Our 2018 Irish “Savings” tour has got off to a great start. We knew that our English Heritage membership cards would get us into some places in Ireland free of charge, but we hadn’t realised quite how many. We’ve visited three already and “saved” a grand total of 46 Euros. It’s very kind of the Irish to let us into their OPW (Office of Public Works) properties for free.
We had an uneventful ferry crossing from Douglas to Dublin first thing on Tuesday morning. From the uninspiring docks in Dublin, we decided to drive 45 minutes North West to take a look at Trim Castle in County Meath.
In 1171, under Henry II, English forces rocked up in Ireland and quickly took control of a chunk of the East of the island, around Dublin. Henry gave lands to his supporters, including Meath, which went to a chap called Hugh de Lacey. De Lacey dutifully commenced construction of Trim Castle in 1173.
These early English arrivals tend to be referred to here as “Anglo-Norman” – reflecting, I guess, the fact that much of the English nobility of the time would have been descended from the Norman invaders of a century earlier – so, for example, Trim is referred to as an Anglo-Norman castle.
Basically, it’s a medieval castle just like the ones back in the UK. We came across a huge range of nationalities on our guided tour at Trim Castle, many of whom seemed as excited as your average 6 year old British schoolboy at tales of medieval warfare (and medieval toilets).
I found it interesting that the castle was almost demolished in the 1950s and the stone reused for road building. As our guide explained, “the castle wasn’t interesting back then. It was English history, not our history”. We were also intrigued to learn that Trim Castle featured in Braveheart, the 1994 film starring Mel Gibson, masquerading as York in one scene.
It took us another 45 minutes or so to drive from Trim to Camac Valley campsite to the West of Dublin city centre. We’d booked three nights here to give ourselves two full days in Dublin. Two days is generally enough for us in a big city. We’re not city folk; we mainly visit capital cities for the museums as that’s where a nation’s “good stuff” tends to end up.
We’ve found Camac Valley to be absolutely fine and at €25 a night without electricity (or €30 with; we didn’t take electricity as we don’t need it) not too badly priced given its location. The toilet and shower facilities are, as some online reviews suggest, quite dated, but they’re clean. The pitches are great:
Camac Valley campsite is quite a way out of town (45 minutes on the bus) but it’s an easy journey; the number 69 bus stops right outside the campsite gate and runs into the city centre (costing €3.30 each way). The bus only runs hourly, but we didn’t find that to be too much of a problem.
We’ve visited two more OPW properties whilst in Dublin, both major tourist attractions: Dublin Castle and Kilmainham Jail.
Dublin Castle started off life as a “proper” castle, its construction ordered by King John (of Magna Carta fame) in 1204. After a fire in the late 17th century it was rebuilt as a palace and was the seat of British power in Dublin right through to Irish independence in 1922.
Dublin Castle seemed to be particularly popular with American and Chinese tourists; on the guided tour we took, there were no Irish nationals and we were the only Brits.
The Chinese ladies seemed to particularly enjoy the State Rooms. Having their photo taken sprawling across the lavish staircase (sunglasses obligatory) in their best “Lady Muck” pose was all the rage!
I thought Mark was paying more attention than usual; when I caught up with him it turned out that he was examining the chandeliers, sniggering to himself, and muttering “only fools and horses” under his breath…..
Kilmainham Jail had been recommended to us as a “must see” in Dublin. It’s a late 18th century jail with the later addition of a Victorian wing. The museum and guided tour here were both good. We learned a lot about the poor conditions and overcrowding in the jail in the first half of the 19th century. Most of the information, though, was about the political prisoners held in the jail following five different rebellions against British rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We did see the prison yard where fourteen members of the Easter Rising of 1916 were executed by firing squad. Not the best move on the part of the British authorities, with sympathy for the executed men and their families swinging public opinion from being initially against the uprising to being supportive of the cause of Irish independence.
Our main initial reason for wanting to visit Dublin was to go to the National Museum of Ireland. It certainly didn’t disappoint! We got a whistlestop tour through Irish history from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods through the Bronze and Iron Ages (including bog bodies), Early Christianity, the Celtic Period, Viking Dublin, and Medieval Ireland. It’s even free to visit.
The museum building itself is absolutely beautiful and reminded me very much of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh:
The mosaic floors are a work of art:
We wouldn’t know where to start to describe everything we saw, so we’ve decided to pick our favourite three items…. It’s been difficult!
First up we have some mesolithic conical fish traps found in 2006 at Clowanstown, County Meath, and dating back to 5300-4730 BC. How old?!?
Then there’s the 15.25 metre long oak dugout canoe dating back to 2500 BC found in Addersgoole Bog in County Galway in 1902.
Finally, we’ve seen quite a few of the “treasures of Ireland” on TV. The Tara Brooch, the Cross of Cong, the collection of gold jewellery from the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Ardagh Chalice…. our list of “must sees” at the National Museum of Ireland was quite long.
In the flesh, though, one of the famous “treasures” stood out head and shoulders above the rest, for both of us: the miniature boat from the Broighter Hoard, found in 1896 on the ancient shore of Lough Foyle in County Derry and dating back to the 1st century BC. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Lough Foyle is traditionally associated with the sea god Manannan (who we came across recently on the Isle of Man); could the tiny boat have been an offering to Manannan?
Before we leave the National Museum of Ireland, let me just briefly mention how disappointed I am by the genealogical discovery I made there. The medieval section contained some information on Irish surnames, pointing out how some are of Irish origin but others came across with the Anglo-Normans. In turn, some of their names were of British origin but others had come to Britain with the Norman Invasion of 1066. There was an interactive display that gave you the origin of a whole range of Irish surnames.
I looked up Mullen, which was the surname of my Irish GGG grandfather. The news wasn’t good:
Well, if my GGG grandfather John Mullen was a descendant of a little bald person then that also makes me a descendant of a little bald person….
It’s just not fair. If you look at the family trees on ancestry.com, half of America seems to be claiming direct descent from someone on the Mayflower, if not aristocratic blood (or, in a few cases, going so far as to claim descent from British royalty). The best I can come up with, in contrast, is a small bald Irish bloke (I am clinging to the notion that it was a small bald Irishman rather than a small bald Irishwoman; “little bald person” isn’t very specific).
The only attraction that we had to pay to visit in Dublin was the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum. This museum is new, having opened in 2016. It’s housed in the vaulted spaces below Dublin’s first fireproof warehouse and is a high-tech interactive affair. The first half was very informative; it seems that the Irish have never been short of very good reasons to leave Ireland: economic, political, and religious. Later parts told us all about famous Irish emigrés and famous people of Irish ancestry (we felt that “Che Guevara Lynch” was stretching things a little, and that we really didn’t need to know about Rihanna’s Irish ancestry… but we suppose some people may find that kind of thing entertaining). Overall, it was very good, but as with all such technology-based experiences, you have to wonder how well it will age.
We’ve done quite a lot of wandering around between museum visits. Here’s Mark at the Famine memorial:
🎵 In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty 🎵 (Molly Malone statue):
We’ve learned a huge amount about Irish history over the last couple of days; we’re now ready to head out into Ireland and explore for ourselves.