Tag Archives: medieval Ireland

Another Great Picnic on Another Great Rock: The Rock of Dunamase, County Laois, Ireland.

This Summer, which I am spending at home in Ireland, has been amazing so far. I literally have 2 months to hang out with my family, cook, and travel wherever the wind takes me. This wind has often been accompanied by driving rain, but it hasn’t dampened our spirit of adventure.

Picnic on a breathtaking rock

While my sisters have been at work (poor them!) I have been taking my kids on day trips to places I love as well as to places I have always wanted to go but never taken the time to do so. This trip always includes the essential component to making these excursions a success, and that is, a robust picnic. There is nothing more annoying than being in a gorgeous place, only to leave because someone’s tummy is rumbling.

The Rock of Dunamase, Ireland

The place I choose to take them on this particular day was The Rock of Dunamase, which sits on a hill just outside the town of Stradbally in county Laois Ireland. This is the county where I am from, and when I say “I” it includes all of my ancestors on both sides of my family for literally centuries. Growing up, as my parents did, in the 1940’s and 50’s, pretty much guaranteed that most marriages occurred between individuals who lived within miles of each other. My mother and father were no different, their family homes being only 12 miles apart.

Part of the ruins at Dunamase

This however was my mother’s part of the country and this historical site was a place she often visited as a young girl. She could stand at the top of the castle outcrop, and with a turn of her head, name every family who lived in each house and which bit of land was theirs’ We would sit around on giant bits of crumbling walls that had fallen, that were now over-grown with soft tufted grass, and listen to her stories prompted by being back in a familiar place.

more ruins

Now here I was with my children, talking to them about the history of The Rock and trying to give them a sense of what it must have been like when it was a thriving community, and what the various battles to take control of it by one important family or another must have been like. We tried to make out what each building could have been used for and walked the parts of the curtain walls that were still partly in tact.

Lower Ward of Rock of Dunamase

There is much less known about the Rock of Dunamase than other historical landmarks in Ireland. The first official reference to Dunamace castle was in 843 AD when it was said to be invaded, and significantly damaged by the Vikings. It was inhabited,  invaded, and added to, by the various important rulers and families of the province of Leinster over the following centuries, until it was abandoned and slowly declined to the state of ruin it is today in the middle of the 17th century.

Upper ward and Great Hall

When we got there, we walked through the still-in-tact Barbican gate and walked the vertical slope to the main gate and the lower ward of the castle grounds. This castle was cleverly built on a peak of land giving the illusion that everything, including the castle itself, draped dangerously downward: magnificent.

Barbican Gate

We looked ahead of us in search of a good place to spread out our picnic. We were all starving, and thought the best plan was to eat, then explore. My son spotted a rock that slanted upward, but was wide enough for us all to fit comfortably. When we sat down I was overcome by my breathtaking 360* view of the countryside surrounding me. I can’t begin to describe how spectacular the patchwork of fields in every color of green, imagined and unimagined, spread itself like a vision of heaven below my feet.

a peak at the view

The thought of food, and eating it in this setting made me even hungrier, so I hurriedly laid what I had prepared on a grassy bit of rock between us. The most important thing about a picnic is to pack a really good sandwich, which I have become an expert at. This day it was a fresh cheddar roll with strong mustard, greens, olives, field greens, chicken and smoky bacon. The other essential component is lots of tasty snack foods, like grapes, berries, peanuts, raw carrot sticks and perhaps potato chips or popcorn. Of course a little bottle of wine along with a glass didn’t go astray either!

picnic essentials

After lunch it was time to wander through every crack and crevice of Dunamase, and that we did. We walked the perimeter, scaled walls for better views, gingerly climbed into a huge grassy hollow, hopped onto window frames, and all the while marveling at how a place like this could have been built well over a thousand years ago. I loved how primitive and yet oddly modern it all was. The people who lived on this lonely rock had my utmost respect.

A view

We stayed so much longer than I would have thought possible, given a child’s attention span, and as we left, we seriously discussed returning for a picnic the very next day, even picking out another good spot to lay our blanket on our way down the winding path to the car.

We will most definitely be back

Of course that did not happen. There are so many other place I am determined to take my children before we leave that are dear to my heart, and I can’t wait.

Holy Trinity Church at the base of The rock of Dunamase

Lunch On A Wall In Tipperary with a view of The Rock Of Cashel And Hore Abbey

A very pleasant lunch on a wall in Tipperary

The other day, my kids and I ate lunch on a stony wall with a view of a magnificent 12th century Cistercian abbey on one side, and the medieval buildings of The Rock Of Cashel on the other. I have started a habit that I am quite sure will be a religious one until my Summer at home in Ireland ends, and that is to pack a lunch and enjoy it in an idyllic spot.

One view – The Rock Of Cashel. This site started out as a fortress in the 4th century, but in 1101 it was handed over to the church and became an ecclesiastical site until being declared a national monument in 1875

Everyday I try to plan something fun and interesting for myself and my kids to do together. We usually look at the weather and then make a decision based on whether it is going to rain all day or not. This particular day it looked like rain where we were, however if I drove in a more south-westerly direction we might be lucky and find some sun; we did!

The other view – Hoar Abbey

The only thing that has interfered with these trips is just when we are in the middle of a great exploration of some ruined castle or other, or enjoying a museum visit, I get the request for food (my stomach also alerts me). If I don’t want to be in the company of cranks for the rest of the day I give in to the hungry pangs and leave in search of a restaurant. It became a bother, and so I discovered if I packed a nice lunch, it could be eaten on a whim almost anywhere. This has worked out brilliantly.

Gothic-Style cathedral at Rock of Cashel

I have loved introducing my kids to places that I spent my childhood visiting, while also having the pleasure of rediscovering them for myself as an adult. The Rock Of Cashel was certainly one of the places that I frequented on a regular basis, and up to now I had never taken my two children to see this wonderous, lonely looking outcropping of medieval buildings situated in the heart of Munster province.

Graveyard at The Rock Of Cashel

We got there in perfect time as a full tour of the whole site was getting ready to start. We had an amazing guide who went in to great detail both historically and architecturally, telling us about the unusual Hibernian-Romanesque Chapel, the recently discovered frescos, and how in 1101 the king of Cashel gave the entire place to the church, which may have been a clever political move.

One of the best examples of the 80 plus Round towers in Ireland (Rock Of Cashel)

We were completely captivated from beginning to end and after the tour ended we explored further, taking pictures and discussing where we should have our lunch; we were ravenous. From one side of the fortified walls we saw another beautiful building, Hoar Abbey. It looked like it could be gotten to by trekking over a few of the adjoining fields, so we set off.

A view of Hoar Abbey from the Wall at The Rock of Cashel

We walked through the field below the Rock, and then hopped over a wall to another field. The abbey stood in the middle of yet another big field, surrounded by an old rock wall. The wall was deep and flat on top; the perfect picnic spot. I spread out my little teacloth and laid out all sorts of goodies, along with a little bottle of wine for myself. It was a glorious day, and as we sat on the wall munching our sandwiches, we were joined on one side by a herd of curious cows, who grazed lazily on hefty clumps of grass. As cars wound their way down the higgledy-piggledy road they greeted us with friendly waves. They may have been hungry also, and looking for an invite to our lovely wall!

Ide having a chat after lunch

After we demolished every scrap of food, we headed down the road that led to a gate into the field. It was time to explore the ruins of the Cistercian abbey affectionately dubbed Hoar Abbey centuries earlier. Hoar refers to the type of frost that blankets the fields in this particular area of the country. Hoar frost is when the dew on the grass freezes and turns a frosty white color. I could so easily imagine how this holy place looked in the earlier winter mornings so long ago.

Interior of Hoar Abbey

We wandered around for a long time, taking in every thick wall, stone-carved door frame, and impressive gothic lancet window. When we decided to make our way back to our car which was parked at the base of the Rock of Cashel, we ventured through a different set of fields, just for the fun of it. As we walked, side-stepping big ruts hidden in the long grass, and numerous pungent cow patties, I was conscious of how my kids voices rose and fell as they talked about all the new things they had discovered since they woke up that morning. And, I was the lucky one who got to be in their company.

Discovering the abbey