An Irish Country Fair

There are so many reasons why I love summer: the sunshine, the days that never end, going for walks outside after dinner…in the daylight…while wearing a t-shirt. And there is no better place to enjoy the long, warm days of summer than at a good old fashioned country fair.

When I found out that one of the largest fairs in Ireland was taking place this weekend in West Cork, I just knew I had to go. I mean, how could we not see a country fair in a country that is known for their country-ness? Jon is travelling in Korea for work this week, so it was just me and the boys. We skipped out of town on Sunday morning and headed out to the Charleville Agricultural Show, located an hour west of our home in Cork.

We got to the fair at 10:00, about an hour after the gates had formally opened for the day. As is commonly the case here in Ireland, we were one of the first ones to arrive for the festivities. Our first stop was at the horse jumping centre where the riders were doing some practice runs. Jacob was obsessed with the horses and kept screeching (much to the annoyance of the horses): “That one! So fast! Horsey running!”

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After getting our fill of so-fast-horseys we made our way through the maze of vendor stalls. The brightly-colored toys and balloons caught the boys’ attention. And, since I want to coerce them into enjoying the fair as much as I do, I indulged them each with a new ball. The boys thought they’d won the lottery.

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I decided to take advantage of some momentary peace while the boys sat contentedly in the stroller admiring their new balls. We continued browsing the vendor stalls, where they were selling everything from clothing to ancient-looking farm tools to homemade jams to high-tech cow milking stations. True story. I even bought myself a little souvenir from one of the antiques stands, a metal sign that I will hang outside our house. It reads Cead Mile Failte, which translates to “a hundred thousand welcomes”. Reflecting upon our time here in Ireland, I can not think of a more fitting phrase to display in our home.

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After shopping time was over, we moved on to the vintage car and tractor show. Here’s David “driving” a restored 1915 tractor:

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Then it was on to the amusement park rides. Most of the rides were a bit too big for my little guys, so we spent our time on a huge inflatable slide. It was a hit.IMG_6493

One of my favorite sections at the fair was the old time crafts exhibit. They had people there demonstrating how to make felt from wool, weave wicker baskets, and chisel letters into stone. David even got to help a woman spin yarn on an old-fashioned spinning wheel. They started by “brushing” the wool (which came from the sheep shearing demo at the fair earlier in the day) with these huge roller brushes. Then they fed the smooth wool into the spinning wheel and wove two bobbins of string together to make the yarn. Grammy Pete would have been impressed!IMG_6511

David also tried his hand at metal-working. A very brave craftsman (with very tough looking hands) allowed my three-year old to bang a hammer on a metal rod that he was holding.IMG_6519

The end result was a copper leaf, which was then hung from a string and worn with pride for the rest of the day:IMG_6523

After our busy morning, we needed some nourishment (nevermind that we’d already eaten cotton candy and ice cream before 11:00). We noshed on some burgers and fries…because what else would you eat at the fair?IMG_6530 After lunch we wandered around some more and found some cookery demos. At one table they were churning butter by hand–and giving out free samples. It was the most creamy smooth butter I’ve ever tasted. We liked the butter so much that I bought a big tub of it to bring home. After all, who knows when the next time is that I’ll have access to hand-churned butter.IMG_6532 Before calling it a day we made one last stop in the arts and crafts tent to check out the local talent. There was kids’ artwork, handmade Limerick lace, poetry, and lots of home baking. I, of course, wanted to sneak a taste of every cake I walked past, but I managed to restrain myself:IMG_6533At this point Jacob had fallen asleep in the stroller and David was on the verge of three-year old meltdown, so I read the signs and made my way back to the car (which was parked conveniently close to the exit, due to our “early” arrival that morning). When I asked the boys later that evening what their favorite part of the fair was they both said, “EVERYTHING!”.

And that, my friends, is what we call a success.

The Edge of Ireland: Mizen Head and Dromberg Stone Circle

After a very emotional week, I was in desperate need of some quality family time over the weekend.  We spent all day Saturday lounging around home–I don’t think the boys even got out of their pajamas the whole day. It was wonderful. By Sunday we were all ready to go out and do something, so we decided to embark on one of our family fun-ventures. I’ve been wanting to see Mizen Head, the southern-most point in Ireland, for quite some time now. After two failed attempts to go to Mizen Head in the last few months, it was time to give it another go. And, luckily for us, the third time worked like a charm. It was a glorious sunny day and we were surprised by how much we enjoyed our little day trip.

Mizen Head is in southwest County Cork, about a 2 hour drive from our house in Cork City.  On our way out to Mizen Head we made a couple of stops to help break up the drive. Our first stop was Dromberg Stone Circle, an ancient site of ritual and ceremony:

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Nobody knows the exact purpose of these circles (there are several still standing in Ireland), but it is believed that the alignment of the stones has something to do with the alignment of the sun during the winter solstice. Excavations of the Dromberg Stone Circle in the 1950’s uncovered a pottery vessel containing the cremated remains of a youth which were carbon dated to about 1100 B.C. Today, the circle still stands where it has stood for thousands of years: in the middle of a field overlooking the ocean. It’s quite sturdy, as evidenced by the climbability of the stones:

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Just outside of the stone circle there are the remains of two stone huts that were probably part of an ancient village:

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Inside one of the “huts” you can still see what remains of a unique cooking system. There are two pits: a hearth tucked into the back wall and a trough in the middle of the floor. Apparently what would happen is the people would heat stones in the hearth then place them in the trough full of water. The water would become quite hot for several hours and they could cook meat (and even brew beer!) submerged in the hot water. It’s kind of like a Bronze Age sous-vide cooker, if you will:

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After exploring the stone circle we got back in the car and continued up the road. On our way to Mizen Head we pulled off to what we thought was a turnoff at a scenic viewpoint. While the spot was unbelievably “scenic”, there was another little treasure here as well: an altar wedge tomb.

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This ritual tomb was constructed at the end of the Stone Age, between 3,000-2,000 B.C. The entrance to the tomb is deliberately aligned with the Mizen Peninsula and–if I don’t say so myself–has quite a magnificent view. Here are Jon and Jacob standing outside the entrance to the tomb for a little perspective of what the area looks like:

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From here it was only about 25 minutes to the Mizen Head visitor center. When we arrived at the visitor center we took care of business right away: 1. potty  2. lunch. It was such a nice day that we decided to have a picnic outside. There is a great playground at the visitor center and the boys were having so much fun there that we decided to just eat our lunch in the playground instead of sitting at the boring old picnic tables:

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At the playground, David found two little boys who were kindred spirits (as in, they all had boundless energy and enjoyed knocking each other down for fun). He had a grand time playing with his friends until Mom and Dad tore him away from them.

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To get to the end of the Mizen Peninsula, to the “head”–the very end of Ireland, you hike down a beautiful seaside path. The path is paved (thank goodness, because the boys never would have made it if we hadn’t brought the stroller!) and the scenery is breathtaking. Cliffs and crashing waves all around you. Absolutely incredible.

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When you get down to the bottom of the first cliff you have to cross a suspension bridge to get out to the lighthouse that is at the end of the peninsula. Here is the view of the suspension bridge from the top of the cliff:

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And here is the view from the suspension bridge looking down, down, down…it was a long way down. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but we were hundreds of feet in the air here with nothing but cliffs and rocks and water below:

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After we crossed over the bridge we walked down to a viewpoint where you could look back up at the bridge:

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Walking a bit further up the path we came to the hundred-year old lighthouse and keeper’s quarters that are set up like a bit of a museum now. When we walked out of the lighthouse it was the moment we’d all been waiting for: our view of the end of Ireland!

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It was amazing to see that point of rocks jutting out into the water, that southernmost part of this island. For thousands of people leaving Ireland (or Europe, for that matter) this point was their last glimpse of land–explorers, immigrants, and even convicts would have sailed by this very spot and off into the great blue ocean. And, for many who would never return, it was the last piece of Ireland they would ever see. For us, though, it was just another (beautiful) stop on our grand tour of this amazing country:

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After a full afternoon exploring Mizen Head we loaded back into the car. Before heading home, though, we made one last stop at a place called Barleycove Beach. There were huge sand dunes, millions of rabbits and their rabbit holes, seashells and, of course, rocks to throw in the water. A recent storm had washed out the footbridge across the river to the wide oceanfront beaches, but we still had a great time skipping stones on the river and collecting seashells.

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When we felt that the boys were sufficiently worn out we loaded them in the car for the long drive back home. Our ploy worked beautifully and within minutes both boys were snoozing peacefully in the back seat:

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We arrived back in Cork at dinner time and, since neither of us felt like cooking after our long day out, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at our favorite “chipper” (a shop that sells fish and chips and other fried goodness). KC’s is ammmmazing, as evidenced by the mile-long line that winds out the front door and up the street during all business hours. The food is well worth the wait, though–especially if you’ve just had a long day exploring stone circles and wedge tombs and cliffs and beaches.

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I think we will all remember this day for many years to come: the day that we went to the edge of Ireland and back again.

Fota Wildlife Park

We had expected to be able to move in to our house yesterday. However, as we were getting ready to leave Seattle a few days ago, our landlord contacted us to let us know that his tenants wouldn’t be moved out until Monday. So, instead of unpacking and settling in to our new home this weekend, we found ourselves with some free time on our hands. We rarely have free time together as a family–let alone a whole weekend–let alone in a foreign country. Plus, the church we found here is out of town on a retreat this weekend so we didn’t even have that to go to today. All that to say, we got another family fun day today. Yahoo!

We decided to drive just outside of the Cork City Center to the Fota Wildlife Park.

It’s a really neat zoo with free-roaming and barely-fenced-in animals–perfect for getting up close and personal with the wildlife. Here’s Jon walking up to some Mara (large South American rodents) and wallabies:

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There were also zebras, ostriches, and giraffes in a large enclosure near the entrance:

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We saw lots of monkeys, including a sprightly baby Gibbon (on the roof in this photo):

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All of the monkeys are housed on their own private islands:

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We had so much fun at Fota that we bought a membership so we can return again soon!

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On our way back to Cork we drove through the town of Cobh (formerly called Queenstown). This was the last port that Titanic stopped at to pick up passengers before making her fateful journey out to sea. Coincidentally, this is also the port where the ship Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Missile , thus instigating World War I. Besides it’s fascinating history, Cobh is just a quaint little town:

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From Cobh we caught the (2 minute ride) car ferry back across the water to Rochestown (where our house is).

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Tomorrow will be moving day and Jon’s first day of work–back to reality!