Mitchelstown Caves and Cahir Castle

This week brought several storms through Ireland–blustery wind, chilling rain, and even snow in the “mountains” (the quotes are there because Irish mountains are nothing like Washington mountains. They are simply taller rolling green hills than the rest of the rolling green hills that dot the countryside.) Nevermind the storms, though, adventures were still out there waiting for us. I found a nice indoor activity for our family that would get us out of the wind and the rain: cave exploring. After a quick stop at our new STARBUCKS (!) in town, we were on our way.

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The caves we went to are called the Mitchelstown Caves, and they’re only about 45 minutes outside of Cork. We drove up early Saturday morning and we were the first (only?) visitors of the day. I guess other Irish people don’t have my same sense of let’s-go-cave-exploring-in-a-storm adventure.

The caves were discovered in 1833 by a farmer who was doing some work on his farm when his crowbar fell through a crevasse. His family explored and developed the caves, and to this day the same family still owns the caves and leads tours through them. Here we are at the cave entrance, anticipating the wonders that await us below:

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Once you get inside the caves, it is absolutely breath-taking. Stairs lead you down into the caverns where you can see all sorts of stalactites (the mineral deposits that hang from the ceiling like icicles), stalagmites (the little mounds that form on the ground beneath stalactites), pillars (where the stalactites and stalagmites eventually meet to form a floor-to-ceiling column), and “curtains” (intricate patterns of mineral deposits that cover the cave walls, looking like a gently-folded piece of cloth).  Limestone stalactites like these form at the rate of about 1 inch every hundred years, so you can imagine how long some of these bad boys have been growing. I didn’t know that rocks could be so beautiful.

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Photo courtesy of Google Images since we weren’t allowed to take photos inside most parts of the cave.

Back in the 1800’s (and well into the 1900’s, in fact) the only way to see the cave was to carry a candle into the dark abyss where you would spend hours climbing over boulders and through tiny crevices. Thankfully for us, that is no longer the case. Today, the cave is fully lit with electric lights and has a cement pathway with handrails that lead you 1/2 a mile into the cave . When you get to the end of the trail in the “developed” section of the cave, there is a large natural platform surrounded by huge pillars. They actually use this platform as a stage, and during the summer the Cork Opera House brings in musicians to play in this unique performance hall. David and I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” from the stage and, I have to say, we never sounded so good. Here we are standing in front of the stage by a large pillar that they call “The Dragon”:

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We all loved the caves and will definitely try to return again some day.

After our morning of cave exploration we were ready to head home. At least, we thought that’s what we were going to do. The great Irish road system had other plans for us, though, and after a wrong turn that led to a 16 Kilometer detour the wrong direction on the highway, we ended up in the town of Cahir. Turns out Cahir was a good place to unexpectedly turn up as they have one of the largest and best-preserved castles I’ve seen in Ireland:

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Since we were already there we decided to check out the castle. So, after some quick refueling in the car:

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…it was on to Cahir Castle!

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The weather was absolutely horrendous by this point–you can’t tell from the photos, but the rain was blowing sideways and it was freezing cold. We had to make pretty quick work of the castle, then, to avoid becoming human Popsicles. In the end it was all worth it, because the castle was really amazing. There were cannons all over the grounds that David used to help defend the fortress:

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And iron gates that could chop your head off if you got in the way (not really, Grandma Doreen, they’re just for show…):

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There were several rooms of the castle that we could walk through. Even though the castle was built in 1142, the preservation work that they have done in this castle is beautiful and really gives you a picture of what life would have been like inside these walls. This was the banqueting hall. Note the huge ancient Irish Deer antlers hanging on the wall. These animals weighed between 800-1000 pounds and stood over 6 feet tall, with antlers nearly 12 feet wide. I would have loved to see one of those creatures in real life!

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Back outside the castle there were lots of little nooks and crannies and holes in the wall (literally) to explore:

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As we came to the outer edge of the castle wall I marveled at how the town of Cahir just exists here. With a castle across the street. I wonder if the people who live and work and shop here realize how cool that is.

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It was a day full of adventure–and misadventure turned into adventure. But isn’t that what adventure is all about? The planned and the unplanned, the known and the unknown. The journey. Even if that journey takes you 16 kilometers out of your way.

DIY Edible Fingerpaint

Fall is officially upon us, which means three things:

1. Leaves are gathering on the ground.
2. I’m craving all things pumpkin.
3. We have rainy days. Lots and lots of rainy days.

Number 3 is the one I least look forward to. After the long, warm days of summer it’s a bit of a rude slap in the face to suddenly be forced back indoors against my will. But, since I can’t get rid of the rain (and probably won’t for the next 10 months or so…) I will choose to make the best of our long days indoors.

David loves doing art projects but poor little Jacob rarely gets to join in on the action. He’s still at the if-I-can-touch-it-then-I’m-putting-it-in-my-mouth stage, which works well with Cheerios and bananas but no well with glue sticks and glitter. After a brief search on Pinterest, however, I found a number of recipes for edible finger paint (have I mentioned how much I love Pinterest?). I just had to try it. The recipe is really simple: only 3 ingredients and it took about 5 minutes to make:

What You Need:

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  • 1/2 cup corn starch (corn flour)
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • liquid food coloring

What You Do:

  • Pour the water and corn starch into a pan and stir constantly over low heat until the mixture begins to thicken to the consistency of Elmer’s glue (a wire whisk works best to minimize clumps)
  • Pour the mixture into cups or bowls (1 container per color you want to make)
  • Add food coloring to each container and stir
  • Let the fingerpaint cool from magma-hot to safe-to-touch before handing it to your baby

IMG_3875 I happened to have an empty plastic egg carton in my recycling bin and it seemed like the perfect receptacle for David’s paints (I didn’t want to give him all of the full cups of paint because I actually wanted to preserve some of those beautiful colors for future use. Something I’ve learned about paint and little boys: it only takes them about 3 seconds to smoosh a rainbow of colors together into one giant brown blob). The egg carton worked brilliantly. IMG_3879 For Jacob, I just scooped little bits of paint directly onto his paper. It took him less than 2 seconds to get that first bit of paint in his mouth (yay for edible paint!).  I also found that it worked better to tape his paper down with a bit of painter’s tape so he wouldn’t keep trying to eat his paper. IMG_3887 Both boys had a fine time painting and the paints actually worked really well. The color was rich and vibrant and the consistency was very smooth. Jacob lasted for about 5 minutes with his art project (not bad for a 1-year old) and I had to cut David off after a few pictures so I could complete the last, essential step of this project: a bath. IMG_3888 See, rainy days aren’t so bad after all.

The Ultimate “Busy Bag”

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When we moved to Ireland a few weeks ago I had a lot of concerns. Would I get homesick before we even left? Would we like our new home across the sea? Would I remember to pack all of the essentials? But the most important question of all: How would we survive a 10-hour flight with two boys under the age of 3?

Grandma to the rescue! My mother-in-law is incredibly gifted with all things crafty. She can take felt and a sewing machine and fabricate incredible creations (whereas I would take the aforementioned objects and make something worthy for display at a Kindergarten art show). She took her crafting skills to a whole new level when she created this: The Ultimate Busy Bag.

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Inside is a treasure trove of games and activities that could satisfy children not only for a 10-hour plane ride, but for weeks–nay, months–on end.

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She created the bag itself from fabric scraps and her own design. Many of the games were also her own creation, but she did get several ideas off Pinterest and Etsy. The bag is *literally* bursting at the seams with great ideas, so I thought I would share some of them with you here. If you wanted to recreate just one or two of these ideas instead of the whole bag (because, really, I don’t know anybody else who could make all of this in one sitting!) each would make a great small project in itself. These are great ideas to have tucked away for a rainy day (or even a long summer day when the refrain “I’m bored…” starts echoing through your home). I hope you enjoy this as much as we do!

1. Felt pieces and finger puppets.
One of the sides of the busy bag is made out of felt. There are several felt pieces that can be arranged on the “felt board” for imaginary play or story telling. Most of the pieces were cut out of colored felt and then decorated (my mother-in-law’s 6-year old neighbor helped with many of these pieces).

There are sea creatures and an underwater scene:

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Fluffy clouds and an airplane (each of the windows and “decals” can be re-positioned on the plane):
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A house and garden (even our dog, Bota, makes her appearance here!):

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Noah and his ark full of animals (each animal is a finger puppet that can be used separately from the felt board for songs, stories, or pretend play):

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And, of course, the rain and the rainbow for Noah:

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Jesus and his disciples can even sail across the Sea of Galilee in their trusty boat:

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2. Dry erase markers and letter practice.

IMG_2923There is a folder filled with sheets of handwriting practice, each page inside its own plastic sheet protector. Each dry erase marker has a color-coordinated pom-pom hot-glued to the cap that can be used as an on-the-spot eraser. David uses the colorful dry erase markers to trace the letters and color the pictures in his handwriting book–when he’s done, he just flips over the marker and uses the pom-pom eraser to clear the page. It is easy to find handwriting worksheets online (just do a Google search for “handwriting practice” or “handwriting printable” and look under images). You could also insert pages from coloring books, outlines of common objects, or blank pages for your child to draw on with the dry erase markers.

3. The Mitten book and finger puppets

This is one of the boys’ favorite activities in the busy bag. My MIL found this activity on Etsy, and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. The activity consists of the picture book The Mitten by Jan Brett and a large knit mitten full of finger puppet versions of the animals in the story.

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If you haven’t read this story, you should. Jan Brett is one of my favorite children’s authors, and this one is a classic. In the story (a Ukrainian folktale) a little boy loses his white mitten in the snow. Woodland animals find the mitten and, one by one, they burrow inside the lost mitten to keep warm. As I read the book, David helps to put each animal into the mitten as they appear in the story. It’s a great age-appropriate interactive reading activity–and he just can’t get enough of it. If you don’t have your own mitten and animal finger puppets, you can print off your own mitten craft from the author’s website and make your own!

4. Felt Numbers and Letters

There are two sets each of felt letters and numbers for David to play with and manipulate. The possibilities here are endless! We’ve been using the letters to play “find the sound” (I’ll say a sound and he has to find the letter that makes that sound) and “letter match” (we’ll find a letter in a book or on an object in the room and he has to find the same letter from his pile of felt letters).

I used the numbers to show David representations (using balls, of course, because he will learn ANYTHING 10 times faster if it can be somehow related to balls):

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And we even practiced putting the numbers in order from 0-10 (OK, I did this, but he helped me count the numbers after I got them all set up):

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5. Art and Craft Supplies

IMG_2948There are several art and craft supplies that David can use for his own creative works: markers, scissors, a sketch pad, colorful pipe cleaners, stickers. We’ve been practicing how to use markers on paper ONLY and that we only use scissors when there is a grown-up there to help us. He’s actually been doing really well with all of his “big kid” supplies–especially the fact that he can now color a picture and then cut it into a million pieces. Toddler confetti!

We also like using the pipe cleaners to make “bowls full of worms”. The boys thread the pipe cleaners through the holes in the pipe cleaners (I put them in for baby Jacob) and then pull them out. It’s good fine motor practice..and also just a lot of fun!

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6. Some Personal Touches

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There are several smaller items that are personalized to David and Jacob. There is a little American flag so they can remember where they came from (represent!) and a little bendy bear that their dad used to play with when he was little. There is also a really cute set of “ABC Bible Verses” where each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding Bible verse (print your own here). We may have to use these for some memorizaton practice soon!

Thank you for the special gift, Grammy! We will treasure it forever!

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