*** Check out the first post of our trip to Ireland and read them in order! ***
It’s finally here (unfortunately), our last real day of traveling around Ireland. We woke up at our normal time and went down for breakfast at 8am. After a hearty meal of toast, fried eggs, bacon, and sausage (sadly no pudding), we drove off into the center of Armagh to check out a few cathedrals. Being Sunday, we knew this might be challenging due to morning mass, but we hoped we could at least see the exteriors if nothing else.
Despite Armagh’s nickname, the Cathedral City, we had more trouble than expected finding the pair of St. Patrick’s Cathedrals (yes, both the Catholics and the Church of Ireland named their main church in the city after Ireland’s premier saint). We located Armagh’s catholic cathedral without too much challenge and parked nearby. The cathedral sits above the road on a hill with rolling terraces descending down from it to the road below. We were walking up the central steps taking photos, when a man who was walking along below us asked if we would like him to take a picture of us. We thought that was a splendid idea and showed him how to work the camera to accomplish such a task.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the Catholic one) in Armagh. Believe it or not, this photo is not altered in any way…the colors were just that vivid in real life!
After he took the photo, he mentioned that mass would beginning at 9am. We’re pretty sure he was one of the priests at the cathedral. While staying for mass was not in our itinerary, we did step inside to the back of the building for a few minutes to see the interior. Despite our best efforts, we passed through the two creakiest wooden doors on the face of the planet, so creaky as to be nearly comical because of the ridiculousness.
Since a handful of people were already arriving and seated in the pews, we thought it best not to walk around the interior taking photos. This unfortunately means that we only caught glimpses of the beautiful decorations inside the cathedral. The dominant feature we saw was the tile mosaicked walls, primarily with Celtic geometric patterns. The ceiling as well was covered in mosaic tiles and the morning light pouring in through the church’s many upper story windows (more than we’ve seen in most churches) lit up the features and made the colors quite vivid.
Check out the intricate mosaics on the ceiling inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We would have taken a lot more pictures but mass was starting in just a few minutes.
We exited out the other side where a parishioner had just opened the doors using the automatic opener (less creaking!) and then did a lap of the building to see the rest of the exterior. After that, we returned to our car and went about trying to find the other main cathedral in Armagh, the much older one belonging to the Church of Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral sitting atop its hill in Armagh.
After much searching, we eventually located this 11th century church on another hill in town and spent a few minutes admiring the architecture. Since church services had just begun, we did not venture inside. We’re both very torn on our feelings about new vs. old cathedrals. The old ones are interesting because they have stood the test of time for so long, though often they are not as ornately adorned. Newer cathedrals tend to have brighter colors and more impressive and intricate features, though we sometimes poo-poo them because they are so young. We do realize that we are being quite snobby in this way and that almost any cathedral we have seen here still easily predates the US Civil War so “young” is certainly a relative term.
The other St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this one belonging to the Church of Ireland.
We returned again to our car and set off south to return to the country of Ireland and eventually Dublin. Again, we looked for signs of crossing the border back to Ireland but saw nothing official marking the boundary. We did however notice a stretch of road a few miles long where several of the bridges overhead we’re draped with UK flags. Philip also noticed a hidden turnoff from the highway marked “Police only”, followed very soon after by a similar turnoff marked “Garda only”. Since Garda is the term for the police force in Ireland, we are assuming the border lies there.
As far as we can tell, this is the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland…there were no signs!
We continued on towards Dublin, through a toll booth where Philip had to awkwardly search for coins in his money belt tucked into his pants (not an easy feat when sitting with a seatbelt on). We also drove across a very modern and beautiful suspension bridge, which was an interesting change seeing something new after seeing so many ancient things on this trip. Just before 10:30am, we arrived at the visitor’s center for Newgrange and other nearby sites.
After a brief walk down a pergola-covered lane, we entered the visitor’s center to buy our tickets. The lady at the entrance asked if we wanted to see just one site or both. Since the both option (Newgrange and Knowth) would not have returned us to our car until about 2pm, we elected just for the Newgrange tour. The lady then abruptly stuck a sticker on each of our chests with “11:15am” printed on it, which was to be the time of our tour.
We were a bit taken aback at the 45 minute wait, but we learned later in the day from other tourists that we were fortunate. It is apparently not uncommon for people to have a several hour delay due to the limited number of people they can take into the site at a time. After paying for our tickets, we spent some time wandering around the visitor’s center, which is actually quite nicely done and has extensive displays.
Of most interest were displays where we could touch animal fur and then guess as to which animal it came from, as well as a teepee like structure with the most realistic artificial campfire we’ve ever seen inside of it. The fire was like many others with artificial logs and a flickering orange light. However, it also included a light fog machine rolling gently out of the top of the fire as well as sound effects of crackling. All in all, the combination of effects worked wonderfully.
When we had finished seeing the displays, we walked down a set of curving staircases and headed outside for the 5 minute walk to the bus stop. On the way, we passed grazing cows and crossed a river on an asymmetric suspension bridge. While we waited for the bus, we overheard one lady talking with a staff person and desperately trying to understand why she couldn’t get on a bus now since she was here and ready, even though her sticker said “11:45am”.
When our bus arrived, we got onboard as did enough people to fill every seat. The drive to Newgrange was bumpy, though thankfully only a few minutes long. We departed the bus and walked to the location where we were to wait for our guide, Paul.
The slim profile of Newgrange, one of the oldest buildings in the world dating back to around 3500 B.C.
Paul took our group of about 40 people over to some large vertical stones standing in front of the entrance to Newgrange and told us about the history of the site. Newgrange and other sites like it are among the oldest manmade structures not just in Ireland, but in the entire world. It is essentially an artificial hill made of stone with a single passageway ending in a large (6 meter diameter) central chamber. Historian believe Newgrange was constructed around 3500 years before Christ, though there is disagreement as to the purpose. It now seems clear that it was used both as a burial place as well as for some spiritual reasons due to the intentional alignment of the entrance towards the location of the Sun on the winter solstice.
The entrance of Newgrange leading inside to a chamber within the man-made hill.
Paul also explained that the site had lied dormant for over 4000 years as the Earth reclaimed the land and trees grew on top of the mound. To anyone above, it seemed like just another hill. It was rediscovered back in the 1800’s, and was exposed and somewhat restored in the 1960’s.
Since the internal chamber could only hold so many people, Paul split our group into two and took the first 20 people inside while the rest of us had some time to walk around and see the exterior. We did a lap of the building and noticed the interesting cantilevered stone ledge along the back half. We also spent some time looking at the enormous stone below the entrance that contains spiral-like carvings.
5500 year old carvings on the large rock marking the entrance to Newgrange.
When the first group reemerged, we led the second pack through the narrow passageway, holding the backpack in front of us to avoid accidentally scraping any of the carvings on the walls. After 15 meters, we emerged into the vaulted central chamber where Paul stood waiting for us. Once everyone had gathered in the space, he continued his explanation of its history.
The interior is actually in cruciform shape, with three small alcoves and the long entrance passageway forming a cross. In one side alcove is a large stone basin, though its purpose is unknown. In another alcove are some stones with carvings and the central alcove contains a rock that has broken into several pieces.
The ceiling is built of enormous stone slabs that stack on top of each other narrowing the gap with each ascending layer. At the very top is a single capstone that Paul reported is over a meter thick. On different areas of the ceiling, we spotted various geometric carvings, as well as a few spots of carved graffiti, some possibly going back to the 19th century. At one point, Paul made a joke about the enormous tonnage of stone overhead and he personally promised to repay our admission fee if the structure suddenly collapsed while we were inside. Since it has stood for over 5000 years, it was a pretty safe bet for him to make.
Paul then demonstrated the conditions at the winter solstice using a light bulb mounted near the passageway entrance. The passageway actually rises and curves subtly on its way to the inner chamber, so much so that it is not possible to look out the doorway once inside. Paul explained that if you were to lay down with an ear to the floor, it was possible to see out through the window above the doorway and that this arrangement is what guided the light appropriately. When he turned off the lights and turned on the single bulb, we saw a sword of light on the floor, narrowing to a single point on the back wall of the central alcove.
Once the lights were back on, we walked back down the passageway and into the bright sunlight. A second worker stood there helping people keep their heads down so that they didn’t instinctively stand up too soon and smack their heads on the overhanging entrance. We walked down to the bus stop and waited a few minutes as a somewhat disorganized mob for a bus to arrive. Two came in quick succession and we rode the second one back to the visitor’s center.
After a quick glance at the prices and options at the onsite café, we elected to instead just press on to our next destination, Trim, located about 45 minutes west of Newgrange. The Sun was starting to heat things up for the day, including our car. We should mention that when the car got warm, we both detected a slight odor that smelled suspiciously like marijuana. Not so much that it bothered us, but enough to make us wonder about the habits of one of the car’s previous renters.
We arrived at Trim Castle and pulled into a full car park next door. Fortunately, a car backed out of a spot almost as soon as we arrived and Philip navigated skillfully into it. We walked up the slight hill to the castle entrance and bought tickets for both the grounds as well as the guided tour of the castle keep, which had just begun a few minutes earlier.
The defensive towers and castle walls of Trim Castle protecting the keep behind.
We thus embarked on one of the strangest and most thorough tours of our lives. We spent nearly an hour going through the keep of Trim Castle (the door of which the guide opened with the largest skeleton key we’ve ever seen) with a group of about 20 people, 5 of which were young children. The guide gave us a ridiculous amount of information, though he was rather sporadic and random with how he presented things making it sometimes hard to follow. Factor in his very thick Irish accent and it was easy to understand why several of the children were getting restless. The guide seemed both simultaneously frustrated, amused, and unfazed by the children’s reaction and on several occasions talked directly to them about something in the castle.
We learned that the castle was built in 1176 with renovations taking place in 1196 and again in 1206, each time taking the keep higher. Three large models in the main room of the keep showed how the building changed over time and the guide took a long time explaining those changes in detail. He also explained that the keep was originally heated by just a single central fire but smaller individual fireplace were added in later years. The castle is built in a cruciform shape like the emblem on the Swiss flag. The south arm has completely fallen, but the other three still remain.
Inside the keep of Trim Castle. Note the scale models showing the three phases of construction and the walkways above giving access to the various levels of the castle.
Rather than reconstructing the wooden floors, the maintainers of the castle have instead built walkways at various heights through the keep giving visitors access to rooms at many levels. We hadn’t seen that particular solution yet in any of the castles we visited and it seemed to work well. The roof of the castle is a canvas tent material, much like that at the Denver International Airport terminal. This translucent material allows the Sun to illuminate the interior while protecting it from wind and rain. Interestingly, many of the interior walls were of a fairly green color, which the guide explained was due to the porosity of limestone, though he didn’t give any further detail about what might be actually providing the green pigment.
After a slow climb up a spiral staircase, we entered the chapel room on the second floor. As it was Sunday, the guide joked about this part of the tour meeting our ecclesiastical duties for the day. He explained, in detail of course, the significance of the room and how everyone would stand during the service with the priest facing away from the rest of the people. He also explained that, while “dirty” candles made primarily of animal fats would have been used for lighting up other areas of the castle (and smelling them up too!), only candles made of more than 75% beeswax would have been allowed in this sacred space since they burn cleanly.
In a bathroom, Philip served as the example and took a seat on the castle’s “throne” while the guide explained the ins and outs of certain logistics when living in a castle. He reiterated multiple times that Trim Castle was built first and foremost for defensive purposes, and thus was certainly not a luxurious lifestyle.
We worked our way up to the roof and enjoyed the views over the castle grounds and town from there. From that vantage point, it was easy to see the overall shape of the castle walls and the numerous defensive towers at key points along them. We could also see several gates in those walls and the guide told us that one of them had been added later in the life of the castle as a way to improve access to the river.
While on top of the building, the guide told us about the Irish war cemetery and he may have mentioned that an Irish brigade fought as Manassas Junction in the US. He also explained to us the meaning of the tricolored Irish flag with green representing the Gaelic people, orange representing the British, and the white between them representing peace.
The keep of Trim Castle with other ruins in the background.
We descended the entire height of the castle on a spiral stone staircase, regulated by the very slow pace of a mother with her young child. The guide said a few parting words in the main room on the bottom floor and then we exited the keep and out onto the castle grounds. We did a quick loop of the grounds and then realized we were getting hungry so exited the castle gates and crossed the street to a take-out restaurant located there. Philip of course ordered fish and chips while Rose decided to be brave and try a curry pie.
We took our food with us and walked up a path outside the castle gates towards some other miscellaneous ruins (not sure what they are). We found a spot to sit on a stone wall with the castle rising directly in front of us and there we ate our lunch. It wasn’t the best food of the trip but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Rose even made the comment that it “wasn’t worth writing home about” to which we both said simultaneously “…but we will!” Now that this paragraph has fulfilled that prophecy, we can move on.
Baby Polar Bear makes a final appearance in Ireland at Trim Castle.
It was approaching 3pm and so we decided the time was right to return the rest of the way to Dublin as we still had one thing we wanted to do in the city. The return drive was uneventful, but unfortunately our search for the “Wheel of Dublin” (a Ferris wheel that supposedly gives nice views of the city) proved fruitless. We followed Samantha (the name of our Tom Tom voice) to an address that we got FROM THE DUBLIN WHEEL WEBSITE. We’re not sure what was at this address but it certainly wasn’t a large Ferris wheel. We had originally thought that the wheel was located in a different area of the city (the docklands) so we drove over there and searched as well. We didn’t drive every single street but we both had the assumption that a Ferris wheel large enough to give nice views of the city wouldn’t be able to easily hide.
We eventually gave up on our search and our going assumption is that the wheel was a temporary attraction that no longer exists and just has an unfortunately misleading lingering website. The effort was not entirely in vain, though, as we were able to take a nice Sunday drive all around the city of Dublin. Note: we checked online when we got back to Colorado and, according to Yelp at least, the wheel no longer exists though we had passed the exact spot (in the Docklands, nowhere near the address on the website!).
We decided to be touristy for a little while and looked up a good souvenir shop in our guidebook. We followed Samantha’s directions to get there and she routed us across the River Liffey just to bring us back across a few blocks later. It’s hard to imagine that was the best route, though perhaps one way streets drastically limited the options. We found parking next to an interesting public park with a decorative pool in the shape of a large cross and we walked a few blocks to the main tourist drag.
The one store we entered was quite overwhelming, but had a nice selection of almost everything one could want to represent their trip to Ireland, from the cheesiest Irish themed ball caps to beautiful Celtic crosses and of course a large selection of Guinness-themed apparel. Our purchases complete, we returned to our car and set off on the drive to our final B&B near the coast northeast of Dublin.
We managed to miss the turn into the driveway of our B&B three times, but the fourth time was the charm. When we got to the front door, we saw a note taped there addressed to us that explained that our hostess was away for the afternoon but that the neighbor would let us in. As we walked the few feed towards the neighbor’s front door, she came out and greeted us and then showed us to our room.
We asked her for a dinner recommendation and she suggested that we head a few kilometers north to the town of Malahide. After resting for 30 minutes or so, we followed the suggestion and drove along the coast until we reached the main street of Malahide and its multiple restaurants. We parked and walked around the town checking out the dining options, though finding none of them super thrilling.
A marina near our B&B in Portmarnock northeast of Dublin.
Along the way, we stopped at a liquor store to see if we could find any unique Irish whiskeys for gifts, though it seemed that everything sold in a bottle small enough to reasonably bring home is also easily available in the US. The clerk at the store suggested we try a different nearby store as well, though that ultimately proved fruitless as well.
We had eventually settled on what appeared to be a very popular pub and walked in the door. Instantly overwhelmed by the noise, crowds, and lack of anyone greeting us, we decided that maybe this wasn’t the place for us after all. After a bit more walking, we spotted a different restaurant called Hash Brasserie that we hadn’t noticed before. It wasn’t traditionally Irish, per se, but it seemed like a nice place for our final dinner in Ireland.
We ate a lovely two course meal that was, by all accounts, quite tasty! Philip had an appetizer of a warm salad topped with duck and served in a sweet waffle-esque bowl. This was followed by a main course of sea bass, roasted vegetables including fennel, and a large pile of mashed potatoes. Rose went with a pastry bowl filled with chicken and mushrooms for her appetizer and enjoyed a main course of a pork on mashed potatoes and topped with asparagus.
The coast northeast of Dublin is extremely shallow, thus revealing enormous beaches at low tide.
After dinner, we returned to our hotel to pack up our belongings for the trip home. Philip tried several times to find our caretaker and finally spotted her pulling out of the parking lot at about 10pm. She assured him that she would return in 5 minutes, a promise which she did indeed keep. Philip spoke with her for several minutes and learned about her family, her second house in Spain, and the appropriate timetable for the morning.
Enjoying a final gorgeous day in Ireland!
With the details in place, we went to bed and quickly fell asleep. We leave Dublin tomorrow to return home to Denver, a fact that causes us definite sadness. We’ve greatly enjoyed Ireland, the things we have seen, and the people we have met. Even though this trip isn’t yet over, we already are looking forward to our next one, wherever that may take us.
- Where, oh where are the cathedrals in Armagh?
- Exploring the 5500 year old tomb at Newgrange
- The awkwardly awesome tour of Trim Castle
- Where, oh where is the Wheel of Dublin…nowhere!
- A final evening and nice dinner in Ireland
- Total Distance Traveled: 236.60 km
- Distance on Foot: 11.65 km | 15,792 steps
Our route for the day.