I have wanted to go to Ireland since I was a wee lad. Both of my parents’ families are of Irish descent, so I naturally I am too. The draw to see the “homeland” was irresistible. We dared to travel on Ryan Air again. I figured since it is an Irish owned airline, it was only fitting. Luckily, the luck of the Irish was with us and the flight was uneventful. We took off in London and landed in Dublin within an hour.
Truth be told, Dublin is not that an exciting city. The biggest attraction is the Guinness Brewery (which is a big deal to us Guinness fans). The real Ireland is out in the countryside. The charming small villages, rolling green hills, and old stone castles much more represent the true Gaelic culture. So, we rented a van and headed west from Dublin to Cork.
Remember, Ireland is one island, but divided into two separate countries since 1921. The larger one is the Republic of Ireland (making up about 5/6 the land area) and the smaller one is Northern Ireland (which is still part of the United Kingdom. Even though they are both considered Ireland (depending on who you talk to), the similarity stops there. Dublin is the capital of Republic of Ireland, while Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic. Northern Ireland is split almost evenly between Catholic and Protestant. The north uses the British pound and the south opted to adopt the Euro. The north uses the Standard English measuring system (mph) and the south switched to metric (kph). The north was plagued by horrible violence for almost three decades from fighting between Catholics and Protestants, which ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 (although segregation and animosity can still be found in some areas). The south has benefited from stability and peace for over 80 years (though they had a year’s worth of bloody civil war first).
Despite their differences, the Irish are Irish. They are a very friendly and hospitable lot who love to tell tales over a brew and listen and dance to traditional music. In many parts of Ireland, especially the south, you can hear the Irish language spoken in pubs and stores. This is the Ireland we were looking for. On the west side of the island there are places that look and sound like they probably did a century ago. The drive from Dublin to Cork keeps getting prettier as you head west.
Our first stop was Cork. Cork is the second largest city in the south and third largest on the entire island. It is a good destination to make for and use as a jumping off point. That is what we did. From Cork, we went to the coastal town of Kinsale 45 minutes south. Kinsale is exactly what we had in mind when we thought of Ireland. It is a beautiful seaport with brightly colored buildings and cobble-stoned streets. We took a guided tour of the city with a nice gentleman who educated us on the area. Elijah, seven at the time, was insistent on holding his hand as we walked.
From Cork, we kept driving west. We stopped in Kilarney and then in Kerry for the night. I really wanted to stay in an authentic Irish cottage hotel or castle, but my wife booked rooms for us in a less expensive modern hotel at the airport. We were traveling with her parents and she thought the hotel would be OK. I was very disappointed, but out voted. She promised we will go back to Ireland so I can have my childhood fantasy. I will keep her to it.
From Kerry, we headed out to drive the famous Dingle Peninsula, appropriately named the Ring of Kerry. The luck of the Irish continued to be with us. The weather was perfect. You can drive the route in about 8-10 hours depending on stops. There are many places to see along the way. In Waterville we stopped at a pub for some chowder and fish-and-chips (with a Guinness). To our surprise, in the park on the water across the street was a life-size statue of Charlie Chaplin. Apparently, Waterville was a favorite holiday destination for the legendary actor.
We also stopped at a ring fort. Ring forts are circular fortified settlements that were mostly built during the Iron Age (800 BCE–400 CE) in northern Europe. One of the best is Grianán Ailigh. We were amazed at how well preserved it was. They are certainly not castles, but still impressive.
In a small village on the drive, my oldest son, Aaron, surprised me with a special present. He bought me an Irish cap (with his own money even). I was extremely touched. He knew how much going to Ireland meant to me. I still wear it all the time. Sometimes the little buggers know how to touch your heart.
My wife enjoyed stopping at all the villages and shopping to wool items. There are also many places to buy Irish Belleek pottery. I remember my great grandmother had some in her china cabinet. We also admired the numerous local artists who painted amazing landscapes of the area.
Driving back to Dublin, we stopped at the Rock of Cashel. According to local mythology, the Rock of Cashel originated in the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 20 miles north of Cashel. When St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave in the mountain, the devil in anger hurled the rock out into the valley where it now sits. Cashel also is reputed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick in the 5th century. What remains of the original structure is impressive. It is widely regarded as one of the best remnants of Celtic craftsmanship in Europe.
On the recommendations of several sources, we skipped Blarney Castle with its famous stone. The thought of kissing a rock that thousands of strangers have kissed before did not appeal to any of us (especially since you have to lie on your back with your head back down in a hole to do it). We also missed the Cliffs of Moher, which look spectacular. So, we have even more reason to go back than just my childhood fantasy.
See Rick Steves’ Ireland for more details!