Travel logs
2015 Ireland
Friday, September 25, Limerick

After an early morning arrival, we allowed everyone time to rest a bit and have a leisurely breakfast. Then, most of us decided to attend a charming lunchtime concert at the Limerick City Library. Two very distinct works by Haydn and Janacek were performed by a Romanian string quartet that is in residence with the Irish Radio and Television (RTE). Afterwards, we started our first sightseeing tour at the 13th-century King John’s castle, named after Richard the Lionheart’s less famous brother, who was the Lord of Ireland. Excitingly interactive exhibits guided us through the history of Ireland focusing on the castle and its turbulent past, acquainting us with the lifestyles of the Anglo-Normans, the “Great Siege of Limerick,” and other interesting details. Next was 12th-century St. Mary’s Cathedral,  with some very unusual elements: the lepers’ squint windows, where they could peep in during services, and the so-called “Mercy Seats” – 15th-century carved oak stalls of zoomorphic imagery, with a ledge – where the clergy, required to stand during long services, could lean on (essentially sit).
Saturday, September 26, Cliffs of Moher and the Buren

This morning we drove to Doolin for a boat ride along the base of the famous Cliffs of Moher, sandstone cliffs 700 feet high that plunge dramatically into the Atlantic. The clouds and wind were not in our favor, both in terms of comfort or good photo ops, but provided an appropriate atmosphere for the fantastic views. In nearby Lisdoonvarna, we had the opportunity to learn about salmon smoking and then tasted the two varieties of smoked fish the famous Burren Smokehouse produces: the Irish cold-smoked and the Scandinavian hot-smoked salmon. The two were surprisingly different in taste and texture, and both aroused our appetite for more! Lunch at the Roadside Tavern satisfied our craving for salmon and our appetite as well. Next we were in for a very scenic drive through the Burren region just as the sun broke out, providing exceptional views of rolling green hills, small fields separated by drystone walls, arid karstic structures, limestone outcropings, and a unique variety of plants (as we were told, this environment is home to arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants, often side-by-side.) We ended the day at Rathbaun Sheep Farm, where we were warmly greeted and promptly offered tea and delicious scones with cream and rhubarb jam. We inspected the breeding stock, and noted the exceptionally big double-muscled breed, the “Rolls Royce” of sheep meat. After Fintan, the “man of the house” introduced us to his farm in his charmingly wry sense of humor, we watched a sheep herding demonstration and two of us bottle-fed two apparently very hungry lambs.
Sunday, September 27, Cashel, Blarney

On our way to Cork, we visited a site very sacred to the Irish: the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick converted the 5th-century King of Munster to Christianity. Built as a defensive fort, the Rock of Cashel became the center of religious power for southern Ireland in the early 12th century, with 5 medieval buildings added over a period of several centuries: the round tower, the oldest structure (1101); Cormac’s Chapel exhibiting Hibernian Romanesque elements (a combination of Irish and mainstream Romanesque); the 13th-century Gothic Cathedral; and the 15th-century tower house which was the residence of the archbishops. The most remarkable structure is little Cormac’s Chapel, which boasts beautifully carved corbels of grotesque faces and remnants of frescoes, the oldest Romanesque wall paintings in Ireland. We then drove to Blarney Castle, a favorite for visitors from around the world for its famous “Blarney stone”: anyone who kisses it is purportedly gifted the power of eloquence. Many walked up the 100 steps and hung by their heels to kiss the stone while others preferred to take in the beautiful surroundings – parks, gardens, and waterfalls. There was even time for shopping in the Blarney Woollen Mills before checking into our historic, old-town Cork hotel.
Monday, September 28, Charles Fort, Kinsale, and Cobh

Charles Fort was our first destination this morning: the best preserved star-shaped fort in Ireland, located above the lovely town of Kinsale. Now a charming little fishing town, Kinsale was once a very strategic harbor in the 17th century, when Charles II chose to concentrate its British naval base there. The fort, now in ruins, was only attacked once, in 1690, and fell, since the assault came not as expected from the sea but from the ill-protected land side. It was used as an infantry barracks until after the Irish gained independence in 1922 but was then abandoned and soon fell into disrepair. The renown of the fort today is associated with a ghost, the so-called “white lady of Charles Fort,” whose story seemed a bit too tragic to be believed (but we listened with great amusement nonetheless). Next was Cobh, pronounced like “Cove,” a charming coastal town situated on the second largest natural harbor in the world, after Sydney. We walked through the main street, along the harbor, learning from our passionate guide about the history of the town linked to St. Brandon the Navigator, the 19th-century British navy, emigration to U.S., the sinking of the Lusitania, and the unfortunate voyage of the Titanic. She was full of interesting and touching stories that made our one-hour sightseeing very pleasurable and informative. The afternoon was for everyone to explore Cork on their own, prior to the first performance of the tour – Alan Ayckbourn’s prize-winning 1974 comedy, Absent Friends.
Tuesday, September 29, West Cork and Killarney

We drove through West Cork County – picturesque hilly countryside dotted with sheep or cattle grazing on the hillsides, small farms, and enchanting little villages – to our first destination of the day, Bantry House. Beautifully set overlooking Bantry Bay, the manor house has been in the White family since 1739. The grandson of the White who purchased the house became the first earl of Bantry – a title earned for his royalty to the British. Sadly, the title died out with the fourth earl, who was childless. Sophie, the current owner, showed us around the grand building, telling us amusing and interesting stories of her famous forbearers. We had ample time to walk up the 100 steps to a great viewpoint over Bantry Bay and wander through the luscious Italian style gardens. After stopping for lunch in Kenmare, we entered the Ring of Kerry, a twisting road through rugged, dramatic landscapes, ancient lichen-covered forests, and amazing vistas. We stopped for photographs at Ladies’ View and then descended into the valley below. A nice addition to the tour was Muckross House gardens where we stopped briefly before exploring the touristic town of Killarney. Everyone had fun exploring, shopping, or having an ice cream at his/her own pace.

Wednesday, September 30, Old Midleton and Waterford

We couldn’t do an Ireland tour without including a whiskey tasting; in fact, we were the first on the schedule this morning at the Jameson Old Distillery in Midleton, thus avoiding the crowds, even if it meant sampling the wares before noon! Our wonderful guide explained the whiskey making process in detail while showing us the equipment needed to turn barley and malted barley into the finished product. We learned about the triple distillation process characteristic of most Irish whiskey, which gives it a smoother and richer taste. The biggest difference, however, is that the grain for Irish is roasted over smokeless heat while that for Scotch is roasted over open peat fires, which results in its characteristic smoky flavor. We saw the largest copper pot still in the world, which could hold up to 144,000 liters of liquid. Much to our surprise, we found out that whiskey actually owes most of its taste and aroma to the container in which it is matured (for at least three years to qualify as Irish): Jameson uses both American bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry butts. We finished by doing a side-by-side comparison of Irish, Scotch, and Bourbon whiskies. A comfortable ride to Waterford took us directly to a fabulous three-course lunch at a highly rated contemporary restaurant in the heart of the city. Our short sightseeing tour (we spent more time than planned at lunch – first things first!) wound up at the Waterford Crystal Center, where we were guided through the process of fine crystal making and then given a chance to shop for, or simply to admire the amazingly detailed and precisely cut crystal objects.
Thursday, October 1, Jerpoint, Kilkenny, Dublin

A morning shrowded in fog put us in an appropriate mood to visit the ruins of a 12th-century Cistercian monastery. Jerpoint Abbey, shrouded in mist, helped us visualize the austere atmosphere of the Middle Ages and in particular the harsh life of the monks and lay brothers. Our guide – witty and a great storyteller, like all our Irish guides so far – turned us into land owners, monks, and lay brothers, according to our birth orders, and led us through a typical day of our imagined lives. She brushed up our knowledge of our apostles and martyrs as she showed us the carvings on the sides of the mensa tables in the side chapels, and made us confess our sins as she walked us through the beautiful Romanesque and Gothic cloister.  On our way to Dublin, we stopped in Kilkenny, the medieval capital of Ireland. A beautiful town, with narrow streets and alleyways, merchant houses, and historic churches, all within “The Medieval Mile,” Kilkenny offered a wealth of things to do and see. Some walked around Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice Cathedral, or visited the 13th-century Dominican “Black” Abbey with its amazing 19th-century stained glass window – the largest of its kind in Ireland.

We arrived to Dublin with just enough time to settle in and freshen up before attending choral evensong in Christ Church Cathedral. The service opened and closed with improvisations on the Star-Spangled Banner (or perhaps the old English drinking song on which it was based).  One of the primary anthems was Sir Michael Tippett’s setting of “Go down Moses,” perhaps in honor of us Americans, and certainly a nod to the Jewish celebration of the day. Following the service, we enjoyed a tour of the cathedral, were welcomed by the Dean, and finally were treated to a wine and cheese reception in the crypt.