Wednesday 12th August 2009, Glen of Atherlow, County Tipperary
We are nearing the end of our travels around Ireland. This afternoon we crossed with our outward route at Cashel just a few weeks ago and tonight we are again camping in the Glen of Atherlow. From here it is definitely not a long way to Tipperary which is just a few miles up the glen. As last time, the tops of the hills are shrouded in mist and there is a permanent mizzle in the evening air. When we first started to joke about the rain we never actually envisaged that we'd pass six weeks in Ireland without a single day that has been completely dry! Every night it is the same story, we huddle inside Modestine while the rain patters on the roof. Almost every morning we wake to the sound of rain and during the day we dare not go more than a few yards from Modestine without packing umbrellas.
Ian has just returned from washing the dishes after our evening meal. He says he was dive bombed in the camp kitchen by swallows skimming in through the open door.
Having several days until we catch our ferry we have decided to explore the south east corner of Ireland which we rather hurried through when we arrived, not sure how our time would work out. So we are now in the area known as the Pale, occupied by the Anglo-Normans in medieval times. The scenery may not be as spectacular as in the Gaelic-Irish regions of the north and west, known as Beyond the Pale, but there is far more here in the way of interesting historic towns and ancient castles. We have spent most of this afternoon in Cahir, a small town with an ancient castle, once dominated by the Anglo-Irish Butler family (last mentioned as the owners of Kilkenny castle which we visited a month or more ago.) In Cahir they owned the castle which today is the most complete Norman castle in Ireland. It was badly damaged during the campaign of the Earl of Essex in Ireland in 1599. A couple of cannonballs from the culverine used to bombard it are still lodged in the walls of the castle. It was saved from becoming one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit when he wrote a letter threatening to attack unless the owners ceded him the castle. Discretion being the better point of valour, they did just that. Now it is possible to wander around the well restored rooms, towers and battlements of this 12th century castle which appear just as they were when it was built. The rooms are even furnished so it is easily possible to imagine life here several hundred years ago! Set beside the river there are interesting views from the battlements back towards the 17th century town with its broad streets so typical of the period.
In the town there are several interesting buildings and monuments. Having left the castle for more comfortable accommodation, the Butlers built themselves a handsome new house in the town centre, which is now a hotel. Also within the town we found the remains of a church with a curtain wall dividing it into two, thus the Catholics could worship at one end, while the Protestants used the other.
In the centre we found a statue of Edmund Keating Hyland (1780-1845), a famed Irish pipe player. He was blinded after suffering smallpox at the age of 15 but was considered to be one of the best bagpipe players in Ireland. We seem to recall seeing a painting of him in the National Art Gallery in Dublin. Nearby there is an intriguing memorial to a horse nicknamed Crimean Bob, from the nearby military barracks. He saw active service in several 19th century battles including Sebastopol, Balaclava, Alma and Inkerman, eventually dying of old age back in his home town.
Saturday 15th August 2009, Ballaghkeen, County Wexford
This is the first opportunity I've found to update our final few days of travel around Ireland. We are camped – in the rain – somewhere in the south eastern part of the country near Enniscothy. We don't want to be here but I flatly refused to go onto campsites charging 34 euros down near Waterford and Ian felt that after spending the previous night camping in Lidl's carpark in Youghall we needed a campsite to stop us slipping into the category of vagrants. This was the nearest campsite to Waterford without going back over familiar ground, which is something we try not to do.
On Thursday we left the Glen of Atherlow and travelled for most of the morning through endless green lanes where the high hedges hid everything from view making for a very frustrating drive. Eventually our route wound up into the Knockmealdown mountains to the highly acclaimed Vee gap. The overall scenery was impressive with wide views back across the route we'd travelled.
It was a typical north European landscape with pine forests, bogs, abandoned stone buildings, rhododendrons, bubbling streams and wild sheep. The sun was shining and the vistas clear. We passed a tiny stone mausoleum shaped like a sugarloaf. It provided vertical housing for the remains of Samuel Grubb, a Quaker who died in the 1920s and chose to be buried where he could look out over his estates. Tragically this lovely landscape was scarred by the detritus of drinks cans, plastic bottles, paper cups, cigarette packets and stubs, bags, wrappers and bits of string that littered not only the viewpoints but all along the roadside. It's beyond comprehension that people can drive up here to experience the tranquil beauty of the landscape and not notice the mess they are making when they casually abandon their picnic wrappings. Indeed it was worse than that. There had been obvious fly tipping along the roadside. Down below is the little town of Lismore which is a regular winner of Ireland's annual coveted Tidiest Town competition and there lurks in our minds the unworthy thought that perhaps it simply moves the rubbish up into the mountains beyond the limits of the town!
Stopping to look at the picturesque ruins of an abandoned farm standing near a tumbling stream overhung with rhododendrons, we found ourselves a few yards from a pretty fox with sharp pointed ears who stood watching us with as much curiosity as we watched her, until an approaching car caused her to turn and disappear to safety beneath the bridge.
It was a day for observing wildlife. Finding everywhere we hoped to picnic too dirty up in the mountains we came down into the picturesque town of Lismore where we stopped for a sandwich sitting outside Modestine. Within a few minutes we were joined by a couple of rats! Cute they may be but if the judges of the best kept town in Ireland are reading this, Lismore needs to clean up its act a bit before the next awards!
Lismore is a heritage town with a population of less than 1,000. It is an attractive little place with one of Ireland's most picturesque castles standing on the riverbank as you enter the town. The original castle was built by King John around 1185. In 1589 it belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh. The present castle was rebuilt in the 19th century for the Duke of Devonshire by Sir Joseph Paxton, who also designed the Crystal Palace. The family still owns it. At one time it was occupied by Adele Astaire, sister of the tap-dancer Fred Astaire.
Lismore's cathedral, dedicated to St. Carthach, was founded in the 7th century. Inside there was an exhibition of the way the great famine affected the lives of the people of the town with particular emphasis on the role of the Duke of Devonshire's agent Francis Currey. He, with the Duke's blessing, did much to save the lives and provide employment for the starving tenants. After his death a memorial window was commissioned for the cathedral, designed by the pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Unfortunately, as the exhibition pointed out, not all landlords were as enlightened as the Devonshires and their agent.
Also of note in the town is the Impressive Roman Catholic Church. Built in the Lombardy style it is again dedicated to St. Carthach who founded the town of Lismore. The town also has an attractive park with an icehouse and bandstand.
Leaving Lismore we continued down to the coast stopping at the busy little seaside town of Youghall, once part of the Irish estates of Sir Walter Raleigh. His home there, Myrtle Grove, is not open to the public. It was to Ireland that he returned from his American travels with his famed cargoes of tobacco and potatoes and it was in his Youghall home that, legend has it, he was drenched by a servant pouring water over him when he discovered his master smoking a pipe of tobacco and thought he was on fire! The Irish peasants of course soon adopted the potato, which became their staple diet right up until the crop failure in 1845.
We found the town a very enjoyable place to explore, full of interesting historic buildings to be discovered following a heritage trail leaflet from the tourist office. Of particular interest were the almshouses and home of Sir Richard Boyle.
On the quayside we sat on the sandy beach watching youngsters out on the water in their canoes. The quay was the location for the filming back in the 1950s of Moby Dick and the pub there still bears the name. It was from the quayside at Youghall that Oliver Cromwell finally left Ireland for good, leaving behind a trail of ruined castles and a population damned glad to see the back of him.
Camping isn't really very well developed in Ireland. The sites are invariably located in the wrong places, miles from anywhere, with very limited facilities. There were none convenient to Youghall and those that existed along this part of the coast cost between 33 and 37 euros a night. We spent the evening walking along the beach, having a picnic supper in Modestine, making notes for the blog and finally, returning into town to camp up for a very peaceful night's sleep in Lidl's carpark.
Yesterday, Friday, we left Youghall early and drove along the coast to the village of Ardmore with its single street leading down to the coast. Nothing was stirring and it was very quiet for high season.
We continued to Dungarvan, a busy harbour town, rebuilt by the Dukes of Devonshire in the 19th century when it was laid out with a main square and adjoining streets in the usual spacious style. It has a seventeenth-century courthouse where Edmond Power, a United Irishman was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1799 for his part in the rebellion. His head was later displayed on a pike at the castle as a warning to others.
The castle stands next to the seashore. It was built by Prince John in the late 12th century and used the sea to flood the moat twice a day. It had a water gate to supply the garrison within. It was later used by the military and the Royal Irish Constabulary continuously until the late twentieth century. The Castle is currently under restoration but a very enthusiastic and well-informed guide gave us a free tour of the sections that were accessible.
Dungarvan has pleasant gardens overlooking the sea with a wrought iron bandstand. A sea mist was coming in with the tide and soaking us with a clammy film of water, so we did not linger there for long.
Our intention on leaving Dungarvan was to make our way to Waterford along the coast. The sky was heavy, black and atmospheric, waiting its moment to drop its load. The scenery was impressive out on the cliff tops, the swirling mist hiding the horizon. This coastline is the result of volcanic activity which makes for fascinating geological features including mineral deposits. There is evidence of copper mining on the cliff tops and at Bunmahon we even discovered a little geological park with specimens covering 600 million years of local geological history, explaining the effects of seismological activity on these cliffs. We also discovered a couple of incised ogham stones, the ancient Celtic script used between the 3rd and 5th centuries.
Passing through the flowery village of Stradbally we were seduced into stopping to explore. It has colour washed thatched cottages, a clear stream running through the main street, green velvet lawns and large blousy bushes of hydrangeas in every shade of pink, blue and purple. The hedges are rife with orange monbretia and deep red fuchsia, while along the little road leading down to the cove there are brambles full of shining wet blackberries.
Stradbally was replanned in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with attractive two-storey houses near the main square which has a sundial with a geological history of the region. The Church is older than the village with tumbled tombstones at various angles in the picturesque churchyard.
Ballyvoony Cove is a kilometre outside of the village and it made a delightful walk in the mist. The rock formations there are intriguing while off-shore lies an island inhabited by sea birds. Off-shore islands are rat free and provide a safe nesting site.
We were thinking of stopping for the night at Tramore but found it full of steep, congested streets. It was impossible to park something as tall as Modestine in any of the height restricted car parks and there was nowhere on the narrow streets. The signposts were typically Irish and we spent ages going around in circles trying to escape. So we left with no regrets and continued on to Waterford.
Here things got worse. It was rush hour and Waterford is a much bigger place than we imagined. We crawled through the centre with Ian giving me a running commentary from the guide book about the major civic buildings as we passed. Once we'd crossed the river, still without finding anywhere to park, we gave up, realising it was getting late anyway and we'd never see the town this evening in the rain. We were swept along the main road northwards towards New Ross and decided our best bet was to head for the campsite in which we are currently pitched-up which we assumed we'd find at Enniscorthy. It was a long drive and took us well away from Waterford so no hope of returning today. The campsite turned out to be miles further on in the depths of the leprechaun-ridden countryside of twisted signboards and large potholes. We are here however, it's clean and friendly, we've enjoyed hot showers and had electricity for cooking and blogging. It's been raining non-stop until an hour ago when the sun burst out and a neighbouring Irish camper came across to jokingly offer Ian some of his factor 20 sunscreen! The sun promptly disappeared again.
Incidentally, the main roads in Ireland are similar to those of Greece. There is a wide hard shoulder along either side, marked off by dotted yellow lines. The road surface in the hard shoulder is invariably in a worse state of repair than the main roadway. It disappears at cross roads and side roads and can be used for parking if required. It is also used to set up stalls selling locally grown potatoes and strawberries. The normal speed limit along these roads, which do not have any central reservation, is 100km in either direction. According to the road regulations it is expected that if a vehicle wishes to overtake, the one in front will move onto the hard shoulder to allow it to pass. I find this quite terrifying as Modestine prefers to travel on such roads at nearer 80 km and there is always a tailback of 4 by 4s and heavy lorries trying to get past. We feel permanently pushed off the road while they stream by and a tractor will suddenly looms up on the hard shoulder ahead having turned out of a farm gate. It's such a crazy, dangerous system, especially when road signing is so bad that you've gone past your turn-off before you realise.
Sunday 16th August 2009, Ballaghkeen, County Wexford
We are treading water as we wait for our ferry to Pembroke tomorrow morning. I use the term literally. Ireland is one large puddle.
Yesterday we woke to torrential rain and decided the best thing was to stay dry in Modestine catching up on our admin. By then it was lunch time and the rain had gone off to enjoy himself at the weekend sports events in Wexford and Waterford. Should he go to the football or the hurling? Undecided he vacillated between the two thus having a grand afternoon himself and ruining two matches for everyone else at the same time.
Meanwhile, seeing the black clouds heading off southwards we drove north into Enniscorthy for the afternoon. Of course we got lost in the back lanes and instead of the 4 or 5 kilometres it was supposed to be it turned into 14 miles of tortuous, potholed driving with inebriated leprechauns leering at us from the hedges as we passed by, sometimes for the second time as we went around in circles.
The sun was actually shining in Enniscorthy, a chaotically busy town built on a steep hill above the river. It doesn't even get a mention in our guidebook. Saturday was a day of high excitement in the town. The local heats for the all Ireland talent contest were taking place in the town centre beneath the statue of the martyrs hanged for their activities in the United Ireland rebellion of 1798. All around the square there were kiddies with painted faces and parents with cigarettes and drinks cans (the Irish are generally overweight, heavy smokers and enjoy both Guinness and soft drinks.) Meanwhile couples were fighting it out in a jiving contest with a loudspeaker giving an incomprehensible commentary. Ian cringed and slunk away but I lasted right through the synchronised bop dancing to the purple-skirted young teenage lasses with stiff arms and double jointed knees doing their Irish tap dances.
By this time Ian needed some cultural refreshment and this we found aplenty in the deserted street up the hill at St. Aidan's Cathedral. This though was one cathedral even I enjoyed visiting. It's a perfect example of the very best of Pugin's ecclesiastical architecture, slender sharply pointed gothic revival with bright decoration to enhance the basic structure. It replaced an earlier thatched cathedral which had proved totally inadequate. In the 19th century Pugin's churches and those of his pupils were as widespread in Ireland as bungalows today – Wexford alone has two, both commenced on the same day in 1851. In Enniscorthy Pugin's building was to be erected around the thatched cathedral so that services could continue. Built between 1843 and 1846 for a cost of £8,000 it needed a complete restoration in the 1990s at a cost of £1,000,000! The Vatican had decreed in the 1960s that decoration which detracted from religious contemplation should be whitewashed out, and in Enniscorthy they took this seriously. So, when restoration took place, the 19th century stencilled mural decorations had to be painstakingly reconstructed and the encaustic tiles refurbished or replaced. Most of the stone used was local, much of it taken from the nearby ruined Franciscan friary but the delicate arcades surrounding the choir and the reredos were of Caen stone, carved with foliage and angels. At some stage the stone had been covered in gloss paint, making that part of the building rather like an elaborate wedding cake. Fortunately the high Victorian quality of the original enabled it to survive this assault on the natural stone and generally the restoration was well done and the total effect stunning.
It was worth going to Enniscorthy for that alone. This was just as well because the only other thing on offer was line dancing in the park. As we had neither our Stetsons nor our black shirts and jeans with us, we didn't join in.
This area of Ireland seems to have been the area most involved in the 1798 rebellion and there is a museum in the town placing it in context. Nearby is Vinegar Hill which is where the final, bloody encounter took place that ended the rebellion. Every town and village in Wexford appears to have its own monument to its freedom fighters, who, influenced by the success of the French Revolution, hoped to achieve similar results in Ireland, by ridding themselves of the tyranny of their English overlords. The revolution failed and many were hanged for their involvement. In Ireland especially, as subsequent history has shown, such retribution only creates martyrs and strengthens the resolve of the people.
Leaving the happy folk of Enniscorthy to their frolics, with an entire evening of jigging and karaoke ahead of them, we drove to Ferns where Ian needed to see the remains of another castle and photograph a manhole cover. Large enough to appear as a town on the map, it had nothing more than the castle and manhole cover to merit the journey although it had once been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Leister. Furthermore we got completely lost trying to take a short cut through the country lanes and ended up back in the narrow streets of Enniscorthy on the wrong side of the river.
Really though, it was a pleasant afternoon. The Pugin church was well worth seeing and we spent a delightful sunny evening sitting outside Modestine with a glass of wine before it got chilly enough to go inside and watch a dvd for the evening.
Monday 17th August 2009, St. David's Head, Pembrokeshire
Before leaving our campsite near Enniscorthy yesterday, where we had lingered to enjoy a coffee outside in the sunshine, we called on the owner of the campervan pitched beside us to say how much we'd enjoyed the free accordion concert that accompanied our coffee. It really had been excellent as he sat outside his twenty year old camper van playing Irish melodies, but also eastern Europe ones and several German ones we recognised. His partner turned out to be a German lady from Augsburg. They were both friendly and informative. From them we learned a lot about the financial difficulties facing Ireland where everybody has been living on credit for years and they are now up to their ears in debt. They all borrowed money that was being thrown at them to built their luxury pebble-dashed bungalows with their porticoes, Doric columns, wishing wells and stone donkeys pulling carts filled with flowering marigolds. Such homes are scattered right across Ireland – suburbia in the heart of the countryside, miles from a shop, school, garage, or a church even! There is no employment and no way for them to repay their loans so there will inevitably be repossessions. They will probably end up, like their great grandparents back in the 1840s and 50s, being evicted for being unable to pay their debts. We were told that the bungalows have kitchens costing, he claimed, 30,000 euros but the owners never use them, preferring to eat out on junk food. This we can well believe. Never have we seen so many overweight people as in Ireland! They get little exercise as they drive everywhere because their homes are isolated in the countryside. They never climb stairs in their bungalows; they adore junk food, fizzy drinks and beer. They smoke heavily and seem glued to their mobile phones. In the towns we see hugely overweight people clutching ice creams and the countryside is really dirty with the litter they strew around. Regrettably we have to say that the Irish, as a nation, are slovenly, scruffy, messy and unhygienic. On campsites they litter the grass with cigarette stubs, leave the showers and wash basins in a mess and almost never flush the loos. On the positive side, the streets may be full of drinks cans and wrappers, but there is remarkably little graffiti. Generally too, almost everyone we have come into contact with has been friendly, helpful and chatty so it makes us feel guilty being so critical. Our camping neighbours also told us the people from the republic go on shopping sprees up to Northern Ireland where everything is so much cheaper. They said they had been living in Germany until recently and were shocked at the high costs and dirtiness to be found in Ireland in recent times.
We set off for a leisurely drive on the final few miles of our journey to the ferry port. On the way we filled up with diesel. This really is the one thing that is cheaper in the Irish Republic. We paid 1.019 euros a litre making it around 15 pence a litre cheaper than in England.
Nearby, just north of Wexford, is Curracloe Strand, a stretch of coastal dunes with long sandy beaches. This is where they filmed Saving Private Ryan (or as Ian confusingly calls it, Saving Private Ryan's daughter) We found the beach to be dirty and crowded with tourists enjoying a rare few moments of sunshine. In the beach car park tinkers had set up camp with caravans, butane cylinders, their own noisy generators, dog kennels and half a dozen scrawny dogs wandering around amongst the rubbish. Why use Ireland to film the D-Day landings rather than Normandy anyway?
Just a short distance further along the coast we discovered the windswept but peaceful Wexford Nature Reserve where one third of the world's migrating white fronted Arctic geese over-winter. There are over 260 other species of birds amongst the reed beds and reclaimed marshes including Canada, Brent and Barnacle geese. Picturesquely known as North Slob, the land lies three metres lower than the sea from which it is protected by a dyke and the land is drained from a pumping station that forces the water out through sluice gates into the sea at low tide.
Sunday afternoon in Wexford is just like any other day with all the main shops open. We discovered an art exhibition where we were welcomed in and offered glasses of wine! We'd accidentally gate crashed a preview but chatted with the artist who told us he was a Pakistani medical doctor and this was his first art exhibition. If you are into cubism he definitely had potential. We enjoyed the exhibition but would not care to own one of the paintings. Hopefully there are others who would. We wished him luck and trotted on to discover the twin Catholic churches of the Ascension and the Assumption, commenced on the same day and designed by Richard Pierce, a student of Pugin. Ireland has a whole rash of impressive Victorian churches dating from the 1830s to 1850s following Catholic emancipation in 1829.
We continued to the ferryport at Rosslare. The evening ferry was loading and we considered changing our ticket and leaving immediately. We decided against it when we realise we'd have to pay a surcharge of 40 euros and would arrive in Wales at 01.30 in the morning. So we found a secluded corner in the ferry terminal car park near the beach to spend the night. After eating supper and watching the ferry lights disappear into the distance as it headed for the Pembroke coast, we spent the evening reading peacefully until it was time to sleep. For the first time in six weeks, we'd had 24 hours without rain! However, it rectified that during the night.
Today we had a smooth crossing on an Irish Ferries ship crowded with Irish families, each with around four children, on a day trip to Wales. The ferry was scruffy and battered and the toilets were unflushed. We have been spoilt by the professional approach of Brittany Ferries. Today's journey took half the time and cost nearly twice the price of our usual BF trips across the English Channel. We were really glad to drive off the boat at Pembroke and make our way around the coast before stopping for a picnic lunch.
Despite all my moans about the rain, the bogs, the hygiene and the bungalows we have really enjoyed our six weeks in Ireland. It was about the right length of time. We had no chance of becoming bored but managed to see many of the main sights of the country. It would have been good to spend longer in Belfast and to visit Galway but it's difficult to know just how long a tour around Ireland will take. We have unfortunately been dictated to sometimes by the accessibility of campsites which are invariably in the wrong places.