My Balloon's Very First Trip to

Ireland, May 1997

featuring Stephani's Journal

Alf's Introduction

Friday, May 16th

This narrative continues right where I left off in the Watney Journal, over on the Corkscrew Pages.

Before lauching into the 16th I need to tell you about a little wine bar that Jean and I had a fight in last night ... we didn't actually fight ... we just didn't talk to each other throughout the meal. Anyway, we went there for dinner for our last evening in London. The place is called "L'autrue Wine Bar". It is, get this, a Polish/Mexican restaurant! I ordered a bowl of Borsch for starters and Burritos for the main; Jean ordered just the opposite. If you want to do what we did, visit 5b Shepherd Street in Mayfair ... it is still W1.

To start the day: this morning our shrill little alarm clock poked its fingers in our ears at 7AM. We slapped the snooze button and never made it out of bed until we knew for sure that we would be really hard pressed to make it to Heathrow on time. That always gets the adrenaline flowing. But, forty five minutes later we were in a cab heading toward Terminal 1.

After a rushed check in at British Midlands, and being singled out for a (random? Suspect profile?) X-ray check of our luggage, we were told that due to incoming delays and air traffic controller bogs we could have stayed in bed for another hour.

The uneventful flight to Dublin took about 2 hours and 15 minutes ... of which 55 minutes was in the air. Mercifully, our luggage made it smartly to the carousel before we did. That would seem to be unusual, save for the explanation that we had to walk from about gate multi-hundred to the final resting spot for bags from this flight.

Michael, and one of my best ground crews ever (Tim, Mark and Paul), met us right after we guiltily passed through the Green Line of Irish (EC?) customs. By the way, Jean and I always feel guilty even though we are always innocent. I think it has something to do with our Catholic upbringing.

After a two hour drive in our Toyoto Previa, over nausea inducing twisting roads, we were in Kilkenny and at Butler House, our hotel for the next three days of ballooning.

A quick bag unpack! OK, we're out again.

After a freshening walk of less than 100 feet and a longish stop at the Harp Pub for two fast pints of Guinness we were again gamely going down the road in our Previa; this time toward the site of our first to be expected Irish balloon launch. God must have been smiling down on us this evening as he kindly gave us near perfect weather. Since we were flying underweight (Robin and Stephani aren't here yet), we lifted off with a local farmer and his son as gratuitous passengers. OK, he was the man who allowed us to use his field for inflation and take off ... but, I hope that we would have done this kind bit anyway. Whatever, we had overcast skies and very little wind: perfect flying weather. So there! The Power up there thought nicely of us.

We drifted for a couple of hours through the Irish sky. A south-western shove from the bucolic parts to the even more bucolic parts ... with the all the pleasant townie parts in the middle. Included in the middle bits was a glide over our hotel ... we could look into our room and see how messy we were in our hasty suitcase unpack job.

After landing in a scruffily attractive field we did the obligatory Champagne thing, Then we speeded (sped?) our way to a pub for dinner. The crew finally joined us just before the restaurant staff wanted to take the last orders. I don't blame the staff ... it was late and the food was about to get funny. But my crew are far more important! Tomorrow night we'll just do Irish Stew and claret for everybody and order it all in advance. Much simpler that way.

I'm signing off at this point. From now on it is up to Stephani.

Saturday, May 17th

[Dear reader, I promised you that Stephani Weaver would be carrying the journal from this point on. And, so she has been, albeit via those most ancient of tools: a quill and some papyrus. Incidentally, I am at this moment in a mini-time machine; I am visiting you from five days in the future: May 22nd. From this spot in the future I can assure you that Stephani has chronicled every moment of the past five days. The product of her labor, which used writing instruments from the distant past, will be Pentiumized™ as soon as she returns to Cooper City, and a few days later, in Fort Lauderdale, her words will be merged with color prints from the Kodak Advantix™ system. It will all be added to this page, below these very pixels that you now read. ... In fact, just look: It's all here now!]

Stephani's Ireland Journal

By Stephani Weaver

Friday, May 16th

It's about 1:40 p.m. Friday afternoon and Robin, my husband, and I are actually going to IRELAND! Leaving our sons, Beau and Shane, in the capable care of Robin's mother, Anna, we found ourselves on a Delta flight headed for New York.

And-before we knew it, we were on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. We were excited about meeting up with Alf and Jean.

Saturday, May 17

A fantastic feature about traveling with Alf is that, besides the wonderful events and experiences, the trip is stress free. No concern had to be given to how we would actually get to Kilkenny form Dublin, this was already arranged.

At 6:30 a.m. in Dublin, we were met by a young man named Danny (how Irish) who was our driver from the Dublin Airport to Kilkenny. I asked him how long the drive was and the reply was that it could be an hour and a half or one hour depending on how steady our nerves were. seeing that we hadn't yet really adjusted to the five hour time difference, we opted for the longer ride and still arrived earlier than expected.

Danny took us to the Butler House in Kilkenny where we would be spending the next two days. The Butler House is elegantly situated in the center of the city. Our room was spacious with the far side taking on the rounded form of a tower. It was here that the windows were located. The view from the floor to ceiling windows three stories above the well manicured, green and flowered gardens below would remind one of the ancient splendor that welcomed Rapanzel or possibly Juliet.

It was at the Butler House that we met up with our traveling companions. Alf and Jean were the first to appear. Alf showed us his treasures from the London auctions. Four unique corkscrews each with its own character, story and importance in the Alf Erickson Corkscrew Collection.

We were then joined by Buddy Bombard, a balloon trip organizer extraordinaire, and Michael Lincicome, who is reputed to be the best balloon pilot (which I will vouch for that from past experience). The reason that I haven't been able to continue this journal in a timely fashion is really Buddy's fault. With Michael's assistance, Buddy had expertly planned such a wondrous five days that I had very little spare time for journal writing.

We began with a walking tour of Kilkenny. Rather than to miss anything by actually sleeping, which Robin and I had done very little of since yesterday, all six of us, along with the three dashing crew members, Paul Dean, Tim Hunt and Mark Pantry, took part in the tour. Along the tour, our guide introduced us to a St. Francis's Abbey, St. Canice's Cathedral, and some local folklore, and the beauty of the area and its people. We then travel by van to Kilkenny Castle, which is a magnificent building containing three sides of a fortress built in the 13th century.

We then went to lunch at a local Italian restaurant. Being an FBI (full blooded Italian) and, what I consider somewhat of an expert on Italian cuisine, I can say that the food at this restaurant was nearly as good as my grandmother's only without the massive amount of garlic she would add and swear she didn't.

By this time, Robin and I hadn't slept for over a day and a half, which is extremely unusual for me. Right about the time when I found my head drifting toward the restaurant tablecloth someone mentioned shopping! I soon found myself milling through the streets of Kilkenny with Alf, Jean, Robin looking for items that we could not live without. Within minutes of our shopping trip, Alf got a glazed look in his eye. It was really a full 20 minutes before it happened, which I believe to be a record.

This was the signal that in only moments Jean and I would find it necessary to deposit our significant others in a local pub as we continue to scout the area for treasures. I feel that we are perfecting this "shopping" technique, which began in Prague this summer. As we venture from area to area, Jean and I will stop by the pub, pick up Alf and Robin (not literally) and proceed to the next shopping/pub area. This works nicely for all concerned. All that would make it more perfect for Alf and Robin would be if a computer and ESPN were involved.

Within about an hour and a half, we all returned back to the Butler House. As an aside for a historical moment, the Butler House was built for the widow of a Butler duke, Edward. Seems the widow, Margaret, wasn't allowed to live in the castle any longer after Edward was out of the picture. I guess this might be reflected in the saying "A man's home is his castle". No mention of the woman.

When looking out the windows in the Butler House from our room, just beyond the view of the beautiful gardens, one can see the top of Kilkenny Castle. Although a beautiful sight to behold, seems a little cruel to Margaret.

At 7:00 p.m., after a short nap, Robin and I joined Alf and Jean along with the five other members of our group for our first balloon flight in Ireland - the second one for Jean and Alf. We took off from the grounds of Kilkenny Castle. Many of the townspeople were gathered for our ascent. After a warm sendoff which included much waving, we proceeded to float over the city. The Emerald Isle certainly is properly named. From the balloon, I saw every shade of green extending for miles in all directions.

When we flew drifted over farm lands, I found the animals to greet our arrival to their skies in quite a different manner than the people who waved enthusiastically from the town and farms. The hares, it seemed, ran like "scared rabbits". The horses were noticeably disturbed, running nervously back and forth while hardly looking up. The sheep ran around in a group like an entire team of 5 year old soccer players buzzing around the soccer ball up and down the field. Dogs, instinctively protecting the homestead, were confused by an "air attack". It was the cows, however, who expressed the most intense interest in our arrival. They would look up intently then run toward use like we were carrying a shipment of alfalfa. But, even among the bovine, reactions would sometimes vary. One cow, possibly realizing that we may be carrying the town butcher instead, would turn on her hoofs and run. If she were highly regarded, the others would follow. If not, they may just continue to stare, maybe hoping that we would land so that they could at least have a nibble of the balloon basket.

At about 9:00 p.m., with about another 1/2 hour of good daylight remaining, we landed in a farmer's field. The farmer and a gathering of curious others, came to greet us. We were welcomed with genuine warmth and hospitality. We found today and the days to follow that the Irish are quick to trust and care. Everyone that we happened upon was so genuinely friendly and pleasant. We talked with those around us and shared the traditional champagne with the adults (and cola for the children), then headed back to Kilkenny for dinner. As we exited the farm, our vehicles were greeted by the farmer's cows as they squeeeeezed by us on their way back to the barn for dinner.

We ate that evening at a known pub with a lovely dining room in the back. It was here that the attempt was made by local ladies to pick-up the crew. Tim, Mark and Paul were approached. The request was for the young men join their group for what was described as a "hen party". I guess we would call it a bachelorette party.

Dinner was excellent, by the way. All but the crew then left for a much needed night's sleep. For those who are wondering, the crew didn't join the "hen party" - or so they said.

Sunday, May 18

After a great night's sleep, we began our day today at 10:00 a.m. It amazed me how much we fit into yesterday. Buddy's did some expert planning. I was soon to find out that today would be another one of those days, to my delight.

Today we headed toward the Rock of Cashel, which is a group of medieval buildings and ruins set on a rock of limestone. Saint Patrick was said to have visited this location to baptize the king and then the townspeople. Due to an unfortunate mishap, where St. Patrick stabbed through the foot of the king with his staff, during the ceremony, St. Patrick was forced to extend his visit for another 7 years trying to convince the townspeople that the foot stabbing was not part of the ceremony. Other than the uncooperative rain, the sights and history of Cashel were most impressive.

Then, off to Cahir Castle in county Tipperary. This is an impressive castle that was one of the major strongholds of medieval Ireland. It was built by the Butler family. Seems so far that those Butlers certainly got around Ireland and were heavy into the castle building business.

The rain was beginning to lift as we stopped for lunch at a pub in Cahir. We were once again greeted by Irish hospitality, excellent Guinness (is there any other kind), and very tasty lunch. Then off to Waterford to catch a tour of the crystal factory. After touring the factory, it is easier to appreciate the craftsmanship in each piece of crystal, which is all done by hand - hence the cost.

Back to Kilkenny to hopefully catch up with some gentle winds and an evening balloon flight with one Guinness stop along the way. I am not much for beer but there is something distinctly different about Guinness. It is definitely an acquired taste. It think that I like it because it reminds of beer's version of a milkshake. We stopped in a small pub where we had the pleasure of hearing authentic Irish music and a spontaneous ballad sung by none other than Michael Murphy, who seemed to be a unique sort and a known local. Looking over at Robin, I could see that he was very content- not because of the fine Irish music but because he was watching sports on the small t.v. while clutching a Guinness.

Seems that Buddy was slooowly developing a taste for this brew. We were all fascinated by shamrock design that the bartender placed, via the tap, on the head of the Guinness. Something like the curl on the top of a Dairy Queen ice-cream cone.

It seemed to be fair weather, so we arrived back in Kilkenny. But, as we later found, the winds weren't cooperating. Much to our disappointment, and that of the gathering townspeople, we didn't balloon this evening. We are not too sad because tomorrow we are off to new ballooning adventures. So, on to dinner and anticipating gentler winds in the days to come.

Monday, May 19

Today we leave Kilkenny. Onto other adventures. We head to our next destination, Cromleach Lodge in Castlebaldwin, County Sligo. On the way there, we made a stop in County Offaly to tour a bog via the Blackwater Railway. I used to think that a bog was a type of marsh, which served the same purpose as quicksand. I found out, by taking the tour through bog land, that this previous concept isn't exactly on target. Sure, things such as treasure animals and people do sink into the bog. The guide did warn the group, however, that if anyone planned on killing someone we should not throw him/her into the bog. The reason being that the bog has properties that perfectly preserves, for hundreds of years, whatever falls into it from cheese to humans. Besides its ability to preserve, the bog also serves other functions such as fuel for power and heat. It is amazing to me how anyone discovered that "dirt" could beneficially be burned.

After the bog, we were off to lunch. I must say that I wasn't one to miss a meal during this trip. The food has been excellent so far. Buddy painstakingly researched some of the best locations for eating in Ireland. Even though the food has been too good to pass up, I am generally pleased with any food that I myself do not have to prepare. We ate lunch at in the heart of Ireland at the Hodson Bay Resort Hotel, which is situated on the shores of Lough Ree. From here, we headed toward our destination and next ballooning location in County Sligo.

At nearly 6:00 p.m., we all arrived at Cromleach Lodge. It is quite an elegant hotel. In a location so far removed, it is surprising to discover such a place. Only Buddy could accomplish such a feat. Each room looked like it had been designed by an interior decorator, but in reality it was the very talented proprietor, Moira Tighe. We had floor to ceiling windows on a wall that overlooked a lake, valley and the mountains beyond-spectacular!

There are times when I have been ballooning that I think, "this is certainly the most beautiful sight that exists". Then, I will go on another flight and deem that sight the most beautiful. Today was another one of those flights. Alf, Jean, Buddy, Robin, Jimmy (a local farmer) and I took off from a pasture just above the lodge where we were staying. The cows kept their distance and just look on curiously. We floated down the mountainside and over the ruins of a well preserved church, missing the roof and floors within. This gave us the perfect opportunity to have a look inside-at the past. We then drifted to an island that sits in the middle of the lake over lands filled with beauty and folklore. We ended our adventure by landing in a farmer's field. The field was wet, which caused Mark to do a ground spin at the end of one of the balloon lines.

The children across the street were just being put to bed for the evening but upon looking out their windows, were rousted at the unusual sight of our landing. So, once again we had the pleasure of a warm Irish welcome. Champagne and coke was served. Then off to the Cromleach Lodge for a late dinner. It was now around 10:00 p.m. Dinner was outstanding, probably the best food that we have had so far on this trip. Remember I said that the food was great, well this was "greater". Moira Tighe, the same woman responsible for decorating the rooms, also prepares and oversees the meals. She is a woman of enviable talents.

Tuesday, May 20

This morning is known as a "soft" morning. It was misty and lightly raining. Certainly not a good day for naturally curly hair. We were driving to a donkey sanctuary and to pick up Martin Byrne, a local young man who studies the lore of the area. Driving up what, at times looked like footpaths, we arrived at our destination. As we opened the door of the van, we were met by Sue, whose kind heart, patience, time and energy she devotes to caring for donkeys. Some of these timid beasts of burden were abandoned, while others in need were handed over to her gentle care. Beside donkeys, she also had two dogs and two horses who were also lucky enough to find their way here. The world should possess more people with Sue's spirit.

Along with Sue, we were introduced to Martin and his young son Fiach. Martin is a soft-spoken man who, throughout the next two days, would accompany us as we travel the countryside giving us information about folklore and areas of interest. We piled into the vehicles on our way to Parke's Castle in County Leitrium.

The Parke's Castle tour began with a short movie where we were introduced to the concept of carins. These are burial chambers which Martin explained have a curious structure which also involve concepts of astronomy. We then took part in a guided tour of this 17th century fortified manor.

Then, of course, we were off to lunch. This time it was at beautifully renovated Markee Castle in Collooney, County Sligo. The poet Yeats was a regular guest here. This castle has been the home of the Cooper family for 350 years and is now a renovated country house hotel run by the direct descendents of the original family. With its vibrantly colored stained glass windows, its spectacular entrance staircase, rich wood work, elegant furnishings, and surrounding gardens and woodlands, it is truly a remarkable place.

After lunch, where else than shopping in the town of Sligo. After a short trip down Main Street we were back at Cromleach Lodge for an "early" dinner at 9:00 p.m. The weather was not cooperating today to allow us to balloon. Maybe tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 21

Michael called at about 7:00 a.m. to wake us for a surprise morning flight. We all hurriedly got dressed and arrived; a little bleary eyed, at Monday's take off site. Christy, co-proprietor of Cromleach Lodge, joined us. Our flight took us in a little different direction than we went on Monday. We landed for a short time on one of lake's islands. Buddy jumped out to pick Jean and I perfectly shaped bluebells. These specific flowers are impossible to come by without a boat or, in this case, a hot air balloon. After a most amazing morning flight, we landed in a field across from a farmhouse where we were delighted to be "attacked" by four Collie puppies. These six-week-old babies pulled on pant legs and untied shoes. We shared champagne with the farmer and his wife and some scratching behind the ears with the puppies and two other dogs.

We then drove back to the hotel for a quick change. Martin had now joined us once again and brought pictures and drawings of cairns and dolmens to share with us. When we were once again all gathered we hoped into the vehicles and headed toward County Leitrium. Here we arrived at Gertie's "Cruise" Boat to board a unique vessel that was to take us through a Lough Scer and Lough Marrave and then back again. The one-hour boat trip was very interesting. We witnessed the workings of a lock, were given some of the history of the area and heard Irish ballads. Jean even had an opportunity to steer, which she did so very successfully.

Then for a stop at Gertie's pub. The story is told that a man from England was visiting a friend in town. They decided to go out for a night on the town and ventured into Gertie's Pub. When they got there the two men looked around at the six people in the pub and the one man told the visitor from England that they would have to leave and go to the pub across the street. The visitor questioned this decision, since Gertie's was by no means crowded. He was informed that the reason for leaving was that Gertie only had seven glasses! Fergis, who was our boat captain, guide and waiter told us this tale. He also shared with us the fact that the town currently has 19 citizens, one being a new baby. Jean and I attempted to shop. We found one closed craft store (to our disappointment), one grocery store/post office and two pubs!

While eating lunch and sampling Guinness at Gertie's Pub, Fergis arranged for us to have a young man, by the name of Eric who shared tales and explanations about early Irish history and weaponry, which he had samples of. We could ask questions about anything before the 1600's! There weren't many questions asked.

Fergis then took us to Fin McCool's cairn. Seems Fin was a legendary leader and hero in Ireland who is thought to be super human. It was impressive but not comparable to a monument by any means since this cairn was located in sheep pastureland. We all played a variation of the game of hopscotch to get there and back. It was raining again and chilly. The weather was not cooperating for an evening flight so, as we headed back to Cromleach, we made a short shopping/pub stop. This evening we had another excellent dinner and then Robin and I regretfully said our good-byes to Buddy, Mike, Jean and Alf. Tomorrow morning we were leaving the fantasy of Ireland to reluctantly traveling back to reality.

I am passing the quill back to Alf to record his and Jean's final day's adventures. We wish them fair weather.

Back to Alf ...

Thursday, May 22

The Weavers have left for the new world. They parted very early this morning so we said our "byes and see you next weeks" last night right after dinner.

Jean and I are not optimistic about flying today. It's not raining but the wind is very gusty. However, I am not morose as we have had four great flights out of a possible seven lift offs.

It's rolling on 9AM ... more later.

It's later, right now.

For the past three days there has been this mountain staring in my window. I'm sure that it has been staring in the same general direction for a lot longer than three days but it has only been since Monday that I have been able to glare back at it. Anyway, it has three or four little buttons on top of it. These buttons are cairns; ancient burial mounds of the pre-Christian Irish (pagans). This morning we drove to the base of the mountain (hill) and trekked to the top. The wind was blowing like something God awful. Oh, but, Jesus, what a wonderful view. It was like being in the balloon, but with a gale blowing about us while we were tethered in one spot. We sought solace from the wind inside the cairn. The five of us crawled through the opening and peeked out the sole slit that permitted light to enter. This was the same slit that only allowed the very direct rays of the sun to enter the cairn on the summer solstice. These summer and winter solstice "sun slots" are very common on ancient burial sites all over the world. At that time in human history either the people were really keen on where the sun went and when it did it; or else astronomy was a national past time.

After tiring of being blown about we drove to Sligo for a semi alfresco lunch at The Café Cairo Sligo. The menu did not suggest Cairo or Egypt in the least. However, since the town of Sligo only has pubs that serve lunch, I assume that the owner thought that The Café Cairo might have more drawing power among the local business folks than did the neighboring "Paddy's Pub". Whatever, the ham and cheese omelet was good.

I should be packing now; so should Jean. I'm writing; Jean is napping.

More later.

After I wrote the above I laid down for a few minutes ... .the few minutes turned into a couple of hours; hours that I was completely out of touch with reality. It's called sleep.

For our last evening together I had my pilot and my ground crew over for a special dinner, Christy, the hotel owner, had his chef create a fabulous four course dinner that took us the better part of the evening to consume.

Friday, May 23

The bloody alarm went off at 5:30AM.As we had not packed the night before, there was a lot of crashing and gnashing of suitcases before the lads came up to drag us to the Dublin airport. It was a surly drive as the traffic was dense in the pockets in which we hoped to make the most time.

We made it in time for Jean to check out the duty free shops. While she did this I had my last pint of Guinness.

About ten hours later we were home.

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