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May 16, 2006: Ireland Trip - Castletown, Powerscourt, Glendalough

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This morning we ate breakfast, packed up our bags, and waved goodbye to Trim. Our first stop was to be the castle in Maynooth, but we discovered once we got there (which involved stopped in downtown Maynooth at a little coffee shop to get coffee and ask for directions) that it doesn't actually open until June. Oops. That is going to be one small downside to taking our trip in May - a number of the historical sites listed for the Heritage card aren't even open until next month. No problem - we were just happy we'd managed to navigate our way out of Trim and down to Maynooth without getting lost once. In fact we think we might actually be getting the hang of the street sign system around here, and after today's rather harrowing journey through a number of roads that are only about one lane wide, but which allow two directions of traffic, that's saying a lot.

So instead of going to the castle in Maynooth, our next stop was in Celbridge, to tour Castletown House. We got there just before a large school group arrived, so one of the tour guides decided to take us and another couple (also Americans) around by ourselves. The guide was a woman who seemed to very much love her job, and have a great deal of pride and enthusiasm about the house, and the tour was wonderful. The house is huge - I don't remember how many rooms she said it had, but what amazed both of us was that for its sheer size, she noted that it had never been built with space for children in mind. The entire west wing of the house was dedicated to the kitchens, while the east wing was for guests, and as she told the history, it appeared that this house had been decorated and run by a series of strong-minded women who had deep love for their home.

During the tour she pointed out a structure in the distance - a memorial obelisk built by one of the women who'd lived there as a memorial to her husband. So after we left Castletown House we made our way over there (only getting slightly lost once). There's a fence around it so we couldn't get very close, but we could at least get some pictures and stare at it.

Next stop, lunch at the Abbey House in Celbridge, and then on to Powerscourt, which was about an hour or so drive through some extremely 'fun to drive' (ha ha) roads. We passed through a lot of farmland, most of which is segmented up with crumbling stone walls nearly covered in some kind of bright yellow-orange flowering shrub, and many of them filled with sheep. In fact I tried to get pictures of some of the sheep (just for the amusement factor) but the sheep weren't entirely cooperative.

Powerscourt has another large mansion, but it was obvious driving onto the grounds that this was much more of a tourist-oriented thing than Castletown, and we both remembered from the missing guidebook that the gardens were a better bet anyway.

The gardens at Powerscourt are huge, and it's obvious that great care is being taken to try to renovate them. There was a lot of new planting and we both wondered if they're trying to recreate what used to be there. They offered a map, which we discovered was barely any use at all, and we set off on a path into woods, passing by statues and stone urns. We found an old well, and then a 'little' tower that was apparently commissioned by Lord Powerscourt. It is called the Pepper Pot Tower because he wanted a tower to look just like his pepper shaker. Must be nice to have that kind of money (heh). The tower was open, although it wasn't big enough to have much more than a steep spiral staircase inside, so we could climb to the top and look out over the gardens. From up there we spied a tiny little cemetery, but back on the ground we discovered there was no way to actually get to it (and we assume it was likely the family's private cemetery, since it was walled off).

The estate includes a Japanese garden with little pagodas and curious stone mushroom type sculptured scattered around, and little bridges over tiny little brooks, and best of all, a little stone grotto with paths leading into and out of and over wherever you looked. We decided to go the long route to see the rhododendrons and azaleas, of which there didn't actually seem to be very many for either type of flower, but it was a nice walk until the extremely steep climb back up a hill to rejoin the main path. We found the pet cemetery, where all the horses, dogs, and a few notable cows are buried, and then made our way past the Dolphin Pond, where we didn't find anything at all resembling dolphins (supposedly the fish on the fountain were dolphins, but they were the most un-dolphin-like fish we'd ever seen). Next up, the walled gardens, which our little map said had the world's longest herbaceous border, and then back into the more manicured areas of the estates.

From Powerscourt, we meandered through yet more slightly terrifying one lane / two-way roads until we found Glendalough, which is an old monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin hundreds of years ago, nestled into a little valley. Most of the settlement is a cemetery that is still in use, so there were headstones from the late 1900's set in right next to stones from the 1700's, or even stones so old that all the writing had worn away. The settlement is notable for the fact that it has one of the most well-preserved Round Towers in the country, which they think might have been used as bell towers (although they weren't entirely sure).

After this, another hour or two of driving, although thankfully the last half of this final leg of the day's tour was done on fully paved, multiple lane roads. We made it to Kilkenny but then realized we didn't actually have any directions to our B&B, so had to ask a few random people where to find the street. Finally found it, though, and are settled into our room, which is where we'll be staying for the next few days. We did a bit of wandering this evening, mainly to find someplace to get food (we finally settled on a tiny little sandwich shop, since it was one of the few places still open) and to try to track down location and hours for the tourist information office. For all the driving we did today, we also did a huge amount of walking and we're both completely exhausted, but looking forward to exploring Kilkenny and the area tomorrow, *after* we get some sleep.

Pictures from today: Celbridge, Powerscourt, Glendalough

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