Twenty-one year-old, Julia, is the most Irish of my German-Irish grandchildren. She loves Ireland, unconditionally; in all its moods and weathers; in all the ups and downs of its economy; in all its eccentricities. On her recent visit she brought her boyfriend, Mathias (Matthew), with her. She wanted to introduce him to Ireland.
Apart from the cities, the sea, the mountains, the music - “what else does he want to see and hear?, I asked. “Old ruins,” she said enthusiastically, “old ruins!” For “old ruins” read our field monuments, our Bronze Age settlements, our tower houses, ancient abbeys, churches and burial grounds - the whole shebang.
Germany does have a wealth of historic buildings and sites - none of which could be categorised as an old ruin. Ancient castles, palaces and cathedrals are maintained and presented in splendid condition. But Julia loves the roofless, the windowless, the over-grown, all-but-forgotten-places, only occupied by squabbling familes of jackdaws, which are so representative of much of our Irish heritage, particularly those sites not yet taken into the excellent charge of our Office of Public Works.
“They’re so romantic,” she says. And I think I know what she means. There are the stories told by old grey stones; the scraps of eroded carvings which tell of talented long-ago craftsmen. There is the silence which is in no way hostile, and if you let the imagination work, there are the ghosts that may walk in the night.
So, with a comprehensive inventory of local old ruins/historic sites in my head, I said: “Let’s start at the top of the range - let’s go to the Rock of Cashel.” And we went, on one unexpectedly warm and sunny day last week.
I left the pair at the reception desk, in the hands of the professional guides, and then “got lost.” What young couple would want a grandmother trailing their footsteps in a romantic place and inserting her own take on the site’s history? That getting lost took me down the charming path to Hoare Abbey, an old ruin which I, too, love. It opened up a vista of the rich fields of South Tipperary against a backdrop of the Galtees - a vista that never ceases to be heart-warming.
As I made my way downwards, I thought of Cashel, and its place in my childhood days. Then, during summer Sundays, it seemed to be the centre of exciting events, with a succession of feiseanna, fleadhs, festivals, to which many of my playmates would go - especially those who were pupils of Miss O’Meara’s School of Irish Dancing. They would travel by car, while their parents would cycle, to see their children take part in what seemed a complicated array of competitions. “Are you off to The Rock?” neighbours would say, as the cyclists started out on their journey. And it seemed as if I was the only one left at home!
Miss O’Meara was a purist when it came to Irish dancing. It was a very serious business. No movement was allowed above the hips and smiles on faces were a no-no. But I envied my friends, as they danced reels, and gigs and hornpipes. They wore a garment then described as an Irish costume, which had lots of colourful Celtic-style embroidery and a short (but not too short!) skirt. And they usually wore their hair in ringlets, which involved sleeping the previous night with their heads wrapped up in strips of newspaper. This was do-it-yourself hairdressing.
But the dancing gear which I coveted most, was the collection of medals. These represented awards made at previous feiseanna/fleadhs/festivals and they were worn on a strip of black velvet around the waist.
The more medals you had - the more successful you were, and the more jingle you could make, as you hopped and pirouetted on rickety platforms to the tune of a lone violin competing with a stiff wind. But I thought it was wonderful - even romantic!
I eventually did get to Cashel, when I was about twelve years-old. By then, I had learned from a writer to this newspaper, Francis Phillips, that Cashel was a special place, the full title of which was Cashel - The City of the Kings. I made the journey on my aunt’s High Nelly bike, the saddle of which was so high that I could only sit on it when going downhill (and the road to Cashel from Clonmel is ALL uphill). I was accompanied by my young brother, on his small bike.
We had parental permission to go only as far as the Giant’s Grave, but I had other ambitions. I suggested to a willing brother that we should extend the trip to Clerihan and once there, Rosegreen was just a few miles away! And after that - Cashel was a little bit up the road! We cycled through a quiet countryside. There were few cars. Nobody was about.
Somewhere north of Rosegreen I got my first sighting of the Rock of Cashel. It rose out of flat undulating fields and was silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky. It was our Irish Acropolis which was so stunning that I almost lost my very tentative control of a very wobbling bike. It is a sighting which I can still vividly recall.
When I came back from Hoare Abbey, I met Julia and Mathias, as they walked downhill from The Rock. Their shining eyes told me that this had been a winner. They understood the story told by the guide. They had discovered the connection between Regensburg, a city they know well, and Cormac’s Chapel. They had walked the periphery and looked at the lovely expanse of Tipperary.
They had, too, seen the signatures of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, written on their recent visit. Imagine, they said, that in just writing your first name, everybody in the world could identify you.
On the homeward journey, I (unromantically) told myself that this was one old ruin down, and though I had never been good at doing sums in my heads, I tried to calculate: How many more to go?
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