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June 9, 2002
Éire: Wexford (Russell)

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Ireland's misty mountains

Our memories of Cymru (Wales) are of its windy, mountainous roads through hills and sheep pastures.  Our memories of Alba (Scotland) add lush forests of fir and hardwood trees.  And to Éire, we would further add the mist that hangs constantly over the tops of the trees and mountains, rendering the horizon very soft and fuzzy.

This is partly due to the constant rain (we have heard consistently that it is unseasonably wet and cold this late in the year).  One June 7th we awoke to pouring rain, but this did not stop Cameron and Joss from playing outside with their swords while we packed up the car.  From Glendalough, we drove south along the N11 from Wicklow into Wexford County.  The drive took hardly any time at all; by early afternoon we had already reached our destination, so before checking into our accommodations we decided to drive further west into Waterford.

Waterford, the oldest city in Éire; was first settled by the Vikings in AD 850 (the name has nothing to do with "water"; it is a derivation of the Viking name "Vandrafjord," which means "safe harbor").  Today, Waterford is synonymous with its famous crystal, and we spent the afternoon of July 7th touring the Waterford Crystal Factory.

We began the excellent and fascinating tour with a five-minute narrated bus ride from the Visitor Centre to the factory itself, where 1,600 employees work to create masterpieces in the world's largest glassworks.  We were able to see the entire process of creation, from glass-blowing to cutting to engraving (the artists must undergo an eight-year apprenticeship before they become master craftspeople).  We were able to see many exquisite products, including a duplicate of the 504-piece Times Square Millennium Ball from New York's New Year's Eve celebration (the most complex commission ever undertaken by Waterford Crystal).  At the end of the tour, we were able to meet one of the master craftspeople, who casually demonstrated the art of glass-cutting.  And most amazing of all, we were able to emerge from the three-story gallery and giftstore without purchasing a single piece of crystal.

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At the Waterford Crystal Factory

One of the main reasons that we have settled into Wexford for three nights is for the opportunity to stay in a castle.  The Killiane Castle in Drinagh (between Wexford and Rosslare) is a family-owned B&B set in a 14th-century castle (actually, the B&B itself is in a 17th-century house built onto the 14th-century castle).  There was originally only a vacancy for two out of our three requested nights, but after a couple of phone calls and some shuffling around, Jack and Kathleen Mernagh (whose family has owned the castle since 1920) were able to accommodate us for all three nights.

On June 8th, we awoke to another morning of rain.  From previous experience, we had assumed that the morning rains typically give way to clear afternoons, but today the rain continued all day.  Nevertheless, in the afternoon we set out for the day's excursion.  Driving down the narrow Irish roads, we saw such cultural things as "Traffic Calming" signs (followed by a series of pedestrian islands to slow you down) and traffic signs in German ("Achtung!").  We also saw a return of the "Black spot" warning signs last seen in Australia, but at least here they explained what they were.

Our destination was New Ross and the Dunbrody, a replica of an 1849 three-masted Irish emigrant ship.  The Dunbrody was built with funding from the JFK Trust (the Kennedys originally came from New Ross) using local builders and actual 19th-century tools and techniques.  For years, the construction of the ship itself was a tourist spectacle; now, the completed ship is the attraction.  Docked alongside the quay, the ship is 176 feet long, 130 feet high, and weighs 458 tons.

For our excellent tour, we were given steerage tickets for March 18th, 1849 for a journey to America to escape the Irish famine.  The guide escorted us below deck, where up to two hundred people would have spent 50 days crammed together.  (By law, each passenger was required to have a space 6' x 18".  In order to save on construction costs, shipbuilders would make a single bed 6' x 6' and put four people -- sometimes complete strangers -- together in it.)

We met costumed passengers from steerage and First Class, who each proceeded to describe the horrors of their journeys.  (We learned that the woman in steerage -- and her husband -- both died during the ocean crossing.  Typically, half of a "coffin ship's" passengers perished during the ocean voyage.)  The tour was especially enlightening for Gail, who is tracing the roots of the Irish portion of her family -- the McFarlands, the Hammonds, and the Shaws.  She was also able to log onto the ship's emigrant database to continue her search.

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Meeting a First Class passenger on the Dunbrody

On June 9th, the rain was further enhanced by gale force winds.  This seemed like the perfect day to drive to Fethard-on-Sea and visit the Hook Lighthouse.  Built on the peninsula of Hook Head and dating from the 13th century, this is the oldest operational lighthouse in Éire and Great Britain, and one of the oldest in the world.  After becoming fully automated in 1996 (and no longer requiring a resident keeper), the lighthouse was opened to the public.

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The lighthouse -- and the magnificent coastline -- at Hook's Head

We arrived five minutes after a tour had started, but ran in anyway to catch up.  After climbing the 115 steps to the 36-metre tower, we stepped out onto the balcony and were almost blown off of the edge.  But the view was great, and Cameron and Joss especially had a lot of fun running around in the intense wind.  The light itself, a 1,000-watt bulb magnified to 2 million candle watts, is visible for 35 miles.

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At the top of the lighthouse: gale force winds

(Before departing Fethard, we also stopped for a peek at nearby Loftus Hall, currently closed to the public.  Legends tell of of a handsome stranger who came in 1763 and romanced the young daughter of the owner.  When she discovered that his feet were cloven, he revealed himself as a demon and disappeared through the roof in a ball of fire.  The poor woman went insane and her ghost supposedly still haunts the hall; the current owner lives in a caravan outside of the house.)

Outside of these excursions, we enjoyed spending time at Killiane Castle and its adjoining farm.  Gail and Russell played a game of chess while the boys looked on (Gail won).  Russell and the boys played tennis on the court next to the house.  A 17-day-old horse foal pranced around in the meadow.  And everyone enjoyed the "cow cam," a closed-circuit video broadcast of the nursery stable that we could view on channel 31 in our rooms.

For breakfast, Jack would present us with a menu every morning.  While Gail tried different things, the men's' eyes always stopped at the same item: "pancakes with maple syrup."  And although they were more like crêpes than like traditional American pancakes (they reminded us of Tanzania), they were a delicious and welcome break from the usual British regime of bacon, bangers, and tomato.

For dinner, we ate out all three nights at the Farmer's Kitchen, a nearby pub and restaurant (originally, we tried to go to Robertino's pasta restaurant in nearby Wexford, but we never succeeded in finding it).  On the first night out, our table neighbors included a family with four-year-old and two-year-old boys (halfway through the meal, the two-year-old stuck a pencil up his nose, resulting in a nosebleed) who turned out to be our neighbors at the B&B.  We especially enjoyed the sweets (desserts); Cameron had strawberries and cream three nights in a row.  But by the third night we were getting pretty burned out; the restaurant was full and we had to eat in the pub, and Gail's vegetarian pasta tasted like something out of a can.

We go through pendulum swings, and as we proceed west out of Wexford, we will probably return to easier (and less expensive) meals in our rooms for a while.

 

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