Saturday morning, we got up, packed our bags, had breakfast, and prepared to be picked up by our driver, Donal Moyhnihan, who was to be our guide for the next 8 days. We had no idea what to expect. The person who arrived was probably somewhere between my and Elizabeth’s ages, a tall, very slim man with lines on his face, a head of thinning, graying hair and, as if from central casting, a lilting accent with a particular rhythm. He opened the car doors for us (a Mercedes sedan), grabbed our bags and we were on our way.
Getting out of Dublin proper took us a little time; this would be true of any major metropolitan center. But once we were out on the road driving south, we got our first glimpse of the rest of Ireland: a quilt patchwork of a million shades of green, cows and sheep grazing, and a sky of ever-changing moods and whims, clouds that—within minutes—would change from puffy and playful to dark and threatening. The countryside was beautiful, and it would continue to take our breath away the entire time we traveled the country.Glenncree German War Cemetery and the Center for Peace and Reconciliation
We wouldn’t have known about our first stop if Donal hadn’t recommended it. It’s a small, beautiful German war cemetery
settled in the Wicklow Mountains bordered on one side by a river. Buried there are the remains of German soldiers who crashed in Ireland during World War II, many unidentified, but all managed with care. The graves are laid out in arcs radiating away from a sort of sanctuary that is vaguely reminiscent of the portal tombs we would see later in the trip, and that shades a mosaic pieta and a benediction in German. It’s a lovely memorial, modest and quiet, and a gentle offering of peace to a former enemy. It’s a beautiful gesture.
It turns out that it’s part of a larger installation, the Glencree Center for Peace and Reconciliation, devoted to peacebuilding and reconciliation in Ireland, North and South, Britain and beyond. The buildings on the site were built originally as barracks for British troops in the 1800s. They were, thereafter, used as a reformatory school, a prison, and then an orphanage. In the 1970s, the center was established to foster better relations between the two communities in Northern Ireland. Interesting building and interesting history.
Our drive took us through the beautiful Sally Gap—soft hills, more green, more cows and sheep enjoying the lush grass—and thence to our first early Christian site.Glendalough
Say “Glenda-loch” if you’re Irish. Say “Glenda-loo” if you’re English or American, apparently. Either way, the monastic site at Glendalough is fascinating. Though it includes a church (St. Kevin’s Church) and round tower (among the ruins of several other buildings), it is now mostly a necropolis, a city of the dead, with graves from as early as the 1500s to as late as the 1990s. Glendalough was the seat of Saint Kevin, an early Irish monk who came here to establish a monastery. The cemetery on the site is full of beautiful Celtic crosses, and the setting is idyllic. You could hear sheep and cows in the distance.
While we were there, the site was rather overrun by international students, and part of me winced as they walked across graves. I tried to be careful as I picked my way through, but I’m sure I stepped on ground covering more than one set of ancient bones.
Of the site, my notes say, “Impressed to see the way stones of different thicknesses were used to create texture.” This was in reference to the walls of the ruined church I explored. I don’t know if the texturing was deliberate or if it was the result of building and rebuilding on the site. Clearly, though, it made an impression. The round tower also made an impression, tall and slim and straight. With the chauvinism of 21st century eyes, I wonder how they built such a tall, straight structure, and then remembered that people in a much earlier time built castles, cathedrals, the Parthenon and the pyramids.Click to embiggenRock of Cashel
From Wicklow we drove into Tipperary to see the seat of the High Kings, the Rock of Cashel. We arrived late in the day, so most of the bus tours had already departed. That meant that there were no crowds to speak of when we arrived. While we didn’t have the place to ourselves, we didn’t have to contend with the pushing and rudeness that we would encounter later in the trip.
The Rock of Cashel is impressive in both size and construction. The structures on the site are only the latest (relatively speaking) of a series of buildings that existed there. You walk up a long ramp and duck through a doorway and a short, dark corridor—as I recall—that lets out into a courtyard open to the sky. You’re faced with a large partial cross and then archways that offer entry into the structures themselves. Restoration work is ongoing on the site, so parts weren’t accessible to visitors, but what was accessible was awe-inspiring: soaring walls and the remains of what was obviously an impressive cathedral, with gothic arches, and tall slim windows topped with a rosette window.
We did get to hear some information from a tour guide on the site. We were being sprinkled with a light rain while she was speaking. She spoke quickly and very factually. When she was done with her talk about the history of the place, she said, “Any questions? Right, OK. Let’s get under some shelter,” and she took off as if the rain were acid pouring from the skies. Being from Seattle, obviously, the rain wasn’t an issue for Elizabeth and me, and we took our time to explore. There was at least one casket carved with fantastic animals, and the remains of some beautiful relief work on a couple of walls. We also saw restoration in progress on a painting of the crucifixion.
Besides the gargantuan cathedral and castle-like structure, the site includes a cemetery with beautiful Celtic crosses and its own round tower, of somewhat rougher—though no less impressive—construction than the one at Glendalough. And the site boasts amazing views of the countryside all around. Over the course of our hour or two while visiting, the sky changed moods, as previously mentioned. Some of my pictures show a hulking structure under a foreboding sky; others show a beautiful ruin under blue skies with puffy clouds—both on the same day.
If I had one disappointment in the entire day, it's that there was a penny smashing machine at the gift shop at the Rock. We saw it on our way up, and I decided to smash on the way back down--but the shop was closed by the time we left. No Rock of Cashel smashed pennies for me!
The Rock of Cashel(click to embiggen--it's worth it)
When we were done with poking about, it was time to head to our hotel for the night, a place called The Park Hotel & Leisure Center
in Dungarvan, Waterford. The building is a lovely yellow, a two story place with beautifully manicured grounds. There was a wedding party going on when we arrived. We got settled, had dinner and hit the sack. It had been a big day, and another was coming fast on its heels.