Muckross Memories

Months after our return to California, my heart and mind still lingers in Ireland, thanks in part to following fellow blogger Ed Mooney’s fascinating photo blog: . Ed fashions himself Ruinhunter, and he is not exaggerating. Some of his posts got me to thinking: What ruins did we see and not write a post about?

We Approach the Abbey Over Lush Green Grass

We Approach the Abbey Over Lush Green Grass

Muckross Abbey jumped to mind, probably one of the most visited of the Irish ruins, situated in the famous Killarney National Park. I reported a lot about our visit there in another post and now would like to share something about our shimmering morning spent there in June.

We had gotten an early start that day, arriving at Killarney National Park before the guided sites were open. No matter, as I am an aficionado of monasteries and other spiritual sites, witness my Pinterest board, Monasteries and other Spiritual Homes and my post about Skellig Michael (this blog, A Pilgrimage of Puffins). Muckross Abbey is one of a multitude of Irish sites that combine ruins and monasteries, so here we go.

It was one of those off-again, on-again, rainy mornings of an early Irish June. Leaving our car in the parking lot, daughter and I hoofed it right away to the Abbey which was virtually deserted at that hour. A quiet and settled mood came over us as we entered this spiritual enclave, home to Observatine Franciscans who practiced a rather severe monastic rule.

Some Interesting Facts in English and Irish

Some Interesting Facts in English and Irish

I am somewhat familiar with Franciscan Orders, which, like so many monastic orders went through numerous reforms through time. The community at Muckross, established in the 15th century, was founded much later than the community at Skellig Michael, which we were to visit just a few days later. In contrast to the rocky outcrops sought out by their 7th century antecedents, the monks at Muckross established their friary on the lush shores of the waters of Muckross (middle) Lake, and built themselves a solid edifice which has stood up pretty well over time.

We approached the abbey through its adjacent cemetery, which showed evidence of use by the nearby Muckross House and local residents through the centuries.

A lovely cloister enclosed an ancient yew tree in the abbey proper. We made our way around the ground floor, dominated by the chapel and bell tower, then climbed upstairs to see where meals were prepared, the dining hall and living quarters. We were struck by how easy it was, even after all these centuries, to make out the ancient uses of various rooms. Many of the features, such as the gothic stone arched windows were reassuring familiar from elsewhere in Europe, but the lush greenery declared the site as pure Emerald Isle.

One of the lovely arched windows of Muckross Abbey

One of the lovely arched windows of Muckross Abbey

Outside again, we wandered the nearby grounds, discovering more gravesites and trail heads to the former gardens.

Daughter Catches me in my Orange Raincoat, wandering the Abbey Grounds

Daughter Catches me in my Orange Raincoat, wandering the Abbey Grounds

The heartbreaking, recurrent obsession of politicians to grab the holdings of religious orders was in evidence here by the suppression of the abbey by Henry the VIII and the even more devastating Cromwellian takeover in 1652. No secular land grab could completely obliterate the spiritual marks left by the holy men of Muckross Abbey. I could feel a peace seep into my soul as we wandered through what still feels like a holy site. I believe the blessings of this devotional space followed us throughout the day paving the way for a touching, if private mother daughter moment later on during our return from a walk out to the meeting of the waters.

Meeting of the Waters, Melting of the Hearts

Meeting of the Waters, Melting of the Hearts

Beautiful, Bountiful Bath

Any number of day trips may be undertaken from Oxford, our home base in the UK. Blenheim Palace is probably the most popular one, but we chose Bath for our escape-from-Oxford day.

Austen, Gilbert and Sullivan 

Almost everything I knew about Bath before our visit came from Jane Austen novels, movies and TV dramas, so the day was full of new information and surprises. Now, I knew the term “Sally Lunn” from The Sorcerer, ( a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta), but I only knew that it was some kind of bun. Still, this was one “bee-in-the-bonnet” pilgrimage for me (since I am a dyed-in-the-wool G&S and Lamplighter fan.)

Sweet Sally Lunn

Arriving in town at nearly noon, we walked along the North Parade Passage from the bus station and quickly encountered Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House, a tea room that is considered the oldest house in Bath.

Sweet Sally Lunn's

Sweet Sally Lunn’s

The building itself dates from the 1400’s, as evidenced by its Roman-era foundation (there is a tiny museum in the basement.) Sally Lunn came along in the seventeenth century, a French Hugeunot immigrant who brought (or made up) the recipe for the brioche-like “bun” popular ever since as a base for sweet or savory fillings. Only a servant at the time, her buns became so popular that they have carried her name ever since. The tea house entry is tiny; the host and servers trip a little dance in and out of narrow passages connecting the kitchen in the back to the ground floor tea room and the upper dining room. Small rooms in English tea houses are more the norm than the exception, and we were duly ushered to a prime table at the back of the ground floor tea room. Did I mention it was lunch time?  I ordered a steak thresher, half a Sally Lunn with a lovely, tasty stew-like topping that was just as delicious as the daughter’s Welsh Rarebit. Naturally, we ordered Sally’s own blend of tea to go with. The hearty meal left us feeling ready to explore, and we found our way downstairs to the basement museum and gift shop where we bought two more buns to take back to Oxford for our snacking and breakfast pleasure. Now, don’t imagine that a bun is the size of a muffin. Light and airy as they are, they seem the size of a small to medium sized cantaloupe. At Sally Lunn’s, most of the offerings have half a Sally Lunn as their base, the top for sweet toppings, and the bottom for savory. However, you can eat all you want if you buy some to go. With our own buns boxed and bagged, we had no trouble carrying the precious cargo around Bath for the day.

A Roman Holiday

The Celts were already worshipping the goddess Sulis, who the Romans appropriated as Minerva

The Celts were already worshipping the goddess Sulis, who the Romans appropriated as Minerva

Next up, and highlight of the day was yet another World Heritage Site, the recently restored Roman Baths. Now I am a hot springs aficionado, and have visited Roman baths in various states of preservation in different parts of the world (Pompeii, Masada) but this restoration really brings the hot bath experience to life. When the Romans discovered this excellent source of natural hot springs, they built a resort town along with a sophisticated spiritual center and elaborate baths. Falling into wrack and ruin over the centuries, the town of Bath nevertheless has been an important holiday destination for the English over the centuries. Although, I must say the Brits left the best part (the baths themselves) languishing for a very long time.

We did not have time to enjoy all three options at the Roman Baths  

 (we skipped the Fashion Museum and Victoria Art Gallery), but we did take a leisurely approach to viewing the Baths, where the audio-guided tour has you meander past the main pool, up the stairs to the open air gallery, and back down through the many rooms the ancient roman architects designed for the then state-of-the-art bathhouse. With heated floors, dry heat rooms, massage areas and more, I cannot say that modern builders have done any better. Still, there is finally a modern spa adjacent to the historical baths where it is now possible to enjoy all the restorative joys of natural hot springs and massage.

Artifacts of the religious practices of the day are among the most interesting here, with the beautiful face of Minerva the most impressive. We were also fascinated by little inscribed scrolls for petitions to the gods, mostly curses asking for revenge for some stolen object. Many of these have been translated and really give some insight into how precious some material possessions were to the common people.

Oh, Mr. Darcy! 

By the Regency era, the time period for Jane Austen’s novels, “taking the waters” was mostly enjoyed by visiting the Pump Room, where “taking” equals “drinking”. Today, the historic “Pump Room” is an expansive, high-end tea room, sometimes with live music playing. And yes, you can walk through, marvel at the beauty of the room, and “take the water” from a glassful drawn by staff from the pump! You can almost picture Mrs. Bennett, fluttering narcissistically and hypochondriacally nearby. Exiting the big room, we sat on a low bench in the exit hall, marveling at a huge embroidered tapestry of the English monarchy and it lines of succession.

Thus primed for some literary reminiscing, we made our way to the Jane Austen Center. The house on Gay Street turned museum is very similar to one that Jane’s family lived in giving us an intimate idea of the genteel, if not wealthy, family life Jane led. Here we learned about Jane Austen whose own love life did not parallel that of her lucky heroines. We even tried on some Regency era costumes!

Pressed for time, as our bus was set to leave around 5, we walked to Regency Circle to view the lovely, upper class enclave, enjoying the streets of Bath in both directions. We found that 5 hours in Bath was nowhere near enough.

If I had it to do over?

I really wish I had done a bit more research on the bus schedule. It is probably cheaper, but a false economy to take the National Express rather than a guided tour from Oxford to Bath. The first bus in the morning is at an ungodly hour for tourists, and it is a two hour trip. So leaving Bath at 10 got us in at noon. We could have taken a later bus to return (7pm instead of 5pm), but we had bought tickets and would have forfeited the fare for that later return. So, I think I would opt for an organized tour giving a longer day in Bath, or even arrange to stay a night there.  Day trip, or overnight, Bath is worth a visit!

The Modern Irish Hostel

Here is one writer’s take on the modern Irish hostel!

Working Holiday Ireland

Best Boutique Hostels and Unique Budget Stays Along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Best Boutique Hostels and Unique Budget Stays Along Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

When I suggested we stay in hostels on our Wild Atlantic Way trip, Liam groaned, “I did hostels thirty years ago. I’m waaaaaay beyond the age of traveling like that.”

He proceeded to recount tales of waking up to a goat in his room, a bathroom with a clear glass door that didn’t lock, and a blanket covered in creepy-crawlies. I assured him I had vetted the properties on my list and, at the very least, promised clean rooms with no bugs.

Meanwhile, Tony resorted to negotiation, “I’m okay with hostels, but I want our room to have its own bathroom… and no stinky dorms.”

“No problem,” I answered and began dialing the number for the hostel in Killybegs. Two minutes later we were booked into a family room at The…

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Oxford, Oxford, Oxenfree!

At least we didn’t see any oxen during our six day stay there. Anthropologists and Archeologists tell us that place names are about the most persistent of terms, and Oxford is no exception to that general rule. It is surmised that Oxford was initially a place along the river where it was possible to cross (ford)  with your Ox. Not that you asked.

In a previous post, I talked about our accommodations, orientation and musical moments. Now I would like to share more highlights of things to do and see there.

We only scratched the surface, I know, there is so much more to see and do.

Oxford is great for people who are aficionados of certain cultural favorites, among them Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis among the other members of the Inklings (a writers’ group of the early- to mid-twentieth century), Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Harry Potter, of course and other more obscure literary, scientific and philosophical luminaries. You could really build a visit to Oxford on any of those interests, or even just on a pub crawl!

This would be a tough call for me, of course, as I have to count Alice, the Inklings with an emphasis on all things Hobbiton and Perelandrian, as well as cool TV detectives. This is the angst of the true generalist (or Renaissance woman, if you will,) choosing among passions. So I will just stick to what we actually did. However, if you are a big fan of one Oxfordian thing or another, the visitor center has great books and walking tours for all of the aforementioned interests.

It is an organic and obvious choice to begin your Oxford explorations in Radcliffe Square. Virtually all in-town sights are within easy walking distance for a fit adult of any age. It is not the distance between things, but the sheer density of possibilities that make it hard to fit everything in, even with almost a week in town. Radcliffe Square is a genial place to find yourself, as we did on our very first day. Bordering it are several of the “must-see’s”, and we took in:

The Tantalizing but Inaccessible Radcliffe Camera

OK, so I thought it might be an observatory, but in this instance the word “camera” derives from the latin (surprise!) word for room, and that is just what this iconic landmark is. Here is where Oxford students matriculate. It is now also used as a reading room for the nearby Bodleian Library. Students may come and go, but if there is a way for the unconnected tourist to enter, we did not learn it. Still, it is a beautiful centerpiece for the square in all its roundness and with the patina-graced cupola. I was filled with an unrequited desire to enter.

 The Bodleian Library

Claiming to be the world’s most famous library, the Bodleian is certainly one of the most significant, not least because it also serves as copyright protector. Thus, it houses a copy of each and every publication in the UK. As with many of the sights in Oxford, tours are offered at certain times, so getting organized for it early in the day will help you save time. I cannot claim we took that reasonable approach, however. A tour is definitely called for, as the ancient parts of the library are both interesting and beautiful.

The Sheldonian Theatre

Just another Wren Masterpiece

Just another Wren Masterpiece

One of Christopher Wren’s great works, the Sheldonian Theatre is open and spacious, with a circular floor for performances, etc. We guided ourselves through relatively late in the day and felt lucky to be able to squeeze it in. Late on a weekday afternoon,  we found ourselves in a circular, terrabed room flanked with large clear windos. On our own (and unobserved, our young soprano seize this first rate opportunity to test both the condition of her own pipes and the room’s acoustics. The Sheldonian is graced by another beautiful cupola, and wonderful views reward stalwart stair climbers. Let me tell you, a trip the the isles, British and otherwise, is a fitness plan in itself!

St. Mary the Virgin

The Chancel

This is Oxford’s official church, and is worth a visit, especially if you like old Church of England churches with their choir chancels, etc. During the reformation, virtually all of the churches were converted from Roman Catholic to Church of England. (Remember Martin Luther, Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn, right?) That divorce, as we know, led to centuries of fatal back-and-forthing in an era where religious faith and political alliance were almost indistinguihable. Oxford was the scene of martyrs on both sides of this now silly-seeming, and bloody argument. There is a plaque in St. Mary’s honoring those martyrs on both sides.

The Vault and Gardens

We enjyed tea at this hard-to-miss lunch and tea house that operates out of the basement and former church yard of St. Mary the Virgin. Unless it is really pouring down rain, take your tea outside. Yummy tea and scones, but it is hard to come by a bad cream tea in Oxford. Sitting outside, you can admire the aforementioned Radcliffe Camera and wonder how a person gets inside (without matriculating, that is.)

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs

It is just to look at, but another of the iconic sights right around Radcliffe Square.

The Ashmolean Museum

Should there be any lingering doubt in your mind, yes, we are out as culture-vultures and try to visit museums (at least one) wherever we find ourselves. The Ashmolean has a huge collection, and, in addition to seeing some of the art highlights by Gainsborough, Manet and some of the other greats, we took the time to look at the exhibition Love Bites featuring the work of the early political cartoonist, James Gillray.

Botanical Gardens

To me, few breaks are more refreshing than a picnic lunch in beautiful green surroundings. We treated ourselves to delicious sandwiches from Olives, a deli in the High Street that claims to be the favorite of students. I believe it. Not only were the extremely tasty sandwiches hand made on very fresh baguettes, but the service was fast, efficient and courteous. We earned our calories, but saved a few by washing our bread and meat down with water, instead of beer, for a change.

The Botanical Gardens are no mere decorative resting spot, but a teaching garden. As a home gardener, I enjoyed strolling the arboretum-like setting, noting the plant varieties and appreciating all the work involved in growing and keeping such an oasis of herbal learning. Besides that, it is a great way to slow the pace and take a break from indoor activities.

The Colleges

Well, yes, you can see the colleges. Most are restricted in terms of when you can enter, however. Do not take this personally, as these are old-fashioned, residential colleges. Some are free, but the most popular do charge admission. It is very easy to spend a lot of money on admission to attractions, so it is good to know that if you go to a religious service at any of them you can get into the cathedral or church, and see the adjacent grounds for free. Here is our particular sampling:

Christ Church

I won’t go into detail about this famous college. Although we did not pay to visit the college itself, we did see the public gardens on a walking tour, including the wonderful herbaceous borders and expansive lawn that inspired Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodson) as he wrote Alice in Wonderland. We did, however attend Evensong, crossing the quad and getting into the Cathedral for free. Check out my Onward to Oxford post for that adventure.

Magdalene College

Magdelen College Dining Hall

Boasting the most extensive grounds with a lovely riverside walk and deer park as well as lovely cloisters, Madgalene College is a real treat to go through. Mid-week, it was not at all crowded and we took our time with the best-written self-guided walking tour I have ever encountered. I especially enjoyed seeing the cloisters, the dining hall, and the river walk. For the literary crowd, Oscar Wilde was a student there, and JRR Tolkien would certainly have visited friends there, although his association with Merton College is based on firmer footing.

Drum Roll: Pub Crawl

At our “Funky Crowley Flat” Air BnB, guests may color in and opine on their pub visits. Postcards available at tourist information center.

At our "Funky Crowley Flat" BnB, guests may color in and opine on their pub visits. Postcards available at tourist information center.

At our “Funky Crowley Flat” BnB, guests may color in and opine on their pub visits. Postcards available at tourist information center.

You could base your entire visit to Oxford on a pub crawl, which we did not do, although we visited a few as a mother/daughter dyad. Daughter Autumn did do a pub crawl or two with people met along the way (here a nod to our BnB host, Adam, who is in the same age range and showed her around a bit). English pubs are more drinks- and less music-oriented than Irish ones, and I missed the craic. But the food can be good, and it is always nice to have somewhere besides a tea house to pop into in case of rain. The beer selections were always pretty extensive, and the warren-like establishments are fun to sit and sip in. Just ask for the wireless password and you can save your data plan. (Or Face Time with your SO instead of an expensive call.)

Last but not Least: Oxford Castle, Unlocked

Our guide in the guise of a real wild woman from the day.

Our guide in the guise of a real wild woman from the day.

We fit this site in on our last morning in Oxford. It is a little bit off the beaten path of the colleges, but provides a fun and rich historical background to the town of Oxford itself. Our tour guide was a wonderfully entertaining young reenactor, costumed as a real criminal from the time when the castle was a prison. At the top of the tower is another great and different view of the “City of Dreaming Spires”. It was a hit with both of us for being both entertaining and historically accurate. The Castle has been renovated in recent years, with the museum holding only a portion of the Castle itself. The rest of it is now a fancy hotel. Check it out if you want to sleep in a Castle/prison!

I doubt that I have managed to chronicle everything we did in Oxford, but this is a good representative sample. Watch for a future post on our day trip to Bath, which deserves its own space.

Onward to Oxford

Our UK Home


Funky Cowley Road Flat Front Door

Our somewhat unconventional itinerary has us using Oxford as our home base for our entire 5 night stay in the UK. After our whirlwind tour of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way (and then some), we figured staying put for several days would be a great change of pace. We could see a part of England that we had not yet explored, and work in a couple of day trips if we liked. Having visited London several times, I was fine with skipping it altogether and figured daughter Autumn could go on her own if she wanted more of an urban flavor to the English leg of our trip.

Upon arrival in Oxford by train, we took a taxi to the small apartment that we had arranged through Air BnB, the Funky Cowley Road Flat, Central Oxford. On Cowley Road, just steps southeast of the River Cherwell and the Magdalen (pronounced “maud uh lyn”) bridge, our location turned out to be just right, outside the noisiest of Oxford’s hustle-bustle, but still within a half-block of some great places to eat.

We started our stay with an Indian meal, at one of the best Indian restaurants I have ever tried, and I have tried many here in the SF Bay Area (Berkeley, notably) and elsewhere in the UK. Majilss Restaurant Restaurant at 110 Cowley Road was a real treat for us, especially as our taste buds, by now, were craving something spicy. Billing itself as an Indian-Bangladeshi restaurant, the staff was especially attentive and we enjoyed our meals immensely.

Orienting to Oxford

We arrived on Friday, June 12, evidently one of the busiest weekends of the academic year, when all the colleges hold final exams for each class. Our evidence of that, aside from the flood of visitors (including arrivals for summer programs), was the appearance of, initially, unfamiliar local customs. We saw young people, scholars around town (both on foot and the ubiquitous Oxford bicycle) wearing hip-length, open-fronted academic gowns, some with carnations pinned to  the front. Along the way, we learned that these were students in the midst of finals. The lucky (preparation meets opportunity) ones are celebrated in a very particular Oxford way. Waylaid by their friends, students who pass the exams are showered with some form of liquid (beer, champagne) then pelted with nice sticky things like flour, eggs, confetti (large pieces; we saw the empty tubes this stuff is sold in littering the streets) and whatever else is bound to leave a sticky mess, not just on the student, but on the sidewalk, street, stone college walls, you name it. Oxford has a centuries-long tradition of practical jokes, by the way, owing, I figure, to the fact that the university was a male bastion for centuries.

Bridge of Sighs

In our first walk-around, we found our way quickly down Catte Street, past St. Mary the Virgin, The Radcliffe Camera and the “Bridge of Sighs”. This area was to become our central landmark for all things Oxford University. In case, I haven’t mentioned it, Ireland has no monopoly on weather wetness, as you can see in the photo.

Musical Moments

Between orienting ourselves and mingling with the crowds on foot, we spent the weekend focused primarily on musical events. (Have I already mentioned that daughter Autumn has her Master’s in Music? I think so, the trip was in part a graduation gift.) Wandering through Radcliffe Square, the heart of Oxford University, we spied many advertising boards boasting of current musical offerings. Swinging by the excellent visitor information office on Broad Street, we picked up their Oxford Visitor’s Guide along with many brochures. An additional benefit of attending performances in Oxford is the opportunity to experience additional venues the locals use that you might not otherwise see. Plus, if you are like me, you can pretend you are (or are on a date with) Inspector Morse. (Or inspector Lewis, as the case may be.)
Over coffee in  a student hangout called The Buttery, we quickly sorted through musical options and landed on two must do’s.

Our excellent chamber music choices included The Oxford Chamber Orchestra, performing Sibelius (Finlandia), Finzi (Dies Natalis) and Brahms (Symphony no. 3) at the Wesley Memorial Church. I am not qualified as a music critic, but all the pieces sounded great to me. The Sibelius is a favorite, and the lovely and familiar Brahms was also a treat. The Finzi was not familiar to me, but it was to the other Autumn who gave her professional approval to the entire program.

Next morning, in lieu of church (I do enjoy Mass when I travel, but my companion and I differ here) we attended one of the Oxford Coffee Concerts (Ticket price included a coupon good for coffee at the nearby Vaults and Garden tea room). These weekly concerts happen in the Holywell Music Room, a light and airy venue with terraced seating. (Is that you next to me, Morse?) We were truly wowed by the Adderbury Ensemble with the Strauss Intermezzo and Schoenberg Verklarkte Nacht.

Now if you are wondering about pocketbook issues, we didn’t find that many free things anywhere along the trip, but we were given one musical freebie tip that we followed later in the week.
While in Oxford, viewing the colleges is challenging as most are open only at certain times to visitors, and many charge admission during those hours. However, if you go to Evensong (or any other religious service,) you will be welcomed (shepherded, even) and admitted for free! This was how we managed to get into Christchurch Cathedral.  

Not just another tourist attraction, we are a working college, if you please!

Evensong is a rare experience for me, but it is one of the Church of England’s most treasured forms of worship. We were ushered to seats in the intricately carved wooden stalls at Christchurch, one of the most famous of the college cathedrals. We attended and were welcomed, not as tourists, but as participants (although there is very little communal singing.) Being there for the full length of a service is a very different experience from the usual church/cathedral wander-through. As a congregant, I had the time to take in all the beauty of the place. The atmosphere changes and becomes reverent as the candle lamps in the choir stalls are lit and the officiants and choir process in. The bell-like quality of the young voices of, their boy-choir both sanctifies the mood and lends a piercing touch of beauty to the hour. While I deny using the boychoir and evensong as a sneaky way of getting my companion to attend a church service, I will admit to a fervent prayer or two of my own.

Adventures in Transit

Final Stretch 

Our journey from Kilkenny to Wexford had us passing through pastoral settings and villages such as New Ross. We had a 5:30 deadline to return the car in Wexford, so stayed focused on getting there. The car rental return was one of the less convenient aspects of the trip. There was no option for an after-hours drop off or one in Rosslare. This meant that we found ourselves without transport, but with luggage, in a city well worth a long evening visit. We saw essentially nothing of Wexford since it makes the most sense for ferry travelers to overnight in near the ferry terminal. Our only practical option after dropping the car was to get a taxi to our BnB in Rosslare, where we were pretty much stuck for the rest of our Ireland stay. 

Wexford and Rosslare

Rosslare is primarily a port city, the departure point for our ferry to Fishguard, Wales. Set on a low-lying peninsula, it has an industrial feel. Dining spots were few and far between. Quite a windy hike away from our BnB, we ate dinner at a hotel restauranr called “Fusion”. It was on the fancy side for a Chinese restaurant. As native San Franciscans, our standards for Chinese food are pretty high. We were’t expecting to be blown away, but found the food to be pretty good. Apparently, what made it “fusion” was the offering of “chips” (that is fries to our American friends) instead of rice to go with your entrée. 

Roadster Rally Parking in Rosslare

Once back at our BnB, we used the evening as a rest stop. The accommodation was perfectly suited to get us on time to the ferry; our host even gave us a ride.

Ferry To Fishguard 

Our three or so hour ferry crossing was uneventful; we sipped cappucinos while I blogged and half-listened to “Mamma Mia” which the ferry line “Stena” was showing in celebration of their anniversary.
That was sweet to me, as Autumn and I had seen the stage show in its first London run in 1999, a perfect mother/daughter outing.

Relaxing Aboard the Stena Ferry

On the UK side of the Irish Sea, we landed in Fishguard, Wales where were essentially discharged directly to the train station. Because it is the beginning (or end) of the train line, there was not too much opportunity for mistakes. Food options were limited, but I got a pretty tasty “baguette” (sandwich on baguette) for the train ride.

My singer and the “Stag Due”


Our Seat Mates Advise Us on the Stag Due Lads


Trains are great places to meet people and we drew a lively car, indeed, even with our reserved seats. While our seat companions were a middle-aged (recently retired) couple, the car was dominated by a group of young Irishmen in the UK for a “stag due” (stag party). While a few of the lads chatted up my companion, the lady we were sitting next to explained class distinctions and the complete lack of exposure to classical music. This was a relevant point as the young men had discovered Autumn’s singing talent and persuaded here to sing a song to the groom. The Puccini did go over their heads as you will understand from the Irish compliment “It’s too loud.” 


Two Stags for the Due

Lessons Learned or What I Might do Differently

Car Rental 

 Don’t allow yourself to be fast-talked into more insurance coverage than you really want. The insurance ended up exceeding the cost of the car rental. The only way to change the contract is to go in person to a branch of the car rental agency. Few and far between. Now, I didn’t hit anything, but some tourists do. I hear missing side view mirrors are a common mishap.

Google Maps

 OK, they are great both for driving and walking, but even with a global data plan, using Google Maps ate a lot of data and battery. If you have a patient navigator who really can read maps, you might opt for that. Get a real local street map, not just a tourist map.

Ferry and Train or Fly? 

 Our main concern about using ferries and trains was the lugging of bags, so we each had just one plus a carry-on. This did not turn out to be a problem, and we were advised to ask where the handicapped lift was in any station where we didn’t see a lift. We never had problems with lifts, but bathrooms (ask for the loo) were sometimes hard to find or even behind locked doors.

 We would have saved time, and maybe even money (short hops within Europe can be very cheap) if we had opted for returning the car to the Dublin airport and flying to Oxford from there. Given the inconvenience of rental car to ferry we experienced, I think it is worth checking out. 

Train Tickets

 I bought all our train tickets through which is a great site for it. There are multiple train services in the UK and I discovered that they are behind the times on automation. There was no print-at-home or e-ticket option. The assumption is that you will go to a train station and collect your ticket at a kiosk. Not all the train stations have kiosks, and in particular, our port of entry station did not have such a kiosk. Seriously? Port of entry station where you start your journey has no kiosk. Just how are you supposed to pick up your ticket if you are not already in the UK? Luckily, I was able to have the tickets sent to one of our BnB’s, but oh please, can we come into the 21st Century?

Itinerary Tweaks

 We started the trip by flying into Shannon, arriving at the crack of dawn. It worked extremely well to have the morning stop at Bunratty Castle and our first overnight in Killaloe. In addition to allowing me to adjust to driving on the other side of the road in light traffic conditions, it also made for a perfect recovery day.

 I would rework the next leg a bit. Instead of two nights in Galway, I would have broken the rule about aiming for a minimum of two nights per stop. Instead, I would have stayed the second night in Clifden and the third in Galway, allowing a bit more time for Connemara.

 One night in Killarney was enough for us. We were on the tired there and missed opportunities for Craic. Even with an evening out, the one night was plenty as we had planned two nights in Waterville. That worked very well, but with better planning, we might have worked in Derrynane. Our two nights in Kinsale seemed perfect, but it would have been nice to have made it three and spent an additional day trip to Cork.

 One night in Kilkenny was OK, but it could have been two. You could gain an extra sightseeing day by returning the car to Dublin and flying to the next destination from there.

 I am very outdoorsy, and was sorry to have to sacrifice the Wicklow mountains, but all in all, I think we did a lot and saw a fair bit of the real Ireland on our first ever visit. Now that I have the lay of the land, I am already thinking about how to organize another trip to the Emerald Isle.


Culminating in Kilkenny

The River Nore Runs Through It

Sweet Sorrow
It was with a bit of sadness that we approached Kilkenny, as it was to be our last Ireland stop, except for an overnight in Rosslare just to meet the ferry. It was also our only stop that could be considered “inland” as we had hugged the Wild Atlantic Way for most of our 12 day sojourn.
Of course, you are never far from the water in Ireland; if it is not pouring down on you from above or pounding itself on the coast, it is rolling by in a river. In Kilkenny, that would be the River Nore.

Pictures Don’t Do It Justice


What is not to like about a garden view?

Our accommodation, the Fanad House, was very conveniently located in easy walking distance to Kilkenny Castle. It was just as gracious, well-appointed and clean a guesthouse as we had come to expect in Ireland. Having settled in to our spacious room, another one with a fabulous garden view, we ambled down to Medieval Kilkenny for a pub dinner and a final evening of Craic. We started at Matt the Miller’s , a local pub where we enjoyed a good meal and Irish with Irish airs wafting to us from the small band playing from the second floor balcony. Fortified for the evening, we set out to walk the Medieval Mile, a walking route consisting of two parallel medieval streets that join at the bottom of the shopping and entertainment district. Kilkenny was alive, mid-week though it was with tourists and locals alike. Strolling along, we noticed a number of pubs where we might stop for a beer and some music.

Here it must be said that we were not, in general, impressed with the Irish sense of style, and our window shopping in Kilkenny, although among the best of them all, did not inspire.  Even indulging in a little fashion cattiness is a part of travel fun, it it not?

High Fashion, Kilkenny Style

Pub Crawl

We took the advice of the server at Matt the Miller’s and spent the evening at Kyteler’s Inn, . A rollicking if touristy pub, it is nevertheless a true medieval site dating back to 1263. Said to be haunted, Kyteler’s Inn boasts several quirky rooms and hosts live traditional music. Sipping a post-dinner Jameson’s, it was fun to listen to the lively music (including waltzing Matilda, which is not an  Irish song the last time I checked….) We people-watched, getting a real kick out of a few tourists who were mystified by a portrait that by turns, looked just like a regular painting of a lord or came alive, like the paintings out of Ruddygore (Gilbert and Sullivan operetta) or Harry Potter (too contemporary to require definition). The hologram-like spectre was just a clever ad for the nearby Smithwick’s Experience, but we had a chuckle watching a middle-aged man trying to interact with it.

Kytelers Inn Late in the Evening


Craic, craic and more craic!

The pub is the former home of a the daughter of a local, well to do merchant (Kyteler). Said daughter, Dame Alice Kyteler married several times, improving her material lot each time. So, of course, she was tried as a witch. She managed to escape to England, but her maidservant Petronella did not. That poor lass was tortured and burned at the stake. Dame Alice is said to still haunt the place (although it would seem Petronella has more cause.) We were fascinated to read about Dame Alice’s  facial resemblance to her modern day biographer, It is always fun to gather another story to make you ponder the question of ghosts and ghoulies.

If you can’t beat ’em, burn ’em!

Kilkenny Castle

Come morning, we enjoyed the usual hearty guesthouse breakfast and made our way on foot to the nearby Kilkenny Castle, the main attraction in Kilkenny. Now, you might think all these castles are alike, and certainly many have a lot in common, but Killkenny Castle stands apart from others we visited. For one, it is not a ruin, nor is it, like the equally fascinating Bunratty Castle, an example only of a very early stronghold. Dating from the 12th Century, and expanded and updated at various times through the centuries, it was the seat of the powerful Butler family for over 600 years. Like all families, this dynasty suffered its ups and downs . Eventually, in 1935, the family sold off the furnishings and allowed the site to fall into disrepair. During the nineteen-sixties, the then Marquess of Ormonde presented the impressive property to Ireland’s Office of Public Works. They have effected a sensitive and complete restoration so that a visit today brings alive a bygone era of wax make-up (shield my face from the fire!) and locking tea cabinets. Preceded by a tour group of uniformed primary schoolers, we moved from room to room, trying to imagine what it might have been like to grow up and live in such privileged surroundings during the different periods the rooms represented. By the way, the family portrait on the far wall in the photo is a Van Dyck, foreshadowing our ultimate destination, the Netherlands.

Inculcating a bit of History

Leaving the castle and heading toward the medieval mile again, we passed through the parade (plaza) area which was hosting a lovely farmer’s market. Fruit, bread, fish and sausages beckoned, but we held off on lunch until later.

And Now A Word From Our Mystic

I had yet to see a good example of a round tower, so we walked the mile again, this time all the way to St. Canice’s Cathedral and round tower at the bottom of the medieval sector. The tower, dating from the 9th century, hails from an era when monks led simple lives and the “close” around the monastery area held the small, secure part of the city. (Towers served as lookouts and safe havens.) St. Canice Cathedral proper is an early gothic example.  Still inside the walled close, the Cathedral is now surrounded by an ancient graveyard, which only adds to the fascination of the site.  Holy men and women of medieval times, anchorites were drawn to the Cathedral as well. Although you cannot see the cells where these hermits were voluntarily walled into the church, you can see where their tiny living quarters were and feel the deep spiritual conviction emanating through the centuries. If you are curious about anchorites, read about the life of St. Julian of Norwich a mystic who not only had visions, but who also was sought out as a spiritual advisor. At a time when theology expressed a lot of fear and loathing, St. Julian received only comforting messages from the Divine, most famously, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” But I digress. St. Julian was not at St. Canice’s, but her anchorite brethren were.

It Might as well be County Marin

All that churchy stuff (and the gentle climb back up toward the castle) had us hungry again, so we stopped at the farmer’s market for some eastern European sausages on rolls, and delightful local raspberries to go with.

Leaving Wanting More

Our Kilkenny visit was a bit too short; we could have done with another night of Craic and a visti to Smithwick’s Experience and the Rothe House and Gardens. As a wrap to our 12 day tour of Ireland, it certainly fit the bill.