Toehead

Toehead

 During the height of the Great Famine from 1845 to 1850 one million people emigrated from Ireland.   Afterward, conditions in Ireland remained desperate enough that the stream of emigrants continued through the turn of the century and beyond.  My grandmother was among them.  The best we can determine about my grandmother is that, as a single woman in her twenties, she sailed to New York City from Queenstown in Southern Ireland sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century.   Queenstown has now, thanks to Irish independence from the Queen, reclaimed its original Irish name, Cobh.  Specifics about my grandmother are hard to come by.   We don’t know the precise year she emigrated.  We don’t know exactly how old she was.  Her year of birth as it appears on my father’s birth and baptismal certificates doesn’t jive with the year of birth that was listed for her in the 1915 American census.   We don’t know her parents’ names.  We aren’t even sure of her name.  Her first name was Anna or Annie (one document even records her name as Amna).  My father was quite sure that her maiden name was Downy, and in her memory he named me George Downy Freund.  Lois took Downy as her last name when she and I married.  Yet it’s a name that I can find no trace of in Ireland, past or present.  We think her name was actually either Downey or Downing.  She died when my father was four or five years old, and her death at such a young age always haunted my father.   After we were grown, a few of my siblings and I accompanied my father to New York City to try to find out where his mother was buried.  Our research eventually led us to an old cemetery in the Bronx.  My brother Mike was able to take my father to visit his mother’s grave before my father died.  Still, we know so little about her life before she sailed to America, and since Lois and I have been in Ireland, one of my projects has been to discover something about her life here.   Who was she?  Why did she leave Ireland?

My father’s recollection was that his mother was from Cork.  Cork is both a city and a county in southern Ireland.  In early June Lois and I did a two-day ‘Servas’ homestay in the city center of Cork with our hosts Nicholas and Siobhan.  Nicholas showed us how to access the 1901 Irish census data.  Those data produced at least a half dozen possibilities, but none matched the information my family had gathered in the States.  Lois and I visited the Heritage Center in the town of Cobh to try to get more information.  We got a good deal of information about the ill-fated Titanic and Lusitania, both of which departed from Cobh, but nothing about my grandmother. 

We temporarily suspended our quest and drove to Toehead nearly the southernmost point on the coast of Ireland in West County Cork, where we would stay for a week as part of a home exchange with Danny and Marian Smith.  We first met them in Derbyshire, England, where they have a first home.   They had bought a vacation home in Ireland a couple of years back – an old, uninhabitable stone structure which they’d been attempting to make habitable over the past couple of years.   They showed us photos of the project and apologized profusely about its condition; Lois and I started gearing up for a week in an Irish ruin.   

We made our way toward Toehead during the second week of June in an Irish downpour.   There have been many of these since we’ve been here, despite Danny’s claim that Toehead has Ireland’s sunniest weather.  Toehead is not a town; it’s a geographical feature, the tip of a peninsula that juts southward into the Atlantic.   Danny and Marian’s house is in the town of Gortacrossig, but there are no signs that say, ‘Welcome to Gortacrossig’.  Lois and I have the most highly recommended road map of Ireland, and this town doesn’t even appear on it, perhaps because there really aren’t what we’d ordinarily call ‘roads’ there.  I once worked at Muir Woods National Monument, and our footpaths there were wider and better maintained than these roads.  Nonetheless, the locals (including the Irish policeman whose car nearly obliterated ours on a blind curve) drive them as though they are freeways. Fortunately Lois was driving, and, given her background in anthropology, she has a greater capacity to tolerate the quaint and terrifying customs one might encounter in other cultures.  I’m content to do the navigating; I was calling out Danny’s directions as she drove.  Despite following them perfectly, we turned into the driveway of what was clearly the wrong house. 

Image We started to back out of the driveway and move on, when Danny and Marian came out of the front door to welcome us.  They had done a masterful job of lowering our expectations.  This was not the dilapidated and funky thing we’d seen in the photos.   The house was beautiful.  The walls had been repaired and painted; there was a new roof, and a nearly completely refurbished interior.  From the south side of the house, you can just see the Atlantic between the trees that border the property. 

Danny and Marion and their sixteen-year-old daughter Katherine served us a wonderful dinner, and afterwards the adults tried out some of the Irish whiskey Lois and I had picked up on our tour of the Jameson’s Distillery not far down the road in Middletown.  Katherine had just taken her exams in philosophy and ethics, and she tried to explain to me the relationship between those exams and the coursework in 6th Form in the British system.  I found myself wishing that I hadn’t sampled the Irish whiskey so liberally after dinner. 

The next morning Danny took us on a tour of the ‘hood.’  He is principal of a secondary/’further education’ school in England….and one of the most enthusiastic tour guides we’ve had in Europe.   He led us on a four-mile circuit of the territory that had us climbing fences, walking through soggy pastures and along ocean bluffs, and learning about local lore and the current homeowners in the neighborhood.  He absolutely loves Toehead

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The neighborhood

 

ImageMartina and Charlie’s place next door

 

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Two doors down the road

Image For sale, just up the hill – a signal tower erected to watch for an anticipated attack by Napoleon — that never came.   Nice view.

The potato famine hit especially hard in this area.  The word “gorta” in Gortacrossig means famine in the Irish language.  There are roofless stone cottages scattered across the countryside.  The roofs were made of thatch or wood, which decompose rapidly in Ireland’s soggy climate, but the stones remain standing for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

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Neighbor’s fence

Over the next week we also met some of the local inhabitants

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 Jim with Lois.  Owns property in the neighborhood, sometimes camps here in a 6’ by 6’ hut on his property.

He calls it the hotel.

 

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‘Neigh’bor just across the street

 

ImageThese neighbors have a very large pool.  

 

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 Irish beauty. Toehead

 

If you pick up a guide book on Ireland, you’ll read about the breathtaking drive around the Ring of Kerry, the spectacular Dingle Peninsula, maybe the Beara Peninsula as well.  You will not see anything about Toehead.  Consequently there are no tour buses, no gift shops, no pubs, not a single store of any kind.  No more than a few souls hike the bluffs on any given day.   

Mum’s the word, but this is what Toehead looks like. 

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Stags Rocks

A few miles down the road on the Toehead Peninsula there is a beautiful and unusual salt-water lake, Lough Hyne.  It’s the only lake in Ireland in which the stream that flows into the lake actually becomes the outlet when the ocean tide rises, causing the lake water to flow back into the inlet stream. 

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Lough Hyne

Lois and I hiked the trail overlooking the lake and the southeast coast of Ireland beyond.

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It is impossible to travel through Ireland without being reminded again and again of its tragic history: conquest and oppression by everyone from the Vikings to the English; civil wars; poverty so profound that ¼ of the population once subsisted on nothing but potatoes, leading to the loss of a million human lives when that crop failed.  This history is an undercurrent in every tour of an Irish heritage site.  Late at night in any traditional Irish pub, all conversation subsides and all instruments fall silent when someone rises to sing an Irish lament. Nearly 50 million Americans have ancestors who left Ireland, as do millions of Canadians and Australians.   Now that the booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy has gone bust as a result of the recession that began in 2008, the Irish are emigrating again at a rate higher than any since the days of the Great Famine, although few are choosing America this time.  As a child raised in a family only a generation away from Ireland, I was aware of an undercurrent of sadness and longing in the family; part of me has always felt it without understanding it.  Now that I see what my grandmother once saw — these brilliant green hills that fill your eyes to overflowing, these coastlines carved so exquisitely that you want to fall to your knees — I can begin to understand how heartbreaking it must have been for her… for anyone…. to have left a place such as this.

 

Emigrant Stories

After our two days in Dublin, we rented a car and headed for parts further south. As George mentioned in his last post, I am doing most of the driving here in Ireland. I mostly wanted to give poor George a break from the harrowing nature of the experience, and I also wanted to add this life skill to my list. Our plans for Ireland included far flung places – well as far flung as you can get on such a small island – and a car was essential.

Just getting out of Dublin was a feat. We accidentally had the “avoid toll roads” option enabled on our GPS unit (called a Sat Nav in these parts) and it took me right through downtown Dublin. I figured if I did ok starting out with intense city traffic, I’d be fine in the country. I’ve done ok, but I wouldn’t call it “doing just fine.” When we finally got out of the city, we headed straight up into the Wicklow Mountains. It was an hour and 45 minutes before I got out of third gear!

The drive was studded with one gorgeous view after another. I can completely understand why they call it the Emerald Isle. One road we drove down was so lush and green, it almost felt like we were in the tropics. We stopped in the town of Glendalough (GLEN-da-lock, meaning valley of 2 lakes) with a beautiful, intact round bell tower and ruins from a 6th century monastic settlement. The two mile round-trip walk to the two lakes gave us a chance to stretch our legs and ogle more beautiful Irish scenery.

After several bizarre twists and turns that our “sat nav” insisted we take, we arrived at our gorgeous little cottage on an Irish farm near the town of New Ross (www.fruithill-cottages-ireland.com).  The cottage was utterly charming. It was raining and just over 40°F, but fortunately we had a wood burning stove. Instead of burning wood, though, they burn peat briquettes – a new smell to add to my olfactory memory. It smells earthy and interesting, but I still prefer the smell of a wood fire. Even though it was cool enough to have a fire every night of our stay, there was something very romantic about sitting in front of a peat fire, sipping tea, in Ireland.

We spent four days in the Waterford/Wexford area. On the first day we drove to New Ross and toured the Dunbrody Famine Ship. This is a replica of the ships that carried thousands of immigrants from Ireland to America during the mid-19th century.

At that time, the journey took 50 days. By 1900 the journey would be cut down to 5 days or so in steamer ships. During the Great Famine of 1847 – 1850, cargo ships sailing from Canada to America realized they could make some extra money by bringing people from Ireland to Canada or America on the westward journey. The conditions on these sailing ships were so bad that up to 50% of the passengers wouldn’t survive the journey and the ships became known as “coffin ships.”

On board the ship we saw the deck and the kitchen above board…

This captain is altogether too cheerful and modern

Then we were taken below deck to the cabins. There were 4 first-class rooms that held 2 people each. Passage for first class passengers cost £25 per berth. Then we were taken to the steerage quarters. Passage in steerage cost about £3.50 per person. A family of 7 could sail for £22. There were 32 beds (16 upper and 16 lower) about the size of a king size mattress. Sounds comfy until you understand that this room with its 32 beds housed 176 passengers on average, with some voyages squeezing in as many as 300 people.

People in steerage class were locked inside for 23 and a half hours a day, mostly in the dark. It was easy to imagine how the smell would have been overpoweringly horrific. Most of the passengers were already ill from “the hunger” and its attendant diseases (mostly typhus and cholera), but dysentery and seasickness added to the misery. They were allowed above deck only a half hour per day (in shifts) to cook food for their families. Hot food consisted of flour, oatmeal, or barley mixed with water and cooked over a fire above board. If it was too wet above board to light a fire, there was no hot food that day. Their only other rations would have been about 4 pounds of bread products per week for a family of 5. It’s incredible that any of them survived 50 days in those conditions.George’s grandmother (his father’s mother) came to America from the Cork area in the early 1900s. We were relieved to learn that the conditions improved dramatically by the time she made her journey. We visited the Heritage Center in the town we think she immigrated from, known variously as Cove, Queenstown, and Cobh (the Irish name for Cove and still pronounced Cove.) They had an excellent exhibit on Irish immigration as well which included information about the sailing ships and the eventual switch to steam powered vessels. By early 1900 the journey to America had been cut down to about 5 days on the fastest steamer ships. First class passengers were enjoying conditions that were downright posh, and even steerage passengers were comfortable and safe, though still cramped.

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, Ireland was sending many of its prisoners to Australia. These were largely political prisoners and those convicted of petty crimes. This journey took up to 5 months depending on weather. Those who survived served out the remainder of their sentence doing hard labor. Some small percentage finished their sentences and went on to own land and make significant contributions to Australian society. There were several Irish rebellions in Australia, but none that made much of a difference.

Cobh was also the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the famous disaster, so exhibits and banners commemorating the event were all over town. The Lusitania, a passenger ship sunk by German U-boats during WWII also sailed from Cobh. Passage back and forth from this port town to America continued until the 1950s.

Ireland has seen so many of its citizens emigrate to other countries over the years that it is astonishing that 4.5 million people remain on the island today. Emigration out of Ireland slowed during the 20th century, but is on the rise again in the 21st century. Between 1995 and 2007, Ireland experienced tremendous economic growth. This period is known as the Celtic Tiger. When the market collapsed here, as everywhere, in 2008, emigration again started in earnest when educated job-seekers found it easier to find jobs outside of Ireland.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, friends and family would have a “wake” for those leaving the country since the assumption was that they would never see their loved ones again. It was a time of both sadness and excitement about finding a better life in a less harsh land. Irish music is filled with laments about leaving Ireland. At least those leaving today can hope for an upswing in the economy so that they can return to this beautiful island.

The Lakes and the Fells

I spent most of my childhood living in the green and lush hills of upstate New York and New Jersey.  Just as I was entering my teens, my parents moved the family to Southern California.  I remember stepping out of the plane at Los Angeles International Airport and looking out at an arid, alien environment in which the only sign of life apart from human beings was a pathetic row of palm trees that had obviously been planted in a vain attempt to disguise Hell as paradise.  On the drive from the airport to our new apartment in Anaheim, I was disoriented.  I kept asking my parents, “Where are the lakes; where are the rivers?”  At one point, my mother spotted a sign announcing that the freeway was crossing over the Los Angeles River.  Eagerly looking down, I saw the mighty waterway – a parched bed of concrete that had apparently yet to make contact with water.  Mark Twain had had a similar reaction when he’d seen the Los Angeles River over a century earlier.  He described it in these terms:  it’s “the only river you can fall into and climb out dusty.”   As if dealing with the onset of puberty were not difficult enough, for the next five years I also struggled with a profound homesickness for green hills, rivers and lakes.

William Wordsworth was a late 18th, early 19th Century romantic poet from the lake country of England.  Although he was England’s poet laureate and was considered by many to be the greatest British poet of his day, currently his poetry tends to be characterized as an outburst of over-the top nature gushiness.  I encountered his poetry when I was 16 and loved it.  He is the poet to whom I am most grateful, and the place I’ve always most wanted to see in England was the countryside that inspired him.   It is now protected in Lake District National Park, a two and a half hour drive from where we were staying in Derbyshire.  Since we wanted to spend several days there, we reserved a room in a small bed-and-breakfast in Keswick (the ‘w” is silent) on the north shore of Derwentwater (the w’s are not silent), a lovely lake rimmed by forests that give way to grass-covered, treeless slopes as the mountains arc high above opposites sides of the lake.

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 The town of Keswick completely charmed us.  The town center is car-free and consists of a stone clock tower surrounded by small pubs, restaurants, gift shops and stores catering to people who enjoy nature.  Outdoor clothing and supplies stores are everywhere.  On the short walk from the town center to the lake there’s an elegant garden surrounded by grassy lawns trimmed by herds of sheep.

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Derwentwater is encircled by a trail, part of which is a promenade with gorgeous views of the lake and surrounding fells.

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Along the Derwentwater promenade is the Theatre by the Lake, which boasts that it is the best British theatre outside of London.  Lois and I saw Bedroom Farce by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn.  Although we generally love farces, this one was not “our cup of tea” as they say, although the acting was first rate, as advertised.

The mountains of the Lake District are called fells, and they are the highest peaks in England.  The very highest is Scafel Pike, rising over 3200 feet high.  Although these sorts of elevations tend to make Californians yawn, folks from the Lake District like to point out that their fells were once higher than the Himalayas; they’re just much more ancient and weathered.  The lakes (with names like Buttermere, Ullswater, Windemere, Sprinkling Tarn, and Wastwater) and rivers (which people actually emerge from very wet after they fall in) fill valleys carved out by glaciers.  Each lake is uniquely beautiful.

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Glacial Valley in the Lakes District

Every morning after serving us breakfast, our hosts Andrew and Ann at Badger’s Wood Bed and Breakfast would quiz us about where we planned to go during the day, giving us suggestions and words of wisdom and encouragement.   On our first day we took a two-hour boat cruise around Ullswater, a lake many residents of the area consider the most beautiful.  Weather forecasters predicted that the day would be “partly cloudy,” but this description simply did not do justice to the day.  When our boat trip started, the sky was mostly blue with towering clouds spreading toward us from the eastern horizon.  By the time the boat was returning from the far end of the lake the clouds were crowding together above us leaving just enough crevices to allow brilliant shafts of sunlight to slant through to the surface of the lake.

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The next day we decided to take a loop-trip by car around the northern half of the Lakes District, stopping at the halfway point for a walk around Lake Buttermere.  As soon as the roadway began to ascend the hills above Keswick, it narrowed into what might generously be described as a one-lane road, and we were winding up the switchbacks alongside a creek that cascaded down a steep and treeless ravine.  I stopped complaining about the driving conditions when we passed by an elderly couple bicycling up the face of the mountain, smiling good-naturedly.  When we reached the pass, we stopped to stretch our legs and soak in the spectacular views of the Derwent Valley behind us and the valley that cradles Buttermere in front of us.

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We scrambled up past mountain sheep along a path beside a waterfall that seemed to spill from the very top of the fell.

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Then we plummeted down the road toward Buttermere.  Lois particularly enjoys the experience of descending from clifftops in an automobile, especially when the driver is uttering oaths about having to drive down switchbacks on the wrong side of a mountain road barely wide enough for a go-cart.  With great relief we left the car at the Buttermere ‘car park’ (a British phrase that still triggers in me images of automobiles cavorting about on slides and jungle gyms).   In England although it is generally free to visit the national parks, the hourly charges for parking a car in a national park are so steep that tourists tend to visit and walk at an unusually fast clip.  After a brisk two-hour hike around Buttermere, I decided that this was the lake I found most beautiful. The mountains in the Lake District evoke the feeling of the wet green of the Appalachians topped by the steep, sweeping treeless slopes of the High Sierra.  We walked through dark green coniferous forests along the west side of Lake Buttermere, followed by open grass marshlands at the head of the lake and then steeper, rocky, lakeside terrain on our return along the eastern shore.  The hike was breath-taking at every turn.

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Returning to the car, we then completed the automobile loop by first climbing and then descending Honister Pass, returning along the east shore of Derwentwater to Keswick, where I exited the car with a quick prayer of thanks to Christopher, who in my opinion should never have been stripped of sainthood because of the needed solace he gave to travelers on the harrowing roadways of the British Isles.

On our final day, we visited the ancient Castlerigg Stone Circle, erected on a grassy hilltop above Derwentwater by Neolithic inhabitants of the lake country fells over 3000 years BC — a reminder to Americans who are visiting England that they are indeed not in Kansas anymore.

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Castlerigg Stone Circle

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We wrapped up our trip with a tour of Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived with his wife, children and sister, and where he wrote his best poetry.

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Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage

Before Wordsworth bought it, the house had been an inn.  The Wordsworths converted it into a modest country home where they raised their children and entertained friends and guests like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott.   The backyard gardens are still stunning, and on the hillside the Wordsworths had built a small covered deck with a view out over the garden and Lake Grasmere.

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Wordsworth needs no apology.  In a place such as this, anyone with open eyes should gush.  Annie Dillard said that we are here on earth to witness creation and to make sure that it does not play to an empty house.  In England’s lake country, nature has not played to an empty house.  William Wordsworth was its witness.

The Left Side of the Road

Less than an hour from the house where we stayed in Derbyshire, England is the Peak District. Not really known for its peaks, it’s a region of rolling brilliant green hillsides traversed by ancient rock walls,

With tree lined streams bubbling through the dales,

With caves hollowed out from ancient limestone outcroppings jutting from the hillsides

And with sheep

Everywhere.

It was my first real test driving on the left….well, driving on the left side of the road, but the right side of the car.   I’d been nervous about doing this ever since we arrived in England, but it is very difficult to see the Peak District or other parts of rural England without renting a car.  Lois was very encouraging, but on the drive home from the airport rental car lot, she seemed more fidgety than usual.  She kept flinching and cautioning me that I was a bit too close to the left side of the road.  At first I thought that since she was on the left side of the car, things looked disproportionately large to her from her vantage point, but I began to suspect that there was something to her concerns when the car ran up on the left curb (more than once) and pedestrians on the left side of the road started to scatter as I approached.

Roads are narrower in England.  I had to orient the car’s right wheels so that they seemed to ride on the white line in the middle of the road in order to avoid objects on the left.  So, naturally it appeared to me that I was about to crash head-on into every car that approached from the opposite direction.  I was pretty much a wreck after every driving experience.  The Peak District was a special challenge.  The country roads could only be called ‘two-lane’ in the sense that they allowed two motorcycles to pass each other.   The Peak District is a National Park, and in England the National Parks attempt to preserve ancient cultural artifacts; for all intents and purposes even the landscape is largely a cultural artifact, albeit a lovely one.  One of those ancient artifacts is the network of rock walls in the parks

Unfortunately for the American driver those rock walls also hug the left side of roads that were originally designed for horse-drawn carts.   As oncoming cars approached and I drifted left in a desperate attempt to make room, Lois was able to inspect those ancient walls in very minute detail as they flashed by inches from her window.  At the end of one particularly narrow, rock-lined stretch of roadway, I realized that all of my fingers had gone numb as a result of my death grip on the steering wheel.  Although Lois had no steering wheel to grasp, her fingers had gone numb simply because her body’s natural survival mechanisms had moved all of her blood from her extremities toward her heart.

Another charming cultural phenomenon one actually finds in small city centers throughout England is that cars are allowed to park on one side of certain stretches of a two-lane roadway in the town center, effectively making those roads into one-lane roads.

Somehow this car was able to make it through a roadway that was apparently built for tricycles

The idea is that if you find your lane completely blocked by a long line of parked cars, you glance ahead to make sure there is no oncoming traffic, pull into the wrong lane and gun it for all you’re worth.  If an oncoming car appears, you do your best to direct your car into the nearest driveway, bus-stop or pond.   I would feel jubilant at the end of the day simply because I’d had the unexpected good fortune of getting the car back to the house undamaged.

Toward the end of our stay in England, Lois mentioned that even though it would be more expensive to add her as a second driver when we rented a car in Ireland, she would really love to learn how to drive on the left side.  It was an offer that demonstrated that she possessed both tremendous tact and a robust survival instinct.   Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe in which the accident rate is so high that your credit card will not cover the collision damage waiver for a rental car.   Guinness and Jameson may be one reason,  but it can’t help things that Irish country roads are often just a pair of hedgerows lining parallel asphalt tracks with flowers in between.

An Irish highway

I gratefully accepted Lois’ offer to drive in Ireland.

Dublin Days

May 29th was our thirteenth wedding anniversary. Those of you who know us well, know that we love romance and that we love to celebrate in very romantic ways, but this was not to be our most romantic celebration ever. May 29th was our “get away” day, the day we wrapped up our stay in the English countryside and set out for Ireland. We spent most of the day cleaning our English manor house (where are staff when you need them, eh?) then returning our rental car and hanging out at the airport. Our evening flight from East Midlands to Dublin took less than an hour, but it took us more than an hour to collect our things, find the right shuttle bus, wait for the bus to come, get settled in to our rather dingy hotel and head out to find some food. By this time it was 9:30 p.m. In Italy this wouldn’t be a problem, but Irish restaurants and pubs stop serving food at 9:00. The only place that was open was a pizza/kebab fast food sort of arrangement. We swore we would never eat in these places, but seeing the dangerous look in my eye, George hurried us inside. I ordered a veggie burger, George got a slice of pizza, and we shared a Fanta. We couldn’t help laughing at ourselves seated on the tiny little bar stools in front of a big mirror, and toasting to our life on the road.

After our meal, we headed for the nearest pub for a pint and some traditional Irish music. Laid back and casual, this experience helped ease us into life in the country that will be our home for the next month.

Having only two full days in Dublin, we set out the next morning to see the sights. We started with a tour of Trinity College, culminating in the exquisite Book of Kells housed in the university library. Our tour guide, a recent Trinity College graduate got a little nervous when he learned that he had a philosophy professor on the tour because he was about to talk about George Berkeley and was worried he would get it wrong. (He didn’t.)

The Book of Kells itself would have been a little disappointing if they hadn’t had an excellent exhibit helping to explain the history of the famous tome. It turns out that it isn’t actually a book, it’s an illuminated manuscript, and it isn’t from Kells, it’s from Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. It was moved to Kells after Viking raids on Iona. Vikings ended up raiding Kells as well, so eventually it was moved to Trinity College in Dublin for safekeeping

We then went on a walking tour of the city with Mary, who recently completed her Ph.D. in Irish history. There were only three of us on the tour, so we got to ask lots of questions. We learned a lot about the city’s early monastic settlements, Viking raiders who eventually became residents, the conquest by the English and the many, many hundreds of years of struggle for independence from the English. We learned that Ireland only became a separate country (The Republic of Ireland) in 1949. Northern Ireland, like Wales and Scotland, is part of the commonwealth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This means that they aren’t separate countries per se, but they have some amount of independent governance.

After an early dinner, we headed over to our third tour of the day – a musical pub crawl in which we learned about traditional Irish music. Our tour guides, Steve and Larry, taught us how to tell a jig from a reel.

As you’re listening to a jig, you can say “rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages” along to the beat. Rashers are slabs of bacon, by the way. This means the song is in 6/8 time. If you can say “Black and Decker, Black and Decker” along to the beat, it is in 4/4 time and therefore it is a reel. In Irish traditional music (called Trad) they refer to instrumental pieces as tunes and songs with words as songs. They encouraged us to “play the boot,” meaning tap or stomp our foot on the wooden floors, along with the tunes and songs. What we would call a jam session they referred to as an acoustic session. They explained that when the musicians are unamplified, people don’t usually clap along to the music because it would be too loud and because it interferes with drinking. They tap their feet along to the music instead, recalling the days when the music was all in the service of dancing. They also encouraged us to have a pint or two along the way to give us the courage necessary for the singing they were going to ask us to do at the end of the evening.

Out in rural Ireland, they said, if you’re in a local pub listening to traditional Irish music and it is getting quite late, you might experience the “Noble Call.” The musicians will take a break and someone will sing an a cappella song from their region, then someone else will sing another, and you will all get “locked in” to the pub, which is illegal but apparently it happens all the time anyway. These sessions tend to last into the wee hours with people singing, drinking, smoking (also illegal inside, but if you’re going to break one law you might as well break others as well), and playing music, not unlike the Strawberry Music Festival or the Kate Wolf Music Festival or other music festivals around the U.S. (and elsewhere, I’m sure.)

As promised, at the end of the tour, they asked people to bring music to the group from their own regions of the world. One guy from Virginia sang a Steve Earle song called “Galway Girl.” Another sang a funny Irish song that made fun of the English. Another woman sang an Irish ballad. We weren’t planning to sing anything, but Steve, the guitar player, knew that George played guitar because of a question he had asked earlier about what tuning they were using, so Steve handed the guitar to George. It was the first time he had played in almost six months. We sang a Wailin’ Jenny’s song called Glory Bound, to rousing applause. (It might not get any better than this for us in Ireland.) People were sort of blown away that we sang in harmony. One woman even asked where we were from to see if she lived close enough to us in California so she could come see some of our performances. I explained that she was welcome in our living room, any time.

After the end of the pub crawl, we chatted with the musicians, bought a CD, and headed out for The Cobblestone, a little hole-in-the-wall pub where they said we would find real Trad. There we found about 15 musicians sitting in a corner playing music. It looked like a bunch of local folks who just showed up with their instruments to play casually together.

Local “trad” musicians playing a lively tune in a corner of The Cobblestone pub.

Between instrumental pieces, individuals would sing an old a cappella song and if you knew it, you were welcome to join in. They packed up around midnight and we headed back to our hotel.

The next morning, we set out for Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) where we learned the bleak and depressing history of Irish jails from the 1700s through the mid twentieth century.

The central hall where every prison cell can be seen by the warden. This part of the jail has been used in several films such as the original “Italian Job.”

We saw where Irish revolutionaries were killed by firing squad, where children were jailed for stealing bread, and where a couple was allowed to marry in the jail

This is the chapel where Grace Gifford married her sweetheart, Joseph Plunkett. A few hours later he was killed by firing squad.

and spend 10 minutes (nearly alone) together as husband and wife before he was hauled out and killed.

Exhausted by such stories, we headed over to the Guinness Storehouse and Museum to learn about how the Irish have endured such suffering. The building is seven stories tall and shaped like a giant Guinness glass. The “Guinness Experience” takes you through the history of the Guinness company and the beer making process.

In 1759, Arthur Guinness struck a famous land deal. He signed a 9,000 year lease on some property on the outskirts of Dublin at St. James’s Gate where he began brewing a style of beer that would make Ireland famous around the world. Though ale was the preferred beverage of the time, he took a chance and decided to make a new-fangled, much darker brew enjoyed by dock workers called porters. (The brew was called porter as well.) He made this dark brew even darker and it became known as stout. It is made by combining regular barley, roasted barley (which gives it the dark color), and malted barley. Malting is a process in which the barley is covered with water and allowed to sprout, then removed from the water and dried. The 3 kinds of barley are mashed up, mixed with water, boiled for awhile with hops, yeast is added for fermentation, the solids are removed and it is bottled.

Although the tour makes Arthur Guinness out to be a demi-god, I quite enjoyed this shrine to the dark brew. One of the most amazing parts of the tour is a video of coopers making oak beer casks by hand. By the fourth floor, you are allowed to have a little taste and even try your hand at pouring a perfect pint. The rest of the way up is dotted with little bars, historic advertising, displays on the history of transporting Guinness around the world, but the grand finale is the Gravity Bar at the top where you finally get to have a pint and enjoy 360° views of Dublin.

After that we were feeling quite holy, so we popped in to a couple cathedrals

and later had dinner in a de-consecrated church. There are still memorials and grave markers on the walls, a huge pipe organ, and stained glass, though there is a huge bar where the pews would once have been.

The food was excellent and the ambience even better. This place provided the romantic setting we had missed on our anniversary, so we raised a glass to our enduring love and an ever-deepening compatibility and flexibility that makes us ideal travel partners. We also toasted all our friends, old and new, who have supported our relationship along the way.

Still feeling every bit the happy bride.

Derbyshire

Derbyshire

Before leaving for Europe, I’d mentioned to a British friend that we would be staying in Derbyshire, England for three weeks in May, and his immediate response was, ‘why?’   It is true that Derbyshire tends not to rank very high on the list of European destinations.  Still, we had reasons for choosing to stay there.  First of all, the house was an elegant manor house on a half-acre of land in the English countryside surrounded by an expansive lawn and lovely garden, an ideal place to retreat for a bit after my final semester of work and gather strength for the eight months of aggressive tourist activities that lay ahead of us.

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This was well planned because no sooner had we arrived than Lois and I both came down with respiratory ailments that left us quasi-incapacitated for two weeks.   Our second reason was that Derbyshire gave us access to the Lake District, Wales and the Peak District, which would have been much more difficult to reach from London.   As we got back on our feet, though, we were able to walk the trail along the canal that connects up with the River Trent, and we found Derbyshire itself to be charming.  It was May; the earth was dark and wet; trees and flowers were blooming; everything was deep green. 

Our friends Janice and Steve Chapman, owners of the home in Derbyshire, had left us National Trust passes, which gave us free access to a number of England’s palaces, castles, gardens and parks.  We made good use of these, visiting Calke Abbey and Gardens three times

Kedelston House and Gardens, which had recently hosted the “Bearded Theory” festival, a funky, wild music extravaganza that celebrates beardedness.   ZZ Top did not make an appearance, however.   The house and gardens, though, were anything but funky.

Melbourne Hall and Gardens

Chatsworth House and Gardens in the Peak District, setting of a recent “Pride and Prejudice” film starring Kiera Knightly.

The gardens are known as pleasure grounds, which actually makes them sound vaguely erotic ….in a Victorian sort of way.  They are truly….luvely.

Pleasure Garden Inhabitant

The mansions  were magnificent, the architecture was grand, and the artwork displayed inside was impressive.  In Kedelston it was actually inspired by the Italian renaissance.   Always evident in tours of these mansions was the strict separation between classes that existed in traditional English culture.  Extraordinary efforts were made to enable the nobility to avoid contact with gardeners and other servants, who were sometimes forced to use tunnels to move from place to place so that the lords and ladies of the household weren’t forced to cast their eyes upon them.

Lois and I spent an evening attempting to understand the hierarchy of British titles (king, queen, duke, duchess, prince, earl, baron, baronet, sir, dame, squire, peasant, vermin, etc.), but it was even more inscrutable than a college administrative organizational chart, and I have to confess that I simply lack the ability to comprehend the details.

Preparations were being made for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of her 60-year reign over the United Queendom.  Unfortunately, we left England just as the Jubilee was beginning.  I don’t fully grasp the nature of the celebration, but I understand it involves a good deal of pomp, pageantry, partying down and getting totally pissed.  In honor of the Queen, Lois and I even attempted to divine the hereditary rules governing a person’s accession to the throne, or to a dukedom, or ownership of a Rose-and-Crown pub franchise.  Lois seems to grasp the essential details, but they still elude me.   My ancestors are from the other side of the Irish Sea, and as far as I’m concerned, the rightful rulers of the British Isles would need to trace their ancestry back either to St. Patrick or Oscar Wilde—a task that would frustrate even the cleverest of genealogists.

Preparations were also being made for the Olympics to be held in England later this summer.  People seem to be trotting through every neighborhood park, palace and pub with an Olympic torch.  Fearing what promises to be a poor showing in the Games by the host team, England has convinced the International Olympic Committee to add a new competition to the Games – royal fox hunting from helicopter gunships.  Prince William is the odds on favorite for the gold; Prince Harry for the Silver; and Sarah Palin for the Bronze.

Tally-ho.

The Great Bed of Ware

When I was 23 years old, I lived and worked in London for a year. I became friends with a lovely 19-year-old colleague named Patrizia Dimaggio. Pat and I worked for a clothing manufacturing company in London’s West End. As the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Pat spoke Italian at home and was raised with traditional Italian values. I was a country kid at heart from rural America, enchanted by my first exposure to city life. I was married and had two young children. Pat was still a teenager and had a curfew. Although we came from very different cultural backgrounds, we became fast friends. She came round to my house several times and got to know my kids. I became friends with her best friend, Maria, and her sister, Marcella, and the four of us would occasionally go out for a “girls night on the town.” When I moved back to California, we promised to keep in touch. We had no idea at the time how rare it is for people to actually do that.

This was back before email and texting and smart phones, back when international phone calls were quite expensive, but we did stay in touch and within a couple years, Pat came to America to visit. During the next seven years, I got divorced, my children became teenagers and I fell in love again.  When George and I got married, Pat and Maria came out for the wedding and got introduced to George’s wild and crazy family who took them under their wing and showed them a good time. During that visit, Pat told me that she had also fallen in love with a lovely young man from Kent. Two years later, they got married and I came out for the celebration. Over the next 10 years, my children and step children grew up and moved away, and Pat started a family of her own.

What does this all have to do with the Great Bed of Ware? And what is the Great Bed of Ware, anyway?

Well, when Pat started following our blog, she saw that George and I were posting pictures of every bed we’ve slept in during our year-long journey. When we told her we were coming to visit her, she decided she had to take us to see a famous historic bed from her county. Pat and Paul live in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire County, and the town of Ware is just a few miles up the road.

During the 1580s, a huge bed was built for a local tavern. A German traveler described the bed in 1596 thus: “At Ware was a bed of dimensions so wide, Four Couples might cosily lie side by side, and thus without touching each other abide.” According to our museum guides, when you rented a bed at a tavern in those days, it wasn’t assumed that you would have the bed all to yourself. You just got a spot in the bed. They claimed the tavern owner could sell up to 12 spots in the bed.  Apparently, back in the day, people would sleep in a semi-reclining position, propped up with pillows. This allowed 6 people across at the head of the bed, with their toes reaching the middle of the bed, and another 6 people propped on pillows at the foot of the bed with their toes also reaching the middle.

My friend Pat at the foot of the bed

It became so famous around England that it was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, first performed in 1601. Sir Toby Belch says to Sir Andrew Aguecheek …. “as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware”….

The bed was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1931, and has been a favorite exhibit there ever since. It is on loan to the tiny museum in the tiny town of Ware for one year.

I started thinking about my twenty-plus year friendship with Pat. I realized that if you put Pat’s family of 4 (Pat, Paul, Ethan and Ellis) and my family of 6 (Lois, George, Wyll, Brittany, Greg, and Karin) into the Great Bed of Ware, we’d still have room for our good friends Marci and Maria. No one would get any sleep, but it would be one big intercontinental party in one big bed.

After more than 20 years, the girls are out on the town again. From left, Marcella, Maria, Pat, and Lois.