The Irish treasure their long history over thousands of years and the country is dotted with castles, memorials, remains of castles, grounds where castles once stood grandly ….and legends to remember them all, interspersed with the facts they really know and proudly re-tell. And they take great joy in mixing up fact and fiction for the enjoyment of their guests..us tourists….make no mistake about it…the Irish are great story tellers and in the end, who knows? Maybe some of the legends really are true. Leprechauns? I’m certain I saw one at the end of the rainbow I spotted near the Guinness Storerooms!

     But the Rock of Cashel is real. And so is the charming waterfront town of Cobh, probably the town that most closely resembles Highlands.

   The Rock of Cashel is in County Tipperary…it’s a long way to….and is actually an ancient fortress, or the remains of such, that was the home of the kings of Munster centuries ago. They’ve done excavating there and also turned up evidence of burials and church buildings from the 9th century as well as proof it was a matter century for the Christian faith as early as the 12th century.

   It’s a long, steep, and slippery in the dampness, walk up a hill from the road to the Rock and only a handful of us decided it was worth delaying an Irish Coffee to make the trek. It truly was well worth it, and yes, made the Irish Coffee taste that much better upon our return! The castle remains, but we weren’t able to see all of it since a part was closed to visitors while experts continued uncovering the secrets of centuries past. They have found some incredible paintings and sculptures etched in the walls and are in the process of restoring them; the areas not covered by canvas were proof enough there is magnificent ancient artistry to be seen on future trips to Tipperary.

     There’s also a cemetery at the top of the hill within the fortress, and stones there date from the 1700s through the 1900s, each telling its own story of life and death. And the view from the top is spectacular, overlooking horse country, open fields, sheep and lambs, and more of those 40 shades of green. Stopping along the countryside for photo ops and inhaling fresh country air, we also met up with a few shepherds, who, recognizing American tourists like the different and the quaint, brought a few of their goats, lambs, dogs, and even peat to smell and feel, to be admired, photographed and petted. It’s wonderful being in a country where the natives really love us.

   On to Cobh…pronounced without the H at the end….and another exhibition of how the Irish revel in the good, lament the sad, but cherish them both.

   This unique port town stretches from the church on the High Road at the top of the hill, down the hill to the Heritage Center that captures so much of its past, and finally to the base of the hill where most of the villagers live. Inbetween there’s a great little pub called The Quay, still high on the hill and overlooking the Atlantic.

   But the Heritage Center is the biggest story in this charming little town once known as Queenstown. Since it’s a port, Cobh has also been the site of so many comings and goings of the Irish and others, and it’s depicted in all its harsh reality in one of the finest museums or cultural centers I’ve ever visited. There are the stories of the Coffin Ships, the cheapest way for Irish immigrants to escape the Great Famine and those others in the highlands escaping the great Highland Clearances. The ships were jammed packed with fearful Irish looking for a better life, disease-ridden, with little food and water, and in the end, leading to a mid-19th century typhus epidemic, all perfectly within the law at the time, but leading to the deaths of one out of every three passengers. The moving exhibits, audio and visual effects in the museum bring tears to your eyes but are ever mindful of what many of our ancestors went through to get to Canada or America.

There are exhibits of the convict ships that left Cobh for Australia in 1801, when sending prisoners to that distant country was the norm.

   And not too far off Cobh, in Cork Harbor, is where the Lusitania was sunk leading to our entry into World War I, and the museum has horrific exhibits of that bombing and the loss of nearly 1200 lives.

   On the bright side, there’s a monument in the museum to Annie Moore and her two brothers; Annie was the first emigrant to be processed at Ellis Island, and you can see a similar monument to her on this side of the pond at that Island.

But Cobh was also the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic, and that experience is the primary make-up of the museum.

   Between movies, newspapers, the relative recent history of the ship, and for us on this trip, a visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, so many of the details and stories of the Titanic are well known. But at Cobh, instead of getting a ticket into the museum, you are handed a “Passenger Contract Ticket” for a specific passenger on the Titanic. Because I was handed the contract ticket for Jeremiah Burke, I was eager to learn more about this young man who was provided with steerage passage from Queenstown to New York, but did not survive. A 19-year old teenager, Burke was traveling with a cousin from his farm life, half a dozen siblings and parents in County Cork to live with relatives in Massachusetts; his mother gave him a small bottle filled with Holy Water for his trip. More than a year after the ship sunk, that bottle washed up not far from Burke’s home in Ireland, with a note inside, both of which were identified by his mother as coming from her son. The note said simply, “13/4/1912 from Titanic Goodbye, all. Burke of Glanmire, Co. Queenstown.” The note and bottle are part of the Heritage Center’s exhibit.

   After the Center visit, we once again boarded the bus to continue our journey to Cork, and checked in to the Imperial Hotel, another magnificent hotel right in the heart of town, with huge comfortable beds, fluffy soft duvets, even heated floors in the tile bathrooms….

But that’s another story!