Saturday, July 7, 2007

Three For the Price of One

Three-Fer: Beautiful Scenery (Lousy Weather), Ireland's Two Hours of Summer, & Return to Wales

July 4, 2007

Today--the US's independence day--is also the birthday of an Irish hero named Daniel O'Connell, born in 1775, one year before the Declaration of Independence was published. O'Connell fought for the legal rights of Roman Catholics, which included most of the Irish. Those rights had been taken away by the English government in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the creation of the Church of England. O'Connell's fight was different from so many others because he insisted always on pacifism and non-violence, making me wonder if he was an inspiration for Thoreau, who was an inspiration for Gandhi, who was an inspiration for Rev. King. Our guide didn't mention, though, whether O'Connell was an initial link in this chain. There is a Catholic church in one of the towns we passed through today, though I don't remember which one, named for O'Connell. Our guide said it is the only one in the world named for a lay person, rather than a saint (or divinity, of course), and many people objected at the time of its founding in 1875, but the local bishop was adamant that the church should be named for him. In Limerick, Ireland, where we are staying tonight, one of the main streets is also named for him. Interestingly, the rural house that O'Connell was born in, while graced with a marker on the road, is in ruins--the house is on private land, and its owner, for whatever reason, won't allow it to be restored.

This tree will serve as your weather report for July 4, 2007, in Ireland. Note how far to one side the branches are being thrown by the wind:

The wind blew 20-40 mph a great deal of the day; the rain came repeatedly; and the temperatures felt like they were 60 at best. More of the same for tomorrow.

Nonetheless, we saw some beautiful scenery and some interesting sites on this, another day spent greatly on the bus--a total probably of 6 hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. We drove the scenic route called the Ring of Kerry. Kerry is one of the Irish counties, and the Ring is a drive that takes you through some small villages, some rural areas, near the ocean and through some valleys at the bottom of low, but rugged, mountains. Except for the vivid green, some of the scenery recalls the Big Bend area of Texas and even the very rugged southwestern edge of Texas's hill country, near such tiny towns as Leakey, Vanderpool, Camp Wood, and Utopia: steep sloping hill- or mountainsides, exposed rock, narrow winding roads.

One of the first places we stopped was at a little restaurant and store called Thatch Cottage. Here is a photo of just a bit of the outside of the place, showing a chunk of the thatched roof, and the thickness of the "eaves".

This was our morning coffee break and pit stop. Some of the folks did some shopping as well: scarves, woolen clothing, jewelry, etc. After about 30 minutes off the bus, we climbed back in and headed on. At various spots we stopped for scenic overlooks and photo stops, and I can't remember where most of them were. I would've needed a map and a marker to keep all the place names straight. This is my shot looking down from one of those overlooks toward the sea:

Along the way, our guide talked about the Potato Famine years and about how prior to that time there were a lot of very small villages, called bog villages, in this part of the country. Now they are only ruins, unless they have been restored (probably for commercial purposes!) She told us that Ireland is 1/7th peat bog, which is a strong indication of how very very wet the country is as a rule. At one place, we got to stop and see a pile of peat cuttings up close. Most people don't use it for heating any more, but some do. This is what it looks like, close up, after it's been cut out of the ground:

They cut the peat one layer at a time, moving across the surface of a bog rather than cutting down into the bog. The reason for this, Tricia said, is because if you go down, you get too much into the water that saturates the bog and you can't get back out. You try to climb out, and you just slip back down into it. That peat may be too wet still to be useful as well. So they slice across the top. From the looks of a cutting line we could see from where we stopped, they cut maybe a foot or two down as they go across. There's a very interesting book about the bodies found back in the '50s in peat bogs in Denmark called The Bog People (the author's name is Glob). These bodies were mostly entirely?) ritual sacrifices made as long as 2000 years ago, but the bodies were so preserved by the acids in the peat water that officials first thought they were finding recently murdered or accidentally drowned persons. Bodies have been found in the Irish bogs as well.

We stopped for lunch at another remote spot called Avoca. Avoca was first a famed brand of woolen clothing, which wears and lasts very well, but at some point they opened a cafe as well, with specialty desserts as well as lunch items varying from day to day. (Needless to say, there was virtually nothing I could eat!) One of their specialties was, if I heard right, "rhubarb crumble". Yikes. (I had a madeira muffin--basically just plain white or yellow cake in cupcake form--and a can of tuna I brought in from the bus.) But you all would have loved the desserts and the lunch items--salads, quiche, stuffed baked potatoes, and so forth. This is a photo of water running off the hillside right outside the building.

You can see how rugged and steep the land is here, as well as how much water was spilling out of the hills. That this is not a terribly unusual occurrence (despite all the protests to the contrary) was revealed by the culverting (not showing in the photo) at the bottom of this run-off, which would have been unnecessary unless such rains were fairly common.

Somewhere along the way we also passed this rather lovely (and apparently fairly recent) marker to St Brendan. According to Irish lore (backed up by some evidence, I gather), St Brendan and some companions sailed west in a small boat (a coracle) and eventually discovered America, though of course it wasn't America at the time. This is supposed to have happened even earlier than Leif Erickson's trip, I believe. St Brendan is the figure farthest to the right in the photo.

Fortunately by the time we reached Limerick about 4, the rain had tapered off once again, and between 4 and 6 I was able to do a fair amount of strolling the city centre of Limerick. Susan came with me just for a bit, and we went just a few blocks from the hotel, following the guide's directions, to South's Bar. This is, she said, the bar that Frank McCourt's father wasted most of the family money in, as recorded by McCourt several years ago in the book Angela's Ashes. Susan got a couple of photos, then we strolled a few more minutes, then she headed back to the hotel to join a group of the tourers who headed out to a 15th century castle somewhere near here for one of those medieval dinner-entertainment kinds of things. (Since I can never eat anything at such festivities, I rarely have any desire to go!) I walked on, spending a few minutes in a cemetery next to one of the churches, browsing an HMV music store for a few minutes, and buying some supper items for my "picnic" in the hotel room. Mostly I just walked and ran off energy after being pent up in the bus for most of the day. Fortunately during this time the rain actually mostly held off, though it has rained again this evening.

Tomorrow we head off for Dublin and, hopefully, more time on the ground. I will avoid this kind of trip in the future--too much time confined, looking out windows. I'd rather see things afoot.


Ireland's Two-Hours of Summer

July 5, 2007

After we boarded the bus this morning, we made a brief swing past some of the historical sites of Limerick and made a photo stop. Back in the late 12th century, King Henry II of England, who had become King of Ireland as well some time earlier, sort of turned Ireland over to his younger son Prince John, who later became King John (one of England's least-beloved monarchs--there has never been a King John II). This is the castle Prince John had built, and they call it King John's Castle although he didn't use it after he became king. It's on the banks of the River Shannon, and unfortunately (as you can see in the photo) there is a modern building directly next to (or behind) it.

This is the same King John who was forced to sign the Magna Carta, a copy of which is in Salisbury Cathedral's Chapter House (which we saw last Sunday).

Right across the river from King John's Castle is this small monument, the Treaty Stone.

The stone itself is from the bridge that existed at that time (1691) where the treaty was signed. The treaty was between the Irish, who had mostly backed the deposed King James II of England against his replacements King William (of Orange) and Mary (James's daughter), and King William. William agreed to give the Irish rights to practice their Roman Catholicism, but Parliament (which had installed William and Mary) demanded that he break the treaty because James II's Catholicism was a main (the main?) reason they wanted him deposed. According to our guide, many of the Irish still remember this betrayal sharply.

We left Limerick for the longish drive to Dublin, Ireland's capital. Our "tea and pee break" was at the National Stud Farm, which is exactly what it sounds like, but also has a cafeteria and gift shop. When we arrived in Dublin, we had a short driving tour around part of central Dublin before being released to roam! Trinity College is right in the heart of Dublin, a bit to the south of the River Liffey. Once it was a Protestant college and Catholics were not allowed to attend. Now it's open to anyone who can meet the entrance requirements and pay the bill. It owns the famous illuminated manuscript called The Book of Kells which is about 1500 years old.

Dublin was also the home of playwright, novelist and poet Oscar Wilde when he was a young man. Susan and I stumbled across this historical marker when we were trying to find 1) the National Gallery and 2) a statue of Wilde which the guide had told us was in a park on the same street with the Gallery.

At the point we saw this marker, which is nowadays on a building used by the American University in Dublin, we had passed the National Gallery without realizing it and were right across the street from the park where the statue is. Our map didn't have all the streets marked, and Dublin--like every other city (except Valletta) I have encountered on this trip--impossible to navigate simply by looking at a map. I'm guessing that this must be the same house in which Wilde's parents had their evening parties that were mentioned in the Bram Stoker biography I read earlier on this trip. And it was either on this same block or just around the corner where there is also a house that the poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats once lived in, but we didn't know that at the time, so I didn't get to stroll by there and get a photo.

Anyway, in that park across the street, which is quite a beautiful park, is the Wilde statue. It seems to capture something of Wilde's casual attitude to things.

Across the walkway from the statue are two smaller statues (one is of a pregnant woman, the other is just a torso), and the high pedestals that support these statues have Wilde quotations on them, looking almost like graffiti chalked onto a wall.

At the National Gallery we saw another Caravaggio painting (the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, which includes a self-portrait of Caravaggio as a lantern bearer) and a very nice Van Gogh, which I don't recall ever having seen a photograph of. It's a small painting, a cityscape of Paris in fairly dark and muted colors under a cloudy, but not dark, sky. There was also a Picasso which, oddly, I remember the year of (1924), but not really the subject, except that I think there was a musician in it. You can see that it impressed me deeply. There were a lot of portraits in the Gallery and quite a few paintings from Dutch and German artists of the 17th century. The "Yeats Museum", which I'm thinking might be dedicated to Yeats's father and brother, both artists, rather than to the poet, was closed, so we couldn't find out what or whom it was really about.

We spent some time in a local bookstore called Hodges and Figgis, which was quite a nice store. Susan made a purchase, but I was good and restrained myself. Not surprisingly, the store separates out Irish writers from all other writers, so that, for example, poets like Yeats and Wilde and Seamus Heaney are not found in the "poetry" section, but in the "Irish poetry" section. Even writers like Bram Stoker, which one doesn't normally closely associate with Ireland, are in the Ireland section.

After we met the bus and got checked into the hotel, Susan and I took another walk. I wanted to find the Abbey Theatre, which Yeats was associated with and which was located on the little map the guide had given us. Not surprisingly, where we found the Abbey was not exactly the map placed it, and the Abbey itself has a modern facade which wouldn't have been there in the early 20th century, making me wonder if the current Abbey is not located where the historical Abbey was located. If so, we didn't find any sign marking the old Abbey. Here's a slightly close-up shot of the facade as it stands now:

Now look carefully at the reflective surfaces near the top of the photo. Notice that there is actual blue sky reflected in some of the panels. Yes, blue sky. About 5:45 this afternoon, the clouds broke. Now, notice also that I didn't say the sky cleared. The sky didn't clear, but the clouds broke, so that, for a while, there was about an equal mix of cloud and blue sky. And, amazingly, for a good part of that time, the sun actually managed to shine through those non-cloudy spots. One could actually feel one's skin trying to make up for Vitamin D deficiency. As astonishing as it may sound, we were actually in Dublin at the time of its annual two hours of summer. By the time of this writing, of course, the clouds seem to have closed in again, as well as I can tell through the hotel room window, though the rain hasn't started again yet. But just imagine our luck: Ireland only gets two hours of summer a year, and we were actually here for it! I can only presume that tomorrow morning we will return to what we have experienced for almost all of the rest of this trip--an exact duplicate of what we would consider, in Texas, a fairly miserable day in November. But still! The Irish will have to wait another year for sunlight and a temperature near 70: most of the rest of us on the tour will be able to go back to our homes and experience summer again in 2007. Amazing.


July 6, 2007

We began this morning by loading up in Dublin and heading for the dock and the ferry to North Wales. Most of us, I suspect, slept a good deal of the time from Dublin to Anglesey (the name of which makes me think of the Cat Stevens song "Angelsea") on the ferry--certainly I did. Toward the end of the 4-hour ride, Susan and I had an early lunch with an Australian couple, both of whom are in management with Woolworth's (which is, in Australia, a grocery chain) and are in the midst of about 3 months of travel and vacation time. He has family in Holland, and they have visited there already, as well as visiting Scotland.

After leaving the ferry, we drove to the town which has, according to the claim, the longest place name in the world--57 letters. Here is a photo of Susan in front of one of the signs of the name--this one gives the phonetic approximation of the Welsh pronunciation. (But be warned--the ll doesn't sound like an l: it's sort of like an l with a clicked th inside it, if that makes any sense.)

After having a pit stop and tea stop here we moved on into Snowdonia National Park, passing first by this tiny fishing village which more or less covers the entire island in the middle of the river.

The guide explained that the 6 national parks in the UK are not owned by the government, but rather by the National Trust (which sounds kind of like the Nature Conservancy). The National Trust preserves these parks for the future. Farms and towns are within the boundaries. The farmers (I'm not sure about the townies) lease their properties from the Trust, and their families are allowed to keep the leases from generation to generation as long as they are maintaining and using the land in a conserving sort of way. Mount Snowdon is in the park and is the highest peak in Wales--but only about 3000 feet. Because we were moving in and out of rain, and occasional sunlight, and low-flying clouds, we couldn't necessarily see everything the guide hoped we would. This hillside photo shows sheep, steep slopes, and a cloud lying on top of the hill.

In some ways this land too reminds me of the Big Bend area of Texas, though with a lot more greenery. Because of the rainfall, there were waterfalls splashing down the slopes in many areas. Here is one of them:

Many of us also slept for parts of this drive! Part of the reason we sleep so much on the bus and on the ferry rides is because they get us up so early in the morning to leave the hotels. After we left the park, we stopped in another smallish town called (I think) Llangollin. We had an hour here to roam around, get a snack, take photos, wander in and out of shops. I saw an interesting book, which I may buy at some point, called Some Recollections which contains a 35- or 40-page memoir by Thomas Hardy's first wife of the early years of her life, up to her marriage to Hardy. Here I actually bought something touristy: a polo shirt with the Welsh dragon and the words Wales and Cymru (the Welsh name for Wales) on the left breast. Maybe you'll see me wear it sometime!

We got to Wrexham, Wales, a little before 5 p.m. Our hotel here is a Ramada Plaza, which is very nice. Susan and I walked into town and roamed around a while. I found some deli-style chicken and chips to eat for my supper (we were being served a buffet at the hotel, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to eat anything), and we also roamed into a churchyard nearby. The church has a cemetery on the grounds and many of the stones are lying flat, like the stones in St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta. There were also a number of graves that looked almost like sarcophagi, as if the coffins were enclosed on top of, instead of in, the ground. (And maybe they are!) This is the verse that is on the side of one of them:

When Susan went down to the buffet, I showered and washed clothes, then went down to see if I could join Susan and the others and eat a dessert. I couldn't, but I had a couple of cups of tea, as well as a tiny bit of steamed broccoli and some plain white rice. We sat for a while after the others had left, talking with a couple from Arizona who are in education, in one way or another: she is a counselor, after retiring as a principal, and he is a lobbyist for the biggest community college district in Arizona. Nice and interesting people.

And now it's almost ten o'clock in the evening and the sky is not yet dark!

Oh, and we had rain today, of course, but also some sunshine. So we may have caught Wales's two hours of summer as well. It was lovely to be almost warm outside.


DrTee said...

Renner, I think you'll find that most eateries will have plenty of just plain old boiled potatoes on hand. You may just have to ask for them.

They had Seamus in with the Irish at the bookstore? I found that Dubliners were quick to reject Heaney, since he is from Northern Ireland. They have no problems claiming Beckett, though.

Sheila Ryan said...

So: are you still On for a get-together with Alan Garner?

I posted something on "cluster" tonight (Sunday, July *) about Garner.