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The Enchanting Emerald Isle

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A grand tour taking in both city and countryside.

Posted September 21, 2011



Since I couldn’t decide whether to do “city” or “country,” I opted to combine the two, and spent the first part of the trip in the Western counties of Ireland, and the latter part in Dublin. If you have the time, I’d recommend you do the same (you don’t necessarily have to do the Western counties—the other areas of the countryside are equally picturesque, but the rural/urban combination will give you a good overview of the country).

I left Baltimore on a Saturday evening nonstop flight to Shannon. Nonstop flights, especially international ones, are few and far between from Baltimore, so not having to deal with connecting flights was a real pleasure. A quick 5 and a half hours later, we landed in Shannon. If you’re comfortable driving on the other side of the road, rent a car for your countryside adventure; otherwise, you might want to consider hiring a car and driver or joining a tour for this part of your journey.

My friend and I had arranged to be picked up at the airport and were driven to the Bunratty Manor Hotel in Bunratty, County Clare, where we were to spend a night before meeting up with some other friends the next day. Despite the early hour, owner Noel Wallace welcomed us with open arms (and luckily had rooms ready for us). Wallace and his wife recently bought the 14-room inn, have updated all the rooms, and have added a charming restaurant to the property.

After a short rest, we headed over to Bunratty Folk Park (think a medieval Irish version of Williamsburg). A popular tourist draw, especially in the summer months, we pretty much had the park to ourselves in early November, enjoying one picture postcard view after another. After a stroll through the recreated village, we visited the requisite shoppers’ attractions outside, including branches of the popular Blarney Woolen Mills and Avoca, for traditional Irish goods. Don’t miss a stop at Durty Nellie’s, a 17th century pub—the real thing, not a recreation.

That evening we returned to the park for the medieval banquet (no silverware allowed!) at Bunratty Castle. The tongue-in-cheek attitude of the host and actors/musicians kept the experience from being trite…this is a popular tourist draw though, so be prepared to be dining with hundreds of other visitors.

The next day we left Bunratty, after a warm farewell hug from Noel Wallace—our new best friend (the first of many on our trip!)—and headed over to Dromoland Castle, just a short drive away, in Newmarket-on-Fergus, also in County Clare. Dromoland is one of Ireland’s best castle hotels, and one of the few that can trace its ownership back through history to Gaelic Irish families of royal heritage. The guest rooms at the castle are luxurious, but the reception rooms and grounds are simply breathtaking. You can sample the breakfast buffet or take tea while sitting by the fire in the drawing room, or eat in one of the hotel’s various restaurants. There is a spa on the grounds of the castle, and for golfers, a newly redesigned championship course that meanders through the woodlands and around the lakes of the 16th century estate (I don’t play golf, but when I saw the course, I almost wished I did).

We pulled ourselves away from Dromoland for a few hours to go into nearby Limerick where we went on a walking tour that pointed out the sights made famous in Frank McCourt’s book, and subsequent movie,”Angela’s Ashes.” Limerick, like most of Ireland, is enjoying a booming economy at the moment, so there’s much renovation and gentrification going on. Worth a visit in Limerick is King’s John Castle, built in 1200. The visitor center provides a history of the city and the castle; you can also climb to the top of the tower, the oldest part of the castle. If you’re interested in medieval and Celtic art, visit the Hunt Museum in the university campus area at Plassey.

After our tour of Limerick, it was back to Dromoland for dinner and to pretend we were royalty for just a few hours more. The next morning, we left for Birr, in County Offaly. Birr is a quiet, Georgian town, home to Birr Castle (needless to say, there is no shortage of castles in Ireland). The castle itself remains a private residence and is not generally open to the public, but the 100 acres of gardens are open year-round. Though they’re certain to be spectacular in the spring and summer, there are flowering displays all year—Ireland’s climate is actually quite mild—and there are walks throughout the gardens beside the lake and rivers that make for a calming respite if you’re on a hectic touring schedule. Besides the gardens, Birr is also known for its early telescope, built in the 1840s by the 3rd Earl of Rosse; at that time it was the largest and most powerful telescope in the world. The 72-inch lens enabled the earl, an avid astronomer, and his son, to study the stars and measure the heat of the moon. Today the castle stables also house Ireland’s Historic Science Centre, which has exhibitions relating to astronomy, photography, and engineering.

From Birr we continued through the scenic countryside to have lunch at Kinnity Castle, in Kinnity, also in County Offaly. The castle dates from 1209 and has had a turbulent history, having been destroyed, and rebuilt, twice. It even has a resident ghost—whom the staff affectionately refer to as “Hugh.” Kinnity is another of Ireland’s luxurious castle hotels, and though we didn’t stay overnight there, I’d certainly be tempted to come back and settle in for a couple of days enjoying the grounds and the newly opened spa. The castle is only about an hour and a half from Dublin, but seems as if it’s in another world.

After tearing ourselves away from Kinnity, we drove on to Galway where we checked into the Great Southern Hotel on Eyre Square. Unfortunately, the square is currently being excavated and refurbished so the beautiful park-like view from the front of the hotel is missing for the moment. The hotel itself though was just refurbished in 2003 and now includes all the modern amenities you could ask for (including a lovely new spa) while still retaining an Old World feel.

Galway is also in the midst of an economic boom and is now the fastest growing city in the country. The well-regarded 19th century university there gives the town a youthful energy, with students, tourists, and residents alike in search of “good crack”—contrary to what that means here, “crack” (or craic in Gaelic) means “fun.” We stayed in Galway for two nights as it’s a good base for exploring other nearby areas such as Connemara, the Aran Islands, Lough Corrib, and the Burren.

We enjoyed Galway simply by setting off on a walking tour on our own. The city is compact enough that it’s hard to get lost. Located on the Corrib River, Galway was a prosperous port and trading center. At the western end of the river you can find the remains of the Gaelic-speaking fishing community known as the Claddagh (from which the well-known Claddagh rings originated; the familiar ring depicts two hands holding a heart surmounted by a crown, which symbolizes a promise, or the hope, of eternal love and friendship. If the point of the heart is facing toward the wearer, it means that his or her heart is spoken for; if the point is facing outward, then his or her heart is still available. It’s considered bad luck to buy your own Claddagh ring, but you can always buy one and give it to a friend and hope he or she will do the same for you).

High Street, or Shop Street, the city’s main commercial boulevard, is vehicle-free (after 11 a.m.) and is an entertaining way of passing a few hours, poking in and out of the many small stores. Being the bookaholic that I am, I was especially fond of Kennys Bookshop and Art Galleries, a family-owned enterprise founded more than 50 years ago. Wandering through the nooks and crannies of this store can keep you occupied for hours. If you have a thirst for Irish literature, you can even join Kennys Book Club, where you can arrange to have a certain dollar value of books sent to you at regular intervals.

Ireland is known for its crystal and though we didn’t get to Waterford, we did visit the Galway Irish Crystal Heritage Centre where we were able to see Galway crystal being made. There’s a lunchroom upstairs and a gift shop with surprisingly good prices—I bought a few small pieces but thought I’d save some money, assuming I could find some of the same things later on in the trip; I couldn’t and now I’m sorry! Lesson learned (again)..when you see something you want, buy it then.

The following day was one of the highlights of the trip. Leaving Galway City, we traveled to Brigit’s Garden in nearby Roscahill. Opened just this past summer, Brigit’s Garden contains 11 acres of themed gardens that reflect the Celtic seasonal cycles. The gardens were designed by Mary Reynolds, one of Ireland’s most famous landscape architects, and also contain a nature trail, children’s discovery trail, wind chamber, sunken garden, and thatched round house. At the center of the gardens is a large earth mound in the shape of a sleeping woman inspired by Brigit as saint and Celtic goddess. Despite the fact that the gardens weren’t in full flower because of the time of year, the visit was well worth the time we spent there.

Our next stop after Brigit’s Garden—and it was hard to tear ourselves away—was Kylemore Abbey, nestled at the base of Duchruach Mountain on the northern shore of Lough Pollacappul, in the heart of the Connemara mountains. Kylemore was built as a gift to his wife by tycoon Mitchell Henry. Tragically, Henry’s wife and daughter died and the castle was sold. It became an abbey when Benedictine nuns, fleeing from Belgium in World War I, took refuge there. Today the nuns run the abbey as a prestigious boarding school for girls. You can walk through parts of the abbey as well as visit the grounds. The reflection of the abbey in the lakefront makes for a beautiful photo stop too.

After visiting Kylemore, we stopped for lunch at Lough Inagh Lodge, on the shores of Lough Inagh, one of Connemara’s most beautiful lakes (Connemara is the region known for the predominantly green marble quarried there; make time for a visit to the Connemara Marble Visitor Centre and Jewellery Factory at Moycullen). Another picture postcard perfect setting, and though we couldn’t stay there overnight, I caught a peek at a few of the rooms and would definitely recommend it for a night or two of escapist relaxation. Lunch was delicious, with the views looking out over the lake adding to the experience—despite the overcast and drizzly day.

By the time we left Lough Inagh, it was raining more steadily but we continued along to the Connemara Heritage and History Centre where the genial tour guide talked to us about the events that shaped this region, including the emigration to the United States caused by the 19th century famine.

We spent the night at Zetland Country House, in Cashel, in County Connemara. By this time we’d almost convinced ourselves that we were royalty…or at least had some very wealthy friends! Zetland was built in the early 19th century and is surrounded by gardens while overlooking Cashel Bay. The view from my bedroom in the morning was spectacular! The house was originally built as a sporting lodge and is named for the Earl of Zetland, who was a regular guest and Lord Viceroy to Ireland in the last century. The bedrooms are furnished with antiques (but the bathrooms are completely up-to-date). The cozy drawing rooms with their warming fireplaces are ideal for a pre- or post-dinner drink or simply to sit and read or stare out the windows. There is an excellent dining room in the hotel where we had another delicious dinner, as well as breakfast the next morning. Contrary to its reputation for boring, uninspired food, virtually all the meals we had in Ireland were top-notch, with an emphasis on local fish and seafood, such as salmon and mussels; lamb; and steak. Butter and cream are also used in abundance so cholesterol-watchers, beware!

After leaving Zetland the next morning, we were off to the Spiddal Craft Centre, about 15 miles west of Galway. Obviously designed to bring in the tourist dollars, the Centre was nonetheless an interesting stop. The complex is made up of eight craftshops, including a weaver, potter, leatherworker, candlemaker, woodturner, and jeweler. Most of the crafts produced at Spiddal are not available in other retail shops (and being the inveterate shopper that I am, I can vouch for that).

Heading back to Limerick for our last night in the Western counties, we stopped for lunch at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, in Kilcolgan, which dates back almost 300 years and is now run by the seventh generation of the Moran family. Don’t miss the mussels or the chili prawns. After lunch, we visited the Burren Smoke House where we saw how salmon is smoked—and were able to buy some to take home (it’s vacuum-packed and will last 3 weeks in the refrigerator from the date of packaging—your hotel will be more than happy to keep it refrigerated for you). The smoke house is located in the small town of Lisdoonvarna, in County Clare. Lisdoonvarna is well-known for another reason besides smoking fish; it’s the home of the annual Matchmaking Festival, held every September, that attracts singles from around the world. If you haven’t found your heart’s true love yet, point your Claddagh ring outward and make your way to Lisdoonvarna; you may just find your beloved there.

Our last night on the “left” side of the country was spent back in Limerick, at the Clarion Hotel—no, not a castle, but a comfortable, modern hotel. We had another wonderful dinner, this time at Brulees, and then wound up the evening in a local pub listening to traditional Irish music with more newfound best friends.

After six days of one “Kodak moment” after another (not to mention, a few too many Baileys and Guinnesses), some of our group went home (poor things!), and my friend and I went on to Dublin. Our base of operations in Ireland’s capital city was the Westbury Hotel. The location was ideal, just one block off Grafton Street, the city’s pedestrian-only shopping thoroughfare, and several blocks from Trinity College in one direction, and St. Stephens Green in the other.

Dublin is a great walking city, and after almost a week in cars and busses, it was good to get our legs moving again (and burn off some of those calories). We bought a pass for Dublin’s City Tour bus, which allowed us to hop on and off at any of the tour’s 19 attractions, among them the Dublin Writers Museum, Trinity College, Merrion Square, Temple Bar, Dublin Castle, Guinness Storehouse, and the National Museum of Ireland. Our original intention was to stay on for the entire tour to get an overview of the city but we soon found ourselves doing just what the tour advertises, hopping on and off. My friend’s first stop of choice was the Guinness Storehouse; quite frankly, that didn’t quite live up to the hype, although you couldn’t tell from the long lines of visitors waiting to get in.

Of more interest to me was a walk through the campus of Trinity College and a visit to the 9th century Book of Kells and the accompanying exhibition, “Turning Darkness Into Light.” Upstairs from the Book of Kells is the Long Room, or Old Library, which opened in 1732. This 209-foot long chamber, with its windows lining each side, houses Trinity’s oldest books, including a folio of Shakespeare. You’re not allowed to touch any of the books (or even get too close to them), but if you’re a library lover, as I am, this is a treat.

We were lucky enough one night to get tickets for the Abbey Theatre, this year celebrating its 100th anniversary (the original Abbey burned down, so while the “new” one doesn’t have the historic significance from an architectural standpoint, the theatrical tradition still holds strong). The Irish play, “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” by Frank McGuinness, makes its appearance on a regular basis on Irish stages, telling the story of a group of men preparing to fight—and die—during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While not a “light and frothy” evening, the production was outstanding, and also offers an insight into Irish history, and just how life-altering wartime is to those who have lived through it firsthand.

While reading my guidebook one night, I also happened to stumble across the mention of the Irish Jewish Museum. Thought it is closed in the winter except on Sunday, I called and the curator generously offered to show me around. You don’t have to be Jewish to find this small museum interesting, but if you are, it’s definitely worth a visit to learn about the history of Jews in this predominantly Catholic country.

Over in the Temple Bar quarter, which has been redeveloped into a bustling cultural and entertainment district, we found the National Photo Archive and the Gallery of Photography. Both are located on Meeting House Square. The Archive maintains the photographic collections of the National Library of Ireland, and also hosts special exhibitions; when we visited, there was one celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Abbey Theatre. The Gallery of Photography also has changing exhibitions of Irish and international photography, and a wide variety of books and posters for sale.

For our last night in Dublin we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the renowned Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, located in The Merrion, a 5-star hotel made up of four Georgian townhouses. The restaurant itself has earned 2 Michelin stars and just the desserts alone would have earned it another star if I were the one handing out the little etoiles (if you’re a chocoholic, order the “assiette of chocolate,” a plate of five different chocolate desserts—don’t worry, they’re small; you can manage to get through them all!).

Finally, sadly, it was time to come home. From the policemen at St. Stephens Green whom we stopped for directions, to the concierge at our hotel, to the cab driver who took us to the airport, the question was the same: “You’ll be coming back to Ireland now, won’t you?”

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes… after all, I have so many new friends to visit!

If you go...

Carol Sorgen is a nationally recognized writer, editor, and public relations consultant. Her articles have been published by WebMD, Today’s Diet & Nutrition, CNN.com, Men’sFitness.com, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Home, and Maryland Life, to name but a few. She is the executive editor of the travel site JustSayGo.com, and works as a writer, editor, and public relations consultant through her own site, CarolSorgen.com.

 

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