Friday, December 23, 2016

1. Wicklow - The Sugar Loaf

The Sugar Loaf Mountain is a majestic peak that both welcomes visitors to Wicklow and bids them goodbye as they head for the capital., When we were young it seemed that much bigger than it actually was and became a sort of Wicklow Mount Everest but with a much cooler name and way cooler facts, which, as we grew older, we realised we had been hoodwinked into believing.
Things we once believed about the Sugar Loaf that we now know to be false[HF]
·         It’s one of the biggest mountains in Ireland. It’s not. In fact, it’s not even one of the biggest mountains in Wicklow! It just seems big because there is no other summit near it.
·         While even the most ambitious child probably suspected that the Sugar Loaf wasn’t made up of sugar, pre-M11 children were always led to believe that it fitted somewhere on the food pyramid. It doesn’t. Later still, we learnt the bastards lied to us again when we discovered that it was not even comprised of Devonian granite, like its western cousins, but is made of Cambrian quartzite!
·         Finally, there were whole generations of us who used to drive by the Sugar Loaf hoping it would erupt and that we would have to outrun its sugary lava flows. How cool would that have been? Unfortunately, it is not now nor had it ever been a volcano! It is just an erosion-resistant metamorphosed sedimentary deposit from the sea who, once people started calling him a volcano, didn’t have the guts to tell us the truth.
You would think that discovering all this about one of our heroes would leave a bad taste in our mouth, but we soon got over it. After all, it’s only a mountain. And as we grew older, we realised that, while it might not be edible or about to explode, it is both welcoming and accessible to almost all visitors and even on the most mediocre of days, it offers some of the finest panoramic views of Wicklow, Dublin and the Irish Sea.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

2. Wexford - Ballinesker Beach & Curracloe Strand

A little known fact is that Wexford is home to the only successful liberating land invasion in Irish history. This liberating land invasion was nothing to do with the 1798 rebellion, when more than 16,000 Wexfordites, led by a priest (a profession not usually known for its military prowess), managed to wrestle control of three of the four major county towns before being defeated on a hill named after a table condiment.
No, instead the liberating land invasion took place when Hollywood came to Wexford and filmed the Normandy landings, with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon’s dead fictional brother and Triple X storming Ballinesker Beach and Curracloe Strand. In doing so, they gained a foothold in France and begin the slow repulse of Germany’s Western Front before finally Saving Private Ryan. While D-Day didn’t actually take place in Wexford, a win is a win is a win, as any of their county hurlers will tell you.
Situated on Ireland’s sunny south-east, the two Blue-Flag*-waving beaches, along with their nearby neighbours of Courtown, Morriscastle, and Rosslare, make up the true Costa del Sol of the Irish coast and this winning combination of white sand, fresh waves and occasional bursts of sun is why Wexford beaches are amongst some of the most popular in the country.
*The Blue Flag: A certification by the Foundation for Environmental Education that a beach meets its stringent standards of being kept entirely clear of soiled nappies, Choc Ice wrappers and half-broken bottles of Budweiser.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

3. Westmeath - Lough Derravaragh

Reflecting its wonderfully soft name, Lough Derravaragh is one of the Ireland’s most beautiful midland lakes. Stretching for nearly ten kilometres upwards and four kilometres across, it looks like a skinny lake version of Italy with as much beauty and charm as its Latin twin.
While the lough is well-known for its lakeside walks, angling and boating, it is probably most associated with the Irish myth of the Children of Lir.
The story goes that when Bodb Derg was elected king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ancient Ireland’s supernatural answer to Charlie’s Angels, all of his rivals consented to this except King Lir. Rather than just tell him to suck it up, Bodb Derg decided to set Lir up with his daughter Aoibh. This was a success and together with her, Lir had four children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. Unfortunately, Aoibh soon died in a horrible BBC mispronunciation accident. Bodb Derg, sensing Lir’s sadness, decided to arrange a second marriage with his other daughter Aoife and it was from this that things went down-hill.
Aoife, jealous of the affection that Lir showered onto his children, plotted to get rid of them. However, neither she nor her servant could perform the gruesome task of murder so instead she turned the children into swans and set them out into the neighbouring Lough Derravaragh.
While this was obviously disastrous for the kids (there were very few job opportunities in Ireland at the time for swans), what was even more tragic was that the children had to then spend the next 300 years on Lough Derravaragh, 300 years in the Sea of Moyle, and finally 300 years on the Isle of Innihglora in Mayo before a pagan druid would be able to bless them and break the spell. To add insult to injury, by the time 900 years were up, St Patrick had converted all of Ireland to Christianity and there were no pagan druids left!
As to how the story ends, there are several endings to the Children of Lir:
1.       Some say the Christian monk Mochua in Mayo took pity on the children and was able to break the spell, thus turning them back into withered old people who they lived out their final days.
2.       Others talk of a failed attack by Lairgean, the King of Connacht, on Mochua’s sanctuary to capture the swans. During this raid, a silver chain that had previously been unremarked upon but now linked them together broke and the swans turned back to humans and promptly died.
3.       Others still tell of how St Patrick met the swans, who told him their story. Bringing them back to his house, they heard Christian bells toll and were turned back to humans, at which point St Patrick baptised them. However, because they were now 900-year-old humans they died soon after. Good job St Patrick! Finally, in the Director’s Cut, after 900 years in the wilderness, they met that last remaining pagan druid who changed them back to humans, at which point Fionnuala is said to have uttered ‘I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time ... like tears in rain ... Time to die.

Monday, December 19, 2016

4. Waterford

Located along Ireland’s sunny south-east Waterford, or the Déise as it is commonly called, has a wealthier abundance of tourist sites than it is sometimes given credit for. From the cosmopolitan centre of Waterford city in the east to the welcoming atmosphere of the Ring Gaeltacht in the west, and from walking along the Comeragh Mountains of the north to lazing about any number of the secluded beaches on the Copper Coast in the south, Waterford is well-stocked with reasons to visit.
That said, Waterford does have a darker side, with several things that it will probably have to be held accountable for on Judgement Day, including:
1.       Newfoundland’s accent: Although residents of Newfoundland, Canada, usually get a hard time from mainland Canadians due to their isolation on an island off Canada’s east coast, their accent doesn’t help matters. A traditional ‘Newfie’ accent sounds like a Waterford native on steroids, and this is due to the large numbers of Déise fishermen and families who emigrated over in the 1800s, boy!
2.       €70 fees for printing boarding passes: Ryanair’s first flight was a swift hop from Waterford to Gatwick airport. The rest is history.
3.       The global dominance of the New Zealand rugby team: Ireland has never beaten the All-Blacks and this is because of Waterford. Back in 1840, Déise-born Captain William Hobson co-authored the Treaty of Waitangi between Great Britain and the Maoris of New Zealand, a document that would establish trust between both groups and thus make the Maoris more amenable to taking part in English games such as rugby, which is a pity because they are so bloody good at it!
4.       Corporal punishment: The first Christian Brothers school was established in Waterford, which, as any young teenage boy who has had his locks pulled or a chalk-duster thrown at him to grab his attention will tell you, is not entirely something to cheer about.
5.       Cardiac arrests: While it may be a little strong to blame heart attacks on one county, the Déise did come up with the curing process for bacon, when Henry Denny developed the modern-day rasher back in the early 19th century. Irish breakfasts and cholesterol levels have never been the same since.
6.       Celebrity weddings: The forerunner for celebrity weddings took place in Waterford on 29 August 1170 when Strongbow married Aoife. This union between the infamous Norman leader and the daughter of an Irish lord not only gave Strongbow succession rights to the kingdom of Leinster, it lay the template for the lavish ceremonies we have today.
7.       Nuclear apocalypse?: Ernest Walton. Dungarvan native. Nobel Prize winner in physics. Helped usher in the nuclear age by being the first person to split the atom – need I say more?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

5. Sligo - The Glen

The Glen is one of the most magical dells in Ireland and one of Sligo’s best-kept secrets.
In the heart of the Coolera peninsula, running for over a kilometre, 20 metres deep and 12 metre wide, the Glen is one majestically long cleft in Knocknarea Mountain, said to be formed by some ancient eruption or earthquake that parted the side of the mountain, tore apart veins of limestone and filled the gaps full of fairies.
Filled with every sort of vegetation, the Glen could be the backdrop to an Indiana Jones movie – it would be no surprise if the only thing that disturbs you, as you wander amongst its holly and honeysuckle, bramble bushes and beech, was the soft rumble of a giant boulder rolling down towards you as you escape with a golden idol.
Of course, you are unlikely to find anything like a golden idol here but then for a long time you were unlikely to find anything here at all, so secret was the Glen to anyone outside Sligo. In fact, such was the omerta of silence that surrounded the Glen that any local found telling a non-Sligo person about it risked inviting a fatwa against them or, worse still, being exiled off into Leitrim.
While this has changed and tourists are now welcome to come and visit the Glen, finding it can still prove a challenge with the best directions a Sligoman gave me being ‘head out towards Knockarea until you get onto a steep slope overlooking the sea. Park here and then continue along the road until you get to the second tree on the left. You can then climb across a fence here, head through a gate and you’ll find it. After that, I was on my own.

6. Tyrone - The Ulster American Folk Park

In the noughties, you left because the sites had dried up, the economy gone south and half your Junior A team-mates were already getting tans in Brisbane. You got a lift to the airport in your parent’s Octavia, wearing blue jeans and your county jersey, and took a 777 to a new life and a place Down Under or in Dubai. Others took the boat to England.
In the eighties, you left because there was zero employment for your age group and hadn’t been for years. You travelled to the airport in your folks’ Fiat 131, wearing blue jeans, a denim jacket and big hair, and took a 747 to a new life and an apartment in Boston or the Bronx. Others took the boat to England.
In the sixties, you left because you were the fifth child of eleven kids on a family farm with no long-term prospects. You made it up to the airport in your oul pairs’ Triumph, wearing a suit and tie with an occasional mini-skirt or flare, and took a 707 to a new life on camp in Canada. Others took the boat to England.
Any time before the sixties, you only took the boat.
While I can’t do justice to all the stages of emigration our people underwent over the past three centuries, the Ulster American Folk Park just outside of Omagh can. Here, in an open-air museum, those three centuries of Irish emigration are illustrated, with more than 30 exhibit buildings that take the visitor from the thatched cottages of home, on board a full-scale emigrant sailing ship (sans the typhus) to the log cabins of the American Frontier. Led by the actual people who took these journeys (or maybe just well-versed and -costumed actors), the full Irish emigrant experience is retold in authentic detail.

Friday, December 16, 2016

7. Tipperary - Rock of Cashel

It’s next to impossible to take a picture in or around the town of Cashel without the Rock photo-bombing into the background (the Rock in question being the 60-metre high mound of limestone covered in monastic buildings and not ex-pro wrestler and film actor Dwayne Johnson).
And while there are plenty of other alluring things to Cashel, such as its fortified townhouses, beautiful Georgian cathedral, spacious central plaza, intriguing Bolton library and charming Victorian town centre, it is the Rock that is the real draw to this south Tipperary town.
The history of the Rock is quite interesting, having apparently started life as part of a cave in which Satan was squatting at the nearby Devil’s Bit. Legend has it that the Rock ended up being cast out by accident at the same time St Patrick was evicting the Dark One for rent arrears. Landing at its present spot in Cashel, it soon became the traditional seat of the kings of Munster before changing hands in 1101 when the Church took over.
Their tenure saw the construction of so many wonderful buildings on top of it that it soon became one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Europe. Now, while there may have been some medieval architectural traditionalists who thought building a cathedral beside a chapel beside a 28-metre-tall round tower, not to mention the castle, might have been a bit OTT, several hundred years later it seems to have worked. For when the Rock of Cashel is not half-covered with scaffolding, it is one of the most stunning tourist sites in the country, perched high above the town where it commands spectacular views over the surrounding Tipperary countryside.