Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Emerald Isle

August is perhaps the one month in the year when you might not get drenched in the south of Ireland. In fact, we keep seeing people suntanned to the point of being bronzed. Men are - no! - surely not! - wearing SHORTS!  Children, some quite fat, are out on their own riding bikes… they've been spending a bit of time practicing doing that.  The skies occasionally clear to a marvellous, high, shining emptiness, filling the land with radiant glory and sharp outlines. In the towns, cafés have outside seating which looks more or less plausible as a place to stop and while away a few quarter hours.

Today we had a naughty breakfast - scrambled eggs on toast. All the ingredients were brought from Kent, but hey, never mind. This is Ireland. We've booked ourselves a self-catering house in the grounds of Dundrum House Hotel in Tipperary - and we're making the most of it. The house is new, huge in comparison to most new houses in England.  We arrived about 9.30 last night, dead tired. Unloaded most of our kit, padded about a bit, sorted some stuff out, eventually crashed out.

This morning, after our delicious breakfast, we went into the main hotel in search of wifi, and a short list of other items: more coat-hangers, some bedroom chairs, tablets for the dishwasher, light-bulbs for some of the table lamps, a salad bowl, a fruit bowl, loo-brushes for 2 of the 4 bogs….    The hotel staff were fantastically accommodating and helpful. In this downturn, they are really keen to encourage their customers and look after them. We had coffee in an upper lobby, looking out over part of the golf course and some fields, with black cattle grazing. A big old oak guards the carpark.

After we'd installed our top-up booty, we headed off to Nenagh (Nee-nah) to pick up €200-worth of cheeses for the wedding party on Saturday.  Our drive was along small, almost-English-looking country lanes which nonetheless have a French look to them….  Each house is firmly and cleanly placed on a dry, stone or concrete-based footing, and with plenty of space all around it.  Some are adorned with flowers like Hawaiian brides. Some are as stark and bare as prison cell blocks. The fields are small, hedged, loved. The roads have familiar (English) beds and twists. Every now and then a castle rears up, pure Norman, mostly ruined. 

Nenagh has the benefit of being a county town - Tipperary having a N and S Riding - and this is in the north, and it's bustling and fun. Lots of spacious shops, lots of choice. Almost as if the downturn has not happened. We collected cheese for the wedding from an ebullient delicatessen-owner, learned from him how to construct a cheese tower using wine glasses to hold the cheeses up, promised to look after his splendid mirrored Victorian cheese-stand which he was lending for the party, did some errands including buying a couple of maps, and went up to see the newly restored and opened castle. This is, frankly, perfect. A single cylindrical tower dating from Norman times with subsequent losses and additions, its been done up by the Ministry of Public Works to an exemplary standard and has free entry and not one but two lovely men guarding it and handing out free postcards. Up the spiral staircases, tighter and tighter, out to the roof, see the distant views…. We learned that one disgruntled farmer, 200 years ago, tried to blow the whole thing up because it housed too many sparrows which ate his crops. He only succeeded in blowing a crumbly hole at the base… that is now the duck-your-head doorway into what would have been a very dark donjon or store. Every child should be brought here.  If I could take this castle  home, I would.  

Then we idled along the shores and slopes of Lough Derg (which allows the River Shannon to leak out at its southern end)… beauteous distant views, little farms, green woods and fields, hovels and millionaire houses tucked in here and there, and smart motor boats in tiny private harbours when you get down to the water's edge.  You could film Swallows and Amazons here.  A German lorry had parked up on the viewpoint carpark to get his tacho-sleep. 

Then we motored on through more winding lanes to Ballina (pron. Bally-nah) further down the river, and queued at the complicated traffic lights to cross the narrow ancient bridge (15? stone arches) to Killaloe on the other side. More walking about - how pretty everything is. Again, it's really very French in feeling…   The river is immediately deep but sparkling clear with reeds and fish dancing about underneath. There's a side-canal - remains of an old mill, maybe, with a separate iron bridge leading up towards Killaloe church. We called into a shop to buy some coffee and came out with a pack of cheap coathangers and some cotton-wool - this place had 25 million items on sale and the proprietor's profile was utterly geological with golden pince-nez perched on the front. However, there's no disguising the recession in Killaloe - so many empty shops. Those that are still trading in so many of these little towns tend to be hippy - Ayervedic treatments, craft supplies, shambolic cafés, art which is difficult to imagine being bought,.  But, it turned out that Killaloe has a great treasure - the church is actually a cathedral, and ancient, partly and unashamedly made up from bits of lots of other churches over the centuries. It is a huge plain nave of varying roof construction, divided by a wonderful glazed screen half-way along, and with the wooden roof at the chancel end held up by a series of strappy corbels, one of which depicts six kilted folk hugging each other, and another supported by a horse!  My diligent readers will know that for me, to find a horse depicted in an ancient church is extraordinary. Apart from Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey, this is the only example I have ever seen.  This did not look particularly pagan or powerful, more like a pack-pony plodding along, but still…….  The acoustics in the west end of the nave are fantastic - with an echo-decay of about ten seconds!

Beside the church is an ancient oratory, dedicated like its neighbour to St Flannan, and now stripped out to reveal a lovely barrel vault roof, with some chunks of stonework stored in what look like French peasant rabbit hutches.

We turned east then,  back to Dundrum - marvelling at the beauty of the land. There was a lot of texting going on, trying to co-ordinate the whereabouts and rendezvous of other parties - eventually we were back at our house, David and Jo arrived for supper (salad niçoise and then summer pudding), and (after another while) Lulu and Matt and Tasha arrived. We installed them in their rooms, and eventually about 10.30 (VERY late for us to be going out!) we 5 set off to follow D&J who had gone to meet up with Jo's family at a musical pub in Thurles 20 miles away.  Another marvel.  Apparently just a little place - O'Gormans (aka 'The Monk') - crammed to the very edges with happy people listening to 15 amateur musicians (banjos, guitars, squeezeboxes, bhorans(sp?),  violins, bass, etc) playing a seemingly flawless sequence of traditional tunes. It was wonderful.  At the very back of the pub in a larger space was the Coffey clan - so many aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins - all there to meet us and check us out.  I discovered that the older ladies may be wearing hats to the wedding, but the younger ladies probably not. Towards the end of the evening, Jo's sister Becka asked the band to play 'Where do you go to, my lovely?' as a special request for David and Jo - who stepped forward to warm applause and danced for us. I have never seen my son looking so happy.  This is the song Jo's dad Chris has sung there many a time. He is too ill to gallivant at the moment.

Andrew (our heroic driver) brought us safely back to Dundrum and we crashed out. Who knows what will happen today? A trip to the sea? More errands for the wedding?  We have Gillie and James arriving this evening with Joan. She will stay in the hotel (we checked out her room earlier on - ground floor and with super bathroom - quite a long corridor to get there and three beds, but we think she'll be fine there).  Gillie and James are staying in our house - Tasha will move out to a second cottage we've rented. 

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