The Castles of Ireland

Castles are romantic places to visit in Ireland.  Some were built as fortresses meant to protect the occupants from invaders.  Some were build as residences of the powerful and wealthy.  Some were built as a statement of new conquests. Many are open to the public for exploration and appreciation.  Some are even available for overnight stays.

You received a Blarney Stone in your travel box.  This stone is of the type found at the Blarney Castle, a popular tourist spot.  The legend goes that kissing the Blarney Stone at the castle will give you the “gift of gab”, an eloquence in speech, the ability to convince with flattery.  You can learn more about the stories behind the stone here.

The photo of you all standing together in front of a beautiful castle came from Rock of Cashel (meaning fortress). This site describes nicely the prized art and work to restore the beautiful frescos in Cormac’s Chapel within the Castle.

You may have seen some of these castles in movies.  Trim Castle was in the movie “Braveheart”.  An older John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man” used the Ashford Castle and surrounding area as a setting.

Castles are not just found in Ireland of course.  I found a really interesting site, a directory to castles of sort.  It lists castles and brief descriptions, lists castles and the movies made at those sites, lists haunted castles, and provides descriptions of different attributes that are important to understanding castles.  Take a look at this site when you have some real time to explore.


Irish language

The Irish language is often referred to as Gaelic.  Gaelic is also spoken in Scotland but is slightly different.  The Irish language can sound a little different in the different parts of the country. I love this video!  It explains the differences in the dialect of Irish and why those differences exist. The language is not commonly spoken as evidenced by this video of someone trying to get the young people in Ireland to demonstrate their fluency with the language.


From the Sheep’s Back to Yours

Wool can come from different types of animals : sheep, alpacas, goats, camels and rabbits. What makes the coat of a sheep so appealing as a material?  It is a very good insulator, holding heat in when the weather is cold.  It is naturally fire resistant, and it is sound proof.  Wool material used on walls, floors and furniture dampens sound.

The process of turning the sheep’s coat into usable wool material usually begins in the spring when the sheep are “shorn”. The process of shearing the sheep is a real art. There are competitions to see who can do the most and who can go the fastest with different types of tools. Watch this sheep shearing contest to get an idea of how fast this can be done.  Isn’t it amazing how quiet the sheep are as they are doing this? There are records of speed and endurance in this craft. One man sheared 97 lamps in an hour. Another man sheared 867 lambs in 9 hours, the energy equivalent of running 3 marathons!

The fleece of wool is gathered and the less desirable parts are separated from the best. The selected fleece is then scoured and detangled, removing burrs, particles, and dirt. The detangling process is performed in a willower in larger processing plants. Scouring removes the lanolin or natural oils on the fibers.  Some wool is not scoured to remove the lanolin and this makes it very water resistant.  The Aran wool is an example of this.

(I remembered that urine was used in treatment of materials many years ago. Poor people saved up their pee and sold it to the tanner. This is where the term “Piss Poor” comes from. These people were so poor that they depended on the sale of their urine for money. But the really poor couldn’t afford even the pot for collecting the urine. That is were the descriptive phrase of poverty “not even a pot to piss in” came from.)

I enjoyed watching  this girl make yarn from wool. She explains the principles of manually cleaning and spinning the fibers. Of course the large processors use different methods that produce the same results. Machines are used to clean, detangle the wool fibers, and then spin for yarn.

There are many different breeds of sheep. Ireland has only one native sheep breed – the Galway.  It has been given Rare Breed Status. You can go to this site to learn more the history of the 300 year old breed.


The Aran sweater has an interesting history.  The Aran islands are off the coast of western Ireland and the people of that land used their wool to make a type of sweater that didn’t have all the lanolin removed with scouring.  The lanolin made the wool water resistant and was preferred by those that worked by the water – the Fisherman’s sweater.  This site describes the meaning behind the stitches of the Aran Sweater.


I hope you enjoyed getting to know more about the material I sent to you.


The Red Hand

What’s up with the Red Hand? I recently sent to you a patch with the Red Hand on it. When you travel Ireland and especially Northern Ireland, you see the Red Hand everywhere.  There are a multitude of stories about how the symbol came to be. I found the most common attribution to be from the family O’Neil. Can you see the red hand on the O’Neil family crest?

I liked one of the stories very much and thought you would find it to be interesting.  Over 2,500 years ago the Galacian King of Spain, Milesius, sent his 3 sons Ir, Heber,and Heremon to invade and conquer Ireland. He told them that the first one to lay a hand on the land would lay claim to the country. The story goes that the three brothers raced to the land on separate ships and when one saw he was going to lose the race, he cut off his hand with a sword and threw it on to the land. The red hand continued to be used on the family crest and flags to show the lineage of family power.

Today the Red Hand is seen everywhere and not just with one line of family. Family lineage meant a lot in those days. Kingdoms were handed down to the first sons and sometimes daughters in many countries. There are countries today that have a similar inheritance of power and position. We hear a lot about Korea these days.  North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un is the son of the Kim Jong-il, the last leader. To insure his position he has had relatives that may pose a threat to his position killed. A more peaceful transition of power through the family will occur when Queen Elizabeth of England dies.  One of her family members will be crowned the King of England. Her son, Prince Charles is next in line for the throne. The next in line for the throne after Prince Charles is his son, Prince William and his children after that. This is the way it has been done for a very long time.

If you watch international sports you may see the red hand again. When you see it you will know at least one story of the origin. If you care to explore, you can find many more explanations of its beginning and meaning. If you are curious – happy hunting!



Remember the photos of the unusual rocks along the water?  That was the Giant Causeway in Ireland.  This area is found on the north coast of Northern Ireland.  I recently sent to you information about Ireland and Northern Ireland.  It explained the differences in these areas.  For the purposes of our trip, we include Northern Ireland in our trip.

When you visit the Giant Causeway you learn the Legend and the Science of the area.  The name for the area is reflective of the legend.  The story goes:  Finn McCool, a Irish Warrior Giant sees a Scottish Giant – Benandonner, threatening Ireland.  Finn, not wanting to swim, throws rocks into the sea to create a path to Scotland. As he crosses the causeway he sees the size of Benandonner and is afraid.  He retreats to Ireland and Benandonner follows.  Finn’s wife quickly dresses her husband to look like a baby.  When Benandonner sees the giant baby he leaves in fear, believing that if the baby is that big, the father must be much bigger.  He destroys the pathway as he retreats.  There is a similar causeway on the Scottish island across from Ireland showing evidence of the true length of the rock formation, the giant’s pathway.

The Science of the rock formation is very interesting.  60 million years ago or so a volcano erupted and lava flowed down toward the sea.  As the lava cooled it formed the basalt columns.  Volcanos are an opening of the earth that allows the release of materials from our earth’s very hot layers.  The heat is so great that rocks become liquid.  The melted rock pours out of the Volcano and flows.  It begins to cool at the surface and slowly cools.  The cracks form as the cooling occurs.  Watch this video to see the process explained.

I found a great site for learning more about volcanos.  Take a short trip to this site to learn more.

The Giant Causeway is made of Basalt. Basalt is an igneous rock – colored rock from the magma (very hot part of earth) and contains silica, oxygen, iron (Latin= Ferrum) and Magnesium (Latin = Magnesium).  The iron and magnesium component is referred to as Ferromagnesian.    The columns at the causeway are each 15-20 inches in diameter (measurement across) and up to 82 feet high.

I loved the photos of you sitting and standing on the Giant Causeway.  Does it feel like you were really there?





Herding Dogs

There are several very good videos on YouTube that demonstrate the beauty of the work of a herding dog.  I thought this one was one of the best.

The dogs in this demonstration area Border Collies.  If you think you want to have a dog like this you have to remember some important things.  The dog herds by instinct and if you don’t give him a job, he/she will try to herd something (children, cars…cats) That would appear to you to be a bad trait in that situation but it isn’t against the nature of your dog.  You would need to provide this dog with a lot of activity to provide for physical and mental challenges.  It would be wrong to expect this breed to be content to lie around and cuddle.

This is a good site for gaining an appreciation for the training of a dog for herding.

Watch this video for a fun demonstration of lighted sheep herding.

Why do some sheep have paint on them?

When I think of Ireland I think of sheep and the speciality dogs that herd them.  I was not aware until recently that it is not uncommon for sheep to have paint on them.  I learned that there are several reasons that this is done and that they use a special type of paint or crayon to do this.

Farmers mark the sheep to indicate the ones that have been vaccinated or that need to be watched due to an injury.  They may mark them to remind them of the ones that are pregnant.  The colors are not standardized, each farmer choosing the colors they wish.

Some farmers paint their sheep to discourage stealing.  It would be hard to get away with stealing someone’s bright orange sheep!

And then there are some that just do this for fun, like for a town event.  Of course those make the best photos.

Here are couple of photos I found of colorful sheep.  I feel sure this was for fun.

The Cliffs of Moher

You have most likely seen the Cliffs of Moher in a movie before.  The cliffs make an impressive setting for drama due to the sheer deep drop from the top to the rocks and water below.  In some places that drop is over 700 feet. The cliffs were featured in Harry Potter movies.  Remember the scene when Dumbledore takes Harry to the cave to hunt for horcruxes?  How about the Princess Bride movie?  In that movie they’re called “The Cliffs of Insanity”.

The cliffs are on the southwest coast of Ireland in County Clare.  They were formed as a part of a giant river delta about 320 million years ago during the Carboniferous geological period.  The Carboniferous period lasted approximately 60 million years and is a period in which coal beds were formed.  Life on the planet at this time was very different.  Amphibians, cold blooded animals that live in water and on land, were the primary living creatures at that time.  The high oxygen percentage (35%) in the air during that time contributed to the great size of some of those Amphibians.  (We have normal oxygen percentage of 21% today).  These amphibians weren’t the dinosaurs.  They came later.  Remember the post about snakes?  One of the reasons Ireland doesn’t have snakes is because they are cold blooded.  How is it that Amphibians, a cold blooded animal, could live here during that time and not now?  The answer is climate change that occurred many millions of years ago. As you stand on the cliffs and marvel at the beauty, remember that creatures very much different from ourselves once roamed the area, a landscape changing into the cliffs we see today.

The areas visited by tourists are frequently busy.  People view them from below by taking a boat tour.  We would go by land because I would want to see that awesome view from the cliff tops. We must be careful along the cliffs because there aren’t fences or railings to keep us from falling off.  Warnings are posted and it is best we keep to the designated paths.  High winds can surprise a person in this area so we should stay away from the edges.

There are many different types of birds that live along the Cliffs of Moher.  Visitors are asked to avoid interfering with their nests.  Take a look at this video to see a Puffin.  This video was not made on the cliffs but I really like the way they describe the Puffins. The Guillemot is another type of bird that lives at the cliffs.  This is a very short video that shows these birds fishing.  Watch how deep they go underwater as they fish.  Would you say they are swimming?  Here is video showing a Fulmar (bird) flying and negotiating the wind.  When I watch this I have a deeper respect for the wind at this location.

The cliffs derive their name from a promontory fort called Mothar or Moher that once stood along cliffs.  There is a tower built by a local land lord named O’Brien.  It was built as a watch tower in the 1800s and was meant to give tourists a place to get a better view.  Another tower on the cliffs is called Hagg’s head tower.  It was built as a signal tower.  Hagg’s head was actually named after a rock formation.  Can you see a witch’s face?


The cliffs are constantly changing.  The winds, animals, and water all have an effect on the landscape. Branaunmore rock stands off the coast and can be seen from the cliffs.  It is a sea stack or erosion resistant piece of land.  It won’t be able to resist forever though and will some day crumble into the sea.

You may take a virtual tour of the Center at the Cliffs at this site.

Peat, Bogs, Bog Butter, and Bog Bodies

I sent you a sample of peat to burn so you could smell it.  20% of the homes in Ireland are still using Peat for fuel.  This is a much lower percentage than in the past due to availability of other forms of fuel/ energy. I am excited to share with you some of the interesting things I learned about Peat and Bogs. I have several Youtube videos for you to watch and hope you can. For those who can’t, I will give a brief synopsis.

A bog is one of four types of wetlands. It is produced by the gradual accumulation of plant material in a wet area without moving water. The decaying plant material produces acidic water which is low in nutrients and oxygen. The decay is called a carbon sink, the plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The accumulating plants decay very slowly due, in part, to the lack of insects and bacteria that can’t survive in the acidic surroundings. Bogs take a long time to form growing at only 1 mm a year (1 mm is about the width of the point of pencil lead)

Cutting Peat occurs in the spring. If you heard people talking of an upcoming cutting you would hear many unfamiliar terms for tools and methods. Peat spade, “wing or sail” of the spade, spanking, breasting, nicking the back, dabbing, cutter, lifter and wheeler are all interesting terms heard in this video.

The Bogs were cooler and didn’t have bacteria.  In the old days they didn’t have refrigeration so people had to find creative ways to preserve their foods. They used the bogs for storage of some perishables like butter.  It is rare fortune to find Bog Butter while cutting peat.  This video shows a recent find of Bog Butter that is over 2,000 years old.

Bog Bodies are just what it sounds like.  If plants decay very slowly you know that animals do too.  On occasion a body will be found in the bogs and the preservation is astounding.  The oldest body found was around 4,000 years old.  The science (hint, Elias, this is for you) behind the preservation is included in this very interesting video.  I especially was amazed by what happens to the bones…..

The harvesting of peat has become a legal battle in Ireland as some wish to preserve the environment and stability of the ecosystem.  The twenty percent of the population that depend upon the use of the peat for heat are fighting the restrictions as they look to use their lands as they wish, continuing a long standing tradition.

Now light your peat and appreciate all the time it took to form.  Be amazed at the wonderful world we live in. So much to learn….so much to discover.

Music in Ireland

You received a Tin Whistle, sometimes called the Penny Whistle, in your travel box.  I hope you like the sounds you can make with it and enjoy learning how to play it.  I love music and am sharing information about the music in each country because I believe it is an important way for people to express their cultural differences.

When I think of Irish music, I think of Riverdance.  This was a dance company that traveled and entertained crowds for years performing what is called Irish hardshoe. Watch this for a taste of a Riverdance performance. Here is a video to show you how to perform some of those moves.

Of course there are modern interpretations of more traditional Irish music. This article includes samples of Celtic Rock.  A cool modern twist on the hardshoe dance can be seen here.  This group of girls are awesome and showed their stuff on BRITAINS GOT TALENT. The dancing starts at the 48 second mark and ends before the 2 minute mark. If your wifi isn’t fast enough to display this, I hope you can find a spot sometime to watch it.

Musical instruments can vary from culture to culture.  Traditional Irish musical instruments include harps, accordions, bag pipes, the fiddle, and an unusual percussion instrument with a drum head made of goat skin.  This site shows these types of instruments and more.

In our virtual trip, I imagine that we wandered the streets of Ireland, the air filled with the smell of burning peat and the sounds of joyous Irish music coming from the many pubs along the brick streets.

Ah.. the Burning Peat…..maybe we learn about that tomorrow!