And the Winner Is…

We left the caravan and car park in Adare – as I have mentioned missing out on the pony – and drove to county Cork, and the city of Cork. The country is wet and boggy, there were more trees than anywhere else we’ve seen so far – probably because there was less wind, and they feel a little less persecuted – so much so that there are still fewer centimeters of verge on the road, and double lines along most of the distance. This was wonderful for the scenery…

(slight pause in the writing now, because the most laid back and oddest pub in Cork, run today by a tall, bald young Irish with a yellow puma tee shirt and a mouth on him like a feral cat as well, is playing the biggest classical hits of the last few centuries at high volume, and The Swan, one of my favourites, has come on. More about this later, I guess. It’s a short piece.)

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… but not so great for the long-haul driver (here, an hour and a half is a long haul, as I spoke with a girl from Athlone who said that she’d never been to Cork, because it was ‘three hours’ drive away’ and she’d never bothered with the overnight bag), because there will always be a small blue Volvo that is driving at 40. That’s 40 kilometers per hour, not miles. This one was a doozy – there were seven cars and a truck piled up behind her about half way through the double yellow line journey, and we had passed at least twenty places where she could pull over. Butters – Butters – actually gave her a toot as he went past, three days later. At least we got to see more of the countryside – mainly leaves, as they were about two centimeters from our car windows.

Blarney is a small village with a village green – I don’t think I’ve seen a village small enough to mainly consist of the shops and pubs around a village green, before. And yes, it is that Blarney – the one with the stone. The shops are brightly painted, and the caravan park has a pitch and putt – not that that makes it stand out from the crowd. In every town we’ve been to in Ireland there is a pitch and putt near the caravan park. Even in Doolin, where the sea winds shave the hair from your head if you’re unlucky enough to forget your hood as you walk out the door, there are actual people on the actual golf course, swinging a club. Sure, they don’t have any golf balls, because wherever you aim your shot it flies up, slows down, changes direction and swings toward the cliffs and into the surf, but I guess you can kind of pretend that’s how the game is played. It’s kind of like golf computer games before you get the hang of the mouse swing.

But the Blarney Camping & Caravan Park not only has a pitch and putt nearby – it’s part of the park. There are golf clubs lining the reception hall, and you need only pay the price of admission to partake. We didn’t partake – but there won’t be any paucity of chances at parks in the future.

There was another spaceship parked as we came in. I’ve said enough about that.

The toilets were wonderful. The tiles and décor originated in the seventies, and were as clean as could be. There is a separate TV room, laundry room and kitchen, with a kettle that didn’t have a spout, and wasn’t able to turn itself off, poor dear.

As there was an Arsenal game on that night, we decided to go out for a Soup of the Day. Potato and Leek this time, with a slice of thick brown bread with more fiber in it than a truck full of round bales. Was good. Butters splashed out, at my suggestion, and had the Roast of the Day. A pint (Guinness for me, Bulmers for Butters) and fifteen minutes to the game, and we were set. The game was a good one – half time and Wigan had drawn with Arsenal one-all. There were an even amount of Wigan and Arsenal fans at the bar, and one Arsenal fan in colours, tattoos down his arm and back. As the night progressed and we sat closer to him, he expressed the same naïve surprise as me when Wenger took Rosisky off before the end of the game. I told him I agreed, and he talked about things I didn’t understand with Butters for a while in the thickest, most dense, low pitched Irish accent I’ve heard here. The football was fixed when Arsenal scored their fourth to Wigan’s single, and we’d decided to go to what we could of the Dublin Writers’ Festival instead of the London Literary Festival, before the Women’s Champions’ League semi on the 23rd. We’ve been here a month, now, and it’s starting to feel like we are really here – I love having the chance to spend some time with normal people, in normal pubs and cafes and places in the street, instead of being a tourist at a castle. I listen to what people say, and how they talk, and I’m becoming more and more comfortable with being an observer. The barman here, at the Crown Hotel (different Castle hotel, same barman I was talking about before) in Cork City, is in total control of this space. He is aggressive, but in a way that doesn’t push people away but commands the attention of the room. Come to think of it, actually, he might push the women away, because I’m the only woman in here, now. When I came in, there were a few girls here, some that he knew, and he was talking at them blue something shocking. There’s a lot of swearing, and a lot of taunts, but after a while you can see that he’s testing the girls. Can you stand me? Can you stand this? Are you made of strong enough stuff to handle me? Most of them, it turns out, are not, and I don’t think I would be. He fixes you with his eyeballs, which stand out from his bald head like beacons from a tall, bare building, warning off planes. I have notices that he has changed in his expression to me from when I came in – he was just as direct, and as non-caring, to me as a customer when I walked in. I dropped my (brilliant, but completely touristy) hat on the floor and he said, ‘Is that your rabbit?’ Now that I’ve been here a couple of hours, he seems to accept me as part of the furniture. There are five young men at the bar, talking like men do about their holidays, their wives and their carryings on and goings about just like women would – but it’s okay, because their elbows are on a bar. The redhead football jacket with bright new trainers and bright red hair, shaved close to the head, who is from somewhere in England, is talking about how relaxing he thought his holiday to Spain would be (they are cheap and common around here, holidays to Spain), but how it was a little harder than he’d thought to manage the baby in the car seat. Another, whose stubble is more like a thick carpet cut into the shape of a beard, wearing a cool jacket and jeans, is talking about how hard it is to get good, strong female bar staff. Another is adding that they often have good christening in Spain. The redhead jacket christened their baby a bit later, as it’s hard to orgainse everything – you know family, and a new baby. ‘It’s all dif’rnt, innit?’

The main event, today – the race continues for the Best Castle in Ireland. Up next is Blarney Castle, which makes no claims at all about its brilliance, or being the best at anything, or the most at anything else. And, I think, the Castle’s silence speaks louder than words, in this case. It is much more picturesque than the most picturesque, much more well known than the others, and has probably the most significant piece of architecture than all of them combined – The Blarney Stone. On the wall before you enter, it also has the best castle sign in Ireland, which I’ve added a picture of below. The Castle would obviously had to have been restored in some way – but how is not immediately obvious. The insides, and the outsides, remain naked of human touch apart from the slight smoothing of rock from a million hands, and the rails that lead you up the stairs – the one concession they probably had to make to reduce the number of deaths from plummeting to the ground. Nothing is varnished, whitewashed or has anything nailed to it. Even some of the rails are pretty unobtrusive – rope, rather than iron.

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The gardens leading up to the Castle are extensive, and colourful in the broad sunlight that blared down to soften the air. Bluebells and snowdrops, tulips and azaleas were strewn and bedded throughout.

Today the tourists were American, and there were hoards of them. In Portobello, they were French, at Bunratty, German; I’m expecting we’ll run into a band of Scandinavians at Edinburgh Castle. At the dungeon toward the front of the castle, French teenagers tried to fish coins out of the stream that had been thrown there by well-wishers, one of the girls screaming bloody murder because she got water in her shoe. ‘Ahh! Oh, Matilde!’

The dungeons here were impressive. Near the watch house, which had a stone kennel, there was a kind of horizontal Oubliette into which I crawled, a narrow, roughly hewn passage with thick, jutting rocks that went on and on, whose base was covered with puddles of muddy water. I could imagine being pretty terrified in there.

The Americans asked Butters, ‘What’s down there? Is there anything down there?’ He told them it was much more of the same that they were seeing now. ‘Oh yeah? It’s very lovely (it’s not), thank you for telling me. I think I’ll pass.’ As I was making my way out, another American. ‘Is there anything back there?’ It’s more of the same, pretty much. ‘Oh, No. I’m over it.’

Climbing the Castle, it is so much more beautiful when remained untouched. None of the rooms are made up to be ‘as they would have lived,’ with modern ‘old’ looking wooden chairs, beds and baskets, and rusted pieces of armor and farm equipment that I can see out the back of my place where Dad and Granddad have dumped things for the last few decades. Blarney is natural, with only a few well worded plaques for explanation of some of the rooms – pointing out original pieces of plaster, and evidence of what the room may have been, or there are records of it being called.

And all the while, signs directing you ‘To the Blarney Stone.’ There’s a long way to go yet.

The stairway, five floors up, is vicious steep, the steps wide enough for half a foot, and sharply cut.

All the way you can hear one or two American tourists, panting. Always panting.

‘Are you alright, John?’ one of them will call. John is almost having an asthma attack on the third floor.

‘Yeah, just catchin’ my breath,’ he said, moving on. All of them, on reaching the battlements at the top, noticed there were more stairs. ‘Oh, there are more,’ at least eight of them, dejected.

The surface of the Blarney Stone itself is darkened from all the kissing. It is a part of the outer wall, and a third of a meter out over a hole in the wall and the floor, so that you have to lie down, grab two bars and lean out of the castle to kiss it. There is a staff member there to make sure you don’t fall off the five storey Castle. He’s a little surly for a guy who’s about to save you from death. ‘Move along,’ he grunts. ‘Who’s next?’ he doesn’t look you in the eyes as he holds your torso and leans you out, pulling you this way and that while you’re dangling. I think he’s tired of his job. I would be, handling middle-aged Americans out to kiss a stone all day.

We didn’t see the Poison Gardens, because I mistook the name for just the name of the gardens we’d seen. Maybe next time.

In the café at the end of the Castle tour, a girl who’d sold me a hat earlier on was behind the counter. Her hair was bright red – firebox red, and dyed that way. An American tourist came up with his camera.

‘Can I take a picture of your hair?’ he said. She raised her eyebrows, and said, haltingly, yes. The tourist walked off without even saying thanks.

He didn’t ask for the other café girl’s photo. Which was weird, because her skin was bright orange.

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PS – best graffiti I’ve seen so far to follow.

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