On the rails in Ireland


Riding a train is like looking at the 10,000 pictures your Aunt Ethel took of her trip to Des Moines. There are so many of them. And half of them are blurry. “And this is another building,” she says a tiny bit too loudly because she notices your head nodding and your eyes closing. “As you can see, I’m crazy about street lights, sidewalks, and pigeons, so I took pictures of every single one of them.”


Seeing Ireland by train is like that but only in the sense that you see a lot of the same things. What you see keeps you wide awake: hill after hill of rolling green, intense rain-drenched green; sheep moving across the fields like small fallen clouds; wind-sculpted rocks and boulders; castles and ancient ruins who stand guarding the past, grey, grim-faced, and fearless; flowers as wild as any you have ever seen; and fields of horses.


If you’re from Ireland, or have been in Ireland, or know anything about Ireland, you know that horses play an important part in Irish history and culture. I, on the other hand, did not know that.  You would think that someone with a great-grandfather from Ireland would know a wee bit more about the Emerald Isle. The explanation: one part of me is Irish; the other part is pure ignorance.


Heuston Station in Dublin


On our first day, we traveled from Dublin’s Heuston train station to Cork in the south. We passed nearby Templemore in  County Tipperary where my ancestor came from, or at least emigrated from. He landed in St. Louis, Missouri, set up a grocer’s shop, and eventually produced a grandfather for me.


At Cork we un-trained ourselves into a bus, which un-Corked us and took us to Blarney village to visit Blarney castle, home of the famous Stone. (Note to readers who are aging Boomers: Blarney, not Keith Richards.) We climbed the narrow spiral staircase up the castle ruins, gripping the thick rope hanging down from the top for balance. Up top, we walked around the parapet, as well as looked down at the ground through the large rectangular openings that run parallel to the walkway. The only thing protecting me and my camera from falling through were some widely spaced metal rods, which are maybe two feet below the top of the openings. I rarely worry about dropping my purse or camera until I get near gaping holes 90 feet above ground; then suddenly I have to wrestle with my valuables to keep them in my arms. Had I taken a picture of the gaps, I’m convinced my camera would have leaped from my hands to the earth below. (One of us clearly needs counseling. I think it’s my camera, but we both fear exposure, lack focus, and have days when we see the world with our lens cap on.)


Blarney Castle


Two men had to help me kiss the stone: a photographer who stood on my right, carefully blocking the view so no one else could get a shot, and a man on my left who sat in the ledge next to the gaping hole where the Blarney stone lies (possibly in more ways than one). To kiss the stone, I had to lie on my back atop a plastic liner. Obviously, at least to everyone who is not me, I shouldn’t have worn white pants. The kind man who had my back placed what I prayed were his very strong arms around my upper body and helped me scoot forward to grab the two metal rods running parallel to the wall. Finally, I lowered my head down, mercifully unable to see the now wire-thin rods protecting me from Mother Earth who beckoned me with a voice full of gravity. After one quick kiss, a peck really, I was pulled back up and gently pushed away so the next tourist could contribute to the Irish tourist industry. Since the official photographer stood in the only good spot for picture-taking, my only chance to get photographic evidence of the event was to buy the official picture. I did. However, when my brother kissed the stone, I held my camera over the shoulder of the back man, pointed it in the general direction, and got a fairly decent shot of him just before his lips made contact. It was a good thing I did, too, because in the official photos, my brother’s arm is blocking his face.


My brother prepares to kiss the stone.

I’ve never been so grateful for big hips. There’s no way they could fit through those rods.


Now that I have kissed the stone, I have been granted “a cajoling tongue and the art of flattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.


From Blarney village, we took the bus to Cobh with a short stop to see Saint Colman’s Cathedral and a longer stop at the Cobh Heritage Centre.


At Blarney Castle, you are tricked into thinking one kiss will turn you into a trickster, convinced by tricksters far trickier than you. But you walk away feeling good. Your heart feels lighter, and you don’t mind that your pocketbook does too. At the Cobh Heritage Centre, that light heart of yours gets broken.


Cobh (called Queenstown until Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1922) was the last port people on the unsinkable Titanic ever saw, and the first port survivors of the Lusitania saw after being torpedoed by a German submarine.


Inside the Cobh Heritage Centre: a million goodbyes.


Even more sobering is the exhibition on the Great Famine and Irish Emigration. In the six years of the potato famine (1845-1851) one and a half million Irish left their homes to build new lives abroad. From then until 1950, about six million people left, almost half sailed from Cobh. The pictures, videos, written accounts, and artifacts, all drawn deep from that well of sorrow called Irish history, tell a story that stays with a person. At least a person like me.


Read even a part of Irish history and you understand why William Butler Yeats said, “An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy.”


I practically slid out of bed every morning in our Killarney hotel.

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Next installment: Rings, cliffs, and fairy trees

43 thoughts on “On the rails in Ireland

  1. Loved this post, it brings back wonderful memories of our trip to Ireland. We didn’t do the Blarney Stone (not many in our group need more of the gift of gab) but heard that the stone was not cleaned in between. But I didn’t realize how beautiful the scenery around it in that area. Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Great post as usual. I love the paragraph beginning ‘Seeing Ireland by …’ it’s so evocative, I particularly like sheep being compared to small fallen clouds. As always I am looking forward to the next installment.

    • I read that in the old days, you were dangled upside down by your ankles. I don’t think those metal rods were in place. That would take gumption or a great deal of stupidity.

  3. Your descriptions of Ireland tug at the heart… and I’m not even part Irish. Of course, I couldn’t help wondering what happens when you kiss the Blarney stone. Is it an act of reverence, or does it bring you good luck… or maybe reunite you with lost relatives… is telling lies with unblushing effrontery the objective, or just a side effect? In any case, I loved your pictures.

    • Kissing the stone unites you will all the other people who kissed it and left their DNA on it. The objective is probably just to say you have kissed it. The legend is that it gives you the gift of gab.

      Glad you liked the pictures.

  4. frances

    With a very Irish last name I figured I already had enough blarney in me, so I spent my time at the castle shopping for Waterford Crystal……there was also no way I was going to contort myself so I could kiss a rock……..then again, you can cross that off your bucket list while its still sitting there on mine. Loving the travel logue……..will be as disappointed as you when it all ends!

  5. I’ve had a bit of fun, tracking your train journey on Iarnród Éireann to see what you saw through the window! I’ve gone from Claremorris to Dublin on the train, but never been to Cork or Tipperary yet! So no Blarney for me, but it’s okay as I seem to have the gift of the gab naturally. And some of us came back home to where our ancestors were forced to flee from, so it’s not all sad. Though there’s a lake in Mayo that makes me cry with its history of mass suicide by those who walked and walked and found nothing but grass, which they ate… until they gave up and walked into the lake.

    • We enjoyed the views from the train – they were quite comfortable.

      It’s funny how having an ancestor or two from a place draws your heart toward it. I think it’s great that you have been able to settle in Ireland. Such a land of mirth, such a land of tragedy.

  6. Memories …. We went to Ireland in 1998 and it was a mixed bag. Kissing the Blarney Stone was something that I insisted upon. I’m Irish and damn it, I’m Kissing it. My husband only did it because it had rained and therefore the stone was likely less contaminated. My husband has his good points, but romanticism in the face of deadly diseases is not among them.

    Based on the length of that one paragraph, I’m guessing that I did get the “Gift of Gab” when I kissed the Blarney stone. Or perhaps when I was born Irish.

    Your trip has been so wonderful. Thanks so much.

    • We had pretty good weather after Dublin, colder than I had hoped, but some sunshine and blue skies. If it had been cold and rainy the entire time, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it much.

      It would have been a shame to climb up to the top of Blarney Castle and not kiss the stone. I seriously doubt that my husband would kiss it.

      It sounds as if after you were born Irish, you stayed that way. Nice.

      • Well, I kept my curly hair, my sense of humor and my gift of gab. Works for me!

        Glad you had some good weather. We visited Ireland with an 8 year old. They wouldn’t let him into any of the pubs and we all love Irish music. Beautiful country.

  7. “…hill after hill of rolling green, intense rain-drenched green; sheep moving across the fields like small fallen clouds; wind-sculpted rocks and boulders; castles and ancient ruins who stand guarding the past, grey, grim-faced, and fearless; flowers as wild as any you have ever seen; and fields of horses.”

    Your words are worth a thousand pictures!
    I’ve loved reading about your trip!

  8. Am also Irish by name and by ancestor. Don’t know when they originally left Ireland and settled in England, but Grandpa took Grandma and the kids (including my dad) to the US in 1919 and settled In Florida…. later moving to New Orleans. We visited both England and Ireland in 1998. Loved both… but the ‘forty shades of green’ in Ireland was unbelievalbe. Your trip is taking me back again. Thank you. And no, I didn’t kiss the blarney stone… but the grounds around the castle are something to see. You should go back.

  9. Mad Queen Linda

    Who do you suppose came up with the idea of kissing the stone, in whatever position, in the first place? There must have been alcohol involved.

  10. Are you sure you haven’t kissed the Blarney Stone before? Because it seems to me that “a cajoling tongue and the art of flattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery” is an ability you’ve always had… 😉 LOL! Great post. And I love the photo of the castle itself! Absolutely gorgeous! Great shot of your brother, too, by the way!

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