May 26, 2006

2006 Vacation/Travel Supplement

All in the family:
50th wedding anniversary inspires extended tour of Ireland

By John F. Fink

IRELAND—To celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary, Marie and I took our entire family to Ireland, where her ancestors came from. (Mine came from Germany.) We were 26 in all—four sons, three daughters, four spouses, two fiancées (who are now wives), five granddaughters and five grandsons. We also invited my sister, Ann, to join us.

The trip was last year, June 6-17, as soon as the grandchildren got out of school. It couldn’t have gone better. No one got sick or lost, there was no lost luggage and everything went as Marie had planned it. The weather couldn’t have been nicer; there was a slight mist a couple times when I took my early morning walks, but that was all.

Marie and I had been to Ireland several times so we knew where we wanted to go. Marie planned the trip with the help of C.I.E. Tours. We had our own bus and combination driver/guide. With such a large group, we couldn’t stay at bed and breakfasts so we selected our own hotels.

Perhaps no other group has been as prepared for a trip. For 10 weeks prior to the trip, our daughter, Therese, e-mailed us facts about places we would see. Our son, Bob, sent the Irish joke of the day.

We also gave assignments for everyone to report on places we were going to visit throughout Ireland. As we traveled, the person giving the report would sit on the floor with the driver’s microphone and read the report. Even our 6- and 7-year-old grandsons had reports—6-year-old David read his report on the influence of the Vikings and 7-year-old Tyler told us about Irish golf. Our new daughter-in-law, Heather, even took lessons on Irish dancing, nicely complementing our son Dave’s report on Irish beer and our son John’s report on Irish whisky.

We flew into Shannon Airport, made a clockwise circle around the island, and left again from Shannon on our flight home.

Our first day was in County Clare, so our granddaughter, Claire, read her report about that county. It is famous for its castles, for the Cliffs of Moher 700 feet above the ocean and the Burrens, 116 square miles of rock.

One of the towns we drove through had a pub called Tipsy McStaggers.

Our first night was in Galway, a fast-growing college town. The Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, built in 1320, is the largest medieval parish in Ireland still in constant use. The cathedral in Galway was built from money contributed by wealthy people in Boston, especially the Kennedy family. A side chapel has a mosaic of a very saintly looking President John F. Kennedy.

On our second day, we drove through Connemara, stopping at Kylemore Abbey where Benedictine sisters operate an exclusive girls’ school. The abbey was originally a magnificent castle-mansion built by Mitchell and Margaret Henry from 1867-71. While we were there, the rhododendron was in full bloom and was gorgeous.

We stopped at Croagh Patrick, a 2,510-foot-high mountain, where St. Patrick spent 40 days in 441. We had only an hour-and-a-half for those who wanted to climb part of the mountain. Our sons, Bob, Dave and John, all of whom have competed in Iron Man triathlons, made it to the top and back, and grandsons, Jack and Joe, made it most of the way, with granddaughter Hannah not far behind.

We stayed two nights in Westport, in County Mayo. Marie’s ancestors, the Waldrons, were from County Mayo and we had made arrangements to celebrate our Golden Jubilee with Mass at St. Joseph Church in Aghamore. This small but very attractive church was where Marie’s grandparents were both baptized. They didn’t know each other in Aghamore, perhaps because he was seven years older than she was, but they met in Philadelphia after they had both emigrated to America.

Father John Walsh celebrated Mass for us. We renewed our wedding vows, as did Barbara and Eric, who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and Steve and Tonya, who were celebrating their 20th year of marriage.

After Mass, we met John Waldron, his mother, his daughter and his son. John’s grandfather and Marie’s grandfather were brothers. John’s wife, Eilish, was working, but she joined us for dinner that night. We also visited the cemetery where Marie’s ancestors are buried.

From Aghamore, we drove to Knock, where one of the world’s Marian shrines is located. It commemorates the apparition of Mary, Joseph and St. John the Evangelist to 15 people on Aug. 21, 1879. Today, a 5,000-person basilica is located near the shrine.

When John Waldron and his family joined us for dinner that night, his son, John Jr., introduced our grandchildren to the Irish sport of hurling.

To celebrate our anniversary, our children surprised us with a book of reminiscences, to which everyone contributed. After dinner each evening, they took turns reading their contributions. Needless to say, it’s a prized book.

As we drove toward Dublin the next day, we had time for reports. Angela told us about Irish writers—Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, G. Bernard Shaw, William Yeats, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, C. S. Lewis, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney—Jackie gave a brief history of Ireland, Hannah told us about St. Brigid, and Brian reported on King Brian Boru. Later, Joseph described Newgrange and Irish tombs, and Jack told us about Irish sports.

We wanted to make sure that our family knew all about the Irish famine so we stopped at Strokestown to see both the mansion that belonged to the Mahon and Pakenham families and the Famine Museum next to the mansion. The estate at Strokestown evicted more than 18,000 people from 1846 to 1849 because they could not pay their rent as a result of the famine. Ireland’s population of 8 million in 1845 fell by more than half because of starvation, disease and emigration.

We then drove to Newgrange, one of the most spectacular prehistoric tombs in Europe, built in the fourth millennium B.C.—about a thousand years before England’s Stonehenge. It was constructed with 250,000 tons of stones, transported somehow from the Wicklow Mountains 80 kilometers away. It’s a “don’t miss” attraction on the Emerald Isle.

We spent three days in and around Dublin. We began with a city tour with a guide. Naturally, we went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s not a Catholic church, but it certainly was when it was built in 1191. It was restored by Benjamin Guinness of the Irish beer family in 1860.

We had lunch at the magnificent Powerscourt Gardens, developed first in 1618. From there, we went to Glendalough, the site of St. Kevin’s Monastery, built in the seventh century. On the way there, Hilary gave a thorough report on the 80 round towers scattered throughout Ireland. The best preserved is the one at Glendalough, rising 100 feet into the sky.

The next day, we all went to prison—the Kilmainham Gaol that housed Dublin’s criminals from 1796 until 1924. It’s most noted for the prisoners it housed after the rebellion of 1916, the War of Independence in 1922 and then the Irish Civil War. We wanted our children and grandchildren to know about these wars.

We visited Trinity College to see the fabulous Book of Kells produced by monks in the ninth century. Other ancient books are also displayed, but the Book of Kells is the most spectacular. We also visited the Long Room of the Trinity College Library, where 200,000 of the library’s oldest books are housed.

Among other places, we visited St. Teresa’s Carmelite Church, near busy Grafton Street, the main shopping area, and the National Gallery. That evening, we went to Mass at St. Mary’s Church.

On our trip from Dublin to Kinsale, we stopped at the National Stud Farm, a fascinating place devoted to the breeding of horses, mainly racehorses. The prize stallion there, named Indian Ridge, is insured for $30 million.

We stopped at Kilkenny Castle in Kilkenny, originally built in 1172, and at Waterford to tour the factory that makes Waterford crystal. At Kinsale, our hotel was right at the end of the pier that runs along the harbor. The room where Marie and I stayed overlooked the water on two sides.

Another opportunity to learn more about the Irish famine was at the Cobh Heritage Center. It re-creates the experience of the 3 million Irish who left Ireland, most from Cobh Harbor, for the United States, Canada and Australia.

Naturally, we had to stop at Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone.

On the drive to Killarney, Bob, who teaches at an inner-city high school in Nashville, Tenn., had a quiz for the grandchildren to see how much they remembered about all the things they had seen so far. I was very proud of them. They obviously had been paying attention.

We spent two nights at Killarney, one day to enjoy the scenery of the Ring of Kerry and the other to see the equal beauty of the Dingle Peninsula.

In Limerick, we saw some of the places made famous in Frank McCourt’s book titled Angela’s Ashes. We also toured King John’s Castle. I like King John’s period of history. He was the youngest son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and became king when his brother, Richard the Lionheart, was killed.

We spent our last night in Ireland at Bunratty Castle Hotel after enjoying Bunratty Folk Park. That night, we enjoyed the medieval banquet in the Bunratty Castle, a sumptuous banquet that would have been served in the 15th century. Everything we taught to our children, and they taught to our grandchildren, about proper table etiquette went out the window as we ate with our daggers and our fingers.

Unfortunately, one member of our party was accused of a crime and was sent to the dungeon. Dave was released only after he sang the song he had composed when he prepared his report on Guinness beer.

And so ended a memorable trip. We traveled frequently with our children as they were growing up, but they agreed that this was the best trip we’ve taken as a family.

Marie has promised that, since we went to Ireland for our golden wedding anniversary, we can go to Germany to celebrate our 75th anniversary.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)


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