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

 

 

20200602_154534

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

 

20181118_105125.jpg

 

20181118_111210.jpg

 

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 !

 

 

20181118_111205.jpg

 

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.

 

 
 
20181118_110848.jpg
 
 
Share
 

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.

20190421_155156
20190421_152528

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.

20190421_151613

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.

20190421_153408
20190421_154819

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

20190421_155608

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.


A Trip to Dingle

20180225_130245

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.

20180225_105937.jpg
20180226_103326.jpg

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 beautiful day in Yangon

20171214_162652

I had a beautiful day today. My mind was cool, calm and happy as I explored the markets and some of the sights.


I went to the markets first. Bogyoke market is a colonial era market set in what is now a tumble down concrete square but with many beautiful shops selling crafts, clothes and jewellery. The sheer scale was exciting to me. So many stalls and goods!

20171214_132219

Next I went to Theingyi Zei market, an older,  more claustraphobic ( if your that way inclined) market described by the Lonely Planet as “a proper Burmese bazaar” . Again the scale of it was thrilling in its way.

20171214_143918

And then I went to “Junction City” a modern day temple of commerce with awful music but some rather nice interior decoration and a Christmas tree.

The future….perhaps. Air conditioned, clean and spacious. How could you possibly argue with that? 20171214_145310.jpg

20171214_145413.jpg

And then there were the temples. Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a am er ( how can I put this?) a roundabout.

20171214_112549.jpg

Yes thats right -a roundabout. Rimmed with shops, the inside is rather nice and costs three dollars to enter.  After ordering me to take off my shoes a middle aged lady shoved flowers in hand ( for the Buddha) and charging the equivelent of a dollar. I can’t argue (or even bargain) with middle aged Burmese women ( you learn something new every day I guess!).

Nice enough overall but nothing compared with the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was absolutely stunning. About a 40 minute walk from town I first noticed it here after rounding the bend

20171214_150746.jpg

The approach across busy streets requires the usual game of dodge the cars but after that……absolute heaven.

On entering the approach is deceptive and lined with stalls ( ssssh don’t tell Jesus) and there is three flights of stairs as you approach the entrance proper. Then its ten dollers in but totally worth it. I really had no idea of the beauty ahead of me and was grousing inwardly about having to pay!

But then, I was in this beautiful place. Everyone was barefoot and the atmosphere was one of quiet joy.

20171214_162652.jpg

Absolutely gorgeous. This is the orient of my dreams. Hundreds of temples, statues and pagodas set in a concentric ring with a gold gilded stupa in the middle 99 meters high. Originally built to a height of 18 meters in the 6-8th centuries, it was raised to 40 meters in the 15th century and brought to its current majestic splendour in the late 18th century.

20171214_153729.jpg

In a philistine act the British occupied it in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 resulting in vandalism and  pillage and  they and dug a tunnel under the stupa to see if it could store gunpowder. They occupied it again from 1852-1929 following the second Anglo-Burmese war. The Portugese also tried to make off with a bell tower in 1605. He wanted to melt the bell down to make canons but it fell into the river in transit. The same thing happened when the British tried to make off with a bell in the 19th century.

But somehow the stupa survived the Europeans.

Later in the 20th century it became a focal point for both nationalism and later for pro democracy demonstrations also. It is a strong symbol of Myanmar and loved by the people.

It was very special to be there. There were many people, both monks and lay people praying and chanting. I had a very pleasant meditation myself there also.

20171214_162859.jpg

And tomorrow I will go to the monastery until the new year. I hope to do one more post before then. Thanks for reading!

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


Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness Storehouse is Ireland’s most visited tourist attraction with over 1.6million visitors in 2016. With Dublin full of wonderful things to do, I want to help you decide if it is worth your while.

My first impressions of Guinness storehouse was that it was an overly commercial venture with little cultural and educational value. Indeed, I have not changed my mind on that score but my view has been tempered somewhat by both my own experience visiting it and by chatting with others who have been there.


Now my view is that it is an incredible place. It is an ode to our modern culture of branding and commerce. It is living proof of the expression “nothing succeeds like success”. Commercial branding is, of course, a hall of mirrors and the Guinness storehouse is effectively that. It is a mirror to our society and culture. The brand is legendary because it is successful, successful because it is legendary. And the Guinness storehouse is opulent and translucent in its depiction of all this. Come and look at the legendary advertisements it tells us. Admire our marketing genius and sink a pint of the legendary black stuff after, it intones with a knowing wink and mischievous smile. Guinness is the magician who can’t resist telling you how it’s done and knows that you will love him for it anyway. Guinness knows that even though you have seen the magicians trick you will still be seduced by the magic.

For all this chuzpuh, marketing brilliance and pychological double bluff Guinness deserves a visit. It does make a perfect foil for a morning spent exploring a museum or art gallery. The exhibits on advertising are excellent but the sections on brewing are pretty ordinary and standard for this kind of thing. There is also the opertunity to learn how to “pull a pint” which celebrates the art of creating “the perfect pint” from the tap and there is also the Gravity  bar on the top floor which has wonderful views across the city. It also has an excited and  almost skittish atmosphere that is as intoxicating as the brew itself. It is, of course, a bar full of hard working people on their holidays.

And really why not come here? It’s where everyone goes, isn’t it ?

Getting there:

Bus no. 13, , 40 from college green (outside Trinity), 123 from O Connell street or college green.

For a real luxury tourist experience you can share a jarvey (horse and cart) ride back to the city center after !

Cost.:

20Euro if you turn up (13.50Euro) for children. Over 18’s get a free pint.

Online discounts available in advance from as low as 14 Euro @ https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/tickets.

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


A Day In Dublin

I spent the day in Dublin today. It’s the weekend after St. Patrick’s day and a truly magical time to visit Dublin. It’s easy to be cynical about the green tinged buildings, the fairground fun and the open air food markets. But as one of Dublin’s favourite sons once said ” a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. (10 points for anyone who can place the quote) Dublin is the beating heart of Ireland and Ireland is never prouder then on St. Patricks day.

And the heartbeat is getting stronger and stronger. There is an easy air to the capital city these days. It is a city that has, for good and ill,  has long since resigned itself to the vagaries of capitalism and there is no changing that. Its open vulgar, commercialism is strangely joyful, productive and compatible with a good life of easy pleasures and cultural riches.

There is a treasure trove of museums here. The national museum, national library, natural history museum, national gallery and, of course our national parliament all sit within the one block adjacent to Trinity College (home of the Book of Kells and a monument in itself). There are also more quirky offerings at the National Wax Museum, the Little Museum of Dublin and the leprechaun museum while Kilmeinham  Jail, a personal favourite of mine, offers a highly imaginative exploration of times past with a special emphasis on the heroes of the 1916 rising. A must for history buffs.

All of these attractions deserve an article in themselves here and I will explore them in later posts…. til then please feel free to comment and tell me what you are interested in , slan agus beannacht, alan

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