Ireland, Part 4 (On the Water)

On July 27, 2014 · 0 Comments

I enjoy boat rides. Ireland is surrounded by water. Is it surprising that I found myself cruising over the waves? No of course not, although I didn’t expect it to happen four times during my trip even if a couple of those were fleeting encounters.

Skellig Michael



12MC’s brief video from the Skellig Islands

Skellig Michael ranked high on my list of priorities as I planned the trip. A skellig is rock, in this instance the Rock of Michael, mirroring the Irish language Sceilig Mhichíl. Skellig Michael and its sister Little Skellig jutted sharply from the Atlantic Ocean a dozen kilometres from the Iveragh Peninsula (map). While just a stone’s throw from the famous Ring of Kerry and its tourist busloads, Skellig Michael stood a world apart in approachability and was equally difficult to conquer.

Irish authorities severely limited access to this fragile UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only small boats could dock at Skellig Michael and only a handful of licenses were awarded each year to charter operators working primarily from Portmagee. This limited visitors to about 150 people per day give-or-take, and only in the summer months when ocean swells calmed sufficiently. Even that could be a crapshoot. We had to reschedule our original reservation after all five sailing days leading up to it were canceled due to high waves. The island caretakers wouldn’t let boats land there in perceptively dangerous conditions.

So why would anyone want to go to Skellig Michael? Lousy weather, seasickness, expense and inconvenience were all possibilities. These were all offset by the actual experience. The difficulty of the journey only enhanced the rewards.



The two Skelligs, out by themselves and surrounded by water, attracted huge colonies of birds. These included about ten thousand Atlantic Puffins on Skellig Michael, and I think many people would agree that puffins are about the cutest birds that exist. They’re like the pandas of the avian world. They also seemed to lack all fear of human visitors. We got as close to puffins on Skellig Michael as we would to pigeons in a park, and they were everywhere. Our kids loved them. I wouldn’t have ridden an hour on a cabin cruiser through an intermittent drizzle to a rocky shard simply for a few birds, though. They were a bonus.



The main attraction was the ancient monastery built high atop Skellig Michael around the 6th Century. The monks who settled here were sometimes called "white martyrs" because of their lives of suffering, deprivation and absolute devotion to their Christian faith, albeit without bloodshed. This must have felt like the most isolated place on earth 1,500 years ago.

We climbed the steep unprotected steps carved into the mountainside centuries ago, several hundred feet up to the monastery, as the horizon disappeared into clouds. It seemed otherworldly as we explored in a thick fog through beehive huts constructed by those early monks as crude shelter. I thought to myself as we walked along, that it seemed like a setting out of Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings. I’ve since learned that this will likely be a filming location for Star Wars: Episode VII. It’s a good thing we visited Skellig Michael when we did. Reservations will become a lot more difficult once the secret gets out and Star Wars fans put it on the pilgrimage list.


Kenmare Bay



The Seafari cruise out of Kenmare became our consolation prize on the day we planned to visit Skellig Michael originally and had to postpone it due to the weather. The waves were much calmer in protected Kenmare Bay (map) than the open Atlantic so we diverted to Kenmare that morning to see the Harbor Seals instead of Portmagee to see the puffins. It’s good to be flexible.

The ship’s captain explained that a gloomy day actually worked to our advantage. Sudden movements spooked seals, and sunny days created shadows they detected as motions. More seals should be sitting out on the rocks when cloudy. I wasn’t sure if that was something like rain supposedly being "good luck" on a wedding day — designed to make someone feel better — or whether there was truth behind his statement. Either way, we saw plenty of seals including a few tiny pups that resided with their parents only for a brief period each Summer before striking out on their own.


Innisfallen



We kept returning to a recurring theme during our journey: how to separate ourselves from larger crowds in popular tourist destinations. Case in point, several sites in Killarney National Park just outside of the town of Killarney all drew healthy gatherings. However, Innisfallen Island (map) in the middle of the park’s Lough Leane, did not. That required a boat and most people did not want to go through the effort.

I think large excursion boats went to Innisfallen at certain times of the day although none were there when we visited. Instead, we hired a boatsman to ferry us from the concession stand at nearby Ross Castle to the middle of the lake. There we climbed through the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey, founded originally in 640 and lasting through 1594. There were only two other people on the island during our brief layover, and then we got a guided tour around the lake afterwards to boot.


Valentia Island Ferry



Our fourth journey across water involved the Valentia Island Ferry (map). I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming article so I’ll just mention it for now.


Completely Unrelated

Comment spam seems to have returned to the Twelve Mile Circle. It took a nosedive a few months ago after Google started penalizing link-back schemes in its page-rank algorithms. The spammers have responded by linking back to YouTube and Yahoo Answers pages instead, and I’ve noticed a steady upswing in those tactics. Of course, I moderate every comment on 12MC and I delete spam before readers ever see it. It’s interesting to watch the cat-and-mouse games from my little corner of the world.

Ireland, Part 2 (A Distressing Period)

On July 22, 2014 · 0 Comments

Somewhere close to 8.2 million people lived in Ireland in 1841. Then came Phytopthora Infestans, a fungus-like microorganism that attacked Irish potato fields with a fearsome blight and utter devastation. The Great Famine killed more than a million people through starvation or disease between 1845 and 1850. Two million survivors fled their native land avoiding similar fates in the immediate aftermath, and the population continued to bleed over multiple generations to North America and to Australia and to other accommodating places.

Today about 6.4 people live on the Irish island, with 4.59 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.84 million in Northern Ireland. It is feasible that the pre-famine population might finally be reached again by 2046, TWO CENTURIES after the initial calamity.

It’s not my purpose to delve deeply into the history and geopolitical underpinnings of the Great Famine. Plenty of sources with vastly greater knowledge and insight exist to fill that role. I approached the subject as an observer of a small number of people and places left in its wake as they existed today.

Famine Cottage



Seemingly every town — for completely understandable reasons — had a famine museum, a memorial, or maybe just the crumbling ruins of homes formerly occupied by those long gone. A visitor should visit at least one famine site, and we stopped at the Famine Cottage at Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula (map).

We’d explored far along the peninsula, almost all the way to the extreme western point on the Irish mainland to see an Iron Age ruin, the Dunbeg Fort. Unfortunately a howling storm damaged the property earlier in the year, closing the site to visitors so that it could be viewed only from a distance. However, a Famine Cottage operated as a roadside attraction practically at the same spot so we took that as a cue to walk through the property. This was an actual farm and homestead from the time period, not a replica, and restored in the manner of how it would have appeared when people lived there during those dark years. It would have been a difficult life on that windswept mountainside even during the best of times.


Slievemore Deserted Village



I think the ruins of the deserted village of Achill Island (map) had an even greater impact, complete with a cold foggy drizzle to heighten a sense of gloom and despair. This wasn’t a lone residence as we saw on Dingle, it was an entire settlement of a hundred homes.

Achill lay beyond the standard tour bus circuit. Nobody collected a fee. A mile of crumbling stone houses stood beside a barren path. We were alone at that spot except for our thoughts.

Excavations sponsored by the Achill Archaeological Field School confirmed that people lived on the sheltered southern slopes of Slievemore mountain for several thousand years. A permanent village formed at the site during the early Medieval period.

The houses were built of unmortared stone, which means that no cement or mortar was used to hold the stones together. Each house consisted of just one room and this room was used as kitchen, living room, bedroom and even stable. For many years people lived in the village and then in 1845 Famine struck in Achill as it did in the rest of Ireland. Most of the families moved to the nearby village of Dooagh, which is beside the sea, while some others emigrated.

Residents abandoned their settlement although it survived for awhile as "booley" housing, a term for structures that were used during summer months while people tending to livestock. The practice of transhumance lasted longer on Achill than just about anywhere else in Ireland, and indeed well into the 20th Century, in remote places like Slievemore. However the village never recovered. It slipped into complete abandonment as years slipped by, an eerie site on a gloomy day.


Family History



My great-grandfather grew up in Ireland in the decades after the famine, born at the family farm in Mountcollins, Co. Limerick in 1868 (map). An impoverished Catholic farm boy didn’t have to stray far to get into trouble during that era. The family spirited him to Cork where he caught a ship heading to the United States, one step ahead of the authorities. Thomas O’Connor left Ireland in 1888 and died in 1958, never returning to his homeland. This was such a common and permanent occurrence that the Irish referred to the situation generically as an American Wake. It was almost as if the person leaving had died. The United States became Thomas O’Connor’s new home and he had 73 living descendants in his adopted land when he passed away, including a grandson named for him. Later there would be a great-grandson also named named for him who would visit his boyhood home and post these words to Twelve Mile Circle.

We spent a day with our Irish relatives, my elderly father getting at least one more chance to better understand his equally elderly second-cousins. They drove us to the small house where Thomas was born, now a rundown storage shed on a farm that still belonged to the family. We saw the church where he was baptized and the place where he went to school. We touched the gravestone of his parents. We read the family genealogy charts with so many stories of people who left for Texas, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Washington DC, or just generically USA, often marked with the phrase "no further information."

The Great Famine famine and the troubling decades afterwards changed Ireland profoundly, a tremendous turmoil that still reverberates. My family story differed little from a million others.

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.

Purpose
12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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