Visiting the Emerald Isle
When you think of Ireland, what comes to mind? Besides Guinness, of course. Lush green fields? Historic castles? Fascinating history? Irish Whiskey? When visiting the Emerald Isle, I would suggest a good pair of walking shoes, warm clothes, and an adventurous spirit as you will find so many interesting and beautiful places to visit. The rolling green fields dotted with historic landmarks, ivy-covered walls of once great castles, beautifully crafted churches and cobblestone streets lined with historic restaurants and shops will fulfill the hearts of travelers young and old. As you begin planning your visit, do some research ahead of time to plan out what you would like to see and do. I was only in Ireland for a quick 4 days and ended up with a Must See list longer than my arm!
For your first trip, I would suggest joining up with a travel group and plan to do a couple of bus tours. I was skeptical at first about these, but they are a lot of fun and a great way to meet people from all over. Since this was my first trip to Ireland, the vacation package included several tours and I felt that would be a great introduction to the country and international travel. I’m more of a solo traveler, but this trip opened my eyes to the simplicity and good times of traveling with a group.
Day 1 started out bright and early landing before the sun came up at Shannon Airport. I rented a car, stick shift (you can get an automatic, just ask) and headed down the darkened pre-dawn streets hoping that I am driving on the right (err, wrong) side of the road. I can honestly say I only had one wrong way experience and I was still at the airport, so it doesn’t count.
After becoming comfortable driving I found my way to Galway City and the Oranmore Lodge Hotel.
At the end of the hour-plus drive, I was pretty comfortable behind the wheel. Let me tell you, the first time you see a car coming at you around a blind corner on the “wrong side” of the road, you freak out a little!! But don’t let a little unfamiliarity with driving internationally scare you off. Most vacation packages that include tours will have a day or two where you are on your own, so don’t rule out the option of renting a car even for just a day.
I dropped off my luggage, grabbed a quick bite and headed out for an adventure. First stop, Cliffs of Moher. The drive there was an adventure in itself passing through lush green fields and small towns on tiny roads.
At one point I was sharing the road with a herd of cows coming the other way. I wish I had my camera going at the time as I was close enough to touch them as they passed, but I wasn’t about to attempt to scramble to get my camera out while driving. If you ever find yourself staring down a heard of cows coming down the road, remember this: The Cows Own The Roads! And they know it. I was in a mid-sized SUV and these beasts were nearly as tall as my car.
After winding my way up the narrow streets and hairpin turns, I arrived at the Cliffs of Moher and walked around for a little while.
As I was standing there overlooking the magnificent ocean views, I couldn’t help to imagine what it must have been like in the 1500’s when the invading Spanish Armada came into view of these formidable cliffs. It’s no wonder that they gave Ireland a wide berth after a failed invasion of Brittain. Plus the fact that the Irish people would execute any Spanish sailor that washed up on shore. The fleet gave Ireland a wide berth because of this but ended up being decimated by harsh storms. Those few remaining sailors that made it to shore were quickly caught and executed publicly. A very strong message to any future invading army.
Around 1780, tourists started flocking to the area for its spectacular views. Local landowner Cornelius O’Brien built the O’Brien tower at the highest point so visitors could get the best view of the cliffs. The original wall that he built from Liscannor flagstone is still standing today. renovated of course.
Later in the afternoon, I walked around Galway City. A harbor city on Ireland’s west coast, it sits where the Corrib river meets the Atlantic. The city’s hub is a popular meeting spot surrounded by shops and pubs. Your ears will be filled with the sounds of live Irish folk music as you stroll along the cobblestone streets. Nearby, cafes, boutiques, and art galleries line the winding lanes of the Latin Quarter, which retains portions of the medieval city walls.
This city was once ruled by 14 powerful merchant families who traded with the European countries and dominated the municipal government. One prominent family, Lynch, who can trace their ancestry back to the original settlers of Galway in 1185. William “le Petit” Lynch was one of the first settlers of Galway and their family dominated the local government for nearly 200 years. Even today the family still has political ties. In 2000, Angela Lynch became the 84th Lynch to serve as Mayor since 1485.
In the mid-1600’s several wars decimated the Tribes power. The Corporation was taken over by English Parliamentarians in October of 1654 and while they maintained some power over the next few years, the tribes eventually lost all power over the city. At the end of the War of Two Kings (1689-1691), Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the New Model Army labeled the families as The Tribes of Galway. The name was meant to be a derogatory term by the conquering armies but later became a proud moniker of a defiant people [source].
Day 2 started out with the group of wonderful travelers from all over. We met a couple from South Carolina, made some new friends who live in London and several other places. The first stop on our tour is to the Aillwee Caves and Burren Bird of Prey Centre. The hour-long drive to the caves was spectacular and our tour guide was full of useful and fun facts about the towns we were driving through.
There is an interesting story about how the caves were discovered. In 1944, Jack McGann was out walking his dog when the little pup spotted a rabbit. Naturally, the dog took off after the rabbit and chased it down the rabbit hole. After his four-legged friend did not come out of the hole, he began digging and discovered the caves. With the few matches that he did have, he explored the cave a little, but told no one of his findings for nearly 30 years! In 1973 he told some cavers about his find and they explored deeper into the caves.
Eventually, the cave was opened to the public in 1977.
After exploring the caves we headed down to the Birds of Prey area and was treated with a little demonstration. The weather was not ideal for the birds, but they did allow one bird to show off his talents. Benefits of going with an established tour group vs. going on your own.
Since 2008, the Birds of Prey Centre has helped raise awareness of these stunning and endangered birds while allowing guests to view these birds up close and personal. Portions of the ticket price go towards funding Raptor conservation monitoring efforts within Ireland.
Enjoy this video of this magnificent falcon on the hunt!!
Another hour-plus drive through the amazing countryside where we got to see a few more ruins and castles but did not stop, which I would have preferred, but being with a group I had to put that on my Must See list.
We stopped for lunch and a little restaurant next to the Bunratty Castle called The Dirty Nelly. Established back in the mid-1600’s, the inside reeks of history and there are antiques everywhere. Living in Arizona where the oldest building is no more than 150 years old, it really is something to be sitting in a building that was built over 400 years ago.
After a hearty lunch, we headed to the castle for a quick history lesson followed by wandering about the castle and trying not to fall down the miniscule spiral stairwells. Interesting fact, the stairwells were built counter-clockwise to hinder right-handed swordsmen when attacking the castle. Of course, looking at these stairs I couldn’t imagine even trying to run up these things let alone try to fight.
See below for some more history of this important castle.
Day 3 I was back on my own and took a long drive. My intentions were to visit Leap Castle, but it was closed (Sunday) and I was only able to take a few photos from the outside.
Still, a wonderful drive along country roads. This is where renting a car comes in handy. We had the entire day to explore on our own and while we could not get into the castle, the scenery was amazing and worth the trip. Don’t let closed castles or other obstacles get in your way of having an adventure while visiting a new city. Just point the car in a general direction and head out. There’s bound to be adventures no matter which way you turn.
Tour Group vs. Lone Traveler
Depending on how you like to travel, you may prefer to strike out on your own or travel with a group. There are pros and cons to both sides.
Pros for traveling within a Tour Group –
You meet new people from all over
You will learn a lot about the area you are visiting from the Tour Guide
Everything is planned ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about tickets, closures, or getting lost
No need to rent a car
Cons for traveling within a Tour Group –
You’re on a set schedule and will not make any side trips or additional stops
Sometimes you will have annoying people on the bus that can ruin a trip
Bus seats can be uncomfortable
Pros for traveling solo –
You’re the boss and can go where ever you want
There are more adventures to be found by wandering about
Side trips are encouraged
No set schedule so you can take your time seeing things and make additional stops
Const for traveling solo –
You will need to rent a car (bad if you’re not comfortable driving on your own)
You miss out on the history of the area you are visiting
You’re on your own so no meeting fun and interesting people
There’s good and bad to both options, you just have to find the one that works best for you. I find that doing both works out the best. Plan a day or two for traveling alone or with a friend and plan a couple of tours. You get the best of both worlds!!
Time for a Quick History Lesson
The earliest settlers in Ireland happened around 8,000 BC. Since Ireland is colder than most southern European countries, settlers came in later than the rest of the area. A place called Mound Sandel, now known as Coleraine, has evidence of early Stone Age humans from the Mesolithic period, or simply Middle Stone Age. Fossilized stone tools were discovered proving the first settlers of The Emerald Isle were Hunter/Gatherer Stone Age humans and not the Celtic people. It would be another 3,000 years before the next species of Man appeared on the island and would eventually become known as the Celtic people [source].
If you control the water, you control the land and people. That was the importance of the Bunratty castle. Even the Irish name Bun Raite means river basin. Built along the Ralty river the first settlers back in 970 BC were the Vikings with just a simple fishing village (the castle that stands today is the fourth castle to be built on this spot). Thomas De Clare built the first stone castle and the town grew to about 1,000 inhabitants.
In 1318, The Normans and Irish fought and Richard De Clare and his followers were slaughtered and the castle and town completely destroyed. In 1332, the castle was restored for the King of England, but the Irish Chieftains of Thomond under the O’Briens and MacNamaras ransacked the castle. For more than 20 years the castle stood in ruin, until Sir Thomas Rokeby rebuilt the doomed castle, only to once again be destroyed by the Irish people where it remained in their hands to this day.
The castle that stands today was restored back in 1954 by Viscount Lord Gort. In 1962 the castle was opened to the public as a National Monument. It is the most authentic castle restoration in Ireland with many of the original tapestries, tables, and other furniture and decorations on display [source].
Potato Famine/Famine Walls
Dotted along the landscape in Ireland you will find these stone walls that proceed up the mountains and seem to have no real purpose other than building a wall in the middle of nowhere. During the Great Famine or the Great Hunger, between 1845 and 1852, people woke up one morning to find their potato crops have spoiled overnight. A third of the Irish population relied on the potato for not only food but economic and political reasons as well. Over one million people died of starvation and another million left Ireland.
To help out the people as best they could, the lords decided to help the people out and paid them to build walls from the property up along the side of the hills. This allowed the people to purchase bread and meat so they could survive until the crops returned.
While this is not the only famine to have hit Ireland, it was the largest. The Blight that was the cause of the crops to fail was found to have occurred in smaller crops more than a dozen times before the 1840’s [source].
A Few Interesting Facts
A Land of Superstition
The Irish people are a superstitious lot. As we were heading to Bunratty Castle, our Tour Guide was talking about the castle when she suddenly stopped and saluted. She quickly explained that she saw a single Magpie, then went on to tell us about the many superstitions that the Irish folk believe in.
The Fairy Tree is one that has not only stood the test of time but has actually influenced modern day city planning. The Hawthorn or Crataegus (greek for Strength (kratos) and sharp (akis)) tree is said to be a doorway to the Fairy world and if you are not careful when visiting the tree, you may be tricked by their magic and whisked away to their world.
You can find a few stories online about these trees and the downfall of the unlucky individuals, or companies, such as the Delorean factory that is rumored to have chopped down a Fairy tree and is to blame for the companies misfortunes.
Another popular story is about a local country club, Ormeau Golf Club has a fairy tree that has been there longer than anyone can remember since opening their doors in 1893. For a time they used the tree as their logo and have a warning to anyone who plays the course to apologize if they hit the tree as well as giving it a “nod” when you pass it.
These sacred trees have even altered plans for a motorway back in the late 1990’s. The new motorway between Limerick and Galway was delayed and rerouted after folklorists and the Irish community pleaded to let the sacred tree remain. The city planners eventually gave in and rerouted the motorway [source].
Magpie’s are one popular superstition and one where our Tour Guide stopped in the middle of what she was saying to stop and salute this bird. It is said that if you see a single Magpie it is bad luck unless you salute them.
Lady Gregory and The Signing Tree
The Signing Tree is a large tree in Coole Park where famous authors have chiseled in their initials. Great writers such as George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey and several others have carved their initials into this grand Copper Beach tree. You will have to look closely to see the faded initials, but they are still there.
Lady Gregory, or Isabella Agusta was born in March 1852 to a wealthy family. Her love of writing started early on by her Nanny, Mary Sheridan. She co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre as well as the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn. She wrote numerous shorts for both companies as well as several retellings of Irish Mythology. She is mostly remembered for the Irish Literary Revival [source].
While touring the Bunratty Castle, the tour guide explained that the massive antlers hanging on the wall are from prehistoric Elk. The Irish Elk, or Megaloceros, is actually an extinct species of deer that roamed all over Europe Africa, and China. These massive creatures stood well over seven feet tall and their antlers would reach 12 feet in width.
There are several well preserved Elk at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which is just one more reason to visit Ireland. So grab your passport and hit the road!!