Ire Wales

Now Then Voyager, May 2013 – Ireland and Wales – Jo and the Bro

Though we’re mostly mental tourists these days, here’s another virtual ramble through the isles . . .

Post 1 5/2Pink Floyd’s lyrics come to mind as I stop “kicking around on a piece of ground in my home town” ... and journey to Dublin with my bro. At the airport in Atlanta, time is relative & we have ‘hours to kill.’ We’re optimistic our overnight plane will take off and land as planned. We tuck into a tasty Italian airport eatery and finish off a 3 course meal plus dessert.

I’ve been reading about horology (nope, not what it sounds like), it’s the study & art of measuring time…The last thing most people do on a vacation is measure time, unless you’re on a CIE tour covering 2 countries, 3 provinces, and countless cities in 2 weeks. There are no ‘sleep in’ days and feet won’t be pampered. This is not meant as a relaxing vacation—it’s equivalent of vacation on 5 grams of caffeine (10 is a lethal dose) and a double shot of Red Bull. We embark on another of what I dub ‘curse of Diamund & Grainne’ tour,’ for we won’t be sleeping in any one place for more than two nights. Oh my, Reo Speedwagon is singing ‘time for me to fly’ . . . we’re boarding; this adventure is beginning on time.

Post 2 5/3 Dublin Royal Marine Hotel, running on 2 hours of naps, a breakfast Guinness, and memories of 1/2 watched movies on the plane like Jack Reacher and The Raven. It’s good to hear the throaty Irish lilt again. Bits of interesting facts about the Irish swim in my head… The average Irish person drinks 10 pounds+ of tea per person/per year. After a brisk walk, I’m thinking I’d like a pound or so of whisky to go with a bracing cup of tea. My brother drinks 15 pounds of tea yearly and favors mega sized earthenware mugs holding P G Pibbs or Brewley’s tea. I interrupt his tea revelry and mention Ireland was invaded many times, and while the Irish are well traveled, I don’t think they ever tried to conquer others. What does he make of that?

He finds Dublin amazing; I prefer Belfast and Galway. He was born on Bloomsday, a landmark date for James Joyce fans. It remains to be seen if we’ll experience our own odyssey, though we did gaze on Dublin Bay and like Stephen Dedalus, we haven’t bathed in 24 hours…and as I’m walking, I recall Irish Ripper connections, and wondered if Joyce was writing about Jill the Ripper in Chapter III when he described the midwife in his discussion about umbilical cords? What would Beckett, Behan and Joyce think of today’s Ireland?

The Cuban connection. I had the most authentic Cuban sandwich at our hotel! Later in the tour, in Carnarfon Wales, we hung out at the Havana Bar. And at seaside Hollywood bar in Tenby, I found a Cuba travel poster… Is the universe sending a message? I know my friend in VA wants to visit Cuba. I played a few bars of Tom Russell’s song The Cuban Sandwich for the server in Dublin, but it didn’t resonate. What other Cuban connections will we find?


At Russborough House near the Wicklow Mountains, we see the country estate owned by folks who made fortunes in beer, land speculation, and diamond mining. I spot a Sickert landscape and wonder why Patricia Cornwell didn’t buy and slash it to look for blood evidence of Ripper victims. Other artwork includes French Impressionists and Russian, Chinese and German object de art. The Irish equivalent of the British National Trust is the Borough House Office of Public Trust.

Post 3, Conwy & Caernafon Wales. 3 M people, 12M sheep…While there are only 4 ways to travel (via the metal, rubber, or leather road, and mental journeys) there are countless ways to perceive time. In the isles I always experience Al Stewarts’ Time Passages’ and a sense there’s something here I left behind long ago, another life time ago (or maybe it’s just the Scotch or Guinness?). We are descended from those who lived here less than 100 years ago, and part of our journey involves finding more clues to aid genealogy research. On this trip, we travel via planes, buses, a train, taxis, sea ferries, cruise boats, shoe leather, and perhaps glimpse—through a virtual time machine—what once was.

May seems to be a month of measuring—days lengthen, hair lightens, skin darkens, water warms, drinks cool and music and seasonal aromas expand and fill the air. Today is Kentucky Derby Day (I’ve placed a mental bet) and Cinco de Mayo. In 1861, México was an independent but fragile country unable to pay its creditors, especially France and installed The French Maximilian as emperor of México. It was a victorious invasion with only one defeat on May 5, 1862…French Foreign Legion succumbed to Mexican troops in small town of Puebla. This Mexican victory is still celebrated as Cinco de Mayo.

Post 4, heading west down Wales coastline…We stop in Conwy though there’s no time to sample the local mussels or do more than snap a few shots of the castle & pop into a tea shop for a cuppa. Wales became part of Great Britain in 1536; it occupies a space slightly larger than NJ. It’s shaped like a rectangle with a section gouged out of west side—Cardigan Bay–facing Ireland across the Irish Channel. North of Cardigan Bay is the isle of Anglesey (sacred to Druids and home to Prince William), the Lleyn peninsula is westward. In 13th c, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, ruler of Gwynedd, refused to pay homage to Edward I, citing political hostilities. This prompted English conquest of Gwynedd, and subsequent construction of Caernarfon Castle, one of largest, most imposing fortifications built by the English to control Wales. In 1282 the English-style county of Caernarfonshire was established, composed of Caernarfon (county town) and its hinterland; in 1284 Caernarfon was made a borough, market town and seat of Edward I’s government in North Wales.

Post 5. We’ve passed by large and small hills running south through central Wales into Pembroke and its famous S Wales coalfields, where ancestors lived that my brother and I have been researching. Iberians arrived from SW Europe in Neolithic times and Celt’s came in late Bronze Age. Fierce fighters, they resisted Anglo-Saxon invaders, who couldn’t understand their language and called them wealas (strangers). They called themselves Cmry (fellow countrymen) and although cultures overlap, Wales remain distinct.

Abundant natural resources enabled human habitation in the Caernarfon area during pre-history. The Ordovices were the Celtic tribe living in this region during antiquity. The Roman fort Segontium was established in 80 ACE to subjugate Ordovices as part of Roman conquest of Britain. When Romans left, Caernarfon became part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. In the late 11th c, William I, King of England, ordered the construction of a motte-and-bailey at Caernarfon, to fulfill the Norman invasion of Wales.

Post 6. There is nearly 800 miles of road round Wale’s rim; we’re traveling round more than 1/2 of it. When we take a tea break & stretch the legs at rests stops, it’s often possible to see along the tumultuous coast. There’s Rhossili cliffs on the Gower and the lighthouse on Caldey Island and St Anne’s Head at mouth of the natural harbor of Milford Haven, stretching to the headlands of St David’s. We pass the tiny fishing village of Llangrannog and view river-mouth towns of Aberaeron, Aberystwyth and Aberdyfi. Up on Edward I’s turrets at Caernarfon I looked along N coast towards the Great Orme, the hulk of rock above Llandudno, and then down the hundred-mile chain of uplands guarding the border all the way to the Severn.


Is there a wooden Wales grail in Aberystwyth? The story told locally has a whiff of mystery… People were allowed to sip from it. George Powell found it under an abbey. This Nanteos Cup is a medieval mazer bowl, held for many years at Nanteos Mansion, Rhydyfelin, near Aberystwyth in Wales. Legend claimed it to be THE Grail. During Dissolution of Monasteries, some monks fled to Strata Florida Abbey outside Pontrhydfendigaid, near Tregaron in the county of Ceredigion, Wales, and brought the cup. On the closing of the Abbey, the cup was left in the care of the Stedman family (then owners of extensive lands in the area, including Strata Florida Abbey) and subsequently on to the Powells of Nanteos. I’ll add this to my growing list of Grail Whale Tales

Post 7 Wales, according to stories my gran knew, is a land where nearly every stone, lake and hill whispers a secret. Listen carefully and the wind relays legends of Ceridwen, Rhiannon, Arianhod and Tailisin. The land leaves clues about places where Arthur, Merlin and Druid bards still ping strings and recite tales from the Mabinogion. They are distinct from Irish legends about Maeve, the Cailleach, Brighid and the Morrigan.T

These roads are fascinating, with hard to spell and pronounce names. To the uninitiated, Welsh words can look like anagrams, names like Dinbych y Pysgod and Abereiddy, Mwnt and Tywyn and Gwyr. In 1536 English law required Welshmen to take surnames, many simply added an “s” to their father’s first name. From common first names such as William, Thomas or Evan (Welsh equivalent of John) came our family common surnames of Williams & Thomas. We gazed on Cadair Idris mountain, “the seat of Idris”, a giant warrior poet who roamed the land. Legend says if you spend the night there, in the time carved rock couch, you’ll emerge either frenzied mad or endowed with poetic inspiration (another option is to die there). Our grandad was named Idris after this ancient mountain.

Near Tenby in Llandeilo Llwydiarth there is a legend about people drinking water from a local well from a monk’s skull to cure chest complaints. His name was Penglog Teilo. For nearly 550 years his skull (or at least brain pan) was held by two families, the Mathews and the Melchiors. The Mathews of Llandaff were descended from Gwaethvord Vawn who died about 1057. Over time they became the hereditary keepers of the tomb of St Teilo in Llandaff. In 1403 the tomb was pillaged by a band of ruffians from Bristol who had mounted an amphibious operation. According to Adam of Usk, men of Bristol invaded the ports of Glamorgan and pillaged the church of Llandaff but were beaten by the country people and driven back.

Shortly thereafter, Owen Glyndwr sacked both the Cathedral and the Bishops’ Palace. Restoration work was undertaken by Sir David Mathew presumably because his family had come to be thought of as its keepers. As a reward for this act of devotion, the Bishop gave Sir David the skull of the saint, set in a costly reliquary, to be an heirloom in his family. The reliquary remained in the hands of the Mathew family for 7 generations until Mathew died without issue at Llandeilo Llwydiarth in 1658. Before he died William handed the skull, by that time taken from its reliquary, to the Melchior family who owned Llandeilo farm; it remained in their possession until this century.

In the 540s, yellow plague ravished the people. Teilo fled to Brittany where he tamed and secured a small winged dragon and was seen astride a stag. He grew up with David, who founded an abbey, and ousted an Irish pirate named Bwya, killed his cattle and burnt his fortress to the ground.

I learned all these tidbits at the Tenby Museum. Bro and I spent all day exploring this marvelous town, which retains its originality and is not too over burdened with tourist shops. We found several tea shops, lots of bakeries and goods to sample, a grand bookstore and interesting restaurant called Ocean where we had a fabulous meal. At the end of the day, we took off our shoes and walked back to the hotel along the coastal path. He collected an assortment of smelly shells. In the evening a wonderful lady named Barbara took the group on a ghost and fairy walk. Next door to our hotel was a house once used by Beatrice Potter. I would gladly return to Tenby for a longer visit.

Post 8 Vacations are theoretically the only time we enjoy waiting and doing nothing. However, technology has brought changes to things we do on vacations. Instead of sending postcards, we snap an iPad or smart phone shot and post it online. Instead of fiddling with burdensome maps, we plug coordinates into our gps. We keep in touch and check facts and spelling using online features, including reading local newspapers and guidebooks online. We bring our musical library with us; I’ve brought countless files and ebooks; trip planning and ticket issue was a do it myself task. While on vacay, we can even watch U.S. and UK TV shows playing right now like Game of Thrones, or pay bills online and even work, no, perish that thought…no work!

On our last day in Wales, we visit St. David’s and snap pics of an ancient church built by wily folks. The Welsh knew the Vikings would raid the coast and look for churches to plunder. So they built St. David’s in a hollow, which the Vikings couldn’t spot from the river. I had a clotted cream tea at a shop owned by a retired couple with their very own WWI and II air raid shelter with memorabilia from all over the world. Next, we boarded another ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare, near Waterford. I’m pacing myself–heavy shopping opportunities next few days in Waterford and Blarney Woolen Mills, then on to Killarney and Hannigan’s Bar at the International Hotel.

Post 9  I brace for bouts of heavy drinking as temps and winds this trip have remained cool and strong, and rain has graced us daily. A decade ago I drank 17 Irish coffees in one day. I think if I eat a Shepherd’s pie, 1/2 a loaf of dense brown bread and some pudding I’ll be ready for another 17. I look for rainbows and merpeople. An Irish tradition says those who see rainbows through their glass of Guinness have happiness and joy. Those that see only black stout find happiness hard to obtain and easy to lose. There is also a lovely tradition here called dindshenchas, the naming of special places.

Post 10…what do we look for in a song? These chaps (in the video) were making grand crac at Scruffies Bar (Killarney Towers Hotel) in Killarney. It’s too bad the hotel rooms are not wonderful and the food is worse in the restaurant. Memories of Wales still within.(poem frag) to be in Wales is to see at dusk     The spilt blood that went into making the wild sky…and tinged the pristine river. It is to be aware , above the hum, of the machine of the strife that settled in deep woods…And the arrows lodged there. Listen and you’ll hear the old cadence strange to the air, owls call out, wings brush the moon and shadows dance, issuing forth the past…

Post 11 Hannigan’s Bar in Killarney…If our minds are always busy, we don’t get time to do basic maintenance – to sort, organize and take out the trash. If we don’t periodically clear out space in our minds, there is no room for new ideas to develop. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well. (Diane Ackerman) We ‘esque’ getting on the tour bus today and instead rummage round Killarney, even take a chilly ride in a jaunting cart and have a lively conversation with the driver, who invites us to join in a 3 am suicide prevention walkathon. We politely decline. Killarney, always a touristy town, has really upped its game and we have a hard time finding a quaint tea shop or other stores I recall from last visit about 5 years ago. That’s sad!

Post 12 catching up…we took a small ferry from Tarbert across the Shannon. I experience the windy cliffs of Moher for 5th or 6th time (and at their gustiest) before arriving in Limerick where there once was a man at Bunratty, whose methods were rather odd and quite batty, he flew off one day… Finally, in a small gift shop at the far end of Moher I find a Shelia Na Gig to replace the one I gave to a wonderful lady in Northern Ireland a few years ago. At Moher we are chilled again after being out in the gale winds and no alcohol is served. Not a problem. At the gift shop, I buy a bottle of mead, which warms the cockles of my innards!

If you ever wondered where the term ‘lynching’ or lynch mob’ originates… According to Galway legend its origins stem from the mayor of Galway, James Lynch. In 1493 his son was found guilty of murdering a Spanish sailor in a fight over a girl. His father, as upholder of justice, had no option but to condemn him to death. As the boy was very popular a local mob came to demand his release, causing James to hang him in haste from the upstairs window of the house.

Yesterday, Yeats poems echoed on the air...I will arise & go now, go to Innisfree . . .& I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping from veils of the morning to where cricket sings; there midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow. While I stand on the roadway, or pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core…

Cowardice asks the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: is it politic? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? Conscious asks the question: is it right? There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, politic, nor popular—one must do something simply because it is right.” Martin Luther King Jr. 1929-1968.

Post 13 … Every city seems to have a secret persona…it’s said Paris is an elegant woman (older than she looks) making whoopee with a younger man. London is an ageless urchin, Vienna a master of disguise. Today, we’re back in Dublin, a city that has to be androgynous and hasn’t it been reinvented in recent years? We had free time to explore Dublin and I stumbled into a pub (no wait, I only stumbled out of the pub). I was reminded of another Last time I Saw… song, this one by Joni Mitchell. You would think at age 60 something I’d welcome anyone’s company, but an American sat down beside me wanting to chat about America and I immediately heard Joni’s words ‘…cynical and drunk, boring like someone in a dark cafe…‘ I had to ask him, “is your name Richard?” He replied, ” no it’s Dick.” If you know this Joni tune, you’ll understand why I spit out a mouthful of Guinness…truly a waste of good brew. I left the pub on a vacay high, humming ‘Richard got married to a figure skater, and he bought her a dishwasher and a percolator…all good dreamers pass this way some day, hiding behind bottles in dark cafes . . .” Luck was with me too, while the bro was off looking at the Book of Kells I found an old celtic jewelry store that had a beautiful sterling silver Shelia Na Gig necklace and though it was a bit pricey, I bought it!

Post 14 May 13-14 (less cranky) A little Jim Croce . . . “Rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life don’t pass me by, hmmmm, like the North wind whistling in the sky, I’ve got a song, I’ve got a name, and I carry it with me, like my father did…I’m the fool i am and will always be . . . Oh, they can change minds but they can’t change me, cause I’ve still got dreams, I’ve still got dreams …”

And so, another journey ends. We went up, down and around Ireland and Wales. It was a bit like a Caribbean getaway without the Caribbean sun or heat. The water sparkled, winds blew us sideways, sleet pelted us. The Cailleagh (witch hag of winter) was ever with us. We returned to TN to find a warm tangle of greenery and everything in full bloom.

Once again I’ve learned new, marvelous, and strange new things. A Dyn hysbys is a wise man or wizard in Welsh, while Yr Hen Gwrach is old witch. I was told about the practice of charming with yarn, well known in the Aberdovey district in Wales. “Witches’ butter” is also believed to be used there for charms. It is a fungus which shakes and trembles when touched. It is unlucky to find it, for it means you are bewitched. The remedy is to take up some of the fungus very carefully, and stick it full of pins. These pins prick the conscience of him or her who has bewitched you, and remove the spell; good to know!

While we were traveling, the US celebrated Cinco de Mayo, the Kentucky Derby, Mum’s the Word Day, and National BBQ festival. We missed the Copenhagen Beer Festival and Hug Your Cat day (part of be kind to animals week). Wales and its ways and traditions are still very much intact. Perhaps it’s the slate, which absorbs and echoes back its history, its soul, its essence. Ireland has changed again and is being absorbed into a global entity resembling anywhere USA or Europe. Many of its traditions are vanishing, or morphing to keep up with the world. A few grand storytellers remain; some people still earn their living through fishing or an agricultural trade. But sheep farming is not very profitable and who would want to work in the fields cutting turf? Fox hunting has been outlawed, as has pipe smoking round the pub fire.

I still felt the magic of the old ways in a few places. Surprisingly, I felt it outside Limerick, at tourist trap Bunratty Castle, in the great hall. It rose from the waters and moved inland and down the old market street that led to Galway Bay. It chased me down Grafton Street and pushed me into the shop where I found my silver Shelia Na Gig, and I swear I heard a sigh (of longing or relief?) as our plane took off at Dublin airport. Or was that just the Irish breeze mixing with the jet engines thrusting us into the clouds?

I sense the last of the old ways to go will be the music, which is so much a part of the Irish. Just like the Sybil of Cumae, who faded away until only her voice remained to echo off the damp cave walls. Ireland has super highways, lots of neon, fast food joints, and tourist shops, though the trinkets are too often Made in China. Granted, some of these changes are good and much needed. We don’t need to refer to a broken bottle as an Irish Switchblade or a hangover as the Irish Flu. As long as the authentic voice and lilting music of Ireland remains, Ireland lives. But its speakers and singers are leaving, and so with them goes the voice and lyric essence of Ireland I fear. Should I return to Ireland, or just remember it as it looked and felt the first time I saw Eire. Slan or Slan go foil (goodbye for now).