There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ardfert, Flying-boats and Limerick: Part 8 of The West of Ireland

We checked out of our Tralee hotel with a long day ahead before our evening flight home.

Our final day in the west of Ireland


A short drive northwest took us to the village of Ardfert. St Brendan the Navigator was born nearby around 500 and founded a monastery here, though its location is unknown. Ardfert cathedral, dedicated to St Brendan, was built in 1117 and extended in the 15th century.

Ardfert Cathedral
After Henry VIII’s Reformation it became a Protestant Cathedral. In 1663 the diocese was merged with Limerick and as tiny Ardfert hardly needed a cathedral of its own St Brendan’s became the parish church. In 1871 a new church was built, St Brendan's became redundant and the roof was removed – presumably valuable lead could not be left sitting around on unused buildings. The ruin is now in the custody of the Office of Public Works, so we got in free with our Heritage Cards, which had certainly proved their value.

Ardfert Cathedral
Only on leaving did we discover there is free access to most of the site, just the exhibition, behind the modern doors in the picture above, required the fee we did not have to pay. In the exhibition we were talked through the cathedral’s history before having a look round. I liked the ogham stone below. From the 1st to 9th century Primitive and then Early Irish was inscribed on stones using the Ogham script which, to the uninitiated looks like a random series of scratches. I remember reading about Ogham in my teens, but it has taken me until now to actually see an Ogham stone - even if the scratches are worn almost smooth.

Ogham stone, Ardfert Cathedral
 The unroofed section has some pleasing Romanesque carved sandstone…

Norman stonework, Ardfert Cathedral
 ….and the site grew a couple of more crudely built minor churches in its early days.

Secondary church, Ardfert Cathedral
The friendly lady on the desk suggested we visit the ruins of the Franciscan Friary. Following her directions we parked beside a graveyard from where we could see the friary across the fields.

We walked between pastures on a narrow road beneath an ever darkening sky. The cattle were lying down - they knew rain was inevitable.

Ardfert Friary and recumbent cows
The clouds were much darker than they look, I had to lighten the picture to make the Friary visible
The friary was built in 1253 by the Anglo-Norman Thomas Fitzmaurice, Lord of Kerry. Some say it is on the site of St Brendan’s original monastery, but that belief owes more to faith than archaeology. Originally it consisted of a large church and a cloister,…

Cloister, Arfert Friary
… the tower, used for accommodation, was added in the 15th century. At six storeys it looked high enough to almost touch the gathering clouds. It was a peaceful place, with only the quiet sounds of nature to be heard. Despite, or even because of, the gloom Lynne rather took to it, ‘a wonderful place for contemplation’ she wrote in her diary. I hold to my belief that everywhere looks better in the sunshine.

The church and accommodation tower, Ardfert Friary


The rain fell steadily as we drove from Ardfert to Ballyheigue, the road following the coast with green fields on one side and on the other a scattering of caravan parks among the dunes.

Ballyheigue is a ‘scenic resort town’ (Wikipedia) beside the ‘beautiful rock rolling sea’ (town website). To us it looked like a down-at-heal seaside resort in the depths of the off-season - even in July. The café in the centre was steamed up and packed with late breakfasters, so we chose an alternative a little further out. It was open, all the tables laid and equipped with menus, but empty and the elderly man who, we presumed, had been left in charge while younger family members were busy, looked worried. ‘I can only do instant,’ he said but the word ‘instant’ was misleading – he filled a huge kettle and watched it for twenty minutes while some five litres of water slowly came to the boil. We only stayed because we felt sorry for him.


We turned northeast into County Limerick and followed the southern shore of the Shannon Estuary to Foynes. Foynes is a small village strung out beside the main road but the port beyond is Ireland’s second largest….

The start of the Port of Foynes
….and nearby was the only heavy industry we saw in Ireland, looking strangely misplaced in this bucolic landscape.

Industry beside the Shannon
We lunched in a Foynes pub. Unusually, they offered two menus, one Irish, one Chinese. I always eat local when travelling - well almost always - but this time I chose Chinese style chicken curry. Lynne went for boiled bacon with cabbage and mash. We were served by a diminutive elderly Chinese woman, who gave the impression of having been recently and unhappily transplanted, perhaps by younger entrepreneurial* relatives who were maybe working the kitchen. British or Irish, we were all the same to her, large clumsy people with big noses and strange eyes and she gave Lynne’s lunch a look which may have been disgust. Lynne pronounced it excellent, but it looked too much like a 1960s school dinner to me – I’m with the Chinese lady on this one.

The Foynes Flying-boat Station

Foynes may be tiny, but it played a key role in the history of commercial aviation. On the 8th of February 1937 a BOAC Short Empire flying-boat (who ever thought that was a good name for an aircraft?) took off from Foynes bound for Botwood, Newfoundland. On the same day a Pan-Am Sikorsky S-42 flew from Botwood to Foynes. Both planes then successfully completed the return journeys, the east-west trip taking 15 hours, the west-east 12. These proving flights soon led to a scheduled transatlantic flying-boat service. In 1942 non-stop flights to New York started, taking a little under 26 hours. The primacy of flying boats did not last long, Shannon Airport’s opening in 1942 was the beginning of the end and the Foynes Flying-boat station closed in 1946 but it had been the start of something bigger than the pioneers could ever have imagined.

The Flying-boat Station, across the road from the pub, is now Foynes Flying-boat Museum, and is well worth a visit.

Foynes Flying-boat Museum
They have all the exhibits you would expect including a flight simulator – Lynne took off nicely, lifting clear of the choppy water at just the right moment, and plunging back into it nose first before she had left Irish airspace (and again, and again). Her diary accuses me of not wanting to have a go, my memory is slightly different, when I eventually prised her off the machine I quickly proved that I was equally clueless.

Perhaps the best exhibit is a full size replica (minus wings) of the Yankee Clipper**, a Boeing 314 which sits in a pool outside the main building, the tail plain visible from the road.

Boeing 314 'Yankee Clipper'
 The interior is spacious by modern standards,…

Inside the Yankee Clipper - plenty of leg room
…there is even a separate dining area….

Inside the Yankee Clipper - dining area
….and the navigator had ample room to spread out his charts.

Inside the Yankee Clipper - Navigators area
After her performance on the simulator, that woman at the end should not, on any account, be allowed onto the flight deck 
The 30 or so passengers arrived tired, cold and sometimes wet, and in need of a pick-me-up so catering manager Brendan O’Regan invented the Irish coffee for just that purpose. Later he moved to Shannon Airport where he invented the duty-free shop. I very occasionally drink Irish coffee, but there have been times when I have really appreciated it, so thank you, Brendan. On the other hand, the next time I become lost between security and departure lounge in a glittering labyrinth of retail opportunities I do not want, I will wish that you quit while you were ahead.


Leaving Foynes we reached Limerick after 4 o’clock. We had passed through on Thursday, but knowing we had a late flight home we thought it best to leave the city to fill in time today. Sadly, we arrived too late to do it justice.

Leaving the car in a multi-storey carpark, we set out to walk round the heart of the city.

With almost 100,000 residents Limerick is not huge, but it is the third largest city in the Irish Republic. The centre lies east of the Shannon but we started by crossing the Sarsfield Bridge to the west side and walking north towards the Thomond Bridge.

Looking at Central Limerick across the River Shannon
Limerick’s origins are lost in the mists of time. Records mention a 7th century Bishop of Limerick, but a Viking trading post established about 920 is the earliest known settlement. The city was strategically important being at the Shannon’s lowest fording point, and from 1118 to 1543 it was the capital of the Kingdom of Thomond which extended across most of Ireland's mid-west.

Thomond survived the 12th century Norman invasion despite the construction of a sizeable Norman castle, known as King John’s Castle, at the fording point. A large glass and steel visitor centre filling in a missing section of the curtain wall was opened in 2013. Somebody thought it a good idea, but it looks like vandalism to me.

King John's Castle, with the inappropriate Visitor Centre, Limerick
In 1543 Thomond was absorbed into the Tudor Kingdom of Ireland.

The Glorious Revolution removed James II from the English throne in 1688 and replaced him with William of Orange. In England the revolution was popular and bloodless, but not in Ireland where the catholic James had much support.

The 1690 Williamite siege of King John’s Castle failed, but they returned in 1691 with a lot of artillery and the Jacobites led by Patrick Sarsfield had to negotiate a surrender. The resulting Treaty of Limerick was signed on top of a stone which has, since 1856, stood on a plinth beside the Shannon.

The Treaty Stone, Limerick
The treaty’s two main points were that Sarsfield and his 12,000 followers (the ‘Wild Geese’) would be permitted to go to France and that Catholics would be free to practice their religion. The first was honoured, the second not.

Thomond Bridge, Limerick
We crossed the Thomond Bridge to the castle and walked south past the 17th century Forty Shillings Alms Houses,…

40 Shilling Alms Houses, Limerick
 …and St Mary’s Cathedral, a fussy looking building founded in 1183 and now the Church of Ireland Cathedral.

St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick
The Abbey River, a small branch of the Shannon, loops round the castle area which is known as King’s Island.

Abbey river, Limerick
To the south is Limerick’s modern centre. We might have dropped into the Hunt Museum had it still been open – it was one of many attractions that we had to miss. We killed an hour in Costa Coffee before returning to the car.

Patrick Street, Limerick
Near the carpark is a statue of King Arthur. Although the semi-legendary monarch is claimed by the Scots and English (though he was, of course, Welsh) I know of no Irish claim despite there being an Arthur’s Quay shopping centre a few hundred metres north of here. In fact the statue depicts one of Limerick’s favourite son, Richard Harris, as King Arthur in Camelot.

Richard Harris as King Arthur in Camelot, Limerick
There was nothing left but make our way back to Shannon Airport and thence home. Leaving Limerick we were pulled over by a young member of the Garda Síochána who was standing in the middle of the wide road watching the traffic.  ‘Do you know one of your running lights is out?’ I said that I did not, but it was a hire car and we were on our way back to the airport. He smiled and waved us on. ‘Tell them when you get there,’ he said, ‘and that you were stopped by a guard.’ He was smartly dressed, courteous and cheerful and I drove away feeling that he had done me a favour, not told me off. It was a very Irish encounter.

* The word 'entrepreneur' was coined by the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon - who was born in Ballyheigue

**The original Yankee Clipper was destroyed when it hit the water while turning in Lisbon in 1943 killing 24 of the 39 on board, the only fatal accident involving a Boeing 314.

The West of Ireland

Part 1: Galway

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