Monday 6th July 2009, near Rosslare, Ireland
Top o' the marnin' me darlins. Our greetings come from County Wexford in the south eastern corner of the Republic of Ireland! We arrived off the ferry a couple of hours ago and our initial impression is that the country is green and very, very wet. Neither of us has ever been to Ireland before despite more than one unsuccessful attempt to do so when Chance had other plans up her sleeve for us.

This time we made a conscious effort to get here, actually booking our crossing before leaving home rather than simply turning up at the ferry port. Of course we used Irish Ferries which presumably explains why we found it £30 cheaper to book Modestine in as medium sized commercial van rather than a camping car, and £10 cheaper than a normal sized car! Nevertheless, it was the most expensive ferry we've yet used in our travels.

Our ferry in Milford Haven

We crossed from Pembroke Dock in Wales. Last night we found a basic but friendly campsite just outside Pembroke where the first Tudor king, Henry VII, was born in the highly impressive castle at the top of the town, overlooking the upper reaches of Milford Haven. The weather has changed and we have had almost continuous rain since we left Exeter and more is forecast over the coming days. It poured all last night, most of today, and here in Ireland our chosen campsite is waterlogged and still it falls! Our guidebook assures us this corner is the driest and sunniest in all Ireland. It does not bode well!

Pembroke Castle

As we left the ferry a sign warned us of speed cameras although omitting to warn us of exactly what speed limits we might infringe. Already we've discovered the anomaly that Ireland drives on the left but uses kilometres rather than miles, while in common with most of Europe, it uses the euro. Presumably when we get to Northern Ireland they will still drive on the left but measure in miles and use the pound.

For our first night in Ireland we'd searched the internet and found a campsite near the ferry, though hadn't booked. When we arrived the owner called out from his house, telling us to make ourselves comfortable and when he'd finished his chilli he'd book us in. First impressions count for much in a new country. When Ian found him later we were told we were too small to count as anything other than a small tent and were charged 19 euros for the night rather than 23. Ian returned with a pile of booklets of what to do locally and a book of campsites for all of Ireland which for some reason was sold to us at half the proper price!

What do we know about Ireland? Strangely, unlike the rest of Britain, it didn't feature much on the school curriculum back in our day. We learned about the Irish potato famine leading to the deaths and the mass exodus of hundred of thousands of Irish to America. There are indistinct memories too concerning the Irish question and ongoing struggles to form a united Ireland. In more recent times we have been only too aware of sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, the terror and murders perpetrated by the various factions of the IRA and Loyalists and the dangerous work of the peace-keeping forces along the border between the two parts of this small island. Such reports were seen daily on the BBC evening news, with so much shouting and haranguing from politicians from Sinn Fein and the Orange Order, that even the sound of an Irish accent was enough to make the flesh cringe! The horrors perpetrated during the Troubles are vivid in our memories and, until very recent times, there has been little incentive to choose to come here. Now though, there is power sharing in Northern Ireland and we hear that weapons have been decommissioned and put beyond use. The economy has boomed and there is a mood of optimism throughout Ireland which we hope to enjoy over the coming weeks.

Of course there are many ways in which the Irish have excelled, not least in literature where four Irish writers have won the Nobel Prize – George Bernard Shaw, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett and W.B. Yeats. Other notable writers such as Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, William Congreave and even Oscar Wilde are also of Irish descent, whilst James Joyce, is to more recent Irish literature what Dylan Thomas is to that of Wales - although youthful attempts to understand Ulysses scared me off ever trying again. Beside writers it has exported people ranging from navvies and labourers to several American presidents, including the family of the American President John F. Kennedy who came from this very area of Ireland.

Back in Britain's dark ages, Irish culture blossomed. Centred on the monasteries scribes were producing exquisite illuminated manuscripts, the most famous of which is the Book of Kells dating from the 8th century. Around this period too learned monks left Ireland's shores to spread Christianity throughout Europe. Ireland lies on the western edge of Europe and forms part of the arc of Celtic speaking countries. Many of the Celtic saints we have encountered in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany came from Ireland and the sixth century St. Patrick is the country's patron saint.

What else is Ireland famed for? Guinness, Irish coffee, race horses, hurling (aka lunatic hockey), fiddles and ceilis, castles, mist, leprechauns, fairies and sentimental songs about Connemara, Danny Boy, Dublin, cockles and mussels ... Stay with us and keep your atlas to hand. Over the coming weeks, along with us, you are likely to discover much more about this intriguing country and its peoples.

Tuesday 7th July 2009, Near Rosslare, County Wexford
Our first day in Ireland has been fairly low key. Contrary to expectations we woke, after a night of heavy rain, to find the sun shining and a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea, visible beyond the neighbouring field of hefty beef cattle. No wonder this country markets itself as the “Emerald Isle”. Everywhere is a bright, verdant green. There has to be compensation for so much rain and quite honestly, if the price of sunshine is the parched brown plains of central Spain, give me rain any day!

We decided to stay put for a day and explore our immediate surroundings. Within five minutes we were strolling along the near deserted and seaweed strewn sandy beach at this most south-easterly tip of Ireland. It is somewhere along the coast just north of Wexford that the filming of “Saving Private Ryan” was made. Apparently the coast around here looks more like Normandy than the real thing! Having seen both we accept the similarity but would disagree. Here, as in Normandy, the sand is fine and white and backed by sand dunes, but there are granite rocks protruding through the sand and the scale is smaller. Still, why let reality spoil a good film? (Our account of the real events of the film can be seen on our D-Day landingsblog posting.)

Deserted beach near the campsite, County Wexford

Our walk took us as far as the coastal wind farm at Carnsore Point, the most south-easterly piece of land in Ireland, before turning back inland through empty narrow country lanes threading between fields of rye and wheat. The roadside was edged by hedgerows of blackberries and wild roses interspersed with bright red fuchsia.
Old fashioned language on the roads of Ireland

There is a lot of money in this part of the country. We passed numerous houses, mainly modern but beautifully presented, standing beyond wide wrought iron gates in large gardens of immaculate lawns with blue flowering hydrangea bushes along the driveways. The architectural style is very similar to Brittany with steep black slate roofs and cream-rendered walls. Indeed the entire landscape reminded me forcefully of Finnisterre - low-lying with sandy beaches, granite rocks and stunted, wind-shaped trees and bushes.

Our stroll turned out to be longer than expected. We’d not fully appreciated the scale of the sketchy map we’d been given at the campsite and never actually reached the Lady’s Island Lake we’d been heading for. We did though discover a very pleasant countryside restaurant within sight of the island where we stopped to recover with a coffee before continuing for several more kilometres back to Modestine.

After lunch we unhooked the electricity and drove into Wexford some twenty kilometres along the coast. It is a pleasant enough, though far from spectacular place on the seafront with a hinterland of little shops and pedestrianised streets behind. Street buskers here play the harp which really impressed us! In the bookshop we found entire shelves devoted to modern Irish writers and novelists as well as material on the history of Irish culture, language and names. With many signs written in both English and Irish we’ve worked out that the Celtic language is quite different from what we saw in Wales.

Busking on the streets of Wexford

Unfortunately one of the places we were most interested in visiting, Selskar Abbey where Henry II of England spent lent in 1171 doing penance for the murder of Thomas a Beckett, was closed indefinitely and the Wexford Opera House somehow eluded us.

Selskar Abbey, Wexford

In the Bullring, where bulls were bated back in mediaeval times, stands a statue of a pikeman commemorating the Society of United Irishmen who took part in the ill-fated 1798 rebellion against British rule. The area was also the scene of a massacre by the troops of Oliver Cromwell, of three hundred townspeople in 1649.

Pikeman in the bullring, Wexford

Returning back to our campsite we stopped off to explore the little village of Rosslare, a different place from the harbour where we arrived yesterday. It is a pleasant little place with an excellent bathing beach amongst the dunes but otherwise there was little to see or do. We returned to our campsite where we sat in the sunshine looking across the fields towards the sea as we waited for Remoska to cook our supper.

Wednesday 8th July 2009, Kilkenny, County Kilkenny
We are discovering that Ireland is a country where you potter. That's about all you can do as the roads are twisting and narrow, winding their way across the countryside through dark green tunnels between overhanging trees and hedges. We are permanently bemused by distances and we are convinced some signposts are using kilometres whilst others are using miles. Thus over a three mile distance the town we were heading for stayed resolutely 6.5 kilometres away then suddenly it was marked as being another 8 kilometres! And while our map indicated that it was only 4 kilometres to Arthurstown, the signpost assured us it was 9!

Our morning started with a brisk walk around Our Lady's Island, a peninsula on a lake which is separated from the sea by a narrow bar of land. This is a site of pilgrimage but there were not many pilgrims around today and we walked right round without meeting anything more than a heron and a huge colony of noisy terns. For a pilgrimage site it was extremely low key but then, isolated as Ireland is, it presumably has to make the most of those holy places within its own shores.

Shrine on Our Lady's Island

We stopped at Kilmore Quay, a pretty fishing village of thatched cottages and a busy working quayside. Just off shore lay a couple of islands, the Saltees, with the remains of what looked like a causeway, known as St. Patrick's steps, leading out into the sea towards them. It was a very peaceful place to stop for lunch, on the low cliffs above the rocky beach looking out towards the islands. Their history though has not always been peaceful. Following the failed 1798 uprising in the county, the fugitives fled to the islands where they were tracked down and discovered hiding in a cave. They were brought back to Wexford where they were beheaded.

Kilmore Quay

Birdwatchers being taken from Kilmore Quay to one of the two islands

Nearby we discovered a touching memorial garden to those lost at sea, either through fishing accidents, aviation and maritime disasters or during wartime.

Memorial garden to those lost at sea with the Saltees beyond, Kilmore Quay

Local anger at EU regulation of fishing quotas, Kilmore Quay

The great grandfather of the 35th American President, John F. Kennedy, originated from this part of Ireland. He emigrated to the USA in 1848, part of the ongoing Irish exodus escaping either famine, or eviction by their wealthy, absent, English landlords for whom they worked as tenant farmers, unable to own the land they farmed and subject to extortionately high rents. We discovered the family homestead deep in countryside, miles along sunken narrow lanes where we prayed we'd meet nothing coming the other way. Little remains today of the original house but we were able to see around the old stable buildings, now used as an interpretation centre, where we watched a black and white film of President Kennedy visiting, in 1963, his ancestral home for tea and cakes in the farmyard with his Irish cousins, who even today still occupy the same house. There was something very surreal about standing in the yard while it was pointed where the President's helicopter landed and where he stood to eat his soda scones! Of course he arrived with his entourage and it was explained that the porch was built on to the front of the house beforehand so there would be a proper cloakroom and toilet for everyone! What must the neighbours have thought when it was casually mentioned that an American cousin was coming to tea next week and then the President of the United States of America literally dropped in?

Commemorating the origins of a president, Dunganstown

Kennedy family homestead with its 1963 specially built presidential porch! Dunganstown

His wider Irish visit was a major success and might have benefited moves to resolve some of the troubling problems dividing Ireland. Five months later however, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Years later another president with Irish links, Bill Clinton, appointed a member of the Kennedy clan, as US Ambassador to Ireland and America became a mediator between those involved in Ireland's conflict.

All campsites seem to be listed in our little booklet. There are not an enormous number of them and they are all amongst the most expensive we have found in Europe. We drove inland to Kilkenny. This site is nothing like as nice as the one we've left. We consoled ourselves with thoughts of discovering Kilkenny tomorrow and visiting nearby Kells on our way down to Waterford. Now we find it's the wrong Kells being just a tiny Irish hamlet and not the monastery where the stunning Irish manuscript was produced in the eight century!

Thursday 9th July 2009, Kilkenny, County Kilkenny
This morning we walked into Kilkenny along beside the river. We expected to return to Modestine for lunch before moving on. However, we found the town far more absorbing than we'd expected and by the time we were ready to return it was already late afternoon. So here we still are for another night.

We've not yet visited enough medium sized towns in Ireland to generalise but Kilkenny has definite similarities of architecture to Wexford and both reminded us of towns of similar size back in Devon and Cornwall. Kilkenny has the same sort of atmosphere as Tiverton or possibly Penzance with its crowded streets of little independent shops and countless small cafes and pubs. Holiday makers and local residents were out in force and the streets busy. It claims to be a mediaeval town and there are several imposing ancient buildings as well as a great many slate roofed terraces of 19th century housing, and narrow alleyways leading off the High Street, each with its busker or beggar from eastern Europe. There was even a Polish shop prominently located by the bridge.

Town Hall, Kilkenny

Main street, Kilkenny

Polish shop in Kilkenny

The town boasts two cathedrals. One was closed but the other was hardly larger than a parish church. It had a couple of notable tombs, including several of the Butler family, the local aristocratic family, but much of it was 19th century. Outside stands a tall round tower, more ancient than the cathedral, from which apparently there are splendid views although we could not summon up the energy to enjoy them. Such towers, which dare from the period before the Norman conquest are common features in Irish churchyards, although the example in Kilkenny has lost its conical roof.

Cathedral with round tower, Kilkenny

Tomb in the cathedral, Kilkenny

Also of note was the Black Abbey, established by the Dominicans in the 13th century and filled with people praying. But the town is dominated by the castle and its accompanying stable block, now used by Kilkenny Design Centre, marketing locally produced, high quality products ranging from jewellery and ceramics to textiles and glass crystal. The horses seemed to have lived there in more style than the grooms.

Black Abbey, Kilkenny

Kilkenny Design Centre, formerly the castle stables

The castle started as a fortress in the 12th century built by an Anglo-Norman knight. It lost one of its four towers to Oliver Cromwell's army in the 1640s. At the Restoration it was developed by the Butlers, an Anglo-Irish family, into a chateau. After a period of decline it was transformed into a 19th century home where they lived until 1935 when much of their collection of paintings and furniture and their library were sold. The castle was neglected until the family sold it to the state for £50 in the 1960s when the long process of refurbishing began. It is certainly a very popular venue with tourists, furnished throughout, many items being those of the Butler family. It stands in very attractive formal gardens open without charge to the public.

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle from the rose gardens

The streets of the town, although so similar to England have many subtle differences, for example the signboard of the Irish Nationwide Building Society or a pillar box with the monogram of Queen Victoria but painted bright green. But the highlight of the day for Ian was finding a manhole cover from Indiana identical to one he had seen in Arima, Trinidad!

Victorian letterbox painted in Irish Post Office livery, Kilkenny

International manhole cover seen in Kilkenny (and Trinidad)