“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find
something. You certainly usually find something, if you
look, but it is not always quite the something you were
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Wow this post was a long time coming. I actually started it on the 16th of June if you’ll believe it and suddenly a month had passed and an ocean and half a continent had been crossed before my thoughts returned to the quiet beauty of Wicklow National Park. I’m hoping the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to visit the county 3 times in my life will make writing this from memory easier so lets see how this goes. I have a feeling this will end up a 2-part post.
After a few days in Dublin I was already itching to get out of the big city. You have to understand, Ireland has a population of 4.5 million – 0.5 million of which live in the concentrated Dublin area. It’s beautiful, vibrant, exciting, historic – and crowded. Those of you who know me know that one of my favourite parts of my home-town (home-city?) is that Ottawa has somehow managed to create a big city/small town dichotomy that works. I have yet to find its equal actually, no matter how busy and crowded it gets here (we’re actually more populated than Dublin) there’s always somewhere quiet and peaceful and largely empty that you can escape to. After 4 days in Dublin, as much as I loved it, I was itching for a change. I’ve a term for it: Hostel Fever – and yes I did base that on Cabin Fever, I’m too tired to be creative.
At any rate, I booked a trip on an impulse, something that would get me out of the city and in to the vast green countryside – something Ireland has oodles of (Look Mum I used Oodles in a post! Coolest word ever…)
The trip was booked through a Dublin-based tour company and at 7:30 AM on Monday I headed out from the hostel to meet the bus at this tourist centre near Trinity which was confusingly disguised as a beautiful old church. To add to my half-asleep bewilderment, it seems every Dublin-based day trip was launching itself from that very same location. Luckily, all the tour buses have the name of the company emblazoned obviously, if a little obnoxiously, on their hulls. I found mine all right and cheerfully greeted my guide-for-the-day “Damien” as I pulled myself up the unnecessarily steep stairs to the cab. As I alighted he asked me, in typical tour-guide fashion, where I was from. When I told him Ottawa he grinned broadly and pointed out half of the people already on the bus – “You’ll never believe it, but they’re all here from Ottawa too.” Honestly, after a week on my own, the sight of even complete strangers who at least had a somewhat intimate knowledge of my home-town was beyond welcome. The young woman around my age even hailed from Ottawa U which, despite the ongoing rivalry, brought a huge smile to my face. Just like kindergarten we were friends immediately.
Although it may somewhat defy logic, and would possibly be the worst nightmare of someone concerned with efficiency, we headed North to County Meath first – all the way to the small-yet-famous town of Trim before heading back into Dublin and then out the south end to Wicklow. Luckily, I have never been too concerned with efficiency (to the occasional chagrin of my superiors) so a 9 hour day of touring almost half of which consisting of driving concerned me not at all.
And trust me, Trim castle was worth it. 100 times over. It’s an old Norman Keep originally constructed from timber and eventually upgraded to stone as more money flowed in and more security was deemed necessary. It’s only been held under siege once in its 900 year history and, funnily enough, the gentleman who lay siege to the castle was actually the Irish-born slightly illegitimate son of the owner. Apparently the fact that he was inheriting close to nothing from him wealthy father pissed him off to the point where he decided to take what he felt was rightfully his. He didn’t get what he wanted – poor petulant kid.
The structure of the keep itself was incredible. Built in the shape of a cross (to increase visibility during attacks) only one of the towers was missing – the reason for its disappearance remains a mystery with possible explanations stemming from the disintegration of the mortar over centuries due to the presence of heat in what was presumably the kitchen to cheap locals stealing stone-by-stone to build other structures. The missing tower leaves a scar on the building that attracts the eye immediately – like an old soviet photograph from which a no-longer-in-favor dignitary has been removed. The larger picture is still arresting and yet the chasm left by the missing piece is spellbinding.
As we had quite a bit of time to spare before the tour started, I spent my time wandering around the perimeter. There’s something so haunting about moss-grown stone walls fallen into almost hopeless disrepair.
One can’t help but wonder who once walked there, was it old seasoned soldiers or green boys guarding the walls? Did the guards huddle around watch fires during the cold Hibernia winters telling ghost stories or did they stand grim-faced on the walls refusing to leave their posts? Did the family in the keep itself have nights filled with laughter, entertaining guests from far away in the hopes that a match could be made between their pre-teen eldest daughter and the visiting Lord’s newly blooded eldest son? When walking through these ruins you really need only close your eyes and suddenly the silent pigeons nesting in the arrow slits become strapping young men preparing themselves for the first wave of an attack from the West;
The cavernous keep – open to the sky where wooden floors used to separate the public and private levels of the home – suddenly appears filled with the warmth of a monstrous fire in the great hall and you can almost here the drunken song of the select few invited to the feast clanging their mugs of mead and trading battle stories. There’s so little like it – the experience of exploring a bonified ruin. Maybe this paragraph alone has done what several other blog posts have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to drive home – why I study history. When what one person might see as a pile of mossy old stones invokes this kind of magic in my own mind why bother resisting?
And for those who are Hollywood-inclined – Trim castle is actually where most of the castle scenes in Braveheart were filmed. I quite literally stood at the window where Patrick McGoohan as Edward Longshanks launched his son’s unwitting lover to his death. It’s a far drop, take my word for it – well chosen.
As I stood on the ramparts of the keep, separated from the chasm that was once a roofed sanctuary by a waist-high stone wall and a tarp, I gazed breathless at the beauty of the surrounding countryside.
No matter how many times I visit Ireland, in whatever strange capacity (reporting on traditional music in a village of 300; falling off some cliffs in the name of a “healthy hike”; exploring the slightly phallic ruins of the Hill of Tara with my best friend; sneaking a pint during a rugby championship game as a fresh-faced 16-year-old) I am constantly reduced to a speechless, awe-struck creature incapable of forming a single sentence…
That is until a month later when I finally get around to writing a blog post about my experiences. Ireland is beautiful, the world is an incredible place and I don’t think I’ll ever shake off my restless need to explore, learn, laugh and love. If it takes 3000 dollars that I don’t technically have and a month away from real work each time to do so – so be it. The experience is worth it.
As beautiful as Trim was, and no matter how aching my desire to remain there for a minute, an hour, a day, a month, longer … it was soon time to move on. Back to Dublin we went to pick up a whole new troop of curious tourists from all around the globe and then it was off to Wicklow, possibly the most spectacular place in all of Ireland. But this has been more than long enough already. Thank you to those with the patience to read through my ramblings. Hopefully by the end of this rainy evening in Ottawa I’ll have pounded out another blog post – this one set in the Garden of Ireland. Stay tuned!
Life is Beautiful.