We spent three very enjoyable nights here in August. The ambition was to ditch the car for a few days and just enjoy the hotels and enjoy the beautiful sorroundings. The Lakes hotel sits on the shore of Loch Leanne and their is easy walking access to Muckross house and gardens. For more ambitious hikers both Torc mountain and Mangerton are also within hiking distance of the hotel.
The location is a a huge part of the attraction with this hotel. The easy access to the shore of the hotel makes for a beautiful bar area. On the first night we had a lovely dinner here. The food was good and the service was efficient if a little lacking in friendliness. This lack of friendliness from some staff was more than made up for by other staff members later in the stay. The barman gave us free coffees as guests of the hotel and engaged in friendly chats also.
We had a lovely stroll around the grounds on the first day also and up towards Muckross house. The weather was beautiful also and we enjoyed a lovely relaxing evening.
I took some time to enjoy the mountains during our stay also. Mountain running is a hobby of mine and I enjoyed the jog to the base of the mountain and the the run up and down. I am well familiar with Mangerton mountain, having spend a lot of time here over the years and it was a real pleasure to be able to jog there from the hotel. Weather was great too ! I elected to drive to Torc on the final day of our stay here , although hiking or jogging would have been possible. I had another lovely day jogging on the mountain in what was one of our hottest days of the Summer.
On our final evening we also sampled the fine dining, available here at The Lakes Hotel. The food was absolutely delicious. I had Guinea Fowl and Liana had duck. Starters were impressive too. I had a rich array of sea food and Liana had goats cheese. Desert was an orange souffle for me. I would absolutely recommend sampling the fine dining here. It was a real treat.
The rooms are lovely in an old fashioned way. There are a variety of room types available. We stayed in a simple room with lovely views over the lakes. There was no air conditioning, which didn’t bother us, despite the warm weather. It did mean we had to keep the curtains closed during the day however.
The bar had some nice live music on the Saturday night and some piano music on the Friday. The bar itself is very pleasant with a very pleasant veranda opening out on to the lakes.
Breakfast was nice with a mix of menu items and a buffet. I ordered deilicious kippers both morning and a generous helping from the buffet. The breakfast was in the dining hall where the fine dining was also served. The decor is old fashioned and the hotel overall retains a sense of old world charm that I find rare in hotels these days.
The hotel itself is still owned by the Huggard family who have been pioneers in Irish tourism for well over a hundred years. They are previous owners of Ashford Castle and Ballinahinch Castle continue to operate and own and operate the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville.
As a travel director with trafalgar tours, I had the pleasure of experiencing the banquet in Kinvara six times during the Summer. I also got to know the team of performers at Dunguire banquet who are lovely people as well as excellent professionals.
The banquet itself starts with a welcome drink of honeyed wine known as meade, accompanied by a fun musical performance of singing and harp music. The meade is an unusual and to my taste delicious drink. It is composed of white wine sweetened with honey. The music is very pleasant and the performance is playfull. The history of the castle is gently retold in singing verse and guests are introduced along with a King and Queen for the evening chosen from amongst the guests.
After this the guests are brought up the stairs. Do be aware that there is no lift; all guests must ascend the spiral staircase which consists of two flights of stairs. Having said this, I never had any guest who was unable to ascend the stairs. But do be aware that if you do have mobility issues with a stairs, you will not be able to partake.
Having ascended the stairs, there is some more castle history along with some traditional and locally flavoured toasts before the meal is served. The meal is in four courses and while dietary restrictions can be accomodated with notice prior to the event, for obvious reasons, the castle uses outside caterers and there is no menu choice. The first course is smoked salmon ( with melon as an alternative), the next course is potato and leak soup, the main course is chicken and vegetables and the desert is apple tart ( apple pie). While there is little choice regards the food; it is good wholesome, healthy fare and consistently of good quality. The performers themselves act as waiters/waitresses so the main performance begins once the meal is ended. Of course, the meal is accompanied by generous jugs of white and red wine that will be refilled as neccessary. Wine is the only drink available, probably due to our licensing laws here in Ireland.
The performance has a literary theme and traces the literary heritage of both Ireland and the local area with references to the last great Gaelic poet – Raftery and the Irish language writer Padraig O Conaire as well as more well known names such as James Joyce, William Butler Yeates, Synge and Gogerty. St Kevin, associated with Glendalough is also references in the early part of the show along with Colman Mac Duath, a local saint with associations in the area.
The show aims towards fun and humour and there is plenty of fun audience interaction. While many of the writers referenced would be unknown to foreign audiences, they are introduced in simple and interesting terms and there is no doubt the audience member would be left with an enriching sense that they have been familiarised with our literary heritage in a fun, playful manner. Musically, the show is carried by excellent harp playing and the voices which carry very well in the castle accoustics. The castle is small and intimate and can accomodate between 50-80 guests I would estimate. The audience is always a mix of individuals and groups and the atmosphere is always very good.
I would highly recommend this banquet as a fun evening if you are in the area. It is a fun and enriching experience and the food is decent and wholesome.
A final word on the castle
The castle itself was built as a Gaelic Castle by the O Hynes in the 16th century but was subsequently taken over by the Martyns. It was the residence of the mayor of Galway, Richard Martyn in the early 17th century.
It makes for an intimate concert venue with outstanding accoustics negating the need for amplification, a welcome relief in our modern world ! The banquet runs from April to October every year.
Glendalaugh is a beautiful valley in the heart of Wicklow. It is famed both for its monastic heritage and natural beauty. I have been there many times as a tour guide but I wanted to visit myself to explore the hiking trails more extensively.
We had a beautiful sunny morning to explore the hiking trails and the beautiful scenery. The beautiful winter sunlight and cool, windless day gave us a glimpse of Glendalaugh at its peaceful, tranquil best.
There is an air of contentment and ease about the place on mornings like this that is irresistable. The water in the lakes was still and gave a beautiful mirror like surface to the splendid valley. The clear sky and winter sun lent a majestic, generous light. I always find sunny, winter days to be magical. There is a preciousness about that brilliant, winter light that is absent in the longer summer days and the cooler air invites more vigorous exercise. But there is no real cold here yet. Our mild autumn had not yet given way to winter.
So a perfect day for a hike !
With the luxury of time, we were able to explore the longer white trail around both lakes, which gives way to a steeper climb towards the further reaches of the valley and then returns along the cliff, giving beautiful views of the lakes at the heart of the valley.
Glendalaugh is named after these two gorgeous lakes., from the Irish Gleann an dha locha which translates as the Glen of the two lakes. It is very much associated with St. Kevin who lived as a contemplative saint and mystic here in the golden age of Celtic Christianity in the 6th century.
He did have a moody and perhaps even murderous side to him however ! St. Kevin was a famously handsome and charismatic figure and it seems that his quest for a silent, contemplative life were constantly interrupted by a local population that was in thrall to his ways. Young women were particularly persistent and most persistent of all was a young lady by the name of Kathleen of the green eyes. Undeterred by Kevins rejection of her, she continued to pursue him until one day in a fit of rage Kevin threw her into the lake where she drowned.
The valley went on to host a large and important monastic community right through the glory days of Irelands monastic tradition when Ireland gained a reputation as Europe’s premier seat of learning and scholarship in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. During this time much of Europe was in a chaotic state following the decline of the Roman Empire and Irelands relative isolation, peace and respect for learning allowed the monasteries to become repositories of learning and scholarship during this era. Indeed scholars flocked from all over Europe monasteries such as Glendalaugh during this time.
Much of the original monastic settlement remains including the entrance way, the round tower, St.Kevin’s kitchen, a beautiful Celtic cross. All her bathed in myths, legends and stories. For example, it is said that if the central archway falls down, then armegeddon will follow in seven days.
The round tower is a particularly well preserved and impressive construction dating from the 11th century and is one of the finest preserved round towers of its era. It served as both a beacon and a look out tower, allowing pilgrims to locate the monastery and allowing the monks to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding country also.
While, St. Kevin’s kitchen is also nicely preserved, overall we are talking about the ruins of an old settlement. Imagination is essential in bringing it to life. You have to imagine the monks, living, working and praying in this beautiful tranquil valley.
The golden age of Glendalough came to an end with its sack by the Anglo Normans in the 12th century and its subsequent union with the Dublin diocese in 1214. It fell into disuse in 1398 following destruction by English forces. It remained an important local church and remained an iconic site for the local population throughout its history right up to the present and indeed their are accounts of riotous celebrations there on the feast of St. Kevin in the 18th and 19th century.
It remains an icon of Celtic spirituality and the serenity of the lakes and their attendant atmosphere remains special right to this day.
Alan Coakley is a travel director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland
While tour guiding, I have the opportunity to visit many of Ireland’s most beautiful and renowned places. That certainly includes Powerscourt house located about an hours drive from Dublin. The gardens are beautifully laid out, proportioned and expertly maintained.
Powerscourt house is located on the site of an original 13th century castle associated with the anglo Norman De Paor (Power) family. As the power of the Anglo Normans receded in medieval times the castle fell under the control of the Gaelic O Tooles. However as the British asserted their authority over Ireland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries the castle confiscated from the O’Tooles and was gifted to Richard Wingfield in 1603, originally given as a leasehold but eventually transferred in full to the family following Wingfield successful campaigns in Ulster in the Northern part of Ireland against the Gaelic O Doherty clan at the same time that he was given the title Viscount Powerscourt by Elizabeth 1.
The house was constructed around the castle in 1741 by Richard Wingfield also the 1st Viscount Powerscourt. The reason he was also the 1st viscount is that the title lapsed on a few occasions and was reawarded to Richard Wingfield in 1735 and he thus shares the title 1st Viscount of Powerscourt as well as his name with his 17th century ancestor who was the first 1st viscount of Powerscourt. It took me a while to get my head around it too !
Anyway, the house was constructed between 1730 and 1741 under the stewardship of Richard Cassels who aimed to create a great Italian renaissance villa I the heart of the Wicklow hills. In truth the house and gardens to sit rather incongruously amidst the boggy Wicklow hills. If we were to apply the standards of the present to the conception of the house we could easily criticise the design for failing to draw any inspiration at all from its surroundings. It is a dream of Europe set amidst the Wicklow hills but it is a dream come alive and, indeed, why not draw inspiration from Europe?
A further storey was completed in 1787 and it was further altered and upgraded in the 19th century. It was sold to the Slazenger family (of sportswear fame) in 1961 and the original house sadly burnt down in 1974. Although the grounds were beautifully maintained in the meantime, it wasn’t until 1995 that the house was renovated and reconstructed.
The house itself boasts some very pleasant gift shops but the cafe (run by Avoca) area was busy and overcrowded and even though I had time on my side I choose to forego my coffee due to the long queue.
For me a particular highlight was the rhodedeneuram garden which were a popular feature for estates this type.
The tower, which really is a faux tower constructed in 1911 , was also a highlight and afforded beautiful views over the grounds.
Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to the grounds. It is a soothing, peaceful place to visit and we were blessed with the weather.
The video presentation in the house gives some nice historical detail also. It is worth noting that the waterfall is not in the grounds and located about 6km away and has a separate admission. House and garden (adult prices) is Euro10.50, waterfall Euro6 with day tours also available from Dublin some of which combine a visit to Glendalough also..
Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.
No day in this realm is without its beauty. But it takes a special kind of spirit to appreciate these grey, sunless days of our nascent Spring. “The hungry gap”, it used to be called as winter stocks were depleted and the land gave little or nothing amidst the coldest, bleakest months of the year.
Spring is a misnomer here. It’s a slow grind through February, March and April as the days lengthen and light slowly returns to the ascendant as Spring ever so gradually stretches its limbs and wakes up. There is no real heat until May.
The driving rain today is unrelenting and has an angry aspect. It is being driven by a gutsy, gusting wind beneath a translucent, grey sky.
I regard our weather as a mixed blessing. Blessed by modern convenience, I can be totally at my ease on these grey days living the indoor life. Books, music, cozy fires and pleasant pubs are plenty for me. Of course it is possible to do outdoor activities but any sort of outdoor work or exercise quickly takes on a survivalist, epic atmosphere.
The mind naturally inclines inwards and indoors. In olden times that meant the world of the fireplace and the imagination. It is why the musical and literary traditions are so strong. So much of the old ways are gently shrouded in story and song. As I sit under a wave of rain, wind and general greyness, this story came to mind and I thought to share it. I have decided against going to a source material and will instead allow the story to spill and take whatever shape it takes in this strange vessel we call the written word.
Many thousands of years ago, in the land that is now Ireland, but before, and long before there was any strange notion or concept of “country” or a “nation-state”, there was a wise woman, a wise man and their three children living on the shores of a beautiful, abundant lake in the West of Ireland. The woman of the house Máire, was in fact a skilled herbalist. So when her husband, Aodh, fell gravely ill, at first she was not worried, confident that the land around her contained the medicine he needed.
But…………………….her best efforts failed. Then one night her eldest son, Tomás had an aisling (visionary dream) in which it was revealed to him that on the eve of Smahain ( Halloween), he could jump through the surface of the lake and encounter a magical country at the bottom of the lake wherein it was possible, although very difficult, to obtain the knowledge of how to heal his father. He was told that if he could travel through this magical land for a year, he would encounter the hazelnuts of knowledge near the enchanted well in a clearing in the forest. The land was known as the realm under wave.
He told all this to his mother, who, while deeply conflicted about this dangerous journey bid him to go and do his best. So on the eve of Samhain, he went out to the lake. Whilst making this journey he encountered two Sidh (fairy people) who gave him two further pieces of advice. The first told him that he must never tell a lie in the realm under wave. The second told him, that no matter how tempted he was, he must not spend more than one night under any one roof. If he was to do any of these things, a great misfortune would befall him and he would not return to the land of his people.
Taking all this on board, Tomás, who was naturally a brave boy, jumped into the lake and swam towards the bottom of the lake. While the water was icy at first, it quickly warmed up to a pleasant temperature, so that after a few moments of swimming, he felt like he was taking a warm bath. It was also strangely lit under the water and by some strange magic, he was also able to breathe. Presently, he came to the realm under wave.
It was indeed the magical land of his dreams. The sun shone eternally, the trees were forever in blossom and gave fruit and nuts and beauty with such abundance that Tomás spent three whole days solidly staring at them in wonderment. When he finally tasted of the fruit and nuts, they were the finest foods he had ever known. He knew immediately that this was a country in which no-one would ever want. He wandered for a full sixty days and nights without meeting a soul. But, strangely, he never felt lonely or even a little bit sad. He noted that his emotions were always positive, his mind always clear and his thoughts steady. And despite all this, he remembered his purpose well and was never tempted to think of remaining there in that wonderful place.
And then after 60 days and nights, of eating the most delicious fruits and nuts and sleeping the perfect, peaceful, blissfull sleeps under the open skies and experiencing nothing but happiness he encountered some of the inhabitants of the land.
They came upon him as a group but Tomás was not scared. Somehow their peace descended upon him even before he met them. When he laid eyes on them, he saw that they were the most beautiful people he had ever seen. The men and women were tall and stately and looked just like people in our world but each carried an inner glow that was somehow visible to Tomás. By some strange magic he could observe their inner qualities such as virtue, generosity and honesty as surely as we can see colours in the world around us.
Tomás was awe-struck by their presence and it took him a while to speak even after they had greeted him. Presently he was invited to the palace where he spent a glorious evening enjoying the best food, music and company he had ever known. It was all perfect bliss and Tomás was sorely tempted to forget his mission and remain in the palace. Eventually however, he pulled himself together and, remembering the warning not to spend two nights under the one roof, he said his goodbyes, asked for and received directions to the enchanted well and the hazelnut tree of knowledge and made to continue his journey. Just as he was leaving the main door, the King addressed him.
“Did you have a good time ?” asked the king.
” I did indeed”, answered Tomás
“Was it not the finest time you have ever had in your life ?” , asked the King, ” and are we not the finest people in the finest land you have ever encountered ?”, he continued.
Now at this question, Tomás hesitated. He was indeed a good and a loyal man and indeed highly courageous but if he had a fault it was an excess of pride. On hearing the question, he was filled with a defiant and angry pride in his own land, his own people and the good times he had with them.
” My own people are as fine as any of you, my own land as beautiful and the times we have there are just as good, if not better”, he lied.
And with that he fell under an enchantment. He instantly forgot who he was and why he had come and fell in with the servants at the castle.
Now back in the land of people, the woman of the house, Máire, grew restless. After her son failed to return on the Samhain of the following year, she considered that she had made the wrong decision in allowing her son go off to the country under wave.
As her husband grew weaker, she worried that not only would she lose her husband but that she would lose her eldest son also. A deep sadness and despair fell over the whole family. It was such that Conn, the next eldest, decided to go to the Realm under wave to see what had befallen his brother and, of course, with the idea that he too might get the hazelnuts of knowledge and the wisdom of how to cure his father. He knew he wouldn’t get his mother’s permission, seeing how distressed and regretful she was over his brother’s absence, so he went without asking permission, telling only his sister, Aoife, where he was going.
Conn journeyed into the country under wave much as his brother had done, received the same advice from the fairy people on the way, and encountered the same wonderful world that his brother had encountered. When he encountered the fairy people too, it was much as it had been for his brother and indeed he did not see his brother, who of course, was working as servant there now.
Conn was also a good, loyal son and never forgot his purpose, but if he had one flaw, it was a propensity to over-indulge in the finer things in life. After one magical night in the castle with the inhabitants of that beautiful, perfect land, he simply could not resist another. The music, the food and the company had all been too good. He told himself he would continue his journey after another magical evening in their company.
But of course after spending a second night under one roof, he fell into the same enchantment as his brother, forgot who he was and why he had come to this land and ended up falling in with the servants in the castle just as his brother had done.
Well, you can imagine the mothers grief with her two sons gone and her husband just about hanging on to life. Aoife, her youngest, and her only daughter, took one look at her and realised that if she did not go the country under wave, rescue her two brothers and gain the hazelnuts of knowledge, then her mother would not live for much longer either.
So reluctantly, on the eve of Samhain, she too set out for the country under wave. She too, encountered the same fairy people who gave her the same advice as her brothers and when she encountered the country under wave, she was just as entranced by the beauty of the place as her brothers had been.
She too encountered the fairy people and spent a wonderful evening with them. She even spotted her brothers among the servants and was sad to see that they couldn’t remember who they were or what their purpose was.
Although sorely tempted, she declined to spend another night at the castle and, as she left, when the King asked her “if this was not the finest land, with the finest people and the finest company she had ever encountered ? ” she answered without lying and without letting her people down either. ” Who is there to compare such things?” ” things are as they are”.
The King accepted this and sent her on the right road to the hazelnut tree of knowledge. She gathered the hazelnuts which grew by the well of wisdom. She knew instantly that it was she who must eat the nuts and thereby gain knowledge of, not just how to cure her father, but how to rescue her brothers also.
After eating the nuts she understood that to heal her brothers and make them remember who they were she would have to sing them their favourite song from childhood. What a happy troop they made as they exited that happy land and swam back to the land of mortals, just as winter was setting in and Samhain passed.
With the herbal knowledge gained from the hazelnuts of knowledge she was able to heal her father. Her mother too was healed by the happiness of having her family back together.
Aoife went on to become not just a great healer, but in the fullness of time, became a chieftain and leader of the tribe, ruling by knowledge and virtue.
And just as sadness can leave a mark, so too can happiness, and the three children who had been to the happy realm under wave were known as particularly happy people all their lives. And isn’t that the important thing !
Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours.
Ireland rarely gets snow. I’ve never been snowed in before. The snow arrived quickly and magically on Tuesday night. I had been to the shops already and had enough food and coal to last me a few days.
It was, paradoxically, a dramatic and exciting time as we submitted to more simple lives amidst the snow. It was the worst snow storm in 35 years: a novelty, and also a significant challenge for the country. No-one has snow tires here.
I live in the countryside so have been home now for four days now. It’s been wonderful. A natural, easy contentment set in as the first snows arrived. As life was tapered back, my schedule cleared and a beautiful space opened up for reading, writing, studying and making music.
On the first day of the snow-in, I set out on a short walk but was so entranced by the snow filled roads and fields that I ended up walking for almost three hours. The next days were quieter ! Sat by the fire, I found myself studying the geological and glacial history of our island as the snows accumulated outside.
I also started rereading a John Banville novel, The Untouchable, a wonderful, literary, spy novel, based on the true story of Anthony Blunt, who worked as both art advisor to the queen and as a communist spy. It’s an amazing story and an amazing book. I’ll post a review here when I finish it.
As the thaw starts now, I feel the terminal call of the car outside, calling to an end my contented, quiet days. The world is open to me again. The city of Cork, the town of Kinsale, music sessions, the sea and coast beckon. But there is a restlessness here too. It is the restlessness of the modern age with its endless possibilities.
These few snow filled days have given me a window into an older time, when life was more circumscribed. Still and all, I’m glad I had the daily bread in the freezer !
Here’s a few photos including a snowman my housemate built !
I went to Dingle last weekend in the company of the new lady in my life. We stayed in the Dingle Skellig Hotel. The hotel is the best in Dingle and one of the best in Kerry. It features a spa and leisure center, a range of lovely rooms, a beautiful restaurant and a very pleasant and spacious bar also. The full four star treatment !
Arriving late on Saturday night we headed into Dingle town to sample the music, nightlife and atmosphere of the town. Bearing in mind that it is February and still very wintery here, and the tourist season is in ticking over mode, the town was surprisingly busy and the ambience was verging on the festive. Dingle, I am told sees a trickle of visitors all year around now.
It functions as a nice balance to the main tourist hub of Killarney and being a little more off the beaten track it features more young backpackers and solo travellers than Killarney. It also attracts many Irish holiday makers and is a popular enough location for a domestic stag party.
After a little wander around the small town. I found one of my friends from music sessions in Cork, Garoid O Duinin, accompanying an accordion player in The Courthouse pub. Garoid lives in Baile Bhuirne and commutes impressive distances to play sessions in Cork, Killarney and Dingle. Originally a rock guitar player, he has been playing traditional guitar for many years now and indeed played with many of the greats including Paddy Cronin, the famous Kerry fiddle player. I found him again in the same pub on the following night accompanying a fiddle player. A busy man ! When I put it to him he was working hard these days, he told me to him music was not work at all, but enjoyment. He is dead right too !
Back at the hotel that evening, there was a quintessential one man band performing in the lobby. With songs from Christy Moore, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and others sandwiched together, and with barely a pause for breath in between, it was quite the rollercoaster ride through our musical milieu.
Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, the coastguard restaurant, was beautiful. The location was stunning with the morning sun streaming in across Dingle bay and the buffet breakfast was very pleasant and had an impressive choice of hot and cold foods.
After breakfast we headed out towards Mt. Brandon for a walk in the mountains. There are three main routes to Mt. Brandon; The Saints Road, The Pilgrims Path and The Brandon Range Walk. We opted for the intermediate Pilgrims Path, a route that took us over a gentle ascent before bringing us down into the valley in front of Mt. Brandon. Having already walked for two hours, we opted to turn back at this point and so, while we didn’t make it all the way to the summit, we did have a good long hike in stunning scenery and on a beautiful day too.
The mountain takes its name from Brendan the navigator, a remarkable saint who is reputed to have spent time praying and fasting here before sailing to America hundreds of years before Columbus. But that’s a story that deserves its own post! ( or even a book !).
I was so happy to be on the mountains. I really enjoy hiking and even running on mountains. The exhilarating views, crystal clear air and natural beauty make for a wonderful, invigorating experience.
After returning to the hotel, we went to the leisure center, which was very nice also. The pool is 17m. which just about allows for a decent swim and there is also a steam room and a jacuzzi but no sauna.
After a good dinner in the hotel bar (the restaurant was closed as it was a Sunday), we headed back into town again for a few drinks and some music. The tourist season is at low ebb but there was still plenty of music and fun in the town. Spanish fishermen, Japanese tourists, local musicians of varying standards and a good smattering of locals out for their Sunday pint all in good spirits. Irish tourist towns are a strangely global affair these days !
After another delicious breakfast we drove around the peninsula on the Slea Head drive. Highlights included Dun Choin, beautiful views of the Blaskets and Ballyferriter. Here are some photos.
It’s a short enough spin around the peninsula and features breathtaking views at every turn. There were many people walking it also as part of the Dingle way.
The Dingle Way is an 8/9 day hike around the peninsula which, while it does feature beautiful views, is also along fairly busy and narrow roads. Personally, I would prefer to keep my hiking to the traffic free mountains but I do admire the hardy souls on the Dingle way, particularly at this time of year. I hope more off-road paths open up in the future too.
Alan Coakley is a travel director with Trafalgar Tours.
I have just returned to Ireland after a few days in Lisbon. Lisbon strikes me as an aspirational city with a deep past. The old town siting alongside new spacious hotels and conference centers has a gentle prosperous buzz and a strong sense of an old identity that make for a winning combination.
I was there for a work conference and my impressions are gleaned from a few busy days in the city. In my limited free time I visited two art galleries and explored the Alfama district where I listened to some Fado music in one of the many restaurants in the beautiful warren of streets that constitutes the old town. I really only felt I scratched the service of what this wonderful city has to offer.
Arriving early from Dublin, I went to the Museu Nacional De Arte Antiga after finding the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian closed. It was stunning. I was delighted to find many works by many artists I was unfamiliar with. Although I have a limited knowledge of visual art, I love to stroll around galleries. I am happy to allow the paintings seep into my consciousness and do not want feel a need to broaden (or perhaps burden!) my appreciation with more detailed historical knowledge or technical understanding. I am happy more or less to stand and stare; awed and enriched by the majesty, beauty, vision and technical scope of the art.
I love this mode of journey into the past. It is a chance to dive beneath the secular, scientific surface of our society and encounter an older way of seeing humanity and the world, often with strong religious elements.
Here are some of the wonderfull pictures I saw.
The museum itself is on the Northern bank of the river, to the East of the Alfama district and housed in the former palace of the count of Alvor. The collection dates from 1833 when much property was taken from Catholic monasteries after the church backed the losing side in the wars of succession between absolutist and liberal forces in the 1820’s and 30’s.
On my final day in Lisbon I went to the Museo Coleccao Berardi, an uber cool modern art galery. I am always suspicious of modern art with its inflated sense of importance and bombasticity but the Museo Coleccao surpassed my expectations. I had a thouroughly enjoyable wander through the gallery. And I must admit that it changed by percetion of modern art. I felt many of the pictures documented the fragmentation of modern life with its attendend confusion, commercialism and colour brilliantly. Here are some of my choice stand-out pieces.
My final night in Lisbon was spent in search of Fado music in the Alfamo district. My initial hot tip from a local, Tasca do Jaime, was closed so I had a very enjoyable walk down throught he old district of Alfamo in search of fado. Eventually I found some at the “restaurant de fado”, where the waitresses took turns to sing alongside guitar players. I found the performance captivating. The music is heartfelt and visceral and, while constrained by the commercial, tourist setting, retains much of its power, spirit and beauty.
I love trains. I think they are beautiful. They seem to both rumble and ghost across the countryside. Travel is both luxurious and communal.
They echo with the spirit of an earlier time; a time when rail was the only way to get people and goods around, a time when travel was sacred and special and new, a time when people moved less and lived at home more. I’m not romanticising it and believe me, Id take the excitement and possibility of travel today over the highly questionable romance of a circumscribed provincial life any day and yet and yet…
I get on a train and a part of me tells me this is the way travel ought to be and I cant help but sink slightly into the romance of the past.
And the railroads are a romance. They hail from the great romantic age itself when composers wrote symphonies for nature, novelists gave us great epic tales of love, adventure and exploration and artists gave us extravagant views of the self and the possibilities of art, romance and nationalism to lift us out of the ordinary and the mundane. Art as an answer.
And perhaps in a way, railways were a question. The landscape opened up, industry and capitalism were made possible. The horizon of the individual ( or at least the middle class individual) broadened considerably. What was humanity to make of this new world ?The artists were pushed into the secular, material world of possibility and opportunity like everyone else. Thus Berlioz was entranced by the spectacle of Shakespearean theatre and Mendelssohn wrote a symphony inspired by the Scottish highlands.
To my mind railways retain more than a hint of this romantic age which of course remains embedded in out culture under both the wonder and disillusion of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.
And the train can take you a little of the way there.
The railway in Ireland has a chequered history. Where once trains served countless small towns and even villages now only a skeletal service remains. In the end we have to admit that since the foundation of the state the railways have been very much neglected. We, or at least the government fell in love with cars and roads.
In part, of course, this was in accordance with the mood and economics of the time but in my view it also reflected a deeper association of railways with Britishness. The railways were built by the British and the Irish state choose to focus on roads. But we also need to consider what cars and roads do.
First and foremost, they empower the car owner. Other members of the community and/or family become dependent on these individuals. The wealthy and eventually even the comparatively wealthy were empowered. And for a long time of course, it was only men who owned cars. To this day they privatise and atomise travel.
In almost every sense cars are anti social while trains are social.
The first railway in Ireland opened in 1834 and linked Dublin and what is now Dun Laoighire ( then Kingstown) and by 1865 there were 2000 miles of track in the country linking all the major industrial, if not agricultural regions).
The roll out of rail, however, was much slower than in England. By 1845 for example there were 1,700 miles of track in England and still only 70 in Ireland.
This, of course, was the time of the potato famine and in the development of rail we see that the famine of the 1840’s was both a cause of and a result of British neglect of Ireland at this time. But that is another story.
However the following years saw a huge amount of railway construction in Ireland and this investment in rail continued right up to the end of British dominion in Ireland (1920) by which time there were over 3500 miles of rail in Ireland and the rail network stretched into remote areas such as Connemara, West Cork and Donegal, often by way of generous government subsidy. Interestingly, most of the trains were passenger trains. This was in contrast with a predominance of goods trains in Britain. This was because Ireland had neither the mining or manufacturing that Britain had and its major industrial regions were all close to the sea.
It is hard to understand why the Irish government neglected these rural rail networks but neglect them they did and most of the rural lines were closed in the 1960’s.
The West Cork rail service serves as a good microcosm of the wider story. Built in the later years of the nineteenth century and early 20th century it connected all the major towns even as far as Schull. Schull feels very rural and isolated to me when I visit now and it is hard to imagine a rail link now and it is, of course, up to the imagination what a rail link would have meant to the area from a psychological, social and economic perspective.
When the lines did close in the 1960’s it was against the background of huge protest and indeed the last train had to leave under police escort. The history of the railway is commemorated at the Clonakilty model railway village. The main Bandon to Cork road is traversed by this beautifull viaduct also.
It is a reminder of what once was and what might have been.
Not only did the authorities close the rail lines but they often dismantled the rail lines and sold the land back to local farmers. This meant that the lines could never be opened again. Where the tracks remain they are often being converted into greenways and provide a wonderful opportunity to cycle and walk in the countryside. Examples include Westport to Achill, Dungarvan to Waterford and Mullingar to Athlone. All these deserve their own posts and hopefully I’ll get to them soon !
They are beautiful examples of the creative and imaginative use of the old infrastructure. Here’s to more such projects in the future !
The cup of tea is an Irish institution. Of course all cultures have tea ceremonies. The Japanese have their elaborate, intricate ritual of precision and beauty that opens the participants into the timeless tranquility of the moment. The English, historically, have their afternoon tea with its aristocratic associations and formality while American professionals go for “coffee”, an art-form taken to new heights by the so-called hipster generation.
The Irish cup of tea is distinct,if not entirely different, and here, just for fun, I want to try and pin the ritual down, knowing in advance my generalisations will ultimately fail and any attempt to define and even describe it will be like trying to hold a handfull of milk. For the ritual itself is liquid, expanding into the space it is put and flowing freely and easily across the boundaries of our lives.
Ultimately it is intimate; at the heart of family life. It invites conversation of a generally innocuous kind; the weather, kind-hearted gossip about others and practical considerations will form the main topics of conversation. But amongst family and friends there is the potential for more serious matters to be raised and shared, if neccessary. In offering tea you offer your attention, your listening, your small talk. Most of the time, people prefer to keep the conversation simple and innocous, avoiding contentious issues such as politics or religion but amongst friends there is space to venture into more personal matters but also no pressure.
In general the conversation is light and the atmosphere sympathetic. For better or worse many things will be left unsaid. But there is space to raise issues too, if you need it.
Among friends the intimacy will be just as strong or stronger but even among work colleagues who don’t know each other so well, a little of the intimacy remains.
There is still the shared space, the sympathetic conversation and
the banalities that bind. Such simple, saying nothing conversation, needs to be mastered or at least practiced. It is a bit of an art form.
The tea itself is almost always black, fermented tea with milk. The blend that emerged as favourite blends Assam tea from India with Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and is known as Irish breakfast tea. The Barry family in Cork were famous tea importers and while they traded in Cork from 1901 it wasn’t until the 1960’s that they cut out the English merchants and imported directly from Asia. They are a highly influential in politics and business to this tea and the Barrys brand carries the same comforting associations of home as Guinness stout or Tayto crisps for many.
The milk is crucial. Comforting. It can be strong or weak and everyone will have a preference. It is possible you will be judged as a particular type of person depending on how strong you like your tea! Builders tea, for example, is strong to the point of bitterness and has often been stewing so long that it has even cooled down a little. Any fussiness or fastidiousness about how one likes one’s tea will certainly be taken as an indication of either contrariness or conscientiousness.
The amount of milk added is also a highly personal matter and if making tea for someone else, you should allow them to add their own milk. People are very particular about thier tea !
Tea arrived in Ireland in the 1700’s. Initially confined to the aristocratic classes it became more widespread in the 1800’s as prices dropped and tea imports (often smuggled poor quality tea) increased. In fact, drinking tea was a rebellious and feminist activity. The aristocratic English viewed the Irish penchant for tea drinking, particularly among women as alarming and pamphlets distributed encouraging women to use both their time and their money more appropriately.
Who knew that tea drinking could have revolutionary connotations? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Irish tea story I have come across. The wealthy believed tea was their prerogative and despised its spread among the masses.
“Must not every poor mans wife work in and out of doors and do all she can to help her husband. And do you think you can afford tea at thirteen pence a day. Put that out of your head entirely Nancy and give up the tea for good” urged a pamphlet of the day.
Helen O Connell has done extensive research on attitudes towards tea drinking in Ireland by the l chattering classes and believes it was a common enough preoccupation amongst them. It was believed that tea drinking could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.
The social nature of the ritual, its connotations of social betterment and even plain enjoyment seemed to perturb them greatly. While reading articles from the period and imagining conditions of the time a picture emerges in my mind of people enjoying tea in pretty poor housing and in the midst of cold weather taking a revolutionary and illicit comfort in a cup of smuggled tea. The hot warm tea and the social banter form a quiet statement of equality and sensible materialism.
Its not quite the Boston tea party but perhaps a million Irish tea partys somehow fanned the flames of the many social movements towards the end of the 19th century. It is easy to assume that the humble pot of tea helped serve as a symbol of equality and betterment and helped a nation on its way.
Is this why we hold the humble pot of tea with such reverence and affection to this day ? we are certainly the biggest tea drinkers in the world.
And on a lighter note, Mrs Doyle is pretty passionate about her tea
while Eamon Kelly tells a hilarious story of a poor tay boy (tea seller) from times past.
Note: This article was produced with the assistance of two cups of coffee, one peppermint tea and one black tea without milk or sugar.
Alan is a travel director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland