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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The West of Ireland

The West of Ireland is comprised of Counties Clare, Galway, Mayo, and Sligo. Some of the highlights of the region are Galway city, the Cliffs of Moher, the mountains and coastline of Connemara, and the countryside of Mayo. Having to pick & choose what to see and what to skip due to our limited time, Greg & I chose to spend our four nights in this region in Galway, Inishmore and Westport.

Our drive from Dingle to Galway involved dodging a few sheep in the road, as usual. After crossing the scenic Conor Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland, we stuck to the main road to keep our drive as short as possible. Skirting Limerick, we decided to skip the Cliffs of Moher and thus the better part of County Clare as Greg had briefly visited this area in 2007 and, after all of the beautiful scenery we had already seen, we couldn't justify the 6EUR per person expense to see the cliffs (not covered by the Heritage Pass).
view towards Dingle from Conor Pass
We arrived in Galway around 3pm and, after checking into our B&B located next to the greyhound stadium, walked about 15 minutes into the city center. After a quick look around, we stopped in at Inkfingers where I had prearranged a consultation for a new tattoo. I had already come up with the idea before we ever left the U.S. -- to get a claddagh tattoo as a souvenir of our honeymoon in Ireland. I chose the claddagh (and to get it in Galway) specifically because this is where the ring originated and it is symbolic of our marriage.
prelude to a tattoo
With the unique design sorted out, we found a budget place to eat some Irish lamb stew for dinner then stopped at on off-license shop on our way back to the B&B where we relaxed for the remainder of the evening.

I had a 9:30AM tattoo appointment so after a full Irish breakfast I headed into town alone (Greg prefers not to observe the process). I loved the skylit room where Sean Ricketts creates his masterpieces and was thankful that this was a relatively painless one (on my upper left arm). Greg was waiting for me when I finished at 11:45.
my Irish souvenir
We walked through town and across the river to Galway Cathedral, dedicated in 1965. It features beautiful stained glass windows, Connemara marble floors, and a vaulted wood ceiling. From there we walked to Monroe's Tavern for a refreshing beverage; I had a Beamish (my favorite Irish stout) and Greg had the locally-brewed Galway Hooker IPA. Now you might think the name of Greg's beer refers to a particular occupation, but it is actually a traditional fishing boat built to withstand the rough seas in the area. We actually saw a reconstructed one in the free City Museum which was our next stop.
beautiful interior of Galway Cathedral
History lesson complete, we returned to Galway's West End where we were quite content to spend an hour or two at The Salt House Pub. Besides the opportunity to try many local and international craft beers, we got to chat with the Four Corners distributor rep who paid a visit while we were there. In addition to a generous free shot of Bushmills 21 year malt, an extremely rare whiskey costing at least 125EUR per bottle, the bartender gave us pint glasses, lapel pins, a bar mat and a knit cap, all to congratulate us on our marriage (and for our love of beer)!
the king of cool at Salt House Pub
Departing Galway the next day, we drove for about an hour along the coast to reach Rossaveal, where we parked the car and caught a ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. According to Wikipedia, "the island is famous for its strong Irish culture, loyalty to the Irish language, and a wealth of Pre-Christian and Christian ancient sites including Dún Aengus, described as 'the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe.'" This is just what we set out to experience after checking into our B&B and renting bikes. While the day was overcast, we were lucky it didn't rain and thus were able to better enjoy our 14km round trip bike ride to Dun Aengus and back. As a reward for our efforts, we had a pint at Ti Joe Waddy and then a filling meal at the American Bar, where we were entertained by the local fishermen and their incessant use of "fook" and "shite."
riding bikes on Inishmore
Satisfied with our island experience, we took the ferry back to Rossaveal the following day and drove through on again/off again rain to Westport. The heart of Connemara was quite beautiful with lakes, hills and waterfalls but we only stopped a few times to take pictures. Having read about the peat bogs near Leenane, we went out of our way to see them but had to endure nasty weather when we got out of the car for a quick look around.
Killary Harbor in Leenane, a brief moment when it wasn't raining
Arriving in Westport in the late afternoon, we relaxed before dinner at our cozy guesthouse, Augusta Lodge, where the owner was nice enough to do our laundry for free when we inquired about facilities. Donning full rain gear, we walked into town around 7pm and had dinner at Cosy Joe's before heading over to Matt Molloy's Bar, whose owner and namesake is the flute player for The Chieftains. Hoping to hear some great music we stayed late (until almost midnight), despite the bar being umcomfortably packed, but our efforts went unrewarded. There were some youngsters playing a few rooms back but we couldn't even hear them from the front room where we were at. Still, we agreed it was our most authentic Irish pub experience to date!
Matt Molloy's pub on a Friday night
After breakfast the following morning, we watched Ireland beat Australia in the Rugby World Cup then set off towards Donegal. We stopped at a few more worthy sites in "The West of Ireland" before we crossed the regional border to the north: the interesting National Museum of Ireland - Country Life (free), Sligo Abbey (covered by our Heritage Pass), and W..B. Yeats' grave at Drumcliffe, where we also had a pint in his honor at the local tavern bearing the poet's name.
Museum of Country Life
Links to all of my photos from this region:

Southwest Ireland

Southwest Ireland includes Counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick. This is a spectacularly scenic region of the country and we made a point to visit as much of it as possible. We managed to cram a lot of sightseeing (and driving) into only four days & nights!

On our way from Cashel to Kinsale, we stopped in the city of Cork for a few hours. As I was generally trying to avoid large cities on our tour of Ireland, we only wanted to have a good walk around to get a feel for the place. We accomplished that, including a visit to the English Market, St Fin Barre's Cathedral, the Huguenot quarter, etc. I had read about a few local brewpubs that I wanted to try but most were still closed when we passed through the city around mid-day. So we settled for the tiny Hi-B bar where we had a nice chat with the bartender and eventually were joined by the locals (all 70+ year-old men). We even met the owner's wife who stopped in to settle up some paperwork.
a pint of Murphy's Irish Stout at Hi-B bar in Cork
From Cork, we drove to Cobh as it was mentioned as worth a stop in our Rick Steves guidebook. However the weather had taken a turn for the worse at this point in the afternoon and was quite foggy & rainy, so we spent less than an hour exploring the tiny coastal town, notable as a major departure point for emigrants to the U.S., the final port of call for the ill-fated Titanic, and the place where both survivors & victims of the Lusitania sinking were brought.
We only spent one night in quaint Kinsale. Despite the pouring rain the evening we arrived, we donned our Goretex and walked into town from our B&B, where we had fish & chips at a local pub. The following day brought clearer skies and we used our Heritage Pass to visit the ruins of 15th century Desmond Castle and the late 17th century Charles Fort before continuing on the N71 coastal route to Kenmare.
Charles Fort
Kenmare is a great place to regroup before or after you drive the Ring of Kerry. Since we were making our way north, we spent one night there before driving the Ring. As it was the weekend, we were able to park anywhere in town for free, plus we took the opportunity to wash all of our dirty clothes at a self-service launderette. The heart of Kenmare consists of two parallel roads, each one way in opposite directions. It is totally walkable, with numerous restaurants and shops to keep you occupied for a few hours as well as plenty of lodging options. Mindful of our budget, we shared a nice seafood stew and listened to some live traditional music before returning to our B&B for the night.
Greg sorting laundry in our trunk in downtown Kenmare
Knowing we had a long day of driving ahead of us, we filled up on salmon & scrambled eggs for breakfast then hit the road. We had already decided not to backtrack towards Killarney (meaning we would not get to see the popular Muckross House) as it would add another two hours of driving to our journey. Our first stop was Staigue Fort, accessible by a one lane gravel/dirt road which was quite interesting to negotiate when you encountered someone coming the opposite direction. To make matters worse, it started pouring rain, reducing visibility to a minimum. In spite of the weather, we still got out of the car to have a quick look around the 1600-year-old circular stone fort.
Staigue Fort in the pouring rain
Continuing along the N70, the weather cleared as we reached Derrynane House, home of "The Liberator" Daniel O'Connell, an Irish politician who campaigned for Catholic emancipation in the first half of the 19th century. From there we drove the R567, a very narrow, windy road with spectacular views over Ballinskelligs Bay and St. Finan's Bay. Luckily I only had to "squeeze" past a couple of large tour buses, a heart-stopping experience. We finally arrived in Dingle in the early evening, where we welcomed our hearty dinners and pints of beer at John Benny's Pub. Afterward, we drank hot tea mixed with a bit of Jameson whiskey while sitting in our B&B's atrium listening to the howling winds of Hurricane Katia.
driving the Ring of Kerry
The following morning we were treated to more hurricane-strength winds mixed with intermittent sun & rain. Despite the weather, a neighboring farmer decided to move his sheep from one grazing area to another, and we were entertained by his working dog's expert ability to respond to calls and gather the herd. I shot a couple of videos of the process, which ended with all of the sheep being piled into a small trailer to be driven to the other site.

Later that afternoon we spent a few hours navigating Slea Head Drive, a 47km circular route that begins & ends in Dingle. We used our Rick Steves guidebook to help understand the points of interest. We included a stop at the Blasket Center to learn more about the now-abandoned island then had a beer at what is probably one of the most remote microbreweries in the country, Tig Bhric. After returning to town, we took a short, self-guided walking tour followed by a beautiful sunset on the harbor. We ate dinner at Marina Inn and actually stayed up late to listen to some traditional music.
sunset in Dingle harbor

What a wonderful way to mark the end of our first full week in Ireland!

Links to all of my photos from this region:
Cork & Cobh
Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry
Dingle Peninsula