Friday, January 30, 2015

Plan B: King John's Castle

There's a saying about the best laid plans.  I could take a second and look up exactly how it goes, but I think I'll paraphrase it instead. Basically, it says don't count your chickens, your mice or your men, because they could all join together and royally screw up your plans.

Such an event transpired just this week, when I boasted- on this blog, no less- about my plans to go to Durty Nelly's, an old Irish pub in an old Irish town. It was all but a given that I would soon be strolling into a 400 year old bar and an old guy would be singing "Danny Boy", much to the delight of a dozen or so other old men.  I would be there,  nodding politely, straining to figure out what the garbled sounds- some would call them words- coming out of the bartender's mouth signified.

We landed in Shannon, Ireland, a little late, but still within peak pub hours.  We got off the plane and I began to head towards the usual hotel, the one right by the bus stop that would take me to Bunratty Castle, Nelly's more dignified neighbor.  No one followed.
The reason: Unbeknownst to me, we were not staying in Shannon.  There was a car waiting to take us to the small city of Limerick.  On our way, we passed Bunratty, Durty Nelly's and whomever was Danny Boy-ing into the night, but we just kept going.

I have been to Limerick once before and have fond memories of taking a tour based on the book, Angela's Ashes.  The story of Frank McCourt's humble upbringing takes place in Limerick and the tour showed the many places referenced in the book, all of which have since been transformed into stores or parking lots.  I loved the book and was thus ok with having to strain my imagination trying to see the city as it once was, but once it started raining- in Ireland, shocking, I know!- I told the guide, that I (the only person on this tour) was also ok with calling it quits.  He suggested that we finish the tour in a pub, which sounded like a great idea.  He was a contemporary of McCourt's and had been friends with one of his brothers, so I looked forward to getting more of the inside scoop. Once we had ordered our pints and sat down, he resumed the tour.  It was then that I realized just how scripted his tour really was.  He sat there, across from me in a darkened pub and said things like "To your left is the house where Frank..." Uh, sir, I don't mean to be difficult but I believe that is a dart board and not, in fact, a dwelling of any kind.  "And to your right, is the school..."  Nope, that's a toilet.  He went on this way until he asked himself a rhetorical-sounding question and answered it with "T'is".  T'is happens to be the title of McCourt's second book, the one which would take him to America and thankfully outside the realm of this tour. Now that the tour was finally concluded, we did have a lovely afternoon with much more natural dialogue.

But now I was back with a full day, having already done the attraction that interested me most and with a 40 minute bus ride to the old bar.  I would have to come up with something new to do. Looking through the tourist brochures, I saw that King John's castle had recently undergone an almost 6 million Euro renovation. The visitor's center and exhibitions had been completely redone. This combined with the fact that the next attraction of import was essentially a big pet rock swayed my decision to visit the castle.

But, my new plan was not without it's hitches.  For starters, I wandered around a building, trying to find the ticket office and not understanding why the castle would be so poorly sign-posted- shouldn't that have been included in the 6 million € budget?- only to find out it was not the castle but St. Mary's Cathedral.

The problem was a short-lived one since right down the street was the decidedly more castley-castle.

Only the snazzy new high-tech exhibition pointed out that it was not so much a castle as a defensive fortification, ordered by the English King John to protect this burgeoning trade city from an attack by the Gaelic forces.

King John, who never did visit this castle that bears his name, had been named Lord of Ireland, which sounds pretty flattering but was also pretty expensive, as he now had to help support these new subjects.  He was determined to recoup his losses and tried to squeeze every penny he could out of his new subjects.

The exhibits tell of the many groups that tried to fight back and/or conquer the area and their struggles.  A lot of this is done through interactive displays where actors pretend to be soldiers, coin makers and even a crooked cop.

Overall, it is a user-friendly- one could say a dumbed-down- way to tell the story, but I have noticed that the trend seems to be going towards more interactive, short attention-friendly  exhibitions.  There were costumes along the way that you could try on, a nod towards our Instagram-friendly culture, which is not something I am knocking.  I would have been the first to don the fair maiden costume had I figured out a way to rig some kind of tripod  (or at the very least had a selfie-stick) but I could not and did not and there was not a single soul around that I could hand my camera to.

Not to knock the gizmos and gadgets in the visitor's center but to me, the more interesting part came once you got through that section and could wander around the remains of the castle itself.  Pictures show that during the summer, costumed actors wander around the grounds, but I kind of preferred it desolate and un-Disneyfied.

One of the more interesting stories that I learned from the exhibition was that of the 1642 siege of the castle.  During that time, Protestants were fleeing from the Catholic fever that was sweeping the region and were hiding out in the castle.  In a move straight out of the Wile E. Coyote school of warfare, the Irish confederates (the Catholics) opted to dig long tunnels under the foundation- while the Protestant forces dug corresponding tunnels to try to get at the confederates- until, lo and behold, the foundation gave way and the castle came crumbling down.

The updated exhibition continued into the castle itself, as parts of this story were told by one of "soldiers" who complained bitterly about the lack of leadership from his commander.  By the time I reached the room where the commander got to have his say, my hands were going numb and it was beginning to rain (because Ireland) so I was not interested enough to get both sides of the story.

There's that St. Mary's again, only now I'm seeing it from the rooftop of King John's Castle.

Crossing the River Shannon to return to the hotel, I came across the aforementioned pet rock, or as they prefer to call it the Treaty Stone.  The treaty they refer to was signed in 1691 and ended both the Siege of Limerick and the battle between the Catholics and the Protestants.  I'm certain someone in the vicinity had a desk they could have used but instead they chose to sign this document upon a chunk of limestone. That chunk is now a top tourist attraction.

Another thing I came across, repeatedly, was dog poo.  Lots and lots of dog poo.  Yet I never saw any dogs.  Not sure what's going on there.

"Fer feck's sake!"

Street art by Joe Caslin.

Although I'd had to abandon my plans of a late night at Durty Nelly's, I ended up visiting a place I hadn't been, walking past a historic boulder and successfully avoiding the many dog litter land mines. Seems like sometimes the best laid plans aren't so great after all.  

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