Ireland Revisited, Part 3

On the Famine Trail in Search of Ancestral Roots

June 11 - 26, 1997

 

By Lewis and Betty Nolan

 

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Part 1:  Memphis to Dublin                                           Part 7:  Cork, Kinsale

Part 2:  Carlow, site of Nolan Homelands                      Part 8:  Dingle Golf Links, Shopping     

Part 3:  Kilkenny, Waterford, Crystal Plant                    Part 9:  Dingle's Famine Cemetery

Part 4:  Youghal, Dingle Town                                      Part 10: Ballinasloe, County Galway

Part 5:  Dingle Peninsula                                                Part 11: Strokestown Famine Museum

Part 6:  Great Blasket Island                                         Part 12: Donegal

Photo Album Index                                                    Part 13: Drive in Northern Ireland

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Friday, June 13, 1997 - To Waterford, Betty -

            We stopped in Kilkenny briefly on the way to Waterford. The slow traffic and narrow, medieval streets made it very attractive to drive on through, with only a brief stop near the castle. When we arrived at Waterford, we proceeded to find the Diamond Hill Country House on the eastern side of town. After unpacking, we went on to visit the Waterford Crystal Factory.

            The plant tour was excellent. Having seen how they actually blow the glass and shape it convinces one that making fine crystal truly is an art. Even the attaching
Betty by Waterford display case
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of hot, molten glass to fasten a handle on a jug (or pitcher as we call it) was fascinating to watch. Our walking tour group then proceeded to see the blank vases, bowls, jugs, etc. The rough pattern outlines are mechanically marked on the blanks with a machine to help the cutters and engravers equally divide up their cuttings for the various pieces. The actual patterns are hand cut. Some patterns are used more than others, but a lot of cutters know by memory every pattern once they have cut it. They can go back and look at an example or drawing if it is a Waterford pattern that has not been cut recently.

            If a defect or mistake is made, the piece is destroyed - broken, melted and re-fired in molten glass. No seconds or flawed items are sold. With the exception of a few runs made many years ago, all Waterford pieces have the Waterford emblem engraved somewhere on the piece, usually on the bottom of vases or bowls.

            A true appreciation of a Waterford piece was what I gained from the tour. There are no bargains there, even at the factory store. If one had a great deal of money to spend, mail orders for crystal would save a little. But our experience with large purchases when abroad (such as the set of English China we purchased 11 years ago and didn't get for nearly 2 years and only then by the hardest) and the uncertainties of delivery, shipping and customs being paid as promised, has not been good. We rarely buy anything that we can't carry with us.

            We ate dinner at a neighborhood pub. It wasn't great, but then Ireland and England are not noted for excellent cuisine anyway. It is just food. I do believe I could take the raw materials available to the Irish cooks and do more with them. 

            Photographs taken today and yesterday included shots at Dublin, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford.

 

Saturday, June 14, 1997 - To Waterford, Lewis -

Our host in Carlow, Mr. Dempsey, called Aer Lingus on our behalf and was told my golf bag had been sent to London and that the airline would arrange delivery to me at our next stop, in Waterford. So off we went to Waterford, driving through the Irish countryside and its many hues of green. We stopped at Kilkenny (pop. 8,500), a well-preserved medieval town built around a towering Norman castle. We found its narrow, winding main street choked with traffic. It obviously had been designed for oxen and horse carts. Kilkenny looks like a charming place and I would have liked to explore its 800-year-old castle that commands the smallish, clear River Nore.

            The Michelin Tourist Guide calls Kilkenny "Ireland's most outstanding medieval city" and the home of an arts festival in August that is one of the country's most important. But we decided to push on to Waterford (pop. 40,000), well described by "The Real Guide - Ireland" as "basically a modern European port wrapped around an ancient Irish city."

            We stayed at the Diamond Hill Country House, a comfortable inn a mile or two out of Waterford. It had a well-kept, formal garden and provided a full Irish breakfast (centerpiece is yummy Irish bacon that includes the loin, served with eggs, cereal, juice, toast and the ever-present broiled tomatoes and hot tea). The only bad thing I have to say about the property is that its new owner pressured me to reserve a room at his sister property in Dublin for our last night. He ignored my subsequent cancellation and it was only through the intervention of American Express that I got the charges for the unused room removed.

The highpoint of this stop was our tour of the Waterford Crystal factory, which employs 1,600 and offers a great tour for 3.5 Irish Pounds (each worth roughly $1.50 American dollars). The factory's visitor center is a slick facility complete with fashion-lighted showroom, fine crystal and brightly colored lunchroom. We ate ham and salmon before leaving on the 1 1/2-hour tour, led by an informative, young, female guide who grew up in the area.

            We learned that Waterford first started producing crystal in 1783, closed in 1851 and
Lewis at Waterford pub
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reopened in 1951. The famed plant uses a silica sand/potash/litharge mixture containing 33 percent lead; the reason Waterford crystal is so heavy. Skilled artisan-craftsmen work on a piecemeal basis. They are only paid for what they produce and the best of them make the equivalent of $20,000 a year. Quality control is stringent, a reason for the steep prices charged for the premier Waterford name in crystal. The average finished crystal rejection rate is 15 percent, but that rate climbs to 20 percent on Mondays due to hangovers, we were told.

            We got a new appreciation for the high prices Waterford charges as we saw the incredible amount of highly skilled work that that is required to form, shape and cut even the simplest pieces of the glass. If a master cutter's work, or for that matter any work by anybody, fails to pass the stringent quality control checks, it is smashed. The broken crystal is recycled into molten glass in a 1400-degree-centigrade furnace. There are no "seconds" of Waterford crystal. Everything that leaves the plant is of the highest quality. Among the pieces on display was an elaborate crystal fountain sold to Harrods's of London for 110,000 pounds. Betty bought a small votive candleholder.

            We then visited another of Waterford's prime attractions, Reginald's Tower, a fighting structure of stone that dates to the Vikings in 854. It looks like a fat silo and was built alongside the Suir River. We had the place as well as several nearby medieval structures almost entirely to ourselves and we enjoyed visiting with two college students working as Tower guides.

The student-guides told us about Strongbow, also known as the Earl of Pembroke. The warrior was one of the Norman conquerors who were sent from England to subdue Ireland in 1169. He fell in with a Gallic princess, Aoife. Their marriage took place 50 steps away from Reginald's Tower and was the first such alliance between a Norman earl and an Irish royal family, said by historians to be a crucial event in giving legitimacy to subsequent English rule.

            We were also told about one of Waterford's beauties having a leading role in
Betty at Heritage Museum
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"Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance," the touring performances of Irish step dance. (We saw her playing the role of the vixen when the "Lord of the Dance" company performed in Memphis the next year). Next to Reginald's Tower is Reginald's Pub and Restaurant, which has been built around some 1,000-year-old sections of a stone wall that once anchored Waterford's defenses. Over a pint of Guinness, I reflected on the way the Irish live in the midst of so much history and how they treat it with such respect.

            Dinner that evening consisted of a fairly expensive but so-so meal at the Rue Glenn Country Club, a glorified roadhouse where I tried the lamb. With so many sheep in Ireland, one would think the Irish would serve some fantastic lamb dishes. Not so. We sat by a gas fire in the "guest room," a sort of parlor, back at the Diamond Hill until after 10 p.m., when it was still light out.

            Before leaving Waterford the next morning, we visited the Heritage Museum that is near the landmark Reginald's Tower. It is small but of high quality. On display are the actual charters and illuminated documents of the city of Waterford, dating to the early 1200s. The city was first granted a charter by King John in 1215, some months before he signed the Magna Carta. Much later, Waterford was the only Irish city besieged by Cromwell, which he failed to capture; it fell a year later to one of his generals.

Other interesting tidbits we learned at the museum include the points that the Waterford was the first Irish city to come under artillery fire, the modern method of curing bacon was developed at Waterford and the first steamship to round Cape of Good Hope was built there. Various excavations over the centuries have yielded a trove of historic treasures, including that of a cannon used in defense of Waterford in 1495 - three years after Columbus set sail for America.

 

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