Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ancient Stone Circles, Ireland

Grange Stone Circle

Interesting factoid: England might have the most famous one (Stonehenge), but Ireland has more ancient stone circles per capita than any other country in the world. Actually, I just made that statistic up, and I have no idea who might sit around and calculate the ratio of ancient stone circles to population...or why. But I'm pretty sure it's true.

One thing Americans observe whenever they visit Europe is just how old things are here. Many of the cathedrals and castles and casas and villas we wander through on our tours were built in the thirteenth century, give or take half a millenium. In Rome, where "old" is taken to new heights, we can go back a couple of thousand years, give or take. So it seems a bit surprising to find in Ireland--way out here on the periphery of Europe--some of the oldest of the old stuff.

Even a few thousand years before the old stuff in Rome was built, druids in Ireland were building stone circles. A big question is: why? The typical answer historians give us is that they were built for some religious or ceremonial purpose: faith, after all, is a good way to explain what could motivate a people living in a harsh environment to expend so much energy carrying around boulders weighing many tons and arranging them in a circle. Personally, I think they were built as early forerunners to Irish pubs, places were the druid men could get away from their druid women for a few hours and regale each other in goat herding tales of the day.

Grange Stone Circle

Grange Sone Circle

Regardless the purpose, there's no shortage of them in Ireland. The two we visited--one in the north, one in the south--were the Grange stone circle near Limerick and the Dromberg stone circle near Cork. The Grange circle was larger in diameter, but the Dromberg circle had a little more definition to it with a smaller circle and one giant boulder set like an altar (or bar, depending on what you think they were built for). So far as the setting, the Dromberg circle, with it's hillside view of the Atlantic Ocean, beat Grange hands-down. It's no wonder the druids wanted to build a circle here: they could see their wives coming from miles away.

Dromberg Stone Circle

Dromberg Stone Circle
(women admitted after 5,000 years)

Dromberg Stone Circle's Altar
(or maybe bar)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Triple-Distilled Irish Whiskey at the Jameson Experience, Midleton, Ireland

Traveling is the greatest opportunity to learn. My favorite quote on travel is by Saint Augustine, who said, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." Here's what we learned when we traveled to southern Ireland: Irish Whiskey is distilled three times; Scotch Whiskey is distilled twice; American Whiskey is distilled only once. I feel much, much smarter.

My love of Jameson Whiskey started the day Lori and I were married. The story goes like this: young bridegroom nervously awaits his appointed time in the church rectory. The pastor--an Irish priest, mind you--comes home from a walk. "You must be the groom," he observes. Young Chuck nods. "Ah, you look like you could use a little whiskey to calm the nerves." It was a glass of Jameson with a splash of Coke. Lori could smell it on my breath when she met me at the top of the aisle. It must have done us good: we'll soon be celebrating our 29th anniversary. If (as the slogan goes) Guinness for Strength, then perhaps Jameson for Love.

The Jameson Experience, Midleton Ireland

Wall of Jameson Memorabilia

Many people online poo-poo the Jameson distillery tour as not actually a tour of the distillery. But of course, many people are idiots. The "Jameson Experience" is an excellent tour of the old Jameson distillery, which is in the shadow of the new distillery, currently cranking out the world's supply of this (triple-distilled!) Irish elixir. Having been on this tour--led by an incredibly bubbly young Irish lass whose name eludes me--I can imagine that it is a world more interesting to see the old way of doing things with wood and stone and steam engines and copper stills than the new way with stainless steel and electricity. I'd still like to see a working distillery, but the Jameson Experience is well worth the price of admission.

Which, by the way, includes samples. And for a lucky few volunteers a comparison taste-test between the three principle varieties we learned all about (Irish versus Scotch versus American). Unfortunately this intrepid travel blogger was also the designated driver, so my taste-testing was limited to the single, small (but very tasty) sample. But here's the adjectives I picked up from the small group of lucky few (who, by some odd, Chuck-excluding coincidence included all 3 of the rest of our party, i.e. Lori, Susan, and Randy):

Irish (Jameson): mellow, smooth.
Scotch (can't remember which one): earthy, harsh.
American (Jack Daniels): sweet, rich.

I am, of course, only listing the adjectives unique to each variety. In common to all three were, "Ackk", and "Burns!!", and "Holy crap, batman". I guess some whiskey drinkers just aren't as refined as others.

Jameson Cask (Barrel) Makers
Lori, Randy, and Susan At the Taste Test
(Notice the look on Susan's face?)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Rock of Cashel, Ireland

The Rock of Cashel is a castle/cathedral that sits on top of a giant rock that rises up from the Irish farmlands very near the center of the island. The name "Rock of Cashel" refers to the whole conglomeration, unlike "The Blarney Stone" which refers to the lipstick-smeared rock at the castle of the same name.

We stopped to see the Rock of Cashel on our drive south from Silvermines to Lismore, just outside of Cork, where we stayed the second half of our visit to Ireland. The Rock of Cashel is reputed to be the site where Saint Patrick himself baptised the formerly pagan King Aengus of Munster in the fifth century.

With its commanding view (on a really, really clear day you can see Boston) it's not surprising it's been a stronghold, both for the military and the church, for most of the centuries since then. The oldest structure on the rock is a tower built in 1100. The "much newer" cathedral was built in the late 1200's. The cathedral is in ruins, unfortunately, but one aspect not seen in many cathedrals is the bishop's residence directly attached to the cathedral.

The Rock of Cashel is truly an impressive sight to see, despite the number of Rikniks (tour guide and guide book author Rick Steves' followers) that overrun the place. The Rock of Cashel offers great guided tours that are included in your admission fee: be sure to ask when you enter when the next tour is. We've decided that we love guided tours included with our price of admission. Don't miss the cemetery and the fantastic view of the countryside, particularly toward the abbey ruins.

Our Guided Tour Group Ooohing and Aahing at Frescoes in Cormac's Chapel
A Copy of an Ancient Celtic Cross
(If you can get your arms around it, you'll have healthy teeth. Where do they come up with this stuff?)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

King John's Castle, Limerick

Our homebase in the west of Ireland was a tiny little village called Silvermines, just south of the only slightly larger town of Nenagh ("Knee-nuh"), both of which are forty minutes or so east of Limerick. It's the fairly bustling city that bears the name of the style of poetry we all had to learn in junior high...the same that often is put to wicked use. One of my favorites:

'Twas a crazy old man named O'Keefe,
Who caused local farmers much grief.
To their cows he would run
And cut off their legs for fun
And say, "Look, I've invented ground beef!"

But this blog isn't about cows, Limerick, or even Silvermines (I'll have to blog about it soon), it's actually about one of two fine castles visitors can pick from in Limerick: King John's Castle. The other is Bunratty, but we didn't visit that one: we simply had to pick one or the other and we saved Bunratty for next time.

King John's Castle is named for the same King John famous in the Robin Hood stories. He ordered its construction in 1200. Its first edition was completed in 1210, but it was built on top of a Viking fortress that dated from the early 900's, and naturally additions and alterations continued for centuries after its initial completion.

Through its life, the castle has stood watch over Limerick and the River Shannon. The most significant military action it saw was the Siege of Limerick in 1642, one of the Irish people's first violent uprisings in a three-century struggle for independence. The siege of the castle took months and was an example of subterranean warfare: mines were dug to undermine the castle walls, and countermines were dug by the defenders to attack the miners and collapse their mines.

Today, King John's Castle is well-preserved and houses a fine, if a bit over-informative, museum. By over-informative, I mean that it's easy to spend three hours in the exhibit space and only an hour in the actual castle. If you visit, focus on the displays concerning the siege and check out the models of how the city of Limerick used to look. Once in the castle, don't miss the underground excavations or the commanding view of the river and modern Limerick from the two towers in the main keep.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Holyhead Island, Lough Derg, Ireland

Before we visited Ireland we had visions of narrow, twisty, rock-fence lined roads along which farmers shepherded their sheep. It was all true except for the sheep: perhaps all the sheep farming is done in the north of Ireland, as we saw mostly cows in the south. It's as if someone shook the whole island country of Ireland and the heavier cows settled to the bottom and the sheep (we guess) floated to the top. At least the dairy farmers weren't shepherding their cows (cowherding?) on those twisty country roads.

One of the most Irish of our experiences in Ireland was the day we visited Holyhead Island. It's a tiny little island in Lough Derg ("Lock Derg", just like lochs in Scotland), the long, glacial lake that forms much of the border between counties Clare and Tipperary. You show up at the harbor at the town of Mountshannon and pay a guy 12 Euros each to pile into his little boat for the ride out to the island. The sign on the side of his van touts it as a "tour", but it's really just a trip to the island: he deposited us at a pier and asked us when we wanted him to come back to get us. We asked how long most people took. He said an hour. We asked for 90 minutes since we actually like to see things more than most people do.

Despite how small Holyhead Island is, we took every bit of our 90 minute "tour" to see it. There are two sets of church ruins, a fine cemetery with the best Celtic crosses in Ireland, rolling hills with great views of the surrounding lake, and cows wandering the island (often with no fence between you and them). It's a lush, green place with a taste of all that you'd expect in Ireland.

The Best Celtic Cross in Ireland