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Dublin 2003, Celtic history and the Rock of Cashel

In February we visited Ireland so Niamh could meet the European side of the family. I dubbed the trip Niamh's Euro tour 2003. Although it was a long journey to and from, Niamh travelled very well for a lass of less than three months old, passport in tiny hand. We arrived at Betty and Michael's home in Donaghmede, a suburb on the North side of the city, in the area known as Dublin 13 (based on the city postal code numbering system). Our first visit was to Lily Dunne, Niamh's great grandmother (Betty's mom) who lives in a flat in the city center. I got a wonderful photo of the four generations while we were there.

Dublin in February is typically cold and rainy as one would expect, but all things considered, the weather was quite mild. We took a rainy day trip into Dublin and had a late lunch at Oliver St. John Gogarty's in Temple Bar, which was a return to the location of our rehearsal dinner, and featured about the biggest smoked salmon appetizer I've ever consumed. I hardly had room for the main course. I advised against it, but Niamh insisted on ordering her first pint of Guinness. After downing the pint, she ordered a second, but settled in for a nap after only one sip (how wasteful). Well I had no choice but to finish it off for her.

After a few days in Dublin we took a trip out to visit Tracy's Aunt Marion and her boyfriend Shay in their new country home near Carlow about an hour and a half or so drive from Dublin. We arranged to meet in the town of Baltinglass at "Quinn's". As we'd gotten somewhat lost, and were hurtling down the narrow country road's at dusk, it was quite a relief to finally find signs for the town. Baltinglass is a market town for Wicklow county, where cattle and sheep are sold. In other words, this is what you think of as traditional mid Ireland countryside. We made our way into the town, and almost immediately I saw a sign and yelled out "There's Quinn's" only to realize as we passed it, that it was Quinn's hardware, next to Quinn's grocers, adjacent to Quinn's hair salon. We crossed the bridge, and passed numerous other Quinn owned establishments. Eventually we found Quinn's pub, and on the assumption that this was the right Quinn's entered, and sure enough found Marion waiting for us. After some soup and a few pints, we proceeded out to their home, recently acquired.

Shay cooked a nice dinner for ourselves and his friends from work Johnny and Bronagh, who had an 18 month old boy named Rory. Watching Rory in action, I began to appreciate more fully the benefits of having a daughter. Rory who had bump the size of a squash ball on his forehead (having ran into a wall the day prior) proceeded to charge about the house for the next several hours, either starting up, or pulling the knobs off of any electrical appliance he could lay hands on, and shutting a door on his fingers at one point. Rory found Niamh to be quite interesting, and when given a chance pulled off her sock, yelled out "Bah Bah" and squeezed her toes. Boys will be boys, as they say.

The next day I took a few photos of the house. One of the things I noticed was the grating at the beginning of their driveway. This grating covers a trough, and I was informed has the purpose of keeping wayward livestock from entering the property, since they won't pass over the grill. You know you're in genuine Irish countryside when your house has a livestock grate, I think.

Prior to heading back to Dublin we took a drive out to a local monastic retreat, and walked around the grounds. Although it was quite cold, Niamh took a nap safe from the elements inside Aunt Marion's coat.

After spending some more time in Dublin, we took a trip out to Cork which is about a 4 hour drive South. Along the way we stopped off in Tipperary at the Rock of Cashel. To understand the significance of the Rock of Cashel, you need a bit of Irish history.

In the first centuries AD, Ireland was ruled by a series of warring celtic clans. Celtic culture was the predominate culture of europe, mainly because the Celts had mastered the production of iron. Over time Celts spread to the Pretanic (British Isles) and either assimilated or conquered the indigenous populous. Things remained that way through one thousand AD despite the rise and fall of the Roman empire which supplanted Celtic culture in the rest of Europe, probably because the Romans never invaded Ireland. Celtic society held sway within Ireland and the Irish warlords eventually came to control parts of Northern Britain and Wales. What held together and bound the Celts of Ireland was their common culture and language.

Celtic society revolved around war, and the control of small kingdoms. An overlord would exert control over smaller kings, and a "High King" was really just an overlord who controlled a large region of land. With the ebb and flow of clan power, there were at any particular time from 4 to 10 major regions dividing the Island, each with a High King. Neighboring clans would ally with or against their neighbors and battle for control of territory. War was a major focus for the warriors, ironsmiths, and poets who represented the upper class of Celtic society. For the average peasant, whose life was spent farming or raising livestock, while they were ultimately "owned" by whichever family controlled the territory within which they live, the constant regional strife had little effect on their day to day activity.

In the 300-400AD period, the Eoghanachta clan from Wales managed to conquer most of the southernmost of the six regions of ancient Ireland, known as Munster. In doing so, the Eoghanachta's became the kings of Munster. The rock of Cashel was built upon a jutting hill of stone in the middle of the Tipperary plain as the fortress for the Kings of Munster. Cashel literally means fortress, and the Rock of Cashel is one Ireland's most famous fortress castles, easily seen from miles away.

In 430 the pope sent the first missionary Palladius to be Bishop of Ireland. He was followed by numerous missionaries and eventually by St. Patrick who arrived in probably around the year 460. Although the historical accuracy of St. Patrick's legacy as the individual responsible for the conversion of Ireland to Catholicism is open to debate, his import to Irish tradition is profound. Born in Wales, St. Patrick was captured and enslaved in Ireland as a young man, where he was forced to tend sheep, and during this period underwent a spiritual conversion to Christianity.

He escaped six years later, literally walking 200 miles to the coast, and managing passage to Gaul where he trained to be a priest. As legend would have it, he often dreamed of Ireland, and returned to the island as a missionary, credited with popularizing the use of the shamrock as a tool for explaining the concept of the holy trinity to potential converts.

St. Patrick is purported to have visited Cashel in 450 (although that would be hard to do if he only arrived in 460), and in a meeting with the Munster king accidently stabbed him in the foot with his walking stick. For reasons unknown, this event lead to the clan's conversion to Christianity, perhaps because the King considered this a rite of conversion. A large Stone cross was erected to commemorate St. Patrick's visit, and Cashel became an important Christian destination, with a Cathedral and chapel built upon the grounds in subsequent years.

In all probability, the real reason for St. Patrick's success was his knowledge of the language and traditions and his own heritage as a Celt born in the British isles. He did not look upon the people of Ireland as pagan's or heathens, but rather as fellow countrymen, and he fearlessly sought conversion of key nobility and encouraged local converts to take positions in monasteries and clergy.

As these monasteries and churches were built across Ireland, one of the important missions they brought with them was the creation of the monastery town. As a monastery was built, a town would develope around it, to provide the crafting and labour required to house and feed the monks. Prior to the monastic system, there were only villages or forts. These monastic towns became the evolutionary building block of Irish society bridging the gap from the Celtic clan tradition to modern society.

Monasteries were also important as incentive for the Viking invaders. In the 9th century Ireland was invaded by Norwegian Vikings seeking slaves and items to pillage. Unlike the small scale attacks that had begun centuries earlier, these were large scale incursions, perhaps by displaced Viking nobleman looking for a land with more agricultural promise than their oft frozen homeland. One such incursion lead to the reinforcement and buildup of a Viking encampment at Dublin. Many Irish coastal cities (Cork, Wexford, Howth, Limerick and Waterford for example) were all originally Viking encampments (the ford suffix comes from the norse word fjord, for example).

Since Monasteries represented the largest accumulation of wealth and populous in Celtic Ireland, the Vikings found Monasteries to be a good source of wealth and slaves.

Dublin became the center of trade for the Viking world, and eventually the largest and most important city in the country. Although they never conquered Ireland entirely, the Vikings became entrenched and indistinguishable from the native Celtic clans. They were also never entirely driven out, as many Viking clans in essence settled in Ireland, even converting to Catholicism.

As Invaders with a military organization, the Vikings were in so far as history is concerned "defeated" by Brian Boru, who had won control over Munster (and thus Cashel) on his way to becoming the only Celtic warlord able to make legitimate claim to the throne of High King over a united Ireland. Boru layed siege to Dublin and won a bloody battle at Clontarf, a plain to the North of Dublin, which cost several thousand lives, and in the process drove the Vikings from the city onto their ships, leaving Ireland's largest and most important port under control of the Celts. Ironically Brian Boru was killed at the battle, as legend has it, having been hacked to death in his tent by an axe wielding Bezerker. Though probably not historically accurate, the battle of Clontarf is considered the final defeat of the Vikings by the Irish.

The Rock of Cashel is a wonderfully preserved site, with a history that connects many of the great historical and legendary Irish figures. It's root predate the rise of Strongbow as the first non Celtic King of an Irish province (signaling the immersion of Ireland into Anglo Norman conflict) and is also known as the infamous site of a massacre of over 800 townsfolk at the hands of Oliver Cromwell's army in 1647. It's a place you simply must visit if you're making a trip to Ireland.

Eventually we arrived at our coastal destination, The Maryborough hotel. From there we proceeded to spend a day in the town of Kinsale, known according to Shay as the "Gourmet capital of Ireland" due to the numerous and various restaurants (actually out-numbering pubs!) and scenic bayside views. We began our visit with a stop at the star shaped Charles Fort, built by the English to protect against naval invasion in 1677 and occuppied by a garrison until the early 20th century.

While Kinsale was beautiful and scenic, I wouldn't recommend visiting in february, as the town is at it's peak in the summer months, and home to a world famous regatta in August, and a gourmet festival in October.

After a pleasant and relaxing stay in Cork, we returned to Dublin and yours truly turned another year older on Valentine's day, with a pleasant meal at a Dublin restaurant with Tracy's brother Ian and wife Jean, Shay and Marion, and friends Tracy and Finton Carroll who took a break from renovation of their new house in Malahide to join us.

It was once again a great trip and I look forward to visiting again soon, and seeing and learning more of the country, as well as friends and family. After that visit I would not be surprised if the first word to pop out of Niamh's mouth was "Grand".
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