It was a place we had always wanted to visit. After all, my husband, Jim, had family roots there. We had backpacked Europe in the early days of our marriage…1980 to be exact…but had chosen not to see Ireland at that time due to the “troubles” and vowed someday we would return. This trip in September of 2018 marked our 40th wedding anniversary.
We began our planning months ahead. We basically had 19 days, including travel time, to see the whole of Ireland and Wales. We were travelling with another couple so finding accommodation on the fly for four seemed like a bad idea. Therefore, we made sure our Airbnb’s were booked in advance. That meant pouring over maps to determine what to see in each area and trying to determine travel times on unknown roads. For the most part, we did pretty good but there were a couple of times that there was far more to see and longer travel times than we expected so we had a few very long days on the road. At the end of the day, we chalked up times like that as a learning experience!
First stop would be Saint John’s, Newfoundland. We had been there on our cross Canada trip but our friends had never been. Flying from Calgary to Dublin required a stop in either Toronto or Saint John’s so we opted for the obvious! We arranged a flight that got us into St. John’s early in the morning and didn’t leave again until late at night, giving us a full day to rent a car and tour around. Since Newfoundland was primarily settled by the Irish during the years of the potato famine in Ireland, it seemed a perfect spot to begin an Irish holiday.
After picking up our car at the airport, we drove about 15 minutes to Portugal Cove to board a small ferry to Bell Island. This island, the largest in Conception Bay, is only about 10 km long and 4 km wide with a sparse population. Rich in iron ore, an important mine operated on the island from 1895-1966. Tours and a museum are offered for the public but time restraints did not permit us to go. We toured the lighthouse and enjoyed brunch at the Lightkeeper’s Café which was originally the home of the lighthouse keeper.
Then off to Qidi Vidi, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Saint John’s. It is small, quaint, unique and picturesque. And it is home to the most popular microbrewery in the province. Qidi Vidi Brewery, with its many brew varieties including our favorite Iceberg beer was a welcome mid-day thirst quencher!
Morning came and we were back on the HOHO to the downtown core…there was so much to see! First stop was the highly recommended General Post Office. A post office? Yes, the GPO houses an amazing presentation/museum called Witness History that leaves you with a much better understanding of all the past and continuing conflict between Ireland and the UK, of which Northern Ireland is a part of. Coming from Canada, we realized that we only heard about the bombings and revolts when in actuality, there were many factors involved…political, economical and personal.
Back out on the street, we were struck by the age of the buildings….all so beautiful and repurposed in unique fashion. The Henry Markets offered all kinds of produce, flowers and other products. Walking along Liffey Street, we came across a statue called Two Women (known locally as Two Hags with Bags!) and I was struck by the everyday-ness of it. A testament to a nation known for their ability to take the time to sit and chat with each other.
Further along, across from the Custom House, we came across a very moving sculpture called Famine. The Famine Memorial was sculpted by Rowan Gillespie and presented to the city in 1997 as a tribute to all who lost their lives in the Potato Famine in the 19th century. Much of Canada saw a huge population increase as the Irish, affected by the famine in the worst ways, emigrated to save their lives.
Near the memorial is the Jeannie Johnson, a tall ship fitted with a Famine Museum. The ship is a replica of one of the Famine boats. We didn’t get through the museum but if time had permitted, I’m sure we would have.
Phoenix Park is a quiet oasis in the centre of the hustle and bustle of Dublin It is the largest enclosed park in any European capital city and was originally formed as a royal hunting ground in the 1600’s. Today, it is open to everyone and is full of walking and cycling paths.
A visit to Dublin would not be complete without a stop at O’Donahues Pub. This pub, located near St. Stephen’s Green, dates back to the 1700’s. In more recent times, it has been a hub for music lovers…the walls are lined with photos of some of Ireland’s finest musicians who have performed here over the years. We stopped for a pint mid-day so there was no band playing at the time.
St. Stephen’s Green was our next stop. A beautiful Victorian park with lovely walking paths and picnic areas. A huge lake in the centre is home to hundreds of ducks, swans and of course…pigeons!
On to our next stop… Christ Church Cathedral. Founded c1028, this cathedral is the spiritual heart of the city, and one of the top visitor attractions in Dublin. The cathedral’s interior is beautiful, and the medieval crypt is fascinating!
It had been a full day of walking, exploring, and enjoying Dublin. It’s a lovely city with so much to see and do. We barely did it justice in the two days we had there. But we came to see a whole country, not just a city. We would head back to the airport the next morning to pick up our rental car and head north to Belfast.
Driving in Ireland is another adventure in itself! Thankfully, we rented a little BMW with automatic transmission, a luxury we paid extra for, since most cars in Ireland have manual transmissions. Driving on the opposite side of the extremely narrow roads seemed like enough of a challenge without having to shift gears as well. We also made sure our car was equipped with Navigation so we wouldn’t have to rely solely on our maps.
From the airport, we were immediately on the major freeway (M1) heading north. Travelling speed is 120km/h which seemed excessive in an unfamiliar car. We both found ourselves tense that first day. I had sore shoulders from constantly straining my body to impulsively avoid objects which seemed far too close to the left side of the car! In reality, Jim was travelling in the centre of the lane but that’s not how it seemed in the passenger seat!
The drive from Dublin to Belfast is only about 165 km by freeway but we chose to take a more scenic route. We left the freeway at Newry and headed east passing through Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and Newcastle before arriving at Downpatrick where we stopped to see St. Patrick’s grave at Down Cathedral. St. Patrick, the foremost patron saint of Ireland, was a fifth century missionary who died on March 17.
From Downpatrick, we traveled to Stranford, took a short ferry and then drove the inner coastal road to Belfast. The roads were narrow and scenic.
By evening we had arrived in Belfast. We would spend two nights in an apartment close to the downtown core. We had to be aware of parking restrictions and make sure we moved our car occasionally since there were time limits to parking spaces. Our friends did in fact get a parking ticket…another vacation expense!
On foot, we explored the City Centre. At the City Hall we came across a very moving memorial to the many missing soldiers of WWI. The Shrouds of the Somme is Belfast’s part of a greater exhibition throughout the Commonwealth. It includes 3775 shrouded figures, all laid out shoulder to shoulder, each representing a serviceman from the Ulster and Irish regiments who died at the Battle of the Somme and have no known grave.
After exploring the downtown core, we crossed the bridge to the Quay and headed to the famous state-of-the-art Titanic Experience, which tells the story of the RMS Titanic from construction and launch to her tragic maiden voyage. We heard varying reviews on this but we loved it.
At the Quay, we discovered a little non-profit coffee shop called The Dock that operated on the honesty system. After placing your order for coffee, tea, baking, etc. the customer is asked to pay whatever they feel is fair. It is run by volunteers and has a comfy, unpretentious atmosphere that lends itself to great conversation or quiet solitude. The home baking is great. I would definitely recommend a stop there.
On our way back to the city centre, we stopped at Victoria Square shopping centre, not to shop but to ride the elevator to the Dome. Panoramic views of the city can be seen from all sides and major landmarks are pointed out by signage.
Leaving the mall, we were thirsting for a bit of Irish entertainment. When the Wee Toaster Tour buggy passed us, we realized it was time to find a good Irish Pub. Pug Uglys turned out to be a great spot to listen to some good traditional Irish music and have a cold one at the same time.
We were on the road early the next day. Our route was Belfast to Letterkenny in the northwest but we planned to explore the northern shore en route. It was a clear sunny day and the views of the green fields and blue ocean were breathtaking.
Our first stop was Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge near Ballintoy. Suspended almost 30 metres above sea level, the rope bridge was first erected by salmon fisherman about 350 years ago. Jim and Dennis crossed the bridge to the small island at the northeast corner of Ireland to view the lone fisherman’s cottage and feel the force of the wind off the ocean. In the distance, we could see the Mull of Kintyre and the faint coastline of Scotland.
A short drive from Ballintoy, we came to Bushmills where we parked the car and hopped on a free shuttle bus to the Giant’s Causeway. This World Heritage Site is a very popular tourist area but oh, so worth the stop. The Giant’s Causeway is a unique land formation along the north shore. A walking tour of the area gives both the scientific and mythical stories behind the more than 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that form the shoreline. Were they a result of an ancient volcanic eruption? Or were they the result of the war between two giants named Finn McCool and Benadonner? It was so entertaining and interesting.
We continued our journey west, stopping once more. Dunluce Castle, built between the 15th and 17th century, stands dramatically on the headlands, at one time controlling the land and sea routes of the area.
We stayed the night at a beautiful Airbnb just outside Letterkenny. We got in late, had a quick supper and a visit from the owner. He gave us advise on places to see in the area and on our drive toward Headford the next day. It wasn’t long before we were off to dreamland in the comfy beds.
After a good breakfast, we were on our way through the Glenveagh National Park to view the mountains, lakes, and woods and walk around the exquisite gardens of the Glenveagh Castle. The park is also home to a large herd of red deer.
From the park, we headed south toward Donegal. Our afternoon was the highlight of the day as we hiked the cliffs of Slieve League. Slieve League is a mountain range that falls off steeply into the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in some of the highest and most beautiful sea-cliffs in Europe. The Cliffs of Moher get a lot of tourist attention but these cliffs are actually about two to three times higher. The hike to Bunglass Point is sensational; easy uphill all the way with stunning views of ocean and cliffs. There is an option to drive to the viewing area to save time but we were so glad we chose to get out and hike. Besides, an ice cream truck at the top made it even more worthwhile!
With another four hours of driving ahead of us, we had to forego any more stops for the day. We arrived very late to our accommodation in Headford, near Galway. We felt bad keeping the owner up so late…this is one day that took much, much longer than we had anticipated.
Our next day took us first to Cong, an exceptionally beautiful little town where, in the 7th century, the monastery of Cong was built. In the 12th century it was destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed again in the 13th century. Very little of the Abbey remains but there are fragments of the cloister where the monks worked and prayed as well as the monks fishing house. The last high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, lived out his last years in the old Abbey. Today, the land and forest is a recreation area combining scenic walks, historic buildings and diverse forests. The movie “The Quiet Man” was filmed here.
Within walking distance (we discovered late) is Ashford castle. Built in the 13th century, this castle has recently been converted to a lavish 5-star hotel. It sits on Lough Corrib and the grounds are impeccable. Unless you are a paying guest you will not be allowed entrance into the building but the gardens are open to all.
From Cong, we travelled south a couple of hours to Adare where we stopped for a leg stretch. Another very pretty town, Adare is known for it’s thatched cottages that were built in the 1820’s and were ravished by fire in 2015. These cottages are now part of an historic restoration project. All the buildings in the downtown area are adorned with flowers spilling over their pots…it’s so pretty. Of course, the kegs spilling out of the front of the pubs looked pretty good to the guys!
An hour later, we were visiting Carrigafoyle Castle, less than a kilometre from our Bed and Breakfast for the night. This castle, five stories high, stands as a stronghold on the estuary of the Shannon River. It has a winding stone staircase to the top where we could see for miles and miles. As luck would have it, Helen, an expert on the castle, was there and gave us the history of this 15th century castle. In 1580, it came under fire by land and sea and all 69 occupants were massacred.
After checking in to our Bed and Breakfast on Carrig Island, we ventured into town to one of the oldest pubs I’ve ever been in. Colleen has been the bartender there for over 40 years and I’m sure some of the locals have been in there nightly as long or longer. Colleen gave Jim a crack at pouring a Guinness and an old local fellow sang a song for us. Good times were had by all!
We started our next day with a full Irish breakfast and then set out heading south to Tralee where we would turn west and drive the Dingle Peninsula Loop. The Dingle Peninsula is Europe’s most westerly point and has a diverse landscape from rugged mountains to steep cliffs to beautiful beaches. Luckily, driving has become much more comfortable for Jim since the road is narrow and is typically well traveled by tourists and tour buses. Even though we had a misty rain falling as we drove, the views were spectacular.
While travelling this area, we stopped to tour a typical Famine House. The Great Potato Famine was a period in Ireland between 1845 and 1849 of mass starvation, disease, and emigration, with the most severely affected areas in the west and south of Ireland. The museum, if it could be called that, was fairly run down but nonetheless very thought provoking.
Upon completing the Dingle Loop, we again headed south along the Ring of Kerry to the southwest corner of the country. We were booked into a B & B in Balinskelligs that was at one time a school house. We would stay for two nights in cozy little well appointed rooms and a large common dining area.
The next day we poked around the nearby town of Cahersiveen and then took the ferry to Valencia Island. Valencia was the eastern terminus of the first commercially viable trans Atlantic cable, connecting in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. Operation of the cable ceased years ago. We toured the lighthouse and drove to the top of the mountain to see a panoramic view of the strait and the islands. Lunch at Knightstown Coffee Shop was excellent. Then on to Valencia Candles where we could see the candles being made and the Chocolate Factory where we each purchased a good portion of Skellig Chocolate. Yumm!
The Skellig area is known for its very unusual landscape. Looking west across the Atlantic, two islands can be seen rising like pyramids. The largest one is called Skellig Michael and the other is Little Skellig. An ancient Christian monastery is built on Skellig Michael dating back to the 6th century. Monks lived on the island in beehive huts for hundreds of years. Eco tours are offered from the Skellig Visitor Centre allowing both boat tours up to the islands and landing tours to explore the island. These are all day affairs and weather can be a daily factor. There are absolutely no facilities on the island and great care is taken to keep the island in its natural state. Anything you pack in must also be packed out. As much as I would have loved to do the tour, I’m not sure I could last all day with no facilities! The video shown at the Visitor Centre about the island is phenomenal and I felt as though I had been on the tour. We settled for a walk on the craggy beaches and photos of the distant islands.
Morning came and we were heading east towards Cobh with some lovely stops along the way. The day was warm and sunny and the coastal views kept our cameras clicking. A stop at Darrymane Beach was soothing to the soul.
Not far off the beaten path near Sneem, we visited Staigue Fort. This is one of the largest and best examples of a stone fort, built in the early centuries AD. Because of the 4 foot thick, 6 foot high stone walls constructed entirely without mortar, and the large 30 foot diameter enclosure, it is thought to have belonged to a wealthy chieftain with a need for security. It would have been full of houses and out buildings to provide homes for family, guards and servants.
Continuing along the Ring of Kerry, we stopped at the picturesque spot called Ladies View in Killarney National Park. Apparently when Queen Victoria visited Muckross in the 1800’s, she and her ladies in waiting were so impressed with the view that it was named Ladies View. We were also lucky enough to see some local wildlife.
We were soon visiting the Muckross House and Gardens in Killarney National Park. This lavish 19th century Victorian home sits on the shores of Muckross Lake. It’s extensive gardens are unbelievable. We hired a jaunting cart to view the property and had about an hour to wander the gardens.
The house was originally built for Henry and Mary Herbert. It commenced construction in 1839 and was finally completed in 1843. It was the fourth house to have been built for the Herbert family on the property over a span of about 200 years. In the 1850’s, when it was known that Queen Victoria would be visiting in 1861, the Herberts started a massive reconstruction of the gardens. Today, it is operated as a trust. Tours of the house as it would have looked in the Victorian days are offered to the public. As well, traditional farming methods and gardening workshops are held.
Following our tour of the estate, we walked a short distance to Torc Falls before heading on to Cobh. We arrived in the late afternoon, surprised at what a busy little beach town it was. Parking was scarce but we eventually found a place in front of our apartment overlooking the pier. As the sun was setting we watched cruise ships and barges pass in front of us. We wandered the pier and the shop area, eventually finding ourselves in the Titanic Pub. Cobh was the last stop for the Titanic before it met its tragic end. The next morning, we visited the Heritage Centre, a wealth of information about emigration and the chance to take on the identity of one of the Titanic’s many passengers and learn about their life and subsequent death.
It was our last full day in Ireland. We left mid day and headed north to Tipperary. According to the song, it’s a long way to Tipperary! We stopped at the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites. Rock is another word for castle and the Rock of Cashel was once the centre of the religious community for the whole of Ireland. Sitting on top of an outcrop of limestone, these Medieval buildings constructed over centuries, have been preserved as an example of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The chapel which is the earlier of the two main buildings, has a large collection of frescoes visible throughout the dome. Only a few people are allowed in the room at a time and the doors are kept shut to keep the temperature as constant as possible in order to preserve the ancient beauty and craftsmanship.
Our accommodation was in the town of Roscrea. We checked in, had a drink in the pub and then headed to our rooms to get properly packed for our flight the next day. It’s amazing how disorganized our things became over the course of eleven days. A two hour drive the next morning would take us back to Dublin to return our cars and board a flight bound for Birmingham, England. This would be the end of a great Irish vacation to be followed now by a few days in Wales.