The County of Unpronounceable Names

Trip Start Apr 20, 1998
Trip End Nov 22, 2000

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Flag of Ireland  , County Tipperary,
Saturday, April 17, 1999

I wrote this for my friends with an idea of shaping into a travel article, but it didn't happen. The memory I have of this was a huge fight Jo and I had. I can't remember what it was about, but I remember I went off cycling by myself for the day and ended up with the derailer wrapped around the bike wheel. It then started pouring and I had to take a taxi back to the hostel with the bike in the boot. Jo and I didn't speak much that night and we were both glad to get the bus back to Dublin the next morning. I have happier memories returning in 2007 with Jo and my daughter to visit my flatmate Louis and his family.

The County of Unpronounceable Names

            These are some the names of major towns in Tipperary: Cahir, Fethard, Carrick-on-Suir, Thurles. Or how about landmarks such as Athassel Priory or the River Suir. Can you pronounce any of them? Probably not unless you have a distinct Tipperary accent.
            If you're after the stereotypical "Oirish" accent to go along with an Irish joke use the Tipp (as the county is lovingly referred to) accent. It's to the Irish what the Alabama hillbilly-yokel is to the Americans. The most popular comedy team in Ireland, D'Unbelievables, have the Tipp accent to thank for the success of most of their characters. On the way home from Tipp I spent most of the time listening to a group of rowdy kids at the back of the bus tell jokes. You'd laugh more at the accent than the punchline.
            Jo and I stayed in Cashel, an easy to pronounce town with one of the most popular tourist sites in the country - the Rock of Cashel. Our hostel was in the shadow of it and I found it truly inspiring to wake up, look out the window and have a fortified abbey on a giant limestone rock looming above you.
            The giant stone walls protect a round tower, a 12th-century Romanesque chapel and a 13th century gothic cathedral. The Rock was the symbol of power for kings and churchmen for over a thousand years and rivalled Tara as a centre of power in Ireland. St Patrick visited here and accidentally stabbed the leader of the Eoghanachta Clan in the foot with his crozier when converting him to Christianity. The king thought it was part of the ritual and didn't react. I'm surprised he didn't give St. Patrick a good knock on the head. That could have spelt the end of Christianity in Ireland for a good few years.
            The Rock is the perfect fortification. The sort of fortification you'd expect to see on a dark night on some Eastern European hill with wisps of cloud floating across a bloated moon behind the solitary round tower. Having said that, I didn't even visit it. I'd been there with Chris and Michelle Jensen the year before. We joined in a tour with a group of elderly Americans, all who seemed to have ancestors in the town. I hugged the giant celtic cross where a legend promises an end to troubles with your teeth if you can touch your fingers while hugging the base. I could. "That's then end of my wisdom teeth problems," I told Michelle.
            "Yeah, you'll have no trouble with your teeth 'cause they'll all fall out!" said an elderly tourist to me.
            I felt like telling him, "At least I have teeth!" but I didn't because he was wearing a "MSS Missouri" cap and he'd probably karate kick me in the back. Elderly Americans visiting Ireland also tend to be ex-WWII Marines expert in hand-to-hand combat.
            So I left the Rock to Jo to explore as I set out on my temperamental Raleigh slimline racer for a quick 30 km cycle around the county. It was 10.30am and I said I'd be back by 4pm. Instead I made it back a 7pm - in a taxi.
            I stopped in at the Cashel tourist office for a map of the county. My Lonely Planet only had main roads and I wanted back roads. I was also after a social history of the area which always makes non-descript villages and crumbling ruins more interesting. The tourist office had neither. When I enquired where I could obtain them the assistant said to try Dublin or Cork!
            So it was down to vague guess work again. I had decided to cycle to Cahir down the backroads (boreens) and took off for the village of Golden. It was a great day for late April and I wished I hadn't left my shorts at the hostel. That's the trouble with Ireland in spring. My pack consisted of shorts and t-shirt (sun); light raincoat and waterproof pants (rain) and thermal underwear and windproof jacket (hail and snow). You can't take it all with you cycling so I decided on a optimistically pessimistic stance - t-shirt, sunblock and rain gear. 
            I made it to the village of Golden - named after the famed Golden Valley of Tipperary with it's glorious, rich farmland - with my cycle chain slipping and unable to stay in high gear. Being as practically minded as Liberaces's stage clothes I decided to try and adjust my gears. Big mistake. I shouldn't be allowed near anything remotely mechanical as bikes. I stopped in a park at Golden to adjust the gears in a manner that could only be described as random. There was a memorial in the park dedicated to "the memory of volunteer Patrick Lynch, killed by crown forces 20th November 1920. Also his commander, Patrick O'Keefe who was brutally beaten by black and tans and subsequently died of injuries. From his comrades of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade."
            The only way to find your way around rural Ireland if you don't have a good map is to ask directions every few miles. From Golden until I reached Cahir I asked my way from a shop assistant, a traveller, a man mowing his lawn and a group of girls on their way to play tennis. The traveller (Ireland's version of the caravan-dwelling gypsy) was a tough woman smoking Silk Cuts and dressed in a masculine brown coat and gumboots. Her accent was strange. In a country full of distinct accents I couldn't pick it at all. I could understand her easily enough though and she gave me the best directions of all. "Over t'shop and left at t'crossroads" she repeated several times.
            With my chain now making ominous grating noises I sped along to Cahir. There was little traffic apart from the odd tractor as I passed a deserted railway station, a GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) ground where some young boys were practising hurling and some nice farming houses with Peugeots outside in the spacious driveway.
Cahir is an unremarkable Irish town except for the fact it has a 15th century castle plonked right in the middle of it. Cahir Castle is one of the best preserved castles I've seen in Ireland. This could be because, unlike the decaying rubble of most other castles, the inhabitants surrendered to British Cromwellian forces in 1650. Cromwell always offered a chance of surrender on favourable terms. The Irish garrison took a quick look at Cromwell's artillery, grabbed their bags and left.
            From medieval times to the nineteenth century Cahir was dominated by the Butlers of Cahir. Their family history is rich, especially that of Richard, 12th Baron Caher. His story, similar to that of a hundred Hollywood movies, is worth re-telling:
            Piers Butler only had the title of Baron Caher for two years after the death of his brother, James Butler, in 1786. He too died, as did his nearest relative only weeks after, an impoverished nephew also named James who was living in the East Indies. Poor James, it's like losing a winning lotto ticket. After James's deaths the title and estate passed automatically to his son Richard. Twelve year old Richard was living with his mother in Cahir in abject poverty. Relatives, hoping to gain a majority share in the young boy's fortune, quickly took Richard on a "holiday" to France. He was rescued by Mrs Jeffereys of Blarney Castle in Cork, who returned him to his mother. I'm not sure what her motivation was but her youngest daughter, Emily, married Richard five years later.
            Great story, it could only have been improved if Richard had been discovered after the castle had been taken by a wicked uncle with a devilish goatee beard. The uncle (elderly) would have eyes for Emily (aged 16) and would be on the verge of marrying her (against her will) when Richard, the stinky farm boy who mucked out the castle's stables, is seen by an old guard who recognises the distinct Butler "birthmark" on Robert's neck (the shape of a clover). The uncle is sent to a Kildare monastery to repent of his vile disposition while Emily falls for Robert (she always did fancy him, as he was gentle with the horses and could play the whistle like Pan).
            They were popular, their parties went all night and they treated the peasants better than most of the aristocracy. This was lucky, as in 1798 the Irish rebellion saw quite a few landowners and aristocracy burned out of their respective homes. The Butler's castle and their magnificent Swiss Cottage escaped unharmed. Unlike myself, who, cycling to the Swiss Cottage, saw my derailer bend into the spokes of my bicycle. The chain then snapped like a pair of Dunnes Stores underpants.
            I was calm about it. No swearing, no throwing the bike into the nearest ditch, no collapsing onto the road in a fit of tears or shaking my bike gloves at the sky. I saw that the bike was knackered, turned around and walked with it back to Cahir. Even the guy at the only bike repair shop (it was really a garden equipment store) who told me, "No chance of repairing that today" refused to discourage me. I was stuck 15 kms away from Cashel but there was still the Swiss cottage to see and I'd think of something later.
            The Swiss cottage is one of the most unusual structures in Ireland. Its basic design is a German cottage with a thatched roof and white walls criss-crossed with black awnings. However the Swiss Cottage seems, as the guide book says, "wilfully irregular and randomly arranged." It's as if the cottage was put beneath the waters of a shimmering pond and you're standing above, looking down. The roof is misshapen, the veranda is a mess of finely placed branches and the windows don't match.
            The thatched roof was being re-thatched. I got speaking to the thatcher, who was wearing knee pads and a contented expression. "I re-thatch this every 15 years," he told me. "A good roof could last 50 years - but this place was vandalised in the 1980's so it needs to be redone. I've been at it a few days, I'll probably be at it another two weeks." It seemed painstaking work, laying the thatch evening and tightly over such an uneven, sloping roof.
            I got the guide to myself on the final tour of the cottage. The cottage was the summer residence of Robert and Emily Butler. You could see Cahir Castle only a few miles away. It seemed strange to have a summer retreat just down the road.
            "The aristocracy rarely left their estate," explained Mark, the guide. "They were scared of rain, of the damp...once you caught a serious cold that could be the end of you. The cottage was to encourage the nobility to experience some country air."
            It's a nice bit of country air. Robert's requirements for his cottage was it had to be on a hill, by a river and surrounded by forest, with an uninterrupted view of the valley below. It was built on a hill, next to the river Suir. There was no forest nearby so 8 kms of landscaped woodland including imported trees was built around the cottage. Peasant's cottages were destroyed at the base of the hill so the illusion of solitary wilderness was kept. The surroundings and the thatched roof, open veranda and irregular plan were all to demonstrate the care-free lifestyle of a humble, unpretentious but very happy resident.
            With hand painted wallpaper of British India it was hardly unpretentious. It would make you happy though, surrounded by a cultivated landscape and completely alone just a mile out of town.
            It was a very popular destination for entertainment and picnics in the 1800's and early 1900's but the split level cottage was expensive to maintain and, after the last of the Butler's sold it the Government in 1961, fell into complete disrepair when the long serving caretaker died in 1980. Vandals smashed all the windows, the dampness ruined the wallpaper and the thatched roof was a mess of birds nests and moss. A Canadian bought it for $60,000 on two acres of land but couldn't afford to restore it. Five years later restoration began, and when it finished the bill was $1 million. That's a lot of money for a six room cottage, although house prices in Dublin make it look more respectable.
            I love the Swiss Cottage. It looks like the work of a lunatic lord who was inspired by some sort of hallucinogenic dream involving the Seven Dwarves. In a land of quite rigid conformity this cottage orné was a little bit of welcomed extravagance. 
            The $20 taxi ride back to Cashel was also a bit extravagant. But it was 6pm and it was pouring rain. The sun had hastily departed on my walk back to town and the rain fairly pelted down as I stood outside the tourist office waiting for my ride. I was joined by two drunks, one who pestered me for cigarettes and a pound, the other who made snide remarks about Australia. They drank cider from a two litre plastic container and they stank of the pub and week old sweat.
            I was glad to be back at the hostel, sharing dinner with a couple from the Texas/Louisiana border. Hank seemed a bit vague and his wife looked like she kept a close eye on him. Everything was "great". His wife only relaxed when he left to go get some fruit.
            The next day was the sunniest of the year so far. We spent it at my flatmate Louie's farm outside Cashel. It's a great, rambling manor house filled with old books and old games collected over the years from dead relatives. I spent the day sitting in the backyard under the first warm sun of the year, reading a dusty "Magic Pudding" novel and cuddling the sheep dogs. Later we had rhubarb for dessert, we roamed the fields looking at the sheep and we played with the lambs. The dogs followed us everywhere and the sun burnt our arms.
            Now this was as close to the Swiss Cottage countryside bliss as you could get.
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