“You Are Invited to Ireland,” a US Airways Magazine article proclaimed while I was aloft to Boston last October. With a photograph of a gorgeous vista of the Cliffs of Moher and enticing details about The Gathering, a year-long celebration of Irish heritage, how could I turn down the chance to be one of the 325,000 additional visitors Ireland expects to welcome during 2013?
My curiosity about Ireland extends beyond a fondness for U2, Riverdance, Celtic Woman and the Turlough O’Carolan tunes I play on my harp. My great-great grandfather, Daniel O’Connor, was born in County Kerry and emigrated to Columbus in 1882. True to the form of Irish ballads like “The Old Bog Road,” his life in America was a weary, weepy one. When the 40-year-old died of heart disease in 1902, his wife and three of their five children had already succumbed to tuberculosis.
So, when I got wind of a six-day July getaway to Dublin offered by W&L Traveller, Washington and Lee University’s educational travel program, I knew the time had come to become better acquainted with a part of my ancestral homeland.
Together with 32 other W&L alumni, parents and friends, my mother and I joined Marc Conner, the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English and the Associate Provost at W&L, on his 18th visit to Ireland. For over 10 years, Marc has led W&L students on study-abroad programs to Ireland, sharing his knowledge and love of Irish literature, history and culture so enthusiastically that he and the equally besotted veterans of his expeditions have earned the nickname “Irish Marc and His Funky Bunch.”
While others spend their vacations lounging on the beach or retreating to nature, my holidays are no leisurely affair. My goal is to cram in as much as possible, and that’s just what like-minded Marc delivered in this show-stopper of a trip. Get ready; we’re going to cover a lot of Irish turf in this post!
Shrieking seagulls woke us up in time each morning for a bountiful Irish breakfast brimming with bacon and scrambled eggs, baked beans and sausages, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, black pudding and porridge, Weetabix and muesli, and marmalade-topped sultana scones and soda bread. Next came a lecture, during which Marc introduced us to Irish history, the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the Celtic Revival, and James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the 1914 short story that was set in our hotel, The Gresham.Then we boarded our coach and our Irish driver, Louis McDermott, whisked us away for each day of our sightseeing itinerary.
Driving alongside Dublin’s River Liffey, we admired Ha’penny Bridge, so named for the halfpenny toll pedestrian crossers of the cast-iron bridge had to pay from its creation in 1816 until 1919. We saluted the Famine Memorial and the recreated Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship, both of which recall the Great Irish Famine that forced more than one million Irish to emigrate between 1845 and 1849. We rubbed shoulders with the Molly Malone statue, honoring the fictional fishmonger who died in one of the cholera outbreaks that plagued Dublin and is commemorated in a popular song of the same name. We glimpsed the Guinness Storehouse and the canals that once transported the water to make the famous brew. We beheld the colorful doors, ornate brass knockers and delicate leaded fanlights of Dublin’s iconic Georgian townhouses. In Phoenix Park, Dublin’s 1752-acre enclosed urban park, we saw the 90-foot cross marking the spot where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in front of one million people in 1979. Driving by Deerfield, the setting of Elizabeth Shannon’s Up in the Park: The Diary of the Wife of the American Ambassador to Ireland, 1977-1981, I remembered reading this book as a 12-year-old and how Mrs. Shannon’s recreation of a print room, a popular decorating phenomenon in Georgian Ireland, captivated my imagination.
We descended upon the National Museum of Ireland’s Treasury to admire outstanding examples of Celtic art, including eighth-century treasures like the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch, as well as St. Patrick’s seventh-century iron bell housed in a beautiful 12th-century shrine. A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, a book and app for android devices, provides an excellent look at these and other objects that are key to Ireland’s history.
Next door at the National Library of Ireland, I explored The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats. This award-winning multimedia exhibition of manuscripts and family memorabilia documents the poet’s contributions to the revival of Irish language and literary traditions, including his collaboration with Lady Augusta Gregory to found the Abbey Theatre; his role as editor of the Dun Emer Press (later the Cuala Press), founded by his sister, Elizabeth; and a reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree by the poet himself.
At Trinity College, founded by Elizabeth I in 1592, we queued up in a cobbled square outside the library to see the Book of Kells, the lavishly illuminated ninth-century Latin manuscript of the four gospels that was produced by monks on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, who then fled to Kells after a Viking raid. After walking through an exhibition called Turning Darkness into Light that explained the background of the famous work that has been housed at Trinity College since the 17th century, we found ourselves at the real-live Book of Kells, opened to a full-page portrait of St. Matthew, the iconic image that precedes the opening words of his gospel. Upstairs, in the Old Library’s Long Room, dating from 1745, we saw marble busts of scholars, 200,000 of the library’s oldest books, and the oldest surviving Irish harp. Constructed from oak and willow with brass strings, the legendary harp is said to have belonged to Brian Boru, high king of Ireland who died in 1014, but it probably dates from the 15th century. Trinity College Library offers a Book of Kells app for the iPad that not only offers commentary about its history and decorative themes, but also provides high-resolution images for detailed exploration of the entire manuscript, page by page.
Jonathan Swift may be best known for satirizing Anglo-Irish relations in Gulliver’s Travels, but this Dublin native was also dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 until his death in 1745. Inside the circa-1220 church constructed on the site of an ancient well that St. Patrick supposedly used around 450 AD to baptize converts, we saw the pulpit from which Swift preached about social injustice and heard about how he ran up and down the stairs of the cathedral’s tower every day to keep fit. Swift is buried at the west end of the cathedral, next to his great friend, Esther Johnson, better known as Stella.
“Go traveler and imitate if you can, this dedicated and earnest champion of liberty,” Swift’s epitaph reads in part. Imitating Swift’s fondness for exercise, this intrepid traveler ran next door on a ten-minute pilgrimage to Marsh’s Library, the first public library in Ireland, established in 1707 by Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Dublin. Books dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries on history, law, politics, classical studies, and science are housed on Irish oak bookshelves and in wire cages in the same position in which they were placed three centuries ago. Every working day of the year, Marsh’s Library posts an image from its collections on Facebook and Twitter. Books of Dublin, an iPad app, showcases rare manuscripts and historic printed books from Marsh’s Library and the Edward Worth Library. Each work is accompanied by expert commentary.
There’s nothing like talking about a country’s heritage while standing on the streets and in the buildings in which history was made. One day, we did just that.
Since the Acts of Union united the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, Irish nationalist organizations such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood promoted separatism from Britain by staging protests and unsuccessful uprisings against British rule. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, Irish republicans began an armed insurrection with the hope of ending British rule in Ireland and establishing an independent Irish Republic. For six days, a battle raged in Dublin. Headquartered at the General Post Office, the rebels fired against the British military along Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and occupied other strategic locations in the city. Gunfire and shelling resulted in the destruction of many parts of Dublin. Following the Easter Rising, 14 leaders of the rebellion were court-martialled and executed by the British at Kilmainham Gaol.
To learn more about the Easter Rising, we watched the opening scene from the film Michael Collins and toured the restored Panopticon jail. We also went on a 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour. Braving a series of torrential downpours as he spoke, an Irish historian named Shane brought the events of that week to life, pointing out bullet holes in buildings and statues like the 1882 monument to Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator” who secured Catholic emancipation in 1829. The Easter Rising: A Guide to Dublin in 1916, by Lorcan Collins and Conor Kostick, provides an armchair version of the walking tour.
We also ventured outside of the city to experience Ireland’s heritage. Brú na Bóinne, in County Meath, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dominated by the three large passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, constructed during the New Stone Age, around 3,000 BC. We learned about how these burial chambers were built, the decorated stones of megalithic art they contain, and the society that created these monuments. In a partial full-size replica of the main burial chamber at Newgrange, we also had an opportunity to experience what happens at dawn on the morning of the winter solstice, when rays of sunlight enter the tomb through a roof box, travel along a 62-foot passage and light up the central recess in the burial chamber, making it the oldest deliberately aligned chamber. Some of us entered a lottery in hopes of being the lucky winner who will experience the winter solstice at Newgrange this year.
On the summit of the Hill of Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, we surveyed a beautiful landscape offering views of over 20 percent of the country. Our Irish guide may have been talking a load of Blarney, but his stories of Celtic mythology and a would-be king’s legendary challenges will make it hard to forget Bloc and Bluicna, the Stone of Destiny, the Fort of the Kings, and the Mound of the Hostages, dating from 2500 BC.
After surviving our first Irish downpour, we soaked up the sunny, tranquil atmosphere of Glendalough, a monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century, with a 110-foot-tall round tower and the ruins of a 12th-century Hiberno-Romanesque stone cathedral.At Monasterboice, a monastery established in the fifth century, we marveled at two of the finest High Crosses in Ireland. The 10th-century sandstone crosses are covered with elaborately carved depictions of Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
At Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery founded in Ireland in 1142, we explored the ruins of one of the wealthiest and most influential monastic houses in medieval Ireland. Bruce Springsteen’s decision to close the European portion of his Wrecking Ball Tour with two “last big spectacular” concerts in Kilkenny brought some 60,000 fans to the city on July 27 and 28. Scrapping their plans to take us to Kilkenny Castle on our last day in Ireland, Marc and Louis detoured to the Rock of Cashel, set on a granite outcropping in the Golden Vale of Tipperary. In our version of the “last big spectacular,” we marveled at a spectacular 12th-century Hiberno-Romanesque church and chapel, a 13th-century cathedral, and a graveyard filled with Celtic crosses, even one that had been struck by lightning. Ireland isn’t all literary landmarks, Celtic crosses and monastic ruins. In County Wicklow, we spent a glorious two hours at Powerscourt, one of Europe’s finest gardens. Dramatically situated at the foot of the Great Sugar Loaf Mountain, the 47-acre estate began as a castle built in the 1300s and became the home of the Wingfield family for 350 years. In 1974, a fire destroyed the Palladian mansion that Richard Wingfield, the first Viscount Powerscourt, commissioned in the 1730s. The estate reopened in 1997 after renovation. The Powerscourt estate also includes a Ritz-Carlton hotel and a golf course.
Powerscourt’s gardens create one of the most beautiful vistas in Ireland. An Italianate terrace designed in the 1840s features a mosaic of pebbles gathered from nearby Bray beach that 100 men took over 12 years to build. Sculptures of gods, mythical creatures and a pair of life-sized winged horses that the seventh Viscount collected during his Continental travels line the walkway to Triton Lake and its fountain based on Rome’s Piazza Barberini. A Japanese garden created in 1908 features azaleas, Japanese maples, Chinese fortune palms, bridges, water pools, and a grotto. A woodland walk includes over 250 varieties of trees and rhododendrons, while a walled garden has intricate ironwork gates from Germany’s Bamberg Cathedral. Ireland’s largest pet cemetery is also here, including the graves of the Wingfields’ dogs, horses and cattle.
No trip is complete without spending time dining and shopping with the locals. At Powerscourt, I fulfilled my goal of visiting an Avoca shop. An Irish family business that was established in the rural village of Avoca in 1723, Avoca produces handwoven throws, rugs and other products, like its “Button” pattern ceramics. Avoca’s Powerscourt complex also offers an artisan foodhall and a café, where we lunched on hearty cream of vegetable soup and thick slices of Irish soda bread slathered with Irish butter.
On Dublin’s Nassau Street, we window-shopped at Peterson, Dublin’s legendary manufacturer and purveyor of fine smoking pipes like the one my mother brought back to my grandfather from her first visit to Ireland 50 years ago. We found a favorite hangout in the Kilkenny Design Centre, specializing in Irish glass, textiles and ceramics, including an abundance of my favorite Nicholas Mosse pottery, handmade in County Kilkenny in the tradition of 18th century Irish spongeware. During three separate visits to the café, we feasted on seasonal soups and salads, Irish soda breads, hot dishes from its carvery, and rustic ham and Irish cheese toasted sandwiches.
In the Gresham’s Writer’s Lounge, we admired ladies tucking into three tiers of treats for afternoon tea, including miniature scones, tortes, tarts, pavlovas, cakes, biscuits, finger sandwiches, and barmbrack, a traditional Irish fruitcake.
Even outlet shopping in Ireland is tied to the country’s heritage. At Kildare Village, we admired bronze statues of Bran and Sceolan, the famous Irish Wolfhounds who belonged to the legendary mythical warrior Finn McCool, before picking up some choice British treats from Cath Kidston and Radley.
Fellow knitters might like to know about Black Water Abbey Yarns, which imports knitting yarns made at a small mill in the village of Graignuemanagh, in County Kilkenny.
In the months before my trip, Ireland was the theme of my leisure reading and Internet surfing. If you’re interested in reading more about Ireland and its literary heritage, check out Marc’s Irish Literary Studies web portal of resources on Irish history, literature, language and travel.
Other books on my reading list included The Irish Sketchbook of 1842, by William Makepeace Thackeray; Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale Taken from Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires, Before the Year 1782, a novel by Maria Edgeworth that satirizes the Anglo-Irish gentry; The Great Maria: A Portrait of Maria Edgeworth, by Elisabeth Inglis-Jones; The Dun Emer Press, Later the Cuala Press, by Liam Miller; Lady Gregory: An Irish Life, by Judith Hill; Marsh’s Library, Dublin: All Graduates and Gentlemen, by Muriel McCarthy; The Making of Marsh’s Library: Learning, Politics and Religion in Ireland, 1650-1750, edited by Muriel McCarthy and Ann Simmons; A Literary Guide to Dublin: Writers in Dublin: Literary Associations and Anecdotes, by Vivien Igoe; and The Poetry of James Joyce Reconsidered, a 2012 book of essays on Joyce’s poetry that Marc edited. Ireland of the Welcomes, a beautifully illustrated magazine, contains features on Irish culture, heritage, history, genealogy, and travel.
Books on Irish history include Georgian Dublin, edited by Gillian O’Brien and Finola O’Kane; In Search of Ireland, by H.V. Morton; Guinness, by Peter Walsh; The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World, by Stephen Mansfield; and Creating Irish Tourism: The First Century 1750-1850 and Tourism, Landscape, and the Irish Character: British Travel Writers in Pre-Famine Ireland, both by William H.A. Williams. Architecture enthusiasts might enjoy A Guide to the Georgian Buildings of Britain and Ireland, by Dan Cruickshank, a publication of the National Trust and the Irish Georgian Society, Irish Georgian, by Herbert Ypma, Portrait of Dublin, by Desmond Guinness and The Shelbourne Hotel, by Elizabeth Bowen. Smudge and the Book of Mistakes, by Gloria Whelan, tells a clever story about the Irish monks of the Middle Ages and their illuminated manuscripts. Spot Irish landmarks and learn about Irish history and culture in S is for Shamrock: An Ireland Alphabet, by Eve Bunting. Other good finds were The Celtic Quest in Art and Literature: An Anthology from Merlin to Van Morrison, edited by Jane Lahr, and Ireland: Art Into History, edited by Brian P. Kennedy and Raymond Gillespie.
Fellow lovers of Irish arts and crafts, page through Irish People, Irish Linen, by Kathleen Curtis Wilson; In an Irish House, edited by Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly, as well as her Irish Hands: The Tradition of Beautiful Crafts, Traditional Crafts of Ireland, by David Shaw-Smith; Contemporary Irish Knits, by Carol Feller and Irish Lace, by Ada Longfield. Mrs. Delany & Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, by Molly Peacock, and Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers, by Ruth Hayden, all provide a fascinating look at Mary Delany, an 18th century Englishwoman who became friends with Jonathan Swift, lived with her husband at Delville, outside Dublin, and became notable for her paper flower collages late in life.
I’ve already started saving for the next time Marc offers a trip to Ireland. Until then, I’ll be recreating my favorite Irish dishes, with the help of Irish Cooking, by Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell; The Irish Pub Cookbook and The Irish Spirit: Recipes Inspired by the Legendary Drinks of Ireland, both by Margaret M. Johnson; and The Country Cooking of Ireland, by Colman Andrews. Even if you aren’t in the market for Irish recipes, check out the engaging, informative writing to be found in Real Irish Food: 150 Classic Recipes from the Old Country, by David Bowers, and Noel McMeel’s Irish Pantry: Traditional Breads, Preserves and Goodies to Feed the Ones You Love.