Sunday, June 14, 2015

Ireland - Southern Road Trip - Waterford, Kilkenny

In the final three days of our twelve day road trip of Southern Ireland, we visited the towns of Blarney (home of the famous Blarney Stone), Waterford (known for its history of glass-making, particularly by the Waterford Crystal company), and Kilkenny before heading back to our home base in Dublin.

We planned a full agenda in Waterford including a visit to the Waterford Crystal Factory and Showroom, and a historic walking tour around the city.  Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland, founded by the Norse Vikings who landed in 914AD. Our walking tour culminated in the historic area called the "Viking Triangle", a triangular block of land that follows the path of the ancient Viking walls that once surrounded the heart of the city.  Remnants of the wall still remain within the triangle and throughout Waterford, with Reginald's Tower, the oldest tower in Ireland, standing at the Eastern tip. 

Reginald's Tower was originally a Norse structure built of wood in 1003.  It was later rebuilt of stone in the 13-14th centuries to provide stronger defence.  The tower was attacked by a cannon in 1495 and was the first fortification to use mortar made of lime, animal and human hair.  In front of Reginald's Tower, which currently houses the Viking Museum, a 40 foot replica of a Viking longship is on display.  Carved on the side of the ship is the name Vadrarfjordr.  Derived from the Norse words "vadre fjord",  meaning "water ford", this is also the original name that Vikings gave the city, which has since morphed into Waterford.

Scattered throughout the streets within the Viking Triangle are fun reminders of Waterford's Viking heritage including plastic cutouts of warriors and lords and ladies of the time that you could stick your face through for a photo.  Sitting in front of the garden of the Bishop's Palace are a pair of bronze chairs/sculptures of the English knight Richard de Clare (nicknamed Strongbow, leader of the Norman invasion of Ireland) and his bride, the Irish princess Aoife, whose political marriage in 1170 led to an alliance that allowed her father, the deposed King of Leinster, to reclaim his kingdom.  This marriage ended the Viking era in Ireland and marked the beginning of Norman rule.

As part of our walking tour, we visited the "Twin Cathedrals of Waterford", the Protestant Christ Church, completed in 1779 and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Trinity built in 1793.  Interestingly, despite representing different and competing religions, both churches were designed by the same architect, John Roberts.  He created the Christ Church in the Georgian style with Rococo design flourishes while the Holy Trinity was built as a Baroque cathedral featuring multiple chandeliers made from Waterford Crystal.  The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was built so much later than Christ Church because prior to 1793, it was illegal for Roman Catholics to worship publicly, despite 80% of Irish being Catholics. 
John Robert's Christ Church was actually the third church to be built on its site.  The original church was erected in the 11th century and was the cathedral where Strongbow married Aoife, as depicted in a famous 1854 painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the Irish National Gallery.  A large plaque in the current church highlights this historic fact.  Also featured is the tomb of James Rice who was the mayor of Waterford 11 times in the 15th Century.  The "cadavar tomb" is topped by the sculpture of the decayed skeleton of a corpse with a frog sitting on its stomach while figures of saints are carved into the side of the crypt.  There is also a tomb of an Unknown Warrior in full armour dating back to the 16th Century with what seems like a dog lying at his feet.  It is possible that he was part of the powerful Butler clan that ruled the area at the time.

The beautiful Granville Hotel overlooks the waterfront and marina, within walking distance of the historic Viking Triangle.  Dating back to the 1730s, it used to be a merchant’s home, shop and warehouse, but is best known as the birth place of lawyer and Irish Rebellion leader Thomas Frances Meagher (last name pronounced as "Marr").  After the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, Meagher was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered but was reprieved due to public outcry and exiled to Tasmania instead.  After staying for 4 years, he escaped and immigrated to America where he recruited Irishmen to fight in the American Civil War.  

Meagher was responsible for creating the tri-coloured flag of Ireland which he modeled after France’s three colours, choosing Green for the South, Orange for the North and the White band signifying unity and peace for the warring factions.  A sculpture honouring Thomas Francis Meagher was unveiled in Waterford in 2004.  During our walking tour, we also passed by the ornate, granite Gothic clock tower built in 1863 that was named the Fountain Clock because it has troughs at its base from which work horses could drink water.  There was also a memorial to John Condon, thought to be the youngest allied solider to be killed in World War I at the age of 14.  Other random facts that we learned on the tour included two points of pride for Waterford–it was the only Irish city besieged by Oliver Cromwell that he failed to capture, and the only Irish Papal candidate, Luke Wadding, came from Waterford.

Following the city tour, we joined a tour of the Waterford Crystal Factory and Showroom, the last vestige of a glass-making dynasty in Waterford that dated back to 1783.  George and William Penrose founded the Waterford Crystal House which became known for producing crystal products with elaborately cut ornamental patterns that sparkled with a "distinctive silvery white brilliance".  The original factory closed for good in 1896 but a new factory was built in 1947 with the new owners studying old Waterford Flint Glass Works pattern books on how to mingle minerals and glass to create the beautiful yet strong and durable Waterford crystal products.  The company thrived for decades, adding more manufacturing plants, new products and techniques, computer technology,  precision cutting machinery  and even acquiring the Wedgwood Glass Company.  Unfortunately, the financial crisis of 2008 forced the company into receivership and in 2009, it was bought by a US Company.  Today, most of the production of Waterford Crystal is no longer done in Ireland and the current Waterford building is used mostly to provide guided tours of the history of the company and manufacturing process.

At the start of our tour, we were able to closely inspect the late 18th Century William Maddock Clock which is cased in 48 panels and 250 decorative buttons of handcrafted Waterford Crystal.  We also admired the apprentice bowl, which was the final exam for an apprentice to become a master carver after 5 years of study.  The bowl contains all 60 different cuts that were taught during the training and the apprentice has three tries to successfully reproduce it.  If he fails, his options are either to quit or repeat the 5 year training all over again.  Imagine how nerve-wracking this test would be.  Prior to being led into the manufacturing floor to inspect each stage of the process, we watched a video that gave us a general overview of what we were about to see.

We were shown two types of glass blowing.  "Mould-blowing" involves placing a glob of molten glass onto a blowing stick and blowing it into a wooden or cast-iron mould to create the desired shape.  The moulds could either represent entire objects or parts of a more elaborate object that would later be fused together.  The guide showed us some wooden moulds made of smooth beech and pear woods that have high tolerance to heat.  Due to the high temperatures of the molten crystals, the moulds and hand tools only last 7-10 days before disintegrating.  Accordingly, they are used to make specialized, "one-of" items such as trophies.  Waterford Crystal is one of the few companies that still practices this centuries-old craft of hand carved mould-making.

The second type of glass blowing is "free blowing", which allows the skilled glass worker to control the size, shape, and thickness of the piece that he is creating.  We watched the craftsman blow into a stick until red-hot molten crystal was transformed into the shape of a large vase.  Further steps seemed to including turning or buffing the blown piece and occasionally re-firing the glass in the 1300 degree Celsius furnace.

Once the desired shape of the object is created, it is temporarily marked, either by hand or with the use of a marking tool, in order to indicate the pattern for the piece and to guide the Master Cutter as to where to cut.  The marks are washed off during the cleaning process.  A diamond cutting wheel is used to cut the patterns into the crystal and it is up to the Master Cutter to determine how much pressure to apply.  The two main cuts are the shallow "flat cut" which is used for shaping the stem of a glass, and the deep wedge cut, used to create the patterns and also the cut that gives the crystal its sparkling shine.

Towards the end of the Waterford Crystal Tour, we were shown examples of finished crystal sculptures including ones shaped like a football, a Coca-Cola bottle, a gramophone, and various trophies and awards for sporting events, political recognition and ceremonial tributes.  I was given the opportunity to hold the crystal football (or maybe it was supposed to be an egg?) and it was with great trepidation and care that I took it.  It was quite heavy with intricate patterns cut around its surface.

After the tour, we were free to wander around the show room/shop where we saw more sculptures, as well as vases and glassware that were for sale.  Proving that the Waterford Crystal company was modernizing with the times, there were also some elaborate crystal docking stations for IPhones and IPads.  We also admired some of the pieces from the John Rocha Black Cut Collection, which featured stemware made of high-gloss black glass with a dramatic band of striking cuts around the rim.

The Waterford Crystal Company did not hold the monopoly on artistic glass works in Waterford, as there was also an art exhibition being held at the City Hall titled "Refract: Contemporary Glass Design".  The show presented works of artists from around the world including a painted vase called "On the Fiddle" that told the folktale of an industrial spy traveling in disguise as a fiddler, a piece of "translucent fur" that invites the viewer to touch it, and a series of hanging "crystal clouds".

After an action-packed day in Waterford, we headed Kilkenny, the last stop in our 12 day loop of Southern Ireland.  At this point, we were too tired and anxious to return to our home base in Dublin to properly explore all of this town.  Instead, we decided just to visit the Kilkenny Castle, the Norman stronghold built in the 13th Century by William Marshal, the 4th Earl of Pembroke, who had married Isabel de Clare, daughter of Strongbow.  The castle was purchased by the powerful Butler family in the 14th Century and stayed within that dynasty until it was sold to the Irish State for a token sum of £50 in 1967.  Kilkenny Castle has since been extensively restored and is now open for visits by the public, along with the beautiful gardens and parkland that surround it.

The most impressive room in Kilkenny Castle is the William Robertson Picture Gallery Wing which was added in the 19th Century and designed in Castellated Baronial style.  The extremely long hallway is covered with a "hammer-beam roof structure" with painted female figures adorning the beams, and gilded heads of animals and birds carved into the cross beams.  The room also features large bay windows and a massive double fireplace made of Carrara marble decorated with elegant foliage and a frieze detailing significant episodes from the Butler family history and their coat of arms.

This marked the end of our extensive road trip of Southern Ireland.  It was a fun journey where we saw such beautiful scenery and learned much about Irish history.  But after 12 days of driving, living out of a suitcase, lugging that suitcase to and from a different B&B each night, we were looking forward to returning to our home swap in Dublin where we could "nest" for a longer period of time before heading out again to tour Northern Ireland.

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