Tuesday 8 April 2014

From the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland

The drive down to Clonalis House in Co. Roscommon takes us mostly past farmland, and the ride is smooth until we reach the wrought iron front gate. It's magnificent and ornate, but scaled for a horse and carriage rather than a full-sized tour coach. For a moment I get horrifying visions of the side mirrors getting knocked off, but Eugene is a master of the road and negotiating tight corners, and we make it through in one piece, going past the oak and copper beech trees. 

A gently meandering path takes us up to the house, and the grounds we drive past are all a part of the ancestral lands of the O' Conor family, who were the last High Kings of Ireland and the traditional Kings of Connacht. These have belonged to the family on and off for the past 1500 years, and even when lost, the family have managed in one way or another to get bits and pieces back. The most recent challenge to their claim was a hefty inheritance tax a few decades back that nearly cost the entire estate, but a compromise was reached. While a large swathe of land had to be sold off, the O' Conors managed to keep their ancestral home, and the O' Conor Nash family have lived there since 1981. 

Exterior of Clonalis House

We were greeted by Marguerite O' Conor Nash, who has been hosting visitors to the family home for many years and is a dab hand at it. Her stories are polished and well-paced as we go through some of the most historically significant of the building's 45 rooms, and so informative that at the end of the tour we have almost no questions left to ask. Still, the most gratifying bit of being shown around was the fact that in spite of having given the same tour to so many groups, Marguerite continued to exude a sense of enthusiasm and pride in sharing the story of the O' Conor family and their home. 

No pictures are allowed within the walls of the first concrete house built in Ireland, which was a difficult ground rule to keep to, but we managed. It's a pity I can't show you the interiors of the Victorian-Italianate home, with its Louis IV writing desks and 18th century Sienna marble fireplaces, but I suppose that means you'll have to go and be wowed in person. Sumptuous furnishing aside, Clonalis House is also rich in Irish heritage. The story of the family mirrors that of Irish fortunes over the centuries, and the house also boasts the most important privately-owned library in Ireland and the largest private collection of Irish documents within their dedicated archive room. 

O' Conor High King Inauguration Stone

The very first object we were introduced to on our tour sat outside the front door of the house, and was once the Coronation Stone used by the High Kings of Ireland. The stone was a key element in the elaborate inauguration ceremony called the Banais Ri, in which the King symbolically married the soil he would rule. The new King had to walk three times around the stone before reversing and walking three times the other way as he surveyed his territory, finally stepping onto the stone itself. There's an indentation in the stone that looks somewhat like a footprint, which is supposed to be the foothold carved for the very first High King that ruled. The carved bits seemed about the size of my feet, and for a brief while I was sorely tempted to see if the shoe stone would fit. 

Irish Stone of Scone

Some Singaporeans can trace their family lines to specific ancestral villages, but the farthest back we can go is five generations within the Straits. We always seem like such a nuclear unit that sprawling families with long histories completely fascinate me. The O' Conor Nashes are the 25th generation to have lived on these lands since the days of the last High King, and their family history can be traced through an unbroken line of legitimate descent to 1100 BC, far longer than any other family in Europe, royal or otherwise, is able. 

For all that the house is almost a living record of their ancestry, it's also very much a well-loved family home as well. Pyers O' Conor Nash, who inherited the house from his uncle, brought us around to see more recent photos of his children and grandchildren, and just like that it felt as if we were just visiting an old friend and catching up on how the whole family is doing. 

Clonalis House from afar

We were given a little under 45 minutes for lunch in Sligo, and with the coach parked just across the river from The Glasshouse, M and I were all for hopping over to have lunch at The Kitchen restaurant within. D insisted that he'd seen an interesting looking Italian joint from the bus as we'd gone through the town though, so we ended up following him further up the road. The restaurant wasn't where he expected it to be though, so we gave the cause up as lost and doubled back. 

It was on our determined march back that we walked right past Fabio's, and a chance passing glance at the Flavour of the Month board outside stopped me dead in my tracks. Some people are purists when it comes to ice cream, but experimental flavours I've never seen before call to me like sirens. Also, the combination of mascarpone cheese, caramelized figs and roasted walnuts will never not be utterly amazing in my books.  

"Five minute ice cream break!" I yelled, and ducked inside. M & D, used to my various idiosyncrasies (That are often but a reflection of their own!), indulgently followed me in. 

Fabio's Gelato best ice cream in Sligo

The store was warm and redolent with the smell of coffee and chocolate when I first entered, and it was like being in a cafe in Florence. The only other customer in the store was sipping coffee while reading the news and obviously a regular, and he called out to Fabio to let him know I was waiting. Fabio's ice cream is home made entirely on site, using largely seasonal local ingredients and where necessary, quality stuff imported specially from Italy, and at that moment he was in the back putting the finishing touches on the latest batch of ice cream. Once that was done, he emerged in a flurry, all warmth and smiles and very soon handing me a generous cup of gelato. 

It didn't matter that the wind was gusting away and I hadn't worn quite enough layers, as I brought the spoon up to my mouth with trembling fingers, the extra bit of cold still felt entirely justified. The smooth but slightly chewy texture of the mascarpone cheese base was shot through with the crunch of the occasional bite of crushed roasted walnut, and every so often a greater hint of elasticity in the form of some sticky bit of caramelized fig. It was sublime. When we finally did make it to The Kitchen, our waitress took one look at the cheery yellow ice cream cup and gushed "You got ice cream from Fabio's! It's literally the best ice cream I've ever had in my life. Have you tried the pistachio? You have to try the pistachio."

Mascarpone Cheese with Caramelized Fig and Roasted Walnut

Now that I'd had a taste of brilliance, it was with great sorrow that I told her we were in a desperate hurry and I wouldn't be able to make it back for more ice cream. During lunch itself, I had to very quickly demolish my plate of rather good sea bass, and I also found out how fast I could shovel warm, delightfully buttery vegetables into my mouth. (Answer: Very quickly indeed.)

Buttery vegetables

Our next stop was nestled along the banks of the River Erne, just past the border. Back on UK soil, I was able to get a weak 3G signal on my phone while at the Belleek Pottery Visitor Centre, which meant I was able to reply to the sudden influx of messages I was receiving as we waited for the guided tour to commence. I keep reading about the transcendental joys of holidays where you get utterly disconnected from social and mobile networks for days on end, and I've always meant to try them, but somehow I fear I might end up hysterically weeping in a corner if I do. 

Belleek Pottery Guided Tour

The guided tour brought us through their museum, which traced Belleek's evolution as a porcelain factory, from a humble producer of domestic products to the fine Parian China made today. From there, we moved to the workshops, where the craftspeople were hard at work creating each unique item. 

Porcelain Basket

We were given an introduction to all the techniques used in the making of their products, from the casting of the mould for vases to the intricate and intensive layering involved in the creation of their signature porcelain baskets. The lot of us watched, amazed, as out of lumps of clay, delicate flowers and butterflies took shape. 

Firing and glazing couldn't be shown just like that, but we got to inspect pieces at different points along the production process. 

When it comes to pottery, our policy on a whole is to purchase seconds, where the imperfections are so minuscule as not to make a difference, except to the price. At Belleek though, seconds aren't tolerated, and every piece that's not deemed good enough to put out for sale normally is destroyed. A volunteer is chosen every guided tour to assist in this process, and once the safety goggles are on, the smashing begins. I don't know what exactly makes the sound of breaking china so cathartic, but as the wanton destruction of a plate that couldn't make the mark went on, I felt any and all tension I had bleed away. 

All the pieces passing muster are then painted, and here we watched as Rachel daubed on pastel shades on a jug, which was part of the 2014 Butterfly range. Once fired, one of the previously dull, matte colours would emerge an iridescent hue. 

Every few years, the Belleek label undergoes a minor change, so anyone in the know would be able to place a piece within a distinct time period. The company is now onto its thirteenth mark, but the elements remain the same - the tower, the harp and the Irish wolf hound remain ever present, a nod to the company's heritage. 

The handcrafted porcelain baskets were quite unlike anything we'd ever seen before, and D quite wanted to get one for our home. To mark the Queen's visit to Northern Ireland, Belleek had created a special commemorative piece for her a few years back with lots of red and yellow roses, but we were more taken with this other basket with ladybirds on it. 

There was also this basket, which looked fit for a Queen as well. 

Ultimately though, M & I fell in love with a lamp from the 2014 collection, which at £85 wasn't too dear at all. But with all the flights we were going to have to go on, we didn't feel it was safe to take with us, so we asked about shipping costs to Singapore. It took a good long while for someone in the back office to work it out, but in the end we found we had to pay an extra £125 to get it shipped home, which was quite ridiculous. This is what we looked like when we first heard the news:

It was with no lamp and heavy hearts that we got back on the coach and headed for (London)Derry, where we found an elephant waiting for us in the bathroom. We don't speak of it still. 

From our window we had a view of some of the town's key attractions, and we took the free time we had before dinner to explore this little bit of town. 

We walked along the Peace Bridge that spans the River Foyle, which had been constructed with funding assistance from the Special EU Programmes Body, as part of regeneration efforts to promote better relations between the unionist and nationalist sections of the population, who by and large seem geographically divided by the river. The Peace Bridge, which opened to cyclists and pedestrians in 2011, symbolically bridges the gap, and curves this way and that, offering good views of both sides of the river. 

It was a very pleasant walk, all 235 metres of it, and when we got to the other end we made a loop around the travelling circus that had set up camp before heading to Tesco's so D could get some crisps to snack on. 

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