Tuesday, March 10, 2015

County Cork: Blarney, Boole, and the best ceol agus craic yet

This morning we drove away from the dramatic mountains of Counties Clare and Kerry and into the more gently rolling hills of County Cork. Here the green terrain is closer to what we envisioned as “Ireland” before we came, although there aren’t as many stone walls here as in the north, and more modern buildings make the countryside seems less rustic and more prosperous than it did in County Mayo.
In the gardens outside Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle
Blarney Castle and Tower
About five kilometers before you reach the city of Cork you come to Blarney Castle, an institution that definitely is more prosperous than rustic. There we encountered something we had seen only once before on this trip: busloads of tourists. (The previous instance had been at Kylemore Abbey, but there they didn’t get in our way until lunchtime.) Busloads of tourist dollars (euros, yen, rubles, renminbi and every other currency) apparently have made Blarney Castle one of the best maintained and most visitor-friendly attractions in Ireland.
Tight staircase to the top

Castle sits on a outcrop of rock
The gorgeous grounds are inviting, the restrooms clean and commodious, and the gift shop well stocked. Fortunately, the whole is estate is large enough to swallow four or five busloads without causing anyone indigestion.

Nancy kissing the Blarney stone

Entrance to the castle

While impressive, the castle itself isn’t much different from the other medieval castles we’ve seen; the only thing it really has going for it is the tradition of kissing the famous stone atop the battlements.

Blarney Castle and Tower
In order for the act to be effective in bestowing the legendary gift of gab, you have to climb 127 steps to the top of the castle, lie on your back, grasp the hand bars, slide your body as far back as you can over a couple of feet of thin air, tilt your head way back, and hope your lips touch cold stone before you lose your nerve. No one is sure exactly how this ritual began, but visitors have been lining up to do it for more than two hundred years. These days they can pay €10 euro (~$11.50) to buy photographic proof of their accomplishment. Because the area wasn’t too crowded this morning, Michael could get in a position to snap a free photo of Nancy while she went through the contortions necessary to kiss the stone, but he abstained from seeking added eloquence himself.

(He’s in good company: George Bernard Shaw also declined, feeling his “natural gifts in that direction being sufficient, if not somewhat excessive” already.) Nancy doubts that she’ll see any improvement in her own speaking ability, but figured it was worth a try.

Blarney House was closed for renovation

We didn’t get to tour Blarney House, an elegant nineteenth-century addition to the estate, because it was closed for renovations, but we did enjoy walking around the gardens, especially when we happened upon a harpist playing heavenly music en plein air.
Harpist in the park

The watch tower as seen from the castle roof

Crocuses in bloom
We also were delighted to learn that Blarney Castle was built by Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster in the fifteenth century, because he shares an uncommon Christian name with our oldest grandchild. One of his descendants, also named Cormac McCarthy (but by then titled Lord Blarney), is said to have resisted Queen Elizabeth I’s attempts to usurp control of the McCarthys’ land by continually offering some clever excuse for delaying transfer of ownership. Frustrated when yet another royal emissary returned from Ireland with Cormac’s profuse professions of loyalty to the crown, but no promise to hand over the land, Elizabeth reportedly blurted: “That’s just Blarney! He never says what he means!” Thus blarney entered the English language as a term for eloquent but empty words. (The Irish like to distinguish blarney from baloney by explaining that blarney requires wit and humor, whereas baloney is just nonsense.)

View of Blarney House and the extensive grounds from the battlements of Blarney Castle

Our granddaughter Daphne (Cormac's sister) gets a shout-out
in the Poison Garden at Blarney Castle
The drive from Blarney into Cork was a short one, and we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in a real city—third largest in Ireland, and probably about the same size as Cincinnati (but considerably livelier). After navigating back and forth across the River Lee to a parking garage in the center of town, we made our way to the English Market. It’s a lot like Reading Market in Philadelphia: a vast enclosed space filled with stalls offering every type of food imaginable. Our destination was the Farmgate Café on the upper level, which a number of people had told us was the place to have lunch in Cork. Apparently that is true, because we couldn’t see a single vacant table. But the service was cafeteria style, and the carrot-and-coriander soup sounded irresistible, so we decided to get in line anyway and hope that by the time we got our food, we would be able to find somewhere to sit and eat it. We needn’t have worried. An older woman acting as attendant over the cutlery and serviettes (napkins) at the end of the service line kindly but firmly directed us to two empty chairs at a table already occupied by a couple of stylishly dressed thirty-somethings, and then brought us two glasses of water. Over the soup (which was amazing), we got acquainted with our tablemates, an advertising consultant from Manchester and his Brazilian girlfriend, who was starting a new career as a photographer.

Student campaigning at UCC
After that satisfying repast and conversation, we walked a kilometer or two along the river to University College Cork, where we immediately recognized that student elections must be underway.  The central quad was full of colorful banners, information booths, and groups of energetic cheering squads. Who knew that Irish university students were as willing as their American counterparts to wear silly hats, paint their faces blue, or dress up as sausages for the sake of promoting their favorite candidate? No one tried to press any campaign literature on the two gray-haired Americans passing through the crowd; volunteers only smiled and looked for others to buttonhole.

Boole bicentennial banners were all over campus
Alongside the campaign posters hung around campus were some other, less obnoxious banners announcing the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole, UCC’s most illustrious former faculty member. As part of the year-long bicentennial celebration, the university’s Office of Guest Relations was conducting special “Boolean tours” daily at 3 p.m. It was then about 2:25, so we went to Guest Relations and arranged to take the tour, then spent most of the next half hour racking our brains for anything we could recall learning about George Boole and what had made him worthy of a bicentennial celebration. We also took time to feign interest in an exhibit of large stones bearing inscriptions in Ogam (rhymes with home), the earliest form of writing in the Irish language, which was used primarily for territorial markers and gravestones.

UCC's main quadrangle

When we returned to Guest Relations to begin the tour, we were not surprised to learn that we were the only ones scheduled to take it today. Our guide was a well-informed but unpretentious graduate student who explained that UCC had begun in the 1840s primarily as a medical school, then gradually expanded into the other sciences, humanities, and fine arts. (Our guide himself was studying theatre arts and ethnomusicology.) George Boole had been the university’s first mathematics professor and later dean of the science division. Although he was unlettered in terms of formal degrees, Boole obtained his position through the recommendation of respected friends and colleagues who vouched for his impressive intellectual skills. Of the many influential treatises he wrote on math theory and logic, one in particular later captured the attention of an MIT student named Claude Shannon, who showed how Boole’s binary system could be employed by telephone relay switches to solve problems. Thus the world now recognizes George Boole as “the grandfather of modern computing”—and many thanks do we owe him! (Another fun fact: We learned that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used George Boole as the model for Professor Moriarty, Sherlock’s Holmes’s villainous adversary. Apparently Conan Doyle and Boole’s wife had some sort of disagreement after the professor’s death, so he turned her late husband into an evil character out of spite.)
The modern Asian Studies building echoes the gothic lines of UCC's older buildings 

George Boole himself (as impersonated by a drama student in period dress) spoke with us during our tour, as did Queen Victoria, whose statue once graced the pinnacle of the university’s main building. Her statue was replaced during a period of intense Irish nationalism by a figure of Finnbar, patron saint of Cork, but it now resides in the Graduates Room—encased in bulletproof glass to protect it from damage by any contemporary zealots. The campus tour also took us into the Crawford Observatory with its historic telescopes, and the Aula Maxima, originally the examination hall but now used for meetings and concerts.
River of Life mosaic in Honan Chapel 

Mosaic floor in Honan Chapel
We especially enjoyed visiting the lovely Honan Chapel, whose floor is decorated with exquisite mosaics. Nancy also was impressed with the design of the Asian Studies building which, though modern, blends nicely with the Victorian gothic style of the original buildings.

Front of the Louis Gluckmann Gallery
Back of the Gluckmann Gallery
When we looked up the address of the Shandon Bell B&B, where we had booked a room for the night, we discovered that it was directly across the street from the entrance to the university.  We walked over and checked in; then while Michael took a bus back downtown to collect our parked car, Nancy went back to campus to visit the modern art museum. Cork’s city buses operate on the same system as Galway’s, so Michael was able to use his Leap card for a “free” ride. Nancy was pleased to find that the striking Louis Gluckmann Gallery didn’t charge admission for the twenty minutes she had to look around before closing time. On exhibit was a show entitled “Selective Memory,” in which artists creatively reimagined remnants of the past. Most of the artworks were pretty bizarre; the only pieces Nancy really “got” were a series of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) paintings made to look like collections of postcards, letters, receipts, and other ephemera pinned to a bulletin board, or randomly scattered on a tabletop.
Shandon Bell B&B

That evening, armed with a few restaurant recommendations from Fodor (which describes Cork as a foodie’s paradise), we drove back downtown.  After reading the posted menus at our options, we settled on Jacques (pronounced “Jacks”), an art deco-style place that promised creative cuisine at a reasonable price. To start, we shared a salad of baby greens with roasted pumpkin and goat cheese, accompanied by the best brown bread we have yet tasted in all of Ireland. Michael ordered rabbit with pate and a mustard cream sauce, and Nancy went for the chicken breast with mushroom and bacon risotto. We shared a dessert sampler plate laden with slices of choclate tart and orange-passion fruit cake, a scoop of ice cream garnished with honeycomb crisps, and slices of blood orange topped by dates filled with mascarpone and pomegranate seeds.  It was every bit as good as our dinner at the Mustard Seed, even if the napkins weren’t genuine linen.

Looking across the River Lee from UCC
After dinner, we walked across the street to a pub called the Oliver Plunkett, which offers ceol agus craic every night. We were happy to learn that music by the Lee Sessions was scheduled to start at 8:30 rather than 9:30, and the musicians were already setting up when we arrived.  As we looked around for seats, a couple up front motioned for us to come sit by them. There was only one empty chair at their table, so Michael pulled one from another table nearby and we sat down. (Michael was gratified to realize how pub-comfortable he has become, moving chairs around and accepting invitations from people he’s never met.) Proper introductions would have to wait, however, because as soon as we had settled down with our bottle of tonic water, the music began.

Dessert sampler at Jacques
The poker-faced fellow holding a fiddle to his chin as the trio tuned up was about the same size as our son-in-law Jake (sometimes known as “the Giant Stone”), and the guy with the accordion wasn’t much smaller or any more animated. Only the lean guitarist fit our notion of a trad musician, swaying with his instrument as if he were leading it through a Texas two-step. But once the three started playing together, all our preconceptions were forgotten. It didn’t matter that the fiddle player barely moved anything but his bow arm and flying fingers, or that the hefty accordion player quickly broke into a well deserved sweat. The music they made was brilliant.

The fiddler and accordion player obviously had played together for years, but the guitarist must have been new to the group because every now and then the accordion player would catch the guitarist’s eye and tell him they were switching keys. (He was good enough to follow along without any discordant notes.) When the guitarist announced that he was going to sing a Don McLean number the other two evidently had never heard, they just listened for a few measures and then joined in as if they had known it their whole lives. These guys were not just good, they were terrific!

Musicians of the Lee Sessions
The three musicians were not the only members of the Lee Sessions to perform tonight. After they announced that they were going to play a jig, the young couple who had been drinking beer at a table next to the stage suddenly jumped up and began to dance. We had been impressed with the impromptu performance put on by Sarah from Boston the other night in Doolin, but Amy and Ian Denny were absolutely awe-inspiring. Their dancing style was freer than Sarah’s, with looser arms and body movements, but maintaining the intricate, rhythmic footwork and high kicks we think of as typical of Irish dancing. Nancy found it especially thrilling to watch the two copy each other’s steps, then repeat the pattern in perfect unison. A little later in the evening, Ian brought a couple of brooms out of the back room, which he and Amy then incorporated into their energetic routine. Again, we were lucky to have snagged front-row seats to this amazing presentation; indeed, tonight we were so close to the action that a couple of times we had to pull our feet under our chairs to keep our toes from being trod upon.

Amy and Ian
When the musicians took a break, we finally had a chance for conversation with our tablemates, a couple about our own age who told us they often came to the Oliver Plunkett to enjoy the music. Both were natives of County Cork and very friendly, asking us about our trip and about our family, and telling us about their own. They also explained that the loose dancing style we had seen tonight is another traditional form called sean-nós. We talked through the entire break, stopping only when the music began again.

Click here to watch a video of Amy and Ian's amazing footwork.

Before we knew it, it was past 10:30. We left the pub reluctantly, still feeling the rhythm in our souls as we skipped back to the car.

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