Friday 10th July 2009, Glen of Aherlow, County Tipperary
The rain began this morning shortly after us leaving Kilkenny and by the time we drove into Clonmel it was teaming down, the streets were full of puddles and there were queues of traffic right through the town centre trying to find parking space. The town of 15,000 inhabitants has a number of agreeable 18th and 19th century buildings and has links with both the 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote his early novels here, and the writer Laurence Sterne who was born in the town in 1713. We decided against stopping. There was nowhere to shelter and the streets, interesting on a sunny day, were a collection of small shops, definitely not designed for browsing to avoid the downpour. As we crawled through the centre with the traffic Ian read aloud the points of interest along the way and in any case, Clonmel looked just like every other town we have seen since we arrived. They all look exactly like Bodmin in Cornwall when it's raining.
At Cashel we stopped just outside the town for lunch in Modestine while we waited for the rain to ease. This it obligingly did for a while, allowing us time to experience what is claimed to be one of Ireland's outstanding sites of Celtic architecture and historically a place of great religious importance. On the edge of the town a huge rocky outcrop looms up from the plain. It has been a site of Christian worship since the 5th century when it was the seat of the kings of Munster and it was here that St. Patrick baptised King Aengus in 450 – accidentally stabbing the king in the foot with his staff in the process.
In 1172 at Cashel cathedral Henry II was declared ruler of all Ireland. Later, in 1649, the town suffered at the hands of the Cromwellians. Nearly 3000 citizens fled to the rock seeking safety. They were locked into the cathedral which was then set on fire burning them alive. Another cathedral was built within the town in 1749, since when the original one fell into decay and was badly damaged by a storm in 1847.
The ruins, set on the hilltop, certainly have a mystic charm seen through a gentle mizzling rain with views on all sides across the green plains of Tipperary. Most impressive was Cormac's chapel started in 1127. It has a weathered, lichen covered, carved tympanum at each of its two entrances with exquisite Celtic imaginary creatures and patterns of interlaced strapwork. Inside there are still pieces of original frescoes and a decorated coffin showing the Viking influence. Outside stands another of the tall towers so common in ancient churchyards here. Unlike the one at Kilkenny, this one was complete with its conical roof of slate tiles.
The rest of the little town made for a pleasant stroll with yet another castle in the main street and the bishop's palace, both used today as hotels.
Continuing our route we soon found ourselves on the streets of Tipperary. The sign at the entrance to the town announced "Welcome to Tipperary, you've come a long way." Ha ha! The centre consisted of a street of rather dilapidated but once quite grand 18th century buildings, a town hall that looked exactly as if it had come from Bodmin, a memorial swimming pool, a Lidl supermarket and several bars with names like Nellie O'Brien's or Fergus O'Corrigan's. (Regrettably there was too, an abundance of dogs' mess.)
The road out of Tipperary was in serious need of repair - the worst we've yet encountered in Ireland. However, the scenery was splendid as the road wound up to the pass and down into the natural park of the Glen of Aherlow. We have found a completely different landscape here with misty mountains and forests of oak trees. This evening we are camped on a site we discovered by chance as it is not in our book. It's very pleasant and the weather actually improved sufficiently for us to relax outside while waiting for supper to cook.
Saturday 11th July 2009, Blarney, Cork
Well yesterday evening's return of dry weather was short-lived. Today the rain returned with such a vengeance that the roads were flooded and the high winds crashed Modestine's back door back on its hinges every time we needed to open it. We drove down towards Cork hoping the rain would stop as the day progressed but it slashed down unabated. At the village of Galbally we stopped in the square to investigate the memorial to the local men who died in the struggle for Irish independence between 1919 and 1921. Two were hanged in Mountjoy prison and in 2001 were exhumed from the prison and given full state funerals. Everywhere here we find memorials to the unhappy and violent past and we have rapidly realised that no matter what evils or sorrows have ever afflicted the Irish, in their opinion it has always been the fault of the English. Their memories are long, their tempers short and their attitudes entrenched. Even now when we are only here as tourists, we are well aware that the English are at the heart of every Irish grievance.
On a lighter note, also on the square, we noticed a public house that was also a funeral parlour! Two lucrative businesses under one roof and very convenient for an Irish wake!
Our search to find the ruins of Kilcolman Castle, where Edmund Spenser entertained Sir Walter Raleigh and wrote part of The Faerie Queen, lead us on a fruitless, will o' the wisp ride through broken, flooded roads following signs no doubt intended as Ireland's revenge on the English - Spenser had no sympathy with the Irish and was all for suppressing them.
It was still raining when we arrived in Mallow, once a spa town. Chancing upon a convenient place to park we squelched through puddles to the main street. It looked very similar to everywhere else we've seen and wasn't worth getting soaked for. Our feet are still wet this evening.
Mid afternoon we reached Blarney. This should have been a bit of fun, seeking out the Blarney stone, claimed to give those that kiss it the power of articulate speech. Amongst the many tales surrounding this legend, the most plausible is that Queen Elizabeth the first received so many messages from the Earl of Leicester explaining why he had as yet been unable to capture the castle here as she had commanded, that she referred to them as "yet more Blarney". The weather was so atrocious we ended up parking in a side street, brewing up some hot coffee and spending the afternoon reading our books! Incidentally, I picked up a copy of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt in a charity shop in Wexford. It makes gripping reading telling of the childhood of a small boy growing up in a poverty-stricken, dysfunctional Irish family in Limerick during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Drink, pride and plain pigheadedness, were the root causes of the poverty, hunger and general misery suffered by the family. The more I read of the book the more I am forced to conclude that many of the Irish were the authors of their own misfortunes.
In Blarney we discovered the Woollen Mill, a retail outlet for Irish made clothing, household linens, ceramics, glass crystal and anything remotely connected with the country that might sell to tourists. At least it was dry and somewhere to stretch our legs a bit. It must be a penance to work there as Irish fiddle music is broadcast around the store all day and the shelves are stacked high with tacky little leprechauns, green hats and tee shirts decorated with shamrocks.
This evening on the campsite the rain and winds have continued. At least we are now hooked up to electricity and can spend the evening watching a dvd as we hope for dryer weather tomorrow. Exploring Cork in this weather will be quite impossible.
Sunday 12th July 2009, Blarney, Cork
We called the rain's bluff today. It's been sunshine and showers but we've seen Cork without getting completely soaked. We left Modestine in Blarney and took the bus into the city, just five kilometres away. The return journey cost us nearly 13 euros! It must be one of the most expensive bus rides we've taken in all of Europe and has made us realise just what a bargain our British pensioners' bus passes are when we're back in England. Really though, Ireland is a very expensive place to visit and everywhere we are hearing British holiday makers complaining about the price of a cup of tea or a meal. We are lucky having Modestine so we can prepare our own meals. Supermarket prices for meat and vegetables are not much different from home.
Cork, the Republic of Ireland's second largest city, has a population of around 130,000. It is a pleasant city and we were struck by how clean everywhere seemed and there was no graffiti. However, there is a great deal of broken glass lying about so perhaps it's a less peaceful city at night.
The main city lies on an island between two arms of the river Lee. International ferries are able to sail right up into the city and the harbour anchorage downstream is claimed to be the largest in Europe. It was the point of departure for so many emigrants seeking better lives in the United States and the last stopping place of the Titanic on its fateful voyage.
There are several breweries in the city producing Irish stout, including Beamish. Cork also produces the famed Irish butter, particularly Kerrygold. They are Ireland's two greatest exports. There is a museum of butter which stands beside the disused Firkin Crane; butter used to be packed in wooden barrels known as firkins and these were weighed on the crane. The circular building is now used for concerts.
This morning, being Sunday, the city was quiet. All the shops and pubs were closed and all the churches and cathedrals (there are two) were open. We looked in at the door of the French church in the Huguenot quarter but scurried away again when we saw the size of the sidesmen in their smart black suits. If they got us inside we'd never dare to try escaping. They looked as if they'd worked last night as bouncers in the bar round the corner! On the top of the hill across the river we found the 19th century Catholic cathedral which had a very welcoming feel, some attractive modern stained glass and a relic of the blessed Thaddeus McCarthy in an elaborate casket. The Irish always seem eager to support lost causes and this 15th century holy man was exactly what they needed, having failed at everything he undertook, probably because he was too gentle and unassuming – not a good thing in Ireland. After several hundred years he'd eventually been declared blessed but there was an appeal posted up in the cathedral asking everyone to pray for him to be canonised as a saint.
Apparently ten percent of Cork's population is Polish! There are Polish shops all over the city. Returning from the cathedral we also discovered a Hungarian shop. Inside, a sad looking Hungarian sat alone surrounded by tins of goulash, packets of paprika and bottles of Tokai. He looked amazed when we greeted him with our stock phrases of Hungarian and he smiled warily. We asked if there were many Hungarians in Cork. His English could not easily cope with the question but eventually he understood. About 100. Barely enough to have their own shop. We couldn't easily carry anything so bought only a small packet of Hungarian biscuits, which turned out to be delicious - lemon flavoured with raisins. We explained we loved Hungary and had Hungarian friends. He beamed as we left, wishing him a nice day in his own language.
Cork gaol is a tourist attraction! We sought it out, curious to see the crowds paying to get inside. The queue of Italians was greater that the sum total of Hungarians living in Cork. We wondered what crime we could commit to get in free and thus pondering accidentally wandered in through the exit – the perfect crime! We came out again immediately we realised though Ian did pause to take a photo on the way. It certainly looked a grim place to be detained.
The streets around the gaol are lined with large, very pleasant Victorian villas standing behind their original wrought iron railings. They look very attractive and are something that is very rarely seen in England now as they were all taken away during the Second World War to be melted down into weapons for the fight against Germany. The reason they are so plentiful here is because Ireland was neutral during this War. It had not long become an independent nation and had troubles enough of its own to contend with. One cannot but wonder, however, what its position might have been had Hitler invaded Britain. It must have been with some relief that Eamon de Valera reportedly signed the condolence book in the German Embassy on the death of Hitler.
Beside the river there is a pretty park filled with roses, and the City Museum. Beyond stands University College Cork, deserted now as vacation has started. The original buildings are 19th century, very pleasant and set in attractive gardens. The rest though is hideously ugly, monolithic 1960s architecture. The library is named after Professor Boole of Boolean logic who lectured at the university here for many years. The university museum of contemporary art was open but in the process of changing the exhibition with nothing to see.
So we walked down to the town again, passing the Anglican cathedral which had a notice extending a warm welcome and inviting us to look around inside. There we were asked to pay four euros each. Everywhere here charges, and admission prices are not cheap. Understandably it costs to maintain a cathedral but charging simply means the buildings stand empty, which doesn't help anyone. We left without looking inside.
Cork has been rather a frustrating place, seeming to offer so much but whenever we arrive it is either closed, boarded up, demanding a high entry charge or in process of rearrangement. It may well have a different appearance at night when the fiddles start to play in the bars, but we cannot see cities at night as campsites tend to be miles out in the countryside.
Some of the imposing classical buildings of Cork: