Wexford to Wicklow Great British Railway Journeys


Wexford to Wicklow

Armed with his Bradshaw's Handbook, Michael Portillo begins a journey across Ireland. In the port of Wexford, he takes to the seas in a 100-year-old lifeboat.


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For Victorian Britons, George Bradshaw was a household name.

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At a time when railways were new,

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Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them to take to the tracks.

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I'm using a Bradshaw's guide to understand how trains transformed Britain

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and Ireland, their landscape, industry, society and leisure time.

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As I follow its roots 130 years later,

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it helps me to discover these islands today.

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At the time of this 1882 edition of Bradshaw's guide,

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Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.

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But because its population had been drastically reduced by famine and

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emigration, many Irish resented British rule.

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I'll be interested, on this rail journey, to see how Irish culture

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strengthened during this period,

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with a new devotion to the Irish language and Irish sports and national

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pride celebrated on the harp and the fiddle,

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in song and in dance, and in literature and poetry that rejoiced in the

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loveliness of this Emerald Isle.

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My Irish journey begins in the south-east.

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I travel north to the political capital and cultural centre of Dublin,

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then cross the country westwards,

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delving into the core of Irish identity and Victorian ingenuity

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before ending on the wild Atlantic coast in County Mayo.

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Today's route starts in the old port of Wexford.

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I'll travel through the musical valleys around Arklow northwards to

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County Wicklow, where a trot around the surrounding hills ends this leg.

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'Along the way, I take to the seas in a hundred-year-old lifeboat...'

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It's wonderful to feel the sense of teamwork...

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..as I pull the oars with this wonderful crew.

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'..learn of a much-forgotten political poet...'

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He deserves to be remembered as someone who spoke up for Irish culture and

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Irish political rights at a very, very dark time.

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'..and abandon the trains for a taste of the travelling life.'

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Reins in hand, and we're all ready.

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My first port of call will be Wexford.

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The guidebook tells me it's the capital of a county of that name

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at the mouth of the River Slaney.

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Steamers from here to Bristol and Liverpool.

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Many Victorian travellers arriving from England would have started their

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journey here and would have been struck by the town's relationship with

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the sea, which was to have an extraordinary influence across the ocean.

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Wexford was a transport hub for Victorians travelling between England and

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Ireland on the steam ferries.

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The quayside railway station opened in 1874, a decade before my guidebook,

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as part of the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford railway linking this port to

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the capital.

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I'm meeting historian Jarlath Glynn.

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Michael, welcome to Wexford.

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Thank you very much. The town is looking absolutely gorgeous and you've

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got the bunting out. You've got a festival going on?

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We have. Wexford Maritime Festival.

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It's in its fifth year.

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And it celebrates all things maritime and Wexford.

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And I notice you've got a lot of lifeboat posters up today.

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So you have a lifeboat, do you?

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We have a lifeboat. We've one here just behind us at Wexford Bridge and

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we've another one in Kilmore Quay.

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And there are lifeboats from England,

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Scotland and Wales here today to join our celebrations.

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And it's a great institution,

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saved so many lives, and the volunteers are wonderful.

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And here in Ireland, it's still known as the RNLI,

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R being for Royal.

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Yes, that has continued.

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I suppose that's surprising, but I think, because they do such marvellous work,

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that the name has just continued.

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I'm not sure people pay any attention to the name now.

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Wexford has had a lifeboat station since 2002.

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This life-saving service is celebrated as part of the festival.

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We gather to bless these boats and all those who sail in them.

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-BOTH:

-God of love, at the beginning of time, your spirit hovered over the deep.

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And from these oceans, you brought forth life.

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We ask your blessing on these boats

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and all who will work and travel in them.

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I've donned this life jacket because I've been given the privilege of

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riding with the oarsmen today on the lifeboat.

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Hi, guys. Can I come aboard?

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Yes, of course you can.

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Thank you.

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This oar is tremendously heavy.

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I'm a bit nervous. I just have to follow what the others do.

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Oars in, lads.

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Away and pull.

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Pull.

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This hundred-year-old lifeboat and its crew are visiting from Whitby in

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England, where lifeboats have been operating for over 200 years.

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Since the foundation of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1824,

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its crews have saved over 139,000 lives.

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I'm concentrating like mad on trying to keep the same rhythm as my fellow

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experienced oarsmen.

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Rowing boats like this set the standard until the 1850s.

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To feel the sense of teamwork...

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..as I pull the oars with this wonderful crew.

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Get rid of the blue oars, please.

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Thank you.

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Michael, would you like a drop?

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Oh, I would. Thank you, cheers.

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-You're welcome.

-What a very lovely crew this is.

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Well done!

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Ah! I could row the Atlantic now.

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Wexford's maritime history goes back to the Vikings,

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who named the place Veisafjoror, meaning Inlet of the Mudflats.

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It's long been a busy fishing harbour and, since the 18th century,

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it's also been an important trading port.

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This strong maritime culture spawned one of the town's most famous sons.

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Commodore John Barry, United States Navy.

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-Who was he?

-John Barry has been described as a Wexford-born American hero.

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He was born in South Wexford in the mid-1740s,

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he came from a maritime background.

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And he emigrated to the United States at the age of 14 and he started as a

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cabin boy, started at the lowest ranks,

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and worked his way up to the highest ranks.

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And he became a commercial sea captain.

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At the start of the American War of Independence,

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commercial sea captains were drafted in to fight the British.

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Loyal to his new nation, John Barry commanded numerous warships,

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winning crucial victories,

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including the final sea battle of the revolution against the British

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in 1783.

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He became a naval hero and President George Washington appointed him

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senior captain of the United States' new naval force.

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How was he recognised for those achievements?

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He was given the title Father of the American Navy and he is really

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recognised in America.

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Four US destroyers named after him, and the two American presidents have come

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here to lay wreaths at this statue.

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Dwight Eisenhower came in 1962 and the following year, of course, John F Kennedy

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came to Ireland because his ancestors come from Dunganstown

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outside New Ross.

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And he came to Wexford town in June 1963, and people are still talking

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about it.

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Should we be surprised that Wexford produced a naval hero of global

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-significance?

-No, not really.

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Wexford has always had a very proud maritime tradition and Wexford has

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always looked out to the sea.

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Before I leave, there's just time for a quick peek in the food tent,

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where some rather unusual local produce has caught my eye.

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-Hello, there.

-Good day, sir. Michael, and I'm another Michael here.

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Michael, it's very nice to see you.

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-And you too, fella.

-I imagine Wexford's pretty famous for seafood.

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It's absolutely, yeah. We're obviously by the coast.

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That's a seafood sausage, if you want to try one.

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-A seafood sausage?

-It's salmon and haddock and herbs and spices.

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They're gluten-free, they're high in Omega-3 oil, low in fat,

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seriously healthy. What do you think?

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Well, I think they're wonderful.

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-Yeah.

-They are delicious and, may I say, you are the best-dressed man here today?

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Well, I think you beat me on that one, sir. Fair dos to you.

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-No, no, no, no!

-Thank you very much.

-Thank you.

-Cheers.

-Bye-bye.

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Bacon marmalade, that's intriguing.

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It's very nice.

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-Thank you.

-It seems very strange, bacon and marmalade,

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-but it works very well. Have a good day.

-Thank you very much.

-Thank you.

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I'm leaving County Wexford and heading north up the coast to the very

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scenic county of Wicklow.

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The arrival of the railways opened up this region to the 19th-century

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traveller, who could enjoy the view from the window, just as I do today.

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This is a beautiful train ride.

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The guidebook says, "The greater part of this county is mountainous.

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"Towards the sea coast, it assumes great splendour and variety of scenery.

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"The railway can be taken to the famed Vale of Avoca,"

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or meeting point of the waters.

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And where the gurgling stream meets the babbling brook,

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you can expect sweet music.

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I'm alighting at the town of Arklow.

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It's the closest station to the Vale of Avoca, mentioned in my Bradshaw's,

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which became a popular destination for Victorian tourists.

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It's where the River Avonmore meets the River Avonbeg, and where I'm meeting

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Maynooth University professor of English Emer Nolan.

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Emer, hello.

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Michael, welcome to County Wicklow.

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Thank you very much. So, the waters meet here.

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-What makes them so famous?

-This is the setting for a very,

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very famous Irish song, composed by Thomas Moore in the, er...

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19th century.

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It became one of the most popular musical pieces for performance in

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Ireland and beyond Ireland, as well.

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And he sets the story of the song exactly at this spot,

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contemplating the meeting of the two rivers.

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Give me an idea of his popularity in his heyday.

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It was enormous.

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He was one of the best-known English or Irish writers of the early 19th

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century, and he really put Ireland on the map, in literary terms.

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He was the first person who found all the kind of stories and symbols and

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images of Ireland that we would recognise today - the shamrocks, the harps...

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..rediscovered many of the old airs and melodies and really made them

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available to a vast audience throughout the world.

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Considered by some to be Ireland's national bard,

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Moore had left his homeland as a young man to work in London.

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Through his nostalgic, patriotic poetry and songs,

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he championed a proud Irish identity, and his work inspired the masses and

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those working for independence.

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Did people make a connection between Thomas Moore and politics?

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I think they did, yes.

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There was a very important connection between Moore's poetry and music and

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Irish politics.

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He was associated with Daniel O'Connell,

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the great leader of the Catholics in the early 19th century in the great

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movement for Catholic emancipation.

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Thomas Moore has probably been almost completely forgotten in

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Great Britain and substantially in Ireland.

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How should he be remembered?

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He deserves to be remembered as someone who spoke up for Irish culture and

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Irish political rights at a very, very dark time, and remained so important to

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millions of Irish people in Ireland and beyond as someone who had kept a

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gleam of nationhood alive.

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Thomas Moore's emotive Irish poems were set to traditional Irish

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melodies - famous amongst which are Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose Of Summer

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and The Meeting Of The Waters.

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-Hello.

-How are you?

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Very well. You're playing The Meeting Of The Waters.

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Yes, we are. Well spotted.

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It's meant to be a little bit old-fashioned,

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but you still get something out of it?

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We do, absolutely. It's a beautiful air, the lyrics are beautiful.

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It still resonates today, particularly here.

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Any chance of hearing it through?

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-Yes, we'd be happy to.

-Love to play for you.

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Ready? Three, four...

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THEY PLAY THE MEETING OF THE WATERS

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# There is not in this wide world

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# A valley so sweet

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# As the vale in whose bosom

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# The bright waters meet

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# Oh, the last rays of feeling

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# And life must depart

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# Ere the bloom of that valley

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# Should fade from my heart

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# Ere the bloom of that valley

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# Should fade from my heart. #

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Following my Bradshaw's to the letter,

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my stop for the night will be the Woodenbridge Inn, now a hotel.

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Good evening.

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Good evening, Michael. Welcome to Woodenbridge.

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Thank you very much indeed.

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My guidebook, which is 130 years old or thereabouts,

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says that tourists can spend the night here.

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-You've been here a while.

-Woodenbridge Hotel dates back to 1608

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and would have been a stop on the main coaching route from Dublin to Carlow.

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-You'll have had some famous visitors.

-We've had many famous visitors.

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We've had Eamon de Valera, a former president of Ireland,

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who would have fought in 1916 and the War of Independence,

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and Michael Collins, who turned out to be his arch nemesis in the end, also

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stayed here. And most famous of all,

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-John Redmond made his famous speech about Irish men joining the British Army.

-1914.

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-That's right, yeah.

-Wow!

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What history. What politics!

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-Absolutely, yeah.

-I thought the place smelt of politics. I feel very much at home here!

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-Good, well, enjoy your stay.

-Thank you very much.

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Thank you.

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This morning, I'm returning to the mainline,

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continuing northwards in the direction of Dublin.

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My first stop today will be Wicklow. Bradshaw's is not very complementary.

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"A small town, the capital of the county,

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"made up of streets that are narrow and ill-built.

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"It stands on the little River Vartry."

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Unfortunately, Ireland in the 19th century suffered not only famine but

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also cholera and typhoid, and the little River Vartry played an important part

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in bringing clean water to the capital.

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During the middle of the 19th century,

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about a million Irish people starved to death, and close to two million more

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abandoned Ireland in waves of mass emigration.

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I'm making my way towards the Wicklow Mountains, where a grand Victorian

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project hoped to combat another threat from disease.

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I'm meeting plant engineer Ned Fleming.

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-Hello, Ned. I'm Michael.

-Hello, Michael. How are you?

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Ned, how does it come to be that a tremendous reservoir is built here?

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Dublin in the 1850s needed a new water supply, and the main problem really

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was that cholera had appeared in Ireland in the 1830s and killed over

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50,000 people. And it was only during the 1850s that, due to the work of

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John Snow in particular in London, that they realised that water,

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contaminated water, spread cholera.

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Prior to that, the Victorians had the theory of miasma -

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that all fevers were spread by bad air.

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But with these new thoughts, a medical doctor in Ireland, John Gray,

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drove this idea of a new water treatment works

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and new water treatment supply for Dublin.

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John Gray was not only a medical doctor but a businessman who lobbied hard

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for a new, clean water system for Dublin.

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He believed that could be achieved by damming the River Vartry 25 miles

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from the city and piping water into Dublin.

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Why would they choose this particular location?

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This location was largely dictated by the prior building of the railway

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down to Wexford. The city fathers realised that the city would expand to

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follow the railway and hence the idea of building a waterworks in this

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part of the country because it could supply on the way back into Dublin.

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Work on the reservoir began in 1862.

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Digging to a depth of over 18 metres and creating a capacity of over 11

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billion litres, the scheme was a huge engineering feat.

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Using mainly picks and shovels,

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the navvies completed the project in just five years.

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These filtration beds that we see here,

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these are essentially what were built in the 19th century?

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Yes, seven of them were built in the 1860s.

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The scheme was so successful that three more were added almost

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immediately, within ten years.

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So now, where are all the levers?

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They are over in the valve house under the dam.

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We'll go across and look at it.

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Very beautiful machinery. Victorian?

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These are Victorian. They're the original valves and they control the

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amount of water that we take from the reservoir into the water works.

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-So, what is the system?

-The system is simply gravity -

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water's stored in the reservoir,

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the pressure of that water drives it through the pipes underneath our feet,

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and these valves then, by opening or shutting,

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we control the amount of water that comes in.

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And so that gravity is sufficient to take it all the way to Dublin, is it?

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-It is, yes.

-And how would you operate these things?

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It's very, very simple. I suggest we walk across and look at this valve here.

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And it's a matter of turning this wheel.

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As you turn, you are now opening the valve and, if you turn the wheel the

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other way, you're closing the valve.

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Surprisingly easy.

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Yes, because of good gearing, 25 turns,

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you will only open that tongue one inch.

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The Vartry water supply scheme still provides drinking water to around 15% of

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the Greater Dublin Area and today it's additionally treated with chlorine.

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Why do we have this tower and this bridge?

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This tower is called a draw-off tower, where the water's taken from here,

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it's like a vertical pipe.

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But, of course, in Victorian times, a pipe had to be beautiful.

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It did, yes, and they did it in the Victorian Gothic style.

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Beautiful. And how significant has this been for the people of Dublin?

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It's probably the most significant public health engineering project ever

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for Dublin because it supplied 200-300,000 people with clean water and,

0:22:160:22:22

in doing so, it eliminated cholera.

0:22:220:22:24

I'm gazing at the Wicklow Mountain district

0:22:470:22:50

which, according to my guidebook, "no tourist should omit visiting.

0:22:500:22:54

"It extends from Donnybrook to Arklow."

0:22:540:22:57

I'm interested in that subset of Irish people whose view of it is always

0:22:570:23:02

changing as they travel from place to place, never settling.

0:23:020:23:07

Irish travellers have roamed the countryside for generations.

0:23:110:23:15

Victorian writers romanticised their nomadic lifestyle and today, for a

0:23:160:23:21

taste of life out on the road,

0:23:210:23:23

visitors can hire traditional caravans from Dieter Clissmann.

0:23:230:23:27

-Hello, Dieter.

-Hello, Michael. You're very welcome.

0:23:300:23:32

Thank you very much indeed.

0:23:320:23:34

These beautiful horse caravans, would these be typical and historical?

0:23:340:23:37

Yes, they are historical.

0:23:370:23:39

We copied them from the pattern that we got from the old travelling people

0:23:390:23:42

-themselves.

-And how different are what you had today from the traditional

0:23:420:23:46

-ones?

-Well, obviously, we have a lot of modern conveniences that they

0:23:460:23:49

didn't have in the old ones.

0:23:490:23:50

The old ones had a potbelly stove, which was used for heating and for

0:23:500:23:55

cooking. The travellers were famous for having lots of children and there

0:23:550:23:59

would be sometimes up to a dozen children or more even, and they would

0:23:590:24:03

start off life in the caravan,

0:24:030:24:05

being minded by their mother and father, and then migrated to underneath

0:24:050:24:08

the caravan,

0:24:080:24:10

when they were getting a bit older!

0:24:100:24:12

Is it possible to take a ride in one of these?

0:24:130:24:15

Yes, we'll take a drive rather than a ride, and we'll just have to find

0:24:150:24:20

ourselves a horse first.

0:24:200:24:21

We certainly will. Where do we do that?

0:24:210:24:23

Let's just do that.

0:24:230:24:24

These barrel-top caravans flourished in Ireland at the turn of the

0:24:260:24:30

20th century.

0:24:300:24:32

A good pulling horse was essential.

0:24:320:24:34

-Hello.

-Hello, welcome.

0:24:360:24:38

This is Neasa, my youngest.

0:24:380:24:40

-I'm Michael.

-I'm Neasa and this is Paddy.

0:24:400:24:43

-Hello, Paddy.

-He's going to be your horse for today.

0:24:430:24:45

Would this be a typical horse from the travellers' days?

0:24:460:24:50

Yes, it would be. They come in all shapes and sizes, in a sense.

0:24:500:24:53

A lot of them would have been black and white and they were called piebald

0:24:530:24:56

horses or brown and white are skewbald.

0:24:560:24:58

They typically have this little moustache at the front and a little bit of

0:24:580:25:01

a beard underneath.

0:25:010:25:03

Big, friendly giants.

0:25:030:25:04

-Very good.

-OK.

0:25:040:25:05

Come on, Pads. Good boy.

0:25:070:25:08

All yours.

0:25:190:25:20

-Thank you.

-Left is left and right is right.

0:25:200:25:23

And pull both and it is to stop and say, "Whoa!"

0:25:230:25:26

Reins in hand and we're all ready.

0:25:260:25:29

Come on, Paddy.

0:25:290:25:30

Today, there are around 25,000 Irish travellers living in the Republic of Ireland.

0:25:320:25:37

Dieter, what sort of relationship did the Irish travellers have traditionally with

0:25:400:25:43

the settled people?

0:25:430:25:45

Sometimes, they're regarded as being, if you like, outside normal society

0:25:450:25:50

but, essentially, travellers, as we know them today,

0:25:500:25:52

used to be called tinkers because they worked in tin and they used to make

0:25:520:25:57

tin implements and tin containers and all kinds of things.

0:25:570:26:00

Tin kettles. And they were a valuable part of the community.

0:26:000:26:04

They were itinerants.

0:26:040:26:05

So, if you had a kettle that sprung a leak,

0:26:050:26:07

you waited until the next tinker would be passing by and you'd get it

0:26:070:26:10

-repaired.

-And what about the culture?

0:26:100:26:13

What about the folklore?

0:26:130:26:14

The horses have been a central part of the culture of the Irish traveller.

0:26:140:26:18

And the horses that we use here, to a large extent, come from the

0:26:180:26:22

travelling people, we buy them from them.

0:26:220:26:24

And they're very good horse dealers.

0:26:240:26:26

For the 19th-century tourist,

0:26:280:26:30

horse-drawn transport was common and riding the new steam trains would

0:26:300:26:34

have been the thrill. But for today's visitors, like me,

0:26:340:26:38

seeing the country at the gentle pace of a horse and wagon is the treat.

0:26:380:26:42

When the young John Barry emigrated to the American colonies,

0:26:550:26:59

he was typical of Irish people who felt they had little future at home,

0:26:590:27:04

although his success as Father of the US Navy was truly exceptional.

0:27:040:27:11

The great hunger of the 19th century turned that emigration into a flood,

0:27:110:27:16

many of them leaving from the port of Wexford.

0:27:160:27:20

As political agitation also increased,

0:27:200:27:23

writers like Thomas Moore sought to recreate an Irish national identity,

0:27:230:27:29

hoping to create a society from which young Irish would no longer feel

0:27:290:27:34

compelled to escape to find their fortunes.

0:27:340:27:37

'Next time, I discover one of Ireland's greatest treasures...'

0:27:450:27:50

This embodies the soul of the nation, this instrument.

0:27:500:27:53

I don't think that's an overstatement.

0:27:530:27:55

'..hear how the British tried to calm relations across the Irish Sea...'

0:27:550:28:00

So, despite the political agitation,

0:28:000:28:02

using the royal family is a good card to play.

0:28:020:28:05

It's always a good card to play,

0:28:050:28:07

especially if they're young and good-looking.

0:28:070:28:09

'..and get involved in a bit of Dublin culture.'

0:28:090:28:13

A few of them and you'll be having the craic all night!

0:28:130:28:16

Armed with his Bradshaw's Handbook, Michael Portillo begins a journey across Ireland. In the port of Wexford, he takes to the seas in a 100-year-old lifeboat and discovers a hero of the American navy. He tunes in to the Meeting of the Waters at the Vale of Avoca, then heads for Wicklow, where he learns of a Victorian project to combat sickness and disease in the capital, Dublin. Embracing the gentler pace of life of a traditional Irish traveller in Victorian times, he ends this leg in a beautiful horse-drawn, barrel-top caravan.


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