Ireland, September 6-13 2015

Here are some of the key facts we learned about Ireland on our recent trip (“fact” being used rather loosely - more like “stuff we observed but didn’t want to bother verifying but that might be true"):

  • Irish law requires all signs to be posted in English and Gaelic, where Gaelic is a dead language that no one speaks, including the Irish.
  • Ireland has the highest per capita number of traffic circles in the world.
  • The ratio of cow herds to graveyards in Ireland is 22 to 1.
  • Sales tax (aka the EU "VAT" as it is lovingly known) in Ireland is a consumer-spending-discouraging 23%.
  • Irish roads are rated by the number of postage stamps that stretch across the road when laid end to end.  We were typically on a “37.” 
  • When you are on a road that is barely wide enough for two go-carts to pass each other and the speed limit is marked “100 Kilometers per hour” it’s not the law, it’s a Dare.
  • Corkscrew Hill on the road from Galway to Doolin has turns so tight that you pass yourself when you take them because the car itself  bends to take the turn.
  • The speed limit (aka Dare) on Corkscrew Hill is 100 KPH.  Seriously.  That really is true.
  • Cathedrals constructed over three centuries starting in the 1100's, with commanding views, soaring impregnable walls, and 90 foot tall towers were abandoned because they were “too drafty.”
  • Automatic transmissions are banned in Ireland because they are “too girlie.”  Or maybe because Volkswagen sells lots of cars there and likes manual transmissions for its "clean diesel" engines (ahem, cough cough).
  • Pubs in Ireland are required to have a “Guinness” sign out front.
  • Ireland has the highest number of pubs in the world, the highest per capita  number of pubs in the world, and more pubs than the rest of the world combined.
  • It is illegal to take a fist+ sized snow globe onto an airplane in Ireland.
  • Ireland - the entire country, north and south - has half the population of New York City but the people are about 165.8769 times more friendly.
  • Ireland really is green and thoroughly beautiful.

So, generally, Ireland was a little bit different that the USA.  The towns and cities are very European, being old if not ancient; that is, they have lots of small, two story, rock or brick buildings attached to each other with no gaps, occasional narrow alleyways and narrow streets.  Key word here:  narrow.  The intervening swaths between the cities and towns (which would be most of Ireland) tended to be either green pastures or grand estates, with the green pastures outnumbering the estates by a notably wide margin.  To mix things up, however, medieval ruins were plentiful (who knew?), particularly the faddish square “tower houses” or keeps that the small, warring clans built by the dozens across the country beginning in 1000 AD.  But we'll get to that - let's start at the beginning. 

Brie, Aidan, Alison and Dave flew out of Logan on an Aer Lingus Saturday-Sunday redeye.  Sleep on the plane?  No.  But not because the Aer Lingus flight attendants weren't fabulously jolly, it was that they kept feeding us!  Snack, meal, snack, drinks in between - it was great.  Plus they had a solid in-flight entertainment system.  Who needs sleep when you got all that? 

Anyway, Sunday morning (six hours of flying plus a five hour time zone change later) we landed and, after a slight tussle with an very earnest Customs agent because Brie didn’t have all the paperwork needed for an international student, we split up.  Brie and Aidan went to set up their new apartment with the help of Aidan's mom, Judy, while Alison and Dave took the Aircoach, a high end bus service with a low euro price tag, into Dublin.  That dropped us off a block from our hotel, Staunton's on the Green, which was across the street from Saint Stephen’s Green park (and lest you are wondering, no, we don't know who Saint Stephen was or why he was sainted but he's got a beautiful park replete with swans named after him).


It was too early to check in, so we dropped off our luggage and embarked on a self-guided walking tour of Dublin (“tour” = “wander aimlessly with delight”).  We walked through Saint Stephen’s Green with it's magpies, quaint park keeper's house, and tame waterfowl (some of whom had learned to be clowns to get food).  We then spotted a long, Diagon Alley-esque street lined with shops and pubs (in Dublin, every third building is a pub so every place is “something and pubs”).

"Awesome!" we said.  "Let's explore Real Authentic Dublin!"  So off we went, ready to immerse ourselves in some true Irish culture as reflected by the local goods and wares vended by true Irish folks.

And then, there it was.  Across the street, big as life:  THE DISNEY STORE, guarded by no less than Star Wars Storm Troopers.  And just around the corner was a Starbucks where (we are a bit ashamed of this) we drank Grande cappuccinos while listening to "Let It Go" from “Frozen.”

So much for an authentic Irish experience.



After a little go juice, we ventured intrepidly onward until we spotted the (thick) walls surrounding Trinity College.  Alison wanted to see the Book of Kells, which is on permanent display at Trinity.  It's a famous set of breathtaking illuminated manuscripts produced by Irish monks from the late 6th through the early 9th centuries.  Hoping to meet up with Brie and Aidan for brunch, though, we decided to hold on seeing it right then and instead we walked the campus while Dave mocked the plentiful modern art. Then we backtracked to a rather posh hotel, the Shelbourne, to meet up Brie and Aidan.  From there, we hiked to their favorite brunch spot, which turned out to be on the other side of Trinity.  So yes, we back-backtracked, then side tracked, and then just tracked.  



After eating, we back-back-backtracked back to Trinity, where Aidan had received his undergraduate degree in History and where his older brother, Kevin was a “Scholar.”   This is one of the highest academic distinctions one can get at Trinity.  While that was cool, what really impressed us was that Kevin now apparently has the right to eat breakfast for free once a month in a special dining hall, and to graze one sheep on the College grounds for the rest of his life.  Despite the obvious benefit of the latter, we, oddly, did not witness any grazing of sheep on College lawns while there.
At that point, we decided to take in the Book of Kells exhibit together. It was interesting but crowded (note for future potential visitors:  do take heed of the travel book's advice to go first thing in the morning and avoid said crowds).  But the real star of the show was the Long Hall, a vast library with two open stories of floor to ceiling (a very, very high vaulted ceiling) stacks filled with ancient tomes.  [Fun fact:  the Long Hall was the model used for the Jedi Archives in “The Clone Wars.”]  Afterwards, we strolled around the campus some more while Aidan explained why the College was built like a fortress with high walls, barbed wire, moats, and spiked steel fences.  Summarizing a bit, it was a Protestant college in a sea of Catholics.  It even has a rule saying it is ok to shoot Catholics with crossbows from Trinity's second story windows (apparently bolts fired from first story windows were not allowed because it wouldn’t be sporting).



Along the way we also spoofed a photo Rick Morris had sent us from the Trinity campus; found out that you receive an automatic “A” in a final at Trinity if you show up for it in an authentic medieval suit of armor; and did a bit more modern art mocking (ok, Dave did the mocking but everyone else appreciated his cogent critiques).

By then, we were pretty sure we had hiked most of the streets in Dublin, some twice, covering an area about the size of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (yes, that really is its name!), all on somewhere like six minutes of sleep the night before.  Nap time!  We later met up with Judy, Brie and Aidan for dinner at the Green Hen, a great little restaurant sandwiched between two pubs (there's a shocker).   This rounded out Sunday quite nicely.


The next day we started with a “full Irish breakfast” (Staunton’s is a B&B), something that was common at every place we stayed in Ireland.  Two eggs, any style, toast, black and/or white pudding (that’s not dessert pudding and its not for the faint of heart, it's… well, really, don’t ask, you just don’t want to know), a stewed tomato, two pork sausages, two strips of thick bacon, and baked beans, all remarkably consistent wherever you went.  Brie and Aidan met us at the hotel after breakfast, and we walked to a French bakery for some pretty tasty tarts and scones (because, you know, the full Irish breakfast was so small), then we did some shopping and further art mock- errr... imitating, followed by a late lunch.

Above: the Stephen's Green shopping center  Below:  Art imitating

Afterward, we walked to Brie and Aidan’s apartment (stopping to tour some of the Dublin Institute of Technology  (DIT) buildings along the way).  Their apartment is on the grounds of Griffin University, which houses students from a number of other Dublin colleges including DIT. 


Later that evening, the four of us met Kevin (Aidan’s brother), his fiancée, and Judy at O’Donoghue's, which was “their pub” (everyone seems to have “their pub” in Ireland, and it’s the best pub, of course, because it’s … well, their pub).  Musicians were playing (for drinks and tips)  -- two guitars, one Irish bagpipe, and one accordion.  The place was buzzing, beer was flowing, and Alison looked across the room and said “I know that person.”  Which she did, a foodie/restaurant owner from California who she met through her kids' grade school and who has been on the Food Network.  What are the odds, eh?


Tuesday morning, after the requisite full Irish breakfast, Brie, Aidan, Alison and I embarked on the next leg of our journey in a rented Nissan “Qashqui,” which apparently is the same thing as a Nissan Pathfinder but called a "Qashqui."  Except it was a diesel, had the driver’s seat on the "wrong" side of the car and, since it was a manual transmission, also had the stick shift on the driver's left, rather than right, side.  Added to everyone driving on the "wrong" side of the road, all of this was a bit of a challenge for Dave, the erstwhile designated driver for the trip.  But he actually adapted pretty quickly - in fact, it was kind of fun and Alison was appropriately admiring of his manly driving skillz!  We did get a little slowed down leaving Dublin because (after Aidan's mom Judy had expertly guided us to the main motorway), we turned on the otherwise excellent in-car guidance system which promptly took us off the main motorway onto a bunch of windy side streets.  Our fault, though:  we discovered two days later, by poking a lot of buttons, that we had it set to “shortest distance” rather than “fastest route."  "Shortest distance" is NOT the same thing as "fastest route."  Nope.  Not at all.
Soon enough, though, we were back on a motorway headed for Galway, with a way point set for Birr Castle.   Which caused us to immediately exit the  motorway and get on more windy streets that were narrower than most driveways in America.   Shoot, narrower that most sidewalks in America.  We drove through several villages, rolled through unendingly quaint countryside, passed a lot of pubs, and arrived at Birr Castle.  Where to Alison’s delight, they had “99's,” which are soft serve ice cream cones with a flake chocolate bar in them that cost 2.99 euro.  Why are they called 99's, you ask?  Aidan says it's because they used to cost .99 euro.  Maybe true, maybe not, don't care.  Those things were AWESOME.
Birr Castle was a surprise for a couple of reasons.  First, it wasn’t really a castle, more of a fine country manor house.  Second, its primary claim to fame was not fighting the bloody English or kicking the butts of a bunch of Vikings or even engaging in a pitched battle with whoever happened to be in the same area at the same time (these variations on "let's fight" make up a lot of Irish history).  No, Birr Castle was famous for being the abode of four generations of home-schooled nobility steeped in the study of science and engineering!  It was home to some of the earliest recorded experiments in photography and sported the largest telescope of its time (mixing the two, a Birr Castle widow somewhere along the way submitted so many photos of the telescope to photography competitions that they asked her not to send any more).

Birr Castle

The Telescope

Old oaks at Birr Castle

Alison, out on a limb.  Heh heh.

And the final surprise of Birr Castle?  You couldn't actually go in the castle.  It was still inhabited by the same family (which we speculate is related to Parsons Engineering, the big company based in Pasadena, CA), but you could walk the extensive and very pretty grounds.  And get a 99. 

After leaving Birr Castle, we continued on to Galway, where we met Richard, Aidan’s dad, who was visiting other extended family.  Galway is a harbor city on Ireland’s west coast. We stayed at the Parker House, a hotel/B&B near the city’s hub, 18th-century Eyre Square, which sported a park, shops and, of course, pubs. We met up with Richard at the hotel and set out to stroll around Galway.  It was sunny and fairly warm, the best weather they’d seen in months (according to Richard and just about everyone else we met), so a lot of people were out enjoying the park.  We continued past stone-clad cafes, boutiques and art galleries lining the winding lanes of the Latin Quarter, which still has portions of the original medieval city walls, stopping for dinner at Martine's Restaurant and Winebar.  Then we split up, with Brie and Aidan going with Richard to visit with him and Aidan's extended family for a couple days before we all met back in Dublin later in the week. 

Wednesday morning, we wandered again through the Latin Quarter to see the Spanish Arch, the largest remaining section of the old city wall from 400 AD, and on the way back we stumbled across a new excavation on the way back, the Hall of the Red Earl (Ireland is very Game of Thrones-ey in both its names and history!).

We then hopped in the trusty Qashqui and headed for the famous Cliffs of Mohar (pronounced “Rohan” … well, at least, that’s how Dave kept pronouncing it, but most people rather inexplicably say “More”), driving along very, very narrow roads with 100 KPH speed limits (Dares), a large number of double-decker tour buses, and double wide agricultural tractors mixed in with the rest of the traffic just to make it interesting.  Actually, we have to admit that “traffic” is kind of overstating things, since outside the towns you’d only pass other "traffic" once in a while … but when you did, it was truly exciting to hear the shrubbery on the side of the road scraping against the side of the Qashqui, said shrubbery-hugging required to avoid colliding with the oncoming vehicle at an combined relative speed of 200 KPH (about 125 MPH).  The Irish, by the way, do not believe in having shoulders on most  roads.  Waste of energy and space.
We passed several of the aforementioned “tower keeps” along the way to the Cliffs of Mohar (pronounced "Rohan").  Most of them were old and neglected, but Dunguaire Castle had sprucy signs, a parking lot, and people around it, so we stopped to check it out.  It was the only keep we came across that was actually on the coast, and had been renovated in the 1950's to serve as a home for a wealthy, outdoorsy and obviously eccentric Englishwoman named Christobel Lady Amptill, who was forced to leave England because she was constantly introduced as “Lady Lady Amptill" followed by snickering. The keep's "artifacts" were the furniture she used, so it wasn’t like seeing what a keep would have been like back in the 1000-ish AD times, but it was interesting.



We continued on to the Cliffs of Mohar (pronounced "Rohan"), drivebending up the previously mentioned Corkscrew Hill.  The Cliffs of Roh- errr... Mohar were fabulous:  breathtaking views from 1,000-foot rock cliffs with no safety railings and, every few hundred feet, pictograph signs warning you not to fall off the edge (which, frankly, seemed kind of obvious).  [As an aside, they also sold T-shirts with the same pictograph symbol, but on a souvenir T-shirt it wasn’t obvious if that meant “I saw somebody else fall off a Cliff of Mohar” or “I went to the Cliffs of Mohar and wasn't stupid enough to fall off a Cliff” -- a win either way].  We did the hike from the Visitor’s Center to a stone tower on Hag’s Head and back, a round trip of around 6 miles (lots of welcome walking in Ireland!), coming across spectacular views, spectacular views, strange balanced rock sculptures, and spectacular views.  Across the water was Aran Island, its lighthouse barely visible through the sunny but hazy blue sky.

Afterwards, we wound our way through Doolin, a small town just north of the Cliffs, to find the Ballinalackin Castle Country House Hotel, a large old manor house nestled below the ruins of the tower keep for which it was named.
Ballinalackin Castle (again, one of those ever popular square tower keeps) was built by the O’Brien clan in the 15th century; interestingly enough, the adjacent manor house, which is now the B&B, was built hundreds of years later by “Lord O’Brien” in 1840.  We assume there is a connection.

Anyway, the B&B was nice and quite comfortable.  But it had this odd thin metal cylinder that you had to stick in a hole in the door to get the door to open.  The desk clerk called it a “key.”  The coolest thing, however, was getting a private tour of the tower keep ruins which, like the Cliffs of Mohar (pronounced "Rohan"), had no safety rails, but unlike the Cliffs of Mohar (pronounced "Rohan"), had crumbling edges that felt like they intentionally hadn’t collapsed centuries ago because they wanted to take someone with them when they did.


We started off the next day with a short stop at Doolin Cave, which boasts the largest stalactite found thus far in Europe and was discovered by a couple of college students who were amateur cavers.  At Doolin Cave, we learned that when there’s a “safety feature” in Ireland, it’s not the typical USA “we don’t want to get sued so we’re going to wrap you in bubble wrap to avoid getting a teeny scratch.”  At Doolin Cave, it was hard hats all the way, which we initially took to be kind of gimmicky like, “oh, look, I’m a real cave explorer."  We  quickly were humbled, however, when those hard hats saved both of us as well as all of our fellow cavers from concussions.  The cave had been widened just enough to get through, while leaving giant extrusions from the ceiling hidden in the dark that seemed designed to bash your head in.  As we followed the half dozen or so people in front of us, we quickly learned the cadence “clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, DUCK” as six people smacked their hard hats into overhanding rocks, one right after the other.

We then headed for the coastal city of Waterford by way of the Rock of Cashel, taking a short cut through Limerick (note:  the car was still set to shortest distance instead of fastest route).  The Rock of Cashel was OMG impressive from a distance:  a large, grey, brooding set of square and round towers, multi-story peaked windows that looked like empty eye sockets, and a surrounding wall that looked like it could hold off invaders until the next Ice Age.  It was such a weird mix of Cathedral, Castle, and Mad Scientist Laboratory chic that “the Rock” seemed like an appropriate name.  It had a sense of mass and permanence you could feel from twenty miles out.  Inside the walls, the buildings were set on an outcrop of limestone and included the 12th century round tower, High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, 13th century Gothic cathedral, 15th century Castle and the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral.

But - it was a massive ruin (except for that restored bit).  Apparently an Archbishop sometime in the 18th century decided that the Rock was “too drafty” and moved the seat of the Archbishopric (or whatever it was) to a smaller building in the center of Cashel, taking the roof off the Rock for some unexplained reason as he left.  Rain and casual sacking of the abandoned complex took care of the rest.
Two other things that were interesting, though.  One, people are still being buried there (although you had to be on a waiting list since 1930 … not sure about the math on that one).  And two, looking out from the Rock, you can see a number of other ruins dotting the countryside that look pretty impressive in and of themselves but that aren't in the travel guide, on the map, and have absolutely no markings or indication of what they had been back before the ruining.

We went on the city of Waterford, which turned out to be the high point of the trip.  Not because of Waterford Crystal (which we didn’t visit until the next day), but because of Waterford Castle, where we stayed the night.  Once again, Waterford Castle is more of a grand country manor house in the Downtown Abbey/Agatha Christie/PG Wodehouse tradition rather than a castle per se.  But what a manor house!

When we hit the outskirts of Waterford, the Qashqui’s navigation system was acting up because it was saying we were 20 minutes out from Waterford Castle (located at “The Island, Waterford”), and the city just wasn’t that big.  Five minutes later, we discovered the reason, when we came to be sitting and waiting for a car ferry to take us across to what turned out to be an actual island.  And the ferry ran every 15 minutes, thus the reason for the ETA estimate.  Gold star for the navigation system!

Waterford Castle was, in a word, amazing.  Our exquisitely tiled bathroom was large enough to host a formal ball.  The bedroom featured a massive, comfortable, antique four poster bed with a canopy, twenty foot ceilings, a few sitting areas, other antique furniture scattered around, and had to be at least 1,000 square feet in size.  There are houses that size.  There was fresh fruit, red roses in vases, and chocolates on the pillows.  It literally felt like you had time travelled back a hundred years and become the Duke and Duchess of Earl.  Or Waterford.  We had dinner in the formal dining room, which was elegant, grand and had quiet music from the thirties' playing in the background, and the food was excellent.  In the morning, we had the (wait for it…) full Irish breakfast in the sun room, while the staff was busy setting up for a wedding in the main dining room.  All in all, a pretty awesome stay.

Her magnificentness, Cornelia Smugness Thistlebottom, Duchess of Cornwall

Our room did not include a toilet, it included a Washdown Closet

We reluctantly checked out and headed for Waterford proper, where we toured the Waterford Crystal factory (which was interesting, even though the vast majority of Waterford Crystal is now produced in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, and the company itself is now owned by a Finnish group) and the town center, including Reginald’s Tower, which was built by Harry … no, just kidding, Reginald.  Reginald’s Tower was built in 1003, as part of the city wall, by Reginald (or Ragnall), son of Ivar, the Norse king of Waterford. 

Waterford seemed proud of its Viking heritage, in contrast to most places in Ireland, including Dublin, where the Viking "invaders" are reviled.  For example, there’s the story of the famous Battle of Clontarf that every Irish schoolchild learns about, when the High King of Ireland in 1014 AD, Brian Boru, defeated the evil Viking leader Sitric and kicked the Vikings right out of Ireland.  Except that, in reality, Brian had Viking allies; Sitric was from a line of mixed Viking/Irish lineage that had already been in Ireland for two centuries; Sitric was married to Brian’s daughter; Sitric's mother had been married to Brian; and Sitric retained control of Dublin after the battle.  While Sitric, per the standard line, supposedly lost the battle, Brian lost his life and Brian's eldest son and heir lost his life soooo … Sitric seems like the big winner to us! 

We are guessing, based on intensive research (reading placards in a museum and making stuff up), that the true confabs leading up the Battle went more like this: 
Sitric to Mael (Irish King of Leinster): Let’s rebel against High King Brian!
Mael:  But we’ve given our oath to follow him to the ends of the earth!  And he's your father-in-law!
Sitric:  But dude, he's a jerk!  And it’s been weeks since I’ve lopped off a head or even stabbed someone!
Mael:  Point taken… ok, IN!
A few days later:
Brian, the High King, to one of his Viking Allies:  My ungrateful son-in-law, Sitric, the King of Dublin, is rebelling!
Viking Ally:  High King, I believe there is a peaceful diplomatic solution that will cost little and save countless lives!
[Laughter from everyone including the Viking Ally]
Brian:  OK, anyone need time to take a whetstone to their ax?  No?  Good, let’s go kill some people!


Inside Reginald's tower, and to the right a 12th Century Dog collar on loan from... 

Our drive from Waterford back to Dublin was a fast ride mostly because we finally had the navigation system set to "fastest route."  Because of our morning touring, however, we didn't arrive until late afternoon, meeting up again with Brie and Aidan to do some shopping for their apartment.  We finished up with a lovely and relaxing dinner with Aidan's family at their favorite local restaurant.

The next day, we visited the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, and found out why none of the other historic sites in Ireland have anything on display:  the National Museum has them all, with over two million artifacts (no, not all of which were on display) (and this is where the dog collar at Reginald's museum was from, although it did not register at the time).  It was an incredible museum, partially because it was laid out so artistically, partially because of the fascinating display of items from the last three thousand years and the stories behind them.  One area displayed a number of Bog People, which are not hideous creatures from a horror movie like it sounds, but the mummified remains of people who died (usually violently) and whose corpses ended up in peat bogs, which act as a natural preservative them.   The jewelry and metalwork on display from the 400's was also intricate and beautiful.


We followed this High Art trip with a more lowbrow pursuit:  a trip to the Guinness beer factory!  The Guinness factory tour impressively managed to turn the relatively basic chemistry and industrialized process of making insane quantities of beer into an attraction worthy of Disneyland. 


That evening, Brie and Aidan went to a rugby match (Irish man:  “I haven’t bashed a skull in in days!”  His friend:  “Let’s go play Rugby!”) while Alison and I had a very posh dinner at Thorntons, atop the Fitzwilliam Hotel.  They served things like “pan seared iguana tongues with venus flytrap puree.”  Dave had sea scallops with coral foam and, of course, asked if this was in fact the kind of coral that lived under the sea (answer:  yes).  However, we think it really was coral-colored mushroom foam, based on the umami taste of it....

 The next day we met Judy and Richard at Dublin Airport (we were all on the same flight back) and returned to the States.  All in all:  a great trip!