Castle in the Eire
Driving through narrow roads and scenic routes from Cork to the Ashford Castle in Ireland this summer was a wonderful experience. Called the emerald isle, Ireland is just picking up from its economic downturn and tourism is one of its main attractions today. Old castles are always fascinating and staying in one was a dream come true. A South African company now runs this luxurious hotel, which was home to the Guinness family at one time. Dating back to 1228, the castle has a spa and swimming pool, a 32-seat cinema, a billiards room and cigar terrace. Each bedroom has a view of the sprawling garden, the flowing river or the wide waters of Lough Corrib. The golf course, equestrian centre and fishing are the other attractions. I took the two-hour Lough and Corrib lake cruise at Ashford Castle to explore the pristine surroundings and soak up the scenery.
Those who had watched John Wayne in The Quiet Man can recognise some spots in the castle where the film was shot in the ’50s. The hotel manager proudly informed me that presidents and princes had stayed there, Ronald Reagan in 1985 and Prince of Wales George V in 1905.
The falconry school, a treat for the young and the old, is a must. During the one-hour hawk walk, the guide tells us about the hawks and falcons at the training centre and introduces them before taking us to the spectacular woodland to fly the trained hawks. Our guide Laura talks of the exceptional eyesight of the hawks, their speed and agility. It is indeed a unique experience as the hawks follow you from tree to tree before swooping down to land on your gloved hand. Initially I was afraid to fly the hawk but Laura persuaded me to try it. I still have the picture with the hawk on my table.
A Survivor Moment
The new Titanic museum in Cobh (formerly Queenstown) is located within Cork Harbour, 20 miles outside of Cork. Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic where at 1.30 pm on April 11, 1912, tenders carried 123 passengers out to the ship. The ‘Titanic Experience’ has secured the original offices of the White Star Line, the last point of departure from where the passengers boarded the ship.
This small museum, opened in 2012, tells you the moving story of Titanic. Going through the replica of the ship is like going back in time as you stand outside where third-class passengers had to line up. As you enter the ship, you pick up a random card to guess whether you were one of the drowned or a survivor. My card turned out to be that of Mrs Margaret Brown, one of the survivors.
Visitors are given an informative audio-visual tour retracing the steps of the passengers who boarded Titanic from Cobh. The second half is about how it all went wrong and the sequence of events that led to the sinking of the ship. You need at least half a day to go round the place.
For crystal lovers, a visit to Waterford is a thrilling and knowledgeable experience. A two-hour drive from Cork, Waterford has a history of its own. It goes back to Viking raiders who first established the settlement near Waterford in 853 as Ireland’s first city. Today Waterford is known for its crystal, which was manufactured from 1783 until early 2009 when it was shut down, a victim of world recession. The Crystal Visitors Centre now produces the trophies and other custom work.
An hour-long factory tour takes you through the process of how the crystal is blown, designed and handcrafted. There are some beautiful unique crystal pieces on display as well as regular crystal for purchase. No flawed crystal is permitted; it is smashed and returned to the melting pot.
A visit to Ireland cannot be complete without visiting its famous pubs. Pubs, short for Public House, are certainly not one of those dimly lit and noisy places one imagines. This is where one meets friends, neighbours and also strangers in a relaxed atmosphere, which is part of Irish life. Although the number of pubs has come down due to the economic downturn, there are still about 10,000 pubs.
In the Munster Bar in Waterford, the pub manager claims that the black-brown Guinness is not only the most common beer brand of Ireland, but also almost a national symbol. The Irish whisky Bushmills, Jameson or Tullamore Dew are also popular. Of course Irish coffee is well known.
Being a non-drinker, I enjoyed my fresh lime soda as well as the Irish stew and French fries with the famous fresh soda bread, a crusty brown bread made from wholewheat flour and buttermilk for lunch. You can’t escape potatoes in some form as this is Potato Land. Thick soups of all types, seafood and meats also play important roles in Irish diet.
The Irish pub culture...
cast a spell over many a great writer, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan!
Former political editor of Hindustan Times, Kalyani Shankar is author of Pandora’s Daughters (Bloomsbury); E-mail your diarist: kalyani60 [AT] gmail [DOT] com