September 12, 2013

Irish History and Famous Crystal

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees.  Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”   Edna O’Brien

Carol writes:  As we continued our drive around the perimeter of Ireland, it seemed like every day we were reminded of the fact that Irish history stretches back thousands of years.  So it was at Newgrange, a fully restored passage tomb at the archeological site called Brú na Bóinne.

Newgrange is a single mound measuring 340 feet in diameter.  It was constructed 5000 years ago and was used as a sacred burial chamber where ceremonies were conducted with the bones and ashes of the dead.  In addition, Newgrange was undoubtedly associated with some sort of Sun God ritual.  As the sun rises on the winter solstice (December 21), it shines through a small window above the entrance door.  As the sun continues to rise, the beam of its light travels down the 60-foot long passageway into the tomb and lights up the small central chamber for 17 minutes.

At Newgrange we were able to enter the tomb by navigating down the narrow 60-foot-long passageway to the sacred central area where our guide turned out the lights and demonstrated by means of a small electric light what it is like on the day of the winter solstice.  The moment was almost spiritual…

As archeologists discover more and more ancient structures that have been found to have some sort of astrological alignment, I find it extremely thought-provoking to get those tantalizing peaks inside the mind of ancient civilizations.

For a little more of Ireland’s more recent history, we visited the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland’s most historic and noteworthy sights.  Fighting clans fought over this rocky fortification for centuries until a clever clansman decided to donate the site to the Church as a way of keeping it away from a rival clan while at the same time courting favor with powerful religious interests.  Subsequently, Cashel evolved into an ecclesiastical center where majestic stone church buildings were constructed. 

Cashel is dear to Irish hearts because it was the seat of the ancient kings of Munster, one of the five ancient provincial kingdoms of Ireland.  In addition, it was also the place where Ireland’s beloved St. Patrick baptized King Aengus in 450 A.D.  The historic site at Rock of Cashel was a compilation of the ruins of an ancient castle,

Ireland’s first and finest Romanesque chapel,

and the remains of a 13th century Gothic cathedral.

The nearby graveyard was loaded with many Irish high crosses.  Centuries ago, the ring around the head of the cross was added to symbolize the sun in an effort to appeal to the sun-worshipping Celts.

As a nod of respect for the esteem that the Irish hold for the Rock of Cashel, Queen Elizabeth II made a visit to the Rock during her history-making visit to Ireland in 2011.  The Queen and Prince Philip signed their names to some official documents during that visit.  I found the signatures of the Queen and her husband oddly interesting in their simplicity.

As we continued on our drive along the southern coast of Ireland, one of my bucket list items was a visit to the Waterford crystal factory.  Yes, the town is named Waterford too, and apparently the residents of Waterford want it made clear that the town came first and that is where the crystal got its name…not the other way around.   Unfortunately, due to recent bad economic times, most of the high-volume Waterford crystal is now produced by cheap labor in Eastern Europe, and only the special-order one-of-a-kind prestige pieces are manufactured in Waterford. 

As a young bride in 1978, I had flown to Hong Kong to meet up with my husband while he was on a 6-month deployment to the Western Pacific, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.  We had only been married a few months and between the two of us we had very little in the way of household possessions, so we took full advantage of the wonderful bargain shopping available in Hong Kong in those days.  One of our most memorable (and lasting) purchases was 8 precious Waterford crystal goblets, which have always taken center place in our rack of wine glasses.  To this day, I have always admired all things Waterford, so when we heard that their factory tour was first-rate, we made it a point to head to the town of Waterford.

Did the factory live up to expectations?  I cannot speak more highly of the factory tour!  We had excellent vantage points at every stage during the process of producing a Waterford “gem.”  The four-man team doing stemware work was particularly impressive—a marvel of timing and teamwork.

The mold exhibit displayed wooden molds that had been used in the production of dozens of famous sports trophies.  Think college basketball… 

This pic is for my Louisville cousin.

I had a turn at holding a Waterford football…

It was fascinating to see how the intricate design patterns were applied to the final shape with simple black marking pens, and then skillfully ground into the glass with diamond cutting wheels.

At various points along the tour, each of us was offered our own “special-moment photo op” while holding a priceless piece of eye-popping Waterford.

The gift shop at the end of the tour was a wonder to behold with Waterford crystal items of all types for all budgets. 

I loved the large mirror framed with Waterford crystal which was for sale for a price in the neighborhood of $30,000!  Clearly, that wasn’t going home with us, so I took my picture instead.

One of the more interesting facts presented at the very end of the tour was the discussion about the Waterford trademark that is on the edge of the base of their goblets.  The word “Waterford” is engraved in letters about 1/8 inch high, certainly not terribly eye catching, but impossible to miss.  My thoughts did a big “hmmm” when this was mentioned because I was certain (and Al agreed) that my treasured Waterford wine glasses back home in Colorado have no such trademark.  After all, I’ve been washing them by hand for over 35 years, so surely I would have noticed!  I was told I could email a picture of one of my goblets to the Waterford factory and they would tell me if mine are great fake copies or authentic Waterford goblets that were perhaps manufactured before the days of using a trademark.  They were purchased in Hong Kong…could they possibly be fakes?

“I was born on a storm-swept rock and hate the soft growth of sun-baked lands where there is no frost in men's bones.”   Liam O'Flaherty

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