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?