Also called the Emerald island, Ireland is said to have no snakes because Saint Patrick had driven them out. That probably explains to some extent why there is such devotion to this saint above all else. And celebrating the saint’s day is now a global affair so long as there are Irish.
And green is the color that symbolizes the Irish, along with the clover. It is said that you are in luck if you find a 5-leaf clover, better than catching the leprechaun!
It was late in 2003 that we decided that one of the places we want to journey to would be Ireland. For a long time, the history of the island was painful. As all small nations go, if you are not strong enough you live by the graces of your stronger neighbors.
In total, we spent 11 days joining a group that included not just a few Irish Americans, out to seek their roots and to understand how is it that their forebears would leave for the Americas. Just as the migrants to Singapore did…
Like the rest of the British isles, the emerald island is subject to the influence of the north Atlantic currents. Compared to similar latitudes, it is “warmer” (its relative), and because of that – is ice/snow free most of the year. At most the mountains get snow, but it probably does not show up or last long in the lower altitudes. It also means one thing = wet weather, as you will see from our photos.
Capital to Capital
Arriving in Dublin, we only had a short day to stroll the centre of town. So there wasn’t much in the way of viewing the heritage of the city except door hunting. You see, if you wander along the Georgian townhouses, you will find unique and ornately decorated doorways and porticos. Many of these are 18th century homes of the gentry. Some of them have elaborate door knocks as well. Fun to collect your own series of the portico photos.
Then it was off on a drive through the Carlingford Lough to Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. It was a real pity that we did not self drive, as it would had been an experience to make a pit stop diversion along the way.
Arriving Belfast, we had expected the city to be a little muted, but this was not to be. We took the local bus to the Odyssey center to pick up our usual Hardrock T-shirts, but they were out of stock!
Surprisingly the city is not that crowded (perhaps it was weekday) and we easily found places for dinner (of all place Chinese food at the Red Panda).
A day with the giants
Driving along the Antrim coast, we are headed to the place where legendary giants are said to have created a walkway for themselves. This “Giants’ causeway” is located on the northern end of the island. Large basalt columns, shaped into rod like hexagonal shape lines the coastline. A world heritage site, there are 6 major features to look out for when visiting, though we only examined three:
- The organ. From afar, it does look like a church’s organ. These rocks were left after the last ice age when the sea levels receded.
- Foot or boot depending on who you ask. Said to be a size 93.5, the giant who left this behind must have been in a hurry!
- The Grand Causeway looks like a stairway stops short at the shoreline…maybe if we walked there we might be magically transported to another realm…
We were warned not to walk out onto the black rocks for they are wet and slippery and quite some tourists had been swept out to sea when the weather turned inclement! They probably ventured too far out towards the sea anyway for our comfort.
Starting from the visitor center, you can either walk down to the shoreline or take the coach for £1pp (this was more than 12 years ago). We suggest you take the small coach at least for the return. It’s quite a walk.
The Antrim coast has really some spectacular scenery. Plunging cliffs of rock line the coast for many miles. Unfortunately, with a packaged tour we did not have the time to stop. It is highly recommended to do a self drive and spend more time here.
History and culture
Onward to London-Derry, a town that was historically besieged by violence and counter violence between the protestants and catholics. We had arrived on a Sunday and everything’s closed. And so we spent nearly 2 hours walking along the old city walls and local cathedral.
It’s a nice town, but relatively quiet. So we pressed on with a drive up to Celtic fort of Grian’an Ailigh, overlooking most of the peninsula. But the fort itself was no more and mainly just foundational stone. The views here illustrate the position’s importance.
More was to come as we drove up to Inishowen via Buncrena. Our destination : Malin Head. We made only a brief stop here at the real northern tip of the island, as the weather is unpredictable and it began to really pour, making it really difficult to stay out due to the wind and rain.
Actually, it has been an interesting two days. We have been driving across Ireland, crossing over from the republic to the UK and back in repeated fashion – nary a hoot about customs. Now for those who say there’s the schengen treaty, we remind that the UK retains passport control even for incoming EU nationals. Try not bringing your passport when you cross from France to the UK.
Our next stop is back in Northern Ireland (technically the UK), to visit the Ulster American folk museum. It is an open-air museum and chronicles the life and history of the emigration of Irish people in the 19th century.
Many houses and buildings had been brought here from all over Ireland. In addition, there is also a collection of buildings that show how life was like in the 18th – 19th century in the new world (the United States).
You can spend a whole day exploring the entire area and enjoy the features of the museum. We were lucky with the weather, as the rain and clouds were placed on hold while we were in the museum.
In what appears like a prairie, a wild hare sits, camouflaged somewhat by the ground and grass. The Irish emigration had begun much earlier, but in the 19th century was exacerbated due to the great potato blight and subsequent famine of the 1850s. The Irish Diaspora now number more than the population in Ireland itself!
More country scenes
As we drive to the western end of the island, the emerging scenery gets prettier. We had passed the table like mountains of Enniskillen and made our way further southward.
Now we are in the 12 bends of the Connemara national park, a region where the gaelic language remains well practiced. Our guide told us that students of the Irish language frequently live here for a time to practice their acquired linguistic skills.
Exceptionally beautiful scenery today of the mountains, lakes and inlet sea. The weather being a rare sunny one, brings out the color and vibrancy of the land.
We made a brief stop at Kylemore abbey, located on the shores of Pollacapall lough. This is the location of the Benedictines from Belgium.
Specifically for the nuns of the religious order. It is interesting that this location was chosen – perhaps it is the inaccessible nature that made it ideal for the religious ladies to seek refuge here for a life of quiet solitude. To be honest, it is a really quiet location except for the sounds of the elements and the birds.
In the evening, we joined an optional dinner to Dunguaire castle. Located in the Galway peninsula, the small castle served as residence to the Martyns family. Just before we had our dinner we were entertained by a harpist in the reception, where we sipped hot wine. This was a strong local brew and should be taken with caution! Remember that they make whiskeys here in Ireland.
The evening was interesting. We had dinner using cutlery and crockery from medieval times. Even the “servants” used pottery from that era to serve the hot food onto our plates. At the same time, we had ballads sprouting poetry and playing music even as we dined. In fact, the guests were encouraged to participate. One of our tour mates was made the “King”. He declared the banquet begun and had to act like the lord of the castle. We enjoyed ourselves so much that it was well past 10pm when we left for our hotel. Past closing time!
Stopping at the little village of Adare is like stepping back in time. The row of thatched roof houses look like the ones in the Cotswolds. These are now converted into souvenir shops selling: Irish wool clothing, leather bags made from local tanneries etc catering to us tourists.
Muckross house is a 19th century mansion built in the Tudor style with 65 rooms on the shores of Lough Leane. Eventually acquired by a Californian magnate, the house and its 11,000 acres of land was donated to the Irish republic in 1932.
However Killarney is our destination where we set out on a “ring of Kerry” drive along the coast. As we set out for our drive, the rains began to come beating and it got really misty.
We could not see beyond the fog and the trip was a total loss. Well once again, we can blame it on the typical Irish weather! Thus be prepared for disappointment as such.
Romancing the stone(s)
Driving through the country roads, we came up to Blarney castle. There is a dark side to this castle which have its dungeons and had served as a fortress in the days of Norman rule in Ireland.
In fact, Blarney is typical in its design – influenced by the Normans, who were made landed peers by the English King. They were known as the “Marcher lords” – Margraves who controlled frontiers and kept out unwanted heathens…
But then people come here for something else and we doubt anyone cared.
The Blarney stone is supposed to impart the gift of the gab to whoever that kisses it! To do that you must first scale up the castle. We decided to give the kissing a miss, as you need to lie on your back and stick your head out the edge of the castle! Hopefully still supported by the plank on which you are lying on.
It is quite a flight of stairs to surmount and there was a long queue to the Blarney stone. Some of our tour members spent the entire time of our visit queuing. So, no gift of gab for the both of us! But the castle is quite scenic but it was extremely crowded.
Following this we continued on to Waterford, the home of crystal (stone?) making in Ireland.
Rounding up the trip was the drive back to Dublin. But not before stopping at Kilkenny castle.Built as one of the strong keeps by the Normans in the 12th century, its enormous defense towers and walls served as the residences of the Butler family for well over 500 years.
Unfortunately, as favor turned against the family, the castle was sold to the people of the city for a mere £50 in 1967!
Since then it had been restored and opened to the public. Fascinating to know that the Earl who gave away the castle actually bought land in front of the castle to ensure nothing can be built in front of it. This, to give unobstructed view of the castle to all.
And this ended our road trip on the emerald island. Ireland has more than 84,000km² of greens, lakes and rolling hills. It has produced one of the world’s largest diaspora despite its size. It had emerged as a “tiger” economy and re-emerged from the more recent great recession.
These folks are a hardy lot. Come here to see how they tick.