Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Christmas 2011 - the Round Robin comes bob-bob-bobbing along - again!

For the past 22 years I've written a Christmas Newsletter from our family to the wider world - and since I started this blog I've shared it with the blogosphere - it's a family update but it's quite general and broad and people seem to enjoy getting it each year. I started it in Tanzania in 1989 and while it's a genre that's frequently the butt of bad jokes and ridiculed as being a self-indulgent brag-fest of family perfection and accomplished genius children I hope mine strikes a balance of normality while entertaining some bragging rights along the way. Enjoy! The photos are a selection you may have already seen on the blog.

           Happy Christmas 2011

Dear Friends,

The Christening Party
It’s that wonderful time of the year again when I get down to writing the annual Christmas Newsletter from Lismore and update you on the goings on in the Rotte-Murray household over the past year. It’s become a real tradition now since it began in Iringa in Tanzania in 1989 – hard to believe this is Issue No. 22! I could nearly compile my very own cringe-inducing Round Robin book and give Simon Hogget a run for his money – I’d call it something more creative than The Cat Who Could Open the Fridge! The tree is up since Saturday and there’s a festive air about, with street lights and Christmas fairs all over the place. Shopping till dropping seems to be the mantra in the towns and cities, where there are little signs of recession if you see the tailbacked traffic entering Mahon Point in Cork. Now all I wish for is that there’ll be no severe cold spell like last year when we’d no water for 8 days over Christmas – genuinely Dickensian, drawing water from the Spout (local spring source) and washing everything by hand. Thanks but no thanks!

Livia in her Christening Robe
With the economy in the pits and the recession still nowhere near bottoming out (if we can believe the prophets of doom who hound us on the daily news and current affairs programmes) there’s sometimes a temptation to join the 99% in one of the Occupy sites that have sprung up in our cities and larger towns. It’s really painful to see the budget bleeding every last cent from hard-pressed taxpayers and homeowners just to bailout/pay off the faceless bond-holders who hold us in their clutches. I don’t mind taxes where they’re targeted at specifics that enhance and benefit society – we hear a lot this year about living in a society not an economy, and it’s difficult to square the circle when the country has lost economic sovereignty to our paymasters in Frankfurt (ECB) and Washington (IMF). We hear that in a few years we’ll be able to go back to the markets (financial, not farmers, I’m guessing) and that’s gonna restore our sense of pride and place. Haven’t we all become whizzes at the jargon of economics and high finance? It reminds me of Italia ’90 when every Irish person became an expert in football and pretended to understand the offside rule, while throwing opinions on various players around like snuff at a wake - though it’s a bit obscene to compare those innocent halcyon days with the gloom of the current global crisis.
As for ourselves, we are hit but not rock bottom like many – we aren’t going to lose our home like so many unfortunate people who got stuck in negative equity and repossessions if they lost their jobs, and I am lucky to have a relatively secure public sector job. There are plans to lose thousands of public sector workers in the next few years through voluntary redundancy and early retirement plans and that ghastly term “natural wastage” (where people retire and are not replaced). In the HSE and nursing services there will be a mass exodus of management and some frontline staff come February when the deadline for current pension payments hits. Thereafter previously exempt lump sums will be taxed and no-one blames anyone who is due to retire in the next few years and who has a reasonable amount of years accrued from going while the going is good.  The downside for those of us left on the frontline is an increased workload with fewer staff. We’re all working flat out as it is and there will be an inevitable knock-on effect on patient services if it gets much worse. Morale is low at times but for frontline staff like me there’s a lot of job satisfaction so that and team solidarity makes it worthwhile.    
Livia's Christening Party
My big news from the work front this year is that I got a transfer from Old Parish, where I’d been for nine years, to Lismore, where my office is around the corner from the house! I am delighted with the new post and have settled in well in the past three months. I knew the area pretty well already though I find some of the back roads in the more remote upland areas in the foothills of the beautiful Knockmealdowns a challenge at times – thank goodness for the satnav – it’s saved my bacon on a few occasions. It’s been good for my personal economy too – my petrol bill has halved since the move, as I’m 150 miles a week down on my previous travel to Dungarvan. Between knitting circles and book clubs, there’s never a dull moment. Jan and I did the Sean Kelly Cycle again in August, with him doing the 90km and me the 50km, great fun and a chance to keep fit.
With Theo in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin
Jan is still in the Labour Party as Town Councillor and had a busy start to the year with the General Election in February, after Ciara Conway, the Labour candidate for Waterford, asked him to be her Director of Elections. He got into it with great gusto and was on the highways and byways canvassing madly for the few weeks of the campaign, and it all paid off when Ciara was elected to Dáil Eireann after a nail biting marathon in the count centre. It’s been a roller coaster of a year politically as the Labour Party went into Government with Fine Gael, the more conservative centre-right party, after Fianna Fáil, commonly called the “previous shower”, suffered a massive wipe-out at the hands of a furious electorate, ending up with a handful of TDs. Jan had the honour of being at the Dáil for the first day as Ciara’s guest, and it was a great achievement for both of them. Ciara’s making a great name for herself as a vocal back-bencher on many issues, particularly social and economic. One thing’s certain – people will be as angry at this coalition as at FF when times get tough. Reading Twitter when there’s a topical programme on gives a good reflection of the Irish zeitgeist. Immrama was another busy time for Jan with the 9th festival this year hosting travel writers from a broad sweep of the genre. We had a great weekend and plans are well underway for the 10th year in 2012, which has to be special. The fundraisers will get under way in January with the annual table quiz honing our dormant post-Christmas brain cells.

Shayne, Jany and Sofia and Livia
The rest of the family are all fine, with plenty going on in their lives. The big news for 2011 was the birth on 26th March of our beautiful second granddaughter, Livia, to Shayne and Jany and she’s a sweet sister for Sofia, who gets on great with her. She is a lovely happy baby, and is now sitting up and starting to move around. We had her Christening in Lismore at the end of October, and she looked sweet in our century-old family Christening robe which Sofia wore the previous year. Sofia is almost two and is full of chat and always on the go, a real livewire, yet she can sit and play for ages with her toys and it’s great to see her playing with the stash of Duplo from the attic when she’s in Lismore.  Shayne got a job in Cork the week after Livia’s birth, in Abtran in Bishopstown, in customer services for Electric Ireland (old ESB). Jany was on maternity leave until September and she got a new job closer to home the week before she was due to go back to work, she’s an IT helpdesk specialist in a company near the CSO in Mahon. They’ve sorted childcare with Anne, a Dutch au pair who’s living with them for a year.  Their other big news is they are planning a wedding for next July in Lismore – so we can look forward to another celebration!
Godfather Martin with Livia
Martin is still in Dublin, he was out of work for a few months after finishing his Masters, and then he got a job as a waiter in the Westbury Hotel in Dublin, a pretty swanky place where plenty of celebs stay when they’re doing shows in the city. Graphic design jobs are pretty thin on the ground so he was glad to get off the dole with the Westbury job, but he’s looking farther afield for the coming year and he’s going to Australia at the end of January. He’s going with a friend who’s also a graphic designer, and they’re heading for Brisbane where they have friends who were in Tanzania when we were there – as kids they grew up together in Iringa so it’s nice that they’ve kept in touch over the years, as we have with the parents – in fact Tandy was here in 2010, and the three girls were here over the New Year and visited us in Lismore. So while I’ll miss Martin madly, I have to overcome my Irish Mammyness and be happy for him, as he’s doing the best thing for himself – and wish him the best of luck down under! 
Godfather William with Sofia
William is still in Cork; after working in a variety of jobs since he graduated from Limerick and moved to the real Capital last year, he decided to go back to being a student and is doing his Masters in Electronic Business in UCC – totally unrelated to his PE teaching degree but something he wanted to do – sadly a new regulation barring grants if returning to education within 3 years of previous study meant he wasn’t eligible for a grant, but he decided to go ahead with it and luckily we can help him out. He’s got into the sport and social side of UCC life with Intervarsity Volleyball and Trampolining. He’s on the Irish Volleyball team now and has got his first cap a few weeks ago. He will probably travel once he’s finished his Masters, unless a plum job lands on him. It’s hard to see the young adults leaving if there’s little prospects for them coming back in the future – we went from choice back in our day, and jobs prospects for nurses were a given – now the public sector recruitment embargo has done away with that certainty.
Maeve did her Junior Cert and decided to go straight to 5th year but after a few days she realised she’d made a wrong choice and luckily she was able to go back to Transition Year which is like a gap year – school without too much pressure, plenty of variety and fun activities, and not too much academic pressure. Work experience is part of the programme and she spent a week at the crèche in Fermoy where she went as a toddler until she went to school. She’ll have another two sessions of work experience in the New Year so that will be another taster of the world of work. She is now 16 and taller than me, and she is becoming very grown up and independent, enjoying spending time hanging out with her friends. In June she went with two of her friends to SummerJam in the O2/Point in Dublin, and I had to go as they were under 16 – despite the ear-bleeding decibels I enjoyed some of the acts –  LMFAO and Ke$ha – don’t ask! It’s an indoor festival, a kind of Oxygen without the mud, lasting 3-4 hours. 

Jan and me at Newgrange World Heritage Site in Co. Meath
Jan and me went to a couple of gigs this year – Eric Clapton was Jan’s guitar hero for years and for his birthday we went to see him at the O2 and he didn’t disappoint – he ain’t Mr. Personality but boy he can play and sing! Christy Moore at the Marquee in Cork was an anniversary pressie from the kids and that was a great night – Christy was in flying form and not grumpy at the crowd as he is at times. We had a lovely day out in Dublin in July when Theo, our old Dutch friend from Iringa days, came with his Dutch Brass Band Me Tresse to play a series of concerts in Ireland – we saw them in the Guinness Storehouse and Jan went to see them in Galway as well. We had another trip to Galway to visit friends and Jan and I had a few staycation short breaks in Sligo and Trim, and I went to the INMO conference in Kilkenny in May. We spent a lot of weekends in Dublin and Cork, and the year flew by.
So that’s about the summary of our lives for another year, and I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and every good wish for 2012 – may it be a happy and prosperous year and don’t forget our door is always open and we’d love to see you anytime. I hope we meet over Christmas!
Love Catherine, Jan, Shayne, Jany, Sofia and Livia, Martin, William and Maeve (and Ben whom I left out of the email and letter version!)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Family Milestone - Celebrating Livia's Christening Day

Livia in the family Christening Robe
Last Saturday saw the Christening of our beloved granddaughter Livia, just over a year after her big sis Sofia was baptised. The ceremony took place in the same church, St. Carthage's in Lismore, with the same priest Fr. Cullinan conducting the rites. He is the local Parish Priest and as Livia lives in Cork with her sis and parents he was happy to do it once they had a letter from the PP in Cork - some kind of territorial hierarchy, perhaps!

The day got off to a very bad weather start, with more of the lashing rainfall which had marked the entire week, which had seen flash floods in Dublin that resulted in the deaths of two people, an off-duty Garda trying to divert cars from a bridge from which he was them swept away, and a Philipina nurse who died when her basement flat was inundated after a wall collapsed, creating a damburst effect. We were very lucky to escape with no floods in Waterford.

Livia with her parents, sister and Godparents

We were very glad to see the sun come out and the rain stop for the afternoon, as the ceremony was at 5pm, and the church is only across the road from our house. Hubby Jan had gone to Cork in the morning to collect the family and Livia's Dutch Godmother Machteld came too, along with Anne their au pair also from Holland. It's great that the girls will have exposure to Dutch from these friends as they won't lose touch with more than half their heritage, in fact three-quarters as their dad's half Dutch! Martin, the girls' uncle, was the Godfather and he'd  been here for a few days already as he'd holidays from his job in Dublin.

After the Christening in our garden
With Fr. Cullinan at the Font
We all got glammed up and headed to the church in time - after dressing Livia in the family heirloom Christening robe which has been in my family for over 100 years, and which has done duty for my mother, me, our kids, and now our second grandchild! I think my granny may have also been Christened in it which would make it well over 130 years old, but I can't verify that. She looked so sweet, and never mind that she was much bigger than the babies of long ago at Christening age - the tape ties at the back meant it fitted just fine.

I'd been busy baking for the days leading up to the big day - even though we were only having a simple celebration back at our house after the ceremony - and I was delighted with how well the cake turned out, as it was a rectangle compared to the round cake Sofia had for her big day. I made a Victoria Sponge, with whipped cream and homemade strawberry jam filling, topped with Fondant Icing and piped Butter Icing in pink for the lettering and borders. I made an apple tart and some fairy cakes, which went beautifully on my new cake stand - a two-tier floral  pink porcelain job, from Shaws in Dungarvan - totally irresisstable. They have them in blue so they're obviously designed for just such events as births or baptisms! We were having a barbecue in the dark -well, by patio light actually - as hubby was cooking, and I made a savoury Nasi-style fried rice to accompany the BBQ, while Jany and Machteld and Anne made the salads.

The Cake (proud me!)
Fairy cakes on my new Cakestand!

The ceremony took about 40-50 mins, as the priest chatted a lot and there was another baby being Christened at the same time - a kind of conveyor belt Christening, as first Livia and then the other baby were brought to the Font for the actual pouring of the water. It's a lovely symbolic ceremony with the candle lit from the Paschal or Easter Candle, and the anointing with oil and chrysm, and the covering of the head with the white blanket while the family all gather round to welcome the baby into the Christian community. Even though I'm not as regular a churchgoer as I should be I feel happy that the traditions like Baptism continue through the generations.

The gathering on the patio
Livia with Godparents - Martin and Machteld
I hope you like the photos of the day and get a sense of our shared family celebration, and as we did with Sofia we gave Livia silverware engraved with her name and the date. She got a mug from us, the Godfather Martin gave her a photo album, scroll certificate holder and stand, and Maeve her aunt gave her an expanding bracelet, while William gave her silver boxes for first tooth and curl!

Altogether we had a lovely day and goodness knows when the Christening robe will get another family outing!

Livia, Sofia, Shayne and Jany

L-R: William, Kyle, Shayne & Sofia, Jany & Livia, Maeve and Martin

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Alice in Wonderland in our own Wonderland - Off the Ground Theatre in Lismore Castle

Alice down the Rabbit Hole
Last month saw the return of the terrific English Touring Theatre Company Off The Ground Theatre to their annual gig in Lismore Castle. This year they put on a terrific, insane, wacky and wonderful Alice in Wonderland for their Irish tour of various castles and big houses. They were here for one night only, in the courtyard of Lismore Castle as they have done for the past decade, and after a few years of Shakespearian comedies they produced a totally different show - Alice in Wonderland and a cast of all the characters in the original Lewis Carroll book. The Mad Hatter, The Cheshire Cat, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Queen of Hearts, the Dormouse, The White Rabbit, and Alice shrinking and growing very convincingly by varying the size of the sets - a big door or a small door, a big key or a small key, and a big or small bottle saying Drink Me! I loved Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass as a child, and the magic came right back when I soaked up the atmosphere of the show.

The only downside was the rain - it was a relentless Irish Mist worthy of Hollywood trying to find an Irish stereotype - it didn't pour and if you glanced out the window you might be forgiven for thinking it wasn't raining at all - that the wet ground was the aftermath of a recent shower. However, a few minutes outside would disabuse you fairly fast - it was a fine spray mist that invaded every crevice of clothing and slowly drenched from the outside in - and made for misery in no time. I went down to the castle for the 7:30pm start armed with a large shopping bag equipped with the following -
  • a beach towel (optimist!) for the chair; 
  • a roll of black bag bin liners as I didn't have a mac and to put under the towel, over my shoulders, on my head, and on my lap; 
  • a couple of cotton shawls for extra warmth;
  • bottle of water;
  • a few packets of Tayto crisps - ubiquitous and indispensible for any outdoor event
  • a roll of Rowntree Fruit Pastilles for a sugar rush 
  • Painting the trees for the Queen of Hearts
  • a Twix Bar - for more sugar rushes. 

Song and dance with Alice
The posh people in the audience who came from further afield for the show were much more organised and had brought proper outdoor theatrical fare - cheese and wine in proper glasses, with wicker hampers and Tupperware full of tasty tapas and fancy vittles - but I was far too disorganised to be so pretentiously upmarket. Aspiring to be an Irish Glyndebourne or Tanglewood is great but as this is on such a small scale with an audience of about 100 you get all sorts of people turning up. There are a smattering of locals, a few from the surrounding area, and a number who travel from further afield, and who evidently see this event as a high point on the social calender of the summer.

Things are getting curiouser and curiouser!
Alice in Wonderland
The castle's upper garden is accessible during the interval, and there was an opportunity to meet and greet the cast, all very informally. I managed to scrounge a plastic poncho from either Tweedledum or Tweedledee at the interval - I think he felt sorry for this dripping black-bag lady and when I asked if there were any leftover he went off and got me one. Many of those who'd arrived earlier than me had snagged one and I was quite impressed with its effectiveness in keeping the elements at bay. Umbrellas are a no-no at these gigs as they ruin the view for the punters sitting in the rows behind and also they drip relentlessly down everyone else's neck. I love that the show starts at 7:30 in daylight and goes on through dusk to floodlit darkness in the beautiful courtyard - and as befits every Off the Ground performance they intersperse the play with terrific song and dance routines - and plenty of audience participation for the kids sitting on the grass in the front row!
The well-wrapped audience in the floodlights - not sun!

I took some photos and videoclips so I hope you get a sense of the atmosphere of the misty August night. If you ever get a chance to catch this company's tour you'll be in for a rare treat, as they only do a dozen or so gigs in Ireland every year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The 2011 Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford - My Big Biking Challenge

With Sean Kelly in Villierstown
  I should have posted this two or three weeks ago as it was the last Sunday in August that the 2011 Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford took place - this was my second time participating and it was a great day out. I really enjoyed it last year and entered this year's tour with a little trepidation as I wasn't as well prepared as I felt I was last year. I hadn't done many long cycles in advance of the mega-50km trip I'd signed up for (the shortest of the three runs on the Tour so I am not that adventurous!) but I had done about 35km the previous week so I thought I wouldn't have too much trouble. So I was thrilled when I completed it in around the same time as last year - at just over 2 hours and 30 mins. It was a fabulous day weather wise - the sun shone, it wasn't too windy and there was just one small sunshower as we entered Cappoquin for the half-way pit stop.
Certified Cyclists!
Jany and Shayne and kids
Hubby Jan did the 90km tour as he has done for the past three years - he started with the 50km the first time he did it so it was such a doddle for him he decided to do the 90km. The first time he did it the route took him from Dungarvan to Carrick-on-Suir and back in a big circle via Clonmel and Ballymacarbry. Carrick is the home of the aforementioned Sean Kelly, the famous Irish cyclist who has done the Giro d'Italia and taken part in the Tour de France on numerous occasions as well as winning the Vuelta d'Espana in 1988.

Waiting for the starting countdown
Jany & Livia, Shayne & Sofia
The route of the 50km is from Dungarvan to Cappoquin via Villierstown, the  home village of another Irish sporting hero - John Treacy who won an Olympic Silver medal in 1984 in Los Angeles in the Marathon, and who was World Cross-Country champion in 1988 and 1989. So he heads up the Irish Sports Council, and is on the Council of Concern, our old NGO where we spent many happy years working overseas in Development Work. Jan was on the Council with John for the past 3 years and he was pleased to meet John after the cycle. John and Sean Kelly and the Taoiseach Enda Kenny all did the 50km cycle and it was very evidently a fun-run cycle for them all as they posed for photos with the punters in Villierstown and after the Tour back in Dungarvan at the Sports Centre. I got a nice photo of Jan and John, and me and Sean Kelly in Villierstown.

Jan and John Treacy
The scenery looked terrific on the day as we cycled through the verdant sylvan by-roads of West Waterford and from Villierstown to Cappoquin we were in the woodlands that border the Blackwater Valley and caught glistening glimpses of the winding river far below the road - yes, that was some climb from Villierstown to the top of the ridge before descending to the Finisk River valley at the wonderful Hindu-Gothic Bridge, a romantic folly built for the new bride of the local Lord of the Manor- Villiers-Stuart of Dromana House in Villierstown, back in the 19th Century.

Jan arrives back in Dungarvan - 90km on.
The Hindu-Gothic Bridge at Villierstown
We had a lovely food stop in Cappoquin where the local community centre was full of delicious food - pasta and sandwiches and Barron's Brack - the local bakery sponsored the lovely bread and fruit brack, their speciality, and we were well fortified after the refuelling to face the return stretch to Dungarvan. There were no challenging hills on this stretch of the N72 and I felt great after the cycle. I met up with Shayne, Jany and the two children, Sofia and Livia, while we waited for Jan to return from the more gruelling 90km trip along the Copper Coast and the Geo-Park of the old Copper Mines of Bonmahon and along to Tramore. There are some devilish hills on that coast road - the cliffs are indeed scenic but they're also very high when you try to cycle along from sea-level to cliff-top road. He was back in just over four hours which was pretty good for such a difficult trip - and the pros were by then coming back from their 160km mountain challenge through the Comeragh Mountains.

The dappled road from Villierstown to Cappoquin
I hope you enjoy the photos I'm sharing with you - and it gives you an idea of the fun and delights of the day. I do hope to keep up the cycling year round but it's always more challenging in the winter to cycle during the week especially as it's dark so early. I will try to get out on the weekends but they are so full of activities with kids and grandkids that it's hard to prioritise cycling in my me-time!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Castles and Culture in The Royal County - a trip to Trim.

Jan and me at Newgrange
 We're just back from a short break in Trim, Co. Meath - known as the Royal County for its association with all things ancient and regal in Ireland's early history. Co. Meath is a veritable hotbed of ancient historical monuments and is best known for the Hill of Tara, a seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and for its UNESCO World Heritage Site at Brú na Bóinne - Newgrange being the best known of the early Neolithic Passage Graves.

Trim Castle

View from Trim Castle and River Boyne
View of models of Trim Castle thru' the ages
We didn't go to Tara on this short visit, and I had diverted there a couple of years ago on the way from Cavan to Dublin, so I wasn't too bothered. Tara is extremely significant historically and is listed by the Smithsonian Institute as a culturally endangered site - mainly due to the motorway developments around the Tara-Skryne Valley which impinged on some of the site, and whereby some henges had to be preserved in images or as maps, rather than as places to visit. There is polarisation on this issue as there are compelling arguments on both sides - I don't think Tara will ever be destroyed by development closer to the actual Hill, but the surrounding roads shouldn't get any closer than they are. The Hill is very low-key when you get there as it is only from the air that it can be fully appreciated in my view. It's like a good walk up a gently inclining hill, and there are stone icons like the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) at the summit, with the hollows and dips listed as the Banqueting Hall and you really have to stretch your imagination to visualise what it might have been like at its prime.

View from Roof of Trim Castle
So instead of telling you what I didn't see I should probably focus on what I did see! We were staying in the Knightsbrook Hotel, a new boom-time purpose-built hotel and golf resort outside Trim, in Co. Meath. It was very bizarre as it was right in the middle of what can only be described as a model dream of suburbia, a housing development of upmarket homes like a mini-Stepford, everything was so picture-perfect, yet it was like a deserted village which was disconcerting. It wasn't ghost estates, as most houses had cars outside, but there were no people. Probably all off earning the mortgages, which could have been pretty hefty, as some of the houses were upmarket 5-bedroom detached. Also there were a number of apartment blocks, coincidentally featured on this week's Irish Times Property Supplement as high-end and pricey. The hotel and housing was from the same developer who seems not to have gone belly-up in the bust, timing is everything. The hotel was a major improvement on our previous hotel experience in Sligo, in that it was cheaper, and had rooms with views - albeit over the houses but to the golf course!

Sheep's Gate at Trim Castle
Hubby emerging from the Passage at Newgrange
The Spiral Megalithic Artwork on the entrance to Newgrange
Norman Tower near Trim Castle
Hubby had a conference of Town Councillors to attend and I had a free day on Thursday, when I went to Trim Castle for the guided tour. It's a great spot and hats off to the OPW and Heritage Ireland for their excellent maintenance and tour guides who never seem to flag in their engaging and enthusiastic presentations and talks. The OPW came in for some high-profile and in my view unwarranted criticism recently  when a UK-based academic slated them for the lack of signage and management of the heritage sites in their care. I didn't see any of that in Meath, and from previous sites I cannot see that either. Either you pave over a site with signage and descriptions or you have a visitor centre with brochures where people with a genuine interest can read up on the site, or have a  guide, or an Audio-Visual presentation, and in my view sensitive understatement is the preferred option. In Trim there were excellent schematic diagrams of the castle through the ages, as well as scale models inside the building. It's the largest Norman Keep in Ireland and dates from the mid-1100s. The Normans came along after the Vikings, and settled in large parts of the country, and it was Hugh DeLacy whose family built and settled in Trim Castle. The guide, Neil, was excellent - an Englishman with a sense of humour and on whom the irony of talking about invaders and occupation wasn't lost as he alluded to the 800 years of oppression when the Irish were under the English yoke.  Can't say British, as the Scots and Welsh were equally oppressed - and an interesting aside for film anoraks among you  - Braveheart was filmed in Trim Castle. We went right to the top, up a narrow spiral staircase with stumble steps - all uneven heights to deter intruders from getting into a rhythm. The views from the roof were great even though it was a dull day. I learnt a lot of my own history with that visit and would encourage every visitor to go there - it's a real step back in time, even if it's only a millenium.

For real ancient history you have to talk about going back 5  or 6 millenia - which is what we did the next day, when we went on a bus tour to Newgrange, the  main passage grave in Brú na Bóinne, the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing the passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, and The Battle of the Boyne site. As they are spread over a large area, we could only visit Newgrange. It had a resonance for me as I always remember by late mother telling me how spooked she was by a trip she had there when she got claustraphobia in the passage on the way to the burial chamber and had to be helped out - she nearly got a panic attack. I had never been there before, although it's been one of the most visited sites in Ireland, so I was delighted to have the chance now. It was a beautiful afternoon, blue skies and 20 degrees. Again, kudos to the OPW - the guide was brilliant, enthusiastic and informative and gave us a great background and sense of the life at that time of the Neolithic people who built the graves. There are a number of satellite mounds of smaller graves in the vicinity but this is the main one. It is famed for its alignment to the sun of the Winter Solstice, and so popular is that event that there is a lottery for 100 lucky winners to get access to the chamber for the sunrise on the five days around Dec. 21st every year. When the sun deigns to shine, and it's not raining or cloudy, it must be a moving sight to see the sunbeam light the floor of the passage for the 19m to the chamber and flood that small space with light for a short few minutes. I found it very moving to think how we were in the footsteps of those ancient Neolithic people, in a place that was holy to them, predating Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza.
Sign in Hotel Pool Area!

That was my brush with culture and I hope you like the photos and can vicariously enjoy the journey with me. The break in the hotel was enjoyable and I made full use of the pool, and took this intriguing photo outside the Steam Room! I can only wonder - why did they need to post such a notice?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Weekend in the West - from Ben Bulben to Loop Head

Ben Bulben from a hill in Sligo town
 Two weekends back we went for a short break to the West of Ireland - hubby had a meeting in Sligo so I went along. We stayed in the Clarion in Sligo town and had booked in a few weeks earlier, so imagine our disappointment on arrival to find our room on the second floor offered a view of...the airvents of the hotel! There was no way at their prices we were going to stay put and even though the Irish are notoriously bad at complaining we were moved up a floor after a phone call. This was a bit better as we could at least see over the airvents to see the iconic table mountain, Ben Bulben, famed in poetry by Yeats "Under Bare Ben Bulben's Head".

The (first) room with a view in the Clarion Hotel Sligo!
As we were only staying a night in Sligo we had a lovely meal in the hotel, and a few drinks in the bar. The journey up had taken over four hours so we weren't ready for a night out in Sligo town, and the hotel was a bit too far for a stroll to town by my reckoning. The following day after the meeting ended our time was our own so we drove around some of the renowned beauty spots of the area - Lough Gill with the Lake Isle of Innisfree famed again by the prolific WB Yeats in his eponymous poem, and Glencar Waterfall which is actually in Co. Leitrim! These were two places I'd often heard of but never visited before, so it was an opportunity not to be missed. Never mind that it drizzled and was a typical Irish misty day, muggy and close but deceptively wetting, as you can see in some of the photos. Val, who lives in Sligo, blogged as Magnumlady the week after of the same places we'd seen only her trip was in glorious sunshine, so you can see in her blog how it can look in fine weather.

Lough Gill Co. Sligo
Lough Gill in the mist.
We drove down through Mayo and into Galway in very inclement weather, after a loop round Strandhill and Knocknarea, with Queen Maeve's burial mound at the top, visible for miles around, and bade farewell to Ben Bulben, which will always be Sligo to me, since I first saw it in 1976 when I went to a number of weddings in Sligo of nursing colleagues who were quick off the blocks and got hitched as soon as they finished nursing school.

The trip through Mayo was blighted by the bad weather so we amused ourselves with taking photos of funny signs - the poll topper being the one for the Cowdung Festival, closely followed by the Enniscrone Black Pig Festival, which takes place not too far from Muddy Burn's pub! We arrived in Galway by early evening and checked into the Harbour Hotel, which we'd booked on the way down from Sligo - thank heaven for smartphones with apps like TripAdvisor! The hotel was nice and we'd another lovely meal. There's something about arriving in a new hotel after a day on the road that never loses its appeal, whether it's after a day's driving or hitch-hiking as we did in our youth, or a day trekking in the hills as we did in our backpacking days in India and Nepal, and indeed Africa, though that was less so as we had kids then and couldn't be as free and easy as when we were on our own. Now we've come full circle, as we're back to just the two of us - our teen queen is at the stage where hols with parents are total anathema unless mitigated by the presence of a handful of peers, such as when we hit Dublin for Summerjam 2011!

Parke's Castle, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny and we had an early breakfast, followed by a relaxing walk through a sleepy Galway city centre - through Spanish Arch and along Shop St. to Eyre Square which I hadn't seen since the controversial revamp a few years ago. There are some seriously odd pieces in the Square, of dubious artistic or cultural merit, so I can see why the revamp was not universally acclaimed. Padraic O'Conaire, the writer whose statue marked a meeting point in the Square and a photo-op for every tourist who sat on his little lap, has vanished to the confines of a nearby museum. In his stead is part of the facade of a merchant's house from the 18th Century, and a very modernistic Galway Hooker - no, not that, we're talking the type of schooner famous in this neck of the woods!

Glencar Waterfall, Co. Leitrim
Onwards to the final leg of our weekend jaunt - we decided to take the scenic route through Co. Clare and hug the coastal road as far as possible, which was a fabulous trip as the sun shone and we had a lovely day. Through southern Galway and around by Kinvara and the Burren, the famous limestone scarp in Clare. We didn't follow Corkscrew Hill, which would have taken us inland, so we stayed coastal after Ballyvaughan and headed down towards the Cliffs of Moher - we passed the tourist trap of the Cliffs, as it was just too packed with busloads of tourists, and there seemed to be a people jam on the way to the Interpretive Centre which is the gateway to the cliffs. The last time I was there was in 1998 with my mother and three youngest kids, and it was just park the car and you were off on your own up the cliff path and prayed that the wind wouldn't blow you over the edge! There was a barrier fence but it was rudimentary and quite low.

We decided to head for Kilkee and go to Loop Head instead - and were delighted to see unspoilt beauty in West Clare, particularly Loop Head which is like a mini-Moher - cliffs with about half the height but all the wild ruggedness that Moher had before crass commercialism took priority - and there was a splendidly vertiginous sea stack - a breakaway cliff that stood alone and parallel to the cliff we were on - and it was not a place for the faint-hearted or anyone with a fear of heights. There's a lighthouse on Loop Head open to the public but we were a little late for that so we just walked off on a lovely clifftop walk, and looked across to the Aran Islands which are best reached from Co. Clare even though they are part of Co. Galway.

Jan and me in the mist at Glencar Waterfall - soaked!
Something for the weekend!
We enjoyed the drive home through the Limerick Tunnel, bypassing the city, and were back home by 8 or so - in good time for a rest before I returned to work the following day, well refreshed after my two week staycation. Enjoy the photos - they're all taken with my iPhone which has made my poor camera well-nigh redundant.

Muddy Burns pub in Co. Mayo

Somewhere in Sligo or Mayo!

Spanish Arch, Galway

Galway signs

Árd Rí = High King - Galway

Nice juxtaposition of speciality treatments!

Merchant's House facade in Eyre Sq. Galway

A Galway Hooker - sort of - Eyre Sq. Galway

Cliffs of north Clare

North West Clare looking out to Inishere Aran Islands

Cliffs at Loop Head, Co. Clare - with sea arches and caves.

Sea cliff caves Loop Head.

Closer view of Sea Arches, Loop Head.

Closer view of Cliffs and Arches Loop Head

Sea Stack off Loop Head - hard to get closer cos of Cliff Edge!