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Ireland 2

5 January

Modern Ireland is known as the Celtic Tiger of the EC. 'To be sure' the pace of the island's development is obvious everywhere. However, the quaintness that has always typified the country is still there in abundance.

Irish logic is just a little different from the norm. Yet it is indisputably still logical.

The language itself abounds in wonderful reconstructions of the English language that hopefully will not be lost under the weight of the common Americanised English that is slowly pervading all languages. For example, "Ah! It's yourself and you'll just be after wanting a drink", translates perfectly to "Hi. I expect you want a drink?" and "If you go back da way ya came and dis time turn right" means "Take the first left".

Road signs in the country still befuddle and confuse the uninitiated. Imagine confronting a narrow country crossroad where three of the alternatives facing you lead to the place you are seeking! What's worse is when one of the alternatives is the direction you have just come from. Be sure though that all the roads will eventually get you to your destination. But more than likely in vastly varying times.

Having visited Blarney Castle today, the above reflections are probably most apt.

Heavy fog dogged us most of the morning, but by the time we reached Cork, the inevitable blue sky awaited us. People keep asking us why we bother visiting Ireland this time of the year. Every time so far we have been able to say that itís 'great days like today that make it for us.' The answer is always a bit 'Hanrahanish'.  'Ah but you should have been here yesterday, it was wet and miserable'.......?

6 January

County Cork has been associated with two of the major maritime disasters of the 20th century. The Titanic's last port of call was the harbour town of Cobh, today a suburb of Cork City. The Lucitania was sunk by German submarines off the Irish coast between Cobh and Kinsale.

Today the village of Cobh is a quiet backwater in the new (very large) port of Cork. In fact, the unkind might say that it is little wonder the Titanic never came back - there is not a lot going on in Cobh...

We seem to be getting into the swing of this 'Irish thing..'  On another beautiful day with mostly bright sunshine and warmish 10-12C we managed a quiet bit of shopping in downtown Cork - a pleasant city of wide, tree-lined and 18th century house fronted streets, a leisurely drive to Cobh and a quick visit to the very interesting and well-presented Old Cork Jail. And believe it or not, not a single Irish publican got a sniff of our hard earned punt!

7 January

'Dere's no loonie like a Irish Loonie, and I should know!' (Spike Milligan).

Even though the legendary Goon was in fact born in India, he seems to have got it right! On the road from the picture -perfect seaport of Kinsale to Inishannon a group of true hardcore Irish loonies were out in the warm winter sun engaged in what they informed us is the very serious sport of 'Road Bowling'.

With very official looking warning signs displayed, 15-20 of 'da lads' were throwing a metal ball down the winding country road. Rules of Road Bowling are simple and similar to golf. The way it works is that the players and their supporters (there are many more supporters and advisers than players) hike off from the Pub at the bottom of the hill for about 2 kms. At the "T" the first player bowls the ball under-arm, down the road. After highly technical and always contradictory advice from supporters, the small group of specially trained 'bowlers' hurl the bowls down the road. Bends and the camber, all bring a special subtlety to the game, or so the players claim. At the end of the day, the team that takes the least number of throws to reach - yes you guessed it - the Pub, wins.

A bit further on, we hit a bit of a traffic jam around a nondescript country intersection. Hundreds of people were flocking to an open boggy field where a number of tractors were lined up. Always assuming the prevalence of the normal we assured ourselves that all we had come upon was a 'farmer's field day'. Further up the road the real secret was revealed. What we had observed was a ploughing competition! - Give them a bit of good weather and there is no limit to what the Irish will do to amuse themselves outdoors!

8 -11 January

Irish hospitality is to be blamed for the major lapse in discipline in maintaining our diary over the past few days!

County Kerry markets itself as a 'sub-tropical' paradise. Having lived in the sub-tropics and tropics all our lives, our expectations of a sub-tropical winter have been somewhat dashed in the beautiful south-west. Granted, the amount of sunlight and blue sky is well up to and even beyond our expectations, but the temperature is far from sub-tropical! Maximums of 7-8C are the best we have had over the past few days. However with the blue sky and sun it has been extremely pleasant.

In Tralee, we visited Sally and Mark Smith at their recently sold nursery just outside town. Sally and her girlfriend had visited the O'Neill family frequently during a four year stay in Australia in the mid 60s. Our arrival without warning after 'only' 35 years was somewhat of a thrill all round.

Irish hospitality is simply overwhelming! To say no to anything on offer is so difficult it becomes impossible. Consequently we have given in totally and spent the last few days with the Smiths and the Bowlers (Eammon and Joan). The Bowlers have no connection with us except that their nephew is soon to join the O'Neill clan through marriage. Nevertheless, one phone call had us welcomed into their home above their successful supermarket in the small Kerry town of Cahirsiveen.

With Cahirsiveen and Tralee as bases we were at leisure to explore the Dingle peninsula and the famed Ring of Kerry. Both were splendid in the 'scattered bright sunlight' - an Irish weather bureau term -. However, in our view, the Dingle peninsula is under-rated in comparison to the Ring.

One disappointing feature of both areas, and probably Ireland as a whole, is the loss of character that rapid development is bringing all over the island. Thatched cottages are so rare now that most are restaurants or craft cottages. Derelict stone cottages stand in the fields everywhere, but few are being renovated to maintain the character of the landscape. Instead, new houses are growing like mushrooms all over the country.

Some traditional industries still survive. Peat cutting in the lowland 'Bogs' has provided fuel for thousands of years in Ireland. Peat can be best described as 'early cut' coal. Formed over millions of years, the bogs contain decomposed forests that when cut and dried, provide a relatively clean and very accessible fuel for the fires that have always been needed in the Irish winter. Today tractors cut the peat. But only forty years ago, this was a manual exercise using specially shaped shovels. Ponies hauled the peat to the road for collection and whole villages depended on this as their only fuel for cooking and heating.

Tonight we are in a beach carpark outside Galway - and yes we did see the 'sun go down over Galway Bay'!

12 - 13 January

'Poking about' best describes what we have been up to over the past couple of days. With fairly mild clear days, we have looked around Galway, driven the coast around the spectacular Cliffs of Moher in County Clare where Janita's ancestors came from and had a quick look at Limerick.

Having English language radio after so many months has put us back in contact with the world. At the same time it has opened a window on the Irish way of life that has often had us in stitches. Accents aside, Irish radio is a hoot! Every talk-back caller sounds like a character in a comedy sketch. Common names like Seamus, Sean, Paddy and Michael add to the effect. Gerry Ryan is one of the local household names in talk-back. With much the same techniques as purveyors of this art all over the world, Gerry draws the most amazing characters. In one sequence, a caller called to complain about the local communications provider 'Eirecom', who he believed was using his home phone account to test all the faulty lines in the country. Callers jammed the lines with more and more outrageous stories of the underhanded business practices of the telecom giant. Including one who was observing one of the offending operatives in her very street. As she described the clandestine 'phone-tapping', Gerry maintained a serious mood, playing out every shred of 'big brother' paranoia! - Great radio! and so Irish.

Our laid back attitude to the serious business of travel only seems to have come upon us in Ireland. Is it that we have finally settled into the groove after four months on the road or is it the ease of travelling in this wonderful country? The latter is probably the main cause. Although one feature that may not have contributed to our current relaxed mode is the roads! Granted, much effort seems to be going into upgrading major trunk roads. But! most country roads are in an atrocious state. Potholes that are well up to Romanian standards, poor signage and narrow, narrow roads that are not coping at all well with the traffic demand, are the norm away from the main highways.

We visited Bunratty Castle outside Limerick today (13 th). It was a bit of a mixed bag. The castle itself is very small and while well restored and presented, it lacks the scale and grandeur of many others we have seen. The attached heritage village on the other hand was great. A full village street and accompanying cottages are presented down to the most minute detail, including peat fires.

After a quick drive on a most pleasant sunny day, we are back in Dublin tonight preparing for our ferry trip back to the UK on Monday morning.

14 January

Drove into central Dublin today and parked for most of the day just behind Trinity College. The city was very sunny, but bright sun and clear blue skies were a portent of another freezing night. Having seen the Book of Kells - it's only a book after all! - we had time to kill before meeting a prospective in-law, the aunt of our soon to be Irish brother-in-law.

By chance we were parked around the corner from the Irish National Museum so we wandered around to fill in the afternoon. What a surprise. This has to be the best free attraction in Dublin. Interesting displays featuring the tumult that has been recent Irish history and an extensive Viking history exposition kept us busy for a couple of hours.

After a beer and a pleasant chat with our soon to be 'aunty Patsy', we headed for the 'salubrious' Dublin docks, our home for the night while we awaited our early morning departure for Holyhead in Wales. Remember the fact that we were heading for WALES. It will be important later....


15 - 16 January

Without heating (no power) we expected a very uncomfortable night on the Stena Line dock as we waited with the ever-present 'lorries'. The micro-climate effect of the proximity of the sea and the large concentration of industry and 'tarmac' kept the inside temperature at a respectable 5C. A lot better than the -5C that we had expected!

According to conversations that we overheard on the ferry, the day was a one in a hundred experience. As we left the Port of Dublin the more hearty of us, a score or so, strolled the decks in the sun enjoying a not oft repeated view of the city and its hinterland. The trip was a very slow one (3 1/2 hours) as the usual service, the HSS Superfast ferry was undergoing a winter refit.

The Irish sea has a very bad reputation, but today, as it was when we came to Ireland, it was on its best behaviour. Without a word of a lie a '12ft tinnie' could have made the trip on the billiard table seas. The anti-seasickness tablets we had bought for Lizzie, our not-so-happy sailor, were superfluous.

Approaching the coast, the views were something that had to be shared, so Paul ducked below to inform the female members of the party that they should go up on deck " 'cause you could see Wales." Only the more spirited, and senior of the two was sufficiently excited to leave the warm lounge. Some minutes later she returned wanting to know which side I saw THE whales, because she couldn't see THEM at all! It is important to realise at this juncture that this was just after midday and well before 'officially sanctioned serious drinking time!'

After overnighting in a very pleasant caravan park on the outskirts of Birmingham, we joined the heavy flow of motorway traffic and thundered on to London on the sunny but icy M40. A quick afternoon bus trip to town and a walk up Regent Street was all we could fit in on this very cold afternoon.

Stars fill the clear sky tonight. For once however this is not terribly good news. Weather forecasters tell us that a large very cold air mass has settled over the UK. We expect -5C tonight, but with our trusty fan heater we will be snug!