OK – so the plan for today was to drive about an hour to the Rock of Cashel, visit it until around 11am and then pop over to the Dingle peninsula, reaching there by about 2pm. Well, folks, this was not meant to be.
Let’s start off with where we slept. It was by the side of a road. There are no rest stops along the highways (if you can call them that) in this country and rarely even a shoulder. Often we are riding down narrow roads sunk into a ditch of some sort – if a truck comes along we literally end up scraping the side of our rental along the rough gorse growing over the old stone walls. The day before, we had noticed the passenger mirror was being held on with duct tape and that both sides of the van were covered in scratches—now we knew why. We had been keeping an eye out for a nice rest area in vain when we finally decided to park near a gate to a cow field. We were told it wasn’t illegal to park on the side of the road in this country, but we had no idea that most of the roads would have no paved shoulder (if any at all) or short stone walls and tall hedges along the edge. There were no rest stops—the only pull offs were driveways… but we figured the farmers wouldn’t need this entrance until the morning. It was still quite unnerving to park randomly somewhere and hope we wouldn’t get bothered. And then there was the fact that this van was only meant to sleep 4. We figured Griffin would be just fine in the front seat – and, indeed, he was happy to go up there with his sleeping bag and kitty. All was going OK until around midnight when a loud THUMP awoke me – it was the sound of his little body hitting the floor after rolling off the seat. Miraculously, this didn’t even awaken him. I climbed over the chair to rearrange him, then went back to sleep, only to be awoken an hour or so later by another THUMP! Well, he once again did not awake and so I decided to let him just lie on the floor. He did not stay still and somehow managed to roll under the seat itself, which, of course is filled with sharp springs, metal bars etc…. He woke up and, after taking one look around, started to scream in panic: “I’m trapped mom, help I’m stuck!” I couldn’t just leap over the seat to help because I was afraid my weight would crush him. I managed to get over there and had Andre try to find his head to calm him down. It turned out that there was enough room under the seat for him to slide through a small hole and end up wedged in a crawl space under our bed.
We managed to get him out from under the seats but before we could lift him up into a better position, he, incredibly, fell back asleep – it was so fast, in fact, that I’m not sure he was ever awake. We managed to wake him enough that he crawled under our bed and ended up sleeping in the narrow space in-between the kitchen sink and the bathroom door. In the morning, when he woke up, he of course had to go to the bathroom. He was amazed to see he was already right next to the door. “Mommy, I needed to go potty so my magic made me move over here!” Sure enough, he had absolutely no memory of any of his nocturnal adventuring.
It seemed like it was going to be a pretty day and we headed off to the Rock of Cashel. This was located in Tipperary County – I remember hearing a song about being a long way from Tipperary, but can’t remember it - anyone??? I had read glowing reviews of this place and was looking forward to seeing an Irish castle. We got there in good time and, though it was windy and rainy, headed willingly up the hill towards the monument – the sign said we were walking the way of the dead – but we could never find any more information as to why the road was so named. I would guess funeral processions walk here, or (more fun) ghosts! We then spent about half an hour wandering around the place. I use my brochure and the web for the following info. This area was sacred for many centuries, being associated with St. Patrick, credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish. Legend has it he chased the Devil off a mountain located 30 km to the north of the Rock. Enraged, the fiery one bit off a huge chunk of rock on his way out and spit it out so it landed on top of a hill. This rock is the foundation for the Rock of Cashel and St. Patrick later converted the king of Munster to Christianity there. He was head of a group of rulers named after the Gaelic Goddess, Muman – guess her time was over. The chapel was later constructed and became, for hundreds of years, the seat of the over kings of Munster. These Irish kings ruled the island before the Norman invasion . Eventually the entire rock was given to the church and the famous King Cormac, who ruled two tribes between 1127 and 1138, was coronated here. There is even a football (that would be soccer) team named after him – now that’s immortality! His chapel is one of the earliest and finest examples of Romanesque churches to be found anywhere in Europe. You would think, with all our cathedral visiting, I would start to be able to recognize Gothic vs. Romanesque vs. Renaissance vs whatever else kinds of architecture in these things. But sadly, it is all still just pretty stone walls to me – the only thing I know for sure when I see it are flying buttresses – and I knew about those before I came here. There were many kings coronated here before the Normans took over. Even then it continued to be a seat of religious power and a permanent choir was housed there from the 1200’s until 1836. The main chapel was under restoration, but the rest of it was open to see. I loved this one room where they had restored all the woodwork inside – amazingly detailed and beautiful, but mostly the place was just a ruin. It was rather unnerving to see the giant chunk of the tower (pictured right) that had fallen from the walls and now lay, casually, on the grass. I wonder how stable these 1000 plus year old ruins really are? How am I to know when or if another piece such as this might plummet down upon us? What a way to go – I can see the headline. “Cashel Crushes Family of Five!” They might even put a little monument on the spot where our demise took place. Perhaps, in fact, we are pictured next to one already – it’s just that the dogs took away the bones….. We watched a bit of a movie that talked about the history of Ireland which seems to be a series of periods of peace followed by invasions from neighboring lands. Even religious sites such as this had to be turned into fortresses in order to protect the people who lived and worked within. After this we walked around the building and looked at the graves. I was excited to see the Celtic knotwork on one of the tombs. I love Celtic art and had been looking forward to seeing it in its original glory. The Rock of Cashel also had a round tower – like the one we had seen in Glendalough – it was the oldest part of the complex and looked to be in the best shape. Those things were built to last!
On the way out we visited the treasure room and Griffin was excited to see his name on a plaque. It is really cool how he is so interested in letters recently. Every time he notices a letter from his name, he shows it to me. He is learning this in school, of course, but always insists he never works at school – only playing! We also saw Cormac’s cross – which is supposedly the original Irish cross – only parts remain. We ended our time in Cashel by wandering through the town. André wanted to find an adapter so our computer could work off the cigarette lighter in the car and I was looking for a thrift store! We were unable to find the adapter but did find a small charity shop where I picked up a few little things and the kids got a dot-to-dot book. I also stopped in a bookstore to pick up a collection of Irish fairy tales. This is what we have been reading every night before bed. We also saw lots of little shops and want to paint our Gowen home to match the one pictured left. There seem to be hardly any chain stores at all in Ireland. Everything seems to be locally owned and run and more than 50% of the stores seem to be named a family name. This is not just the pubs but the pharmacies, bookstores and stationary sellers. O’Shea’s Meats, Flanahan’s Pharmacy etc…. It really is quite cool and gives each town a very unique feel. I loved how the old castle of this town had been built right into the main street- flanked on either side with other businesses – what fun!
So, all this went pretty well and we left Cashel at around 11am – we were to head for the Dingle peninsula and get there by around 2. We got a bit lost trying to leave town but got turned around pretty quickly and headed on. Our silver lining for the dark cloud of being lost was one last romantic view of the Rock of Cashel, all misty in the rain.
So, here’s where we became like the crew of Gilligan’s Island. Of course I am referring to the show I watched on rerun about 10,000 times as a child. Thanks to http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/televisiontvthemelyrics-50s60s70s/gilligansisland.htm for the lyrics of that great classic “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.”
The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.
The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed,
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost.
Of course, the part that refers most to us is the haunting: ‘a three-hour tour, a three hour tour.” André is the Skipper, Callie is Mary Anne (though I think she’d prefer to be Ginger), Zander is the Professor and Griffin (with his obsession with money) is the millionaire. So, that leaves me to be Gilligan – but I don’t mind. He was the funny one, the one they named the whole show after, right? Plus, I never claimed to be able to navigate, and I can blame any clumsiness on being left-handed in a right-handed world.
Just substitute our camper van (lovingly named Daphne in honor of our hostess at the B&B) for the S.S. Minnow tossed madly around the roads of the Irish countryside and the analogy is complete. I mean, here we are, living the dream, rollicking along the Irish countryside and realizing, more and more every minute – that we might die. I am not exaggerating here. I mean, we had heard the Irish roads were bad, but we thought that meant slow. But what that meant was something more along the lines of – you will probably die if you drive on these roads. They are narrow, they are winding, they have blind corners every few hundred feet. And this is NOT the back roads – this is all the roads. A good road was one where we had 6 inches of clearance. Plus it is raining, plus it is so windy our campervan is being blown around. In general, André and I take turns driving. We had both driven Mr. Liberty on the first two days and enjoy giving each other breaks. In this case, however, there was no way I was driving this thing.
Thank the heavens that the kids had a DVD player in the back – they were watching movies as we barreled along down the roads – sometimes daring to go as fast as 60 km/h on a 100 km/h road and screaming in terror (no, I am not making that up) just about every time a big rig or logging truck came barreling along, forcing us off the edge of the road into the bushes or the boggy stream running down each side.
André was a sight to see, focused utterly on keeping the van on the road, a literal white knuckle grip on the steering wheel at all times. I was busy trying to read the miniscule, infrequent and faded signs through the rain and also keep the kids entertained in between movies with snacks, crafts and scintillating conversation. I suppose the Irish road makers did try to help a bit by informing us, at times, there was a 'accident black spot’ up ahead. That might have meant a completely blind corner or maybe just a straight part where people fall asleep – it wasn’t really clear. I remember, as a kid, driving along the reservoir road – Westbrook Road - and there was one corner called ‘Dead Man’s Curve’. It was a hairpin turn that was completely blind and people used to get into accidents there all the time. At one point or another in my childhood, someone died there and they came along and blasted back some of the rock – it was still Dead Man’s Curve – but nowhere near as deadly. Well, imagine driving around Dead Man’s Curve on a road that seems so narrow it should really be one way, in a large van, at high speed, every 10 minutes or so, and you get an idea of our experience. It took us over 6 hours to take the “3 hour tour” to Dingle. We did have to stop a few times to eat and so André could stretch his cramped and tensed muscles. We even detoured by about 10 minutes at one point since our map said we would be passing very near a castle. Our stop at Kanturk Castle was totally underwhelming. It was unstaffed, utterly deserted, almost unmarked and consisted of a shell of a four-story Tudor style mansion. The best thing about it was the history. Thanks to http://mccarthy.montana.com/Articles/Kanturk.html for lots of great information.
It was initially built between around 1609 and 1618 for the Mac Donough Mac Carthy’s. These were some of the kings of Munster that we heard about at the Rock of Cashel and they were still obviously powerful, known as the Lords of Dunhallow. I think it is cool that, even in the 1600’s people sometimes had hyphenated names – who says that is only a modern invention? Actually – this Gaelic clan had been powerful since the 1200’s when it was the driving force behind keeping the invading Norman forces out of this corner of Ireland, even 500 years after the first Normans arrived. They built the castle using some of the most modern techniques of the time and pioneered some new designs as well. There are many legends about the castle – one maintains that it was built over a period of many years by a succession of 6 stone masons, who were all named John. “Thus at one time the Castle was known as "Carrig-na-Shane-Saor" i.e. The Rock of John the Mason.” Another tradition holds that the castle is cursed as one of the original builders forced wayfarers to work there until they dropped dead from exhaustion, then their blood was mixed into the mortar – strengthening it. It was actually common practice to add animal blood to lime at the time in order to strengthen it, so who knows?
Kanturk was never completely finished but was important as a symbol of the Munster independence. Later, when the English conquered all of Ireland and at last came to settle the area, they ordered final completion to be halted. The enraged owner smashed in the roof and deserted the area. The line of Munsters kept hold of the castle by hook or crook until 1666 when, at last, burdened by high taxes, the Mac Donough Mac Carthy’s sold Kanturk, ending the last stronghold of the kings of Munster. No one likes to be conquered, but, as the bard O’Grihm sings:
From the Boyne to the Linn
Has the mandate been given
That the children of Finn
From their country be driven
We starve by the board
And we thirst amid wassail-
For the guest is the lord
And the host is the vassal.
It is so sad that this clan and people were so powerful for at least 1000 years, and now, all that is left of their great castle is the stone walls. We all enjoyed a chance to stretch our legs and the kids ran around getting very wet and muddy – great preparation for another 3 hours in the car attempting not to die. At one point we were driving along and saw, up ahead, a pedestrian walking along. Incredibly enough he wasn’t the first but it was dark at this point and the road was very thin. He was wearing a reflective vest but the fact of the matter is, there isn’t room for a man and 2 cars on these roads. When he noticed us approaching he began to run, sort of, hunched over, almost reminding us of a rabbit, until he reached a gap in the hedge he could duck into. Passing, we saw he had to be at least 60 years old and was wheezing from his efforts to escape death. You could not pay me enough money to walk down those roads in the dark, but I guess if you live there, and don’t have a car, it’s the only way to get where you need to go. I did not see any form of mass transportation in this country at all except for busses around the Dublin area.
When we reached the edge of the peninsula it was dark – and, despite noting the fact that this particular road had been the victim of an ‘improvement’ scheme completing just in 2008, we knew we had to stop for the night.
We pulled over near where a big rig had also parked for the night and settled in. The day was hard, long and not fun – we hadn’t seen anything particularly special and were totally behind schedule. And what’s more, we have to, later this very week, attempt to cross back over the country again – would we survive? Was this to be the way our whole vacation would be? I wanted to cry – and did – but managed to wait until all the kids were sleeping.