Our first view of Ireland came from the window of the plane. It had been a long, but peaceful ten hour flight through the night, and the first glimpses of the Irish Coast line and patch work green countryside jolted us with energy. We had talked for a long time about traveling abroad and from our wish list we settled on Ireland for its slower pace and English speaking natives.
Our adventure began in Dublin the next morning at breakfast. A 5K run in the capital city had brought in runners from across the country quickening the pace of things for our tour. The hotel restaurant was packed, and we found ourselves sharing a table with a local school teacher, her sister and husband, a dairy farmer. The delightful conversation we shared with them over tea, biscuits, and Irish ham set the entire tone of our eight wonderful days in this friendly and welcoming country.
Evelyn, our tour guide, and TJ, our bus driver, hustled us out of Dublin early that morning to avoid the craziness of the run. As we departed, Evelyn, a former history teacher, began sharing her tantalizing tidbits. We learned that there is no letter J in the Gaelic alphabet, which made us all laugh with wonder since our driver was called TJ.
We had chosen a bus tour to avoid the hazards of driving, and the freedom to just lean back to enjoy the view. It was a great decision. While Ireland has a major highway system, getting to the picturesque parts requires following narrow paved roads which you share with sheep, bikers, and every make and model of farm equipment and vehicle. Although sometimes not easy, we left the delicate maneuvering of the narrow roads to TJ, and just absorbed the breathtaking views and the bold rocky landscapes.
The bus weaved its way through the Irish countryside and into Connemara National Park, home to the Kylemore Castle, Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden. Like North Carolina’s own Biltmore House, this estate is a remarkable oasis of adventures. Originally built by the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1903, the magnificent Baronial Castle, is now home to the Nuns of the Benedictine Order; who purchased the property after their abbey in Belgium was destroyed during World War 1. During our visit, the nuns made a visit and there was quite a stir at their presence as they usually keep a low profile – WE felt blessed. That evening we enjoyed a medieval era meal and music at Danquaire Castle in Galway. Exploring foods was just as enjoyable as the sights.
Aillte an Mhothair or the Cliffs of Moher are an impressive wall of rock that towers some 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean; they are beyond majestic. Our morning here was rewarded with bright clear skies, a photographer’s paradise. Now the only bad thing about bus tours is that they work on a schedule, and a schedule does limit your time at individual locations. We split up at the Cliffs, because one of us (the husband) was determined to capture every possible angle of life along the cliffs including the Branaunmore sea stack a good fifteen minute walk away. When time came to board the bus someone was surprisingly missing. Evelyn glanced at her watch, just as someone on the bus shouted “there he is!’ Just one minute past time for our pull off from the Cliffs the final member of the tour stepped on the bus, and for the rest of the stops everyone laughingly asked the Oliver’s how long they might need at each location.
Lunch that afternoon was on the grounds of Bunratty Castle in a pub called MacNamara’s. We enjoyed Shepard’s Pie, a large bowl of steaming mussels in white wine, and of course pints of Guinness.
During our morning drive to Killarney National Park, Evelyn explained that the Irish identify themselves with their county of origin rather than city of their birth. You were a proud Irishman if your home is County Kerry, home to the world-famous “Ring of Kerry” said to be the most picturesque locale in all of Ireland. The one hundred and twelve mile ring lives up to all its hype. Miles and miles of incredible stone walls built through the centuries patchwork the hills and green lowlands. Even though this was our only day of rain during our vacation it didn’t dampen the scenic wonders that the ring provides. The rain stopped, but the fog held tight as our bus pulled into the Scarriff Inn overlooking Kenmare and Bantry Bay. Evelyn uttered her signature slogan “let’s pop off now” and we enjoyed a lunch of hot Irish Stew. We had read about Scarriff Inn before our travels and knew it was a regular tourist stop along the Ring. However thanks to our wonderful tour guide and driver we were well ahead of the masses and enjoyed our time at this overlook. Along the ring we stopped at Waterville, a postcard village along the stunning Ballinskelligs Bay. Although we were there in August the wind was cold, and the damp atmosphere gave the town a winter feel. It was hard to imagine this is a summer vacation spot for the Irish. Charlie Chaplin bought a home in Waterville for his vacations, and the town recognizes his love for the community with a Chaplin Film Festival each year. Back on the bus we headed toward Killarney, with a quick stop in Adare for a look at the Trinitarian Monastery, and a run through some of the village shops.
No trip to Ireland is complete of course without a visit to Blarney Castle and a chance to kiss the Blarney stone. Now prior to our trip, Janet had fractured her ankle. This had not slowed her down much, but the 100 step climb to the top of castle to reach the stone was a little too much. Fortunately legend has it that if you kiss someone who has kissed the stone, the gift of eloquence is also bestowed upon them.
While one sought the luck of the Irish, the other one walked over to the Blarney Woolen Mills. Here the old woolen mills (like our own Cotton Exchange) has been converted into a shopping, dining, and even a health and fitness destination. The sign out front calls the Woolen Mills the Largest Irish Shop in the World, and the old stone walls covered in Ivy make you believe the center has been there for centuries. Irish Dancing, a cafeteria that served Southern Fried Chicken (not like ours), and great prices on the various gifts on our shopping list with free shipping to the U.S. standard made the Mills a fun stop.
The days are quite long in Ireland and it’s doesn’t get dark in the summer months until around 11 PM. So from Blarney we traveled on to Waterford for a tour of the famous Crystal Showroom and Factory. It was a fanciful tour, and a chance to see artisans work up-close on pieces commissioned by the Queen of England and Justin Timberlake among others.
Returning to Dublin we wrapped up our tour with a trip to Trinity College Library, one of the world’s great libraries, and repository of The Book of Kells. While seeing pages of this famous eighth century illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels was interesting, the real pleasure is the main chamber of the old library called the Long Room. If you love books, then just like us, you’ll be giddy with delight as you step through the doors into the 65 meter hallway, home to 200,000 of the Library’s oldest books. Your eyes will scan the left and the right gallery bookcases all along the hall that rise from the floor to the barrel-vaulted ceiling of oak. Marble busts placed down either side of the room will call to you to grab one of the volumes of the represented authors. Sadly no touching or flash photography. Later in the day we adventured over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, strolled through St. Stephen’s Green and Phoenix Park, and enjoyed a wee snack and some tea at Bewley’s Cafe. It was a trip blessed by wonderful weather and filled with memories too numerous to share: nightly Gaelic music in the local pubs, wandering up on a donkey with his owner, and high tea in the ancient ruins of Craggaunowen. The Irish are friendly people and we enjoyed talking with countless locals where ever we journeyed. So here’s to Ireland, Sláinte (That’s Gaelic for Cheers)!