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Ireland

 

 

28-29 December

A coolish morning with a heavy frost was all we could muster last night (28th). However, as we drove towards the Welsh port of Fishguard, it became evident that we had been in a rather sheltered spot. Snow and ice covered most roads. The village of Fishguard was a major surprise as a ferry harbour. Small and relatively untouched by the thousands of tourists and truckies that pass through, it has managed to retain the character of a small fishing port with little or no industry other than the small fishing boats that now, with the low tide, lie in the weak winter sun on the muddy bottom of the small harbour.

The Irish Sea was a pussy cat. Smooth as silk. Having enjoyed a very scary movie (What Lies Beneath) in the ship's cinema, we drove into an Irish night that was forecast to be the coldest in many years. With Dublin 150kms away over icy roads, we elected to 'tough it out' without heating in a closed camping grounds where they were happy for us to just park free for the night. By good luck rather than any management at all, we again managed  to park in the only part of south eastern Ireland that didn't experience heavy snow and frost. Literally within metres of us, snow fell most of the night. Today, being inexperienced driving in such conditions we managed about 20kms per hour for most of today

Wicklow and Carlow Counties are, as near as we can determine, the ancestral home of the O'Neills. Cutting a very long story very short, the O'Neills seem to have experienced a slow decline in power and influence from a zenith in the eighth and ninth centuries to a rather ignominious series of migrations to the 'New World' at the end of the nineteenth century.

From their feudal strongholds in Northern Island the O'Neill Chieftains controlled most of Ireland by the late ninth century. Fleeing to avoid waves of invaders (again a gross simplification) the clans moved gradually south to Carlow and Wicklow. Avoiding mention of the English in the  plight of the O'Neills and of virtually all other Irish families is unavoidable. Suffice to say, the lot of tenant farmers in rural Ireland was not a happy one.

Records are patchy, many destroyed by the (not to be mentioned) English. But it seems that the branch of the clan that eventually migrated to Australia moved off the land and progressively closer to Dublin as the twentieth century approached. First to Newtown Mt.Kennedy and then to Mill Yard.

Light snow had frozen over by mid-morning as we struggled along the narrow country roads of County Wicklow in search of some tangible evidence of a past family presence. Shillelagh, Ferns, Tomacork and Kilquiggin were the focus of our first search. The graveyard at Tomacork bore little fruit with the exception of a very recent tombstone for Elizabeth O'Neill. Much to the horror of our Liz! Most of the older stones were weathered so badly that very little remained of the inscriptions. Interestingly, both this graveyard and the one we looked at in Shillelagh had Jordan monuments. Jordans are part of Janita's maternal ancestral line.

Research done last year by a Sean (John) O'Neill of Dublin for Mary De Jabrun (nee O'Neill), mentioned all these towns as past 'haunts' of the O'Neills and there are voluminous documents quoted in this work proving an O'Neill presence here. What we were seeking was something that we could see - most likely a grave -.

Shillelagh's Catholic Church was built in 1948 and the graves in the cemetery all post date this construction. The nearby Church of Ireland graveyard on the other hand has many nineteenth century monuments. Locals told us of a grotto close to the present site of the RC church that contained many hundreds of now unmarked Catholic graves. (Da English are to blame!) - (Site not visited) This advice  also indicated that most Catholic burials in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were either at Tomacork or Kilquiggin, not Shillelagh. We were directed to an old graveyard at Kilquiggin that was reputed to have graves over 200 years old. Hours of searching under rapidly darkening skies bore no fruit. We will return!

30 December

"Dis is not da scheduled run" the driver said as he pulled up outside our snow-covered campsite in the suburbs of Dublin. "But if you are off to da city, I'll drop ya in dere". The open top double-decker city tour bus was freezing. Unthawed snow and ice lay in the aisles and the windows were covered with ice - on the inside! But who knocks back a free ride in a strange city?

The sky was the sort of clear blue that means that the temperature you started the day with was about the best it would get. Today that was -3C. And that's all it got to in the brilliant sunshine of the coldest Dublin day since 1982.

'Paddy' - name supplied to protect the innocent - our driver, not only provided a free ride but also free entertainment. His usual bus had broken down and this one was a replacement from the depot. 'Two hours dis motor's been runnin' and da heaters still frozz..' 'Oh God, Oh God, da ice is still dere after two hours!!'.. 'See dat?.. da frozen fog .. oh God.. Oh God da freeziní fog... "Oh God its freezin'.. 'five hours of dis to go!.. Oh God...' Rugged up with everything we had we were comparatively warm, but Paddy seemed to have come to work expecting his normal coach. He was somewhat under-dressed.

 

 

Aside from the historical importance of the GPO in O'Connell Street, Trinity College and the most important sacred site of the Guinness brewery, central Dublin has few real attractions. But it does have pubs and characters on every corner. We elected to dine in  our namesake's pub. O'Neill's provides a fine line in counter lunches, with Guinness, of course, to wash it down.

31 December 2000- 1 January 2001

Missed last night for fairly obvious reasons!

Rain and a steep rise in temperature melted all the snow overnight on the 30th. Although the locals were overjoyed to see the end of the cold snap, we would much rather the cold, snow and the crystal clear skies that prevailed during the day to the howling wind and driving rain that followed.

We had no more success tracking down the old cemetery that we were told about by locals in Shillelagh. The poor weather was no help and we abandoned our search in favour of easier prey -  the village of Avoca, where the Ballykissangel TV series is filmed. Nestled into the side of a hill, the small mining village has real charm that has been only slightly spoilt by the blight of commercial tourism. We sat in the bar with a pint (of course), surrounded by photos of cast members and assorted visitors and locals, just waiting for Quigley, Peter, Assumpta, Orla or Sean to walk through the door. (Apologies to the uninititiated.)

Warmer weather encouraged revellers into the city last night for New Year's celebrations. We jumped a bus after a long wait in driving rain, looking forward to seeing in the first year of the new century. However, in a very 'Irish' move, the buses only operated for the early part of the night. Concerned about being trapped in the city with no transport, we jumped a taxi about 11.00pm and headed home.

Campers in England and Ireland are particularly 'jolly' people. On our return, such a jolly crew of Irish folk welcomed us to their celebrations in the camping ground's common area. All, including ourselves, had a great time.

Rising a little later this morning, it was almost midday by the time we arrived in town. The city was a little the worse for wear from the previous night's activities. Litter and the odd 'lost soul' floated through the streets.

 

To kill the afternoon we headed to the zoo, unaware that Dublin Zoo is one of the best in the world. Modern animal management principles have been applied in an environment where both the animals and the public get the best possible treatment. Natural environments have been established for most animals with free access by the animals to 'interface areas' where they are only separated from the public by large windows. Most of the inhabitants seem to have adjusted well to human attention and happily present themselves. Mind you the low temperatures over the last few days may well have contributed to their willingness to frequent the heated 'interface areas'. An excellent experience!

2 January

Newgrange and the area around it in County Meath, just to the north of Dublin were home to a civilization that constructed monuments that pre-date Stonehenge by 1000 years and the Pyramids by 500 years. The valley of the Boyne River where Neolithic tribes constructed their grave mounds is perhaps  better known as the site of the battle in 1690 between William III and James II which resulted in the loss of Ireland to the English.

Over fifty ancient 'passage tombs' similar to Newgrange dot the nearby valley. Newgrange's importance derives from the astronomical aspect of its construction. During the winter solstice, for 5 days around 21 December, the rising sun penetrates the tomb passage through a roof box built into the door of the tomb. The real significance of this for the people of the time is of course lost to us. But what is important is the precision with which these ancient architects calculated the alignment of this entrance.

Management of the site is superb. A visitors' centre sited a kilometer or so from the site provides interesting displays and audio-visual presentations about the tombs and the Neolithic tribes that constructed them. Visitors are taken by a shuttle bus to meet tour guides who escort groups of up to 25 at a time over the site.

Ruined castles, abbeys and round towers abound in the Boyne valley, often standing in unrestored splendour in open fields or incorporated into other ancient structures. Each has its story, half myth, half fact?? The hill of Slane for example is reputedly the site of a monastery established by St Patrick. The story goes that old 'St Pat' lit a huge Paschal fire on the top of the hill in 433 as a challenge to the pagan King of Ireland whose capital was atop Tara, some ten miles away. Legend has it that the King saw the fire and the support of the people for the new religion and while he himself never converted, he did not persecute those who did.

Slane, like many monuments in the area is thankfully in a totally unrestored state and so has an 'aura' of the past which well-intentioned restorations have removed at some other historical sites. It is possible to struggle to the top of the old monastery tower which on a good day we are told provides not only a clear view of Tara but also of the sea to the east.

Pubs are of course as much part of the attraction of Ireland at its ancient monuments and culture. We have tried our hardest to visit as many of these national institutions as we can manage. Tonight we are off to town again to meet a distant cousin for a 'few'. Public transport in Dublin, at least in our area, leaves a bit to be desired. Infrequent and unreliable services are not sufficiently compensated by the genuinely pleasant and helpful attitude of the drivers. Standing in driving rain or snow waiting for a bus, without the benefit of a shelter, is simply primitive! We are therefore depending on our host for a lift tonight rather than another long cold wait and longer bus ride.

3 January

Left Dublin this morning in weak sunlight and a stiffening breeze. Unfortunately, within minutes, our path south took us into showers with only very scattered periods of sun

Kilkenny, the place, not the much-loved Irish stout, is a bustling small city dominated by Kilkenny Castle, the ancestral seat of the Lords of Ormonde. The association of the family with the city has  spanned more than 600 years up until the present. The family's name, Butler, seems to have been derived from the exalted position of 'Lord High Butler' which was held by the first Lord Ormonde in the 12th Century. Interestingly, we have always considered Ormonde to be a Scottish name, as it was the Christian name of Janita's father!!!!

St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, contains some of the tombs of the Butlers and an interesting listing of the Lords of the Manor through to the present day. Some 'sticky ends' befell the poor Lords of Ormonde. One poor unfortunate found himself on the wrong side in one of the many tussles between the English Crown and its citizens and lost his head at Newcastle-on-Tyne. Another never returned from the Crusades and is buried somewhere in Jerusalem.  A couple did achieve sufficient notoriety to be buried in Westminister Abbey. We'll look for them there in a couple of weeks.

Lizzie has been generally unimpressed with our interest in graveyards and funereal inscriptions in medieval cathedrals. A grand monument celebrating the death of a local luminary, 'on his way' to a battle in 1797, did however take her fancy!

Kilkenny, believe it or not, has a Guinness brewery. It must be the only such establishment in the world to boast its own ruined abbey. The Abbey of St Francis is situated in the carpark of the maker of the much revered 'black stuff'. It gives a whole new meaning to 'going to church' doesn't it?

4 January

Samuel Grubb is probably one of Ireland's lesser known eccentrics. On his death in 1921, his wish to be buried standing upright above ground with a full view of his beloved "Vee" was honoured. Today his burial cairn stands high above the road that winds through this picturesque valley. From the heights of the hills surrounding the valley, he overlooks a seemingly endless quilt of patchwork fields and hedgerows rolling on to the horizon.

The Lords of Ormonde, of Castle Kilkenny fame (the town not the beer!), held a number of castles and strongholds in the county over the period of more than half a millenium. Cahir Castle, 30 kms from the family seat in Kilkenny,  was the scene of one of the less glorious events in the family's history. In a renegade act, one of the 'brothers Ormonde' vacillated between loyalty to his Anglo-Norman heritage and alliances formed over generations with local Irish Chieftains such as the O'Neills and the O'Donnells. In a famous siege during the 16th Century, he sided with the Irish and his castle, after a siege of only 3 days, fell to the forces of Elizabeth I, under the command of Lord Essex.

The major loser in this campaign was not however the lesser Lord Ormonde. Angered by Essex's inability to bring a swift solution to the 'Irish Problem', Elizabeth had Essex beheaded in the Tower of London - an act that, due to the incompetence of the executioner, was a little more painful than usual. He missed on the first blow, sinking the axe into the unfortunate Lord's shoulder. The second strike also missed the mark, but the third delivered the head of the once-favoured Essex to the crowd.

Reading the detailed accounts of the siege and then walking around the castle is the sort of thing that most history buffs dream of. For example, the assumption that geographical features remain constant over time very rarely holds true. In this case, the river that now flows some 50 meters from the castle walls in fact formed a significant moat directly below the battlements in the 16th century. Details.. details.. details...

Coincidence and/or chance are fine, but finding what is more than likely the grave of a direct ancestor while wandering about in a major tourist attractions is beyond the odds! Buried behind the ruined cathedral on the Rock of Cashel is one 'Michael Devitt' whose wife (also interred) was a Duggan. The Duggans are first cousins of Janita's grandmother and the Devitts are  maternal relatives of the same branch of the family. Janita's grandmother's brother had the 'family name', Devitt, as his second name. We wonder?/ Just too much coincidence? 

'The Rock' was in full winter splendour as the mid-afternoon sun cast a golden hue on the ruins and illuminated the green fields. Home to the Bishopric of Cashel from the 12th Century, this fortress cathedral, perched high on a limestone outcrop, was occupied through to the latter part of the 18th century before it was abandoned, some say simply because it was built in such a miserably cold, wind-swept position!

Aside from all this excitement, today was the best weather wise we have had so far in Ireland. We saw the beautiful valley of the Vee without fog or cloud, which is apparently rare, and as the day progressed the sun shone brightly and the sky cleared as we visited Cahir Castle. Later in the afternoon the Rock of Cashel loomed in the kind of light that sends photographers into a frenzy.

A stroll down to the village pub before dinner was pleasant but quiet as the locals don't "hit" until 9:30 or so. Where do they get their stamina?

 

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