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Ireland: Peat, Dark Age Monks, and Vikings

Ireland

Ireland is an open-air folk and history museum rich in ruins and reminders from when it was "the Island of Saints and Scholars" — and a target for Viking raids.

Complete Video Script

Hi, I'm Rick Steves, digging peat in Ireland. Even today, some of this stuff keeps the home fires burning in a land famous for its smiles and charm.

Ireland was never conquered by the Roman Empire. So even when Rome fell, dragging the rest of Europe into darkness, Irish civilization was able to flourish. While nicknamed "the island of saints and scholars," it's also known as "the terrible beauty" for its bittersweet mix of political struggles, hunger, friendly people, and gorgeous landscapes.

We visit an ancient monastery, the finest formal garden on this garden island, and cut Waterford crystal. We'll explore the ultimate-in-its-day British fortress, climb a legendary lighthouse, and enjoy some great Irish cuisine. And this episode is a family affair, as we'll be joined by Jackie, Andy, and my wife Anne — who's Irish and proud.

Ireland is the western-most part of Europe. Starting in the Wicklow Mountains, we'll visit the monastery at Glendalough and Powerscourt Gardens. Then on to Waterford — where I'll join my family, visit the historic towns of Cobh and Kinsale, the Rock of Cashel, and Muckross House, as we work our way to the rugged Ring of Kerry.

High in the Wicklow Mountains you'll see vast peat bogs, with freshly cut peat bricks drying in the wind.

Peat was Ireland's standard heating fuel for centuries. It's made from decomposed plants — kind of halfway to coal — which is sliced out of these bogs, stacked to dry, and then burned like presto logs in fireplaces and stoves.

In the old days, four or five good men could cut enough peat in a day to keep a family warm through the cold Irish winter. Today, a few locals — nostalgic for the smell of a good turf fire — still come up here to cut their own fuel.

The Wicklow Mountains, while only 10 miles south of Dublin, feel remote — remote enough to have been a handy refuge for the Irish who opposed English rule. Two hundred years ago, when the frustrated British built this military road to flush out those rebels, the area became more accessible. Now this same road takes nature lovers through some of Ireland's richest scenery.

My friend and local guide Dennis O'Reilly, who leads tours through this area, is joining us as we explore the Wicklow Mountains.

Glendalough, which means "valley of the two lakes," hides Ireland's most impressive monastic settlement.

Dennis: This is St. Kevin's Church, a beautiful structure. St. Kevin came here in the sixth century and he lived by the upper lake in a cave.

And the monastery St. Kevin founded flourished despite repeated Viking raids throughout medieval times.

A thousand years ago, in an Ireland without cities, these monastic communities like Glendalough were mainstays of civilization. They kept literate life alive and provided a structure for rural Irish society. Today Ireland is dotted with the evocative reminders from this age of saints and scholars.

Dennis: The age of saints and scholars was when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages, but we in Ireland had all the scholars…
Rick: …and the saints too…
Dennis: …and the saints — and they were here working away, making the manuscripts that we have now in our museums.

While it was later abandoned and ruined, pilgrims kept coming. This might have something to do with the fact that a pope said that seven visits to Glendalough had the same indulgence value as one visit to Rome.

Round towers were standard features in early Irish monastic settlements. They functioned as beacons for pilgrims, bell towers, and places of final refuge when Vikings came a-knocking.

Waterford, stretching along its river, is the main city of southeast Ireland. It claims to be the oldest city in the entire country.

To save time and keep my luggage safe as possible, I park in a secure and central pay lot. Waterford was once more important than Dublin…but today it's is a plain, gray, work-a-day town.

The Vikings landed here in 850 and established the town as base for piracy. They built Reginald's Tower, named after the first Viking leader. It was a stout corner of the original town wall.

This tower is considered the first building in Ireland made with mortar, and one of this country's oldest surviving structures.

The Vikings chose to build their base here because it's located at the mouth of a series of rivers, which make up the largest natural navigation system within Ireland.

Their boats could sail 50 miles into Ireland from here. And back then, Ireland was made to order for Viking pillage and plunder — just scattered monastic settlements and small gatherings of clans.