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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Ireland articles:
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.
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 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.
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.
The Ireland articles:
This isn’t one of those lists passed around the Intertubes. You’ve all seen them and I’m certain you know what I mean. No Monkey’s Eyebrow or Turkey Scratch here. These are placenames that I’ve encountered as I’ve conducted the daily task of keeping Twelve Mile Circle current. They came from various sources as I researched articles or as I obsessed over reader statistics. As usual, I attempted to peer behind the curtain to understand the reasons for these names.
I noticed Full through Google Analytics. Somebody from Full landed upon 12MC and left behind a little digital footprint for me. Nothing more. Sure, whatever "Full" referenced in any one of Switzerland’s four official languages, whether German, French, Italian or Romansh, probably didn’t mean the same thing as English. Nonetheless the thought of a Full town made me smile. It could spark a lot of entertaining jokes.
A little digging determined that Google Analytics shortened Full and the actual name was Full-Reuenthal. German Wikipedia mentioned that Full began as Wulna circa 1303-1307 and merged with Reuenthal in 1798 to form Full-Reuenthal. It then explained, "Dieser Ortsname ist von (ze) follinun abgeleitet, was auf Althochdeutsch «beim aufgeschütteten Boden» bedeutet." Google Translate deciphered that as, "This place name is derived from (ze) follinun, which means to Old High German ‘during backfill soil’."
During backfill soil? That didn’t make sense. I ran the identical phrase through several different translation websites and generated other possibilities.
- “with heaped upon the ground”
- “with heaped up the ground”
- “with the piled up ground”
- “at the bottom heaped-up”
- “for the deposited ground”
I think that provided sufficient context to understand to the Full meaning. Do we have any native German speakers in the 12MC audience who might be able to offer further clarity?
Cooks River Cycleway by Brian Yap, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
This scenic cycleway is an amenity of Hurlstone Park
Once again, Google Analytics hurled an interesting placename towards my direction. A reader arrived from a spot identified as Hurlstone, in suburban Sydney, Australia. I could imagine residents dodging rocks as an unidentified malcontent hurled missiles in their direction.
The name had been truncated in the reader log just as I’d observed with Full. The complete name was Hurlstone Park (map). I found an explanation of the name in the Dictionary of Sydney.
In 1910 a new post office was approved for Fernhill, but the Postmaster General’s Department insisted that the name of the locality would need to be changed as there were already two post offices with that name, one in Victoria and one in Queensland. A local referendum was held in conjunction with a municipal election, the choice being between Hurlstone, Fernboro or Garnett Hill. Hurlstone was selected. This was the name of a college that had been founded by John Kinloch (on the site of today’s Yeo Park, south Ashfield) and given his mother’s maiden name.
The surname Hurlstone "derived from a geographical locality. ‘of Hurlston,’ a township in the parish of Acton, Cheshire," somewhere right about here. The original Hurlston placename seemed to have derived from "’fenced farm’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘hurdl-tun’"
Fenced farm. That was lame. It had nothing to do with hurling stones.
Tippity Wichity Island, Maryland, Maryland, USA
I found Tippity Wichity Island while researching Saint Marys River. It was right there in the river channel outside of St. Marys City in Maryland. Tippity Wichity wasn’t a large parcel so I figured I wouldn’t find any meaningful information about it, and frankly was quite satisfied simply to discover an image even if I couldn’t embed it because it was copyright protected. The island was rather modest.
Then I ran across an article in ChesapeakeBoating.net, Ghosting Past Tippity Wichity which provided an explanation for the unusual name.
There, according to noted Potomac River historian Frederick Tilp, Howgate established "a gambling, drinking, and girlie place known as Happie Land and then altered the place name to a short version of Tippling-house and Witchery-house"-Tippity-Witchity. Eventually, the island itself took on the name, accommodating a lively trade with crews from schooners and cargo vessels who would visit for a little entertainment.
Tippling houses specialized in liquor by the glass. Witchery House was an unfamiliar phrase to me although I could read between the lines, and assumed witchery probably referred to its alternate definition, "Compelling power exercised by beauty, eloquence, or other attractive or fascinating qualities." rather than the actual practice of witchcraft. There was drinking and um, not witchcraft, happening on Tippity Wichity Island. Happie Land, indeed.
Walkaway Railway Station Museum, Walkaway, Western Australia
Walkaway. Why would someone walk away? That didn’t sound like an attractive endorsement for a town. I noticed Walkaway in Western Australia while working on Make Tracks to Midland. This was a station on a line operated by the Midland Railway Company a century ago, and the station later became a museum with "railway artifacts, military relics, local history."
I couldn’t find a definitive source for its name. Every website seemed to copy directly from its Wikipedia page and that site didn’t offer attribution either. Let me join the masses and spread the same statement in an entirely irresponsible manner: "Its name is a corruption of the native ‘Wagga wah’, referring to the bend in the nearby Greenough River." It must be true because the Internet said so. Right?