Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Older than the Pyramids: Newgrange and Knowth. Ireland’s Ancient East Amazes

Older than the Pyramids: Newgrange and Knowth
Ireland’s Ancient East Amazes
Arriving at Knowth
Highlight of last week’s few days in County Meath was undoubtedly the visit to Newgrange, to the chamber there in particular. Some people are inclined to turn their noses up at a tour of nearby Knowth (sometimes that is all that’s available) but that’s a big mistake. It is well worth visiting Knowth - it is bigger than Newgrange and has more attractions, certainly much more stone art. But is doesn't have a chamber, or at least a chamber that the visitor can access.

All access to both these magnificent sites is through the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. No point in going to the trouble of finding Newgrange or Knowth yourself - you won’t be allowed in. All the info you need to do it correctly is here at the Irish Heritage site .

 The problem for visitors from outside Meath, and there are thousands from home and abroad, is that you cannot book in advance. You must go in person to the Visitor Centre for these passage tombs and book a tour for that day. So it makes sense. If want an early tour, you must go early. And on busy days, you may have to settle for an afternoon tour.

We had been tipped off about getting there early but, after been given some incorrect info, also after an interesting longish conversation with a Swiss film director at breakfast in Teltown House and an error on the road (blame it on the Sat-Nav!), we didn't arrive that early. It was certainly after 10.30am.

Lunch. Smoked Salmon & Leek
The car park was close to full but, fortunately, they have an overflow. We could see the queues as we entered the center. The staff were rushed off their feet. “It is our busiest day of the year so far,” one told us. The fact that admission was free - it is free to all OPW sites on the first Wednesday of each month - may have had something to do with the crowds. Maybe not; I didn't know about it and I doubt that the thousands from abroad did either.

But the staff were brilliant, right through from from reception, to the cafe, to the coach drivers, to the guides. We asked for the Newgrange tour, not expecting a good answer. Nothing available until 2.45pm. But the helpful lady didn't leave it at that. “Why not go to Knowth? You can leave your car where it is. Take a look around the display at the centre. Walk over to the bus area for 11.45. You’ll be back in time for lunch. Maybe take another look around the centre and then go to Newgrange.” Day sorted!
Knowth (left) and "satellite"
So we did just that. After all, these sites have been here for over 5,000 years so why not have a little patience, give them the full day. The exhibits in the centre are excellent, all kinds of media in use and lots of large models to explore. Loads of info on everything from clothing to food, the things that you read about nowadays under the Lifestyle section of your newspaper!

The diet was healthy too, lots of berries, nuts and apples. Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) was common and “was used much as we use spinach or cabbage today but it had even more iron, protein and calcium..”.
 Soon, it was time to head over to the bus circle. We loaded up, fastened our belts and headed up the mainly narrow country road past dwellings large and small and through farmland. Less than ten minutes later, we were being greeted by our guide at windy Knowth (we would have a walk on top later), a brilliant companion who urged us above all to have an open mind as these mounds may not have been burial places at all. After the first inhabitants, there were many others including Christians and Normans.

He pointed out the art on the large stones at the base of the mounds. These supporting stones were later covered with tonnes and tonnes of soil and stone and with all kinds of grass, bushes and trees as the centuries rolled up, so that they eventually looked like nice little hills and their true nature was hidden for centuries. Even when “discovered”, it takes about forty years for the archaeologists to do their work and then, maybe, they can be opened to the public.

Exhibit in visitor centre
 There are many “satellite” mounds in the vicinity of Knowth, none up close to Newgrange. There is a third large mound, known as Dowth, but we didn't get to see that on the day and it didn't seem to be on offer at reception even though it is mentioned at the website. It is, in any case, not yet excavated, like many more smaller mounds in the area.

Back then on the bus and we were returned to the centre. The café was busy but no bother at all in getting a decent plate of food. Took our time with that and, when finished, we returned to the exhibition area and did a little shopping as well. The shop stocks good quality souvenirs, Irish yes but not “Oirish!

In visitor centre
The time wasn't long passing and soon we were on the coach again. We followed part of the same route as earlier before splitting off to the Newgrange site. Our guide this time told us about the well known “front wall” that you see in photographs. She told us that all the stones used were found on site. The history of the place, of course, is much the same as Knowth, both older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids!

Our group had to split in two as we took turns to enter the small cruciform chamber. Before we went in we were shown the “door” and the “light-box” above it where the sunlight enters at the Winter solstice. It is narrow in there - you need to be careful but everyone got in, safe and sound.
Again there are various theories about the use of these chambers, nothing though that can be taken as definite. Were they burial sites? The remains found there, by the way, were what was left after cremation. Were they constructed in the hope of the light of the sun somehow renewing life? Was there some magic involved?

The magic that can be seen though is above your head. Here all the big slabs are laid, the ones above jutting a little out over the ones immediately below (corbelling is the term) to form a biggish dome and, at the top, there is a large capstone which, of course, is covered by hundreds of tons of soil and stones.
Newgrange stone art (in front of entrance)
 And, then another little bit of magic, this with the aid of an electric lamp. First though, all the lights are turned off. It is completely dark. And then we see the beam, on the floor, not at an angle but straight along the floor. Just like the sun light in mid December. When we walked the short distance to the chamber, we were ascending (not that we realised it) and the floor here is on the same level as the “light-box”. Five thousand years ago!

Soon we were out in the open for a walk around and, when finished, headed out to the bus, passing a car-load at the entrance trying to get in without first going to nearby Visitor Centre. Not a hope! Be warned.

See also: Meath and Ireland's Ancient East

Historic Martry Mill on Meath’s Blackwater

More stone art

Newgrange chamber entrance,
with "light-box" above the opening.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Corkman on Tour. Top Five Visits. And Top Guides!

Corkman on Tour. Top Five Posts 2015.
Blarney Castle
Man of Arigna. Black Spit. White Spit. Arigna Mining Experience. 
House of Waterford Crystal Tour

Top Guides 
Lots of excellent guides around the country, including the lady we met at Waterford Crystal and the lady who took us under her wing in the nearby Medieval Museum. But the three that stand out are, in no particular order:
Joe at Dingle Distillery,
Jimmy at Arigna Mines,

Johnny at Trinity College

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

House of Waterford Crystal Tour

House of Waterford Crystal Tour
During a recent trip to the city's Harvest Festival, I took the opportunity to take the factory tour at Waterford Crystal. It was, pardon the pun, brilliant, much better than anticipated. And great to see a strongly beating heart right in the centre of the city even if some of the limbs are in rather distant places.

But the people that make the high end pieces, eye catching and stunning pieces, work right here in Waterford and you get close up when you take the guided tour.
It will cost you a small fortune to take Cinderella to the ball!
Your guide will fill you in on the background of glass-making and on the history of the Waterford operation in particular. Then you move into the factory and start in the atmospheric Blowing Department. Next stop is the Mould Room where short-lived timber moulds are fashioned for the large pieces. You’ll see moulds there for many sports trophies, including that for the Irish Open.
Next up is the Quality Control room. If the piece is not up to standard, it is scrapped and the glass recycled. Waterford don't do seconds! Now into the Hand Marking Department where a temporary grid is applied to assist the cutter. The concentration in the Cutting Department is intense. Each of the craftsmen has trained for a minimum of 8 years to master the craft, applying the clear and sparkling cut that is the distinctive hallmark of Waterford Crystal.
Now we are into the Sculpture Department. Amazing what these folks can fashion from a solid block of glass, sometimes indeed, if the piece is particularly large, from a few blocks. Some of the pieces take months to complete.
Blow, glow
Ready for sculpting
The Engraving Department is next, all done with a copper wheel and again maximum concentration! It can take from hours to days to complete the engraving on many of the international sporting trophies and limited edition inspiration pieces.

And that is more or less it. The tour ends in the shop and you are let loose! And do watch out for those magnificent trophies and unique pieces. I had been a little sceptical in advance but found the experience very impressive and would highly recommend it. Get all the details here.

Horse-racing trophy (Churchill Downs)
See also: Dinner at Bodega Waterford

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

National Botanic Gardens. Leisure, recreation, education

National Botanic Gardens
Leisure, recreation, education
The National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, just a short bus ride from O'Connell Street in Dublin, are a delight. The arboretum, pond, river banks, cultivar collections, vegetable gardens, glasshouses and wildlife, provided interest for every visitor. And it costs you nothing - admission is free!

The recently restored Great Palm House (above) is 20 metres high and is the tallest building in the garden and contains an amazing array of plants from countries somewhat warmer than this one. Indeed, all the glasshouses, many of them recently restored, are worth a visit.
In the glasshouses!
There are quite a few gardens in the 50 acres, including an Education Garden, a Viking House and Garden and a very interesting Fruit and Vegetable Garden. Some great information here (and practical examples) on organic growing techniques, composting and honey production and also a large collection of Irish apple cultivars from all around the country. Lots of fruit and vegetables too.

This squirrel was the only wildlife that we spotted in the gardens.

A very small part of the Herbaceous border
After strolling through the rockery, on our way down towards the river, we spotted the squirrel. After that we walked up the slope through the magnificent Herbaceous Border. This is very impressive at the moment and must be one of the best, of not the best, in the country.

What is Life?
There are some art works scattered throughout the gardens and this 2013 piece, called What is Life, marks the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double-helix in 1953. It is designed by Charles Jencks and is a gift to the nation from private donors. It is only recently that we have discovered that all life on earth, from microbes to plants ad animals, is related! I'm quoting here from the Visitor Guide and Map, available from the Visitor Centre for just a euro.

Also in the Visitor Centre, you will find a lovely little cafe where you may enjoy a snack or indeed treat yourself to lunch. We enjoyed some coffee and the delicious pastries above. By the way, you can walk direct from here to Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum and here too you'll find a cafe for refreshments.

See also Teeling Distillery visit
Chapter One Restaurant
Dinner of Delights at Restaurant Forty One

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Glendalough. In St Kevin’s Footsteps.


In St Kevin’s Footsteps.
Last Friday week, I walked in the footsteps of St Kevin in Glendalough. Well maybe not exactly. Nowadays you can walk around the two lakes of the Wicklow beauty spot partly on a boardwalk, partly on a stoney road.

Kevin is reputed to have founded the monastic settlement here in the 6th century but the majestic valley was carved long before that by a glacier. For six centuries after Kevin’s death in 618, Glendalough flourished and the Irish Annals contain references to the deaths of abbots and raids on the settlement.

Today’s “raiders” come in buses and cars. It is not too far from Dublin so, in the holiday season, you’ll see big groups of tourists and schoolchildren. And rightly so, as this is an important historical sight. It is very close to Dublin, so if you want to enjoy the peace and quiet of ancient times then maybe you should head there in the off-peak months or early in the day.

The remains of the settlement, now called the Monastic City, are mainly close together. And the 30 metre round tower is the outstanding feature. I read there that the tower was the campanile for the community, that the bells were rung to call the monks to meetings and prayers. I always thought that these towers were a refuge against raiding Vikings. Perhaps a bit of both?
Upper Lake
Having visited the City, we headed off for a walk. There are quite a few of them here and in the adjacent Wicklow National Park. We started on the Green Road, our destination the Upper Lake. At a fork, we took the boardwalk (much of it goes through boggy ground) past the Lower Lake; the boardwalk made it easy for us, kept us nice and dry.

At the Upper Lake, there are fine views of the water, the mountains and a waterfall in the distance. Of course, you may walk around the Upper Lake as well! There is also the opportunity for refreshments here, an opportunity heartily indulged by the bunches of schoolchildren.

We completed the loop (about 3 kilometres) by taking the Green Road back to that fork mentioned earlier; now we were on slightly higher ground all the while with the forest all around us. A very pleasant walk indeed. From the fork, it is a very short distance back to the car park.

Admission to Glendalough, open all year round, is free though there is a charge to enter the Visitor Centre which has an interesting exhibition and an audio-visual show. French, Italian and Spanish guided tours are available all year by advance booking.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Beautiful Gardens at Powerscourt Estate

Beautiful Gardens at Powerscourt Estate
Enniskerry, County Wicklow
Life size horse sculpture, one of a pair by the Triton Lake
Spectatular views all around at the Powerscourt Estate last Thursday, the blue sky a bonus as we strolled through the various gardens, every now and then stopping and turning to look back at the restored house on the hill.

The Estate, there is also a waterfall nearby, is just an hour or so from Dublin but now, with the improved motorways, it is just two and a half from Cork. Use M8, M7, M50, M11 (to Wexford) and that will leave you with just a few miles of country road to reach your destination.

Don't forget to look behind you every now and then!
The gardens here have been voted number three in the world by National Geographic. The house itself was burned down in 1974 and was still a wreck when I last visited but by 1997 it had been restored and opened to the public. One of Ireland's most popular destinations, it is thriving today. There is also a large and well stocked garden centre, a golf course and a five star hotel on the grounds.
We were mainly interested in the walk through the many gardens, the views out to the Sugar Loaf mountains, and the views back to the house. From the house itself you stroll down through the Italian Garden and on towards the Triton Lake and its high water spout, with huge trees on both sides. Keep an eye too for the signs to the Japanese gardens created in 1908.
In the Japanese Garden
As you go around the lake, take the Rhododendron Walk and then head for the Pets Cemetery, one of Ireland's largest. This is the resting place of many of the family pets, including dogs, horses and cows!

On your way to the Walled Garden, do take in the Dolphin Pond, bought in Paris in the late 19th century. Watch out for the intricate ironwork of the English Gate and indeed other gates nearby. The Walled Garden, in between Spring and Summer, wasn't really at its best the other day but will soon be in full bloom.
The ground floor of the house is a base for Avoca. Here they have Tea Rooms and a shop. And part of the shop is a marvellous food hall, with many Irish products on display. We were on our way to dinner but still couldn't resist some sweet things, including Aine’s Chocolates and DP Connolly’s old fashioned boiled sweets (Rhubarb and Custard for me). And I also helped myself to a tin of Gentleman's Relish!

  • The adult ticket price is €8.50 and you’ll get a family ticket for €25.00. More info here  
See also: Tasting Menu at Strawberry Tree

Thursday, May 7, 2015

House of Light. Castlecoote in Roscommon

House of Light
Castlecoote in Roscommon

Sometimes in the late evening, Kevin Finnerty strolls around the grounds of Castlecoote House, with the River Suck for company on three sides, and he is thinking about the next stages of the restoration. He bought this place in 1996 when it was a total ruin, stripped of everything worth taking, including all its old fireplaces.

Sometimes, more often than not, the walk will take him into the old orchard at the rear of the house (some say the rear looks even better than the front). Here there are no less than 41 varieties of apple. There are three very rare ones, including one called White Crofton, George Bernard Shaw’s favourite apple!
A new window, with foliage outside
Now, close to twenty years later, Kevin and Theresa have restored the Georgian house, faithfully. The latest big project is the restoration of the bridge (the original was destroyed in the Williamite Wars) across the Suck at the front of the house. This is already underway and may be complete in 2016, perhaps in time for the annual Percy French Festival.

Kevin made one magnificent window from two here,
one of just two alterations. The other is the round window above.
The Festival, established by Kevin, has taken place annually in Castlecoote since 2009. Kevin’s father was involved in the Percy French festivals of 1957 and 1958. The festival is about the music of French but over the years has played on his name to focus on a particular subject and examine aspects of Irish life in detail.

The title for next July’s festival is Through a French Mirror. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Now I see warts and all”. Over three days (8th-10th), life will be examined by a list of speakers that includes: Robert Ballagh, Lucinda Creighton, Professor William Reville, Kevin McStay, Dr Olga Cox Cameron, Dr Síle de Cléir, Bishop Kevin Doran, and Adelle Hughes. Musicians performing are Jon Henderson, The Mulligan Sisters and Johnny Duhan. Information and tickets here.

Family crest
If you can't make it for the festival, it is possible to visit Castlecoote, one of four heritage house in the area, throughout the summer. You'll be amazed by the light inside. “There is not a dark corner in the house,” Kevin told us as he guided us around and explained how the windows were constructed, including a technique called splaying, to make the best of the light. The big room, where the lectures for the festival take place, is typical.

In 1989 the house, which incorporated some of the original castle, was gutted by a fire and only the outer walls remained. Today, thanks to the Finnertys, the 20,000 square foot six-bedroomed house (still incorporating parts of the castle - you’ll see the thick walls!) has magnificent stucco ceilings, marble fireplaces, oak floors, beautiful staircases and hand-crafted astragal sash windows. All the craft-work, all true to the original, was carried out by local craftspeople.

Kevin showed me the family coat of arms in one of the windows. It is also the coat of arms of the Mageraghty clan who, in the 1500s, had a fort on this site. Amazingly, they are the same family. And a link here to Cork. In 1603, Donal O'Sullivan the lord of Beare and Bantry was coming towards the end of his famous long march and was met near here by the Mageraghtys.

Ceiling detail
Castlecoote House is situated in the village of the same name, a few minutes drive from Roscommon town, which is two hours from Dublin, three from Cork.

In the orchard at the rear of Castlecoote
See also: The Arigna Mining Experience
Clonmacnoise. An Important Site for Centuries
The Maltese Supper in Gleeson's Roscommon