Thursday 3 April 2014

Blarney Castle, Cork & Céilí

The only thing I remember from Secondary 4 English class, was our teacher telling us never to kiss the Blarney Stone. We'd honed our skills at sidetracking by then, and it didn't take us very long to veer the lesson way off-course, and soon she was regaling us with tales of Ireland, where her husband hailed from. 

"You all have to visit Ireland one day, it's very beautiful. But remember girls, if you go to Blarney Castle, never kiss the Blarney Stone."
"Why not Mrs -- ?"
"Why, because the locals pee on it of course!"

Of all the things I could have taken away, it was this piece of advice, which turned out to be inaccurate and was immediately pooh-poohed by our guide as soon as he heard me say it. 

"The Castle's locked up and closed off to visitors at night, and since the stone located right at the very top, unless anyone can pee over 20 metres against gravity you're not going to get it from the ground. Anyway, the staff clean the stone at the end of the day."

(I'd held on to this piece of information for seven whole years, and it was galling to find out it had all been a lie. If I next find out that Mr -- hadn't taught us how to drawl "pecan pie" in an actual vaguely Southern accent, the now shaky foundations of my Secondary school education may crumble completely.) 

Cherry Blossoms in Ireland Blarney Castle

Our tour guide was a sensible man, who as far as possible ensured that we were the first to get to various attractions each day so we wouldn't have to contend with a crowd. The place is a madhouse at the height of Summer, but on the Spring morning we visited, it was pleasantly quiet. Even on a grey day like it was shaping up to be, there were flowers in full bloom to provide a shot of colour on the walk up to Blarney Castle through part of the park. 

A Good Gawk at Blarney Castle Contemporary Eye Ceramic Sculpture

The Castle that you see today are what remains of the structure built in the 1400s, over the first two castles that stood in Blarney, the first made of wood and a second one of stone. The Keep is the only thing left standing from the original structure, and when going up the narrow and rather treacherous stairs up to the top I marvelled at how it's also managed to withstand decades of tourism. The walls of the castle slope inwards in order to make it seem grander from the outside, but it was still a long way up the spiral stairway. Most of the others were homing in on the Stone at the very top of the Keep, but D and I decided to have a look-see round the other parts of the Castle that opened up from the stairs. Some of the nobles' solars seemed even smaller than my hovel in London, which left me feeling a little bit more pleased about life in general. 

Winding Stairs at Blarney Castle

On the roof of the Castle were multiple openings that showed the dizzying drop to the ground below. These probably made it easier for those living in the Castle to pour boiling oil onto potential invaders from the battlements. En route to the Stone were informational panels that explained the difference between blarney and baloney, with blarney of course being far more subtle and sophisticated. 

The Blarney Stone is said to have been a part of the Stone of Scone, on which the Scottish kings were crowned. Robert the Bruce apparently gave it to Cormac McCarthy, then King of Munster, in return for supplying him with 4000 men at the Battle of Bannockburn in the 14th century. Another legend says that it's actually the Stone of Destiny, on which the High Kings of Ireland were coronated. Whatever its origins, the Stone is purported to grant the gift of eloquence to whoever kisses it. 

It is highly possible that all the urban legends telling you not to kiss the stone are part of a massive conspiracy so some people can keep all the eloquence for themselves. Still, considering the fact that you have to hang upside down over a sheer drop and the possibility of catching mono, I decided I'd come by my eloquence honestly. Besides, there's always something a little suspect about magical gifts. Those on the tour who kissed the Stone didn't feel very different right after. A few days later though, someone did remark to D that they thought he was a good two decades younger than he actually is and made his week, so who knows? Maybe the gift takes a few days to kick in. 

Even though I didn't kiss the Stone, the hike up the stairs wasn't entirely wasted. From over the parapet you can see the sprawling grounds that extend over 60 acres, and a few of the gardens scattered across it. I got a glimpse of the Poison Garden, which is being marketed towards the Harry Potter crowd (There's wolfsbane growing there!), but I think Rappaccini's Daughter would have been a cooler literary reference.

We very fortunately got in and out of the Castle before three coach-loads of French students trooped in, so we were able to slowly admire the partial ruins in all its romantic glory without it being overrun. The roofing is gone, as are most of the wooden structures that would have been a part of the Castle, so all that's left are the stones. 

We were given a great deal of time in Blarney, but there wasn't much point for me to shop at the Blarney Woolen Mill, so I went to explore the Badger Caves instead. When Oliver Cromwell's general came to seize the Castle and gunned down the tower walls, the soldiers only found two old retainers who'd stayed behind while everyone else fled through the caves, taking with them the golden treasure of the Castle. 

According to the story, the cave contains three passageways, with one going to Cork, one to the Lake and another to Kerry, and it was through these tunnels that the inhabitants of the Castle made their escape. 

Since this was Blarney after all, I took the story with a healthy dose of salt. The cave turned out to be pretty much badger-sized, filled only with puddles and leading to a dead end. There was yet more to explore, including the Bog Garden and the Rock Close, but D was afraid that I'd lose track of time if I went off on my own, so we trudged along to the Blarney Woolen Mills where we were due to meet with the rest of the group. None of the souvenirs caught my eye and I had even less need for knitwear, so I wound up on one of the many sofas scattered throughout the store, carding my fingers through the silky throws and going through our stash of emergency reading material. 

Later in the day, while the rest of the group went off on the optional excursion to the Port of Cobh, the three of us were dropped off in Cork to spend two hours on our own. Not wanting to get lost, we stuck to the south of the city, and didn't venture too far from St Patrick's Street. 

Mainly, we ventured round the English Market, which has served Cork City since the 18th century. It's considered one of the best covered markets in the UK and Ireland, with a really wide variety of local produce on sale. The history of the market is quite extraordinary, and it has survived civil unrest, economic depression, fires and attempts to tear everything down and turn the site into a multi-storey shopping complex. Queen Elizabeth II toured the market on her first official visit to Ireland, and some of the stalls still proudly display pictures taken with her. With the sun up and shining through the skylights, the market seemed like a cheery location even without many shoppers. 

I'd have been perfectly happy just snacking from the various stalls (It's really the perfect place to grab things for a picnic), but M & D were slowly dying from the lack of Chinese food, so apart from a bag of ripe, juicy plums for us to share later in the day, all I ate from the market was freshly cooked gourmet sausage on a stick.  

The O'Flynns have been making sausages for over a hundred years, and now have an extensive variety of different flavours. I got the garlic and herb, which had been perfectly caramelized on the outside for a thin layer of burnt crunchy bits. The inside remained juicy and fresh, with small tendrils of steam coming up with each bite, and a faint but flavourful garlicky aroma permeating the sausage.  

The most authentic Chinese restaurant in town opened a little too late, so we wound up with an authentically Irish Chinese food experience instead. When we were asked if we wanted chips instead of rice, that was a bit of a shocker. I steered M & D away from even thinking of ordering Singaporean Noodles (Which I still think is a massive insult to our cultural heritage), and we went for as many neutral options as we could. The only vegetable dish available was chop suey, which I was forced to try for the first time (It was too salty, but passable I guess). The soups were alright, but the prawn toast was probably the best of the lot (It's hard for deep fried bread not to be tasty). 

We eventually made it to Killarney, and after some time to freshen up we drove over to Milltown for a céilí at Bleachfield Bistro. The place was so named for the flax that was grown in nearby fields for the making of linen, and when we arrived there was a cross dressing leprechaun welcoming us, who gave us each a foil wrapped pack of magic seeds as a door gift. All of us piled into a cozy room on the upper floor, where tables had been set in front of a makeshift stage area. 

As with all céilí, there was singing, dancing and storytelling throughout the evening, mainly conducted by Thomas. Larry the Leprechaun disappeared after leading us all in a round of Wild Mountain Thyme, assuring us that the King of the Fairies had heard us and would ensure good weather for our journey round the Ring of Kerry the next day. Zie was then replaced by Gail, who had a suspiciously similar voice. They were also joined by Brendan Moriarty, who played the accordion and the harmonica when he wasn't gamely taking song requests. Most of the audience seemed to know a lot of the songs already, so I picked them up as quickly as I could. 

All the musicians were utterly brilliant, and we were given a crash course in traditional Irish instruments, including the Uilleann (Elbow) pipes, which are inflated with bellows, allowing the player to sing while playing. The pipes were designed to be played indoors inside the castles of the great chieftains, and are the only pipes that cover two full octaves. After checking that there were no vegetarians in the audience, we were also introduced to the bodhrán, a hand-held drum made traditionally with the skin of a goat. The name means deafening, and we were treated to a display of how they might sound like the galloping of wild horses - far, far more majestic than knocking two coconut shells together. 

As they played, we tucked into a really well-cooked meal, and for the first time I managed to make it all the way to dessert. I was seated facing away from the musicians, so it was a little awkward having to turn back and forth while eating, but I managed eventually. 

The meal ended with everyone getting a glass of Irish coffee each. Coffee still triggers migraines for me, but I like the taste of it, so this time I was prepared with aspirins on standby. I also managed to cajole the waitress into giving me a lot of cream and whiskey with just a smidgen of coffee for flavouring, so I slept extremely well that night. 

Apart from singing along, there was another element of audience participation in the show, and D was one of two lucky people who were chosen to learn the broom dance from Galvin and Danielle, who'd performed a couple of jigs for us earlier in the evening. D was doing so well until he (Horror of horrors!) dropped his broom. Still, we were very proud that he stepped up to the challenge. As we made our way back, the mass of clouds that hung overhead when we arrived had dissipated, and the evening sky was tinged with red as the sun set, which boded quite well for fair weather the next day. Maybe the incantation had worked after all. 

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