The next day we drove partway into town, left the car in a church parking lot and took a taxi the rest of the way. This avoided difficult driving and parking. We did the ususal city bus tour to get the overview. Dublin is a busy place and we only scratched the surface of seeing it.
Christchurch Cathedral was not a stop on the city tour but should be. To us it was more impressive than St. Patricks cathedral. They allow visitors to go into the catecombs which extend below the main cathedral rooms. The whole building is supported by a forest of massive arched columns of mortared stone. I guess it's reliable since it's been standing for a few hundred years.
Trinity College is a stop on the city tour. The highlight is the Book of Kells, an ancient manuscript which is revered as a national treasure. The highlight for me however was the Long Room library; an amazing and awe inspiring place. The photo doesn't convey the feeling of the musty tomes, dim light, traditional resting place of ancient knowledge, endless stacks of leather bound volumes in arched alcoves, and lofty vaulted wooden ceilings. It was amazing.
Ardgillan Castle is on the outskirts of Skerries in a beautiful setting facing the Irish Sea. It has great expanses of closely mowed lawn, stately trees, and elaborate gardens. The castle itself was not the most impressive we saw, and you could see that parts of it were newer than other parts. The conservatory (greenhouse) to the north side is large and quite handsome.
The rail line from Dublin to Belfast now runs along the coast. Apparently when they built the railroad, one of the stipulations on granting the right of way was that the landowner (Lord so and so) became a director of the railroad and that he had the authority to stop the train when he pleased (to take him to Dublin or Belfast). Pretty cool.
We signed up for the tour inside Ardgillan Castle and were told (at 4:30PM) that there was a tour underway (the 4:00 tour) and asked if we would like to join it. We declined, opting to have tea while waiting for the 5:00PM tour. At 5PM there was no sign of the tour guide. The ticket lady explained that the guide hadn't returned yet. It dawned on me then that we had assumed wrongly that the 4PM tour had begun at 4PM. Finally about 5:30 the guide returned with a small gaggle of tourists. He required a trip to the WC and then we began our tour. The guide was a charming older man who loved to chat and expound, and we were glad in the end to have him to ourselves.
After our initial pre-arranged and overpriced B&B near the village of Lusk, we moved to a B&B in the town of Skerries. Skerries is a fishing port north of Dublin, and we liked the feel of it. There weren't a lot of tourists, but it's big enough to have a variety of restaurants.
Maybe it was jet lag, but at the original B&B it was hard for me to sleep. We heard shotgun blasts periodically during the day. The blasts started again at about 3AM, somewhat before daylight which comes at 4AM (mighty early I might say). We ask the proprietor about the noises. He teased a bit saying it was the IRA, but then said it was neighboring farmers trying to scare off the birds. Seems odd though, and rather ineffective if you have to start that early.
We found our B&B in Skerries by following a sign down a small side street. The Sail Loft is run by Lily Doyle, an authentic Irish charmer. Her husband is a bus driver, and their son, who recently graduated from college, had just landed his first career job and was bubbling over with enthusiasm. The B&B has 2 tiny upstairs bedrooms but we had the downstairs living room and kitchen area to ourselves. In the mornings Lily came in and cooked an impressive 'Full Irish Breakfast' before our eyes.
We spent a day driving in County Meath visiting ancient monuments. We went through the town of Swords and tried to see their local castle, but it was in the midst of reconstruction and the workmen didn't want us to go into the tower, and there wasn't much to see.
It rained quite a bit that day and I had a workout practicing my left side driving skills on narrow lanes. We visited the famous Hill of Tara, home of the Irish Kings. There was a slick audio visual show in an old (deconsecrated) church. It was good to see the presentation first since outside it was hard to get an idea of the overall layout. You could see however where stoneworks had crumbled and been grown over during the thousands of years gone by. Not much restoration or excavation has been done at Tara. And since there were very few tourists, it felt a bit like we were discovering it ourselves.
The next monuments on our list were Newgrange and Knowth. We followed narrow country lanes toward our destination, wondering if we would be able to recognize it when we got there and thinking we were delving into obscure archeological lore. Coming around a bend we saw a large, rather full parking lot and modern signs leading to a large and organized visitor center. It's a government supported theme park in the middle of nowhere. Apparently it's a popular destination. We did the tours and saw the megalithic tombs. The old Celts were busy boys.
The monuments at Newgrange and Knowth are Passage Tombs, large mounds encirled with stones. Many of the stones which have drawings in Celtic motif carved in them. This was done in the bronze age so the only carving tools were other stones. Each of the mounds has a passage extending into the center, which was the burial chamber. We were able to go into the Newgrange passage and were able to see the corbelled roof (stones stacked around in a decreasing circle to form a dome). The guide simulated the light effect which occurs only 5 days during the Winter Solstice. Only at this time the sunlight enters the chamber and illuminates the contents. The guide said there had been no evidence of smoke from torches, and I wondered how the old Celts were able to work inside with only a few hours 5 days a year when they could see. They must have been very busy boys during those few hours.
Malahide was the handsomest 'small' castle we saw. It is older than Ardgillan and, prior to turning it over to the government, it had been held by the same family for 800 years. We took the tour inside this castle too. On the castle grounds is a model railroad exhibit. It's an 'O' gauge working train model set up to illustrate the role of rail in the building of Ireland. We were joined by a group of schoolboys (about 10 to 12 years I'd guess). It was a moderately interesting presentation though it had a hard time holding the boys' attention. We were relieved to get back in the car and proceed southward.
We did in fact see the dolmen on our drive to the B&B, and it was quite impressive. It's all quite informal. It's out in the middle of a farmer's field and has minimal fencing to protect the visitors from the livestock on their walk out to it (we saw a pretty big bull).
The Watermill B&B is run by an Irish woman and her Italian husband (Susan and Enrico Tononi). The mill was in operation drying and grinding flour for the locals until 1964 when the grinding mechanism was disconnected from the wheel and some mechanical parts sold off. The Tononis bought the place in 1987 and have been working to make improvements. Enrico showed us the cellar and the remaining mechanical parts. He said the wheel will still turn. He has also had the gears engaged to turn the vertical shafts (that turned the millstones) but the whole building vibrates. He also explained that you can't get insurance for a B&B if you've got an operating waterwheel. Oh well.
Susan was a chatty character. She keeps chickens on the little island formed between the river (the Slane) and the millrace. They've found several old millstones buried in the yard, and have set them up as picnic tables.
We returned to Carlow, bought groceries for our canal boat, and found Barrowline Cruisers, two miles south of town. Barrowline is run by the Timmons family as a part time venture. Charlie Timmons runs a tool hire (rental) business by day and Declan Timmons (his nephew I think) is in the Army. They have two canal boats for hire, and ours had just arrived the previous week so it was quite new. It was a 7 foot by 42 foot 'narrow boat', with berths for 4, shower, toilet, and kitchen. It had a diesel engine and steered with a tiller.
Timmons took us for a trial run up to Carlow, through a lock and back, and gave us a very quick lesson in essential canal boat lore. Downstream (on the Barrow river) was said to be much more scenic than upstream (and into the Grand Canal) so we opted for downstream and picked destinations for the first two nights out.
Downstream turned out to be quite a bit more challenging than we had anticipated. Although the river was down several feet from its level a few weeks prior, the current was still running at about 5 to 7 miles per hour (per my guess) and you need to move along quite quickly in order to steer. The result is that the countryside goes by pretty quickly and there is not very much rest time between locks.
Locks huh? There were 4 the first day and 5 the second day, and they took us (once we got the hang of it) about 40 minutes each. When you approach a lock you have to come close to the bank or stone quay, and slow down to let the person off who is going to do the work. Jay inherited this job. It's a bit awkward manuvering the boat since when you reverse the engine to slow down you can't steer at all. Once on shore, the lock worker (Jay) must close the downstream gates and open the upstream sluices, thus filling it up with water. When it's full, the upstream gates are pushed open and we motor in. We then loop lines around bollards (posts to tie to) to keep the boat from bopping around. The downstream sluices are then opened, the water drains out lowering the boat to the downstream level, the downstream gates are opened, and we motor out. The challenge then is to get close to the bank again to pick up Jason.
If you are lucky, when going downstream you find the lock already 'full' (left from someone who came upstream) and you can motor right in. This only happened once for us going downstream.
Ronda did the navigating, keeping close track of the charts to make sure we stayed on the correct side of the river and in the deep channel. This is usually near the tow path (where horses pulled barges back in the days before engines). The tow paths are now scenic foot paths, and near villages we saw people taking walks. They would smile and wave to the crazy tourists. Another navigating hazard was the wiers. These are rock diversions put into the river to make it navigable, usually forming a navigation channel away from the part of the river that falls off steeply. They form mini-waterfalls and one needs to pay attention to where these are and not run up on them.
After a scary start we did get the hang of it. However it was more work than we anticipated and we decided to cut our planned 4 nights back to 3 nights on the boat. This also gave us the opportunity to see Kilkenney.
To take a shower, you need to have the LP gas turned on (we turned it off at night), you have to have the water pump on, and since the floor of the shower is below water line, you have to run a pump to drain the shower pan. With all the pumps humming and gurgling, one doesn't linger in the shower.
Leighlinbridge is where we first tied up for the night. We were warned that the current was strong here and we'd need to reverse the engine to hold steady as we were tying up. As the picture shows, we did manage to do it, tying to pegs we pounded into the ground.
The quay areas have small picnic areas the government has recently installed to promote tourism on the Barrow. This table was carved of solid stone and was quite impressive. With luck it should last about 4000 years. Future archeologists will speculate as to its religious significance.
Leighlinbridge is a picturesque little village. It has ruins of a small castle right at the river, a variety of pubs, and an excellent restaurant. This picture shows where we docked on our way back upstream. It was so much easier motoring upstream, we were able to get close to the stone quay and tie to permanent bollards.
Although we were docked essentially in the middle of the village, it was quite private. In the morning however, we were wakened by loud quacking. Ducks were standing on the quay quacking loudly. Gosh, if it's not one thing, it's another.
In addition to locks, on the river there are lift bridges. One needs to raise the bridge (manually with the same crank handle used for the locks) motor past, then lower it again. This one was at Beganalstown, and the lock immediately behind it has a 16 foot drop in elevation, the largest we encountered. The picture shows Jay cranking the bridge open. It's an ancient and dangerous piece of junk. It lifts by a single cable attached to one side, twisting the bridge in the process. A piece of the framework under the wooden planks was loose at one end and dangled vertically from the bridge into the river. Yikes.
This is another view of the lift bridge and lock, showing our boat in the lock.
There was one other lift bridge on our route, but the previous week it had collapsed, killing an Irish Office of Public Works (OPW) employee who was working on repairs. Apparently one worker was up on a ladder cutting through a part of the bridge, and a large part fell down, knocking the worker and his power cutting tool into the river. He survived but the bridge fell on another worker, killing him, and injuring another. When we passed this bridge going downstream, all the old pieces had been removed. On the way upstream, the OPW workers were there and they had a new mechanism partly installed.
I enjoyed the oldness of the locks and the canal boating. It's a step back 200 years to times when freight was moved this way, and it's a very pleasant way to see the countryside. There were fields with sheep and goats; other fields with horses; and everything quite green.
In discussing the locks with other 'boat people', there was mention of newer locks on the Shannon river that are automated. You push a button and motors do all the work. A variation on this story said something about using your bankcard to operate the locks. I like high tech as well as anyone but I'm glad we went on the Barrow.
You can see how narrow the channel was in some places. Usually this was where the navigation channel had been diverted from the river by an island or wier. It was very scenic in among the trees.
Goresbridge was the destination for our second night. When we arrived the quay was occupied by other boats and we tied to the bank temporarily while I went ashore to have a closer look. There was a very wide cabin cruiser that must have been a tight squeeze in the locks. (Our boat was actually narrower than it needed to be for the Barrow, though I was told that some canals in England are 7 feet wide and narrow boats are the only way.) The cabin cruiser was giant fiberglass monstrosity with lawn chairs stacked on top.
A local on shore told be me that the wide boat was occupied by Russians. I grumbled to myself about the darned Russians taking up so much docking space. To get a secure docking however, we moved our boat immediately behind the 'Russians' and shared a bollard. Soon the 'Russians' appeared and I greeted them. It turned out they were quite Irish, and the boat owner told me they would be leaving soon. He was quite jolly and we discussed the problems of unequal boating enthusiasm between spouses. He had bought the widest boat possible to mitigate his wife's objections, but his dream is for a sailboat. The cruiser and another boat left and we had the place almost to ourselves.
Goresbridge is a bit smaller than Leighlinbridge, and when we went into town for dinner at a pub, none of the pubs had food. We finally found a 'take away' for all things fried. We returned to our little boat with paper bags filled with deep fried everything.
The third day we went back upriver to Leighlinbridge, and on the fourth day we returned to Barrowline homebase near Carlow. After returning the boat, we drove to Kilkenny, found a B&B in town, and looked around the town. We took the castle tour. Kilkenny is a popular tourist destination, but with good reason. It's a handsome medieval city with narrow streets, very old buildings, and a driving nightmare.
The attraction on Inishmore is Dun Aengus, a stone fort perched on a high clif overlooking the Atlantic. Inishmore is windswept and isolated, with 800 inhabitants and 200 houses. The original industry is fishing, but now the Aran islands are famous for hand knitted sweaters. The story is that each fisherman's sweater had a unique knitting pattern so when if they were lost at sea and eventually recovered, their bodies could be identified. It's sort of like having your kids fingerprinted.
We did buy sweaters here. Ronda bought an authentic Aran hand-knitted button sweater, and Jay and I each bought sweaters. In total on the trip, Jay bought 3 sweaters, I bought 2, and Ronda bought 1.
The 'cool' way to see Inishmore is by pony cart, the alternatives being minivan or bicycle. Although the wind is constant and it rained off and on, we liked the pony cart, probably because it seemed more authentic. The driver was an interesting chap. He was in his 60's by my estimate, had been on the island his entire life, and gave us his crusty views on what was happening on the island.
His deepest hatred was for the minivans, but he resented pretty much everything and everyone else too. The &$^@#^ fishermen got cheap loans from the government to buy boats, and now they're all millionaires. We did see several new houses being built. The new houses they are building have the &$^#^ modern roofs, not the traditional thatching. We pointed out a new thatched one, and he said they had sheet metal under it to keep it from leaking. What poor sports.
Dun Aengus is spectacular. It's the setting that does it, high on a cliff and overlooking the entire island.
When we got back on the ferry to Galway, we saw many crates being unloaded with Lucent labels. I speculated that they're going to get a cell-phone repeater on the island. Maybe they can install it under a thatched roof.
In this picture Jay is wearing one of his new sweaters. Ronda is carrying one of the rainsuits the pony cart driver supplied.
We drove from Galway to a pre-arranged B&B in Newmarket on Fergus, a town very near the Shannon Airport. On the way we passed through an area called the Burren, a national park with some fine scenery. We toured a cave, saw another dolmen, and saw the Cliffs of Moher. These are 700 foot steep cliffs on the Atlantic coast south of Galway bay. They are steep alright, but not as spectacular as at Dun Aengus. We dined at Dromoland Castle that night, in the country club dining room. It is a good looking castle converted to hotel and golf course. By the way, Dromoland has the accent on the second 'o', not the first. Apparently it costs 260 Irish Punts per night per person ($700 US for a couple) to stay there. The Irish seem so democratic and free of the class rigidity that burdens England, it hard for them to be posh. This place tried.
Part way through our meal however, the festivities in the adjacent bar grew louder, and suddenly, singing broke out. The dining room hostess was a bit embarrassed, and our waitress was quite amused, chuckling as she entered orders into her computer. One of the golfers knew all the words and was fearless about going for the high notes, and the others followed. It was neat, and best of all, completely unorganized.