mine area from the west looking up the Upper Lake.  The white heaps are tailings (material  that remains after the valuable minerals are removed)

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The Cornish Rolls Crusher building

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It is said that this is the best preserved example of a Cornish rolls crusher in Ireland. 

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Tailings from the Glendalough processing plant.  Timbers in centre of picture are believed to have supported the tramway used to transport ore from the mine shafts.

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A specimen of lead ore showing galena.

Mining also took place in the Glendasan Valley to the north of Glendalough on the other side of Camaderry Mountain.  The main mineral vein cuts through the mountain between the two valleys and mine workings along the veing connected the two valleys.

So I had to go and have a look there.  Another beautiful U-shaped valley greeted me.  This time however we are at the top of the valley where there are the remains of another ore dressing plant.  I can see other mines in the distance and on the mountain sides so I followed the river downstream. 

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Glendasan Valley.  View down the valley from the ruins of the Hero Mine processing plant

Unfortunately the telltale evidence of historic mining along the river does not tell a pretty story of environmental responsibility.  Much of the mining is very old, nearly 200 years, so I suppose that is some excuse, but some dates from the middle of the 20th century when they should have known better,  Tailings and waste stockpiles are scattered along the river valley and, in places, the river flows right through them or has found a path around them.  Considering the high levels of lead, one can only speculate on what this has done to the water quality.  There is no way approval would be given for a mine treatment plant to operate on the bed of the river theses days.           

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Glendasan Valley with tailings and mine spoil in the river bed

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Glendasan Valley 

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Mine workings on the north side of the Glendasan Valley and the processing plant ruins on the river bed.

One last story that I came across during my reserch.  With the increase in the mining workforce in the 1850s,  demand for housing increased and the mining company built some houses for their workers. One row of houses close to the mining works is said to have once housed eight musicians and was thus given the name ‘Fiddlers Row’.  Love it.

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This row of houses was built in the 1850s and housed mine workers.  Due to the number of musicians it was known as Fiddler’s Row.

After walking maybe 10km around these two sites I was totally exhausted and a bit of a chill was coming into the air so well satisfied, I decided to end my jaunt here.

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The unusual bridge across the Glendasan River

A four day journey across the country and through 5,000 years of history.  Thanks for coming on the trip with me.  I hope I have planted a little seed for those who have never been here and for those who know this place well, maybe I have given you some new ideas or a changed perspective.

For the time being that is the end of my travels in Ireland.  But there will be more.  Ireland’s like that – you keep coming back.  Try and keep me away.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ireland in Four Days (and Five Years). Day 3. On to Wicklow.

It’s Day 3 of my final roadtrip, in southeast Ireland.  Check out my earlier blogs as to how I got to Boris Carlow;  that just rolls off the tongue so beautifully I just have to keep repeating it. Boris Carlow.  By rights I should go home.  The forecast is not good, but I want to visit a nearby dolmen and the castle at Carlow and I’ve decided after that to head on to Avoca in Wicklow to see the old copper mines.  The sun was trying to break through so I hit the road at 9am.

It was only 30km to the Brownshill Dolmen, which lies only 4km east of Carlow town  There are over 1,000 dolmens in Ireland but this one is right up there with the best.  It is located in the middle of a large field (by Irish standards) and you know you are dealing with something unusual when  you can see it 400m away poking up over a 2m high crop  of ‘field beans’ (a fodder crop I had never seen before).

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Brownshill Dolmen, visible over a crop of field beans.

What makes this one unusual is the size of the granite capstone; it is approximately 5 x 6 x 2 m.  Estimates of its weight vary, so let’s sort this out once and for all.  Volume, based on the above estimate, is 60 cubic metres.  Using a specific gravity of 2.7 (average for granite) and the formula

Tonnage = Volume x SG

we get a tonnage of 162 tonnes.  So that’s my guess, which happens to be greater than the estimates I have read, which range between 100 and 150 tonnes.

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Front view of Brownshill Dolmen, showing its massive size compared with the two portal stones and the gatestone.

That is monstrous and certainly the largest in Ireland.  It is a portal tomb dating from 3,000BC.  The front sits on two vertical standing stones (portal stones) and between them is a gatestone. It slopes back to almost ground level where the rear of the capstone is supdported by a prostrate backstone.

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Rear view of Brownshill Dolmen showing prostrate backstone.

Of course, the most asked question is “how did they get it up there?”.  Well here is my theory.  Most people assume that it was brought here from somewhere else.  Well it was, but by ice.  I think it is a glacial erratic and was dumped here after the glaciers melted about 12,000 years ago.  Somehow, and I have no idea how, the front of the stone was lifted and supported with earth and stones until it reached the height of the portal stones (probably also glacial erratics) which were placed under the capstone to support it. The same would then hav been done with the backstone What we can be sure of is that it was built with sheer druidpower.

Now, time to  Follow Me Up to Carlow. I had to get that in. For those not familiar with the phrase it is the refrain from a 19th century song that describes The Battle of Glenmalure in Wicklow, fought on 25 August 1580, when a Catholic force demolished the British during the Desmond Rebellions. Just love the lyrics including this line….

Rooster of a fighting stock 

Would you let a Saxon cock

Crow out upon an Irish rock 

Fly up and teach him manners.

Carlow lies on the Barrow River, the same river that flows through New Ross and that is guarded by the Hook Head Lighthouse. (Check out my blog on Day 1).  My goal here was Carlow Castle, another of those built by the Norman strongman, William Marshall. It was built around 1210, to guard the vital river crossing.

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View of Carlow Castle from the west.

The original structure was pretty unique for Irish castles.  It was rectangular and had towers on each corner and appears to have been modelled on a Norman castle in France.  It survived pretty much intact until 1814 when a Dr Middleton accidentally blew it up in trying to convert it to a lunatic asylum (was a lunatic in charge of the asylum?).  All but the western wall and its two corner towers was destroyed. You do get a bit of a sense of the grandeur of the original building, though from what is left today.

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Two of the four corner towers of Carlow Castle that have survived

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View of the castle from the south showing the extensive damage caused to the building in 1814

I took a little walk along the river.   Graiguecullen Bridge crosses the Barrow, and dates to 1569 though it was significantly altered and widened since then.

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Graiguecullen Bridge dating from 1569 crosses the Barrow.  In the distance is the lime kiln tower of the old sugar factory.

In 1703 the decision was made to make the Barrow navigable.  This involved developing the non tidal stretch of the river from St. Mullins to Athy, (Co. Kildare), a stretch of 68 kilometres and requiring 23 locks. The locks are all functioning today and many have the original stonework.  I visited the lock at Craiguecullen and found an original milestone with the distances to Athy (12 Miles) and St Mullins. After Athy, it links up with the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal for another 45 kilometres, with 9 locks, to the mainline of the Grand Canal. That meant you could travel from New Ross in Waterford to Dublin by boat.  The Barrow ceased to operate commercially in 1959 and is now used for recreation only.

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Lock on Barrow River at Graiguecullen.

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Original (?) milestone with distance to Athy.

Looking north from the river the skyline of Carlow is dominated by an unusual looking tall steel tower which looks like nothing I have seen.  So I decided to find out what it was.  It was easy enough to locate, but it  but it sits on a wasteland with a high fence around it so I was none the wiser about what it actually was.

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Carlow limekiln tower

Turns out it is a limekiln and was part of the infrastructure of a sugar factory.  Yes, really, sugar. Ireland once had a vibrant sugar industry base on sugar beet, and Carlow was the centre of it.  A factory was set up here in 1926 and other factories followed in the 1930s in Mallow, Thurles and Tuam.  By 1936 there were 28,000 farmers growing sugar beet across 22 counties.  At its peak during the early 1980s Ireland produced 220,000 tonnes of sugar a year.   When EU subsidies were withdrawn in 2005 the Carlow plant closed and the only other remaining factory in Mallow also closed the following year, bringing an end to an industry that still supported 4, 000 growers.

The tower is twelve levels tall. Access was by steps around the outside with walkways at each irregularly spaced level.  I have no idea how it works.  Anyone out there know?  All trace of the factory other than the tower is gone.  In 2016 it too nearly disappeared when it was taken off the protected list.  It was saved at the last minute; but the battle between those who consider it part of the area’s heritage and those who consider it an eyesore continues.  A real shame if it is demolished. It would make a totally unique and challenging lookout tower.

Back on the road now to my next destination, a 60km drive to Avoca in Co Wicklow.  A quick stop first, about 20 km from Carlow, for another dolmen.  Haroldstown Dolmen is a beautiful example of a portal tomb and sits in the middle of a field, visible from the road adn easily accessible for a closer look.

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Haroldstown Portal Tomb

 

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Haroldstown Portal Tomb.  Side elevation.

My reason for going to Avoca was to check out its mining heritage.  As I have learnt more over the last five years I have been really surprised how rich Ireland is in historic mining sites and I have visited and blogged on a number of these including Arigna in Leitrim, Allihies and Mizen in Cork, the Copper Coast of Waterford, Silvermines in Tipperary and Muckross in Killarney. Really more should be made of in terms of its heritage value.

But as usual I got distracted.  Most tourists visit Avoca to see the Meeting of the Waters, the fabled location where the Irish bard, Thomas Moore, wrote perhaps his most famous song.  So that was my first stop.  The name comes from the site being the confluence of the Avonmore and Avonbeg Rivers to form the Avoca River

There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet
As the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet,
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.

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The Meeting of the Waters. The Avonmore and Avonbeg Rivers meet to from the Avoca River, heading off into the distance.

It is a pretty spot there is no doubt. A small park marks the spot, with plenty of reminders of Thomas Moore’s historic presence.  There are monuments and the remains of a tree under which he is said to have written his words.   

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Bridge over the Avonbeg River at the Meetng of the Waters

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Monument to Thomas Moore and remains of a tree that he is said to have sat under to pen his words.

But for me the most moving ‘monument’ was another tree, this one alive, leaning out over the water.  Evoking the female form, it seemed to capture the spirit of the place.   I call the photo Undressed Timber.  Nature imitating Life imitating Art.  

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A tree at the Meeting of the Waters.  Undressed Timber.

I headed down the Avoca River valley to look for other treasures, lead, silver and copper, perhaps far from Thomas Moore’s mind.  Just a few hundred metres on and I could see a beautifully preserved Cornish Engine House, on the ridge above the valley.  I pulled up next to the Farriers Hotel, another indicator of times gone by.

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Farrier’s Inn near Avoca

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Cornish Engine House viewed from the Avon River

The Engine houses are a telltale sign that there was an underground mine nearby.  These marvellous buildings are a feature of mining areas throughout Ireland where they housed the steam driven engines that drove the beam pumps used to dewater the mines and to crush the ore.  I find the stone and brick buildings as architecturally impressive as the ecclesiastical ruins that get far more attention in the conventional built landscape.

 

I tried to get closer to the building but I was defeated by a high cyclone fence and the rugged terrain.  The only other remnant of mining at the site are two bins which stored ore before loading into trucks to take to the processing plant.

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Restored ore bins used to stockpile ore brought up from underground

Mining is believed to have started for copper here, in the Bronze Age (commencing 2,500 BC).  It is believed that it was still a mining centre in 50AD when the location appeared on a Greek map by Ptolomy.  From the 12th to 17th century iron was produced.  From 1750 it was mined for lead and modern copper mining started in 1812.

Continuing my search  I could see plenty of mine dumps and another Engine House from the top of the next ridge, but again I was thwarted in trying to get closer. I am sure there is a road up there but I’ll have to come back when I have more time.

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Distant mine workings. Another engine house appears among the mine dumps

Before leaving the mining area I went to visit the nearby Mottee Stone.  it is a giant granite boulder sitting on the top of a hill with 360 degree view over  the five counties surrounding Wicklow.

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Mottee Rock and the view over Wicklow

The huge rock is another glacial erratic (like the capstone at Brownshill) deposited by a melting glacier. We don’t know how far the stone was carried but the underlying geology here is slate.  The nearest similar granite is 13 km away at Glenmalure.  Iron rungs have been set into the stone to act as a ladder, which allows you to climb the 2.4 metres to the top.   The story goes that the local landowner wanted to impress his intended wife with the size of his estate, so he got some miners from Avoca to put them there so she could get a better view of the size of his holding.

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Cronnebane Mine viewed from Mottee Rock

The most obvious feature in the view though is the large open cut and spoils heaps of the Cronnebane Mine. This is a later phase of mining completed between 1970 and 1982 when 8 million tonees of 0.6%Cu ore was extracted.

Heading towards Avoca village I passed the Old Castlemacadam Church overlooking the Avoca Vale near the village.  It looked different so I stopped.  Built in 1819 for the Church of Ireland it was abandoned after only a short life in 1870.  It is a solid structure with a belfry tower in good condition though unroofed and is surrounded by a graveyard full of interest.

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Old Castlemacadam Church

I found the external walls of the church interesting too.  They hold evidence of changing aesthetics and a number of different finishes.  The bare stone initially was covered with a render. Sometime later it was covered with a layer of slate shingles cemented onto the render.  Then another layer of render was placed over the top of the slates, leaving them in place.  This was scored with diagonal lines and there appeared to be another thin layer of render over the top of this.  It reminded me of a house I once bought in Leichhardt in Sydney.  I decided to renovate and lifted the carpet in the living room.  Underneath were two more layers of carpet and then a layer of lino over the now rotten floorboards.

As I said the church itself was built in 1819 but the graveyard has many 18th century headstones, the oldest is 1711.  So presumably there was an older church on the site.  No idea whether it also was Church of Ireland.  There are a lot of table grave slabs, way more than I have seen at other graveyards I have visited.   I am wondering if this is more of a protestant thing.

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Table slab graves

One thing I have seen in many cemeteries is a lack of engraved headstones from the 1840s to the 1870s.  I put this down to the effects of the famines and the extreme poverty meant many could not afford an engraved headstone.  There were often mass graves with no identifation or graves with simple markers that are now just illegible stones.  Here though are a number of engraved headstones from that period that are a poignant reminder of the terrible hurt that was inflicted on many families.  We can tell so much from a simple gravestone.  A couple of examples

John Dowling buried his 7 year old son John in September 1841. He died three years later at the age of 41

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The headstone for John Dowling and his son.

Solomon Delaney was patriarch of the Delaney family. He died in 1824 at 63, and his wife Mary followed two years later aged 70.  They had 3 sons. John, Edward and William  Edward died early, in 1927 aged 27 years. Edward’s wife. Mary died soon after in 1829 aged 25. William died in 1843 (47) but was predeceased by his wife Ann as the famine took hold in 1840.    Their daughter Mary also died at this time. The gravestone simply says she “died young”.  John erected the headstone so he survived them all.

And perhaps most poignant of all is John Webster who lost his five children.  Mary (1843) aged 1, John (1846) aged 3, Thomas (1849) aged 6 months, Henrietta (1853) aged 1 day and Nanny (1857) aged 18 years Clearly the ravages of the famine affected catholic and protestant alike.

It was now nearly five o’clock and I was starving so I headed to the village of Avoca for a meal at the local pub.  Fitzgerald’s Pub.

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The pretty village of Avoca nestled on the the Avoca River.

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Fitzgerald’s Pub Avoca

It’s probably familiar to you if you were addicted to the late 90s BBC TV series Ballykissangel, as I was.   Avoca is Ballykissangel.   It was mostly set in this cute village.  Fitzgeralds’ Pub used to be the Fountain but it had a makeover for the show and they just kept it  Across the rooad is Hendley’s Store and the very familiar church up the road where Father Peter Clifford used to hear confession and the Priest’s House which is now a Gift Shop. The curved street will be very familiar to you if you were a fan of  the show.

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Hendley’s Store has hardly changed.

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The church and the Priest’s House

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The main street of Ballykissangel

I had dinner in the pub and just so I felt really at home, episodes of Ballykissangel were on constant reruns on a big screen in the dining room.  I watched Episode 2 of Series 1 when Jenny, an ex flame of  Father Peter arrives in town and sets off the rumour mill while Peter is busy trying to save a caravan family from harassment from Quigley, the town entrepreneur, who keeps dumping manure at the site.  Remember it?  There’s no sound and as I demolish a near perfect beef stew, I follow the action reading the subtitles.

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Continual reruns of Ballykissangel in the restaurant at Fitzgeralds

Tempted to stay and watch Episode 3 but I resisted.  One last walk through the town and I was back in the car heading to Bray where I heard there was a session at the Hibernia.  Three days without music and I was starting to suffer withdrawal symptoms.

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The beach at Bray

While I waited I took a walk along the seafront.  A lovely promenade runs the full length of the bouldery beach and the road is lined with cafes, bars, hotels and swish looking tenement houses.  One building of particular interest was owned by Oscar Wilde, who inherited it from his father in 1876.  It was built by Sir William and Lady Jane around 1850, as a holiday home and was later to become the Strand Hotel.

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Strand Hotel.  Former home of Oscar Wilde

It was a  great night of tunes with musicians Gerry and Paddy and a bar full of interesting people.  After they found out I was Australian, I ended up singing Aussie songs all nght. It was over all too soon and at 1 am I was out on the street.

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Paddy and Gerry, my musical comrades for the night.  

Literally.  I had actually neglected to book any accommodation.  I think part of it was my resistance to paying 99 euro for a night at a B&B.  Prices in Ireland have got ridiculous.  Resigned to a night in the back of the car. I was reluctant to park up on the seafront at Bray so I decided to drive to Sally Gap, 20-odd kilometres away.  Then I would be up on the mountain to catch the sunrise.  So that became Plan A.

While I was playing music however, the sunny day had turned into misty rain and as I gained elevation into the Wicklow Hills, the misty rain turned into foggy misty rain. With the limited visibility I pulled into the first roadside parking bay where there were no other campervans or cars parked  and settled in for, I have to say, a rather uncomfortable night.

I’ll tell you how it all panned out in my final post.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland in Four Days (and Five Years) Day 2. Wexford to Borris Carlow.

What a fabulous start to Day 2.

I was up before dawn to share with the sun its struggle to shine through the narrow band of cloud that hovered unhelpfully at the horizon.  It would break through for a few moments here and there and the golden light would turn mundane walls, abandoned houses and mown hay fields into memorable works of art.  I headed north from my overnight stop at Hook’s Head through the open but stunning countryside. Every few miles there was something that grabbed my attention sufficiently to point my camera in that direction.

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Hay bales as far as the eye can see

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Abandoned house Templetown

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Abandoned old farm building

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Hay bales come in all shapes

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A horse at full stretch having its morning run.

I’d seen Loftus Hall on the way down and had intended to visit, but it had closed the day before, for the season.  That is really annoying; when you tour Ireland in the late Summer and, despite the weather being as good as anything in June or July, you find so many attractions close at the end of August.  I had to be content with photographing it from distance or through the grand locked gates.

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Loftus Hall from a distance

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Loftus Hall.  As close as I could get.

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Entrance gates to Loftus Hall

Loftus HalI is a large country house, with a reputation for being haunted by the devil. The Most Haunted House in the country says the sign at the gate. Prior to the construction of the current house, an earlier mansion, Redmond House, had been occupied by the Redmond family since 1170.   They successfully repelled an attack by the British during the Confederate War in 1642. Twice more the house was attacked by Cromwell but eventually it succumbed in 1650.  The land was confiscated and granted to the Loftus family who occupied it until the 20th century.  Later owners included the Sisters of Providence who ran it as a girls’ school, the Deveraux family who converted it to a luxury hotel in the 1980s and, it is rumored, Bono who bought it in 2008.  It is now run as a tourist attraction with emphasis on paranormal experiences.  Well it seems the ghosts can rest for a while now until the crowds return next summer.

One abandoned house intrigued me. At the cross at Graigue Little, Templetown stood a ruinous house in a very sad state.  Unroofed in part and unloved, it was overgrown with ivy and bushes and pigeons had taken up residence.

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Mary Anne’s house at Graigue Little, Templetown.

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Home for the pigeons

Four laminated notices are  attached to a timbered up window.   These notices from Wiklow County Council declared the house a dangerous structure and ordered the owner, I’ll call her Mary Anne, to obrain expert reports and do works to make it safe.  It was not a demolition order because at the same time she was ordered to preserve heritage features, in particular the Victorian post box (it has the letters VR).

A challenge to be sure.  Mary Anne is given 1 month to seek the expert’s advice and 6 months to complete the works from receipt of the notice.  Inexplicably the notice is undated, so I guess that’ll turn out to be 6 months of Irish time.  I would love to go back in a year and see if any progress has been made.

Every ruin has a story.  Just a little further on, I saw another stone structure in a field near the road.   It was a tower of some sort but was like nothing I had seen.  It had only a portion of the wall remaining, but you could clearly see sloping walls suggesting a conical structure.

I was baffled; I approached a car driving out from a nearby house.  The helpful driver told me it was the remains of a windmill for grinding corn which made perfect sense.  Turns out there are 112 windmills on the official list of windmills in Ireland, some still standing others ruined. None known in Clare apparently.

Here’s another ruin and another story.  St Dubhan’s Church is a little gem and the story is worth telling. The church was founded by a Welshman, Dubhan, related to an Anglo Saxon king, who arrived in 452 AD.  As an aside, these early monks had a predilection for fires (signal fires that is) and it is believed that they travelled to the coast to light beacons to guide passing ships, until Hook Lighthouse was built in the 1100s. That’s Impressive.  That spot at Hook Head has been used to keep shipping safe for over 1,500 years.  Anyway, back to the church.

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St Dubhan’s Church and graveyard.

The current stone church replaced a wooden building in 11th century.  Recent restoration costing €100,000 has been completed, in particular, on the bellcote which was toppled in a storm around 40 years ago.  You see them on churches still today – a stone or metal frame for allowing bells to swing free; the double tower at St Dubhan’s has now been reinstated.   I don’t remember seeing a bellcote in any other ancient church ruin.  I imagine they would have had trouble surviving.  I also found it interesting that the red smudges on the walls of the nave are believed to be original paint from the 14th century.

 

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The restored bellcote at St Dubhan’s

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The bellcote at St Dubhan’s.  Note also the red paint from the 14th Century under the bright patch on the left wall

Speaking of restoration there is a 10-year project, locally funded, to restore the Hook Head walls.  These are very ancient and define the lands of the Loftus Hall demesne.   I particularly liked the distinctive rounded turrets on either side of gates.  In one instance I found a particularly elaborate one with an orb at a ruined house.  Just one; the other one appears lost.  The design is very similar to the towers on either side of the main gates at Loftus Hall.

Heading north I saw a brown sign pointing to Baginbun Headland.  Something made me veer off my route and take the detour. I think it was the pictograms of a beach and a tower? As I approached, I saw the tower.  A well preserved Martello Tower, built at the beginning of the 19th century to protect Ireland from a Napoleonic invasion.  It was off limits though as it is a private residence.

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Martello Tower on the headland at Baginbun Beach

The beach though was something else indeed.  It immediately jumped into my top 10 beaches in Ireland list.  It is secluded and you don’t have any idea of what awaits you until you descend the ramp from the small car park.  Golden sand broken by occasional rocky outcrops fringe the shore. At its southern end is the headland where sits the tower and another much smaller headland separates it from the broad gentle curve of more beach, fading into the distance to the north.  On this calm day there was hardly a ripple on the ocean.

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Baginbun Beach looking north

I tried not to disturb a group of a dozen or so doing their morning yoga as I walked past the cliffside rock exposures of steeply dipping and heavily faulted sediments.  Structural Geology 101.   But as I was to discover there is more to Baginbun than its peaceful ambience.

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Morning yoga at Baginbun Beach

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Cliffside exposures of steeply dipping interbedded sediments showing extensive faulting.

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Structural Geology 101

It was about 8am now and a quad vehicle arrived on the beach with a load of kayaks. Locals Graham and Kimberly proceeded to unload the kayaks onto the beach.  I wondered aloud whether they would have any takers in this remote spot on a Monday morning.

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Kayaks await the morning rush at Baginbun Beach

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Graham and Kimberly. Owners of The Irish Experience, which runs Sea Kayak tours of Baginbun.

“We’re booked out for two days” said Graham.  He explained that he runs a company based on the Hook Head peninsula, called The Irish Experience, and that they do group tours that explore the heritage of the headland from the water and visit the sea arches and marine life around the point.

Heritage?  It turns out that this spot is of huge significance in the history of Ireland.  It is where a group of around 100 Anglo-Normans, under the leadership of Raymond Le Gros, Strongbow’s second-in-command, landed in May 1170. It was the first Norman presence in Ireland and is celebrated in the well-known medieval couplet:

‘At the creek of Baginbun. Ireland was lost and won’.

With his 100 men he defeated the Irish force of 3,000, apparently by rounding up a herd of cattle and driving them into the enemy, capturing or killing about 1,000.  People that is, not cattle.  Even the very un-Irish name, Baginbun, says Graham, comes from an Anglo Norman mash up of the names of the first ships, ‘Le Bag’ and ‘Le Bun’.

Graham pointed out a mound on the cliff above the beach, which is the remains of the fort they built to protect their position.  Unfortunately, and controversially, a local landowner has placed a gate on the line of the fort and closed the headland off to visitors.  The only way to see it easily is with Graham’s tour from the water.

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Remains of Anglo Norman fort wall at Ballybungan.  Dates from 1170 AD

Much as I would have loved to, my schedule was not flexible enough to wait the three days to join the tour.  Next time I will book.  Thanks, Graham, for opening my eyes to another hidden Irish story that would have otherwise escaped me.

Baginbun Beach is right near the village of Fethard-on-Sea.  In the middle of the village is yet another fifteenth century castle ruin, Fethard Castle.  The original site was granted to an Anglo-Norman knight, Harvey de Montmorency (Strongbow’s brother-in-law) following the arrival of the Normans. He passed it on to the Church in Canterbury (England) who gifted it to Richard de Londres on the condition he would be build a castle there. That castle is long gone. The present castle was  granted to Sir Nicholas Loftus (of Loftus Hall) in 1634 and it was occupied by them until the early 20th century.

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Fethard Castle

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Fethard Castle, view from the other side.

I popped down to the water nearby, a cute little harbour.  Every seaside community has their maritime tragedies I have found.  Fethard seems to have had more than its share.  Here a lifeboat shed was built for the local fishermen to honour the tragic loss of nine crew of a lifeboat in 1914.

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Lifebout Cottage at Fethard

Another plaque right at the harbour recalls the deaths of five fishermen in one of the worst modern fishing tragedies in 2002 and reminds us that even today the sea remains a treacherous place.

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Harbour at Fethard-on-Sea.  Plaque to fishermen lost in 2002 is on left wall.

My next destination was Tintern Abbey.  But I had to stop at this roadside ‘museum’ near Saltmills, which I passed on the way.  To most people this is a junk heap.  I get that, but I don’t see it in quite the same way as most people.  This front yard to me is a window into what must have been an extraordinary and fascinating life.  A boat, a crane, a hopper bin and all sorts of unidentifiable bits and pieces now competing with the ravages of nature and time for existence.

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Open air ‘museum’ near Satlmills.

How did this man acquire this stuff and how did it end up neglected and forgotten? The crane intrigued me.  It was made by Grafton & Co of Bedford in England.  They produced cranes from 1883 to the mid-20th century.  This one looks old, possibly older than 1900, and would have been steam driven.  It is massive.  How did it get here?

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Early steam driven Grafton Crane

Perhaps even more interesting is an unidentifiable (to me) vintage car.  It seems to be much larger that a normal family car and though only 4-door is long enough for a third row of seats.  A huge boot and the doors, both front and rear open forward.  What I am told are called Suicide Doors.  Suicide doors on the front are pretty rare apparently.  I would love to know the story behind the car and how it ended up here.

A few minutes later I was at Tintern Abbey.  As I lined up my camera for the first photo of this impressive structure, I cursed the short-sightedness of the managers for allowing parking immediately adjacent to the building.  Might sound like a real first world problem but you can’t get a decent shot of a 15th century building without including a 21st century car.  There is plenty of parking space a short walk away. Anyway, I got over that and searched for another angle that avoided cars and scaffolding.

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Front view of Tintern Abbey

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Rear view of Tintern Abbey with battlement walls added later.

This Abbey, like Dunbrody, which I visited on Day 1, is Cistercian and was founded c1200 by William, the Earl Marshall  (who we also met on Day 1, and was obviously a busy man with a hand in Templetown Church and the Hook lighthouse as well).  There’s a great story about how Marshall, who was having a tricky crossing from Wales vowed that if he arrived safely he would build an abbey where he landed. He did and it became became know as Tintern de Vots (Tintern of the Vow) to distinguish it from the other Tintern Abbey in Wales.   The remains consist of a nave, chancel, tower, chapel and cloister.   I particularly liked the so called Lady’s Chapel has beautiful vauling and carvings adn a display of the wattle and daub walls that survive in the castle.

The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 and it passed into the possession of the Colclough family, who held it until the 1950s. and used as their family home.  ‘My home is my castle’.  There were many modifications to the building over the years (centuries) including the construction of the battlements in the 17th century.  They also constructed the battlement bridge nearby and a flour mill.

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Bridge over the Tintern River to access the Abbey

The Colcloughs were smart.  Sir Thomas, a catholic, married twice. First to a protestant with whom he had 11 children (Martha died in 1609 aged 34, perhaps of exhaustion after so many kids), then to a catholic who produced four more children before his death in 1624.  This double lineage meant the owner of the estate could be changed to Catholic or Protestant, depending on the prevailing political winds, enabling them to avoid the confiscation of the estate.

Another contribution of the Colcloughs (inexplicably pronounced Coke-lee by the way) was the creation of a walled garden around 1812.  Located about half a kilometre from the House it had become a ruin with the planting of a Sitka Spruce forest within its walls.  A community group commenced restoration in July 2010.  It is now a treat.  The original layout has been reinstated and this was only made possible by the existence of an historic map which showed the garden as it was in 1838.  Paths through the garden, the location of the stream, five bridges, the outer enclosure. the location of fruit trees and the division between the Ornamental and the Kitchen gardens are all now as they were then. I loved the way that diamond shaped beds were identified by research into soil distribution. So many surprises.  Plantings are themed with parts of the garden showing yellows, reds and pinks.  A wonderful hour was spent here.

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Being led up the Garden Path.  Colclough Walled Garden

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Colclough Garden.  Faithfully reconstructed stream, bridges,  fruit trees and diamond shaped beds in the Ornamental Garden.

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Vegetable beds in the Kitchen Garden

I ummed and ahhed about going to my next destination, Johnstown Castle.  Not because I had had my fill of castles but because it seemed very commercial and a bit like a theme park.  But I went because I knew if I didn’t I would regret it.  When I walked through the gate my suspicions were confirmed.  A reception desk like a four star hotel, a gift shop a full-on restaurant, an agricultural museum, but I suppose I’m being a bit churlish as I guess most visitors would rave about how great the facilities were.  I went in hoping that none of this would impact on my visit.  Actually there was no drama.  The site is so big and there is so much of interest that you are not that aware of the numbers.  I booked the guided tour as I wanted to see inside the house, and that meant a three-quarter hour wait, which gave me time to enjoy the extraordinary gardens and lakes that surround the house.

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Johnsstown Castle

I think to understand this place we need to talk, again, a bit about the history.  The estate itself dates back to the 12th century, when the Anglo-Norman family, the Esmondes settled there. They constructed a tower house on the grounds, and this ruin still stands today, a few hundred metres from the main castle which came much much later.

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The original Tower House of the Emondes on the grounds of Johnstown Castle

Time to bring Cromwell back into the story.  I haven’t said much about the man but, because of his abhorrent behaviour and that of his troops, his name is mud throughout Ireland.  It struck me once, when doing a tour of Kilkenny years ago, how deep this feeling is.  The passionate hatred of the tour guide in describing his atrocities there was palpable; as if it happened yesterday and not nearly 400 years ago. That said, Cromwell was particularly brutal in Wexford.  After the sacking of Wexford Town, his army ran amok, massacring 1,500 civilians.  It is believed that Cromwell stayed at Johnstown using the grounds to prepare for the attack on Wexford Town.

It was during the Cromwellian years that the Catholic Esmonde family were expelled.  The estate was acquired by the Grogan family in 1682.  Cornelious Grogan, the then owner of the estate in 1798 was hanged and beheaded on Wexford Bridge for his part in the Rebellion. After his execution, his estate in Johnstown was seized by the crown.

In 1810, Cornelius’ youngest brother, John Knox, managed to regain control of Johnstown Castle after he paid the crown a heavy fine. It was then that the castle, lakes and gardens came into existence.   By the 1860s Johnstown Castle estate was at its peak and comprised of a large demesne of over 1,000 acres. It had a deer park, the castle, pleasure grounds, a farm and two ornamaental lakes and a sunken garden. The walled gardens and hothouses were originally laid out between 1844-1851 and retain their early design today.

A walk around the gardens is just wonderful. Astonishing views of the grand, almost over-the-top fairytale castle sitting on the shore of the lake appear between the trees. The castle is sited so it can be seen from the end of the Upper Lake.

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Jonestown Castle seen looking down the Upper Lake

Many wonderful touches enhance the experience.  An observation tower on the lake edge designed to get a perfect view of the castle through its narrow window.

A row of statues, peacocks wandering the lawns, manicured lawns and lots of nooks and crannies to explore.  The walled garden is about 4 acres, very formal and quite different to Colclough.

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One of a number of statues that line the promenade.

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A peacock that thinks it’s a statue.

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The Walled Garden

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Original greenhouse in the Walled Garden

We gathered for a fairly crowded tour of the house at the appointed time.  Our guide was Megan, living here for a year and from the States.  What a difference to have a knowledgeable and engaging guide to show you around.  I have mixed feelings though, as I tour houses such as these.  Much of the furniture and decorations are original and, if not, then in keeping with the time.  There is an overwhelming feeling of extravagance and luxury, which grates somewhat when you think that this was achieved off the backs of their tenants who at the same  time, were starving to death outside the castle walls.  Putting that aside for the moment the tour was worth every cent as a window into life in the Big House.  My favourite was, surprise surprise, the library with its beautiful carved bookcases and its hidden door that led to the drawing room.

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Guide Megan, shows us into the drawing room via the false door in the library

The drawing room had cleverly placed mirrors that made it look huge. There were original artworks of members of the family adorning many of the walls.  I loved the bay window with the desk – the perfect study nook. And then there was a hidden tunnel which allow meat to be brought directly to the kitchen from the Meat House. One room of the house is set up as a laboratory to reflect its use since the 1940s by the Department of Agriculture (which owns the site) as a research facility.

Leaving the castle and, with the day disappearing, I had to forego a planned visit to Wexford Town and continue my drive up the Slaney River.  But just out of Wexford I came across the ruin of Ferrycarrig Castle.  Built in the 15th century by the Roche family to guard the river ferry crossing before there was a bridge (a wooden bridge was not constructed until 1795).

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Ferrycarrig Castle

The Roches lost their castle and lands to Cromwell, of course, and as far as I know  the castle has been uninhabited since.  On the other side of the bridge is an incongruous looking round tower which looks horribly out of place.  All is not what it seems.  It is in fact a monument erected in 1858 to those from Wexford who fought in the Crimean war.

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Crimean War monument Ferrycarrig

It is now part of the Irish National Heritage Park – a theme park which takes you on a journey through Irish history to the Norman invasion in the 12th century.  Family oriented, it has reconstructed examples Mesolithic and Neolithic houses, megalithic dolmens, bronze age stone circles, ringforts,  high crosses, early Christian monasteries and crannogs.  These are the bread and butter of my travels around Ireland so, preferring the real thing, I thought I’d give it a miss but if you’re pressed for time it may be an option.

Before leaving Ferrycarrig, some movement in the water caught my eye. It was a seal and she popped her head out of the water.  We made eye contact and she just stared at me.  She soon tired though of this pointless and non-productive activity and disappeared into the river.  I waited for a few minutes but her departure it would appear was permanent.  Now I know the fisherfolk of Wexford Harbour are not keen on seals in the harbour but it was a lovely surprise.

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My seal friend

The road north took me through Bree.  Nothing to do with cheese, though given the richness of the soil they probably do produce wonderful brie. No it was strawberries that grabbed my attention.  Wexford and strawberries; two words nearly synonymous in Ireland.  Who hasn’t seen the little van that pops up every summer just outside Ennis (and probably all over Ireland) selling strawberries and new potatoes?  Well there were acres of polytunnels housing row after row of the luscious treats.  Shh! Don’t tell but I can confirm that they are the best strawberries I have tasted.  Well I had to didn’t i? In the interests journalistic integrity and accurate travel reporting.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

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Wexford strawberries

A little further down the road and still in Wexford I caught a glimpse of an overgrown ruin in a field.  I made my way over the traditional Irish single strand electric fence to find an enigmatic temple-like structure.  It had a portico with doric columns but nothing to give any clue to what it was.  It was so overgrown there was no way to get inside.  I would be grateful for any information from my readers as to what this intriguing building may have been used for and when.

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Ruined building of unknown origin

I had given John (the Aussie I had met yesterday) a call and he was waiting for me at Borris.  That’s Borris-not-in-Ossory, but Borris-in-Carlow.  This was definitely no horror movie though.  John’s abode was a whitewashed classic Irish cottage down a narrow boreen with views towards Mt Leinster and the hills beyond.  The house was surrounded by a beautifully tended garden that wrapped around the contours and which John had spent the afternoon mowing.  The evening disappeared rapidly as we shared a bowl of delicious beef curry and I joined him on some tunes on my fiddle with John, who played bouzouki.  I was very grateful for that overheard conversation.

Day 3 you can Follow me up to Carlow and then beyond to Wicklow.  Coming soon.

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Ireland in Four Days (and Five Years). Day 1. From Tipperary to Hook Head

This is first for me.  For the last five years I have written blogs about my travels, but I have never written a travel blog.  What I mean is that I have talked about places I’ve visited and experienced but have never  written a travel diary as such.  As I prepare to leave Ireland, I am madly trying to see places that I have neglected or counties that I have not explored.  Wexford is the only county I have never visited.  Time to fix that.

Before planning any road trip, I am keen to ensure the best possible light for my photography, so I am an avid consumer of weather apps and unless there are other constraints (such as a music festival) I am lucky enought to be able to pick my time.  The hourly forecasts have become remarkably reliable as a predictor of sunshine, so on this particular Saturday, late in August it looked good for Sunday and Monday.  Next morning, I headed off with the plan of an overnighter to Hook Head.

A quik aside.  Travelling Ireland is in my mind unique.  It is compact and chock full of rich and varied experiences that cover millenia and everything is pretty accessible.  For me though, it’s not just about ticking monuments and sights off a list, it’s about the people you meet on the way, the side roads you take, the discoveries you make and colliding with the unexpected.  I wanted to post this to show those contemplating a visit that you can do so much better than just consulting the Lonely Planet guide book or leaving it in the hands of your tour operator.  And you can do so much more in limited time than anywhere else in the world.  If you can though you have to be flexible.  My planned two day trip to Hook Head ended up being a four day journey that took me through Tipperary, Wexford, Carlow and Wicklow.  In the process I saw pretty much everything that Ireland can offer.

I’m not expecting the average visitor would want to cram as much as this into a visit.  Perhaps you want to linger longer at one place.  I find each stop speaks to me about how long I have  to stay.  You just have to listen.  Some I was there only 15 minutes, others for 4 hours.  In Wicklow on the last afternoon, I walked for 12 km, unable to call it quits.

Most of the places on this visit I have never been to before. You see, even in an Ireland where I have been relentlessly touring for five years you can still do that.  There are constants but nothing is the same.  You never tire of the stunning scenery and the prehistoric or historic legacy that screams at you of conquerors, wars, pestilence, struggle and achievement.  Sure you can go to high profile, developed sites, where you can get a packaged and potted version of Ireland’s history, but for myself I like the Ireland that is hdden or the Ireland I discover by chatting to people on the way,

So, enough talk, do up your seatbelt and lets go.

Sunday morning’s start was later than I hoped, due to a session in Miltown Malbay the previous night.  My destination for the night was Hook Head, about four hours drive.  Plenty of time but nothing was set in stone.   That’s the way I like to travel these days.  I never know where I will end up and around five or six in the evening, I look for an Airbnb or B&B that suits or I just sleep in the car.  I find that travelling to a BB puts an artificial constraint to the day and makes it difficult to be where you want to be for the evening light, or for an early start and the predawn light that the photographer in me craves.

I’ve left Clare behind as I travel through Limerick when just near the village of Pallasgreen close to the Tipperary border, I noticed a brown sign  Very useful these brown signs.  Bob’s Fifth Law of Travel –

Brown sign + Google = discovery.

Kilduff Castle it said.  An evocative ruin of a 1550 Tower House, it was the home of the Hurley family until 1660s, when forced out by Cromwell,  Destroyed in 1688 during the Jacobite war it has been left in ruins ever since.  Access is restricted due to its perilous state.  Something tells me there will be a lot less of it next time I visit.

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Kilduff Castle

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Kilduff Castle.  Beyond repair?

Then it was on to Cahir Castle, Tipperary.  There has been a fort at this location since the 3rd century but the castle that stands today was built in the 12th century by Conor O’Brien on a limestone rock jutting out of the river. Almost growing out of that rock it has been the site of countless attacks and sieges for centuries.

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Cahir Castle.

The powerful Anglo-Norman family, the Butlers, came into the possession of the castle in 1375 .  It was thought to be impregnable but, it was subsequently captured three times in its history: twice without a shot being fired.  It fell to Devereux, Earl of Essex, in 1599 after it had been battered for three days with artillery; it surrendered without a fight to Inchiquin in 1647 and again to Cromwell in 1650.  That man again!

Through all this though the Butlers managed to retain control until 1961, the last Lord Cahir died, and the castle reverted to the State.

It has looked the way it looks now since 1599 and is remarkably well preserved retaining its impressive keep tower, its original portcullis gate and winch mechanism and much of its defensive structure such as machiolations and canon.  I even spotted a garderobe chute (tipping its contents straight into the river).

The forecast of sunshine for the afternoon was spot on and the River Suir was sparkling. The ducks and geese were having as much fun as the visiting Dutch or Greeks.  To my mind, as with many of the ‘touristy’ reconstructed or restored castles it is a bit sterile and looks for all the world like a film set, which, not surprisingly, it has been for such films as Excalibur, Barry Lyndon and Tristan and Iseult.  And recently it was the location for a new film, ’The Green Knight’, a fantasy re-telling of the story of Sir Gawain who embarks upon a quest to confront the titular Green Knight. There is no denying the stunning views from every vantage point though.

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Caher Castle and the geese and ducks on the River SuirEnter a caption

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The Banquet Room, Cahir Castle

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View over the town of Cahir from the CastleEnter a caption

A short distance away, but in a parallel world, is the chocolate-box pretty of the Swiss House.  Not Swiss but given that name by the locals due to its idiosyncratic architectural style known as ‘cottage orné’ which resembled in their mind a Swiss chalet.  It was built in 1810 by the same Butlers, owners of the castle, as a rustic getaway.

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The Swiss Cottage at Cahir Castle

The style was meant to reflect the disorder in nature and blend in, so the roof isn’t level, windows are of different sizes and external oak timbers are meant to resemble roots.  A verandah surrounds it and makes it look bigger than it is.  The patterns in the trellis work change constantly as you move around and the house never looks the same from any angle. The iron fence of intertwining branches dates from 1850.  A Yew tree adjacent to the house is believed to be 1,000 years old making it one of the oldest in Ireland..  The cottage is now owned by the State and managed by OPW.  No time for a tour inside, but nevertheless a charming and very non-Irish looking diversion.

It was time to head on through Tipperary towards my destination of Wexford.  But one surprising deviation first.  My road took me through Carrick-on-Suir.  Some context here before I go on.  This is one of the most passionate of the hurling places in Ireland.  The county is renowned for its excellence in this most Irish of sports.   The weekend before, Tipp had won the All Ireland for the 27th time. The celebrations were still going on on the street.  I stopped at a place, which I later learned was named Sean Tracy Park.  [The name is in honour of Tipperary man Seán Treacy, one of the leaders of the IRA who was killed in October 1920, in Dublin, in a shootout.  His name is revered in West Tipperary and associated with hurling.]

It was festooned with bunting and flags and numerous placards of hurlers in a coordinated display of blue and yellow.  The bright sunshine had brought people onto the street, everywhere talking hurling and reliving the glory.  As I clicked away I heard a voice. “Are we gonna be on News of the World?”.  I had to disappoint him that it was only the News of Australia.  He told me that following their Senior win they had just won the Under 20s and that they were going for the Trifecta, with the Ladies playing the next weekend.

I learnt a lot that afternoon.  Of the passion for a uniquely Irish game and of a corner of the world where there was a real community spirit. In a world where many of us live our lives in reclusive isolation in front of a TV screen or on a hand held screen this was a refreshing flashback to a community existence where fences between houses don’t exist. I recalled vague memories of growing up in Sydney in the fifties, where life was lived outside, the street was your front yard and there were endless games of cricket.

I knew Tipperary was one of the Big Three in hurling.  In fact they won the very first All Ireland in 1887 and have won another 26 since including this year’s.  Preeminence in hurling is seen as a simple fact of life in Tipperary.  Michael Cusack, the founder of the GAA, once said   “Tipperary was the benchmark by which every other county would be judged.”  Looking at the street display I asked my friend from earlier, “Is all of Tipp like this”.  “Ah no he said.  “Carrick on Suir is special.”  As if to confirm this, I later found a reference to an article  from the Tipperary Advocate  of 1887 decrying the violence  in the game.  It reported “disgraceful scenes” in Clonmel when a game against Carrick developed into a brawl and ending in a bout of stone-throwing. The Gardai were called but it was a sense of continuing bitterness that Carrick men were blamed with no arrests of anyone from Clonmel.  It was a much more peaceful scene on this sunny Sunday 132 years later.  I wished him luck for the Trifecta and resumed my journey.

But I couldn’t leave Carrick on Suir without visiting Ormond Castle. Another of Butler’s many properties.  This one was a fortified Tudor Manor House (Ireland’s only such building) dating from 1560s.  What I found really interesting though is how this elegant building integrated and incorporated an earlier fortified castle dating from the 14th century and and not one but two Tower Houses of different ages.  Here I wished I’d had more time to look inside at the splendour of Thomas Butler’s house, built, it is said. to impress Queen Elizabeth I (for whom he had a bit of a thing).  Sadly she never came to visit.

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Front view of Ormond Manor House

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Rear viewo Ormond House taken from the 14th Century castle and showing the two tower houses.

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The 16th century Manor House abuts against one ot the earlier Tower Houses.

Leavng Carrick on Suir, to get to Wexford you must travel along the River Suir in Kilkenny until it meets the Barrow (the second longest river in Ireland) and then follow that north to its first crossing at New Ross.  On the way at Granagh, you are confronted by an impressive bridge over the Suir .  Just before the bridge is yet another castle, Castle Granagh, also known by the perhaps less threatening name, Granny Castle.  Another strategically placed defensive site on a bend of the Suir just west of Waterford, there was a Celtic fort built at this spot as long ago as the 1st century.  This one is a typical Norman castle with a courtyard and towers in each corner.  The large keep tower may have been added in the 15th century.  Originally built by the Power family, when they fell out of favour it was granted to, yes, the Butlers, in 1375. Until, yet again, in 1650 taken by Cromwell and destroyed.  History definitely keeps repeating itself around here.

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Castle Granagh

Three intrepid (or should I say foolish) lads managed to get inside one of the corner towers.  A perilous exercise and not for the faint hearted.  I am happy to report that they got out ok.

I grabbed one more look at the view that juxtaposed a bold architectural statement of the 21st century bridge with a castle that combined elements of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 17th centuries, before I was back on the road to Wexford.

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Granagh Castle and the bridge over the River Suir

It was 4.30 pm when I got to the historic riverside port town of New Ross, with its the three-masted tall ship, The Dunboy Famine Ship, dominating its skyline.  I had to pay a visit, though I hadn’t intended to stop. There I discovered yet another Interpretive Centre, Restaurant, Cafe and Museum complex, and another request for €9.  The Dunboy is actually a replica of a ship that was genuinely used in the 1840s and it is open to the public.  Resigned to parting with my €9, I thought I would have a look.

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The Dunboy Famine Ship and the River Barrow at New Ross

“Yes Sir, we do have a tour starting at 4.45”.  I looked up at the prominently displayed clock above the desk. It says 4:50.

“So I have missed the tour?”  keeping in mind though that I might be saved by the well-known Irish skill at timekeeping.

“Yes Sir. It didn’t run. There were no takers”.  For the first time I came across a tour that ran on time but didn’t, if you get my drift.

“So I can’t get on and have a look?” I said disappointedly

“Oh yes. if you want to do it on your own you can, you just can’t go on a tour,”

I smiled. I’d never actually said I wanted to go on a tour.

I still had to fork out my €9 but the upshot was that I was given a laminated script of the tour (it’s even called a ‘script’) and I headed on board.  I had the boat to myself.  I had limited expectations, but I have to say I found it a thought provoking and surprisingly moving experience.  The boat is a replica of the vessels that used to carry desperate folk escaping Ireland in the 1840s.  These boats were not designed for transporting people.  They were opportunistically used by traders engaged in shipping timber and other goods from Canada and the US to Ireland.  The return journey would take passengers instead of going back empty.  

It is difficult for us to conceive of the situation at that time.  Stop for a minute and think on this. Ireland, with a population of 9 million was desperate. The US had a population (including slaves) of 18 million.  As a result of the famine, 1 million people died and 2 million left in the space of 3 to 4 years.  On some ships up to half the passengers died during the voyage. As an afterthought, Ireland now has 4 million and the US, 320 million.

The Dunboy carried as many as 300 on each trip on makeshift temporary bunks. Minimal rations were provided.  You were expected to bring your own food.  Imagine that; leaving famine-ravaged Ireland and you had to bring enough food for you and your family for 6 to 10 weeks.  You had one hour a day to cook for yourselves in an open fire on deck.  With twenty others at a time.  That was the only light you saw. The rest of the time you were in your cabin in your bunk.  Speaking of the bunks.  They were 6’ by 6’ double bunks.  Each person had an allocation of 6’ by 18”, which meant there was room for four adults.  Children had half that.  You were expected to share with complete strangers. There were no toilets either.  Just a bucket and you shared that.  Cholera and typhoid were rife and there was no washing possible; most didn’t have a change of clothes. All this was preferable to staying at home.  At least there was hope.

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Sleeping bunks in Steerage class

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The bunks are 6′ by 6′ and accommodate four adults.  This is where passengers lived for 23 hours each day.

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The crew had individual bunks in the foc’sle

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The Captain’s cabin at the back of the ship.

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On deck cooking facility and toilet bucket

This crystallised the sense I got when I walked part of the Famine Road in the Burren or visited a famine graveyard on Achill Island.  Putting flesh on the bones to use a very inappropriate metaphor. Being alone on the ship gave me time to absorb and ponder on those brave souls who made that perilous journey to a country that welcomed them, if they survived the trip, with the promise of a new life.  A different America today that turns victims of injustice away.

The captain, who, by all accounts was humane and caring, fared a little better in the Saloon at the back of the ship.  There were four cabins here, accommodating the senior crew and two passenger cabins and the crew had individual bunks in the foc’sle.

I loved the safety notice thoughtfully provided in the script, which I returned with thanks to the desk.  “For safety reasons please don’t fall in the river!” it said.

“Where are you from?” said the chatty man at the desk as I returned the script

“Australia”.

“How long are you here?”

“I’m heading back in a couple of weeks”, I said, skipping the bit about having been here five years. “Thankfully I’m travelling by plane and not ship!” I quipped.  I don’t think he got it.

A stander-by (if that’s a word) engaged me in conversation, recognising my accent.  He introduced himself;  John from Melbourne, but currently living in London, had arrived in Ireland three days earlier with no return plans; to soak up Ireland, to write and just see what happens. That sounded very familiar, so we ended up having a coffee in a local café.  He too was a musician and was staying in the house of another Australian musician friend, a member of a well-known Aussie rock band.   There you go.  I’ve always said that music is the thread that binds Ireland and binds us to Ireland.

He was interested in my story and we chatted for over an hour, before I had to take my leave.  An invitation to a meal and an offer of accommodation followed, so we made arrangements to meet up the next day at his cottage in Carlow. These serendipitous meetings happen all the time in Ireland; in this case a snippet of an overheard conversation changed my travel plans.

It had been a perfect blue afternoon and I was looking forward to a spectacular sunset, but was starting to worry that I would be too late for it.  Still I had to visit the ruined Dunbrody Abbey on the way.  My hopes plummeted [insert scream here] when I saw that it was another visitor centre, this time with a Café, a Maze and a Pitch-and-Put centre and that access to the abbey included all these fringe benefits. The ruin of Dunbrody Castle sits adjacent to the facility.  This castle built just prior to the 1640 rebellion was never actually finished and is now used as a craft shop.

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Dunbrody Castle.  Now a craft shop.

But all that was closed and with it access to the Abbey which was  couple of hundred metres across the road.    Thankfully you could walk around it though and that was what me and my camera did.

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Dunbrody Abbey

It is a Cistercian Abbey dating from 1170, which prospered until the suppression of  the monasteries in 1536.  The ruin was left to the State in 1911.  I would have liked to have gone inside, apparently it has one of the longest naves in the country.   The monks here in the 14th century were pretty feisty, and it appears were often in dispute with their fellow Cistercians at nearby but much grander Tintern Abbey.  I will be seeing that tomorow.  But even from the outside I was having fun exploring the photographic possibilities that happen when evining light and a ruined abbey combine.  Here are a few of the photos I took that I post without comment.

Just a couple of miles further south is the seaside village of Duncrannon.  Protected since the 5th century by a Fort of some description, and even before that by a Promontory Fort that sits on the headland above the Quay.  The only way to see it is with a tour and it was way too late for that so  I had to be satisfied with viewing it from the wharf.  And Duncrannon Fort is what is known as a Star Fort, built in that shape to maximise the coverage and angles for canons.  Built in 1587 by Queen Elizabeth I to protect against the Spanish Armada, it saw much more local action during the Irish Confederate Wars of 1645 and then withstood an attack from Oliver Cromwell in 1649.  A lighthouse was built there in 1774.  During the 1798 Rebellion the United Irishmen failed to capture it and it became a safe house for fleeing loyalists and a prison and site of execution for rebels.  The song the Croppy Boy tells one such story.  Staying in the control of the British Army it was burnt down in 1922.  Now it is a museum.  It looked truly formidable sitting high on the cliffs above the ocean.

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Duncrannon Fort from the water

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Duncrannon Fort another view

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Entrance to Duncrannon Fort

It was now after 7pm with less than an hour to sunrise and finally within reach of my goal.  But I couldn’t resist one more stop.  The village of Templetown, which may have been a village once but is now just a roadside bar and restaurant (but a popular one it would seem).  Across the road is a the Templetown Church ruin.    This was the base for the Knights Templars, a military religious order founded in Jerusalem to protect the Holy Land, who set up here in 1172, giving the name to the locality.  The Templars however disbanded in 1307 and their lands were given to their great rivals, another military order, the Knights Hospitallers.  They built this church and its adjacent fortified tower.  It is in wonderful condition, just missing its roof, and is surrounded by a small graveyard.  It looked spectacular and glowed golden against a vivid blue evening sky. I’ll have reason to talk about these fellas again.

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Templetown Church

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Templetown Church and graveyard

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Templetown Church

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Graveyard at Templetown Church

Paradoxically, with light running out, the next stop was definitely Hook Head Lighthouse.  I could see it in the distance and at the first opportunity I pulled off the road to photograph it.  The lighthouse is not the prettiest in Ireland, with its chunky disproportionate base, but it is iconic and it is the oldest and is spectacularly located (I guess most of them are).

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A distant view of Hook Head Lighthouse

It was built by William Marshall, who had a few strings in his bow, so to speak.  He was Strongbow’s successor (get it?) as Lord of Leinster, and had built a port at New Ross, which was 30 km up the river.  Told you I’d come back to the Templars; well Marshall was also a Knights Templar (he was known as the Greatest Knight).  The light was erected at the beginning of the 13th century and it was the monks at Templetown who became the first keepers.  They looked after the lighthouse tower until 1641 when dedicated lighthouse keepers took over until it was automated in 1996.  It is the oldest operating lighthouse in the world.

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Hook Lighthouse and the old Keepers’ cottages, now a visitor centre.

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A view from the other side with the sun setting behind Hook Head lighthouse

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The lads are off for a fish.

That’s something to ponder on – a guiding light for 800 years. I can’t leave though without mentioning the  expression ‘by hook or by crook’.  One theory (and it is only one of a number) is that the expression came from Oliver Cromwell who had to make the decision whether they would sail up the Barrow on the Wexford side (by Hook) or by Crooke (a village on the Waterford side).  Only problem is there is a reference to the expression in a Middle English tract dated 1387, nearly 300 years before Cromwell. Wherever the expression came from I got there by hook or by crook and I became immediately hooked on the place.

As darkness descended I looked at the collection of campervans parked on the clifftop at the base of the lighthouse, with just a hint of envy.  I searched for a spot to park up, claiming my spot right on the cliff edge next to an old limekiln and looking across to Passage East in Waterford on the other side of the Barrow.  I wouldn’t say I had the best night’s sleep but was well satisfied with an exhausting but rewarding day of travel.

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The view from my five star accommodation at Hook Head.

And as a bonus from my vantage point in the back of the car,  I watched the rising of the crescent moon and photographed the Milky Way, managing to catch a couple of shooting stars.  Where else would you want to be.

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The Rising of the Moon

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The Milky Way.  There are two shooting stars if you look closely

Well that’s Day 1 of this four day journey.  It’s long I know and thank you for sticking with me to the end.  Stay tuned for Day 2 which will take me north through Waterford towards Carlow.

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