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Ireland’s Counties



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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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