Aug 30, 2012

Castles, Castles, Everywhere…

It’s no secret that I love fairytales and history, so my love of castles should come as no surprise. Luckily, it’s a interest I seemed to have passed on to my son, which afforded me the opportunity to visit a few during the summer holidays. Ireland is full of castles. I’ve even been lucky enough to stay in a few during my time, since a number of them have been turned into luxury hotels.

But first, we also went to The Giant’s Causway, County Antrim, on the most northern coast of Ireland.

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If you don’t know about The Causeway, it is a World Heritage site, around about 40,000 mostly hexagonal, interlocking basalt columns left by an ancient volcanic eruption. It is also one of the several reasons that Northern Ireland is known as The Land of the Giants. Among other reasons are Northern Ireland was the home of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. As I said before on this blog, he wrote GT while living in Lilliput Cottage, in the shadow of the Cavehill, Belfast where the rocks form the profile of a sleeping giant.

If you’ve read Shades of Atlantis, you’ll have heard the name, Tuatha Dé Danann, the legendary people of Ireland said by some to have been descended directly from Gods and many times described as giants. It was Finn Mac Cumhaill (MacCool) who was said to have built The Causeway as a bridge to Scotland so he wouldn’t have to get his feet wet. In fact standing at the arch at The Causeway and looking to the left, you can see Mac Cumhaill’s grandmother (a rock formation) climbing the rocks to look out to sea.

The gift of immortality seems to surround stories of Mac Cumhaill. While some believe he still sleeps beneath the ground in Ireland, simply resting, other say when he died, he was reincarnated as a great magical leader of Dé Danann. The leader who lead the Dé Danann underground to the underworld of the Sídhe (mounds) after their defeat by the Milesians. Thanks to his gift of immortality, the Dé Danann never aged and the place became The Land of Youth or Tír na nÓg. Also sprouting stories of aos sídhe(people of the mounds) otherwise known as fairies.

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“The Giant’s Boot”

We also stopped by Bushmills Distillery, a distillery first granted a licence in 1608 by King James.

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This is a working distillery, and at the time of our visit they were bottling Jameson and Bushmills 1608(only bottled at this location). As a working distillery with high levels of alcohol around, cameras are not allowed inside for safety reasons. I tried a sip of complimentary 12 Year Old Bushmills(not available to purchase anywhere else in the world). It was delicious, but as I was driving I sadly couldn’t have anymore than a sniff and a sip. While on the subject of sniffing, the smells around the distillery, and especially the mash house, were heaven.

Now for the castles. Starting with Dunluce Castle, sitting on a cliff edge surrounded by stunning coastline.

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This site has been lived on for at least 1,500 years. The castle itself was built in the 15th century. It was rebuilt a number of times before finally being abandoned near the end of the 17th century.

Castle Coole, Enniskillen in County Fermanagh.

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“Antony Gormley Tree for Waiting for Godot. The Grand Yard, Castle Coole”

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This is more a mansion than a castle. Built in the last 18th century by Lord Belmore, the current lord still lives on the estate and maintains private rooms in the building. As such, photographs inside the main house aren’t permitted. A ráth and crannog (dwellings surrounded by water) in Lough Coole show this area has been populated since prehistoric times. Sadly, it poured rain on this visit and we didn’t get to walk much of the grounds. I have visited a number of times and the grounds, 1200 acres, are stunning. The Tea Room is well worth a visit too, for the stylish interior, wonderful cakes, and extremely helpful staff. 

While we missed out on walking, Enniskillen were celebrating Samuel Beckett at the time of our visit. Beckett was born in Dublin but went to school in Enniskillen, along with another man who liked to dabble in writing named, Oscar Wilde.

We walked through the tunnels, complete with ghostly sounds echoing through hidden speakers) from the stables to the basement of the main house where where audio of Beckett’s works, inspired by his time in Fermanagh, played though speakers as we explored.

Crom Castle and Estate, Newtownbutler, Fermanagh.

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Pronounced Crumb, Crom Estate is 1,350 acres sitting on the shores of Lough Erne, complete with tower, castle ruins, ice house, turf house and mill, a walled garden, forest, and the oldest Yew Trees in Ireland, and at more than 800 years old, possibly Europe. In fact, all the Yew trees in Ireland are said to come from the cuttings of one tree beside the old castle ruins. As such, this nature reserve is one of the most important managed by The National Trust.

The old castle was built by Michael Balfour at the beginning of the 1600’s and then sold to the family of the current owners. The old castle was destroyed by fire started accidently by maid with a candle in 1764. The new building, Crom Castle, was built in 1840 and remains a private residence. Again photographs are restricted to a distance. Although the west wing is available to those wishing to marry at the Estate. There is also a campsite and cottages near the award winning visitors center, where the staff are informative and friendly.  Eric was very impressed with the food.

Sadly, the weather gods were not accommodating. Interesting since a deity, Crom Crúaich (crom meaning bent or crooked) was offered blood sacrifices in pre-Christian Ireland in exchange for good farming weather. We were rained on again. There is a reason Fermanagh is so green and the area is known as The Lakelands. Lots of water. 

The Killycluggin stone, discovered in County Cavan near Fermanagh, is thought  to have been the Crom stone, a representation of Crom Crúaich surrounded by twelve figures, or a stone magically imprinted with his image depending on the story. It was worshipped in pre-Christian times until Saint Patrick came along and destroyed it.  At which point the evil spirits from the twelve slithered off, leaving Crom Crúaich to face Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick cursed him back into hell. This may possibly be a variation on the story of Saint Patrick chasing all the snakes from Ireland. The stone has since been excavated and is in Cavan museum with a replica at the original site.

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Another stone, a replica pictured above, in nearby Drumcoo townland is also identified with Crom Crúaich. The figure may depict Saint Patrick as in the story above, although may simply be a druid.

Castle Balfour, Lisnaskea, Fermanagh

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In the grounds of a church, Castle Balfour(not to be confused with Balfour Castle from the same family in Scotland) overlooks the main street of  Lisnaskea. It was originally built for James Balfour in 1620 and burned down, along with the town in 1641. The castle was rebuilt and passed to the Creightons, the same family who own Crom Castle, around 1780. It burned again in 1803 and is now in the care of the Department of Environment(NI).

That’s it for the history lesson today, folks. I hope you enjoyed it.

2 comments :

  1. Simply gorgeous. I think its very cool that you take the opportunity to explore the magnificent land you life in. I'm 1/4 Irish and have always dreamed of visiting the homeland. One of these days...

    Thank you for the back stories too. I love that you incorporate the legends into your writing.

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  2. Fantastic photos! The coastline around Dunluce Castle looks a bit like the south island of New Zealand. That's awesome your son shares your fascination with castles.

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