Posts Tagged With: Kinnitty

More than just Hot Air. My First Balloon Flight.

Invitations like this don’t come around very often. Certainly not for me and certainly not in Ireland.  Friends, Jeanne and Natasha from Albuquerque in New Mexico (in fact you can read about how we met here) were visiting again, this time for the The Irish National Hot Air Balloon Championships in County Offaly.  Held annually since 1971, this is the longest running national ballooning event in the world and the biggest in Ireland.  Invitation only, up to 40 balloons from around the world, fly each year in what promised to be an incredible spectacle. It was held over the week of September 24 to 28th.

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Jeanne Page and Natasha Coffing.  My hosts.

There was a chance I could crew.   Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?  But I ummed and ahed.  I was still recovering from three weeks in the US.  On Tuesday it was still just a thought. By Wednesday I had the kind offer of a bed from a musician friend at her magnificent BnB in Kinnitty, Ardmore Country House.  House. That sealed it  for me.  A night or two in quite possibly one of the best BnB’s in Ireland and some fiddle tunes was the extra incentive I needed.

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Ardmore Country House BnB in Kinnitty.  My home for the duration.

It was only a couple of hours drive and in dull weather I arrived at the launching place, which was the dramatic gardens surrounding Birr Caste and Demesne. Preparations were well underway for the late afternoon flight.  I couldn’t find my friends from Albuquerque so I watched with great interest the activities feverishly underway, as crews readied their balloons.

Balloons were being unfurled, baskets were being loaded, flames were being thrown and one by one the giant multicoloured bubbles stood upright and drifted slowly into the hazy evening.  I started to put some pieces of the jigsaw together but I really had little idea of what I was watching.  As the last balloon drifted over the castle I came to the realization that my friends were in the air and  that they probably had to land somewhere.  So I asked someone, who seemed to know, who said they were heading to Kinnitty, about 10 km to the east.  Well, turned out she didn’t actually have much more of an idea than me, or perhaps the wind didn’t cooperate but, in my haste to get to Kinnitty, I failed to notice they were actually heading northeast  rather than east.

I caught up later that evening with Jeanne and Natasha at Dempsey’s Bar in the charming village of Cadamstown, 10 minutes north of Kinnitty where a regular  trad session was being held. The word had got out and the pub was crammed with musicians and with ballooning people. They were lucky. It was  terrific music led by local box and banjo legends, the Kinsella brothers, and at least twenty other musicians with a high energy mix of tunes and songs. Jeanne and Natasha had bought their harps with them from the States and treated us to some lovely duets.

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Traditional music session in Cadamstown.  Natasha and Jeanne join in on their harps.

In among the tunes we discussed the possibility of a flight the next morning.  My education in ballooning continued. A decision on whether flying was possible would be made at the Pilots’ Briefing at 6:30 am.  Weather conditions, in particular wind speed and direction, were the primary factors. Then the teams will move to the launch site and each pilot will make the decision as to whether they will fly.  I couldn’t be guaranteed a spot in the basket but if that didn’t happen I could join the chase crew. They are charged with following the balloon to be there wherever it lands, get permission from the local farmer and collect and transport the crew and the balloon back to Birr. It looked promising.

So next morning I was there. The wind was good and the weather  was fine and the decision was a Go.  There was a problem though. Patchy thick fog had descended and there were worries about visibility.  So the crews made their way to the site for individual pilots to make their own call. It had been a cold night and frost was still covering the ground, the wetness soaking through my waterproof  boots to my toes.

A few set up and started inflating their balloons but most pilots waited. The mist had created an eerie atmosphere and while the delay was disappointing it was a hugely appealing light and plenty of opportunities for the photographer in me to experiment.

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Birr Castle rises from the mist

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Waiting in the frost and mist for the sun to rise

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Autumn reflections

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The sun bursts through the fog

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A magical misty morning.  More like a Monet painting.

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Island in the mist

As the sun rose the feeling was that the fog would burn away and a few started to take to the air. Our pilot Steve Coffing (who just happened to be Natasha’s uncle), though remained cautious. It seemed obvious but the primary requirement was that you need to see the ground.  There was still doubt about whether the fog had lifted sufficiently to give this required visibility. We waited.

Most balloons were now in the sky, but then the fog came back in and a number of the last to lift off returned to the ground.  Finally Steve decided when it became clear that we had run out of time and called off the morning flight.  I was actually not particularly upset as I felt happy that despite my frozen fingers, I had captured some great images. I’ll leave it to you to judge.

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We adjourned for breakfast at a local cafe. Steve was confident the weather would be good in the evening and renewed my invitation to fly.  He suggested  I be at the afternoon briefing at 4.30 pm.

Once the fog lifted it turned into a cracker of a day.  Perfect to explore the nearby Sieve Bloom. These low mountains straddle Offaly and Laois and are a wonderful mix of thick forests of spruce and pine, ancient oak and beech forests, open bog land, lakes and mountain streams cascading through mossy glens. It is a hiker’s’ paradise, so that’s what I did.  But my mind was elsewhere.

On tenterhooks I attended the 4.30 pm briefing.  It was a Go decision for the evening flight. But things had changed a little and the balloon that I had planned to fly in was needed for a check flight to maintain the owner’s licence.  Steve managed to get a piloting spot on another balloon but I was told that balloon was full.  Then fate stepped in.  Nikki and Dylan, an Aussie couple I had met the previous night at the session in Cadamstown, came to my rescue. Friends of the owner of the balloon Steve was flying. they had already flown a couple of times earlier in the week. To my eternal gratitude they gave up their spot and it was Up Up and Away [Oh dear, I never thought I could be so cheesy as to use that line!]

I now joined the readying of the balloon for flight. Like me, most of my readers will not have flown in a balloon before. Well I became an instant expert. The physics is simple really. The nylon or dacron ‘envelope’ is filled with air using a large fan and this is heated until the balloon is upright.  A basket is suspended underneath which carries up to four passengers, the pilot and a heat source. The heat source is an open flame fueled by propane, carried in tanks on the basket. The heated air reduces the density of the air inside the envelope compared with the colder air outside causing it to rise. The skill of the pilot comes in knowing how much heat to apply to make it rise or fall. Rapid descent can be achieved by opening the vent at the top with a rope causing the hot air to escape quickly.  There is limited ability to change direction and reading the wind, which can change dramatically at different heights, is part of the skill of flying.

Simple really. A great achievement though for the Montgolfier brothers who built the first manned balloon in 1783. Love the way when they were testing it for manned flight, they proposed that convicted prisoners should be used for the first pilots. Dispensable.

So I watched the preparations with keen interest. The equipment is actually quite compact and is carried in a customized trailer.


Basket being removed from trailer

First the basket is prepared. The burner is then mounted over the four corners of the basket and the legs wrapped with a protective insulation.


Burner being mounted over basket


legs wrapped in insulating material


Burner is tested.

The propane is connected to the burner and the burner tested. The balloon is then unwrapped and laid out next to the basket which is now on its side. Inflation begins with a large fan. As the balloon expands the burner is turned on sporadically to heat the air. This process takes only a few minutes and when the balloon is full and the pilot is ready the heating is increased which pulls the basket to vertical.


Balloon is unwrapped and laid out.  Everyone pitches in.


Balloon is filled with air



Vent flap is secured

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Fan used to fill balloon


Air is heated once filled


Heating continues until balloon stands vertically

IT is now ready for take off. Passengers board. Joining Steve and myself was John Kelly, a local publican, with a deep knowledge of the surrounding landscape. We had a briefing. There were only a few simple rules. Keep an eye out for other balloons and livestock and power lines and communicate this with the pilot.  And oh, Don’t get out of the basket. My total agreement with that one.  I was definitely ‘crew’ now.  We were ready to go.

There was a roar from the burner shooting flames into the balloon above and we rose effortlessly.  There was no real sensation of take off. The ground just seemed to move away from us. In between the bursts of noise of the burner it was deathly quiet. Just this wonderful relaxing calm.

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Lift off

Most balloons were ahead of us but as we rose, I could see them spread out before us. Some stayed low. Others were thousands of feet above us.  Birr Castle and its magnificent grounds disappeared from view.  Steve took us up to 2,000 ft just to show us what it felt like. Sometimes balloons go to 5,000 ft particularly if they have passengers who are sky diving.   Oh my god. The thought of throwing yourself off this little basket from this height totally freaked me out.  Fair play to those who can happily do this and actually much prefer it to jumping from a light plane as they have no forward velocity.


Leaving Birr Castle I


Leaving Birr Castle II


Leaving Birr Castle III


Who knows where we will end up?


Balloons fill the sky


At all levels


The balloon ‘Twister’ flying low.  This was the balloon I was originally to fly in.





Our pilot Steve holding all the ropes


Soaring above the swans


Magic evening light


The evening sun casts our balloon shadow on the glowing trees


Looking for a landing spot


We drifted effortlessly with only occasional use of the burner for minor adjustments to our flight while I just breathed in the late evening light and dealt with the challenge of capturing the feeling as best I could with the camera.  It wasn’t a point and shoot exercise. I found I needed to make constant adjustments to the exposure to compensate for how much sky there was or where the sun was. I was learning quickly. We were up there for nearly an hour. One wonderful hour.  I know I would do a better job next time.

We made preparations to land. Steve was in constant radio contact with the ground support team. He had to consider a lot in deciding where to land. An open field with no trees, no power lines, no livestock, not under cultivation, not a bog and easy access. Lots to consider. Once he has decided the ground crew tries to determine the owner and seeks permission Normally the pilot would wait for clearance. In this case the landowner was thrilled we were landing in her paddock.

You have to admire the skill of the descent. It was controlled and steady with Steve adjusting both the horizontal ground speed and the descent speed. He jokingly told stories of a tradition in some places of leaf grabbing as pilots scrape the tops of trees.

But not this time. We touched the ground bounced a couple of times, dragged a little and then stopped . Remaining vertical all the time. A quick exit and the retrieval crew including Nikki and Dylan, who were waiting a short distance away stepped in to manage the deflation and unhooking of the basket.


Safe landing


Dylan and the chase crew was there to meet us


Pilot Steve Coffing and my fellow passenger John Kelly pose for the family album.


Nikki at the end of her tether

There was a celebratory atmosphere with the crew participating equally in the thrill that us virgin flyers so obviously had had. Of course once the balloon was packed and loaded there was just one thing to do. A few quiet ales and some songs (I had my guitar in the car) back in John Kelly’s pub in Birr. Perfect end to the day.

I had an amazing three days. So many people to thank for making this all possible. Jeanne Page and Natasha Coffing for thinking of me, Christina Byrne for sharing her house and her music, Steve Coffing for piloting with skill and aplomb and for making us feel comfortable and relaxed, Nikki and Dylan for giving up their spot in the basket and for making me a little homesick for a Home Among the Gum Trees, the owners  Graeme and Judy Scaife for sharing their balloon with so many people in and outside of the ballooning community, to my fellow passenger John Kelly for helping me understand the landscape we were flying over and to Shane Page for sharing some tips for photographing balloons.  The organizers need to be complimented also for there effortless coordination of a lovely relaxed few days of ‘competition’.

I think I might do that again.

Balloons come in all shapes and colours

Balloons come in all shapes and colours


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

Off to Offaly. What’s it Offer Me?

The Midlands of Ireland gets a bad rap. It comprises the counties of Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath. Major towns are Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore.  The whole Midlands is unfairly seen as a cultural backwater, dreary and nothing but boring bog land.  Author and Irish Times columnist Michael Viney has described the Midlands as “a wearily protracted obstacle between Dublin and the west … a slow ticking-off of dull little towns on a lot of flattish land drained by sluggish rivers”.

At the invitation of a friend, Christina,  who owns a B&B in Kinnitty,  Co. Offaly.  I spent a few days seeing for myself.

And I say this characterisation is unfair. Yes there is plenty of bog land but in my four days, mainly in Offaly,  I found music every night, discovered the Slieve Bloom Mountains, enjoyed a fine meal at Castle Kinnitty, absorbed the Georgian architecture in Birr and walked through a sculpture park in Lough Boora. I met plenty of lovely people as I have everywhere in Ireland.  Offaly had plenty to offer me!

I stayed at beautiful Ardmore House.  This elegant grand house, now a B&B, was built in 1840 by the Bernards who lived in the nearby Kinnity Castle. More on that later.  It was used as a doctors’ surgery and residence until the 1970s.  It had various owners after that and was bought in a run-down state over 20 years ago by Christina who has restored it in a  labour of love.  Set in lovely formal grounds and with huge bedrooms fitted with period furniture.  There is a wonderful ambience about the place and views from every window over the rolling hills on the edge of town and beyond to the Slieve Blooms.

This was my base from which to explore Offaly. And I didn’t have to go far.  Across the road near the Church is a stone pyramid, a mausoleum for members of the Bernard Family.  It was built in 1834 and houses the remains of six people including one bitten by a rabid dog.  The stone work is wonderful with blocks laid at an angle to get the pyramid shape.  The  mortar pattern is etched through the steel door which gives a great senses of unity.  The last internment was in 1905.

Ardmore House, Kinnity

Ardmore House, Kinnity

Elegant Georgian architecture.  Ardmore House, Kinnity

Elegant Georgian architecture. Ardmore House, Kinnity

Bernard's Pyramid, Kinnitty.

Bernard’s Pyramid, Kinnitty.

Bernard's Pyramid, Kinnitty

Bernard’s Pyramid, Kinnitty

Anyway I digress. The main reason I came of course was to play music.  Wednesday nights sees a regular session in this part of the county.  It is led by the talented Kinsella family and rotates between four pubs in surrounding villages.  This night saw the music at Bergin’s at Killoyn (pronunced ‘Killine’).  Other nights are at the Slieve Bloom in Kinnitty, Burton’s at Ballybritt and Dempsey’s at Cadamstown.

This is one of those sessions that exists soley for the community.  The pub was packed with regulars who were there just for the music. If there are tourists then they either come by accident or they are directed here by their hosts.  I am told that on other nights this pub is nearly empty.  This is a clear sign that the music is strong here and that people are into it.  While the quality of the music may be better in Clare you can’t argue with the enthusiastic way it is played and the reception it receives.   There were about fifteen musicians of all ages but as the night wore on many more singers were coaxed from the crowd. The tunes were well led by gifted box player Padraig Kinsella, and members of his family.  It is worth commenting here that the perception that Offaly is a backwater is belied by its successes in the All Ireland Fleadhs.  Players from Offaly including Padraig have won the All Ireland for button accordion eleven times, significantly more than from any other county.  I certainly didn’t appreciate this.  There was a lot of singing but no shortage of tunes and even after most of the musicians had packed up soon after midnight more singers came out of the crowd and we left at 2am with the session still in full swing.

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As my readers would know I attempt to play music every night.  So when we discovered there was a session in Eugene Kelly’s on Thursday off we went.  What I had forgotten, until I got there, was that this was the first place I had played music in Ireland, when I had arrived in May 2014.  I remembered meeting concertina player, Aoife Greene (another All Ireland winner) there that night and she was here again.  She recognised me even though I now have a beard and long hair.  Some great tunes followed and plenty of songs though the session was somewhat throttled by one member of the audience who insisted on sitting in the circle and making her presence well and truly felt.  Though in fairness she could sing.

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On the last night Christina had organised a house session at Ardmore. Some of the musicians who I had met at Bergin’s were there and others, friends of Christina, had come from as far away as Westport in Mayo as well as some locals.  It was a privilege to be part of this.  Great tunes and songs, excellent food, fine whiskey and a turf fire. Only thing missing was some dancing and you could have been at a house session a hundred years ago.

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In between these sessions I got out and about.  The weather was stunning.  Clear blue skies and around 18 degrees.  County Offaly has the earliest evidence of human habitation in Ireland dating from 6500 BC at Lough Boora just down the road. There would have been lakes there then, long since turned into bogs and subsequently mined out by Bord na Móna (the company created in 1946 to exploit bogs mainly in the Midlands)  Here at Lough Boora however it is now returned to lakes and a nature reserve.  I visited there and took a short walk was through a sculpture park.  All the installations were inspired by the unique land and the bog and its history of mining.  I was very impressed.  Great opportunity for some photos a little different from what I was used to.  I really enjoyed trying my hand at something different.


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There was also the Slieve Bloom Mountain range.  More low hills actually but there were expansive views of the countryside .  It is renowned as the birthplace and early home of legendary Finn MacCool but I was more taken with the forests of pine and beech, just breaking out with the spring growth.  It was at that wonderful point where the trees still have that winter nakedness but there is a tinge of bright green from the new shoots.

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Kinnitty Castle has had a chequered history.  It’s current predicament is at least as bad as anything it has faced since the site was first settled.  It is worth relating briefly as reflects a lot of the story of Ireland.

The site was known to be an ancient druid ceremonial ground; it was a monastery in the 6th century with links to Clonmacnoise along with which it was a major learning centre in Europe at the time.  It was raided by the Vikings and then rebuilt by the Normans with a castle and Abbey.  It became the stronghold of the O’Carrolls around the 11th Century through to the 17th century.  A new castle was built by the O’Carrolls in 1630 and confiscated by the English in 1641.  In 1664 it was granted to an English officer Thomas Winter. It was sold by the Winter family to the Bernards family in 1764 and became known as Castle Bernard.  The current look of the castle was a result of work commissioned in 1811.  The work was carried out by the Pain Brothers who built Dromoland and is a wonderful example of neo gothic architecture.

In 1922, the Castle was burned down by the Republican forces.  Rebuilt in 1928 by the Bernard family who lived there until 1946 when it was sold to Lord Decies who in turn sold it to the State in 1951. It became run down but was purchased by the Ryan family in 1994 and renovated and transformed into a luxurious 37 bedroom hotel.

The castle was forced into receivership by the KBC Ireland Bank and despite a number of attempts to sell it is still being run by the receivers as a going concern.  It is popular for weddings, understandably, and I have to say the steak was delicious.  The hotel is full of amazing period furniture, most of it huge and befitting the grand proportions of the house.  The bank seized all this along with the hotel but the Ryans claim that the effects are their own personal assets.  It is all very messy with legal action and accusations flying everywhere and as of now you could buy this special castle for a mere seven million euros and make the bank go away.



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The English heritage is apparent in nearby Birr also.  Birr also has a magnificent castle which is the family home of the current Earle of Rosse, but goes back to the O’Carrrols again who had one of their castles there in the 15th Century.  In 1620 it was granted to a Sir Laurence Parsons in the course of the Stuart plantation, c. 1620. Sir Laurence Parsons built most of the structure of the present castle. But this was not the main attraction for me.

The town is well regarded for the excellence of the preservation of the Georgian architecture.  A walk down the main thoroughfare of Emmett Street (formerly Cumberland Street) and the Oxmantown Mall and St John’s Mall give ample evidence of this.  I was taken with the elegance of the buildings and the unity of streetscape which was a defining characteristic of Georgian city planning There were simple family homes and there were clearly more ornate, but still conforming to the same simple elegant ethos, homes of the wealthy.  I loved the arched door treatments, the fanlights above the doors, the beautifully proportioned multi-paned windows and some of the less noticeable details such as the cast iron gate handles.

I was walking down Oxmantown Mall photographing the front of a blue doored two story mansion when the owner came out.  We got chatting and retired vet, Sam Glendinning took me through the archway which accessed the back and showed me his formal walled garden.  He was in the process of renewing it as it had become overgrown but there was enough to see what a marvelous space it was. A magnolia in flower was a feature with a central lawn and garden beds and trees around the boundary.  It was so quite; not a noise though we were right in the middle of town.  I was entranced.  Sam said it may be for sale if he could convince his wife to move into something smaller but he wouldn’t name a price.  Out of my league I would think.

Other claims to fame of this town are the largest telescope in the world built by the then Earl of Rosse in 1845.  (Why build a telescope in Ireland where there averages up to 225 days of rain a year?), the world’s first auto fatality when Mary Wood was thrown out of the steam car she was a passenger in as it rounded a corner on Cumberland Street and an Australian connection where Dame Nellie Melba sang from the balcony of Hotel Dooley, an event remembered today with Melba’s Nightclub


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I left Offaly on the Saturday and as if to say goodbye the weather broke.  I enjoyed my time there and thanks Christina for your hospitality.  It didn’t take long though and Saturday night I was back in the swing of things with tunes at Friels in Miltown with Yvonne Casey, Josephine Marsh and John Joe Tuttle.

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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