Travel Writings

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 music.
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 crafts.
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 scene.
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 of Carrick-on-Shannon.
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 Foyle.
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 coastline.
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 for tourists.
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.









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