by Sandra Hutchinson
My husband and I took a ten-day trip to Ireland in October, 2018, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Our trip included one full day in Dublin and several days in Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom, not the Republic of Ireland), before heading southwest through several regions on the west coast, including Connemara, the Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, and Killarney National Park, including portions of the Ring of Kerry.
This post is Part 1, covering the first six days or so of our trip. Part 2 will cover the rest of the trip, as well as my travel tips for Americans visiting Ireland.
We chose our destination, in part, because of the availability of heavily discounted fares on Norwegian Air, which began flying nonstop to and from Ireland out of Stewart Airport in Newburgh, New York in 2017. Since Stewart Airport is just over a two-hour drive from our home in the southern Adirondacks of New York State, it’s an easily accessible departure point for us. Typically we make a tedious 3 1/2 hour drive (that’s assuming no traffic backups) to Newark’s Liberty airport to fly internationally. (Stewart was developed initially for aviation training for cadets from the nearby United States Military Academy at West Point, and later became a US Air Force Base, which was deactivated in 1970.) Norwegian Air offers highly competitive fares — for schedules and fares, check the airline’s Website norwegian.com.
Here’s our itinerary:
Depart Stewart Airport for Dublin. Two nights Dublin hotel.
Take coach to Belfast. One night Belfast hotel.
Pick up rental car, drive north along Antrim Coast. Two nights Portrush B and B.
Drive to County Mayo, via Derry (Londonderry). Two nights Lodge at Ashford Castle.
Drive south to Dingle Peninsula. Two nights Dingle (town) at guesthouse.
Drive to Killarney National Park and drive portion of Ring of Kerry. One night Killarney B and B.
Depart Shannon airport for Stewart.
Despite our cab driver from the airport to our hotel in downtown Dublin telling us that the number one “must see” destination in Dublin is the Guinness Brewery, we opted instead to visit Trinity College and get a peek at the Book of Kells, the famed 9th century illuminated gospel manuscript housed there, as well as the breathtaking Long Room of the Old Library. By purchasing our tickets ahead, online, we were able to avoid long queues. Prior to entering the room where you jostle your way to the case that holds the actual Book of Kells, where it is open to reveal two pages, there is a well-done exhibit about the book, although it was unpleasantly crowded, even on a weekday in mid October.
(You can view digital images of the pages of the Book of Kells online through the library’s collection, by clicking here. )
After getting a glimpse of the Book of Kells, visitors go up a stairway to the true reward— entering the exquisite Long Room, which houses 200,000 of the Old Library’s oldest books. It was originally built in the early 18th century; in 1860 the roof was raised and the current barrel vaulted ceiling and second story bookcases installed.
The room is lined with marble busts of writers and philosophers (alas, all men) who were connected with the college. The collection was begun in the mid-18th century with a commission of 14 busts from sculptor Peter Scheemakers. The library describes the bust of the writer Jonathan Swift by Louis Francois Roubiliac as its “finest.”
On display in a case is an original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic which was read on April 24, 1916 by Patrick Pearse at the start of the Easter Rising, intended to end British rule and form an independent Republic of Ireland. All seven of the signatories on the bottom of the Proclamation were executed at Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Gaol, along with other Irish revolutionaries.
Many visitors also come to the Long Room to see the 15th century harp which is the model of the symbol of Ireland. You can glimpse the harp in a case on the left side of the photo, below.
With only the afternoon left for us to explore Dublin, we chose to visit the Chester Beatty Library, located at the Dublin Castle. Founded by American Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), who made a fortune in the mining industry, the collection is known for its important illuminated manuscripts of Islamic material, and early Christian papyrus texts and manuscripts. Not content with Christian, Jewish and Islamic material, he also collected Asian manuscripts. While he loved to collect illustrated books and manuscripts, the museum stresses that he was committed to preserving texts for their historical value. The panels on the history of the world’s great religions are very well done and concise. I highly recommend visiting this wonderful library and museum.
Chester Beatty chose to make his home in Dublin in 1950 at the age of 75. He was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of Ireland, in 1957. He bequeathed his collection to a trust on behalf of the people of Ireland.
Dublin’s downtown is relatively small and most of the main sights are walkable from one to another. We also visited Christ Church Cathedral, the seat of the Church of Ireland, which is part of the larger Anglican Church (or, Church of England). (Ironically, in this predominantly Catholic country, due to centuries of post-reformation British control, the two major cathedrals in Dublin are the protestant Church of Ireland.) We poked around noticing the beautiful floor tiles, and the fanciful figures on some tiles, repeated as cut-outs on the church’s chair backs, which a priest told us are the “Foxy Friars, also called Pilgrim Fathers.”
The atmospheric crypt in the basement includes interesting displays, including information on the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1742, which was held nearby at a concert hall, which no longer stands. The choirs of Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral joined in the singing.
A mummified cat and rat were found in one of the cathedral’s organ pipes in 1860 during cleaning. They are on display, where? In the crypt, of course.
We also visited Dublin’s other major cathedral church, St. Patrick’s, also within the Church of Ireland. We were too late in the day to explore the interior of the church as visitors, but attended Choral Evensong, with music sung by the cathedral’s men and boys choir. Both Christ Church and St. Patrick’s offer Choral Evensong services. Just Google and check the cathedrals’ Websites for days and times. All are welcome.
During the one full evening and night we had in Dublin, we took a walk through the area known as Temple Bar. Rather than referring to one establishment, this is an area of the city known for its many pubs and nightlife. Indeed, on this Friday night, the streets were packed with revelers.
Nearby, we walked over the Ha’penny Bridge, (more properly, the Liffey Bridge), a cast iron pedestrian bridge built in 1816 spanning the River Liffey.
The next morning we boarded a coach (bus) and headed to Belfast, in Northern Ireland. (We weren’t picking our rental car up until we were to leave Belfast, and we had read that the train from Dublin to Belfast was slow and unreliable, unlike the very comfortable coach we took.)
First stop—the acclaimed Titanic Experience, a museum that was built literally on the site of the Haarland & Wolff shipyard where the doomed ocean liner was constructed before her maiden voyage in 1912. This is an immensely popular attraction, and it is highly recommended that you purchase your tickets online, ahead of time, which gives you timed admission. The building itself is clad in aluminum, and resembles the prow of a ship.
Inside, a number of galleries with some pretty spectacular special effects explore first, the importance of Belfast as a shipbuilding and manufacturing powerhouse at the turn of the 20th century, and then, the actual construction and launch of the Titanic. One compelling exhibit is a 360-degree computer-generated tour around the ship, beginning in the engine room and ending at the Captain’s bridge. There is information about the aftermath and inquiry into the disaster, with a reconstructed lifeboat on display. Finally, the last gallery shows video footage of the actual wreck that lies 12,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic. Eerie and compelling.
In Belfast, we also took a guided tour by taxi of some of the neighborhoods of what is called “The Troubles.” This of course refers to the conflict primarily in Northern Ireland that centered on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. While not considered a religious conflicts, per se, many people refer to the parties in terms of their religious affiliation, with the Unionists (who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom) being mostly Protestant, and the Irish Nationalists, who sought to leave the United Kingdom and join together with the Republic of Ireland, being largely Catholic.
The conflict is considered to have ended with what is called the Good Friday agreement of 1998. By taking a tour into and through the neighborhoods where much of the fighting occurred, the visitor sees gates that separate areas, which to this day are closed at night, as well as walls and the many murals depicting the sentiments of each side. The concierge at our Belfast hotel, the Fitzwilliam, arranged our guide for us. When I asked at the start of the tour what his affiliation is (or was), he declined to tell me, saying didn’t want me to think his tour was biased. But by the end, I correctly identified him as being in the Nationalist camp.
Here are some photos of murals and public displays that we saw in Belfast:
On a lighter note, I do recommend stopping by The Crown Bar in downtown Belfast. This property was purchased by the UK’s National Trust in 1978 to preserve it as an outstanding example of a “Victorian era gin palace.” It features a beautiful mosaic tile facade and an interior with cozy enclosed seating areas called “snugs,” where Victorians could discretely meet, talk and drink. It is now leased to a commercial firm that operates the first floor as a pub/bar, and the second as a dining room. When we visited on a Saturday evening, the first floor was mobbed, but we managed to get a table for two upstairs, where we enjoyed our first authentic Irish lamb stew.
Lamb stew and a pint of cider
Up the Antrim Coast
Leaving Belfast, we picked up our rental car and drove up the Antrim Coast — destination Portrush, a town on the northern tip of Northern Ireland. (Recommendation: assuming you live where you normally drive on the right side of the road, consider spending extra to reserve an automatic transmission, since navigating driving on the left side of the road while shifting with your left hand can be beyond challenging. Also, rent a small vehicle since the rural roads in Ireland are typically quite narrow.)
Here’s a bit of video I took, on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland, near Coolarney, the closest point to Scotland on the Irish coast, You can see Scotland, about 12 miles away, at the beginning of the video.
Our principal destinations on the Antrim coast were Carrick-a-Rede Rope
Bridge, Giant’s Causeway, and the Bushmills Distillery.
The rope bridge is not only a memorable sight (and we had a beautiful day to be there), but an experience you won’t forget if you have the nerve to walk across it. The bridge is essentially planks attached to heavy ropes, suspended 100 feet above the rocks and surf below, that connects the mainland to a tiny island where salmon fisherman used to set their nets. It is operated by the National Trust, and we were told that tickets sell out, so booking ahead is advised. Visitors walk from the parking lot about one kilometer to gain access to the bridge. There are stunning views along the way. My advice? Do it but don’t look down!!!
The other main attraction along the Antrim Coast is Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its 40,000 volcanic basalt columns, many hexagonal in shape, that cover a large area and form stepping stones from the base of cliffs down to the sea. It is quite a sight to see. There is again, a decent walk from the visitors’ center to the actual columns, although a shuttle bus is available for those who aren’t able to walk.
Again, since the site can become crowded, consider buying timed tickets online ahead of time.
Not far from Giant’s Causeway are the atmospheric ruins of the 16th century Dunluce Castle. We did not have time to buy tickets and roam the grounds, but we did manage to get a decent view of the castle, some of which has literally broken off and fallen into the sea.
In the village of Bushmills, you’ll find Bushmills Distillery, said to be the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, beginning production in 1608. The tour costs 8 pounds Sterling and takes the visitor through the entire process of malt distilling, maturing, blending and bottling. No photos are allowed within the buildings where the process takes place. At the end of the tour, visitors are rewarded with two tastings in the tap room. Our tour guide was energetic and engaging, and I recommend taking the tour. Instead of purchasing whiskey to bring home from the distillery, we opted instead to buy some in the Duty Free shop at Shannon Airport before we boarded our flight home.
One of the choices for tasting was a Hot Toddy. The server nicely handed me a sheet with the official Bushmills recipe printed on it.
Leaving our base outside of Portrush for our next major destination in the Connemara region, we decided to stop in Londonderry (or Derry, depending on your point of view), and take a walking tour that had been recommended to us, put on by McCrossan City Tours. Londonderry is the only walled city in Ireland, and has been the site of sectarian violence for centuries, beginning back in the 17th century, when in 1689, Protestants supporting King William III of England (a Protestant) maintained control of the city against James II (also of England, but Catholic), for 105 days (this is called the Siege of Derry). More recently, during the 20th century, and after years of discrimination by loyalist factions, violence has occurred between the majority Catholic population and the factions supporting the controlling British government. Most famously, in 1972, on “Bloody Sunday,” 26 civil rights protesters were shot by British soldiers, and 14 died. While there is dispute about what happened that day, in 2010 former British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a formal state apology for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” killing of the civil rights marchers.
Derry, like Belfast, has murals and signage in remembrance of the conflict there. The photo below is of a loyalist neighborhood where residents have painted the British colors on the curbs.
This mural, called “The Death of Innocence” depicts 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, who was killed when shot in crossfire between British soldiers and the IRA in 1971.
Leaving Derry, we headed southwest, heading to our destination of Ashford Castle, in Cong, in County Mayo, a drive of about 160 miles. Most of the roads were secondary, and this was an ambitious feat since there were places we hoped to stop along the way. One spot where we did stop was in Drumcliff, where we visited the grave of famed Irish poet William Butler Yates in Drumcliff church yard. (Interestingly, his father, John Butler Yeats, is buried not far from our home, in Chestertown, New York.)
After a long day’s drive, we arrived in the village of Cong, known not only as the site of Ashford Castle, owned by the Guinness family in the 19th century, but also as the filming location for the 1952 John Ford-directed film The Quiet Man, which starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
While on the castle property, we stayed at the more affordable Lodge at Ashford Castle instead of the castle itself. The building was built in 1865 as the home of the Ashford Castle estate manager. Most rooms are located in a more recently constructed addition to the rear of the main building.
By staying in the Lodge, we still had access to the castle’s extensive grounds, located on the shores of Lough Corrib. Visitors who are not guests of the castle itself are not permitted to enter the actual castle unless they are going to one of the restaurants within, or have booked a spa appointment. We were lucky to secure a dinner reservation in the castle’s George V restaurant, though, and managed to look around a bit. Here are some photos, below.
We did not have time enough to take advantage of all the activities that were available to us at Ashford Castle (for extra fees), such as the falconry experience, which we were told is booked out months in advance. There are riding stables, opportunities to fish and cruise the lake, go clay shooting, and more. Check the website here. One thing we did manage to do was to take a long walk in the woods with the castle falconer, Tommy, who is also one of the dog walkers for the Irish Wolfhounds that make daily visits to the castle.
In the village of Cong, much ado is made of The Quiet Man film. There’s a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a little cottage said to be an exact replica of the cottage featured in the film. There are also the remains of an early Abbey in the village, with some beautiful Celtic crosses in the graveyard.
During our stay in Cong, we took a day and drove northwest, passing near the mountains of Connemara National Park. We came upon Killary fjord on our way to our destination, Kylemore Abbey.
Here’s a peek at the countryside, driving near the mountains of Connemara National Park, on our way to Kylemore Abbey.
Kylemore Abbey is a neo Gothic building built in 1868 as a home by a wealthy family, that subsequently became a Benedictine Abbey in 1920 and then a boarding school for girls. Its setting is stunning. The sisters also restored an immense Victorian walled garden, which is open to visitors today. Click here for the property’s Website.
Just a portion of the sprawling Victorian walled garden at Kylemore Abbey. Even in late October, the grass was green and many perennials were in flower.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Ireland blog post! Part 2 will describe our visit to the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, Killarney National Park, and much more.