The 2016 Ireland Diaries
There’s nothing like arriving at an airport after an overnight flight and having someone waiting there to take care of you. The first face we saw as we emerged from the Arrivals gate at Dublin was Joe Nix holding the “Inkslingers/Royal Irish Tours” sign. We fell in behind him like sleepy ducklings.
And he got us to The Grand Hotel in Malahide in record time, and the front desk got us our rooms immediately.
We’d read some helpful articles about how to minimize jetlag, so instead of falling into bed, we went to the restaurant for breakfast.
We gasped as we entered the elegant room with it’s huge panoramic windows of the river delta outside, with all the anchored boats straining toward the sea and the beautiful blue sunny Irish sky.
After a very short nap to refuel, many of us went for a walk around Malahide, reveling in the sun and marveling at the foliage and the flowers.
We made it all the way to Malahide castle…
Where we were greeted by a scream from a saucy and superior visitor.
Some of us went for a tour inside.
And some of us just enjoyed the green and the sweet Irish air.
After a magnificent dinner it was time to set up the workshop room and meet to establish ourselves as a community of writers and write together for the first time. What a delight to hear all those writers’ voices step into the circle and share for the first time.
We were particularly excited to hand out the trip textbook Inkslingers in Ireland. We handed out a copy to each participant to keep. It contained most of the literary material we’d be studying and using to prompt fresh writing ideas in the coming week, as well as a short history of Ireland and brief biographies of many of Ireland’s greatest writers.
Click Here to go to Day Two.
Day 2 started with yoga, breakfast and the writing workshop (as every day would thereafter). The rest of the day was left “at leisure” to allow everyone to adapt to the new time zone. However, our strategies of staying awake as long as we could the day before, doing a very short (no more than 2 hour) nap, and going to bed at a “normal” time (around 10) worked for a lot of us. So some people did more exploration of Malahide (where they could walk back to the hotel and take another quick nap if needed.), while many of us caught the adorable commuter train into the heart of Dublin for bigger adventures.
The adventures started with a walk from the train station to the heart of Dublin. A bunch of us ducked into nearby O’Neills for a sumptuous lunch. The place was packed and when we tasted the food, we could see why! Of course it was Sunday too.
We kept them from going in with the promise of lunch!
Fortified by lunch we walked through the gorgeous Trinity College Campus and noted that if we wanted to see the Book of Kells, it would be a good idea to buy tickets online before we came back.
Walking along the street we were arrested by the sight of the windows of a Pharmacy filled with James Joyce memorabilia.
Turns out this was Sweny’s. F.W. Sweny and Co (Limited) opened its doors as a dispensing chemist in 1853. A central location in the heart of Dublin’s south inner city, it lay within 100 yards of the birthplace of Oscar Wilde. In 1904 the young James Joyce called in to this very store. He consulted with the then pharmacist Frederick William Sweny in such detail that it is possible to recreate the prescription he describes in Chapter 5 of Ulysses.
Sweny’s is described in sumptuous detail within the novel. The hero, Leopold Bloom, comes into the shop, admires its bottles of potions and compounds and ponders the alchemy that the place possesses. While waiting for the pharmacist Bloom smells the lemony soap on the counter and takes a bar with him.
“He waited by the counter, inhaling the keen reek of drugs, the dusty dry smell of sponges and loofahs. Lot of time taken up telling your aches and pains.”
Ulysses, J. Joyce (1922)
Sweny’s also lies within 50 yards of the location where James Joyce was stood up by Nora Barnacle on 14th June 1904. Two days later she would give in to his pressing advances and that day, 16th June 1904, would go down in literary history as the day that formed the backdrop for Joyce’s Ulysses.
Sweny’s has altered very little over time. It has been “preserved through neglect” in memory of James Joyce. Joyce’s works are cherished here and read aloud daily by the volunteers and visitors who take pleasure in the clarity of Joyce’s memories.
The sweet scent of lemon soap remains in the air; potions lie unopened and forever mystical.
Not much farther along we stumbled across this Oscar Wilde statue in a corner of Merrion Square Park. The author, playright and poet was born in 1854 at no. 1 Merrion Square – just across the road.
This sculpture was designed and created by Danny Osborne, an Irish sculptor, and commissioned by the Guinness Ireland group. It was erected here in 1997.
Wilde’s shiny green jacket is made from nephrite jade, sourced in Canada. The pink collar is made of a rare semi precious stone called thulite, brought here from central Norway.
Wilde’s head and hands are carved from Guatemalan jade. His trousers are made from larvikite – a crystalline stone from Norway, and his shiny shoes are black granite.
The expression on his face is fascinating. Taken as a whole, it’s a definite smirk. But if you cover one side of his face you see a pleased, happy expression. Cover that side and his face is full of sadness.
We were on a mission to find the National Museum of Ireland. In researching the literature for the trip, I had been really taken with Seamus Heaney’s poem about the Bog Man and wanted to know more.
We found the bog men and more. By this time it was latish in the afternoon and jet lag was beginning to catch up to us. But for an hour or so we pored over prehistoric Ireland, Ireland’s gold, bog bodies and much, much more, promising ourselves we’d return.
We felt so lucky being in Dublin during the 100 year anniversary of the great Rebellion. History was being celebrated everywhere!
Day 3 – While we did our yoga, breakfast and writing, Royal Irish gathered our luggage and stowed it on the bus. It would be a significant amount of travel that day, from Malahide to Sligo, so we set off promptly.
On the way to Trim, Joe told us the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge, and how Fionn mac Cumhaill, the great leader of the Fianna of Ireland, gained his vast knowledge. He also told us some of the history of the great castle at Trim.
In Trim, Joe let us loose for an hour and a bit to grab some lunch and visit the awe-inspiring ruins of the Castle.
Trim Castle was used in the movie Braveheart, and exploring the ruins, you can see why. In medieval times, Trim Castle stood like an imposing stone sentinel and powerful symbol of Norman strength at the edge of the Pale, the small area of Anglo-Norman influence on Ireland’s eastern coast. To go beyond the Pale was to enter the hostile world of the Gaelic Irish. Here at the edge, the two sides would have met – in conflict and in battle.
A red-haired beauty from our trip – looking very Irish at Trim!
On to the site of the old monastery at Kells. We prowled the churchyard, fascinated with the carvings on the old crosses.
The sun played peekaboo with the clouds while we were at Kells, so sometimes the carvings were in high relief, sometimes they were more hidden.
St Columba’s Church is one of County Meath’s most important religious sites, as it marks the location of the original monastery of Kells and Ireland’s principal Columban community during medieval times.
Found in Kells, St Columba’s Church was built in 1778, but the land on which it stands is one of County Meath’s most important ecclesiastical sites. The church marks the location of the town’s original monastery, established in the early middle ages after the High King of Ireland gave Columba the fort of Kells to set up a religious community. It became the principal Columban monastery in Ireland, but in 918 it was plundered and the church destroyed. Following the Synod of Kells in 1152, Kells was granted Diocesan status and the old Church was elevated to the status of a Cathedral for the Diocese. Of the medieval structures, only the bell tower remains.
At Kells, waiting to get back on the bus and enjoying a beverage. Not particularly monastic!
Day 4 was probably our most ambitious – and maybe our most rewarding – day of the whole trip. We did a lot, but we didn’t have to travel far, which made it all possible.
After our morning of writing and yoga in Sligo we started with lunch at Lissadell House. Can you see the pictures of Leonard Cohen on the wall behind us? We felt welcomed as writers and as Canadians.
Leo took us under his wing – a fascinating man with a unique personal perspective on those to the manor born and those who serve. His family has been in service to the ruling family here for generations.
As well as being one of Ireland’s finest houses, there are many historical associations with the house. It was the home of Constance Markievicz, associated with the poet W B Yeats and, because of its links to Markievicz and the 1916 Rising, it can be argued that the house is inextricably linked to the foundation of the state.
The house was the childhood home of Irish revolutionary, Constance Gore-Booth, her sister the poet and suffragist, Eva Gore-Booth, and their siblings. It was also the sometime holiday retreat of the world-renowned poet, William Butler Yeats. He made the house famous with the opening lines of his poem:
“In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
The estate was bought by the Cassidy-Walsh family in 2003 for an undisclosed sum. They initiated a program of restoration of the house and grounds. In 2006 a 1.1 million euro state grant was made available by Fáilte Ireland towards the restoration of the gardens, which we walked through. They are spectacular!
Across the bay you can see Knocknarea and on top the small nipple that is Queen Maeve’s tomb. There’ll be more about that below!
After Lissadell we stopped in to pay our respects to Mr. Yeats himself in the churchyard at Drumcliffe. Ben Bulben guards the area, and the cows nearby graze in peace.
The Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats
A simple stone with a haiku-like poem.
Our next adventure that afternoon was a cruise on Lough Gill – site of the island that was the inspiration for “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. This little bump in the lake here, this tiny isle, is the actual island written about in the poem.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The weather was wildly changeable out on the deck of the boat, but inside there was tea and biscuits and gorgeous views and warmth – both in the conversations and the atmosphere.
And as if that weren’t enough for one day, many of us decided that we were going to climb Knocknarea and visit the Queen!
The clear-cut limestone mountain of Knocknarea forms one of County Sligo’s most conspicuous landmarks. Knocknarea Mountain dominates the skyline of Sligo. Formed from limestone over 300 million years ago, the summit is crowned by the great cairn of Queen Maeve (Miosgan Meadhbha) and has been an important ritual focal point since Neolithic times.
To read more about Queen Maeve’s tomb, click here.
The landscape was quite challenging, but we made it!
We started in sun at the bottom but by the time we got to the top, the Irish weather was having it’s way with us. Still it didn’t dampen our spirits!
The group of triumphant summitteers all safely down from the climb!
Day 5 – We moved from Sligo to Ennis, but we weren’t finished with Yeats Country yet.
Along the way we visited Thoor Ballylee – a well-preserved fourteenth-century Norman tower. But it is best known because of its close association with Yeats who spent summers here with his family and wrote some of his finest poetry here.
Our guide was young and informative. There’s a large room with a short movie and a number of displays devoted to Yeats’ “Muses” – the series of mostly physically unfulfilling relationships he had with women over the years. The most celebrated is, of course, Maude Gonne, but there were several others. He lived at Thoor Ballylee with his (eventual) wife George and their children.
Yeats’ writing room.
The view from the top.
Group photo in the wild wind at the top.
Later in the day we went to Coole Park.
The Yeats’ poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” was inspired by the beauty of the swans in the turlough at Coole Park. Yeats’ home at Thoor Ballylee is just 3 miles away; he also wrote “Coole Park, 1929”, a poem that describes the park as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature.
Here is the lake and (although it’s too small to see here) there are swans on it.
The walled garden contains an autograph tree, a copper beech that is engraved with initials of many of the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival who were personal friends of Lady Gregory.
The autographs include William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge and Seán O’Casey.
Day 6 – after the morning of yoga and writing in The Old Ground Hotel, we boarded the bus to travel the west coast of Ireland. Our main goals that afternoon were the iconic Cliffs of Moher and the Burren – a landscape described by one of Cromwell’s generals as: “There is no a tree to hang a man, nor water to drown one nor dirt to bury him.” But there were a couple of other adventures in store as well.
Look at just about any brochure or website for travel in Ireland and there will be a picture of the Cliffs of Moher. But it probably won’t be taken on a grey, misty, drizzly day like this one. At times it was almost impossible to see anything except other tourists. But every now and then the mist would clear a little and we’d catch a glimpse of the breathtaking cliffs and the sea below.
The Burren, in North County Clare and parts of South County Galway covering an area of 160 square km, is unique – it is like no other place in Ireland. There are no bogs and very few pastures. Instead there are huge pavements of limestone called ‘clints’ with vertical fissures in them called ‘grikes’.
The Burren is also famous for its plant life. Limestone-loving plants such as foxgloves and rock roses grow here and rock’s microclimates also nurture plants found in the Artic, Alpine and Mediterranean regions. Botanists have attempted to find out why, but no one has come up with a complete answer. Here too in The Burren, 26 of Ireland’s 33 species of butterfly have been recorded, including its very own, the Burren Green.
We’d been reading John O’Donohue in our workshops, and our driver told us that John (who died sadly very young) was buried in the area, so we made a pilgrimage to the cemetery where he was buried and paid our respects.
It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free. ~ John O’Donohue
Although the area may seem inhospitable, humans have been settled here since the stone age. Evidence of habitations and tombs are all around; massive dolmens, wedge tombs and stone forts called cahers, (the homesteads of farmers of long ago), survive in various stages of preservation. Churches and castles indicate later periods of settlement.
When you had an ‘anam cara,’ (soul friend), your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul. ~ John O’Donohue
One of our participants wrote a gorgeous poem about the stone walls of Ireland – like this one.
A well earned repast in Ennis at the end of the day. Afterwards, making our way through the bar at our hotel (called “the Poet’s Corner”!) we got hijacked by three amazing young musicians playing their hearts out and their fingers off. Even though we knew we should go to bed to be rested for yoga early in the morning, we couldn’t tear ourselves away until they were done. That’s the whole point to travelling, right? To really be there, to experience it. And what an experience this was.
Day 7 involved a fairly lengthy drive from Ennis to Dublin. After our usual yoga and writing morning, we climbed on the bus.
We stopped for lunch and did some shopping at the Blarney Woollen Mills at Bunratty. Most of us could have spent even more time there and done more damage, but there were some pretty gorgeous, decked out divas in traditional Irish knits after that stop.
Our biggest historical stop that day was the immense Rock of Cashel, also known as the Rock of Kings, a spectacular group of medieval buildings set on an outcrop of limestone in County Tipperary.
From this high vantage point you can see for miles and miles. Easy to understand why it would be a fortress of power. The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites. Sturdy walls circle an enclosure containing a complete round tower, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral and the finest 12th-century Romanesque chapel in Ireland, home to some of the land’s oldest frescoes.
The scent of stone, the push of the damp Irish wind… Nothing like adding veracity and sensory detail to one’s writing.
Standing inside the roofless buildings, one can nonetheless feel the weight of age and stone, the presence of the old kings and queens.
That night was a free night in Dublin. Some of us found a pub with a fantastic musician – highly entertaining and highly entertained by the noisy Canadians. When he exhausted his Joni Mitchell and Neil Young repertoire, we might have helped out. Pints of Guinness might have been involved.
Only those who were there that night know the truth. What happens in Dublin stays in Dublin!
Day 8 was our Dublin day. Yoga and writing as usual to begin with, tucked into various corners in the Hotel Gresham.
Then the intrepid Joe Nix offered us a driving tour of downtown Dublin, wheeling that big Royal Irish bus around the old streets with ease and panache. He dropped us off, one by one and two by two along the way to pursue our own interests for the day – the Book of Kells, Trinity College, the Guinness factory, St Stephen’s Green, the Kilmainham Gaol and the Dublin Writers’ Museum. What a feast!
We were told that we couldn’t miss the view of Dublin from the top of the factory/museum, and it was a truly spectacular view.
But the 7th floor was so crowded we didn’t stay long. (OK We finished our delicious pints of Guinness first!) We were eager to get back down to cobblestone level and walk the historic streets of this literary city.
You’ve got to love a city (and a country) that is so wildly celebratory of its writers and its literary history.
This bar, the Bachelor Inn, is covered on the outside with portraits and quotes from the likes of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Padraig Pearce and more.
Now I know why they call them saints…
There are marvelous peaceful places in Dublin, even in the heart of this bustling city.
Hanging out in the Temple Bar area we came across an open street book celebration. Like moths to a flame…
And it’s amazing how even in a city this size, we would bump into each other. This encounter with Shari on the Ha’penny Bridge gave us the rare opportunity for James and Sue to have a picture of ourselves together.
On the evening of our last night we had a big private room upstairs at Nancy Hands Bar and Restaurant – an establishment with a long and rich history.
There we ate, drank, made merry, and had our final night together. Our tradition on the final evening together is to share our writing with each other. Hosted by James, he coaxed (OK, not everyone needed coaxing!) many of our writers to grab the mic and treat everyone to a piece that they had written on the trip. An international reading performance credit for everyone who took the stage.
A raucous bunch to be sure!
One final group shot at the end of our final evening together.
Okay – it might not have been quite the end of the evening. There might have been another pub, a little more merriment, and some silliness with James Joyce on the way home to the Hotel Gresham.
There are no pictures from the final morning – the last collection of luggage by Royal Irish. (They were SO professional about that at every hotel.) Nobody wanted to say goodbye, so we didn’t take pictures of the sadness.
But when we got home, everyone wanted to stay in touch. With Doris’s inspirational leadership, Inkslingers put together an anthology from the trip. Anytime we want, we can open that collection and reminisce about the quality of the writing and the friendships germinated during our inspirational journey together.