Monday, July 20, 2009
The last five days of our trip was spent in Ireland, and we definitely took a slower, more leisurely pace through the Emerald Isle than we had in our six days in London. After arriving in Galway following a painfully early flight from London-Luton (not an airport I'd recommend, by the way, as it's about an hour's trip by tube, train and then shuttle from central London) we collapsed at our hotel The G and only made it out again for a traditional dinner of fish, chips and mashed peas. [By the way, The G is every bit as fabulous as advertised. My sole complaint would be their restaurant The Matz, which managed to serve up the worst dinner we had during our trip.]
The next day though, we managed to rally and drive out to Kylemore Abbey (pictured above), which is about an hour north of Galway in a remote region known as the Connemara. Originally built by a wealthy English family in the mid-19th century as a summer house, the house became an abbey in 1920. While the building itself is relatively modern (especially by European standards), the order of nuns that now lives there has a rich history dating back to the 17th century.
Above are the vestiges of a 12th century castle, complete with moat. Today, cattle graze lazily around it. For me, at least, this picture encapsulates the Irish countryside, which is chock-a-block full of ruins set amidst grazing land.
Our second full day in Ireland was greeted with more typical Irish weather. In short, it was overcast with intermittent (though not particularly hard) rain. Undeterred though, we set out to visit Clonmacnoise, a ruined monastery situated about halfway between Galway and Dublin. I should state here that the vast majority of historical sites in Ireland are ruined abbeys, churches and castles, many of which were destroyed first by the Vikings and then by the English. Because of the island's tumultuous history, you just won't find the same level of beautifully-preserved historic sites that you'll find in England or even Scotland.
Clonmacnoise was originally founded in the 6th century by St. Ciaran, but has gone through numerous incarnations through the centuries as it was built and rebuilt following devastating raids by Vikings and even fellow Irishman. The surviving stone buildings date from the 10th century, when the original wood buildings were replaced with more permanent structures. Sacked by the English in the 16th century, the site was reduced to ruins but continued to be considered a sacred site for the Irish, who used it as a graveyard through the last century.
Clonmacnoise is also home to some of the best surviving examples of high crosses and dates (and the only one that remains in situ).
Driving in Ireland is a bit harrowing -- and not just because you have to drive on the "wrong" side of the road. In the countryside, most roads are extremely narrow and have no shoulder as they're surrounded by overgrown hedges. The shot above shows a road that was alleged two-way. We spent the majority of the time praying that we wouldn't meet any oncoming traffic.
Another castle just outside Galway. To be perfectly frank, I can't recall the name, but it was rather lovingly restored by an English heiress in the last century, making it one of the best preserved castles in the Republic of Ireland.
The view from the ramparts was rather stunning. On a clear day (i.e., twice a year) you can supposedly see the Aran Islands.
Dave and I were both amused at how "Irish" he looks. In fact, I'm fairly certain we met several of his "long lost cousins" during our stay. The irony is that I'm actually more Irish than he is.
After two full days in Galway we took Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) to Dublin, which was a pleasant three-hour ride through the countryside. Dublin reminded me a lot of Glasgow, except that it's cleaner and perhaps a bit prettier. All in all, it's a city I could see myself living in as it boasts a number of excellent restaurants [my favorite being The Pig's Ear], good shopping and about 1 million friendly Irish.
St. Patrick's Cathedral, which is also the final resting place of Jonathan Swift, one of my absolute favorite authors. I took a course on satire as a senior in college and found a new appreciation for Swift [I think high school is actually a bit too early to read him].
Dublin Castle, which is now houses quite a few governmental agencies, so most of it is not open to the public. We did, however, spend a wonderful afternoon at the Chester Beatty Library, which houses the private book collection of Chester Beatty, the late American mining tycoon. I was absolutely floored at some of the outstanding works he had been able to acquire, from third century papyri of Paul's letters and gorgeous Medieval illuminated manuscripts to amazing 17th century copies of the Tales of Genji and a huge collection of Oriental snuff bottles. This is definitely an under-the-radar gem and not-to-be-missed for any bibliophile.