Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Ireland: Southern Road Trip - Limerick, Foynes, Ballyseedy Woods

Days 4 and 5 of our 12 day road trip through Southern Ireland would take us to the cities of Limerick and Foynes.  Our general plan for this trip was to tour a specified area and then pick a location to stay overnight which was close to the destination for the next day.  This gave us an early start for sightseeing each day.  Accordingly, we landed in the little village of Bunratty the night before visiting Limerick and would drive to the town Tralee after seeing Foynes, in preparation for the next leg of the journey.

Situated on the River Shannon, Limerick was founded in the 9th Century and is the fourth largest city in Ireland in terms of population.  We booked a private walking tour of the city and our guide showed us not only sites of historic importance, but quirky points of interest as well. We learned about the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852 which killed over 1 million people, and caused a million more to desperately flee Ireland to escape starvation.  A sculpture called "The Broken Heart" pays tribute to those who escaped to America, often leaving behind loved ones.  We were told the story of a family who were forced to leave their youngest child behind when he showed symptoms of typhoid.  The choice was between abandoning the one child or allowing the entire family to starve to death.  The rest of the family set sail on what were called "coffin ships" where rampant disease killed the father and two remaining children on the journey, leaving the desolate mother as a sole survivor.

We visited several locations that were relevant to Limerick-born author Frank McCourt who wrote the acclaimed autobiographical novel Angela's Ashes.  A bronze bust of McCourt sits in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to him, which is located in the author's former childhood school.  We also strolled through "The People's Park" where McCourt played as a child.  In that park, we were shown a sculpture of bumble bees that were carved out of the stump of a tree felled by a storm in December 2014.  There was also a beautifully decorated Victorian drinking fountain.

Since the first limerick poem was not recorded until the 14th Century, it is more likely that the poetic form was named after the city than the other way around.  Regardless, the city of Limerick embraces the connection by posting signs with a QR code and a cute limerick to describe historic monuments like the Tait Clock, named after former mayor Peter Tait:

We'll Meet Around the Tait Clock
I'll wait for a while to take stock
We'll go to the dance
If You'll Just Take a Chance
But I won't wait long, so TICK TOCK ... by Mary O'Shea

Limerick played an important role throughout history in the Irish's never-ending quest for independence from England, which spanned over many centuries.  In 1200, King John of England ordered a fortified castle to be built at the edge of the River Shannon on the site of a former Viking settlement.  King John's Castle became the focal point of a tug of war between Irish Catholics and English Protestants that saw power shift back and forth between the two sides, with multiple sieges and rebellions held from the 17th Century all the way through the 20th Century when Ireland finally became a free state in 1921.  In addition to the Castle, which we would visit after the tour, we inspected the "Treaty Stone" that marked the end of the 1690 Siege of Limerick, which saw Protestant William of Orange defeat Catholic King James II.  We also stopped at the 1916 Easter Uprising Memorial on Sarsfield Bridge which pays tribute to the leaders of yet another unsuccessful Irish rebellion, but one that paved the way for the eventual success of the 1921 Irish War of Independence.

The self-guided tour of King John's Castle was obviously designed to cater towards school children, in terms of the way the information about the castle's turbulent history was conveyed.  There were many opportunities for visitors to interact with the exhibits including dress-up stations, question and answer panels and drawers, diagrams and models and some games and play areas.  Videos and holograms were used to explain the roles of various inhabitants of the castle, including a munitions maker, a coin minter, besieged soldiers and their captain.  We learned about the Brehon Law, one of the oldest recorded legal systems in Europe dating back to the 8th Century, which included relatively progressive rules for the treatment of women.  Under Brehon Law, women were granted equal property rights and could divorce with compensation under various circumstances.  It's too bad the women's rights seem to have regressed since those times. Several displays and informational panels explained the tactics of the attackers during the siege of 1642, where a series of mine tunnels were dug beneath the castle with the aim of weakening and collapsing the stone walls.  This strategy led to the current use of the verb "to undermine".

The Hunt Museum holds over 2000 works of art, antiques and religious relics donated by historian, collector and antique dealer John Hunt and his wife Gertrude. The collection includes objects from as far back as the Stone Age, through Egyptian, Greek and Roman times, up to 20th Century Europe. It was incredible to see all these eclectic antiquities crammed into wall unit display cases, drawers and cabinets throughout the museum, which is housed in an 18th Century Custom House. Some highlights included the personal seal of King Charles I of England, a coin rumoured to be part of the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Jesus, and works by Picasso and Renoir.

One piece that particularly caught our attention was an 1803 self-portrait by Robert Fagan, where he painted himself in refined European gentleman's attire, but depicted his wife in the style of a classical Greek statue with her bare breasts exposed.  The juxtaposition of his fully clothed image against her semi-nude one was a bit jarring and amusing, but apparently was fashionable for the times.  I also liked the 15th Century Ivory "Broad H" Comb depicting scenes of King David and Bathsheba, the 17th Century gold, pearl, coral and enamel Italian pendant and the full-sized wooden sculpture of  Apollo, Classical god of light, poetry, music, healing and prophecy.  Amid all these ancient pieces were also modern works including an odd sculpture that seemed to fuse together various valves and machine parts with a curved computer keyboard.

The most poignant works on display were not part of the Hunt collection, but rather a temporary exhibit showcasing the winners of a national contest held by the anti-racism group "Show Racism The Red Card".  A group of 26 students from Caherline primary school won first prize for their self-portraits where each student re-imagined himself or herself as being from a different country, researching and learning about the culture of the new nationality in the process.

Between 1937 to 1942, Foynes, Ireland was a major transportation hub, hosting one of the largest civilian airports in Europe.  It was the launching point for trans-Atlantic flights by flying boats, which were fixed-winged passenger seaplanes with hulls that could only land on water.  Because flying boats could land on any clear stretch of water, they could be bigger, heavier and more luxurious than land planes.  The Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat included a passenger lounge, a promenade deck, sitting lounge, a 14-seat dining room serving a 7 course meal, cabins for sleeping, dressing rooms, and even a deluxe suite that was often used as a honeymoon suite.  The cost of a return flight from New York to Foynes went for a whopping $675–an exhorbitant sum for those times.  By the mid 1940s, technological advancements in land planes and the opening of a land-based airport in Shannon made both flying boats and the use of Foynes airport a thing of the past.

Today the main attraction in Foynes is the Flying Boat Museum which provides details on the short history of the Boeing 314 "Clipper" flying boat.   No actual Boeing "Clippers" remain, but the museum built a life-sized replica of a Boeing 314 that allows visitors to board and wander through the cockpit, control room and various passenger sections of the plane.  The replica is named the "Yankee Clipper", after the first flying boat to take paying passengers across the Atlantic, landing in Foynes on July 9, 1939.  To give an idea of relative size, a 747 jet could hold two flying boats inside it.  The Boeing 314 could transport 10 crew members and up to 36 passengers.

Walking through the expansive sitting and sleeping areas and the large bathrooms felt like being on a celebrity's private jet or a cruise boat as opposed to a public airliner.  They did not reproduce a full dining room, but we did see photos of passengers sitting at tables with china, glassware and cutlery, being served by waiters.  We learned that each passenger was assigned a sleeping bunk and had his shoes cleaned and polished overnight.

Foynes is also known as the birthplace of Irish Coffee.  A holographic exhibit in the museum reenacted the circumstances that led to the invention of this beverage that mixes together hot coffee, Irish whiskey, brown sugar and fresh cream.  When passengers coming off a flying boat on a chilly, stormy night asked head chef Joe Sheridan for something to warm them up, he came up with the now famous concoction that he named "Irish Coffee".  We could not leave without sampling a real Irish coffee in the place where it was invented, so we ordered one from the museum cafeteria.  Unlike versions made in North America and perhaps otherwise in Ireland or the rest of Europe, the Foynes' drink is topped with a layer of thick cream, as opposed to a dollop of whipping cream.

En route to Tralee for our overnight sleep before the next leg of our trip, we stopped for an afternoon hike in the beautiful Ballyseedy Woods.  Picturesque trails took us through the forest and past expansive farmers fields with cows in the foreground and mountains in the background.  As we walked along the paths, we came across two large log benches with intricate carvings attached to each end.

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