Ireland - Day 6
We took the not-so-short trip to Blarney; it felt much longer than the 75 miles it actually was. This brings two details regarding towing a trailer in Ireland to the fore.
Firstly, there aren’t a huge number of caravan sites. The Irish Caravan and Camping Council produces an excellent guide to their member sites, but it is quite a short book. There isn’t a lot of choice when you’re looking for a site. There is nothing like the UK’s two main clubs or their certified sites and locations.
Secondly, have you heard the stories about how bad the Irish roads are? They’re true. There is a new main road running from Dublin to Cork - we used a short section of it the other day on our trip to Cashel and it was the sweetest drive I have ever done. The section from Cahir to Cork is so new that not only is it not on the sat-nav, it isn’t in the 2008 road atlas and, most importantly, it is so new that it isn’t open yet. The road we had to take was fine, for the most part, but there were sections of it that wouldn’t have been out of place as a driveway to a farmyard. It was a slow journey. It is entirely possible that the roads are in that state simply because nobody knows! There’s nobody there! We drove for miles and didn’t see a soul. Irish roads are really, really quiet. Traffic-wise, that is. There’s plenty of noise from the suspension.
Still, we eventually arrived in the right number of pieces in Blarney and with enough time left in the afternoon, we thought we’d better go and have a look at the old stone to see what all the fuss was about.
It’s 10 Euros to get in. I don’t suppose it is a huge amount (about £8.20), but it immediately makes you aware that you’re going to be looking at a tourist attraction, not a piece of cultural history.
Having said that, Blarney castle itself is brilliant. There is everything you might want from a ruined castle.
There are a couple of short caves under the foundations, rooms and passages aplenty, and one of the narrowest spiral stone stairs I have ever had to climb. It seems to have been some sort of Rite-of-Passage for the local youth of recent times to leave their mark on the site. I have never seen so much graffiti outside a city centre. In a way, it adds to the charm.
The Blarney Stone itself is, of course, at the top of the castle.
It is a long, winding but rewarding climb. The view from the top would be, on a clear day, excellent. We got drizzled on. Up there were Chalk and Cheese, a couple of Irish guys who’s job it is to a) make sure you don’t kill yourself trying to kiss the stone, and b) take your picture while you’re doing it in order to screw another 10 Euros out of you for a print.
Chalk (not his real name), a tall, skinny guy who talks so fast that he is completely incomprehensible, stands ready with the camera button. Cheese (whose name has been changed to protect my ignorance) is a good head shorter and both talks and moves slowly enough to be measured on a geological time scale. His job, reassuringly, is to stop you falling. The actual act of kissing the stone isn’t a dignified affair. Lying on your back on a range of plastic mats and grubby cushions from a student flat, you have to grab the bars and lean back over the abyss while Cheese holds on to your waist. I’m sure that I would hit the ground 83 feet below before he would even notice. To be fair, they were a couple of really nice guys who have to spend all day at the top of a castle, open to the elements, rain or shine, and do the same things time after time with excited tourists. I think I’d probably end up throwing someone off, or at least letting go at the wrong moment.
The grounds of the castle are well tended and laid out with a marked trail leading through a series of delightful rock formations crassly turned into pseudo pagan glades and grottos. Very pretty, just don’t believe the blarney.
Day – 7
We took the bus to Cork. It left on time and arrived on time, possibly something to do with the amount of traffic on the road.
Cork is Ireland’s third city, and we were delighted to be among civilization. We spent several happy hours just wandering around, drinking in the sights and smells. The English Market is one of the best indoor markets I have ever seen. There is everything you might need for your shopping list, and it is a bustling, noisy arena for local produce.
We took lunch at the Café Paradiso, one of Irelands best vegetarian restaurants. Stunning. If you are a veggie, go there. If you aren’t, go there too and learn what fantastic vegetarian food is like.
On the North side of the city, in the Shandon area, is the gloriously quaint Butter Museum.
It charts the history of one of Corks greatest exports – you guessed it, butter. In fact Cork had the world’s largest market, employing strict and complex systems of grading and inspection, ensuring quality control almost unheard in other commodities of the time. The time was 1769. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when new technologies meant foreign markets could enjoy their own butter (thanks to refrigeration) that the Cork market fell into decline. It closed in 1924. The museum, as well as charting the history of the market, houses a collection of butterobilia (for want of a better word) from the ages. Bog butter, anyone?
Just along the road from the Butter Market is St. Anne’s church and its famous Shandon Steeple. This tower houses four clocks, one on each face. It used to be known as the “Four-Faced Liar” since each clock told a different time. Sadly, somebody has fixed that now. Still, for 6 euro you can climb the steps and ring the bells. Not just pull a rope or hit a hammer or anything so mundane; you can actually play a tune! I fancied having a go, but as we walked up the hill some enterprising soul was having a good go at “Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead.” I couldn’t follow that.
We finished the day with a pint of Beamish. Guinness is a dirty word here – Beamish is brewed in Cork.
Day – 8
We drove down to the coast to have a look at Kinsale. We had read (and been told) that Kinsale is the gastronomic capital of the South. It might be if you eat meat and fish, but there wasn’t much to recommend it to a couple of veggies. Since we were there, we took the opportunity to explore.
Kinsale has seen more that its fair share of events, and for such a small town, some very significant things have happened there. Desmond Castle was built around the turn of the 16th century and saw action as a Customs House, a gunpowder store (when it was occupied by the Spanish in 1601), a jail (for French and American prisoners), a workhouse, a civil defense training post and, most recently, the International Wine Museum. Who knew that Hennessy Cognac was made by an Irishman?
According to some historians, the battle in 1601 was the most important one in Irish history. In 1600, the fight against Queen Elizabeth’s attempt to re-conquer Ireland was going well – two Northern chieftains, Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell had managed to regain much of the North from the English crown. O’Neill had support from the Pope and the Spanish king who sent a fleet which landed at Kinsale in October, 1601. The Northern chieftains moved south to join forces. The Battle of Kinsale was the last great Irish offensive against English rule. The defeat of the Irish is attributed to lack of support from the southern Gaelic chieftains and poor planning between the Spanish and Irish forces. This defeat allowed the complete re-conquest of Ireland by the English crown. Catholics, incidently, were banned from the town for 100 years following the defeat.
On the 7th of May, 1915, the RMS Lusitania was on its way from New York to London when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast at Kinsale. 1,198 lives were lost, 120 of them American. There is a mass grave of victims in Kinsale, and the town museum (a 17th century courthouse) shows relics from the wreck.
2km from Kinsale is the fabulous Charles Fort.
This is one of the best preserved 17th century star-shaped forts in Europe. Originally built in 1681 to bolster coastal defences, it was in service until the British withdrew in 1921 when the Irish Free State was set up. To give you an idea of its strength, it was put under siege by Williamite forces in 1690. Where (nearly 100 years earlier) Percy had taken Cahir in two days with only two canon, it took the Williamites 13 days, including five days of continual bombardment with six 24-pounders and two mortars.
Most of the buildings within the fort are now ruins, but there is enough there, including two exhibitions, to give a good idea of what a soldiers life was like. In fact, it is a playground of ruins. I spent a happy hour just wandering and snapping.