Rock of Cashel, Cashel, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland

Rock of Cashel. View from path between the Rock and Hore Abbey. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 29, 2013.

We left Blarney as the castle and grounds were closing and made our way northeast to Cashel, arriving before nightfall. Castle-hotels are among Cashel’s many attractions, but we chose to stay at Peggy O’Neill’s B&B, one of the town’s less costly options. Our friendly host offered us the choice of two rooms: one that was large and pleasant, the other that was small and had the following view:

View of Hore Abbey from Peggy O’Neill’s B&B, Cashel. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.

We chose the smaller room.

Of course, Cashel’s main draw is its medieval stronghold and namesake, the Rock of Cashel. Perched at the city’s highest point, Rock of Cashel impresses with its blocky enormity and abundance of carved decoration. The fortress’s English name is a bit confusing, as it implies the building is in some way the “rock” of the town. In fact, Cashel is the anglicized version of the Irish caiseal, or stone fort, while “Rock” refers to the hill it sits upon.

Although the site itself dates to the 4th or 5th century when it was seat of the Kings of Munster, the oldest remaining structure is the round tower, which was erected shortly after Muircheartach Ua Briain (O’Brien) gave the Rock to the Catholic Church in 1101. Like most round towers, it was originally a free-standing structure. However, it was later incorporated into the north transept when the cathedral was built in the 13th century.

Art historically, the complex’s most distinctive feature is Cormac’s Chapel, the interior of which contains unusual sculptural details, vestiges of painted decoration, and an intricately carved tomb. Consecrated in 1134, the Chapel may be the first Romanesque church in Ireland, and is certainly the best preserved. Cormac Mac Cárthaigh (MacCarthy), a bishop and king of Munster, commissioned the building. The sarcophagus, which boasts an elaborate Scandinavian Urnes design of intertwined animals, probably held either Cormac’s remains or those of his brother, Tadhg. The frescoes—a rare feature in Ireland—are the oldest on the island. They were covered in the 16th century during the Reformation and only rediscovered in the 1980s. Restoration of the chapel is ongoing, and access is restricted to groups led by the site’s guides. These tours are free, entertaining, and informative, but if you prefer to spend the rest of your time exploring on your own, you can join the group for the chapel portion of the tour only.

Blarney Castle, Blarney, County Cork, Republic of Ireland

Blarney castle was a fun, if kitschy, stop near Cork along our southern route back to Dublin. The 15th-century fortress is best known as the home of the famous “Blarney stone,” which allegedly gives those who kiss it the gift of gab. Kissing the stone is a bit of a feat: the only way to reach it is by laying on your back on the floor of the castle’s highest story, letting the top half of your body dangle over the edge, and arching your back to push your head even further down, all while trusting the assistant holding your feet to not let you fall. The shorter you are, the harder this is (I’m 5’6″ and my bum was dangling over the side along with my torso), but hundreds of people of varied sizes and ages do it every day.

According to legend, the saying that something is “blarney” comes from the first Queen Elizabeth. During the Reformation, Cormac MacCarthy, Lord of Blarney, visited the Queen in order to argue for his realm’s independence. He managed, through a variety of polite excuses and charm, to both delay relinquishing control and paying tribute to the crown while promising to do so in the future. Eventually, after receiving the latest in a long series of apologies and flimsy justifications for further delay, Elizabeth lost her temper and cried out in frustration: “This is all Blarney! He never means what he says!”

The castle’s extensive grounds include a charmingly deadly and informative poison garden, caves that once doubled as prison cells, and several walking paths.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013, unless otherwise stated.

Muckross Friary and Killarney National Park, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland

Cloister Yew Tree, Muckross Friary, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.

A gem hidden within the grounds of Killarney National Park, Muckross Friary is located about a mile (on foot) from the parking lot of the sprawling mansion known as Muckross House. The monastery was once home to the strict order of the Observantine Franciscans, but had a relatively short life as a working friary. In 1541, only about a hundred years after its founding, Henry VIII ordered Muckross’s suppression. It was re-established in 1612, but Cromwellian forces finally drove out the inhabitants and burned the structure in 1652.

Today, Muckross’s most notable feature is the old yew tree that rises dramatically from the center of its cloister. Its bell tower, which was a later edition to the building, is also unique to Irish Franciscan buildings in that it spans the full width of the church.

The trails in Muckross Estate are easily managed and bountifully lined with twisting trees and fields of flowers. However, if you prefer not to walk, jaunting cars (aka, horse-drawn carriages) are available for hire at the parking area by Friar’s Glen and Torc Waterfall. Their eager drivers compete to take tourists past the sites along Muckross lake, and are willing to bargain with would-be passengers. The ride should cost around 5 Euro.

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Josh in Friar’s Glen, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.

Iveragh Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland

After leaving Dingle, we made our way down Iveragh Peninsula towards the ports we hoped would take us to Skellig Michael and its resident puffins. We eventually settled in for the night at the lovely Final Furlong B&B, where we watched horses graze in the backyard while the sun set over the lake.

View of the Skelligs (far backround) and nearby islands, from Iveragh Peninsula. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 28, 2013.

We knew that getting to the Skelligs would be something of a gamble, as boats don’t go out in poor weather and weather in Ireland is unpredictable. I was, therefore, relieved the next morning to find the sky overcast but not rainy, and we hurried on to find a ship to take us to this much anticipated destination. What we didn’t realize was that even though the weather on land seemed fine, the wind was making the sea too choppy for safe passage. No ships were making the journey to the Skellig rocks that day, nor were they expected to go out in the near future. Eventually, we admitted defeat and journeyed on.

With much of the day suddenly open ahead of us, we decided to take our time along the Ring of Kerry and made multiple stops within Killarney National Park.

Upper Lake, Killarney National Park. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 28, 2013.
Iveragh Peninsula. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Iveragh Peninsula. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Killarney National Park. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 28, 2013.
Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Yew tree in cloister of Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.
Killarney National Park. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.