An Irish Odyssey, part 3: Slán Abhaile

Wednesday 17th July, 2013.

“Have you got a room for tonight?” but before I’d finished the sentence, the young lady behind the reception counter was telling me that they were fully booked. I smiled and thanked her and said something to the effect that we’d go in search of accommodation elsewhere. We turned and made for the door and as we did, in a beautifully lilting, soft southern Irish accent she said,
“OK but you’ll not get a bed in this town tonight, Bruce Springsteen’s playing.”

Yes, I’d sauntered into the hotel straight of back and purposeful of step, I’d come out about two inches tall. We got into the car and somewhat crestfallen I managed to cancel next week’s reservation made here at the Ambassador Hotel, for that was in whose carpark we were sitting, and we considered our next move.

“Let’s go down to the coast, bound to be a guest house or something…”

We drove southwards and ended up in Kinsale; I’d been on the interweb and found a few likely looking places and plumped for the Pier House B & B who said that they had vacancies, things were looking up. We found the B&B on the harbour quayside just up from where the River Brandon flows into the Celtic Sea. The place looked nice from the outside and there was a small municipal car park almost opposite, things were looking up. We went in and introduced ourselves and were shown to our room which was very nice, if ever so slightly quirky and even had a balcony from which, if we stood on tiptoe, we could just see the harbour. Did I say that things were looking up?

Once again, we had been thwarted by Bruce Springsteen and once again things had turned out better that they probably would have had he not intervened. Thank you, Bruce, go raibh míle maith agat.

It was a lovely warm and still sunny evening as we went out to find somewhere to eat, we walked along the harbour front a way and then went off-piste into the back streets and eventually found a little place called Shanghai Express which styled itself as an Asian Fusion restaurant and we had a jolly good nosh. Afterwards we went back down to the harbour to look at the various yachts and small fishing boats moored therein. The water was mill-pond calm, and the deepening colour of the evening sky was reflected in that almost mirror-like surface. There’s a curious quality to the light where and when the sky and water cooperate, it was a beautiful evening, and I didn’t take any photos… Oh well.

Thursday 18th was another almost cloudless, sunny day. After breakfast we went out and walked along the quayside again, then turned back and went into Kinsale town proper, poking about in the narrow streets. Again, it occurred to me that this would be a rather fine place to spend more time, but the clock was ticking and in two days’ time we had to catch the ferry from Dublin back to Liverpool.

We took our leave of The Pier House and took to the road again. We, or rather I, decided that it might be nice to visit the Old Head of Kinsale before we hove eastwards.

The Old Head of Kinsale, what did I know of it?
It’s old, it’s a headland and it’s in, or rather near, Kinsale.

There’s a golf course. Right at the end, on the head itself if you will, there’s a fecking golf course.
I didn’t know there was a golf course of course, I was thinking that it would be nice to go and stand on the Old Head and look out into the Atlantic, but no. There’s a golf course, The Old Head Golf Links.

Blissfully ignorant of this golfy fact we headed on down towards the Old Head until we got to a very definite delineator between the real world and the golfy world of The Old Head Golf Links. Neither of us having the inclination to play golf and more importantly, neither of us being members of the golf club, further we could not go.

We parked-up, got out and explored the bit of the Old Head that we did have access to which included a small memorial to those lost on the Cunard passenger liner RMS Lusitania. The Lusitania was inbound to Southampton from New York in May 1915 when it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sank some 18 kilometres from the Old Head of Kinsale.

There was also a signal tower dating from the Napoleonic wars which we didn’t explore as it was just four walls and in ruin, sometime after we’d visited it was much rebuilt and is now a small museum dedicated to the Lusitania and in 2015 a new memorial garden was opened there.

We clambered about on the rocks which in places provided a sheer drop to the ocean below but also provided some spectacular views.

We bade farewell to The Old Head and motored east… oh if only it had been that simple. The geography of the area meant that getting east meant going back almost into Cork and then going east, ah, but I wanted to visit the town of Cobh, which is on an island, Great Island, in Cork Harbour. This meant going east for a short while then south again.

Cobh, pronounced “cove” has long had associations with transatlantic shipping and was the departure point for millions of Irish who emigrated to the United States in the 1850s, back then it was called Queenstown a name that was bestowed upon it after a visit by Queen Victoria, Ireland being part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at the time, previously it had been called Cove or The Cove of Cork. In 1920, during (most of) Ireland’s fight to become independent from the UK, the name was changed to Cobh.

Cobh, as Queenstown, was the last port of call for RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage, as it was the last port of call for nearly all westbound transatlantic voyages and indeed, the first port of call for ships coming eastward from the Americas.

We turned north again and then eastward we carried on. I’d been furiously burning mobile data looking for a hotel or guest house for our next stop just in case the influence of Bruce Springsteen had spread this far south and east… I found a likely looking place in a small town called Ardmore. No, nothing to do with the Scotch whisky because that would be in Scotland and we were, you know, in Ireland and in any case, Ardmore Whisky comes from a place called Kennethmont, not Ardmore. Oh no, this Ardmore wasn’t anything to do with that Ardmore from Aberdeenshire, this Ardmore was nestling on the south coast of County Waterford.

We found the town and then drove up a winding hill to find the guest house, Duncrone B&B, which was a little way out of the town proper, but find it we did, sitting there with a commanding view out across the bay. The house sat a fair way back from the road on a plot of land that I surmised had all once been owned by the house but the part fronting the road had been sold-off to build more houses as three of them now sat there. The driveway to Duncrone, an impressively large building, went down along one side of the plot of land. Yes, pure supposition on my part but that’s exactly how it looked.

After we’d unpacked enough for an overnight stay, we walked back the mile or so into the town, no great chore on this cloudless summer afternoon. On the way up we’d passed the ruins of an old church and next to that stood a round-tower, both appeared to be of some antiquity, so naturally, on our walk down we stopped and stepped into the ruins of the church.

St. Declan’s Church, some sources cite it as a Cathedral, is dedicated to St. Declán of Ardmore who, in the 5th century AD, founded a monastery in Ardmore some years, apparently, before St. Patrick got the gig as the main man, so the place must have been awash with serpents back then.

The church itself, or ruins thereof, date from the 12th century, the walls only remain, roofless, but none the less fascinating for all that, there being many stone panels depicting scenes from the bible and a pair of Ogham Stones which probably date from the 5th or 6th century.

No, I had no idea what Ogham Stones were or are but apparently, they are stones into which have been inscribed passages in the ancient Ogham language, a language used extensively on the island of Ireland in one form or another between the 4th and 9th centuries (e&oe).

Close by the church is a round tower, about 30 m high which also dates from the 12th century, its small, conical roof was also missing at one point but had been restored around 1856. The tower is about 5 m in diameter at the bottom, reducing to around 3 m just below the restored conical top. The tower was used as a refuge from attack, the walls being just over a metre thick at the base. There is a door set about 4 m above ground level and it is postulated that was accessed by means of ladders that would be pulled up once the people taking shelter had ascended.

We left the church and tower and walked down into the town, making a beeline for the beach. The tide was out revealing a shallow expanse of sand leading to the water’s edge where small groups of people dotted along the tideline were paddling and swimming.

After a bit of beachcombing, we went in search of an eatery, found an eatery, and ate and after our meal and a few drinks, we took a leisurely stroll back to the seafront and then up the hill, past the church and tower and along the narrow road towards the Duncrone. There were no streetlights on the road that we walked along, but the night was clear, the Moon was a few days from full and we had no difficulty seeing where we were going once our eyes had acclimatised to the dark after we’d left the town streetlighting behind. We arrived, like dirty stop outs, sometime after 23:00.

Friday 19th, I woke up just after 05:00 and lay in bed for a while contemplating the cloudless sky through the window at the end of the room, then I got out of bed and went to the window, opened it and looked out at the marvellous view of the beach and the coastline, gently curving towards the north-east and in the morning twilight I could see horses grazing in the fields between Duncrone and where the fields sloped away down to the town below. There was a slight haze along the horizon, blue/grey to mauve to dusky red to orange. I stared transfixed and then nerdy part of my brain booted-up.

Which way were we facing? I tried to picture my inbuilt map of Ireland; we’d come in from the west, turned south and headed up the hill to meet the road that ran eastwards along to Duncrone… My brain wouldn’t work, I grabbed my phone and called up a map. Phone, called a map, see what I did there?
Oh really, I don’t know why I bother…

The window faced just north of east, I smiled, that meant that the sun would rise… just about over there. I googled; “Sunrise time Ardmore” and smiled again, the sun would be rising in a very few minutes, so taking my trusty Canon out of the bag, I sat at the window and waited. I wasn’t being selfish here, I did alert Kath to what was just about to happen, her response wasn’t ecstatic, but she did come to the window, look and then returned to bed.

Later at breakfast we met some of the other guests and chatted amiably with them (one couple had come from Canada) and the owners, while enjoying what was I think, one of the finest breakfasts of the whole trip.

After breakfast we went out into garden, this was our penultimate morning in Ireland, tomorrow at about this time we would be boarding the ferry from Dublin back to Liverpool but for now we were happily standing in the sunshine and enjoying the views. It really was nice here and yet again; thoughts of an extended stay came to the fore, but that ferry was also calling for us to be on it.

We said our goodbyes, loaded our stuff into the car and set off in a vaguely north-eastern direction until a toilet break was called for. We entered the town of New Ross which sits on the River Barrow about 18 km from the sea. I spotted the unmistakable masts and rigging of a sailing ship, we made for those masts and found not only a three master but parking, a visitor’s centre and the all-important toilets.

We had stumbled upon The Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience. The ship Dunbrody moored in the river is a replica, built between 1996 and 2001, of the original ship which was built in 1845 and intended to be a cargo vessel conveying timber from Canada, cotton from the southern states of the U.S.A. and guano from Peru.

Dunbrody was one of 7 sister ships commissioned in Quebec for William Graves & Son, a merchant family from New Ross.

1845 was also the first year of the “Great Famine” in Ireland, a famine brought about by Potato Blight which caused crops to wither and die in the fields. The Blight wasn’t confined to Ireland though, it was fairly widespread throughout Northern and Western Europe. What made the situation worse in Ireland, which was at the time part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, was the seemingly intransigent and uncaring attitudes of, A) the Government and B) the landowners who were for the most part, from and lived in England.

The causes and aftermath are well documented elsewhere, just one more example where the ethics, morals and mores of the English have been shown to be wanting.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m English by birth, British by default, and England and the UK have been in the forefront of a lot of good things but also a lot of shameful things which some do-gooders try to erase by pulling down statues and the like. I don’t subscribe to that mindset, if we forget our past, we are doomed to make the same mistakes, don’t you think?

In the mid-1840s in Ireland, with people dying en masse of starvation, many hundreds of thousands of Irish chose to emigrate to North America in search of a better life. The owners of the Dunbrody and many ships like her, fitted their vessels with bunks and cashed-in transporting the emigrants across the Atlantic.

We toured the ship, an interesting and informative if slightly sobering experience; transatlantic travel in the 1840s was not for the faint-hearted even those who could afford what passed for luxury accommodation, let alone those driven by famine to try to reach the New World.

Read more about the Dunbrody here:

Leaving New Ross, we motored north and east until we found the M11 motorway for a fast-ish run up to Dublin where I had taken the precaution of pre-booking a room at the same hotel we stayed in when we arrived. Our last night in Ireland and what better place to spend it than in the good-natured hustle and bustle of Dublin?

Saturday 19th and again the weather was lovely; after we had breakfasted, I went for a short walk along O’Connell Street, musing on the places we had been to and through, it had certainly been an enjoyable time, this Irish Odyssey. 08:00 and we were aboard the ferry which sailed at 09:00.

On the voyage out from Liverpool we hadn’t had one of the cabins available, we’d just stayed in the public areas and saloons, on the way back however we had the presence of mind to obtain a cabin, of which there aren’t many and they were on a first come, first served basis. The cabins are only basic affairs, but they do offer the opportunity of a lay-down once you have finished walking around the decks pretending to be a master mariner, and after all, the journey lasts about 8 hours…

By 17:00 we were berthing at Liverpool and as soon as we had disembarked, we made the short journey to the Hotel we were staying in. That evening we met friends of ours who live in Liverpool, we went for a meal together and then sort of drifted to The Baltic Fleet, a pub on Wapping in The Baltic Triangle. As pubs go, it’s a bit spit and sawdust, as they say – no, actually it’s not that bad, and they do serve some very good ales and hey, even Jack Sparrow turned up!

Saturday night in The Baltic Fleet, Liverpool

Sunday 20th and all we had to do was traverse to 200 odd miles home and some four hours later, there we were, slán abhaile.

Bruce Springsteen – Supplementary.

Having been thwarted twice by The Boss, I looked up the times and venues that he and his band were playing in Ireland while we were there.

On Thursday 11th July when we tried to get a room in Sligo, Bruce and the boys weren’t playing until Tuesday 16th and that was at Thomond Park in Limerick. Nowhere near Sligo and days away! I suppose that the legions of his fans had decided to spend a little time touring and had all pitched-up in Sligo on the Thursday.

On Wednesday 17th and the ill-starred booking in Cork, they were playing in Cork the next evening.

The only other gig they had on the island of Ireland was on Saturday 20th and that was in Belfast.

Ah well, no matter, what had happened was that we’d found far nicer places, so cheers Bruce.

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