December 2nd, 2003

Greg and Georgie Go to Ireland Oct. 29, Nov. 6

We flew to Ireland for a vacation October 29, and home November 6th: these are our brief trip notes.

Across the Atlantic by Camelback!

--At least that's how it feels to start. Our Aer Lingus flight left the gate slightly behind schedule, but then spent half an hour taxiing across the paved wasteland of O'Hare airport to get to the correct runway. The AirBus 330 has well-sprung landing gear, and bobbed gently as it meandered along at a walking pace. The height above ground made me think of riding a well-gaited camel, and it surely seemed like we had gone half-way back to Milwaukee before finally getting off the ground.

We "launched" with a rattle and a roar that made me think of the Space Shuttle. The Airbus is a loud aircraft to ride in, especially compared with the Boeing we took to Britain in 1992. Obviously, they don't use as much sound insulation. The cabin noise level made quiet conversation difficult. On the other hand, the seats were quite comfortable, and there was decent knee-room.

Once on the ground in Dublin, our group made connections with our bus quite handily. Our driver and guide, "Paddy" Kavanagh, was very intelligent, articulate, and knowlegable.

The drive to Castledaly seemed long. In Ireland, you judge distance by how long it takes to get there rather than kilometers, since there are very few main highways, and all the lesser roads go through every little village.

Castledaly Manor is very nice. It is a 1765 manor house, modernized into a comfortable B&B, sporting it's own "pub" and a dining room that serves dinners as well--handy, since it is out in the country. Our rooms were in the removated stable block, which was very nicely done, and we decided it was just as well not to be in the main building, since music in the pub went on well after midnight several nights.

Our first tour stop that afternoon was the town of Athlone, actually a small city of 22,000. it is an interesting collection of contrasts. In the center of town there is a 12th century castle, a very grim and utilitarian fortress. There are many streets of old houses, the site of the oldest contiuously operating pub in Ireland (900 years!), and some VERY modern and pricey shops.

There's a magnificent copper beech right outside the manor and it speaks in the wind. There had been roses blooming until recently. Our room at Castledaly is very attractive, interesting, and comfortable. The bed is a four-poster and the mattress is not too firm. The large window alcove is neat, with a small window above. The shower is practically power-cleaning-strong pressure and hot water.

Sean's Bar, formerly The Three Saracen's, formerly Luin's. It was small and cozy, with a peat fire burning at a hearth that wasn't a fireplace. Greg had a Guinness and I had a Sidona, a tart carbonated cider. Good!

A strange "pudding" for dessert on Thursday night: Layered, the main being a yellow kind of sweet set-up stuff on top of spiced fruit, The yellow stuff was topped with a creamy layer (whipped cream?) and then "sprinkles". Very odd.

Breakfast on Friday was interesting. Porridge proved to be of the glutinous sort, served luke-warm, and topped with whipped cream! Egg, "bacon" (ham, by our standards) and toast, good, Irish sausage very good.

Friday: Adventures in Driving in Ireland

Today's trip was to be to the Newgrange Passage Tomb. After an hour and a half of driving, with a short stop at the pleasant small town of Athboy, we got to the turn-off at Slaine, and discovered that the bridge over the Boyne river had been blocked by a truck accident-a truck had jackknifed and gone off the bridge into the river! A crane was presently on the bridge pulling the truck out. This required a detour into the next town, and our first attempt to find our way through was a misfire, as the directions we were given routed us back the way we had come. A second foray got us on the right track, past the Battle of the Boyne memorial, and on to the Newgrange visitor's center.

I liked Athboy. I sampled a very nice, small bakery shop which had good "sand" jam cookies and small muffins and cupcakes. Grocers had six clementines for one Euro, which I think is a good deal. Coke had sugar! How exotic.
This section of Ireland is solid with rich farms and many kinds of sheep. Ireland seems to be mostly rural, punctuated by small towns and cities, and effect I find I enjoy. So far, we've seen no serious suburbs. Still, the farms are a little far apart for neighbors and not convenient to city shopping. How do they manage? How many cars are there in the country? Where, for that matter, does the money come from? Athlone had extremely pricey clothes. Who buys them? Real estate is so expensive. Where do ordinary people live? The people seem to survive without strip mall chains, - something American developers would find hard to believe.

There was a very nice little AV presentation and museum at the visitor's center, plus a decent cafeteria, where we sampled a number of items for lunch. (Best sausage roll I've ever had! Excellent fruit tea bread, pecan pastry and scone. The tea has been uniformly decent wherever we find it.)

The actual tomb lies across the river from the visitor's center, so we walked across a footbridge and took a short bus ride to the tomb itself. It is a VERY impressive structure for its age (5500 years!). Not only were the stones of the passage and the corbelled vault laid without mortar, but there is the famous feature that the innermost recess of the tomb is illuminated by dawn sunlight on the winter solstice. Quite amazing. The perimeter of the mound is edged with massive "curbstones," some of which are decorated with intricate carvings.

Newgrange on Samhain: it was great and special. It's 5000+ years old and full of mystery and the wonders of prehistoric engineering. I was first in of my bunch, and could see it all before me, not just someone else's back. The corbelled ceiling dome is ancient and awesome. The concept is simple, but not easy to do. The place may be a burial, but it doesn't seem sinister. It was also more than that, I think. We don't know what they meant by the carvings. Culture without written language has a harder time crossing millennia. Still, Greg noted that the triple spiral design doubles back on itself, suggesting that the "path" is the raised part, not the inscribed part. The path takes you into the center and leads you out again. I find this philosophically suggestive: perhaps the three joined spirals are three paths you can take in life. I'd like to make the tomb as a cake, including the alcoved inner chamber, with marzipan inscribed stones. I'd like to make a triple spiral coffeecake. The sun was out, the wind moderate, and the land was serene and beautiful. Wild white geese flew overhead. The culture center was good, too.

Back at the Manor, we had a good dinner. Poached salmon, mashed potatoes, and rutabaga. Georgie had the "Chicken Shannon" which was batter-dipped with a touch of curry.

That evening, our tour coordinator, Alan, took us and a couple of other adventurous souls out in the dark to a nearby "fairy fort" from 500 AD. It's a raised circular area of earth originally surrounded by a moat or ditch. It was a defensive dwelling or camp of the Celts, originally set about with wooden palings, now ringed with twisty trees and edged in brambles. It was a clear, starry, very dark night (by American city standards) and the air was fresh and alive, and now and then redolent of peat smoke.

Alan said he once found two packs of cigarettes as offerings to the fairies. In Ireland the Good Folk seem to be a blend of supernatural beings, ghosts and ancestors. Something may still resonate in a place where people have lived continually for so long: who knows what form that energy may take? I left them some chocolate to honor them.

Greg climbed over the barbed wire and set foot on the fort!

We found a spot where the hedge along the lane we were following was thin, and the single-strand of barbed-wire topping it was low, so I decided to see what I could see. I knew how to cross a barbed-wire fence safely, and it was the work of a moment to get over.

I stood at the base of the mound while the onlookers joked about whether or not I would come back. I found a muddy path near the foot of an ancient, gnarly, and ivy-cloaked beech tree, and made my way to the top, noting what appeared to be footprints in the mud. Alan suggested they were cow footprints, but they weren't cloven--. However, the top of the mound in my flashlight certainly looked as though it had been grazed over. It was mostly muddy and quite bare, with some small gorse-like plants here and there. Trees made a ragged ring around the edge. Quietly, so that the others would not hear, I announced. "Greetings, fair folk, I come in peace and friendship." Then, I described what I could see to those waiting below. I carefully clambered back down the slippery slope and over the fence, only a lone bramble catching my pants cuff as I alit on the far side. Alan congratulated me on having been probably the first American to set foot on that fairy mound. I said, "Wait a minute, YOU haven't been?" He said, no, and then related a story about having been 'tricked' by the fairies after having investigated a different nearby mound--.

We walked back to the manor, getting there about 11:30PM. The musician in the pub had wound down to Johnny Cash tunes, so we went to bed.

Saturday: The Slieve Bloom

French toast breakfast was pretty good. Morning was sunny and frosty but pleasant. We communed with the gorgeous trees before getting on the bus.

Today's trip was to the Slieve Bloom mountain area. The weather got cloudy and colder as the day wore on, but it didn't actually pour until we were under cover. We had tea and a rest stop in the little village of Castleton at a tearoom operated by a woman who also hosts the local hiking club. There was a picturesque ruined gristmill there as well. The local shanachie (storyteller) and genealogist, Paddy Heaney, was interesting, but I got chilled standing around and we walked back up to the tearoom to warm up.

Then, we transferred to a smaller bus, and the local guide, Leslie, "led us up and down and up and down" as Puck would have approved. The mountains are almost as abraded as the Baraboo hills, but majestic in their rounded way. The area is beautiful but rather sad. Before the Famine, hundreds of families lived where there is now only wilderness or pine plantations. I can't imagine how they made a go of it, the soil is meager, although decent for grazing. But the valley communities starved or fled and it's a lonely feeling place now. In the sense of a "ghost town," these are ghost mountains. Near the center of Ireland, armies marched through it, massacred and were massacred, landless outlaws hid out there, and landlords made and lost their money. We saw wild goats; a gorgeous stag leapt over the road before the bus, later a doe; and tame, fearless, and quite handsome free-range beef cattle dominated the VERY narrow roads.

Aside: Driving (Riding) in Ireland:

I'm glad that looking at the maps convinced me I didn't want to drive here. It takes at least an hour to go anywhere other than the next village because there are no through-roads; you go through every town. Average speed limits are 30 or 40 MPH. All the roads other than the two main motorways are narrow country lanes marked with signs for "accident black spot," "hidden dips," "hidden entrance," "loose chippings," "bad bends," "uneven surface," and other horrors. Although EVERY intersection, even those in the depths of the Slieve Bloom, has directional markers, the entry to towns is not as obvious, so you may be able to tell where you've been and where you are going, but not where you are. Also, it is DARK at night. There is comparatively little traffic after dark (a blessing) but next to no yard lights or lighted signs either, so trying to see landmarks is a lost cause.

Yes, we are both having a better time than we would driving, even though our movements are somewhat restricted. The pub stops are my least favorite bits so far, though the pubs themselves are interesting. Not drinking while others do can be boring, and avoiding the smoke is a subtle chore.

The Slieve Blooms might be mountains only in name but they are pretty high at 1700 feet, and the roads overlook some pretty deep valleys. We saw examples of a "blanket bog," which stands most people's idea of what a bog is on its head, since they are on the tops of mountains. The terrain is coated with a clay "hardpan" which is relatively impermeable to water. The plants that grow above it hold water and compress down into peat, so there is a bog layer that is three to eight feet thick that we say clearly in the side of the road cuts. In one spot, we saw water running out of the bottom of the peat layer off the top of the hardpan.

We stopped at a pub in Kinnity at the edge of the mountain area, a peculiar place due to the fact that all of the furniture seemed to be scaled for children or dwarves. This was also where the party discovered "hot whiskey" which has been quite a hit since then.

Then, on to Leap Castle. We got there as the daylight was fading, but we were still able to get an impressive view of the structure. I had been curious to see what it looked like, since our guide, Paddy, insisted that Leap was a "real" castle, which meant that it was a "mere fortification" or "ten-pound castle," as built by the Normans, nor a late period "fairy tale" castle. Leap is a small castle, but still formidable, and apparently was never successfully stormed in medieveal days. The main keep is a large and strong "tower house" more than five modern stories tall, with good crenellations and secondary battlements. There were two "Gothic" wings which would have been more modern architecture, one of which is still ruinous after having been dynamited by the IRA in 1922. (The other has been partly restored and is the private residence.)

Sean Ryan, the present owner, bought the derelict property for 65,000 pounds in 1990, and has been slowly restoring it since. We saw the Great Hall, upper chamber and conservatory. I also visited the bathroom, which has been converted from a room the size of our living room, sports a seven-foot long clawfoot bathtub, and is otherwise furnished in Victorian antiques--.

The hall, where we dined, was lit largely with candles, and sported a massive stone fireplace. We were served the ubiquitous (but tasty) brown bread and an excellent lamb stew. Afterward, Ryan gave a brief talk on the history of the O'Carrolls who had taken the property from the O'Briens in the 1300's, built this among other castles, and then held it against all comers until accepting the British buyout in the 1600's and going to America. The decendants of Daily, who married an O'Carroll daughter, held the land until the Revolution in 1922.

Then, we went up the stairs to the upper room, where we were ceremoniously dealt out a shot of "potcheen," which was an aggressive vintage with no pretentions but lots of attitude. I detected notes of rubbing alcohol and turpentine, with a lingering aftertaste old potato cellar, curious, since Ryan claimed it had been made from barley. Then Ryan played the whistle while his daughter, Keira, step-danced. Her mother is a champion dancer and and teacher, and it showed. She also played the Celtic harp. This particular harp seemed to have the most beautiful tone of any harp of that type I had heard before. She played "The White-Haired Woman," an old air, and "Captain Sedley," by Turlough O'Carolan. We had another pipe tune or so before our guide realized it was getting late, and we made our way back to the bus through the rainy darkness.

Dinner back at the manner was a "beefburger," which in these parts was a ball of meatloaf squashed into bun. Good, though.

Leap was great! We saw it under optimal dramatic conditions, a stormy, windy, blue dusk. The dark bulk of the castle seemed stark and the ruined wings ominous, but the candle light in the three windows was welcoming.

Sean Ryan had gone to a lot of trouble for us; the place was warm with a big (wood) fire in the Norman fireplace, and there was a stove with a huge pot of stew on it. Long tables were set up, and we ate bread and lamb stew in a pleasant faint golden light. I don't know what the place looked like in 1920 before it was bombed and burned by the IRA: perhaps it was white plastered and chintz draped and Edwardian posh. But Ryan has it pretty much down to the basic structure, which makes it look and feel ancient. I felt I ought to be eating the stew off my piece of bread. A polite but amiable dog made the round authentically hoping for scraps.

Ryan has furnished it eclectically, which I think is the only way to go. Who wants to actually live in a museum? L.M. Boston chose items for her 12th century manor house that seemed fit its spirits and he (or his wife) seems to have a good sense for it. Making an enclosed conservatory out of an outside gallery was harmonious, and let in light.
We reached upstairs by a spiral stone stair that changed direction halfway up. This floor had a small Minstrel's gallery above. Leap Castle used to be badly haunted (or perhaps haunted too well) by an "Elemental", but I felt nothing untoward.

Sunday: Clonmacnoise

Sunday, I had the "full Irish breakfast," which consisted of porridge, sausage ("white pudding"), bacon, toast, scrambled egg, grilled tomato, hash browns, and a slice of "black pudding." Having had blutwurst, I knew what the black pudding would taste like but was surprised by the firmer texture indicating the presence of some grain such a barley. Black pudding has the same sort of liver-like organ meat taste I associate with haggis, which is OK, but seems out of place at breakfast. The rest was good. Even this iteration of porridge was tasty, although still too mushy.

Some of our group walked to Mass at a nearby church. Instead, we went to "church" on our own by investigating a nearby graveyard which is still in use, although the church it was associated with, supposedly dating back to the sixth century, is now a ruin. We were struck by the very elaborate curbed and graveled plots of the newer graves, many of which sport shiny black marble stones with the names picked out in gold. It seems a reasonable follow-on to the older graves with their tall high-cross headstones, but very different from modern US graveyards, which barely let you have a plaque in the ground these days. The old church was basically invisible even from the nearby road, due to being located in a grove of trees and totally camouflaged with overgrowing ivy, despite the walls being in fair shape. Like a lot of the ruins we saw, it apparently had had a dirt or gravel floor, which had been replaced with graves-again a common practice as we saw later at Clonmacnoise and Cashel.

We braved rain (intermittent that day) to walk down the road past the old Manor gatehouse, now a cow byre, and took pictures of the local pub, "Fitzgerald's" for friends at home.
Our first stop on the day's tour was the town of Kilbeggan, and the Locke's whiskey distillery museum. Locke's is one of the distilleries that have been subsumed into the national combine, but the name is the oldest in production in Ireland, and the museum operated as a distillery from 1757 to 1957. We were interested to see that they started literally from "scratch," grinding their own grains for mash, deriving power from a large undershot wheel, later augmented by a steam engine. The copper pot stills are surprisingly large, more than fifteen feet in diameter. The guide asked for volunteers for a contest, and I put my hand up. It turned out to be a whiskey-tasting challenge, which was to pick out the Kilbeggan whiskey we were all initially supplied with as a sample from two others, one a peated malt whiskey, and the other a more similar blend but containing more rye (Irish whiskeys are blends of wheat, rye, oats and barley-exact recipes are secret). The peated whiskey was easy to distinguish, but, (at least according to the guide) neither the female contestant nor I had correctly designated the other two. As "forfeit" we had to do an Irish dance. I gave them a few steps of pas-de-basque from my "Brigadoon" days while the woman jigged in place. This was rewarded with considerable applause, and we were given the prize anyway, a miniature of the whiskey. I bought a bottle of single-malt at the museum shop, which proved to be very nice on later sampling.

Then on to a pub for lunch. This place was famous for its Irish Coffee, but we passed on that, since neither one of us cares for coffee, and I'd had ample whiskey--. I noted that the cups others had appeared well-made with a brownish creamy top which told me it was made properly using cream, not the American whipped cream, and I suspected the presence of a dollop of Bailey's as well. We had soup and sandwiches for lunch; sampling one of a variety of 'vegetable soups' we would be presented with during the trip. "Vegetable soup" in Ireland is almost always a pureed cream soup combining two or more vegetables, anything from spinach to turnips, and always quite good.

This pub also incorporated a general shop, "off license" (liquor store), and bait shop. Very interesting collection of goods, although the juxtaposition was somewhat unsettling. One set of shelves had soda pop at the bottom, and drain cleaner at the top-at least out of the reach of children. Candy bars were in a case like cigarettes are over here, but rat poison sat on open shelves among other goods--.

Then, on to Clonmacnoise, which is an ancient monastic site, founded by St. Keiran in the late 500's. The Irish refer to it as one of the earliest "universities" since it was a center of learning which received and sent students all over Christendom. From the 9th century on, the site was periodically sacked by Vikings, Irish, Anglo-Normans, and finally Cromwell's English and Irish forces, which finally put a stop to the rebuilding, although at least one church on the site continues in use to this day, and much of the rest of it, as at other locations, has become a burial ground. St. Patrick's parish church remains, along with two round towers (one actually a belfry), ruins of a great cathedral, St. Kieran's chapel, and the famous high crosses, which have been moved indoors to preserve them. The extent and beauty of the carvings, especially on the oldest cross, is impressive and shows a clear stylistic link with the carvings of Newgrange.

It's an attractive site. The river Shannon would be good for fish, water, and transportation, and the evening we were there, the river held and reflected the light, making it more luminous than the backcountry would have been. If the community got sacked every twenty years or so, it would be easy for a new generation to hope that danger had passed. Cold wind, I guess, but I didn't feel the chill.

Then, Sunday night at 2AM, came the radiator from Hell! It started droning LOUDLY, like demonic Ullien pipes, and kept it up till we left in the morning. Sleep was not! Fortunately, Monday night was to be an overnight stay at another hotel, which would give them a chance to tinker with the pipes while we were gone. (Note: although the manor staff said they couldn't find anything wrong, the problem did not recur.)

Monday: The Burren and The Cliffs of Moher

Monday we packed up for our overnight stay away from base. Today's trip was largely geological in nature, focusing on the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. The Burren, which is 100 square miles of exposed limestone rock interspersed with small fertile valleys, is now believed to be evidence of man-made ecological disaster. (A warning poster for the perils of clear-cutting!) In pre-human times, the heights were forested with Scotch pine, and the valleys with oaks. Early man logged off the ridges to farm, then the valleys, with the ultimate result that the existing thin soil washed away. A variety of plant life remains in the myriad cracks and crevices of the stone, enough, surprisingly, to still provide decent grazing for cattle. In some areas, hazel and alder bushes are beginning to reclaim this land.

We stopped at a place called Black Head, overlooking Galway Bay, where I took pictures, and Georgie walked down to the cliff edge, a good fifty feet above the ocean.

Most of the coach went to see the breakers. We were there about 20 minutes and occasional waves were big enough to throw spray up the rocks. I walked out, did a "here I am," pose, and a BIG wave, on cue, sent up a great tall spume of white spray right in front of (and onto) me! No one else received this treatment. I skipped back; not wanting to remain on such friendly terms with the Atlantic, but was pleased that I could still attract the phenomenon.

For the Burren tour, we had a local archaeologist/farmer named Sean Connoly to give us background. He had an interesting accent. Burrensians do a certain amount of slurring and mumbling. The area was another very hard hit by the Famine. Population of the area dropped from thousands to a few hundred, and not many there now since local fishing is played out as well. There are some posh new houses and "vacation cottages" being built, so some money is coming in.

I find the salt wind stimulating.

After that, we bussed into Doolin, a small village now famous for its Irish music. We had a good lunch (cod and chips, and spinach and leek soup). One of the local spaniels adopted Georgie and heeled her closely while we walked along the village street.

Our one brief deluge happened as we ran from the bus to the pub.

We got to the (astoundingly high) Cliffs of Moher in good time, and were rewarded with bright sunshine, which was regarded as phenomenally good luck. Alan, our tour coordinator, said he had been there six times, and every time before it had been raining, foggy, or both. The Cliffs are amazing and must be seen to be appreciated. The high points drop a sheer seven hundred feet to the surging ocean, exposing a geological record of 300 million years. We clambered up both the official and the unofficial trails, although we did not go outside the fences, which was obviously dangerous. We were told that three people had died there this year, and decide that some young German men larking about were bucking for #4--.

They did provide a sense of scale, though, as seen from O'Brien's tower.
The Burren area has a magnetic effect on me. I feel drawn to walk toward places. The wind on the headlands was Buffalonian, and tried to blow me off-balance. There were fiddle and whistle-playing competing buskers at the Cliffs.

Back through the Burren to Ballyvaughn, with a stop at the Poulanabrone portal tomb site. This megalithic site is perhaps even older that Newgrange. Once it would have been in a forested place, but now the earth that once covered it, along with all the surrounding soil, has weathered away, leaving it looking like a miniature Stonehenge in a lunar landscape.

It and the land were down to their skeletons. Sunset over the mountains was oficially at 5:10, but it was still light at 5:50.

We stayed overnight at the Hyland's Burren Hotel in Ballyvaughn, which is a very lovely little village that has the coast of Galway Bay on one hand, and the hills of the Burren on the other. Our rooms were blessedly quiet, and the food was excellent. I had smoked salmon pasta for starters, whereas Georgie was glad to get melon. She had the "Cajun" roast salmon for main course, and I ordered the prawns. The salmon was VERY fresh and good, although not discernibly Cajun, and the shrimp very good as well, although the small shrimp provided were not "tiger prawns" by American definition.

We stayed up late listening to the music of a famous concertina player, safely out of the range of cigarette smoke. I sampled Midleton, a very excellent premium whiskey.
I watched the peat fire's distinctive orange glow.

Next morning, we had a change of breakfast routine as well; since Hyland's laid on three kinds of juice, fruit salads, and cold cereals in addition to the usual Irish breakfast. Georgie filled up on fruit while I had the cheese plate, which consisted of a VERY good Irish Brie, a goat blue (a bit sharp) and a weird mosaic cheese, which we later learned, was cheddar with Guinness!

Our first tourist stop was Celtic Crystal Designs, allegedly the last actual maker of crystal still in Ireland. They had a very impressive showroom (with equally impressive prices). We admired, but did not buy. Instead, we bought a couple of ties and a CD in the gift shop.

I liked the demonstration. The sound of the wheel cutting crystal in the rose pattern had a speaking voice that rose in rhythmic chant, "Ouy aaai ah!"

Then we drove through the Connemara "mountains" which match the headlands of the Burren across the bay, but are not as barren, being largely covered by blanket bogs. At the little town of Spittal, (rapidly becoming a tourist/artist colony) we ran into a little craft-shop cluster and saw some nice things, but I was delighted to find a short bodhran beater in the musical instrument shop.

The jeweler had another friendly spaniel. The sea was gray with white combers.

We arrived in Galway to shop about 1PM and got lunch at Paddy's recommended pub, The Quays, which was the most decorated pub we have been in, consisting of three levels of architectural antiques and stained glass. They had a 'carvery' restaurant operation with an extensive menu. We settled on the Atlantic fish chowder, which was very good indeed. (And contained oysters, mussels, whitefish, and shreds of salmon.)

Then we walked back up toward Eyre square, checking out the shops as we went. It grew quite balmy.

Of course we were sucked into the famous Kenny's bookstore, and bought a couple of things there. There were three other independent bookstores within a few blocks, plus interesting clothing and other shops. Having made a first pass at the shops, we found our way back to St. Nicholas' Church. On our way back to the bus, we passed through the new Mall, and were delighted to discover that the Mall had incorporated and enclosed part of the medieval city wall, complete with a corner tower.

Galway is a city-ish city, very busy, with people of other nationalities. It has industry, shipping, and a sort of suburban housing project. The Old town pedestrian area was very 18th. c. punctuated by Lynch's Castle (now a bank) and St. Nicholas' Church, founded 1382. I don't know when all the parts were built, but it's a different plan than many.

We got back to the Manor and slept in peace after a tasty dinner of shepherd's pie.

Wednesday, Holy Cross and Cashel

This was the last day of our guided tours. We set off in the morning with a stop at the Copper Kettle restaurant in Durrow for tea and scones, which were served in the classic fashion, with butter, strawberry jam, and cream. Yum!

Our first tour was at the Abbey of the Holy Cross, originally a 12th Century Cistercian foundation alleged to have a fragment of the True Cross as it's altar relic. The Abbey fell into ruin after Henry the Eighth's proscription, and was restored by the local Diocese with international help beginning in the 1960's. The extent of restoration showed us what the original church was like, but has left the outbuildings, notably the Infirmary and Guesthouse, as picturesque piles of stone. The restored Church was a very impressive and majestic building.

Lunch at the adjacent (of course) Pub, which had a "James Joyce" award for authenticity in Irish pubs. I ordered mushroom soup (which would have satisfied a Hobbit) and apple pie with cream, which was a very different thing from our apple pie-very shallow, with an almost kringle-like pastry.

We then drove through the increasingly blustery winds to the Rock of Cashel, ancient seat of the Kings of Munster and later the Archbishops after the property was donated to the Church. The wind-swept Rock bears the ruins of a once-magnificent cathedral, bishop's castle, vicar's choir, round tower, high cross, and Cormac's chapel. In this case, "wind-swept" was quite literal as an Atlantic gale was blowing in with sustained 40-50 MPH gusts. It was most exhilarating.

Then home to the Manor for our last night. There was another good dinner, followed by the "hooley" or farewell party. The Manor laid on a local band, one old and three young fellows who played traditional music with good style. Georgie and I situated ourselves near the back door in order to take advantage of the fresh air, and suitably fortified ourselves with a Bailey's for Georgie and an Irish Mist for me. The entertainment also included three young girl dancers who did selections from "Lord of the Dance," among others, a local man who sang in addition to the band, and another older fellow who recited comic story poems in a most unusual ranting style accompanied by posing and stamping. The formal music concluded about 11:30PM with the Irish National Anthem. Trust the Irish to have chosen an anthem that sounds good played by a string band--.

Home again:

On Thursday morning, I was fortified by another full Irish breakfast and shepherded our bags onto the bus. We got back to Dublin airport in good time and had plenty left to cruise the duty-free shops, which were much nicer than the ones at O'Hare, and I was delighted to find some dark chocolate mints-not Bendick's, but almost as good. The long taxi outbound seems to be an obligatory feature, and, since we were flying against the wind, we had a good eight-hour flight back, which was wearisome, but at least we made a good rendezvous with our bus and had a fast transit home to Milwaukee. We had left our car at the Alverno College lot, and were only half-surprised to find the battery dead (although we didn't know how cold and wet the weather here had been.) Fortunately, there were many jumper cables in the party and we quickly got on the road and home.

In-flight movies (watched without sound):
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Basically continuous fight/stunt scenes with no plot.
Johnny English: Rowan Atkinson spy spoof. Possibly amusing. I like John Malkovich.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (and the Ark of the Covenant): Stupid, where it wasn't a rip-off of something else.
Spy Kids 3: Kid has to rescue his sister from a video game. Engagingly weird graphics.

Things that don't exist in Ireland:
Diet Pepsi.
Starbuck's or any other American chain except McDonald's in some cities.

Salon, Nov. 14th, Concealed Carry

Sue Blom's Salon convened a week late due to Windycon: Topic of discussion was "concealed (weapon)carry." We had a lively discussion that enlightened people as to differing views, although no minds were changed. We did agree that permitting the carrying of concealed weapons was NOT a substitute for dealing with the social ills that give rise to crime and the fear of crime.

La Traviata, Nov. 16th.

La Traviata, Nov. 16th, 2003

As opera fans, it's easy to forget how many productions of Verdi's La Traviata one has seen in a lifetime. (Like Puccini's La Boheme, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, or Rossini's Barber of Seville, it is one of the most performed operas--). However, we had the pleasure of taking in a really remarkable production by Milwaukee's Florentine Opera last Sunday. The part of Violetta was sung with marvelous power and skill by Jan Grissom, who easily filled the house with her notes, yet did not ever seem to be straining. She was ably supported by Raul Hernandez as one of the best Alfredos I've seen. (Alfredo seems to attract either wimpy tenors or wimpy performances. We usually wind up rooting for Violetta to dump 'Fredo and either stay with the Baron or run off with his father, Old Germont, instead.) Not in this case. We had a strong passionate Alfredo, of whom it could be believed both that Violetta might love him, and that he might best the Baron in a duel. Hernandez also sung with strength and confidence, including such feats as holding his note while running upstairs to make an exit. Guido Le Bron, as Alfredo's father, Georgio Germont, did not deliver the most heart-wrenching rendition of "Di Provencale," I've ever heard (that honor belongs to the redoubtable Sherrill Milnes), but I was very impressed with his ensemble in the songs with Violetta in Scene Two, which became true balanced duets, instead of call-and-response dominated by the soprano, which is the more usual case. We were glad to see local favorite Kitt Reuter-Foss, who gave tipsy animation to the role of Flora.

Maestro Joseph Resigno led the orchestra in a reading that complemented the singers perfectly and did not intrude. The real star of this production was the stage director, Bernard Uzan, who gave a very daring interpretation. The party scenes were very naturalistic and active. It was well done to have the normal women of the chorus fill the gypsy costumes at Flora's party instead of the usual corps de ballet, which made the Spanish dance performed by Milwaukee prima ballerina Yumelia Garcia all the more beautiful and striking. There were other wonderful touches also. It is usual to stage the end of Act 2 with women fussing over the fainting Violetta while Alfredo either slinks out or stands aside shunned. In this production, a spotlit Violetta exits, proudly, and alone, last glimpse of her fixed visage afforded by the strategically placed mirror up center. The Third and final act begins with Violetta sitting up in a chair because she is unable to sleep and coughing is easier in that position-instead of in the bed as she frequently is. Instead of trailing away pathetically a her death, the final note was hit solidly and then cut as she fell to the stage, which was quite daring. Standing ovations are quite common from the Milwaukee audience, which tends to be a bit "easy", but this one was well deserved, and we joined in wholeheartedly.

Master and Commander, Nov. 19th

On Wednesday night, we went to the Oriental Theatre (big screen!) to see "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." This Napoleonic era naval adventure is based on the very popular series of novels by the late Patrick O'Brian, which, to my mind, are the best of their type, far improving on those by C.S. Forester (Hornblower), Alexander Kent (Richard Bolitho) and Dudley Pope (Ramage). Somewhat confusingly, "Master and Commander" is the first novel in the series, whereas "The Side of the World," which is the basis of the film, is more in the middle.

The plot concerns the officers and crew of HMS Surprise, one of His Majesty's navy's smaller and older frigates, which has been assigned the vital task of intercepting a French privateer bent on disrupting British commerce in the South Seas. (In the novel, the enemy vessel was an American, but it was probably judged correctly that, at least for the US market, having a US opponent was not a good idea.) Initially, the crew of Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey is confident of victory, until the "Acheron" proves to be an opponent that is newer, faster, tougher, and more heavily armed than the Surprise, and captained by an annoyingly craft skipper, to boot. Interestingly, the design of the Acheron is based on the USS Constitution, which was indeed the "battle cruiser" of its day.

Things begin to get tense when Aubrey, Ahab-like, persists in chasing the "phantom ship" far beyond his area of operations even after the Surprise is nearly destroyed in their first encounter. The scenes of sailing, ship-handling, and naval combat are the best I have ever seen, as are the everyday scenes of shipboard life, dirty and crowded as it is. Oscar winner Russell Crowe does a very good job as the big, bluff, blonde Aubrey: not an intellectual, but a masterful sailor and fearless fighter, and many of the characters we have come to know in the novels, such as Barrett Bonden, Aubrey's faithful steersman (played by Billy "Peregrine Took" Boyd) and Preserved Killick, the Captain's irascible steward are easily recognizable.

I predict that the casting of Crowe's "A Beautiful Mind" co-star Paul Bettany as ship's doctor Stephen Maturin will prove most controversial among O'Brian fans, with reason. It isn't that Bettany isn't a good actor, and he works well with Crowe. The character he creates is a very complex, sensitive man, courageous, but not military, fixated on his sciences to the point he is frustrated with naval necessities. While all these are part of the literary Maturin, the man in the books is small, dark, and wiry, a deadly duelist and a sure-handed surgeon, but a total "lubber" when it comes to the sea. In the film, we never even see the notably tall Bettany so much as hit his head on the low below-decks overheads. O'Brian's Maturin is half-Irish (and took part in one of the many failed rebellions) and half-Catalan, but the only way we would know Bettany's character is anything but an "Englishman" is because he tells us he is Irish. (For that matter, Crowe's Aubrey doesn't have a discernable British accent either, although the kind of mid-Atlantic in use by many Australian actors blends in with the natural variety of voices found in the crew so as to not be jarring.)

Highly recommended. The violence is intense, but realistic, and should not deter any but the most sensitive viewers.

Concert at the Coffehouse, Nov 21

The Coffee House in Milwaukee is a long-running folk venue. Located in the hall of Redeemer Lutheran Church at 631 N. 19th St, it has been hosting local and visiting performers on weekend nights since about 1967. The space is very informal, furnished with donated seating, but with decent lighting and sound system. We went there Friday night for the concert, which featured Susan Urban and Strong Voices, with our friends local filkers Deirdre Murphy and Art Warneke "opening".

Deirdre and Art are wonderful people and good performers. Neither one has what would be called a classically beautiful voice (which can be said of most folk singers), but they can sing on key, and Deirdre especially can manage a very penetrating power. They are both fine musicians, and have the quirky humorous style that is a hallmark of the filker. They did a good set of both original and cover material and the comparatively few strangers in the audience seemed to enjoy it. (The majority of the audience were members of the Milwaukee filk community.)

Susan Urban is a regular at Ohio Valley Filk Fest and has performed at "Barb's Basement," (our filk venue), and so was known to many also, although new to Georgie and I. When performing as "Strong Voices," Chicago-based Urban is joined by mother-daughter duo Kathryn and Caitlin Morski from the U.P., and on this evening were also joined by Wisconsin native Karen Mooney. All are singer-song writers, and these performances run a lot more like a filk circle than a standard concert. The Morskis. Urban, and Mooney took turns in rotation performing their own pieces, with the others joining in to accompany the various leads. We were treated to a variety of songs and styles that ranged through sweet, sad, thoughtful, funny, and spooky (Urban particularly likes ghost story songs), with a bent toward feminist and pacifist, which sat well with the assembled company. The group and many of the audience probably went back to the Letterman's for more after, but Georgie and I called it a night.

Holiday Folk Fair, Nov. 22

Holiday Folk Fair, 11-22-03

After several years of missing it, we kept our calendar clear for the Saturday before Thanksgiving to get to the Milwaukee Holiday Folk Fair. The Folk Fair is kind of a condensation of the various summer ethnic festivals, although in fact it predates any of them, and includes a lot of groups that don't get included in the summer programs.

One of the major emphases of the Fair has always been folk dancing, and instead of the one or two big shows per day that you used to have to buy a separate ticket for, now they have numerous smaller programs throughout the day. We got there early on Saturday and found good seats for the twelve thirty show, which included Finnish, Spanish, Greek, Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, and African-American among others. It's always very interesting to see the various dance groups and what it says about the communities and the groups. I always find the Finnish sweet and sad, since the group is always only gray-haired couples with no young people. By contrast, the Ukrainians and Greeks were large groups with lots of young men and women, important for the very athletic and exciting trepak style of the Ukrainian dancing in particular. The African-American dancers were all women, but had male musicians. The Spanish Flamenco group was also all women, but dressed as men. (I remarked to Georgie that this made sense, since if you are just starting out a group/school, black pants, bolero jackets and hats are probably lots less expensive than flamenco dresses--).

The other attractions of the Fair are food, shopping, and the cultural/craft exhibits, approximately in that order. We bought and sampled pastries from the Bavarians, Swiss, and Donauschwaben, pork loin dinners from the Czech, spring rolls from the Thai, and rosewater lemonade from the Arabs at various times and found it all good. (Donauschwaben are ethnic Germans whose ancestors moved into the valley of the Danube, or Donau, river.)

Shopping this year was rather lackluster, and we didn't buy anything significant. One thing that frustrates me is that the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dealers all seem to concentrate on cheap crap like backscratchers and crude bamboo flutes, or plastic toys, which I suspect are aimed chiefly at the pocket money of the multitudinous high-and grade-school students that are always bussed in to these affairs for a cultural field trip.

We saw a variety of lovely display booths, which are often set up as a room from a home. Having just come back from Ireland, we were disappointed by the plainness of the Irish booth. On the other hand, the Turks had a fascinating "Turkish bath" setup, and Georgie was particularly taken with the beautiful fabric of the traditional towels, which had gold embroidery!

Instead of being spread out over several buildings, the whole Fair fit into the huge new exposition center at the State Fair grounds, which made everything very convenient and comfortable. On the other hand, it seemed that there were fewer food vendors and dealers and more dancers than in years past. (Staffing the food booths is hard long work-dancing is more fun and short-term, which may have something to do with it.)

We had a very enjoyable time and were glad to have made it this year.

Burrahobbits, Nov 25; Return of the King

The "book" was "The Return of the King," the last volume of The Lord of the Rings. Not surprisingly, we were able to fill the entire evening with serious discussion of the work, fueled by some rather out-of-the-ordinary questions. While we were all generally admiring of the master's works, there was good debate about "The Scouring of the Shire," including whether or not it was necessary at all, and whether or not the repressions committed by "Sharkey's" thugs were too modern in tone. We pretty much agreed that, since Frodo was the main character, the return to the Shire was indeed a necessary part of winding up the story. The depredations of Saruman were more debatable, but we eventually concurred that, as, despite the claims of governance, there was no political agenda other than despoiling and destruction, this was gangsterism, and not technically Fascism. We agreed to catch the movie of Return on opening night, Dec. 17th. at the Westtown Cinemas for the 7:30 show.

Thanksgiving, Nov. 27

Thanksgiving was much better than I had feared it would be. My mother is still back in the St. Clair Field nursing home for rehabilitation after a fall from her wheelchair she suffered at the end of October. My brother and sister-in-law, David Rihn and Valerie Bailey-Rihn, made arrangements to rent a conference room at the home for the noon meal, and catered in the full Thanksgiving dinner. The bright spot was that Mama has improved quite a lot since I saw her Nov. 8th, which was heartening. The dinner wasn't bad, and all the local relatives showed up. My dad seemed to be feeling fairly well, also, so a nice time was actually had.

Ashram, Dec 1: Who am I?

The December Ashram finally got to the question of how religions deal help answer the questions of "Who am I?" and "What should I do when I grow up?" We had an interesting discussion on the varying traditions of religious identity. I flung my "bomb" by asking the question as to whether or not definitions of religious identity contribute to divisiveness and discrimination. It axiomatically creates an "us vs. them" situation, and if your religion teaches it is best to be what you are (and if not, why would you want to be one), therefore, everyone else is at best second-best. The other members greeted this sally in a sporting frame of mind, and although we agreed that the more enlightened practice of modern religions was more ecumenical, this was still an issue. We then considered the question of whether or not it was possible to define a spiritual belief system in terms of action towards others so that this problem would be less likely to arise. No satisfactory answer was arrived at although we considered that non-western systems like Taoism or Buddhism might come close. The final major point of discussion asked why more (American) people don't seem to be guided by religious guidelines in their choice of life path, and agreed that in these days, more people are affected by educational and economic opportunity.