Category Archives: Arts and Crafts

France, Soissons and Making Sense of Unfortunate Nicknames

Soissons,_veduta_con_la_Cattedrale

It was too early to book into our holiday accommodation which was only just a few miles away so after a surprisingly good IBIS Hotel breakfast we set out to explore the town of Soissons.

The place was unusually quiet for a Monday morning and many of the shops in the town centre were closed (maybe it was a public holiday or perhaps they just don’t open on a Monday) but we didn’t let that bother us, we hadn’t come for the shops but rather to do some sightseeing.

It is a peaceful town today but it has had rather a turbulent past and on account of its strategic location was once a much more important place than it is today.

I was amused by a passage in a guide book which read – “The election of Pepin the Short took place in Soissons in the 8th century and in 923, following a battle outside the town walls, Charles the Simple gave up his throne in favour of the House of France”

I mention this because if I had been a King at around this time I would have taken great offence to names like these and would have preferred something like Andrew the Brave or Andrew the Wise, something altogether a little more flattering.

This is Pepin the Short…

Pepin The Short

Although in fairness rather like the unfortunate Pepin I wouldn’t have been able to effectively dispute the title Andrew the Short.

A quick look at Royal history reveals that the French had a habit of giving their monarchs uncomplimentary appendages, Louis II was the Stammerer, Louis V was called the Do Nothing, and Louis VI was known as the Fat!

My research throws up what simply has to be my all-time favourite – sometime in the late thirteenth century, Ivailo of Bulgaria was called the Cabbage! Rather like the England Football Manager Graham Taylor (1990-93) who was unflatteringly branded Turnip Taylor after a run of disappointing results and failure to qualify for the Football World Cup Finals.

turnip

I couldn’t help wondering if they were aware of these nicknames or if they were like school teachers who were all given names behind their backs by the students. Come to think about it now however, although we always thought that they were secret I am inclined to believe that each and every one of them knew exactly what we called them.

We used to have a geography teacher called Nogger Hickinbotham, a woodwork teacher called Plod Barker, an art teacher called Tap Underwood and a French teacher called Pluto Thompson but I am afraid that I am completely unable to explain the origin of any of those ridiculous names.

In the first year at Dunsmore School for Boys in Rugby my younger brother Richard helpfully recorded all of these names for posterity in the 1969/70 school Year Book…

Dunsmore School Teacher NicknamesDunsmore Staff 1970

Back now to Soissons.

During the Hundred Years’ War, French forces committed a notorious massacre of English archers stationed at the town’s garrison in which many of the French townsfolk were themselves murdered. The massacre of French citizens by French soldiers shocked Europe and Henry V of England, noting that the town of Soissons was dedicated to the Saints Crispin and Crispinian, claimed to avenge the honour of the Saints when he met the French forces at the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.

The last big upheaval in the town was during the First-World-War (1914-18). In the German Spring offensive of 1918 Soissons fell into enemy hands but after massive bombardment by the French in July the town was recaptured. When I say town what I really mean is what was left of it after repeated attacks the centre including the Cathedral was almost totally destroyed and had to be almost completely rebuilt in the post war years.

soissons 1919

During the battle the Allies suffered 107,000 casualties (95,000 French and 12,000 American), the Germans suffered 168,000 casualties and the French High Command justified the deaths and the destruction on the basis that Soissons was an important strategic town that protected invasion and occupation of Paris. More about this later…

An interesting fact about the Battle of the Soissonnais and of the Ourcq is that during the campaign Adolf Hitler, the future Führer of Nazi Germany was awarded the Iron Cross First Class at Soissons on August 4th 1918.  More about him later…

Anyway we spent an enjoyable morning exploring the streets of Soissons, the Town Hall, the Cathedral (every French Town has a mighty Cathedral) and finally the ruins of the Abbaye de St-Jean-Des-Vignes. The Abbaye is a magnificent place even today but could have been even more magnificent but for the fact that in 1805 the Bishop of Soissons approved its demolition to provide building materials to repair the nearby Cathedral – there was no UNESCO World Heritage Committee to prevent this sort of thing in 1805.

We completed our walk and finished the morning with an ice cream at a pavement bakery and with the clock ticking towards check-in time we left and made our way the La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite where we still a little bit early so we waited patiently for our lodge to become available and while the children swam in the swimming pool I acquainted myself with the poolside bar facilities.

Does anyone have a favourite memorable nickname?

France Countryside

Advertisements

Only in Ireland

No Grave digging signRoundstone County Galway IrelandAngry Man Skelligs Viewpoint Kerry IrelandGalway Street EntertainmentIreland GuinessWestport Ireland Dancing and MusicVaughans Pub Kilfanora Father Ted

Ireland, Mullaghmore and Donegal

County Donegal

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” – Prince Charles quoting lines by the Sligo poet W B Yeats:

On the final day our plan was to visit Southern Ireland’s most northerly county, Donegal, so far north in fact that at the most northerly point it is further north than Northern Ireland.  It is also part of the province of Ulster, which we mistakenly tend to think of as Northern Ireland.

There is a phrase that the Irish frequently use themselves which is “Only in Ireland” which is used to justify the regularly encountered idiosyncrasies of the country without offering any sort of rational explanation.

The partition of Ireland into north and south is a good example…

Ulster and Northern Ireland

… The Province of Ulster is nine counties in the north and to make things complicated three of these are in the Republic and the other six make up what we know as Northern Ireland.

Ulster has no political or administrative significance these days and exists only as a historical sub-division of Ireland and one of the four Rugby Union provinces.  The others are Connacht, Munster and Leinster.  The map above shows the geographical split. The reasons are many and complicated but in the simplest terms these six counties were partitioned from the Irish Free State when it was established in 1920 because these were areas where Protestants were in the majority and had campaigned vigorously to remain part of the Union.

Except that they weren’t because in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone they were in the minority but were included anyway.  County Donegal was catholic but was separated from the principal border city of Londonderry/Derry and County Londonderry now has a majority catholic population.

How complicated is all that?  No wonder that the Irish issue has taken so long to try and resolve.

Anyway, we didn’t concern ourselves today with tangled issues of politics but in the sunshine drove out of Sligo and once again picked up the road which follows the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.

Mullaghmore Ireland County Sligo

Although I was uneasy about this (bearing in mind how Kim reacted so badly to a coastal detour just a couple of days previously and just how clear she had been on her thoughts about detours) we chanced a recommended diversion to a small coastal village of Mullaghmore which turned out to be absolutely delightful with a picturesque harbour and a string of bars and cafés so after a stroll we selected one and stopped for drinks.

Mullaghmore is a charming place but it has a grim place in UK/Ireland relations and it has the burden of a horrific legacy.  Overlooking the village is Classiebawn Castle which was once the summer residence of Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma, one of the great British heroes of the Second-World-War.  On 27th August 1979, Mountbatten took to sea in his boat out of Mullaghmore harbour and was murdered by an IRA bomb that had been previously planted on board.

It was only a small boat and a 50lb (23 kilo) stash of radio controlled nitro-glycerine planted there the night before blew it completely apart.

Shadow V Mountbatten

An IRA statement boasted… “We claim responsibility for the execution of Lord Louis Mountbatten. This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”

The thoroughly despicable Gerry Adams, Irish politician and Leader of the political wing of the IRA Sinn Féin, justified the killing in this way…

“The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution…  What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country.”  Hmmm!

Hopefully that unpleasantness is all in the past now (although I do hope that nasty Gerry Adams has recurring nightmares about the time he will spend in the future in Hell) and on a perfect summer day we left a very peaceful Mullaghmore and continued our journey to the very agreeable town of Donegal.

Donegal Castle

Donegal was much smaller than I imagined it would be (my research was hopelessly inadequate on this point) and although it was vibrant and busy it didn’t take a great deal of our time to walk around the town centre and pay a visit to the splendidly restored castle, stop for lunch in a hotel bar and then make our way back to the car park to begin the journey back to Sligo for our final night in Ireland –  for this year anyway.

After the first day which had been spoiled by rain our Irish good weather fortune had returned and we had three days in glorious sunshine enjoying Ireland’s north-west coast.  On the way back we planned another recommended detour into the hills behind Sligo in the shadow of the most famous – Benbulbin, which stands out above the land like an enormous beached liner.  We made the drive but the weather was changing again now and the blue skies were being rapidly replaced by ominous grey.

The rain held off for the final evening in Sligo but the following morning was wet and miserable and the drive back to Knock Airport for the midday flight was through a series of squally storms.  We arrived and departed in the rain but in the middle we had enjoyed a fourth wonderful visit to magnificent Ireland.

But wait. There was a sting in the tail/tale because on the way out through Knock airport departures there was a development tax of 10 euros each to be paid before we could leave.  It seems that the Good Lord doesn’t always provide after all, well not all of it anyway!

Ireland Drinking Guinness

Ireland, Street Art

Ireland Street ArtIreland Street Art MusiciansIreand Street Art iddlersStreet Art Sligo Yeates

Ireland, Westport to Sligo

Wild Atlantic Way Westport to Sligo

Westport Quay was busy today in the sunshine so we stopped for a while and walked around the harbour and the souvenir shops but it seemed rather modern and we didn’t find it especially thrilling so we didn’t stop long and carried on to the town instead.

Westport was a different place completely today in the sunshine and the grey clouds of yesterday had been replaced by a canvas of blue.  What a lovely place, flower beds in full bloom, drinkers spilling out of pubs onto the pavements, courteous motorists who always stop to let you cross the roads, free parking and friendly people everywhere.  We spent an hour or so in the town, found somewhere that we rather liked for evening meal and made a reservation and then had a Guinness in the street before returning to the B&B.

Westport Ireland Dancing and Music

We had a good night, an excellent meal and then an hour or so in a pub with more traditional Irish music and an overdose of Guinness and walked home later under a clear sky that surely meant good weather again for the next day.

In twenty-four hours our situation had improved one hundred percent and we looked forward to another good day ahead.

In the morning it was gloriously sunny, this was going to be a very good day indeed and then encouraged by Richard I made a decision that spoiled it.

Instead of taking the direct route to our next stop in the town of Sligo we thought it might be a good idea to head west for a while and visit Achill Island which everyone seemed to be recommending as an especially scenic experience so after breakfast and settling up our accounts we took the coast road into trouble.

At first things went well enough and we stopped regularly to admire wide sandy beaches, look out over Newport Bay across the water to Croagh Patrick and to examine sites where ships of the Spanish Armarda were wrecked on the rocks in 1588 and it was about at this point that Kim’s mood started to change and as usual I failed to spot the warning signs of rapidly emptying patience reserves.

Ireland Beach and Croagh Patrick

We carried on now to Achill Island and after about twenty minutes of boring countryside and nothing in particular to see Richard made the fatal mistake of asking Kim if everything was alright?  I was beginning to detect simmering discontent in the back seat and thought “oh dear Richard, wrong question”. “Do you want the honest answer?” she said and then the penny dropped straight through – the patience tank was empty and Kim was not enjoying this particular stretch of The Wild Atlantic Way as much as I had thought she might so after a brief debate we turned the car around and looked for a more direct route to Sligo.

This wasn’t very successful at all because we were some distance out of our way and I knew deep down that it was probably going to take a couple of hours or so, maybe even three, to reach our destination and Kim’s temper was rapidly reaching boiled lobster point.

From Achill to Sligo there is no alternative but to take a slow circuitous route around the Nephin Mountains because this is an especially remote part of West Ireland and no roads cross the peat bogs and the conifer forests that are a principle feature of the area. We stopped for a coffee and a visit to a National Park information centre but this didn’t especially help so the only thing to do was to drive as quickly as possible now to see how quickly I could get to Sligo.

County Sligo Postcard

I was driving like a rally driver but with stops the journey took almost six hours and Kim was keen to keep reminding me that she had earlier consulted Multimap and the direct route was estimated to take just an hour and a half! It didn’t help when I took another unnecessary coastal detour which proved especially pointless as it wasn’t particularly close to the sea and all of the pubs were closed for the afternoon.

To my relief we eventually arrived in Sligo at about four o’clock and luckily the hotel was a good one with pavement tables in the sun so we bagged an empty one and sat and calmed down (this was a process that took longer for some than for others) and later we made a first visit to the town centre to identify somewhere suitable for evening meal.

It had been a mixed sort of day, good start, bad in the early middle, very bad in the late middle and good again at the end and I was forced to agree with Kim however that on an exceptionally fine weather day it was a shame that we had spent so much of it in the car.

We agreed that on the next day we would do a few less miles!

W B Yeates Sligo Ireland

Ireland, Croagh Patrick and The Irish Famine

St Patrick Croagh Patrick

On account of the previous day rain and fearing the worst I was somewhat reluctant to draw back the curtains to reveal the weather but as promised the sky was blue with just a smattering of cloud and just a few miles away I could see the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain and major Pilgrim magnet.

I was pleased about that because that is where we were planning to go today.

The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over five thousand years from the Stone Age to the present day.  Its religious significance dates back to Pagan times when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season.  Today, when there aren’t so many Pagan visitors, Croagh Patrick is best known as a Pilgrimage site in honour of Saint Patrick for it was on the summit of the mountain that he fasted for forty days in 441 AD and the custom has been faithfully handed down ever since over the generations.

Croagh Patrick Wesport Ireland

Each year, The Reek, as it is colloquially known, attracts about one million pilgrims. So many in fact that the pathway is becoming loose underfoot, unstable and dangerous. On ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, over twenty-five thousand pilgrims visit the mountain which makes it rather congested.  At the top, there is a modern chapel where mass is celebrated and confessions are heard.

We set off immediately after breakfast and at mid-morning found the visitor centre car park which was already quite full and we could see ahead of us a line of people tackling the arduous climb.  A  lava stream of kagools and backpacks making steady progress up and careful progress back down.

The first part is quite straight-forward, a set of steps that ends at the first stopping point where Pilgrims stop to photograph a statue of St. Patrick statue erected in 1928 and paid for by funding from Irish ex-pats in the USA.

Here he is, St. Patrick, the original Fidget Spinner…

St Patrick Fidget Spinner

After that the going quickly began to get really tough because let me tell you this is not an easy climb up a steep glacial valley littered with boulders and sharp stones which makes it difficult to keep safe footings. It is hard enough in a stout pair of shoes but on pilgrimage days some people prefer to climb in the traditional way – bare-footed. Nothing on earth would persuade me to do that I can tell you!

Ireland-Croagh-Patrick-holy-mountain

The climb has two stages. The first ascends up a rocky foothill covered in heather and moss with a narrow stream running next to the well-trodden path. It took us about forty-five minutes to complete. Apparently it gets even more difficult after that so rapidly running out of enthusiasm for the project, we collectively agreed that we were not sufficiently adventurous to try and find out so after a short debate we took our photographs and made our tentative way back to the car park and going down is harder than going up believe me!

I decided that if anyone ever asked me if I have climbed Croagh Patrick I could genuinely say yes just so long as they didn’t specifically enquire if I got all the way to the top.

Back at sea level we visited the ruins of a medieval abbey and walked for a while on a long sandy beach and then visited the National Famine Monument which is a powerful piece of sculpture which depicts a Coffin Ship with skeleton bodies and commemorates the anniversary of the Irish Famine.

Ireland National Famine Memorial Westport

In terms of human tragedy, the famine was probably the single most important event in modern Irish history but to a certain extent they brought it upon themselves.    It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day, that’s almost two tons a year or about an average sized hippopotamus, about sixty golf ball sized tubors every day – that is a lot of potatoes, to put that into perspective that is roughly equivalent to about two hundred and fifty standard size bags of potato crisps and that is a lot of crisps (chips if you prefer).

Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, roasted, baked, mashed, chips (fries if you prefer), dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!  The Irish however were so fond of potatoes that they ate it to the exclusion of anything else; they didn’t grow vegetables, keep chickens for eggs or catch fish from the rivers or the sea.  They just grew potatoes!

Potato Recipe Book

Unfortunately not only did they rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety.  It was rather unflatteringly called the ‘Irish Lumper’ which was a heavy cropper even in poor soil and wet conditions but by all accounts didn’t even taste very nice and was described as a “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.”  It was also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.

Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway.  Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-five of US Presidents have claimed Irish ancestry.  Not Donald Trump by-the-way, who has a German heritage.

In complete contrast to the previous day the weather was glorious now so we stayed for a while and had a Guinness and then made our way back into Westport.

Ireland Westport Beach

Ireland, Holy Shrine of Knock – Pictures

800px-Knock_ShrineLoaves and Fishes KnockKnock Religious ShopKnock Holy Shrine 02Knock Apparation MosaicKnock Shop SouvenirsKnock Signpost