Saturday, 28 June 2008

Sticks and Stones...

Ireland – day 25

We headed out of town today, along some very nice motorways. A sneaky little “Toll Plaza” (honest – that’s what they call it) that didn’t appear on the map charged us a princely two Euros for the privilege, but I would gladly give them everything I own (apart from the Airstream) if they would make all the roads in Ireland this good. We aimed North West, to the Boyne Valley.

This little corner of Ireland looks, at first glance, much like any other stretch of green and pleasant land, but it sits at the core of Irish culture. Finding where, exactly, wasn’t quite so easy.

Once we had left the velvet motorway and made it down to the minor roads, it was business as usual. Needless to say, there were road works in the way, and we had to negotiate diversions and the consequent absence of “brown signs.” Eventually, we made it to the Bru na Boinne visitors centre. As is typical of all the OPW (Office of Public Works) sites we have visited, we were greeted with a smile. The steward explained to us exactly how the centre operates (timed, guided visits) and what tours were available. Way back at the beginning of our Ireland trip, we bought Heritage Cards. €21 buys you unlimited, free access to all the OPW sites, and in every one we have visited since, we have been treated like royalty. It’s a bit of a faff (you have to sign a book), but the people behind the counter have been, without exception, cheery, polite and informative – they know what they are talking about, and enjoy saying it. This was reinforced a couple of days later, but I’ll come to that. We chatted to the lady behind the desk while she processed our membership details. She helpfully pointed out some more sites we might be interested in on our travels, which were on our hit list anyway.

Bru na Boinne (literally Bend in the Boyne River) visitors centre is the access point to Ireland’s greatest megalithic architecture. The only way you can get to these monuments is through the centre and taken on a minibus to have guided tours of the sites. The system is well thought out, and it works. We had a few minutes to grab a quick cuppa before heading off on the first bus trip. The journey isn’t a long one, just a few minutes, but the fact that the visitors centre is away from the sites themselves means that once you are there, there is only you and your minibus load and your guide. No tearoom, no gift shop, just what you came to look at. Which was Knowth.

Knowth, put simply, is an old grave surrounded by a bunch of other old graves. More accurately, it is a large, prehistoric passage tomb with eighteen smaller “satellite” tombs around it. There are a couple of staggering things about Knowth. Firstly, there was the discovery of a huge number of decorated stones during excavation in the 1960’s. Bru na Boinne possesses over 600 decorated stones, which makes up nearly 90% of all the megalithic art from Ireland’s tombs, and over half of the megalithic art in the whole of Europe. Knowth alone supplies half of this number. The second important thing is its age. Knowth was built around 5000 years ago. That’s nearly 500 years before the Great Pyramids in Egypt and nearly a thousand years before England’s Stonehenge. It is estimated that the main tomb, about an acre in size, took upwards of 15 years to build.

This must show that back then there was a large, stable community, well organized and capable of long term planning, with a system of agriculture efficient enough to provide food for the large labour force involved in the building of the tombs. It is interesting that they have left almost no trace of how they lived – their homes were wooden huts - but they must have held their ancestors in such high regard that their monuments to the dead are still here, 5000 years later.

There are two passages at Knowth, facing East and West. The chambers at the ends of the passages are illuminated at dawn (East) and sunset (West) on the spring and summer equinoxes. Sadly, there is no public access to these chambers, but their existence is further proof of the builders’ knowledge and understanding of the calendar and the movement of the sun.

A couple of short bus rides later, we were outside Newgrange.

Older (by a couple of hundred years), and more spectacular than Knowth, Newgrange is a testament to the ancient architects who built it and the archaeologists who restored it. Although it was first written about in the late 17th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that archaeologists first had a rummage around. The mound had slipped and expanded under its own weight, concealing nearly all of the kerb stones and the white granite of the façade. It’s worth pointing out that these aren’t the sort of kerb stones that you get at the edge of the pavement. These are in the region of ten to twelve feet long, about four feet high and Newgrange has 97 of them (Knowth has 127). Many (particularly the one at the entrance) are decorated.

The real thrill of Newgrange, though, is the passage and tomb – you can go inside! The passage is low and narrow, but the 60’ long corridor is soon forgotten when you get to the chamber at the heart of the mound. Sadly (you will recognize a pattern here), cameras are not allowed, so you’ll have to believe me when I tell you it was breathtaking. Not beautifully painted or carved, just simple stones, untouched for millennia. The chamber is about 6 metres high with three small smaller recesses – one on each side and one ahead. Each of the recesses has a large stone basin.

When the tomb was built, the corridor and central chamber were constructed first, then the mound was built up around it using layers of turf, boulder clay and stone. Apart from a handful of stones along the length of the corridor, the passage and chamber were still intact when excavations unearthed them. In 5200 years, the roof of the chamber had never leaked.

The treat of the tour is when the guide turns the lights off. The tomb is aligned to the rising sun on the winter solstice (making it the world’s oldest solar observatory). For 17 minutes, just after dawn, on five mornings of the year (weather permitting), the chamber is lit by the sun, and using a fairly unimpressive light bulb, the effect is reproduced for the visitor all year round. There is, actually, a lottery for a place on one of the five days (clear sky not guaranteed). It’s a free draw – all you have to do is put your name and address in a box. Last year there were 28,000 applicants for 50 places.

The whole Bru na Boinne experience is a pleasure. We went on a Sunday afternoon – not the quietest time - but we didn’t feel rushed or crushed. If only the UK government would do something similar with Stonehenge – the current set-up is a joke. At Stonehenge, you have to walk under a road (the underpass also counts as the information centre) and can’t get any closer than about 30’ to the stones. And it costs you £6.50. For about eight quid, at Bru na Boinne you get up close and personal with two monuments, guided tours and a well laid out exhibition detailing the history of the area. And if you’ve got an OPW card, it’s all free.

Just a stone’s throw away lies Dowth. At least it would, if the road works hadn’t directed us the other way around the globe. Once we got there, we could see clearly what Newgrange and Knowth looked like before conservation and restoration happened - a grassy lump.

I was keen to see the field where the Battle of the Boyne took place. Fought on July 1st, 1690, it saw the defeat of the Catholic James II by the protestant William of Orange and was one of the most important events on Irish soil, securing British Protestant rule over Ireland for the following 231 years. The actual site is now in the grounds of some fancy house or other, but it was closed by the time we got there. There was, however, a handy “brown sign” pointing to the “Battle of the Boyne viewing point.” In the hope of seeing some sort of re-enactment, or at least a bird’s eye view of the field, we headed off in the direction the sign indicated, only to find ourselves on a lonely road over the hill in the next valley. Pesky brown signs. We never found the battlefield.

Further up the valley is the Hill of Tara – the almost mythical heart of ancient Ireland.

Tara was the political and spiritual centre of Celtic Ireland and the seat of the High Kings until the 11th century. The site is open (though there is an “interpretive centre” nearby) and although the remains are no more than a few lumps in the ground, it is clear to see why the old kings chose to build their throne room here – you can see forever.

Ireland – day 26

Time is moving on and so must we. It was a shortish drive back across country today. The campsite on the shore of Lough Ree can be best described as “basic,” but it’s amazing what you can do in the right light.

We would have headed out that afternoon to check out some local highlights, but the toilet broke (nice) and it took a while to get to the bottom of the problem. As it were.

Ireland – day 27

It took the morning for us to realize that UK representative for Dometic (the toilet manufacturer) wasn’t going to be able to get the right part to us, so Anthony at Airstream Europe took the matter in hand and arranged to send a replacement. Nice one.

That afternoon, we headed out into the wind and rain to look at some old wood. The Corlea Trackway was unearthed in 1984 during a routine peat harvesting operation by Bord na Mona, Ireland’s peat processing company. The great thing about peat bogs is that they are wet. All the time. You’re going to tell me that you knew that, but the important thing about being wet all the time is that the water soon runs out of oxygen, meaning the natural decay process is arrested. The perfectly preserved “Bog Bodies” (and the Bog Butter!) in the National Museum, Dublin, are a great example. The Corlea Trackway was an unusual find because of its size and sturdiness. Most bog trackways tended to be simple wooden planks laid down on the bog, or perhaps made of willow hurdles (woven “fences”) laid flat. Corlea Trackway was made of split oak planks up to 4m long. The whole track ran for about a kilometre, meaning hundreds of trees had to be felled and split (there were no saws), a long and laborious task. The builders were clearly skilled and well organized to manage such a large undertaking – all the trees were felled in the same year.

Here we go: Science bit. If you’re worried, just skip this paragraph… Dendrochronology is, quite simply, the science of dating wood. If you imagine looking at a cross section of a tree and examine the growth rings, you will see that the rings are not of the same thickness. Trees grow well in warm, wet, sunny years (wide ring) and grow slowly in cool, dry, cloudy years (thin rings). This pattern will be repeated in all the trees in the region, not just ones of the same species. A sequence of warm or dry or wet or cool years will produce a pattern of growth rings, which will also be reproduced in neighbouring trees. With me so far? OK. Imagine your tree again. Let’s say your tree is 100 years old and you can see three growth patterns A, B and C. A is the youngest (nearer the bark) and C is the oldest (nearest the heart). You know the tree is 100 years old because you can see 100 growth rings (one per year) and you only cut it down yesterday. Now you examine an older tree that was cut down a few years ago. It has the same growth patterns B and C as your tree, but also has an even older pattern, D. Matching up your patterns, you can tell when the old tree was cut down. This can be repeated. Using older trees and matching growth patterns for as long as you can find well preserved pieces of wood, and the scientists have been able to trace an unbroken sequence all the way back to 5289 BC. Not bad for a bit of wood. The great thing about this technique is its accuracy. Carbon dating of really old things is only accurate to within a couple of hundred years or so, but applying Dendrochronology to any preserved wood (quite a rare thing) is spot on.

OK, you can come back now. The Corlea Trackway was built in exactly 148 BC (at least that’s when all the trees were cut down) and was an important thing. It is unknown what it was built for, and it is unknown where exactly it went, but what is known is that it didn’t last long – it sank into the bog within ten years. Over 2000 years later, it was found under a metre or so of peat.

Modern peat extraction is rather like open-cast coal mining. Large machines scoop out huge swathes of peat while moving slowly along the peat field. Some goes into making compost, but the vast majority gets carried off into peat-burning power stations; about a million tonnes per year! A few days later we would visit a place where a huge and significant archaeological find had been discovered, hidden under a peat bog. This place was five thousand years old and was covered in only one and a half metres of peat (that’s 0.3 millimetres per year!). Apparently, Born na Mona has a conservation plan and sees peat as a “renewable resource.” Given the remarkable preservative qualities of peat (perfectly preserved bodies, for instance), the number and quality of archaeological finds made in peat, and the length of time needed for peat bog to grow, it seems a bit short sighted for somebody to dig it up wholesale.

Rant over. The Corlea Trackway was excavated in 1984, and 18 metres of it were carefully and lovingly removed from the site and spent a year or two being freeze-dried and preserved. Meanwhile, the visitors’ centre was built on the same spot, so that Trackway could be returned to exactly where it was found. Another 80 metres of the Trackway were re-covered with peat and around 4 hectares of bog was bought by the OPW and measures taken to conserve it. Bord na Mona had meanwhile dug up the rest of the track.

When we visited, we were the only people there. The guide gave us a private viewing of the little film about the construction, discovery and preservation of the Trackway, and then gave us a private tour of the track and the bog (including some exotic fauna he is experimenting with).

Brilliant. He was informed and enthusiastic about the Trackway, and clearly loved what he was doing, even in the rain.

As I mentioned earlier, we are OPW pass holders, but even without a pass, the whole Corlea Trackway exhibition is free. A fascinating exhibition, a well made film, and a guided tour of a 2000 year old relic for nothing.

The OPW rocks.

Ireland - Day 28

Another travel day. We moved on to Galway. Back by the sea...

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Dublin or quits

Ireland – Day 23

We had an early start to the day in order to catch the tourist bus into the centre of Dublin. At €2 each it’s a snip, considering that it is a good 45 minute bus ride from the Camac Valley Caravan Park into town. The journey takes you through the sprawling, leafy suburbs of Dublin. And leafy they are – Dublin boasts Europe’s largest urban green space; at over 700 Hectares, Phoenix Park is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park.

The bus dropped us off at the top of O’Connell Street. Once a grand, residential parade, the Easter Uprising and the Irish Civil War managed to destroy quite a lot of it. Still, it makes an impressive (if a little seedy) entrance to the city, with a central pavement along the length of the road making the whole thing vaguely Parisian.

A recent addition to the street is the Monument to Light, a stunning, 120 metre tall, stainless steel needle pointing up to the sky. It is Europe’s (and possibly the world’s) tallest sculpture. It stands on the spot once occupied by a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson, which disappeared in an explosion in 1966.

Heading straight across the river, you get to Grafton Street, the backbone of the shopping district. What better place to stop and enjoy Second Breakfast than in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe (over to Tracey)….

Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street is known for its breakfasts, which it serves until the civilised hour of noon. Second breakfast being one of our favourite meals, we were happy to partake after the entertaining tour bus journey. Pete needed to warm up because he had insisted upon sitting in the uncovered area of the top deck and I needed to rest my eardrums after sitting beneath the speaker which had bombarded me loudly with a compilation of folky Irishness.

The interior of Bewley’s is divided into different seating areas, possibly depending on what type of refreshment you wish to indulge in. We announced our need for the best meal of the day and were escorted through a light and airy section into a rather dark room at the rear. Perhaps the lights are low here so that the beautiful stained glass windows can be appreciated. Harry Clarke was the artist responsible for the windows, a major player in the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland. The detail and colours are stunning: exotic birds in firey oranges and pinks, and the most vibrant lapiz blue-coloured climbing flowers.

Bewley’s roast their coffee several times a day on the premises. If only more so-called coffee shops could be so bothered. If tea is more your thing, I’m sure you will be equally spoilt. Apparently they were Ireland’s first company to import the stuff, so they will definitely know how to serve it. I’m only guessing here, but beverages are a major preoccupation of mine, it probably wouldn’t involve a teabag in a cup.

On the other hand, they lose points with us because the vegetarian version of their full Irish breakfast was simply the normal breakfast but leaving off the bacon, sausage and pudding ( like a black pudding I suppose ). A bit of imagination could be applied there to replace those things, or even come up with a unique veggie cooked breakfast that is so delicious the non-veggies will want it too. Having said that, we recovered from the let down and it was as tasty as any plate of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, potato farls and toast really. We just hoped that a place with a reputation for its breakfast would be leading the way.

Our waitress was so surly it was almost funny. Almost. Her face didn’t move, nor did she make eye contact with anyone or thing except her notepad. Questions were answered in a monotone. But there were chandeliers, so never mind.

Nourished with eggy goodness we were ready to hit the streets of Dublin. 


Dublin has a huge amount to offer any visitor, and there was no way we would even scratch the surface in the two days we had. Still, there were a few things that scored high on my “hit-list” so we made a beeline for the first. It turned out that we weren’t alone in wanting to see “The Book of Kells.” There was a huge queue of American students and old folks outside the wing of Trinity College where it is housed. Don’t these people know what the exchange rate is? Still, we waited in line and were eventually rewarded with a small but rather good exhibition of how the Book of Kells and others of its era were made and why. The book itself is in four parts – the four gospels - and two of these, along with two other contemporary books, are on display at the end of the exhibition in a small case, in a small, dark room. Considering that the book is around 1,200 years old, and considering that the monastery where it was kept was sacked by the Vikings three times and considering that the book itself was stolen and not found until a month later, without its covers and under a pile of mud, it is in an incredibly good condition. The colours are still bright and intense. Sadly (and this is a recurring theme for Dublin) no photographs were allowed. Not that it would have been possible to get close enough to take a picture. For some unfathomable reason, they have chosen to place all four books in the same cabinet, so rather than the viewers being able to spread out and enjoy each book individually, everybody is crammed around the one case, craning their necks to get a good view, and then being pushed out of the way by the next gang of tourists. All-in-all, not a great way to see what is, essentially, a giant medieval doodle.

Still, once you leave the darkened room and head upstairs, you are greeted by the staggering “Long Room” (no photographs allowed). This is much better. 65 metres long and holding miles of books, over 200,000 of them, all old and with that particular fragrance that you only get in antique bookshops. The room is lined with marble busts of the great and good of literature, philosophy, science and Ireland in general. There is also Ireland’s oldest surviving harp. Trinity College, despite Ireland’s independence, is still entitled to a free copy of every book published in the UK. This means adding about a kilometre of shelves to the stacks every year. Happily, the new stuff goes elsewhere, leaving the Long Room alone with its antiquarian texts and the smell of old paper and tourists’ cheap perfume.

We split up. Tracey sampled the delights of Grafton Street, while I headed off to look at some art. The National Gallery houses a cracking collection of works by Irish artists, most of whom I had never heard of, along with all the usual suspects; (in no particular order) Vermeer, Titian, Monet, Gainsborough, Picasso, Rembrandt etc, but the highlight for me was “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio. Painted in 1602 with almost photographic detail, it is truly breathtaking. Did I mention that there were no cameras allowed? The new Millennium Wing houses modern Irish art (I would have liked to have seen more), but it is built in such a way that the doors blend into the smooth concrete walls, so it took me ages to find a way in. Once I did, I had the exhibition to myself (presumably because nobody else could get in).

We took a late lunch in Powerscourt Townhouse. It was built in 1774 as a grand mansion for Viscount Powerscourt and went through a period in the 19th century when it was used as a drapery warehouse. It was restored in the 1960’s as a very pleasant little shopping centre. The central courtyard has been covered with a glass dome and now houses an open and inviting restaurant while the rest of the building contains more cafes, jewellery shops, galleries, and antique shops. Quite charming.

We spent the rest of the afternoon perusing the shops, something we haven’t seen much of lately, and taking in the sights. One of the obvious landmarks in the city is the River Liffey. And crossing it (along with many others) is the Ha’penny Bridge. Built in 1816 by a Shropshire ironworker, John Windsor, it was originally called the Wellington Bridge. It is now “officially” called the Liffey Bridge, but it also answers to the name “Metal Bridge”. It got the name that everybody knows it by, from the half penny toll that was levied for a crossing until 1919.

After a while, it became obvious that we needed refreshment. This could only involve Guinness. Opposite the Powerscourt Townhouse is the fabulously bohemian Grogan’s Castle Lounge. It was packed with locals, and after overcoming a slight language barrier (the barmaid couldn’t understand why I was asking for a “half”), we soaked up the atmosphere along with the Guinness and just enjoyed ourselves. Sadly, there were no seats to be had, so we moved on to the Porterhouse Bar, close to the river. This is a three-floored brew-pub with a young clientele working up to a Friday night out. The good news was that there was a bitter on offer. Porterhouse TSB is a simple, straightforward bitter beer, but it was an absolute treat to taste those hops after a month without a single sniff. Finding good beer in Ireland has been like finding a cheap caravan park. There must be some out there, because there are plenty of breweries, but we haven’t found a single draught ale or even a decent bottled one until now. TSB ticked all the boxes.

Ireland – day 24

Another early start in order to catch the tour bus into town. After a quick coffee and croissant at Butlers Chocolate Café (every coffee comes with a free hand-made chocolate!), we split up again to do some quick shopping. Those who know me will understand how excited I was to be invited into the Games Workshop store next door to the café, to peruse the new edition of the Warhammer 40K rulebook. Those that don’t know me will just think I’m bonkers. Either way, it was a good start to the day. After meeting up again, we headed South across the river on a mission to find the Gallery of Photography and stumbled on the wonderful Temple Bar Food Market. If you are ever in Dublin on a Saturday, hunt this place down. It is one of the best little food markets I have ever visited. There were only about twelve to fifteen stalls, but they were packed with fresh produce and cooked foods of all descriptions. Oriental, Caribbean and Indian meals, crepes, pies and even an oyster stall, all looking and smelling amazing. The fresh vegetables, fish and meats were all local and mostly organic. Wonderful.

We split up again and I took a stroll to take in some sights. Despite being a sprawling conurbation, the centre of Dublin is easy to walk around, and if you don’t mind covering a few miles, there is plenty to see without coughing up the €15 for a hop-on-hop-off tour bus.

Christ Church Cathedral is one of Dublin’s two Protestant cathedrals. Built in the late 12th century by the Anglo-Normans on the site of the earlier Viking church, Christ Church spent much of its career vying for supremacy with its near neighbour, St. Patrick’s. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when Catholicism was in the ascendance in Ireland, the church fell upon hard times; its nave was used as a market and its crypt as a tavern. It was rebuilt in the 1870’s and the crypt was restored only a few years ago. Since 1999, Christ Church has had a world record 19 bells tucked away in its bell tower.

Just down the road is its rival, St’ Patrick’s Cathedral. St. Patrick’s is Ireland’s largest church and is said to be on the site of a sacred well where St Patrick baptized people around 450AD. All that is left of the well is a rather sad, empty flower bed marked by a small plaque. This cathedral too suffered down the centuries – Oliver Cromwell stabled his armies’ horses there in 1649 - but was also restored in the late 19th century. Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s travels fame) was Dean here in the early 18th century, and a large monument inside was erected by Richard Boyle, earl of Cork, whose son, Robert, went on to invent the Boyle’s Law of every childhood physics lesson.

We rendezvoused outside the National Museum to have a look at one of Europe’s largest collections of Bronze Age gold and other ancient wotnots (no photography allowed). Some of the working on the gold is simply exquisite, even more so considering that it is nearly four thousand years old. The museum also houses a collection of four “Bog Bodies,” blokes who were unlucky enough to be murdered (often brutally and in more than one way – a CSI delight) and then dumped in a peat bog. The absence of oxygen in the peat soil prevents decay, and the perfectly preserved (if a little brown and missing a few bits where the peat cutters chopped them up) remains are on display. It is possible to see chin bristles and even fingerprints. Did I mention that photography isn’t permitted?
Ever since the Cork Butter Museum, I have been hankering for a look at some Bog Butter, and I was delighted to see a big bucket full. It looked more like a massive lump of chalk. I don’t think it’d spread very well, not even on hot toast.

We couldn’t be tourists in Ireland without being attracted to Ireland’s number one tourist attraction. A short bus ride from the town centre, the Guinness Storehouse is a fairly new development of part of the St James Gate brewery. After being herded in like, well, a herd, punters are left to make their own way around the space. And there’s a lot of it. The building covers nearly four acres and is seven stories high. We were coaxed through various displays, showing the history of Guinness and the different aspects of brewing and its ingredients. Hats off to Arthur Guinness. Here was a man who, in 1759 at the age of 34, signed a NINE THOUSAND year lease at a cost of forty five quid a year. Genius. There is a copy of the lease on display in the floor. The factory is now the largest brewery in Europe (65 acres) and exports beer to 120 countries. Interestingly, Ireland has just slipped to 3rd place in the league table of Guinness consumption behind the UK and (curiously) Nigeria.

The best bit of the tour, of course, is the free pint at the end. This is served in the 7th floor “Gravity Bar,” a glass walled rooftop gallery with a 300 degree (they had to put the lifts somewhere) panoramic view of the whole of Dublin, including a close-up of St. Patrick’s Tower, Europe’s largest remaining smock windmill (without the sails). If the bar hadn’t been completely packed it would have been perfect.

There is a little note in one of the guidebooks, which suggests that John Mulligan’s, a small bar not far from Trinity College, might play host to the best Guinness in Ireland. Since the Guinness Brewery had just made a similar claim about the beer in the Gravity Bar, we knew that we had only one option and that these claims must be adjudicated. Mulligan’s is a dark, grubby little drinking hole. The perfect spot. I needed to try two pints there, just to be sure, and in the end I had to give the points to Mulligan’s. Perhaps Guinness doesn’t travel vertically very well. In order to complete the experiment, we needed to try a third drinking establishment, just to compare and contrast, you understand. After a pint in the wonderfully Victorian Long Bar, I didn’t really care who did it best so we headed home, only to be thwarted by the bus timetable, meaning we had an hour to kill. I couldn’t tell you the name of the pub we passed the time in…


Thursday, 12 June 2008

Dude, where's my recumbent stone circle?

Ireland – days 10-13

Apologies for the wait. We’ve had internet access for the whole time we’ve been here, but for the past week it has been so slow that only emailing was possible. Rather than posting a blog, it would have been quicker to hand-write postcards to every reader. Here’s a (not so) quick catch-up of the last two weeks.

Skibbereen (just Skib to the locals) isn’t a pretty town. Like many of the towns around here, there is a lot of building work going on, and the whole town is covered with a patina of grey dust. In the past, Skibbereen has been dealt more than a fair share of suffering. During the Great Famine of the 1840’s, the people around Skib were particularly badly hit. In the graveyard of a local church there are between eight and ten thousand unidentified souls. According to the 1841 census, the population of Ireland was 8.5 million. By 1850, around a million people had died of disease and starvation and a further million had emigrated. There are now more people of Irish descent living outside Ireland than there are in Ireland itself. There is a small exhibition at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre on the outskirts of the town, charting the effects of the famine on the area. It is careful to avoid the details of the cause of the famine, but simply shows how the area was affected through contemporary reports and accounts. Very moving.

If that wasn’t enough for the people of Skibbereen to contend with, Europe’s first Temperance Society was founded here. Happily, the old Temperance Hall is now a fire station, and there are 26 pubs to choose from.

A few miles East of Skib is one of Ireland’s best known stone circles. Drombeg is a (probably) late Bronze Age circle, but dating estimates vary from 870BC to 720AD. Whenever it was built, it remains a striking, well preserved circle. When we visited, there were three young women sitting in the middle of the circle, happily beating away on their drums. Apparently it has something to do with exchanging energies between the drums and the stones. I’m not a believer in that sort of stuff, but it was great to see the stones being used.

We had a quiet couple of days in Skib. It was a bank-holiday weekend, and everywhere was heaving. We did venture out to Lough Hyne; Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve. By a strange quirk of nature, the lake (no more than a couple of hundred metres across) is almost cut off from the sea, except for a narrow tidal channel - the tide comes in for four hours a day, and goes out for eight and a half. The unique habitat is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in Ireland (including a sea slug which is only found here and off Portugal).

Further West is the small fishing town of Baltimore. It could have been a pretty place to stop, but there were road and building works everywhere. Just beyond the town is a modern megalith, “the Beacon”, built as a guide for shipping. I saw two jackdaws and a seagull, but no ravens.

Ireland – day 14

We spent a fruitless morning searching for stone circles. There are 234 stone circles in Ireland, and the counties of Cork and its neighbour Kerry share a hundred of those. With such a high concentration of circles, you’d think you’d be falling over them every time you step outside. Even armed with two guidebooks we had no luck. It didn’t help that all the roads have been re-numbered since the guides were written. The Ordnance Survey of Ireland publish a series of 1:50000 maps, but they’re about eight quid each, and we’d have needed seven or eight to cover the region. They also have the habit of labeling everything, whatever its shape, as a Standing Stone. Not a lot of help, really.

So, after a wasted few hours we drove West towards Mizzen Head. Mizzen Head is the most South Westerly point in Ireland, so the guidebooks say, but since there are other places further South and further West, I’m not sure how they work that out. Still, it was an excellent drive passing through a handful of charming little towns, including Schull (pronounced “Skull”) where we stopped and watched a family of swans, for half an hour or so, while the young ones paddled around in the shallows of the harbour, watched over by the proud parents.

A little further along the coast is the little port of Crookhaven. The place oozes wealth, and there was even a helicopter parked on somebody’s front lawn. They also have a fantastic view South to the Fastnet Lighthouse.

Sadly, we had spent so long watching swans and not finding stone circles that the Mizzen Head Experience had closed by the time we got there. It’s worth noting that most visitor attractions we have, er, visited have been open until 6 o’clock. Very civilized. The Mizzen Head experience, however, closed at 5:30, so we missed it.

Ireland – day 15

We skipped Skibbereen and headed North along (need I say) terrible roads to Bantry.

Bantry is a very pretty, well tended town with not a single building project in sight. The poverty and mass emigration of the 19th century has been replaced by unexpected prosperity brought about by oil, and the town is looking very smart. Bantry nearly had a big place in the history books in the late 18th century when Theobald Woolfe Tone, a hero of the United Irishmen’s Rebellion, tried to land with a fleet of 43 French ships and 14,000 of Napoleon's soldiers. A bad storm, which lasted several days prevented the landing, and Woolfe Tone was forced to return to France with a severely depleted fleet. Had he landed, the course of Irish history could have been very different.

The Eagle Point campsite just North of Bantry is beautifully positioned, taking up the whole of a small peninsula but, goodness me is it expensive. €30 for a night! That’s twenty four quid. Nearly fifty bucks!
Ireland is expensive. Even accounting for the relative strength of the Euro against the Pound, it is expensive. Campsites are expensive, and since there isn’t the same network of CL’s and CS’s that the UK enjoys, the competition is low and prices high. It’s probably a good job that we can’t stay long. Still, it was a nice view.

Ireland – day 16

We eventually managed to find a stone circle from the instructions in the guidebooks! (and it was signposted). Kealkil turned out to be a little cracker, but only made up of five stones (does that make a circle?) in a 7’ long ellipse. All of the one hundred Cork/Kerry circles have an odd number of stones, and nearly all of them are arranged in a definite astronomical orientation. In nearly all cases there are a pair of Entrance Stones opposite an Alignment Stone. This alignment points at a particular astronomical event, such as Midwinter sunrise, Midsummer Sunset, etc. Kealkil’s orientation is uncertain, but Drombeg (above) points towards the Winter Solstice sunset. Kealkil does, however, have a pair of outlying stones and a small radial cairn, all within a few feet of each other and all on the side of a hill with a view for miles. Terrific.

Happy with finding at least one circle, we set off around the Beara Peninsula, one of Cork & Kerry’s many sticky-out-bits. Along the way, what should we find but a signpost to a pair of Neolithic sites! Seizing the opportunity, we followed the signs to the first one – Ballynahowen Wedge Grave, a tiny little three stone dolmen nearly hidden in the knee-high grass of a meadow. Not a significant find, but a beautiful place to have been buried three thousand years ago.

Sadly, the signs to the second site disappeared. Which is unusual for signs around here. They seem to breed. In the UK, for instance, you see a brown sign and you instantly know that it points to somewhere of historical significance, usually looked after by English Heritage or the National Trust or some body like that. In Ireland, the “Brown Sign” seems to be a free-for-all, advertising anything from a local B&B or hotel, garden centre, osteopath or even a brake-and-clutch shop. Occasionally, we would find one pointing to something old, but there were usually so many other brown signs that there just wasn’t enough time to read them all before we’d driven past.

Towards the end of the peninsula is another (brown signposted!) wedge tomb. Killough West dolmen sat under a telegraph post, sharing a field with gently ruminating beef cattle.

At the Western tip of the Beara Peninsula stands Dursey Island. Dursey Island is about four miles long, one mile wide, is home to ten people and can be reached by Ireland’s only cable-car. The frankly terrifying journey takes fifteen minutes, and livestock take precedence over visitors. Be warned!

We carried on around the peninsula and stopped to enjoy the view and a cup of tea at Margaret’s Café, a little trailer parked by the roadside. She is here from dawn ‘til dusk throughout the season, and has to suffer this view all day long.

She says she never tires of it. I believe her. The road is studded with pretty little villages, painted in all the usual colours and beautiful views of Kerry to the North. We even managed to find (there was a solitary Brown Sign) another circle! Nature is trying to overgrow Ardgroom stone circle, but the stones are standing tall in a stunning landscape. Whatever the ancients built these monuments for, they always enjoyed the view. Ardgroom, by the way, points due South.

Ireland – day 17

Having run out of kidneys to sell in order to fund the Eagle Point caravan park owners’ retirement fund, we set off North for Killarney. There isn’t an easy, short route between Bantry and Killarney, so we just held our breaths and took the narrow, twisting road over Caha Pass.

It felt like the bit at the end of “The Italian Job.” Still, the views were fantastic. Strangely, as soon as we reached the summit and passed into Kerry, the roads got much better. Wider and smoother. Until we hit a bit they were still working on and it felt like we’d hit a dirt track. I had to wash the trailer the next day. We arrived in Killarney on the same day as a Harley Davidson convention. The town was packed with bikers and tourists - a great combination. The bikers were slowly but happily taking turns to ride around the town, while the tourists took turns to step out in front of them.

Ireland – day 19

Killarney itself seems to be a large collection of hotels glued together with gift-shops and pubs. Only Dublin has more accommodation to offer. Not a very pretty town, but it sits on the outskirts of the Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first and a very nice one it is too. There are three lakes sitting in a fantastic limestone landscape, the Torc Waterfall and a whole mountain range.

We took a little tour around the Park and further West, beyond the fabulously named Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range. I’m sure that in Lancashire the name would translate as “Mr. Cuddy’s underpants,” but apparently it means “the pointy hill belonging to the Mac Gilla Muchudas clan”. However it translates, it is a magnificent example of a glacial playground. Pointed summits and sharp ridges plunge to wide, scoop shaped valleys. It looked so inviting that I was tempted to climb it. Would the weather hold?

Ireland – day 20

Whadyaknow, the sun came out. In fact, it was a beautiful day; clear skies with a gentle cooling breeze. Almost perfect hill-walking weather. Reeks! I was going to have to get out there and walk. Most of it would be upwards. The highest mountain in Ireland at 1039 metres (3,408 ft), Carrantuohill sits in the middle of “the Reeks.” Unless you have time (and energy) to tackle the whole range, there is really only one way up; a four kilometre walk along a valley floor followed by a grueling scramble, climbing 300 metres upwards in as many forwards. After that comes another 400 metre climb, trudging up a seemingly endless slope. If I’d known all this before I set off, I might have stayed at home and sat in the sun with a cold beer. But in my ignorance, I set off. Three hours later, I staggered to the summit. If I’d had any breath left in me, the view would have seen it off. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and a subtle haze didn’t stop me seeing forever. No sooner had I got my breath back, when a young, shirtless man came gasping up. “Great,” I thought. “Here’s somebody who’s less fit than me!” “Excellent,” said the fellow. “A new personal best; only an hour and a half.” The lunatic had run up. With his dog.

It turned out he was a hardened veteran, this being his 40th ascent, and while we shared some rations, he pointed out all the highlights of the scenery. It was a smashing 20 minutes, and then he was gone.

I stayed on the summit for another ten minutes and took a few photos, and during that time I had the entire mountain range to myself. It was glorious. If you sat on the top of any of the major peaks in the Lake District, you’d

a) meet three coachloads of tourists with copies of Wainwright in their pockets,
b) see an entire RAF squadron fly past beneath you,
c) drown (have I mentioned that it rains in Cumbria?), or most likely
d) all three.

I’m pleased to say that I made it down in the same time that he took to get up. On another note, and as an example of the mobile network coverage here, if I had bothered to carry my laptop to the top of the mountain, I could have posted an entry from there!

Ireland – day 21

Today, everything, from my eyebrows down, hurts.

We moved on today. Not a long journey, just a quick hop to break up the crossing to Dublin. We stopped off just West of Limerick. Luckily, there was another stone circle to look at, and luckily, there were plenty of brown signs pointing towards it. It turned out to be Ireland’s largest circle.

Grange has 113 stones in a circle of over 150’ radius. They are surrounded by a bank of earth about two feet higher than the area between the stones, which currently plays home to a small band of dairy calves. They seemed very at home there and didn’t stir during our visit.

Just over the fence in the next field, lies another, much smaller circle. This, too, is home to some cows, but these ones were much more interested in me than their little cousins were.

As soon as I entered the circle, they started to converge on me and within a couple of minutes I was surrounded by curious cows. They weren’t aggressive, just nosey. I left them to their stones (more accurately, they escorted me off the premises).

The whole area is littered with history, and there is a visitors centre at the head of Lough Gur, the local lake. Sadly, it seems to be one of the few places that closes at 5:30 rather than 6, so we missed it. Apparently it shows some relics of man's presence here, dating back five thousand years. We’ll have to come back some day.

Ireland – day 22

Moving on again, completing the cross-country trip to Dublin. We arrived by mid-afternoon, and I seem to have spent the rest of the day writing this. I've also uploaded some more photos to the website. Have a look.

Sorry it’s so long, and congratulations to anybody who actually made it this far without nodding off. I promise I’ll try not to leave it so long next time…