Stonehenge


Usually as a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours I am based in Ireland visiting wonderful and special places there such as Glendalough, The Giants Causeway or The Cliffs of Moher. But I do occasionally guide in Britain and Europe.

This is a retrospective account of one of the highlights of a Real Britain trip I guided in the winter of  2018. With lockdown measures easing throughout Europe, hopefully we will be back travelling again soon but for now I must satisfy my traveling desires by looking back and remembering the wonderful places I have visited both as a travel director and in my own personal travels.


We visited Stonehenge towards the beginning of the trip on a grey, cloudy day. The approach to Stonehenge is decidely odd. It sits right next to a motorway and the juxtaposition of the motorway with the ancient ruins of Stonehenge is a little unsettling, But it is the modern world with its noise and hypermotion which appears as a stranger in the landscape, although happily there are plans to use a tunnel to remove the imposition of traffic on this wonderful heritage site.

 

 

There the ruins sit, minding their own business, an unlikely but definite echo of the past.

But what was that past like ? This is one of the many question that Stonehenge evokes. The question sits in the mind; an enjoyable, wallowing, wonderment as we allow our imagination to evoke for us what Stonehenge might have been all about in ages past.

Facts, myths and conjecture all roll into one very quickly here so I will separate them out and allow you to enjoy the mystery and  the sense of wonder that enthralls so many people on a visit here.

Facts:

Stonehenge sits as part of a wider complex of (mostly buried) neolythic structures which include earthworks, burial mounds and wooden henges. The complex of structures was originally constructed over an approximate millennium dating from 2600 bc to 1600 bc.

The famous part of the site known as stonehenge is a ring of standing stones, capped in part by other large stones. The stones are up to 25 tons in weight and originate many miles away Wales although we don’t know how they arrived at their current location with theories ranging from land transportation, river transportation, sea transportation and even glacial flow to the vacinity of the site all hypothosized as potential  modes of transportation. In any event the erection and transportation of these stones is something of a mystery and points to impressive engineering and technological skills for the era.

Myths:

Given the paucity of facts, myths relating to Stonehenge are as rich as the human imagination. The most well known fable relating to Stonehenge is that  the stones were transferred from Ireland by Merlin, the famous wizard of English folklore. Another myth held that they were constructed by invading Danes and yet another that it was constructed ( or at least used) by the Romans. More modern myths also attach to the landscape as a site of alien visitation.

Conjecture:

While exploring and enjoying myths is fun and informative, it is also intriguing to explore imaginative conjecture in relation to Stonehenge and use the facts, historical context and indeed myths to gain an imaginative insight into Stonehenge.

While their place in the English landscape has remained unchanged, their place in the English folk imagination has shifted with the centuries, reflecting the times.

There are many competing theories about the original purpose of Stonehenge and it has drawn curious visitors since the advent of recorded times, including the Romans who may have used it also for ceremonial purposes

Many experts believe it was primarily created as a burial place while others believe it was a place of spiritual or ritualistic ceremony. It famously alligns with both sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset in the winter solstice so it may have been a site of celestial observation leading others to posit that it served as a sort of primitive scientific observation point with probable strong superstitious and ceremonial overtones.

It is also believed by some experts that it was a place of pilgrimage with the purpose of healing, a sort of prehistoric Lourdes, drawing pilgrims in search of healing throughout the mellenia.

When we consider that it took over a thousand years to construct the site and that it has stood there for over three thousand years, we must also consider that it served many of these different purposes over time.

Stonehenge is often considered a “Celtic” monument but for reasons that merit  another blog post(and will be covered shortly), the term Celtic is a misleading term loaded with too much political and cultural weight too have any meaning here. It is more accurate to say that Stonehenge grew from a neolythic ( late Stone Age) civilisation native to North West Europe including Britain, Ireland, and parts of France and Spain.  It has many similarities with other neolythic sites in Ireland such as Newgrange and Knowth and sits in a landscape rich in the mycellium circles which are known as “fairy rings” or “fairy forts” that are so rich in mystical and mythological associations throughout Northern Europe, Britain and especially Ireland right to this day.

That it still stands is a minor miracle and that it acts as a stimulus to think deeply about our past is enough to draw us into an imaginative contemplation of our future. The motorway sits as a sort of absurdist comment on our high velocity present. But the question remains to be wallowed in and enjoyed, where are we going? To me, stonehenge asks this question.

If you visit bring your imagination !

Alan is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.


A day trip to Charlesfort

 

 

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Ordinarily at this time of year I am busy guiding with Trafalgar Tours and bringing guests to all parts of the country but I am blessed to have many beautiful and indeed historic spots close to home also. One such spot is Charlesfort, an ancient coastal fortification situated adjacent to the little village of Summercove in the kinsale hinterland.


We are still pretty restricted in our movements here but the weather is beautiful and the coast is always a big draw for locals in the nice weather. It was great to see so many kids and teenagers cycling around and enjoying the great outdoors. I hope that they will have many happy memories of this strange interlude in all our lives.

Charlesfort was built during the reign of Charles ii, between 1677 and 1682, and sits across the harbour from Jamesfort, an older fortification dating from the early years of the 17th century ( built 1602-07). It was essentially built to cement the rule of British rule in Ireland. Spanish troops had occupied Kinsale in 1601 prior to the Battle of Kinsale and Ireland’s coast was seen as especially vulnerable to attack by either French or Spanish forces who the Catholic Irish felt much affinity with. Indeed the French did send troops to Kinsale in 1689 in support of the Catholic claimant on the British crown, James ii –  ultimately defeated by William of orange at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. Subsequent to this, the city of Cork and then Charlesfort, home to defeated Jacobite troops, were successfully besieged by the Williamite forces. The defeated Jacobite troops were ultimately given safe passage to Limerick and then on to Europe but as we say in Irish – sin sceal eile ( thats another story ).

It was designed by William Robinson and contains elements of a star fortification and was built as a fortification against sea invasion. The star fortification gave greater protection from cannon and the position at the mouth of the harbour gave control of the harbour. It was, however, vulnerable to attack from the land as proved by the Williamite forces in 1690. The walls are hugely impressive and up to six meters thick in places and would have been constantly patrolled. It is nice to visit Charlesfort as the imagination can really fill in the blanks and bring you back in time to the 17th century.

The fort remained a military installation under British control until the Irish war of independence in 1921 and was then burned in 1922 during the Irish civil war. Another sceal eile !

But the dramatic history of Charlesfort has yet another colourful and dramatic when it briefly became home to a hippie community in the 1960’s which prompted the state to become more involved in the managing of the heritage site and bringing it under the management of the office of public works who manage a visitor centre on-site as a tourist attraction. Of course it is closed at present but it is still a wonderful place to visit affording beautiful views of the ocean, a nice swimming spot at high tide and a lovely walkway off to the left of the fort. For access to the swim spot and the walk, simply park your car and navigate around to the left of the fort down to the sea. You couldn’t miss it !

Here are some photo’s from around the fort.

Alan is a travel director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


 

 

A visit to Glendalough

 

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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 !

 

 

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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.

 

 
 
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Alan Coakley is a travel director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland


 

 

 

 

 

 

Powerscourt House and Gardens

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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The tower, which really is a faux tower constructed in 1911   , was also a highlight and afforded beautiful views over the grounds.

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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.


Country Under Wave – An Irish Story

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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.

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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.


A Trip to Dingle

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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.

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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 !).20180225_130245.jpg

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.

 


A history of the railway in Ireland

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.

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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 !

Alan is a travel director with Trafalgar tours


 

 

 

 

Blarney Castle

Blarney castle with its famous Blarney stone is high on the agenda for most tourists. The thing to do is to climb to the top of the castle where you lean into the machicolation ( gap between floor opening at top of castle through which oil or projectiles could be hurled at attackers) and kiss the Blarney stone. Kissing the stone itself is supposed to bestow eloquence and persuasiveness and the very word “blarney” now means to waffle aimlessly.


The origin of this dates lies in the 16th century when queen Elizabeth the first sent the duke of Leicester to seize the the stone from the McCarthys who were the Gaelic lords in possession  of the castle at the time.  As the Gaels were firmly defeated at the time and were unable to mount a military defense the best the head of the McCarthy clan could do was stall the queens emissary with excuses and promises etc.  When the queen received the reports from the duke she dismissed the talk of the McCarthy elder as “Blarney”.

The stone itself as a dazzling array of origin stories associated with it including (brace yourself), that it was the famous lia fail stone on which Kings were crowned, that it was taken during the crusades of the middle ages, that it was a gift from Robert de Bruce as a gift to the McCarthys following his help in sending men to assist in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and another tale tells that it is made from the same material rock as that at Stonehenge. The University of Glascow put a dampener on all this “blarney” however when they analysed the rock and found it was made of local limestone in 2014. Ah well.

The grounds of the castle are beautiful and relaxing and contain many interesting plants and includes a poison garden which features mandrake, wolfsbain, ricin, opium and cannabis. The latter are of course illegal in Ireland which goes to show that there is one law for the rich.

The castle is still in private ownership and it has to be said that the castle does not appear to have been refurbished to any extent beyond the minimum required to meet  health and safety, although the gardens are immaculately maintained. On a rainy day , lines of tourists are exposed to the wind and rain as they queue to kiss the iconic stone.

There can be long queues to kiss the stone and if you want to avoid the queues my advice is to go early. This is very much part of the tourist trail and most tourists arrive after travelling from Kilarney in the morning. This means it gets busy from 11/11:30 each morning. If you can get there before then, there is a much better chance that you will not be caught up in large queues. While it can be fun, especially for teenagers, there are often queues and it does make you feel very consciously like a tourist. If there is a cruise ship in town then my advice is to stay away from the castle as the line is prohibitively long. Keep a close eye http://www.portofcork.ie for the cruise ship schedule.

Whatever about the castle though, the gardens are gorgeous, interesting, relaxing and  well maintained.

Entry is 13/5Euro and there is ample parking just opposite in the Blarney Castle hotel and Blarney Woolen Mills car park. The Blarney Woolen Mills shop is very popular with tourists and has really excellent products for reasonably good value. It is a wonderful place to buy Irish clothes and the perfect place to pick up a quality souvenir.

So my advice, if you go, go early and take time to enjoy the grounds as well as the castle.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


 

Giant’s Causeway


Perched on the North Eastern edge of Ireland, if you travel through the loyalist towns with their Union Jack flags, lies one of my favourite spots in the country, the giants causeway.  
The causeway is a strange looking series of hexagonal basalt column’s that extend a few hundred meters into the ocean. There they sit and have sat for up to 40 million years, withstanding the ocean’s daily assaults and the ice sheets that come along every few thousand years or so. If rocks have spirits it must seem to them that  the ice-age comes every five minutes or so.  
I will tell you where these strange hexagonal rocks came from but the Gaelic myth associated with the causeway is much more fun and I’ll start with that. The story concerns two giants ( with giant sized ego’s! ). On the Irish side of the Irish sea is the mythical giant Fionn MacCumhal. On the Scottish side of the Irish sea is the giant Benandonner. The two get into a ferocious argument and start to threaten each other. Eventually an enraged Fionn decides to settle the argument once and for all. He starts to pick up rocks and hurl them into the ocean to create a path across the sea so that he can cross to challenge Benandonner. When he gets to Scotland however, he realises his mistake as Benandonner is much larger than him. He hightails it back to Ireland and tells his wife, Oonagh, about the trouble he has made for himself. Luckily he has married a clever woman and she invents a plan to save him. She disguises Fionn as a baby and when Benandonner comes looking for Fionn, Oonagh lets on that the infant is their son. When Benandonner sees the size of the baby, he is shocked at the size of the baby and thinks to himself that the father must be a fearsome prospect indeed. He himself then runs back to Scotland as fast as he can and for good measure destroys most of the pathway after him, leaving only the few hundred meters of causeway that are visible today off the coast of Belfast.  
The scientific explanation is actually simpler ! The rocks were formed in volcanic activity from 50-60 million years ago. The molten lava formed a lava bed and as it cooled it contracted into the hexagonal vertical structures we see today.

 

The causeway itself is accessible via a beautiful coastal walk of about 30 minutes from the car park and buses run also which only cost 1£.  If you are able do the walk. It really is a very pleasant stroll and is not demanding. I absolutely love clambering over the  irregular rocks. I always get a giddy thrill from their surreal aspect, jutting out as they are into the ocean. Their black shiny surface sitting in a stony defiance against the ocean is so emblematic of the Ulster spirit !

  
There is a visitor center at the causeway which documents the scientific explanation and how it was arrived it by geologists in the 19th century and there is also a beautiful video installation which chronicles the mythological explanation beautifully. It is well worth a visit but a bit pricey at 10.50£ adult and 5.25£ for a child, with discounts available for groups and families. Also the shops, cafe and toilet facilities are all located inside the visitor center, which you must pay to access.  There are free toilets in the carpark but these are not as pleasant as the ones in the visitor center.  Note that the causeway itself is entirely free.  
   
Important note on Admission and parking:  The National Trust operate the Causeway and charge per adult using the facilities. Visitor center and admission is charged together. This means that if you drive to the visitor center carpark you will be charged 10.50£ /adult for parking and entry to the visitor center.  
But be aware that admission to the Causeway itself is totally free. You can either park at the railway carpark (6£/day) or park in the nearby town of  Bushmills and get a bus to and from  the Causeway.  
For families, I’m going to recommend that unless you are very cost conscious,  that you go ahead and pay for parking and admittance to the visitor center. It is a much more pleasant experience to enjoy the cliffs at your leisure and have access to the visitor center afterwards for bathroom facilities, coffee and, of course, education !.  Family tickets are available for 22.50£.  
If you area  party of adults and are not interested in the visitor center then it makes sense to park for 6£ in the railway park, use the toilet facilities in the nearby hotel and walk to the causeway.  
Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Belfast and Derry. From Dublin travel time is over three hours each way so you will be on the bus for much of the day. From Belfast or Derry, I would argue that the Causeway is an absolute must.

Alan is a Travel director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


 

Cliffs Of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most visited tourist sites and easily the most visited attraction outside of Dublin. The cliffs themselves rise up to 214 metres above sea level and the sheer vertical descent makes for wonderful, dramatic views. On a clear day one can see the Aaran islands in Galway bay as well as great views of the surrounding ocean and countrywide. They are located on the West Coast of Ireland in the county of Clare and are accessible via day trips from Dublin, Galway or the nearby village of Doolin.


There is a wonderful visitor center that is a beautifully constructed, hobbit like, construction that is built into the hill adjacent to the cliffs. It was opened in 2007 and features geo-thermal heating, solar panels and grey water recycling. Here you will find the Atlantic Edge exhibition which contains a wealth of information about the local geology, coffee shops and shops. Admittance is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking. If you travel by private coach, the admittance fee will usually be covered also.

Cliff walk. There are 20 km. of cliff walks running from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher and down to Liscannor. The stretch from the visitor center to Hags head is about 5km and is doable within an hour and a half, or up to three hours there and back. I’m going to suggest that if you are relatively fit and able this will add immeasurably to your experience of the cliffs. Driving the coast of Ireland is a beautiful experience but to get off-road and feel the elements in your hair and face is a refreshing and bracing experience.  The cliffs are, of course, a major tourist attraction, so the walk will also enable you to escape from the hoardes and have some quiet time with nature in all its splendour. Please be mindful of weather conditions and note that the route is not advisable for children U12. See https://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/plan-your-visit/beyond-the-cliffs/  for more information on these walks.

A note on the weather: The West coast of Ireland has a notoriously changeable climate and it is often foggy or even raining at the cliffs. That too is nature in all its glory ! One can only enjoy the weather one gets. The surly drama of an Atlantic rain storm or watching the fog and mist roll gently up over the cliffs is all part of life here too.

The cliffs are a beautiful, scenic and iconic part of Ireland’s coast but to be honest, much  of Ireland’s West Coast features similar scenic beauty, much of it as breathtaking as the iconic cliffs. So is it worth the trip ?

If you are staying in the vicinity of Galway or Clare then a visit to the cliffs is relatively easy proposition. From Galway the Cliffs are an hour and a half drive but the drive itself is worth the trip as you travel down the coast enjoying wonderful views of Galway Bay,  and drive through the pretty towns of Kinvarra and Doolin. These towns are also well worth stopping in with a pleasant tourist oriented atmosphere in summer and a more local, but always welcoming, feel outside of the tourist season.

From Dublin, the drive to the cliffs is three to three and a half hours across the midlands of Ireland so you won’t enjoy much coastal scenery on route. Of course, if your trip is entirely city based then it can make a welcome break from the city but you do need to ask if it is worth the drive. If you want to get out into nature for a day then I would suggest exploring the possibility of visiting Glendalough or Powerscourt  in Wicklow which are within an hour of Dublin. It is not the Atlantic coast but has its own special magic and you will be able to take more time there because it is nearer. If you are intent on visiting the cliffs, then why not spend a night on the West coast. It will make the whole experience more relaxing and you will have more time to savour rural Ireland.

A note on admission: The cliffs themselves are free but you pay for parking and/or entrance to the visitor center.

Visitor Center Admission: 6Euro/adult, 4.50 Euro Seniors and students, U-16 -free

Getting There:

Driving:

If you are driving, you can park in the car park adjacent to the visitor center. Cost of admittance to the visitor center is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking.

Public Bus:

From Galway or Doolin the 350 bus will get you there and back with plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs. Check out http://www.buseireann.ie/news.php?id=1490&month=May for information.

Cost – 20 Euro approx. return.

Private Coach tours:

Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Galway and Doolin

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.