by Marc d’Entremont
“The future of Irish tourism is promoting cultural tourism.” Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht (2011 – 2014)
With a vibrant history encompassing 6,000 years, the landscape of Ireland is peppered with romantic ruins, sacred Celtic and early Christian sites and thousand year-old cities founded by Vikings. A culture rich in music, the arts, literature and political drama is equaled only by awe inspiring geologic diversity and the smiles of the Irish people.
I have a long affinity to Ireland since my student days when I studied for a year at the National University’s University College, Dublin in the early 1970s. I had the great fortune of being immersed in the culture’s history and countryside before the Celtic Tiger thrust Ireland onto the world stage. Subsequent trips have given me the opportunity to gauge its tourism evolution over the past forty years.
Many people, especially in the United States, are aware of Ireland’s 19th and 20th century struggles against English domination and then reestablishing its nationhood. Yet exploring three of my favorite regions of the country – Westport, Kilkenny and Kinsale – illustrates how tourism helps enlighten, maintain and promote its rich cultural heritage.
Westport – Grace O’Malley’s legacy
The boy with the paint gun lurking among trees in the parklands of Westport House isn’t in training for a child army. He’s playing with family at Pirate Adventure Park learning such important pirate skills as archery, laser skeet shooting or zorbing down the estate’s hills in a giant water bubble. Ireland’s fearless 16th century pirate queen Grace O’Malley would approve of how her direct descendants, the Marquesses of Sligo, have transformed one of her Clew Bay castles over the past 300 years.
The legend of Irish ‘pirate queen’ Grace O’Malley – Ó Máille Clan chieftain – is history including successfully negotiating with Queen Elizabeth I to secure Ó Máille Clan ancestral rights to County Mayo’s strategic Clew Bay. As important as that was it would be passing down her entrepreneurial pluck and the aristocratic titles and privileges conferred on succeeding generations that would perpetuate Grace O’Malley’s family into the 21st century. Adding to this allure is the photogenic village of Westport and elegant Westport House creations of enlightened 18th century concepts in estate planning. So morphing Westport House estate during the 1960s into a family-oriented tourist attraction made perfect entrepreneurial sense.
Famed 18th century celebrity architects Richard Cassels and James Wyatt designed a Georgian masterpiece in Westport House, the village and its port facilities. Rather than a medieval estate of tenant farmer settlements, Westport became a pre-industrial model of a company town. Neat rows of stone houses and commercial spaces twisted up hills and along the river all built to house the workers that generated wealth for the aristocratic owners of a great landed estate.
Westport and the fortunes of the Marquesses of Sligo fluctuated during 300 years of history. With the traditional economy based on agriculture, trade and local manufacturing suffering after World War II, the 11th Marquess of Sligo opened Westport House in the 1960s to public tours marking the next evolution of the estate. In the past 50 years, the 480-acre estate, today ably managed and owned by the late Marquess’ daughters, encompasses public access to the impressive parklands, Pirate Adventure Park, a restaurant, historic estate structures and, of course, the mansion.
Westport village has enjoyed the estate’s success attracting affluent summer cottage owners to beautiful Clew Bay since the 1960s. Today flower bedecked houses, the Carrowbeg River mall, cafes, shops and boutique hotels have garnered quality of life awards for Westport. The compact village is easily walkable.
Not only is the village walkable, but the 25 mile Great Western Greenway, Ireland’s longest off-road walking and cycling trail, is an accessible rails-to-trail that will take hikers and cyclists through idyllic countryside to Westport House, the harbor on Clew Bay and past sacred Croagh Patrick. As sacred in Ireland as St. Peter’s in Rome, the top of this 2,500-foot mountain was the 5th century site of St. Patrick’s 40-day fast prior to converting Ireland to Christianity. The treeless mountain has been the object of pilgrimage for centuries and is crowned by a simple wind-swept white chapel. Recent indications that Croagh Patrick contains billions of dollars worth of gold has been met by the Irish government’s affirmation that the mountain is not for sale.
Travelers do come to Westport, and the Irish west coast, for music. The west is the repository of Celtic musical traditions from singing pubs to A-list venues. Matt Molloy’s Pub – Matt was a member of the renowned Chieftains – is one such sought after spot. I was fortunate to experience the great Scots Gallic singer Kathleen MacInnes and renowned Westport Celtic harpist Laoise Kelley in a concert in Matt Molloy’s intimate pub theater. Knowledge of the Gallic language was unnecessary given the expressive musicality of this superb duo.
Before leaving Westport pay homage to the town’s bronze statue of Grace O’Malley whose rugged tenacity preserved this land for both her family and Irish patrimony.
Kilkenny Castle and the Anglo-Irish paradox
Knowing something of Kilkenny Castle’s importance in Irish history still did not prepare me on my first visit decades ago for the sudden vision of a massive, hulking medieval fortification. Kilkenny Castle, just from its exterior, defines the fantasy of a vast medieval fortress towering over the city and fiercely securing both river and land access. For 700 years that wasn’t fantasy; securing Kilkenny was the daily job of the Butler family – the lords of Ormonde.
On my first visit it was only possible to explore the castle’s exterior from its parklands. Kilkenny Castle had been shuttered in the 1930s when the 5th Marquess of Ormonde relocated to his English estates after the Irish revolution. Tracing their family history to the Viking elite that founded Normandy, conquered England in 1066 and invaded Ireland in the 13th century, the Butler’s were founding members of an Anglo-Irish aristocracy that were often at conflict with both the English crown and Celtic Ireland. For many in their class, it was ultimately a no-win paradox.
As abandoned as Kilkenny Castle appeared, across the street in the 18th century Castle Yard life was creatively humming. Castle Yard was once a large complex of buildings including a dairy, stables, coach houses and accommodations for grooms. Architect Niall Montgomery restored it in the 1960s as the home to the Kilkenny Design Centre and the Irish Crafts Council.
The Kilkenny Design Centre was energizing traditional Irish crafts by encouraging artists to express their own interpretations and providing working studio spaces. In a cooperative movement among artists, patrons and government incentives, the Kilkenny Design Centre was making an artistic statement.
Some 40 years later, the view of Kilkenny Castle from the cobblestone streets of High Town still thrills. Except now it’s possible to enter the interior and marvel at artistic exuberance that is both inspiring and over-the-top. The Butlers were a family of extraordinary wealth with a considerable income for centuries from Ireland’s lucrative wine import/export trade.
During the 18th and 19th centuries the lords of Ormonde had the means to transform their vast medieval fortress into a palace. For 200 years a covey of elite European architects, artists and craftsmen expanded and transformed the castle to reflect the ultimate in current interior fashion.
In 1967 Arthur Butler, the 6th Marquess of Ormonde, transferred the castle to the city of Kilkenny for less than $100. Yet neglect since the 1930s had led to serious interior deterioration. Defying conventional wisdom that government gets nothing accomplished, Kilkenny’s Office of Public Works coordinated over 30 years of painstaking research, craftsmanship and artistry to restore the palace, gardens and ancillary castle buildings.
Kilkenny Castle gleams today in all the opulence of artistic expression and interior design popular over the past few centuries and sections built in medieval times are restored to historic accuracy. Photos of the interior are not permitted but the Castle’s web site offers a detailed tour showcasing the A-list of artists and architects involved over the centuries. The vast basement kitchen (photos allowed) all gleaming white tile and brass, is now an attractive café with fine teas, coffees and, naturally, cakes.
Across the street, Castle Yard still hums with life. The Killkenny Design Centre thrives. Behind Castle Yard is Butler House, the castle’s 18th century Dower House – a guesthouse residence for related family members. Today it’s open for tours and hosts overnight guests. It has a particularly peaceful butterfly garden. It was a perfect location to reflect on both permanence and change. Kilkenny Castle has evolved yet continues to be intimately involved with its city.
Kinsale – drama beyond its size
I was enamored with Kinsale on first sight when I was a student backpacking around Ireland. Then the Irish Youth Hostel was a short walk both to town and the romantically decaying national treasure Charles Fort. The fortress and grounds were wide open to anyone and on that particular March day I wandered sacred ground in silence.
Returning decades later Kinsale is still sacred ground. Ireland is studded with beautiful towns, but history and location endowed the port of Kinsale with a stellar provenance. Strategic as a trade link with the Mediterranean since the Bronze Age, Kinsale’s harbor built fortunes and sealed the fate of Celtic Ireland.
Ever since the 13th century England attempted to bring Celtic Ireland under its control with mixed results. Key to the final subjugation of Ireland was control of the narrow passage separating Kinsale harbor from the Atlantic Ocean. In 1601 Ringcurran Castle, which guarded the harbor entrance, fell to English forces in the pivotal Battle of Kinsale.
By 1670, Ringcurran Castle was transformed into the massive Charles Fort commanding the mainland’s highland opposite James Fort (c. 1607) on Castlepark Peninsula. Their combined firepower protected English interest through World War I.
It’s hard to find a place that screams “romantic” – as in Gothic novels – more than the ruins of James Fort. Whereas the restored Charles Fort now charges a modest admission and provides guided tours, a visitor can simply wander free on the lush green hills of Castlepark Peninsula surrounding decaying James Fort and revel in panoramic vistas of Kinsale’s multi-colored waterfront and its forest of ships’ masts.
Yet control of Kinsale involved more than politics; it was all about wine. Ireland does not have a climate to produce wine. What Ireland had since pre-Celtic days was an enviable geographic location on shipping routes between the Mediterranean and northern Europe.
Desmond Castle (c.1500) is a fine example of a fortified urban tower house. The three-story castle served the powerful Earls of Desmond whose fortune was based on taxing Kinsale’s lucrative wine trade. Although the Earls lost control after 1601, the wine trade continued to prosper. Today Desmond Castle hosts the International Museum of Wine.
Among Kinsale’s wine and sprits luminaries represented in the museum are Irish merchants who fled after the 1690s failure to restore the Catholic monarch, James II, to the English throne. Again the pivotal battle took place at Kinsale. From California to South Africa they settled, among them Thomas Barton (Barton & Guestier – Bordeaux’s oldest wine merchant company), Richard Hennessy (fine brandy) and the O’Neales (Spanish sherry).
The 12th century St. Multose Church bespeaks of Kinsale’s tumultuous history. The narrow vertical slits on the ancient bell tower served bowmen when the church had to become a defensive fortress. The burial ground holds some of the victims of the infamous Lusitania sinking. The great passenger liner was torpedoed in 1915 off Kinsale. Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy St. Multose’s layers of design from early medieval through high Gothic.
Kinsale is ideal to explore on foot although being built on hillsides it can be a workout. The scenic 2.5-mile Sli Route runs along the harbor to charming Summercove and just a short distance further is Charles Fort. Although walking is possible most tourists will prefer to take a taxi to Castlepark Village, only a short walk to the grounds of James Fort. A nice sand beach can be found in Castlepark.
For sure there are more tourists in Kinsale than in my student days, yet tranquility reigned on these soft days of late August when brief showers alternated with brilliant sunshine. Everyone on streets punctuated by bright red, deep blue or even burnt orange painted houses settled into the rhythms of the photo perfect port town with the distinct call of seagulls and a charming child-size waterfront amusement park.
When you go:
Both Westport and Kilkenny are easily reached from Dublin on Ireland’s comfortable Irish Rail system.
Kinsale is connected by frequent, comfortable coach buses from Cork and Killarney.
Accommodations & restaurant recommendations:
Kinsale: Actons Hotel has been a Kinsale harbor side luxury classic since the early 20th century. The Blue Haven Café delivers imaginative dishes from local Cork crab to tapas paired with an excellent wine cellar and craft beers. The Blue Haven is one of Kinsale’s best small music venues offering live jazz through modern Irish.
Kilkenny: Kilkenny Hibernian Hotel provides luxury at modest rates and is within a few blocks of the castle and historic Kilkenny’s downtown. Kyteler’s Inn dates from the 13th century and serves traditional Irish dishes as well as being a major music venue. In Castle Yard The Foodhall (breakfast & lunch) and Anocha Restaurant (Thursdays through Saturday evenings) serve imaginative farm-to-table cuisine.
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