Ireland, Part 1 (Castles and Ruins)

On July 20, 2014 · 0 Comments

My typing fingers grew a little rusty over the last couple of weeks. Those of you who follow 12MC on Twitter already knew that I was in Ireland because I posted a steady stream of photographs. What may have been less understood was that I wrote all Twelve Mile Circle articles ahead of time. That’s right, the blog was on autopilot for awhile although I was still able to approve comments, update the complete index map and attend to administrative tasks of that nature.

The next several articles will relate to my Irish adventures and shift towards a travelogue briefly rather than tackle the usual compendium of geo-oddities. Historically, those haven’t been the most viewed articles so I won’t take it personally if readers decide to skip a few until we get back to normal business. I like writing them and that’s what I’m going to do.

When one thinks of Ireland in a somewhat stereotypical sense, one often envisions medieval structures like castles, abbeys, and cathedrals of weathered stone in various states of decay. Maybe that’s just me. Nonetheless, that seemed like a good starting point for the series. My younger son wanted to see "lots of castles" and that’s what I fed him. I think even he was tired of walking through crumbling ruins by the time we left. I’ll focus on four ancient buildings in four different Irish counties that we visited.

Granuaile’s Tower



This might be my favorite photograph from the trip except for maybe the puffin, although I’m getting ahead of myself.

Achill Island on the western coast of County Mayo appeared as a quiet, unspoiled landscape bypassed by the largest of the tourist hordes. Known more for its beaches and scenery, Achill had only one ancient fortification still standing, Granuaile’s Tower at Kildavnet (map). It had an impressive backstory.

The Tower at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, is a perfect example of a 15th century Irish tower house. The Gaelic Chiefs of the time copied a Norman design and constructed many such tower houses. The tower at Kildavnet is thought to have been constructed by the Clan O’Malley in about 1429, but is associated locally with a descendant of the original builders, Grace O’Malley or Granuaile. This legendary pirate queen is thought to have been born around 1530 and died in about 1603.

The tower belonged to a woman of significant power and means known as the "The Pirate Queen of Connaught." Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley in its anglicized version) inherited the family business from her father. Some would characterize it a shipping enterprise while others might have noted elements of pirating. The lines were a little fuzzier back then. Nonetheless Granuaile established strongholds along the western Irish coast and this was one of the towers she used to protect and control her domain.


Ross Castle



Ross Castle in Killarney (map) was another excellent example of an Irish tower house of the period. It dated probably to the 15th Century, originally built by the O’Donoghue clan, later owned by the Brownes of Killarney and finally served as a military barracks until the 19th Century.

Today it’s an often-visited part of Killarney National Park in County Kerry. Ross Castle sat conveniently along the famous "Ring of Kerry" tourist road so it’s evolved into a more-or-less obligatory stop for sightseers in one of the most heavily visited areas of Ireland. This was the only place where I saw signs in the car park warning people to remove valuables from their vehicles. This was also the only place where we had to be content with external views of the castle because tours were sold out. Still, if one is in Killarney, one should probably visit Ross Castle (if only to book a boat from there to visit Innisfallen Island, which I’ll talk about in a later episode).


Rock of Cashel



The Rock of Cashel was a real castle (map), not simply a tower house for pirates or lesser nobility. The imposing Rock of Cashel, Carraig Phádraig, served as the home of the Kings of Munster, in what is now County Tipperary.

It was here that St. Patrick converted the reigning king to Christianity in the 6th Century according to legend. A later king, Muirchertach Ua Briain, gave his mighty fortress to the Church around the year 1100. An imposing cathedral was added to the grounds in the 1200′s. The site fell into disrepair over several centuries although more recent restorations preserved what remained, and visitors are allowed to wander the grounds mostly unimpeded.


St. Canice’s Cathedral



I enjoyed St. Canice’s Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, in County Kilkenny (map). The church itself was remarkable although I’d recommend its Round Tower as something to be included on the itinerary too.

Round towers – a particularly Irish feature – were built at major religious sites as places of refuge for body and treasure, during the times of the Viking raids from the end of the 8th century. St Canice’s round tower offers a breathtaking 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside from its summit – hardly surprising since that was the other reason they were built. The presence of the round tower here is the clearest sign of the antiquity of St Canice’s as an important religious site. There is a reference that suggests a mid-9th century date for it, making it the oldest standing structure in the City.

The thought of climbing a 30 metre (100 ft.) tower that was 1,200 years old might seem unnerving to many visitors, and as a case in point my wife and older son decided to remain earthbound. It was up to my younger son and I to uphold the family honor and reach the summit. I won’t lie — it wasn’t for the faint of heart. The climb involved a succession of seven ladders leading to small wooden platforms in increasingly narrow spaces as the diameter of the tower tapered towards the top. This wouldn’t be enjoyable for those with claustrophobia, acrophobia, or irrational fears of old towers crumbling at any moment whatever phobia that might be named. Fortunately my son and I had none of those fears and we reaped a splendid bird’s eye view of surrounding Kilkenny.

My kids never did understand why I quietly muttered "You Bastards!" every time someone mentioned Kilkenny.


Others

We visited a number of other medieval structures, too.

Some of these may be featured in later installments. Others may not. Feel free to check images I’ve posted on each of these places using the photo links provided.

Laguna del Carbón

On July 13, 2014 · 0 Comments

I’ve written about elevation lowpoints previously including Lake Assal (Africa), Lake Eyre (Australia) and Death Valley (North America). It’s been awhile since I wrote about one of those so it seemed like a good opportunity to turn my attention to South America. I don’t provide as much content about that area as I should, probably because the best sources are in Spanish or Portuguese and translation software only goes so far.

The lowest elevation in South America is Laguna del Carbón within the Gran Bajo de San Julián, in Argentina at -105 metres (-345 feet). This elevation is repeated in numerous reputable sources including the CIA World Factbook so it seemed to be accurate. As stated in Geology.com for example,

San Julian’s Great Depression is located in southeastern Argentina. It is the lowest land location in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres. The deepest part is Laguna del Carbón, at approximately 105 meters below sea level.

Laguna del Carbón easily outpaced California’s Death Valley which registered at -86 metres (-282 feet), making the site in Argentina the lowest of the Americas. Yet, few people know about it and fewer people ever visit it.



Laguna del Carbón, Argentina

There didn’t appear to be much of anything at the lowpoint except for an intermittent salt lake at the bottom of a large endorheic basin, in Argentina’s arid Patagonia. It was so unvisited that I could not find a single image with a creative commons license to embed and share within this page.


Gran Bajo de San Julián

Argentina’s Province of Santa Cruz is its southernmost mainland province (only Tierra del Fuego sits farther south) and cuts across the width of the nation. The province’s official website included a Relief & Hydrography page, which described its general layout and included a nice elevation comparison map:

The territory has two well-defined zones: the Andean one, to the west, and the plateaus in the centre and the east. The Chico River is born in the plateau called "the Plateau of death", it flanks the central plateau from the south, branching out in various arms, and flows into an estuary in which the Santa Cruz River also flows.

Plateau of death. It didn’t sound inviting.



A depression formed on the plateau between the Chico River and the Atlantic Ocean, the Gran Bajo de San Julián. One can appreciate the depth and the suddenness of the depression from this random video I found on YouTube. One can also hear the howling wind of an empty, treeless expanse.


Exploring Laguna del Carbón

A tourism industry did not develop around Laguna del Carbón as it did around Death Valley. It remained private property and cannot be visited without permission. Nonetheless a few hearty explorers made the trek and shared their stories on the Intertubes.

South American Explorers posted all back issues of its magazine on its website including Issue 38 (September 1994). It contained the article "Exploring the Gran Bajo de San Julian" In the article, the author noted that the designation of Laguna del Carbón as the lowest point of elevation in the Americas had been fairly recent. The identification of Laguna del Carbón dethroned Death Valley, which was considered to be the lowest point of the Americas up until then. I didn’t find the year that official measurement happened although it would have been well into the second half of the Twentieth Century more than likely. Perhaps that was why the site remained closed to general tourism. Nobody thought it was special until recently.

A site called 7 Lows, dedicated to the noble pursuit of visiting the lowpoints on each of the seven continents, featured Laguna del Carbón even more recently.

There is no major logistical problem getting to the general region where Laguna del Carbón is. The nearest major airport is located at Río Gallegos which is about a 3 to 4 hour drive away. There are several commercial flights each day including flights from Buenos Aires. Laguna del Carbón is located on private land and the biggest logistical problem is obtaining permission to visit.

The trip report and photos included on that site are well worth checking out. Certainly people will travel out of their way to visit the spot. Maybe the economics will allow easier access and perhaps even a small tourism industry to blossom nearby someday.

Not the Usual State Capital Trivia

On July 1, 2014 · 5 Comments

It was time to clear my list of unwritten articles again and I noticed several of them involved state capitals, or their capitol buildings. I’m not sure what the "usual" State Capital trivia might be much less the unusual, so let’s consider this an article on topics that the average layperson may not know. The always astute 12MC audience probably knows many of these peculiarities already although I’m hoping everyone will walk away with at least one new bit of information.

Highest Altitude State Capital


New Mexico State Capitol
New Mexico State Capitol by Mr.TinDC, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

I would imagine that the preponderance of the general public might think of Denver as the highest state capital as a matter of reflex. After all, Denver has long touted itself as The Mile High City and parts of it do measure up to a mile (1.6 kilometres) above sea level, and in some instances a little higher. Santa Fe, New Mexico blew that figure out of the water with an elevation of 7,199 ft (2,134 m) above sea level. I consulted an altitude calculator and measured the New Mexico capitol building (map) at 7,005 ft (2,135 m) at the actual seat of government. That still bested Denver by a remarkable amount.

If I were to hand out an award for the capitol that looked least like a stereotypical capitol I’d probably have to give it to Santa Fe, understanding that it would be a subjective determination. The capitol didn’t have a dome or many of the traditional architectural flourishes observed elsewhere. It was also the only ROUND capitol building in the United States, "designed to resemble the Zia Sun Symbol when viewed from above." That was bonus trivia.


A State Capital with Odd Governance


Michigan State Capitol
Michigan State Capitol by Graham Davis, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

It would seem to make sense that the seat of any state government would not be beholden to a local government. At the national level in the US, the District of Columbia was created as an independent entity removed from any state for that very reason. In 49 states, the state capital city also served as the local county seat of government. Michigan was the only exception.

Lansing (map), the capital of Michigan fell primarily into Ingham County, with a tiny sliver in Eaton County. Lansing was not the county seat of either county; Mason was the county seat of Ingham and Charlotte of Eaton. It came about as fallout from an unsuccessful attempt to locate the state capital in Mason:

In 1836 Charles Noble knew that Michigan would be seeking a central location for a new capital when it became a state. He purchased an area of forest, cleared 20 acres (81,000 m2), and founded Mason Center. The "Center" was soon dropped. In 1847, however, the state chose Lansing Township 12 miles (19 km) northward to be its capital due its potential for water power. Noble managed to make Mason the county seat instead.

The odd arrangement was a consolation prize for a pioneering settler.


Where the State Capitol is the Tallest Building in the State


West Virginia State Capitol
West Virginia State Capitol by Jonathan Rieke, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

There was one, maybe two with an asterisk, state capitol buildings that were the tallest buildings in the state. The West Virginia Capitol (map) at 293 ft (89 m) in Charleston was definitely one.

That might also be true for North Dakota:

The North Dakota State Capitol Building Tower is often lovingly referred to as "The Skyscraper on the Prairie" although it is only 241 feet 8 inches tall. Locally, we like to think of it as a "mini skyscraper" because of its sleek form and the fact that it happens to be the tallest manmade structure in the area.

However, depending on what one considers a building, the tallest might actually be the Antelope Valley Station power plant rising to 361 feet (110 m) in Beulah, ND. Additionally a real estate developer was hoping to construct the 252 ft (77 m) Dakotah Place tower in Fargo that "…would include a parking ramp, retail and office space, a hotel and high-end condos.."


State Capital on an International Border


State Capitol
State Capitol by cubby_t_bear, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

This was a trick question revealed in a comment on State Capitals Meet Time Zones from August 2009. Juneau, Alaska (map) is the only state capital that borders another nation. The city and borough of Juneau unified in 1970. Naturally the unified entity filled the same physical space including a border with Canada ("The newly created boundaries of the City and Borough of Juneau consolidated the City of Douglas, the City of Juneau. and the Greater Juneau Borough."). Good luck trying to climb the mountains and cross into Canada, though.

The Alaska State Capitol building might also be a contender for least like a stereotypical Capitol, now that I think about it.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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