Posts Tagged ‘british-isles-cruise’

An Irish Journey From Galway to Killarney

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011


Smithsonian Study Leader Cassandra Hannahs is a medieval historian specializing in British cultural and architectural history. Here, she describes an action-packed journey from Galway to Killarney. To learn more about Cassandra and traveling with her, click here.


The beautiful landscape of Connemara.

The beautiful landscape of Connemara.

As our Smithsonian group left Galway, I was struck again by the stunning contrasts of the Irish landscape. There are many types of beauty here, from the wild hills of Connemara which we saw yesterday to the elegant lake and parkland awaiting us in Killarney. We stopped briefly this morning at Dunguaire castle, which stands like a chess piece on the edge of Galway Bay. It was originally the fortress of a seventh-century king of Connacht, one who was among “the warriors of Erin” buried at Clonmacnoise.

Rebuilt in the sixteenth century, Dunguaire later served as a meeting place for the leading lights of the Irish literary renaissance. In the early morning mist, it was easy to imagine William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Synge passing underneath the grey stone archway, a romantic setting for the Celtic Revival.

The landscape emptied as we headed south into County Clare, lovely still but growing desolate. A famine wall snaked up a mountain and disappeared down the other side.  Through famine and eviction, the population of Country Clare plunged from 286,000 in 1841 to 104,000 in 1911. The hills through which we drove looked abandoned against the sullen sky. On their slopes, we could see the vertical scars that mark abandoned potato fields.

The ground grew stony as we approached the Burren, a name that literally means “a rocky place.” A different kind of beauty met us there, an eerie moonscape of eroded limestone. Cromwell’s surveyors famously reported that the Burren lacked enough water to drown a man, tree to hang him, or soil to bury him. But a microclimate mix of plants flourishes in this karst environment. They are strange neighbors — alpine, arctic and Mediterranean types combined with native species. But even stranger are the megalithic monuments that guard this landscape, “millenia deep in their own unmoving” as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it.

“Why here?” someone asked quietly as we walked across the craggy pavements to the Poulnabrone dolmen, one of the most striking of these structures. Its twelve foot capstone balanced carefully on the portal stones, Poulnabrone preserved the bones of some twenty people spanning five centuries, five thousand years ago. Today, it looks like a giant’s table, having lost the mound that once covered it, one of ninety megalithic tombs in the area. The question was repeated in expanded form, a little impatiently: “Why would people build monuments like this in such a barren place?”

The answer: it was not always like this. When the farmers arrived 6,000 years ago, pine and hazel woodland covered this land, and the growing season was long. Fire, axe and hoof cleared the trees and turf; without its cover, the soil slipped away with wind and rain, exposing the limestone skeleton. Ancient pollen attests these changes occurred gradually, and only recently — since the first millenium A.D. — was the bedrock laid bare. Like the once fertile land of Inismor which we also visited, where Aran farmers in recent times made soil out of sand and seaweed, the Burren is in large part a man-made landscape and a cautionary one as well.

Continuing south, we stopped next at the Cliffs of Moher, which drop vertically seven hundred feet into the Atlantic Ocean and inspire a different kind of awe. The new interpretive center offered a wealth of information about the geology, history and wildlife of the Cliffs, but nothing can compare with the sensation of being physically there, overlooking the Atlantic Edge. As we continued to Killarney later that day, the countryside grew softer and more gentle. A ferry ride across the Shannon River invited thoughts of Vikings traveling up those waters a thousand years ago, but the scene was peaceful and bucolic, all blues and greens and greys. We passed Saint Mary’s Cathedral on our way into Killarney, a lovely Gothic cathedral built in the nineteenth century. Even in this cheerful town, the hard times are remembered: a giant redwood tree in front of the church marks a mass grave of famine victims. After such a day of stark drama, the warmth and friendliness of the pub are welcome, but my thoughts this evening keep returning to the melancholy beauty of County Clare and the mystery of the Burren.

Packed yet? Click here to see our tours to Ireland or here for Cassandra’s next tour.

A Day in the British Isles

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Cassandra Hannahs is a medieval historian specializing in British cultural and architectural history. Here, she describes an action-packed day including sea birds, the Broch of Mousa, and former Irish President Mary Robinson with Smithsonian travelers on our Exploring the British and Irish Isles adventure cruise.

Cassandra Hannahs at Orkney

Cassandra Hannahs at Orkney.

As we had been sailing around northern Scotland over the past few days, from the Hebrides to Loch Ewe, Fair Isle, Orkney and Shetland, I was thinking about Vikings, especially since we would be ending our journey in Norway, essentially retracing the water routes of Norsemen a thousand years ago. But this day in Shetland took us back long before the Vikings as well as long after, with a healthy dose of hiking and bird watching thrown in.

During breakfast the captain brought the ship along the southeastern coast of the Mainland of Shetland to the much smaller island of Mousa where we anchored and disembarked in zodiacs. A group of us started out hiking across the island with the ship’s naturalist and ornithologist Richard White, who pointed out the many types of sea birds — including northern gannets, storm-petrels, red-throated loons, and many more — found along the cliffs. My personal hope of seeing a puffin was not yet realized, but we did get a close view of an otter who suddenly bolted from a boulder beside our path and disappeared between the rocks.

Mousa Broch. Photo: Langus

Mousa Broch. Photo: Langus

Returning to the landing site, we then explored the Broch of Mousa, which is a massive round tower over forty feet high with inner and outer stone walls flanking an internal staircase up to the top. Built around two thousand years ago, the broch had raised floors which probably served as the main living areas, and various niches for sleeping or storage areas. As the tallest prehistoric structure in Europe and one of the best preserved, the Broch of Mousa is a stunning testament to the engineering skill of its Iron Age builders.

We returned to the ship in time to hear the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, give a talk on board. President Robinson was traveling with us after having just attended Queen Elizabeth II’s first State Visit to Ireland the previous week, and she spoke about the significance of the Queen’s visit as a moment healing between England and Ireland. As she spoke, we traveled to Lerwick which is the main port and capital of the Shetland Islands.

Stretching our legs after lunch, we set out for the southern end of the main island where we hiked up to the Sumburgh Head and viewed the impressive vista from the cliffs around the lighthouse. To our delight, there was a crowd of puffins nesting just a few feet from the walls where we were standing. It was wonderful to watch them in flight, beating their wings so fast they became a blur. I have read that puffins resemble black and white footballs when they fly, but to me they looked more like a cross between penguins and bumblebees.

Having finally had our fill of puffins, we set off across the grassy fields to the archaeological site of Jarlshof. The occupation of this extraordinary site spans the bronze, iron, medieval and early modern ages, with the earliest houses dating from between 2500 and 1500 B.C. and the latest building, Earl Patrick’s “Old House,” dating from the seventeenth century A.D. Between these periods, the Norse lived here as well, with a settlement at Jarlshof that lasted from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. A vital hub in the sea routes between Scandinavia, Ireland, Britain, Iceland and Greenland, Jarlshof brought me back to my earlier thoughts of Vikings, and reinforced once more how so many places on this journey around the British and Irish Isles which seem remote and isolated to us today were at the center of earlier cultural geographies based on seafaring.

Ready for your own British Isles adventure? Click here to learn about our next departures and here to learn about all upcoming tours Cassandra will be leading.