Ireland Through New Eyes
Diane Warriner immigrated to Canada in 1966 from Northern Ireland. Until this summer she had returned to Ireland only twice for short family oriented visits. Her recent travels, which covered both Northern Ireland (Ulster) and most of the Republic of Ireland (Eire) has given her a fresh perspective on the Ireland of today. Diane is a former school teacher who is presently pursuing a masters degree in Adult Education. She and a partner own a training and development company called AMARYLLIS ASSOCIATES.
The content of this introductory article was adapted from The Story of Ireland by Victor Kelly
Setting The Stage
Ireland was first settled in 4000 BC by the Mesolithic people, who clung to the coast as fisherfolk and left little impression on the environment that remains. They were followed by the Neolithic people who made the perilous
journey from the Mediterranean Sea through Ibernia and France to Ireland. They brought agriculture and manufacturing skills with them, and because of their deeply religious nature built huge stone megaliths as monuments to their dead. These still stand in many high areas of the landscape.
During the half millenium before Christ, European people loosely known as Celts, started arriving in Ireland and the last of these were the Gaels, a superior warrior class with advanced iron-working skills. They established dwellings ranging from earth ring forts encircling single farmsteads, to great hill forts surrounded by stone walls and ramparts which housed many. Although their emphasis on military valour encouraged political disunity among rival kings with small kingdoms, they also excelled in the field of art.
On the edge of the then known world, and away from barbarian raids and Roman Legions, they developed the beautiful intricate patterns of spirals and curvets wrought in metal and stone as decorations.
In the early fifth century A.D., St. Patrick and his followers brought Christianity to the Gaels, and from then to the ninth century, Ireland was known as the land of Saints and Scholars. Many beautiful religious pieces were produced in metal, sculpture and parchments combining the Celtic abstract designs and the Christian stories. The seventh century Book of Kells displayed in Trinity College Dublin is an exquisite example of this work.
The ninth century brought the Vikings, who raided monastic settlements and castles, and carried off armour, metalwork, and the occupants to be sold as slaves. Spoils from these raids are still discovered in newly excavated Scandinavian grave sites.
These settlers never intended to colonize Ireland, but to establish trading settlements in large coastal towns, and they behind a legacy of coin usage, marketing and maritime trading skills.
After the Vikings were more or less routed by a united gathering of petty kings and their followers, disunity among rival factions began again .. and one disgruntled king appealed to Henry II of England for aid. The influx of Anglo-Norman knights sent by Henry produced a powerful ruling class in Ireland and this made Henry assume the Lordship of Ireland for England to keep his knights in check.
By the thirteenth century all but the remote and wild west was under Anglo-Norman occupation. But the Irish stubbornly refused to adopt their ways; and as England left the knights isolated and unsupported for long periods of time, they gave up as rulers, married into Irish families and adopted Irish ways.
The Normans‘ contributions to the Irish culture were .. designed towns, centralized government, and a jury system. They also built magnificent castles and religious buildings still very much in evidence today.
By the fifteenth century, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, the English influence in Ireland had been reduced to a small area known as “the Pole”, which stretched around Dublin. Catholic Ireland had become significantly attractive to the enemies of the reformation, so Elizabeth decided to subdue the Irish, starting with Ulster in the north.
In 1607 the Rout of the O’Neils made way for her successor James I to ‘plant’ Ulster with loyal Presbyterian Scots and Anglican English settlers. This plantation changed both the culture of Ulster and the history of Ireland. Although the original wave of settlers were wiped out by the avenging dispossessed Irish; Ulster had a Protestant majority by the late seventeenth century. The settlers brought with them an alien culture of “Godliness through industry”, village networks clustered around fortified enclosures for defense, and life centered around the town core (the diamond) for trade and commerce.
Protestant infiltration continued after Oliver Cromwell defeated Charles I in England and then invaded Ireland in 1649. Large numbers of Irish Catholics were massacred, thousands forcibly deported and their lands given to English Protestants.
This influx was further entrenched by the defeat of Charles’ son James II by the Protestant English King William of Orange in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne. This victory is still celebrated annually in July in the North of Ireland.
The Anglo-Irish control, called the Ascendancy, was established by imposing crippling economic and religious sanctions against all who were not Anglican. In response to this oppression, Catholics and Presbyterians formed a fighting force called the United Irishmen and with the help of France they rose in rebellion in 1798. This was quickly crushed by the superior English armies. The now powerful Anglo-Irish who had large land holdings, allowed their tenants to divide their already small farms into minute holdings, thus increasing their rental income. Demand still exceeded supply due to a rapidly increasing population, and the gentry acquired great local power and status.
Then the potato blight struck between 1846 and 1850, and because potatoes were the main crop, starvation and fever killed one million people and another million fled the country to England or North America. Those landlords not ruined by the famine, sold their estates at a loss to the British government to escape this “green, damp, forbidding country”.
By 1914 various British governments had transferred back three quarters of Irish land to the descendants of the original tenants.
All that remains of the vanished ruling class are huge mansions and estates open to the public and maintained by local authorities.
At the height of the Anglo-Irish rule, Dublin was the jewel of Georgian culture, but by the early twentieth century Belfast in Ulster became the most prosperous city in Ireland. The entrepreneurial values held by the mainly Presbyterian north, had promoted shipbuilding, engineering, rope-making and linen manufacturing concerns. Belfast’s commercial communities were convinced that Ulster’s prosperity lay by remaining tied to Britain.
Still the majority of Ireland demanded HOME RULE and British Prime Minister Lloyd George was hard pressed to come up with a solution to the Irish problem. As a temporary solution, he proposed PARTITION and six counties became Northern Ireland and a part of Britain, while the remaining twenty six counties became a separate republic in 1921. This partition remains today.
After the partition of Ireland in 1921, the six counties known as Northern Ireland remained fairly quiet until 1969. In August of that year riots broke out in Belfast and Derry, and British troops were called in to keep the peace. The fighting occurred between those who wished to have a united Ireland with no British interference (mainly Catholic), and those who were staunchly opposed to uniting with Eire or severing the ties with Britain (mainly Protestant).
In 1972 the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont was suspended and direct rule from London imposed and British soldiers have remained in the North ever since. Continuing acts of terrorism by both sides of the dispute led to severe law enforcement by the British. In 1986 Margaret Thatcher (British Prime Minister), signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with The Republic Of Ireland (Eire) which gave southern Ireland a stronger voice in northern affairs. This has not been accepted by the Protestant majority in the north.
My trip to Ireland this year had a dual purpose. Firstly, it was a journey of re-discovery for me to travel the old routes and explore those areas I had never visited. Secondly, I was anxious to show off my country of origin to my husband who had only heard my version of Irish life and as a rural sociologist he was very interested in observing it all first hand. We decided to keep family visits to a minimum and travel around the country using the plentiful Bed and Breakfasts as resting points. Our journey started in the North-East where I spent the first twenty-four years of my life, mainly around the Belfast area.
The northern outskirts of Belfast, where I grew up and the southern outskirts where we were based at my cousin’s house, have changed very little. Upper middle class life still dominates with well kept houses and gardens ablaze with roses of every shape and hue. Neighbours still exchange pleasantries with each other as they trim their lawns and hedges.
The noticeable changes were in the centre of the city which contains the government offices, department stores and the beautiful city hall surrounded by lawns and benches for public use. When I was young woman working as an Ordnance Survey draughtsman my friends and I would eat our lunch in the crowded grounds of city hall in the summer all the while wiping the soot particles off our clothes and faces. The soot is gone, Belfast is now a smokeless zone with no coal burning allowed, and the area is devoid of cars. The benches are now empty, the dome of city hall is draped with a huge white banner with: BELFAST SAYS NO written in red letters across it. (This is in response to the 1986 Anglo-Irish Agreement). Two large barriers block the main shopping area entrance and these are only raised for buses to pass through after an official conducts a walk through bomb search. The department stores also have security guards who look through your purse or bags, on all doors.
My relatives assured me that things had really loosened up compared to the early 1970’s when bombings and killing were at their worst. I still found the atmosphere oppressive and unfamiliar, especially the continual hum of the surveillance helicopter above and the constant patrolling of fortified police vehicles. I thought how difficult it must be for them to trust in a country where everyone looks the same as you.
While looking around the grounds and statues at city hall, I came across a monument to commemorate certain passengers and crew on the Titanic who had lost their lives helping others. The Titanic was built in the Belfast shipyards, as was the Canadian Bonaventure, and one of our family stories was about my grandfather being invited as a guest to the launching and small trip down Belfast loch. This story always ended with “thank goodness they didn’t invite him on the maiden voyage!“. I had never noticed this monument before and I found the slightly staid inscription after the long list of names quite moving.
Their devotion to duty and heroic conduct through which the lives of many of those on board were saved have left a record of calm fortitude and self sacrifice which will ever remain an inspiring example to succeeding generations. “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends“.
This was one example of many layers of history superimposed in one area that I came across constantly in this ancient land and as we progressed on our journey we became quite disdainful about events that only happened in the nineteenth or twentieth century.
In contrast with the empty gardens was the busy shopping area. I particularly noticed the variety of goods, especially food, which were not available when I was growing up. The entry into the European Common Market had brought greater selections of foods, but I was shocked at the prices compared to here in Canada, in fact many items were more expensive. Healthy eating is in vogue and there were many vegetarian and ethnic restaurants , particularly around the university district. When I left Ireland, Chinese restaurants were just coming in, and they served chop suey and chow mien with chips (french fries) in order to survive. The usual morning fare was an Ulster Fry which consisted of fried bacon, eggs, tomatoes, sausages, and potato bread which was fried in the bacon grease. Now everyone eats muesli and yogurt, and the only place to get a fry is at a bed and breakfast. Fish and chips were also very popular, so I was amazed to meet people coming from the local fish and chips shop eating East Indian take out orders. The old menu is still there too, but you can have curry sauce on your French fries! European holidays are now the norm and an appreciation for other culinary delights is developing.
Another change is occurring in the poorer areas which surround the city centre, both Catholic and Protestant. Many of the old row houses built around the factories in the last century were destroyed by the two warring factions in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This caused great trauma and hardship at the time, but now in their place new houses have been built and I was impressed with the change they made on the urban landscape. Instead of the graffiti and political paintings I used to see in the old entrenched battle areas, I saw a notice on the end wall of the new housing which read “This corner is out of bounds to hoods and gangsters” erected by the residents of the complex. A small example but a start in the right direction.
My cousin, who has a high government position, toured us through the worst sections of the city centre and showed us the so-called PEACE WALLS that were built to keep Catholic and Protestant areas apart. It was a very depressing sight .. with houses close to the wall on either side bricked up as no one wants to live in them.
The dilemma is that crowding is occurring, especially in the Catholic districts, but neither side will give in to use these large tracts of no man’s land for housing and development. One ray of hope was a poster I saw often displayed advertising to Belfast youth who are fed up with sectarian violence to come to a series of meetings.
Gains are slow for reformers and every killing that occurs sets the process back a step.
We were horrified when we saw on television, while we were in Belfast, that a thirty year old man was beaten to death while walking his dog at 2:00 am, by a group who had been cruising around in a car looking for someone to pick on; but my relatives hardly noticed …. In order to survive, they have developed a screening system which filters information through which fits how they see themselves and their world.
The THEM AND US model helps them go to work, socialize with their friends, holiday abroad and forget it is happening. My cousin was genuinely surprised when he asked us “Now sure its not as bad as they depict it in the media, is it”, and we answered gravely “yes it is!”
To my great relief two things had not changed since my youth. The first was the generosity of people we found wherever we went. When I asked directions from a woman who was loading a man in a wheel chair into a taxi, she finished her task, jumped into our car and took us there. She refused any offer of a ride back and cheerfully set off home after wishing us a pleasant stay. Another time I admired the shamrock embroidered tablecloth of our hostess while we were having tea. She immediately whipped it off the table, put it in a bag and apologised in case it was dirty!
Secondly, the sense of humour is still the same. A dry sense of humour that gets you through any bad situation. One scary evening in downtown Belfast we decided to take a taxi home. This was after we had witnessed three ruffians break a plate glass store window in an empty street except for them and us (where are the army and police when you need them?). Another factor that influenced our choice was the announcement by the waitress at the EUROPA HOTEL just as we finished our meal that the hotel had been bombed twenty seven times. Getting a taxi is in itself a formidable task because there are Catholic and Protestant big black taxis and you could end up at the wrong stand, although we were assured visitors were safe (I vowed to keep my mouth shut to hide my accent). We ended up in a glass fronted store with hard wooden benches all the way around. Taxis would drive up and take those close to the door and everyone else moved up. I was seated beside a young man who made the hour long wait fly by. He would wait until the place was quiet and remark, “these seats were commissioned by PREPARATION H” the room would erupt with laughter and when the time was right, as when a police vehicle slowly cruised by with two serious looking policemen staring in, he quipped at us “did you order the big blue taxi?”. He brought the house down when he said “I bet you could get a condom quicker in Dublin than a taxi in Belfast!” at this point our taxi arrived.
The next day we set off out of the city past all the road checks to see if the rest of the country had changed as much ..
We left Belfast and the checkpoints bristling with guns and headed up the spectacularly beautiful Antrim Coast. So far the weather had been good and my husband began to question the need for all the rain gear we had brought and my doom and gloom predictions of imminent downpours.
Driving beside the ocean we reached Cushendun where, as a child, I spent most of my summers, until at twelve years old I became bored with sitting on the stone bridge looking across the sea to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, which is only twelve miles away at that point. Everything looked even better than I remembered, the quaint Cornish styled cottages built by Lord Cushendun in memory of his wife Maud, who came from Cornwall, the three hotels on the bank of the river Dun where it meets the ocean, and the lobster pot markers bobbing off the shore.
In my early twenties I would return regularly to Cushendun for weekends with a group of friends and stay at McBride’s Hotel, which used to be an old mill. In the “Blue Room”, named because of the bright blue chipped high gloss painted walls (sadly over wood panelling); We had the most wonderful singing sessions which lasted far into the night. Folk music and in particular Irish rebel songs were in vogue then, as this was the early sixties and political unrest was just beginning. At eleven-o-clock the local policeman would chase us all off to our rooms, and our hostess, Mary McBride would dutifully put up the shutters and dim the lights. After a respectable time, usually about ten minutes, we would all tip toe back down and continue the party. The bar was a table with an oil cloth cover and the musical instruments varied with the talent and availability of the guests.
Henry Andy, a very old fisherman, sat in a seat of honour in the corner by the fire with a small glass of Bushmills whiskey, which was always full, in front of him. Avid fishers kept it that way because Henry Andy knew all the places on the river where the salmon were. He told me once he had sailed to Vancouver when he was a cabin boy and had stayed at the Anchor Inn. This meant nothing at the time but when I first lived in Vancouver, the old inn was still standing in Gastown and I remembered his tale. Rumour had it that one night he ran out of matches for his pipe, left the Blue Room to get some, and returned two days later. When asked where he had been he casually replied, “It was a nice night so I sailed over to Scotland and met an old friend in a pub“.
Today Cushendun has been taken over as a heritage village, hence its state of good repair. The middle hotel of the three is a seniors’ home, McBride’s hotel is run by Mary’s son, and the famous “Blue Room” is just another slightly shabby lounge serving drinks and snacks. I was told that in the last twenty years the area was known for its nationalist sympathies, gatherings after legal drinking hours were banned. I’m sure the close proximity of the rest home also added to the “Blue Room’s” demise. Nevertheless we enjoyed a Guinness on the sunny but chilly shore and that, at least, had not changed!
Heading north we passed Rathlin Island where the Scottish king Robert the Bruce is said to have hidden in a cave from the English in 1306. The legend tells of how he was encouraged to rally his troops again after watching the patience of a spider spinning its web. The cave can be viewed but the boat trip over and back is pretty rough. We stayed the night at Ballycastle where, in 1898, Marconi had set up the world’s first radio link from the island to the lighthouse. Ballycastle was still a popular sea-side resort when I left Ireland, but although still busy, it looked run down to me.
Tourism in Northern Ireland has suffered greatly because of the conflict, but also trips to Spain and Portugal are cheaper and warmer for Ulster holiday makers.
I watched that North Atlantic water, now starting to look grey and forbidding as the weather deteriorated and gave an involuntary shiver. I learned to swim here and I remember those days of blue goose bumps and skin rubbed off by sandy towels wielded by my enthusiastic mother who chose to ignore my whining. I made a vow never to enter that water again unless dressed in a wet suit!
We were well equipped with rain gear the next morning as we walked the mile long path that led to the plank and rope bridge which links tiny Carrick-a-Rede Island to the mainland. The island has a 350 year old salmon fishery on it and the bridge is about 25 metres (80 feet) above the inlet. We and some sheep were the only visitors and once we had braved the swaying bridge in the wind, the peacefulness and beauty of the scene was breathtaking. The fishery consisted of one little cottage with curtains of nets hanging outside. Cages to catch the salmon as they swim round the island were visible but otherwise there was no sign of life. The bridge was as I remembered it, but before, my only interest as a teenager was to dare my screaming friends and myself to go over the bridge while someone shook it at one end. Then, I saw neither the scenery or the salmon. Now, I thought about the saying “youth is wasted on the young” and smiled.
Another natural curiosity was only 8 km (5 miles) further up the coast called the Giant’s Causeway and we were impressed with the new visitors’ centre full of displays and an audiovisual exhibition explaining the honeycombed basalt columns which extend far out to sea. The scientific explanation is that the quick cooling of the volcanic lava when reaching the ocean caused these strange formations, but legend says that the giant Finn McCool made the road to Scotland in order to visit another giant. Apparently the Scottish island of Staffa has similar columns which run into the sea towards Ireland. By the time we had scrambled over the rocks a fine mist had turned to torrential rain and as I slipped over the stones in a vain attempt to get out of the rain, I thought they looked remarkably like an intricate man made road.
A recent discovery in that area, in 1967, is the 16th century GIRONA, a Spanish Armada galleon which was carrying a huge cargo of gold and jewellery. After a long and bitter debate with Spain as to who owns what, Spain persisted and consequently only a small display of the artifacts can be seen at the Ulster museum in Belfast.
Another 3 km (2 miles) brought us to the village of Bushmills where we immediately made for the famous distillery which got its licence in 1609, shortly after James I granted the Scottish settlers, which included my ancestors, the lands of Ulster. By this time the rain was chilling and we were glad to sample the hot whiskey toddy offered at the end of the tour. I was shocked to hear the distillery had been sold at least twice in the last two decades, once to our Seagrams, and more recently to Pernod of France, but it was pointed out to me that economic boundaries are blurring in the European Community. One comforting piece of information was that the village had been declared a heritage site the very week we were there.
Our last stop for the day was at Dunluce Castle, 5 km (3 miles) further on, near the sea side town of Portrush. The castle sits on the edge of limestone cliffs flanked by the ocean and surrounded by a large golf course with a spectacular view. It was originally built in the 13th century by the Normans and captured in the middle ages by the MacDonnell clan who enlarged it in order to rule the area from it. One stormy night in 1639 when they and their followers were gathered for a huge banquet, the kitchen portion fell into the sea taking the servants with it. The Countess refused to live in it again and the castle was allowed to fall into disrepair. Today it is being skilfully restored. I told this story to my cousin Peter when we were younger and with typical Irish humour he replied, “So what did they do, send out for a pizza ?”
The next day we set out for historic Derry which has been in the news as regularly as Belfast in recent troubled years.
The history of Ireland is comprised of layers of events that are often found in close proximity to each other, and the town of Wexford is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Wexford is situated on the east coast, south of Dublin, and was identified on maps as far back as 200 A.D. by the Greek geographer, Ptolemy. The Viking long ships were docked regularly for trade in the harbour they called WAESSFJORD ‘harbour of the mud flats’, but the continual silting of the harbour was a problem then and in this century this same problem caused the ferry businesses from Wales and France to move further down the coast to Rosslare harbour. The Vikings did establish a settlement at Wexford but in 1169 they were conquered by the Normans who built a wall around the town, part of which you can still walk around on today.
As we walked along the narrow streets lined with houses and shops in this ancient town we seemed to come across a layer of history every few hundred yards. In the Corn Market we passed by the home of the 19th century poet Thomas Moore who became a fashionable versifier in Regency England. His wit, charm and singing voice captured the interest of Lord Byron and Moore became one of his closest friends. Many of Moore’s songs became standards to be sung around the drawing room piano, and I can remember joining in “Believe me, in all those endearing young charms” on many a social evening as a young girl.
A few hundred yards further we came upon the Bull Ring used by the Norman nobility for bull baiting hence the name. In this same circle was a copper plaque commemorating an event that occurred there almost 500 years later. In 1649, 300 of the Wexford townspeople gathered in the Bull Ring to pray for deliverance from Oliver Cromwell and his invading English army, they were all put to the sword. In the centre stands a statue of a young peasant boy brandishing a pike. This is a memorial to the 1798 rebellion against the British which failed and took the lives of 20,000 Wexford County young men as well as some French soldiers. The book and subsequent movie, “The Year of the French” documents this brief rebellion.
A few more steps brought us to the site of the old rectory (now a drapery store) where Oscar Wilde’s mother, also known as the writer Speranza, grew up.
Leaving the Bull Ring we passed by White’s Hotel, which housed Cromwell and his troops for his brief stay on the coast, passed by King Street and the home of William Cody, the father of “buffalo” Bill Cody, the famous Wild West showman, and out to the harbour.
At the base of a large bronze statue of a man looking out to sea was an inscription dedicated to Commodore John Barry, founder of the American Navy, who left Ireland in 1760, aged 15, and settled in Philadelphia. Barry apparently became a legend in particular, distinguished himself during the American Revolution. Another piece of history lay at his feet, a wreath placed by John F. Kennedy in the early sixties when he came to visit his ancestral home close by.
By this time both of us were overwhelmed by the wealth of human experience we had been exposed to in such a small area, but the best was yet to come. I had read in a travel book that Selskar Abbey was situated in Wexford town. Not only was the first treaty between the Irish and the Normans signed there in 1169, but three years later the Pope sent the English king, Henry II to the abbey to de penance for ordering the death of Thomas A. Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was of great interest to me and as we picked up the key to the wrought iron gate from Mr. Murphy who lived just around the corner, I mused about the length of time England has spent trying to subdue the “indomitable Irish”, 700 years of trying to get them to conform with limited success.
We had the tranquil stone walled abbey and grounds to ourselves and it was easy to imagine what it must have been like back in 1172. Although the roof was gone and the inside walls were blackened by fire (Cromwell again!), the abbey was in a good state of repair and we could still climb up the narrow, dark spiral stairway to the top of the tower which gave us a lovely view of the town and the bay. From there I could see the ancient grave stones around the abbey and pick out the newer ones.
While travelling around Ireland we had found many ornate grave markers erected to parents by immigrant children from all parts of the world. The large stone marker I found lying flat to the ground was one of these, placed in memory of Dorcas Catherine McGee by her children in America and Australia. Dorcas died in 1838 in her forties and her husband James lived through the potato famine of 1846 until his death in 1864, aged 82. The tomb was also dedicated to three of her children who had died in their mid twenties, all after her, but the last name was the one that held my interest.
IN MEMORY OF ANOTHER OF HER CHILDREN
THOMAS DARCY McGEE
WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER OF CANADA
AND WAS ASSASSINATED IN OTTAWA (sic)
ON APRIL 7th 1868 AGED 43 YEARS
I still treasure this event as my personal discovery of another layer of history!
Ever since I was a small child, growing up in Belfast, I heard stories about kissing the Blarney stone. Usually the tales covered two categories, to complement someone for their “gift of the gab” or to berate those “silly Southern Irish and their daft ways”.
Although Ireland is a relatively small island, when I emigrated to Canada in 1966, I had never been south of Dublin. So on this holiday home I was determined to visit all the tourist spots, including Blarney Castle and judge it for myself.
We got a first glimpse of the castle through the green mistiness,, towering above the trees, drenched in rain. As we walked closer it became obvious that only the central keep was still standing, although it was still a large and forbidding edifice. The closer we came, the clearer grew the sound of music, haunting celtic music which hung in the air and echoed across the battlements to disappear into the mists of the forest. We discovered a group of young musicians, well wrapped up in Irish sweaters, playing in the great banqueting hall. These were all members of one family who support their studies by selling their tapes every summer at Blarney.
This was not a very hospitable spot, water streamed slowly down the green algae covered walls, but the music seemed to set the scene for the many listening tourists who stood in rapt attention. I found myself imagining how it must have been, the hall alive with people laughing and talking as they passed large platters of food down the long wooden tables while a large log fire burned in the huge fireplace at the far end of the room.
Using our direction sheet we climbed the 127 narrow steps to reach the battlements where the Blarney stone is set. The story goes that Cormac MacCarthy, head of the clan at that time, was a smooth talker, prone to flattering conversation which he used to win privileges from Elizabeth I of England. So famous were these utterances that the word “Blarney” became entrenched in the English language. (My Funk and Wagnell dictionary states that it means “wheedling flattery”)
As I stood on the battlements, at the back of a fairly long line, dressed in a long rain cape and carrying an umbrella, I wondered about my sanity. To actually pay money to queue up in the rain, lie down on my back (sans umbrella) and bend backwards down a crevice between the floor and the battlement wall to kiss a dirty old stone is not rational behaviour! I can’t imagine Queen Elizabeth submitted to these indignities, although they do say she was a bit eccentric. The smiling Irishman who holds you as you bend didn’t look that robust either!
But there was no turning back, although one American tourist did at the last minute. An expatriate who was too scared to kiss the Blarney stone? Inconceivable! So I let my husband go first, rationalizing that if he didn’t make it at least I knew the way back home to Belfast.
In a moment it was over – a quick sensation of cold rain hitting my face- the firm grasp of the “holder” – a few particles of sand or dirt on my mouth, and I was up again and smiling. We collected our certificates to prove we had been there (now part of my curriculum vitae) and headed off replete in the knowledge of our revitalized eloquence.
Our last trip was to the beautiful South West peninsula of Dingle. The peninsula’s three sides have long sandy beaches, rocky cliffs pounded by the Atlantic, and coastal plains chequered with stone walled tiny fields.
In one of these fields we discovered an early Christian site quite by chance. A small square of cardboard caught our eyes as we drove by. On it was scratched “PREHISTORIC BEEHIVES” and our curiosity got the better of us. The farmer’s son opened the gate for us and collected 50p each to view this spectacle. Halfway up the hilly field was a collection of stones, beehive shaped anchorite cells or CLOCHANS as they are known in Irish. These cells were inhabited by hermit monks in the early Christian period and are built of unmortared stones placed so tight against one another that no moisture can get in. The view of the ocean and surrounding countryside from this vantage point was breathtaking and even in the rain the feeling of tranquility permeated the very rocks.
We were heading for Dingle Bay, and in particular, the fishing village of Dingle to follow up on two interesting leads we had heard from other travellers. One was O’Flaherty’s Pub, a mecca of traditional music where jam sessions are held nightly in the summer and smoked salmon is served by the plateful. We rushed over at 8:00 pm and settled down in the large stone floored room to wait, as Mrs. Houlahan our landlady at the B&B warned us to get there early or we wouldn’t get a seat. Within the hour it was standing room only and ten musicians had arrived carrying a conglomeration of instruments ranging from tin whistles to guitars and banjoes, and a sole Irish drum.
The crowd was loud and lively but when a tune was played everyone would quieten down to listen. Irish music ends abruptly with no apparent warning, and these musicians would wander off musically with each taking the lead at one point or another but all would end perfectly with an uncanny precision. Many of the visitors in the audience were from the North, Catholics who told us they always came away in July to escape the parades and the violence that often accompanied the celebration of the Protestant victory of William of Orange in 1690. One young banjo player in a wheel chair had been shot as a young boy. “ah now, don’t be feeling sorry for him” said Dominic at the neighbouring table, “he’s been in that chair longer than he was out of it, so he doesn’t know any different.” We all had a memorable evening of laughter, conversation and wonderful music and sectarian violence seemed far removed from this jovial place.
The second reason we were in Dingle was to see FUNGIE, the Dingle dolphin. We had heard about the wild, bottle-nosed dolphin who arrived in the bay with his mother in 1985. When she died he remained, one of the few members of his species to live in solitude.
At breakfast we met a young couple who had swum with him in wetsuits the previous morning and they attempted to articulate the undescribable feeling they had when their eyes met his. We hurried down to the harbour to catch a boat out to the mouth of the bay. “Would you be after wanting to see our dolphin?” asked the fisherman, who refused to take any money until the end of the trip. Our scepticism soon disappeared when FUNGIE came right up to the edge of the boat. The next hour was magic, with the dolphin leaping, twirling and somersaulting while we all clapped and yelled and marvelled at this wild animal who seemed to take such delight in our company. Again politics and religious strife faded into significance as all of us on the boat shared in this almost spiritual moment between two species sharing this same special moment.
For me the Dingle visit and in particular, FUNGIE, was the highlight of the whole holiday. We left vowing to come back another year and to stay longer.