Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Limerick Ireland

Background Information

They say that Limerick is older than dirt. Not really, but it is pretty old. The City of Limerick is on the west coast of Ireland, located on the River Shannon. Limericks early history is virtually undocumented, other than by oral traditions. Antiquity map-maker, Ptolemy produced in 150 AD the earliest map of Ireland showing a place called Regia at the site where Limerick now lies. St Patrick visited the area in 434 and baptized the then King, Carthann the Fair. The name for Limerick dates from 561, but its origin is unclear. By 652 Limerick was the center of faith in the region with a Bishop, Saint Munchin.

In 845 the vikings began to enter the region and established the first permanent settlement on the site of modern Limerick. By 922 it was the major center in the region. Over the next 100 years several major battles were fought for control of the city by the Irish, Danes and Vikings. The arrival of the Anglo Normans in 1173 changed everything and marked the beginning of English rule in Ireland. The Anglo Normans led by the future King John built the first buildings and castles using rocks and mortar. In 1197 King Richard granted the city it's first charter and it's first mayor was appointed, ten years before London. Under the Anglo Normans the city prospered as a port and trading center and enjoyed a period of relative peace.

Today Limerick is a modern international trading center with a population of 60,000 within the city and 110,458 in the metro region. It is a major agricultural produce trading center. Other major industries include an Alumina extraction plant which is then exported to Canada for further processing into aluminium, Wang Laboratories, and Dell Computers. Limericks Institute of Technology enhanced the areas reputation as Ireland's Silicon Valley. The Shannon Airport is the most westerly European airport and is the last refueling stop before flights cross the Atlantic. In the above picture we see the cities skyline above the River Shannon. Although the river system is rather short it empties a huge amount of water into the Atlantic at Limerick. Given the short length of the river and the size of the Island it is amazing how big the rivers are. Where does all that water come from? From springs from an unknown source and peat bogs.

In the background is Limerick's St Mary's Cathedral. Construction of this great cathedral started in 1111 and finished in 1172. It is the oldest cathedral still in use in Ireland and a major heritage site.

King John's Castle. Construction on the castle began around 1200 and finished in 1210 AD. New archaeological diggings show evidence of an earlier Pre-Norman defence system at the site and of a strong earthen rampart, riveted with limestone boulders and protected by a deep ditch, showing that King John's Castle was built on an existing fortification which impacted its design. Very little is known of this structure. The castle, like most castles in Ireland, was built soly for defence purposes and King John never actually lived in it. The living quarters was fairly meager. The castle was in use continuously for the next 800 years, changing ownership many times and subject to numerous battles. In 1922 the British were still using it as a military barracks when they handed control over to the new Republic of Ireland. This was the King John who was forced to sign the Magna Carter which became the base for the English parliamentary system now found in Canada. He is also the King John referred to in the legend of Robin Hood.

Inside the walls of King John's Castle. The castle housed several thousand soldiers at a time. The above excavation is the sight of one of the several soldier barracks found inside the castle walls. The castle would house several thousand soldiers at a time and a staff of 300 working in the kitchen and house keeping. You can still see part of the old stone walls that surrounded the castle.

This is a typical side street in down town Limerick which surround the castle. I would not want to pass another vehicle on these streets. Notice that most of the cars are parked on the side walk. There was no where else to park. The wall on the right is part of the museum at the castle. King John's Castle is not the best castle to see as an example of a far gone era nor is it the only castle built by King John. But it was the best Irish taxes could buy.

The next castle in Limerick we went to see is the Bunratty Castle. This was a very impressive castle and well worth seeing. Above is the old road as it passes by the castle wall to the visitors center. A very narrow road, but very busy. Bunratty is a short 10 kilometers north west of the city.

Another view of the old Bunratty Road leading to the Bunratty castle and Folk Park.

Modern entrance to the Bunratty Castle and folk park. Bunratty Castle and Folk park is the most visited attraction in Western Ireland. It has been open continuously since the mid 1960's offering a great tourist shopping experience and nightly banquets and entertainment in the Castle and the Corn Barn in the village.

This is a site map of the castle and its folk park. In its prime as many as 5000 people called Bunratty Castle home. However most lived outside the castle walls until called on to help defend the castle. The castle employed several hundred people as marshals, stewards, cooks, scullions, pages, foot boys, grooms, herdsmen and a score of other callers and hangerons would come and go from the castle. It was the center of economic activity for its community. In addition the castle king or Earl would normally have several thousand trained soldiers on his payroll to enforce his rule.

Looking inland from the castle we can see the surrounding country side and its beauty.

Looking out towards the Shannon estuary and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Flowing below is the Little Owenogarney River which provided the water for the molt surrounding the castle. The castle was built on a rising ground near where this river flowed into the Shannon and was the larger city of Limerick's first line of defence from invaders from the sea.

Just outside the walls of the castle a large town built up to supply the castle with its day to day wants and needs. This was Bunratty. Actually the town is older than the castle. Early in the 13th century the town was the major market town west of Limerick. Its markets attracted a lot of travellers, traders, artisans and craftsmen with a population of perhaps a thousand or more at the time the first stone castle was constructed. Today the folk park offers an array of shops for the tourist looking for a bargain.

We approach Bunratty Castle with awe. The first stone castle was built at Bunratty at about 1275 by a Norman, Thomas de Clare. For several decades de Clare was continually at war with the local Irish native inhabitants. In 1318 the Irish were finally able to plunder the castle and it came into the hands of the O'Briens. The fourth Earl Donach O'Brien made Bunratty his headquarters and the castle entered into its glorious period. In 1720 the castle was acquired by the Studdart family. In 1805 they found that the castle life was not for them and they built a new modern home, Bunratty House, in the grounds nearby. The castle then went into a period of decay and ruin. In 1945 the now derelict castle was bought by Lord and Lady Gort who restored the castle and finished the castle in the style of its finest period.

This was the front main entrance to the castle. When the castle was in use for defence purposes the draw bridge was here. The moat ran in front about where Deanne is standing. It was deep and wide. When raised it folded up into the large archway behind Deanne. The winch used large heavy ropes to raise the drawbridge at night and whenever there was a possibility of attack. On a typical day there were up to 100 servants and 200 soldiers inside the castle. Extending around the back and sides of the castle was a large walled stone fortress several feet high protecting the soldiers and and servants inside the walls. Up to 1000 people have lived inside the castle wall at it peak of importance and several thousand lived in the town built up around the castle to provide it with food and other necessities of life.

The Main Guard Room.
This vaulted hall with its Minstrel's Gallery was the main living room of the common soldiers and of the Kings retainers. There is a demarcation line in the floor dividing the area occupied by officers from the general rabble of soldiers and servants. It is now used for banquets. A small gate leads to the dungeon.

This table found in the Main Guard Room dates back to the earliest days of the castle, nearly 800 years. It is made of one single tree trunk. Weights several tons which explains why it was not removed whenever the castle was looted. It was probably put in the castle when the castle was under construction. There would have been no other way to get such an large object in these small doars and stairways.

King Ron of Canada on his throne.

The Great Hall. This is the original banquet hall and audience chamber of the Kings and Earls. Judgements were given here while sitting in their throne chair. It is a superb room, bright, airy and of noble proportions. In its heyday, this hall would have been lavishly decorated with moulded plasterwork painted in the colours of the period; gold, royal blue, vivid greens and purples. Nearby is the buttery or the wine cellar. How the furniture was hauled up and down the narrow stairs is a wonder. Everything was pre-made but not assembled until placed in its room in the castle never to leave again.

Here is the ceiling of the Great hall made from solid walnut

Side walls of the great hall.

The kitchen. Here the food was cooked for guests in the Great hall. The large turtle shells shown were used as dishes and covers. This room had its own garbage chute.

The Kings bedroom. This room is draped with damask and there is a magnificent carved bed. The canopy was a must to protect the sleepers from unwanted guests from dropping down from the ceiling and keep body heat in.

The religious alter of the chapel. This was the private chapel of the Lord of the house who had his own priest to ensure all his sins were properly taken care of and ensure a place in heaven.

This is the guests room. Lady and Lord Gort used it as their own private room when they occupied the castle.

The den or study of the castle a favorite hangout of Lady and Lord Gort.

A fond look back at the Bunratty Castle which we just left. That is Deanne in the center looking back. The molt is gone and so is the walls arround the castle and living quarters. But is still fun to think what it would have been like to be King Ron of the Castle.

Deanne in front of a thatched roof farm house. The wheel barrow contains blocks of peat. Up until recent years is was their principle source of heat. Peat burns slower that wood and produces more heat. However the peat bogs are also the major source of water in the rivers here. It is now illegal to harvest peat unless you have a special permit.

Typical farm at the of the 18th century in Bunratty. Most peasants lived a simple life. A cow, few chickens and a horse and a garden just big enough to grow enough potatoes to sustain life.

Most of the taxes went to an absent English Lord and little stayed in Ireland. If you were a Catholic you paid an extra tax which went to the Anglican Church and you were not allowed to own anything over 5 pounds in value. This was a sore point to the Irish and a source of much of the conflict today.

Cobble stone streets are a very old but an economical street paving method. It amazes me how they lay the stones and get them so smooth. Not perfectly smooth though. But better than walking in the mud in this land of perpetual rain. I would hate to be a horse walking on them. Many of these roads, build over 500 years ago are still in use today and are the base for more modern paved roads. They tell me that this road is 400 years old.

This is a close up of a thatched roof. When fresh they are usually about 20 inches thick. We watched them install a new thatched roof. It is done in layers much the same as a regular roofing, from the bottom up. Instead of nails, fine ropes are tightly wolven in to hold the straw in place until the next layer is applied on top. A typical roof must be replaced every 3 years. The straw makes very good insulation. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But they are inclined to make good homes for other unwanted pests. For this reason most people slept in beds with canopies over the top. This made a much more plesant sleep without uninvited guests droping in.

Bunratty is a beautiful experience and will long stay in our memory. It was built in a time of violence and war. Those who had power were all powerful and those who didn't existed solely to serve the powerful elite. The average life span for the pesant was 32. Yet many of their Lords lived into their 60's