Part two – Feast or Famine
Leaving the port of Rosslare we drive for 75 minutes to Thomastown, stopping off half way along at New Ross to stock up on supplies for the next few days. We had booked a lovely apartment attached to the owners house and run by the delightful Sheila and Michael. Both Michael and his son own the same model of car as us and so there is an EV charge point available for guests.
Thomastown was historically known as Grennan, meaning sunny place, though during our time there this proved to be something of a misnomer due to the torrential rain on most days. In the 13th century an Anglo-Norman mercenary, Thomas FitzAnthony, founded the fortified town which now bears his name. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell and his merry band of looters and cut-throats turned up, as they swept through Catholic Ireland, and two days later the town surrendered.
Before Cromwell there was, of course, Henry VIII who managed to wreak havoc throughout Britain and Ireland with his dissolution of the monasteries. Jerpoint Abbey just outside the town was one such place to suffer as a result. Established in the 12th Century it is said to be one of the finest examples of a Medieval Cistercian Abbey in Ireland. The stone carvings in the cloisters are certainly quite wonderful and it’s well worth a visit.
Thomastown makes for a great place to explore the surrounding countryside. Inistioge (pronounced Inishteeg) is a delightful village on the banks of the River Nore and from here you can walk to Woodstock – not the one in America famous for its free-love, free drugs and flower-power in the 1960s but a country estate dating from the early 18th century. An impressive garden and arboretum was laid out on the hillside which you can visit to this day. But the substantial Woodstock House, home to the Tighe family didn’t fare so well. In 1921 the Black and Tans (Loyalist troops) occupied the house followed by the Irish Free State army in 1922 during the Irish civil war. The house was burned down to the ground in April of that year and is now just an empty ruin.
On another river, the Barrow, lies the village of Graiguenamanagh. Don’t ask me how that is pronounced. All I know is that its name means ‘hamlet of monks’. The river was developed for commercial navigation in the 18th century and today attracts a variety of boats and barges which makes for a very pleasant walk along the bankside towpath.
But the real gem is in town. A humble kebab and pizza emporium has been decked out gloriously with literally thousands of blooms. We got chatting to a couple of locals who told us that the owner gets his ladder out at 3am in the morning, when there is no traffic about, so that he can water his incredible array of blooms. It’s nothing short of a work of art and he does this every year, changing the show to fit the season.
Of course, Ireland has witnessed much migration in its long history and in nearby New Ross you can get a real sense of this by visiting the ‘famine’ ship. The Dunbrody is an authentic replica of an 1840’s emigrant vessel which did actually sail from the quay in New Ross. The Great Famine (also known as the Irish potato famine) which lasted from 1845 to 1849 was a period of mass starvation and disease for much, though not all of, Ireland.
Facing destitution some families chose to leave Ireland for good and seek a new life in Britain or Europe or across the seas in America and Canada. Families travelled for days from all across Ireland to ports such as New Ross where, for a fare of £7, they could join 200 or so other steerage passengers and board a vessel such as the Dunbrody and sail for 60 days or so to the New World.
It must have been a hellish journey. Steerage passengers had only a tiny, cramped space for themselves and their families, a 6ft by 6ft berth for two adults and maybe five children, and were only allowed up on board the top deck for one-half hour in 24 and in this time they needed to cook and see to themselves. These were invariably people who had hardly ever left their home for any length of time let alone sailed on a sea. Bathing facilities were virtually non existent and food rations meagre. It’s no surprise that many got sick and a number of them died, though less than might be supposed.
First class passengers fared a little better having their own cabins but even these were cramped and uncomfortable. They could at least go up on deck any time they wished.
To feed the passengers pigs, sheep and goats were carried on the foredeck and slaughtered there as necessary. The reek of animals, blood, dung and unwashed people must have been intense.
Surviving the journey would have been just the start of the migrants’ hardships but, of course, many Irish nationals made it to the New World. Around a third of Irelands 9 million population left the ‘old country’ never to return. Many died but many more made a success of it and it is no surprise that, today, most of the people on our tour came from the USA.
As you leave the tour through the visitor centre you can’t help but see the ‘hall of fame’, photos of prominent Americans who claim Irish ancestry. And there are none more prominent than the Kennedy family and in particular JFK himself. Outside the centre is the ‘Migrant Flame’ which was lit by a torch from the Eternal Flame at the graveside of J F Kennedy.
But foreign presidents aren’t the only notables to visit these parts. King Edward VII visited amongst other places the nearby county city of Kilkenny. Naturally his visit included Kilkenny’s castle, owned then by the Butler family. He is supposed to have asked an aide “Who are all of these people lining up to meet me”. On being informed they were the Butlers he replied “Then why aren’t they serving the bloody drinks.”
Kilkenny has a history going back to medieval times and you can see this in the narrow alleyways or slips off the main street. As well as the castle there is an ancient abbey, Saint Canice’s cathedral and the excellent Rothe House, a Tudor Merchants House. This eventually comprised of not one but three houses linked by courtyards. Best of all it had a massive rooftop garden which has been lovingly restored with the planting of herbs, vegetables, fruit and nut trees and flowers.
In 1642 Kilkenny became the provisional capital of all Ireland (i.e. North and South). Unfortunately, during the English civil war the Catholic burghers sided with Charles I against Oliver Cromwell. Needless to say, Cromwell laid siege to the city and a week later it surrendered, never again to achieve such political pre-eminence.
But perhaps the most fascinating story of Kilkenny is that of its notorious witch, Alice Kyteler. She was anything but a toothless hag with a pointy hat. Her first three husbands all died in mysterious circumstances, leaving their wealth to her. In 1324 her fourth husband, the very wealthy Sir John le Poer, became emaciated with his hair and nails falling out; classic symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
Alice was accused of witchcraft but managed to escape with the aid of friends. But her accuser, Bishop Le Ledrede, was not to be thwarted and, by means of torture, forced Kyteler’s lady-in-waiting, Petronella, to confess to murder and witchcraft. Sadly, she was the first ‘witch’ in Ireland to be burned at the stake.
Kyteler’s Hall is now an Inn and it is to there that we repaired to partake of the beer (Guinness, of course) and to listen to some Irish folk music on our last night in the area.