leaving the Blasket Islands

Great Blasket from above the ferry jetty

on my first trip to Ireland, my companions and I did a circuit of the Dingle Peninsula by car as I was taking them to Tralee to catch a bus to Dublin (on what turned out to be the Saturday at the heart of the Rose Festival; traffic was … interesting). one of my greatest regrets our self-imposed restrictions was that we only got a glimpse of the Blasket Islands as we zipped around Slea Head on what purported to be a two-lane road. (fortunately, almost everyone makes the drive in a clockwise direction.) my desire to visit the islands only grew as I continued my trip up the west coast, learning more about what happened to Irish farmers and families during the 19th century, and later in reading historical accounts of the last two centuries of Irish history – both fiction and non-fiction.

and so, when planning out our Dingle hike I knew I wanted to plan in a rest day to allow us time to take the ferry out to the island. armed with an approximate departure timetable for the fery, we started out at the heritage center which provided a pretty comprehensive look at life on the island, of linguistic heritage, animals and plant life, and the nature of the diaspora when the island was evacuated in 1953.

the islands were inhabited by small clusters of people for centuries, with the largest community on the Great Blasket (up to about 160 individuals). the islands saw an influx of residents from people fleeing the abominable policies of Lord Ventry (who owned much of the arable terrain on the mainland) during the Famine, though population declined in the 1840s all the same due to the effects of the Famine.

one of the single-family islands as seen from the main island

some of the smaller islands were home to single families and while in later years, particularly as the young emigrated and the remaining population aged, they relied on assistance from the mainland, their relative isolation and success as fishermen insulated them from the worst devastation of the Famine. the population didn’t begin to decline until the 20th century, when people hearing the success stories of those who had fled the Famine for America started leaving for better opportunities than a remote, island fishing community could offer. an outbreak of typhoid in the 1890s affected population as well. in the early 20th century, the government offered improvements, such as building a breakwater and new slipway; all the same, trips to and from the mainland still required adequate weather.

village on the Great Blasket from above

around the same time, cultural researchers became aware of the unique nature of the Blasket Islands – as an isolated community who’d defended their Gaelic language and heritage well in the face of efforts of the occupying English government to eradicate it from all of Ireland. (today, areas such as the Dingle Peninsula, Donegal and elsewhere Gaelic retains a strong presence are areas of governmentally-protected preservation called gaeltachts.) several researchers headed out to the islands to meet with inhabitants and to encourage them to share their stories for publication. quite a few took the opportunity, including Peig Sayers, who was actually born on the mainland (in Dun Choain) and married onto the island. her memoir Peig is one of the most well-known of the Gaelic Revival literature (it was certainly one of the easiest to find her book when looking for those Blasket narratives at a local bookshop after my first glimpse of the Blasket Islands in 2009).

ultimately, the exodus of young people took its toll on the island – while the island housed some 160 inhabitants in 1911, by the late 1940s only a few dozen people lived on the island (51, including infants, recorded in 1947). demands of subsistence living made further habitation of the islands untenable. trips to and from the mainland with necessities could only take place during good weather and the aging population increasingly could not keep up with the demands of island life; many abandoned the island in the decades prior to the final abandonment. eventually, the Irish government determined the islands must be evacuated and the last of the inhabitants left the island on 17 November 1953, relocating primarily elsewhere on the peninsula, as well as to America.

now, the islands are in a sort of limbo – not a national landmark but certainly not commercially owned. the highly informative interpretative center in Dun Choain provides an excellent overview of the history, culture, and life on the island, but a to fully appreciate the islands it’s worth the ferry trip (in good weather) out for a hike among the abandoned homes, up the mountain, and through the herd of remaining sheep (who, purportedly, are shorn once or twice a year and are otherwise left to their own devices).

(find additional information here: http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/blaskets.html)


on my first visit to Bru na Boinne, my budget-conscious self opted against the extra expense of adding Knowth to my ticket. probably for the best in the end as the weather turned dismally drizzly by the end of my hour on-site. Newgrange, with its impressively restored facade and amazing equinox illumination, certainly seems more impressive at a cursory glance, but now having seen both I stand equally, if not more, impressed with Knowth.

of the passage tombs in the area, Knowth is the largest, both in terms of its primary mound and because of the smaller satellite tombs that surround it. construction of the primary mound dates to sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE, making it slightly younger than Newgrange. unlike Newgrange, however, the primary Knowth mound has two interior chambers accessed by passages from opposite sides of the mounds. the two chambers are mere feet from one another, but the passage does not extend all the way through the mound. also unlike at Newgrange, visitors aren’t allowed down the passages. because of its history, Knowth is not considered structurally safe enough to allow the average person access.

some speculate that, after falling into disuse, a layer of dirt from the top of the mound at Newgrange cascaded down over the entrance and decorated and decorative stones, preserving them and sealing the passage and tomb securely until farm laborers excavating for stone unearthed the entrance in 1699. (Charles Campbell, the man responsible for Newgrange, was part of Cromwell’s plantation plan and had leased the land from the government in England.) at Knowth as well, dirt covered the entrances and stones circling the mound at Knowth but whereas Newgrange went largely untouched in intervening centuries, all manner of people built atop the mound at Knowth. sometime during the Iron Age, it became a hill fort, beginning a period of long habitation. (those inhabitants must have found the passages as some of the stones sport graffiti in ogham symbols.) a branch of powerful early-Irish clan made their home around and atop the mound around 800 CE and several hundred years later the site came under the jurisdiction of the monks at Mellifont, who constructed a number of stone buildings on the site, which further affected the structural integrity of the interior passages. once the monks lost the land it was used as farmland for centuries, primarily for grazing, until being purchased by the Irish government in 1939 with early excavations beginning a few years later and a major one getting under way in the early 1960s.

the primary mound at Knowth is about 95 meters across at its widest point and is surrounded by 18 smaller mounds. a ring of 124 elaborately carved kerbstones — with artwork on both sides and some evidence they may have been appropriated from earlier sites based on carvings — circles the base of the main mound and represents the largest collection of neolithic art in Europe; they are remarkably well preserved because they remained covered by dirt for so many centuries. the passages are 40m (eastern) and 34m (western) in length and were constructed along an axis to align with sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. excavations of the site began in the 1960s and took some 40 years to complete and took the mound down to its base. (Newgrange, on the other hand, hasn’t been dismantled as its interior has remained sealed since its construction. Dowth has yet to be excavated – I recall our guide saying something about leaving sites for future generations to investigate.)

Tom Crean & the South Pole Inn

during our lunch in Inch, the guy serving our lunch asked about our plans (our packs may have tipped him off to our hiking) and, upon learning we would spend the night in Annascaul, recommended a pub with good food, beer, and craic in the main road. that pub was the South Pole Inn, once owned by Antarctic explorer and native son Tom Crean.

Crean was born in a farming hamlet near Annascaul in 1877, Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy a handful of days before his sixteenth birthday at the nearby Minard Inlet (site of the castle of the same name). within six years he’d risen from “boy second class” to “petty officer, second class.” in 1900 he was posted to a ship in the New Zealand Squadron and a year later, when Robert Scott’s Discovery expedition required a replacement for an able seaman who deserted, Crean volunteered. he distinguished himself during the expedition, receiving praise from the ship’s second mate and fellow seamen. when the Discovery became locked in ice in 1902, and efforts to extricate the ship the following summer failed, Crean remained behind in the Antarctic until the ship was freed in February 1904. upon returning to civilization, Crean received a promotion to petty officer, first class, at Scott’s recommendation, and returned to regular duty (and eventually torpedo school) in England. Scott eventually requested Crean join his crew and the latter followed the former through a series of ships and posts.

Crean was one of Scott’s first selections when organizing his crew for the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition. Crean accompanied Scott much of the way to the South Pole, but was ordered to turn back, along with two other men, while Scott and several others continued on towards the Pole. Crean’s group barely returned safely, but Scott’s group did not return at all.

in 1913, Crean received a Polar Medal (as did all surviving members of the expedition) and an Albert Medal (for his part in saving the life of Edward Evans after parting ways with Scott’s group), bestowed by the King in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

a year later, Crean joined Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition as second mate, picking up all manner of duties including responsibility of one of the dog teams when the hired Canadian wrangler failed to show up. when the Endurance was trapped and eventually sunk by pack ice, Crean helped navigate lifeboats carrying the surviving crew in lifeboats to Elephant Island. he carried on with Shackleton with a team of eight set off for South Georgia to orchestrate a rescue operation. after successfully completing the 800-nautical-mile journey, Shackleton, Crean, and another man (Worsley), were forced to trek 30 statue miles across the glaciated island on foot as the rudder of their reinforced lifeboat had broken off when landing on the island. they made it and, after three attempts, Shackleton rescued the men stranded on Elephant Island.

Crean returned to England in 1916, and received a third Polar Medal for his service on the Endurance. he married an Annascaul woman in 1917 and spent most of the First World War stationed in Chatham barracks and later on a depot ship in Ireland. in 1920, Shackleton invited him to join another Antarctic expedition but, having settled down and recently welcomed a second daughter, Crean declined. he was retired from the navy on medical grounds, following a fall that effected his vision. he and his wife, Ellen, returned to Annascaul and opened the South Pole Inn. they ran the public house together until Crean suffered a burst appendix in 1938 and, following a delay in having it removed due to difficulty finding a doctor (he was first taken to Tralee and then later on to Cork as no surgeon was available in Tralee), died of an resulting infection, aged 61.

today, the South Pole Inn is a bustling local pub with live music on the patio during warm months, serving typical Irish fare and a lager from the Dingle Brewing Company named in Crean’s honor. a statue of Crean stands in the park across the street, erected in 2003.

Guinness Storehouse

as a fan of craft brews, and living less than 10 miles from one of the most popular microbreweries in the state, I’ve taken a brewery tour or two (or dozen) over the years. from DIY affairs, to ones where the brewmaster takes you back among the tanks to explain the finer scientific points of beer brewing, to very limited, controlled situations where the script never deviates from the one all “tour guides” are compelled to memorize, the experience at the Guinness Storehouse is just that — an Experience.

with annual sales topping more than 1.8 billion U.S. pints, it shouldn’t have surprised me how thoroughly and expertly produced the “tour” at St. James’ might prove. in the dozen years since the Storehouse opened as a self-guided tour and attraction, over four million people have visited. the site, St. James’ Gate, was initially leased to Arthur Guinness in 1759 for the amount of 45 GBP each year for the duration of 9,000-year lease. (the company has since expanded outside its initial footprint and ultimately bought the land outright. a copy of that original lease is displayed under glass in the floor of the atrium.

the building that houses the Storehouse was constructed in 1902 as a fermentation plant for the brewery. it served as this capacity until a new fermentation plant was built along the River Liffey in 1988. the attraction is laid out over seven floors in what was, at the time it was built, the largest steel-framed structure in Ireland. the atrium is rather cornily designed to resemble the shape of a pint glass. the first floor introduces visitors to the four ingredients of beer – water, barley, hops, and yeast — and the general brewing process. after years of intimate and in-depth tours of craft and microbreweries, the polish of production surprised me a bit with projections of boiling tubs of wort and ovens of roasting barley, but seemed expertly and deftly done. you can’t actually see Guinness being brewed anywhere along the tour, but you can see the buildings at which various steps of the process take place! on the whole, the exhibits presenting other information interested us more. we saw examples of their famous marketing campaigns – My goodness! My Guinness! – Guinness advertisements on television throughout the decades (with cheesily appointed rooms identifiable by decade),  the famous harp seen in the logo encased in glass at the top of one escalator.

the most interesting part, by a stretch, however, was the exhibit on the cooperage. at the height of barrel production (for transporting the black stuff) in the 20th century, Guinness employed hundreds of coopers. within a few decades, as aluminum kegs came into use after 1946, the number dropped precipitously — from some 300 in the war years to 70 in 1961. the last wooden cask was filled at St. James’ Gate in 1963. the exhibit featured all the tools of the trade, as well as fascinating footage from the 1930s or so of men at work – clearly decked out in their Sunday best to show off their work to the camera – working through the entire process of making a barrel. after that exhibit it was mostly down to figuring out where we’d like to enjoy our “complimentary” pint of Guinness. (we opted for the Gravity Bar at the top of the “pint glass” with panoramic views of the city.)

I had absolutely no idea of this: according to Wikipedia, St. James’ Gate traditionally served as the starting point for Irish peregrinos heading to Santiago de Compostela. they could get their credencials stamped in the brewery before catching a boat to Spain; the nearby church will still stamp them for you.

Book of Kells

my first trip to Ireland, I decided not to stand in line to see the Book of Kells, which is probably for the best — at that point my knowledge of Irish history was rooted solidly in the twentieth century. having learned more about it and other illuminated manuscripts in the intervening years (in addition to seeing the delightful film of the same name), this time I was keen to make the trip to Trinity.

scholars generally agree that the Book originated in a monastery founded by St Colum Cille located on an island off the coast of Scotland. for quite some time, tradition held that St. Columba himself penned the text, though recent scholarship discredits that claim, dating the composition of the Book to more than two centuries after Columba’s death. some suggest the Book was created, likely by three primary authors, to honor the saint on the 200th anniversary of his death.

after a Viking raid in the early 9th century on the Isle of Ione, the monks relocated to a new monastery in Kells, from which the Book derives its name. creation of the Book dates to around this time, though no definitive evidence exists to indicate whether the Book was produced entirely at Kells, Ione, or at both. the printing of the text may have occurred at one, the illumination at another; it may have been done all at Kells, all at Ione, or even wholly the north of England or Scotland.

the first written reference to the text comes from the early 11th century, when the Annals of Ulster made reference to the theft of a great Gospel of Columba by Viking raiders. the volume was recovered (without its bejeweled, golden cover) some months later under a bit of sod. it remained at Kells after the dissolution of the Abbey, which became a parish church, until Cromwell’s men quartered there in the 1650s. the governor of the town thought it best to send the book to Dublin for safekeeping. in 1661 the bishop of Meath presented the manuscript to Trinity College permanently and it has remained there, with rare exceptions of loans, since. it went on display to the public in the 19th century and nowadays you see two different pages when you visit — one illuminated and one of standard text.

Ireland recap posts

on my first trip to Ireland, I wrote about several things we saw on this more recent trip. I may yet be moved to write about certain of these things this time, but feel free to read back (and marvel at my writing style!)

Dick Mack’s in Dingle
Dick Mack’s take two
Dunbeg Ring Fort
Gallarus Oratory
St. Stephen’s Green
Temple Bar

Countess Markiewicz
Eamon de Valera
Easter Rising 1916
Joseph Plunkett & Grace Gifford
Kilmainham Gaol


Dún Chaoin is the western most village in Ireland (the parish, which includes the Blasket Islands, is sometimes referred to as the next parish to America) and afforded us with a welcome opportunity to take a break from hiking the Dingle Way. compared with many of the towns on the outward portion of our hike, the town didn’t offer much in the way of conveniences; it was a good prelude for the next several days of hiking inland.

options for dinner when we arrived after a long and physically demanding (and breathtakingly beautiful) day of hiking we limited to: purchasing & cooking pasta in the hostel kitchen; hiking to the next town, some 30 minutes further along the road; or hoping the only pub in town still had makings for white-bread sandwiches. we opted for choice number three and stumbled down the hill to Kruger’s Bar, which was a nice change from the crowded and touristy a pubs in Dingle town. a younger woman was tending bar, chatting with a couple of regulars and a grandmotherly proprietor type, who contributed to the conversation exclusively in Gaelic. she may have even been on hand the evening in 1971 when the Campaign for the Revitalization of Ale (promoting real ale, real cider, and the traditional pub) was founded in the same room (now known as the Campaign for Real Ale, the largest single-issue consumer group in the UK).

we ordered our pints and white-bread sandwiches — ham & cheese for Andy, cheese & tomatoes for me — and settled down by a corner window with views of the water. not a lot of competition for seating (all those people who just drive around the Dingle Peninsula, me of several years ago included, don’t know what they’re missing). the grandmotherly woman got up and shuffled back into the kitchen to make our sandwiches which, frankly, were the the best white-bread sandwiches you could ever eat not just because we were hungry but because such a character prepared them for us.

while we waited, I considered the portraits tacked up along the walls — snaps from when film crews for “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Far & Away” visited Dunquin in the late 1960s and early 1990s, respectively. not much of a draw from them now, but certainly potent in their day. plan to watch both to see if anything looks familiar, or if it’s all been made into generic “Ireland” with a coastal flavor.

Trinity College Long Room

when I visited Ireland previously, I hadn’t any particular interest in queuing up to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. it seemed too much like trying to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre — lots of craning and waiting to discover that, while impressive, it really is much smaller than you’d think and the crowds prevent you from spending any satisfying length of time studying it. upon reflection (and after viewing the animated film of the same name), however, I rather regretted that decision and put it on my list of sights for any future trip to Dublin.

and adding it to my list was worth it if for no other reason than it granted me access to see the Long Room situated above. a byproduct of my love of history, I am also partial to unique or interesting libraries that have some interesting artifacts or stories behind them (I always loved Seymour Library for that very reason). both the space and the exhibit in the Old Library at Trinity did not disappoint.

stretching some 65 meters long and originally constructed between 1712 and 1732, the Old Library at Trinity started out with a boring plaster ceiling and books filling only the lower shelves. in 1801, however, it became the “copyright library” (or legal repository, like the Library of Congress) for all materials published in Ireland (and , uniquely, the United Kingdom) and it quickly exhausted its existing space. in 1860 the roof was raised to allow for constructed of the vaulted ceiling and second level of shelving.

the Old Library now holds some 200,000 books, some of the oldest held by the university, including some on display when we visited for an exhibition on preservation and conservation techniques. on display were books bound in leather and with wood; written on clay, papyrus, paper, vellum; texts in ancient languages, modern languages; illuminated manuscripts (like their more famous cousins downstairs) and hand-written scientific observations, or notes scribbled in a random on-hand journal; some decades old, some centuries old. just beside the entry door is one of the few remaining copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out by Pádraig Pearse in front of the General Post Office in 24 April 1916, something it seemed most people brushed past, just as a fair number trundled down the Long Room without looking at the rare manuscripts on display, their mission of seeing the Book of Kells accomplished.

the only downside to such an historic and impressive building — it was not built to compensate for the weather on the day we visited. as with each day on the Dingle Peninsula, our day out in Dublin proved unseasonably warm and without air conditioning or the ability to open any of the windows on the first floor to get a cross-breeze going, the informative exhibit on the Book of Kells was a trifle stuffy. the room housing the Book was, understandably, closely climate controlled and a welcome change after reading all the informational material.

Garfinny Bridge

while our guide material made reference to the Garfinny Bridge, it still came as a pleasant surprise. (partly due to the fact that we hadn’t seen a way marker in some time and I’d begun to fear we might have missed a turn.) situated “just” outside of Dingle (if you are in a car … still about an hour if you’re on foot), sources claim it is the oldest surviving stone bridge in all of Ireland. it dates from sometime in the 16th century and, like most bridges of its era, was constructed without mortar — just radial stones and clay to secure everything using a corbelling technique. the apex of the arch stands about 3 meters over the river surface.

the informational plaque indicates that the troops of Lord Deputy Arthur Grey may have crossed this bridge on their way to massacre some 600 Irish, Italian and Spanish rebels at Smerwick Bay. Grey, along with some 6,000 recruited soldiers, had been sent to Ireland in 1580 as Lord Deputy to put down the Second Desmond Rebellion. he was largely successful in stifling the rebellion, but even at the time some of his actions were questioned, such as the massacre at Smerwick. (he also executed a former chief justice for suspicion that the man supported the rebellion.) many say he promised the rebels safety if they surrendered their weapons and position, a promise that he soon broke, giving rise to the term “Grey’s faith.”

by the 19th century, the bridge had begun to collapse and people opted to ford the river a bit upstream. in the late 20th century, the bridge was restored to its current condition, which found us crossing the river by it rather than the nearby modern road.

Minard Castle

one thing we kept realizing during the course of our hike was how much more spectacular the terrain proved on a daily basis, compared to Spain. we certainly saw some incredible, remarkable, breathtaking things in Spain, but there were also a lot of long, dull, unremarkable days. the route of the Camino was about getting from point a to b to c to d to z, more with a mind to the least arduous and most expeditious route. even if you set out on a pilgrimage with an eye to commune with a higher power or to explore and express your faith in religion, you don’t necessarily want that to take longer than it absolutely has to.

hiking the Dingle Way was completely different. the point of the hike is to enjoy it, to see the views, to take it all in. you’re walking in a loop! starting out you know you’ll end up in precisely the same place (quite literally, in our case). that makes the unexpected discoveries that pop up along the route all the more exciting — you’re supposed to be finding, seeing, and enjoying these things and when there’s no pressure to get to your destination at a certain time (*ahem* securing a bed in an albergue), you can take longer to enjoy them.

one of those places was Minard Castle, perched on a hill a few kilometers outside of Anascaul on an inlet overlooking the Iveragh peninsula

a and a remarkable large-stone beach. it was built during the 16th century by the Fitzgeralds, merchants and traders who controlled much of the region beginning in the fourteenth century, of sandstone and mortar. remains of three stories remain today, though a fourth story or attic space likely existed at one point. in the 17th century, Cromwellian forces detonated charges at the base of a corner, damaging but not destroying the building. subsequently, all the residents were killed in skirmishes with Cromwellian forces and that, coupled with the damage done by the explosion, meant no one made an effort to rehabilitate the structure. today it’s stands, technically out-of-bounds and unstable, though next to such a picturesque beach, it’s hard to imagine that everyone stays out.