Monday, 26 May 2008

Castle, Cathedral and Cut Glass.

Ireland – Day 4

Cahir Castle is one of Irelands largest and best-preserved fortresses. Situated on a rocky island in the River Suir (pronounced Shoo-er not soo-er; people get offended if you think they live on the sewer), it is a formidable fortification. Connor O’Brien built the first structure in 1142 but after the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 it started its growth into what is there today. Like everything else around here, it was handed to the Butler family in 1375 and they renovated and expanded the site throughout the 15th and 16th century. There is a brilliant diorama in one of the chambers in the keep, which depicts the attack by Percy (the favourite of Elizabeth the 1st) during his quest to bring the Irish into line with the throne. There are hundreds of tiny 15mm scale soldiers swarming over a table at least ten feet long by six feet wide. Wonderful. The “siege” was something of a walk-over. Percy turned up with two and a half thousand troops, about three hundred horse and with only two cannon, he set up camp on the Friday night. It was all over by Sunday evening, and the Butler’s of the time escaped down the river. Despite his romp to victory here, Percy bungled the rest of his quest in Ireland and ended up losing his head. When Cromwell turned up in 1650, the castle was handed over without a fight. Because of its size and solidity (and hence its possible future usefulness), it escaped Cromwell’s usual “slash and burn” technique, and so is still relatively complete today (it still has a working portcullis). I guess the old Butlers must have done something right, because the castle stayed in the family until it was passed to the state in 1964. This is the same line of Butlers who built the Swiss Cottage.

About ten miles North of Cahir is the impressive limestone outcrop answering to the name of “The Rock of Cashel.”

The town is not much to speak of but it has more than its fair share of old ruins. There is Hore Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian monastery just to the North, with a 12th century castle (now a hotel) and a 13th century Dominican Friary in the town. The most impressive of all, however, is the collection of ecclesiastical remains on the rock itself. The name Cashel is an anglicised version of the Gaelic word Caiseal meaning Fortress. Despite there having been no military structure there for nearly a thousand years, it’s easy to see how it got its name (which, luckily for us is actually pronounced Cash-el). The sturdy stone wall rings four distinct, yet connected buildings - a complete round tower, a roofless abbey, a 15th century dormitory (where the choir lived) and a fabulous 12th century chapel.

The history of the rock goes back to the 4th century when it was chosen as the base for the invading Eoghanachta, a Welsh tribe who went on to conquer the whole area and became the kings of Munster. Legend says that St Patrick visited the rock in 450 and baptized the king, Oengus mac Nad Froich, stabbing him in the foot with his mitre in the process. Apparently the king didn’t complain, he just thought it was part of the ceremony! Brian Boru, one of Irelands greatest kings took the rock in the 10th century, and a little later in 1101, king Murtagh O’Brien handed the rock over to the church. This was a political gesture to curry favour with the powerful clergy and to stop the feud over possession of the Rock, which still ran with the Eoghanachta (who had now, mercifully, changed their name to MacCarthy).

The earliest building on the Rock is the 11th or 12th century round tower. These are apparently very common in Ireland, but this is an impressive and complete example. It stands 28m (92 ft) tall and, as is typical, has the door 3.5 m above the ground! They were used as look-out posts, bell towers and places of refuge. Apparently, the brothers of the church could climb up the wooden or rope ladder into the tower and pull the ladder up behind them. There are four floors, each reached by another ladder, which could also be pulled up. The flaw in the theory is that once an attacker has managed to get a ladder for himself, he could easily break down the door and set fire to the wooden floors inside. Still, it’s an impressive thing.

Cormac’s chapel is probably Irelands first Romanesque church. Dating from 1127, it is small by any standards, but it is virtually complete, with three floors and some staggering sculptural work inside. There are vestigial remains of 12th century frescoes on the walls which are undergoing restorative work. There isn’t a lot left, but what is there is still bright and vibrant with colour.

The lovingly restored 15th century Hall of the Vicars Choral once housed the cathedral choir and it is believed that this is the only such building in Ireland. Choristers were not necessarily clergy, but were simply local peasants who had a good voice. They lived in relative comfort here, though it was another 100 years before anybody put a fireplace in. The building now houses the ticket office and exhibitions. In the cellar is the original 12th century St Patrick’s Cross – the one outside is a replica. It was moved here after it was struck by lightning and a bit fell off.

The Cathedral was knocked up in the 13th century and is a massive gothic affair. It dwarfs even the round tower and despite being a ruin, is still impressive. Curiously, half of the Western nave disappeared in the 15th century when the Bishops House was built over it. This itself is a fortified, well defended structure with easily guarded entrances and murder-holes aplenty. In the Eastern arm lies the tomb of the notorious Bishop Miller Macgrath. This was the man who, in the 16th century, managed to be both the Catholic and Protestant bishops at the SAME TIME. A good trick, you’d think, but he managed to pull it off for NINE YEARS! He married twice and amassed a personal fortune. Even his tomb carries a story. Apparently, he saw this carved sarcophagus on the grave of an earlier bishop, took a fancy to it and left instructions that it should be removed and put over his remains instead. What a guy.

The whole thing came to an end in 1647 when Cromwell paid a visit on his Grand Tour of Destruction. The whole town took sanctuary in the cathedral, and when they wouldn’t come out, Cromwell attacked. Allegedly, the doors were so strong that the attackers had to come in through the windows. All 3,000 occupants were massacred and the cathedral torched.

The grounds are still sanctified, and locals carry the rights for burial.

Ireland – Day 5

We re-traced our steps a little for a quick visit to Waterford. There were two things I wanted to look at – the 13th century Reginald’s Tower and, of course, the Waterford Crystal factory. I’m not a big fan of cut glass, but I thought it might be worth a visit. It turned out to be brilliant!

Waterford was the first place to be re-occupied when the Vikings returned in 914 and the invading force was led by Regnal, grandson of Ivor the Boneless (you couldn’t make this stuff up). He built a tower overlooking a strategic point on the River Suir, and the current structure stands on its foundations. Erected in 1185 with 3m (10ft) thick walls, it was extended (upwards) in the 15th century and saw action as a watch tower, military store, prison, and most importantly, a mint. Much of Irelands coinage was minted there for centuries. Minting was a strictly controlled job, with heavy penalties for messing up. One Keeper of the Irish Mint, Germyn Lynch, was sacked five times for minting underweight coins. Somehow, Edward IV always gave him his job back.
The term “Pound Sterling” was introduced into Ireland by King John in 1205. One Pound was, literally, a pound weight of silver, which was divided into 240 pennies. The 240 pennies to the pound ratio stayed with us for nearly 800 years until decimalisation in the early 70’s. Reginald’s Tower is said to be the oldest civic, urban building in Ireland and the first Irish building to use mortar in its construction. They call it mortar, but how they found that a concoction of blood, lime, fur and mud could glue bricks together will, hopefully, remain a mystery.

The Waterford Crystal factory is an ugly building by any measure, and it houses some of the least appealing works of “art” I have ever seen (take “Cinderella’s Carriage.” Please – it’s yours for 22,637.50 Euro!). I guess I just don’t like the stuff, but there is certainly no denying the craftsmanship involved. Despite it being a Sunday, and despite Munster (the region of Ireland we are in) winning the Rugby European Cup the day before, there were a handful of people manning the various posts so we could watch the process from beginning to end.

There is a five-year apprenticeship for a cutter, with a minimum of another three years before they can become a Master. Bearing in mind that there is very strict quality control at every stage (carried out by Masters), and that a single wrong cut can ruin a piece, it is no surprise that there is such a long training. The cutters are paid by the piece, working for two or three hours on a single bowl for example, so there is a big incentive to get it right. Long-serving, very experienced masters can get to work on individual pieces (trophies, for instance), spending weeks on one piece of glass.

The picture here is of me grinning like an idiot, holding next years “other” SuperBowl trophy! (It is the one presented to the home city of the winning team). The finished article is worth $30,000. Gulp.

Crystal has been made in Waterford since 1783, and they now make glass for the world, including trophies for most major sporting events and even the giant ball at One Time Square in New York!

The sculpture here was made in memory of the fire fighters and police of New York city who lost their lives on 9/11. It took three months to make and is valued at $70,000.

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