Tuesday 20 March 2018

Wexford and Wicklow: Tasting Ancient Eastern promise

Short breaks in Ireland

The ruins of 11th Century Reefert Church in Glendalough. This church stands on the burial site of the local chieftan's clan, the O'Tooles.
The ruins of 11th Century Reefert Church in Glendalough. This church stands on the burial site of the local chieftan's clan, the O'Tooles.
Gemma in shackles in Wicklow Gaol.
The mysterious Sheela-na-gig on the bishop's tomb in Kildare.
Goats at Lullymore Heritage and Discover Park

Gemma Fullam

It's not often you find yourself standing at the Gates of Hell. Luckily for me, I wasn't at the entrance to Old Nick's pleasure palace, but in the oldest part of Wicklow Gaol, which has a proud reputation as the most haunted place in Ireland. I was exploring Ireland's Ancient East, and the jail was my starting point.

At capacity, the county's jail, which opened in 1702, held up to 800 people. You might find yourself incarcarated in this disease-ridden place of horror for stealing bread, murder or anything in between. Punishments within ranged from barbaric pitch-capping - boiling tar on the head - to the marginally more humane Everlasting Staircase, a treadwheel on which male prisoners walked to nowhere for hours, in an effort to reform their souls. Children, unable to keep up, were frequently trampled to death.

Wicklow Gaol has held many famous prisoners, among them United Irishman Napper Tandy and Erskine Childers, father of our fourth President. James, my erudite guide, brought the prison to life as we explored its historic cells - one of which I exited sharpish, finding it markedly chillier than the rest.

I left Wicklow Gaol with visions of Hempenstall, aka The Walking Gallows, a seven-foot-tall travelling hangman, in hot pursuit and headed for the Wicklow mountains and Glendalough, the 'valley of two lakes'. For a place that gets over a million visitors a year, it's a peaceful paradise that never seems crowded. St Kevin, a monk, ascetic and animal-lover, settled at the upper lake in the sixth century, drawn by the isolation and natural beauty. His cave, St Kevin's Bed, is still there. The buildings from that Golden Age were wooden and didn't survive; those that did are from the 9th and 10th Centuries, when the Vikings arrived, and settlements, including Dublin, began to form along the coast. Our excellent guide, Joan, debunked a childhood myth: when marauders came, the monks didn't grab their chalices and head for the round tower; they would have been sitting ducks. Instead, they headed for the safety of the forested hills. Round towers were, it's thought, belfries, watch towers, and possibly astronomical markers. The doors were high up to increase the stability of these ancient buildings, of which Glendalough is one of the best examples in the country.

It was one of those rare days - hot and sunny - so I bought a 99 from Kevin's Cones and ate it on the grass, amid the bucolic beauty.

My weekend base was the plush Powerscourt Hotel, and after a quick wash and brush up in my to-die-for room ('room' is a misnomer; it was larger than my house's ground floor), I headed back to Wicklow town for some grub. The Lighthouse is a fish restaurant situated on the South Quay; it's right next door to The Fishman fish shop, both of which are owned by the affable Alan Hegarty. The fare is an icthyophile's delight: Dublin Bay prawns; John Dory; ray wing; organic salmon, all of it spanking fresh off the trawlers. I relished pan-roasted haddock in a lemon butter sauce, which I mopped up with their oh-so moreish seaweed bread. Sammy the Seal is known to visit; a 150kg bull seal who has developed a penchant for easy 'fishing'. Fearful Sammy might inadvertantly bite a customer, owner Alan contacted the Irish Seal Sanctuary who advised using a large board to shoo the discerning seal into the river. Alan had the inspired idea of using a board emblazoned with Donald Trump's visage. When Sammy sees The Donald, he scarpers.

Gemma in shackles in Wicklow Gaol.
Gemma in shackles in Wicklow Gaol.

Next morning, I left the Garden of Ireland and headed for Celbridge and Castletown House. Castletown is an imposing Palladian country house, built for William Connolly, speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Harmonious Castletown has too many artistic and architectural delights to list here, but for me, the highlight was in The Long Gallery, home to a triptych of Murano glass chandeliers that are Willy Wonka-like in their quirkiness. Alas, when these fantastical 18th Century light-fittings arrrived from Venice, encased in butter and wax, they proved a mismatch for the blue on the walls. They comprise the finest collection of Murano outside of Italy and are all the more valuable because they remain in the room for which they were commissioned.

There's also a lovely cafe, but I had to press on, this time to Newbridge, to collect my mother from the train - and the rain - and pay a long overdue visit to the Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons, where we were given a guided tour by the infectiously enthusiastic Michael. A Marilyn Monroe exhibition runs until July 25, but the museum has an incredible permanent collection of clothes and costumes from stars ranging from Rita Hayworth to the Kardashians. My mother came over all nostalgic at the sight of Elvis's jacket, while I was captivated by the exquisite workmanship in Audrey Hepburn's Givenchy costumes.

The sun was back out and Kildare town was next. Kildare Cathedral also has a companion round tower, one of the few you can climb. Back on terra firma, it was with a chuckle that the genial Paddy Dowling, who oversees admissions, told me of the 1,000-year-old tower's absence of foundations. Eeek! The cathedral, St Brigid's, isn't without its secrets either. Inside is the 16th Century tomb of Bishop Walter Wellesley, and underneath one corner is a Sheela-na-gig. Why this erotic grotesque is on a bishop's tomb, nobody knows. We made our wishes at the wishing stone and headed back to Powerscourt, and a sumptuous dinner at its Sika restaurant, which overlooks the majestic Sugar Loaf.

Next morning we headed home to Kilkenny via the Bog of Allen and Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park. It's a little off the beaten track, but once we found it, we stayed much longer than we had intended, such was the extent of the offering. We were charmed by the goats, llama and Fallabellas, fascinated by the early Christian centre - Ireland's first bishop, St Erc, was ordained here by St Patrick; and captivated by the many rebel stories from 1798. Stephen, our guide, drew us in with his exhaustive knowledge of history, and enchanted us with Lullymore's newest attraction: The Peatlands Exhibition and Biodiversity Boardwalk, set in 60 acres of bog which, under Lullymore's caretakership, is being allowed return to nature. The wildlife and flora and fauna are returning, including red squirrels, rare Marsh Fritillary butterflies, and several carnivorous plants. There's also a train, a fairy village, crazy golf, a cafe . . . you can see why we stayed all day!

Last but not least was 300-year-old Russborough House in Blessington. The longest house in Ireland, the Palladian mansion is jam-packed with priceless antiques and artworks, some of which were stolen by The General, Martin Cahill, in 1986. (The IRA visited a decade earlier.) Here, we had another peerless guide, George, who outlined the history and priceless contents of the house in fascinating detail. My favourite item among the Picassos, Reubens and objets d'art was a nondescript blue china dog; the sort of thing Del Boy might have in his Peckham flat: it is, in fact, Sevres porcelain, and was owned by none other than Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. Then there's the Mitford connection. Lady Beit, formerly Clementine Mitford - and wife of diamond-mine heir Sir Alfred, who bought Russborough in the early 1950s - was a cousin of the famous, scandalous Mitford sisters. The Beits' life was an equally fabulous whirlwind of parties, travel and star-mingling; the evidence is everywhere at Russborough: Jackie Kennedy slept in this bedroom, Fred Astaire sat on this sofa; Sir Alfred's home movies of his intrepid journeys to far-flung places . . . the Beits had a blast. As had we. I turned the car for home and Nancy Mitford's words came to mind when I thought back over our adventures, "Life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake, and here is one of them".

Great stories stay with you forever. Gemma uncovered the story of Sacred Ireland on Ireland's Ancient East. To find your story and others, as well as inspiring itineraries and to plan your trip, visit irelandsancienteast.com and follow Ireland's Ancient East on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @AncientEastIRL #IrelandsAncientEast

Wicklow Gaol, see wicklowshistoricgaol.com Glendalough, see glendalough.ie Powerscourt Hotel,

see powerscourthotel.com The Lighthouse restaurant,

The mysterious Sheela-na-gig on the bishop's tomb in Kildare.
The mysterious Sheela-na-gig on the bishop's tomb in Kildare.

see thefishman.ie Castletown House, see castletown.ie Newbridge Silverware

Museum of Style Icons, see newbridgesilverware.com Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park, see lullymoreheritagepark.com Russbourough House, see russborough.ie

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