Thursday, March 12, 2015

Jerpoint, Kilkenney, and Carlow

Jerpoint Abbey
This morning it was raining again—the kind of rain that threatens to continue all day. We shared breakfast with another middle-aged couple from the U.S. When we asked where they were from, they said, “California and Texas,” but never made it quite clear if one of them was from one state and one from the other, or if they had recently moved from one to the other, or if they had residences in both, or whatever. Anyway, they were retired and had, like us, been traveling around Ireland for about three weeks, although they had spent a couple of months on the continent before coming here. Unlike us, they had been traveling around Ireland without a car, because, they said, they were afraid to try driving on the left side of the road.

After we left the table, we both remarked that we didn’t know how anyone could see much of Ireland without a car. True: last year we managed to see a lot of New Zealand’s South Island by bus, boat, plane, and our own sore feet. But here in Ireland, we have driven to so many beautiful,fascinating places along narrow, twisty roads that no bus would dare take (at least, we hope no bus would dare take them!): through the Slieve Bloom, over Connor Pass, along the western edge of the Dingle Peninsula, and from Torc Falls to Ladies’ View on the Ring of Kerry. We can’t imagine missing any of those breathtaking sights! On the other hand, the couple from California and Texas said they had spent at least three days in each of the cities they had visited, and we agreed it would have been nice to stay longer and get to know each area a little better. (We especially wished we had had another day or two in Cork. Next time!)

Jerpoint Abbey
But on this trip we had planned to keep moving, so we got back in our car, said farewell to Waterford, and headed north on M9, one of Ireland’s few four-lane highways. Our first stop was at the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, a few kilometers east of M9 in County Kilkenny. The abbey dates from 1160, but its cemetery still has room for the more recently deceased. One of the oldest tombs that caught our attention was that of a harper and his wife; the fact that they were laid to rest in a prominent place in the abbey indicates the high level of respect the Irish have always had for their musicians. Other early tombs are decorated with delightful figures of knights and ladies, as well as a lot of saints. More carvings, some of dragons and other fantastical animals, can be found on columns surrounding the abbey’s well-preserved cloister.  

St. Catherine, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Margaret

St. Peter, St. Andrew, St. James

St. Margaret and the dragon
The harper and his wife

Grave slab of two unknown Norman knights

St. Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny

Our next stop was at another religious edifice, the Cathedral of St. Canice in Kilkenny. The cathedral is Ireland's second largest from the medieval era (after St. Patrick’s in Dublin), and even though it took a beating from Cromwell’s anti-Catholic forces in the seventeenth century, it was restored in the mid-1800s and is still in active use today. One of its most distinctive features is the presence of two cathedrae—two literal bishop’s seats. One of them is the ancient black-marble Chair of St. Ciaran, the sixth-century bishop said to be the first Irish-born apostle; the other is a more ornate (and, we imagine, more comfortable) Victorian-era throne used by later bishops. Fun fact: One of the former bishops buried in St. Canice's is John Kearney (d. 1813), the great-great-great-uncle of Barack Obama. 

Chair of St. Ciaran
Victorian-era Bishop's Seat

St. Canice's Nave
Tomb of one of the many members of the Butler family
buried in St. Canice's.This one died in 1567

Lenten desert in St. Canice's
One unusual element of St. Canice's (or at least one we had not encountered before) was a temporary “Lenten desert” erected in the middle of the nave. This plot of barren sand and rocks included a fairly large, leafless tree. Parishioners were invited to help the desert “bloom” by writing prayers, poems, and personal reflections on provided slips of colored paper, and then attaching the notes to the branches of the tree. The hope was that by Easter morning, the desert would have come alive with expressions of faith in the atonement and resurrection of Christ.

It was lunchtime when we left St. Canice’s, so since we hadn’t given up eating for Lent, we went to Langton’s, a respectable Kilkenny hostelry with a large dining room that looked like an old-fashioned “gentlemen’s club” (think big leather chairs and lots of dark wood). After we hung up our dripping raincoats, we found a table comfortably close to the fireplace and shared a plate of deep-fried battered mushrooms and a bowl of traditional Irish stew.
Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle inner court
As we soon discovered, Kilkenny Castle is located smack in the middle of town. There is no adjacent car park, but we were lucky to find an empty spot on the street right across from the entrance. We were a little worried that since the meter allowed parking for only 60 minutes, we might have to interrupt our tour of the castle to run back and put in another euro, but the woman who sold us our tickets said that an hour should be long enough for us to complete our self-guided tour. Kilkenny had been the seat of the Butler family since the fourteenth century (which raises the question: If the Butlers were rich and powerful enough to own such an estate, to whom had they been butlers?). On our tour, we saw evidence of the castle’s long history: inside the base of one of the medieval-era towers, you can still see the some of the wickerwork used to support the stone vaulting during construction; remnants of handpainted Chinese wallpaper from the 1850s still stick to the walls of the withdrawing room (where the ladies “withdrew” after dinner while the men indulged in port and tobacco). 

A guard watching the entrance to Kilkenny Castle
The bedroom wing includes washbasins and chamber pots from one era, and a vintage watercloset from another. (Sorry: no photography was allowed inside.) The long, sky-lit picture gallery exhibits a series of huge tapestries, and dozens of Butler family portraits. We could have lingered longer, but the time on our parking meter was running out. Besides, we had one more very important stop to make before finding our lodgings for the night.

Several weeks ago, when Nancy told our friend Monica that we were planning a trip to Ireland, Monica got very excited and exclaimed, “You must go to Carlow and meet my Irish mom!”

Now, we had already met Monica’s mom, who is not Irish and lives in Arizona. However, Monica has maintained contact with the Irish woman she lived with in Carlow one summer when she was a student, and it was this mom she wanted us to meet.

“Carlow is right off a big highway, and my family’s store is at a major intersection right in the middle of town, so it will be very easy to find,” Monica went on. “Yay! You’ll get to meet Beatrice! I’M SO EXCITED!!!”

Monica’s enthusiasm was infectious, so now we were eagerly looking forward to meeting Beatrice.

Before we left Kilkenny, Michael checked Google Maps to find out how long it would take to get to Carlow—less than an hour. Halfway there, however, Nancy noticed that the route plotted by the GPS had us turning off M9 well before the Carlow exit and heading east across some L-roads (the narrow, one-lane kind) into what looked like the hinterlands.

“Something isn’t right,” she said. “The map shows Carlow as west of the highway, but the GPS is telling us to turn off now and go east.” She finally determined that when Michael typed “Carlow Ireland” into his phone, Google Maps had interpreted it as County Carlow rather than Carlow City. That calmly insistent voice was trying to send us to the geographical center of the county. Fortunately, Nancy caught the error before we wound up trying to navigate a dirt road through a sheep pasture.

BeaNice Cafe and Lambert's News Agency (and our car)
As promised, we had no trouble finding Lambert’s, a venerable news agency in the center of Carlow that has been run by Beatrice’s family for generations. (By “news agency” we don’t mean AP or UPI; they sell newspapers, magazines, and convenience-store items.) We also had no trouble finding a parking spot on the street right outside the shop. But when Nancy ran inside to inquire if Beatrice was there, she wasn’t.

Beatrice Byrne, Monica's Irish "mom"
“But you’ll find her next door,” said the woman behind the counter.

Next door was a cute little café named BeaNice Artisan Food and Drink Emporium, which turned out to be Beatrice’s new business venture. We found her taking a break at a booth in the back.

Beatrice at work in her cafe.
(By mid-afternoon when we arrived, "today's soup" was gone)
“Hello,” Nancy began when the proprietor looked up from her coffee, wondering who these American strangers might be. “We’re friends of Monica Hilton, from Ohio. When she heard we were coming to Ireland, she told us that we had to come to Carlow and find you, so here we are!”

Beatrice welcomed us warmly, fixed us some steaming, frothy hot chocolate, then sat and visited with us in between customers. She explained that when the operator of the store next to her news agency decided to close last year, the building’s owner had inquired whether she might want to take over the space. She wasn’t interested in expanding the news shop, but since the death of her husband the previous year, she had had a hankering to try something new. Maybe a café? Her children encouraged her, and she opened BeaNice in December. It’s a darling little shop, cheerfully decorated with lots of flowers and the kind of homey touches you’d find in your neighbor’s kitchen. Coffee and tea are served not in clunky stoneware mugs, but in a variety of unique and delicate china cups.

Pithy declaration chez Beatrice
Words of wisdom from the BeaNice Cafe
While we were there, Beatrice’s sister and brother-in-law dropped in for a cuppa, then her niece stopped by to say hello on her way home from work (she teaches at a primary school). They all shook our hands and said to give their love to Monica. We felt so comfortable that we could have stayed and talked all afternoon, but we didn’t want to keep Beatrice from her work any longer. We still had a fairly long way to travel, and only a vague idea of exactly where the B&B we had booked for the night was located, so we said our thank-yous and goodbyes and went on our way.

Getting to the Burtonstown B&B in County Meath required driving onto the toll road around Dublin (six lanes!) and then north on N2. As we approached the city from the southwest, we were surprised at how far out Dublin traffic started (around Naas). It calmed down once we got off the ring road and onto N2, but at that point we could no longer depend on help from our GPS because we didn’t have a specific address for the B&B, nor even the name of a nearby village that Google Maps might recognize. Moreover, the spot along the rural road where we had been told to look for it fell into the gutter of our road atlas.

Why the B&B is called “Burtonstown” remains a mystery to us because the owners are not named Burton, and there is no town for several kilometers in any direction. However, we found the right road fairly easily, and although we passed the driveway a couple of times in the dark, we eventually found our way into the B&B. We’re glad we did because it was a lovely, tastefully decorated guesthouse in a beautiful country setting, and Bridie Lynch was a very gracious hostess. When we arrived, her young granddaughter was sitting in the kitchen, playing a pennywhistle. Bridie explained that she was practicing for a performance at school the next day, so we listened and applauded politely before Bridie showed us upstairs to our room. It was spotless, and contained an unusually nice set of what appeared to be custom-made furniture because everything matched: bed frame, dresser, nightstands, blanket chest, desk, and built-in wardrobe.

Caps engulfed the entire ceiling at the Snail Box
Because the B&B was so remote, Bridie told us that unless we were willing to drive all the way to Navan or Drogheda (both more than 20 kilometers), the only place around to get a decent dinner was the Snail Box Pub, about ten minutes back down N2. While the food was decent  (Michael had tagliatelle with chicken, chorizo, and mange tout [pea pods]; Nancy had Thai curry chicken with peppers and rice), what we will remember about the Snail Box is its unique ceiling décor: thousands of baseball caps, all neatly lined up and pinned to the rafters. The caps have come from all over the world, representing schools, athletic teams, golf courses, resorts, theme parks—if it sells caps, chances are the Snail Box has one. The pub claims that its collection is the world’s largest at about three thousand. They’re hoping to get Guinness to come and confirm their claim sometime this year; in the meantime, they’re still collecting caps, and we can attest that they have a lot of them.

Before heading back to the B&B, Michael ate a piece of banoffee pie (custard cream with layers of bananas, chocolate, and caramel) and Nancy had a dish of soft-serve vanilla ice cream with fruit topping.

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