Travelogue - Day 2
Only sixteen u-turns today. Well, more, if you count the ones we did on purpose.every time we saw something, we'd zoom past, and have to make these slightly-less-than-safe u-turns on the narrow road to go back where we came from. So, we drove about 120 miles - roughly 60 of them in the right direction. Sometimes we even had to pass by something three or four times, in an attempt to find a place to pull over and not get killed. it's a bit of a trick!
We set off into the wild-green-yonder in high spirits this morning, after waking up at a completely human hour of 7am, instead of the 2am wake up time that normally accompanies jet lag. I'm not a morning person at all, so the bizarre habit that I adopt while on vacation of getting up before six am, is a source of endless amusement to Mark. Usually, I can't manage anything more than monosyllabic grunts before mid-morning and any attempt at conversation is met with blank stares and, occasionally, drool. I want to eat my toast in silence and leave for work without any interruptions and -- most importantly -- no chirpy companions.
I'm a morning troll. I don't even like the dogs before eight in the morning.
But, drop me in a foreign land on vacation and I'm Miss Happy Morning Sunshine. Up at the crack of dawn and raring to go.
Breakfast was lovely - the full Irish fry-up (including black and white puddings, one runny egg, two sausages, and rashers of bacon. Homemade breads, fruit, and tea). I adore Irish bacon and usually eat my share and then Mark's, while he's not looking. I've gotten forked in the hand more than once for trying to steal the last piece.
I'm quite sure that a "normal" breakfast in Ireland doesn't include the whole shebang (it can't possibly, everyone would weight 500 pounds); it's done for the tourists wanting that "authentic" experience, but it really is quite tasty, and will fill you up and keep you going until early afternoon. We're not much for breakfast at home, honestly -- yogurt and toast is about as fancy as we ever get), but sitting down to a hot breakfast every morning -- especially when someone else cooks it! -- is something I could get used to.
BTW, Black and white pudding are two kinds of large pork sausage -- one made with blood and one with milk -- served in thin slices. They're a bit of an acquired taste, and after the first few days I tended to beg off on the black pudding. I also refuse to eat the grilled tomato that arrives with breakfast. It looks like a giant blood clot. But the heavy, multi-grain bread that accompanies every breakfast is lovely stuff. I need to find a recipe for it at home, since I'm sure I won't find it anywhere in the stores.
Our plan for the day was to hit Trim first and see the enormous castle there, but we went a bit out of our way to see two castles (marked by red dots on the map) on the road outside of Athboy at the Lisclogher crossroads (pic 22-28). We saw only one of them - from the roadside, as it was in someone's field and we didn't know who to ask for permission to go tromping through gates - and took few pictures before heading into Athboy on the way to Trim.
The Dots Don't Lie
I suppose I should explain about the "dots" -- one of the primary reasons that I love traveling in Scotland, England, and Ireland is the enormous number of castles and ruins that pepper the countryside. I'm fascinated by just about anything that may have, at one time, been a castle; piles of ivy covered stones, a few stacked blocks in a farmer's field, a shapeless crumbled corner of wall. There are a number of good reference books to castles in Ireland, but by far the most comprehensive is a series by Mike Salter, outlining nearly all of the remains on a county-by-county basis . I spent quite a long time before the trip actually marking the location of each possible ruin with a sticky-dot on the map, and our travels for any given day often included huge detours to check out a cluster of dots "just over the next hill!"
However, we had totally forgotten that navigating in the countryside was a learned skill - we're used to signage that is repeated every fifteen feet and huge green arrows telling us where to go.Ireland has eeny-weeny signs, occasionally, usually at crossroads, but rarely at every one and just about the time you'd actually reach the town you're looking for, they fall off the signs, replaced by the next town further on. It takes a lot of guesswork.
Also, while the main roads have numbers ((R879 for example) they aren't actually known by those numbers. People refer to them as the name of the town they lead to - the Navan road, or the Dublin-Belfast road. This would be fine, except the available maps use the numbers. I have a feeling we'll be lost a lot more here in Ireland.
Attracted by the lure of the Dots, we tried to find the castle in Kildalkey, which we weren't able to see, but further along the road found both of the tower houses along the Tremblestown River. We only got remote pictures of them - since they lay deep on private land, one with the warning 'Beware of Bulls'. We decided to move on to Trim to be able to actually see a castle close up and get a start on our endless quest for ruins.
it's about this time that Mark begins to express some doubt in the validity and honesty of The Dots. "I don't know, " he says finally, "The dots don/t seem to be where they say they should be." I protest that the DOTS are exactly where they say they should be, but WE are obviously not finding them! The Dots do not lie! We are not being misled by the dots-- and besides, the scenery is lovely and we need a bit more practice with navigation, anyway. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!
Trim castle is only one of the ruins in this small town The castle is easy to find: it entirely dominates the landscape from just about any viewpoint, and with two main streets on which they are trying out a one-way traffic plan, pretty much any road will swing you by the car park. The castle itself has the keep and remains of the 10 or so wall towers and the separate great hall intact. You have to be with a guide (one of the nice Duchas people onsite) to see the inside of the keep, but the tour is quite nice and well worth the admission price (or, in our case, the membership fee for Duchas/OPW, which will let us in free to the rest of the sites owned by them across Ireland.)
Trim Castle is being maintained as a "ruin", meaning that they will not restore the castle, but will do what is necessary to preserve it in its current state and prevent any further deterioration. Most interesting, the roof of the tower has been 'maintained' by using the same kind of sail-like fiber roofing that the airport in Denver's roof uses - kind of funky to see on an 800 year old castle, but it's watertight, light, doesn't stress the building, and lets in a nice ambient light. They've added stairs and walkways inside to facilitate touring the castle, but they are all obviously modern and done without changing the basic fabric of the building.
Arranged around the keep and along the shores of the Boyne river are a number of other towers, the gatehouse, barbican, solar, and a water gate. It's all built with limestone, using powdered limestone and quickline mortar. A great introduction to the castle building tradition in Ireland!
Across the River Boyne, via the Millennium bridge, is the Sheeps' Gate - the remaining original city gate to Trim, and the Yellow Steeple - an abbey tower. Nearby is a convent school that is called 'ppppp castle'??? paths lead off through he fields to the other ruins in Trim - a cathedral in a large graveyard and a small keep and priory on the other end of town. We walked about a mile through the field and then into the residential streets on the far end of town. When we didn't see the church ruins, I persuaded Mark to walk back and attempt to find them via the main looping road. Arguing that we never knew how far things might be, and if we'd be able to find the car again is fairly effective!
We met a gentleman walking through the field with his dog and I was immediately shown that my minimal ability in Irish Gaelic was not up to an actual conversation with a native speaker. We shared a few words, but he spoke so fast! I managed a brief "Yes, thank you, we are american" and "have a nice day" and we were on our way. I think I understood about one of five words he said. Yikes! Admittedly, I'm a complete novice as Gaeilge, but I hoped it would be a bit easier. I just need to slow everyone down a bit. At least I can read road signs!
Not that it helped much today. We had to cross the same bridge four times to see the church ruins in Trim - we couldn't figure out where to park and even then, ended up just in the grass at the side of the road. Two men were trying to get ponies from the grazing around the cemetery into a truck - they were not happy we distracted the horses, and for a few minutes we felt like galumphing idiots. The church is nice, and there are a dozen more small irish crosses marking graves in the cemetery.
Jumping Fences and Feral Cows
From Trim we went on to Bective to see the abbey, following the directions from the nice Tourist office clerk who sold me a few books and some postcards. We drove right by the abbey (which is large, and in the middle of a field!) the first time, and had to u-turn back. We didn't see the gate, and - having been told that this is an OPEN ruin - went over/under the barbed wire fence to walk through a herd of cattle to the ruins. There is a pass-through in the metal gate, we later discovered, which would have been a bit easier (or at least spared my T-shirt, since I'm incapable of traversing barbed-wire without getting snagged. By the end of the trip, most of my new shirts have holes.)
Bective is a remarkably complete abbey, and our first exposure to the very standardized architecture of the different abbeys built in Ireland. The colonnade inside the walls - the ambulatory, or cloister walk that is common to nearly all abbey plans -- is remarkably complete. The open courtyard, known as the cloister garth, is surrounded by arched corridors that monks used for silent meditation and prayer. At this point, we don't really know much about the architecture, but by the end of the trip we can actually sketch out an abbey of each type and pick out the differences immediately, and note what sort of unique features each one has.
The abbeys sits in the middle of a farmer's field, surrounded by a very large herd of cattle. Now, I'm a city girl and being surrounded by enormous animals -- despite their slow, placid demeanor -- makes me a bit nervous. Cows are, for the most part, innocuous beasts, curious and utterly harmless. This is what I will tell you when I'm standing behind the fence. Once I'm inside the fence, however, my opinion is that they are stupid, easily prone to panic, and far too large to mingle with safely. As we wandered around the walled abbey, the field suddenly erupted in panicky moos and the noise of several dozen large cows thundering around the field and leaping over stones as a ridiculously tiny dog chased them, barking madly. We hid in the church until they settled down and we were able to creep back out to the road.
There is a simple warning for visiting any of these ruins, which often lay on private land and in the middle of huge fields: DO NOT enter a field with a bull. Just don't. He's faster than you are, and probably territorial. Aren't sure about that herd of cows? As The Rough Guide comments, "Check the undercarriage."
Also, the rules of public access in Ireland and different than those in most of the UK. For those walkers and hikers in England and Scotland who are used to free and open access to most fields, Ireland is more restrictive. Due to insurance issues related to the crumbling ruins that people (such as myself) go wandering through, many landowners have limited or completely restricted access to the castles on their land. Me, well, I'm blaming tourists -- apparently we're a litigious bunch. At any rate, if a castle or ruin lies in someone's field or farmyard, it is important to ask permission before trespassing. Many times, we did not see anyone nearby to ask, and in most cases we took the more polite (and probably more legal) option of taking pictures from the roadside only. We were likely overly-concerned about it. However, if you open a gate, close it, if you go over/under a fence, return it to its original state. Leave nothing behind. Don't make it harder for any visitors after you to have the same access by being rude or destructive.
The Kings of Ireland
We careened out of Bective to see the next "Dot on the map" - which (after some harrowing hairpin turns on a 1-lane road) we did indeed find, but it was raining heavily and we didn't even get a good picture. It's a huge tower house sitting in the middle of a farmyard, but no view we could find wasn't blocked by trees - the hedgerows are so damn tall it's impossible to see things from the road. If it hadn't been raining, I might have asked at the house, but it would have meant a muddy slog, so we kept on to the most talked-about site in Ireland, the Hill of Tara, the ancestral seat of the Kings of Ireland.
Which is... A Big Green Field.
I don't know what I was expecting, but there are no buildings and no remains on the rolling hilltop except a relatively modern church that is used as an 'interpretive center'. It was raining in heavy waves when we arrived, water rolling off the long grass in spumes like surf, so we waited out the worst of it in the little gift-shop/tea room, buying chocolate and cookies. The visitor center was closed, and the rain had driven away any but the most determined tourists, so when we ventured out as the rain dwindled to a bare drizzle, we had a half-hour on the hill to ourselves in blissful (if a bit moist) seclusion. There is something faintly majestic about the fields and concentric battlements, and you can see for miles from the top of the hill. The rain moved on, and the tour-busses arrived in clockwork fashion. We passed a group of 50 or more as we ambled back to the car.
On through Kilmessan town (which we visited about four times in our attempts to get around) and a lovely little picturesque church on the main street. Mark mentioned that it was picturesque and then drove right by - it wasn't until the second time through that I was able to convince him to stop! Hey! When you note that something would make a lovely picture, stop so we can take one! We kept on to Dunasany crossroads, hoping to get a glimpse of Dunsany castle. The castle is privately held and not open except for a few days - we hoped as a bank holiday it might be open, but no. And then on past to see Killeen castle which is completely covered in plastic sheeting and scaffolding - they are making it into a hotel and golf resort, I guess. Mark was astonished that I would want a picture and we had to undertake two rather hazardous u-turns trying to figure out where we could stop) and he was laughing when I asked him to stop by one of the gatehouses to Dunsany, even if we couldn't see the castle.
I'm not sure how I feel about the "repurposement" of this castle, or any castle. On one hand, I'm glad that the shell of the building can be saved and rejuvenated. On the other, it seems wrong to me to cut up and re-organize the lofty spaces just to make a hotel room and install plumbing. How much of the original fabric of the building can really be saved, when it must be updated and enhanced to include modern amenities?
I wanted to head to Gortrim to see whatever was dotted there, but we took a wrong turn and ended up driving down a one-lane, two-way road. We got a bit nervous when the hedgerows started to lean inwards and engulf the car. We finally stopped, completely surrounded by green shrubs and unsure where to go. “How in the hell did we get down here?" Going forward seemed a bad idea - the greenery just converged a few feet in front of the car. The only possible response was to back out. Before we could do that, though, Mark bolted from the car to get a picture -- for some reason, we are insanely amused by the narrow roads. No one at home believes us if we don't document!
As we carefully backed out of the green tunnel and made our way back to more passable roads, we were suddenly struck with amazement by the realization that enormous trucks trundled down these roads regularly. How on earth do they do it? A narrow car barely clears the green branches and stone walls. I can only imagine that they have big clanking brass balls and no fear whatsoever.
"No,, Not brass, " Mark commented grimly, as we narrowly passed an oncoming car by dragging the wheels in the ditch, ' Steel'.
It was at this point that Mark got very stressed about driving and descended into crankiness. We didn't stop for any more pictures. I think the first day of "high-stress" driving did him in and jet-lag was beginning to settle in as well. Giving up for the day (despite my pleas to stop at the side of the road to take pictures of "piles of rocks" in the nearby fields) we headed back to Athboy.
We had dinner at the Darnley Hotel in Athboy, a popular evening spot for the residents as well as visitors. Dinner was a bit of a free-for-all; tables and benches and stools were scattered around the first floor of the hotel, and the protocol was to just grab a menu and sit down somewhere, flagging down a waiter when you saw one. We found a tiny tea-table (perhaps knee height) and two stools near the fireplace and counted ourselves lucky to find them in the crowd. Mark had a fried chicken breast with potato salad and slaw and some brown gravy - and chips. And I had spinach tortellini.served with chips. I've never had potatoes offered as a side dish with pasta as a main dish before. The pasta had cheddar cheese on it, as did the lasagna the woman next to me ordered. Tasty, but odd.
I made a mental note to perhaps avoid italian food in an Irish pub. The food was good, though, and the noisy, convivial atmosphere was a fun for people watching.
We dragged ourselves back to the B&B and collapsed in the drawing room to enjoy the fire and the company of the other guests. We met up with the German couple also staying at the house (we never did see the two younger german girls again). Hans and Gisella are retired and travel extensively. They are spending two weeks driving around Ireland, and we had a lovely evening discussing gas prices, the relative size of American cars and European cars, and their plan to drive a caravan (recreational vehicle) around the United States next fall. Sitting in the enormous parlor, warmed by a peat fire, was a wonderful end to our evening.
One of the true joys of traveling is meeting other travelers and comparing notes and anecdotes from the places you've visited, and getting a unique perspective on the places you are in. We treasure the memories of sitting up all night talking politics and marriage and music and travel with people from all over the world.
Ok, maybe treasure is not quite the world I'd use for some of those nights. Drinking Scotch for seven hours and discussing wedding customs around the world..well, that might have been bit more painful than treasured, but we did have a great time. It's always interesting to hear how other people travel, how they view the world, what their opinion is on things. We try to avoid discussing politics -- but absolutely everyone we talked to wanted to talk about the war in Iraq, President Bush, and the American political process and the UK political process. It's considered quite rude to ask about someone's work, or discuss money in any way, but anything about international politics seems to be fair game and everyone has an opinion. It's rather refreshing.
When we finally excused ourselves, pleading exhaustion, we stumbled up to our room. It was still light outside when we turned off the lights and collapsed in heaps, dead to the world despite the twilight. outside.
lost in ireland 2005 travelogue and photos © rfingerson