Journalist for Life

Month: December 2010

In Ireland, bringing the ancient to life

Long before it was separated into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, this island was occupied by dozens of contentious tribes. Jealous and aggressive, they were often embroiled in battles against one another, or a few of them might briefly join forces against another tribe. […]

Driving in Ireland: round and round

The lesson to know before hand: You CAN get there from here, but more slowly. Ireland has about 54,000 miles of paved road, but less than 100 are classified as highway. Most of the rest is two-lane, rural roads and on these you are bound […]

In western Ireland, hear the voices, hear the stones

DINGLE, Ireland — All five bar stools are occupied this spring afternoon in Dick Mack’s, a pub of some acclaim in this village at the western edge of Ireland. Yet untouched on the bar are pints of beer just served to new customers.

Two of them, women in their early 20s, ignore their beers and start to sing in fine voices Will You Go, Lassie, Go. The other three at the bar, all men, join in the song that mentions the heather that covers much ground with tiny purple blooms.

“Written by a Belfast man, that was,” one of the men informs me and the others when they finish singing.

Without any signal, the young women begin a sweet version of Down In The River to Pray, a gospel hymn heard in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The men quickly join this song, too.

After the gospel number, everyone finally reaches for a glass of beer. A couple more customers wander in, get their pints and go stand behind a low wooden counter that is parallel to the bar and a few feet away. Behind this counter are shelves and cubbyholes filled with cobbler’s gear, boots, metal taps for shoes and a pair of “Wellies,” the rubber boots every farmer owns.

The fields are a patchwork quilt, stitched together by walls of stones.
The fields are a patchwork quilt, stitched together by walls of stones.
Though Dick Mack’s has been a pub a long while, it was also a leather worker’s shop. “They stopped that more than 10 years ago,” a man at the bar tells me. “No one has leather soles on their shoes anymore.”

Just then, a man in his 20s pulls a black flute from his jacket and starts playing a traditional Irish tune. As soon as he finishes, another man takes the flute, and he begins to play.

The flute’s owner goes to the wall and takes down a bodhran, the hand-held drum that resembles a large tambourine. The man cannot find the traditional knobbed stick to thump the bodhran, so he expertly uses his thumbs.

It is not quite 4 in the afternoon. The pints of beer largely are being ignored in favor of upholding this pub’s tradition of impromptu music.

Outside on the sidewalk, dark gray stars have been painted, a la the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The stars bear the names of celebrities who have stopped in at Dick Mack’s: actors John Mills, Julia Roberts, Timothy Dalton, Robert Mitchum.

Also painted there are the names of some who might have led the singing: Dolly Parton and Paul Simon.

Movie scenery

Though the pub/cobbler shop dates to 1899, the earliest settlers on the Dingle Peninsula arrived about 6,000 years earlier.

They probably had been sailing along the western edge of the European continent when they came ashore, because this peninsula juts 40 miles into the Atlantic from the southwestern edge of Ireland, and it is the end of Europe.

“The next parish is Boston,” says Timothy Collins, repeating a common joke based in fact.

Collins was a policeman on the 8-mile-wide peninsula for 35 years, and he now leads archaeological tours. There were few tourists to guide until the last quarter of the 20th century.

It was in 1970 that master director David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was released. It is about a romantic triangle complicated by World War I animosities, and it takes place on the peninsula.

Lean’s film crew spent a year on the Dingle, constructing an authentic village from tons of newly quarried granite. Cinematography filled with spectacular landscapes began to draw tourists way out to the Dingle. Even now, many can recall the overhead shot of Sarah Miles on a stretch of vacant beach, a beach that Collins points out to the tourists piled into his minivan.

Though Dingle Harbor still receives ships returning with catches of herring, sole, cod, lobster and salmon, tourism has become more important to the economy. The town’s year-round population of about 1,400 at least doubles during the summer.

“In 1970, we only had one hotel, no B&Bs, and the only visitors here were archaeologists,” Collins recalls.

“Now we can only hope that Ryan doesn’t have a granddaughter!”

What the stones have to say

Visitors don’t need a guide to take the breathtaking coastal road, often high above the Atlantic, to view the settings of Ryan’s Daughter and the 1992 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film Far and Away. But travelers probably will want someone like Collins to explain some of the estimated 2,000 ancient stones and structures left by the earliest settlers.

Pieces of granite are everywhere.

In the towns and villages of west Ireland, they often were used to make walls that have since been covered with stucco and painted in a rainbow of rich colors.

Outside the villages, the stones are stacked in countless miles of knee-high fences that divide farmers’ fields. Circles of granite remain as Bronze Age stone forts, dating 3,700 years.

The ruins of an ancient stone ring fort partially date to the Bronze Age.

Standing stones — upright pillars — were inscribed as far back as the fourth century A.D. with Ogham, a series of straight lines forming the letters of an alphabet now long-dead. In many places, huge slabs of stone were positioned upright to support a capstone, creating rudimentary tombs 5,000 years ago.

And just a few centuries ago, more pieces of granite were stacked to become farmhouses and barns, workers’ humbles cottages and nobles’ castles.

All the stones have stories to tell.

Guides and researchers such as Collins discuss the rise and fall of ancient peoples, their religions and writing forms. The narrative often winds to modern day.

Halting the minivan, Collins gathers his passengers by two upright stalks of reddish sandstone to discuss their Ogham carvings.

Various standing stones might have told stories of a chieftain or served as directional posts. Now, however, he wryly observes, “they are mainly cow-scratchers,” against which wandering cattle rub themselves.

A road past history

The coastal road, designated R559, is a scenic drive even without the stone artifacts. It winds through crossroad villages, past a few two-room schoolhouses built in the early 1900s. These schools usually have “20 or 25 children and two teachers,” Collins says.

The minivan passes familiar-looking highway signs, except that the wording is in Gaelic. Tag Bog E, which is pronounced “toe-g boe-g eh,” literally means “Take it easy,” Irish for “Please slow down.”

Western Ireland is the stronghold for Gaeltacht, pronounced “gwail tawkt,” which is spoken and written Irish. Some schools here are conducted entirely in Gaelic.

On the inland side of the road are the gentle slopes of 1,600-foot Mount Eagle, dotted with beehive huts –dome-shaped, stone, one-room places. There is also the occasional graveyard and, everywhere, grazing sheep.

There are 23 monastic settlements on the peninsula, but perhaps the prime attraction from the early Christian era is the Gallarus Oratory.

Dating between the seventh and ninth centuries, this is a perfect example of the corbel, or dry-stone, construction: Relatively flat rocks were placed atop each other in the shape of an inverted boat, so rainfall followed the slanted rocks down and away from the building. The interior of the tiny church is dry, despite an average rainfall on the Dingle of 80 inches.

The Oratory is usually the last stop on Collins’ tour. But the peninsula offers dozens of other sites easily located with a good map.

And so my trip to Ireland had begun with song, but at other times, I heard the stones talking.

If you go

PLANNING YOUR TRIP: If you prefer to drive yourself, check car-rentals before leaving the U.S. – this is usually cheaper than hiring at the airport.

But plenty of tour operators will be glad to coddle you as they move you about. These companies can group folks who share interests in walking tours, horseback riding, seeing pubs, visiting gardens, viewing castles, staying in cottages, playing golf or just eyeing the well-publicized sights.

For all sorts of information – tour operators, lodgings, attractions – go to the government’s fine web site, www.discoverireland.com/us.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on Amazon.com. View a sample at Smashwords.com. Read more about End Bag here.

We know Hawaii — but then, we really don’t

HONOLULU — It is one of the most famous vacation destinations in the world. Conventioneers wearing name badges gulp down mai tais at the nightly luaus. Tourists with colored tour-company stickers on their shirts giggle as they try the hula. Pro and amateur surfers paddle […]

In Ireland, the old stories are everywhere

KELLS, Ireland — Ireland’s ancient past whispers from its ruins, fallen remnants of war and religion, fragments of communities that flourished centuries ago. Quiet here, at Kells Priory. So quiet you can hear the sheep tear the grass as they graze. Birds flit about the […]

Imagine a Ferris wheel, filled with water and boats

FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals.

Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country canals. They connected the North Sea, near Edinburgh on the east, with the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles to the west of Glasgow.

That was in 1790, and the trip took most of a day, including the 6-10 hours to move through 11 locks needed to raise or lower the boats 115 feet.

But in the next century, an enhanced steam engine greatly cut the transit time — and also opened other routes, on land and sea. The railroad further reduced the need for canals.

Finally, widespread use of the internal combustion engine meant trucks and cars could take people and cargo much faster than could boats.

What had been a busy canal system was largely abandoned in 1933. In the 1960s, it was closed when two major highways were constructed through the canals.

But everything old is new again, and then some.

The national government spent the equivalent of $124-million to eliminate the need for the original 11 locks by creating the world’s first “rotating boat lift.” Opened in May 2002, it is named the Falkirk Wheel, after the middle-of-the-nation town where it was constructed.

The structure is futuristic in appearance, yet it uses an ancient law of physics to operate. Basically, a huge wheel is fixed to an axis, and on either side of the wheel are two boxes that hold water. Each box, called a gondola, is 70 feet long by 21 feet wide.

This is when Archimedes’ Principle comes into use. This states that an item placed in water displaces its own weight; thus one or more boats push out of the gondola an amount of water equivalent in weight to the boat’s weight.

The opposing gondola has the same weight, whether it is water only or also boats. A number of electric motors turn a cleverly designed series of gears that rotate both the large wheel and lesser gears that keep the gondolas level while the big wheel turns.

The gondola on the bottom is filled with water from a basin, and boats glide in before a water-tight door is closed behind them. The gondola at top opens onto an aqueduct that connects through a tunnel to the original, higher canal.

When both gondolas are closed, the wheel rotates — eerily quiet, considering the size of the structure. What was below goes up and what was up comes down.

When the big wheel’s half-rotation is complete, the water doors are opened and the boats glide out, to continue their canal journey in either direction. The cross country canal is about 68 miles long.

Since it opened, thousands of pleasure craft and more than 1-million visitors have come through the gates to watch it happen, with many of them booking rides on the 40-passenger tour boats kept in the basin.

The half-rotation takes about 15 minutes; the tour boats going up send their boats into the 330-foot-long aqueduct, which leads to a 475-foot-long tunnel beneath an ancient Roman wall. From there the tour boats enter a small lake, turn around and come back.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Several trains a day from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop in Falkirk; the ride takes little more than a half-hour. Phone your departure train station for the schedule.

The Falkirk Wheel is on a bus route from Falkirk’s Grahamston and High train stations. The No. 3 Red Line Bus, operated by First Bus, runs about every 15 minutes from stops near both stations to the Wheel site. Or, cabs can be hired at the stations.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to


The Lake District: meadows, mist — and a mishap

Even from the back seat of a tow truck, England’s Lake District is lovely. Gentle slopes give way to steep hills, often faced with granite. Lush green meadows are stitched by stone walls, to corral the livestock. On a chill fall morning, horses wear blankets, […]

A once-vibrant city is revived and bustling

MANCHESTER, England — Situated among gently rolling hills about 185 miles northwest of London, Manchester was one of the outposts for Rome’s legions in the late First Century A.D. They stayed about three centuries, to be followed by Vikings, Scots and other Europeans. It’s fair […]

A river cruise to history

GREENWICH, England — Kings and queens vacationed here for nearly five centuries. The world sets its watches from here. Sailors successfully navigate using a device on display in this town. All of it is a half-hour’s narrated boat ride down the Thames from the Tower of London.

And vivid history lessons about science and exploration await visitors who walk a few blocks up from the river.

One of the first buildings is the handsome Royal Naval College, originally designed by famed architect Christopher Wren to be a hospital and retirement home for sailors. The building known as the Painted Hall has a ceiling mural so vast that carts with mirrored surfaces are placed in the room so visitors can look down to view the paintings, rather than crane their necks and arch their backs.

Beyond the college and the twin wings of the Queen’s House, originally built in 1638, later enlarged and now an art gallery, is a statue of William IV, at the edge of the vast lawn that is Greenwich Park.

King, yes, but none then to the irreverent as Silly Billy or Sailor Bill. Those nicknames referred to his legendary drinking and womanizing — his mistress bore him 10 children, his wife bore none who lived — and his obvious lack of maritime skills.

Visitors who climb the hill through the lovely green park past the picnickers and scampering children reach the Royal Observatory. From the hilltop, you can look back to London and see the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, six miles upstream.

In the late 1600s, Greenwich was already a desirable location for London’s well-to-do, easily reachable via the Thames yet clear of the smoke and crowds of the working class.

It was King Charles II who decreed that his Royal Observatory be situated on the hilltop. Who else but Wren, himself an astronomer, would be chosen to design a home and work space for the royal astronomer, John Flamsteed?

More than 325 years later, Flamsteed House is still lovely to look at and intriguing to tour, because it is a museum that chronicles mankind’s effort to chart time, the heavens and our place anywhere on this globe.

This last chore was largely accomplished over 40 years by a nonscientist, the clockmaker John Harrison.

On display are the “sea clocks” Harrison fashioned. He wanted moving parts that would neither freeze nor shrink in the extreme conditions through which Britain’s military and merchant ships sailed.

The clocks finally allowed navigators to determine their position east and west. The clocks’ accuracy led to drawing the lines of longitude and, in the 1770s, won Harrison a prize of 20,000 pounds, a fortune then.

The continued study of measuring time is told in other exhibits, including a version of an atomic clock judged to be accurate within 1 second over the passage of 15-million years.

Outside the observatory, many visitors pose for a gag photo, with one foot in the western hemisphere and one in the eastern. They can do this because first British and then international authorities decreed that the prime meridian, the line of zero degrees longitude, would pass through the observatory grounds.

The nearby National Maritime Museum, which chronicles the history of the greatest seafaring nation ever, is not only imaginative but fascinating. You can easily spend an afternoon learning not only why Great Britain established the empire “upon which the sun never set” but also how it was created — often through invasion and slavery.

From the 2-million-plus items in its collection, the museum displays ship’s models, figureheads, ancient navigational aids and maps.

One gallery displays maritime paintings and even clips from a color documentary on vacation cruising from a half-century ago.

Another gallery is a fascinating discussion of exploration. This is highlighted by remarkable film of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914-16 voyage to the Antarctic. His ship Endurance was locked in the ice for about nine months in 1915. Viewers watch its demise: as ice floes come together, the vessel is crushed and sinks.

Shackleton and the 27-member crew made it to an uninhabited island. He and five others then went for help. Not until August of the next year were all of them rescued.

Yet another gallery is devoted to the empire’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Surely millions of tourists to London have passed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square without understanding why it was erected. The answers are in this gallery.

In October 1805, off the coast of Cadiz, Spain, the 47-year-old Nelson led an armada of 33 ships against a force of equal size from the Spanish and French navies. In about two hours, the British sank or disabled 18 enemy vessels, killing or wounding 6,000 of the enemy.

The British lost no ships, though some were no longer worthy as fighting ships, and suffered casualties of 1,700.

Among those killed was Nelson, shot through the shoulder and spine by a sniper perched in the mast of the French ship that Nelson’s Victory was battling.
On display is his uniform; you can see the bullet hole below his left shoulder.

Consider the following qualities attributed to Nelson: decisive, courageous, a leader from the front, unconventional in his attack plans, adaptable.

The admiral, who had previously lost his right arm and the sight in one eye during various battles in which he captured at least 26 vessels, once wrote:

“Difficulties and dangers do but increase my desire of attempting them.”

If you go
GETTING THERE: From London, you can reach Greenwich the slow, picturesque way, by a narrated cruise down the Thames, or the fast and impersonal way, connecting with the Docklands Light Railway, an elevated commuter train, from the Bank Tube stop near the Tower of London.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go the Web site, ; each of the museums has a link from this page.


A dozen of London’s must-sees

LONDON — Career paths, marriage or divorce choices, perhaps even whether to continue with life itself … surely all of these issues are contemplated time and again in the spring sunshine that caresses London’s glorious St. James’s Park. One end of the park’s 93 acres […]