Wicklow Mountains to Birr

Sunday 9th August 2009, Donard, County Wicklow
This morning we skirted Dublin on the motorway. It was a slow process as there were road works everywhere. We'd thought the motorway was toll free but a warning sign flashed up informing us that we needed to pay a toll of three euros by 8am tomorrow morning! What did it mean? We certainly were not going to bother to find out.

South of the city we turned off to visit Powerscourt, the 18th century Palladian home of the Wingfield family. The building was gutted in a fire in 1974. Since then it has been partially restored and is now used as an upmarket shopping complex selling clothing, books, shoes, furniture and soft furnishings. It has a garden nursery, a couple of restaurants and a terrace café overlooking the grounds which were originally laid out in the 19th century by a landscape gardener with severe gout so that he had to be trundled around in a wheelbarrow as he oversaw the work. In the house, the ballroom had been restored to its full glory.

Powerscourt, County Wicklow

Gardens, Powerscourt, County Wicklow

It was raining as we drove up into the Wicklow Mountains. Certainly they are very lovely. Indeed they are very like Dartmoor but without the ponies and cattle and there are hardly any sheep. The main bedrock is granite but it lacks Dartmoor's rugged tors. There appears to be evidence of mineral working though there are no picturesque ruined chimneys, nor are there many dry stone walls. It did though make us feel very much at home with its quaggy mires and bogs, its streams and waterfalls, steep, heather clad valleys, managed pine forests and expanses of black shining water – grander than we are generally used to seeing on Dartmoor. The vegetation too reminded us of home. Lower down there were birch and rowan trees, hawthorns, ferns and foxgloves. On the bare, exposed peat-covered summits no trees grew and plants were ground hugging – tormentil, heather and bog grasses. Add to that, a dark sky, heavy with rain. It was to us quite lovely though there are those who see such a landscape as a barren wasteland.

Lough Tay, Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow

There are few roads across the mountains and the wildest parts are accessed along a military road at the heart of which is the Sally Gap.
Moorland scene, Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow

Glenmacnass Waterfall, Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow

Glenmacnass, Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow

Ireland has many saints that are unrecognised by the Catholic Church. Indeed, most date back to pagan times when they were trying to spread Christianity to the ancient Celts. One such is St. Kevin who has his shrine in Glendalough while close nearby is the hamlet of Hollywood. It's hard to take a saint seriously with a name like Kevin and isn't there even a comedy film called Kevin goes large in Hollywood? As we came down out of the mountains into the sheltered valley beside the river in search of his shrine we encountered the summer crowds, presumably more dedicated than us. Many had travelled out on coaches run by the St. Kevin's bus company! Parking proved impossible and we gave up. Ian is now searching the map in the hope of finding a St. Wayne's oratory to take me to tomorrow as compensation!

Approaching rain at the Wicklow Gap, Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow

Tuesday 11th August 2009, Roscrea, County Tipperary
Yesterday we drove through winding lanes in search of an internet shop which the campsite lady assured us we'd find at Dunlavin. When we arrived it proved unsuitable but we didn't mind as we found the village to be most attractive, stuck in a bygone age where people are friendly and have all the time in the world to chat. The village was another plantation town with exceptionally wide streets lined with shops and attractive private houses though it had its origins right back in the 7th century when it suffered attacks by Vikings. Later, in the 12th century, it was taken over by the Anglo-Normans who fortified it against Irish attacks from the surrounding Wicklow Mountains. Over the years Dunlavin was involved in several rebellions until by the 17th century it had taken on its present form and was a little market town. During the United Irish Rebellion of 1798 thirty six men were shot and others hanged in the village for taking part.

Official offices and library, Dunlavin, County Tipperary

Pub and well, Dunlavin, County Tipperary

We continued inland to Kildare, famed as the home of the Irish National Stud. On our way we crossed the Curragh, claimed to be the largest area of semi-wild common grazing land in Europe (another superlative from the land of Guinness). It is an area of heathland, grass, ferns and gorse where sheep roam wild. The Curragh has a number of individual stud farms where many of the world's most famous race horses are bred. There is incredible wealth involved. We were fortunate to see some of the horses out galloping around the race track on a training exercise.

At the National Stud we investigated entry to see the horses. Also included was a visit to a famed Japanese garden. It was raining however and we decided we were insufficiently absorbed by either horseflesh or zen tea houses to justify the cost. This though is where so many of the world's most famous race horses were trained. The museum has the skeleton of Arkle, one of the most famous race horses of all time. Also trained at the National Stud were such legendary horses as Shergar and Red Rum.

Instead we drove into Kildare where we sheltered from the wet in an excellent internet shop where we purchased out ferry ticket home. We will leave Ireland on 17th August crossing to Pembroke, though we don't anticipate getting home until a few days later – unless it's just as wet back in Wales and England.

As we walked through the main street a gardener cleaning the weeds from the base of the statue of St. Brigid waved and called us over. He welcomed us to Kildare followed by the question everyone asks here. "How are you?" It's charming but disconcerting. What should we say? "Fine thanks, and how are you?" And what if they then tell us? We still feel disconcerted when we are asked this by complete strangers. It's the most commonly heard phrase in Ireland.

St. Brigid's statue, Kildare

Conversation having been established we chatted for a while. He explained that St. Brigid came from Kildare and was a 6th century Celtic saint who had converted to Christianity while keeping some of the pagan traditions. She had founded a monastery in the town. He pointed out the nearby cathedral dedicated to her and mentioned her holy well. He told us the Irish were a holy lot though not as holy as we might think. He didn't feel it was necessarily a good thing to be so religious anyway. He told us that the country was so littered with holy wells that if only they produced oil instead of water, Ireland's financial troubles would be over for ever! As we left him he blessed us – "May God go with you".

St. Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare

Nearby we found the free heritage centre where we were shown a video about the history of Kildare and got into conversation with the staff. They had on display the 1749 Rocque map of Kildare while Exeter's local studies library has the Rocque map of Exeter for 1748 – he must have been a busy man.

Rocque map of Kildare

Castle remains, Kildare

Our intention for the day had been to visit Birr in the centre of Ireland. However, we'd been so side-tracked that there was no time now to get to Birr. So we made our way to Roscrea intending to camp there for the night. First though we'd look at the town.

The parking metre told us our ticket was valid until 9.30 this morning. We were neatly tucked into a secluded corner of the car park near the Franciscan priory so why search around for a campsite when we had a ticket proving we were legal? So we spent the night there very comfortably indeed. In the evening we explored the town – not wildly exciting and we couldn't find a bar with music but found somewhere friendly for a drink until it was a respectable time to turn in for the night. Of course, without electricity we were unable to write up our blog at the time.

Celtic cross and round tower at the Abbey Church of St. Cronan , Roscrea, County Tipperary

Abbey church of St. Cronan, Roscrea, County Tipperary

Franciscan priory, Roscrea, County Tipperary

This morning we were up and away early. By 9am we were in Birr where we found a pleasant café for coffee and toast before exploring this very agreeable town with its many Georgian houses. In mediaeval times it was known as the Umbilicus Hiberniae (belly button of Ireland) and was a centre of learning. It was a delight to realise that not every Irish town is plagued by boring bungalows and garish paint. The shops are all individual and the town of a mere 3,500 people oozes character. Unfortunately being in the very centre of Ireland the broad streets are snarled up by heavy container lorries passing through the heart of the town.

Pleasant Georgian houses in Birr, County Offaly

Main square, Birr, County Offaly

Our reason for being there was to see what for over 70 years was the world's largest and most powerful telescope, capable of seeing deeper into space than ever before. If it had a failing, surely it was building it here in damp and cloudy Ireland where for much of the time weather conditions made its use impossible. The reflecting mirror was six foot across and although every other problem was eventually overcome, it was for ever needing cleaning as it tarnished in the wet weather.

We were sent to Birr by our friends Anne and Ray, living in Bavaria. Ray is a retired astronomer of renown and visited the telescope in 1994. We are grateful for his suggestion as it has proved a fascinating day, not just because of the telescope, but because it stands in the beautiful grounds of Birr castle and there is an absorbing science museum in the former stable block.

Birr castle has been in the ownership of the English Parsons family since 1620. Indeed, Birr was formerly called Parsonstown. They were later created Earls of Rosse. They were certainly an incredibly gifted family with a strong scientific and mechanical bent.

Birr Castle, County Offaly

It was the third Earl who became fascinated with astronomy and set up his observatory in the grounds where he housed several outstanding telescopes. In the 1840s he developed his giant reflecting telescope, allowing astronomers to see further into space than had ever previously been possible. The mere construction of such a huge monster is awesome, and the creation and grinding of the 72 inch white metal mirror faced new technological challenges at every stage. It did though, have limited capabilities, apart from those posed by the Irish weather. It needed huge stone walls to support its massive barrel as it swivelled on its axis tracking particular stars or nebulae. This meant it could only move in one plane, anything passing to either side could not be observed. The third Earl of Rosse, like our friend Ray, was honoured with the Legion d'Honneur by the French government for his services to astronomy.

Model of the lens polishing machine seen in the museum, Birr, County Offaly

The giant telescope in the grounds of Birr castle, County Offaly

The giant telescope in the grounds of Birr castle, County Offaly

Other members of the Rosse family inherited their father's scientific bent, continuing his interest in astronomy and chemistry. His eldest son was involved in pioneering research into astronomical photography, helping to pave the way to spectroscopy, colour imaging and astrophysics.

The family, including Mary, the wife of the 3rd Earl, were fascinated by the early developments in photography and the museum has an excellent section on early photographic equipment and the chemical processes of producing images. Mary's early family photos of the Leviathan – as the giant telescope was known – were of invaluable assistance when it was restored from its ruinous state of decay in the 1990s. A display of black and white family photos and stereoscopic images taken by them show just how clear a picture could be achieved and provided an intriguing insight into the lives of the family.

Photo of the Leviathan taken by Mary, Countess of Rosse, Birr, County Offaly

3rd Earl's wife and children in the tube of the telescope, Birr, County Offaly

The family museum includes other aspects of their scientific interests – electricity, telegraphy, wireless and turbines. The 3rd Earl's youngest son, Sir Charles Parsons, went into commercial production with a colleague, Sir Thomas Grubb, producing steam turbines to run electric generators which became the primary source of electricity generation at the time, as well as powering large steamships. Water from the rivers of the estate was used to create electricity for the castle and neighbouring properties as early as the 1880s. Money from all this financed further research into giant telescopes.

Below are a few notes we have been sent by our friend Ray, an individualistic and highly authoritative voice on astronomical telescopes. He expresses so much more accurately and succinctly what we are attempting to do so we hope he will not mind us quoting him here.

Lord Rosse's 6-ft reflecting telescope was commissioned in 1845 - an amazing technical achievement, but with only limited (single horizontal axis) movement. Formerly it was the largest telescope in the world till the 100-inch reflector of Mount Wilson in 1917 - thus for 72 years! But it was taken out of commission about 1865 because of the tarnished metal (speculum) primary mirror.

Lord Rosse's family name was Parsons. His younger son, Sir Charles Parsons, invented the steam turbine, one of the great British inventions. He moved the firm from Parsonstown (now Birr) in central Ireland to Newcastle, combining with Sir Thomas Grubb to continue the building of great telescopes. The money came, though, from the manufacture of steam turbines, an ideal combination. This great firm of Grubb-Parsons continued the manufacture of big telescopes until the completion of the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), (4.2 m) in 1985 on La Palma, Canary Islands.

In 1985, after the completion of WHT, the firm of Grubb-Parsons was deliberately murdered by Mrs Thatcher's infamous government, thus killing a marvellous industrial tradition going back to Sir Isaac Newton. The result: since 1985, no professional telescope manufacture exists in Britain. It has all moved to the Continent, above all France, which at least has had more sensible governments than modern Britain. Britain joined ESO – the European Space Organisation - (in Garching/Munich) at last in about 2000 and it is now part of the 15 or so West European states that have built the ESO VLT (4 x 8 m), the largest and best telescope in the world.

Recently, an amateur group has financed the reconstruction of the original Lord Rosse telescope, which was in a pitifully derelict state when I saw it in 1992. I believe (but am not sure) the mirror is a dummy, so the telescope cannot produce an optical image, because the cost of a new mirror was too high. I believe the original mirror may be in the Science Museum in South Kensington in London.

Before leaving the castle we explored some of the gardens and pathways through the extensive grounds. Immediately surrounding the castle is a star-shaped moat. This was constructed in the1840s, commissioned by the 3rd Earl as a famine relief project to assist his tenants. It is based on military defences used during the Peninsula Wars though it never served any practical purpose. Beyond the formal gardens surrounding the castle are rural walkways beside the river, a lake, an arboretum of exotic trees and plants brought back from expeditions around the world undertaken by the 5th and 6th Earls.

Ireland's first suspension bridge, gardens of Birr Castle, County Offaly

Waterfall in Birr castle grounds used variously to turn a water wheel to drain meadows, work fountains and generate electricity, County Offaly

Formal gardens, Birr, County Offaly

Formal gardens, Birr, County Offaly

We had spent almost the entire day at Birr castle and enjoyed every second. There was though something else Ian wanted to see in Birr. The lady in the tourist information office was a bit surprised when we asked directions to the local Cavanagh Iron Foundry. It's not on the usual tourist trail and she had to go and check its location.

Ian, as you may perhaps have noticed, has become obsessed with manhole covers during our travels. Most are proudly inscribed with the names of the foundries that produce them. There are certain giants amongst the hundreds of smaller individual foundries. The most famous is Pont-à-Mousson which is now found world wide. Also important in Scandinavia is Ulefoss. Here in Ireland though, the crème de la crème of manhole covers is produced at the Cavanagh works in Birr. Their different models are inscribes with such powerfully evocative names as Cavanagh Tiger, Cavanagh Scorpion, Cavanagh Python or Cavanagh Cougar. They are immensely proud of their manholes. We got no further than the factory gate where the company's strapline was proudly displayed. "Cavanagh - Leaders in Road Furniture Solutions." Doesn’t that just say it all? Beyond were stacked piles of "solutions" waiting to be sent out all over Ireland where open manholes were in need of furnishing. Ian left Birr a happy man. (Don't forget to check out his manhole blog for new and exciting additions from time to time!)

Cavanagh foundry, Birr, County Offaly

Stacked manhole covers awaiting distribution to the streets of Ireland, Cavanagh foundry, Birr, County Offaly

Example of a Cavanagh Celtic manhole cover

Driving in Ireland is not as agreeable as visitors are lead to believe. Direction signing is abysmal. Invariably there are no signs at all after you have been naïve enough to be led into a rural network of broken lanes with hedges inhabited only by fairies and leprechauns, whose job in life is to nip down to the main road each morning and swing the sign posts round at random, or even remove them entirely. Or else every bungalow in the district has used the sign post to advertise Bed and Breakfast. On busy roads with a huge juggernaut on your tail there is no time to sift out the unnecessary as you seek through twenty fingerboards for your destination. The minister for transport, if he exists, has decided that in the interests of economy that there is no need to continue the programme of replacing distances marked in miles with kilometres, and those he has replaced he forgot to note that they were kilometres anyway. It's impossible therefore to know either which direction to take or how far away your destination may be.

Typical Irish signpost photographed in Birr, County Offaly

We left Birr, hoping for a pretty ride up into the Slieve Bloom Mountains, copiously streaked with green in our Michelin map, indicated they were pretty. Once we'd escaped the leprechauns Modestine's fuel tank was registering uncomfortably low and we were completely lost amongst the hills. To add to the fun, the cloud level was low and heavy with drenching rain that enveloped us with a white mist shrouding from view everything further than a few yards from the road. The road was twisting, broken and narrow with the ever-present risk of something coming the other way round the next bend. So really we don't know what it was like and up there amongst the managed woodlands, though, like the Wicklow Mountains, we got very much the impression that it was like upland Devon – in which case it would have been lovely.

Tonight we needed a campsite with showers and electricity to write up several days of blogs, sort out photos and refrigerate or cook up lots of cut-price food bargains we were unable to resist yesterday morning when we raided Tesco at 8.30 am and they'd just put out their reduced items for the day. So we are currently eating very well. We've found a campsite in the rain and it has continued unabated ever since.