Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ireland Tour, June 2016

Last week we returned from a 10-day package tour of Ireland with Belfast-born folk singer Seamus Kennedy. Remarkably, through our entire trip the weather stayed partly cloudy to sunny, in the 60s during the day and sometimes the low 70s, with no measurable rainfall. I gather this hardly ever happens.

At Blarney Castle, being terrified of heights, I didn't climb the tower to the famous stone. However, the grounds offer plenty of other attractions, such as the lower part of the ruined castle, a cave from which escape tunnels once extended, and outdoor features such as the Poison Garden, showcasing toxic plants. One of my favorite sites was the National Irish Heritage Park, a display of re-created houses, stone circles, etc. from the Mesolithic period to the Viking era. Another fascinating re-creation is the Dunbrody Famine Ship at the Irish Emigration Experience museum. We also saw an exhibition on the Titanic.

We visited Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow, originally a 13th-century castle, but extensively renovated in the 18th and 19th centuries. The present-day grounds display features typical of the latter period such as an artificial lake, classical statuary, several gardens, and a stone tower called the Pepperpot Tower. The Japanese garden at Powerscourt includes a stone grotto, artificial, of course, but so festooned with moss, ferns, and vines that it looks "real." It's like a cool, green cave—delightfully Gothic. I decided I wanted one, except that there wouldn't be room in our back yard. Here's a picture:

Japanese Garden at Powerscourt

We also saw Avondale, the estate of renowned Irish statesman Charles Parnell, and the Michael Collins Center, devoted to the hero of the war of independence, who was killed during the subsequent civil war in 1922.

The main focus of the tour, however, was the 1916 Easter Rising. We started our trip in Dublin and toured the GPO (General Post Office, used as the headquarters of the rising), Kilmainham Gaol (where rebel leaders were imprisoned and executed), and Glasnevin Cemetery, where many Irish patriots are buried. I used to wonder why the organizers of the Rising chose the post office for their headquarters, but when we saw the building, the reason became obvious, quite apart from its status as the communications center of Dublin. It's built like a fortress! The walls are so thick that even when the interior was devastated by bombardment of the roof, the walls stood intact. Kilmainham Gaol is a grim, soul-stirring experience. The oldest part of the structure really is like a dungeon, with bare stone cells about the size of walk-in closets designed for one man but often holding four or more.

The executions of the rebel leaders backfired on the English authorities; while many Dubliners were neutral or opposed to the rebellion while it was going on, the harsh retribution turned public opinion against the English and made martyrs of the leaders of the Rising. If they had simply been imprisoned for a few years, the Rising might have gone down in history as one more failed rebellion. Instead, it became a catalyst for the war of independence that led to the partitioning of the country. James Connolly, wounded in the fighting, was already dying and had to be strapped to a chair to face the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, a young poet who rallied to the cause despite suffering from pneumonia at the time, was allowed to marry his fiancee, Grace Gifford, in the prison chapel a few hours before his execution. They were later permitted ten minutes together in his cell, with a guard in the doorway holding a stopwatch.

Here's a recording of Seamus Kennedy singing about this event. Unfortunately, no videos from the tour have been uploaded on YouTube yet, so this clip comes from one of his albums:


Interesting fact for spec-fic readers about Joseph Plunkett: He was related to the classic early 20th-century fantasy author Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany).

Other fun facts:

Because of the Gulf Stream, parts of Ireland support palm trees.

During most of our stay, the national soup of the day was vegetable. Seriously—on each of our four trips to the British Isles, we found that the soup of the day tended to be the same in almost all restaurants. Previously, tomato basil was prevalent. A note about Irish vegetable soup—always pureed, where I'd expected broth with hearty chunks of potatoes and other fresh veggies. Still good, though. We had excellent meals everywhere, including the pub lunches.

As in England, in Ireland traffic drives on the left. Busy city streets often have helpful warnings painted on the pavement to tell you which way to look before stepping off the curb.

Hotel beds don't have top sheets, blankets, and bedspreads. Every bed was covered with an all-in-one comforter. Okay, that must make changing the bed and washing the linens easier. But I detest that arrangement, because the sleeper has no control over the level of warmth. If the room is chilly, one has to choose between shivering and roasting.

Otherwise, all the hotels were very nice, although we were taken aback to discover one of them had no elevator.

In summer it stays light until after 10 p.m., a surreal experience for us visitors from lower latitudes. It's hard to remember to get enough sleep when bedtime looks like early evening.

Coming from a place where a structure built two centuries ago is "old," I'm awe-struck by the depth of history in a country such as Ireland, where 100 years ago is practically yesterday. The guide at the Michael Collins Center was a distant relative of his and narrated several personal anecdotes handed down in the family. The only comparable example of a "live" past in the USA used to be the Civil War, and one would hope that's been put to rest (except that we still have controversies over display of the Confederate flag). The execution site in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol has become a public shrine, a change that presumably occurred within the memory of older people still living. To a foreigner like me who thinks of the rebel ballads as romantically tragic songs of the distant past, that's mind-boggling.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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