Dublin to Cork via Cashel

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Dublin to Cork via Cashel

This day may be complete in itself or you may be continuing onwards to Killarney for overnight. If so, you have a long day ahead of you. Leave early and do not dawdle. The same is true for itinerary b), if not even truer since Waterford requires plenty of time. The landscape on this day is fairly dull and flat, at least as far as Cashel, and there are long swathes of no great interest. You need music or stories or something to keep the group alive.

The Pale  In the Middle Ages the English, despairing of taming the Irish, imposed a policy of apartheid on Ireland, with long-term results. By the Statutes of Kilkenny they forbade the native Irish to marry English people, to speak Gaelic or to wear traditional Irish dress. Ireland was divided into two areas: the part that was wholly under English control, and the rest of the country where the wild Irish roamed. The boundary between these areas was known as the Pale, hence the term 'beyond the pale' meaning beyond civilising, beyond redemption. The lands within the Pale consisted of a crescent generally extending about 30 miles out from Dublin, as far as Kildare, for example, to the west and Carlow to the south, though this frontier was fluid and at times extended as far south as Waterford. The Pale continued in existence until the time of Henry VIII when the English decided to exert stronger controls over the Irish areas of Ireland.

The Curragh  The Curragh is a wide plain made up of short springy turf on limestone soil. It covers an area of 22 square miles or about 5000 acres. It is world famous as the home of Irish horse-racing. It has been for at least 2000 years. (The very word curragh comes from the Gaelic for race course.) This is the venue for the Irish Derby and the four other 'classics' of the Irish flat-racing season. The Curragh is the home of the Irish National Stud, breeding ground since 1900 of probably the best race horses in the world. Apparently the soil has properties conducive to bone building.

Kildare  This is the capital of Co. Kildare on the western edge of the Pale and the Curragh plain. The National Stud is close by. The centre of Kildare is dominated by its medieval St. Brigid's Cathedral and round tower, both much restored in the last century. For details about round towers see Cashel notes. This one probably dates from the C12.

Monasterevin  This is a C18 town built at the junction of the river Barrow and the Grand Canal which once brought trade to Dublin. It is now being restored as a tourist amenity. You can clearly see the lovely aqueduct which carries the canal.

The road now bypasses the ugly town of Portlaoise, famous only as the site of Ireland's top- security prison and makes its way through the central counties of Laois, Kilkenny and Tipperary as far as Cashel. The small towns of Abbeyleix, Durrow, Johnstown and Urlingford through which you now pass have nothing particularly to recommend them. This is a good time to take a short nap.

Cashel  The Rock of Cashel is a splendid sight. It is a limestone outcrop rising 200 ft from the Tipperary plain. This is one of the great historic sites of Ireland. Its importance is both ecclesiastical and royal. From 370 to1101 it was the seat of the Kings of Munster who ruled over huge swathes of southern Ireland. Most famously, it was visited by St. Patrick in 450 when he baptised King Aengus. The great king and hero Brian Boru was crowned in Cashel in the C11. In 1101 it was handed over to the Church and became an ecclesiastical site of the highest order. It continued in this role until the time of Cromwell when in 1647 the cathedral was destroyed, under the generalship of Lord Inchiquin. The hundreds of people who had taken refuge there were also killed. In total that day, about 3,000 people died. The site is now composed of several buildings from the C12 to the C16. The highlights are the round tower, Cormac's Chapel and St. Patrick's Cross, as well as the whole craggy and wonderfully atmospheric ensemble in its venerable state of ruin.

You should expect to spend an hour and a half at Cashel unless you are not going in but just stopping below for a photo. You park at the bottom of the hill and walk up to the ticket office and museum in the restored choristers' building and dormitory. You can pick up good explanatory leaflets and maps of the site with your tickets. For this reason no detailed explanations are given below. The treasure of the museum is the original C12 St. Patrick's Cross (the one outside, in the original position, is a modern replica). The much damaged life-sized figure is said to be St. Patrick. The base of the cross is supposedly the throne of King Aengus on which he was seated at the time of his baptism.

The best preserved building in the complex is also one of the earliest ones, Cormac's Chapel, consecrated in 1134, to the right of the cathedral's south transept. Cormac MacCarthy was one of the kings of Munster. It is ornately carved and decorated on almost every stone. The cathedral itself, founded in 1169, is mostly C13 and in a far greater state of ruin. Most of the roof and the windows are now gone. There are, however, some beautifully intricate late medieval carvings to be seen, especially in the north transept.

The Round Tower is in perfect condition, the best preserved in Ireland. It is made of sandstone and is 92 ft high. The doorway stands 12 ft above the ground. There are four triangular windows on the top storey. These round towers are a building form unique to Ireland. They were built as belltowers but served other purposes as well. They were also treasuries and, at the time of the Viking invasions, were sometimes used as places of refuge.

Cahir  This town lies on the river Suir. Brian Boru had a residence here. Its treasure is the large and splendid castle, state of the art in the C15 in terms of military fortifications. It is in a very good state of repair. It was owned by the Anglo-Irish Butler family from the C15 to 1961 when it passed into the possession of the state. In its long history it was captured twice: by the Earl of Essex under Queen Elizabeth I and in 1650 under Cromwell. Nowadays it is most commonly used as a film set.

Fermoy  This is prime fishing country. Fermoy lies on the river Blackwater, Ireland's second longest river (after the Shannon). The fish are predominantly salmon, roach, perch and pike. Apart from this, Fermoy has nothing particularly to recommend it.

Cork  Ireland's second city, 140,000 inhabitants, capital of Co. Cork, on the river Lee. If you are just passing through en route to Dublin or Killarney you do not have time to visit the city and will simply skirt it on the way to or from Blarney. In that case just the briefest of introductions will suffice. You will see nothing of the town centre, just part of the port and some council housing estates around the North Ring Road. The port is large - the estuary of the river Lee forms the biggest natural harbour in Europe - and trades predominantly in agricultural exports (though this is changing now since the British beef crisis affected that trade badly). You may, however, be staying the night here in which case you obviously need a little more detail. This is a lively, vibrant town with many pleasant shops and markets. It has a lovely C19 neo-Gothic cathedral, St. Finbarre's. If you choose to visit anything this is the thing to see. Apart from that, no great monuments stand out. Cork's greatest pleasure is its atmosphere, based on some lovely and lively pubs, the elegant streets of Grand Parade and South Mall, and its entertaining shopping opportunities.

The essence of Cork is that it is absolutely not a small version of Dublin. It is very much a city with its own identity. The accent is totally different; the local culinary specialities bear no relation to Dublin's (black pudding and pig's trotters); the stout is Murphy's or Beamish, not Guinness; visually, Dublin is very correct whereas Cork is a colourful mess. Dublin gives the impression of being half Irish and half English; Cork is 100% Irish. This is, after all, the capital of the Rebel County.

The word Cork, or Corcaigh in Gaelic, means marsh. The centre of the city was originally all marshland or waterways, channels of the river Lee now mostly filled in. This happened in the C19 before which Cork had something of the appearance of a Dutch town, with boats mooring right outside its houses. The South Mall, for example, was a waterway, as were St. Patrick's Street and Grand Parade. The centre of the city sits on an island between two channels of the Lee. This is the hub of everything in Cork: the pubs and nightlife on and around Paul Street or Grand Parade, the quays, the English Market, the shops on St. Patrick's Street and Oliver Plunkett Street. This is not a city for a bus tour. You are much better off, after perhaps taking at look at St. Finbarre's, starting out at the tourist information by the C19 National Monument, picking up maps of the town and exploring on your own. Do not go in search of urban splendour and beauty, but charm is to be found in abundance.

(Incidentally, Henry Ford's family came from Cork. The Ford plant, which was for many years the backbone of the local economy, closed down in the 80s, as did Dunlop Tyres, the other main employer. Cork now finds itself at the forefront of Ireland's renaissance as a leader in the fields of computing and information technology.)

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