Category Archives: Ireland

The tragical history of Ireland, part 2

One of the best things we did was to go on a Historical Walking tour. Here’s Donal, our guide, telling us about the Battle of the Boyne in the old Irish Parliament building.  Notice how, like a real Dubliner, he prounounces his th’s as t’s.

We started out at Trinity College, DSC05970home to everyone from Samuel Beckett to JP Donleavy to Jonathan Swift.  (See my review of Donleavy’s The Ginger Man here.)
DSC05976 Gray buildings and beautiful trees made up the campus, and soon we we were walking into town.  We started at the old Parliament building (see above) which now houses a bank.  The tour guide was clearly still outdone that the Parliament had dissolved itself in 1800 so that the English could take over.

He took us down Parliament Street and into Dublin City Hall, a beautiful Georgian building that figured largely in the Easter Uprising of 1916.  We snuck into the rotunda, set up for an afternoon wedding, and admired the murals.DSC05985Next up was Dublin Castle, which we were not too excited about since it is not worth touring.  But pity our ignorance, because in fact it was the home of the British government in Ireland and thus heartily despised.  Here’s the famous statue of Justice, DSC05988which faces into the courtyard of the Castle, giving rise to the ditty, “The Statue of Justice, mark well her station, her face to the castle and her arse to the nation!”  Our guide invoked the feelings of all involved as we faced the gate and imagined the fighting that raged here on Bloody Sunday 1920 when three IRA members were killed.

When Donal left us at Christchurch Cathedral, we were filled with more knowledge of the Irish struggle than we had ever had (and have since mostly lost, sadly) and were eager for more.  At his encouragement, we decided to visit Kilmainham Gaol, where so many Irish political prisoners were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

DSC05996This is not actually the gaol but a view of the Irish Museum of Modern Art across the way.  After our visit we needed this rainbow.

The guide was not a great storyteller, but his low-key presentation was just right for the terrible stories he had to tell.  Follow the link above for the details.

The cells were tiny and dark, leading off long, straight corridors, incredibly depressing.  This section was the relatively airy second floor of a newer part of the gaol.DSC05991Here is someone else’s picture of the main part of the gaol, where the prisoners could occasionally walk around.  kilmainhamSome of the cells are now marked with the names of the more famous prisoners, this being the cell where the Countess Markievicz was held in 1916. She was an Englishwoman who married a Polish count and was active as a suffragist as well as a member of Sinn Fein.DSC05990Peering through the peephole in one of the cells revealed this painting by Grace Plunkett, who married her husband only hours before he was executed.DSC05992But most chilling of all was the visit to the place where prisoners were executed, one so weak and wounded that he had to be tied to a chair so that he could be gunned down.  This was very moving, and appropriately, it began to mist while we stood there.DSC05995A tragical history indeed, and I am so glad we learned more about it.

Walking the Causeway Coastal Path with Paul

Irish coastal path3Since this is NOT a hiking trip, I booked a guide to lead me along the coastal path.  Paul was a quietly congenial man who guides during the season, has a “minor job,” and enjoys his free time  otherwise.  He proposed a route from Dunseverick Castle to the Giant’s Causeway, a distance of about five miles along clifftops and up and down.  It was spectacular.

The wind!  Words cannot describe the force of the wind, not during the whole hike, but on high unprotected points it was so high and wild that we had to hang on to the wires you can see along the edge.Irish coastal path

But you really need to see the photos, which may need to wait until I’m back in the land of good wifi.  The views were unbelievable:  we could see Scotland (mostly Islay), churning water below steep cliffs, did I mention steep cliffs?, cliff viewa few birds and lots of wildflowers.  Irish coastal path2Fulmar, black-backed gulls, gannets, cow parsley, two kinds of heather (bell heather and ling), herb Robert, eye-bright, thistle, scabious, and on and on.  Of course, a month or so ago we would have seen much more, but this was a delight.

Did I mention the wind? It was so fierce that I was very grateful it was blowing inland.  Otherwise, I’m sure we would both have been blown out to sea.  It reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder – was it The Big Snow when they had to tie themselves to ropes to make their way from the house to the barn?  It was like that, but without snow.  Wow.

And it ended at the Giant’s Causeway, which we approached via the steep Shepherd’s Path that switchbacks down from the cliffs to the water.  shepherd's pathPaul took a seat while I explored the hexagonal basalt stones giants causewayand watched the waves curl against the shore.  I drove him back from the pub to our starting point, and we parted ways with expressions of thanks for a good morning out.  And no rain!

The Helen Dillon Garden

DSC06081I must have been searching for Irish gardening books when I came across Helen Dillon, whom I’d never heard of but who is clearly a garden writer of note.  I wrote about her one of her books  here and hoped to visit her garden on our trip.  Although Alison is not a gardener, she is game.   We made our way to the garden on the public bus (see below), and it was spectacular. So much to say that I have divided this account into multiple categories.

Some plants I have and how Helen Dillon uses them

I plant woodland aster under the maple tree in front because they can take the dry shade that is a constant challenge in this garden.  Helen, on the other hand, pairs them with white Japanese anemones.  Now, I have tried anemones three times and they never come back, but maybe this time will be the charm.  DSC06023Her asters are a bit more floriferous than mine, but then I guess I could actually water them occasionally and see if that makes a difference.  This is in the front garden, which she has made into a birch grove and a very quiet, serene place. Here it is from the street.


I have a love/hate relationship with my helianthus, which I sometimes call helenium (see, there are several issues).  The first year, it blew over in a storm and crushed the plants beneath.  Then it spread vigorously, so that I have had to root it out.  Plus, it is so tall that I now give it the Chelsea chop in early summer so that it doesn’t get too big and then fall like a giant redwood.

But here it is in Helen Dillon’s garden, appearing to behave itself and consorting with the verbena in a lovely way.DSC06026

Water elements

Oh, how I long for a water element and how I just can’t make it happen.  Well, Helen just tore everything out one day and installed this elegantly simple pond in her back garden.DSC06039Here’s a bigger view.DSC06025

Another water element, so simple and lovely.  I imagine the birds love it, and it’s more to my scale.DSC06051


Foliage becomes more important the longer you live with a garden.  Flowers will come and go, but the leaves may linger through three seasons.  Here are some of the most wonderful foliage plants that caught my eye.DSC06070

DSC06041 DSC06027 DSC06030 DSC06031Not sure what these are – the last filled in under a small tree.

Use of color

Apparently she started out with carefully “curated” borders of one color each, but finally just said the hell with it and went to town.  See?DSC06042This is the border along one side of the pool.  She is also famous for gardening in pots.  She no longer plants everything in the ground, just pots it up and hauls it out when it’s looking good and hauls it back when it fades.  Of course, this implies lots of space and a strong back, but it’s an interesting concept.  She doesn’t even use remarkable pots, just plain black ones that fade into the background.  Or even garbage cans, as in these ferns that were tucked under the deck but clearly still on display.DSC06063

Here are some red things.  I know the dark leaf is a canna, but I’m not sure about the pinky red flowers in the pot.DSC06035

Miscellaneous darling things

Beautiful dahlias – I must try them YET AGAIN.DSC06055 DSC06036

Elegant Japanese anemones, dittoDSC06043Box bushes shaped to echo a nearby potDSC06049Delicate maidenhair fern in a concrete troughDSC06057

Meeting the Dillons and visiting the bathroom

So you are really just coming to their house when you visit.  You ring the doorbell, and Val Dillon lets you in, takes your 5 pounds, and shows you in to the drawing room that overlooks the garden.DSC06024This first view is stunning, but if you can tear yourself away you will also see a table with her signed books for sale.  I picked up Helen Dillon On Gardening The room is filled with beautiful paintings, furniture and doodads, evidence of their earlier careers as antique dealers.

When we came back through the house to leave, Val invited us to use the bathroom if we wished.  He said it was unusual and that we might enjoy it.  In fact, he said, on day an elderly friend came to visit and when he checked on her all he could see were her feet sticking out the door.  Had she passed out or died?  No, she was just trying to get the whole bathroom in her camera lens.   I understand.  Here are my attempts.DSC06075 DSC06074I didn’t quite lie down on the floor, but you can see why she did.  Asked how long it took to make, Val said drily, “About 30 seconds to write the check.”

The bus ride

The website assures you that the #11 bus stops right at the Dillon Garden.  Of course,  it’s not quite that simple.  We got directions from the TIC near Trinity and walked down the street until we finally got to the bus stop.  Once on the bus, there was no way to know when we had arrived.  The brusque driver did finally point out our stop just when we had given up hope.  We wandered down the street, heartened by a sign for the Dillon garden, and finally figured out that we should just walk through a small opening to the road where the house was.  Not that hard after all, but confusing.  Luckily it all worked easily on the way back.

The end plus a video

Here are just a few more random wonderful things, plus a video that gives you a glimpse of Helen herself as well as their drawing room.DSC06047The good sport

DSC06076Garden by the driveway on the way outDSC06066snails’ trailsDSC06068Autumn cyclamen growing in pebbles

Short clip of a palm tree swaying in the wind

DSC06059DSC06061sea oats and a glimpse of Helen herself in the garden

The video is here:

Musical pub crawl and how wonderful it was

dublin pubThis was another Rick Steves recommendation, and it was great!  We met at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s (named for the man on whom Joyce based stately, plump Buck Mulligan, in real life a surgeon and bon vivant).  This pub is right in the Temple Bar area, the former warehouse district that is now filled with noisy bars and a sprinkling of interesting shops.  After a decent dinner upstairs, we went down to the bar to meet the tour.dublin pub2

Our first stop was the Ha’penny Pub.  Our two acoustic musicians explained Irish musical culture and the place of various instruments and proceeded to sing and play traditional songs to illustrate their points.  This sounds dry and academic, but it was anything but.  I was particularly struck by the singer.  He did one song in a style that evolved after poverty and British oppression left musicians without any instruments – sort of an Irish beatbox (wish I could remember the real name).  He also sang a mournful ballad in the old style, along with many others, some of which we could join in on.musical pub crawl

The second pub, Brannigan’s, was up O’Connell Street in a building previously used by nuns,  complete with pews lining each side of the room.  Our musicians now called for the audience to offer a tune.  If you attend a real session (not a concert), you are expected to take part even if you don’t play an instrument – it can be a song, a story, a joke, something to keep the conversation going.  Of course, I had already chosen the Robin Williamson song about the devil that I heard once at Jonesborough and never forgot.  I was a bit nervous about a political song in territory not my own, but I just stood up and did it.  Unfortunately, no one else offered a song until after some time one woman taught us a silly song she had used teaching English somewhere abroad.  Still, the mood of the group seemed cheerful and I think everyone had a good Alison

Here’s a clip of our two musicians singing a capella.

The only inhabited island in Northern Ireland

Today we booked a tour of Rathlin Island, accessible via the 8:00 ferry from Ballycastle harbor, about half an hour away.  We accordingly rose at 5:30 and were on the road by 7:11.  There was almost no traffic, and we scooted along little roads that hugged the coast.

The ferry ride was a bit rough at the start, but once we stopped bouncing around it was fine.  Along with us were a couple Rescue guys and a couple people with laptops.  At least one student got off in Ballycastle, since the only school on the island is a primary.

Here’s a picture of the mainland from the island.Rathlin1

Julie, our guide, met us at the dock, along with her darling little dog Nipper, whom I wish I had photographed.  She led us on the meandering walk around the eastern side of the island.  At its height there were about 1500 people, but it’s now down to about a tenth of that (and yes, everyone knows each other AND knows each other’s business).  During the Famine, a ship took 500 people, all at one time, off to America, where they might never have been heard from again.  I’d love to know more about that story.  Luckily the people on Rathlin could also fish and climb for birds’ eggs, but it was still a hard, hard time.

Julie turned out to be a zookeeper – one of those professions you hardly think can be real any more.  She worked at the Dublin Zoo and worked in Canada when they exchanged zookeepers for six months.  She also worked on wildlife conservation in China and taught English in Belgium for ten years.  She’s been on the island since 2010.  Her combination of wildlife knowledge and island knowledge made her a perfect guide.

On our meander we saw gray seals basking by the shore, rathlin2along with five or six other heads in the water.  She told us they were curious creatures, and the heads did seem to follow us as we walked along.  We marveled at gannets who plunged straight down to catch fish, and hooded crows that are common as dirt here but new to us.  Starlings, swallows (their real name will come to me), cormorants, and eider ducks were all over the harbor, too.

We stopped to see a standing stone ( think it was in this churchyard) rathlin4and to visit two churches, a Catholic one with stained glass, rathlin3and a Protestant one with many plaques in memory of the Gages, once lords of the manor here.  Only the latter church has a graveyard, leading people to joke that only on Rathlin can you start life as a Catholic and end as a Protestant.  Several graves were of people lost at sea, back during the 19th century, during WWI and more recently, too.  Many of those seemed to have happened during January – be careful out there!  And of course, since this is the UK, an odd little sign.rathlin6

A restored stone wall, rathlin16an abandoned kelp house rathlin7that is about to be turned into an art gallery or a science lab, several sightings of the visiting nurse visiting elderly patients (Julie knew who lived at each house), and a short climb to great views rounded out our walk.rathlin8

After a cup of tea Julie gave us a ride most of the way up to the RSPB seabird centre at the other end of the island.  We said goodbye and walked the last 15 minutes of the road to the centre (their spelling). Along the way we saw heather, gorse, sweet grass (that’s not it), wild poppies and fuchsias, steep road, cows and sheep grazing by the sea.  rathlin13

rathlin12rathlin11We were about two weeks too late to see puffins, and about five days too late to see the fulmar chicks launching themselves into the air.  The only thing left was to climb down the 100 or so steep steps to the observation area.  Rathlin9Lord, the wind was blowing hard!  I clutched the railing with both hands and tried to look down at the next step rather than out into space.

Luckily, the Puffin bus did arrive (it had been in doubt), so we did not have to walk the 4 1/2 miles back.  On the other hand, the driver started the bus, parked it at the fence overlooking the steep cliff, and then climbed out to seek a missing passenger.  “It’s ridiculous to leave a bus running at the edge of a cliff,” one of us was heard to say.rathlin14

rathlin10The ride back was steep with one near miss (“I’ve opened my eyes now,” the driver joked,) and left us off by the pub.  Here I had the biggest and most delicious piece of fried fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.rathlin15

We are planning to take the 4:15 ferry home so it’s time to say goodbye to the pub’s good wifi and pack up for the afternoon.rathlin5

Dublin to the Hill of Tara and then to Trim, circuitously

Hill of TaraWe arrived in Trim after the usual knuckle-biting drive on the left.  Actually, driving on the left is hardly a problem – give me the M1 any day!  It’s the decision-making when you come to a roundabout or try to make a right turn against oncoming traffic, which is unaccountably coming from the wrong direction, that gives me the willies.  Luckily, I have a good navigator.

At any rate, we found our way from the Dublin airport northwest to the Hill of Tara, a World Heritage Site and seat of Irish power from ancient times.  The landscape is gently rolling, so even a slight incline like that at Tara gives a great view.  We started out at an old church that is now the visitors’ center.  The quite lovely stained glass window (1932 in honor of the 1500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s arrival) Tara churchis covered by a gently lowered screen, and visitors are treated to a pleasant film introduction to the ancient site.

We followed our guide through the churchyard with its fertility stone (imagine her feet above her ears, the guide explained succinctly) to a green hill with two stones at the top.  One is the Stone of Tara Tara stoneand, if I understood her right, a bit of it is in Scotland as the Stone of Scoone, which the Scots claim as the real one.  Of course, they are wrong (if you are discussing this in Ireland).  This is where kings and queens were crowned for years.  To determine if you were the rightful heir to the throne, you either scraped your carriage wheels along the stone or placed your foot on it.  If you were the right one, the stone would speak and all would acknowledge your power.

Also on site is a stone commemorating the 1798 revolution, Tara stone 1798which lasted six months and ended in failure, as usual.  This is the one where the Irish joined forces with Napoleon, or at least tried to.  Napoleon and the Vikings appear everywhere on the islands.

We stopped at the burial mound, a replica of which we had seen at the Museum of Archaeology in Dublin.  This is a passage tomb, where cremated remains were buried.  The tomb itself is low and short, with the mound above built of earth and stone.

The other features of the site are a stone cross protected by a railing, Tara crossand the outlines of other burial mounds nearby.  taraArchaeological work is ongoing.

Back down the hill to the tearoom and bookshop for lunch and a quick browse. tara bookshopI was very happy to find a copy of T.H. White’s The Goshawk, described and maligned in Helen MacDonald’s wonderful book.  This was a real used bookshop with an eclectic mix including a volume on how to do laundry, numerous gardening books both coffee-table and early twentieth century ones in black and white, and a selection of Irish literature, folklore and history.

Getting to Trim involved asking directions several times. We are gradually learning that when someone in Ireland tells you it’s “just around the corner” or “at the top of the hill,” it could be miles and miles away.  Then, when we were within spitting distance of our destination, we were foiled by a cycle race that blocked the road.  We found a little spot to wait it out, and finally we could park the car and heave a sigh of relief.

The Highfield House B&B was just the ticket for an overnight visit:  spacious, comfortable, good breakfast and one of the best bathrooms on the trip.


It’s set on top of a hill with great views of the River Boyne (complete with grazing donkeys) trim donkeysand the ruins of Trim Castle.  Trim castleWe walked over to the castle in a desultory way and were almost relieved that tours of the Keep were fully booked.  Seeing this sign made us both think it was time to watch Braveheart again and enjoy the castle on DVD instead.trim braveheartWe had a wander around the grounds and made our way back.  Dinner tonight was at a very jolly restaurant that specialized in steaks.  It was plastered with plaques of the corniest variety (To be is to do, to do is to be, doobie doobie do, etc.) and filled with lots of locals.  And so to bed.


Museums day

Well, yesterday we went to museums, too, but today was all about just two more, the National Galleries of Art and of Archaeology and History.  We walked at a leisurely pace down to the first one and went through their somewhat truncated collection.  (Note that the centeeenary, as they say, of the 1916 Uprising is next year, so everything is being renovated in preparation.)

One of us is chasing Vermeer, so that was the prime focus, vermeetbut we also enjoyed visiting old friends like the Dutch painter Averkamp with his cheerful winter skating scenes, and a bit of Fra Angelico and Caravaggio. An annunciation is always good, too.  A Scottish portrait by Raeburn of a middle-aged couple was particularly pleasing (see also the skating minister painting in Edinburgh).  We had to see the Jack Yeats paintings, too, in honor of his brother.

Since we were there we went into the Sean Scully exhibit although neither of us had ever heard of him and knew not a thing about him.  He proved to be a treat:  Color Field paintings (though he calls it Wall of Light) that reminded me of quilts, DSC06094~2and stark black and white photos of stone walls on the Isle of Aran.  He’s an Irish-born painter who seems to be living mostly in London and New York these days.  Good enough that I had to buy the book.

From here we walked to Merrion Square, home of Wilde, Yeats and others, but we ignored the blue plaques on the houses and made straight for the Oscar Wilde statue installed in the park in 1997. oscar Having paid homage, we walked on in search of lunch, enjoying a few Georgian doorways along the way.DSC06100~2Georgiandoorwayyellow

O’Donoghue’s, where we had lunch, was filled with men drinking beer and watching a soccer game.  I think this was just a warmup for the Hurling World Cup game to be played against Wales later in the afternoon.  We each had a glass of beer, half-watching (and not understanding) the game as we ate our ham-and-cheese toasties and enjoyed the (smoke-free) atmosphere of a local pub.

Thus fortified, we walked (boy, have we been walking) to the Museum of Art & Archaeology.  Weary but game, we hit the highlights, starting with the bog people.  I really love the bog people, I guess because they are so real and so informative about ancient times. The latest find was from 2003, when a peat digger found yet another body cut in half by the digging machine.   They are still able to find out all kinds of fascinating details about these people, of course. One had a very special hairdo, short on the sides and with his longer hair tied in a topknot.

Golden lunulae and torcs, intricately filigreed brooches and crosses, and finally a newly discovered manuscript as old as the Book of Kells.  Again, found by a turfcutter and discovered to date from around 800.  Not heavily decorated like the BOK but amazing for what it explains about medieval bookmaking.  The best thing is that the turfcutter immediately knew it was important and the landowners called the museum right away, because that’s what you do in the UK and Ireland!

Totally exhausted by now, we dragged ourselves home via Grafton Street and the closed Bewley Oriental Cafe where I had hoped to see the stained glass windows.  Next year…  Then home for a toes-up, sorting and packing, and getting ready to tackle left-hand driving tomorrow.

The Tragic History of Ireland – part 1

Today was all about history, and by the end of it we were able to hold most of it in our minds.  But first we walked down to the end of the street to Trinity College and the Book of Kells.  (This is history, too, of course, but very different from the rest.)

Before you see the Book, you go through a very informative display about the history and making, including a hypnotic little video showing someone very slowly sharpening a pen, dipping it in ink and scratching out a few lines.  Then you enter a darkened room where two quartos are open and you can view two pages close up.  A very helpful guide pointed out a couple things we might have missed:   each page was finished with an egg white wash that gives it a nice sheen, and one of the vellum pages had been flayed too hard and developed a hole.  The monks had cleverly painted a design on the following page that shows through and makes the hole less noticeable.  I always like an enthusiastic person who wants to share the information.

From here we walked up the stairs to the Old Library, which is one of the great libraries I’ve seen.  Dark, dark wood, lots of book ladders, books crammed onto the shelves, high ceiling – well, just take a look.

An additional treat was an exhibit of children’s books based on mythology. Everything from Harry Potter to Alan Garner and Susan Cooper was on display, a visit with some of my old friends.

Though viewing the actual book is jokingly referred to as the biggest anitclimax in Dublin, it was worth a visit.  Here is AO looking happy after viewing the BOK.AtKells

Landing in Dublin

The latest trip – Dublin and Northern Ireland – started with the usual efficient flight but without much sleep.  Note to self:  next time, try Peggy’s tip of traveling during the day so you don’t have to try to sleep in a noisy, cramped metal box.

We arrived to sunshine and beautiful clouds, bussed into the city and checked into the Harding Hotel, perfectly situated across from Christchurch Cathedral.

The cathedral was beautifully sihouetted against a gray sky.

DSC05957Outside was a very moving sculpture that would be right at home in front of the library.


Inside was notable to me mostly for the floor tiles.  A major Victorian renovation meant that most of what we saw was nineteenth century, incuding the tiles, but they were based on medieval tiles still extant in one of the small chapels.  As always, it made me think of quilts.


There was also some beautiful Victorian embroidery on the altar cloth.DSC05961

In the crypt were the lovingly preserved bodies of a cat and a rat found mummified below the floors and mentioned by Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake.  One of the church’s best things, I think.


Even after a nap, we were still zonked, so after a delicious dinner in the Copper Alley Bistro downstairs, we had an early bed.

A Dublin Garden

down to earthHelen Dillon has gardened in a small Dublin garden for over thirty years.  Short essays paired with photos of her garden detail her likes, her dislikes, even her bold uprooting of garden elements she installed in previous decades.  Many of her plants come with a story about who gave them to her or where she first saw them, and big names like Graham Stuart Thomas pepper the text. She says not a word about native plants, cheerfully installing plants from around the world.  She even includes Americans like tree of heaven that are highly invasive here but apparently behave well in Dublin.

As she discusses her gardens from the 1960s to now, she  compares gardening styles to hair styles.  Both change over time but if we’re not careful, we end up with “a 1960s Cilla Black look – that’s if I don’t get the softly curly Nancy Reagan, or the ubiquitous à la grandmère, with every curl betraying its roller-friendly origins.”

Her garden is open to the public, and I hope to visit this summer.  But I’ll be on my best behavior:  she has some sharp words for garden visitors who try to hide their theft of plants and cuttings in their capacious handbags, or those who loudly criticize the garden and the gardener in her hearing.  Can’t say I blame her.

Although much of what she says is specific to her climate and conditions, I still found much to think about and admire.  (Why again don’t I have a water element in my garden, I ask myself.)  Like the best garden books  (Green Thoughts comes to mind), this is one to keep on the bedside table.  You could pick it up and read randomly from time to time and always learn or re-learn something good.