In the Irish Country
Visitors to Dublin will be delighted
to know that there is much more to Ireland than its
vibrant capital city. Other main towns like Belfast,
Galway, Limerick and Cork, and their picturesque environs,
are within easy reach of the busy metropolis you are
staying in now. It would be a pity not to take advantage
of the opportunity to do a little more exploring further
afield while you are here, since the rural landscapes
are breath-takingly serene, and the food, drink and
entertainment are second to none.
To tour Ireland clockwise from Dublin,
you first hit County Wicklow, known as the Garden of
Ireland. The Southeast region consists of six counties
in all: Wicklow; Kildare; Carlow; Kilkenny; Waterford;
and Wexford. Several major sights are to be found in
the Wicklow Mountains, and this is perfect touring and
walking territory. The monastic complex of Glendalough,
established by the monk St Kevin in the 6th century,
is a must see, as are the magnificent gardens of Powerscourt,
which feature a Palladian mansion and a waterfall. Further
south, the most scenic routes cut through the valleys
of the Slaney, Barrow and Nore rivers, flanked by historic
ports such as New Ross, from where you can explore the
local waterways by boat. Along the south coast, which
is more varied than the region’s eastern shore,
beaches are interspersed with rocky headlands, and quiet
coastal villages provide good alternative bases to the
busy towns of Waterford and Wexford.
Waterford was founded in 853 by the Vikings and later
extended by the Anglo-Normans. Set in a commanding position
by the estuary of the River Suir, it became Southeast
Ireland’s main seaport. From the 18th century,
the city’s prosperity was consolidated by local
industries, including the glassworks which produces
the world famous Waterford Crystal.
Wexford is a vibrant place, packed with pubs and boasting
a varied arts scene. Wexford Opera Festival, held in
October, is the leading operatic event in the country.
Aficionados praise it for its intimate atmosphere -
both during performances and afterwards, when artists
and audience mingle together in the pubs: the Centenary
Stores off Main Street is a favourite, though the Wren’s
Nest, on Custom House Quay, is better for traditional
Further inland, the best places to stay include Lismore
and Kilkenny, which is one of the finest historic towns
in Ireland. Its famous castle is set in a commanding
position overlooking the River Nore, and was a Norman
fortress. The Long Gallery, the finest room in the house,
has a striking 19th-century hammer beam and glass roof.
Kilkenny Design Centre is housed in the Castle’s
stable block, and has an international reputation for
The National Stud bloodstock farm, and the adjoining
Japanese Gardens should not be missed while in Kildare,
while the charming town itself is dominated by St Brigid’s
Cathedral, which commemorates the saint who founded
a religious community on the site in 490.
We now move on to Counties Cork and Kerry, which together
make up the Southwest area of Ireland. Magnificent scenery
has attracted visitors to this region since Victorian
times. Rocky headlands jut out into the Atlantic Ocean,
and colourful fishing villages nestle in the shelter
of the bays. County Kerry offers dramatic landscapes
and a wealth of pre-historic and early Christian sites,
whereas County Cork’s gentle charm has enticed
many a casual visitor into becoming a permanent resident.
Killarney and its romantic lakes are a powerful magnet
for tourists, and so are Cork’s attractive coastal
towns and villages, like Youghal, Kinsale and Baltimore.
Yet the region remains remarkably unspoilt, with a friendly
atmosphere and authentic culture still alive in Irish-speaking
pockets. There is also a long tradition of arts and
crafts in the area.
Poverty and temperament helped foster a powerful Republican
spirit in the Southwest. The region saw much guerrilla
action in the War of Independence and the subsequent
Civil War. In 1920, the centre of Cork City was burned
in an uncontrolled act of reprisal by the notorious
Black and Tans.
Kerry is known as “the Kingdom” on account
of its tradition of independence and disregard for Dublin
rule. The Irish recognize a distinctive Kerry character,
with a boisterous sense of living life to the full.
They also make Kerrymen the butt of countless jokes.
Killarney is a popular base with tourists for exploring
Cork and Kerry, especially for touring the Ring of Kerry
and the archaeological remains of the Dingle Peninsula.
Despite the changeable weather, the region attracts
many visitors who come to see its dramatic scenery and
lush vegetation. As you pass through quiet fishing villages
and genteel towns, such as Kenmare, Sneem, Caherciveen
and Killorglin, you will always encounter a friendly
welcome from the locals. For the adventurous there are
plenty of opportunities to go riding, biking or cycling.
The rugged Beara Peninsula, with the main port of Castletownbere,
is worth exploring too. Cork city offers a more cosmopolitan
atmosphere, with its art galleries and craft shops.
Clare, Limerick and Tipperary make up the lower stretches
of the River Shannon, Ireland’s longest river,
and the scenery ranges from the rolling farmland of
Tipperary to the eerie limestone plateau of the remarkable
Burren in Clare. The Rock of Cashel, a fortified abbey
in county Tipperary, was the seat of the Kings of Munster
for more than 700 years. From the Middle Ages, Limerick
was often at the centre of events in the Lower Shannon.
In 1691, the army of William of Orange laid siege to
the town, heralding the Treaty of Limerick that triggered
the Catholic nobility’s departure for Europe -
the so-called “Flight of the Wild Geese”.
Lush grassland has turned the Lower Shannon into prime
diary country. In places this gives way to picturesque
glens and mountains, such as the Galty range in southern
Tipperary. The region’s most dramatic scenery,
however, is found along the coast of Clare, a county
otherwise best known for its thriving traditional music
The central location of Limerick city makes it a natural
focus for visitors to the region. However, there are
many charming towns that make pleasanter bases, such
as Adare, Cashel and also Killaloe, which is well placed
for exploring the River Shannon. Most places of interest
in Tipperary lie in the southern part of the county,
where historic towns such as Clonmel and Cahir overlook
the River Suir. By contrast, County Clare has few towns
of any size, though it boasts the major attraction of
Bunratty Castle. Beyond Ennis, the landscape becomes
steadily bleaker until you reach the Burren.
The word Burren derives from boireann, which means “rocky
land” in Gaelic - an apt name for this vast limestone
plateau. It is a unique botanical environment in which
Mediterranean and alpine plants rare to Ireland grow
side by side. From May to August, an astonishing array
of flowers adds splashes of colour to the austere landscape.
These plants grow most abundantly around the region’s
shallow lakes and pastures, but they also take root
in the crevices of the limestone pavements which are
the most striking geological feature of the rocky plateau.
In the southern part of the Burren, limestone gives
way to the black shale and sandstone that form the dramatic
Cliffs of Moher.
Continuing our journey around Ireland, we come into
the heart of Connaught, Ireland’s historic western
province, and the counties of Mayo, Galway and Roscommon.
The West lives up to its image as a traditional, rural,
sparsely populated land, with windswept mountains and
countryside speckled with low stone walls and peat bogs.
Yet it also encompasses Galway, a fast-growing university
town whose youthful population brings life to the medieval
streets and snug pubs.
Galway city, Clifden and Westport make the best bases
for exploring the region, with cosy pubs, good walks
and access to the scenic islands. Connemara and the
wilds of County Mayo attract nature lovers, while the
islands of Achill, Aran, Clare and Inisbofin appeal
to watersports enthusiasts and ramblers. The lakes of
Roscommon are popular with anglers, and Lough Corrib
and Lough Key offer relaxing cruises.
Knock in Co Mayo is Ireland’s most famous Marian
shrine. In 1879, two local women claimed to have seen
an apparition of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John
the Baptist. The vision was allegedly witnessed by thirteen
more onlookers, and validated by the Catholic Church
amid claims of miracle cures. Every year, almost a million
and a half believers make the pilgrimage to the shrine,
including Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Mother Teresa
in 1993. Its focal point is the gable where the apparition
was seen, which is now covered over t form a chapel.
Nearby is the Basilica of Our Lady, a monolithic modern
basilica and Marian shrine.
Thoor Ballylee was for much of the 1920s a summer home
to the poet WB Yeats. Yeats was a regular visitor to
nearby Coole Park, the home of his friend Lady Gregory,
who was a cofounder of the Abbey Theatre. On one visit
Yeats came upon Ballylee Castle, a 14th century tower
adjoining a cosy cottage with a walled garden and stream.
In 1902, both the tower and the cottage became part
of the Gregory estate and Yeats bought them in 1916.
From 1919 onwards, his family divided their time between
Dublin and their Galway tower. His collection, The Tower
(1928), includes several poems inspired by Thoor Ballylee.
The Northwest of Ireland has the towering cliffs, deserted
golden beaches and rocky headlands along the rugged
coast of Donegal, which incorporates some of Ireland’s
wildest scenery. To the south, Sligo is steeped in prehistory
and Celtic myth, with its legacy of ancient monuments
and natural beauty enriched by associations with Yeats.
By contrast, Leitrim is a quiet county of unruffled
lakes and waterways.
The supreme appeal of Donegal lies in the natural beauty
of its coast, with windswept peninsulas, precipitous
cliffs and a host of golden beaches. There is a scattering
of small seaside resorts which make good bases, like
Glencolumbkille, Rossnowlagh, Burtonport, Letterkenny
and Buncrana, and Donegal town is well placed for exploring
the southern part of the county. County Donegal has
little in common with its neighbours in the Republic,
either geographically or historically. It is one of
the most remote parts of Ireland, and it is no coincidence
that Donegal boasts the country’s largest number
of Gaelic speakers.
While the beauty of Donegal lies mainly along the coast,
Sligo’s finest landscapes are found inland, around
Lough Gill and among the sparsely populated Bricklieve
Mountains. The cultural heartland of the Northwest lies
in and around Sligo, the only sizeable town in the region,
from where you can reach several prehistoric remains
like Drumcliff, and other historic sights, like Lissadell
House or Parke’s Castle. Further south, lovely
scenery surrounds Lough Gill and the more remote Lough
Arrow. In Leitrim, a county of lakes and rivers, the
main centre of activity is the lively boating resort
Inishowen, the largest of Donegal’s northern peninsulas,
is an area laden with history, from early Christian
relics to strategically positioned castles and forts.
The most rugged scenery lies in the west and north,
around the steep rock-strewn landscape of the Gap of
Mamore and the spectacular cape of Malin Head, the northern-most
point in Ireland. Numerous beaches dot the coastline
and cater for all tastes, from the remote Isle of Doagh
to the busy family resort of Buncrana. From the shores,
there are views to Donegal’s Derryveagh Mountains
in the west and the Northern Ireland coast in the east.
The Inishowen Peninsula can be explored by car as a
leisurely day trip.
So, for that matter, can the Yeats country. If you start
in the town of Sligo, you can proceed westward to Rosses
Point, the pretty resort where the poet and his brother
used to spend their summers. Then on to Drumcliff, where
Yeats is buried, his gravestone bearing the epitaph
he penned himself: “Cast a cold eye on life, on
death. Horseman pass by.” Further along stands
Lissadell House, where his close friends the Gore-Booth
sisters lived. Heading east to Glencar Lough, the eerie
silhouette of Ben Bulben rises abruptly out of the plain
to your left, commemorated in his final poem, ‘Under
Ben Bulben’. Yeats wrote of the cataract which
tumbles into Glencar Lough itself, “There is a
waterfall...that all my childhood counted dear.”
Turning back southward you pass Parke’s Castle,
a 17th century fortified manor house that commands a
splendid view over the tranquil waters of Lough Gill,
and is a starting point for boat trips around the Lough.
Nearing Sligo again, you can see the Isle of Innisfree,
which inspired another great poem, in the lake.
The six counties of Northern Ireland are Derry, Antrim,
Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and Down. Northern Ireland
has sights from every era of Ireland’s history
as well as magnificently varied coastal and lakeland
scenery. In the past, it has received fewer visitors
than the Republic as a result of the “Troubles”.
Following the Good-Friday Agreement and the cease-fire,
there seems every chance that it will at last attract
the attention it deserves.
The starting point for most visitors to the province
is Belfast. The Capital has grand Victorian buildings,
good pubs and the excellent Ulster Museum. However,
Northern Ireland’s greatest attractions lie along
its coast. These range from the extraordinary volcanic
landscape of the Giant’s Causeway to Carrickfergus,
Ireland’s best preserved Norman castle. There
are also Victorian resorts, like Portstewart, tiny fishing
villages and unspoilt sandy beaches, such as Benone
Strand. Ramblers are drawn to the Mountains of Mourne,
while anglers and boating enthusiasts can enjoy the
lakeland of Lower Lough Erne.
St Columba founded a monastery in Derry beside the River
Foyle in 546. He called the place Doire or “oak
grove”, later anglicised as Derry. If we start
here, and move along the coast, we soon come to Benone
Strand. The wide, golden sands of Ireland’s longest
beach, also known as Magilligan Strand, sweep along
the coastline for more than 10 km. the magnificent beach
has been granted EU Blue Flag status for its cleanliness.
Marking the western extremity of the beach is Magilligan
Point where a Martello tower, built during the Napoleonic
wars, stands guard over the bottleneck entrance to Lough
Further along, the renown of the Giant’s Causeway,
Ireland’s only World Heritage Site, overshadows
the other attractions of this stretch of North Antrim
coast. the sheer strangeness of this place and the bizarre
regularity of its basalt columns has made the Giant’s
Causeway the subject of numerous legends. The most popular
tells how the giant, Finn MacCool, laid the causeway
to provide a path across the sea to his lady love, who
lived on the island of Staffa in Scotland - where similar
columns are found. When visiting the Causeway, it is
well worth investigating the sandy bays, craggy headlands
and dramatic ruins that punctuate the rest of this inspirational
Nearing Belfast, you come to Carrickfergus, which grew
up around the massive castle begun in 1180 by John de
Courcy to guard the entrance to Belfast Lough. De Courcy
was the leader of the Anglo-Norman force which invaded
Ulster following Strongbow’s conquest of Leinster
in the south.
Belfast itself was the only city in Ireland to experience
the full force of the Industrial Revolution. Its ship-building,
linen, rope-making and tobacco industries caused the
population to rise to almost 400,000 by the end of World
War I. The wealth it enjoyed is still evident in its
imposing banks, churches and other public buildings.
The troubles and the decline of traditional industries
have since damaged economic life, but Belfast remains
a handsome city and most visitors are agreeably surprised
by the genuine friendliness of the “Big Smoke”.
Places worth seeing include: City Hall; Grand Opera
House; St Anne’s Cathedral; Linen Hall Library;
Ulster Museum; Botanic Gardens; and Queen’s University.
Newcastle, where, in the words of the 19th century songwriter
Percy French, “the Mountains of Mourne sweep down
to the sea”, makes a good base from which to explore
this area. Driving up and down the dipping roads of
the Mournes is one of the highlights of a trip to Northern
Ireland. Along the coast, the road skirts between the
foothills and the Irish Sea, providing lovely views
and linking a variety of fishing villages and historic
castles. Heading inland, you pass through an emptier
landscape of moorland, purple with heather. The Silent
Valley, with a visitors’ centre an dwell-marked
paths, is the only area to have been developed especially
The Midlands counties are Cavan, Monaghan, Longford,
Westweath, Offaly, with Louth and Meath forming part
of the coast. This is the cradle of Irish civilisation
and the Celts’ spiritual home, encompassing some
of Ireland’s most sacred and symbolic sites. Drogheda
is the obvious base from which to explore the Boyne
Valley and neighbouring monastic sites, such as Monasterboice.
The northern counties of Monaghan, Cavan and Longford
are quiet backwaters with a patchwork of lakes that
attract many anglers. To the south, Offaly and Laois
are dominated by dark expanses of bog, though there
is a cluster of sights around the attractive Georgian
town of Birr. For a break by the sea, head for the picturesque
village of Carlingford on the Cooley Peninsula.
The most important Neolithic monument in the Boyne valley
is Newgrange, with its passage graves that are steeped
in mystery. According to Celtic lore, the legendary
kings of Tara were buried here, but Newgrange predates
them. Built in around 32000 BC, the grave was left untouched
by all invaders and was eventually excavated in the
1960s. Archaeologists then discovered that on the winter
solstice, rays of sum enter the tomb and light up the
burial chamber, making it the oldest solar observatory
in the world. The Boyne Valley also encompasses the
Hill of Tara, a site of mythical importance, which was
the political and spiritual centre of Celtic Ireland
and the seat of the High Kings until the 11th century.
The spread of Christianity, which eroded the importance
of Tara, is marked by a statue of St Patrick. The symbolism
of the site was not lost on Daniel O’Connell,
who chose Tara for a rally in 1843, attended by over
one million people.
So you see, it well worth your while, if you have spare
time at your disposal, to consider making a trip outside
the capital, to any of the many attractions the Irish
countryside has to offer.