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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 04 Oct 2007

Location: Cork, Ireland

MapOh dear, it's been a while since we've had a place where we could update the blog, but we've got a spare hour in Dublin, so here is the entire Irish leg ... so far.

Monday/Tuesday 24, 25th
A short flight to Dublin on Aer Lingus, paying 80 euro in excess baggage, found us in Ireland, armed with a hire car and GPS. We headed south to Cork, and our first Irish hosts, Vince and Niamh (I met Vince a couple of years ago through my work).
We immediately noticed the countryside was very green, in fact spectacularly green. Quite incredibly green. And today we only had our second day of rain – which is pretty good after a month on the road.
The next day, we explored Cork, and first up was Blarney Castle. A gorgeous old castle, some of it ruins but enough intact to climb to the top, and the option of kissing this dam stone. Anne did – sort of, it’s not that easy to reach. The castle and grounds were quite beautiful, but perhaps spoilt by the hundreds and hundreds of tourists – mostly American (but there were at least two Aussies!!). Then on to Midleton, and the Jameson Whiskey Distillery. How whiskey is made is a fascinating story (specially Irish whiskey), and it became evident that there is a distinct rivalry between the Irish and Scots for who makes the best whiskey. Irish is triple-distilled, Scotch is only double, and we're told that it was the Irish who taught the Scots how to make whiskey in the first place, many centuries ago. Here we also saw the largest copper still in the world, built over a century ago and ceased operation in 1970. A huge, empty copper vessel.

Wednesday 26th
After advice from Vince and Niamh, we decided to see southwest Ireland on an overnighter, so we packed an overnight bag and headed for the Dingle Peninsula. Before long the scenery changed from densely overgrown forests or cultivated farmland, to vast open plains of obviously poorer soil that form the foothills to some spectacular mountains. These mountains are the highest in Ireland, rising over a kilometer in the air, and are totally nude of trees, while the foothills are dotted with farmhouses and chequered with paddocks separated by stone fences. Most of the buildings were also made of stone, as are bridges, barns, retaining walls, churches … in fact, stone is a dominate feature throughout Ireland. It is everywhere. You can see these rocks embedded in the ground, and there is no shortage of them. The coastline consists of either sandy beaches or sheer rocky cliffs (reminded us of Tasman Peninsula and Eaglehawk Neck).
The township of Dingle is a gorgeous place, centered around its fishing port. Very touristy, with many merchandise shops selling Aran wool garments (this is a large island off the coast that grows very thick wool, because it’s so cold, I guess), and all the other Irish garb. Lots of pubs and bars. What struck us was the colourful rows of terraced houses along the narrow streets, very pretty. The movie “Ryan’s Daughter” was filmed in the Dingle area.

Thursday 27th
After an overnight B&B in Killarney (and an Irish stew in a traditional Irish pub, entertained by some live traditional music), we decided to spend 25 Euro each and take a 6 hour bus trip around the Ring of Kerry (with lots of stops). It was nice not to drive for a day, and the bus gave great views from high up, and most importantly, we avoided driving on some VERY narrow roads. Have no idea how the bus driver did it, but he did.
The Ring of Kerry is a circuit around a peninsula, across the bay from Dingle, that offers scenery that we have never seen the likes of before. Mountain ranges that fall into the sea, absolute blue waters leading out to the Atlantic Ocean, and incredible views from high vantage points. Every bend in the road presented a new panorama. The Tom Cruise movie “Far and Away” was filmed around here, as well as in Dublin.
We saw locals harvesting peat from permanently wet bogs and putting it into storage for fuel over winter. We saw a sheep farmer at work, with two Border Collies who followed his every command in rounding up his flock. The Americans in the group were amazed at the training of these dogs – we Aussies just nodded in full knowledge that Australian sheepdogs are just as clever. An interesting thing we learned is that sheep have no predator in Ireland (the only danger are foxes who take young lambs) so farmers let their sheep roam all over these hills and mountains at will, and then use their dogs to round them up over long distances.
Nearly every building and front yard in this area (which is in County Kerry) was flying green and yellow flags. We learn that these are the colours of County Kerry football team, who won the Ireland County final in Gaelic football two weeks prior, beating Cork to win the title for the 2nd year in a row. Obvious bragging rights for another year.

Friday 28th
We farewelled our friends Vince and Niamh (who have looked after us so well – we hope to repay the favour one day) and left Cork to drive north-west to Limerick and eventually Galway for the night. The country roads are so different to home, with fences made of stones. That is, every fence, going on for miles. And the moss, lichen and ivy growing over them indicates how old they must be. Speaking to locals, we learn that the fence stones surrounding each paddock most likely come from the paddock itself, when the farmer ploughed the field to ready it for cultivation. Goes to show that Ireland is a very rocky place.
Wonderful Galway – a town that immediately captivated us. Plenty of pubs and bars, with traditional Irish music emanating from every one. Music is obviously a driving force here – there are as many shops selling CDs and instruments as there are pubs.

Saturday 29th
Galway to Donegal. More farmland, stone fences, and sheep. A Magic Moment … driving out of Galway, listening to the local radio station and they play Eric Bogle’s classic song “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.
Donegal was a delightful little town, again driven by music. We did a bit of a pub crawl here – a pre-dinner Guiness and cider in pub number one, dinner of Irish stew in number two, and after-dinner Guiness/cider in pub number three. Here we met a local guy called Garry, a builder and regular in this pub. He was building a house up in the hills, and was fighting with the local council over a building permit. The problem was that the water table was so high that the septic tank would not naturally flow out. High water tables in Ireland is not surprising, given the rain they obviously get.

Sunday 30th
Donegal into Northern Ireland, and today we witnessed first-hand the rain that gives Ireland its greenness. It poured and poured. But we don’t complain, as this is our second wet day in over a month of travels. We visited Donegal Castle, built in 15th Century. Quite small by what we’d recently seen, but still quite extraordinary.
We journeyed east and crossed the border at a town called Strabane (albeit unannounced – not a notice anywhere that we were leaving Ireland), and immediately noticed speed limits in miles per hour, and prices in pounds/pence. We found our home for next few days – Aunty Rose’s place near Ballymoney in the north of Northern Ireland.
Monday 1st October
Only half hour’s drive from Aunty Rose’s place is one of the most famous and incredible geological features in the world. The Giant’s Causeway was created by a lava flow 60 million years ago that solidified and then cracked in certain directions to create hexagonal columns, that were then pushed up by earth movements into steps that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean. Quite amazing to see. The coastline is incredible as well – sheer cliffs that fall into the sea from flat green pasture above. Further along the coast is an island connected to the mainland by a rope bridge, and if you’re brave enough, you can walk across it to the island. We have photographic evidence that we were brave enough, high above the raging sea below.
You can drive right along this north coast (the Causeway Coast) with superb views out to sea. Portrush and Portstewart are just two towns nestled on the coast that attract a lot of people to live there, for obvious reasons – the scenery is beautiful.

Tuesday 2nd
A day spent in Belfast. We did a bus tour of the city, which took us to such places as Stormont – the political headquarters of Northern Ireland and a beautiful palatial building sitting in hundreds of acres of gardens and manicured lawns. We drove past Belfast’s local airport (not its international terminal) which they have recently renamed after their most famous son, and perhaps the most famous English footballer born in Ireland – George Best. In fact, they help his funeral at Stormont, and more than 100,000 people turned up.We drove past the Belfast dockyards that are today virtually empty, with large areas of vacant land, weeds and concrete. But early last century 30,000 people worked there, building ships, and the most famous of all was the Titanic. Today, the slipway where the Titanic was built is covered in weeds, but the city is making a concerted effort to re-develop the docks area, and will have it full of hotels, restaurants and museums by 2012, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Two huge yellow cranes in the dockyards dominate the skyline, you can see them all over the city.
We saw evidence of this being the birthplace of the Titanic all over the city – they obviously take much pride in building it. They say that it had an English captain, a Scottish engineer and it hit a Canadian iceberg, so they take no responsibility in its sinking.
We also drove through the troubled spots in Belfast, and drove across many lines that have Protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. While we did not see any direct evidence of the troubles, we saw many consequences. Buildings surrounded by ten-foot high explosion-proof fences, cameras on every traffic intersection, fences running through housing divisions with gates that are opened and closed at curfew times. I think we ended up feeling pity for Belfast – a city with many lovely buildings, fascinating history and friendly people, but unfortunately tainted by recent history since the 1960s. What we found encouraging is that school children are now going to integrated schools – Protestants and Catholics together, and more and more people from both sides are living and working together. The hope is that the problems will be solved within a generation, as this generation grows to accept each other’s ideals.

Wednesday/Thursday, 3/4th
We sadly said goodbye to our friends in Northern Ireland - such warm and wonderful hosts - headed south, back into Irealnd and to Dublin.