Whether you have Irish heritage or not, you will feel at home on this Emerald Isle. The grass truly is greener, the people are gregarious and proud of their homeland, their brogue is charming and there is a pub on most every corner where you will feel welcome. Ireland is 150 miles wide by 280 miles long, 32,599 square miles, similar in size to the state of Maine, and Ireland’s population is about 6.4 million (Maine’s is 1.3 million). While it sounds small and manageable, the roads along the coast and countryside can be very narrow and loaded with sheep and trailers so road speeds are slow and surfaces are rough.
Irish rental cars are typically manual transmission so you are not only driving on the left side of the road, sitting in the right side of car, but shifting on the left too. Signs are confusing too – so limit your tours and enjoy the Irish people, pubs and historic sites versus spending your time in the car trying to cover too much ground.
We have visited Ireland twice, our first trip to the East Coast was a fantasy – landing in Shannon and touring the area from Dingle to Galway to the Connemara Mountains made for an idyllic week. Our home base was a thatched roof cottage overlooking the bay of Kinvarra, a short walk to town for provisions and pubs at night. The Cliffs of Moher is a must, these seaside cliffs drop dramatically to the sea and the waves crash against the stunning rocky shore. The castles of Ireland are amazing – some inhabited and restored, you can even lodge the night in a classic castle, while others are so ancient – dating to 100 AD that the only remaining vestiges are the castle walls and narrow bunkered windows.
Another must is the Dingle Peninsula, home of Funghi the friendly Irish dolphin and more great pubs, scenic drives, places and monastic ruins. We did not make the Ring of Kerry, so that is on our next time to Ireland itinerary. We found the city of Galway to be very collegiate and up and coming – home base to tech and pharmaceutical companies, many great pubs and people watching. The Connemara Mountains for Ireland are splendid as lush green rolling hills leads to grander rocky mountains, most notably the Twelve Bens and the Owenglin River. Connemara also offers sandy Irish beaches- not exactly conducive to sunbathing given Ireland’s cool moist temperatures most of the year, but these stretches of sand along the Atlantic are incredibly lovely looking out at the Aran Islands and the vast deep blue sea in contrast to the countryside. Beautiful castles include Ballnyahinch and Abbeyglen and Ross Castle and the Cashel House Manor and Kilemore Abbey.
Our second trip to Ireland was to the East Coast and Dublin, Ireland’s largest city and capital, in 2012. Dublin brims with Irish history from the Vikings to the Viceroy who ruled here during the British dominance, to today’s more modern architecture and industry juxtaposed against revered Trinity College and St Patrick’s Church. While Dublin is not a very big city, the traffic is significant – so explore on foot, grab a cab or take a hop on hop off tour of the city’s many treasures.
The historic tour of Dublin must include the magnificent churches of St Patrick’s and Christ Church – ironically there is a fee to view these sacred and stunning religious monuments. Dublin Castle offers amazing fortified grounds, a remaining turret and palatial State Apartments – all part of the tour within the Castle proper. Dublin Castle offers aglimpse of the how the wealthy viceroy lived over 700 years of power and how the commoners longed to peak into the castle’s luxe draperies, diamond dripping chandeliers and rich decor. Trinity College is another must visit – this campus is amazingly old and intimidating. Also on display at Trinity College is the Book of Kells – an 8th century illuminated gospel and the Long Hall of Books – the largest library collection of classic bound historic books and busts in Ireland included in your admission to the Trinity Tour of the Book of Kells.
Several Dublin museums are free, The National Gallery of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland plus the Hugh lane Municipal Gallery feature works by Irish artist Jack Yeats, Picasso, Van Gogh, the Impressionist Monet, Manet and Rembrandt, and more.
We found that walking the streets of Dublin tells its own tale – impressive Norman, Anglo Irish, and Georgian style buildings of granite and marble amid grand neo-Gothic cathedrals. The renaissance brought Victorian and Italianate style to the capital city. The River Liffey divides the city of Dublin, and provides beautiful views, the Ha Penny Bridge is a must – particularly pretty light up at night. Walk the banks of the Liffey and the high end shops of Grafton Street where performers take to the pedestrian zone on weekends to entertain, and Temple Bar which is like an Irish keg party type pub crawl every night with wall to wall Guinness quaffing guys and gals and loud music.
For the best Dublin nightlife and a more authentic Irish music scene, Baggott Street’s pubs offer Irish sessions and craic – true Irish music and sing-along’s and of course Guinness and Smithwicks (a beer older than the classic dark brown national stout) on tap. O’Donoghues and Searsons are particularly popular with live Irish music most nights. You can also partake in a paid, narrated Literary Pub Crawl or Musical Pub Crawl – but we found our own great pubs by following our noses, the noises and the people.
Irish food and drink defines the country, along with song and good cheer (they go together well – once you drink you feel like singing and dancing). The Guinness Storehouse tour provides a narrated tour of the famous Irish stout beer, the trademark Guinness marketing genius and insight to the simple but successful ingredient of Sir Arthur Guinness brilliant beer. After the tour, you are good for a “free” beer (ok – the tour is pricy at $18 euro) which is served on the top floor Gravity Bar with floor to ceiling windows and splendid views of the entire city, church steeples and all, and the mountains of Wicklow and Sugar Loaf in the distance. The Jameson Distillery also offers Irish whiskey factory tours and narrative about the Jameson’s Whiskey.
The Irish food in Dublin is quite traditional fare – menus look much the same featuring: bangers and mash, fish and chips, Guinness Stew, Irish Stew, cottage pie, chowder, salmon and brown bread. The food is simple and substantial and goes well with a Guinness on tap. A few unique dining spots include the Brazen Head Pub – the oldest in all of Dublin located near the Guinness Factory, The Bank on Excheque Street in town which offers a lavish Italianate decor in an old 1892 bank, and the Merry Ploughboy outside of town which presents a lively night of signing and dancing in an Irish banquet hall. Irish breakfast is incredibly filling and delicious – eggs, brown bread, roasted tomato, hash brown potato, blood pudding, homemade sausage, and even a side of baked beans.
For day trips on the East coast from Dublin, we drove south along the water to the Wicklow Mountains and stunning Sugar Loaf, along the way visiting Powerscourt Castle Garden and Estate – a beautiful 13th century medieval castle with extensive gardens and grounds. Powerscourt is certainly among the most amazing and best preserved estates in Ireland including a perfect reflecting pool lake and Japanese gardens. Powerscourt Waterfall is nearby, the largest waterfall in Ireland plummeting 398 feet over mossy cliffs at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains. From Powerscourt, we drove the undulating uninhabited landscape of Sally Gap (not recommended in snow or inclement visibility) – this and Military Road are the sights of filming locations for Braveheart starring Mel Gibson and Michael Connelly to name a few. Glendalough, a medieval settlement in the glacial valley of Wicklow, offers delightful scenery and a 6th century site – one of the oldest monastic sights in Ireland dating to St Kevin and 600 AD which we explored on foot with a walk to the upper and lower lakes past eerily old graveyards. The Roundwood Inn in Bray served as a lovely spot for lunch of Irish stew and a pint along your return to Dublin.
As a day trip North of Dublin city, we visited the beautifully restored and reopened Mallahide Castle – which just underwent a $10 million restoration. The 12th century Castle of Mallahide was home to the wealthy Talbot family and the castle rooms on display are decorated with authenticity and grace. The Mallahide gardens including a walled garden and a beautiful glass garden pavilion are a must. Mallahide offers outdoor concerts on the extensive manicured castle lawns. Mallahide Castle would be splendid spot for a picnic too, but we hadn’t provisioned with smoke salmon, Irish goat cheese, brown bread, and wine – next time! The nearby town of Mallahide offered us great boutiques, pubs and a perfect lunch cafe however, and a walk along the harbor full of pleasure boats afterwards.
In the afternoon we journey west of Mallahide about an hour on the turnpike to another incredible castle –Trim Castle in the town of Trim. This Trim Castle is the largest castle in Ireland and the finest representation of 11-13th century living of nobility and warriors. Braveheart was filmed here in 1994 amongst the crumbling castle walls and the standing Yellow Tower, evidence of the surrounding moat exist along the Boyne River which bubbles over rocks and under bridges through the charming town of Trim. On our return to Dublin, we encountered a wee bit of rain, Irish mist as they call it, then the sun reappeared and created a spectacular rainbow – a sign of our good fortune to be in this great country – we couldn’t quite reach the pot of gold which moved further away toward the horizon as we carried on down the road back to Dublin proper.
The Dubliners were lovely too us – of course my daughter and I are gingers so our red hair had many believing we were Irish and native. We have no brogue accent despite the Burke surname, so that eventually gave us away. Nonetheless, everyone was very welcoming to us as Americans, they give challenging directions – but that’s the nature of the Irish conversation. They’d rather get to the pint, than get to the point. During our visit the Irish won against Argentina in a big rugby match at Dublin’s Aviva stadium so the pubs were jamming that night with rowdy happy rugby fans! I even danced on stage at one session… grand!
Irish Travel Tips:
Irish weather is very cool even in summer months, Ireland is 53N latitude, the damp humid air will have you wanting a jacket or sweater.
A big Irish breakfast will fill you up until mid afternoon – perfect time for a pint and chips (Irish fries) or proper Irish tea service with baked confections, before an evening meal in a pub.
Ireland is expensive, especially due to the Euro introduction. Despite the economic downturn in Ireland years ago (Ireland was ahead of Greece and Spain) the prices have not adjusted, watch your receipts and expenses.
Be careful crossing roads, look both ways and obey cross walks.
Engage the Irish – their Celtic brogue is genius, brilliant and highly entertaining… Slante!