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May 19, 2006: Ireland Trip - New Ross, Wexford, Hooks Head

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This morning was our last in Kilkenny. We packed and ate breakfast and I made one final trek downtown to stop by an ATM because so far both places we've stayed prefer cash to credit cards for payment. That was a bit of excitement in itself since I thought Richard knew where I was headed, but he went to put the bags in the car and when he came back inside I'd disappeared and he didn't have a clue where I was. So when I came back I was greeted with hugs and 'oh, we were worried about you!' from the innkeeper, which confused me quite a bit until I realized what had happened. Anyway, it was a bit sad to leave, since the couple who runs the B&B is very nice, and the town had lots of character.

Our first stop today was in New Ross, to visit the Dunbrody Famine Ship. New Ross sits at the mouth (or is it the end?) of the River Noire, and is a major port, which means it was also a major departure site for the Irish who fled the country during the great potato famine. In New Ross they've recreated the Dunbrody, which was one of the ships used to transport passengers. There was apparently a short video about the making of the ship, which we weren't too upset about missing, and then the guide took us onto the boat and walked us around. As you can see in the pictures, it wasn't a very big ship at all, but it's even tinier when you realize that it would carry 150 - 300 people for 50 days across the ocean.

She took us below, first showing us the captains quarters and the first class cabins, which certainly weren't luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, except when compared to the rather mindboggling conditions of the steerage compartments, where the bulk of the passengers were stored. There were two character actors who came to talk to us - the first a woman traveling in steerage, sharing a cramped bunk with her husband and 5 children; the second, a woman traveling with her husband and two children in first class. They both remained true to their characters (which were based on actual passengers on the original Dunbrody) even throughout answering questions. It was really quite sobering to look at the quarters where too many people were crammed in like sardines, in horrible, filthy, inhumane conditions. 50 days doesn't seem too unbearable until you think about spending it below deck surrounded by 200+ unwashed strangers, likely suffering from seasickness, dysentery, and worse. Oh, and of course, there was no indoor plumbing, only buckets tucked under the stairs.

After visiting the ship, we left New Ross and headed further east toward Wexford, to visit the Irish National Heritage Park. It's 35 acres of partially reclaimed bogs and marshes, onto which they've built life-sized replicas of various dwellings and other structures throughout the entire history of humans on the island, and it was quite fascinating. We traveled from primitive temporary campsites to thatch-roofed farmhouses; toured an early ringfort and a primitive monastery; even got to visit a Viking boatyard and saw boat-making in action. Some of the sites had fires burning and tools and other implements strewn about as if the inhabitants were just about to return. A few of the sites showed the various burial structures through the ages, and we got a kick out of the fact that the dolman exhibit even had a few bones tossed in. It was quite a hike around the entire park, and we were both glad we'd thought to eat lunch first (huge bowls of Irish stew at the little cafe in the visitors center near the entrance).

Our final stop for the day was Hook Head Lighthouse, which entailed more driving down tiny little roads through tiny rural communities and farmlands dotted everywhere with ruins. It seems like everywhere you turn there's ruins of yet another church or house or castle, and they're just...there. No one seems to give it much thought at all.

Hook Head Lighthouse is the oldest working lighthouse in Europe (and possibly the world), and our tour guide gave us quite a detailed history of the place. It was built a the request of the current king by the monks of the area, since we could quickly see that the rocks surrounding this peninsula were pretty nasty and probably weren't fun for any ships trying to enter the mouth of the bay (and then progress up to Waterford or New Ross). The monks also built an attached abbey at its base, and were responsible for its function. They kept signal fires burning on top of it, and when coal came into use they stored all the coal in the bottom and then had to cart that coal up extremely steep and narrow stone steps to the roof to keep the fire burning. We've noted that this sort of inconvenient and awkward manual labor seems peculiarly suited to the monks of the era, since it seems that they were big into that kind of thing.

We got to climb out to the top and had lovely views across the end of the peninsula. I'm sure it would have also been a lovely view out across the water, if it wasn't for the fog.

We made our way around the remaining half of the Ring of Hook, back to New Ross, and then across to Waterford, and this time had no problems at all finding our next B&B, since while our city maps don't seem to like to provide actual street names all the time, they do include landmarks and historical sites, and our B&B is right across a little courtyard from the Christchurch Cathedral.

Our room is at the top of the stairs on the third floor. The stairs themselves tend to list alarmingly away from the wall on a few of the flights, and the room is extremely tiny. The bed is also tiny, and smashed against the wall, and we both looked at the layout and realized that we were going to get no sleep unless we were willing to be creative. So I snagged a few extra blankets and the comforter off the bed and have created a little temporary mattress for myself on the floor, and Richard's sticking with the bed. The bed is soft enough that I know it is the type to give me a backache, so I'd rather the floor anyway.

We've wandered the city a little this evening, just enough to find a place for dinner, get our bearings and track down location and hours for the places we intend to hit first tomorrow. This is definitely the largest town we've been in so far in Ireland, if the size of the open air shopping center, and the inclusion of recognizable chain stores is anything to go by.

Pictures of Irish Heritage Park and Hooks Head

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