Friday, October 7, 2011

Ireland's North - Part I

The regional term "Ireland's North" covers a total of 10 counties, but since we spent nine nights in a total of four of the counties and traveled through five of them, spanning both Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland, I will split this region into two blog posts based on political geography. Thus this post will cover Counties Donegal, Louth & Meath (which is technically in the region called "Near Dublin") and the subsequent post will include Counties Derry, Antrim & Down. This does upset the usual chronological order of my posts but since I will be writing a summary post of my impressions of our 3-week trip around the country as a whole, that will serve to tie it all neatly back together.

There isn't much to see or do in Donegal town itself; the usual assortment of restaurants and pubs, shops, a small harbor, and a 15th century castle. We stayed about 5km outside of town, at the grand, modern Rossmore Manor B&B where we had the largest bedroom & bathroom we encountered during our travels in Ireland as well as a lovely view over Donegal Bay.
After a relaxing evening and filling full Irish breakfast the next morning, we stopped at the castle (included in our Heritage Pass) before driving to the Slieve League cliffs which were absolutely beautiful and much more remote and unaffected by tourism than I expect the Cliffs of Moher would have been. Also, at 601 metres (1,972 ft), the cliffs at Slieve League are almost three times higher than the Cliffs of Moher.
As we continued our drive north, we passed what I think were "famine villages" - lots of abandoned, crumbling stone houses without roofs. We dodged lots of sheep in the road and finally got to see recently harvested peat bogs up close (not in pouring rain). I found this region of Ireland to be equally as scenic as Dingle Peninsula.
watch out for sheep!
We spent the next two nights in Dunfanaghy in remote northwestern Ireland. There is even less to do here, but that was the whole point. We could have played golf, rode horses, or any other number of leisurely outdoor activities, but we were there to rest & relax and not be tempted to sightsee.
this is Dunfanaghy
The entire town of Dunfanaghy is situated on the main road (N56) and consists of two blocks of shops & restaurants. But it had everything we needed: a grocery store and a good pub. We used our downtime to research & book accommodations for the remainder of our travels in Ireland as well as to start looking at options in the Baltics. I also worked on a photo book of our RTW trip.
a jug of Guinness at Whiskey Sky Bar in Dunfanaghy
The following day we set out for Northern Ireland, first stopping at Glenveagh National Park. The castle there is only accessible by park service bus or by hiking, but we opted for the bus since it was threatening rain. We took a guided tour of the interior (no photos allowed) then walked around the gardens before it started raining. Our Heritage Pass covered the 8EUR per person entrance fee & bus ride, an amount we wouldn't have been willing to pay if it hadn't. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit and thought it well worth the time & effort to get there.
Glenveagh Castle as viewed from the gardens
We continued east to Derry, thus crossing the border into Northern Ireland. I will now skip forward to Counties Louth & Meath, where we spend our final two nights in the Republic of Ireland. I will cover the time we spent in Northern Ireland in my next post.

After re-crossing the border into the Republic on the afternoon of 25SEP, we settled in Dundalk for the night. We had a nice walk around town then bought provisions for a "picnic" dinner at our B&B, to compliment the bottle of Bollinger Champagne that my friend Louise gave us when she met us in Belfast. There is nothing particularly exciting to do in Dundalk; we were simply using it as a starting point for our sightseeing in County Meath the following day.
St Patrick's Pro Cathedral c1849, Dundalk
Our first sightseeing stop the next day was the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Center in the 18th century Oldbridge Estate. This was the site of a bloody battle on 01JUL1690 (11JUL on modern calendars) between Roman Catholic King James II of England, Scotland and Ireland, and Protestant King William III ("William of Orange") who had deposed James the previous year. The outcome eventually led to the penal laws against Catholics and, in the much longer term, the lingering resentment between Protestants & Catholics, particularly in Northern Ireland. The victory is still celebrated on 12JUL every year, which often results in confrontations between unionists & nationalists. After looking at the exhibits and watching a 13-minute video about the battle, we continued on to Bru na Boinne, the access point for visiting the megalithic passage tombs of Knowth & Newgrange.
Oldbridge Estate, now the visitor center for the Battle of the Boyne
Upon checking in at the visitor center and paying the entrance fee (11EUR, covered by our Heritage Pass), you are assigned times to be on the bus to visit each site. Once you take the short bus ride from the visitor center, you check in at the site, then are given a guided tour by an OPW (Office of Public Works) employee. We visited Knowth first and enjoyed climbing to the top of the main mound for 360 degree views. Upon returning to the bus "corral", we transferred to a different bus for the short ride to Newgrange, famous for its carved entrance stone and access to the inner chamber. Finishing up our 3+ hour visit, we had a quick look around the visitor center before completing the drive to Navan where we spent our final night in Ireland.
approaching the megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange
We had originally planned to stay in Trim, location of the remains of Ireland's largest Anglo-Norman castle, but lodging prices were cheaper in nearby Navan. After checking into our B&B, we walked around Navan's town center and ate a nice 3-course dinner (for only 14.95EUR) at Marini Restaurant. The following morning we enjoyed our last "full Irish" breakfast before visiting Trim Castle and driving to Dublin airport for our flight to Lithuania, where we toasted our successful tour of Ireland with a pint of Guinness.
Greg has the key to Trim Castle's Keep
Links to photos from Counties Donegal, Louth & Meath:
Donegal & Dunfanaghy
Dundalk & Navan

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