Sunday 2nd April 2006
Off to Cahir this morning on a dullish but relatively mild day – it must have been all of 9° C. Fine enough however to venture out to view first “Cahir Castle” and, later, “The Swiss Cottage” – both of which, as it turned out, have Butler connections!
Cahir castle was originally built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier Irish fortification called a cathair (stone fort), which gave its name to the place. It was granted – I have yet to find out by whom – to the powerful Butler family, Earls of Ormonde, in the late 14th century and became the seat of another branch of the family, the Lords of Cahir. It was enlarged and extensively remodelled in the 15th century, abandoned in the 16th and more recently restored by the State. It is perhaps one of the best preserved, and conserved, of the Irish Castles, but I could have done without the overuse of what looks for all the world like “bright white” acrylic paint to seal some of the interior walls.
The castle’s perceived importance – and mention in the history books – seems to be as much as anything the result of the castle’s surrender to the Earl of Essex (in his ill-fated expedition into Ireland on Elizabeth I’s behest) following an unusually well-documented siege.
Unfortunately for Essex it was probably the only success he had whilst in Ireland as Lord Lieutenant but it did nothing to improve his relations with Bess.
There’s no denying it is impressive – not least because of how much has survived – but whether or not it was the absence of furniture or that “whitewash”, it somehow or other didn’t connect – despite the Butler connections (pun intended).
Then, on to “The Swiss Cottage”. What a contrast – from a fortress, to what could almost be described as a “folly”. The Cottage Orne style, in which the cottage was built in the early 1800s, is said to have appealed particularly to the “refined aristocracy” of late Georgian Britain and Ireland. Typically built in a picturesque “natural” landscape setting, the intent was to construct a comfortable and pleasing dwelling the very rusticity of which made it appear part of that landscape. Swiss Cottage was, I gather, not its original name, but became so because it looked so much like one of those picture postcard Swiss chalets.
Situated on a knoll overlooking the quiet valley of the River Suir, the cottage was probably designed by John Nash (one of the most prominent architects of his day).
As well as doubts regarding the architect, the precise reason for its construction is unclear.
One tradition is that the cottage was a solution to Baron Cahir’s (another Richard Butler) search for a place for seclusion for himself and his mistress. Whatever the reason for its construction, I had no difficulty accepting the guide’s contention that it is a most elegant example of a Georgian ornamental cottage. It fits into its setting just beautifully.
The restaurant at the “Belfry Hotel”, where I’m staying in Waterford, doesn’t re-open until after Easter so I’m into bar-food territory again. Last night’s offering of “chunky seafood chowder” accompanied by a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc was however more than acceptable – and good value!
Monday 3rd April 2006
I met this morning with Michael O’Connor, who looked as if he had just come from “saying Mass” – every inch a holy Roman father – which, of course, he wasn’t. Michael is the Waterford Heritage Service’s local genealogist and will, I hope, have greater success than I’ve had tracking Stephen Butler down. Given that he’s been undertaking genealogical research here in Waterford for twenty plus years, I have every confidence that if there’s anything to be found he’ll find it.
Having said that, given how uneven is the availability (and legibility) of records for that period – where they exist at all – he was careful not to raise my hopes too much. Not surprisingly, I look forward to hearing from him in the next week or so.
As a city Waterford is not doing a lot for me. For whatever reason, I get the same negative “vibes” that I get from Limerick. In any event – and while the weather held – I opted to head out into the country again, to visit “Jerpoint Abbey” about 18 miles or so north.
Originally founded about 1160, Jerpoint was “colonised’ by the Cistercians in 1180. Although it lacks the setting of say Fountains Abbey or the grandeur of Rievaulx, it does have some attractive features. One is the cloister arcade, much more of which survives than elsewhere, but it also has a couple of tombs dating from about 1500 with panels showing groups of saints called “weepers”.
After this length of time, the clarity of the sculpted images is just amazing.
By the 15th century, when the tower was constructed, Jerpoint appears to have been flourishing. That it was still at the time of the Dissolution in 1540 is evidenced by the fact that the Abbey’s possessions included a castle, several watermills, cottages weirs and fisheries, in all about 14,500 acres. And who benefited from all this? Those Butlers, of course, whose leases allowed them to remain in possession until the mid-17th century.
Tuesday 4th April 2006
Despite a brisk and cold wind, it was just a beautiful day. Leaving Waterford, I headed NE this time to Enniscorthy, before turning South again towards Rosslare, not because there was anything particular I wanted to see but just to get another view of the countryside before I leave for Wales tomorrow.
For whatever reason there seemed to be less development here – at least until I got to Rosslare that is, where again construction of more residential enclaves was at full pace.
My reason for staying here overnight is purely because I didn’t fancy the prospect of an hour’s drive to the Ferry port for an 8:00 am check-in. As it has turned out, I am now less than 10 minutes away in a really lovely country house hotel, “Churchtown House”. Even before I’d unloaded the car, I was offered coffee in the conservatory. Now that’s what I call hospitality!
But to go back a bit, I did spend a pleasant couple of hours at the Irish National Heritage Centre, at Ferrycarrig, near Wexford. Its purpose is to show how people lived, worshipped and buried their dead from the Mesolithic period to the arrival of the Normans in the 12th century. Covering 35 acres, it comprises archaeological and historical reconstructions located to the extent possible in their natural settings. It was all very well done indeed.
At my “Churchtown Country House Hotel” hostess’ suggestion I ate at a local seafood restaurant. The entree of mussels was just great, the main of Dover Sole – to which I’m partial – less so, having been just a hint over-cooked. Guess who’s getting picky?
Wednesday 5th April 2006
A relatively early start – but not before I’d had my breakfast, mind – to catch the ferry to Fishguard in Wales. Not such a swept-up affair as the one to Larne in Northern Ireland – nor as fast, taking close to three and a half hours . But for all that, it was very comfortable and made the more so by a very calm Irish Sea. Taking advantage of the priority small cars seem to get on loading, I was second off on arrival at Fishguard and was on my way south soon after 12:30 pm.
The drive to St David’s was a pleasant one through countryside that reminded me of what Ireland used to look like – green and gorgeous. My objective was to visit there the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace that I’d heard so much about.
St David’s is said to be the smallest city in Britain but, from what I saw of it, it seems little larger than a village – albeit a very pleasant one.
The Cathedral itself may not be as attractive as some others I’ve visited, but what it may lack in soaring perpendicularity (how about that for a word?) it makes up for in character. That it is still a parish church in a relatively small community and is, therefore, no museum piece may contribute to that; but it also has some unusual and attractive features – not all of which, I hasten to add, are sympathetic to the whole.
Of these, I found the oak ceiling in the nave, the just beautiful painted ceiling in the presbytery and, in the Holy Trinity Chapel, the simple altar and altarpiece reconstructed from mediaeval fragments, particularly appealing.
Of St David’s Bishop’s Palace, nothing much needs to be said other than, in its day, it must truly have been a palace “fit for kings”. It is mostly in ruins and much more a museum piece than the cathedral, but the expanse of it is such that it has to be, as the guide book puts it, “a testament to the wealth, power and inspiration of Bishop Henry de Gower (1328-47)”. Significant conservation work is currently being undertaken, but I think it will take more than mere building work to help it tell its story well.
My route from St David’s took me along the attractive Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – helped not a little by the bluest of blue skies and bright sunlight – before I headed inland via Haverfordwest and then north to Wolfscastle where I’m “overnighting”. A nice room, again, with what for me is a real plus – a shower as well as a bath. Cleanliness, you know.
But there’s more – a really first class dinner: lobster bisque, followed by a fillet of locally smoked salmon on a bed of leeks in a buttery white sauce. The soup was good; the main was definitely into AA Rosette territory.
I’ll head north again tomorrow via Cardigan and Snowdonia National Park – and, if time permits, I may fit in a peek at Portmeirion.