Joining Slacks of Matlock’s tour of County Kerry, soon convinced Brian Spencer that the Irish tend to do many things in a different way to us.
We had been driving an hour or so south west along the M7 Motorway from Dublin and pulled off at very new services in the heart of Ireland’s agricultural midland. As well as the pristine condition of the buildings, it was the name, that caught my eye. Not your Leicester Forest East or Watford Gap, this one was named after an individual; President of the USA Barack Obama no less! Apparently ancestors on his mother’s side came from Moneygall, the district surrounding the service station and so the locals were quick to cash in when it came to naming the place. As far as I could tell from a specially prepared exhibition, no American president in recent memory, could expect to be elected without some Irish links, however vague. Perhaps the current president should be called O’Bama.
The Slacks tour we joined, was to County Kerry in the far south-west of Ireland. However, before we got there we had to drive past miles of ranch-style homes, each set in its acre or so of immaculate tree-less lawn behind imposing gate posts, usually topped by concrete eagles. This was middle USA dumped haphazardly on to emerald green fields, probably by those who had made their fortunes elsewhere. Returning to their roots, they have brought a bit of Southfork America back with them. Occasionally the old family cottage, or at least its foundations would be left as a reminder of times gone by, but all this has taken place despite rumours of strict town and country planning regulations. There seems to have been no transitional building style as say in England, but it shows how Ireland has moved from abject poverty to the recent affluence of the Celtic Tiger economy.
The way Ireland was treated in the past, becomes apparent in the castle guarding the now delightful Georgian city of Limerick. Every English ruler from William the Conqueror onwards, tried to suppress the Irish, mostly by ‘planting’ settlers from lowland Scotland subsequently at the heart of the ‘troubles’ in Ulster. Although the Vikings, followed by the Normans, tried without much success to settle in Ireland, it was King John, Robin Hood’s nemesis who built Limerick Castle beside the navigable River Shannon. Further rulers like Henry VIII, or Queen Elizabeth 1st and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all used Limerick as a strategic base for suppression of the indigenous Irish. The unfortunate supporters of Charles 1st were besieged in the castle for months during the Irish part of the English Civil War, living next to an open pit where their starving comrades were dumped. There was further trouble after King James’ trouncing at the Battle of the Boyne and even during the 1922 rebellion, but since then Limerick Castle has been allowed to slumber in peace.
Despite its tribulations, it was undermined during various sieges. Limerick Castle stands firm and strong and just waiting to be explored. Aided by European Community funding, 21st century technology has brought its turbulent history back to life. Touch-screens connect with tales of the siege and warfare; animations and ghostly projections are all part of the experience making it a fascinating trip back into the past: and dare we say it, a good example of EU subsidies well spent.
Dingle harbour, the most western in Europe, is another example of where EU subsides were spent. The sheltered anchorage now has a brand new harbour, large enough to accommodate a couple of battleships, along with a handful of local trawlers, lobster boats and pleasure craft as well as the boat that takes tourists out to see Fungie. He is the friendly dolphin that has charmed visitors for the best part of ten years and is guaranteed to appear and do his stuff whenever a boat comes by. A tall monolith near the harbour entrance gives some hint of how the funding to build the harbour was arranged. Topped by what can be only called the leering face of Charles Haughey the scandal-prone ex-Taoiseach (prime minister), it is a most sycophantic commemoration by the local fishermen, giving their thanks to the great man for his support.
With or without the harbour and its trips to find Fungie the friendly dolphin, Dingle town is high on the tourist trail, especially with Americans searching for their roots, or Germans who seem to have fallen in love with all things Irish. The main street beside the harbour is lined with pubs where most nights the walls will be vibrating with Celtic folk music, some even played by Irish bands. With or without the approval of the almost mythical planning control, every building along the street is painted in bright primary colours, and seems to get away with it.
Speaking of statues, along with the bust of Charles Haughey we came across another, this time in the quiet market town of Castle Island where we made our base for three nights. This one is to a local worthy called Con Houlihan who, according to the dedication was a much revered local school teacher, writer, rugby player and fisherman. The way his hand is shown makes it look as though he should be holding a pipe that has probably been stolen, but no it was the characteristic way he always held he held his hand when speaking. He was obviously a much loved man in the locality and amongst his other attributes shown on the plinth, he is strangely credited with being a turf cutter.
A few years ago, my wife and I were waiting for the ferry across the mouth of the Shannon, when an old woman newspaper seller came along, but all that she had on offer were copies of An Poblacht, the Sinn Fein house journal. It made interesting reading – apparently the ‘troubles’ were all the fault of a conspiracy between Ian Paisley and the English government in London: no doubt the Unionist inspired equivalent would say it was all Dublin’s fault.
During our stay at Castle Island we took a pre-breakfast stroll each day along the street to the local paper shop where incidentally, we found that the Irish Independent gave a more balanced version of the current news than An Poblacht. Each time we walked up the street we had to dodge past the local street sweeper, who seemed to be only responsible for the same ten metres of pavement. Although there was a leaf blower in his wheel-barrow alongside a tough looking broom, he obviously spent the day picking up leaves one at a time with the aid of long-handled tongs; but only those where the curled edges, any flattened on to the pavement, were simply ignored.
In the past, we avoided Killarney thinking it would be a tourist trap, but as it was on Slacks’ itinerary there was no missing it, but I am pleased to admit that although it is a popular tourist destination, why else would we be there, it certainly has its attractions. With the Killarney National Park starting at the end of the main street, it seems an idyllic place. The access road runs through dense woodland with scrubby clearings kept open by small Kerry Black cattle and rutting stags, eventually leading to Ross Castle and Lake Leane.
Part of the tour was a boat ride round the lake, but as luck would have it the heavens opened on the only wet morning of our tour – not bad for Ireland. Fortunately the ferry was one of the enclosed by Perspex affairs and so the cruise round the tiny mist-shrouded islands was a pleasure; but what we couldn’t see was the 3000 foot plus mountain range towering above us. This is Macgillicuddy’s Reeks, a name that still provokes a remembered schoolboy smirk.
Back on land and looking for the promised jaunting car ride back to town, we were walking past the foot of Ross Castle when I saw what looked like a log moving towards the shore. It was an otter about a metre long and we just stared at each other for a good minute before he turned and swam away.
Killarney town despite its tourism background, still has streets lined with real shops, not a Tesco in sight. Butchers’ and bakers’ sit alongside greengrocers, old fashioned haberdashers and pubs, the sort of shops we have lost over here. No doubt in an attempt to attract American visitors, there are a couple of speculative shopping malls, but the ‘to let’ or ‘for sale’ signs on the few that had been taken, gives clear evidence of the general lack of interest in so-called progress. Flags of all nations, including the Union Jack, fluttered in the breeze along the main street along with banners encouraging the local team in the regional Gaelic football finals. Gaelic football incidentally is a cross between rugby and soccer; the ball is round but the side posts of the netted goals extend upwards; but that is the Irish Way.