Ireland – A Visitor’s Guide
This report has been written with the traveller to Ireland in mind. However, if people who live in Ireland and want to make use of it to get to know their own country a bit better, or simply to spend a bit of time rambling about, no one will be more delighted than me if they find something worthwhile within its pages. I have tried to organise the book into logical sections, and this introduction will give a brief flavour of what is to follow.
For anyone planning a trip to Ireland, there are certain recommendations I would make, and certain suggestions which may be of use. Where you go in Ireland will depend a lot on your reasons for coming. Obviously, if you have family connections or genealogical research to do you will want to go to the relevant place. Within this book I have listed in detail some more detailed descriptions of places to go and things to do.
I have lived in Ireland, North and South, for the last 33 years, and there is still much of it that I haven’t seen or explored. The first point, therefore, is that you cannot do it all in one trip. You have to decide how much you want to see and do, and what general areas you want to visit.
Be prepared for any sort of weather. The weather in Ireland is continually changing, but overall it rains a lot; this is what keeps the country looking so green! If you are coming for two weeks, you may be lucky and get the best two weeks of the year, with unbroken sunshine, or you may get two weeks of non-stop rain. Probably it will be somewhere in between, and there are many days where it rains for part of the time and is very pleasant for part of the time. However, the point is that if you are following a tight schedule, the day you want to see some particular place or view, all you may get will be mist, dampness and drizzle. I would therefore recommend spending a few days in each place you want to visit. Temperatures in ireland seldom go to extremes. In high summer you may get a few days where the temperature rises to more than 25° Celsius, you may get days when it rises no higher than 12°. Winter temperatures (other than in the mountains) range from -5° to +15°, unless conditions are exceptional.
The island of Ireland is a very beautiful place, with a great variety of scenery ranging from wild and desolate areas of mountain, to gentle pastoral landscapes, spectacular coastal drives, to quiet inland lakes and waterways. All these are within a day’s easy drive of each other in an island that is some three hundred miles long and about half that width. It is also a place where the local people are renowned for their hospitality, not to mention good craic – conversation, conviviality and a glass or two of the local beverages!
It should also be noted that Ireland is a magical place, that leaves its mark on all who visit. It is a land of leprechauns, fairy thorn trees, of myths and legends, and of far-fetched tales which you can never quite tell whether to believe or not. And in the end who cares whether they are true, the fact that they might be is part of the charm of the place. If you allow yourself to fall victim to its magic, you will want to return to Ireland again and again.
Ireland is an offshore island in the Atlantic Ocean on the Western fringe of Europe. It is the second largest of the British Isles (Great Britain being the largest) and covers some thousand square miles ( thousand square kilometres). Its climate is maritime temperate, and its prevailing wind is from the West or Southwest, bringing moisture laden air in from the ocean. It therefore has a damp climate. Rainfall occurs throughout the year, though it is usually slightly higher in winter than summer. It varies from a minimum of about 25 inches per year in the East to well in excess of 200 inches per year on the Western facing slopes of some of the mountains in County Mayo.
Politically the island of Ireland is divided into two jurisdictions – The Republic of Ireland, a sovereign country, occupies a little over three quarters of the island, while Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, occupies the six most north-easterly counties.
Driving in Ireland is a mixed blessing. As in Great Britain, you drive on the left, so if you are not used to this it may take a bit of mental adjustment and a good deal of concentration. Traffic around Dublin and Belfast is generally heavy, and at rush hour on weekdays is best avoided if at all possible. It can also be heavy in Cork, Waterford, Galway and Derry (Londonderry). In the more rural parts of Ireland, traffic is light, and often you will have empty roads which are a joy to drive upon. Petrol (gasoline) is a lot more expensive than in America, but in the Republic of Ireland is cheaper than in Northern Ireland or Great Britain at present. Most cars are manual transmission, and if you want to hire an automatic you may need to specify this in advance. Also, bear in mind that the cars in Ireland are generally British, European or Far Eastern models, which are generally smaller than American cars. Main roads are generally good, but in parts of the country the minor roads can be very bumpy and full of potholes.
Dublin is a mixture of all sorts of things. There is much left of the elegant Georgian architecture which at one time made Dublin one of the finest cities in Europe. There are also vast sprawling estates of public housing, including the Ballymun estate of 1960s high rise apartments, which are a real eyesore, and a place of considerable social deprivation (now, thankfully, in the process of demolition and redevelopment). Dublin has a convivial atmosphere and a lively social life. It also has a serious drugs problem, and a crime rate similar to that of many American cities. If you are looking for good shops, hotels, historical places to visit, museums, art galleries, concerts, theatres, etc., Dublin has all these to offer in abundance. One thing Dublin does not have is skyscrapers, and in this respect it is very different from any American city (the Ballymun Flats – referred to earlier, lie on the northern outskirts and rise to 14 stories).
Belfast, in Northern Ireland, has quite a different character. It is, of course, world renowned for its “troubles”, but – for the present at least – this is an undercurrent below the surface, and should not put off the visitor. Belfast is a city that grew out of a heritage of heavy industry: shipbuilding, linen weaving, rope making, and heavy engineering. It does not have the elegance of Dublin. However it has many very fine buildings, including the City Hall (an almost exact copy of the one in Durban, South Africa, by the same architect), Queens University (built in Victorian Tudor-renaissance style), and the new Waterfront Hall – a concert hall par excellence seating some 2500 people. Belfast has been transformed in the last twenty years – it is now a thriving place with many new developments and an increasing cultural and social life.
Cork is the Republic of Ireland’s second city. It is a more relaxing place than Dublin, noted for its tranquil setting on the River Lee. It has a lively, bohemian atmosphere, and an increasing multi-national, multi-cultural feel to it.
The same is true of Galway, in whose narrow, picturesque streets you will find Italian, Spanish, Indian, Chinese and French restaurants all plying their trade.
Derry, or Londonderry (which version of the name you use depends on whether you are Catholic/Nationalist or Protestant/Unionist! If you do not fit either description use whichever you like) is one of the finest examples of a walled city – with the walls still intact – in Western Europe.
Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland (for both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland faiths) is notable for its tree lined Georgian Mall, where cricket is played in the summer, and for its astronomical observatory and planetarium.
Waterford, Kilkenny and Limerick are also cities of note, and worth a visit.
The most important pre-historic site in Ireland is Newgrange, near Drogheda, in County Louth, along with its nearby sister sites, Nowth and Dowth. All three are passage graves. They can be compared in importance with Stonehenge and the Pyramids as one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Nearby is the Hill of Tara, where the court of the ancient High Kings of Ireland was located.
Navan Fort, near Armagh, is another important site on a smaller scale to Newgrange.
One of the most spectacular places to visit in Ireland is Dun Aengus, on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands (go by ferry from Galway or Rossaveel). It is a semicircular stone structure, with walls so thick you could drive a car on them, situated on a hilltop at the very edge of a sheer cliff several hundred feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
The Grianan of Aileach, between Derry and Buncrana, in County Donegal, is another very fine and impressive structure.
Throughout Ireland there are many dolmens and standing stones.
Early Historical Sites
There are a great many historical sites throughout Ireland. In particular, it is noted for its Celtic round towers.
One of the most picturesque sites is Glendalough, County Wicklow. An early stone church and round tower are situated between two lakes in a deep wooded valley in the Wicklow Mountains.
An extremely dramatic site is the Rock of Cashel, in County Tipperary. The rock itself rises suddenly out of the surrounding lush, fertile plain known as the Golden Vale. An impressive ruined ecclesiastical citadel, complete with cathedral, round tower, and high cross surmounts it.
The crypt of St Michan’s Church in Dublin contains the preserved remains of a crusader.
Later Historical Sites
There are so many historical places from the last five or six hundred years that I could not possibly list them.
Throughout the country are many fine country houses, which were once the residences of the Anglo Irish “Ascendancy” (some still are). Some of the largest and finest of these are open to the public during the summer months – contact the Irish Georgian Society in the Republic of Ireland and the National Trust in Northern Ireland for details. Many of the not-quite-so-palatial country houses are now run as guesthouses or hotels. For some of the best of these contact the following association of Private Country House Accommodation:
The Hidden Ireland, Kensington Hall, Grove Park, Dublin 6, Ireland
Telephone + 353 1 6686463; fax + 353 1 6686578
The West of Ireland is generally wilder, more rugged, more mountainous, and more sparsely populated, and the pace of life is slower and more relaxed. Within this broad description, there are several distinct areas, each with their own local characteristics.
The Southwest has the highest mountains in Ireland, and is noted for the Lakes of Killarney and the Ring of Kerry. Also here is Dingle Bay, where you can go swimming with Fungi the Dolphin (he is a wild bottlenose dolphin who is now quite used to humans swimming with him). This area, however is very much on the tourist trail. West Cork, to the South of County Kerry, has spectacular scenery in its own right. One interesting thing to do is to visit Garanish Island, or Ilnacullen. It is a small, wooded island in Bantry Bay, set with lush sub-tropical gardens with backdrops of the surrounding mountains. It is a short boat journey from the jetty at Glengarriff.
County Clare contains the Burren, a prime example of what is geologically known as a Karst landscape, or limestone pavement. From a distance it appears as rounded hills of blue-grey bare rock, giving a surrealist moonscape effect. Closer examination reveals that it is bare rock, but the surface has been weathered and eroded into many cracks and fissures in which grow an astonishing variety of plant species. Spring is the best time to visit, when all the wild flowers are out, but it is impressive at any time. On the edge of the Burren lie the Cliffs of Moher, the highest sea cliffs in Western Europe. A cliff-top path (well fenced and a few feet back from the edge) runs along them. Also in the Burren, the Ailwee Cave is worth a visit.
Connemara, in County Galway, is another area renowned word-wide for its natural beauty. It consists of two parts: the Southern part is mostly flat bogland, with many small lakes. The population lives mainly along the coast. This is one of the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) areas. Two ranges of mountains occupy the northern part of Connemara, with a valley between them: the Twelve Bens, and the Maumturk Mountains. Clifden, the largest town in Connemara, is noted as the place where Alcock and Brown landed following the first transatlantic flight. Marconi also had a radio station here and telegraphed news of their arrival to the rest of the world. To the North and East of Connemara lie two large lakes – Lough Corrib and Lough Mask – noted for their fishing potential.
The mountainous beauty of Connemara extends northwards into County Mayo. Achill Island, joined to the mainland by a causeway, is of particular note for its wild and rugged beauty. Much of the Northwest part of County Mayo is bogland. Killala, in the North of the County, is noted as the place where the French soldiers landed in 1798 to assist the United Irishmen in their rebellion against the British. They arrived too late. (The film The Year of the French depicts these episodes).
The mountains of Counties Sligo and Leitrim are quite different from anything else in Ireland. They are flat topped, intersected by deep valleys with sheer walls (reminiscent in shape to a smaller version of the Grand Canyon). Also in County Sligo is Lough Gill, with its Isle of Inisfree, made famous by W.B. Yeats.
Donegal is a big, sprawling, County occupying the Northwest of Ireland. Within it are several areas – the flat coastland from Bundoran to Donegal Town, the Blue Stack Mountains, the Derryveagh Mountains, and the Inishowen Peninsular. All have their own scenic charms. The wildest and most dramatic area is probably that around Errigal Mountain and the Derryveagh Mountains. Of particular note here are the Poison Glen, and Glenveagh. Glenveagh Castle was built in Victorian times and at one time owned by an American gentleman called McIlhenny, who made his fortune from Tabasco Sauce! The setting could not be more dramatic; it is situated on the side of a long, narrow lake (Lough Veagh), with bleak mountain ridges on either side of the valley. Surprisingly, for such a barren place, the castle is surrounded by lush gardens in which grow an astonishing variety of sub-tropical and temperate trees and plants. It is a place well worth visiting.
The central part of Ireland – the Irish Midlands – is mostly much flatter than the West, though there are some mountains; the Galtee Mountains in the South, on the borders of Counties Cork, Tipperary and limerick; the Ara and Silvermines Mountains near Lough Derg; and the Slieve Bloom Mountains in County Offaly. The River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles, flows in a North/South direction through the Western part of the region. It is now joined by canal to the lakeland areas of Upper and Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and the whole system is navigable from Killaloe northward. If you want a relaxing holiday at a leisurely pace, consider hiring a cabin cruiser and touring this system. You will pass through some of the most tranquil pastoral scenery, have lots of interesting places to visit, and wont have to worry about accommodation (you sleep on board). The waterways, though popular, are uncrowded (deserted by comparison with the Norfolk Broads in England), and adequate instructions are given in navigation by the boat hire companies. Places worth visiting in the Irish Midlands include:
# Cahir, in County Tipperary, which has some fine walks in a parkland setting on the banks of the River Suir (pronounced shoor, as in sure) with the adjacent rustic house called The Swiss Chalet. Cahir also makes a good base for exploring the Glen of Aherlow, on the slopes of the Galtee mountains.
# Lough Derg: visit the scenic viewpoint near the village of Portroe, between Nenagh and Killaloe, for a very beautiful vista of the lough. If you are boating, Dromineer is a pleasant place to stop overnight; a good meal can be had in the Dromineer Bay Hotel.
# Leap Castle, a few miles to the North of Roscrea, was reputedly one of the most haunted houses in Ireland. Now largely a ruin, it still maintains a very grim and sinister appearance.
# Birr, in County Offaly, is right in the middle of Ireland. An attractive Georgian town, it is noted for Birr Castle, still the home of Lord Rosse, with gardens open to the public during the summer months. In the grounds is the famous Birr Telescope, throughout the nineteenth century the largest in the world, currently in the process of restoration.
# The great Bog of Allen, which used to occupy the area around Tullamore, was the greatest of the Irish raised bogs. Much of it has now been drained and the peat (known in Ireland as turf) extracted on a vast scale for use as fuel. Remnants, however, remain.
# On the banks of the Shannon, nearby, is the monastic site of Clonmacnois, once one of the most important monasteries in Ireland. It is a very fine site, with a magnificent round tower, and well worth a visit.
Northward, County Fermanagh is one of the jewels in Northern Ireland’s crown. It is an area of lakeland surrounded by mountains, and very scenic. Marble Arch Caves are worth visiting.
The Eastern part of Ireland is the most densely populated and the most prosperous. The cities of Belfast, Dublin and Waterford are all in this region, as are many other towns, large and small. The most scenic areas are the Comeragh Mountains, South of Waterford City, the Wicklow Mountains, the Cooley peninsular in County Louth, the Ring of Gullion in South Armagh, the Mountains of Mourne in County Down, and the Glens of Antrim, together with the coast road that runs along their foot (the Antrim Coast Road has been compared with the Grande Corniche on the French Riviera for its spectacular beauty). Not strictly on the East side, but round the corner on the North coast is the famous Giant’s Causeway. If you want to get away from the tourist trail, one place I would recommend is the village of Carlingford, on the Cooley peninsular. It is an unspoilt village with old houses and medieval castles, good pubs, restaurants, and accommodation. It has the rugged ridge of the Cooley Mountains behind it, and it looks across the narrow waters of Carlingford Lough to the loftier but more rounded peaks of the Mountains of Mourne on the other side.
The main cities in Ireland have a range of restaurants of every variety, including those of the highest international standards. Country towns and villages will normally provide more basic fare, though there are exceptions.
Kinsale, in County Cork, is known as the gourmet capital of Ireland because of the tremendous number of high quality restaurants there. Near Cork is the famous Ballymaloe House, with its gourmet cookery school.
The monastery in Roscrea produces fresh wholemeal bread every day, the like of which is not to be found in many places.
Speaking personally, the finest meal I have eaten in Ireland was in the Erriseask House Hotel and Restaurant, Ballyconneely (near Clifden), Connemara, County Galway at a time when the chef was Stefan Matz. Since then Mr Matz has gone on to become head chef at Ashford Castle, in Cong, Co Mayo, one of Ireland’s most prestigious and luxurious (and expensive!) five star hotels.
Finally, if you are prepared to spend a little bit more money and are looking for one special place to go and stay, the place I would choose would be the Zetland House Hotel, Cashel, Connemara, County Galway (telephone + 353 95 31111; fax + 353 95 31117; reservations from the USA & Canada  223-1588). It is a country house hotel of great charm in a beautiful setting with very pleasant gardens. It has its own fishing rights on 4 miles of river and 14 lakes, and its own tennis courts. There are two 18-hole championship golf courses nearby. The food is excellent. It is also an ideal base for touring Connemara.