Wednesday 2 April 2014

Journey Through Life at the Irish National Stud and the Route to Blarney

It's only a 45 minute ride from Dublin to Tully, Co. Kildare but I managed to snooze anyway, so when we were ushered off the coach, the sudden unrelenting drizzle that hit was a bit of a shock to my system, no matter that I'd been mentally prepared to finally encounter proper Irish weather along the trip. 

We were armed with umbrellas dredged up from the belly of the coach, headsets so the staffer bringing us around wouldn't have to shout, then sent on our merry way down the road. Bleak as the weather was, the grounds were lusciously green. Before we encountered any real life horses, we first got a glimpse of statues of a mare and her foal done by the Indonesian artist  Abdul Ghofur. Made of teak roots reclaimed from what's left of the old Dutch plantations, they're marvels. Each piece of wood is unbent, and specially chosen to match the muscle and bone structure of the animals, like a perfectly put-together jigsaw puzzle. A little further up was a stag by the same artist, looking quite at home among the trees. 


Damp as conditions were, our stroll down Tully Walk was pleasant, wending out through the Visitor's Centre, past a pond, the offices and a garden, but wasn't till we saw the horses grazing in the paddocks that it became abundantly clear that we were in a thoroughbred breeding facility, and one of the best in the world at that. The Irish National Stud also acts as a retirement home for outstanding ex-racehorses, but beautifully built as the three geldings were, for the majority of us who have absolutely no interest in horse racing whatsoever, the two week-old foal in the next paddock was more of a draw.

There's something about baby animals that's terribly magnetic and makes me want to coo.

The Stud was founded around the turn of the 20th century by Colonel William Hall Walker, in part because the river that feeds the compound's lower lake has a high mineral content that makes good drinking water for horses. He gifted it to the crown in 1917, and today Ireland is the third largest breeder of thoroughbreds in the world, with their industry valued at around a billion Euros. It's mind boggling. As one of the world's best in the business, they've got a steady stream of interns who come in, and we saw a couple of them mucking about in the mare and foal boxes, happy and dry compared to the rest of us.   

Apart from their own horses, the Stud also serves as a boarding facility for mares, foals, yearlings and racehorses out of training, and welcome hundreds of mares from around the world to be covered by their stallions. It's run to the highest standards, and M & I agree it's possibly the cleanest (And cleanest smelling!) farm we've ever been to. As a general rule, they try to get their foals born as close to January as possible, to allow the foals to be raised by their mothers for a longer period of time. From an early period, the foals are exposed to people to allow them to get used to crowds and being handled. I suppose having people sneaking up on you with cameras when you're a few days old lessens the shock of eventually being thrust onto the racing circuit. 

I've never understood the logic behind horse naming, and when you get headlines out of the Stud that read "Snow Fairy in Foal to Elusive Pimpernel", as a layperson it honestly just sounds like some sort of secret code spies might say to each other that really means "The nuclear warheads are in the building" or something. Still, the foals are adorable, even if they do get saddled with the most ridiculous names. Here's one just four days old. 

The stallions know they're hot stuff, so apart from some side-eye they ignored us completely, and went off to aggressively mark out their territory on the far side of their paddocks. The Stud is completely prepared for walk-in breeding sessions, so each stallion is kept clean and scratch-free by wearing horse rugs when they go to their paddocks each day. I've never understood why models get called clotheshorses, when horses don't wear cloth particularly well. By the stallion paddocks was St. Fiachra's garden, named after the 5th century Irish monk who's the French patron saint of gardeners. We didn't have time to visit it on the tour, but by all accounts it's serene. 

For thoroughbreds, artificial insemination is banned so as not to cheapen the breeds, which means horses like Big Bad Bob can command a breeding fee of €60 000. The fee is based on bloodlines, how well they did on track and how well their foals tend to do, so a stallion just starting its breeding career won't cost quite so much. Bob here isn't even the main attraction - that title goes to Invincible Spirit, who has a cover charge of €70 000.  

Horses aside, there was also a massive, affectionate cat who appeared when the sun came out for a brief spell, demanding cuddles and ear scritches before disappearing back into the shrubbery. 

Hall Walker was a bit of an eccentric who believed extremely strongly that you ought to apply astrology to horses as well, installing skylights into each stable box so the moon and the stars could exert their maximum influence, and getting rid of foals with unlucky horoscopes, no matter how good their breeding. The system apparently worked for him though, and within a few years of taking over the old farm he was already producing champion racehorses and being lauded as the most successful breeder of the age. One of the most famous horses bred under his care was Minoru, named after the son of the master horticulturalist Tassa Eida, who laid out the Japanese garden devised by Hall Walker. 

After scanning our tickets, the glass door slid open to permit us entry into the garden, where we saw the first sign pointing to the entrance, and deeming it the Gate of Oblivion. This was the first of many along a route that was meant to represent "The Life of Man". Some of the allegory is possibly lost because of the really obvious signage (Path of Life  EASY PATH - Surprise life lesson!), but when you only have a limited amount of life to take in the garden, it's necessary to point you on the right track. The easy road was, as its name suggests, smooth and slowly meandering. It's also very boring within the context of the garden, so on to the Rugged Path for me. 

The Japanese Garden at the Stud was the earliest to be constructed in Europe, and still remains one of the finest. It's largely a beautiful place, with the soothing sounds of running water and birdsong, but with 150 000 visitors walking through it every year, a couple of warning signs for health and safety reasons possibly makes it look a bit more perilous than it really is. 

It's entirely possible to pass through the Tunnel of Ignorance without ever making it up the Hill of Learning, but after stepping on something distressingly slimy, I took the first exit I could, which turned out to be the right way to progress onward. There's a hole in the ground at the top of the hill, to trip up anyone who gets too cocky and walks with their eyes on the tall fir tree. It's supposed to mean that students shouldn't get too arrogant and forget that they're still learning. Before they sealed the hole up with wire netting, I wonder if anyone did fall through, and if the symbolism was lost on them. 

After gingerly going down the slippery stairs, I made it on to the Path of Adventure, which starts with a few stepping stone laid out on dry ground, before water suddenly come burbling out the side to flood everything but the flat stones. It's not quite an adventure - the water swirls on slowly and the greatest danger you're in is getting your shoes a bit wet, but you can see the genius in the execution. There's no back flow of water, and you never realize you're slowly going downhill. 

I couldn't find Number 12, but it turned out that way lay Disappointment, so it was just as well. Before he left us, our guide from the Stud told us "Don't go up the Hill of Tranquility! The steps are dreadful, and hard as it is to get up, it's going to be even harder to get down." With no idea how the garden looked like as a whole, when I got to the Hill of Ambition I though the Hill of Tranquility was further ahead, and all I'd have to do was skip it then. It was only when I'd managed, with some difficulty, to wend my way up to the top and get a view of the whole garden, that I realized this was what he meant by the Hill of Tranquility. It was definitely tranquil, and the downward journey was as awful as he'd said. I was half convinced I was going to slip and perish dramatically on the stone steps. 

At the end of the slow climb down was the Tea House, which reminded me of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Sadly, though there was time enough for tea, there was none to be had here. Further down the path was Number 16, which came with no corresponding item, so I decided to see what it was. 

It turned out to be the Well of Wisdom, from which you cannot drink. There was a nice enough view from it though. 

Imbued with the spirit of the well, I crossed the Bridge of Life, going across the water from the profane to the sacred, worldliness to wisdom. At this point, I realized I'd spent more time in the garden than anyone else from the tour, and skipped past the Death and Mourning bits. When I studied the map of the gardens afterwards, I realized there were warning signs peppered all over, from Caution! Steep Climb! to Caution! Steep Drop! and Danger! Pitfall. It's a miracle I made it out unscathed. 

We were dropped off in Kilkenny for a brief lunch stop, which we had at the Hibernian Hotel's restaurant bar while nursing pints of - you guessed it! - Kilkenny. I quite like the beer in Singapore, but after a couple of days of drinking creamy-smooth Guinness, this paled in comparison. Lunch was good, although we were once again overwhelmed by the generous Irish portions. Split a pavlova with D for dessert, which I hadn't thought to find in this part of the world. Left my umbrella on the bus, but once we came out of the pub it was absolutely pouring outside, so instead of wandering round the Kilkenny Castle grounds or visiting St Canice's Cathedral and the Round Tower, everyone ran into Kilkenny Design to seek shelter before it was time to head to the bus parked nearby. 

After another drive, we had a forty minute stop at Cahir in South Tipperary. The town was small enough that we had more than enough time to take a stroll around it before stopping at a café for a spot of tea and soup. There was a small shopping precinct around the town square, but we ignored it in favour of walking down The Mall by the River Suir. 

Even with the drizzle, which seemed to have followed us throughout the day, the town itself looked very cheery with all the colours used to paint the building fronts. Cahir is a designated Heritage Town because of a number of historically significant buildings located around the area. Sadly, there wasn't enough time to visit any of them. 

Cahir Castle, the town's most famous attraction, is built on a rocky islet that was recognized as an excellent natural vantage point even before the third century, when an early fort built on it was destroyed. It used to be the seat of the powerful Butler family, but over the course of a long and bloody history the Lordship of the Castle fell to other hands, and when the last Lord of Cahir died in the 60s, the estate was reverted to the state. 

They filmed part of the 1981 Excalibur movie in the castle, which looked very moody from our side of the river. It really was a pity we couldn't visit, because it's one of the largest and best preserved of Ireland's castles.  

That night we stayed at the Blarney Golf Resort, located rather far from the town itself and with not very much to explore on site. It set the very restful tone for the rest of the trip, where we'd arrive at each hotel by 4.30 pm or 5 pm, with lights out by 9.30 pm. I'm rather certain now that I think about it, that I must have spent half this holiday asleep. 

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