The Irish have a reputation for being welcoming, but even so, we’ve been impressed by just how friendly the locals have been. Numerous people have approached us to ask where we’re from, what our travel plans are, and whether we’re enjoying Ireland.
We’ve taken a bit of a detour inland over the past few days, heading North to Kilkenny then West to Cashel before turning back South towards the coast.
Overview: 5 days, 197 miles
Apart from the friendly locals, the main guy we’ve kept bumping into over the last few days has been William Marshal. We mentioned him briefly in our last post. He was the poster boy of the late 12th and early 13th centuries: renowned knight, only man ever to have unseated Richard the Lionheart in a joust, served five English kings over the course of his long career (even being appointed regent for the last one, Henry III, pretty much unheard of for a non-royal), went on crusade to the Holy Land, married a rich heiress, getting himself some titles and lands in the process….. the list goes on and on.
It’ll be no great surprise to you to learn, then, that the Hook lighthouse, where we’d just arrived at the end of our last post, was built by William Marshal.
Hook lighthouse is, at 800 years old, the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world.
William Marshal arrived in Ireland in 1200 and set about improving the lands he’d acquired through his marriage. Among his first tasks was to establish a port, New Ross, further inland and to build the Hook lighthouse to guide ships safely into the estuary mouth to get there.
The monks who were already established on the site (who had been there since the fifth century and used to keep a fire lit to warn passing ships) were allowed to use the new lighthouse as their monastery in exchange for maintaining it and keeping the fire on the roof burning. The inside of the lighthouse does look pretty monastic, with a circular mural staircase (“mural” here meaning built inside the wall, which is up to 4 metres thick) giving access to three chambers at different levels, each with a stone rib vaulted ceiling (access to the inside is by guided tour, which cost €9 each; if we haven’t mentioned admission prices for other places, they were free with OPW / English Heritage cards).
One little titbit we were given on the tour is that the phrase “by hook or by crook” apparently originates here. It’s alleged that Oliver Cromwell vowed to take Waterford “by Hook or by Crook” during the English Civil War (Crook being a village on the Waterford side of the estuary). A true story? or just a nice story?
We got a great view from the lighthouse of the wild camping vans:
The wild camping at Hook lighthouse was so great that we stayed there for two nights and enjoyed a restful day of dossing in the sunshine followed by a fabulous Irish sunset.
William Marshal was very nearly shipwrecked in a storm during his crossing from Wales in 1200, and vowed that if he made it safely to Ireland, he would found an abbey where he landed. This he did, and a group of Cistercian monks was brought in from Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales. The new abbey was called, quite unimaginatively, “Tintern Abbey” or “Tintern de Voto” (Tintern of the Vow).
Our next stop, Ballyhack Castle on the Western side of the Hook Peninsula, is a late 15th century fortified tower house. There were apparently hundreds of these tower houses across Ireland, most now in ruins.
This particular tower house was built by the Knights Hospitaller. Orders such as the Hospitallers and Templars held extensive estates across Western Europe given to them by well-wishers, the profits from which could then be used to finance their crusading escapades. The Hospitallers had been granted lands in Leinster (which covered, broadly speaking, the South-Eastern quarter of Ireland) either by William Marshal or possibly earlier, by his father in law, Richard de Clare (commonly known as “Strongbow.”) We do know that William Marshal was very supportive of the knightly orders, having been on crusade himself and even going so far as to join the Knights Templar on his deathbed (which got him a nice tomb at Temple Church in London).
We particularly liked all of the defensive features around the front door; you wouldn’t get any hassle from the Jehovah’s Witnesses if you lived in a house like this!
We had to backtrack slightly after visiting Ballyhack Castle and Tintern Abbey for an overnight stop at Norman View Motorhome Park about 1km South of Fethard. There are some hardstanding pitches here with electricity, but they were all taken. At €10 without electricity, parking on the grass was no hardship at all 😀
We set off again the next morning with SOK fully fettled for another few days of dossing.
Our next stop, on the way to Kilkenny, was Jerpoint Abbey. Jerpoint Abbey is another ruined Cistercian abbey, this one with some impressive stonework:
Onward to Kilkenny. It’s a pleasant town, with a “medieval mile” to explore (basically two shopping streets joined to form a loop).
We had a good wander around the town. Here are St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower from the outside; apparently this is one of the few round towers that you can climb to the top of:
We didn’t pay to go in; it was getting late afternoon by this point and we were wilting somewhat in the heat. So back to SOK we went for some food before heading out in search of hydration…..
The next morning, we were up bright and early to beat the crowds to Kilkenny Castle.
This was your typical Norman Castle, built for (yes, you guessed it) William Marshal (on a site where his father in law, Strongbow, had built an earlier timber fortification) with a round tower on each corner. It was sold to the Butler family, Earls of Ormond, in 1391.
The arrival of Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the 1640s didn’t do the place any favours, hence the complete disappearance of part of the original footprint (the “U” shape you see today). We saw some of the original medieval foundations in the basement but most of what you see when you visit Kilkenny Castle is the result of extensive remodelling work in the 1820s and 1860s.
The Butlers remained in residence until 1935 when the upkeep of the castle finally got too much. The contents were sold by auction over ten days, and the castle, in a severely dilapidated state, was sold to a Restoration Committee for £50 in the 1960s. As you might have guessed from the photos above, it has since undergone extensive refurbishment.
We’d ended up spending the night at Kilkenny on a large car park in the centre of town (€1.30 per hour, €5 overnight; our stay from late afternoon until late morning cost €10.20).
A funny thing happened just as we were preparing to leave. Mark had been across to a nearby bin with a small bag of rubbish and just as he got back to SOK he was approached by a man wearing a suit and carrying a large stack of papers, who announced (you’ll have to imagine the Irish accent):
Great Man. Striding around like a Saxon Lord with your sunglasses, hat and suntan. WELCOME!
It seems that even after all these centuries, the Irish can still recognise a Saxon (or Anglo-Norman) Lord when they see one 😂
The relentless tourism continued, and we set off West to the Rock of Cashel. This is on the main tourist route around Ireland, and the car park was full of 52-seater coaches, smaller 16-seater minibuses, and cars – a high proportion of which we identified as hire cars due to the lack of familiarity with the “stick shift” that the drivers displayed as they attempted, repeatedly, to park.
The Rock of Cashel is a rocky outcrop which was the site of a 4th century circular fort, the stronghold of the Kings of Munster until 1101, when they gave it to the Church. This is supposedly the place where St Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century. The main buildings you can see today are Cormac’s Chapel, which is a Romanesque sandstone chapel dating back to 1127-1134 (and currently closed for restoration 😞), the 12th century round tower, and 13th century St Patrick’s Cathedral.
We were informed by the guide here that round towers were definitely bell towers, not defensive structures, and that the reason the doorways are so high above the ground is that the foundations tend to be very shallow, so the first part of the tower above ground would be solid for strength.
The car park at the Rock of Cashel was €4.50 for the day and free overnight. There were no signs saying that motorhomes couldn’t stay overnight, so stay we did!
As it turned out, the barriers were opened in the evening and left open overnight – so we snuck out first thing in the morning…..
A few miles down the road at Cahir, our next stop, we worked out that instead of parking in the town centre at €1.20 an hour, visiting the castle and then walking the 2km out of town to see the Swiss Cottage, as suggested on the website I’d been reading, we might be better off parking at the Swiss Cottage and walking back into town. Sure enough, the parking at Swiss Cottage was free. In addition to the car park itself, there was an open area amongst the trees on the approach road to the car park where we’re sure you could park up overnight without any problems.
Cahir Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Ireland, owned by a branch of the Butler family (who we came across at Kilkenny Castle) from the 14th century onwards. It has everything you expect of a castle, with lots of narrow winding stone staircases to climb!
This branch of the Butler family wasn’t averse to a bit of fashionable amusement. In 1810 they had a cottage orné (ornamental cottage) built, which is thought to have been designed by John Nash (who designed the Brighton Pavilion). By this point, although they still owned the castle, they were living in a Georgian mansion in the town centre. “Living the simple country life” was all the rage among the aristocratic classes, so they’d dress up in what they thought peasants wore, hop into a carriage, and head out to the cottage for the afternoon. The name “Swiss Cottage” came along later in the 19th century, when it was fashionable for such buildings to have an alpine look about them (and indeed many toffs did import “Swiss cottages” direct from Switzerland). There’s nothing in the slightest bit Swiss about this one though:
As you can see, they really were living the peasant lifestyle! The kitchen is hidden away in the basement and there’s a tunnel so the servants could sneak in unseen and prepare the afternoon tea. Upstairs, it was all very realistic, right down to the Parisian hand-printed wallpaper. One nod they did make to peasantry was to have the expensive walnut floors and mahogany staircase painted to make them look cheaper! Honestly, how the stinking rich live 😂 In a particularly ironic twist, when the cottage was built, a few real peasant cottages were found to be spoiling the view. Needless to say, they were soon cleared away……
From Cahir, we’ve followed the R668 South through the Knockmealdown Mountains, which was very scenic. The road was signposted “The Vee”, the reason for which was immediately apparent as we looked up and saw the “V” shape on the skyline that the road passes through.
We drove through Lismore, which was very pretty. The castle there, which did indeed look most impressive, is not open for visitors (though the gardens are) but is instead rented out to “rich Americans” (in the words of the lady in one of the tourist offices who told us about it) at over €30,000 a week. Since that’s probably a bit above our budget, we didn’t enquire whether breakfast is included in the price….
We’ve finally hit the coast again at Cobh after a very busy few days. Phew! Time to put the kettle on…..