Day the Third
The Wall of the Pub
We set out this morning for Bunratty Castle, the most astonishing structure I have ever visited. There is no way I could ever do justice to the experience, no matter how many words I used. The best thing I could say, is that I never realized how inconsequential right angles were, when it came to the construction of the interior of a castle.
This particular castle’s history began in 1270, as a wooden structure built by incoming Normans, and lasted in that form for more than a hundred years, before it was razed and rebuilt in stone by two clans, the O’Briens and the MacNamaras. It was destroyed again during Cromwell’s time, and finally rebuilt in its current form in 1640, being officially restored from 1954-1960.
This is not a Disneyland attraction. This castle, in which visitors were allowed to prowl almost anywhere we chose, was perfectly proportioned and balanced in appearance from the outside. Inside it was a maze of passages, towers, basements, crannies, solars, battlements, butteries, tapered wall slits, quarters, steps, stables, staircases, great halls, nooks, dungeons, parapets, turrets, chapels, robing rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, enclosures, pantries, privies and tunnels.
“Bunratty Castle is basically a rectangular keep with a turret at each corner. The main block has three floors. Each of the two upper floors consists of a single great room or hall. The lower floor or basement was most likely used as a store or a stable. The four towers have six storeys each, with at least one small room on each floor, as well as housing the spiral staircases.”
I took the liberty of quoting this paragraph from the book I bought in Folk Park, the village that is spread out from the castle. I only wish that I had thought to buy the book first. This one passage makes things so much clearer. I, of course, am the most directionally challenged adult in the bleacher, so my initial impression of everything about the castle, except for the two halls, and the turrets, was that it was an impossibly convoluted maze, with the steps consisting of spiral staircases, identical to the type found in Unc Matt’s house, those triangular-shaped steps, which allow for economy of space, especially if you were contemplating four sets of steps, each climbing six stories.
Except that the steps are not uniform, nor are they continuous. One set would lead to the threshold of a given room, but would continue upward, at another juncture on the same floor. To describe how the steps are configured is the key, because I cannot possibly emphasize more how little space they took up. All of the steps had backing made of cement, so there were no gaps. Because the steps were seemingly stacked, one upon the other, as the cement was troweled into place, the effect was that each of the steps seemed to stand independently from the one below it.
We had donned walking boots, so we were prepared for steps. I was prepared for knee issues, but found that the past two weeks of more sedentary life, had allowed my knees to heal and they served me well. Annie told us to go first, because she went slower due to height issues (we’ll avoid any phobic references), so Eric and I would arrive a moment or two before her, and the traffic was one-way regulated, so unless a party got off track, we did not have to worry about encountering other pedestrians.
No two of anything in the castle remotely resembled each other. Except for the very center of the castle, rooms never seemed to have any specific shape, instead being wide on one side, and narrower on the other. They might be twelve feet wide at the entrance, but only eight feet wide at the back. The walls might be straight, they may curve around the side, or some combination of the two. The ceiling may be plumb, but may not be.
The door jamb into a room may have been twelve feet high, or it might have been five feet, eight inches tall. Whenever we paused, I looked both above my head, and down at my feet, before I took a single step, the whole two hours or so that we were in the castle. When I climbed down the staircase to the dungeon, my shoulders brushed the walls on both sides, as I went down. A very short time ago, I could never have made that journey, but today, nothing could have stopped me. “The dungeon is a pit about fifteen feet deep, into which prisoners were “hurled.” The entrance was secured by four consecutive doors, and an inspection slit allowed guards to watch the prisoners below.”
In rounding a corner, you might find yourself in the cook’s room, or just outside a privy. What did that look like? We saw a room about four feet by four feet, a raised stone bench across the back, with a perfectly cylindrical hole, hewn through the four inch thick stone.
We climbed many steps before we got to the Great Hall, which was forty-eight feet high, forty feet long, and thirty feet wide. There is no chimney in the hall, so the smoke from the central fires, or brazier, escapes through a louvre in the roof high above. “The walls of the hall are lined with several sixteenth century tapestries, one from Brussels depicting the story of David and Absolom, and another “Fleur de choux” type from Flanders. A third is French and depicts the Fountain of Life. The large tapestry on the west wall shows the Triumph of Charlemagne, and the one on the north wall, over the entrance door, shows a royal personage in a chariot, with kneeling figures, also from the sixteenth century.” (Quoted from the book I bought)
Every room in the castle was furnished authentically, with the pieces of furniture clearly resembling those which would have originally been in place. The book said only one storage trunk remained of original Irish furniture, the rest having originated in various parts of Europe, from a comparable time period. Again, this was not Fantasyland in Anaheim. I focused at one point on a trunk, which was embossed on its dull, blackened lid, with small metal beads forming the date 1663, 23 years after the completion of the castle. The thought that that particular trunk had been in existence for more than three hundred and fifty years, defied comprehension.
Believe me, it looked like it was every bit as old, kind of like the one which has been stored out on our deck for the past ten years or so. Of course, I don’t think the trunk in the castle ever got rained on, so that probably makes a difference. But the sides of this trunk were blackened with age, peeling, and very authentic.
We could walk into most rooms, but a few were blocked off, and could only be viewed from the doorway. All of the rooms featured the artifacts that one would have expected to encounter: beds, bedpans wardrobes, etc for a bedroom, or a table complete with dish settings, saucers, cups, and all of the implements of destruction. There were countless examples of artifacts being within easy grasp of anyone who wanted to help himself.
Though I did see security cameras upon occasion, there was an unbelievable trust in the public’s ability to be respectful, that would never-could never-have existed in our own country. In fact, the uneven nature of all of the grounds, the footing itself, around and in the vicinity of the castle, would have made it an insurmountable insurance issue, and it could never have existed in the U.S.
From the Great Hall, already located well up in the nether regions of the castle, we still climbed forty-one steps to get to the top of one of the four turrets, so as to get an almost 360 degree view of the countryside around the castle. What I thought to be a most interesting trivial piece of information, was that it required forty-three steps to go back down on the other side. The view of the Shannon River was a replay of the view we had as we flew into the country last Friday morning, only from a different angle.
I could go on about the castle indefinitely, and probably have already, but there was still so much to see at this step back into Irish history. I am embarrassed to even hint that my knowledge of Ireland’s history was so limited, as to not realize that it would have as storied a history of castles as any feudal period country.
Folk Park represented a cross-section of feudal life as it existed in conjunction with the castle. We visited the schoolhouse, the weaver’s shed, the doctor’s house, the pub, the draper, the grocer, an Irish farmhouse, and many others, most in the form of shops, with a host of available goods, much of what you would hope for and expect. We were on the premises about five hours, and decided that we would go ahead and pay Eric for the entry fees, because he had paid our way in, and we had gotten our money’s worth. Eric really probably wouldn’t even have remembered the 22.50 in Euros, anyway.
Big Eric. It’s time to talk about our tour guide. Cecilia had already been through the castle when the kids were here, so she was prepared to chill, down below with either her book, or her credit card, while we took the stairway to Ireland’s version of the original Winchester Mystery House. Eric had also already been through the castle, but here he was, once again, taking the tour, only this time in the role of guide.
I was so awed by every image that I encountered, that I was quasi-catatonic, I’m certain, my jaw dragging precipitously along, on the stone floor. Eric was as patient as any tour guide you ever had, answering a continuous stream of questions, and willing to retrace his steps of the previous visit. When our camera ended up once again with no battery power, he had his handy. The quintessential host.
From the moment we bounded through the airport doorway into the main waiting area, and I thrust my peace sign into the air, Eric has been in the foreground, paving the way. Having left Cali back on July 31st, he and Cecilia had been traipsing around in a 360 degree arc from Carrigaholt, plying the locals for information, and investigating the hot spots and culling out the fluff.
You see, when Irene cut our stay down a smidge, we had to compress things a bit, so the heck with anything less than extraordinaire. As I said to Mark, in Carmody’s (I found out that I have been misspelling it the past couple days-my bad) last night, “There is such a sense of timelessness in Ireland. There’s very little to compare on Bell Springs. Here, I can walk eight minutes away from my house, and see evidence-ancient, timeless-of man-made artifacts, every step of the way, ending a castle.”
Excuse me? A what? That sense of mystique and, as Mark said, myth, permeates Ireland, whether you are at Bunratty Castle, or standing in the local pasture. So I have to tip my cap to Eric for all of the effort and energy that he has put into the Holiday. Of course, he wanted to see Ireland too, but he didn’t need a four-bedroom house for Cecilia and him, and he didn’t need to climb Bunratty Castle a second time either. And he drives.
He knows what time the good ice cream comes into Tesco’s. He had Patrick, at the post office, looking for our packages, and that was key for both Annie and me. He knew that it was Ruth, Mark’s wife, who maintained the flowers on the main street, where Carmody’s is located.
Eric helped guide us through all of the steps leading up to departure, and then the minor (exclamation point) delay caused by a tempestuous missy, with a mind of her own, or as some would say, “a clucky little thang.”
So we’re here, and therefore the stage was set for the crowning event of the day, my birthday celebration feast. I had mentioned that my normal request for my special dinner is eggplant fritters, but that I figured that couldn’t happen here. However, as I was dozing over my lappie, on the way back from Bunratty, Eric stopped at Tesco’s, and Annie and he went in and supplemented our grocery supply, with a few more selected items.
The net result was a feast which consisted of mashed taters, smothered in a savory, tomatoey, sauce with string beans, carrots, and assorted other ingredients, that Eric had created, and my fritters. Annie had made these fritters at least three times, back in the day, and I wasn’t interested. Eggplant? I don’t think so. She also made eggplant parmesan, eggplant tamales, enchiladas, grilled eggplant...Once I was converted, and tasted what it was all about, well, my dinner says it all. After shopping all day long, the best birthday present of all, turned out to be the gift of time, in the form of the fritters, and a feast to savor.
The jigsaw puzzle of the Ashford Castle, another icon of Irish history, in which those here at the time, spent a night, sits in front of me, waiting for some action. A birthday gift from Eric and Cecilia, it will allow my to fixate on castles for great periods of time, without drawing any undue attention.
Speaking of not drawing any undue attention, I begged Annie to braid my mustache, or whatever it is, so as to blend in a little more, and I am sure it worked. I can do it myself, but only if I have a lot of time, and I keep my eyes closed. For a guy who used to feel as though the spotlight were always on him, I’m doing pretty well.
As dinner was being prepared by Eric and Annie (Cecilia would take over after the coach had turned back into a pumpkin), I charged over to Carmody’s, an eight minute, very brisk walk. I tried to shave a minute off on the way back, but no go. Inside, I went straight to the back room, where Mark asked me what I was having. I should have remembered to see if he had “Redbreast,” the Irish whiskey that Brenden in MacNamara’s had recommended (“O’ coorse, it’s a bit more t’an Jameson, six quid vearse four, but it’s got a peach flavor to i’, I t’ink you’ll like.”), but I gave him my usual request, and then inquired if the wi-fi was up.
A quick glance down and, “Yes, yes it is,” and he stepped back to draw the whiskey.
There were two other patrons of the back room, sitting at the bar, just inside the left of the two swinging doors. One was an ancient, the other a guy about my age, with a great wide beard.
The ancient appraised me, and then asked, “How are you?”
“Grand,” I responded.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
It wasn’t what I expected, so I said, “You’re looking fine yourself,”
and I went over to my table.
The ancient then got up and left, his glass having already been empty when I came into the pub. The other guy got up, shaking his head. He spoke to Mark, “All this talking to people on the other side of the world.”
When I spoke with Eric about it later, he mused that it must be a fairly hard nut to crack, if you’re a person whose range of experiences does not go beyond the immediacy of your village life. I did not feel like a “Stranger in a Strange Land” so much as I felt like a stranger on familiar ground. A person my age, who was staked by the throat to his immediate vicinity? Buddha, that was me this time one year ago today.
I did not complete my seventh and final session with Dr. Jill, until the 23rd (happy b-day, Casey), and it took seven more months for me to sort it out. At that time I would never even have taken the invitation by Eric seriously enough to have considered Ireland, so I could see this guy’s thinking as clearly as if it were tagged onto the wall of the pub. It was familiar ground.
Mark asked, “How long are you here for?”
“Another ten days.”
“Do you like it?”
“I do. There is such the sense of timelessness in Ireland. There’s very little to compare on Bell Springs. Here, I can walk eight minutes away from my house, and see evidence-ancient, timeless-of man-made artifacts, every step of the way, ending with a castle.”
“The castle, yes.”
“It’s also the walls, walls everywhere, no two alike, and how they’ve stood the test of time. It’s the ruins of the houses, still standing, because they were built with stone, and not with wood.”
“There’s a lot of myth in those walls, a lot of Irish folk tales that exist.”
“There must be.” Mark moved back into the outer room, and I posted my blog, sent a few emails, and high-tailed (After seeing the Irish hares, this expression has taken on new dimensions) it back to the castle kitchen, where the Earl’s chefs had prepared a feast for the manor. And we all ate happily, thereafter. Is there any more of the basil/tomato sauce?