Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cahir, Cashel, and Waterford

Cahir Castle
Breakfast at the Shandon Bell B&B was served in a beautiful solarium with a flower-filled deck overlooking the River Lee. Unfortunately, today it was raining so hard we had no desire to even open the door to the deck, let alone eat there, but it would have been a beautiful experience on a different day. While we were at breakfast, the window in our room upstairs unfortunately blew open, allowing rain into the hiking boots Michael had left standing underneath. We had to ask for an extra towel to dry them off and then use a hair dryer on the inside before he could put them on.

Cahir Castle
He needed the sturdy boots because this morning’s itinerary was likely to take us up some wet, muddy inclines. We found plenty of mud around our first stop, Cahir Castle (pronounced care), located on a small island in the River Suir. Unfortunately, the castle was closed for repairs. (Lots of misfortunes today already!) We were able to get a few good photographs of the picturesque exterior, but because there wasn’t anything else to do there, we drove on.

The original name of Cahir meant
"place of abundant fish"
The rain had subsided and the sky was starting to clear by the time we reached the Rock of Cashel, but the wind was still blowing cold and fierce. The Rock is a geological phenomenon, a huge chunk of solid limestone that rises nearly a hundred meters above the floor of the wide Golden Vale in County Tipperary. Such an outcropping formed a natural citadel, so of course it has been the site of various strategic fortifications for millennia.
Cashel. Note the soaring ravens
St. Patrick's Stone
Remember Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster, who built Blarney Castle? His family ruled most of southern Ireland from the Rock of Cashel for over seven hundred years. St. Patrick came to Cashel in the fifth century and baptized King Aengus, one of Cormac’s powerful ancestors, and subsequently the whole country began converting to Christianity. During the tenth century, control of the Rock was wrested from the McCarthys by Brian Boru, who became the first native-Irish High King, but the McCarthys spent the next 150 years trying to win Cashel back from the O’Briens (Brian Boru’s clan). To put an end to the fighting, the O’Briens gave the Rock to the Church, dedicating it to St. Patrick. Stymied by that unexpected move, Cormac McCarthy retreated to Cork and built Blarney Castle as his new seat of power, but to assure the clergy (and the O’Briens) that he had no hard feelings, he also erected a lovely Romanesque-style church atop the Rock of Cashel. In addition to that twelfth-century structure, the Rock also features the Cathedral of St. Patrick, a larger, gothic-style church that was built a few hundred years later.

Rock of Cashel
Tower of Cashel
As we approached the Rock from the Golden Vale and saw extensive scaffolding and heavy equipment around both Cormac’s Chapel and the cathedral, we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to go inside, but since they’re just building a protective covering to help conserve the roof, the construction work didn’t interfere with our visit. 

Inside the Cathedral of St. Patrick
Also included on the tour (led by a rather cold guide who seemed bored by his own presentation) was the fully restored and furnished Hall of the Vicars Choral, where the cathedral musicians once lived. The colorfully painted wood carvings in the hall reminded us that all the old stone ruins we’ve been seeing used to wear more cheerful decorations.
View from the Rock of Cashel
Carved recess in Cormac's Chapel
Providing the soundtrack for our visit to the Rock of Cashel was a flock of huge, noisy ravens. Nancy found this curious, remembering that when their daughter and son-in-law had decided to name their son Cormac, she had looked up the meaning of the Irish name and learned that the mac part of course meant son, but the derivation of the cor part was less clear. Some people believe it came from the old Irish corb, a wheel; others say it is the old Irish term for raven. Now, having seen the ravens circling over Cashel and hearing their raspy caws echo through Cormac’s Chapel, she has no doubt that the latter group has the better claim.
Cormac's Chapel

"Cormac's Chapel" in Irish

Carved heads in Cormac's Chapel
(We thought they looked like something
 our grandson Cormac would appreciate) 
Carved heads in Cormac's Chapel

Remains of early frescos in Cormac's Chapel

Cashel High Cross

View from the Rock of Cashel

Cemetery on the Rock of Cashel

Carved wood detail in Vicars Hall
Ceiling of the Hall of the Vicars Choral in Cashel

Kitchen in the Hall of the Vicars Choral in Cashel

This monument to Irish music and dance
is between the event ground and
the car park at the Rock of Cashel 

Hans Café, located at the bottom of the road leading to the Rock, was crowded—probably because it was the only eatery around that was open. We had to wait about twenty minutes for a table, which made us a little nervous because we wanted to get to Waterford in time to tour the crystal factory, and we still had more than an hour’s drive to get there.  We wished we hadn’t been in such a rush, because our potato-leek soup and chicken Caesar salad were excellent, and the desserts we saw being served to other diners looked very tempting—but we stuck to our schedule and hurried on.

Waterford Crystal Visitor Center
Though Waterford is renowned as the home of the world’s most famous crystal, the history of the brand is surprisingly troubled. The first crystal produced in the town came from the Penrose brothers, who had established a well-regarded glass factory there in the late 1700s. Ireland’s repeated famines led to the closing of the Penrose operation in 1851, and after that, no more fine crystal came out of Waterford for nearly a century. Following World War II, a couple of Czech refugees who had worked in the glass trade and remembered the Penroses’ outstanding reputation chose Waterford as the place to set up a new glassworks. Ironically, they couldn’t find anyone in Waterford who remembered how to create fine crystal, so they had to import skilled workers from the continent. The company they called Waterford began producing quality crystal again, but as a purveyor of luxury goods, it was dependent upon a robust economy to stay afloat—and we all know that the world’s economy has not been very strong in the last decade. In 2005, the company shut down one of its factories near Waterford; four years later, it went into receivership and announced that the flagship plant was to be closed as well. Employees protested, American investors were found, and a deal was worked out. The old Waterford plant was shuttered, but in 2010 it was replaced by a gleaming new building clearly designed to attract tourists rather than produce a lot of crystal. Indeed, these days, the exquisite stemware Waterford is known for is actually made in Eastern Europe; the only crystal now produced in Waterford are specialty items such as trophies and commemorative gifts.

Initial shaping of the molten glass
Blowing a glass bowl

Cooling the blown glass and removing the blow tube
Cutting patterns into the glass




Shaping the edges

Racing along the mercifully wide, well-paved roads between Cashel and Waterford, Michael and Nancy arrived at the crystal factory with ten minutes to spare before the last tour of the day. As we’ve learned, “crystal factory” is something of a misnomer; what Waterford has to offer is more just a visitor center where a handful of skilled craftsmen demonstrate the process of turning a lump of molten glass into a dazzling work of art. (Well, some of what they make are works of art; we’re not sure we’d call a slightly oversize, cut-crystal football an aesthetic masterpiece.) Sean, the retired glassworker who guided our tour, was very excited that he could show us a trophy for the upcoming Barclay’s Cup golf tournament in the beginning stages of its development.  Click here to watch a video of the trophy being blown.

Shaping the Barclay's Cup trophy
Wooden mold for a Kentucky
basketball tournament trophy

Blown Barclay's Cup trophy

More shaping

Waterford crystal gramophone
Waterford couldn't just settle for creating Cinderella's glass slippers;
they had to go for the whole coach and four

During practically every conversation we’ve had with a native of Ireland in the past few weeks, the term “Celtic Tiger” has inevitably come up. The Irish are proud of what they were able to accomplish during their brief economic boom at the end of the last century, but they seem to have become resigned to the fact that it ended, and to the idea that such prosperity isn’t likely to return any time soon. Evidence of the bounteous Celtic Tiger years is widespread: scores of modern commercial buildings, beautiful bridges and highways built to handle lots of traffic, and tract after tract of new housing developments—but many of these structures look empty, or unfinished. We have frequently seen signs encouraging tourists to “Rent an Irish holiday home!” posted outside rows of attractive modern townhouses in little villages where tourism seems to be the only industry other than sheepherding.

In Waterford, the demise of the Celtic Tiger is even more apparent than elsewhere. Other places in Ireland seem to be recovering; businesses are open and bustling, people are shopping and eating out, old buildings continue to be renovated. Not so much in Waterford. Here we saw countless empty buildings with “To purchase” or “To let" (rent) signs posted on their storefronts. After dark, the downtown area went dead—so eerily deserted that we were kind of afraid to keep walking around after we finished our dinner.

Adel B&B
But before dinner, we had to find our B&B and check in. Generally, our GPS has been pretty good about directing us safely to our accommodations. This afternoon, however, Google Maps led us away from the center of town, off the main highway, and into a residential area (which in itself wasn't unusual), and then to our purported destination: a regular-looking house at the end of a cul de sac. There were no “Bed & Breakfast” or “Guesthouse” signs anywhere in the neighborhood.  Nevertheless, Michael went up to the door and knocked. It was opened by an older gentleman who soon made it clear that his home was not the Adel B&B. Although he seemed a bit put out, he spoke politely as gave Michael explicit directions to the real Adel B&B, located back on the main road directly behind his home. Obviously, we were not the first travelers to have been led to the wrong place by an electronically generated voice.

Ann, our hostess at the Adel, showed us to what amounted to a private suite with its own entrance at the side of the house. The hallway between our bedroom and the bathroom was decorated with wedding photos of Ann’s son and daughter; we figured that we were staying in the rooms they occupied when they came to visit.

Again relying on a combination of endorsements from Fodor and our host to choose a restaurant, we drove back downtown to find Bodega, which had been described as an inexpensive, "casual modern-Irish eatery" and “the fun place to eat in town.” We shared a salad and a plate of grilled artichoke hearts to start. For main plates, Michael had monkfish in garlic sauce with spinach and potatoes; Nancy had pollock with a lovely velouté sauce, mashed potatoes, and roasted carrots and parsnips. For dessert, Michael had chocolate soufflé topped with pistachio crumble and raspberry swirl ice cream; Nancy had chocolate-peanut butter brownies with a scoop of yummy salted-popcorn ice cream. We hoped to explore more of central Waterford after dinner, but as we said before, so many stores were dark and so few people were on the streets that after walking for about fifteen minutes, we decided it would be best to get back to the safety of our car and return to the B&B.

Despite its private entrance, our suite at the Adel shared a wall with the common living room, and the television in that room was located right behind our bed.  The day that had begun with a series of unfortunate events could have ended just as badly—but it didn’t. Fortunately, the TV went off at about 11:00, and we were able to enjoy a peaceful night’s rest.

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