Saturday, July 30, 2011

Celtic Britain travel journal II

Celtic Britain TRAVEL JOURNAL--part 2 (Wales and Ireland) 

Friday, June 22, 2001, 10:40 p.m., Dublin, Ireland
It's still twilight, even at this hour. We reached the hotel an hour ago, and I've been out to find an ATM. I just insert my Bank of America debit card, input the PIN, and out comes £50 Irish money. Such a deal, and so much easier than money changers or ordering currency at the bank at home.
Market cross, Welsh flag, St. David's in background
 Today began with packing up, riding the bus across South Wales (Glamorgan), through rolling hills with bazillions of sheep and milk cattle. The hedgerows, which line every road, were very often tall enough to block my taking photos. There would have been vistas in the soft haze, with gentle green slopes dotted with sheep, hedgerows of shaggy blackberry vines and ferns, stone walls with lobelia and foxglove growing from the gaps, and occasionally, as we came close to the coast, half a horizon of deep blue Irish Sea. We dipped below the sea cliffs several times, and found inlets with sailboats standing on their double keels in the mud — maybe 20-30 of them. Perhaps with the new moon, the tide is exceptionally low. We drove west from Newport, past Swansea, through Carmarthen (missed the castle), through Haverford West (wanted to investigate castle ruin, but no time), past St. Brides Bay to St. David's in Dyfdd.
St. David is the patron saint of Wales. He was an apostle to my wild Welsh ancestors, and turned them from druidism to Christianity. We had an hour to hustle down a steep street, stairs, another steep path, and then into the cathedral. (About half the group took the wrong street, and ended up at St. Non's church, in honor of St. David's mother. Oops.) It was very interesting where I went! I read some churchyard and interior grave stones. Every grave faces east, as does the chancel. Again, I prayed at the high altar, as several (or many) ancestors must have done. I found the sarcophagus of Edmund Tudor (brother of Henry VII), who was a first or second cousin to my ancestors. And I found the ossuary of St. David. I had to hurry up the steep walk, the stairs, and the steep street to get back to the meeting point, but the coach wasn't back yet, so I had a cup of coffee with Dolores in a shop. (This British coffee needs a lot of milk, I've found. The tea is better.)
"Family butcher." YIKES!!
 We headed northeast to Fishguard, another Newport, through Cardigan, Abermeron, and Aberystwyth (after which a hymn is named). I took a photo through the trees and bushes, of the church there. Must be some church or town, if they named the hymn after it. Somewhere around there, we entered Powys. It was pretty country already, but now we found more forest and gradually higher and more rugged volcanic mountains. It was, incredibly, a more intense green. The forests thickened, and it was easy to image the Welsh patriots materializing to fight the conquering English, then melting back into the forest. When we passed Machynlleth, we started up a glacial valley.
I could imagine my Welsh people building those rock fences, carrying water, hunting deer, racing horses by the river, singing and harping by the fire in winter, and tending sheep. I felt such a bond with these anonymous Welsh people from hundreds of years ago. It's not like I share any of their experience or their DNA after all these generations of dilution. It's that, as I learn about their lives, who they were, what they felt and how they reacted, I take in part of their spirit and they grow and live inside me. It's a mysterious feeling, this Circle of Life. I don't believe in Fate. I'm not pre-destined to believe or act in a way that my forebears did. But I choose, willfully, to be a hardworking, independent, educated, opinionated, free spirit who also (paradoxically) knows when conservatism might be warranted.
This quick drive through Wales, even though we didn't have one minute to drive slowly past a place of interest (like standing stones at Portmeirion and Carnarvon, or even Carnarvon Castle), was still an epic journey. We were hurrying to catch our 6:30 p.m. Holyhead, Anglesey, ferry to Dun Laoghaire, Ireland.
We drove up in a lather, almost, at 6:20. We drove the bus right into the huge ship. It was a hydrofoil or catamaran, I think, and we did about 50 mph across the Irish Sea. Beautiful weather, with a warm, strong sun and chilly wind off the water. In less than two hours, we'd crossed the water and drove off into the agriculture inspection. There has been a foot and mouth disease outbreak in Britain and Europe, and we were walked across disinfectant mats and the bus was sprayed around and under, with disinfectant (so now we really were in a lather!) at the Irish port. Our Dublin hotel room is downtown, and there are thousands of young people in the streets this Friday night, drinking and smoking.
I must sleep!!!!

Saturday, June 23, 2001, 5:30 p.m., Dublin
Well, no need to come back here any time soon, unless they pass a smoking ban. Everyone smokes vile cigarettes, nonstop it seems. The hotel corridors and lifts and especially the lobby by the ubiquitous bar — all just reek. My throat and eyes burn with it. Makes me nauseous, too. Need to break out the inhaler. The streets are absolutely jammed with young people. They're not carrying shopping, just walking and wandering. I don't see the attraction of standing packed into a smoky bar (too jammed to get served), not able to talk to your date because of the loud music. The food smells here are great, though.
We were bused to the Dublin SDA church for study and worship. The pastor suggested I try the piano before the service, to get the feel. So I played a few lines of a hymn to warm up. The pianist came over and fussed with hymnals on top of the studio piano, and looked very cross that I was on HER piano bench. I hastened to get off the bench, and told her, no, I wasn't playing for the hymns, I was just warming up. She sat down and played for song service, and once she put her foot down on the damper pedal, that foot never lifted for the next 10 minutes.
I'd say the church would fit 70. With our 22 people, they had to bring in seven extra chairs. I played Brother James' Air (The Twenty-third Psalm), and tour member Donna played her psaltery, doing The Water is Wide. The pastor had to leave for his other district church, so a woman preached. Who knows on what: I was so fighting jet lag.
After church and changing clothes, I bought some food at a convenience market for lunch, then joined the group for a narrated tour of Dublin on our coach. We were set down at Trinity College to see the Book of Kells on display. In an environmentally controlled case in a dark room, I saw this 1200-year-old book of Gospels, drawn on vellum. I liked the humor inserted into the fanciful illuminations. The artists couldn't have known their work would be seen and admired and even revered after 1200 years! If I believed my work would be worth that much so far down the line, how much more exacting would be my labors! How much more care and thought would go into the planning!
As I exited the exhibit, my stomach was cramping, and I was overcome by more vile smoke coming in the open door of the gift shop. I was sick in the gift shop store-room bathroom. Then after that, I had to walk 3-4 blocks through the crowds, past Molly Malone's cockles and mussels, before I could get back to my room and puff on the albuterol.
11:30 p.m.: The noise in the street below is increasing exponentially, as the people get more blotto. There's nothing but bar after pub after licensed establishment after nightclub out in Temple Bar, which is the district this hotel is in. After I got back from seeing the Book of Kells, I took a 45-minute nap, then went to the tour group dinner in a private room over a pub. The group told a bit of who they were and how they came to be on the trip. After supper, tea was served. Kit and Cherrie confused the paper packets in the serving dish, and instead used packets of salt and pepper in their tea. The waiters must have rolled on the floor laughing. I walked around Temple Bar and over to the River Liffey, where I stood for a while on the bridge to get some air before returning here. Now there's a British comedy show on TV: short takes of comedy sketches. Faster paced than Saturday Night Live, but still ensemble based. 

Sunday, June 24, 2001, 11 p.m., Cork, Ireland
Ow. I'm sitting on the narrow edge of the bathtub, soaking my feet in the hottest water I can bear.
Wicklow Mtns near Glendalough

Today was a good one. We left beautiful but stinky-smoky Dublin! A couple hours' drive south are the Wicklow Mountains. Really pretty country. I could barely stay awake on the drive, but I'm forcing myself not to miss a thing. (Some of the tour members are sleeping through the whole trip, it seems. They wake when the bus stops. But we're always in the bus!)
Our first stop was the Glendalough Abbey ruins, and the lakes where naked women tried to seduce St. Kevin. (He pushed one off his hermit's ledge, and she died from the fall or drowned, I'm not sure.) The ruins of a very old scriptorium and church were very pretty. I planned to visit the lower lake, but tripped on a stone in the path, and fell. So instead I went back to the visitor center to wash up and bandage my palm. We had a group lunch at the Glendalough restaurant (some bizarre veggie medley, not good), and shopped for 10 minutes.
We then bused through the Wicklow Gap (a glacial valley and mountain pass). After a lifetime of seeing pictures of ruins (abbeys, churches, monasteries, houses, castles, and keeps), it's almost not amazing to see so many of them for myself. Through the trees, I glimpse a Norman square church tower, or gothic spires. Sometimes the 900 year-old keep is attached to a 400 year-old house, or a house that was once a crofter's shed is now a cottage or sheep shed. The longer buildings were probably a stable at one end and home at the other.
Our next stop was the Rock of Cashel, a 13th century abbey and castle, and one of St. Patrick's missionary sites. The weather is still gorgeous, and we climb around in the sun and wind. The views are incredible, and with the long, long days, the sun is still quite high at 6 p.m..
After two more hours of driving, we came to Cork, near the bottom of the island. We got our rooms (nice hotel — quiet, view of quiet river, no smoky pubs in sight!), then most of us took off walking and exploring. Mind you, this was after 9 p.m. on a Sunday! Only one shop was open, a convenience store which had Internet terminals, £1 per 20 minutes. Janet and Robert and I checked all our e-mail accounts and answered several notes. Next time, I'll send messages to Brian, Jan J., Jan K., Nancy, etc.
Janet and Robert and I got iced drinks at McDonalds and came back to get ready for tomorrow. 

Monday, June 26, 2001, 10 p.m., Limerick, Ireland
I'm sitting in the hotel courtyard (I think close to Shannon Airport), maybe three miles from King John's Castle on the River Shannon. (Evil King John, who was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his barons, some of whom are my ancestors, was also a forebear of mine.) We probably can't go see it, because it's not Celtic (it's English/Norman), and it would really screw up our packed itinerary. We always seem to hit the hotels after 8 p.m., long after the town shops close at 6, and we leave town again at 9 a.m., before the places open! I asked Dr. Jones if we might visit the castle first thing tomorrow, and he said he'd ask around for consensus. So maybe.
 Today was another gorgeous day. We left Cork at 9 and went 8 kms to Blarney Castle. I skipped the 120 steps and hanging upside down to kiss a dirty rock (yes, the famous Blarney Stone), and went with most others to shop at the factory outlet. Got gifts for Dad and Susanne, a teal wool ruana for me, had my photo taken by Christy's Pub, and then we bused across the south of Ireland to the Dingle Peninsula.
We saw bogs, lakes, lots of sheep and cattle (no goats, hmmm…), stone fences, Norman and gothic churches both ruined and restored. I noticed some stone outbuildings had ancient shapes still evident in cross section, then they were altered to have added height or different roofline. Across the valleys, we could see the remains of round towers or the skeletons of castles. Everywhere are stone fences, running around irregularly shaped pastures or hayfields, lining the roads, running up hillsides, shoring up steep places. I asked if the rocks were quarried, or just gathered and stacked after being left by glaciers. The answer is the latter. So our Celtic ancestors carted rocks around, cleared fields, built fences and walls, in addition to every other survival skill and leisure arts. We made a restroom stop at Inch Beach, a pretty bay. The women’s restroom was out of TP entirely. Catalino had to steal a roll of tissue from the men's room to help out the desperate women who would otherwise have had to wait 'til the next stop.
We lunched at Dingle, a fishing village/tourist trap. Actually, it was really pretty, and I had the opportunity to run up the hill to the first supermarket I've seen in this country. I bought spring water, crackers and milk, and film.
After lunch, we found a stone beehive hut, the Gallarus Oratory, from 1400 years ago. We swarmed around and took photos and heard about monastic life and the copying of manuscripts. Penny took a picture of me "pulling" out a stone from the dry masonry foundation. Sort of like pulling the bottom can of soup on the shelf. Me? The Ugly Tourist?
Back on the bus, I had to present my paper on Celtic-era musical instruments, reading into the microphone as we bumped along. I skipped over whole portions of the paper, and no one protested, so maybe they were all asleep. Then I unloaded the copies I'd brought, for their notebook collection. Dr. Comm said she thought "the gods would smile kindly" on me when it's time for a grade.
Then we drove and drove and drove, and came to Limerick, as I said, about 8:00. We drove past the castle and I snapped one or two through the window. Some of us went next door to the restaurant for dinner. I just had a hot chocolate, and a slice of rye bread. I tried to write this entry in the hotel courtyard, but 15 people came out to be sociable, so I put it away 'til now. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2001, Navan, Ireland (50 miles northwest of Dublin)
It was drizzling and overcast this morning when we went down to breakfast. It's really nice, even so. Although we couldn't take time for the castle tour, we at least stopped at King John's castle for some pix. I shared some stories about Bad King John with some of our tour members.
 Our first visit was to Clonfert Cathedral, a rather small stone church in the countryside near the River Shannon. It's a Protestant Church of Ireland site, and I doubt it gets much business, since 90% of the Republic of Ireland is Catholic. (I'm sure there are a few atheists and Hindus and Muslims, evangelicals, and the odd Adventist, among the 10%.) Anyway, the tiny Romanesque church entry is probably from around 1000 years ago to judge by the barrel arches, but 1200-1400 years ago to judge by the carvings. Little disembodied heads of stone decorated the round arch. That's actually a holdover from the pagan Celts decorating their camps or forts with enemies' heads. The power of the slain warrior is transferred to the victor with the taking of the head. Inside the church, we found birds flying around, a locked pipe organ (very, very old), stone carvings, and Celtic symbolism, as well as modern benches for worshipers, and big electric space heaters stored in the back. The church is associated with St. Brendan the Navigator (he may have visited Iceland, Greenland, and Canada), and it's believed he's buried there. At the chancel entrance is carved a mermaid holding a Gospel book in her hand. The bishop's chair had a carved panel of Brendan with seaweed and fishes. I was impressed that at some time, the church was rebuilt bigger and higher, but retained the original Celtic art.
I've seen barns and houses built up that way. I've also seen city walls melt into castle walls, with bricked-up window or door arches. I could visualize a window in a row of windows, with lean-to buildings or sheds behind the stone wall, as probably shop counters on market day.
Clonmacnoise Abbey
 Anyway, next stop was Clonmacnoise Abbey, with Celtic high crosses and ruined churches, and hundreds of tomb stones. It was a very impressive sight on a hill above River Shannon. The Whispering Arch was interesting, and the clusters of stone churches, ruined for centuries, were pretty. Our docent/guide was very entertaining, and had the best Irish accent I've heard so far. (Whatever that means, I'm sure she'd say. However, I think she'd be perfect for a Maeve Binchy novel.) The drizzle had stopped, but the chilly wind whipped around. Still no complaints on the weather. It's what makes Ireland the Emerald Isle, and its lack thereof is what makes the desert southwest so brown and scorched this time of year.
Well, back on the bus we climbed for another couple hours. We passed more cattle than sheep, quite a few Norman churches, maybe five or seven castle keeps, and some unidentifiable but romantic stone remains. One was a couple of walls, a tower broken in half the vertical way, and vines softened all the edges. Sheep grazed right in the bailey. At one River Shannon crossing, I saw a low, fat, round castle keep in the "front yard" of a modern house. SUVs were parked next to the keep.
Our final destination was the visitor center for Newgrange Barrow, a Neolithic barrow built long before the pyramids, out on a high hill by the River Boyne. Apparently, you have to have reservations a couple years in advance, for a group, and we were too late in the day to be able to hike around the barrow. But at the interpretation center, we viewed an A/V presentation, and went into a hallway with cast stone replicated from the real barrow, which is on the hill across the Boyne, about a mile away. The rocks inside were big slabs of stone laid in a spiraling corbel, dry masonry method, at the end of a long passage of even more upright slabs. Then rocks and gravel and finally earth were heaped over it. White quartz rock from the Wicklow Mountains, maybe 60-70 miles south as the crow flies, was hauled to face the sides of this huge monument. Since Neolithic people couldn't do a lot of flying, they or their beasts of burden had to drag the rocks over hill and dale, around lakes and bogs, and through rivers and streams. If I was a Neolithic woman, I'd feel compelled to tell my death-obsessed priest, "Sorry. I don't do rocks. This religion needs to get a life!" And then he'd probably sacrifice me at the front door of the barrow. Still better than hauling rocks, I say.
Now we're back at the hotel in Navan, having had dinner. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2001
We left Navan for nearby Kells (as in Book Of), which was a monastic town where St. Columba/Columcille lived. We went through the interpretive center, seeing a video and a very nice museum. All the exhibits were replicas, but we couldn't tell the difference, anyway.
 We bused north to Newly, and over the Mourne Mountain range into Northern Ireland. There was no checkpoint on our side, but the Garda (Republic of Ireland police) had one on the southbound side. They must be pickier about who gets into the Republic than the Northern Ireland folks are. There's been violence in Belfast the last week, after a long time of relative ease. Gasoline bombs had been thrown at police.
We didn't go straight there: we went to Downpatrick, which was a really good choice. They had a beautifully designed multimedia presentation at the visitors' center. Patrick, if one believes what is written by him (I do) and about him (well, some), was an apostle to the Irish. He seemed to have a real understanding of God's grace. The video, as good as an IMAX, showed aerial shots of the places Patrick ministered. On the way out, I bought an incredibly beautiful stained glass goblet with Celtic designs for £37, about $54 US. It would be $200 at a U.S. studio, I'm sure. They'll ship it to me.
Then we drove north a bit more to Belfast. It was just a busy, late-afternoon day like any other. We saw a Sinn Fein office and political poster, but no demonstrations. Just uniformed boys in short pants, walking home from school.
Our driver Charlie found the docks, and before they allowed our bus to drive onto the ferry, a security officer boarded and looked at each of us, and glanced over our suitcases in the hold of the bus. He didn't smile or act friendly, and I'm sure we all looked fairly solemn, as well. We treated it as a security point at an airport. We drove onto the ferry, and all of us went up to the passenger deck. It was interesting that Ireland and Scotland are so close at the Belfast-Stranraer beeline, that you can see both countries from the middle of the Irish Sea.

Be sure to read on to Celtic Britain Travel Journal Part 3 (Scotland, north England)


If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from CreateSpace, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon

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