Sunday, January 4, 2009

December 2008


Kilkenny Castle

Our neighbor, Mick, is a camera man for the Irish language TV station, and he routinely drives all over the country on weekends to film sporting events. We finally realized that here was an opportunity to get a ride, ummm lift, to other parts of Ireland for day trips. In early December we travelled with Mick to Kilkenny, a mid-sized town about 3 hours from here in the southeast of Ireland.

One of the main attractions in Kilkenny is the castle. Originally built in 1172 by Strongbow, all that remains now of the original castle are the round towers at 3 of the corners. In 1391 the castle was bought by the Butler family and the defensive walls between the towers were knocked down. Much larger halls between the towers were built to create a grand residence for the family and their many servants. We took an excellent guided tour of the castle and learned that the name Butler used to denote a very high rank, not a servant, as one might think. The Chief Butler had the risky job of tasting the wine and food served to the king to make sure it wasn't poisoned.

In the 1800's the Butlers modernized the interior of the castle, which was now their "country house", their main residence being in England. Just a little country cottage for them, they considered it far too rustic and damp to live in year-round. They continued to use it occasionally into the 1930's, when it became too expensive to maintain, so they sold it to the city of Kilkenny for one pound. It has now been restored in the Victorian style, as it would have looked when it was last occupied by the Butlers. The castle sits within 50 acres of rolling parkland and mature trees, and judging by the number of people walking that Sunday seems to be a popular place for strolls by the people of Kilkenny. (They make a good ale in the town, by the way. Probably available at good beer stores in the US.)

There are lots of other old buildings in Kilkenny, including this medieval church and round tower. We were so excited because our guidebook said that the tower is open for climbing, but that day the tower door was locked. There was a sign saying it was closed due to the cold weather - frost had made the metal steps slippery. Damn! It was such a fine, clear day that the views from the top would have been outstanding. One of these days we're going to find a round tower that we can climb.

On the way to Kilkenny we stopped for breakfast in another town, and right across from the cafe was, you guessed it, another castle. These things are about as ubiquitous as petrol stations here, but I hope I never get blase about seeing them. To the Irish, they're just a humdrum feature of the landscape.

Clare Glens

Another day we drove an hour east to Clare Glens, a river gorge that forms the border between Limerick and Tipperary. OK, I know it's not Taughannock Falls (the highest waterfall in the eastern US, located near our hometown of Ithaca) but waterfalls are not very common here so it was lovely to experience the sights and sounds of rushing water.

After our walk at Clare Glens, we had lunch at nearby Gleninstall Abbey. Yes, it looks like another castle, but this one was originally built to house monks and is now a private boarding school.

Cool waterspout on the tower at Gleninstall Abbey.

Holiday Parties
What is Christmas like in Ireland? I thought it would be a more subdued, religious holiday but I thought wrong. (I should have known better - the Irish love to party and find any excuse. In addition the usual festivities for birthdays and weddings, they have big parties for baby christenings, communions and confirmations, often at the local pub. Funerals and wakes always seem to end up at the pub as well.) As for consumerism, the Irish spend more per capita at Christmas than any other Europeans. To see the crowds in the shops before Christmas you would never know there is recession happening here.

We had a solstice party on December 21. The party started at 3 in the afternoon, and at 2:30 in the morning we saw the last guests to the door. About 30 people came throughout the day and night. There was feasting, of course.......

and music......

......and a little dancing.

We went to a big New Year's Eve party/50th birthday party. Irish parties always start with eating and end with singing and dancing (come to think of it, feasting followed by dancing is the natural progression of parties the world over). The cool thing about Irish parties is that everyone can either sing, dance or play an instrument. (And sometimes all three. But not at the same time.) The quiet guy in the corner will suddenly cut loose with the most amazing operatic baritone, or a teenager will get up and do a "brush dance", which is done with a push broom and looks like something Gene Kelly would do. (Come to think of it, with a last name like Kelly he was probably Irish himself.)

We had some amplified music by the next generation.

There was set dancing, not to be confused with step-dancing, with the rigid arms and flailing legs (as seen in Riverdance). Set dancing is done in sets of four couples, and looks like the ancestor of square dancing.

I did some old-timey plucking on the banjo.

Th musicians played a tune called Shoe the Donkey, which is always accompanied by this particular high-stepping dance, although no-one seems to know why. (And yes, that is Bill playing flute in the video.)

No video of the brush dancing at the New Year's party that night, but you can click here to watch a youtube video of some guy doing a brush dance in a pub. (Trust the Irish to come up with such a joyous dance using the most mundane household cleaning implement!)

Local Walks
A couple of the places nearby where we take Sonya for walks: the bog road......

....and our own local waterfall at Clondegad, about a mile from our house.

Winter Solstice Sunset