Wicklow – Ireland When It’s Green

[…Dublin, Ireland June 11, 2011…]

Lough Tay is also named Guinness Lake because they say it looks like a Guinness stout with its dense midnight-black color caused by a bed of peat bogs. The startingly-white sandy beach around it is supposed to look like its foam. So, cheers!


With only a little over 3 hours of sleep last night, I was up at 4 this morning to catch some blues. I left the drapes undrawn so I’ll have unobstructed view of the light, and there it was – a deep blue picture staring at me as I opened my eyes. My destination was just across the street so it did not take me long to get to the Sean Casey bridge, and then later to Ha’Penny after a brisk walk to chase the fading light. Early morning with a nice cool breeze blowing, hardly any cars nor people on the streets, it’s just me and my bridges – just the way I like it.

I was back at the hotel at 5:45 since I decided to take some post-sunrise shots as well over at the Samuel Beckett. The light was good today – not great, but good enough that I couldn’t have asked for anything more. When you live in gray England as a photographer, just good light is good enough.

Today I was going to meet my tour bus down at O’Connell St. I decided yesterday at the Tourist Office that I wanted to see green Ireland today and thought that traveling in a tour bus was the best way to see the most in one day. It wasn’t too bad, only a dozen of us in a comfy Mercedes coach, plus our tour guide/driver. I didn’t catch his name so let’s just call him Frank after my favorite Irish-American author, Frank McCourt.

We’re traveling south taking the coastal route, first passing the marinas and harbours of Dublin Bay. We do a pit stop at Dun Laoghaire to stretch our legs and catch some of the mid-morning sunlight. Frank talks on his PA while he drives, describing places and even narrating stories as we pass by them. He talks about James Joyce’s drunken rages and adventures as we approach Martello Tower on Sandycove. It is where he stayed for 6 days, penniless, with 2 roommates. Joyce’s stay in the tower ended after an argument with his roommate who had fired a gun at him. Stories like this and more that involved liquor and drunkenness seem to be the theme of Frank’s tour today. Frank stories are entertaining; I get so immersed in them that I finally decide to let go off my iPod. If Jerry McGuire had his girl at ‘hello”, Frank had me at “drunk.”

Frank’s stories ranged from matter-of-fact to horrific, although always with Irish humor injected into them. There’s this one story, more like a folklore, that he tells us as we pass the area of Rathfarnham. There are many versions of the stories apparently, some more incredulous than others. At the summit of Montpellier Hill is an 18th-century haunting lodge called the Hellfire Club. The lodge was used as a meeting place for demonic rituals and occult practices started by a group of wealthy and spoiled young men. It was later set on fire by the devil – half man half beast – who posed as a guest. Frank later narrated a few more versions of the stories but later recanted: “Hey, you can choose to believe it or not. I’m just here to tell you the story.” He still thinks that the first version about the devil was more believable than the rest. Hmm.

Evergreen spruces and beech forest plantation fill up the mountains of Dublin county, and on the way to Wicklow as we climb deeper into the trail, I am embraced by greens all over. Every time we pass a treacherous curve, Frank would stop talking and instead put on Irish folk music on the speakers and that’s when I’d put my earphones with my own music on. There are a few climbers with sticks on the Wicklow Way, walking a bit precariously on the side of the road or by the cliffs. We pass by a couple of locations in Sally Gap that were used in Hollywood movies – these did not interest me much, too gimmicky. This side of Ireland’s topography is made up of a lot of peat bogs and some purple heather. As we pass the old military highway, Frank talks about bog cotton or cotton grass that grow here – these are harvested and used for handwoven items. In fact, later in the day, we are to pass by the village of Avoca to see some of the weavers there.

I was looking forward to Glenmacnass Waterfall, but when we get there in high noon, light is harsh. But ah, the glacial valley below it is a sight to behold, and I could imagine myself down there lost among the flock of sheep in late afternoon waiting for a better light when the falls would look its best. It’s not going to happen today though. The disadvantage of these day tours is that you don’t have that luxury. So for the most part of this tour, it was a quick veni vidi vici for me.

Apparently, the word Guinness is not only a pub word. Out here deep in the valley of the Wicklow mountains is Lough Tay or the Guinness lake – it was so named because it looks like a pint of Guinness with its dark dense water in contrast with the white sandy beach around it. The estate Luggala right next to it is tucked nicely amidst enormous oak trees. Frank tells us the late Michael Jackson secretly stayed here for 3 months during the time of his Neverland fiasco.

It was when we reached Glendalough to visit the monastic city that the skies grayed out. Frank would gather the group, in front of important landmarks and recite more stories, this time about 6th-century monks. Every now and then, he would pause as he gets distracted by groups of people passing through. He would then jokingly say in a brash tone, “Tourists!” He said that a few more times until it wasn’t funny anymore.

Glendalough's St. Kevin's Chapel with Celtic cross and cemetery in the foreground.

After he left us on our own, pitter patter of raindrops would fall out of the sky, although very faint like fizz sputtering out of newly-opened soda. The group was to meet in 40 minutes in the big lot by the second lake, so in the meantime, I make use of the time by getting lost amidst the hundreds of Celtic crosses. I choose not to go inside the claustrophobic stone church, but I was amused by Frank’s tales about it. St. Kevin’s Chapel only had tiny windows in the east gable and in the belfry, so it was pitch black inside no matter what time of day. Early monks used to pray here all day under the light of spitting candles which were dipped in animal fat. It was so cold in the mountains often so they would wrap themselves in handmade quilts filled with the same bog cotton we saw in military road. The small chapel would reek of animal stench the whole day, and the poor hungry monks emerged starving to death and wanting to eat meat. Frank says, “We did that every Sunday when I was a child. We were not allowed to eat anything at all until after church. So after mass, we always have a big feast.” He then points to his belly and says, “You can tell, I don’t go to church much.”  We all laugh and break the uneasy silence. Frank is cute when he talks in his heavy Irish accent; he looks like Colin Farrell 20 years later.

Wool from the sheep of the surrounding hills and valleys, along with the process of carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving is transformed into handwoven clothing in Avoca.

By the time we were done here, it’s late lunch at the Avoca village. Everyone chooses to eat at the village Fitzgerald’s pub, not that there’s much choice around anyway. Frank offers, “You guys all enjoy a glass of beer while I have my coffee. Unless one of you wants to drive.” Poor guy, whenever he solicits response, he doesn’t get any. “Tourists!” as Frank would say. I finish my lunch while everyone else are still bubbling over their pint, then I trudge uphill to the Avoca factory where I end up with a handwoven scarf.

It’s about 60 kilometers back to Dublin. Frank stays quiet most of the bus ride, allowing us to listen to more reeds and pipes on the speakers. I put on The Corrs instead on my headphones – still Irish, but a lot more tolerable. It’s only 4 p.m. but it’s getting dark again outside what with the dark and droopy clouds above us. I enjoyed the tour, although not thoroughly satisfying in photographic terms. But the day is young and my light will come tonight.

An Avoca worker demonstrating the weaving process.

The Avoca Handweavers Mill, located in the banks of the Avoca river, has been around since 1723, and is said to be the oldest manufacturer in Ireland.

Looking down the glacial valley where Glenmacnass Waterfall is located.

Just as we arrived in this monastic settlement in Glendalough, dark clouds start to appear over the cemetery and the mountains of Wicklow.

8 responses

  1. Fantastic shots Yen. I specially like Guinness lake with the wonderful clouds against the blue sky. Sounds like you had a wonderful time on the tour. Sounds like you were smitten with Frank:) Personalities like Frank certainly makes these kinds of tours far more enjoyable.

    • Frank is like 50 years old with a Guinness belly, but he surely had the Irish gift of gab which, like you said, made the tour enjoyable 🙂

  2. That Guinness Lake is really something. What a cool place. I’m brimming with jealousy — Ireland is near the top of my list of places to see. Your work and masterful storytelling will have to suffice for the time being. Great stuff, Yen.

  3. you really have that photographic eye every wanna be photographer wish they possess…you got lucky with the time you passed by lough tay, been there 3 times and i have yet to get clouds like that

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