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Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - Beyond Scotland


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Train Travelling Happily in Ireland

2021-03-11 14:57:50

Over the years, we have enjoyed many trips to various parts of Ireland but have always travelled in our own car or, as we did on one occasion as part of a family group, in a larger vehicle rented in Dublin. For this latest trip we decided to sit back and let others do the driving.

Starting in Scotland, in Central Station, Glasgow, we boarded a train to Ayr. Outside the station, after a few minutes wait, we got on the bus to Cairnryan Ferry Terminal. It’s a pleasant journey through rural Ayrshire and along the golf course coast. The ferry crossing to Belfast takes about two hours. A bus was waiting for passengers coming off the ferry and within thirty minutes we were in Belfast city centre.

It’s a walk of a few minutes through a shopping mall near Belfast’s Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street to Victoria Street Bus and Train Station where you can buy a combination train/bus ticket for the train to Coleraine. The train crosses the River Laggan and is soon out in the countryside, then runs within sight of the sea. A seat on the left hand side of the train is recommended for the chance to spot the ruins of Dunluce Castle. Formidable on a rocky headland, the castle must have appeared impregnable when it was built in the 1500’s.

Outside Coleraine Station the bus going to the Giant’s Causeway pulls in minutes after the train leaves. The connection appears to work near seamlessly.

The bus passes through small towns including Bushmills and Port Ballintrae.

From the final stop, passengers walk the short distance to the National Trust Visitors’ Centre where an introductory display gives information on the stones of the Causeway, some of it scientifically sound and some of it myth. There is also a shop and a café.

From the Visitor Centre there’s a shuttle bus, or you can walk along a pavement to the columns of the Causeway or take the rougher coastal path running along the cliff top. From this vantage point there are immense views along the sea-battered headlands, as far as the horizon and down to where walkers appear like moving dots on the pavement bordering the rocky beaches. Over a fence on the other side, sheep and cattle graze the fields.

Heading back, there are straightforward ways down the cliff to reach the lower path by the sea shore and the Causeway columns.

There are roughly 30 - 40,000 of these interlocking, many sided blocks of basalt which took shape 50-60 million years ago when successive, slow moving flows of lava from an ancient inland volcano reached the coast and cooled on contact with the sea.

Back in Belfast, on Great Victoria Street, there is a choice of restaurants and pubs. The Crown, directly across the road from the Europa Hotel is well worth a visit. The gas lamps are gone but the wooden booths with doors to ensure privacy are still there. It hasn’t changed much from the late 1800s. In the city centre, at 17 Donegal Square North, the Linen Hall Library has a welcoming café but it’s the wealth of books on Irish topics that is hugely impressive.

For the next stage of our journey we retraced our steps to Victoria Street Station where a local train took us to Lanyon Place Station for a train to Dublin.

The Enterprise is a long distance modern train running eight times a day from Belfast to Connolly Station, Dublin. From a comfortable window seat the views of the east coast, out to sea and the distant Mountains of Mourne are magnificent.

Dublin, like many cities, has dedicated tourist buses giving visitors an overview of the layout and attractions of the city. You may land lucky and be with a driver who, as well as telling tales about places along the route, may occasionally burst into song – it’s all ‘good craic’ as Dubliners might say.

If you choose to walk in Dublin, you shouldn’t miss O’Connell Street and the General Post Office, the Quays by the River Liffey, Trinity College campus and Grafton Street for shopping and buskers.

From Grafton Street cross over the road to St. Stephen’s Green, an extensive park with trees and formal flower beds, duck ponds and statues.

Along the perimeter path there are a number of information boards giving details of the Easter Rising of 1916 when 200 insurgents established positions in St. Stephen’s Green. They in turn were being fired on by British soldiers who were garrisoned in the Shelbourne Hotel on the north side of St. Stephen’s Green.

Today the Shelbourne is a much loved meeting place. As well as presidents and politicians, celebrities and stars of stage and screen, it hosts wedding parties and other assorted gatherings. In the lounge bar, the price of drinks may make your eyes water but get comfortably seated in an armchair, relax and enjoy the ambience, do some people watching – it’s worth the money.

The train journey across Ireland from Dublin on the east coast to Galway in the west takes about three hours. We pass small fields with grazing sheep, cattle or a few horses. Through the train window, this landscape when seen in bright sunshine does appear to have ‘forty shades of green’ as the song goes.

Galway gets especially busy around Eyre Square and the surrounding streets where there is a variety of shops, restaurants and pubs. To leave the crowds behind, a bracing mile and a half walk westwards by seaside path and pavement will take you to Salthill, perhaps for a café lunch, before a return through the streets to Claddagh and Galway.

Claddagh, a fishing village in its own right on the south side of the River Corrib was once separate from Galway. Now you can stroll along a riverside path by sloping gardens fronting homes half hidden by trees. It’s a delightful way to reach Galway Cathedral on Nun’s Island. Made of stone, the Cathedral looks old but building only started here in 1958 and was finished in 1965.

Claddagh was where the famed Claddach rings originated. Each ring shows two hands clasping a heart topped by a crown. As an expression of love, friendship and loyalty, the rings adorn fingers all over the world.

From Galway Train Station our next destination was Kilkenny. We changed trains at Kildare and had time for a short walk to the town centre for a leisurely lunch in the Silken Thomas restaurant before boarding a connecting train to Kilkenny.

One of the many attractions of Kilkenny is the Design Centre where you can watch silversmiths working. As well as items produced in the workshops the shop sells a range of goods made by craft workers from around the country.

In the Centre’s formal walled garden there’s a lily pond. Spaced around it is a ring of substantial blocks of stone that came from Dublin. When Nelson’s Pillar was blown up on O’Connell Street by the Irish Republican Army on 8th March 1966, these blocks of stone lay unwanted amongst the rubble - destined to be dumped. How they came to arrive in Kilkenny is still debated. But it seems that admiration for the stone carver’s skill was a factor in their being placed here at the home of Irish craft and design.

Kilkenny Castle lies across the road from the Design Centre on The Parade. From one side of the Castle you can follow a path through mature trees and by a duck pond in the extensive parkland. On the other side of the Castle, varieties of roses are grown in the formal gardens set around a fountain. Lemon drizzle cake with a pot of tea in the castle café goes down a treat.

Kilkenny has a number of independent shops as well as the sizeable MacDonagh Junction Shopping Centre built around the restored Kilkenny Famine Workhouse. While shop fronts show familiar high street names, an unusual feature of the complex is the audio trail which guides listeners to numbered stopping points. You can hire a set of headphones at the information desk and listen to the story of the Irish famine and particularly the two young brothers, John and Patrick Saul who were given refuge here in the workhouse after being abandoned by their parents on the docks in Dublin. The trail ends outside in the famine memorial garden where a sculpture portrays the boys, ‘helping each other along the journey and inspiring hope of survival’. It’s a harrowing tale but this trail helps to perpetuate the memory of these young lads and thousands of others who spent time here in the workhouse.

Kilkenny grew alongside the River Nore. A pleasant riverside walk from the centre of town starts at the hurling statue, ‘dedicated to all those who played for the county and the stars of the future yet to come.’ At 14ft tall it can’t be missed.

Follow the path as far as the footbridge below a main road bridge then cross over and stroll down the other side back into town.

Our next train journey took us from Kilkenny to Dublin Heuston Station. Outside the station tickets can be bought for the tram trip to Connolly Train Station, Dublin. The Enterprise carried us back to Belfast.

On this train trip in Ireland the service couldn’t be faulted. Trains were on time and many of our fellow passengers were happy to talk - mainly about Brexit. We were able to sit back in comfort and look out at the countryside. Would we do similar trips again? Would we recommend travelling by train in Ireland? Absolutely!

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Seville

2020-03-30 14:35:55

The musician sits hunched, concentrating, fine tuning his guitar. With a final flourish of fingers, an arpeggio of thrumming sound signals his readiness.

Rhythmically clicking thumb and finger, a diva dressed in black, scarf of scarlet silk, leads into the first song. Now she claps her hands above her head. Her tapping feet add a back beat that builds into fierce drumming. At intervals she hollers, or praises particularly pleasing guitar accompaniment.

From a dark doorway, a dancer, varnished black hair, pink dress with flounces, steps dramatically into the circle of light illuminating the small performance area. High-heeled boots become percussive instruments as she batters the boards in an ecstatic, passionate dance. This is Flamenco-the sensual dance form that originated here in Spain’s south west corner, in the gypsy communities of Andalucia.

The mesmerising performance took place in an inner courtyard of Seville’s Cultural Centre. Overhead, a ceiling of wispy clouds drifted below stars that glistened in an inky black sky.

Similar open roofed patios usually serve as family living rooms in the heat of Seville’s sultry summers and can be glimpsed through wrought iron doors. The walls are often richly coloured ‘azulejos,’ Moorish inspired, patterned ceramic tiles. Floors are of pale marble. Huge potted palms add greenery and shade.

The flamenco performance ended around 11.00 o’clock and the audience wandered away, some in search of sustenance. Eating out at this time of night is usual in Seville and there is a good choice of restaurants - particularly in the maze of narrow streets of the old town, the Barrio Santa Cruz, and the adjoining, medieval Jewish quarter.

Tapas bars offering selections of small separate dishes, including fish, quiche, bull tail, potatoes with various spicy sauces and mixed salads are also popular. It’s an added bonus finding a pavement table where you can eat, drink and watch people stroll by the floodlit Cathedral of Seville.

This immense confection in stone was first build as a mosque in the late 12th century by conquering Moors and later demolished before being rebuild as a Christian cathedral, ‘on so big a scale that posterity will think we were mad,’ mused the architects. An in-depth tour, as you might imagine, takes some time. Should numerous side altars, rooms full of religious treasures, the largest and richest altar piece in the world and the sepulchre of Christopher Columbus leave you less than three steps to heaven, consider a walk to the top of the ornate bell tower.

The Giralda(bell tower) was twelve years in the making (1184-96). Once it was a minaret from where the faithful were called to prayer. Inside, instead of the expected flights of stairs, a series of 35 gently inclined ramps built wide enough for two guards on horseback to pass each other lead to the top. As you walk further up the ramp, open windows give close-ups of cathedral buttresses and statuary. At the top, beneath enormous bells, far-reaching views across city roofs justify the effort.

Nearby, the Reales Alcazares, encapsulates the complex history of Seville. The fortified palace gives an insight into the lifestyle and opulence demanded by succeeding rulers including the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians - though once it was even more fantastic. Supposedly, one sultan suitably extended the accommodation for a harem of 800 women. What remains of the exquisitely decorated Moorish architecture, luxuriant gardens and sumptuously tiled rooms with intricate wood panelled ceilings, gives some idea of past amassed wealth.

In contrast, the Museo de Bella Artes, a jewel amongst art galleries, was converted from a convent that lay empty for years. Many of the paintings are on religious themes by Spanish artists including Alonso Vasquez, Murillo, Ribera and Goya. While galleries elsewhere are often so large that even great masterpieces eventually cause your eyes to glaze over, here roomfuls of artworks are impressive without being overwhelming. A painted baroque ceiling crowns a room that was once the main chapel. Doors open on to restful courtyard gardens of sculpted myrtle bushes.

In the more lush gardens of Casa de Pilatos, an early 16th century mansion inspired by Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, you can wander past cascades of purple bougainvillea and trickling fountains that vie for attention with Moorish arches, Roman statuary, and rooms decorated with brilliant coloured tiles.

Showiness of a different kind is found near the River Guadalquivir at the opera house and the bullring, Plaza de Toros. Should the attraction in bulls being goaded and killed be beyond understanding, missing the small museum of bull fighting within the building won’t be a hardship.

Directly across the road is a statue of Carmen, cigar factory worker, feisty femme fatale and inspiration for the opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. In the novel penned in 1845 by French author Prosper Merrimee this was where Carmen died, stabbed, in a crime of passion.

Lower down, a landscaped walkway follows the riverside to Torre del Oro, a twelve-sided, 13th century fort from where a great chain once stretched across the river in defence of the city. The stronghold was also a store for gold brought back from the Americas. It now houses a small museum of naval curiosities.

From nearby, you can take a guided tour of the city in an open-topped bus or take to the water. Cruise boats head down river a short way, before turning to sail upstream past yellow, blue and white painted house fronts of Triana, a down-to-earth district off the tourist trail.

The trip goes as far as Puente de la Barqueta, one of the futuristic bridges built for the World Fair, Expo ’92. A reproduction of Victoria, the ship that first circumnavigated the world, is passed almost unnoticed, dwarfed by the exhibition features in the background.

Seville is very Spanish with a hint of North Africa, modern yet faintly decadent, where the present and historical merge. The real factory where the imaginary Carmen rolled cigars is now part of Seville’s University. Broad avenues lined with orange trees buzz with traffic yet there’s a place for horse-drawn carriages that clip-clop visitors round the sights or through the cool greenery of a city centre park.

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St. Patrick's Day Parade, Celbridge

2020-02-26 07:14:01

The flags were out. So was the bunting. Between lampposts on the town’s main street, a thousand triangles of green white and gold fluttered in the wind. Teenagers blew whistles. Younger children toot-tooted cardboard trumpets while in every other passing car a not-so-young driver sounded the horn.From the church a few yards back from the road, came the murmur of a Mass in progress for this was a Holy Day as well as a public holiday in Southern Ireland.

The cacophony of noise was merely a warm up before the main event, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Celbridge, a small town to the west of Dublin.

Now, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City may be the biggest in the world. In Dublin, they boast their parade is best. But here, in Celbridge, the whole community appeared to be out on the street and involved. They took part in the parade, or lined the pavements to cheer and wave their flags, while local dignitaries looked on from the stage. .

In March 2007, the enthusiastic crowd had an added bonus - Ireland’s Strongest Man was there to give a demonstration. In a show of strength he went on to lift an amazing amount of weight!

Near the middle of the main street, final adjustments were made to the microphones and the loud speaker system that had been installed on a make-do stage on the back of a lorry. Now the music, Irish jigs and reels, could be heard all over. You could sense the anticipation mounting. Then as parade time neared all went quiet.

“Can youse hear me out there,” bawled the man testing the sound system.

The crowd on the pavement opposite acknowledged him by waving their flags and cheering even louder.

“The parade will begin in a few minutes,” he shouted again, ‘’but first, let’s give a big, Celbridge cheer for Jason Reilly, Ireland’s strongest man!”

On the roadside near the pavement where the crowd was deepest, a car had been backed up onto a raised metal ramp. Now Jason took hold of the handles on this ramp affair, bent his knees, huffed and puffed, then proceeded to lift the back of the car. The crowd, at least those who were near enough to witness this spectacle, were delighted.

For his next feat of strength, the big, ‘broth of a bhoy’ grabbed hold of a barrel - ‘20 stones it weighs’ said the commentator from the stage. Red faced with exertion, the strongman lifted the barrel above his head. The crowd were impressed and applauded his every move.

When the Parade came in sight it was led by a leprechaun holding tight to a pair of waist height, Irish Wolfhounds.

“They must be awfully good dogs,” said a wee girl waving her flag to distract them.

“Well trained,” said her mother, smiling.

Next there was a long line of vintage cars. One driver wearing a bishop’s hat waved slowly to the crowd. “Who’s he meant to be?” someone asks.

Then St. Patrick, complete with bushy beard and bishop’s staff, marched up the middle of the road to a great cheer.

In turn there follows troops of girl guides, boy scouts, children from a playgroup and a very young school group playing recorders. On instructions from their teacher, they stop marching, turn to face the dignitaries on the stage and play a slow air, the theme tune from the film, Titanic.

Next in line come the motor bikers, decorated tractors and three - wheeled tricycles. One tricycle is pedalled by Superman. Other huge agricultural machines are driven by more leprechauns.

Whenever a new group reaches that part of the road overlooked by the stage, they stop and give a short performance of their skills. There’s a show of martial arts and a mock fight by characters from the film, Star Wars. This is followed by a demonstration of juggling by a cohort of colourful clowns.

Gymnasts were led by a girl doing cartwheels. She keeps on cartwheeling - down the middle of the road.

There were groups from various sports clubs and a team of high kicking Irish dancers stepping out in colourful dresses and soft leather dance shoes.

As the theme music from Riverdance, the world famous Irish Show, was belting out over the loudspeakers another troupe of dancers, this time wearing hard black shoes, rapped out their steps in quick time on the tarmac. Some in the crowd couldn’t resist joining in with a few steps of their own.

Nearing the end of the parade, the pipe band of the Dublin Fire Brigade stopped in front of the stage. The drummers and pipers formed into a circle then played a set of tunes. Meanwhile the two mace carriers stood to attention.

For the final tune the band played the Irish National Anthem. Now the dignitaries, each wearing a bunch of shamrock, rose to their feet, adding their voices, singing in Irish. Many in the crowd, young ones as well as much older, stood with hand on heart and sang along. It was a poignant moment.

Celbridge’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade ended with a few “Hip, Hip, Hoorays,” everyone being thanked who had contributed to the occasion. As the pipe band marched away up the street, mothers pushing prams, young fathers with infants on their shoulders and older people, elbows linked, fell in behind, carried along with the music.

I suspect the pubs were soon overflowing and many a drop of the “black stuff” would be taken. The “craic”, as they say here, ‘’would be mighty’’.

What St. Patrick would make of the Celbridge celebration in his honour, we cannot imagine. But while it continues to bring local people and some of the many incomers to Ireland together, it must be a good thing.

Since 2007 when I enjoyed the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Celbridge, the event has continued to grow.

Want to Know More? Saint Patrick was born sometime between 387and 390 AD to a wealthy, high ranking Romano-British family. It’s uncertain exactly where he was born, but it is believed to have been in the village of Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton. Patrick was not overly religious as a child but this changed when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, taken to Antrim and sold as a slave. For the next six years he worked as a shepherd. He eventually escaped and spent the next few years studying at a monastery in Auxerre. In 432 he was called to Rome where Pope Celestine consecrated him as a bishop. From there Patrick travelled to Ireland with 25 followers. Over the next few years he made extensive and successful missionary journeys throughout Ireland, spending his time preaching, teaching, building churches, opening schools and monasteries and converting chiefs and bards the length and breadth of the country. After his death, Patrick became a legendary figure and was credited with many miracles, the most famous of which is that he chased snakes from Ireland. However, it is believed that this referred to him eliminating paganism as snakes are a pagan symbol. He is also famous for describing the concept of the Trinity by using a shamrock leaf. Patrick is remembered as a bishop and missionary and is best known as the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day is 17th March. However, he is also recognised as the patron saint of Nigeria, engineers and excluded people. The National Museum in Dublin has the little hand bell he used to summon his congregation as well as a tooth which is believed to have been Patrick’s.

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In Flanders Fields

2019-10-29 09:31:05

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch, be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

This poem was written by Lieutenant – Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, after the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, on May 2nd 1915.

A plaque containing the poem can be found on the wall of a concrete bunker that was used as a field hospital.

Not far away, in graveyards throughout the area, thousands of simple white headstones carry the names of the war dead.

For those British and Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, is dedicated to them. The walls of this memorial bear thousands of names.

The ‘Last Post’ is played at the Menin Gate every evening.

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