Monday, June 12, 2006

A journey to Lilliput: small people & big hearts

[Saturday] Tomorrow's destination is Dublin, but today I just need to get somewhere between Galway and Dublin. It's only a 3 hour drive total, so I figure that I'll end up somewhere between Athlone (almost in the geographic centre of the island) and Mullingar. The first 60km on the N6 road out of Galway are spent with 5 other cars behind the same truck, because the rarest combination of words in Ireland is "dual" and "carriageway".

I got into Athlone and poked around the town centre a little bit, before going up inside Athlone Castle, in the middle of town, by the River Shannon. It reminds me of a smaller version of the Chateau d'Angers where I viewed the Apocalypse tapestry last year. I was going to pick up some accommodation guides at the tourist information centre there (having left mine in Galway by accident), but the lady supervising seemed so unfriendly that I just couldn't face her at the counter.

My hostess at the Galway B&B had suggested I look in at Glasson, a village a little north of Athlone, and sitting at the southern end of Lough Ree. I saw signs for a scenic drive, and followed them through about 10km of hedgerows and popped out at the same point I'd entered. I'm not sure what scenery I was supposed to have enjoyed; maybe it only works during cooler months when the hedgerows are a little less exuberantly tall.

I continued onto Mullingar, which is itself only about 50 minutes from Dublin, arriving just before 4.30 pm, to find that its tourist information office is never open on weekends. It seemed a lively-enough town otherwise, so Bondi and I proceeded down the high street to look for a bookshop where I could get this information. That turned out to be one of my best decisions of the trip so far. At Just Books, I met Stella and Ciara, who in the absence of these books in stock, started phoning around for pet-friendly B&Bs. That didn't pan out, and since Bondi & I seemed to be both exotic international travellers AND comfortable in bookstores, Stella very kindly offered to put me up for the night AND organised an impromptu BBQ!

So, a couple of hours later I found myself very comfortably welcomed by her family and menagerie. Bondi went out to lie on the back lawn, and Stella's brother took me to my first hurling match. Hurling is like hockey, but played with kind of large ladle-like sticks by bloodthirsty chefs. It's very dynamic, as the ball travels through the air great distances.

While the large crowd was wildly enthusiastic about the game, with children and adults pouring onto the field mid-game for impromptu hurls, the supporters for both sides Mullingar/West Meath and Kilkenny were freely mingled in the stands. I asked Stella's brother Peter if the game was played to an international level (presumably with Scotland), but he said that the Scottish version was different and the ball stayed mainly on the ground and probably "only played by their womenfolk". Hmmm. It's hard for me to be partisan with pretty much equal doses of Scottish and Irish blood in me.

The BBQ dinner was fantastic and I talked with Stella, Ciara & Linda over some forgotten quantity of red-wine until about 1am and then passed out till mid-morning.

[Sunday] A splendid fry-up breakfast was followed up by a visit to Lilliput adventure park on the shores of nearby Lough Ennell.

Irishman Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels in 1726. Depending on which source you read, his land of little people Lilliput is either named after this location, or fans of Swift named the location after the book. Either way it seemed vaguely appropriate that giant Bondi was surrounded by small inquisitive children for most of the time he was there. I gather the camp is widely used by bodies like the Scouting association ( perhaps for the popular "tie your scoutmaster up" merit badge). The park claims to have been approved by the Irish Ammature [sic] Archery Association. I guess spelling bees are not held there, even by the Irish Ammature Speling Asocciation.

Anyway it is probably better that the park's founders based the name on Lilliput rather than Swift's famous pamphlet A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country,and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.

After saying my goodbyes (but not forever!) to Stella and the crew, we arrived in Dublin mid-afternoon, unpacked for the week and waited to hear from my Australian friends Vance and Meme.

At 7.30 Vance picked me up to take me to the National Concert Hall to see the Irish Chamber Orchestra. This week their guest violinist/leader was Richard Tognetti, who normally performs that role for the very excellent Australian Chamber Orchestra. Tonight's program comprised three works arranged by Tognetti for string orchestra:
* Janacek's String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer, based on Tolstoy, in turn based on Beethoven)
* Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto
* Schubert's Death and the Maiden String Quartet.
Encore: Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla

A great concert.

It may be hard to pick out in this photo, but it looks like the hall has the world's largest set of pan-pipes projecting out from the rear wall.

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