Bunratty Castle & Folk Park

One-legged chicken

A place from my childhood, steeped in memories of bulls eyes, school tours and visiting American relatives, Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is one of my favourite attractions in Ireland. I visited often as a child. Now, I visit with the next generation – my nieces.

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At €16.55 for adults, it’s one of the priciest sites in the country, but worth it for a day’s adventure. Tickets for the park and banquets can be purchased online. Set on 26 acres, the park holds 30 buildings in a village and rural setting. It also has a 15th century castle restored in 1954. Scrambling up the narrow steps in the stairways, visitors can get great views of the rest of the park and surrounding countryside from the top. The charming 19th century village street has a school (always my favourite), post office, doctor’s clinic, pub and hardware store which visitors are free to snoop around in. There is a lot more besides. Costumed characters can be found in the schoolyard or in the farmer’s house making apple pie. Musicians dot the old thatched cottages, treating visitors to traditional Irish music.

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We were greeted by pygmy goats at the entrance, munching on grass as tourists vied for a good spot to take a photo. Adults and children alike were enthralled by the family of chickens scratching around for food and the click click click of cameras could be heard from the Loop Head house, the first house you can peer into. This house is a reconstructed house of a fisherman/farmer from West Clare. Thatched and dark inside, it takes a moment for your eyes to get used to the small space. It is the smell of turf burning in the open fire that takes me back to childhood, not just visiting the park decades earlier, but being told to stack the turf after a delivery at home. How I hated the dust that got into my eyes and under my finger nails, but how I loved the fragrance and warmth turf gives off. It is rare to come across a turf burning fire nowadays and is one of the fondest memories I have of the park.

From the fisherman’s house, we ambled along into a blacksmith’s forge and more farmhouses of varying wealth. Each had its own character, demonstrating quite quickly where on the social ladder dwellers found themselves at. Some were abject, like the bothán scór and some declared their wealth at the doorstep, like the golden vale farmhouse, with a well kept garden and the smell of freshly made scones floating out the door.

You will spend most of your day outside, walking around the park, from the old cottages to the walled garden and the recently added fairy village. Having visited with two young children, it was the fairy village that was by far the winner. In a small woodland area of the park, fairy doors, a now popular item both in Ireland and abroad, were attached to a small area of trees. The village also contained a bug hotel, along with a fairy pirate’s residence, rope bridges to connect one tree to another, large mushroom tables and chairs and of course fairy lights. There was a church and two wagons for the fairies to sleep in. Ribbon of all colours decorated every tree, signifying wishes made by kids for the fairies to grant. Of course, as everyone knows, fairies are shy. So sadly we didn’t spot any. But I’m sure they only come out when the park is closed and it’s quiet in the village. With all the tourists buzzing around, they probably sit indoors waiting for the din to die down.

There was delight in the faces of the children, of all languages and nationalities, jostling to gape into doors to spot fairies. Perched on mushroom stools or inside the wicker deer tepee, even the adults got in on the fun. For someone who grew up on Enid Blyton stories, this enchanted and enchanting village made my day. Such a simple idea (the Park even runs workshops for children to decorate their own fairy door and take home), but an important one. In an age of tablets and smartphones, imagination is the only thing you need in this part of the park.

I spent about five hours walking around the park with young children who thoroughly enjoyed themselves. If you are visiting the Midwest region of Ireland, a visit to Bunratty is a must. It’s a fun day out/side and crammed with activities for all ages.

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The Abbey Theatre, Dublin

I didn’t venture too far this weekend – just to Dublin city centre to visit Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, and take the backstage tour.

We were met in the lobby by Helena, our guide for the next hour and a half. And what a 90 minute tour it was. I learned so much, about Ireland at the turn of the last century, the revolutionary ideals the theatre were based on, and the number of theatre staff that took part in the 1916 Rising.

Founded in 1904, it was closely associated with the Gaelic Revival that swept through the country. Leading figures in the Abbey were W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn (Leaving Cert history anyone?). The original building was destroyed in a fire in 1951. What you are met with at the entrance are paintings of its founders and leading figures in the Irish theatre scene, a plaque to commemorate those who took part in the Rising and a glorious shield crafted in Youghal and inspired by the Book of Kells and Celtic design. You wind you way around narrow corridors with actors scuttling to and fro, getting ready for the matinee show. Hair and makeup is a chaotic scene, complete with glamorous wigs and a plethora of cosmetic products, most of which I didn’t recognise.

My favourite part of the tour was being able to stand on stage while it was set up for a play that afternoon, Jimmy’s Hall (check out the story behind the play here. You’ll be intrigued by this ludicrous piece of Irish history.). Up close, you can see how the stage was put together and the props used to create effects like the gravel on the steps, the texture of the walls and the scuff marks on the floor. There’s history in those scuff marks and bits of torn off tape.

Take the backstage tour at the Abbey and learn about the contribution theatre has made to the cultural life of Ireland. You won’t be disappointed.

Inis Oirr, Aran Islands

I’ve finally arrived on Inis Oirr (Inisheer) and I’m immediately struck by the amount of houses. It’s like a smaller Inis Mór, less people and traffic and I get the sense as I step off the ferry that it will retain its identity and culture regardless of the numbers of tourists, sometimes quite a difficult thing to do in the face of tourism.

As part of the Wild Atlantic Way, and with a population of 260 permanent residents, it is the smallest of the Aran Islands. Amenities on the island include hotels, pubs and cafés, bike hire and grab and go snack options, all suitably located around the pier for day trippers.  My favourite eatery of my visit was a recently opened café by the pier that served great coffee and one of nicest salads I’ve had in a long time (sadly I don’t remember the name). The island also has a wide variety of accommodation, from the sturdy hostel (I stayed at Brú Radharc na Mara a clean, modern hostel with six-bed dorms and private rooms) to BnBs and hotels and for the more adventurous traveller: the campsite.

Ferries go from Doolin in Co. Clare during the summer months and from Ros a’ Mhil in Co. Galway throughout the year. I went from Galway, having dashed across the country that morning to make it to Galway city for the ferry company’s handy shuttle from the city. It’s about a 50 minute journey from the city to Ros a’ Mhil. I arrived at the pier early, amid a scene of chaos as families clambered to get their suitcases and great boxes of food aboard. Bikes and waterskiing equipment, along with buggies and cases were loaded onto each boat and people were then allowed to trickle on, finding their spot on deck to watch the hour-long journey, first to Inis Mean and then on to Inis Oirr.

 

Inis Oirr, the south island, is close to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, and on a clear day, the Cliffs fill the background for a picture perfect view from the teach solais (lighthouse) on the island. At 3km by 3km, the island is easily accessible on foot. About two hours and dry weather would be needed to walk its circumference. Bicycles can be rented at the pier for the day for €10 but the island is best seen on foot. The whole island has breathtaking scenery that sometimes seems like it’s out of a National Geographic magazine. Its landscape is carved out of karst limestone. Botanical displays include maiden hair, spring gentian, bee orchid and bloody cranesbill against a backdrop of meadow grasses and ferns. Fields are demarcated by stone walls that sometimes look precariously placed, but nonetheless, stand up to the wild Atlantic breeze. You will need to be quick to catch a glimpse of island birds such as cormorants, arctic terns and swift kestrels as they dart to and fro.

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Walking the boreens out to the lighthouse or to An Plassy, the famous shipwreck from the opening credits to Father Ted, around the island, you will inevitably come across ancient burial sites, castle and church ruins, the oldest dating back to the Bronze Age.

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Stepping off the ferry, you are informed that this is a Gaeltacht [Irish speaking] area and once the Leaving Cert Irish oral-induced panic has subsided, it is a strange and slightly wonderful experience to hear natural conversations in Irish taking place. Taken out of the classroom, the language sounds melodic and you are aware that here it is a living language. Picking out words or phrases is a fun game, and having practiced ‘dia dhuit’ many times in my head, it was thrilling to be able to use it. I was greeted warmly in the hostel by such a gesture. All of the signs around the hostel were also in two languages. Eavesdropping, I tried to make out even casual conversations among the locals in a language I had spent 14 years studying.

It’s not difficult to see why the island inspired artists, painters and writers. Its rugged landscape, heritage and sense of community are inspiration for many who stay on the island. Crafts like basket making, model currach making and crios making workshops and classes are available to visitors. But the island itself spurs on many to use the quiet space to let their artistic mind roam. Whether you are a writer or a photographer, you will find something to awaken your artistic soul.

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My short trip to Inis Oirr was a break from the noise of urban life. My view was filled with flowers, animals and quick darting birds flitting from hedgerow to hedgerow. The Atlantic breeze provided the soundtrack to the weekend. Wandering down the winding boreens the quiet was soothing. I’ll be back.

Farming in Dundrum, Dublin

Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Dublin

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Taking a risk it wouldn’t rain in the time it took to cycle to Airfield Estate today, I ventured over to Dundrum to finally visit Dublin’s only working farm. I’d lived in Dundrum for over a year and never followed the brown signs all the way into the beautiful estate.

Airfield is a self-funded charitable trust, established in 1974. Its 38 acres sit on Overend Avenue, close to Dundrum village. It is easy to get to, with the Luas and Dublin Bus making it a great day out. Bikes are also catered for, with a covered parking area close to the ticket booth. It was established by the Overend sisters, Letitia and Naomi, for recreational and educational purposes. And educational it certainly is. Even for adults, it has signs everywhere explaining the trees, animals and everything in between.

My first sight was the tall slightly sinister-looking wicker scarecrow in the kitchen garden, guarding all the food meant for the restaurant from mischievous beaks.

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The hens have some of the most impressive housing I’ve ever seen. A suburban dream of blues, maroons and lavender await the lucky fowl.

In the three cornered field, a curious kid goat got itself stuck in the fence reaching for a more delicious looking grass.

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You can visit the Overend family’s house, an interactive experience; or wander the farm. If you come at the right time, you might be lucky to see the egg collection or the calf feeding. There is a vintage car garage, wild and productive gardens and a short woodland walk. Let’s not forget the wild pond, where I scoured the reeds looking for frogs and newts. I think they were all in hiding. The two brown donkeys didn’t seem to mind me taking their photos. In fact, they casually wandered over and nonchalantly posed for a few. They must be very used to being the centre of attention for passing visitors.

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All in all, I spent about 2 hours walking around, talking photos and of course, stopping for the obligatory coffee. Here is what impressed me most. Their use of compostable cups and cutlery, various bins for recycling, reinforced their commitment to sustainability.

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In the middle of Dundrum, and a stone’s throw from the uber commercial Dundrum Town Centre, Airfield Estate is an oasis of calm. You are even removed from the noise of traffic. It is really like being on a farm in the middle of the countryside. Perfect for visitors big and small, I’ll definitely be back.

Dubai & RAK Vegas #tbt

The breeze doesn’t alleviate the stifling heat. It blows warmth across your face, reminding you that you are still in the UAE, looking out at the manmade lagoon and out into the sea towards Iran.

Always bring water with you.  Don’t panic. Use aftersun lotion like it’s going out of fashion.

These are the holiday rules. Stick to them and you’ll survive. Ignore them and you may be found in a shrivelled heap by the roadside.

Dubai Airport

After a seven-hour flight from Dublin to Dubai with Emirates, landing at the glamorous Dubai airport is a relief. It’s a sprawling metropolis. My flight lands in what seems like the suburbs of the airport. Buses wait patiently for passengers to disembark the imposing Boeing and scurry off with its cargo, depositing people to connections to Perth, Tokyo and Kabul. It is a mini city linking people, places and experiences. Inside, impressive waterfall and shiny façade are a welcome refuge from the blast of heat that immediately envelopes you after stepping sleepily from the plane.

A web of signs, tunnels, escalators and walkways litter my journey from T3 to T2. Staffed by people from the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia, I am welcomed to Dubai and sent on my way.

Ras Al Khaimah

I wake up the next day in Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven Emirates that make up the UAE and 45 minutes from Dubai. It’s known as RAK Vegas to the expats that live there.  It has a population of 300,000 and is surrounded by the hazy Hajar Mountains. It boasts 65km of sandy beaches, deserts and an artificial island. It borders Oman and is a gateway to the beautiful Musandam Peninsula.

Slouching to the balcony windows, I pull across the light bird-inspired curtains and delicate rose patterned net curtains. Their cascading material sweeps the floor of the apartment as they are pushed to the side. The warm air is suffocating, and yet a relief from the Irish damp and gray. The blue sky of RAK, and strategically placed palm trees by the artificial lagoon give an almost Mediterranean air to this new complex. Suddenly the call to prayer fills my ears, beckoning worshippers. Two men dressed all in white cross the square in front of the water, chatting continuously. Their voices are confident and at ease with the topic. I watch them pass into the shaded walkway and follow its shade right out of view.

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‘The most purely Irish thing we have’ – The Book of Kells

The grey imposing Old Library stands calmly, awaiting its visitors. It’s morning on campus. A cool breeze blows gently and the sky betrays the rain to come. It’s June and the Irish weather still hasn’t decided what season it is in. Fellows Square is quiet but there are stirrings on its edges as staff, students and tourists begin their slow decent on Trinity’s iconic city centre campus.

The Old Library has welcomed guests to see its famous literature since the 19th century. It has stood in defiance of the passage of time, braving rebellions, treaties and the onslaught of women students (1901). During the summer it’s packed with tourists speaking all languages, all feasting on this wonder of the medieval world, this work of angels. Queues are sometimes all the way around Fellows Square, even in the rain.

It is one of my favourite buildings on campus. Grey brick upon brick, a Dublin symbol, it is speckled with age spots. Two floors of tall windows run from one end to the other. All are covered to stop the light from damaging the contents. In winter they are a row of light upstairs, a beacon to scholars to come and search its oak shelves.

For visitors who are not Trinity staff, tickets can be bought online or at the ticket desk inside the door. Inside, you are met with a darkened exhibition, illuminated panels and walls of information. Did you know about ogham? Or monastic life in the medieval period? Did you know where the Book came from? Or the recently digitized pocket gospels? The exhibition covers all of this and more.

The Book of Kells was completed around 800AD. Scholars still debate where that was. Some say the Scottish island of Iona; others hypothesize about Kells. Whatever the truth, the Book found its way to Kells around 802 AD and has been in Ireland since that time. It was gifted to Trinity in the 17th century.

It is a copy of the four gospels, written in Latin on vellum (calfskin) and covered in the most ornate designs imaginable. Its intricate spirals and tracery certainly invoke a divine inspiration.

The Book today sits in the Treasury, the small room at the end of the exhibition. Dimly lit but for the large illuminated panels recently installed, two volumes rest in a cabinet accompanied by two pocket gospels from an earlier period. Peer in and trace the words with your eyes. Take in the patterns and swirls that cascade from the open pages. Imagine the monk bent over his desk in a dark beehive cell adding sections to his pages by candlelight as the days fall away.

Leave the dark Treasury and follow the stairs to the first floor. Climb out at a red corridor, Tir na nOg red, and wait for the tourists in front of you to put their cameras down. They stop at the door to the Long Room and take it all in. ‘Wows’ are whispered, as if speaking will break the spell. Step inside and the first thing you’ll marvel at is the barrel vaulted ceiling, added in 1860 to allow for the upper gallery to be added. It was a necessary addition because the library is a legal deposit library (since 1801) and can claim a free copy of every book published in Ireland and the UK. As a consequence, Trinity’s Library has over 5 million books.

 

Your eyes follow the row of alcoves covered in books on either side. You map each face on the 42 marble busts, including Swift and Plato and Burke, running the length of the room. You watch as the visitors amble in awe. Books still have the power to amaze. And this many books, 200,000, certainly do.

A rhapsody of browns and beiges and blacks, leather aged with knowledge, some books are marked, covers peeling or picked off, frayed edges. Some titles are in Latin, others in English, a guidebook on Godwin or Burns’ Surgical Anatomy of the Head and Neck, registers and collections. The thick, dark oak wood shelves all have letters running down them. The 18th century catalogue system used to store these tomes is based on the Latin alphabet and so, the letter j is nowhere to be found.

 

But it is the smell that you will remember. The smell of books – old books. There is nothing more pleasing to the soul than the fragrance of a well-aged book. The paper may be yellowed and curling, the cover tied together with cotton strips, but the scent brings to mind scholars and philosophers arguing in the square.

The Old Library is still a working library, used by the academic staff and students of the university to conduct research. In fact, it is one of the great research libraries of the world. Ladders rest precariously on wheels at each station. Books lay haphazardly on their side on top of other books; the scholar not yet finished with her enquiries. Catalogue boxes contain the whereabouts of aged volumes for the PhD student whose next chapter on 19th century realist writers is due in any day now. The conservation assistant tasked with keeping the books begins the morning at the end of yesterday’s list.

You can’t take photos with a flash in the Long Room or use a tripod. But it is possible to get plenty of good quality photos nonetheless. Take your time here. Take a sit (there are benches in the middle of the room) and take in the silence, the calm. Centuries of study have taken place here, and many more years of research and scholarship will occur here. Questions lie among the volumes; their answers may also hide in its dark corners, or hang over the black spiral staircase.

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Writing advice from Colum McCann to you

From Letters to a Young Writer, Bloomsbury (2017)

I came across a quick review of McCann’s advice to young writers in Totally Dublin recently. I hope you find some pearls below. Or perhaps you already have pearls of your own.

Be subversive of ease

Read aloud

Risk yourself

Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality

Be ready to get ripped to pieces: it happens

Permit yourself anger

Fail

Take pause

Accept the rejections

Be vivified by collapse

Practice resuscitation

Have wonder…

Do not allow your heart to harden

Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories

Enjoy difficulty

Embrace mystery

Find the universal in the loca

Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there

At the same time, entertain