Writers, Castles, and Tourist Restaurants

Trip Start Sep 06, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2004

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Thursday, November 4, 2004

Despite the dodgy hostel, nothing bad happened overnight. I had an omelette for breakfast at Lynch's Bakery (Lynch is a popular name in these parts). The "toilets" were labelled only in Irish--fortunately there were pictures as well, because "Fir" is men and "Mna" is women! Language notes: Since arriving in County Kerry, I actually heard Irish being spoken on a casual, daily basis, which I didn't in Galway (even though it's a Gaeltacht or Gaelic-speaking area too--because it's a city, I guess). Dialect: People in County Kerry put "so" at the end of their sentences as a sort of punctuation. ("All right, so. Thanks!")

Speaking of language, I ended up at the Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre--actually a writers' museum. (Imagine that! There's one in Dublin too.) I was the only person there, though, so they let me in free. (Normally €5.) There was supposed to be an audiovisual presentation showing the landscape of County Kerry and how it inspired the local writers. But there were technical glitches so I didn't get to see it. Also didn't get to listen to a storyteller on tape who was also part of the museum. Upstairs were quotations on the walls of the stairway and hall.

Went into each of the several rooms, each one dedicated to a Kerry writer. Words on the walls, and a biography; papier-mache (?) statues in the rooms, posed to evoke the writer's works somehow but rather eerie in effect. A man on a bridge with water full of words flowing under it; someone in a bar; someone looking out a (real) window. All male writers, by the way. Here, too, were buttons on the wall that were supposed to start soundtracks but mostly didn't. So the effect of the museum was largely lost. But one of the writers, Brendan Kennelly, was a poet and I liked the poems that were on the walls of his rooms (behind doors leading to fake doorways). So I bought one of his books...though it didn't have the poem I liked most from the walls.

Then I wandered out to have a look at Listowel Castle, next door to the writers' museum. It was in the middle of being restored and was not to open to the public for another 4 months (at the time of writing), but on that day only, there happened to be guided tours running. Our tour guide was a girl who looked very Irish with gorgeous red hair--but it was dyed. She had come over from another historical site but was full of information. The castle belonged to the Fitzmaurices, an Anglo-Norman family. You know William the Conquerer, the Norman (Frenchman) who became the King of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Well, it took the Normans a little longer to conquer Ireland (until 1169), and in fact they only ever managed to control two-thirds of it. This was because Ireland was not a single kingdom but rather 150 of them which had to be conquered or subdued one by one. Listowel Castle sits on the site of an earlier castle dating from this time, but the current structure dates back to at least the 1540s.

But there's only half a castle--the back half, minus the very top. The front gates and the central banquet hall are gone; all that's left are the back walls enclosing small rooms on five floors. Listowel Castle fell victim to the raids of the British Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s, when most of Ireland's castles and many of the major Catholic churches were destroyed at least partially. (In Northern Ireland, Cromwell is still used as a rallying symbol by both sides--a hero for the Protestants and a villain for the Catholics--as I was to discover when I saw the political murals in Derry and Belfast.)

So our small tour group entered through a small doorway in the back, five storeys below where a trapdoor would once have released boiling oil onto prospective invaders. A modern stairway had been built up the back (open) side, consisting of a concrete tower around which an open metal grillwork curled. Workmen below were laying a low stone wall around the outline of where the great hall would have been. This was to be the last of the restoration; no rebuilding would take place. Our tour guide said that the castle would once have extended right down to the riverbank, which now lay on the other side of a lane. The modern stairway was incongruous next to the medieval walls, even though the walls themselves had been cleaned and restored to look quite new.

We traipsed around the castle into one room after another, all unfurnished and looking very much alike. It's a matter of educated guesswork as to which room was which--bedrooms, even kitchens. A small child in our group wondered where the princess might have slept. All the rooms were much smaller than I would have guessed, smaller than modern bedrooms (at least Canadian ones). The walls were painted white with lime, as was done in the old days to brighten the interiors. The windows were narrow slits for defense, the kind where you could shoot arrows out but invaders couldn't shoot arrows in. All the windows were very deep-set, showing that the walls were several feet thick, and our guide said that the rooms would have been quite comfortably warm (contrary to what I believed about drafty castles and the reason for tapestries being to hold in the heat).

The rooms were connected by low, narrow corridors and tiny spiral staircases. These went up counterclockwise as a defensive measure: any invader trying to ascend would have a hard time either drawing or wielding his sword. Each step was steep and narrow, so you had to pay attention to your feet. Again I was surprised at how small the architecture was, especially considering the imposing height of the castle. Thinking of knights in chain mail or suits of armour, I would have expected a great deal more space. But people were shorter then, too.

The castle even had indoor plumbing--sort of. Several of the rooms had a washroom attached, consisting of wooden planks with one or two holes cut in them. Peering down, we could see that the holes led straight down to the bottom of the castle--all the toilets were at the back so nobody would have to smell the heap at the bottom. However, people did hang their clothes in the washrooms so that the ammonia wafting up the holes would disinfect the clothes. (Ouch!) This is why medieval washrooms are called "garderobes" (a French word--the English equivalent is wardrobe). State of the art for the sixteenth century, I guess....

After the tour, I realized I didn't have time to look at the mysterious trees with "presence" that were the reason I came to Listowel in the first place. Oh well, the town drew me in and gave me some very worthwhile experiences anyway. I raced back to the hostel, collected my baggage (which hadn't been stolen), paid the lady behind the bar, and raced back to the town square to catch the bus. I had only a short ride to Tralee again, then a wait for my connection to Killarney. The trip to Killarney was also short, so I decided to take the train instead of the bus...Irish trains are more expensive than buses and only slightly faster, so I thought I should take advantage of a short ride that wouldn't be too expensive. I love trains...there's more legroom than buses, and the ride is much smoother (even on old trains like the one I took), and it makes me feel as if I'm in a story or a film, to walk out onto the platform where the tracks are, under the glass roof, and hop aboard a train.... The ride was much too short, alas, but it was a nice break from buses.

The train rattled through the Irish countryside and I peered out the window, looking for any interesting sights. I saw graffiti on the backs of buildings as we left Tralee. We went through some tiny stations consisting of open platforms and little old wooden buildings. The train ran beside a stream of just the right sort, overhung by trees as it trickled peacefully over rocks. Then we passed by mountains, and light streaming through the clouds. All too soon it was over and we were coming into Killarney.

I lugged my backpack straight to the nearest hostel, aptly named Killarney Railway Hostel. Like the one in Listowel, it was mysteriously empty, but cleaner and better-lit. Then I headed out to explore the town. First impressions: Very much like Banff, except that instead of being blatantly "Canadian" (only with faux-European architecture) it was blatantly "Irish" (with real European architecture). Souvenir shops all over the place, and restaurants that were too expensive for their quality even by Irish standards.

I ended up in a restaurant called Flesk, which was naturally overpriced. It seemed to cater to old, white, Republican American tourists. The music was offensively inoffensive, muted and calming in the way I associate with funeral homes, except when "Riverdance" came on. The waiters were extremely unobtrusive--though in the U.S.A. I wouldn't be served by a very sweet old lady. The decor involved American Legion license plates, American flags, placemats with pictures of golf courses, and tablecloths with Celtic designs. I imagine that for Republicans it's a very nice restaurant. To me it was almost offensive. Yet it was recommended by Lonely Planet, which usually doesn't go for places that are so very touristy. (L.P. also goofed on the map of central Killarney, on which locations #3 and #4 were switched.) Because of the astronomical prices, I just ordered a chicken Caesar salad. It was, however, very nicely presented--bits of real bacon, real grated cheese, and pine nuts. The most upscale Caesar I've ever encountered....

After that very long day, I had a relaxing evening in the hostel and went to bed early!
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