July, 2005


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 On the Founding of the Knights of the Drop Leaf Table and the Finding of the Holy Pail:

      It is perhaps fitting to start the account of our journey with some history.  Jineen, my sister Patty, and I made a trip to Ireland in January of 2001.  We had lots of fun, plenty of laughs, and we experienced some Amazing Adventures.
     Exploring castles has been our specialty.  On one particular occasion on this earlier trip, we visited the Cahir Castle , a magnificent huge fortress right in the town of Cahir .   It was built in the 1300s, and it has been restored, so you can go through it and explore.  We followed many narrow hallways, steep winding staircases and secret passages.  In places, the walls of this ancient stronghold are up to 18 feet thick.  The windows are narrow vertical arrow slits, and there are special chutes for dumping rocks and boiling oil down on the heads of attackers below.
Cahir Castle is truly spectacular, like your best fairytale imaginings of what a medieval castle should look like; in fact, it was used to film the movie ‘Excalibur.’  We entered the Great Hall, where the feasts and meetings took place; there was a beautiful old intricately-carved wooden table in the center of the room.  The whole setting made us feel like we were in a King Arthur legend, complete with the Knights of the Round Table.  In fact, we were saying that the table in the Great Hall should be round instead of rectangular, when we noticed, over in the corner, a small oval table.  It was a modern table with ends that drop down, put there for clerical purposes.  So Jineen, Patty and I immediately dubbed ourselves 'The Knights of the Drop-Leaf Table'!  

      Of course, Knights must have a Quest. 

      The day before we visited Cahir (on this earlier trip in 2001) our friend Clare had told us a story about a friend of hers named Mick, whose hobby was searching for old artifacts.  He and his son were exploring with a metal detector, and they discovered an ancient and priceless chalice!  It was an incredibly beautiful piece, thought to date from the early 9th century; it is made of silver, with gold filigree and ornaments of amber and bronze.  It became known as the Derrynaflan Chalice.  Clare then went on to explain to us that there was great controversy over ownership of the treasure; the Irish Government, the landowner, and the finders of the chalice all claimed rights to it, and they were tied up in litigation for years!

The Derrynaflan Chalice

     On this particular evening, we three knights decided to storm a castle.  We had noticed one in a pasture not far from where we were staying, one of those lovely little ‘everyday castles’ that we admire so much, and we thought it would be fun to explore it.  This venture was made more exciting by the fact that the night was dark, we did not have permission to be there, and we had imbibed several pints of ale at the pub before setting out.
     We snuck across the field, only to find the door of the castle barred and locked.  But undaunted, we discovered a hole through the wall near ground level that we could crawl through to get inside.  After all, knights must be resourceful!  It was pitch dark inside, so we made Jineen go first.  Once inside, we were groping around in the dark, wishing for a torch (Irish for flashlight), when suddenly Jineen stumbled across a treasure.   Now some people with less of an eye for ancient artifacts and history than us may have thought the prize was a beat up old tin bucket or grain scoop, but the three of us immediately recognized its true worth.  Jineen held it up and said triumphantly, 'Look, a Chalice!’  We immediately named it 'The Holy Pail.'  We decided not to tell the Irish government.

The Holy Pail

     As you can well imagine, with this history, we were very excited to go back to Ireland for the Reunion of the Knights of the Drop Leaf Table!  In honor of this momentous occasion, we made the difficult decision to take the chalice back to Ireland with us, despite the danger that the Irish Government might try to claim it.  We decided we could smuggle it in to the country disguised as a cross-country helmet, covered with a silk helmet cover.  Actually, getting it in to Ireland was not our main concern; bringing it home again would be the big risk.  But as Knights of the Drop Leaf Table, we felt that we were up to the challenge!

     Jineen and I flew out of Washington and changed planes in Boston .  We were to meet Patty in Ireland ; her flight was due to arrive at Shannon about an hour after ours.  But as things turned out, she made it there long before us; our flight was delayed by more than four hours in Boston .
     Eventually we all arrived in Shannon , tired and jetlagged from the overnight flight.  We collected our rental car, a nice little blue Laguna, piled our luggage in the back, hopped in, and prepared to set forth.  I went to put the key in the ignition switch to start it up, and discovered . . . no key!  Attached to the keychain was a card.  Sort of like those modern hotel ‘keys’ that look like a credit card.  Also, no ignition switch.  OK, this was unusual, but certainly KotDLT should be able to cope.  Sure enough, after searching, we presently found a niche under the dashboard that the card fit into.  I shoved it into the slot with a satisfying click, and . . . nothing happened.  Well, not exactly nothing; this did seem to activate the power, so now the windows and lights worked, but the car still wouldn’t start!  Eventually, after extensive trial and error, we pushed a small button, much like a radio dial, that was hidden behind the steering wheel.  This started our car!  Now all that was left was to figure out how to release the parking brake, and eventually we were on our way!

     They were having a heat spell when we arrived; the temperatures went into the high seventies during the day – very hot for Ireland !  This proved fortunate almost right away, as it meant that Jineen had her window open when I hit the signpost with the car’s rearview mirror.  I have had plenty of practice at driving on the left side of the road, but I never get used to how they park the cars in the street in the towns, leaving only a lane and a half for traffic from both directions to squeeze through.  I misjudged a bit, and the mirror came flying in the window and landed on Jineen’s lap!  We were later able to snap it back into place, but dismayed to find that the paint was badly scratched on the back of the mirror holder.  We decided we would need to disguise the damage before returning the car at the end of the trip; maybe we could get a bird to poop on it to camouflage it!

      We met up with our friend Clare, and showed her the Chalice; she was duly impressed that we had brought it back to Ireland despite the risks.  We placed it proudly on the dashboard of the car, discreetly concealed by the helmet cover; it rode there for the duration of the trip.

Our Chalice travels incognito

     As is our usual custom, we spent the first three days of the trip on business, looking at horses for possible purchase; this left the last three days for exploring.  As we often have in the past, we stayed at Mrs. O’Sullivan’s, a lovely Farmhouse B&B near Cashel, in County Tipperary .  From this central location, we covered quite a lot of territory all over the south if Ireland , and saw plenty of lovely horses.  It is always great fun to visit the different stables and yards; looking at horses is one of my favorite activities, and many of the people we have encountered this way over the years have become friends.  It ended up being a successful trip; I arranged to purchase two lovely young horses that I think are really outstanding.
Not that our horse shopping was without incident!  At one point I was trying out a horse that seemed to lack some enthusiasm about the jumps.  Deciding to test his boldness, I pointed him at a small fence he hadn’t yet gone over, and indeed my doubts about him proved valid:  he started to jump, then tried to stop, then at the last moment hurled himself at the fence, crashing through it.  Unfortunately, this also sent ME crashing; I landed on the rock-hard ground with considerable force.  I wasn’t really injured, but my backside ended up being one huge bruise!  This made sitting very uncomfortable for the rest of the trip.  But a couple of pints of Smithwicks in the pub that night did help!

     The highlight of the first part of the trip was being asked to dinner at the home of some of Clare’s friends, where we were served a fabulous meal.  It was on a beautiful farm, and it was a pleasure to enjoy good food and super company in a lovely stately old house.
     But even more importantly, it was our chance to meet Mick, the Finder of the Derrynaflan Chalice!  Yes, the very same man who had, years before, found the priceless artifact while out metal-detecting, and subsequently endured the Irish courts concerning ownership.  What an honor it was to meet this man, and to hear the story of him finding the Chalice!  He told us about what an incredible moment of awe it was when he uncovered the treasure, and how its finding was one of the high points of his life!  Mick is a very interesting and charismatic speaker, and we thoroughly enjoyed his account.
     We decided to share with him and the others present that night the story of the finding of our own Chalice.  After dinner we brought it in from the car, and when we carefully removed the helmet cover and revealed to the group the magnificent grandeur of The Holy Pail, everyone was predictably awestruck.  Mick, being considered somewhat of an authority on chalices after his famous discovery, was suitably impressed.  He pointed out what we had long observed; The Holy Pail is very similar in looks and type to the Derrynaflan Chalice; the gold filigree in particular enhances this impression.  Eager to avoid any legal concerns such as Mick had endured, we asked everyone present at the dinner party to protect the secret, and swore them to silence.

The Derrynaflan Chalice and The Holy Pail – the likeness is remarkable!

      The next morning, the fourth day of our trip, and horse business concluded, we set off to explore.  Our first stop was to visit the castle where we originally found the Holy Pail.  This is a small ‘everyday castle’ in a crop field, quite near the new Cashel Bypass road.  We felt that it was appropriate to take the Chalice back to visit its former resting place.  We have been to this castle several times on previous trips, but this was the first time we had ever visited it in the daylight!

Patty and Jineen at the Chalice Castle

     We were discovering that our car seemed to have a mind of its own.  For instance, sometimes the car would lock itself when you got out of it.  It didn’t do it all the time, apparently just if it felt we were in a bad neighborhood or something.  Also, it seemed to be in total control over whether the interior lights were on or off; any attempt by us to influence this was in vain.

     We stopped by a roadside stand for some Wexford strawberries, checked out a very nice antique store in Cahir, and then set out to cover some ground.  We were heading up to County Mayo ; we had plans to explore the Atlantic coastline up north of Connemara .  On the way, we went searching for castles.
     One of my favorite things about Ireland is the abundance of ancient castles, abbeys, and churches dating back, in many cases, over a thousand years.  Jineen and Patty share my interest, and we really love to find and explore these old ruins.  Some of them are rebuilt and maintained and open to the public, while others are crumbling to pieces in some farmer’s cow pasture.  There are so many of them in Ireland that most of the people who live there take them for granted, but we are fascinated by them, and consider them an important part of the heritage of the country.  We wanted to visit as many as we could; after all, we were the Knights of the Drop-Leaf Table!
     We stopped first by the Burncourt Castle , south of Cahir.  This was a fairly large castle right by the road; but as is often the case the doors were barred and locked.  Despite Jineen’s best efforts, we couldn’t find a way to get in.

Jineen attempts to storm Burncourt Castle

     We decided to name the car Christine.  It seemed appropriate; like the car in the Steven King story, she seemed to want to be in charge.  The windshield wipers would turn themselves on and off at will, and they would slow down and speed up according to how hard it was raining, or according to Christine’s mood. 

     Next we visited the Ballynahow Castle , north of the town of Thurles .  I had been there before, but neither Patty nor Jineen had seen it.  Ballynahow is one of the best sorts of castle to explore; it has been partially restored, so that this lovely piece of history is preserved, and you can go all through it.  Although it is open to the public, it is very quiet and private; I have been there 3 times and have never seen another soul.  It sits beside a farmyard, and the guidebook says that if it is locked you can go knock on the farmer’s door and get the key; but we found the door open.


     Ballynahow Castle is fairly small, with a spiral stone staircase leading up six stories to the top level, where you can come out onto the parapet and look out over the fields below.  It is built for defense, with arrow-slit windows and murder holes, slots where you can throw rocks down onto your enemies below.  We noticed that we had parked the Christine directly under one of these murder holes!  We resisted the temptation to throw rocks down on her.  (KotDLT are known for their restraint!)

Christine through the murder hole

     We came presently to the River Shannon, and visited the Clonfeit Cathedral, also known as St. Brendan’s Cathedral.  This lovely old church has an arched doorway that is over 1000 years old.  The stone walls of the interior are accented by brilliant stained-glass windows, and carved wooden pews face the front, with its mosaic tiled floor and a beautiful old pipe organ.  The church is still in use, it sat ready for services. 
     Around back was a place called the Bishop’s House; it is owned by a self-proclaimed healer, who runs it as a business.  We found out that he bought the healing powers along with the house!  Now it is a proper tourist trap; we avoided it like the plague.
     We presently came upon Clonony Castle , a beautiful large castle ruin beside the road.  It looked very intriguing but we couldn’t get in; the gate was locked.  We asked about entrance at a house across the street and were told that the castle was owned by an American lady who lived down the road, and she would give us the key.  But when we went to her house nobody was home, and we had to leave this castle unexplored.  But the American ownership sounded encouraging; I have often fantasized about having my own castle in Ireland !
     We followed the river to a place called Clonmac Noise, a group of ruins of 7 churches on 7 hills.  We found it disappointing because, one, they charged admission, and two, it was closed anyway.  Its not that we mind the principle of paying a fee, but more that the sort of places that charge one (with some notable exceptions) are usually the crowded sort of tourist places we like to avoid.  We prefer the old ruins that few people notice!

     We came to an area of peat bogs.  The turf is harvested; it is cut into bricks to be burned as fuel.  This seemed to be the main industry of the area we were in; we saw stacks of drying peat in the fields we passed.  In the road were many peat bricks that had dropped off of wagons transporting them; we picked one up in case we wanted a “candlelight dinner” later!
     We started looking for a nice spot to have Happy Hour.  This was a tradition that Jineen and I had started on previous Ireland trips, and perfected when we visited New Zealand .  You obtain a bottle of wine and some food, and then find a beautiful spot to sit and enjoy an impromptu picnic.  We were quite hungry and ready for Happy Hour, which was also on this occasion to serve as dinner.  Now all that we needed was a location!  A high cliff overlooking the River Shannon would be suitable, or perhaps a secluded castle ruin.  But at the moment we were on some little back roads with not much view, and all we could see were the peat bogs!

     Heading northward, we passed a signpost for ‘Clonfinlough Stone’, and we thought it sounded intriguing; it promised to be just the sort of off-the-beaten-path destination that we liked.   We figured it was probably a significant obelisk or stone circle; no doubt an ancient Druid site of worship and sacrifice.  It had potential as a perfect spot for Happy Hour, so we decided to check it out.
     We turned down a narrow lane and followed the signposts for several miles, then found a small parking area beside the entrance to a well-worn path.  Obviously the Clonfinlough Stone was a popular attraction!  We hiked a mile or so through a wooded path, trying to avoid muddy ground underfoot and persistent flies buzzing around our heads, and at last came into an open field at the end of the path where we found . . . a rock!  And not some impressive or important looking standing stone or unusual rock formation, but just a plain ordinary-looking largish stone partially sticking up out of the grass, looking very much like about ten thousand others we had seen.  The only feature it had that was at all unusual was an indention in the top of it that looked very much like a footprint; otherwise it was unremarkable.  There was a sign identifying the stone, but with no explanation of its purpose or use.  We decided to sacrifice Patty.

We offer Patty to the ancient gods

     The maps and signposts pointing out interesting antiquities and historical sites in Ireland are surprisingly inconsistent.  We always find it amazing the way something as seemingly insignificant as the Clonfinlough Stone will be marked on maps and signposts, and yet grand and historic castles, even those open to the public, will often be unmarked and overlooked.  



Site Map | Horses for Sale | Breeding/Stallion | About Irish Horses | Working Students | Boarding and Training
Eventing with Phyllis Dawson
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Phyllis Dawson
Phone: (540) 668-6024 stable
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