Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Dingle Peninsula and Feasting at Bunratty Castle

We were beset by fog and mist as we left Killarney early in the morning to drive round the Dingle Peninsula before heading into Limerick later in the day. Compared to the previous day's azure sky, the day was shaping up to be remarkably grey. A terrible pity, since the Dingle Peninsula boasts some of Ireland's best views. The Slea Head drive we were heading towards was supposed to bring us round some of the finest scenery in the world, but as soon became apparent, most of it was sadly obscured. Ah, bad weather. The bane of the tourist's existence. 

Cloudy Day in Dingle Peninsula

With most of the view obscured, our guide Pat launched into a long stream of jokes and anecdotes to keep us entertained on the ride. Some of them even had to do with the Dingle Peninsula itself. For instance, the little factoid that it's a part of the Kerry Gaeltacht, with areas where Irish is the predominant language spoken at home or within the community. There are opportunities for Irish children to spend a couple of months undergoing intensive language lessons in various Gaeltachts across the country, and his own daughter spent a few summers in a village in the Dingle Peninsula, brushing up on her Irish. Out of this he spun funny stories of the fickleness of young love and the travails of being a parent to a teenage girl - a masterful storyteller that Pat. 

Compared to our view of the Dingle Peninsula from the Ring of Kerry, when we got off the bus for pictures at Inch Beach on roughly the same latitude as we'd stopped the day before, there wasn't very much to see apart from the rolling grey. The beach itself is a 5 kilometre long sand spit, one of the largest in Ireland, that breaks up the wall of sea cliffs along the coast. In the summer it's a good place to swim and fish with shiny golden sand, but it was all but abandoned when we got there, the sand damp and dark from the drizzle. 

No matter where we went out in the countryside, we'd see gorse bushes - or as they're known in Ireland, furze - lining the roads, their pretty yellow flowers blooming. As we passed farmland where the sheep grazed and the lambs frolicked, Pat told us how in his grandfather's generation, farmers would use furze as bedding for the animals, because it was effectively free. Because furze is adapted to withstanding fires, burning the used bedding only served to encourage even more furze plants to sprout up (The opening of their seed pods is helped along by fire. How cool is that!), so now they're everywhere. 

As we went round the country roads of Ireland, we were told with absolute conviction that the EU's infrastructural investments were responsible for our relatively smooth journey. Just twenty years ago we'd have had a much bumpier ride, but the potholes have largely been filled since. 

The roads are still narrow though, and wend this way and that through the ever changing landscape of valleys and mountains. Most of them seemed just about wide enough for our coach to pass. All the Irish drivers know which way to go, but sometimes you might run into French coach drivers following their GPS and going against traffic. Thankfully, we hardly saw any other vehicles. 

Pat had taught us the Tourist's Prayer ("... And when our voyage is over and we return to our loved ones, grant us the favour of finding someone who will look at our pictures and listen to our stories, so our lives as tourists will not have been in vain. Amen."), but at certain junctures the view from my window - like the perilous drop you can see below - inspired me to say a few other quick ones of my own ("Oh God, please don't let us plummet down the sheer cliff face. Amen."). The good Lord gave us Eugene, who was marvelous at manoeuvring the coach, (Especially round some of the tricky bends) and deserved every round of applause we gave him.

The Dingle Peninsula is rich in history, with a plethora of archaeological sites, including sea-facing forts from the Iron Age, cottages from the Great Famine and dry-stone Clocháns (Beehive Huts), which were often used as monastic dwellings. When we got to the lookout point for the Blasket Islands, the fog had shrouded them so well that we even didn't know what we were looking for at first. We had to be content with the information boards that gave a brief history of the now uninhabited island and its occupants, who left the main island for good in 1953. 

With little point in making further stops since we couldn't see anything anyway, we headed back to the town of Dingle for an early lunch. I was dead set on getting my hands on more ice cream, and had already scoped out the area when we'd stopped by in the morning to use the public facilities. The target location had been acquired during my reconnaissance mission, but the store wasn't open at 9.30 am because most people don't believe in having ice cream for breakfast. Heathens, the lot of you! It was past 11 am when we returned though, which meant there was nothing standing in my way. 

Pat recommended Harrington's for Fish & Chips, but D was feeling adventurous and dragged us round the town in search for other things to eat. All we encountered though, were sleepy streets and restaurants that weren't open for the next couple of hours, so to Harrington's we eventually went anyway. There were two coaches worth of people crowded inside the restaurant, but by the time we joined the rest of our group the worst of the queue had dissipated. 

Had cod as always, and the fish was fabulous. D thought his calamari was only so-so though, and looked so sad about it I felt quite sorry for him. 

Before we'd gone on tour, I went round a number of Google+ communities asking for restaurant recommendations across Ireland. +1s were more forthcoming than actual answers, and the only person who left a comment basically said "Everything's good! Everything also comes with potatoes." It wasn't quite the answer I was looking for, but points for accuracy I guess. EvenM's Crab Salad on Toast also came with a helping of chips. 

I'd begun a mental tally of "How Many Potatoes?" at the start of the trip in a bid to track my potato consumption (For science!), and the first few potatoes I'd consumed were numbered accordingly. The count unfortunately went awry around the sixth potato, so now all I can say about the final amount is "Lots". 

Like most parents, D is all about imparting life lessons, and some of them are even quite good. Life Lesson #5 is this: Don't dither. Make up your mind and own that decision. If you make a mistake then learn from it. Alas, when I saw the massive jar of creme eggs, I made the snap judgement that I was too full from the fish and the two scoops of ice cream I'd smuggled in to possibly have anything else. I have learned my lesson (Oh what a hard lesson to learn!), and will never turn down the possibility of deep fried confectioneries ever again. 

We had a little time to wander around the town, and we went to take a picture of the sculpture of Fungie, a wild Bottlenose Dolphin that elected to make Dingle Harbour his home sometime in the 1980s. There's an entire industry built up around taking tourists out to swim with Fungie, who's apparently quite likes people and is miraculously still alive. Dolphins have an average lifespan of 20 years, but Fungie's pushing towards 40 now. Of course, the sculpture shows Fungie in his prime - in more recent photographs and videos he's sporting some serious wrinkles. 

The town of Dingle has been around since the Norman invasion of Ireland, when the sheltered harbour was developed as a port. Today it's home to about 1200 people, but it serves the surrounding communities as well as the hoards of tourists that descend every year, so there are around 50 pubs in town, which seems like a good number. 

Our hotel room in Limerick came with a bathroom that wouldn't look out of place in a geriatric ward. After laughing for a good five minutes (Our collective sense of humour covers toilet jokes. We like to think it keeps us young.), M & I decided to get our nails done. We went to the nearest shopping centre to try our luck, but the salon there wasn't due for its grand opening till a couple of days after we left. Miriam very kindly gave us direction to the nearest other salon though, and when the time to leave for dinner rolled around, we were feeling a bit more polished. 

Dinner that evening was at the majestic Bunratty Castle. An earlier wooden structure had been constructed by the Normans on the same strategic site, but what we saw was built in the 15th century. The Bunratty Medieval Castle Banquet has been run by Shannon Heritage for half a century, and remains a really fun evening out. We cut through the Folk Park (On our itinerary the next morning) and went past the small cannons on the ground before going up some stairs and crossing the drawbridge. I entered the castle to an enthusiastic "Good evening and welcome m'lady!" from someone in full medieval finery that almost had me curtsying out of sheer reflex. Those of us who could, navigated our way up to the Great Hall via a set of narrow stairs, so like the ones we'd encountered at Blarney Castle, while everyone else got whisked away to a secret location. 

The Hall was half filled with people when we got there, and we parked ourselves in what we hoped was a discreet corner, armed with the goblets of mead (And non-alcoholic punch for M) that had been handed out to us when we stepped inside. In the middle of the room, two rather good musicians played what I assumed was period appropriate music. There were lots of furnishing around the hall to be admired, but with the ever increasing number of people, we wound up staring very intently at the closest tapestry instead.

The mead we'd received had been produced in a winery a stone's throw away from the Castle, utilizing an ancient Irish recipe of pure honey, fruit of the vine and a selection of herbs. Mead's been an important drink in Ireland since the time of the ancient Celts, and a medieval banquet wasn't considered complete without it. It wasn't quite to D's taste, so he passed me his goblet once I was done with mine. I thought it made quite a pleasant aperitif really. The alcohol content of Bunratty Mead is 14.7%, just a little stronger than most wines, but the goblets were tiny things.  

One of the Castle's Lords came round with the 'Bite of Friendship' of bread and salt, which we partook, just to be on the safe side.

Me: It's not going to be another Red Wedding tonight is it?
Castle Lord: Oh goodness no, we take guest right very seriously here.

M & D didn't quite know what the ritual was about, which led to me trying to explain the entirety of Game of Thrones to them in about three minutes. It wasn't the most successful venture I've undertaken. I probably should have just stuck with "Eat the bread and salt so they won't murder you while you're still in the Castle. It's law."  

The Lords and Ladies gathered to sing us a song about the Castle, a very charming performance and beautifully harmonized. Someone nearly took my eye out while trying to capture a video of the proceedings, but I dodged just in time. (Those Krav Maga classes are paying off!) Once the madrigal was over, it was time to crown the Earl of the evening and his Lady. Someone from another tour group was selected to great fanfare while all the men on ours breathed a sigh of relief at dodging the bullet.  

We were ushered down the stairs into the dining room, where our friends who hadn't made it up to the Great Hall had been hiding all the while. In proper medieval style, there were long communal oak tables, and we were to eat by candlelight. It took a while to sort out the seating, and once that was done a rather bemused Lord took to the stage to remind everyone not to drink from the finger bowls, which were meant for washing only. Judging by the nervous laughter around the dining hall though, the warning had come a tad too late for some. 

We had a free flow of red and white wine that evening, but like a lot of medieval wine, it was far less potent ("This tastes watered down!") than what we were used to. Still, wine is wine, and we required a few refills between the lot of us. 

One of the duties of the Earl was to taste and approve of each dish before it was served, and he gave the go ahead to everything that evening. It must be mentioned of course, that disapproval meant the dungeons, but the food was good enough that he probably wasn't lying when he deemed each course acceptable. The first course was a spiced parsnip soup, and with our cutlery limited to one knife each, we drank directly from the bowl. 

The next course was a platter of spare ribs with a whiskey and honey sauce. Someone got carted off to the dungeons around this point, for I crime I didn't really catch, so intent on the ribs was I. 

For years and years, M & D have been threatening to send me to finishing school in hopes that I'd stop eating like a barbarian ("Don't put that knife in your mouth!"), so imagine my elation when I first noticed we only had a knife at our disposal. I was made for medieval feasting, and had a grand old time stabbing at the ribs. After some prodding, D agreed that knives were sorta fun, and M rolled her eyes at us both and continued to eat daintily. 

Next came the potatoes, which surprised exactly no one. 

The poor man who'd been in the dungeon got a royal pardon just in time to come back for the main course of chicken with an apple and mead sauce. A quick taste test confirmed the fact that our magnanimous Earl was fairly well-liked and not at risk of being poisoned, and as everyone tucked in we were serenaded some more by the talented Lords and Ladies. 

Dessert was Fruit of the Forest mousse on a biscuit base, a very tasty end to a good evening. 

The whole thing was over in under three hours, and when we got out of the Castle, the sun still had not set. A bagpiper played with gusto as we left the compound, and it sounded almost as if they were sorry to see us go. 

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