We got up early on Saturday, knowing we had a lot of ground to cover. We wanted to see the harbor town of Cobh, which was southeast, then we had to head northwest to get to the Galway area by dinner time.
Our hostess, Dolores, put on a great breakfast spread with all the usual meats, but with the welcome addition of some fruit, as well as my favorite brown bread. She and her family actually lived a few blocks away. She still had a child at home in college, and I think another had moved back home. The plan was to move into the B&B house after the kids were out of the nest.
We talked about the Waterford plant and she shed a little more light on the situation. I thought the workers were going to lose their retirement, but she explained that in Ireland they have a national pension when they turn 65. Dolores said her dad was on the pension and it was a pretty good deal. He gets his phone service for free, as well as choosing to get his heat or electric for free. This is in addition to the actual pension payment, which she said was generous.
She said the laid off workers would get unemployment – that wasn’t the problem. They have a custom of paying a hefty chunk of severance pay. She said when her brother-in-law lost his job, he got around 250,000 Euros. That’s more than $250,000 given the exchange rate! No wonder the Irish economy is in such rough shape. What sympathy I had for the Waterford workers nearly evaporated.
Soon after we sat down, a couple came down to eat and we got to talking. They were from Minnesota and had come to Cork to visit their son. He was a college student taking a semester abroad in Ireland. I think that’s a wonderful opportunity for a student – wish I’d done so in college. It doesn’t cost much more than the airfare.
Armed with pretty good directions (we only had to stop once to ask), we made it out of town and were on our way to Cobh. This is pronounced Cove, by the way. We wanted to go here because it was and is a major shipping port of Ireland. Most of the immigrants who left the country in the mid 1800s did so from here. We liked to think our great, great grandfather Terrence Corrigan may have taken his last steps in his home country in this town.
Once again, the town was much farther off the highway than expected. We headed for the visitors center/museum, only to find it didn’t open until 11. So much for our early start! It was another lovely, sunny day, so we decided to walk around the downtown.
Cobh is a charming, waterfront town. The buildings are painted different colors and, oddly, there are palm trees along the streets. There’s a big park with a bandstand/gazebo right on the water, and the town curves around the cove. The streets rise steeply away from the city center, somewhat like Cork. At the top of one street was a large church, its steeple the tallest point in the town. I imagine the sailors coming home used that as a beacon. The church bells no doubt rang more than once when ships did not return.
We stopped in a gift shop, then the St. Vincent DePaul thrift store. Yes, even in Ireland we were able to find used junk! No ancient Irish relics, however, just the usual used clothes. I bought a sweatshirt and the lady gave me 2 daffodils along with my change.
I think I will associate daffodils with Ireland ever after. There was a nationwide cancer fundraiser of some sorts involving daffodils going on when we were there, and they were in bloom in all but the most remote areas.
By this time the museum was open so we paid our fare and entered.
Besides being the point of departure for millions of Irish, Cobh is famous for two reasons: it was the last port of call for the Titanic, and the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat just a few miles away. Most of the injured and dead were brought to Cobh. The exhibit had photos and exhibits from both tragedies, as well as a history of Irish immigration. Very interesting! But, with time a-fleeting, there was no time to linger. Back in the car and north we went.
Getting around Cork took some time – its a big city – but soon we were on the country highway heading to Limerick. Thanks to our huge breakfast, there was no need to stop for more than a drink and we made good time.
We decided we couldn’t pass by Limerick without checking out the wonderful, medieval castle and church right downtown. Once again, the signs were lousy and we did a bit of aimless driving before finding the castle. Then we couldn’t figure out how to get in. The downtown has the usual narrow streets, roundabouts and traffic lights. The castle was just a sidewalk-width away from the street, smack in the middle of town with a boarded up pub right next door. Again we experienced that weird jolt at the casual mix of old and new.
We parked across the street from the castle. Lo and behold, we were right in front of an antique store – what a happy coincidence! Naturally, we had to go in. Didn’t see anything I couldn’t live without, but we enjoyed the rooting around. The shop and the castle are right on the River Shannon.
Remember that time we were playing a family game of Trivial Pursuit, I think it was at Mary Kay’s house? Dad was on one team, but was paying scant attention to the game. I think he had his nose in an Arthur C. Clarke book. The question was “What is the longest river in the British Isles?” and Dad’s team looked stumped. They got his attention, but he didn’t know the answer – kept hemming and hawing between several choices I never heard of. We were giggling in anticipation of winning the game and, after 10 minutes of waffling, insisted on an answer. Dad says, out of nowhere, “how about the River Shannon?” It was right.
So we had to get several pictures of the River Shannon.
St. John’s Castle was built in the 1200s and is pretty much intact. We got to climb up on the battlements, look through the archer’s windows and imagine what it would be like to live in that small place, and be under siege.
We then walked a couple of blocks down to St. Mary’s Cathedral, which is also really, really old. OK, maybe I didn’t pay close attention during the exhibits. At least I didn’t doze off and start snoring and have to be nudged awake because the other tourists couldn’t hear the film they showed before the tour of Newgrange, like SOME people. We couldn’t figure out how to get into the church (seems to be a common problem with us), so we toured the graveyard.
Irish cemeteries are really cool. We stopped at several to take pictures and read the names. Some of the monuments are so old so you can’t read the dates. Entire families are buried together in a plot with a low wall, kind of like a sandbox with a headstone. On one we saw the beloved father died in 1950. The mother died in the 1970s, and the son died in 2007. They put the date of death, but not the date of birth so you can’t figure the age, which I didn’t like. They use the Celtic cross in their monuments, which are 6 foot tall and makes even the newer stones look ancient.
Our modern cemeteries are sod farms; smooth flats of green where they grow plastic flowers. Or so it looks from the road. Except in Louisiana, where they still have cool monuments: they can’t bury people in the ground because they’re below sea level.
Last week we went up to Oak Brook, a booming suburb of Chicago. There are lots upon blocks upon miles of fern bar chains, malls, restaurants, etc. Stuck between an Olive Garden and a Giordanos was a little cemetery. It had old headstones and was surrounded by a chain-link fence. It looked like your homespun, country cousins flanked by your New York friends at a fancy wedding. No doubt it was a peaceful patch of field when some one’s ancestors were laid to rest there. Now its a barely noticed, yet jarring anomaly at the side of a busy, suburban road. Overlooked by all but the waitresses at the Olive Garden who lean on the fence to smoke their cigarettes on 10 minute breaks.
We left the church and walked the several blocks back to our car. The neighborhood was a mix of businesses and rental houses, rather poor. It occurred to me that Limerick was the home of Frank McCourt. I should have reread Angela’s Ashes before we came to see if I were walking down the streets of his miserable childhood.
Several people hurried down the street carrying grocery bags of provisions and bottles of ale – Smithwicks, Murphy’s, Guinness and, yes, the dratted Heinekin. The big rugby match was starting in an hour – the match of the century for Ireland, and everyone wanted to be in front of their TVs. We had a long way to go to reach Kinvarra and we were not going to be on time for dinner with our cousin Mary.