Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Wilds of Ireland's West Coast

My favorite part of Ireland is the "wild" western shore where the Cliffs of Moher stand 702 feet high.  

On a clear day, views from the cliff tops include the Aran Islands, Galway Bay and the Twelve Bens mountain range. Located in west County Clare, the Cliffs are part of an archaeological hotspot, including the Burren that is home to 70 wedge tombs – some older than the pyramids – including the famous Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb - one of approximately 172 in Ireland. This tomb was in use during the Neolithic and radiocarbon dates place its use between 3,800 - 3,600 BC.

The first excavation of Poulnabrone Dolmen was in 1986 and then again in 1988 by Ann Lynch. During this excavation, one portal stone was replaced, and the team excavated the chamber, portico, and cairn. The remains of up to 22 individuals from the Neolithic were found. Sixteen adults, six children, and one newborn (from the Bronze Age) were among the remains.

There are other treasures in western Ireland. Bunatty Castle, among them. A large 15th-century tower house, the castle in in the midst of Bunratty Village that displays thatched cottages where the people lived for centuries.

The present castle is the fourth structure, and it was built by the MacNamara family around 1425.

As much as I love the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, and Bunratty Castle, my favorite place in County Clare is the coastal village of Doolin. Fisher Street has one of my favorite pubs in Ireland - O'Connors.
Know for its nightly traditional Irish music,  Gus O'Connor's pub offers old-style Irish dishes such as Shepherd's pie and Guinness stew. 

Coming up is the story of St. Brigid's Well, also in west County Clare.

Friday, November 23, 2018

There but for the Grace of God Go I

I've been blogging about my trip to Scotland, and now, I'm hopping over the Irish Sea to Ireland. About an hour flight or a longer ferry ride.

Today, I was looking at my kitchen, filled with Thanksgiving leftovers, and like so many other people this season, I gave thanks for my family and all the blessings I have received this year. I thought about all the news reports of Thanksgiving dinner being served by churches and community organizations to thousands of people across the country who otherwise would have had none, and I remembered the proverb, "There but for the grace of God go I."

I had repeated that same proverb to myself when I visited the Great Famine Memorial in County Clare, Ireland. Like many people in central Appalachia, I am of Irish heritage, and many times I have wondered if I had ancestors who died during the Great Potato Famine. During the period 1845-51 the country lost over one million of her inhabitants to starvation and starvation-related diseases and another million to emigration. In the decade after the Famine, another million souls fled the island.

County Clare was one of the places hardest hit when the potato crop failed. THE first identified victim of starvation during The Great Famine was a widow near Dysart[1845] and the last recorded starvation death, in April 1851, was a man in Ennis. It’s just one of the chilling facts outlined in a book by Clare historian, Dr Ciarán Ó Murchadha. A reporter in West Clare in 1846 wrote how locals “died as the birds do when the frost comes”, while coffin-less burials were widespread and dead children were brought to burial in panniers slung on donkeys.

The day I stood before the Great Famine Memorial, Thanksgiving dinner was the farthest thing from my mind, but today with the house still smelling of roast turkey, I remember standing before the monument, the cold wind stinging my face.

The memorial is comprised of two doors. (The doors represent the door to the workhouse. A place built to house paupers.) On the left, a child stands against a door. On the right is another door with an emaciated face and outstretched hands. (On the hands, someone had placed coins.)

 The message on the door reads:
There is a little boy named Michael 
Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years
he is an orphan, his father having died 
last year and his mother has expired
on last Wednesday night, who is now
about being buried without a coffin!!
unless ye make some provision for
such. The child in question is now at
the workhouse gate expecting to be
admitted if not he will starve.
                  Robs S. Constable 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline of Edinburgh, Scotland, perched above the town on the aptly named, Castle Rock. A fortress since the Iron Age (2nd century AD), this castle has existed in different forms and structures but exist it has, populated by Scots. It was a royal residence from the time of King David (12th century) until 1633.

I visited this wondrous place and found it filled with history and real treasures, among them the Scottish Crown Jewels (not allowed to be photographed), but take my word, they were glorious.
I will take you through the castle and revisit my time there with pictures. I'll start in the oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel that has existed since the 12th century. Somehow it escaped the artillery bombardment that destroyed most of the castle in the 16th century.

The chapel is very small but quietly beautiful. According to history, in March 1314 the castle was captured by Robert the Bruce. He destroyed all the buildings in the castle, except for the little chapel.

The Great Hall was added in the early 16th century and is filled with swords, dirks, pikes, armor, and other priceless artifacts. The Great Hall was built as a place of royal ceremony for King James IV. It has a wooden roof made from wood that was shipped from Norway.

One of the places I most wanted to see was the room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son who became James VI and I. He was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. The tiny room looked barely big enough to hold a bed.

Queen Mary's rooms were a good bit bigger and more regal, befitting a queen. However, Mary's life was rife with unpopular marriages and tragedy. In 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son. She turned to the one person for help, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, that was instead her enemy. Elizabeth imprisoned Mary because she had once claimed Elizabeth's throne. For 18 and a half years, she moved Mary around from castles to manor houses before beheading her for treason.

There were many other things to see in the castle. Here are some pictures:

Outside the castle there are more places to explore. One of the most interesting to me was the dog cemetery, with headstones.

And this wee Scot who seemed to need a bit of help with that cannon ball.

Perhaps the grandest part of the castle is the view. The entire city of Edinburgh lies at feet of Castle Rock.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween in Scotland and Ireland

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! In Scottish Gaelic, the autumn festival is called Samhuinn. In Ireland where the tradition began, it is called Samhain. 

To the ancient Celts, this pagan celebration was about the turning of the seasons. The Sam in the Scottish Samhuinn and Irish Samhain means summer. Summer was over and the harvest was done. It was now the time of the year when the nights grew long. To the Celts, the 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before its Eve.

For Celts, Samhain was a spiritual time. There was evil afoot on Sanhaim because that was one of the few times the veil between this world and the other-world lifted, allowing spirits to walk the earth. That included puka, banshees, fairies, and other spirits - some of them evil. That is where fire comes in - fire was used to ward off these spirits and was an important element in the celebration. Huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they had disliked during their own lifetime. All inside fires had to be extinguished in order to be relit at Sanhaim with kindling from the bonfire.

The origin of the pumpkin jack-o-lantern is found in Celtic Ireland and has always been wrapped up in Halloween. The Celts used turnips for the first jack-o-lanterns, carving menacing faces on them and then lighting them and placing them at their door to ward off evil spirits and the like. Here's the story of how it came to be called a "Jack" o lantern:

"According to legend, the origin of the Halloween lantern can be found in the tale of a young blacksmith called Jack O'Lantern who made a pact with the Devil during a gambling session. He managed to thwart the Devil and extracted a promise from him that he would never take his soul.
When he eventually died, Jack was refused entry to heaven on account of his drunken, lewd and miserly ways. The Devil, remembering his earlier promise, also refused to allow him into hell. So Jack was condemned to roam the dark hills and lanes of Ireland for eternity.
His only possessions were a turnip with a gouged out centre and a burning coal, thrown to him by the Devil. He put the coal inside the turnip to light his way through the dark countryside where he still wanders......"

The tradition of trick-or-treat comes from a Druid tradition of collecting nuts, eggs, and apples from the people on Sanhaim. The Druids were the religious leaders of the people and if they felt the people were being stingy with their offerings, they may have played a "mild trick" on them.

If you'd like to learn more about the origins of Halloween, University College Dublin, has published a free booklet for Halloween. It explains the origins of Halloween and explores old Irish tales, legends and customs.You can download it free at

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Scotland Blog IV

Part II The Birthplace of Harry Potter, Edinburgh, Scotland

You only have to walk the streets of old Edinburgh to see and feel where J. K. Rowling got inspiration for the Harry Potter series. From the back windows of The Elephant House, Rowling could see in the distance, Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard while she wrote the stories that would be loved my children and adults around the world.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle
Just down the road from The Elephant House cafe is Greyfriars Kirkyard, a cemetery where you can find the grave of William McGonagall, a Scottish poet and weaver, believed to be Rowling's inspiration for the name of Professor McGonagall. There is also the grave of Elizabeth Moodie, perhaps where Rowling got the name for Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (even though Rowling has never confirmed this rumor). And what about the name - Tom Riddle, found on this tombstone?
Thomas Riddell headstone

Greyfriars Kirk
Rowling has said she often took walks through the cemetery that was close to The Elephant House and Spoon, the two places I talked about in Part I of this blog. Greyfriars is more famous for the statue of Bobby, the Skye terrier who is said to have held vigil by his owners grave until his death - 14 years later.
Rowling also found inspiration for Hogwarts school in Edinburgh. There's no doubt Edinburgh Castle was inspirational, but there is also a school nearby called George Heriot's School. Built in 1623, it is still a functioning and prestigious school that has four wings and four "houses" Castle, Lauriston, Raeburn, and Greyfriars like Hogwart's: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.
George Heriot School
In my mind's eye, I see J. K. Rowling standing at Edinburgh Castle looking down at the city of Edinburgh spread before her.

View of Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle
It was also in the city itself that Rowling found more inspiration for Harry Potter. As I walked the part of the city called Old Edinburgh, I traversed the streets that make up the Royal Mile, the medieval part of the city that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Many places along the Royal Mile reminded me of scenes from a Harry Potter movie, but it wasn't until I hit Victoria Street that I knew I had found Diagon Alley! The street curves and you can walk up to the top and look down on the shops that line both sides of the street.
Victoria Street/Diagon Alley

In the midst of Victoria Street is Diagon House - a Harry Potter store that is presented as “purveyors of all things Potter”. It was night by the time I got to go in the store, which only added to the magic! Stepping through that door was like stepping into the movie and if ever I get back to Scotland, I hope it's still there!