Tag Archives: stone walls

Things Irish

First posted in Oct. 9, 2007
Blarney–we heard many a tall tale in Ireland and the gift of the gab runs through many, it seems. Now that we’re nearly on the home-front we’ve checked the internet and if Liam’s fish whacking is a record it’s only in Killybegs or Donegal as there is no listing. But somehow we’re not surprised by this in the least.

Almost all the toilet bowls in Ireland are quite roundish, kinda cute…as toilet bowls go. The handles are on the right instead of the left in Canadian/US toilets. Why one side or the other, who knows?

Latches on almost every bathroom door are slide latches. It seems to be the latch style of choice. Door knobs on exterior doors are often in the middle of the door.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a face cloth at any B&B or guesthouse. I hate water in my face so I always use one. Luckily I brought my own.

About 80% of the places we stayed didn’t have hairdryers.

Everything from toothbrushes (equiv. of $8-13) to hair mousse (equiv. of $10) is really expensive.

I’ve been called love or lass but no other form, besides “girls.” So my friends who think chicken (never heard this one even the first time around Eng. and Scotland many years ago) must be remembering a local idiom from somewhere.

I was told that no matter where you are there pretty much would be the friendly Irish and you wouldn’t be sitting alone for long or they would start buying you drinks. This friendliness was apparent in the towns but by no means universal. The resort areas and modern cities were as friendly…or as unfriendly as every big, trendy place. Kilkenny would have been the same except for the lads from the North.

Food was generally of high quality and in large quantities. I had a traditional cod (I think) and cabbage dish in a creamy sauce. The cabbage is more the savoy cabbage and it wasn’t bad. In the pubs the drinks all have their name brand glasses so you’ll get Bulmer’s cider in a Bulmer glass, Carlsberg, or Guinness in their glasses with the name on them. Some of the pubs in the west and the south still have the small coal fireplaces, and they are indeed stoked with coal. Oh and at least in Donegal, pub night is a Monday, perhaps to celebrate getting through the first day of work.

Every town or village goes back centuries so the streets are narrow and winding, the buildings tall and joined together as row houses. As you get farther out from the town center you encounter newer row houses, or individual dwellings. These seem to be quite large and have at least four bedrooms. That’s why there are so many B&B’s in Ireland.

Traffic circles and few lights. They’re insane and you’ll get honked at for doing it wrong but then find in the next town that it’s different. Speed limits are for decoration. If you see a sign for 60 km, people will easily be going 120. The small roads are usually 60-80 km and the highways 100-120 km. Often you’re getting up to 80 then having to drop down to 30 two blocks later for a traffic circle (roundabout) and this goes on.

We only saw one farmer with a horse and buggy but saw some country fellows in the typical cap, jacket, baggy pants with shiny bottom, and wellies.

Ireland is green and after a few millennia of deforestation, there are border trees and groves, a few protected forests. It was a stunning thing to see flying over the country. However, we did see areas of reforestation. When flying I couldn’t figure out why the trees looked as if they were combed. It was because they had been planted at some point.

Irish roads are almost all bordered by hedgerows or stone fences. There may also be trees that have been growing there for a long while that form tunnels as the branches reach above and leave space enough for car and lorries to go through. It definitely gave a different feel to the countryside. The hedgerows and stone walls are everywhere. We were told by one B&B owner that they recycle everything, so if an old wall is pulled down, those stones are used again to build something new. Makes sense when you consider that a country with 5,000 years of habitation needs to re-use what is there.

It was also interesting seeing the Irish looking face. I never realized how Irish my friend Sam looked. His dad was Irish, and Sam would blend right in in Ireland. Many men have triangular faces with wide brows that may be lined or more wizened then their years. There is the white skin and rosy cheeks of an Irish complexion too. It made me realize where some of my friends’ ancestry began.

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The Stones of Ireland: II

Continued from the previous day’s post.

Kinbane CastleWe travelled to the Cliffs of Moher in northwestern Ireland, the tallest in Europe. Rugged and impressive, they remained formidable to drive up and to look down. The sheer audacity of Kinbane castle in Northern Ireland built down a very steep hill right on the promontory of the North Sea kept it impenetrable for years. Out near Kinvara and in the Burren were the Ailwee Caves, great underground caverns carved millennia ago by a subterranean river, fossils and minerals sparkling like the realm of Hades. Cool, pitch black except when they turned on the lights, and a den for extinct European brown bears, their might was in their endurance and solidity.

The Burren was as impressive in its way as the Giants Causeway. At some point in the ancient past a mountain or volcano erupted, spewing tons of flowing mud down mountain and hill. Eventually it solidified into grey rock but still has that look of a mud flow. Smooth in spots, rippled in others, there are dips that are treacherous to walk over but where wind and rain have blown deposits of soil over the centuries. There in those protected trenches are a myriad of plant life, some uniqe to that area.

The Burren

The Burren butts up to a rugged shoreline near Kinvara, but on the higher hills it is barren stone, short shrubs and the tiny plants that grow in their coves. Everywhere through this area are stone walls and hill forts that were stacked by hand centuries ago. In fact the stone walls are abundant throughout Ireland but rule supreme in the Burren. The stones might be stacked on their edges, resting against each other, placed flat on top of each other, or made with their widest sides facing out. Some are mortared, and they are ageless. They could have been built a week ago or a thousand years ago. They were used as natural boundaries, pens for cattle and sheep and as fortifications. I’ve been told that they now work at protecting species of flora and fauna throughout the emerald isle, working as borders where invasive species don’t encroach.

Upon the Burren with its hard, alien looking surface, unable to really support any crop, somehow people eked out a life, for centuries. And topping it was Poulnabrone Dolmen, a passage tomb made of four giant slabs of stone with a fifth resting atop them like a table. You can look through beneath the table stone, from one world perhaps to the next. It has stood for over 5,000 years, a part of every person’s life who lived upon the Burren.

All lands have stone in one form or another. Rock is the foundation of our world from its magma core to the volcanic eruptions and tectonic shifts that show our planet is alive. From sand and pebble to rock and boulder, stones have always been there to support and shelter. The Irish reuse the stones from any old building torn down, reworking it into something new.

The strong sense of the history of the stones, from the monasteries and castles to the cemetery tombs and headstones, to the walls and hill forts, they all spoke of a true Irish intimacy with stone. There is history, life and death. There is art, utilitarian purpose and mystery. And most of all, there is community; thousand of years of life with each person using what had come before, the ruins or the dead not forgotten but integrated into continuing family rituals. Ireland truly taught me the endurance of time and of stories shown in its stone, its very foundation. stone walls

The picture at the top of my blog is taken from the top of Blarney castle. All pictures are copyrighted.

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The Stones of Ireland: I

Giants Causeway In October, 2007 I travelled to Ireland, a place I had wanted to visit for years. I’m not sure why exactly as there is no Irish in my blood and other countries have more and bigger castles. It was more the sense of rolling green hills and the land of faery, a romantic notion perhaps.

We circumnavigated Ireland in two weeks, going north, then west, then south and east, starting and ending in Dublin. There were some key sites we wanted to see but then let ourselves be guided by road signs and guide books.

This was a mostly outdoor expedition involving trips to old castles and monasteries and some cemeteries, as well as driving through the changing landscape. The history of the architecture and how it had changed over time was fascinating, small enclosures and Viking settlements built over with increasingly sophisticated fortifications or ecclesiastical buildings.

Newgrange and Knowth were amazing in that these structures were built over 5,000 years ago and are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some of the passage tombs fell apart or were scavenged for stones for other buildings and roads. Many of these barrows have a corridor or an interior built with slabs of stone, then dirt is mounded over. Newgrange’s corbeled stone roof has never leaked in 5,000 years. The hummocked hills gave rise to the tales of the homes of the sidhe and the Tuatha de Danan.

Knowth BarrowsOther barrows were built over with time, dirt being added, and villages or cattle settling upon them. Some of their original use is a mystery but some contain bones or human ashes. Others may have been ceremonial or religious structures. Newgrange is the most impressive as it was built upon a hill and the outer wall lined with white quartz (this was rebuilt in more recent times and there is argument as to how it may actually have been placed), which would be striking in the bright sun and visible for miles around.

Giants Causeway on the north coat of Northern Ireland was a natural structure of basalt rock that had been rapidly heated and cooled millennia ago causing large octagonal pillars to form. They break apart in slabs, maintaining their structure and can be walked over like steps. Some form natural seats or chairs. There is a section called the organ because it looks like a giant pipe organ in the hill. There seems to only be that one area in Ireland that has such unique stones.

The castles and monasteries abounded as well as the very old cemetery of Monasterboice with the millennium old tower (imagine Rapunzel) that they believe was used for storage, sanctuary and to watch for marauders. Some of the carvings on pillars still showed wonderful detail; leaves, faces both animal and human, various designs. Some of the blocks of stone seemed to have been placed with a sense of tone, dark and light stones alternating, or smaller pebbles placed in the mortar between larger stones.

Over the centuries many of these castles and churches fell into ruin but they were not abandoned. Tombs and graves pepper every place. The oldest monastery floors are nothing but tomb after tomb. There is nothing to do but walk over the bones of the past. Even walls have been taken over, a person interred into the very foundation and a plaque sealing them in. The oldest readable stones go to the 1700s. Older than that, the words become too worn away, by feet and weather. There are graves dating over a thousand years in some cases, right up to months of the current date.

Some graveyards have been held by the ruling families or clans and there might be dozens of McDonnells buried in one area such as Ballycastle. Other graves are family plots and in the more modern ones, configured by a low fence, a bar, about six inches from the ground. These more modern plots have pebbled glass or stone in different combinations of color, and some flowers, real or not. Some are very individual. Headstones often denote many generations entombed in the plot, going back a century or more. At one Benedictine monastery there was a family of four cleaning and smoothing the stones of their family’s plot on a sunny day.

Continued tomorrow

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