of castles and ancient ruins
“First time in Ireland?” asked the friendly immigration official as D presented his passport, “Well, you’re in luck. It should rain hard for the next four or five days.” So much for auspicious beginnings.
It is rare when a country completely meets one’s expectations. We saw no leprechauns and found no pots of gold, but otherwise Ireland fully lived up to our ingrained stereotypes, especially the positive ones. In addition to the rain that greeted D’s arrival, we found a green country full of ancient ruins and castles to explore and warm, welcoming, red-headed people to meet.
D had even less time to tour around Ireland than S — a mere five days before we were scheduled to fly home. Having just completed a loop around the southern part of the island, S initially suggested that we use D’s stopover to see Northern Ireland. D nixed the idea and worked out a smaller loop through southern Ireland that largely featured sites S had skipped with her family.
We started in Glendalough, an early medieval monastic settlement located just an hour outside Dublin in the Wicklow highlands. County Wicklow contains a patchwork of great mountain trails that we earmarked for a future return to Ireland, when Munchkin is a bit older. For this trip, we contented ourselves with a short lakeshore hike at what is probably the most famous point along the Wicklow Way trail.
When the monks chose Glendalough for their home a millennium and a half ago, it must have been an idyllic place. The forest-covered hills of Wicklow abound with glacial lakes and mountain streams. Unfortunately, the heavy flow of visitors robs the place of some of its charm and all of its serenity. We were in the shoulder tourist season and the trails still resounded with the incessant chatter of large school groups.
Even so, Glendalough was an interesting place to visit. The small stone church, built sometime in the 10th century, is the oldest of its kind with an intact roof. And the granite round tower is quite a sight for those who are unfamiliar with such specimens of medieval architecture. There are no doors, and no way to enter the tower without a ladder of some sort. The monks stored their valuables high in the tower to ensure their safety.
We had dinner in Kilkenny before spending the night at a farmhouse B&B in the countryside. As S had visited Kilkenny with her family, we did not linger there, though D made the most of our brief stop. He went on a quick photo walk while S fed Munchkin and was rewarded with a stunning rainbow over the city just as the golden hour approached.
It drizzled a bit when we arrived at Glendalough, but by and large we lucked out with the weather our first day. There was no escaping the rain for long, however, and our visit to the Jerpoint Abbey the next day was rather wet. By luck, we arrived just as a tour of the abbey got under way, and it proved the most memorable of the ancient sites we visited in Ireland.
The Jerpoint Abbey is unique among religious buildings of its era in that the cloister columns are adorned with various finely sculpted figures. Time has effaced the meaning behind many of the sculptures, but faint clues reveal the stories of some of the figures. One is St. Anthony of Egypt, considered the father of organized Christian monasticism. According to legend, when Anthony withdrew to the mountains to live in absolute solitude, the devil sought to shake him from his ascetic life. The devil devised numerous temptations to test Anthony’s faith, including sending baby pigs into his camp while Anthony fasted. Two tiny, barely visible figures adorn the bottom of St. Anthony’s column — the horned visage of the devil and the snub-nosed head of a pig.
The rain intensified as we climbed into the car for the drive to County Cork and did not let up until we arrived in the cute fishing town of Kinsale. We had a slight reprieve as we walked to dinner, but got caught in a flash downpour on our way back and had more rain the next day as we visited Cork. Fortunately, despite the persistent precipitation, it did not rain so hard as to discourage aimless wandering around town.
We spent an hour ambling around the historic center and visited the St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, which is noteworthy for its impressive stained glass. Given the inclement weather, it is no wonder that the highlight of our visit to Cork was the English Market, which is quite possibly the most famous covered market in the entire country. Its only flaw is the near complete lack of sit-down space to enjoy the wonderful fare on offer. We fashioned quite a feast for ourselves from various stalls, which then proved a challenge to eat, especially with Munchkin running amok.
Kinsale had marked our turnaround point, and Cork was the first stop on our long drive back to Dublin. Having spent three nights in Ireland, D had still yet to visit a castle, which is surprising given the sheer number of castles dotting the Irish countryside. S had been unimpressed by the castle in Kilkenny and consulted various “best of” lists to pick out a better one to visit with D.
Cahir fit the bill nicely. Whereas many Irish castles are in disrepair or worse, Cahir is remarkably well-preserved, its tower, keep, and defense structures dating back nearly a thousand years. We also had a hilariously dry-witted guide who took us on a fantastic tour of this medieval fortress and pointed out its myriad defenses, some obvious and others quite subtle but no less effective. Part of the reason that Cahir is so well-preserved is that it withstood all but one siege, and the one successful conqueror lost his head by royal decree shortly after storming the castle.
Cahir is only a stone’s throw from the Rock of Cashel. Although S had already visited it with her parents, it would have been unforgivable for D to skip one of southern Ireland’s top landmarks, so S entertained Munchkin while D did a quick, rain-soaked tour.
Despite the inclement weather and the brevity of this trip, we managed to pack quite a lot into the handful of days D had in Ireland. And it was more than enough to convince us that we need to return again.