The Emerald Isle - Day Two

Perhaps love has made me soft, but after establishing such an ambitious itinerary the day before, I allowed us to sleep in until the nearly unprecedented hour of 8:00 in Kilkenny. By the time we'd gotten ready and feasted on the included hotel breakfast, it was nearly ten o'clock, and we decided to leave Kilkenny without seeing any of the sights in order to move on with our grand adventure.

Before we had left for Ireland, the forecast had called for rain every single day we'd be there, but we found ourselves to be blessed with a gloriously sunny, if windy day. Our first stop was the nearby Jerpoint Abbey, a somewhat lesser-known attraction that I had spotted in a close reading of our guidebook. It turned out to be so obscure that it wasn't listed in the GPS database, so we had to navigate instead to the nearest town, where we were lucky to find a series of road signs that guided us there instead. It turned out to be a true hidden gem, and I rather appreciated the fact that it wasn't teeming with other tourists.

Jerpoint was built in the 12th century by a  group of Cistercian monks, who are typically known for the austerity of their buildings and architecture. They believed that any type of ornamentation distracted the mind from worshipful thought, but at their Jerpoint settlement, they seemed to completely throw that belief out the window. Due to its prominence (Jerpoint was the major rival of the most prestigious abbey in Ireland, Duiske Abbey) and the patronage of the wealthy knights of Butler, the monks at Jerpoint came to indulge a more lavish sense of design than their bretheren.

Though much of the buildings have not been well-preserved, Jerpoint is brimming over with fantastic specimens of medieval carving. Many people deride medieval art for being less accurate and life-like than either Classical works or those from the Renaissance and later, but I rather admire the rustic naïveté of their forms. What they lack in technique, they make up for in whimsy and expressiveness.

My favorite pieces from Jerpoint came in the form of two elaborately carved tombs, decorated with images of local clergy, angels, and saints. I loved the way the artists attempted to capture the folds of the figures' robes, which I found to be very charming, even if they defied the laws of gravity. I was also taken with the care and attention given to crafting unique facial hair and coiffure for each figure.

The remnants of the walls enclosing the cloister proved to be the richest source of artwork, owing to their later date of construction, when the Cistercians had somewhat relaxed their views on ornamentation. Each column supporting the cloister ceiling was covered in carvings ranging from stylized animal motifs, to figures of the Butler knights who patronized the monks, to images of the local bishops, to magical dragons.

After wrapping up our tour of the relatively unknown Jerpoint Abbey, we headed to the Rock of Cashel, which is widely considered to be one of the top sites in Ireland. In fact, everyone who weighed in on our trip planning (including an episode of Rick Steves' Europe that we caught on PBS the day before we left), recommended that we include Cashel on our itinerary.

We rolled into town around 1:30 and were lucky enough to find a large parking lot adjacent to the rock itself, where we could leave our car until 6:30 for a mere €4.50. Since we had plenty of time on our hands, we decided to have lunch before we commenced with the sightseeing, and we opted to try the nearby Cafe Hans. Cashel is known for being home to Chez Hans, one of the finest restaurants in Ireland, which was decidedly out of our budget, even if we had been in town for dinner, which is the only time it is open for business. However, the owners have opened a more modest cafe next door, which is open for lunch, and is still recognized with a Bib Gourmand accolade from Michelin, so we decided to give it a try. 

Though it was still a bit pricey for us, we had a great meal, and it was worth every penny. It was easily the most delicious meal we'd had since we'd been in Ireland, even though we were only on the second day of our travels. It would definitely be the meal to beat for the rest of our trip. 

Despite its name, the Rock of Cashel is more than just a rocky outcropping. In fact, it is more notable for the remains of a medieval cathedral and Catholic settlement that can be found there. The rock itself is more of a plateau -- a flattish area with steep sides, and tremendous defensive potential. This defensibility was important to the Knights of Munster, who originally built a castle on the site before vacating the premises in the 12th century and leaving their land to the Catholic Church. The Church was similarly in need of a defensive stronghold to ward off the British and their violent imposition of the Protestant Reformation.

At Cashel, the Catholic Church was able to defend itself against the British until 1647, when a siege ended with a complete massacre of Cashel's three thousand inhabitants. The Brits sacked the place, but it remains in fairy decent repair today, though the cathedral itself was under restoration and covered with scaffolding, which remains the scourge of my traveling career. We were left, then, to wander the ruins, the atmospheric cemetery surrounding the complex, and a small museum about the history of the religious fortification.

Though not quite as vast in quantity as those at Jerpoint, Cashel was also home to some fine medieval carvings, including this especially fine rendering of the Crucifixion. Depictions of the Crucifixion dating from the heyday of Cashel tend to depict only the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist in addition to Christ, and we see them here flanking the cross. I particularly enjoy the depiction of Mary as being older and chubbier here, as she is so frequently seen as perpetually young and lovely. To me, the realism makes a nice change of pace.

In light of the restoration work, the best part of the Rock of Cashel was probably the surrounding cemetery, which provided sweeping vistas out over the lush, green countryside. Justin took several panoramic photos of the area, while I was more taken with the picturesque, moss-covered high crosses punctuating the cemetery.

Though it was still relatively early by the time we finished at Cashel, the dramatic winds were putting a bit of a damper on things, and we decided to forgo any further tourism efforts in favor of making as much of our journey to the west coast (home to our bed and breakfast for the evening) as possible during daylight hours.

The crazy wind might have damaged the aesthetic value of this photo, but I really love how happy we look.
During the drive, we were treated to a truly spectacular sunset, given the clear conditions, but our route was plagued by lots of construction. Justin made the observation that driving in this country feels a bit like playing a video game that increases in difficulty as you master new skills. Just when you think you have achieved a certain degree of mastery, a new challenge comes your way.

People had warned us that driving in Ireland would be terrifying, but we hadn't really experienced that terror in full force until we hit the coast, where the winding road clung to the cliff at the edge of the water, and the speed limit was inexplicably posted at 100 km/hour. A particularly aggressive driver was angrily tailgating us, so Justin felt compelled to drive faster than we were both comfortable with (about half of the posted limit), so several long, frightening minutes passed until the road straightened out and our tailgater was able to pass us, much to our relief. If it had been daylight, and we hadn't been fearing for our lives, it probably would have been a very nice drive, as we passed several sign-posted scenic overlooks.

As with our adventure in finding Jerpoint earlier in the day, we were left to find our B&B in the hamlet of Glin without the benefit of our GPS as well. Instead, we were conveyed only as far as the edge of the town, which was thankfully so small that we were able to find our lodgings without too much difficulty.

Bed and breakfasts are something of an institution in Ireland, and we were told that staying in one was an experience not to be missed. The proprietor, Ester, greeted us at the door with an offer of tea, which we accepted, and she showed us to our room, which inexplicably had two beds, a twin and a double, but at least it had its own en-suite bathroom. Tea was served in the downstairs dining room, and happy to be provided with a flat writing surface, I happily lingered over my travel journal, an international travel tradition that I have adopted from my years of traveling with my father.

Fearful that businesses in the small town would close up shop early, we decided to take a break to forage for dinner. However, we quickly discovered that Glin is more of a seasonal destination, popular among tourists during the warm, beach-going months, and discovered that there were only two dining options open during the off-season -- a take-out Chinese restaurant, and a take-out fish and chip shop, none-too-promisingly named "Glin Grub." We opted for the fish and chips, and our hosts were so kind as to provide us with plates and napkins, but the food proved to be incredibly disappointing. It may have been the cheapest meal of the trip so far, but as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.

We lingered again at the table so I could continue with my writing, but eventually, it became clear that our hosts were waiting for us to go to bed so they could retire, even though they were making themselves scarce in another room. We were clearly their only guests, and we felt a bit like we were intruding, so we took the hint and retired for the evening.

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