Archive for the ‘ Europe ’ Category


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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 abstract: To understand Dublin is to learn a lot about Ireland. Dublin is the country’s Center City. It is the cultural and economic, as well as the political capital of the Republic of Ireland. With twenty-five percent of all Irish citizens living here in a uniquely urban concentration, Dublin is where the action is. It is also the stage where the drama of the country’s past took shape, and where its future will unfold. No wonder then that Dubliners can appear self-absorbed. A line from “Eveline,” a story about them by James Joyce, aptly reflects the Dubliners’ manner of reference to the rest of Ireland:  “Down somewhere in the country.” It connotes indifference to life outside Capital. Yet, in exploring the life in Dublin I have found it inextricably rooted in the story of Ireland as a whole.

Joyce’s City

The bus from the airport took me directly to the heart of Dublin. From my window I could see crowds of tourists on this mid-July afternoon, mingling with shoppers and students where the pedestrianized Grafton Street reached the campus of Trinity College. I got off at St. Stephen’s Green, the large public park lined on one side with elegant Georgian houses. This was south of the Liffey, the river which cuts through Dublin.  On the other side of the Green I entered the venerable Shelbourne Hotel. All these names sounded familiar even though I was visiting the capital of Ireland for the first time. On the plane, I had just re-read parts of James Joyce’s Dubliners, and accompanied the character Lenehan of the short story “Two Gallants” in his idle wandering through central Dublin. That was the city in 1906. I also wanted to find out what Dublin had been before and since.

The oldest building in Dublin is Christ Church Cathedral (also called the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity). It was founded in 1028 by Sitric III, King of Dublin. Sitric was a Hiberno-Norse King, whose father was a Norse-Gael king who married the daughter of the Irish King of the Province of Leinster. Sitric is one of the rulers of the Viking Age in Ireland which began with the first recorded Viking raid in 795 and ended in 1170 when the Anglo-Normans captured Dublin. Vikings were pagans who worshiped the Norse gods. Christianity gradually replaced the Norsemen’s religion in Ireland, just as the existing local Celtic (Hibernian) population absorbed the new Viking settlers through intermarriage. A mixed-marriage offspring, the Christian King Sitric even made a pilgrimage to Rome. In that sense, the Viking Age in Ireland faded away even before its “ending”.  It has, however, left its impact on Dublin, although not in bricks and mortar. The original Christ Church Cathedral of the Vikings was rebuilt in stone in the 1180s after the Anglo-Normans arrived. They were lead by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow. He was buried in the Cathedral, but his tomb later collapsed. What is today called “Strongbow’s Tomb,” in fact, contains the remains of an unknown crusader from the 14th century.

King Sitric’s religious legacy has been more enduring than buildings: he is credited with originating the establishment of territorial bishoprics in Ireland by founding a bishopric at Dublin in Christ Church Cathedral. That was an important development in the Irish Church which hitherto had existed in numerous monasteries scattered throughout the country. Today Christ Church is the cathedral of the Ecclesiastical province of the United Provinces of Dublin and Cashel in the Church of Ireland. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Dublin. It calls itself “the spiritual heart of the city,” and offers services as an institution of the three Irish Protestant Christian Churches:  “Church of Ireland. Anglican. Episcopalian.”

For a time, however, Christ Church shared the role of cathedral of Dublin with another church, the larger Saint Patrick’s Cathedral which had been founded in 1191. That ambiguity was resolved in 1930 by an agreement which gave Christ Church precedence. The larger Saint Patrick’s Cathedral became “The National Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Patrick, Dublin”. As the National Cathedral for the whole island, it has chapter members from all of the twelve dioceses of the Church of Ireland.  Instead of an Archbishop, this Cathedral has a Dean as its head.

Both of these two cathedrals in Dublin belong to one Church, the Church of Ireland, the religion of the minority of the population in Dublin, but also of the establishment that ruled in Ireland until 1871. The presiding bishops in Ireland followed their King, Henry VIII’s split from Rome in 1531. Subsequently, the Church of Ireland came to control the existing Church property, including the two medieval Cathedrals. In retaliation against the murder of Dublin’s archbishop in 1534, King Henry VIII’s appointed replacement cleric ordered the destruction of all sacred relics in the shrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Those belonging to Christ Church Cathedral were burned in 1538, while the jewels that adorned its statues were confiscated.

The religion of the majority of Dubliners, Roman Catholicism, still has no cathedral here.  It continues to consider Christ Church as the Dublin cathedral until the Pope either formally revokes its 12th century original designation or grants cathedral status to another church. For now, the main Roman Catholic church in Dublin is a “Pro-Cathedral” or acting cathedral, called St Mary’s Church.

Even after Christ Church was taken over by the Protestants, the mostly Catholic locals used it as a gathering spot and marketplace until a rector expelled them because their rowdiness interrupted church services. On the day of my visit, however, the front yard of the Cathedral was again being used as a place for a street  fair.

Viking Era

Attached to Christ Church is a modern building which houses Dublinia where the ancient history of Dublin is presented in audio-visual displays. Together with the exhibits at the National Museum of Ireland-Archeology across town, Dublinia provided me with a general idea of what Dublin today thinks about much of its past.

Ireland did not have any town before the Vikings. In 841 the Vikings established a camp in the Dublin area.  Their first King in Ireland was Olaf the White from Norway. The word Viking may have come from the old Norse word oik meaning a bay, inlet, or creek. At the end of the 8th century some Vikings began to leave their Scandinavian homeland on boats in search of raw materials such as iron and soapstone. This brought Viking traders into contact with opportunities for wealth in other lands, especially in unprotected monasteries full of treasures -as people often entrusted their valuables to such religious centers for safekeeping.  In 806, the Vikings attacked the monastery in the Island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides west of Ireland, which had been a center of Irish monasticism for four centuries. They killed 68 of the monks. The others were forced to flee to the Abbey of Kells, north of Dublin, carrying with them the illuminated gospel manuscripts they had been making which would be called the Book of Kells. The Vikings’ raids on the Dublin area began later, in the 820s and 830s.  Raids on monasteries for easy fortunes were not a practice unique to the Vikings, and the Vikings continued the practice in the rest of Ireland. Even King Sitric, in 1002, would plunder Inch Abbey, in today’s Northern Ireland. Like other invaders, the Vikings also took people away to sell in markets, some in Europe, but also in Dublin which soon became an important slave market.

The Vikings’ domain in Ireland varied as they established new encampments from the north to the south of the west coasts of island, but Dublin remained their principal center. The Vikings had an alphabet, named futhark, consisting of letters, called runes. They left their scripted words as carvings on wood, stone, metal and bone. They commemorated the places where they landed by erecting a tall monument called Long Stone. Some of these Long Stones were shown still standing in the maps from the 18th century. The runic alphabet, however, was suited only for inscribing place-markers and gravestones and, therefore, Vikings did not really leave a written record of themselves.

A reference from the 841 in Annals of Ulster is the earliest written mention of the Vikings in Ireland. In Latin script, that Irish language source covered the lives of the early Viking rulers of Dublin. For a more comprehensive contemporary description of the Vikings, Dublinia refers you to Ahmad ibn Fadhlan “an Arab trader”. Ibn Fadhlan, a Muslim chronicler, indeed, gives a rich account of his encounter with the Vikings around the Caspian Sea in his 9th century Risala (Letter). Before him, the Persian geographer ibn Khordadbeh in 844 wrote about these saqalibah, an Islamic term which referred to people with fair complexion and light hair from Europe. Ibn Fadhlan, on the other hand, called them Rus, a corruption of a Norse term for “the men who row.” They were, in fact, Swedes who came down the VolgaRiver. The details Ibn Fadhlan provided about these Scandinavians, including their funeral customs, have helped in interpreting archeological finds from the Viking tombs of Ireland.

Most of the information on the Vikings in Dublin, indeed, seems to have come from forensic anthropology based on tomb archeology.  Much is known about Viking weapons because many were buried with their owners. Excavations west of Dublinia produced skeletons of Viking males with their swords, shields and knives. The females discovered here were buried with items such as brooches and jewelry. Based on such finds the National Museum exhibited scale models of the Viking Dublin and a typical house of the period. St. Andrews Church in central Dublin is located on the site where the Vikings assembled to pass laws and settle disputes. The Dublin Pub Brazen Head claims that it is on the site of a tavern from the Vikings’ time.

The Vikings’ legacy in Dublin also includes the original of many words in use today: fish, ice, skip, sky, wicker, rock, boat and rope. The common Irish name McAuliffe means “son of Olaf,” while the name Doyle means grandson of a “dark foreigner,” or a Danish Viking- in contrast to the “fair foreigners” who were Norwegian Vikings.   On the other hand, the Vikings’ name for Dublin was Dyflin, from the Irish Celtic Duiblinn, meaning Black Pool which referred to the pool where the River Poddle entered the River Liffey. Duiblinn is still occasionally used as the name for Dublin. Before the Vikings, there had been a Christian ecclesiastical settlement on this site by that name.

Before the Vikings

Celtic was the language spoken by the Gaels who came to Ireland from Western Europe around 6000 BC and gradually subdued previous inhabitants. By 400 AD they had organized into seven independent kingdoms which often united to raid the neighboring Roman Britain and the European Continent.  Among those they lost in one of these raids was a young man who was then sold into slavery by he enemy. He turned to religion during his captivity and when he was able to return to Ireland, in 432, he began a mission to convert the Irish to Christianity. This man was Saint Patrick, as I was told by the Dublin tour guides in their brief history of Ireland before the Vikings.

I did not see any remnants of Duiblinn or other settlements of the pre-Viking era in Dublin. The National Museum had relevant artifacts from that long period of Irish history, although they were not specific to Dublin. For me they shed some light on the ancient background of the country which has become central in the exploration of Irish identity. That exploration is, in turn, fundamental in Dublin’s modern “Irish Literary Revival.”

The items on display in the Museum were discovered in tombs but also in bogs. As the signs explained, in the Bronze Age (2000-400 BC) the Irish followed the practice of burying objects in bogs which was common in many parts of Europe. The Museum launched a Research Project after two Iron Age bodies, dated around 400-200 BC, were found in bogs in 2003. They were in a remarkably good state of preservation.  The Museum’s Altartate Cauldron, found in a bog, dates to the 2nd century BC in the Iron Age. A sign described the significance of the Cauldron:

“Cauldrons… may have been used for boiling liquids and food by adding hot stones. It is possible that they were used for beer-making. The meals may have been consumed as rituals, echoes of which may be found in a number of early Irish tales which relate to magical cauldrons.”

Boats played a major role in transportation for the ancient Irish who lived in an island, itself with many bodies of internal waters. On display in the Museum was the oldest boat found in Ireland, a longboat (dugout canoe) from 2500 BC. Longboats were made by hollowing out a straight tree trunk -normally of oak . Later, the Irish adopted wheeled transport, capable of bearing carts. A wooden block-wheel from 400 BC, found in a bog , was from such a cart.

The Museum had a collection of pottery and shells from the New Stone Age (3700-2500 BC).  From the same period it had stones decorated with abstract patterns which lined the passages of tombs as religious symbols. Stone working had reached a remarkably high standard. The Bronze Age in Ireland saw the introduction of metalworking. The Museum had collections of Bronze Age gold objects, many of which were found in bogs. Also found are weapons cast in large quantities, including swords, shields, axes, and spear heads of various forms. In the midst of all these instruments of violence in the Museum exhibit was a different type of object: horns.The sign describing them indicated their significance in the musical history of Ireland and, equally, their importance as proof of connections with other cultures:

“The horns are oldest known musical instruments from Ireland and both side-blown and end-blown examples were made … they may have been played in pairs, perhaps the same techniques as used by the Australian didjeridu…. (and) may have been used in the rites of a fertility cult associated with the bull. Traces of this cult, which appears to have its origins in the Mediterranean, may be detected in the early medieval tale … Cattle Raid of Cooley which features magical bulls.”

The increasing skill of Celtic metalworkers led to the Golden Age of Irish art in the Early Middle Ages. The Museum’s Ardagh Chalice from the 8th Century AD is a good example.  The bowl is made of silver, the stem is gilt-copper alloy, and the decoration is gold filigree.  The Vikings trade with the silver and gold-rich markets of Byzantine and Muslim Central and Western Asia brought in bullion largely in the form of coins. Gold was scarce, but the large amount of Viking Age silver in Ireland was converted into a variety of brooches and arm-rings. In early medieval Ireland, both sexes wore brooches to fasten their cloaks. During the 8th and 9th centuries elaborate silver brooches appeared, decorated with gold filigree, enamel, glass and amber. A finest example of these highly decorated brooches is the 8th century Tara Brooch, on display in the Museum. A small 8th century brooch in the same case was a rare example made of solid gold.

Medieval Dublin

While Dublin’s National Museum provides valuable information about this city’s roots in Ireland’s past, it is elsewhere in Dublin that one finds the best collection of a distinctly Irish old art form: the illuminated religious manuscripts produced before the Viking Age. The Trinity College Library is the depository of the big four of these manuscripts, although all were made elsewhere in Ireland.  The 7th century Book of Durrow is the oldest one, followed by the Book of Dimma and the Book of Mulling which are both pocket Gospel books produced in the 8th century. The Book of Armagh is a manuscript from the 9th century as is the Book of Kells. When these Books were written, Ireland had fewer than 500,000 people. The Irish Christian Church of the time was largely monastic in organization. Its message about Christ was spread primarily through gospel books produced by monks who were the scribes and the artists.

Among those manuscripts, the Book of Kells is special because its lavishly decorated pages of the four Christian gospels in Latin are deemed the best in illustration. The Book of Kells is associated with St Colum Cille (521-597 AD) who founded the monastery on the island of Iona where some three centuries later the monks produced the Book. That manuscript was taken to Kells when the Vikings attacked, and then to Dublin in 1563, because of the threat from Cromwellian England. The Book of Kells is now protected in a Treasury, especially built for it at the Trinity College Library. Although other Irish medieval gospel manuscripts are also kept here, the Book of Kells is clearly the major attraction. On the day of my visit, crowds had lined up from early morning to see this Book at the Library. Only two pages, one each selected from two of the four gospels in the Book of Kells were on display -in a special room of the Treasury. The two pages of the display are changed periodically. What I saw were one page from the Gospel of Mathew and another page from the Gospel of Mark (6 3-15) which (in Latin) said:  “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country.”  How apt, I thought, for an Irish book that exalts a prophet crucified in his homeland far away!

After we left the display room and its obligatory hush-hush, my guide said that when Queen Elizabeth the First and Prince Albert visited the Book of Kells, they affixed their royal signatures to the Book “but no other person has signed it since.” Independent Ireland is understandably protective of its treasured Book, as it tolerates the defacing indignity that was conferred in its colonial days as a gauche Royal gesture of noblesse oblige.  The pride in the Book of Kells is in large part due its exquisite illuminations. The ornate illustrations of the manuscript are extravagantly complex. Celtic interlacing patterns of different colors combine with figures of mythical beasts and real animals and humans to bring the Book’s script alive. Some of those patterns, perhaps originating from the Aran Islands close to Iona in the Inner Hebrides, resemble the stitch designs of the Aran sweaters so popular as a souvenir from Dublin. On that basis, shopkeepers would tell you that the sweaters’ design patterns are “steeped in symbolism.”

Illumination, of course, was not an art unique to Ireland. In fact, in the Long Room of the same Trinity College Library, among the prized collection of the items conserved by the Library on display is a “beautifully decorated” Persian manuscript, “Shahnama (Book of Kings).” The miniatures in its illumination date from the 17th century, when Persian miniature art, enriched by the influence of Chinese painting, reached its highest point, becoming the model for such other illustrious Islamic traditions as the Ottoman miniature and the Mughal miniature. If the Persian miniature dated from the 13th century, the Arab miniatures as book illustrations, for art and also for scientific explanations, dated to centuries before the Book of Kells.

Dublin is fortunate in having the Beatty Library to provide this illuminating perspective and thus avoid “Western” provincialism in favor of the universality of arts. Sir Chester Beatty was an American who donated to the public upon his death, in 1968, an exceptionally fine collection of Islamic manuscripts. They are kept in a special building near the DublinCastle. The illumination in many of these medieval manuscripts include figural imagery, anathema to many orthodox believers, but acceptable to Shiite Persians. Especially noteworthy are pages from the Persian Rawdat al-safa (The Garden of Purity), 1595, Athar al-muzaffar (The Exploits of the Victorious), 1567 , Falnama (Book of Divination), 1550-60, Khamsa (Five Poems), 1463 , and Tarikh-i Jahanara (The Chronicle of the World-Adorning One), 1683.

The National Museum of Ireland and Dublinia each devotes a section to Medieval Ireland, defined as the period from the Anglo-Norman invasion in the mid 12th century to the religious Reformation imposed by English King Henry the VIII in 1540. In this era which followed the end of the Viking Age, Dublin was turned into a major medieval city.  I saw the small remnants of the 1240 wall built around it which are all that is left of that city.  The Dublinia exhibit depicts the city’s face in such recreated medieval stalls as the one for spices and the other for clothes. In addition to the clergy, rich merchants were powerful members of that medieval society. Dublin continued as the leading port of the country but its international trade was now shifted toward England and European countries. Although the Anglo-Normans had colonized Dublin, the Irish kept their own royal courts, style of dress and language. The English Kings also assumed the title Lord of Ireland, but their repeated attempts to impose their actual rule over all of Ireland met with only limited success. Irish Kings controlled much of the island. Whenever the English Dublin was weakened, as in the aftermath of the calamitous Black Death of 1348, those Irish Kings would try to take advantage.

Anglicized Dublin

The Irish threat to the English rule in Dublin reached a new height in 1487 when its mayor together with Dublin’s archbishop and the Fitzgeralds, rulers of the neighboring Kilder County, supported a 10-year-old boy from Dublin called Lambert Simnel as the King of England, challenging Henry VII’s claim to the throne. The new Tudor King, however, prevailed. Fifty years later his son, Henry VIII, crushed another Irish rebellion led by the new generation of the Fitzgeralds who had ridden into Dublin and besieged its Castle. Henry VIII went further; he titled himself the “King of Ireland” as well as England and as a part of his religious Reformation, by the end of 1540, all of Dublin’s Catholic churches were closed down. In the new regime of the Kingdom of Ireland, the King’s supremacy over the Church was established. This displacement of the Pope, however, was not embraced by most of the population of Dublin that continued to adhere to Roman Catholicism, creating a schism with the emerging establishment of the city.

The seat of the English government of Dublin was the Castle which was built in the early 13th century. It retained that position after the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1800–1922) replaced the Kingdom of Ireland.  After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of 1921, the Castle was handed over to the newly formed Provisional Government of Ireland. Most of what exists today of the Castle dates from its 18th century renovation. The State Apartments  which are attached to the Castle were built in 1680-1830 and served as the residential and ceremonial quarters of the Viceroy who was the Deputy of the Monarch in Ireland and the Viceregal Court. The Apartments were the center of fashionable social life then, and today they are the most important ceremonial rooms in Ireland. Across their Courtyard is BedfordTower , considered to be “one of the most beautiful architectural composition in Dublin.” The Tower is flanked by the two Gates of Fortitude and Justice  , erected in 1750.

Another English Architectural legacy in Dublin is the National Museum of Ireland-Archeology, established in 1890, with its domed entrance rotunda surrounded with classical columns and decorated with motifs recalling the civilization of Greece and Rome. The Museum’s   “special exhibits” on the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Cyprus are incongruous with “Irish archeology,” but they are explicable as relevant to an Ireland that was part of Great Britain. The same is true about the selection of the luminaries whose  marble busts were placed -beginning in 1793- on either side of  the Long Room, the main chamber of the Old Library in Dublin’s Trinity College.  These are busts of the great philosophers and writers of the Western world: Socrates, Plato , Aristotle , Demosthenes and Cicero. The few Irish so memorialized here are the likes of Edmund Burke  and Jonathan Swift , both “Anglicized” alumni of Trinity College.

Trinity College

Dublin’s Trinity College is itself a symbol of Anglicized Ireland. Founded in 1592, it was a part of the plan to solidify the rule of the Tudor monarchs in Ireland. It has been the university of the Protestant Ascendancy. That was the social, economic, and political domination of Ireland form the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century by an elite consisting of great landowners, clergy, and professionals who were all members of the Protestant Church of England or Church of Ireland. Those two Churches joined into the United Church of England and Ireland in 1801. The Ascendancy excluded the followers of all other churches, especially the Roman Catholics, and thus the majority of the population in Dublin as well as the rest of Ireland. Trinity College did not admit Catholics until 1793, and even thereafter denied them scholarships and professorships until 1970. The Catholic Church, on its part, prevented its followers from attending Trinity without special permission from their bishops. Dublin prides itself for producing more winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature than any other town in the world. All three of them, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) were born into the establishment Ascendancy. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was not just an Ascendancy writer (Gulliver’s Travels, etc.); he was a cleric who, in the 18th century, was the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Like Swift and Beckett, other Irish literary luminaries, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker (1847 – 1912), were Ascendancy Dubliners who graduated from Trinity Colleges. Yeats did not go to Trinity but his father, John , was a graduate. Indeed, John Butler was a member of the elite University Philosophical Society, the oldest such student society in the world, with a roster that has included Stoker, Wilde and Beckett.

On the campus of Trinity College, my student guide pointed out the Graduates Memorial Building which now houses The Phil, as the Philosophical Society is commonly known.  The guide was wearing the academic gown which had been obligatory until the 1970s. “Now only some professors wear it,” he said. That was not the only change in Trinity College.  In 1904 it began admitting women. Its conservative incumbent Provost (President) George Salmon  was “famous for opposing the admission of women,” the guide said.  When Salmon signed “the order permitting women students, he said it was ‘not by my heart.’” Now “63% of the students are women.” As we passed by the Campanile  -the version built in 1853 of the original bell tower of the monastery of All Hallows which in 1591 became Trinity College-, our guide related a college tradition: “Students believe that if you pass under the Campanile when its bells toll you will fail the exams; so some never attempt that until they finish college.”  He added, sometimes you hear it said that “the Campanile does not toll unless a virgin walks under it: and it has not in 500 years.” That bad joke is often said after a meal at the school’s Old Dining Hall “where you are always given a free glass of Guinness beer with the food.” He pointed to the Dining Hall building to the north of Campanile.

The Chamber Room of the Graduates Memorial Building which is used for debating by student members of The Phil is an auditorium with a high ceiling and carved balcony. The guide said: “We have had some important world figures speaking there in my time.  Many came to see former President Bill Clinton when he was here, but many more crowded the Chamber Room to hear the American singer Courtney Love who is very popular among the Trinity students!” Trinity has some 12,000 undergraduate and another 5,000 graduate students. “By law, at least 13% of students have to be international, but nowadays they constitute 15% of the student body,” the guide said. International students have to pay tuition but Trinity is free for the Irish. As another measure of ecumenism “In 1963, the school’s Chapel was consecrated so that all four Irish Christian denomination churches can worship there.”

All these Trinity College buildings which we had just seen were in one main quad called the Library Square. The quad’s central landscaping was the grassy College Green which this summer looked quite brown because of the unusually dry year. The Green was dominated by two big Oregon Maple trees from the 18th century.  The main Trinity College library used by students is around the corner. A stunning modernist building reflecting Le Corbusier’s principles in its use of materials, the library is ironically named after Bishop George Berkeley (1687-1753) , a graduate of Trinity who became a lecturer in Greek there. He is remembered as a philosopher of “immaterialism” who posited the theory of “subjective idealism” which argues that objects exist only as ideas in the mind of the perceiver.

Berkeley spent considerable time in the United States and left a great impact there through the teaching of Samuel Johnson -the future first president of Columbia University in New York- who incorporated Berkeley’s ideas in his own philosophy called American Practical Idealism. Johnson dedicated his Elementa Philosophica, the first American philosophy textbook -published by Benjamin Franklin in 1752-, to Berkeley. Johnson’s influence is considered a foundation of the “American Mind” as he was the mentor to many contributors to the American Declaration of Independence. Berkeley’s contribution to Trinity College libraries is not noticeable, but his donation of about 1000 volumes to Yale University in 1731 was considered huge at the time, increasing its library’s holdings by fifty percent. “Your university of Berkeley is named after our Bishop Berkeley which we pronounce Barkeley,” our guide at Trinity said, recalling his connection to yet a third famous American university. The guide was right because, as he directed us to an entry in Wikipedia, the city of Berkeley, California (the namesake of the university), was named after Bishop Berkeley at the suggestion of Frederick Billings. The latter was a trustee of the then College of California who was inspired by this stanza from Berkeley’s Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America: “Westward the course of empire takes its way; The first four Acts already past, A fifth shall close the Drama with the day; Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”

Our guide said “Trinity students can still use the Old Library but they don’t.” The Old Library which was built in 1712-1732 is the oldest surviving building on the Trinity campus. Its Long Room which was once the main college reading room now has a long showcase in the middle where some of Trinity’s prized manuscripts are displayed under glass. Among them, I noticed a small book, En attendant Godot, a copy of the first edition of the Play Waiting for Godot. On the cover in the playwright Samuel Beckett’s handwriting it was marked “Prompt Copy 1953.” This was the copy Beckett used to insert changes in the play during the rehearsal for its original production in Paris on January 5, 1953. Beckett’s additional handwriting, of a later date, said “For John and Bettina with much love and gratitude from Sam. London, 31.12.64.”  John and Bettina Calder were Beckett’s friends in London; John was the publisher of Beckett’s works in Britain after Godot was produced there in 1955. Later, Trinity College honored Beckett by opening the Samuel Beckett Theatre on the campus in 1992 where the works of students as well as Ireland’s leading theater artists are performed.


Beckett’s roots in France were deep. His ancestors, the Becquetts, are buried in Dublin’s small Huguenot Cemetery, near St. Stephen’s Green. The protestant Huguenots had fled persecution in France following the 1693 revocation of the Edict of Nantes which had guaranteed religious freedom. Samuel Beckett (now a member of the Anglican Church of Ireland) studied French at Trinity and later took the position of lecteur d’anglais in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In 1931 he published Proust, a critical study of the French writer Marcel Proust. While Beckett taught briefly at Trinity College and also at Campbell College in Belfast, he spent much more time in Paris, London and other parts of Europe. In that Beckett was not alone among Irish writers. In fact, it was in Paris that he first met James Joyce in 1928. Joyce, who had emigrated from Ireland to continental Europe in his early twenties, spent most of his adult life abroad, in Paris, Trieste and Zurich. Earlier, Jonathan Swift had spent 10 years and Bram Stoker had spent 27 years working in London. George Bernard Shaw went to London in 1876 when he was 20 and spent the rest of the 94 years of his life there, becoming active in its politics. Oscar Wilde also settled in London where he became one of its most popular playwrights in the early 1890s.

Of all these illustrious writers from Dublin, only James Joyce devoted himself to portraying the Dubliners. His fictional characters are based mostly on friends and enemies from Dublin. His masterpiece, Ulysses, in 1922 drew a universe parallel to the Odyssey of Homer where figures from Joyce’s earlier Dubliners roam alleyways and streets of Dublin.  Joyce explained this focus: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

Joyce’s Dubliners are people from his childhood neighborhood of Northside, the rough part of town separated by the Liffey River from the Southside which was considered posh.  Joyce went to Jesuit schools and then to University College Dublin, the Catholic institution founded in 1854 which is Ireland’s largest university. Joyce’s milieu as he grew up was the cultural home of the nationalist movement which gathered momentum in the late 1890s. Nationalists supported Irish home rule and cultural independence from English influence. They stood in contrast to the Anglicization, Unionist politics and Protestantism symbolized by Trinity College.

Yet, it was not Joyce who became active in the Nationalist politics; instead it was William Butler Yeats, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who, contemporaneously, grew up in these changing times with a crisis of identity. Yeats demonstrated support for the changes in Ireland which directly disadvantaged his privileged heritage and made the Catholics become prominent.  Beginning in 1922, Yeats would serve two terms as a Senator in the Irish Free State. Political developments would profoundly affect Yeats poetry which in exploring Irish identity became a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival.  But as a young poet who came from the establishment class, even Yeats recoiled from engaging in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Easter Rising

On April 24, 1916, a schoolteacher and barrister named Patrick Pearse stood in front of the General Post Office in Dublin and read aloud a proclamation by the “The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland.” It was Easter Monday, and the reading of this Proclamation of the Irish Republic started what has been called the Easter Rising. I saw one of the few remaining copies of the Proclamation on exhibit in Trinity College Library’s Long Room. The Rising was organized by seven members of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  Some 1,600 participated in the uprising. They seized several key positions in Dublin. Their rebellion lasted six days. It was the most significant uprising in Ireland against British rule since the rebellion of 1798 -there were other notable ones in 1803, 1848 and 1867. The authorities acted swiftly and ended the Rising violently. Three of the first killed fell at the Cork Hill Gate of the Castle. The total of casualties exceeded 2,000 dead or injured.

Thirteen of the leaders of the Rising were executed between the 3rd and 12th of May 1916 in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail. Today a plaque marks the place in the prison-yard where the execution of twelve of them took place. James Connolly whose injuries did not allow him to be standing was shot nearby on a chair.  The Kilmainham Jail is now a museum, and the guide who was telling us the story of the 1916 Rising took us to see the landing where the 1916 leaders were held briefly before their execution. Signs with their names identified each one’s cell. The cells were small. The Kilmainham Jail’s capacity for separate confinements, however, was considered an example of its features as a model modern Victorian prison; another example was the replacement of corridors with catwalks in a vaulted space surrounded by a skylight. The colorful history of this unique prison -which held the leaders of the four prior Irish rebellions since the end of the 18th century and a few after 1916- also included its use as a shelter for the poor during the Great Famine in a program under the 1847 Vagrant Act to clear the streets from their unsightly presence.

In one of the cells of the Kilmainham Jail I noticed this writing on the wall: “Beware of the Risen People.”  Next to the marker of the site of the 1916 executions now stands the flag of Independent Ireland high on a pole [92]. The Rising was not popular with the people of Dublin at first but the executions caused a change in the public’s opinion; the Rising’s executed leaders gradually came to be regarded as heroes.  Today, a sculpture outside the Kilmainham Jail depicts the executed leaders, 12 standing men and one empty chair in the middle. Dubliners would soon resume the struggle for independence, now joined by people from the rest of the country that had hardly played a role in the 1916 Rising. In the new phase close relatives of the executed leaders would take up their mantle. A striking example was Grace Gifford, the wife of Joseph Plunkett whose cell is marked in the Kilmainham where she was jailed in 1923.

Women were, of course, active in the 1916 Rising too. Seventy of them were taken to the Kilmainham. One was deemed high enough to be condemned to death, but her sentence was commuted to life in the prison “on account of the prisoner’s sex.” She was Constance Georgine Markievicz, born Eva Gore-Booth, who had become Countess Markievicz upon marrying her Polish husband. The death sentence of one male leader of the 1916 Rising was also commuted to life imprisonment because of his American birth: Eamon de Valera. Born in New York City to a Spanish father and an Irish mother, de Valera had been sent to Ireland to live with his mother’s family at the age of two upon the death of his father. In 1913, Eamon joined the Irish Volunteers, a secret organization which became the principal group in the Rising. I visited his cell in the Kilmainham Jail. De Valera would survive to become the most enduring and dominant Irish leader of his generation.

His story mirrors the history of the rest of Ireland’s fight for independence. Released under a general amnesty in 1917, Eamon de Valera a year later was president of the Sinn Fein Party that won an Irish national election for the first Irish parliament (Dail). The Dail promptly declared the independence of the Irish Republic, thus making de Valera the unofficial leader of Ireland. In 1932 he was Prime Minister as the head of a new party, Fianna Fail, which had gained control of the Dail. He held that office for 16 years, and then intermittently until 1959 when he resigned and was elected President of Ireland.  De Valera lasted in that position until 1973 when he retired as the world’s oldest statesman at the age of 90.

Civil War

The declaration of independence by Dail, in 1918, started the Irish War of Independence which, in turn, would lead to the Irish Civil War because of the dispute over the 1922 peace agreement signed with Britain. The agreement called for the partition of Ireland with the six northern counties of Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom while the south with its 26 counties would be given autonomy. The Irish signatory of the agreement was Michael Collins, the incumbent President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who was dispatched by Eamon de Valera to negotiate the agreement. De Valera rejected the agreement saying that Collins had failed to consult with him on the final terms. When the Dail narrowly approved this 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty over de Valera’s objection, he resigned as President. He challenged the right of the Dail to approve the Treaty as a violation of their oath to the Irish Republic. Many Irish Republican Army (IRA) officers were also against the Treaty and repudiated the authority of the Dail to accept the Treaty.  Michael Collins, now as the Chairman of the Provisional Government, responded by holding an election which he won. He formed a government for the new Free State of Ireland which was declared in December 1922. Collins also led the armed forces that supported the Treaty, while the Republican opposition continued to see the Treaty as a betrayal of the Irish Republic, constituted during the War of Independence.

Fighting broke out on June 28, 1922 when the Provisional Government tried to assert its authority over the Anti-Treaty IRA units by attacking those who had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin since April. This was the vast building complex  in the center of town which has continued to house three of Ireland main courts  – the fourth (Central Criminal Court) having since been moved elsewhere.  Collins bombarded the Four Courts’ IRA garrison into surrender. Thereupon, he was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. Just two months later, however, he was assassinated. Michael Collins was only 32 years old. He had been an Irish nationalist revolutionary since 1909 when he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He played a minor part in the 1916 Rising. Collins cut a swashbuckling figure. His picture is still a best seller in the souvenir shops of Dublin.

Michael Collins left the Free State government firmly in control of Dublin. The anti-Treaty forces were now dispersed mainly to the south and west of Ireland where, after losing the major towns, they resorted to guerrilla warfare. In October 1922, Eamon de Valera and the anti-Treaty politicians formed their own “Republican government” and called for a cease fire as the pro-Treaty forces gained increasing grounds. The military leaders of the IRA refused as they, indeed, considered Republican authority vested in themselves. The heavy losses among the military officers eventually led to an order by the IRA Chief of Staff to call a halt to what had become clearly a futile fight. In May 24, 1923 he ordered the IRA volunteers to dump arms rather than continue. There was no formal peace agreement in this Civil War. Instead, the Free State government enacted an Emergency Powers Act on July 2 and followed it by a General Election in which its supporters won with about 40% of the votes. The Republicans won about 27% of the votes, while many of their candidates and supporters were still imprisoned by the Free State.

Personal Politics

The legacy of the Civil War has continued to influence Irish politics. The two main political parties of Ireland have been Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the descendants, respectively, of the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty groups of 1922. Fianna Fail first took power in the 1930s. However, the renegade IRA -maintaining that its Army Council was the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic of 1918- did not renounce military attack on the southern Irish State until 1949 when it became the Republic of Ireland. Thereafter, the IRA focused on ending British rule in Northern Ireland.

As I read the Irish newspapers during my visit to Dublin in July 2013, I was struck by the continued importance of the personal in politics. Some 90 years after the Civil War, Irish leaders were echoing the mutual disappointments that marred the relations between Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. Today’s news abounded with tales of contemporary politicians’ sensitivity to personal slights and insults. The headline of a major article in Irish Independent on July 19 was an example:  “Senator wants apology over ‘insulting’ remark on Special Olympics.”  Two days earlier, in the same main newspaper of Ireland’s capital, another article on a different incident was titled: “We’re supposed to craft laws, not shout personal insults.”  Still other stories were about apologies demanded in parliamentary discourse relating to the use of “Regina Monologue,” a derogatory description deployed by a prominent Senator in criticizing comments on an important issue by a woman politician, Regina. She was offended by the sexist connotation in the intended reference to the well-known performance piece “Vagina Monologue.”

When I discussed these stories with Denis O’Brien, he nodded and then said: “You know, one President of Ireland actually resigned when the Prime Minister would not retract a comment by a Minister who called the President’s description of a Bill ‘a disgrace’.”  He was Cearbhall O Dálaigh, President from 1974 to 1976. Denis O’Brien was the presiding concierge at the Shelbourne Hotel. The Hotel had several concierges, but he was clearly the choice of regular guests who knew him as being far more helpful. Denis O’Brien sat high on a chair dominating the reception lobby of the hotel.  But he would gladly move his considerable heft to seek you in other chambers of the vast lobby with urgent information related to your request. Mr. O’Brien showed me the crossed gold keys on his lapel: “These are Les Clefs d’Or. I am the only Irishman who has been the President of the world-wide Concierges Association or UICH (Union Internationale des Concierges d’Hôtels).” He added a note of modesty: “As we say in Ireland ‘the habit does not make a monk’.”

Denis O’Brien had been a concierge in Dublin for thirty years, the last 6 in the Shelbourne.  He had seen a lot; he was knowledgeable. He invited me to his periodic lecture in the Hotel on the history of the venerable Shelbourne. “The Irish Constitution of the 1922 was drafter here,” O’Brien said. That was the Constitution of the Irish Free State, or the second constitution of the independent Irish state. This was the work of a committee set up by Michael Collins. Later, however, the Shelbourne would also host “President Eamon D. Valera.” A video screen in the lobby showed de Valera’s picture and the number of his room, among those of many other celebrities who had stayed here over the years. Denis O’Brien had met many of them and knew many important persons in Ireland, including the current President, Michael D. Higgins. “He comes here for his haircut sometimes. He is academic, meaning a scholar, and very open; you can just walk in his office and see him.”  I told Denis O’Brien that he should write his memoirs. I mentioned a comment by certain critics of The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman that he got much of his information about foreign countries from taxi-drivers and concierges. I offered, “One could do much worse than talking to you.” O’Brien responded that many others had made “the same suggestion,” but he “respected others’ privacy.” He chuckled: “Their wives will find out about their men.” I could not tell whether he was joking.


Denis O’Brien had said: “The church, the undertaker’s and the pub have been the three gathering places for the Irish.” He had added: “The undertaker and the pub owner were often the same.” Obviously, I needed to spend some time in the pubs (public-houses). Tour guides tell you that Dublin has “over 1,000 pubs, and 600 churches.” Some of the pubs have had connections with the Church. Brannigan’s is in the annex of an old convent. It still has the pews where the customers can sit.  O’Neill’s has kept the “special nook for girls,” set aside on the order of the Church so that “girls would not be able to corrupt the drinking men,” as my bar mate explained in half-jest. He scoffed: “But, of course, Irish men would walk over 10 naked women to get to the beer!”

The 300 year old O’Neill’s is mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses, as is another pub with centuries old pedigree, the Dukes ; although Joyce was more of a regular visitor to another pub on the same street as the Duke’s, the Davy Byrnes, which also appears in Ulysses. The area called Temple Bar with its narrow cobbled streets had many pubs and was very lively at night. However, as an Irish woman advised me: “Temple Bar is where the tourists go and not the Irish, so when I am in a pub there I find myself as the only Irish. We go to the pubs elsewhere.” It was paradoxical that while the hotel rooms in the Shelbourne were occupied mostly by out of town guests, its bar was full with well-off Dubliners. Here, I had a chance to find out what were the current topics of their conversation.

My conversation with them, naturally, began with reference to the weather. Dublin had been experiencing an unusual stretch of warm days. “The last time it was like this was in 1986,” a man said. His friend continued: “Last year, in comparison, we only  had two sunny weekends between May and September.” This heat had had no special impact on agricultural crops, they told me. I asked them if the issue of Climate Change was an important one in public discussions. Their response was: “People here are aware of the Climate Change debate but are not concerned.”  A woman said: “Abortion is the hot issue.” She showed me the July 19 copy of Irish Independent which she had been reading. The main article on the front page was about what Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny had just said in an interview with that newspaper after his Government passed the country’s first abortion legislation: ‘I’m a Catholic. Not the best, but a Catholic nonetheless.”

Kenny is from the Fine Gael party which has been in power since 2011. Our bar conversation now turned toward politics.  “Current government is from the right now, but before it the left had ruled for many years,” someone informed me. Another man said: “Next election is two years from now and the right is likely to lose.” Nobody offered to disagree. I asked about the “Time of the Tiger,” the few years before 2008, when Ireland awed the world with its fast rate of economic growth. The woman in the group said : “ It was a great time while it lasted. People felt high and optimistic and took out loans and did not think about how they were going to pay back. Now we are left with big houses and big cars and nobody is able to pay for them.” Her friend agreed: “Now property taxes and water charges which did not exist are being imposed by government.” Bankers were the ones mostly blamed for the problems.  “Recession is bad for everybody but we are getting out of it,” the woman concluded. She also added that there were safety nets: “Everyone 65 and older receives 200 Euros per week. There is nationalized health care for all. Private medical practice exists but it is very expensive. The perception is that they take better care, but not many believe that.”

The role of American companies in Ireland’s economic recovery was highlighted in the statistics published while I was in Dublin. According to the Irish Exporters Association’s annual top 250 survey, Microsoft was clearly the busiest firm in Ireland in 2012, sending goods and services worth 13.7 billion Euros overseas during the year. That was one billion Euros more than the amount exported by the second ranking Goggle. Information technology firms dominated the list, with five of the top 10, and nine of the top 20, ranks overall. Dell was fourth, exporting 9.9 billion Euros worth of goods and services. Pharmaceutical and life sciences were by far the second biggest sector in exporting from Ireland, with seven of the top 20 ranks. The American firm Johnston & Johnston was the third biggest exporter in Ireland at 10.5 billion Euros in the year. The Exporters Association’s list, full of foreign multinationals, showed few indigenous Irish firms high up. Packaging firm Smurfit Kappa Group was the biggest native-Irish exporter, with the sales of goods and services worth 7.4 billion Euros for the year, placing 5th overall. The next ranking Irish companies placed 8th and 17th on the list of highest exporters.

It was not just American companies that were prominent. Dublin was attuned to the news about Irish-Americans in general. Newspapers covered the story of “the Irishwoman Samantha Powers” as the just-nominated U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. was referred to. Also covered was “the Irish lawyer” who defended George Zimmerman in his trial for killing Trayvon Martin. Then, of course, there was the deluge of American tourists in Dublin.


I joined those tourists in the rite that is called the Dublin Music Pub Crawl. In our group of about 40, all but five were from the U.S. I even ran into several from my own San Francisco Bay Area. In the routine that is now 20 years old we were taken on the Crawl to four pubs by two musicians who also served as our “musicologists.” One of them played the “Irish fiddle” which he described as “not that different from violin,” while the other played a guitar and sang as well. They said the “original Irish instruments” were the harp “which is smaller than the standup and sits on the knee and in the past had metal strings,” the bodhran “which was originally from goat skin and not calf skin,” and the pipe “which is different from the Scottish bagpipe that was originally used to scare the enemy by pretending that there were many people on the attack.”  They added: “In Ireland we also play something which is like the Greek bouzouki.”

The Pub Crawl musicians told us that “60 years ago in Ireland music was played only to dance with, now we also play just to listen to it.” The musicians played a few old Irish tunes and sang some songs, including the obligatory “Sweet Molly Mellon”. Then they played the Scottish folk ballad “Caledonia” for the couple from Scotland in our group,  and the Canadian song “The Mary Ellen Carter” for the three Canadians among us. They joked that they would not sing any Johnny Cash songs for the Americans as they could hear those all over Dublin in other pubs. “He is not even Irish; his people come from Scotland,” they said. They mentioned the names of several pubs where we could find “real Irish music, played in sessions which begin after 10 in the evening.”

I saw the oldest extant Irish harp, dating from the 15th century, on my visit to the Trinity College’s Long Room. It was constructed from oak and willow with brass strings. Deemed an emblem of the country’s early bardic society, this harp appears on Irish coins. I also saw traditional Irish stepdance, with its rapid leg movements while body and arms are kept largely stationary . On the streets of Dublin, this was performed for the tourists by an elder itinerant dancer wearing hard shoes and colorful costumes .  On Sunday July 21, Dublin was the scene of the Riverdance, a public event at which many joined in stepdancing. I noticed several women and men on the Trinity College campus who were getting ready to go and participate. A few wore a black T-shirt with this quote from Samuel Beckett: “Dance first. Think later.” One of them who said she was a student of Beckett’s works laughed while informing me that the famous quote from the playwright’s Godot was somewhat of a mistranslation: “The text in the original French was in the rhetorical: Il pourrait peut-etre danser d’abord et penser ensuite?, which Beckett himself correctly rendered in the English version as ‘Perhaps he could dance first and think afterwards.” Regardless, that day she with the other 1693 dancers from 44 countries would break the world record for the Longest Riverdance Line on the Samuel Beckett Bridge which is over the Liffey – as I later read in the newspapers.

For “real Irish music,” as I was told, I went to O’Donoghue’s Pub. It had an outdoors area with several tables, but the music and the bar were inside. There were eight men, all playing guitar-like string instruments, and one woman who played the drum-like bodhran. The music that this jamming produced was superb. The musicians played for themselves, expecting no pay. We were all attentive, ignoring an inebriated man who suddenly jumped on a chair behind the bar  and started belting out an incoherent song.

Ireland’s Counties



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



Leaving Dublin

 Dublin is Ireland’s “Center.” In countries that have such a city – France is another example-  the Center is not just the Capital. Dublin is the economic and cultural as well as the political center of the country. Fully one-quarter of the 4.58 million population of the Republic of Ireland live here in an urban concentration that takes only 1.6 percent of the country’s total land. I wanted to learn about the rest of Ireland, 62 times larger and much more rural, which was home to the Irish other than the Dubliners. For that you needed to leave the Center, both physically and as a state of mind.  It helped to have Desmond as our guide.

He was from CountyLimerick. “That is one of the 32 ‘traditional’ Counties of Ireland,” Desmond said, “which are divisions for local government, originally formed in the 12th century after the Norman invasion to ensure royal control of taxation.”  CountyLimerick is located in the mid-west region of Ireland. It is a part of Munster, “one of the five Irish ‘provinces,’ into which Ireland was divided before the Normans,  each being under the influence of a ‘king of over-kings’ who were from the major Irish ruling families.”  Desmond added: “the Province of Ulster in the north with its 6 traditional Counties is not a part of the Republic of Ireland which is  in the south.”

Desmond’s manners were professional; his shirt and trousers always crisply ironed, his shoes shined; his English correct, his accent country Irish. Desmond was also our driver and the droning sound of his big Mercedes bus, driven fast, combined with the hum of air-conditioning sometimes muffed and aggravated the complexity of his speech delivered into a mouthpiece. This left us room for constructively imagining when his explanatory facts did not sound all that coherent, but we were on a short, whirlwind tour which the presage of time would make impressionistic anyway. The real challenge was to perceive the broad strokes of our physical surroundings as reflecting the rich story of Ireland that uniquely shaped them. In that, history and tradition called for my attention as much as the distinct lay of the land.

For about an hour the landscape in the drive south from Dublin was flat and green with some trees and hardly any buildings. We did not see any high-tech campuses. Desmond said many of the high-tech companies, so crucial to recent Irish economy, had established themselves near Dublin “but not in a specific area with a name like ‘The Irish Silicon Valley’.”  When we crossed CountyDublin into CountyKilder, more rolling gentle hills and farms came into view. The barley grown in the fields had been cut and compacted as silage. Presently, we saw some of the ruminants, sheep and cows, for whom the fodder was intended.

As we approached the town of Kilkenny, Desmond said “You find that word ‘kil’ in many Irish town names: Kildare, Killarney, Kilkenny. It is a Gaelic word meaning church.” He said that Gaelic which was “historically spoken by most Irish people” was the “Irish language” now used only by a minority of Irish as their first language, “fewer than 2 million.” They lived mostly in the area “from West County Cork to the west and northwest.” This was because “the English rulers were not as interested in those distant places and, partly because of that, the residents there have been poorer.” Since independence, however, the IrishRepublic’s government” has been making efforts to revive Gaelic,” Desmond said. He mentioned that the Government “succeeded in gaining acceptance of Gaelic as a ‘Recognized Language’ by the European Union as a condition for joining it.” He added that “Now four TV stations in Ireland broadcast mostly in Gaelic.” Consequently, according to Desmond “currently 40% of the Nationalists, that is citizens of the Republic of Ireland, can converse in Gaelic.” Directional signs on the road which we saw were in Irish as English, some for modern phenomena such as Airport (Aerfort) obviously derived from English.

Desmond’s comment about kil caught my attention as a it could be an explanation for the word kilisa (Christian church) in Persian, isa being the name for Jesus. When I broached the subject of possible connection between the two old languages, Desmond said “Gaelic is related to the Celtic languages like Scottish,, Welsh and Breton.” Celtic, of course, descended from Proto-Celtic, a branch of the Indo-European language family, as is Iranian. More intriguing, I discovered, Celtic languages are known to have been spoken in central Asia Minor during the 1st millennium B.C., a time of intense activity by the Persian Parthian Dynasty in the area.


The principal church in the town of Kilkenny is called St. Canice’s Cathedral, after the 6th century monk St. Canice (Chainnigh in Gaelic, becoming Kenny).  The 100 feet early Celtic Christian round tower that stands as the Cathedral’s sentinel is from the 9th century. The Cathedral itself is a work of the 13th century, preserved in its original style and form. Worship has taken place here for over 800 years. The Cathedral fits well in the current medieval-looking town with its narrow side alleys. Kilkenny’s origin, however, dates back to some 1,500 years ago. The Normans, who invaded in the 12th century, have left a lasting legacy here. Their legendary leader Strongbow (an Anglo-Norman lord named Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke), built a castle on the site of a fort that his father had established as an important element of the defenses of the town. Another noble man, the Irish James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, bought the castle in 1391, when he made himself the ruler of the area. The Butler dynasty continued for centuries and the Castle, remodeled in Victorian times and set in an extensive parkland , remained the Butlers’ residence until 1935.

In the 1640s the castle was the venue for the meeting of the Parliament of the Confederate Ireland government, formed primarily for uniting resistance against English persecution of Irish Catholics. Overtime the influence of the Confederation diminished and when Cromwell arrived in 1649, he dissolved it. Kilkenny remembers the early 17th Century as its “Golden Age.” The main street of town is called Parliament Street. On that street the town showcases the Rothe  House  and Gardens, built by an Irish merchant in 1594.

The Butler family’s coat of arms has three cups because of their duties and privileges as Chief Butler of Ireland, the position and title given in 1185 by the English Prince John with whom they came to Ireland. As one of those duties, the Butler had to make sure there was plenty of food and drink ready for the English King when he visited Ireland. Second, the Chief Butler had to serve the first glass of wine to the King after he had been crowned.  The third cup in their coat of arms signified that the Butlers received the “Prisage of Wine,” meaning that they were entitled to a royal levy of about 15% of all the wine that was imported to Ireland. The common people of Kilkenny, on the other hand, have been happy drinking beer since 1710 when John Smithwick founded Ireland’s oldest operating brewery here.  The Smithwick’s boasts of its 300 year history at a site on Parliament Street which used to be an ancient Franciscan Abbey where monks had brewed ale since the 14th century. The ruins of the original abbey still stand witnesses on its grounds.


This is not to say that the Prisage of Wine which the Butlers obtained was not valuable. Far from it, at the time of its grant in the major city of Ireland, Waterford, the common drink was red wine imported from France; one did not drink water for fear that was contaminated. I saw on display in Waterford an example of the jugs, also imported from France, in which that wine was drunk. Some thirty miles south of Kilkenny, Waterford had the great advantage of being on the estuary of the River Suir. When Prince John landed in 1185, Waterford had already fallen to the Anglo-Romans.  Arrow heads found near the town walls dating to August 1170 mark the time Waterford was conquered by Richard de Clare, Strongbow.  That event was also the beginning of the rapid end of the Viking era in Irish history.

Waterford was where the Vikings had come in 914 and established their first settlement in Ireland. It is the country’s oldest city, predating Dublin which is now the Vikings’ only other surviving settlement. Waterford also has the sole monument in Ireland named in honor of a Viking, Reginald (or Ragnall), the founder of this city. The Reginald’s Tower which I climbed is at the apex of “The Viking Triangle” in Waterford, located on the site of the original 10th century Viking settlement. The round Tower was rebuilt as a defensive structure in 1185 by Prince John and subsequently used, at different times, as a prison and munitions storage. Cannons installed there successfully defended against sieges in the late 16th century before the Tower was again used as a prison in 1819. In 1861, the Reginald’s Tower became the official residence of the High Constable of Waterford. Its last inhabitant having left in 1954, it is now a museum.

The museum displays a model of what the Viking settlement looked like. There are significant pottery fragments such as those of lamps used during the Vikings period. A beautifully crafted pin  excavated near the Reginald’s Tower is evidence of the very early smelting dating to the time of the founding of the city.

In 1783 George and William Penrose could relate to that smelting tradition when they set up their original Waterford Crystal factory here which I was about to visit. Indeed, by the middle of 18th century Waterford was a thriving industrial center of shipbuilding and ironworks. Their furnaces were fueled by timber from the surrounding forests. What especially helped Ireland’s crystal manufacturing was its exemption from luxury taxes which applied in England. The Penroses sold their business to their clerk, Jonathan Gatchell in 1799. He then expanded the company in partnership with a fellow employee.  In 1854, Waterford Crystal won several gold medals at the Great Exhibition in London, topping its growing international “reputation for beauty and intricacy of design and for quality of its crystal.” Ironically, later that same year, “economic conditions” made business impossible and forced the closing of the Waterford factory . It was resurrected 93 years later by two Czechs who migrated from their country which had been recently turned Communist. With only one boss, Karel Bacik, and one employee, the glass blower Miroslav Havel, the new Waterford Crystal company grew to the point that just five years later, in 1952 it developed its best ever selling design, the Lismore.

Today, in a flashy “House,” Waterford Crystal displays its jewels and offers a guided tour for a price. This is where most of the tourists to Waterford spend their time, their buses crowding the parking lot. Connecting the parking lot to the House of Waterford Crystal is a canteen run by a crusty woman who prepares sandwiches and salads alongside with her young employees for pricey offerings to the hungry visitors.

Waterford also has a claim to Irish nationalist history. It was in its Wolf Tone Club  that the Irish tricolor flag was flown for the first time on March 7, 1848, by General Thomas Francis Meager , an Irish nationalist who was also an American Civil War hero. Actually, Meager was an American general. A leader of the Young Irelanders’ Rebellion of 1848, he was sentenced to life in Australia but managed to escape from there to the United States in 1852 where he worked as a journalist while lecturing on “the Irish situation.” When the American Civil War began, Meager joined the Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general,  encouraging support among Irish immigrants for the Union. After the war he was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory where he drowned in an accidental fall into the Missouri River in 1867.

Meager’s contemporary Irish-Americans had mostly come to America due to a different reason. What the House of Waterford Crystal had delicately referred to as “economic conditions” in 1854, were caused by the famous Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 which forced a million people to emigrate from Ireland. That immigration continued for sometime.  By 1911 Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, half of its peak. The great majority of those affected by the Great Famine were from Irish-speaking districts, and they also supplied most of the emigrants -among them, as our guide Desmond pointed out to his American group, the families of both parents of Richard J. Daley, the future mayor of Chicago, who came from An Seanphobal, a village in West County Waterford. In the decades of the 1840s and the 1850s, about 1.7 million Irish immigrants arrived in the United States.

City of Cork

Roughly 2.5 million of the six million Irish who would migrate to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed from the CorkHarbor which we were now going to visit.  Not far outside of CountyCork we saw the TipperaryMountains on our right in the north. “That is CountyTipperary,” Desmond said, “where President Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandfather came from.” He was Falmouth Kearney, a cobbler’s son from the village of Moneygall on the border of  CountyTipperary and CountyOffaly,  who arrived in New York on March 20, 1850.

In the fields between us and the TipperaryMountains we saw occasional plants with white flowers. “They are Bog Cotton which grows in damp peaty ground,” Desmond said. We were approaching the city called Cork which means “marshy place” in Irish. We had our first glance of the waters of the CelticSea in the Atlantic Ocean. Cork is an ancient city, founded 14 centuries ago on islands in an estuary. This is where the River Lee joins CorkHarbour, the second largest natural harbor in the world.  The city center is circled with waterways, crossed by 22 bridges.  Narrow alleys near the Harbor marked the older part of town. A modern esplanade ushered you to the Harbor. On the other side of the old town, stately four-story buildings from the recent centuries lined the streets with well-paved wide sidewalks. Contemporary high-rise residences had since gone up on the banks of the River Lee . The 18th century English Market, long a gourmet hub for fresh produce, fish, meats and cheeses, has been supplemented in nearby grungy streets with new ethnic restaurants, such as Noodle King and Delhi Palace. It is as if Cork wants to shout that it is hip in its recent “renaissance” that has earned it the title of “a European Capital of Culture.” It has even called itself “The People’s Republic of Cork.”  Its University College Cork, one of the oldest parts of the National University of Ireland, has an impressive campus. The Royal Cork Yacht Club boasts that it has the oldest charter in the world. Yet, with a quarter of a million souls, Cork is still only the “second” city of Ireland. Not just in size, but also in how it feels.

That is what I felt as I sat in the lobby of the Hayfield Manor Cork with its grand piano and grand stairway. It had the charm of a country house.  A refurbished Georgian property, the Manor is set in acres of grounds on a hill overlooking the city, tucked away in a mature private garden with an Aviary and Kennel  As I looked up, I noticed the main wall decoration of the lobby, a framed copy of the local newspaper Daily Express. It headlined the day’s news about an Irish-American President:  “Kennedy Assassinated.”

County Cork

County Cork west of the city of Cork is famous for its shoreline of many inlets, coves, beaches and safe harbors. We saw an example of those harbors in the picturesque  fishing village of Kinsale, some 15 miles south of CorkCity. It is a destination where in summer time the tourists substantially add to its population of some 2,000. According to Dermot Ryan, however, Kinsale  had a notable history long before tourism. A local guide for the last 40 years, Mr. Ryan was proud to be “Secretary on the Irish Federation of History Societies.” He showed me maps of Kinsale dating to 1601 and photographs of the place from 1889. At the harbor, Kinsale celebrated its two favorite sons with one monument. The memorial to the brothers Tim and Mortimer McCarthy commemorated their roles in Arctic Exploration.  Mortimer was on the Terra Nova in Robert Falcon Scott’s second trip in 1910. Timothy joined Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance in 1914.The McCarthy boys had learned how to handle boats in this Kinsale harbor and the nearby river estuary.

The roads outside of Kinsale had not changed much from the time of the McCarthys. We shared the narrow highway which had no shoulders with farm tractors. The few farm houses we saw were on the side facing the sea   . On this corner of the Celtic Sea the ruins of the Timoleague Friary awaited us at the scenic Courtmacsherry Harbor .

Timoleague Friary. The Friary was founded by Franciscan monks in the late 13th or early 14th century on the site of the 7th century Monastery of St.Molaga in the village  named after it, Timoleague (house of Molaga). Not much is known about St.Molaga, except that he was a local boy, as Desmond said, who is credited with bringing “beekeeping and honey to Ireland” from his trips to Wales and Iona. The Franciscan friars who came to live here several centuries later devoted themselves to strict rules of poverty and simplicity as laid down by St. Francis, so the architectural details of their buildings were quite plain . Their earliest church was extended when a tower was built about 1500. The monks allowed themselves the pleasure of the natural surroundings: their dining room in the northeast corner had 5 windows overlooking the sea. Forced to abandon the Friary during the Reformation, some of the monks returned when that storm was over and lived here on and off until 1642 when the Friary was burned down “by the English soldiers.” These were from the army of Cromwell which had arrived in 1633. Golden moss has since covered the stones of the Monastery.

The Timoleague Friary was “endowedby the Barrys and the McCarthys who are buried here.” The McCarthys were over-lords of other clans in southwest Ireland and MacCarthy Reagh who funded the Friary lived near Kinsale in the 13th century. The Berrys (Barrymores) were the owners of the village of Timoleague. In addition to those two families, the ruins of Timoleague Friary have been used for burial purposes by others. One grave had a framed writing as a memorial to “Mum”. A more recent note left on this grave was in handwriting addressed to “Mom” on Mothers Day and said “Miss you”. The graves are both inside and outside  the Friary buildings. The crosses on the tombstones were “high crosses” of the Celtic Christian world, a free-standing cross made of stone, which combined the ancient Celtic cross -a simple cross with a ring surrounding the intersection- with the Christian cross. Families, such as O’Leary, have shared the same grave and tombstones.  The ruins of Timoleague have become a place for pilgrims who come to pray and reflect, Desmond said. The practice of grave digging, on the other hand, has been so common that the County had posted a sign to warn that it was dangerous and had to be authorized.

What has lived on from the days of the Timoleague Friary is an important book, the Book of Lismore. Commissioned by a descendant of Timoleague’s original benefactor, the work was written in the Friary in 1480 and named after him, the Book of Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach.  It is actually a vellum manuscript compiled from the early, and lost, Book of Monasterboice as well as other manuscripts. It consists of two main parts: one is on the lives of the Irish saints, St.Brigid, St.Patrick and St.Columba, and the other part is a greatly valuable Middle Irish narrative from the 12th century pertaining to the Fenian Cycle. The Cycle, also called the Ossianic Cycle, is a text of verse and prose about the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna. That is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology (the others being the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, and the Historical Cycle). I was amused to learn from Desmond that this Book of Lismore also contains an Irish translation of The Book of Marco Polo. Long lost, the Book of Lismore was discovered in 1814, in a blocked-off room of Lismore Castle, in County Waterford.

Near the ruins of Timoleague, we drove through the narrow streets of Clonakilty which featured impressive baskets of flowers hanging from the windows. Desmond pointed out the small town’s double claim to fame: Michael Collins, a heroic figure in Ireland’s campaign for independence from Britain in the 1920-1921 was born in the hamlet of Sam’s Cross near here and attended school in Clonakilty, and Henry Ford’s father, William, was raised in a village nearby before migrating to the United States in 1846.

Bantry Bay. Skibbereen, which means “little boat harbor,” was even smaller than Clonakilty, but it had the distinction of being the most southerly town in Ireland. We soon came to the much larger Bantry Bay with its spectacular backdrop of mountains. There were areas of fish farming in the Bay. “Those are for mussels,” Desmond said, but I also spotted lobster traps. Another sight we spotted here on a hill was a big poster with a picture of Maureen O’Hara. This was near the village of Glengrriff at a bay with the same name which is an enclave of Bantry Bay. The famously red-headed Irish-American movie star was in the news these days. As the Irish Independent reported, Maureen O’Hara had lived in Glengrriff since 1968. She had recently fired her “personal assistant” who was now about to sue her for libel. The assistant, Carloyn Murphy, was her neighbor and friend in Glengarriff. The dispute began after Maureen O’Hara lent her name to a film and acting center which was to be opened in her honor in Glengarriff with the help of Murphy. After firing Murphy, O’Hara moved to Idaho to live with her grandson. The poster we saw publicized the film and acting center whose future is now uncertain.

Glengarriff has long been a tourism venue in Ireland.  Its Eccles Hotel is a venerable institution. It has a sweeping view of Bantry Bay, including an island “which is still a favorite with the Irish tourists,” Desmond said. It certainly was that when the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856- 1950) used to come here. Those two luminaries stayed at Eccles Hotel which has placed their portraits facing each other above the fireplaces in its lobby. The Hotel, indeed, dwelled in nostalgia. It is not just that the sole book on the coffee table in the lobby was about when the city of Cook was named the cultural Capital of Europe: Here’s to the Cultural Revolution, Cook 2005.  Older still were the two issues of newspapers, respectively, from 1922 and 1994 which were hanging from the newspapers rod in the lobby. The hotel clerk’s explanation that the newspapers were “decorations” only added to the puzzle of their presence.


We left Eccles and drove on a climbing road away from the water to the top of mountains. On the top we went through the Turner Tocks tunnels into CountyKerry. There were three tunnels at this border, a big one in Cork, and 2 small ones in Kerry which were more carving of the hills with open windows. The road had narrowed to one lane. We soon came  to Kenmore, a town on a bay with the same name which was at the junction of Iveragh Peninsula and the Beara Peninsula, two of the three Atlantic peninsulas on the southwest of Ireland, the third one being Dingle Peninsula.

Driving north on part of the route called Ring of Kerry which circles the Iveragh Peninsula, we saw Ireland’s highest mountain range called Macgillycuddy’s Reeks (stacks) which stretches 12 miles and includes Ireland’s highest peak at 3,406 feet, the Carrauntoohil. These mountains and the several lakes which they surround are all left from an ancient glacial landscape.  The Ring of Kerry crosses KillarneyNational Park. We stopped at a lookout in the heart of the Park with a panoramic vista called Ladies View, a name recalling the visit by Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting on her 1861 trip. Now as then this location is still a favorite of women: several were picnicking here on this day. A larger group of visitors chose to walk around for a better look at the spectacular scenery.  Desmond pointed out the lakes before us. “The three major lakes of the Park are Upper Lake, Muckross Lake (also called Middle Lake) and Lough Leane.” The last one, meaning the Lake of Learning, was so called because of the studious medieval monks of the Innisfallen Abbey, who recorded the earliest history of Ireland. Their monastery, now in ruins, was founded in the 7th century on an island in that lake.


The town of Killarney is at the shore of the Lake of Learning. Today it hosts tourists rather than monks judging by the number of their cars descending with us on the road toward Killarney. Indeed, this town claims to be where Irish tourism began over 250 years ago. The streets of Killarney were festooned with banners  welcoming visitors from near and afar. We stayed at a hotel catering more to Irish guests. It was owned by the same people who ran Cork’s luxurious Hayfield Manor, but the contrast between the two was remarkable. Here, corridors at uneven levels and bending at points where older structures were joined led to guestrooms with mismatched furniture and walls some of which were painted and some wallpapered. The lobby was homey with the receptionist sitting at a low-level desk sharing the space with the guests who lounged in arm chairs discussing the souvenirs purchased that day. The one I noticed was a 2014 Calendar with a picture from Maureen O’Hara’s movies The Quiet Man as its cover which I had seen in a Killarney store.

Killarney is known for its live music venues and it had several stores selling records, music books, song books, and traditional Irish musical instruments, including the frame drum bodhran. During the day the pubs were well-attended by the locals watching horse racing on television. We were in the middle of Killarney’s July Festival, and its major event was “horse racing,” the guide Desmond said, pronouncing the animal’s name hos. Elsewhere on the streets of downtown one could hear music. A group of four teenagers played several string instruments in front of a shop. At another corner a man wearing an Elvis mask sat on the ground, playing the guitar. He sang Jingle Bells, among other tunes. In Murphy’s pub that boasted it had won the James Joyce Award for being an “authentic Irish pub,” an ensemble of two men and two boys playing traditional Irish music. Near Murphy’s there was a passage way with a wide array of banners and flags hanging from the ceiling. Going through it, I found on the other side a crowd of about 50 people in an open plaza listening to three musicians on a stage.

They played mandolin and guitars and sang. When they paused, the one in the middle called out to the audience “Anybody’s birthday?.., anniversary?.., divorce?” He got no response. Then he asked “Any Americans?” Many yelled “Yes!” He followed: “Any English?” A few replied. A handful of Germans also answered to his polling, but no French. In the momentary silence that followed a group of middle aged guests who had just come out of a restaurant next door and taken seats in the plaza made their presence known: “Denmark!” The musicians had one more question: “Any Irish?” None replied, but when the entertainers finally started singing Irish folk songs several in the audience sang along with them quietly, including a young couple who kept watchful eyes on their four year old son dancing in front of us. That breakdown of the visitors to Killarney in the musicians’ sampling was echoed on the streets of the town where you mostly heard American accent, followed next by German.

Dingle Peninsula

Desmond pointed to the license plates of cars in Killarney: “Note that because of superstition regarding the unlucky number 13, the plates don’t have 2013; instead there are two license plates, one is 131 for cars bought in the first half of 2013 and the other is 132 for cars bought in the second half.” Alas, this stratagem did not protect a truck we presently saw near Killarney. It had caught fire. Notwithstanding the great flames shooting up, we were casually allowed to pass the burning truck on this narrow road. That evening in the local newspaper I read the reasons a former expatriate Irish had given for returning home. One was this: “In Australia and the US and UK people doggedly stick to rules. In Ireland it is considered a ‘challenge’ to bend rules: No such word as No!” The point was expanded by his kudos for the police (gardai), defined as “Guardians of the peace rather than the enforcers of the law, it’s only when you’ve encountered foreign police that you recognise (sic) how decent and sensible most gardai are.”

We were on our way to see the eight ancient Ogham Stones in Beaufort village, a few miles from Killarney. They stood on the edge of the road in a fenced site, still remarkably erect after more than 18 centuries. Cut along their edge vertically were sets of strokes. These were the oldest known form of Irish writing. The inscriptions were short, “mostly the names of a person and his father,” Desmond said. They were probably memorials to the deceased. Ogham was usually written in four sets of strokes, each consisting of five letters which could be from one to five strokes long. Thus there were twenty letters in this Celtic script. The Ogham writings we were seeing dated from 300 A.D. These were “orthodox” inscriptions of the early or Primitive Irish language. That language then evolved into the Old Irish language around the 6th century. Although this language was also written in Ogham until the 9th century, the Old Irish became the language of the earliest Irish sources in the Latin alphabet. With the transition from paganism to Christianity, Ogham was forgotten in favor of Latin. Early Christians adopted the practice of making stones with Latin inscriptions and Christian symbolism, even re-carving some of the old Ogham Stones. In recent times, having an Ogham Stone in one’s front yard has become fashionable,  causing the removal of some from their original places.  They are now protected in places the government has put on its List of National Monuments.

If the Irish now do not use the Ogham to write, many of them still speak the language for which the script was invented. Contemporary Irish (Gaelic), however, has evolved from the Primitive Irish, into Old Irish, then Middle Irish, and finally Classical Irish; in the process it has changed.

One of the largest Gaelic speaking communities of Ireland lives in DinglePeninsula which is designated as a Gaeltacht, meaning an area where Gaelic is the predominant language, the vernacular spoken at home. That designation is by the Irish Government which helps to protect and restore the Gaelic language. We saw evidence of this effort in the town of Ballyferrita, home to a celebrated Irish language school during the summer. Students were going to classes as our bus passed through this community in the west of DinglePeninsula where 75% of the population speaks Gaelic on a daily basis.

DinglePeninsula has attracted many more visitors because of its seascapes and intriguing ancient stone structures. As tour guides would tell you, the American magazine National Geographic once called it “the most beautiful place on earth.”  At the pretty Smerwick harbor, not far from Ballyferrita, is Gallarus Oratory (The Church of the Place of the Foreigners). Built between the 7th and 8th century it is the best preserved early Christian church in Ireland, according to the Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula. Architects admire it as “the apogee of dry-stone corbelling, using techniques first developed by Neolithic tomb-makers. Corbelling consists of laying courses of flat stones so that each course projects slightly inwards beyond the one below until the sides almost meet at the top and the roof can be closed by a single slab.” The same dry-stone corbelling technique was used in many huts found on hundreds of locations in the Dingle Peninsula. Called beehive huts due to their resemblance to beehives, such structures were a common form of dwelling in Dingle by the early Christian period. The ones we were seeing “may well date to the 12th Century when the incoming Normans forced the Irish off the good land out to the periphery of the Peninsula,” according to an official Irish tourist publication.

The beehive huts’ use as human dwellings persisted into the 19th century. Now they function as farm buildings . DinglePeninsula is home to more than 500,000 sheep, and we spotted several just across the road from some beehive huts, grazing in the green field by the sea. These sheep’s famous long curled hair was sheared and they were branded across the back. “Ninety percent of our lamb is exported to Europe,” Desmond commented “and in Ireland you have to pay top dollar for it.” Indeed, lamb was rare on restaurant menus and expensive.

The western “periphery” of DinglePeninsula which these sheep and their beehive huts occupied had spectacular views of the Bay of Dingle with mountains of IveraghPeninsula in the background. The popular sandy beach at Inch was wide and long and on this uncommonly warm and sunny day even had a few swimmers and sunbathers. Desmond pointed out the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks beyond the water. “In those wild mountains Lords of Reeks, the Macgillycuddys, lived who at one time were the most powerful family in this corner of Ireland. They were feared by other residents. Ironically, in recent times, their most famous descendent was the American comedienne Lucille Ball!”

The scenery became stark and dramatic when we reached Slea Head . This was just a mile and a half from Garraun Point which is the westernmost point of DinglePeninsula and mainland Ireland. Further west, however, were the Blasket Islands in the water just before us. A village on the islands was inhabited until 1953. Now only “a couple of structures are left, but people go to the Islands for the day,” Desmond said.  Since then the village of Dunquin, near Garraun Point, has become the westernmost settlement of Ireland.

Dingle Town

Garraun Point and the handful of other small villages in the DinglePeninsula are dwarfed in population by the only town in the peninsula after which it is named: Dingle. The town has some 2,000 inhabitants. It also has 52 pubs crowded with tourists. “Bitte,” a German visitor said as she took the spare chair from our table, dragging it across the room to her table because all other chairs in this large pub were taken. The brightly colored houses of Dingle’s main street stretch from a small town center featuring a bronze sculpture of Fungie , a bottlenose dolphin who has often visited the Dingle harbor area since 1984. Dingle Harbor was settled in the 12th century and by the 16th century Dingle was one of Ireland’s main trading ports. The town center, however, commemorated a rare military event in the history of the town when “James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, leader of the Geraldine Revolt arrived in DingleHarbour on the 13-July 1579 with military aid from Spain and Rome during the Elizabethan Wars.”

Royal Rock of Cashel

CountyKerry as well as CountyCork and CountyWaterford were part of the ancient Province of Munster. So was CountyTipperary where the “kings of over-kings” of the Province had their seat of power in the Rock of Cashel. When we arrived there, it became clear why they had chosen this site. The large Rock which could accommodate a castle and several other major buildings was exceptionally defensible as it sat high in a vast plain which could be easily watched for advancing adversaries.  What is more, this surrounding area of some fourteen by six miles has been among the best land in Ireland for agriculture, especially dairy farming. Called Golden Veil, it is “like RhinelandValley,” Desmond said.

The Rock of Cashel has become an important depository of facts and myths about Ireland’s history. The Kings of Munster established themselves on the Rock in the 4th century. Old artifacts found on the Rock include a “Roman type” brooch  which dates from the first century. Although there have been hypotheses of some kind of Roman invasion of Ireland around that time, this country was never formally a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman influence, however, often extended beyond its borders. In the year 100 Ptolemy was writing about the geography and tribes of Hibernia, the Romans’ name for Ireland. The people who eventually populated Ireland were native inhabitants who had lived here since the Late Bronze Age, 600 B.C., gradually absorbing infiltration of small groups of Celtic-speaking people. More likely than the result of an invasion, elements of Celtic culture, including the Gaelic (Goidelic) languages emerged in Ireland due to the natives’ exchanges with the Celtic groups in southwest continental Europe. By the 5th century this blending of indigenous and Celtic cultures produced the Gaelic culture of Ireland. It was also around this time that Ireland’s main over-kingdoms, such as the one presiding on the Rock of Cashel began to emerge.

Our guide in Rock of Cashel who provided much of that information now stopped in front of a concrete cross on the grounds of Cashel. “This is St.Patrick’s Cross,” he said. It is actually a replica of the one made in the 12th century; the original which was carved from sandstone has been moved indoors to protect it from further damage by elements.The guide pointed out that the Cross was in the Latin Style, one face depicting Christ’s crucifixion, and the other St.Patrick. It had two pillars on either side, “denoting two thieves who were crucified with Jesus.”  He said the locals believe that “if you could hug this Cross you will have no tooth ache, and if you hop as you hug you will get married within a year.” The legend has it that on the spot where the Cross is located St. Patrick baptized the pagan King Aengus in 432.  The guide said in the process “Patrick accidentally placed his staff into the top of the King’s foot, and the King did not make any sound. When asked, the King replied that he thought that was part of the ceremony.”

The purported conversion itself is a part of the myth of Patrick, developed in the centuries after the Saint’s death. St.Patrick, who may not have arrived in Ireland until 461, was primarily a missionary to the pagan Irish of the northern kingdoms in the Provinces of Ulster and Connacht.

As Prosper of Aquitaine, a contemporary chronicler, has noted, in 431 the Pope sent Palladius the Deacon as “first Bishop to the Irish believing in Christ.”  He worked with Christians in the Kingdoms (Provinces) of Meath and Leinster. The latter was next to Munster, the Province where the Rock of Cashel is located.

In 978 Brian mac Cennétig (Kennedy) , better known as Brian Boru, defeated the incumbent  king of Munster and was crowned the new Provincial king at the Rock of Cashel. He then moved the seat of Kingdom to a site in CountyClare and went on to dominate the other Provinces of Ireland. With a population of about 500,000 people, Ireland at the time had over 150 kings, with different size domains. In 1002, Brian Boru won the position of the High King from Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill whose families, the Uí Néill dynasty, had ruled as Ireland’s High King for centuries. By 1011 all other regional rulers in Ireland acknowledged Brian Boru’s authority. Within two years, however, his rule was challenged by several powerful families and he was killed in battle. Subsequently in 1013 Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill was restored as the High King.

Ecclesiastical Rock of Cashel

In 1101, the King of Munster, Muircheartach Ua Briain, having conquered most of Ireland’s Provinces and declaring himself High King, donated the Rock of Cashel as a gift to the Church. Not much has survived of the Rock’s earlier royal structures. The buildings that remain are all from the 12th and 13th centuries. They are a collection of Celtic and medieval architectures. The oldest one is the Round Tower. As a look-out tower it rises 90 feet above ground. It is the best preserved as well as the tallest structure on the Rock.  The ancient dry-stone method was used in its construction. Much more sophisticated is Cormac’s Chapel , an Irish Romanesque church that combines elements of Germanic influence in the twin towers on its sides. Named after Munster King Cormac Mac Carthaigh, the Chapel was built in 1127-1134 with sandstone, from the hills nearby, which has become water logged by the passage of time. The frescos in the interior which told the life of Christ have been damaged with “discoloration of the paint layers.” At the time of our visit, the restoration work to repair “the impact of microbiological growths” required that Cormac’s Chapel be enclosed in a rain-proof cover so that dehumidifies could dry out the stone and “prolonged irradiation with ultraviolet light” could   “destroy the reproductive system of the micro-organisms.”

Next to Cormac’s Chapel stood Cashel’s Cathedral. Built between 1235 and 1270, it was augmented in the 15th century by the addition of the Hall of the Vicars Choral, for the laymen who helped in chanting during the services, and the five-story Castle as the residence for the archbishop. The Cathedral was named after St. Patrick and came to be recognized as the best Irish church building: it is aisle-less in a cruciform plan with a central tower, multiple arches , and faux windows on the walls. Around the Cathedral in the fields below there were several abbeys. On the east, we could see the ruins of Hore Abbey, founded by Cistercian in 1272. On another side was a Dominican friary which was founded in 1243.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral continued in use until 1748. Then its main roof was removed at the order of the presiding Anglican Archbishop of Cashel who maintained that the damages to it could not be repaired. The damages were caused mostly by the wind that “on this plateau could be up to 90 miles an hour in winter,” according to our guide who pointed out as proof a large boulder that the wind had wrecked from a building. The Archbishop subsequently built a new cathedral at a different site, abandoning the gutted old Cathedral and what else remained on the Rock of Cashel.

Since the Reformation, from 1567 the bishops of the Cashel Cathedral have been from the Anglican Church of Ireland rather than the Irish Roman Catholic Church. Our guide told us about an exception, when “one bishop surreptitiously served both as the Archbishop of the Anglicans here and the Catholic Archbishop of a monastery up north.”  Religious differences, however, mixed with politics at other times and produced violent results. In 1647, the Castle of the Cathedral was the scene of the massacre of many Irish Roman Catholic clergy by the troops of the Anglican Parliament of England under the command of Earl of Inchiquin, sent to re-conquer Ireland from the self-government of the Irish Catholic Confederation which, in alliance with the “English royalists” opposing the rule of the Parliament, had come to control two-thirds of Ireland since 1642.

In addition to the clergy who died in 1647, many of the past Cashel bishops are buried in the Cathedral. Indeed, the whole Rock of Cashel has become a popular cemetery. In the grounds surrounding the buildings there are graveyards with Celtic crosses. The largest commemorates the wealthy local Scully family. It was built in 1867, but the top of it was cut off by lightning in 1976. Multiple burial of the same family is common here. The demand for the dwindling scarce burial lots on the Rock “led the local government in the 1930s to establish a registry of those who would be eligible,” our guide said. “Of the 5,000 who were registered only 5 are left.”   He added as an afterthought “also, people still get married here.”

Lough Rynn Castle

We now went to see a part of Ireland assigned to St. Patrick as his mission in the 4th century: County Westmeath in the Province of Leinster. After all those centuries it was still rural and sparsely populated. The biggest town of the County, Mullingar, has only 20,000 residents. Mullingar has enjoyed a measure of fame because author James Joyce mentioned it in both  Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Its main street now boasted a shiny “sphere” sculpture, but Mullingar’s main attraction for the tourists, mostly anglers, were the three lakes nearby.

We went to another lake, Lough Rynn, in CountyLeitrim, located in yet another ancient IrishProvince, Connacht, included in St. Patrick’s assignment.  This County was near the border with Northern Ireland where most of Ulster is located – the latter being the only historical Province of Ireland which we did not venture in on this trip. The main attraction at Lough Rynn was the Castle by that name built in the late 19th century by the 3rd Earl (Lord) of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements. It has since been bought and turned into a hotel.

The LoughRynnCastle as the hotel is called is on an estate covering 300 acres of Ireland that is idyllic with exceptional natural beauty. Since the 18th century this was the home of the Clements Family.  Long before them, the Mac Ragnaill Clan had been here. The ruins of their 12th century castle still exist. The hotel is in the newer Castle which sits majestically on the shores of Lough Rynn  with breathtaking scenery. The property has lush green pastures and ancient forests, as well as yet a second lake . There is a boat house and a walled  garden.  Maintenance personnel keep the paint fresh on the sculptures which grace the grounds. The front lawns were designed to keep the walkways for the servicemen discreetly below the sight from the Castle. The luxurious interior of the hotel aims at evoking the time when this was the house of a Lord.

That Lord, William Sydney Clements, actually died before his Castle was completed. The legacy of his times as the master of this estate from 1854 is far from pretty. He is remembered as merciless against his “tenants” who worked on this land. They grew oats, attended cattle and pulled turnip, did not make enough to feed themselves, and had few ways to rise. Sydney was assassinated in 1878, it is believed, largely as a result of his tenants’ discontent. In CountyDonegal where he was murdered, there is a monument (in Kindrum) to the three suspected assassins who were commissioned by a tenants’ rights secret society, honoring their action which “Ended the tyranny of landlordism.”

The LoughRynnCastle which is only 90 minutes away from Dublin by car especially caters to “weekenders.” To that end it has served as the venue for such events as an open-air concert on its lawns featuring Ireland’s National Harp Orchestra on the occasion of “The first ever O’Carolan weekend.” Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) was a blind Irish harper and composer. Many consider him to be Ireland’s national composer. In Lough Rynn he is considered a native son. He lived a few miles away. As we passed through the town of Mohill just north of the Castle, we came to a statue of O’Carolan erected on the main street. He was sitting with a big harp between his legs and so absorbed in making music that he looked oblivious to the lacuna in his closed eyes.  As such he was an apt metaphor for Counties of Ireland, immersed in their rich history and tradition, contained in the splendor of their natural beauty

Scottish Highlands, Castles and Clans; Legends and Reality

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


asbtract: Forget the illusory Loch Ness Monster! Scotland’s Highlands has enticing legends based on real facts. Think Braveheart! Its William Wallace was just the beginning. The tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Rob Roy, the Red Robin Hood are as colorful. They are the stuff which gave life to the modern genre of historical novel. I went to look for them in their castles, glens and lochs, sifting through the entangling barnacles attached by the history of kings and Clan chiefs in their tartans and kilts, often in skirmish.


Doune Castle

The sign that welcomed us to Doune Castle recalled the sudden evolution of its fame “from a royal castle to a ridiculously silly film.” Its reference was to the movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a parody of the legends of King Arthur which was mostly shot here by the British film-maker Monty Python in 1974. That widely popular film has been the reason for the influx of tourists to Doune Castle. Tour guides oblige them by providing the visitors with face armor and a sword from the bygone days as they pose before the Castle.  My interest included reality as well as the legends about Scottish castles.

Doune Castle was an imposing medieval stronghold, in the village of Doune some 8 miles south of the fringes of the Scottish Highlands.  Originally built in the 13th century, the Castle was rebuilt in the present form toward the end of the late 14th century by Robert Stewart, then the Regent of Scotland, after suffering damages in the intervening Scottish Wars of Independence. Surviving relatively unchanged, Doune Castle represents the planning of a medieval royal castle with a courtyard in the middle of a range of buildings, two of which were completed. These were a large tower house comprising the rooms for the royal family and another tower with the guest rooms as well as the kitchen. The Castle is now owned and managed by The National Trust for Scotland for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, “the conservation charity that protects and promotes Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage.” The Trust owns 130 properties which include other historic sites as well as castles. Another organization, Historic Scotland which is an agency of the Scottish Government, is responsible for maintaining and running over 360 other historic monuments in Scotland.

Stirling Castle

Among the castles managed by Historic Scotland none is more important historically and architecturally than StirlingCastle.  Although located some 13 kilometers south of Doune, the town of Stirling is still close enough to the Highlands to be called considered as one of its “commercial” centers. The strategic value of this site has always been crucial to all of Scotland. The Castle sits on top of Castle Hill, dominating the plain around it. Steep cliffs on three sides protect it. Castle Hill controls the farthest downstream crossing of the important and long River Forth. This site is in the middle of the small central belt of Scotland where nearly 80% of the population of Scotland lives. The major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are each about 40 kilometers away. No wonder then that Castle Hill has had fortifications from the earliest times.  For a long time whoever occupied it controlled Scotland.

Most of the surviving buildings of the large Stirling Castle date from the 15th and 16th centuries. The Castle, however, hosts legends and history from centuries earlier. The Statue of Scottish King Robert the Bruce dominates the esplanade at the Castle, reminding you that after taking possession of it in 1315, he ordered its fortification destroyed to make it useless in case of reoccupation by his enemy, the English. The English had held Stirling for two years, and would come back to take it again in 1336. This seesawing, in fact, would be repeated several times afterward, as it had been before: in 1303 the Scots took Stirling from the English who had occupied it since 1298, having lost it in 1297 to the Scots led by William Wallace, after holding it since 1296 when Edward, the King of England invaded Scotland and thus began the Wars of Scottish Independence. That War would last for the next 60 years. The English occupation in 1336 was just the beginning of the second phase of the War. Stirling Castle would change hands again. Indeed, several later Scottish Kings and Queens would be crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

Stirling Castle has been put to siege at least eight times, the last time in 1746 by Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Bonnie (Scottish  for attractive) Prince Charlie was born Prince Charles in Rome to the Old Pretender,  Prince  James, himself the son of exiled Stuart King James II of England. In 1745 Charles landed in Scotland in order to capture the throne for his father from King George of England (and Scotland and Ireland). Bonnie Prince Charlie gained support from the Scottish Highlanders in his Jacobite (after Stuart King James) Catholic uprising against the Protestant English.  His army was successful at first and even took Edinburgh, but within a year he was defeated by the English and spent the next five months as a hunted man, barely keeping ahead of English forces with the help of the Highlanders. Charles’s adventure was short-lived but it spun a legend for him as a romantic hero. Notably, Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott featured him and his 1745 Jacobite Rising in his popular 1814 novel Waverley. Indeed, Bonnie Prince Charlie and others from the Scottish Highlands became main characters in a series of books Scott wrote which were pioneers in the genre of historical novels.

William Wallace

A prominent figure in Scott’s novels is William Wallace from the period of the Wars of Scottish Independence. By defeating the English in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 William Wallace was able to take StirlingCastle. He was made Guardian of Scotland, and served until he was vanquished a year later by the English who in 1305 hanged him.  Little more is known about William Wallace, not even his birthplace and his father’s name. Yet he has achieved an iconic status in Scotland and beyond. As early as the 15th century he was memorialized in an epic poem by Blind Harry, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Noble of Elderslie. In the 19th century Walter Scott re-invigorated Wallace’s reputation in his Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the “Hero of Scotland.”  In our times Wallace’s fame was spread world-wide with the 1995 motion picture Braveheart, a fictionalized account of his life, full of historical inaccuracies, which was a commercial success and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. “Mel Gibson was too short,” grumbled our guide at StirlingCastle. He conceded, however, that the movie in which Gibson played the role of Wallace “doubled the number of tourists to this Castle.”

Rob Roy

Another folk hero of the Highlands, the “Scottish Robin Hood,” did not have to wait centuries to become famous.  Rob Roy, a.k.a. Red MacGregor, became a legend in his own time (1671-1734).  A fictionalized account of his life, The Highland Rogue, was published in 1723. Once again, however, it was Walter Scott who made him known to the wider world. In his 1817 historical novel, Rob Roy, Scott depicts Red (haired) MacGregor as the leader of a band of Highlanders, an upright gentleman who was forced into a life of blackmailing and stealing cattle. He is bold and crafty. He is loved by many and feared by some. He stole from the rich to give to the poor.  In real life, Rob Roy had borrowed money to increase his cattle herd, but his chief herder disappeared with the money, causing Rob to default on the payment of the loan. The lender, the Duke of (Clan) Montrose, foreclosed on Rob’s land and this led to a blood feud and Rob Roy’s fabled adventures. The Duke of Argyll, John Campbell from another Scottish clan, eventually negotiated an amnesty and protection for Rob in return for his surrender to the authorities.


Argyll was the territory of Clan Campbell. Scottish Highland Clans were kinship groups – the Gaelic word clann means progeny – but included other locals who accepted the authority of the dominant family in the vicinity. Notwithstanding their claims to mythological Celtic founders, clans emerged in the 13th century when the Scottish monarchs’ termination of the Norsemen’s rule over lands in western Highlands, such as Argyll, created a space for the resident warlords to dominate local families who sought their protection.  King Robert the Bruce enhanced the clans’ position by granting them land in return for their support against the English during the early 14th century Wars of Scottish Independence. The Civil War of the 17th century pitted Scottish clans against each other. Some like Clan Campbell backed the anti-British Covenanters (bonding against religious impositions from England), more based on their own political interests than out of (Jacobite) love for the Scottish house of Stuart, while other Clans such as Clan Gordon supported the Royalists followers of the British Charles I, mainly because they were opposed to the Campbells and other Jacobite Clans. Yet in the folklore of Scottish Jacobites the Highlanders came to symbolize patriotic purity as against the corruption of the Union with England.

The suppression of the Jacobite Rising in 1745 undermined the system of clanship in Scotland. Troops from Great Britain undertook what amounted to ethnic cleansing, killing many and displacing others from clans who had supported the Jacobite cause. The mass forced emigration to other parts of Scotland and the North American colonies has come to be known as the Highland Clearances.  On the other hand, in support of the government, chiefs of some other clans formed what became known as the British Highland Regiments, primarily to safeguard their own interests as landowners. Only these clans were allowed to continue wearing Highland dress, especially tartan, which had come to be used for a sense of clan identity; others were barred so as to quash any further threat of a Jacobite type insurrection. This ban was not lifted until 1782 through the efforts of the Highland Society of London led by the Duke of Montrose. The rehabilitation of highland culture soon followed.

The Ossian cycle of epic poems published in 1736–1796 is credited with creating an international romantic vision of Highlands.  The author, James Macpherson, offered translations of what he claimed was poetry by the ancient Gaelic bard Ossian.  Works of Walter Scott further popularize the idealized image of the Highlands. His literary contribution aside, Scott’s singular success was the choreography of the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. The monarch wore tartan and kilt. His trip resulted in a huge increase in demand for tartans and kilts. Individual clans now came to identify themselves with their own unique tartans. Tartans, indeed, became a primary symbol of Scottish identity. Soon all of Scotland identified with the culture of the Highlands, a phenomenon called Highlandism which was augmented by Queen Victoria’s interest in Scotland and “tartenry”, and her many trips to the Highlands.


Queen Victoria often stayed in or close to Callander, a small town which had become a popular “health resort” since the Scottish Railway reached it in 1859. After a visit in 1869, the Queen expressed her delight with the people and the surroundings of Callander, although she described it as having “a few good houses and many poor ones.” Today Callander is considered a “typical Victorian town” with a single street. On that street one finds such stores as Blythswood Care which offers “Christian Care for Body and Soul.” In the main square of town, there is a monument to the soldiers who died in WW I . Across the monument, on the day of my visit, volunteers were collecting donations for “our heroes” in the current Afghanistan war. One pound bought you three tickets to a lottery with the winning prize being one of the donated bottles of beer.

Callander also hosts a “Rob Roy & Trossachs Visitor Centre.” It is the largest town in the Trossachs National Park which is among the most beautiful natural attractions in Scotland.  This area was the stomping ground of Rob Roy, but also where the Argyll and Montrose Clans had fought battles as early as 1645. Callander is located in a thickly wooded valley of lochs (lakes). The Callander Crags visible from the town are a part of the Highland Boundary Fault. Callander’s location has given it the name the “Gateway to the Highlands.”


The Boundary Fault crosses mainland Scotland in a near straight line from the town of Stonehaven in the east to the town of Helensburgh in the west. It has left two distinctly separate geological terrains, the Highlands to its north and the Lowlands to its south. Scotland is a part of the North American plate, an extension of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern United States. The Highlands section which we were now touring was largely composed of ancient rocks from the Cambrian periods uplifted during the Caledonian Orogeny (mountain building era) about 400-500 million years ago, our guide said.  Periods of glacial activities have “scalped the landscape” by creating boulders and lakes. This was followed by a period of forestation.  The Romans called Scotland Caledonia which in the pre-Celtic language meant hard or rock. Our guide said:. “To the Romans, who never conquered more than half of Scotland, Caledonia also meant a wild country because of Scotland’s forests, consisting of mostly Norwegian pines, which at one time covered 90% of the land.” Much of that forest has been cut for farming, the guide continued.

Driving north of Callander for miles we saw only a few mountain peaks. There were more green gentle slopes .  Occasionally, there were small forests of pines and lakes , but only rare settlements with very few structures. In the 1880s this area became sheep country, our local guide said. We were able, however, to see a Highland  Cow, the “oldest registered breed of cattle.” For centuries the Highlands breed had lived in the rugged remote Scottish land. Not any longer; this Highland Cow, Hamish, was kept as a novelty for tourists.  As a sign explained its looks:  “The extremely harsh conditions created a process of natural selection,… with long horns and long wavy coats.”  The American cattlemen appreciated “the qualities of the Highland animal and imported them to improve the blood lines of their herds. As a result, the Highland contributed in a great way to the success of the American cattle industry.”

The Campbells

A competing theory in the etymology of Caledonia as the name for the Highlands attributes it to the Celtic Caledonii, one of the several tribes living here in ancient times. Since then different Celtic peoples and Norwegian Vikings, among others, have moved to the Highlands, creating a “melting pot,” in the words of our local guide.  Now, however, the Highlands, with its 230,100 people, is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world, having lost many persons in the 19th century due to a combination of the killing and displacing of many and the outlawing of the traditional way of life, following the Jacobite Rising, and mass migration to the urban centers during the Industrial Revolution.

For a glance at the past and future of the leadership of this changing population of the Highlands we went to the ancestral and current homes of a principal Clan which we had already encountered, the Campbells.  From the road we walked the path of  few hundred yards, lined in places with wild pink foxtail flowers toward the ruins of Kilchurn Castle.  An osprey dove for fish into the lake to our right. This was Loch Awe, one of the Highland’s largest freshwater lakes. It was around this lake that Clan Campbell established itself as one of the Highlands’ most powerful families. There were other Argyll clans that populated the lands surrounding the lake -the Macarthurs, MacGregors and Stewarts- but only the remains of the CampbellCastle now stand here. The ruins of these 15th and 17th century structures are so picturesque that they are among the most photographed sites in Scotland.

Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn was built on a small island in Loch Awe which was not much larger than the Castle itself. Sir Colin Campbell, the first Lord of Glen Orchy, built the first structures here around 1450. It was a five story tall tower house which had a courtyard. Here and in other spots among the ruins signs told the story of the evolution of Kilchurn from which “the Campbells of Glen Orchy began their rise to become one of the most powerful dynasties in Scotland.” We climbed what was left of the tower and noted that it looked onto Loch Awe. A map showed how it dominated the valley  (Glen) of Orchy, ensuring the Campbells’ rule over the area..

An outer wall defended this castle. Lake Awe was all  around  the island on which it stood. Within fifty years an additional hall was added, and other structures followed in the next two centuries. This was a “Cultured Castle” as a sign in a room said . “Visitors to Kilchurn were entertained with music and Gaelic poetry in the hall where you are now standing. The richly decorated room reflected the high status of their noble hosts.” The master masons’ marks on the portal of the Castle spoke of the large sums used to construct it. “Those days, masons were very much in demand and well-paid,” the local guide reminded us.

Toward the end of the 16th century, the Campbells changed their main residence to Fincharn Castle on the southwest shore of Loch Awe. In 1681 when their chief was made the First Earl of Breadalbane, the Campbells turned the Kilchurn Castle into a barracks, housing 200 troops during the Jacobite Rising. From 1715 to 1745, it was used as a British Government garrison. Toward the end, the Campbells chiefs tried unsuccessfully, to sell Kilchurn to the government. They had by now moved to Taymouth Castle in the northeast of the Highlands. In 1760, a major storm and lightning badly damaged Kilchurn Castle. The turret of a tower toppled upside-down in the courtyard which we saw was the evidence of the violence of that storm. Consequently, Kilchurn was completely abandoned.

Inveraray Castle

In the 1740s, the 3rd Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, built a country house near the village of Inveraray on Loch Fyne, Scotland’s longest sea loch, which has since been the seat of his descendants.  The incumbent chief, the 13th Duke of Argyll and his family live in this Inveraray Castle. They occupy two floors and allow the public to visit several other rooms, for a fee. “That fee is to help pay for the maintenance of the Castle,” an attendant explained to me. “The public viewing is only in the summer, until October when the family comes back from vacation.”

The Castle is of the neo-Gothic design. The interior rooms I could see had collections of tapestries and paintings, notably a portrait of Queen Charlotte which that wife of King George III had given to the then Duke of Argyll. There were also items of special interest to the members of the Campbell clan, including a few mementoes from Rob Roy McGregor, such as his sporran (pouch) and dirk (knife) handle.

The Castle’s soaring central Armory Hall boasts of being the “highest room” in Scotland. The current Duke is the Captain of the “Elephant Polo” team that “twice” won the “world championship,” we were informed. He cuts a dashing figure in framed pictures that crowd the top of a grand piano in another, larger, room. This is where the family entertains when in residence. The photos also show the other members of the family. Amidst them, I was surprised to find a picture of the actress Audrey Hepburn. “Why her picture?” I asked an attendant.  “It is put there so that you would ask,” he said. “Actually, it was Frederick Loewe who was a guest here and he composed some of the original music of My Fair Lady right on that grand piano.” Hepburn only played Lisa Doolittle in that musical, but she was a far more attractive and familiar face for the tourists.  At the Castle’s souvenir shop a big poster of Downton Abbey TV series, the “Christmas” episode of which was shot in this Castle, greeted the tourists with another famous face: Maggie Smith stood in the middle of the other actors of the popular show.

The 3rd Duke of Argyll also re built much of Inveraray which is surrounded by his Castle and its 16-acre garden in an estate of 60,000 acres. The town is now mainly a street full of shops and restaurants catering to tourists. The street ends in a splendid beach at the salty Loch Fyne . I stood on that beach, on this last day of my short stay in Highlands, and let my imagination take me to the late 8th century when other visitors, the Vikings from Norway, came to this lake in their formidable longship – the legendary “monster”? They stayed in the Highlands for centuries.


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


In mid-July 2013 Edinburgh was crowded with foreign tourists. Two nationalities stood out as anecdotal proof of the phenomenon of “Emerging Economies”: the Chinese who came in groups and the Indians who came in extended families. On the Royal Mile of the Old Town, the hand–held signs for the city’s new Chinese and Indians restaurants competed with the iconic bagpipe players for attention. In the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, nearby, bleachers had already been set up for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo,  with “massed pipes and drums,” which is performed by the various international military bands every August as a part of the wider three-week long annual Edinburgh International Festival. This town claims, with some justification, that its Festival is the best in the world. “It is also the biggest,” the bagpiper on the Royal Mile bragged. I was grateful to have come now when it was still possible to see the less ephemeral exceptional sights of this ancient city where history is writ large.

We were on Castle Rock where it all began. This is the 300 million year old stump of a volcano worn by glaciers. The massive basalt rock dominates the landscape, looking impregnable from below. It was the most easily defensible hilltop on the invasion route from the south. Hence, it naturally became the “capital” of the Gododdin people who called it Dun Eiden (Fort on the Hill Slope). The Gododdin had followed their ancestors, the Votadini, the ancient Britons who established their settlements on Castle Rock and, on the other end of this hill ridge, Arthur’s Seat. When the Angles from northeastern England defeated the Gododdins and captured Dun Eiden in 638, they tacked onto the Celtic Eiden their own Old English word for fortified town, burh, dropping the prefix din, making it Edinburgh.

I stepped into the oldest surviving structure on Castle Rock, Saint Margaret’s Chapel. It was a small simple Romanesque building dating from around 1140, built by King David I, in memory of his mother, Queen Margaret. The wife of King Malcolm III of Scotland, Margaret was a pious woman who was canonized by the Pope in 1250. This Royal couple founded a dynasty of Scottish rulers beginning in 1057. Their home remained Dunfermline just across the estuary of the river Forth (Firth of Forth) which is now the border of Edinburgh, but they regularly came to their Edinburgh castle on the Castle Rock. Holding court at the castle began with David. He also founded an abbey in 1128 near Arthur’s Seat. The abbey, the ruins of which still exists, is named Holyrood, after a part of the True Cross (rood in Scottish), believed to have been brought to Scotland  by Margaret. A settlement that thus grew in David’s time, extending east from Castle Rock, became the town of Edinburgh.

What I could now see in Edinburgh, however, was built from the 14th century on. The Royal Palace on Castle Rock was constructed during the 15th and 16th centuries. Across it is the Great Hall, built as a ceremonial chamber for King James IV (1488-1513) which later served as the meeting venue for the Scottish Parliament until 1639. Castle Rock dominated the plain below, all the way to the Firth of Forth in the distance. Big guns aimed through the turrets at the attacking enemy below. The one at the very top of Castle Rock, a 15th century gun, stood next to Saint Margaret’s Chapel and was called Mons Meg, after a different Margaret; Mons was where it was first tested .

There are many other cannons, as well as vaults and prisons on Castle Rock but what makes the Scots most proud is the collection called the “Honours of Scotland.” I saw them in the RoyalPalace. They consist of a Crown, Sceptre and Sword. Each has a colorful history and, together, they are the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. The Crown was made in 1540 from the gold of Robert the Bruce’s 14th century coronet. He is considered a national hero as the King who successfully led Scotland in the Wars of Independence against England. The Sceptre was a gift to King James IV from Pope Alexander VI in 1494. It is embellished with several Christian symbols, including an image of Saint Andrew, the patron Saint of Scotland, holding a saltire (St. Andrew’s Cross) which is the national flag of Scotland. The Sword was a gift from Pope Julius II sent to Scotland’s King James IV in 1507. In 1652 it was broken into two halves in order to be concealed from the invading English troops of Cromwell.

When the Act of Union in 1707 dissolved the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England and established instead the Parliament of Great Britain sitting in London, it ended Scotland as a separate kingdom and left the Honours of Scotland with no symbolic role to play. They were locked away in a chest at EdinburghCastle. They were practically forgotten until 1818 when a group, led by Edinburgh’s Sir Walter Scott set out to find them. Upon being discovered the Honours of Scotland have been put on public display ever since.

Next to the Honours of Scotland in RoyalPalace one can also see the Stone of Destiny, even a more potent symbol in the complex relations between Scotland and England. On this stone, believed to have come from the Holy Land, Scottish kings had placed their feet as a part of their coronation ceremony. In his invasion of 1269 King Edward I of England took the Stone from the Scone Abbey to England. It was kept there as a reminder of Scotland’s subjugation, inside the case of a throne upon which British monarchs, including Elizabeth II in 1953, sat for their coronation. The Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland in 1996 by the ruling Conservative Party in London as a gesture which it hoped would boost their sagging popularity before a general election.

The Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny are located in the first floor of the former Royal Apartments in the RoyalPalace. On the ground floor is a small room where Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1566 gave birth to her only child who would become King James VI of Scotland a year later and King of England as well in 1603. Mary, whose portrait is on the wall of the Royal Apartments among those of other Stuart monarchs of Scotland, is “the most famous, most intriguing and most studied of all Scottish monarchs” according to the official tourist site of Edinburgh.

That is probably no exaggeration, as I later learned. Born in 1542, Mary became the queen of Scotland six days later when her father, King James V, died. King Henry VIII of England soon proposed a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary in order to create an alliance with Scotland. Thwarted, Henry launched a war with Scotland (1541-1551) which was continued after his death in several English invasions of Scotland. The infant Queen Mary was protected in EdinburghCastle for several months in 1548 before her French mother sent her for security to a castle most accessible to France. In fact, Mary spent most of her childhood in France and in 1558 married the French Dauphin (Crown Prince) Francis who, upon the death of his father, became king as Francis II almost immediately, thus making Mary the Queen Consort of France while she was also Queen Regent of Scotland. Francis died in 1560.  Five years later Mary wedded her cousin, the English nobleman Henry Stuart (Lord Darnely) who was now proclaimed Henry, King of Scots. James VI was their child. Mary soon became disenchanted with her husband who also made enemies of some powerful nobles. When King Henry was found strangled to death in 1567, it was said that Mary knew of the nobles’ plot to kill him.  A few months later, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, a Scottish nobleman to whom she had turned for support against Henry. Mary’s subjects who suspected Bothwell’s involvement in the murder of their King were outraged and turned against Mary. She was forced to abdicate and fled to England for help. Her cousin Elizabeth was the Queen of England. She imprisoned Mary, perceiving her as a threat since Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own based on the support of many English Catholics. After 18 years of trying to gain her freedom Mary was charged and found guilty of participating in a plot to kill Elizabeth. She was beheaded in 1587, at age 44.

The Palace that Queen Mary used as residence in her 6 years in Edinburgh (1561-67) is at the other end of the ridge of Castle Rock. Called the Palace of Holyroodhouse, it was built by her father, King James V, at the site of the abbey that King David had founded four centuries earlier. This Palace has played a central role in Scotland’s history ever since. To begin with, it was here that some of the most dramatic events of Mary’s reign took place, culminating in the murder in the palace of her secretary, David Rizzio, in 1566.  Mary’s husband, King Consort Henry, is said to have believed the rumors that David Rizzio was Mary’s lover and had made Mary pregnant, and joined the nobles to murder him. The murder was the catalyst for Henry’s downfall with the serious subsequent consequences for Mary’s fate.

Palace of Holyroodhouse retained its role after Mary and is now the official residence of British Queen Elizabeth in Edinburgh. On the side of its entrance door there is a prominent marker of the symbols of the United Kingdom: the Lion and the Unicorn which are the heraldic supporters appearing in its Britain’s Royal coat of arms. The unicorn represents Scotland and the lion stands for England. The combination originated in the beginning of the 17th century when Kings James VI of Scotland became King James I of England as well.

Royal Mile

The distance of a little more than a mile between the RoyalPalace on Castle Rock and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which also passed by all the changing sites of the Parliament, has been used by various kings and queens as a processional route.  Hence it has been called the Royal Mile. This gently snaking road was the only street of Edinburgh until the 1760s. The oldest house still standing here is the one John Knox occupied from 1561 for eleven years.  He was the minister at the nearby St Giles’ Cathedral (called after the patron saint of Edinburgh) which is more properly named the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and is known as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. The crown spire on the top of the Cathedral dates back to the 15th century, but the Cathedral as it stands today was constructed in 1883.  Many of the other buildings lining the Old Mile are six to eight stories tall 17th to 19th century tenement buildings. Indeed, on the Royal Mile one finds the largest concentration of surviving 17th century buildings in all of Britain. Renovated and restored, today this single avenue of Old Town with its many narrow alleys (closes and wynds) and stairs houses a thriving resident community. The street level, however, is given to shops, bars and restaurants catering to the tourists.

The souvenirs that the shops sell are primarily knitwear clothing for which Scotland has been famous, especially wool and cashmere scarves and sweaters. This despite the fact that on the days I was there, Edinburgh was experiencing an unprecedented hot summer. Prices were almost the same in all stores. The higher-priced cashmere, I was told, were manufactured in Scotland, unlike the lower-priced cashmere merchandise which had been made in “other countries such as Nepal.”  In the bars the overwhelmingly favored drink was beer. A bartender reminded me that in the 19th century, Edinburgh ranked in the same league with Munich as a brewing center and that in the early 1900 it had some thirty breweries. The Scots were, of course, quite happy to tell you about the drink that is named after them, Scotch whisky.  “Single malt Scotch is one that is made only from barley that came only from one of the four main regions of Scotland -Lowland, Highland, Isles, and Speyside- and distilled in only one distillery,” I was told. The geographic source of the barley determines its taste:  “lemon, grass, smokey, and banana” relating, respectively, to the four areas mentioned. Blended Scotch is the “mixture of several single malts or one mixed with scotch made from wheat.” Not far from the Castle one can see “the largest collection of Scotch bottles in the world, which started by six bottles given in the 1950s as a gift to its Brazilian collector.”  Each bottle in the collection is different, some “bottles” are in unusual shapes such as a golf club. “None of these bottles has been opened.”

Royal Mile, of course, had other monuments. They were accessible only through the throng of tourists that snapped pictures indiscriminately, and by stepping over the younger visitors spread on the sidewalks in front of their hostels.  In the century between the mid-1700s and mid-1800s Edinburgh nurtured the flourishing of a unique cultural and intellectual movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment.  Among its many philosophers, scientists and artists, two were especially honored on the Royal Mile near the Cathedral. A sitting statue of David Hume (1711-1776) celebrates this “Man of Enlightenment’s” many accomplishments as a philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist.  Situated before Edinburgh’s High Court Building, Hume is oddly depicted half-naked in a Roman toga. His toe is shiny from the local students’ rubbing it for good luck in their exams – an irony given Hume’s strong critical views on superstition.  Hume’s collaborator in the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith (1723-1790), famous for his The Wealth of Nation, is depicted in a standing statue nearby with contemporary clothes, not idealized, to emphasis “his concern for the practical matters.”  Smith’s hand is hidden under a gown to hint his famous economic metaphor of the market’s invisible hand . Adam Smith is buried in the Canongate Church yard which is just a few blocks away. Also buried there is Robert Fergusson , a young Edinburgh poet (1750 –1774) during the Scottish Enlightenment who became highly influential, especially because of his impact on another poet, Robert Burns.  Burns (1759-1796) is “the national poet of Scotland,” I was told in Edinburgh’s oldest pub which boasted that it was where “Burns stayed during his last visit to Edinburgh.” Affectionately called Rabbie Burns, he was chosen as “the greatest Scot” in a poll recently conducted in Scotland.

Parliament Building

Canongate is a section of the Royal Mile which was once the abode of the Augustinian cannons (monks) of Holyrood Abbey.  Today it is home to the ScottishParliament Building. The choice of this site, near the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the Palace of Holyroodhouse was symbolic. For more than one thousand years this was the seat of power, religious and royal. The Scottish Parliament’s powerful influence was most dramatically demonstrated in 1560 when it created a Protestant church, the PresbyterianScottishChurch that was independent of Rome and of the monarchy.

That church’s belief in a personal bond with God which saw no need for mediation through priests was the basis of a Covenant of  defiance in 1638 against attempts by King Charles I to impose the rule of bishops on Scotland. This led to a civil war with those who supported the king. As the war ruined the country and its economy, the wealthy Scottish merchants concluded that their only hope for making money in the profitable market of developing colonies was through union with England in its emerging empire. The 1707 Act of Union which brought Scotland and England under one sovereign and one flag resulted also in one parliament.  The removal of the Scottish Parliament lasted three centuries, but the separatist feelings persisted. They grew especially in the 1979 to 1997 period when Scotland was ruled by a Conservative Party government in London against which most of the Scots had voted.  When the Labour Party won in a landslide in 1997, a referendum was held on the resurrection of a Scottish Parliament. The Scots voted overwhelmingly in favor. In July 1999 Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new Scottish Parliament.

To building for the new Parliament was designed by the then little-known Catalan architect Enric Miralles, chosen in an international competition. Its doors were opened in 2004, and it won Britain’s 2005 Stirling Prize for the year’s best new architecture. While the ScottishParliamentBuilding is lauded by architectural academics and critics as a superb example of “postmodern deconstructivism” which created an artistic union between Edinburgh and the Scottish people, culture and landscape, the project has been controversial. It went way over the initial budget and schedule and used some non-indigenous materials such as granite from China instead of Scotland.

I took the new ParliamentBuilding as the representative of the aspirations of the recently politically aroused people of Scotland. On the day of my visit, the annual Great Edinburgh Run was scheduled on the Royal Mile. It would pass by the ScottishParliamentBuilding. This portion of the Mile, High Street, was closed to traffic. The runners were walking to the start line. Several volunteers were stationed for assisting as “Stewards.” This gave me an opportunity to ask several residents about their views on the Parliament Building.

The Canongate Wall of the building which runs along the Royal Mile was especially eye-catching with its carvings, inlaid stones, and decorative attachments. “I like the lower section of that wall,” a woman who was volunteering for the Run, told me.  “The drawings on it remind me of the ScottishHighlands and Edinburgh’s Royal Mile; and it has quotes from famous Scottish people.” She said: “But I don’t like the upper part with the woods. I don’t understand the reason for the woods.” She was also critical of the choice of site of “this modern structure an area of old historical buildings, and the fact it had “cost too much.” The quotations on the wall were inscribed on the inlaid stones. I got closer to read some. “Who possesses this land? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?  / False questions, for this landscape is masterless and intractable in many terms that are human.” That was signed by the contemporary poet Norman MacCaig. Another from the middle 20th century poet Sir Alexander Gray read:  “This is my country/the land that begat me/ These windy spaces are surely my own/and those who toll here/in the seat of their faces/ are flesh of my flesh/and bone of my bone.” A third was a Scottish proverb: “To promise is ae thing/ to keep it is another.”

I spoke to a man in front of the side entrance to the Building which had clean lines . He said he liked “such simplicity.” He was puzzled and critical of “the jumble of wood, metal, fences, windows and casts” on a side wall nearby. His friend said he was satisfied with the unusual shaped protrusions on the next wall which he called “thinking pods” for the Members of the Parliament.  He also explained that the latticed forest of wooden poles on the wall at the front of the Building represented “Scotland’s birch trees or fields of barley.” He even defended the cost of the Building: “The fact that the Parliament is here has helped reduce unemployment in Edinburgh.”

No one denied the political value of the Parliament. The unicameral system with 129 elected members led by a first minister now has authority over matters which have been “devolved” from the United Kingdom: domestic affairs such as education, health, housing, transport and economic development. It can lower or increase the rate of income tax in Scotland by up to 3%. London has retained the power over “reserved matters,” including defense, foreign affairs and social security.   (Edinburgh’s local government is run by an elected City Council.)

For some Scots that is just the beginning of separation from England. Alistair, a Steward at the Run, said “people would now vote for full independence from the U.K.” A referendum on that question is scheduled for 2014.  “Scotland is different from England,” Alistair said.

“In Scotland, the people were always sovereign, so we had a ‘king of the Scots and not Scotland!’ In England the king was sovereign.” He was concerned, however, about the influence of “the propaganda from the BBC.” on the Scottish voters. “We have no real broadcasting counterpart to BBC.  Also the Scottish establishment is against independence.” He said “Energy industry is the way to re-industrialize Scotland.” He said “England relies on hydro-electric power of Scotland.” Alistair expected renewable energy to satisfy all of Scotland’s need by 2020. He laid claim to most of the U.K.’s oil as they came from “Scottish waters.”


Alistair’s views were basically shared by the musicians I met that evening. As I walked passed the Waterloo Bar , Allen was standing just outside taking a break. He invited me in: “Go in and grab a beer.” He was the leader of a group of musicians who were playing the guitar, banjo, and Celtic drum.  They sang Scottish folk songs. The ones who introduced the songs sometimes made comments expressing their pride in Scotland which were not without political overtones. “Scotland is a kingdom in its own right,” Allen said. “The English want our natural resources,” another added later. This was a jam session. Allen told us about the world wide influence of Scottish music. “American blue grass music comes from Scotland.” In his audience there were visitors from different lands. To my right sat a Norwegian couple. This was their first visit to Scotland. “What took you so long,” Allen joked with them alluding to their Viking ancestors who had come centuries before. Rita and Martin from Bristol, were spending the weekend here “to avoid the July 12, St. Patrick’s counterpart in Northern Ireland.” Martin said “We are not all bigots,” before insisting to buy me a drink. I asked for just a beer. He said no “you must also have a scotch to drink with the beer.” Martin told me to go to Clifton on my trip in Ireland for real good music. “Come visit us when in Bristol; give your address to Rita!”

New Town

Waterloo Bar is in Edinburgh’s New Town. The statue of the hero of Waterloo, Duke of Wellington, dominates the plaza in the next block. It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in the June 1815 Battle of Waterloo, Belgium, that ended his rule as Emperor of the French. Wellington was not a Scot; born in an Anglo-Irish Protestant landowning family, he was a 19th century British soldier and statesman. The New Town, unlike Edinburgh’s Old Town, mostly celebrates the British.  Its most prestigious shopping street is named after George III, King of Great Britain (1760-1820). It is north of Princes Street (named after the King’s two oldest sons) and south of Queen Street (named after the King’s wife). Of the three other streets that complete the main grid of the New Town, one is named after the King’s father, Frederick, and another after his royal family, Hanover. The statue of King George’ son, George IV, towers over George Street which ends in Charlotte Square (after the King’s Queen).

Not only in name but also in architecture and town planning the New Town is all King III’s legacy. It is considered the world’s most complete surviving example of Georgian town planning and architecture, styles named mostly after him (but also the three other King Georges -who together ruled less than him- his son and the two other English King Georges, I and II, who preceded him). It abounds in elegant terraces,  porticos, pediments and columns. Some of the best examples of such elements of the “neoclassical” (Georgian) architecture are on the north side of Charlotte Square, with the official residence of Scotland’s first minister in its center.

The Old Town had come to have a few Georgian buildings too, notably the City Chambers, now housing the City Council, which was built in 1753-1761, but by then the Old Town had become too crowded and uncomfortable for its wealthy citizens. Indeed, it was now referred to as Auld Reekie (Old Smelly) because, lacking a proper sewage system, residents “just dropped all their garbage out of windows into the valley below,” as the tour guides tell you. In the valley to the north of the Castle Rock was a boggy depression called the Nor’ Loch (North Loch). The Castle Rock on which tenements had gone up as high as they could -“creating the Medieval Manhattan,” the guides would say- had run out of space as it could not be expanded.

The North Loch has since been drained and replaced with PrincesStreetGardens, now Edinburgh’s best public park with the greatest number of visitors, residents and tourists alike. This project which began in the 1770s was a part of the larger one to build a new town. In the competition for this town, the plan submitted by an obscure, self-taught 23 year old, James Craig, won. His plan was laid out in the 1760s. The earth dug out for buildings in the New Town was dumped onto a part of the North Loch to provide a road link with the OldTown which is now called The Mound, splitting the PrincesStreetGardens into two.

Walter Scott

New Town played a significant role in uniting the Scots. The statue of George IV (on George Street) celebrated his exceptional visit to Edinburgh in 1822, the first by a reigning monarch in more than 150 years. Complying with the King’s stated wishes, the city of Edinburgh asked Sir Walter Scott to manage that visit.  Scott (1771- 1832) was a famed Scottish writer. King George IV had been a fan even as the Prince Regent and had invited Scott to dinner in 1815. Walter Scott was already a celebrity as a poet when he began turning his research in the oral tradition of Scotland into historical novels, pioneering that genre . The first was Waverley, published anonymously in 1814, followed by several other novels under the name of “Author of Waverley,” as Scott wished to maintained anonymity.

Scott was an advocate of the Union with England. This was evident in Waverley which could not be but pleasing to the British monarchy.  In that novel, the English protagonist, Edward Waverley, serving in the British army visits the Highlands in Scotland and, meeting Bonnie Prince Charlie and her group of rebellious Jacobites (who supported the cause of the old Scottish Stuart dynasty), goes over to their side, but eventually Waverley (true to the name reflecting his divided royalties) resolves in favor of living peacefully under the rule of the House of Hanover.

The popular appeal of Scott’s exploration of Scottish history also impressed the British Prince Regent. He was the one who gave Scott permission to search for the long-lost Scottish Crown Jewels, and granted him the title of baronet on his success in 1818. Scott used George IV’s visit as a way to heal the rifts that had long afflicted Scots society. He staged the event’s welcoming ceremony as a “Gathering of the Scottish Clans” with “acres and acres of tartan.” He persuaded the King himself to dress in tartan. This was a remarkable show of “Highlandism”.  Dressing up in tartan (a pattern consisting of multiple color, crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands woven in multiple colors, each associated with a region but since the mid-19th century adopted by specific clans) and wearing the kilt (the knee-length garment with pleats at the rear which originated as the dress of men and boys in the Scottish Highlands of the 16th century)  were becoming fashionable among the Scottish middle and upper classes. The urbanized Lowland Scots who had formerly long despised the Highland rural people were now adopting their dress, proscribed after the 1745 rebellion against the English, as a way of distinguishing themselves as Scots from their fellow-British in England. Paradoxically, King George VI’s visit and Walter Scott’s novels came to play an important part in making Scotland fashionable in England.

The Victorian craze for all things Scottish among the British royalty was in no small measure due to Scott’s novels.  His being a Lowland Presbyterian, rather than a Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlander, of course, had made him more acceptable to a conservative English reading public. In 1854, the North British Railway named its new Edinburgh’s central train station Waverley. The citizens of Edinburgh had honored Sir Walter Scott in 1844 by building a Victorian Gothic monument that dominates the south side of the PrincesStreetGardens at 200 feet 6 inches -the highest monument in Europe, as they tell you.  Inside that ScottMonument sits a statue of Sir Walter Scott. Nearby, a bridge over the railroad tracks called Waverley is a main road connecting New Town to OldTown.

New Town which began as a residential suburb soon became a magnet for shops and businesses. Princes Street attracted retail stores such as Jenners Department Store (founded in 1838) which is Britain’s oldest department store. Today those shops’ specialties are kilts with different setts or tartan patterns. I was told that the most popular patterns are the Royal Stewart and the Black Watch which includes Old Campbell.  The naming of the tartans after clans has been promoted by weaving companies which recognized its mercantile benefit. Sales clerks told me that although the tartan originated in woven wool, is it now equally liked in cashmere.

New Town’s George Street, on the other hand, turned into Edinburgh’s financial district with banks and office buildings. The big financial firms have since relocated to Edinburgh’s new Exchange district. The old banks’ spaces have been taken over by trendy bars and restaurants, such as Dome Grill Room.  Its elegant dinning space was crowded with well-dressed guests on the Saturday night I visited it. Not far from it, Rose Street hosted the more casual customers in its many pubs -seventeen of them by my count- where amateur musicians played.

Whether Old Town or New Town, historic Edinburgh offered so much to visitors that one had to agree with UNESCO which declared both World Heritage Sites in 1995.


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: I flew to Scotland the day after Andy Murray won the 2013 Wimbledon Championships singles tennis title. This report includes some of my observations about the impact of that momentous event on Murray’s home country. Aside from Dunblane where Murray learned to play tennis, in search of its  national provenance, I visited the Royal Tennis Court in the Falkland Palace where even a more historic figure played tennis some 480 years ago: Mary, Queen of Scots. Her home court now claims to be the oldest in the world. The tennis that is still played there, however, has relinquished the simple appellation in favor of real or royal tennis.


 The day after Andy Murray won the 2013 Wimbledon Championships singles title I flew to Edinburgh. The two events were not coordinated but, once in Scotland, I was curious to learn about the impact of Murray’s feat on his homeland. On July 7, Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win the Wimbledon. This was on top of two other recent major accomplishments:  Murray’s 2012 US Open victory which had made him the only British male to become a Grand Slam singles tennis champion during the Open Era, and his winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympic men’s singles made him the first such British tennis champion in over 100 years.

All the British, of course, were ecstatic. The Scotts, however, were equally eager to claim Murray as their own and not England’s, their historic adversary. When the celebration of Murray’s victory began, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, unfurled the blue-and-white Scottish Saltire flag in Wimbledon’s royal box. This was taken by some to be an attempt to claim Murray as a contemporary Braveheart.  Braveheart, the 1995 Academy Awards winning film which generated world-wide attention about Scotland and its history, glorifies William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish warrior who led his countrymen in the War of Independence against England’s King Edward I. Saltire, or Saint Andrew’s Cross, is the national flag of Scotland.

First Minister Salmond was breaking Wimbledon rules, it was said. Some went even further and accused him of politicizing Andy Murray’s victory a year before Scotland’s scheduled referendum on independence. His spokesman denied any such motive, but British Prime Minister David Cameron lost no time in responding that the victory should be marked in truly British style: with a knighthood. The 26 year old champion is now Sir Andy Murray.

Back home the Scotts were not deterred. In numerous gathering they celebrated the victory by signing choruses of Flower of Scotland, a song that has become an unofficial national anthem of Scotland and pointedly refers to the victory of the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, over England’s Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The London newspaper The Guardian suggested that the animosity should be tamed centuries after those first skirmishes along the Scottish border. “Andy Murray: Scottish, British. Who cares? Today he belongs to us all,” was the pleading headline in the paper.

Murray has identified himself as Scottish and British. In his post-match interview, Murray called himself a “British Winner.” His position regarding the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has been less committal: “I will think about it, speak to some people and try to see what is best for the country.” After the US Open last year, Murray returned to his hometown of Dunblane for a victory parade. He has not yet arranged such a trip after Wimbledon since he presumably is busy preparing for this year’s American hard court season as the defending champion. Just a few days ago, however, Murray managed to spend some of his increasingly large tennis earnings to buy Cromlix House in the town of Dunblane, Scotland. This huge mansion, acquired at £1.8 million, will be refurbished as a five-star luxury hotel. By this, Murray has said “we will be able to attract new visitors to the area, create a number of new jobs and focus on supporting other local businesses….I’m pleased to be able to give something back to the community I grew up in.”

When I visited Dunblane I found it to be a pleasant, prosperous community. It is a small town of some 8,000 people. The major cities of Scotland are not far away. Within 30 miles is the biggest, Glasgow, with a population of 1.3 million, where Murray was born before moving to Dunblane. Edinburgh is 10 miles further away to the west. It has half a million residents but it is the political heart of Scotland. Newspapers have recorded the reaction of the “overjoyed” fans on the streets of Edinburgh the day Murray won the Wimbledon. In bars “Saltires were proudly waved as the crowd burst into impromptu choruses of Flower of Scotland. When I arrived a day later, however, there was no sign of celebration in Edinburgh except for a lone chalk-drawing on the sidewalk in WaterlooPlaza. The Plaza was perhaps as close to London’s Hyde Park Corner as one finds in Edinburgh for public expressions. It is located in front of The General Register House which is “the home of the National Records of Scotland and the Scotland People Family History Centre.”  Even birds were free to make their statements on the head of the statue of Wellington for whose famous victory the Plaza is named. The chalk-drawing showed Andy Murray in his tennis pose, racket in hand and emoting after a triumphant shot. Under the drawing was the artist’s simple comment: “Many Thanks.”  A couple of days later, even that drawing was gone, replaced by another about the poor, showing destitute people sitting on the sidewalk with this message: “If 1% of the rich gave 1% of the wealth to the poor, poverty will cease to exist.”

Surely there must be more lingering demonstrations of celebrations for Murray, I thought. The concierge at my hotel responded: “Not here in Edinburgh, maybe in Dunblane.”  Indeed, in Glasgow and St. Andrews, as well, which I toured in the next days, I found no traces of remembering Murray’s feat. Dunblane was a different story.  The newspaper The Scotsman reported “The town of Dunblane erupted with joy.”  As the broadcaster BBC commented:  “each and every one” of the people who “call Dunblane home…seemed to revel in the astonishing achievement of one of their own.” The Scotsman added: “They wore Andy Murray face masks, draped good luck banners from the rooftops and cheered themselves hoarse.” An impromptu parade was staged through the town with signs reading “The Boy Done Good” and “He Did It for Dunblane.” Murray acknowledged the mutual feeling: “It is just nice being able to do something the town is proud of,” he told the BBC. Because of the special recent history of Dunblane, Murray’s words reflected the almost cathartic nature of his victory.

In Britain Dunblane was known as “the little town where one of the darkest chapters in recent British history was played out.” On March 13, 1996, a middle-aged man opened fire in the DunblanePrimary School’s gymnasium, killing 16 students aged 5 or 6 and a teacher, before killing himself. That episode is remembered as “the deadliest massacre of children ever in the United Kingdom.” As a local artist put it “After the shootings, for years if I was in England, I never said I came from Dunblane, I said I came from ‘north of Stirling’” – a town which is a few miles away and has a famous castle used as the venue for an annual Braveheart Conference held in the shadow of a bigger than life statue of him.

Andy Murray has also carried the scar of that episode, to which he was a personal witness, in several ways. As his mother has related, “Andy’s class were on their way to the gym, his class were the next ones in.” Andy also knew the shooter. As he wrote in his autobiography Hitting Back, Murray had attended a youth group run by the shooter, a one-time Scout leader called Thomas Hamilton. A month before the 2013 Wimbledon, Murray spoke about the massacre publicly for the first time when he told a BBC interviewer: “You have no idea how tough something like that is.” He also said that he hoped his success in tennis had helped heal the hurt of the shooting in 13 March, 1996. Indeed, it has. That local artist has testified to this: “Last year [in England], a taxi driver asked me where I came from and I said ‘Dunblane’ and he said, ‘Oh Andy Murray’ and I just thought, ‘Yes’.”  As The Scotsman  put it  the day after Murray’s  victory at the Wimbledon, “Dunblane has been so long wreathed in shadows, but yesterday it basked in the sun and the historic achievement of the man who first picked up a racquet as a boy at the local courts.”

Thanks to Andy Murray’s example, the number of youngsters coached in the Dunblane Tennis Club has increased seven-fold in the last four years. The walls of the small clubhouse are adorned not just by Andy’s picture but also by those of his brother Jamie and his mother. Jamie is a also a professional tennis player who won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 2007 with Jelena Jankovic. Andy’s mother, Judith “Judy” Murray is a tennis coach and current captain of the British Fed Cup team. Murray’s tennis dynasty goes even further back: Fiona Bennie, the officer in charge of coaching tennis at the Dunblane Club recalled that she had been taught the game by Andy’s grandmother.

Long before the Andy Murray tennis dynasty and still more famous was another Scottish tennis player: Mary, Queen of Scots. She played “real tennis” on a court that was now 483 years old. I went to see this oldest tennis court “in the world” in Falkland, Scotland, just 30 miles north of Dunblane.

Eventful as Andy Murray’s young life might have been, there is no more colorful character than Mary in the history of Scotland [8]. Born in 1542, she became the queen of Scotland six days later when her father, King James V, died. King Henry VIII of England soon proposed a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary in order to create an alliance with Scotland. Thwarted, Henry launched a war with Scotland (1541-1551), which was continued after his death in several English invasions of Scotland. When the Scots suffered a serious defeat in this phase of hostility, Mary’s French mother sent her for security to a castle most accessible to France. In fact, Mary spent most of her childhood in France and in 1558 married the French Dauphin (Crown Prince) Francis, the son of Henry II, king of France and his wife, Catherine de Medici.  He became king as Francis II almost immediately, thus making Mary the Queen Consort of France while she was also Queen Regent of Scotland. Francis died in 1560.  Five years later Mary wedded her cousin, the English nobleman Henry Stuart who was now proclaimed Henry, King of Scots. Their child later became King James I of England. Mary soon became disenchanted with her husband who also made enemies of some powerful nobles. When King Henry was found strangled to death in 1567, it was said that Mary knew of the nobles’ plot to kill him.  A few months later, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, a Scottish nobleman to whom she had turned for support against Henry. Mary’s subjects who suspected Bothwell’s involvement in the murder of their King were outraged and turned against Mary. She was forced to abdicate and fled to England for help. Her cousin Elizabeth was the Queen of England. She imprisoned Mary, perceiving her as a threat since Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own based on the support of many English Catholics. After 18 years of trying to gain her freedom Mary was charged and found guilty of participating in a plot to kill Elizabeth. She was executed in 1587, at age 44.

Mary played tennis on the court I was looking at now, at least in the years 1561 to 1567, after returning from France and before seeking refuge in England. Marked on a wooden sign as Royal Tennis Court this was in the gardens of Falkland Palace. A sign gave the date of the establishment of the court: “This tennis court dates from 1530. It was a was a part of James V’s transformation of the Falkland Palace into the finest Renaissance building in Britain.” James V was Mary’s father and “Since then generations of Scottish kings and queens have enjoyed playing tennis here.”  James V, whose wife, Mary’s mother, was from the noble Guise family of France borrowed the ideas of Italian renaissance from his contemporary Francois I, the French King (1515-1547) who was the first to bring the fruit of renaissance  (including Leonardo da Vinci and his Mona Lisa) from Italy. (The guide from the National Trust for Scotland that takes care of the Castle showed me in a book the designs from the Chateaus around Beloise, France, which were used to build the Falkland.) James V was probably equally influenced by the long-standing love of the French kings for tennis. Francois I, in fact, lived in the same Château d’Amboise where King Charles VIII died as a result of a fall on his way to the tennis game in 1498 when Francois was 4. Before that, yet another French king, Louis X had died in 1316 of a severe chill after playing tennis. Francois I who later became Mary, Queen of Scots’ father-in-law was himself an enthusiastic player and promoter of tennis, building courts and encouraging play among the courtiers and commoners.”

Mary returned from France quite a sportswoman. She would come to the Falkland Palace to play tennis, but also to hunt and ride horses. Indeed, she is said to have shocked the Scots with all these sports activity.  She would ride the horse the French way, not sideways as the English did, so as to be able to hunt. In St. Andrews just a few years after the famous St Andrews Links was chartered in 1553, Mary was playing golf in 1567.

Tennis was also a favorite game of the kings in England in this period, beginning with Henry V (1413–1422) . It made the biggest impact on Henry VIII (1509– 1547) who was of a similar age and dashing reputation as his contemporary Francois I of France. Henry VIII played the game with gusto at the at the tennis court in HamptonCourtPalace in London. The Royal Tennis Court of the HamptonCourtPalace was built between 1526 and 1529 and was last extensively refurbished in 1628. It makes the more modest claim that it is the oldest surviving real tennis court in England (not the world as the Falkland court claims), and that it has been in more or less continuous use since it was built. The Hampton court is now home to an active “real tennis” club, one of the fewer than fifty real tennis courts in the world, including several in the United States and the court in FalklandPalace. It is one of the few such courts in the world where the public can watch real tennis.

I was now standing in the gallery of the Falkland Palace tennis court. On this day there was no game being played. A sign at the court pointed out:

“As you can see this court is not like the law tennis courts of Wimbledon. All four courts and even the gallery where you are standing are an integral part of the court. For centuries royal tennis was known simply as tennis. After lawn tennis was introduced in the 1870s it became necessary to distinguish this original game from the new game of lawn tennis.”

The new name given for the original tennis is real tennis or royal tennis. As it is played today, it is a “mixture of tennis and squash,” with techniques, strategies and rules which are “more difficult and more complex.”  The rules were described in another sign at the Falkland court. Among them were these: “the ball can bounce off the walls and roof;” and points “can be won outright … if the ball enters the winning gallery.”  However, the real tennis shares the same basic scoring methods and terms, the signs said.  They gave the origin of the game:

“Tennis was probably introduced into Scotland in the 13th century. Tennis comes from the French word tenez, the warning that was shouted before each serve. … An early form of the game known as … game of the palm of the hand was played in the town squares and religious cloisters of medieval Europe. Royal tennis rackets are still shaped like the palm of the hand.”

That might explain the origin of the word racket: it is from the French raquette which could be, in turn, from the Arabic rahat al-yad (the palm of the hand) -although some argue that it is from the Flemish raketsen, derived from the French rachasser (to strike back).  Most of the other common tennis terms are from French: deuce from à deux le jeu (to both is the game or the two players have equal scores), love (zero) from l’oeaf (egg which is shaped like zero), and tennis which is the imperative form of the verb tenir (to hold).

“By 1599,” another sign at the Falkland Royal Tennis Court, reminded us “tennis had become part of everyday language.  In Shakespeare’s Henry V the Dauphin sends Henry ‘a ton of tennis balls.’ Shakespeare knows his audience will understand the insult –playing tennis was regarded as unmanly and effeminate.” This left me wondering what Mary, Queen of Scots would have thought had she survived to read this barb by the Bard.

Touring a Special French Terroir: Loire, Burgundy and Champagne


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States of America and spent several months here. The twenty-five year old Frenchman’s command of English was limited; as he wrote to his mother “We speak English with whomever will tolerate our chatter.”  The book de Tocqueville penned on that trip, Democracy in America, has become a classic, often cited as one of the best for understanding the Americans even today, a work informed by “the perspective of a detached social scientist.”  I mention this as a way of soliciting license to write, far less ambitiously, about France which I toured for a few weeks this past October. The shortcomings of not being immersed in the life of a foreign land paradoxically allow a certain distance for objectivity. It might be argued that a broader outlook is possible for seeing the forest as one is not obstructed by the trees. This report does not have grand theoretical pretenses. It aims at detailing a tourist’s experience of France. The best it could hope for are patterns in observations that might have been shared by other travelers: thus it would depict a distinct reflection of France. Further, the report is largely on only a part of France: the loop south of Paris, from the LoireValley to Burgundy and then Champagne. That happens to be a land especially rich both in culture and history of France.


The lone tour bus parked at the entrance to the visititors’ galleries of Moet & Chandon in Epernay, in the heart of the Champagne country, bore a revealing truth.  On its side in huge letters the bus invited tourists to “Visit Paris (Visitez Paris);” that invitation then continued in much smaller letters, one-fifth that size, “and France ( et France).” France gets more tourists than any other country in the world, about 70 million a year which is about 8 million more than its total population of 64 million. The overwhelming majority of these stay in Paris; few venture out into the country.

I have been to Paris too often to be awed by its apparent glamour but not enough to be able to fully appreciate its culture. I saw people in endless conversation in this town and I could only wonder what engaged them so. The failing is not just linguistic: I am not au courant (up to date). The subjects in the newspaper headlines are remote from my ordinary preoccupation. The dominant topic in these early days of October 2012 was the submission for approval by the Legislature of a “treaty” regarding the European Union by the new Socialist Government. My well-informed friend, a graduate of Paris’ prestigious school of Political Science (Science Po), told me that the political right ridiculed the new President Francois Hollande’s adopting the treaty which had been negotiated by their candidate, former President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the election campaign Holland had vigorously criticized the treaty, maintaining that he could get much better terms from France’s German partners. The change in his position was now seen by the right as surrender to the Germans, forever the rivals. “As we say,” my friend said, “Hollande peed in his frock when he met Chancellor Angela Merkel.”

I did not stay in Paris long enough to attend theaters and movies, to see if I understood and enjoyed the programs. My experiencing the city is impressionistic of a certain type: viewing the familiar as different in yet another glance. So it is that I was surprised at how really large is the number of book stores in the university neighborhoods around Odeon, how constantly the Parisians still smoke, how rarely anyone is obese, how prevalent is the wearing of scarves by both women and men, how most people are brunette and few are blonde, how reliably good is the food, and how they treat you as a guest who can stay as long as he wants not only in outdoor brasseries but also in  restaurants, how you are in constant company of other tourists, how small are the rooms in hotels and how quaint are their facilities, especially their bathrooms, how you feel compelled to visit again the Eiffel Tower, Champs- Elysees, Madeleine, Latin Quarter, Notre Dame and the Louvre, how almost impossible it is to enjoy the big museum, and how it is still necessary to negotiate endless stairs to haul your luggage.

So it was also that even the new special exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay struck me as yet another manifestation of the fascinating self-absorption of this unique city: it matched Paris fashion as setting trends worldwide at the time, in the 19th century, when the Impressionists painters of Paris were the dominant talk of the art world.


“All the glories of France,”  however, are officially commemorated in another “Museum,” the  Palace of Versailles, ever since it was so dedicated in 1837 by  Louis-Phillipe, the last “King” of France (not to be confused with Emperor Napoleon III who would serve later as its last “monarch”).  It is a sign of the times that when you step out of the train station at Versailles, this headquarters of France’s Ancien Régime, you face a McDonalds and a Starbucks. Not to worry, as a boulevard with wide pedestrian sides, graced with leafy trees, soon takes you to the bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV  in the Place d’Armes in front of the Palace of Versailles. This was the man who in 1682 moved  the Court and the Seat of Government here, from Paris’s Louvre Palace, and in the process transformed and greatly enlarged what had been a mere brick and stone royal hunting lodge. In the course of his 72 years on the throne, Louis XIV made France the most powerful nation and himself the absolute monarch, famously maintaining that he was indeed the state (L’etat, c’est moi!).  Louis XIV’s direct personal control required that the ministers and major aristocrats and their families all be brought to Versailles. The number of the courtiers swelled to 6,000. Versailles grew to an enormous complex of 700 rooms on 800 hectares of gardens and parks, carefully planned to include the town -later becoming the model for other capitals such as Washington, D.C.

On a day when the sun broke through the fluffy clouds to highlight that special blue that is the color of sky in France, I joined a group from among the 5.3 million visitors who come to Versailles every year. The official brochure was not shy about calling it “the finest and most complete achievement of French art in the 17th century.” We started in the Royal Court and went through the main building, the Palace, also called the Chateau. The State Apartments of the King here were the residence of Louis XIV and his two successors for 100 years.  The King’s apartments consisted of 10 rooms. Often these also functioned as his office. Louis XIV had supper in his bedroom with many state officials attending. We were told that even his rising in the morning and retiring at night would be watched by over 150 courtiers. To impress the visiting foreign leaders, however, the French King would use the dazzling Hall of Mirrors. This largest room was dedicated to commemorate Louis XIV’s successes in wars. Centuries later, it also served as the venue for signing the Treaty of Versailles which finally ended World War I in France’s favor.

We exited the Chateau in Versailles for a long walk through the garden, designed in 1661, which became the standard of excellence for the formal “French garden,” with pools and fountains and many statues, among them that of Apollo, the ancient Sun God, a favorite of  Louis XIV who was called the Sun King. At a far end of the garden the domain of Marie-Antoinette pulls the visitor’s heart. It is not just curiosity about the famous Queen  who sought to recreate the simplicity of her  past Austrian life in this quiet corner,  Marie-Antoinette’s palace of Petit Trianon is endearing because of its diminutive size in this otherwise oversized estate. Also, Marie-Antoinette was the only woman in a world of absolute kings who thus imprinted her personal taste on Versailles. We rode back to the exit gate of Versailles on the quaint tram (petit train), a whimsical vehicle that also transported one’s thoughts to reflecting on the height of the level of fantasy in the art of fine living reached in this place. That fantasy was ruptured by the Revolution of the deprived masses that forced the Queen and the rest of the royal Court of Louis XIV to leave Versailles in October of 1789, most to face the harsh reality vengeful guillotine.


Claude Monet succeeded in his fantasy: the garden at Giverny on which he lovingly toiled for over forty years, after buying it in 1895, has blooming flowers every season of the year. In our mid-autumn visit there was an abundance of poppies in many colors. From the many windows of Monet’s simple two story house at the edge of the garden you could see the inspiration for many of his celebrated paintings -he painted some 400 tableaus in Giverny! In the distance was the marshland that fed a canal at the boundary of the property and was the source of the pond  in which Monet grew lilies. We walked around the pond, and over its Japanese bridge , and imagined the many angles from which Monet painted in different lights the mural like canvases of those lilies which now grace the oval-shaped main room of Paris’s Orangerie Museum. They are defiantly soothing and tranquil: most were done during the 1914-1917 War as the rest of France bled.

The hamlet of Giverny was peaceful notwithstanding the onslaught of tourists who descended mostly by bus. Near the entrance we were entertained by the proprietor of a new garden restaurant who teased us in his French English, served us excellent lamb prepared on a wood-fired grill, and was shrewd enough to hand us the web address of TripAdvisor. “Let them know about us if, and only if, you are satisfied,” he said. I was satisfied especially that the venerable institution of chef-owner was surviving, a fact that would be confirmed by my experience also in the LoireValley and Champagne.  That was the reason for the excellence of good French restaurants, my friend, an executive at the Michelin, had offered.


It was drizzling when we crossed one of the stone bridges over the EureRiver and ended up parking on a street which was in a riverside parklet of Saint-Andre Collegiate Church. We climbed up toward the old town of Chartres through unique steep medieval passageways and stairways called tertres (mounds) between timber and stone houses. At the tourist office we got directions to the Cathedral and approached its western, royal, portal. We noted the different Romanesque 12th century steeple on our right, and the newer flamboyant Gothic steeple on the left from the 16th century. High above the hill over the flat vast Beauce plain these two have served all those years to beckon the faithful pilgrims. What we came especially to see in this church were the famed 13th century stained glass windows and the West Rose Window, predominantly in blue and red colors, which were resplendent even though not as vivid in the rainy weather. So were still two other rose windows, on the sides of the altar which was in the middle of the church, also from the mid 1200s. Each of these windows told a different part of the Christianity story, as an illustrated book for the illiterate of the Middle Ages.

To the east of the southern Rose Window stood  the 12th century Blue Virgin Window,  dressed in that particular Chartres Blue intense color that was made by adding cobalt oxide into the glass. Mary is, of course, the Notre Dame for which the Cathedral at Chartres is named. The church claims to have a relic, the veil that Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. The relic was miraculously saved in the fire of 1194 that destroyed much of the church, and this motivated the town people of Chartres to rebuild Mary’s shrine in such unusually fast pace that the huge Cathedral was completed by 1230. The haste contributed to the uncommon unity of architecture, statuary and stained glass that could not be matched in other large churches that often took centuries to build. One true miracle in Chartres is that it has been spared both modifications and the ravages of war and revolution. That is why it is Europe’s best pure Gothic building.



In contrast to Chartres, the Chateaus in the LoireValley were ransacked in the Revolution of 1789. They were seen as the symbols of the Old Regime. Enough has remained of them, however, to serve as a remarkable repository of the unique examples of the changing grand architecture in France, with evocative hints of the commensurate styles of life.

Chateau Royale d’Amboise

The Chateaus’ prior history also differentiates them from Chartres. They owed their existence to wars, hunting and other secular pursuits. The first Loire Chateaus were built on the ruins of the stone fortifications which began a millennium ago by the Celtic Turones tribe. As I stood on the rocky outcrop overlooking the confluence of the Loire River and it tributary, the Amasse River, where Chateau Royale d’Amboise was constructed, its strategic significance was clearly evident. Great visibility was enhanced by the protection that the wide water below provided. It was the Loire River that slowed down the advance of the Islamic forces of the Caliphate of Spain which had conquered almost all of France before their eventual defeat in 732 by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel.  The Island in the middle of the river facing me was where in 502 Clovis I, King of the Franks and Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, met in face-to-face talks that ended the war between them. Behind me, there were now two flags gently swaying on the Chateau d’Amboise.  One was of France and the other of Brittany. They signify the union created when Charles VIII married Anne of Brittany in 1491, adding her domain to the French kingdom, thus creating modern France.

Charles VIII had been born in this Chateau, in 1470, due to yet another major turn in the history of French monarchy. His grandfather, Charles VII had to retreat to the Loire region when the English control of French territory, during the 100 year war of 1336-1435, extended to Paris. For the next two centuries, from the late 1420s, the French Kings continued to live in the Loire.

Charles VIII ruled from Amboise which he converted from a medieval fortress into a Gothic palace. In fact, almost all the major structures of this Chateau from the 15th and 16th centuries which we could now see are those Charles VIII ordered built: the Gothic royal wings for king and queen, the small St. Hubert chapel and the two cavalry towers. The towers were especially noteworthy for their wide and high-ceilinged spiral ramp for horses and carriages which allowed them to arrive up onto the castle easily, a forerunner of the ramp in today’s parking garages.

Later kings developed the Amboise Chateau further following Italianate taste they acquired during their campaigns in Italy. Some rooms in the Chateau still show the influence of the early Renaissance architecture.  More pronounced, however, is the example of the Renaissance gardens. The traditional medieval closed garden was replaced by the Neapolitan design with open perspectives and new species of Italian plants. The Tuscan landscape we saw, at one time even had melons, artichokes and citrus fruits.  Somewhat incongruously, on one side of this garden there were now also the “OrientalGardens” with the cedar of Lebanon. Designed by an Algerian, this was a monument to the members of the household of an Algerian ruler who died here. The portrait of that ruler, Emir Abd el-Kader, was in one of the rooms on the top floor of the Amboise Chateau which are dated from the 19th century. The Emir’s surrender was a decisive event in France’s colonization of Algeria. He was kept in this Chateau from 1843 to 1852.

A far more famous man brought to the Amboise Chateau was Leonard da Vinci. He came here in 1516 at the invitation of King Francoise I and settled in Chateau Clos-Luce in town, a short walk from the royal Chateau. Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa painting with him and, for the next three years, was engaged in a busy life of further drawing and teaching, designing canals, urban planning and architecture. After his death on May 2, 1519, he was buried in the church of Saint-Florentine at the Amboise Chateau, as he wished.  We saw da Vinci’s white bust on the site of that church in the Chateau’s grounds. When Saint-Florentine was demolished in the 19th century, da Vinci’s bones were transferred to Saint-Hubert’s Chapel, a few yards away.

Chateau de Chambord

The major architectural footprint of da Vinci’s sojourn in the LoireValley is said to be the double helix staircase in another Chateau, the Chambord. A marvel of design, the staircase links three floors around a hollow central column. As we went up one flight we could see people coming down the other column without running into them. Francois I ordered the construction of Chambord in 1519. As that was the year da Vinci died, he could only be credited with having helped “inspire” the staircase. Much more inspiration came from Francois I’s falling for all things Italian.  Soon after ascending to the throne at age 21 in 1515, Francois set out to re-conquer the Italian provinces which his predecessor had lost. Victorious in that, Francois was in turn captured by the Renaissance culture of Italy. For the French kings and nobles, henceforth, Italian ways became preferred ways – in food, gardens, artists, women and, of course, architecture. At my first glance, Chambord seemed to have much in common with the traditional medieval strongholds of the Loire with a central keep surrounded by large towers and an enclosing wall. But soon I could see well integrated elements of Renaissance architecture such as loggias, terraces and pilasters. It is this synthesis that has made Chambord an excellent example of the French Renaissance architecture.

Chambord’s other claim to fame is that it is by far the largest Chateau in the LoireValley with 426 rooms, 77 staircases, and 282 fireplaces. The fireplaces defined its primary use as a hunting lodge mostly occupied in winter when hunters could see best after leaves fell. On this day, from the terraces of Chambord I could see the heavily treed Chambord estate which at 5440 hectares in walls that run 32 kilometers is  Europe’s largest enclosed forest park with boar and deer and other animals living in the wild. The second floor of the Chateau is a virtual museum of hunting, showing different types of the sport in the 16th century and depicting great classical hunting myths on its many tapestries.

The grand size of Chambord was Francois I’s device to show his might; he often invited important persons as guests here who were thus duly impressed. He spent only 72 days in Chambord, but he left his signature on the carving of the vaulted ceilings which combine his monogram with his emblem, the salamander as a mythical creature able to live in fire. “Like salamander,” Francois proclaimed, “I feed (on good fire) and I extinguish (bad fire).”

Another royal who has left his mark in Chambord was the Comte de Chambord who owned the Chateau from 1821 until his death in 1883. As the last of the Bourbons, he was called to the French throne in 1871 but refused the conditions of the offer. Instead, France proclaimed the ThirdRepublic. The Comte lived in Chambord only 3 days, but seven rooms of the first floor of this Chateau are now the museum of his artifacts, including a coronation outfit that he did not come to wear.

Chateau de Chenonceau

 Chambord was not big enough for Francois I; in 1525 he moved the royal court to the even bigger palace he built at Fontainebleau with its over 1500 rooms. In contrast, Catherine de Medici ruled France from 1560 to 1574 as the regent of her minor son, King Charles IX, from a small room in another much more modest Loire Chateau, Chenonceau. It was in this Green Room which I was now visiting, that she received the officials of her realm. Catherine de Medici’s initials were on the doors and the ceiling here, and in her bedroom, as though marking her turf. After all this was the Chateau from which she had evicted Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s favorite mistress.

Originally a fortified castle and a mill with a round tower, which are still standing, the construction of the main building of the Chenonceau Chateau began in 1515 under the general direction of Catherine Brinconnet, the wife of a court minister. That couple’s initials are also on the ceilings of the rooms. The 16th century Renaissance is manifest in architectural details of the Chateau, as well as in its tapestries and paintings. The building’s distinctive feature is the staircase to the first floor, one of the earliest built in France on the Italian model. In the thirteen years that Diane de Poitiers lived here she added another landmark, a bridge over the river Cher, connecting the Chateau to the 70-hectare hunting ground on the other side.  Furthermore, she built a spectacular and modern (for that time) garden in front, thus turning Chenonceau into one of the first great pleasure palaces in the Loire.

Catherine de Medici completed that task by adding her own garden on the other side of the main entrance and an Italian maze in the grounds which you see on the left as you approach the Chateau on an exquisite tree-canopied path [24]. Finally, she built a 60 meter- long window-lined high-ceiling Grande Gallery upon Diane’s bridge and turned it into a busy ball room. On the day I was there this gallery hosted an exhibit on Jean Jacques Rousseau. He spent long and happy  times here as a guest of Chenonceau’s owner in the 18th century, Madame Dupin, daughter of Louis XIV, whose salon in the Chateau was also attended by Voltaire and Montesquieu. Dupin is credited with saving Chenonceau from the wrath of the Revolutionaries by turning its chapel into a wood storage, thus hiding its religious character. As the brochure guide to Chenonceau says, it aptly has the reputation of having been “The Ladies’ Chateau.”

Chateau de Cheverny

When Diane de Poitiers was ousted from Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici, she bought the nearby Chateau de Cheverny while waiting for her new residence, Castle of Chaumont sur Loire, to be renovated. Aside from that short period in the 16th century and another interruption in the 18th century, Cheverny has the distinction of having stayed in the same family of commoners ever since 1500. The current owners in fact celebrated their wedding here and live in an apartment in the right wing.

Of the original forest of this estate only vestiges remain and the same can be said about the original castle. The present Chateau was built in 1624-1640 by the financier to the king of France, Henri Hurault and his wife Marguerite. I saw their interwoven initials H and M  in many places as, remarkably, the building has hardly been altered. It was even spared the excesses of the Revolution due to the negotiating skills of the owner who was an experienced diplomat. As a result this Chateau stands as a rare early example of perfectly proportioned Classic French architecture, with its domed corner pavilions and horizontal lines of stones carved as decoration. The interior shows the Italian influence of the time in its straight staircase with landing, as well as the many wooden panels that compete for attention with the numerous portraits of the family going back to Henri’s father.

As though to prove its authenticity as a hunting lodge, Cheverny houses about 100 pedigreed French pointer and English foxhounds which are still used by the owners. As I passed the kennels at the entrance to the estate, I noticed that many visitors had come to see the hounds as much as the Chateau. There is also an orangery here that gained fame during World War II, not for keeping the orange trees under shelter in winter as originally intended, but as a refuge for da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which had since traveled to the Louvre.

Life in the Valley

The glamour of the Chateaus in the Loire almost overshadows the majesty of the Valley’s natural beauty. We were determined to discover it, and in the process also had a glimpse of some of the people who now live in the Loire Valley. They were, of course, those most likely for tourists to encounter. We drove on the roads that cut through forests with thin trees and small leaves, their grounds covered by plants of much bigger leaves. Where the forests were cleared farmlands replaced them, but there were also vineyards, with their vine leaves just beginning to turn colors. Shaded rivers intersected the earth, vital conduits here both for irrigation and transportation. Among all these signs of ongoing life the dead were not forgotten. At Cher River, near Chateau Chenonceau which was the battle demarcation line in World War II, I noticed a commemorating stone for those soldiers who fell here at two times, tellingly four years apart, distanced by the German occupation: June 20, 1940 and August 27, 1944. The name of a sole American was added on a separate stone: “a pilot officer” who crashed here on July 31, 1944.

The road which we took in the LoireValley twisted through the alleys of old villages. We could not have done it without the help of the car’s TomTom navigator. The device failed us, however, at the crucial time when in the dark we were looking for our own little chateau in the forest at which we had a reservation for that night. The TomTom did not recognize the name of the obscure road where the Inn was located. We ended up in the center of Contres, the small town nearby. I came out of the car to ask directions. The place was deserted in the drizzle. The only place open was a small grocery store. Approaching it, I found a man who, alas, was more incoherent than even me in my French. We would later affectionately dub him as the village drunk. Neither could the two women in the store help me. Driving around, we finally saw a sign for a hotel. As our American cell phone did not work in France, the manager, a petit woman of authority, called our Inn for us. The Inn keeper said he would personally come to fetch us. When he arrived, with a big smile on his face, he sheepishly divulged that, in fact, he had no room for us as, by some mistake, he had over-booked for that night. As consolation, however, he had arranged accommodations for us in another Inn. He now led us to that place.


The place turned out to be a substantial building which the owners, accordingly, called a Manor. We walked up the wide several steps to the entrance. A tall thin woman with a husky voice and a faint English accent greeted us at the foyer -she was pleased when I said that she looked like Lauren Bacall. She was helpfully welcoming. She said “just leave your car in the driveway and we will take care of your luggage later.” It was pleasantly lighted and warming inside. To our left I saw a large living room with comfortable chairs and directly facing me a shelf full of liquors. The guests were in the smaller dining room to the right. Our hostess did not ask for any passport, names or registration. Instead, she led us to our room, in a tiny elevator. She warned us that we should not touch any buttons once inside as that would make the old style elevator stop in midway.

Our experience of what I came to imagine as the Loire hospitality continued. The hostess asked us if we wanted to have dinner. She had set up a comfortable table for us in the dinning room facing the other guests who nodded greetings. There was a group of eight and, at another table, one woman alone. She turned out to be the sister-in-law of our hostess, visiting for a few days. The husband was the chef. The meal was great and Victor came out and had a long conversation with us. He had worked in restaurants for several decades, mostly in Paris. He said he wanted to open a restaurant in the U.S., “because that is where businesses thrives.” He changed that plan when his wife got sick. “We have a very good health care program in France. We could not make it in America,” he said. They had started this hotel and restaurant in the Manor recently. Being late guests, when we finished our meal, served in the typical unhurried French way, we were the only ones left in the dining room. We decided to have an after dinner drink in the living room. Our hostess had already retired and when we lingered a bit, it was even time for the young man who had served us to go home too. Shyly, he approached us and put his palms together under his ear to sign that he wanted to go home to sleep: “se coucher,” he said, and asked us to please turn off the light when we left the room.

We did not get a chance to talk to any guests that night, but we liked this restaurant so much that two nights later we came to dine here again. This time we had a French Canadian couple as our neighbors. When we told them about our travail of being lost and “abandoned” the first night, they put us to shame by relating how they had been traveling in Europe without any prior reservations at hotels. He said he brushed off the problems and inconveniences by the mantra of “La vie est belle.” Later in the Paris airport we caught that slogan under the picture of a brightly smiling Julia Roberts advertising a fragrance. In all appearance, she could certainly say life was beautiful!

In the meantime, we had moved to our originally intended Inn. It was smack in the middle of what seemed to be a remaining portion of a forest -the clearing which in part had been turned into farmland.. Our favorite guidebook to Inns had publicized this as a place completely built by the owner. This was confirmed by him and his wife who ran the place.  It was pushing the charming to the limits when we were given a cottage  outside the main building which at least felt a bit like a small lodge with a roaring fire in a big fireplace and comfortable chairs. That was too much seclusion; the cottage in the forest was too dark with its dim lights in the continuing bad weather.

At breakfast our companions were a young French couple who had come there to attend the wedding of a friend. The Inn-keepers told us that their own daughter had been married in this house too but then, coincidentally, lived in my town of San Francisco for some time before returning with her husband to France.

We went to the main nearby town, Blois, to do our laundry in an all automated Laundromat. A vending machine took money to dispense soap and to run the various washing machines and dryers.  We were lucky that two local men and a woman had come to do their laundry at the same time. They helped us learn how the whole unfamiliar operation worked. Sitting on the outside steps of the little store, one of them started the conversation with me by saying that he had friends in Ohio. He told me that he had met them during the first Gulf War.

In the Loire Valley, reminders of America seemed to find us everywhere. This was not unusual. To understand foreign reality the tourist welcomes a familiar context. That, indeed, shapes the distinctive narrative of his visit. It is in that same vein that the few locals with whom the visitor can communicate in compensation for his language and cultural inadequacies become crucial interpreters of the scene.  Like de Tocqueville we appreciated it when the French patiently listened to our “chatter” in their language. We were even more grateful for their English, as that proved to be the better conduit for information.

                                                       Geographic Center



On our way from the Loire to Vichy in central France we passed one of the seven locations claiming to be the geographic center of the country. The heavily treed terrain on the two sides of Autoroute  D976 accented the impression that this was not a heavily populated area. Vichy is not in the usual guidebooks on France. Ordinary tourists do not go there, but people still come to Vichy “to take the water.” A covered passageway over the street connected our hotel on the third floor to a main center for bathing in the town’s hot spring water. The hotel celebrated water! Remarkable for France where hotels often do not have a real shower – we needed to hold a shower head in hand while standing in a bath tub- in Vichy not only was there a separate shower room but, in fact, it had two fixed shower heads, one faced you and the other aimed at your back. What is more there was a splendid pool on the top floor which was mostly inside but also stretched outside. Swimming there with a view of a pink sunset and rainbow in the sudden clearing after the rain was a highlight of our stay in Vichy. Equally memorable was a walk around the modest town’s center.

Vichy appeared to be what one imagines a mid-size French town to have been between the two World Wars. Graceful, old , large  buildings  lined the residential streets that were on the bank of the Allier River. The main street of downtown, tellingly, was named President Wilson, iconic in the inter-war years. There was a long covered gallery on one side of the street allowing for leisurely stroll by the park next to it even in the rain. In the park itself, there was a covered pavilion around a thermal spring where water has flowed for ages. On the afternoon we passed by there was a tea dance (thé dansant) here, complete with a live band. The dancers were mostly past their sixties. There were tables and chairs for them to rest in between dances.  Anyone could join. There was no charge.

When we came back a couple of hours later the crowd was gone and the musicians were packing their instruments. The tables and chairs were already removed.  In the meantime we had wandered toward the imposing city hall with a wide boulevard emanating from it. A more modest current opera house was a block away. I asked a woman who was sitting on the steps of the city hall if the building also served as the seat of Marshal Philippe Petin’s (“collaborative”) government during the Second World War. She had no clue. Her excuse was that she was too young to remember.


In a day visit to Lyon we found the new part vibrant and busy while the old town was quaint, crowded with tourists at ancient restaurants serving the signature salade lyonnaise . The intrusion of the likes of the sandwich shop Subway  and souvenir stores threatened to turn this culinary heart of France into kitsch.  We still managed to see one of the Renaissance courtyards  on a side street and that was a special treat.



We made it to the mountain top but it was not easy. Fog, rain, overcast sky had been dogging us. Occasionally, the clouds would break and we would see the translucent sky of western Burgundy -glorious! But now at night on the road to our hotel it poured buckets, making it almost impossible to find Mont-Saint-Jean, a hamlet so small that our detailed AAA map had ignored it. A local map we picked up in the town of Beaune showed our intended destination as a speck on country roads some 30 miles away. By some miracle we avoided the tractors and other implements of a farming community and negotiated the several sharp curves on the road and followed the tiny signs which in the dark all seemed to refer to the same, hard to pronounce, unfamiliar French names and, voila, we were in this village square that was ancient with walls half fallen and a water well long ago abandoned.

There was a flickering light beckoning at one corner from a café but no one seemed to be inside; no one to be seen anywhere indeed. Incredibly, however, on the next wall we noticed two signs. One said golf and the other said tennis. We now faced a narrow dirt road sloping down. We gathered our remaining courage, took a deep breath and drove down, hoping that our small car would avoid scraping the stone walls -we had already lost a hub cap. We survived and around the bend found the open gate to a stately building with a sign presenting it as Les Roches, our accommodation for that night.

It called itself Chateau, but in fact, we learned, it had a more modest pedigree. It was a big country house built in 1901 by a judge whose job regularly made him motor between Paris and Lyon; the original medieval lord’s Chateau in the village was destroyed by the Duke of Burgundy so as to assert his centralized power. Our house did have a grand staircase dominating the entrance which has been a signature of every chateau worth its ramparts ever since Francois I built his in the Chambord. I counted the steps to the first floor where our room was located: twenty-eight is a good number to keep you above the dampness of any marshland. On the top of a mountain some 1500 feet above sea level it translated more into too many for hauling your own luggage over them after a long day’s  trip. The view from our twelve- feet ceiling room over the sweeping valley the next morning, however, made the effort worth it.


The drive through this part of Burgundy, better known as a wine country, took us through forests and verdant fields  spotted with farming hamlets , and only occasional vineyards. The eye catching attraction was the white charolois cows  in grazing pastures ; they produce France’s best beef. The landmark that stood out was Chateauneuf (New Castle)-en-Auxois which was built in the 12th century on a rocky spur of a high hill at the order of the local lord for his son.  With other structures and defensive walls later added to protect both the lord’s family and the villagers, Chateauneuf is one of the last remaining 14th century Burgundian military architectures, an era when the Dukes here controlled a vast country stretching all the way to Holland. The New Castle dominates the plain below  with the Burgundy Canal -which has a special path just for cyclists – running through parts of it.  Traces of the original foundation of the castle could still be seen. The square in the still inhabited hamlet also dates from medieval times. It now hosts cafes for tourists. We walked on a hiking trail at the back of the village which goes for miles.

Hotel Dieu

Then we went to meet the mighty Duke of Burgundy in a contemporary portrait of him made in 1443. This was in Beaune’s Hotel Dieu (House of God), a hospice for the poor, established by the Duke’s Chancellor. At 25,000, Beune is the big city in Burgundy’s south. The Chancellor, Nicholas Rolin, and his wife were also featured in that stained glass portrait.. She wore a nun’s habit only to show her devotion. Real nuns had run the place. A room is still kept to show their lives there. The biggest room in the hospice was the ward where the poor patients were kept to die. Later, the hospice set up a smaller ward for the wealthy patients who could afford better care. For them this became a hospital where they could actually hope to survive. In fact, the place eventually became more a hospital than hospice, funded through auctioning the wine from the lands donated by grateful former rich patients. This lasted until 1971 before Hotel Dieu became a museum. One whole room was the pharmacy, still full of jars. The biggest jar was for the most commonly used medicine called theriaca which literally meant panacea or cure all: it was syrup of wines, opium and herbs.

Hotel Dieu is known for its inner courtyard which has glazed tile roofs, a style recognized as typically Burgundian. The tiles, fired three times – to harden, burn in the color and glaze- are said to last 300 years. The present ones, however, were redone in 1982.


Western Burgundy also has France’s best preserved medieval abbey, Fontenay. We walked on a path soaked in the rain to reach the Abbey established in the isolation of the forest. This was once a marshland, and Cistercian monks -whose name is derived from cisterna (marshy ground)- chose it in 1118 to create “a horrible vast solitude,” where they could live like the desert fathers of the Old Testament. This was these monks’ protest against the excesses of Benedictine abbeys. Here they sought to recapture the simplicity and poverty of the early Christians. Their Romanesque church of Fontenay has no fancy stained glass, it has unadorned columns. Nothing to distract from prayer. There is only one statue, the 13th century Virgin of Fontenay, a reminder that the church was dedicated to Mary.

We took the stairs near the statue up to a large 16th century dormitory where the monks used to sleep on thin mats. A stark cloister down below was where they read, exercised, washed, and did their other chores. A hall here was the general- purpose room, we imagined, often busy with monks hunched over tables copying sacred texts which was a major task of abbeys. On another side of the cloister was the refectory, the monks dining hall.

Crossing the gardens we saw a huge forge. In the 13th century, the monks here ran a metalworking plant. Iron ore was melted down in ovens and the tools made were sold for profit. The hydraulic hammer, the basis of industrial manufacturing of iron, was first used here. Outside, one could see the stream that had been diverted to power the wheels which operated the forge. The pond in the garden had been a fish farm. To separate from the world required industrious self-sufficiency and the monks of Fontenay proved especially adept at that.  Their abbey flourished. A 14th century proverb said, “Wherever the wind blows, to Fontenay the money flows.” Fontenay continued as a prosperous “mini-city” for nearly 700 years, until the French Revolution, when it became the property of the nation. It was eventually sold. The private owner, the family of a Lyon art collector, Eduoard Aynard, whose goal was to restore it, now runs Fontenay as a museum.


The monks’ culture dominated France in the middle ages. In 1200, there were more than 500 monasteries and abbeys in this country. Only a short distance from Fontenay in northwest Burgundy is another such abbey at Vezelay. Its church, like Fontenay, has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Built a little later (1120 to 1250), its architecture spans the transition from the Romanesque (round barrel arches like the ancient Romans’ buildings, thick walls, small windows) to Gothic (pointed arches, flying buttresses, high nave, lots of stained glass). It blends the elements of both styles.  Inside, rows and rows of arches make the simple vast nave a tunnel at the end of which a bright light radiates from the altar area. The effect is dramatic.

This monastery’s history also has been full of drama. Benedictine monks built the church after earlier convents at the site were pillaged by the Moors and, later, burned by Norman raiders.  In its prime during the 12th century Vezelay was a major gathering place for the medieval masses. The legend had spread that the relics of Mary Magdalene was kept here. The abbot of Vezelay heavily marketed the notion and the Pope authenticated it in 1058. It was believed that Mary had traveled to Provence, where she died, and her bones were then brought here by monks to save them from Muslim pirates. The church, which was in fact called Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, became a site for pilgrimage. Soon Vezelay was a place to rendezvous for marching to yet another depository of relics, St. James’, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. What is more, this location was found most appropriate from which to launch three of the Crusades, in 1146, 1190 and 1248. Vezelay’s fortune changed dramatically soon thereafter, however, when King Charles of Anjou announced, in the middle of the 13th century,  that Mary Magdalene’s body was not in Vezelay but elsewhere. Pilgrims stopped coming. The church fell into disrepair.

The church’s alleged relics of Mary Magdalene were later damaged and scattered by anti-Catholic Huguenots in the16th century and the anti-religion Revolutionaries in the 18th century. A few pieces were claimed left, however, to attract some faithful now that the church has been restored. Unique among Europeans, the French continue to have a special affection for Mary Magdalene, La Madeleine, to whom they have dedicated several churches including the one in Paris. In the right transept of the church stands a statue of Mary Magdalene in white marble. We picked up a picture of that statue on a card, with this at the bottom: “Sainte Marie-Madeleine priez pour nous (St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us).” On the back was the name of the sponsor “Fraternites monastique de Jerusalem(The Jerusalem Monastic Brotherhood).”Many more come to Vezelay for its sheer natural beauty as a tourist town. Vezelay is on the apex of a hill overlooking the Cure River Valley. Its old buildings andtwisting  alleyways  are exceptionally picturesque. High-end shops and restaurants line the main street  where the “Visiter’s [sic] Centre” invites you to come in if “Keen to understand the meaning of what you see.”


For elegant secular medieval buildings in Burgundy one must go to Dijon. Still the biggest town here, Dijon was where the Dukes of Burgundy held court in its glory days. The most impressive is the monumental Palace of Dukes and States of Burgundy which was the home to the Dukes. Its facade has since been given a neoclassical look in the renovations of the 17th and 18th centuries. It remains the focal point of town, anchoring the semicircular Place de la Liberation, a generous space to begin exploring the lively town on foot. On the day of our visit, the streets of Dijon were festooned with flags of many colors, creating in one’s imagination a scene from the Renaissance times. It helped that the vast Covered Market (Les Halles) was teeming with shoppers for fresh produce and food.

Cote d’Or

The trademarked Dijon mustard sold in the town’s venerable specialty stores are not necessarily produced in Dijon anymore; they are just made by a recipe for making an especially strong mustard developed here. The famed red Burgundy wines, however, do come from vineyards just a few minutes outside of Dijon. South of Dijon, a gentle slope on the east of a range of hills runs for some forty miles. This is called Cote d’Or (Golden Hillside), a term which started as Cote d’Orient (Eastern Hillside) but was “abbreviated” to call attention to the color of the vines in autumn. We could vouch for that claim as we drove down the tertiary route D122  in this mid-October. That road has its own name: Route des Grands Crus (Road of Great Growth).  The area through which the first twelve miles of this Route and its side roads wend has a still different and distinct designation: Cote de Nuits (after the village of Nuits St George). It is this stretch which the locals call the Champs-Elysees of Burgundy; from its terroirs (terrains each with such physical homogeneity as to give a distinct character to its grapevines) come the fruit for the best wines of Cote d’Or.

Cote de Nuits is rarely more than one kilometer wide. As we drove amidst villages mostly built of stones, we saw acres of vineyards on our west and forested cliffs on the east.  Between Vosne-Romanee and Gevrey-Chambertain you pass the 24 Grand Cru wineries of Cote de Nuits. We stopped at the village of Gevrey-Chambertin, attracted by its many flowers. At the tourist office we were told that this village centered around an area that produced 9 out of the 32 Grand Cru wines from all of Burgundy. The brochure they gave us included a map which showed three color coded types of vineyards for this and several neighboring villages. The area that was close to the road and flat was marked with the legend A.O.C. Communale, the more elevated was marked with the legend “Premier Cru,” and the third area, a bit higher in the foothill was marked as “Grand Cru.” Some of the villages only had one or two of these types of areas. As the people at the tourist office explained to us, A.O.C. (appellation dorigine contrôlée) denoted the wine that comes from a defined geographic region with strict rules in regard to the grape variety. That applied to all the three types: the Communale (Village) which was the “third level,” Premier Cru, the second, and Grand Cru, the best category.

The brochure  then described the wines with the prestigious appellations of Gevrey-Chambertin: “The Gevrey-Chambertin are high-colored, rich in aroma of blackcurrant and black and red fruits, animal notes of musk, fur and often liquorice when the wine gets older.” It named eleven wines that could use that appellation. In contrast, the brochure said, the red wines of Hautes-Cotes de Nuits which according to the map was the highest on the hills had “fruit aromas when young, an agreeable nose in maturity and certain firmness.”

We were eager to learn more about Burgundy’s wine because it has been so important to the culture and history of this land. Grapevines were planted here as early as the 1st century. We had recommendations to go wine tasting in Le Caveau des Musigny at the village of Chambolle-Musigny, just south of Gevrey-Chambertin. There the legendary Paulo was to educate us while serving from among the wines of many producers he knew. Paulo was no longer there, replaced by a woman who led us to a vaulted tasting room where we sat across a table from her as she poured from some of the 40 winemakers the Caveau represented. We were her sole customers and she indulged us with a detailed introduction for the uninitiated.

In a smart black pants-suit and with amusing French coquettish gestures pleasing in smiles, she began by telling us that the wines of Cote d’Or were almost all from the Pinot Noir grapes. This was not accidental. In the 14th century, Duke Philippe le Hardi ordered that the other varieties, such as Gamay, be banned because he found that this terroir with its brown limestone was ideal for the aromas of Pinot Noire: “cherry, blackcurrant and blackberry in its youth, then over time, spicy nuances …, sometimes reminiscent of leather. ” Then our hostess pulled out a large piece of paper and drew a rough map of the region’s wine areas, delineating the importance of elevation in determining the “complexity” of nourishment received by the grapes on the vine, mostly depending on the slope of the land. That was the distinctive hallmark of different terroirs, she said: the more complex – the more stressful for the roots of the grapes in obtaining nourishment from the earth- the better.

She said, of course, the best wines come from the “un-grafted vines,” but there is doubtful if any exists. After the pest phylloxera destroyed France’s grape vines in the late 19th century, practically all of the Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy have been grafted onto a disease resistant variety of American rootstock.


Wine making was introduced to Burgundy in the Gallo-Roman times through an area called Golden Gates in the northwest. Our map of Burgundy marked this region with branches of grapes around the small town of Chablis. The monks of the nearby Pontigny Abbey developed the Chablis vineyard from 1130 on. At the time the vines provided a communion wine. Burgundy’s white is called Chablis, an appellation for production stretching across around 20 villages. The grapes are Chardonnay.

This region does not offer a glamorous outing for foreign tourists. In fact, it was not easy to find a wine tasting place.  The neon sign of one establishment blinked as the most promising. It was a warehouse that called itself a cave (cellar). Ours became the only car parked in its small parking area, in between two huge farming tractors. A young girl hurriedly welcomed us with a bonjour and went inside her house to call the English speaking member of the family. The young lad ran out of the building pulling his hoody down.

His few words of English and our limited French were far inadequate for an enlightening introduction to the white wines of Burgundy. The ones that receive the Chablis appellation, we understood, are then classified into Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru in the ascending order of their quality.  We sampled three, trying to look serious in assaying the acidity caused on our taste buds by the dry wine while our server stared at us curiously. Occasionally, we looked over to a group of young men and women next to us at the counter who were served by the woman who must have been the mother in the cave’s family. They were engaged in animated discussion which was not always smooth, judging by the frequent mais no (but no) we heard. The group had been there when we entered and stayed after we left. We wondered if they would buy any bottle to make our hosts’ time worthwhile – the tasting was free.



We pulled into the chic cobble stoned courtyard and with some hesitation parked our lowly Renault next to the huge Mercedeses that occupied the other spaces. This 19th century mansion used to be the residence of a major family of Champagne barons, the Merciers. Named after the patriarch, Eugene Mercier, who established the winery by that name in 1858, it has been turned into a luxury Inn in Epernay. La Villa Eugene advertised itself as “the ideal place to relax and regain your zest for life.” For the discount price we paid, we were commensurately relegated to what seemed to have been the attic. The walls angled and the windows were small and beyond easy reach. We ducked the wooden planks diagonally connecting the corners when we walked around the room. They were left exposed by some creative interior designer. We went to the house’s “conservatory” for breakfast. The spacious dinning room also accommodated an eighty- year old bougainvillea plant, with tired pale flowers. Alternatively, we could look out onto a back garden freshly washed with rain.

As in Loire and Burgundy, we had chosen this place in Champagne for the experience of residing in a “home” rather than a modern hotel. Admittedly, unlike the two other places, the host did not live here any longer. Furthermore, all three were “staged” to appeal to the guest. Such modification, on the other hand, gave them a certain authenticity. As tourists we could really only expect the reflection of the actual French residential life. It is that which needed to be described in this report. (In the sense of the shadows in Plato’s simile of the cave, that reflection was no less real.)

La Villa Eugene was located at Avenue de Champagne, the fashionable street where the various barons had built their mansions in Epernay at the heart of the Champagne region. The Avenue had wide sidewalks and trees lined it. Banners hung from its lamp poles campaigned for the UNESCO heritage of the world status for Epernay, well-deserved if aesthetic proportions of this one elegant street was the test. Its appeal for a promenade down the whole length of a mile was irresistible.  As the wet sky denied us that pleasure, we drove straight to the domain of the lord of all Champagne chiefs down the street: Moët & Chandon. We took a tour of its caves where we learned about the illustrious history of the Moet family. This was more than simple wine tasting. Like other visiting couples we were assigned our individual guide by the house, after we paid a princely admission fee. The guide came formally dressed in a suit and measured language.

Our first stop was a gallery of the pictures of the four major figures in the life of the winery: the founder Claude Moet, his son, grandson, and the latter’s son-in-law and “business partner,” Pierre-Gabriel Chandon, “who had been an established businessman in his own right.” The three international offshoots of the winery, indeed, carry his name, like the Domain Chandon we knew in NapaValley. (“Theirs is a good sparkling wine but,” our guide reminded us, “it can not be called Champagne.”) The gentlemen of this gallery were not ordinary citizens. The founder’s grandson, Jean-Rémy,  also served as the Mayor of Epernay and was Napoleon Bonaparte’s  pal, often hosting him in Epernay in the Moet family residence which  has been since been donated to Epernay as its  city hall .

From the gallery at Moët & Chandon we could see the statue of Dom Perignon in the courtyard. He “invented” Champagne, in the language of our guide, and then spent years “learning its chemistry and perfecting that wine in his monastery.” Moët & Chandon not only owns the Dom Perignon label and the vineyards around the monk’s abode up on the hills, but indeed most of the buildings connected to that monastery.

As we descended into the caves of Moët & Chandon, our guide said there were some 24 kilometers of these underground cellars right here, constructed in some places at three levels.  “During World War II some resistance fighters hid here.” There were maps on the walls indicating escape routs in case of emergency. But there had never been an emergency, our guide assured us, except when someone happened to have a “normal” sickness. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche. Our guide said that the winemakers had put it there not to ensure their safety but to pray that she would make “the wine good.” The guide touched the walls of the cave and said it was made of chalk rock “which is the key to making the wine as it maintains the required humidity.” The temperature in the caves remained constant, he said.  He then told us about the stages in the champagne-making process: the blending, bottling, and remouage (riddling). That last one was the turning of the bottles around at regular intervals, every day for several weeks, to help the settling of sediments.  As our guide explained Champagne is made entirely in those wine cellars where first the grapes “must” is placed in vats. During the first fermentation sugar is transformed into alcohol. After several months the cuvee (content of the vat) is given naturally occurring Champagne yeast. It is then bottled where a second fermentation takes place at a much slower pace when gradually the still wine becomes sparkling.

There were bottles full of wine stacked against the walls of the caves, being aged.  “There are millions of bottles here,” our guide said. “Some are for the Dom Perignon Champagne,” he pointed out. Nowadays, the guide added, “one bottle of Champagne is opened every two seconds somewhere in the world.” Moët & Chandon uses only one grape for its Champagne, the Pinot Noir; there are other Champagne-makers that blend more than one grape. All the Champaign produced by Moët & Chandon are called simply Champagne, except some select ones which become Vintage. That selection is up to the winemaker, who is called le maitres de chais (the cellar master). “We don’t know when the next vintage champagne will be released,” our guide said solemnly. The last ones were in 2004 and 2002. The Vintage Champagne is graded into Premier Cru and Grand Cru which is the best.

We were now at a room, still in the caves, where a table was set with several bottles of Champagne. This is where we would be given a taste of the Moët & Chandon Champagne.  Two other employees joined us, but we were still being attended to exclusively. These were also formally dressed. One was a woman. It was the man who poured a glass for us. As I tasted the Champagne in my glass, I read the brochure I was given: “Admire the shades of its light golden, grey gold or old gold colour. Observe the light, intense and generous bubbles. Slowly smell the champagne and make out the aromas of fruit, cinnamon, spices and brioche.”

Champagne Route

In Epernay we did not run into any “winemakers.”  It was only in our visit to Reims, a city a few miles north that we saw a huge portray of riddling winemakers, in front of the city’s public library, next to a sculpture of Andrew Carnegie who had donated the classical looking building of the library. I also met two grape-pickers in the vineyards of Epernay. I chatted with them briefly. The vineyard’s grapes had already been harvested. They were there to collect the metal clips on the branches that had been missed. One of them cut a bunch of grapes on a branch that had also been missed. He gave it to me and said “gardez (keep it)!” The grapes were Pinot Noir, black and small.

This was on the Champagne Route , well marked on a map for a tour of the four directions around Epernay where the various vineyard are located. We climbed up the roads on the spacious slopes. The vineyards were on these terraced slopes, none on the flat land. Down in the Cubry valley we could see the river Marne and a canal next to it. When the sun shone the landscape came alive with colors of the turning vine leaves [95]. More often, the overcast sky gave it a dreamy  appearance . Rain was a frequent companion. It rains more than 200 days a year in Epernay. I asked a local how many inches of rain they had here in a year. He answered, half-joking, “Not inches; we measure our rain in yards.”

We drove through little hamlets which were no more than a cluster of homes . There were no stores in most of them. You would think that the residents were self-sufficient or bartered for goods. Shopping, such as was done in this region, took place in the town. Epernay had many stores. They were stuffed with merchandise but we saw hardly any customers in them.

In the village of Hautervillers we passed by a woman who was sweeping the front of her house to reach the alley named after the Benedictine monks who shared the Hautervillers St. Peter’s Abbey with Dom Perignon. The abbey itself was closed to us but we went to the church  where Dom Pierre Perignon is buried in front of the altar . He had no raised tombstone, only a marked stone on the ground .

Next to cemeteries in some villages there were memorials to the soldiers who died in battle for France . Curiously, they all seemed to commemorate only one war, World War I. In Epernay itself, however, the tall stele in Place De La Republique commemorates World War II, and another major square, Place Pierre Mendes France, is named after the Prime Minister who ended the last major French war, the one in Indochina, in 1954.

Along with the churches and abbeys of the past, there were statues of Mary where the Champagne Route took us. The biggest one was on a hill. We saw many cars going into a parking lot with a great view of that statue. We found this curious in a country that makes much of its secularism. It turned out that the cars were here because parents had come to pick up their children from the big school next door.


Epernay calls itself the Capital of Champagne. For five hundred years until the 10th century, however, it belonged to the archbishops of Reims, a city which also has a similar claim as the most important center of Champagne production.  With a population of 25,000, Epernay is dwarfed by Reims which is almost four times that size. Furthermore, Reims is known for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which we visited, the Romanesque and early Gothic Basilica of St. Remi, and the far more famous Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims . It was at the site of that Cathedral  that the first Christian king of France, Clovis was baptized. That set a tradition which was followed by some 30 succeeding kings of France being crowned here: all of the country’s monarchs before the Revolution, except two.

The Reims Cathedral is also renowned for its stained windows. The old ones date to as early as 1230. A display in the Cathedral offers that: “Gothic architecture is an art of light. The Reims window is not a mere opening in a wall but the abolition of the wall itself”. Equally celebrated are the Cathedral’s new windows, done in 1971 by Marc Chagall.

As we paced the hushed vast nave of the Cathedral in Reims it became apparent that this was an appropriate place to conclude our visit to the heartland of French culture and history. The signs on the walls of the Cathedral remind you that beginning from the inception it has continuously played host to important events of this country. In our times, notably, it was here that on 8th July 1962 “General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer set the seal of reconciliation” between France and Germany, its long-standing historic adversary.