Eire on a shoe string

Wednesday 5th August 2009, Rush, north of Dublin
We are now back in the Irish Republic. The sun is at last fit and well enough to be out of bed for most of the day, and apart from a brief relapse mid-afternoon, has been in excellent health all day, beaming warmly on us during our lunchtime picnic and generally being a delightful companion.

Last night we slept by the wayside as we found ourselves in Kells with no campsites anywhere in the vicinity. Finding somewhere secluded for the night was a nightmare however. All the car parks were fitted with height barriers to prevent undesirables like us using them and there just was not anywhere to pull quietly off the road. Eventually we parked up in a side lane eight miles outside of Kells. Of course we cannot write the blog without electricity so tonight we face the mammoth task of writing up two days events. Believe me, in its own way retirement is a lot more demanding than being at work! It's also a lot more self-fulfilling though.

Yesterday we were still in Northern Ireland having spent the previous night at a Forest Ranger's campsite in a woodland clearing at Gosport Park near Newry. It was still raining when we woke and our surroundings were a muddy quagmire full of puddles.

Gosport Park was once the home of the English Acheson family and the author Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's cathedral in Dublin, was a visitor there in the 1690s. In the grounds there are various places named after him, such as Dean Swift's chair, along trails where he presumably went for long soggy walks.

There are so few pleasant places for people to walk in Ireland, perhaps as a result of the way the land was divided up as private estates between English landlords back in the 17th and 18th centuries, that people are willing to pay simply to enter these estates for somewhere peaceful to walk through the woods. It didn't look very exciting in the rain with great acres of wet open fields beside great acres of wet enclosed woodland. There was a rare breeds farm with a few geese, goats, chickens and sheep but on a wet day it couldn't compete with plans for a hot breakfast and coffee in Newry.

We rather liked Newry which lies right on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It stands on both a river and a canal linking Lough Neagh to the sea. It's not considered important enough for a mention in our guide book and is not really a place for tourists. It's a bustling, friendly town full of small individual shops, lots of bakers selling fresh scones and buns filled with enough sticky cream to make Ian skip with delight. There are butchers who seem to know their customers, a purpose built market hall – completely empty when we looked in, several churches of course and charity shops galore where we picked up six dvds for £1 and a copy of the second volume of Frank McCourt's autobiography of his childhood in Ireland and emigration to America. Volume 1, Angela's Ashes we found awesomely graphic, depicting his childhood in 1930s Limerick. Volume 2, T'is follows his life after emigrating to America. (Recommended reading. Anyone interested and having trouble getting copies, let us know, we'll be bringing ours home.)

Old fashioned sweetie shoppe in Newry

There are several monuments scattered around the town, generally to local people who had suffered oppression by the English in the struggles for Irish independence. We also found a statue to an English MP who had done pretty well the opposite, supporting the Act of Union which officially annexed the whole of Ireland to the UK in 1800. Until then, since Tudor times, Ireland had been considered as no more than a British colony. Irish history really is so complex and I'm still discovering new things piecemeal every day so may well have got events confused.

Beside the imposing town hall we found the arts centre. The museum inside was closed but there was an interesting exhibition by a photographer from Baltimore. He had studied his family history back to the emigration of his great great grandmother and made his way back to Ireland to find unknown members of his family. The exhibition displayed not only recent photos of his Irish homeland and relatives, but ageing photos of his ancestors and the letters they had written home describing their lives in America.

Newry town hall

The greatest lure in the wet though was a massive cooked breakfast with soda farls, potato cakes, sausage, egg, bacon and beans together with large mugs of hot filtered coffee for £3.50 each! It felt like Mardi-Gras as we stoked up ready for the fasting of Southern Ireland that would shortly follow. There we'd get little more than the coffee for that!

Leaving Newry we drove down the Northern Ireland side of Carlingford Lough to the pleasant seaside resort of Warrenpoint with its terraces of Edwardian guest houses overlooking the beach. The granite Mountains of Mourne, looking suitably mournful, were visible across the water, silhouetted against the dark lowering clouds, their heads wreathed in white swirling mist.

Seafront houses at Warrenpoint

Public park and bandstand, Warenpoint

Warrenpoint has its place in what is euphemistically termed here "the troubles". It is remembered as the place where, in 1979 the IRA detonated two bombs when they attacked British soldiers patrolling the border, killing 18 men. The attack took place at Narrow Water, where there is a castle originally built as a garrison fortress in the 1650s.

Being high summer, seaside life must go on, even if it is damp and wet. There was a rather uninspiring fair taking place in the town centre with candy floss, floating plastic ducks and a stomach-churning thrills ride producing lots of screams and vomit. Radio Ulster had set up a stage where the TV compere was having a hard time drumming up enthusiasm for spectators to come up for a karaoke session. It was toe-curlingly embarrassing and we realise we don't have any understanding at all of Irish humour. Eventually he came down into the audience and interviewed a man of 88, described as the Lord Mayor, celebrating his birthday and demanding to be kissed by some of the ladies! Everyone was laughing and the DJ even said the old man should be canonised!!! It was truly awful and much of it so heavily accented it was incomprehensible to our ears.

Holiday fun Irish style, Warrenpoint

We returned to Newry, the crossing point at the top of Lough Carlingford. Following the bank down on the far side we were back into the Republic on the Cooley Peninsula.

The sunshine put in an appearance and we stopped at the picturesque little town of Carlingford overlooking the lough where sailing boats and canoes added bright flecks of colour to the silver grey surface of the water. With industrial cranes in the distance and the dark surrounding mountains it was a very attractive little place. The main street was busy with tourists. There were a couple of interesting fortified houses, one formerly used as a mint. The mediaeval town gates, known as the Tholsel, held a cramped prison cell where condemned men would spend their last few hours. It looked so dark and dank inside death might well have been a welcome relief! It was in the Tholsel that laws were promulgated for the Pale. (The Pale was that part of Ireland under English jurisdiction and where English was spoken, rather than the western fringes of the country, largely ignored and where the Gaelic tongue was used. This area was considered to be "beyond the Pale".) There were also some picturesque ruins of a 13th century castle attributed to the English King John standing overlooking the lough, just outside the town walls.

Lough Carlingford

King John's Castle, Carlingford with the Mountains of Mourne beyond

Tholsel, Carlingford, County Louth

Fortified town house known as the Mint, Carlingford, Louth

Our next stop was at the large town of Dundalk where we parked near the stump of what was once the tallest windmill in Ireland. Of notable interest in the town were terraces of attractive Georgian houses, the courthouse built in 1813 and modelled on the temple of Theseus in Athens with austere Doric columns, the statue of the Maid of Erin erected in 1898 to commemorate the 1798 rebellion, St. Patrick's Catholic cathedral which like others built after the penal laws had been repealed, was decorated throughout with ceramic floor tiles and mosaic tessellations. We also discovered a touching memorial to a fireman and a tailor killed by a bomb exploding in a nearby pub in 1974. As we are now well into the Republic and away from the border we do not understand who planted the bomb or why. As we say, it's all very complex and confusing.

Court House and Maid of Erin monument, Dundalk, Louth

Monument with a needle and a ladder in remembrance of a tailor and fireman killed by a pub bombing in 1974, Dundalk, Louth

And so we continued to Kells, expecting always to find somewhere suitable to pull off the road to camp for the night. There was nowhere remotely suitable but we did discover a monument in a famine graveyard near Kells that rather put our own slight temporary inconvenience into proportion.

Monument found at a mass grave for victims of the 1840s famine, Kells, Meath

Wednesday 5th Augut 2009, Rush, north of Dublin continued
We were up and away this morning before anyone could possibly realise they’d had vagrants sleeping along the lane. By 8am we were back in Kells eager for a coffee and a comfortable loo. Both were to be found at a little coffee shop, almost the only place open so early. It was agreeable but pricey. In fact the two coffees with toast and marmalade cost us about the same as our full cooked breakfast with coffee did in Newry yesterday. It’s a shock all over again seeing the prices of food in the Republic. Eating out costs easily double what one pays in Northern Ireland, and that’s not counting Wetherspoons’ bargain meals. No more treats for us pensioners! We are trying every trick in the book to keep costs to a minimum, cutting back on wine, which is especially expensive here, and scouring charity shops for books and dvds to keep us entertained at night. Our lunch today was a sandwich we made in Modestine, eaten on a tombstone in a country churchyard. We regularly play our trump card asking for discounts for the elderly. We must surely be the experts on doing “Eire on a shoe string”!

Charming picnic spot in a tranquil churchyard with its ancient tower, Donaghmore cemetery, near the valley of the Boyn

Kells is a chaotic little town without any traffic lights, zebra crossings or road markings despite the heavy concentration of traffic on its through road. It’s scary as a driver but even more so as a pedestrian.

While waiting for the Heritage centre to open, with its facsimile of the astonishing Book of Kells, we investigated the churchyard with its famed Celtic high crosses and fortress tower. Both are to be seen frequently in the churchyards of southern and western Ireland. The 10th century, 100 ft high tower has a door part way up the side into which the monks and their treasures could climb in times of danger, pulling up the ladder behind them and simply waiting until the enemy gave up and went away. There are several tall decorated crosses in the churchyard, dating from the 9th and 10th centuries. The monastery of the time, back in the 9th century, had enclosed the tower, crosses and churchyard within a high stone wall. Part of this wall is still present and the rest of the town of Kells has grown up around the outside. Just outside the walls stands a tiny 11th century hermitage alleged to have been the cell of St. Columcille or Columba, still perfectly intact.

Ninth century Irish cross in the churchyard at Kells, Meath

Tenth century round tower and Celtic cross in the churchyard at Kells, Meath

Eleventh century Cell of St. Columcille, Kells, Meath

In the early ninth century, monks from the Scottish island of Iona, subject to periodic raiding parties by Vikings robbing the monks of their gold religious artefacts, including the jewelled covers of their priceless illuminated manuscripts, decided to move themselves to the relative safety of inland Ireland, settling in Kells. They brought with them their most treasured possession, the illuminated manuscript of the gospels in the Vulgate version of St. Jerome, and there it remained, safe, if not completely sound, until the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell and his henchmen. It was then moved to Trinity College, Dublin for safety and has remained there ever since. In Kells there is now only a facsimile and an interactive computer programme enabling us to view individual pages, home in on particular sections or even select themes in the 600+ pages of the manuscript, such as representations of various animals. The text, in Latin using insular majuscule script is frequently inaccurate, the illumination being of paramount importance, in particular the extravagant illuminated initials embellished with elaborate Celtic strap-work with birds and beasts crawling or hiding amongst the coils. There are pages representing the evangelists, the annunciation and Christ in Majesty. How different though this Celtic Christ appears with his curling red hair!

Also in the Heritage Centre are meticulous copies of Celtic broaches, crosiers and religious reliquaries. Regrettably we were unable to photograph them. There was also information on the Irish crosses we had seen earlier in the churchyard. Irish crosses are carved with a stone circle supporting the arms of the cross. They are then heavily decorated with religious figures from both the old and new testaments as well as with Celtic decoration and triskels.

In the museum we also learned something of the ancient Irish script known as Ogham. It was to the Celts what the Runes were to the Vikings but the two scripts are not related. Individual letters are formed from horizontal and diagonal lines crossing a central upright line. Ogham is composed of 20 rather than 26 letters, proving what many in England have long suspected - that the Irish are a few letters short of an alphabet!

The Heritage Centre was a scene of crime when we arrived, with staff in quite a panic as they waited for the police to investigate the theft last night of the heavy jar by the exit filled with voluntary donations from visitors!

Heritage Centre, Kells, Meath

Even if everything we saw in the museum was no more than a facsimile, it was all fascinating, and completely free. Eventually though we tore ourselves away and after a brief stroll around the town, which has several interesting 18th and 19th century buildings, made our way along the valley of the Boyne.

The area is well known for the Battle of Boyne where the Protestant William of Orange defeated the troops of the Catholic James II, thus reinforcing the English hegemony – a victory still celebrated in Northern Ireland by the marches of the Orangemen around this time of year when, as we have seen, they literally paint the town red, white and blue.

River Boyne at Newgrange, Meath

Unfortunately we did not have the chance to visit the battle scene as we ended up spending far longer than expected at the area’s second attraction, the archaeological site of megalithic tombs at Brú na Bóinne. This, apart from the Giant’s Causeway, is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Ireland and the modern interpretation centre was packed with people listing to video presentations in a range of languages. Because the megalithic site is scattered we had to register to be bussed out to the different monuments. We arrived at about 2.30 and the last tickets for Newgrange had already been sold, but we were booked on a bus for Knowth, leaving us time to look round the excellent exhibition before the departure.

The Boyne Valley is one of the most fertile areas of Ireland and was settled by Neolithic farmers by the fourth millennium BC. About 3200BC they began to erect the impressive passage tombs, dragging massive stones from many miles away, building narrow passages aligned to sunrise or sunset at the equinoxes or solstices, which usually ended in a cruciform chamber with carved granite basins to hold cremated bones. The passages were roofed with slabs and covered with large mounds of earth and stones retained all round at the base by megaliths covered with geometric decorations with some kind of religious significance.

Massive main burial mound with 127 retaining kerbstones, Knowth, Meath

Eastern passage grave, Knowth in the Boyne Valley, Meath

Entrance to western passage grave with quartz crystals, Knowth, Meath

Incised megalith, Knowth, Meath

Incised megalith, Knowth, Meath

Over the centuries the earth had slipped to hide the megaliths and at Knowth, the largest of the three main mounds, the site had been reused in the early Christian era with passages excavated to store crops. In Norman times it provided the ideal site for a short-lived motte and bailey castle and then the site remained deserted until the three mounds at Dowth, Lowth and Newgrange were excavated in the late twentieth century, when several dozen smaller mounds were also discovered as well as postholes of a timber circle enclosing a shrine, constructed about 2500BC. It was the earliest man-made structure we have seen, predating the pyramids and Stonehenge and is beautifully set amid luxuriant countryside, but the people who built this site were almost as well-travelled as ourselves as there are similar decorated passage graves in Brittany and the Iberian Peninsula dating from the same period.

One of the smaller mounds, Knowth, Meath

By 6pm we were exhausted, having been learning new things pretty well continuously all day. There was nowhere in the area to camp and we felt we needed a proper site tonight, if only to download a couple of days of photos and to write up the blog. So we drove south towards Dublin. Three of the campsites on our Michelin map did not exist any longer so we are finally settled for the night at Rush, hopefully no more than a bus ride outside Dublin. At 27 euros a night the site, while normal in southern Ireland, is considerably more expensive than in the North where we have paid as little as £12. For value for money, out of the 32 countries of Europe we’ve now visited, all things considered Ireland’s campsites come in at number 32! They are never conveniently located or signposted and offer nothing in the way of a restaurant, shop, swimming pool, gas supply service, washing lines, shade, a local pub or internet access. Frequently there is even an extra charge of 2 euros for a four minute shower! We reckon Irish campsite managers are taking their own revenge for the high rents they were once charged by English landlords!