Jacqueline Harmon Butler - International award-winning travel writer/author - JacquelineHarmonButler.com Jacqueline Harmon Butler
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Fairy Rings and a Haunted Castle (Ireland)

"There’s a Fairy Ring out there in that meadow somewhere," said the taxi driver as we drove up the long driveway to Waterford Castle from the ferry landing. "Can’t see it from the road but it’s there all right," he went on. "People have said they saw some strange things going on out there in the moonlight."

I had heard the Castle was haunted but the idea of fairies on the island definitely tweaked my interest.

"What does a Fairy Ring look like?" I asked.

"It looks like a ring in the meadow grass. Sometimes they’re brown and nothing growing in them, or they can be green with tall grasses growing in them. Sometimes they have toadstools growing around the edge and sometimes they are just some small piles of leaves and twigs."

"Gee" I said somewhat disappointed at his description. "I’m not sure what to look for."

"Oh, you’d better be careful going out looking for the wee fairies, lass" he said in a serious tone. "Many a lass went out looking for them on moonlit nights and never came back."

"Humph!" I retorted, privately thinking that going out looking for fairies was exactly what I was going to do after I got settled in my room at the Castle.

I was planning to spend the night at the Castle, then visit the Waterford Crystal factory the next day. Waterford Crystal has been made entirely by hand, using the crafts of blowing, cutting and Intaglio engraving, for over two hundred years. I was excited about seeing these techniques up close.

Waterford Castle is located near Waterford City, Ireland, about 98 miles South East of Dublin, on the beautiful Island of BallinakilI. The Island’s private ferry, the M.V. Strongbow, brings you across the River Suir to a magical place, steeped in history and legends.

Ballinakill Island was owned by the Fitzgerald family for over eight centuries, and was home to the Earls of Kildare and Ormond and Knights of Glin and Kerry, in one of the longest unbroken stewardships on record in Ireland. The original structure built by the Fitzgerald’s was a Norman Keep, which was a virtually impregnable tower-like stone structure with thick walls; narrow arrow slit windows and a lead roof. During the next centuries the Castle was gradually expanded and enlarged, and by using stone from a local quarry it is almost impossible to distinguish the different stages of the expansions.

It is the ghost of Mary, the last of the Fitzgeralds to own the Castle, that has been reportedly seen hanging around the Munster dining room and smaller attached conservatory, where most of the parties were held. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her later that evening. After her marriage to Prince Caracciolo of Italy, she moved to Dublin where she and the Prince were socially quite prominent. Mary loved the Castle and the woodland of the Island and they often returned for many gala parties and long weekends.

Mary’s grandmother, Mary Francis Fitzgerald, was quite a character and something of a local legend. She was an extravagant lady who traveled extensively and dominated the social scene. Upon her return to the Castle from her various trips, she loved to have herself rowed majestically across the river, followed by a barge holding twenty four musicians playing her favorite tunes.

"And here ye are then," said the taxi driver as he pulled up in front of the Castle. "Now remember lass, no going off looking for the wee fairies."

The Castle itself looked like it had just stepped out of a children’s fairy tale book. It was large, formidable really, with a crenellated roof and a tower and was covered all over with brambles. The massive front door was made of dark wood, and opened into a huge lodge of a room. Soft music filled the air and a cheery fire crackled in one corner surrounded by heavy leather furniture, which invited the road weary traveler to sit and relax a while.

The Castle is currently the only five star hotel in South East Ireland. The 19 bedrooms have different Gaelic names, and mine was called "Glin." I didn’t know what to expect as I was led up a private staircase to the top of the Castle. The arched door opened into a lovely room with a high vaulted ceiling and decorated in soft shades of pink. There was a wonderful antique bed and matching furniture, including a delightful vanity with tiny drawers and a smoky three-way mirror. The windows had leaded glass and strange ancient hardware, and were draped in flowered chintz. My view out over the woods, with the golf course and the river in the distance, was spectacular.

The bathroom featured a big old-fashioned claw footed bathtub, perfect for a long luxurious soak. I loved the flowery porcelain sink and heated towel racks. Even the toilet was interesting with its flowery porcelain bowl, squarish wooden seat and pull chain for flushing.

I quickly opened my suitcase, hung up my dinner dress, then grabbing my camera and purse, headed back down the stairs, through the large reception hall and out into the afternoon. The sun was low in the sky and offered little warmth as I headed down the path towards the meadow and, I hoped the Fairy Ring. A big tabby cat ambled out of the bushes and followed me along the way. I found its company comforting - sort of like a bodyguard or chaperone. In the distance I could hear what I thought were quacking ducks but as I got closer to the meadow I could see that they were giant black birds in the high trees along the river bank making all that racket.

There had been some rain in the past few days and the meadow was quite muddy and slippery. I stepped carefully over puddles and around broken pieces of branches and logs. The black birds took offense at my being there and began circling around and around overhead. Now and again one of them would swoop down toward me, its beady little yellow eyes glaring at me and its pointy red beak open in a horrible squall. I looked around for the cat, hoping its presence would frighten off the birds, but it was nowhere to be seen.

With the birds acting so strangely I felt I must be on the right track and excitedly began searching in earnest, but looking around I couldn’t see anything that even remotely looked like a Fairy Ring - not that I knew what one looked like. I looked for a ring of toadstools. I looked for a ring of different colored grass. I looked for a ring of twigs and leaves. After trampling from one end of the meadow to the other I couldn’t find anything that even remotely reminded me of a circle of any kind. The birds continued their mysterious ritual of diving and screaming but refused to lead me to my goal.

The sun sank below the horizon and disappointment swept over me with the chill air. "Oh well," I thought, "I’ll ask around at the Castle. Surely someone there would be able to give me better directions."

Diner was served in the Munster dining room. The room, with its lovely oak paneling and ornate plaster ceiling, is considered to be one of finest in Ireland, and I had to agree, it was beautiful. The tables were covered in snowy white linen and candlelight glittered on fine silver and Waterford Crystal goblets. Spring flowers added bright spots of color here and there. Baskets of assorted house made breads and small pots of pure Irish butter slowly made their way around our table. The waiter brought several plates of small tidbits to enjoy while looking over the extensive menu. The specialties of the kitchen included the freshest of local products.

I chose Island Salad , a tasty combination of wild lettuces, fresh herbs, olives, crisp Goujons (similar to bacon), topped with a delicate locally made Boilie Cheese, and dressed with a sundried tomato vinaigrette. This was followed by a delicious Scarred Breast of Barbary Duck, with roast garlic and a blackberry sauce.

The Waterford Crystal goblet felt good in my hand as I sipped the deep red Chilean wine. The wine seemed to glow as it sparkled through the deep cuts in the crystal bowl and I was certain that even a mediocre wine would taste wonderful in this elegant goblet.

Looking around the room I almost expected to see a shadow or a wispy bit of shimmer or hear an otherworldly moan indicating that the ghost of Mary Fitzgerald was present. Alas, everything seemed absolutely normal and the only sounds were the quite murmur of other diners and the piano softly playing in the background.

When the waiter brought my desert, a dark, white and milk chocolate mousse cordoned with passion fruit and orange, I asked him if he knew anything about the Fairy Ring out in the lower meadow.

"No," he answered, looking at me quizzically. "I’m rather new here and wasn’t aware of such a thing. Let me ask around about it and see what I can find out."
A few minutes later he came back and told me no one seemed to know anything about a Fairy Ring and inquired where I heard about it. I told him about the taxi driver and my experience in the meadow with the bad-tempered birds and my futile search.

Later, over coffee, my waiter returned to tell me he had at least learned what you were supposed to say while in a Fairy Ring, and, drawing himself upright, recited:

"Winding, winding, winding,
peace and joy now finding,
with a love that’s binding,
winding, winding, winding."

He smiled and continued with explicit instructions to turn three times clockwise while chanting the prayer, then handed me a little note with the prayer and instructions written on it. He then suggested I go down to the Golf Club in the morning and inquire. Perhaps someone there might know something about the Fairy Ring

I asked him if the ghost of Mary Fitzgerald came around very often and he said he hadn’t seen anything personally although he had heard a lot about her ghost. My friends laughed and asked many questions about the ghost and other apparitions around the Castle. Another waiter came by to admonish us about making fun of the ghosts or they might make noises in the night and scare us. He assured us that the way to keep them quiet was to place a saucer of cream under the bed before retiring. Not wanting to be awakened by anything supernatural up in the tower room by myself, I prevailed upon him to supply me with the required saucer of cream.

"Well," I said to my reflection in the little vanity mirror as I wrote in my journal and prepared for bed, "I will get up early tomorrow and head for the Golf Club. Perhaps I will find out more about the Fairy Ring."|

I slept well in my cozy bed, dreaming of fairies and rings. The only sounds I heard were the antique beds’ creaks and squeaks as I turned over in the night. However, in the morning I thought the saucer looked less full.


If you go:

Getting there:
Waterford is located about 98 miles south east of Dublin and is easily reached via highway N 11 to Wexford and then highway N25 south. Waterford Castle is located just outside Waterford City. Ferry service to and from the island is available.
Waterford Castle Hotel
The Island, BallinakilI
Waterford, Ireland
Tel. 353 51 878203. Fax. 353 51 879316.
Email: info@waterfordcastle.com

Waterford Castle Golf & Country Club
The Island, BallinakilI
Waterford, Ireland Tel: 353 51-87-1633 FAX: 353 51 871634
Email: golf@waterfordcastle.com
18 hole championship golf course, tennis courts, croquet, indoor heated swimming pool and clay pigeon shooting.

Waterford Crystal
Visitor Center
Kilbarry, Waterford, Ireland

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