The end is near!



Like a couple of old but still valuable coins, my brother and I were collected from our Killarney hotel at 7 a.m. by a man in a van. He drove us to Limerick to meet up with the tour bus. Someone else got the seats in the first row, so we sat on the left in the second row. I know the hung-over man in the front seat appreciated having such a nice view to sleep through on most of the tour. We contented ourselves with seeing what was left.


The Up and Down Castle


Bunratty Castle has experienced a number of ups and downs since 1270 when Robert De Muscegros built the first fortress near the Ratty River. Literal ups and downs. After being raised, razed, and ruined (history’s three R’s) for almost 700 years, Standish Robert Gage Prendergast Vereker took on the daunting task of  shortening his name to  7th Viscount Gort. He then restored and refurbished the castle (in 1954) so tourists would have some interesting places to leave their money when visiting Clare County. It worked. Tourists visit Clare County, they leave their money there, and they find it interesting.


Bunratty Castle

Giant deer antlers in Bunratty Castle


As was, is, and ever will be my wont, I gawked a lot. Viscount Gort furnished the castle with medieval furniture and tapestries, and visitors are free to roam about and try to remember to take some pictures. Tapestries from the 15th century and antlers of giant deer decorate the walls of the Great Hall. Giant deer with antlers up to 24 feet wide once roamed the Irish countryside. Thankfully, some of them died in bogs, those Irish scrapbooks of early history. The folks who run Bunratty Castle not only let you photograph whatever you want, but they also have a website that shows the Bunratty collection. How’s that for Irish hospitality?


Thatched-roofed house in Bunratty Folk Village


After visiting the castle we wandered through the folk village on the castle grounds. We didn’t have enough time to see all of the grounds because we needed to head to our next stop.


I never found out what this door was alarmed about. I wasn’t alarmed even once at the Bunratty Folk Village.


I saw this Irish agitator at Bunratty Castle.

I can resist anything but temptation.”


We stopped in Doolin for lunch at O’Connor’s Pub and stumbled into a chocolate shop nearby called The Chocolate Shop Doolin, makers of Wilde Irish chocolates. I don’t remember much after that. I know money exchanged hands and I was holding a label that said 70% dark chocolate. I remember, too, that the chocolate was organic fair-trade. (As you probably guessed, the chocolate was named in honor of Oscar Wilde who made the famous statement about temptation.)


The Cliffs of Moher


On our last day, the weather turned warm and sunny, mostly. To the southwest, some kind of cloud convention was going on, but they hung around the horizon and didn’t head our way. The bus driver said the tour group on the previous saw little of the Cliffs because of the fog.


When we un-bused, everyone un-sweatered themselves, and headed lemming-like toward the cliffs.  In spite of the grand weather, I managed to take quite a few bad pictures, but also captured some with a ridiculously blue sky and sea.


Cliffs of Moher facing the cloud convention

O’Brien’s Tower on right is the highest point on the Cliffs of Moher


Part of the cliffs were cordoned off to make sure the tourists go over to that part. We made sure to do so ourselves. I made both my camera and purse hold my hand but managed to lose my coral windbreaker, which I had slung over my purse because it was a one-shirt day.  Thankfully the windbreaker didn’t jump over the Cliffs; it just jumped down on a walkway to get a closer look. Before we left, I checked the lost and found, and someone had turned it in.


Let’s Rock!


As we headed for Galway to catch our train back to Dublin, we stopped at The Burren, which means “rocky place” in Gaelic. Geologists, scientific Rock Stars, call the limestone landscape ‘karst’: a rocky place full of fissures, cracks, caves, and sinkholes, which sounds remarkably like my brain. Unlike politicians, you can’t find much dirt in the limestone bedrock, yet it hosts over 700 species of plants, both those that grow in arctic and alpine areas of the world and those more typically found in the Mediterranean.


The Burren

Fairy tree


As our bus hurtled forward to Galway on the motorway,  the driver pointed out a fairy tree on our left. He even slowed down a bit and explained that the controversy over moving the fairy tree had delayed the building of the roadway for ten years. In the end, the tree won, the non-fairies rerouted the roadway, and the Irish moved on to other controversies. Since I was sitting on the left, I had a clear shot of the tree, which I didn’t get. I’m still mastering the skills of photography: digging in my bag for the camera, turning on the camera, looking through the viewfinder, seeing total blackness, removing the lens cap, looking through the viewfinder again, and trying to remember how to adjust the f/stop, shutter, aperture, and speed dial. If you want to see the tree of controversy, you have to visit someone else’s blog, someone like Paz, who obviously has mastered that tricky speed dial on his camera.


Back to Dublin


In Galway, my windbreaker, tried of being slung over my purse, left me again, seeking solace in the arms of a stranger. If you happen to be Galway and see someone wearing a coral windbreaker, say hi for me, and tell it I’m sorry.


Thankfully we picked up something to eat on the train because when we got to our downtown Dublin hotel, it was after 9 p.m., and we couldn’t find a place to eat.


Farewell to charms


Like a bowl of Lucky Charms slurped down by an adult who should know better, our time in Ireland was swallowed up by the calendar.  My brother left Dublin the next morning to return to Budapest, and I retraced my route via ferry and train back to London to a hotel near Heathrow. The following day I flew back to the States and stepped off the plane into the waiting arms of the TSA, and finally my husband.


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(Note to any reader who is still here and did not stop reading, even though I went on and on, post after post, about my vacation until you were ready to scream because you were sick of it; and the only way you could calm down was to eat lots of chocolate, or drink wine or Guinness, or all three at once; and then you were really sick: I almost promise I won’t write about it again.)

Bogged down in Ireland? For peat’s sake, why?



A tour bus has 4½ seats suitable for touring, and one of those belongs to the driver. That leaves 3½ seats for the tourists to scramble for. All of them are in the front row. From there you get an unobstructed view of the world coming toward you with its hands full of treasures. The half seat is the one in the front row directly behind the driver. You can still see quite a bit, just not directly ahead because directly ahead you see a head. All the seats that follow provide you with half a tour. If you do right-sided touring, you see the world right, but you can’t see what’s left. Conversely, if all you see is left, you don’t see things right.


Tuesday morning we ate an early breakfast in our Killarney hotel, filling up on butter-slathered scones, and  then hurried over to the tour bus stop to make sure we got the front seats. Our route: the Ring of Kerry, a 105-mile drive around the Iveragh Peninsula. Our direction: clockwise, the direction all tour buses take because buses can’t pass one another on the one-and-a-half-bus-wide roads.


Glenbeigh and the Kerry Bog Village Museum


Ireland has more bogs than just about any other country in Europe. Bogs are burial grounds for vegetation. Green things die, rain falls, oxygen chokes, drains plug, decay happens, decomposition doesn’t, and peat forms. Re-peat each century and you have yourself a bog. If you want to preserve a body, bury it in a bog. Of course, it helps if you bury it a few centuries ago. (Read about the amazing preservation properties of bogs and a recent find in an Irish bog at National Geographic online.)


Did turf-cutters get bogged down sometimes by having to repeat the same job all the time?


Close up of peat “bog logs”


But back to the Bog Village Museum in Glenbeigh. It consists of a small village founded by a turf-cutter (peat gatherer), Jeremiah Mulvihill. The six furnished buildings depict life in the early 1800s.


On route to our next stop, the driver gave us the option to stop at a sheep-herding exhibition. “The best five euros you’ll spend in Ireland,” he said. I raised my hand ”yes,” confident that all the others behind me would do the same. After all, each of us paid hundreds if not thousands of euros to travel to Ireland, and this was only five euros. A few pushy ones barked out “no,” and the rest, sheep-like, agreed, so we didn’t stop. I still snarl every time I think about it.


Along the way


The Atlantic Ocean crashes onto the beaches all along the western coast we traveled, and the MacGillycuddy Reeks (“black stacks” mountains) stand in the middle of the peninsula to watch. Carrantuohill mountain sees the most because it’s the tallest (about 3400 feet) in all of Ireland. I struggled to keep the views from taking away my breath, but lost.

Coastline on the Iveragh Peninsula


We returned to Killarney via Moll’s Gap named for Moll Kissame (a great last name for an Italian: What’s your name? Kiss-a-me), who ran a pub and quenched the thirst of travellers in the early 1800s. She also put the shine in the moon, if you get my drift, with her homemade, unauthorized whiskey. She definitely left a gap when she died. A tourist shop now stands in place of her pub.


Mind the Gap; Moll did.


Ladies View

We stopped once more before returning to Killarney at Ladies View, a scenic spot providing a panoramic view of the Killarney Lakes. Apparently it remained nameless until 1861 when Queen Victoria, then sovereign of all of Ireland, visited the lakes with her ladies-in-waiting.

Irish coffee picture courtesy of my iPhone


We didn’t find any four-leaved clover on the tour, but we found shamrocks in some Irish coffee. I drifted off that night under moonshine, wondering if Moll served that kind of coffee to her customers.


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Next installment: The end is near!

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

Potato sorrows


I woke up after a troubled dream of Mr. Potato Head chasing me out of Ireland.  This is what comes of writing about potatoes in the morning and reading Frank Delaney’s Ireland at night.



I spoke ill of potatoes yesterday, and now I feel the pangs of contrition. Potatoes helped make me. Not just my thighs, but all of me. My great-grandfather came from Templemore in North Tipperary, Ireland. I have no doubt he was raised on potatoes, the staple crop of Irish peasants.


Ideas are like the strings of a guitar. When you pluck a string, it vibrates and causes nearby objects to vibrate as well, something called forced vibration. When you pluck on an idea, it sends out vibrations to other ideas, and soon you have a whole group of other ideas humming along. When I plucked potatoes, my wart vibrated. Then I looked around the web and the two words vibrated  into Potato Wart, a serious fungal disease that potatoes fear. No wonder they get upset when we humans rub our warts on them. Our warts come from viruses, not fungi, but try telling that to a potato.


The fungus synchytrium endobioticum, which we call Potato Wart, caused the Irish Potato Famine that began in 1845. It led to at least one million deaths and the migration of at least another million Irish. My great-grandfather left Templemore some time after the famine, but his family would have lived through it. In the suitcase he carried across the sea, underneath his dreams of a better life, he would have carried clean but tattered memories of the potato blight, hunger, oppression, and poverty.


So I apologize to potatoes, we share the same history and we both worry about warts. Putting “worry” and “wart” in close proximity sends out another vibration, which makes me think of worrywarts. One day I will pluck that string, but not today.



I woke up with the pangs of contrition, and though we usually associate that with the idea of sorrow over wrongdoing, its first and literal meaning was to rub things against each other: the way my mother rubbed that potato against the palm of my hand. In the most literal sense, that rubbing of the Irish potato against the palm of the somewhat Irish little girl was an act of contrition. Both had roots in Ireland, shared a history of loss, and had a fear of warts. Today, I was reminded of the Irish saying, “Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony.” So, in a second act of contrition, I think I need to apologize to the humble tuber.


Since I’m only part Irish, I only need to follow part of the admonition. I will refrain from jesting about potatoes, at least until after St. Patrick’s Day, but after thirtysome years of marriage, there is no way I can refrain from joking about matrimony.



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