Day Five: Kilkenny
Today, we took a train to Kilkenny. We woke up ridiculously early to get the Luas to the train station to make a 7:30 train. Our B&B wasn't even serving breakfast yet, so we got some seriously overpriced juice and pastries at the train station, and I had my first-ever experience with a pay toilet when I needed--after the sticky pastry--to wash my hands. Perhaps because they're illegal at home, pay toilets just feel wrong.
The train ride was about two hours. I brought my postcards in hopes that I might get them all written on the journey. I got two or three done before falling asleep and staying asleep for the duration of the trip.
Kilkenny was in our sights because it is an excellent example of a medieval city with many of the original structures and features still in place. We alighted around 9:30 before the castle was even open for tours, so we headed off to explore and find the tourist's office and, hopefully, a decent map.
At the tourist's office, the woman behind the counter suggested a walking tour of Kilkenny, the next which was to depart in a half-hour. Figuring it'd be a good way to get our bearings and plan out the most effective way to see all that we wanted to see, we decided to go. I'm glad that we did; the tour was excellent. The guide was a little old man who reminded me of Tolkien. He'd just step out into the street, and cars would stop to let him (and his flock of listeners, trailing him like a string of ducklings) cross. We ended the tour at the Black Abbey, so named because the monks used to wear all black. (I think Black Abbey was also a superstition from when I was a kid, but I might be getting mixed up.)
With our ducks in a row after the tour, we went to ... lunch! Aside from the overpriced and sticky snack at the train station, we hadn't eaten all day, so we stopped into a pub just in the nick of time before a tour bus unloaded a glut of people who, luckily, filed upstairs but who would have likely tied up the kitchen for we lonely diners downstairs.
Again, I found myself drinking before noon. I need to stop this! ;)
Next, we headed up to St. Cannis's Cathedral. This was an ancient site with one of the round towers that are so common to the area. During the Viking raids in the 10th century, monks would hide themselves and their treasures at the tops of these towers. The doors were built well off of the ground so as to be inaccessible once the ladder was pulled up. The only downside was fire: set a fire at the bottom of one and suffocation from smoke inhalation doesn't follow long after.
St. Cannis's tower was extra cool, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Upon entering the cathedral, we were greeted by a friendly fellow behind the counter who asked if we would like a tour. "Sure!" we said, expecting that he'd tell us to return at a particular time. Instead, he walked around the counter, and the tour transpired then and there. It was wonderful; he could point out so much that we would have missed on our own, and then we were free to wander at liberty and to take pictures.
Now, St. Cannis's tower: it is open for climbing. As already noted, I like climbing towers. First, there is the achievement of all those steps. Then there is the view and the brisk wind at the top.
We ascended a rickety metal ladder to the raised doorway of the round tower. An elderly Irishman waited for us at the base of the tower. And proceded to talk with us for a half-hour on all manner of world affairs and the economy and politics and what we think of Barack Obama and so on. Yes, we've figured out by now that the Irish do, indeed, like to talk! :D
Luckily, climbing the tower doesn't require ascending the original, tightly wound spiral stairs. Wooden ladders have been built in their place. It started easy, like walking up a steep set of stairs. But there's something funny about those round towers. They get narrower near the top. It was pretty harrowing near the top, but best not to think about it; at that point, might as well keep going to the top. After a final short stretch up the original stairs, we pulled ourselves through a hole in the roof and were treated to a wonderful view of Kilkenny.
Then back down, which was not as scary as I would have thought, although the first few times I had to swing out over the wooden ladders to begin the next set of descents, I'll confess that I was a little nervous.
Next, we toured the Rothe House, which is the home of a 15th-century merchant and his family. As part of the walking tour that morning, our guide had pointed out that it was really three houses built one behind the other as the Rothe family expanded and needed more space. It was very cool, but what was coolest was the medieval garden, which was reconstructed using organic matter found on premise to determine what was grown in the garden and planting the same species in the reconstructed version. The Rothes grew a lot of the same herbs as Bobby and I do (and it made me miss my herb garden, which is probably withered and angry without my daily attentions!) Footsore and weary, we sat for a while there and enjoyed the relative quiet and the smell and the feel of being among growing things again. This gave Bobby the idea to put a bench out in our garden at home.
Our final stop of the day was Kilkenny castle. Kilkenny was a Norman settlement (and the Normans arrived in Ireland in the 12th century after Henry II of England got a special dispensation from the Pope to invade the country, going on rumors and stereotypes of the savagery of the Irish people). The castle is one that was started then and under constant addition and renovation, like most of the intact castles we've visited.
And I have the honor--dubious though it may be--of having fallen asleep in Kilkenny Castle.
One of the last rooms is a massive hall built, if I am remembering correctly, after the style of a medieval feast hall. It is richly decorated with Celtic ornamentation and the length hung with portraits. Bobby suggested that we stop and rest there for a while, so I asked for the guidebook to read a bit of the history on the castle and, apparently, when Bobby next turned to me, I was asleep where I sat.
He got a good laugh out of that.
By this point, though, my day had caught up with me. I was ready for supper. Luckily, we had already found a restaurant--an Italian restaurant that came highly recommended--and, even luckier, it was right across the road from Kilkenny Castle. We walked (I limped) outside, where a light rain had begun to fall and across the street to a tiny restaurant below street level. Upon entering, the server informed us that they didn't open for fifteen minutes yet but--perhaps noting my buckling knees and hungry, hollow cheeks--added that the chef was working in the kitchen and would be happy to accommodate us early.
Both of us students and public servants, Bobby and I don't eat fancy dinners very often. We're extremely good at finding good, inexpensive food wherever our travels take us. A joke in our family is that, wherever Dawn and Bobby go, they find a good place to eat. Most of our planning with our family to travel different places usually involves, at some point, one of us crying out, "And we've found this great little restaurant ...!"
I don't think it's the food at nicer places that I like so much as the service; I needed the relaxation for almost two hours at that restaurant. The food was excellent; I had a tomato basil soup, fresh bread, and gorgonzola tortelloni that was a huge portion that I couldn't even finish. (One complaint about nicer restaurants being that the portions tend to be miniscule, and after walking all day, one needs something a little more hearty; that was not an issue here.) I also took my chances with a glass of wine (after falling asleep at Kilkenny Castle, I thought that with the addition of red wine into the mix, I might fall asleep walking back to the train station), and the server left us our own pitcher of glorious ice water. I know, I am terribly easy to please.
Right around when the restaurant technically opened, two older Irish ladies came in. I habitually hear other people's conversations (even when I can't hear what you're saying if you're sitting next to me), which I like to think of less as eavesdropping and more of studying people for the purpose of my writing pursuits, and I like to hope is somewhat redeemed by the fact that people tend to think that I characterize rather well. Anyway, I picked up on the fact that these two ladies also had a train to catch after supper.
Two hours later, waiting for the train, they happened by and asked how we enjoyed the restaurant. Bobby looked a bit puzzled, probably wondering who these people were and how they knew where we'd had supper, but I remembered them and answered enthusiastically. We ended up sitting across from them on the train, and I didn't get any postcards done for talking to them the whole way home.
Despite proof to the contrary in this journal entry *skeptical glance*, I think the Irish can out-talk even me! ;)
The Black Abbey
There are two rather interesting stories about the Black Abbey.
For those not too well-versed in British history, there was a brief period in the 17th century where England was a commonwealth and not a monarchy. Long story short, Charles I was put to death and Oliver Cromwell took over leadership of England. Cromwell was a Puritan who, therefore, hated Catholics and believed that the rich artworks and statuary of the Catholic churches were a direct affront to God.
Ireland is, of course, predominantly a Catholic country. In ????, Cromwell landed in Ireland and began what was, for all intents and purposes, a system of ethnic cleansing to rid Ireland of its Catholics, if not by conversion, then by any means necessary. In addition to this, he and his army destroyed churches and religious artwork as they passed.
On most of the tours we took, the Cromwellian period was at least mentioned and always with the attitude of, "Oliver Cromwell *spit*". The signs of that period in history are everywhere, in artifacts defaced or destroyed or missing.
Or, in the case of the Black Abbey, found.
The Black Abbey itself bears the scars of Cromwell's progression through Ireland. Once cruciform in shape, only one arm of the cross remains. When the parishioners heard of Cromwell's impending arrival, they plastered into the wall one of their statues carved in alabaster of the Trinity. There, it was overlooked by Cromwell ... and by some centuries of people after, until it was found again and openly displayed for the first time in centuries.
The Black Abbey was also notable for it 500-square-meter stained glass window, which quite literally took up the entire wall. Of course, it was shattered when Cromwell passed through Kilkenny, but knowledge of its design remained, and an exact replica was later created.
Kilkenny was probably the most quintessentially picturesque Irish town we visited.
The narrow streets remain from the Middle Ages.
The "slips" allowed one to slip down to the market street. The Butter Slip led--where else?--to the butter merchant.
The whole room is cool, but most amazing are the antlers from the ancient giant deer, which were found preserved in a bog.
St. Cannis's Cathedral
Our impromptu guide pointed out this rather interesting grave marker inside the church. The person buried here is a six-generation ancestor of President Barack Obama.
In his words, mentioning this results in either enthusiasm or a feeling akin to walking into a refrigerator.
Anyone who knows Bobby and me for more than three seconds knows which we showed. Heartily. ;)
Throughout the trip, actually, there was palpabe Obamania in Ireland. Of course, everyone wanted to know what we thought of him as president. There were T-shirts for sale in the shops with "Yes We Can" translated into Irish, and Obama rendered as a leprechaun. And, on the platform to Malahide, we saw a man wearing a T-shirt with the Shepperd Fairey artwork on it. Bobby complimented him on the shirt, and I did not expect the enthusiastic Irish accent that replied.
The round tower. From the bottom. We have a long climb yet!
St. Cannis's from the top of the round tower.
The Smithwick's brewery. Yes, that is an abbey in the middle of it.
I <3 Ireland.
And climbing down ...
And finally, Bobby drew such comfort from seeing these all about Ireland. He will be looking into employment opportunities when we return home.