The Republic of Ireland

There is no shortage of castles in the Republic of Ireland, of that you can be sure. That said, off we went to Donegal Castle – smack in the middle of town, and tour guides for the castle  were waiting for us to open their day.  It’s a pretty castle, with the original flooring and fireplaces. Circular stairways that seem a bit tight for a knight in armor fighting his way to victory are fun to tromp up and down. There is also the resident ghost – I took a picture of his favorite corner.

Now we are in Donegal County, which means Donegal tweed, and one of the remaining purveyors of Donegal tween have a shop just a block away from the castle.  With the promise of a strong Irish Coffee to entertain the uninterested parties (and hopefully loosen everyone’s purse), we trooped into The Irish House.  This place has some of the most amazing handspun and hand knit clothing, which made me wish that I lived in a much colder climate. On the second floor there was a demonstration area, and the last of this current generation worked the four shaft flying shuttle loom, producing an exquisite Donegal Tweed right before our very eyes. They have a production area within the town where seven weavers work their magic to produce the goods sold in the store. So gratifying to see the craft in a viable state. All too soon the magic was over and we stopped off at Drumcliffe to visit Yeats’ grave (can’t visit Ireland without giving homage to the poets!). Sheep are in a field next to the church and graveyard.  And not too far away we had our lunch break at a really fun pub that also serves as a bed and breakfast – nice to know for any potential return trip! Then off toward Galway we rode.

It was drizzly and the sky was dark as we made our way to Galway, but the weather certainly was not something to dampen spirits in this happening college town. The Quays (pronounced “keys”) are supposed to be the primo place in town, but due to overbooking we were relocated to a hotel that was a ten minute walk from the Latin Quarter on High Street, which is considered a gateway to the Quays, and quite frankly, we really enjoyed the access and the energy in this part of town, so we felt all the better for the change.

Our university professor tour guide did an excellent job pointing out more things than I can remember – churches, medieval walls around which a city mall is bustling. High street was also quite the shopping area of town, in addition to food, buskers, and some of the best traditional Irish music.  Based on advice given by our tour guide, we visited Tig Coili, a bar that has its original architecture and interior design. Good vibes, good beer and great music! We also took his advice and joined the locals where we all queued up for the best fish and chips in town (verified by the long lines in place by the time we were done – talk about good timing!) at McDonagh’s Fish and Chips Bar.

Legend has it that the Ring of Kerry is the inspiration for the Claddagh Ring, the quintessential icon of Ireland, specifically Galway. Just about every shop has some form of it, and there is a specific jewelry shop on High Street that claims to have been the originator of the design, along with a mini museum to prove it. Amazing how many versions there are, both traditional and modern. The price ranges are from the tourist trinket to the moon. So if you are in Ireland, and want to purchase a Claddagh, Galway is the place to do it.  Can’t get more authentic than that! Personally, I bought a harp pendant, with a Connemara marble inlay. It’s now one of my favorite pieces. Very Irish, indeed.

At this point we started to recognize some of the name shops that carry the authentic Irish goods – you can typically find these in the main tourist towns.  I took a picture of one scarf that was pretty different and and interesting weave, not run of the mill. Be always alert for knock-offs, and make sure it has a tag that it’s made in Ireland!

Speaking of Connemara, we headed out in that part of the world and took a stop in the village of Cong, where John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starred and were filmed in The Quiet Man movie. As part of the tour, Denny and I were shanghaied into playing  John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. We’re keeping our day jobs.  But it was definitely a different experience – more fun that other people were making fools of themselves as equally as we did. A small town, walking through it only takes a few minutes. Not much is open but there are tea and coffee stops as well as some Irish memorabilia. Driving in and out of the area, there is a lot of beautiful countryside in this part of Ireland. There are still country roads that run along where peat is being farmed, and where you can watch Connemara  ponies grazing in the fields.

I let a picture of the Ring of Kerry slip into this mosaic picture set, but the rest are of the Cliffs of Moher. Nice walking trails, LOTS OF WIND, but absolutely drop dead gorgeous views. Once again, nature showcases her beauty. Sheep are in various fields along the trails, and these are mostly private property areas that butt up against the designation of the cliffs area. The barbed wire fences that represent the border tell a story of their own – bits of sheep wool, an errant scarf that was entangled irreparably by the wind. There is an exhibition hall that showcases information about the area, and of course, there are also food and rest areas.  An incredible amount of people pass through here every day – can’t imagine how crowded it would be during high summer season.

On the more contemporary side of literature, we stopped at the small town of Listowel, home to Irish author John B. Keane.  He and his wife owned a bar in town, where he wrote his novels and poems depicting Irish life and raised their family as well.  His son William still runs the bar, and is more than willing to spin a yarn or two about growing up with his Dad and large family. It was a fun stop.

Avoca Mills is another stop we made, which is one of the oldest mills in the world. It was originally established in 1723 as a co-op, and over the years had gone through different iterations.  Now it is a modern shop with a lot of the more unique Irish-made blankets, throws, shawls, scarves and some sweaters and hats, too. Run by two generations of the Pratt family, who bought it in 1974, it is considered one of the oldest running businesses in Ireland.

The Kissane Sheep Farm, another family business, was our next stop, where we were able to watch a demonstration of a sheep dog in action. The shepherd uses a whistle and hand gestures to instruct the dog. We had the feeling that the sheep were pretty much trained, though, since they get to do this pretty often for the tourists. It was very interesting in that there is a lot more than meets the eye in the whole process, and the shepherd and dog have a special relationship – typically a dog is loyal to only one shepherd, though a shepherd will have more than one dog.  There were seven dogs on this working farm.

Sun and warmer temperatures were pretty much the trend by the time we reached Killarney. This is another really fun town. Traditional (and modern) music in the pubs at night – Kilkenny beer on tap! Murphy’s Pub on College Street is the place to go for both the traditional music and the Kilkenny on tap. If you like stout and ale, this beer is worth a try. Lighter than Guinness, it’s a nice change-off for the devoted beer drinker. I also got to try Jameson, Ginger and Lime – nice summery drink that was being advertised all over the country. A new drink to take home!

The Killarney National Park is located within a short walking distance of the town center, and our hotel was smack in the town center.  That is definitely the best place to be when on the road. Lots of locals mixing with the tourists, churches, museums, you name it – we could have stayed a few days here as well if given the option. While walking the trails of the Park, we were shocked to see herds of deer in the fields. Locals seemed as though it was no big deal – they see it all the time. If we were crazy enough, we could have walked out to them, but we’re smarter than that.  Admire from a distance.

Muckross House, located in the Killarney National Park, is an elegant old home that is open for tours for most, but not all, of the year.  We had a special tour arranged through CIE. The grounds are indeed beautiful, and we enjoyed the tour guide’s humor. My favorite part (aside from the original kitchen) was the spinning and weaving equipment in the gift shop. A father/daughter team make textiles for sale in the shop.  The daughter spins, the father weaves.  I was able to meet and talk with both of them.  Keeping the craft alive!!!!! Aside from Avoca, this was the only other place that I saw scarves made from linen on premises and/or Ireland in general.  Go team!

All too soon we were back on the bus and out of Killarney, and on to the next stop – Blarney Castle and the famous Blarney Stone. No, I did not kiss the stone.  It’s kind of weird that people hang upside down to plant their germs on a typical stone, with the hope that it will make their speech magically eloquent after having done so.  I am still waiting for the statistics on how many people actually received the benefits of having kissed the stone. Just the old skeptic/cynic in me!  I was born in NJ, after all.  That said, the views from the top of the castle were really stunning. The circular stone staircase was very tight (my backpack got stuck a few times) and their were points where there was a very strong rope to help pull you up the stairs and keep moving. I was close to hyperventilating a few times, but managed to make it all in one piece.

Afterwards, walking through the gardens was very relaxing and enjoyable.  Their are several themes throughout the property, and it is worth the time to explore all the trails.

The last checklist was attempting to navigate the Blarney Mills. That place is incredibly huge, and I only got through the first floor (yes, I found a few authentic linen handkerchiefs!). The place is overwhelming with gorgeous merchandise.  If I did not live in a very hot climate I would have been in trouble with my budget.

Before this tour, I had never heard of Cobh  – formerly known as Queenstown. The book for my book club that I was missing because of the trip was Dead Wake by Erik Larson. I was reading this while we were riding into town, and lo and behold, there is a Memorial for the Lusitania victims.   Now the tour had billed this stop as the last place the Titanic docked before it head out into the Atlantic. And there are White Star offices and buildings still in town, with a “Titanic Experience”. But for me the real story was about the Lusitania. We stood on the dock where the people watched it sank. I am still amazed that people sailing off the ship could see the torpedo coming at them. Good reading.

All things being Irish, however, there was much said about the years of famine, and the political events that drove it. Our last visit that day was to a Famine Field – basically a memorial over an area where hundreds of people are buried in a mass unmarked grave. A sad testimony to the acrimony caused by religion and the fight for political supremacy. Enough said.

Waterford – advertised as the oldest city in Ireland – is another town that is divided by a river. It’s small and somewhat crowded. The locals fill the streets and once then sun is down everything is deserted. Almost a little forlorn. The crystal was named after the city, and not vice versa. It was a Sunday morning when we had the factory tour. It was incredible, being able to see the glass experts do their thing, with all different process, and demonstrate their workmanship. Glass blowing, etching, molding, mostly all hand done, with some etching done by machine on pieces that are too heavy to safely handle.

Our hotel provided a very good meal in the midst of the chaos of two first communion parties and a 21st birthday celebration. It was almost quiet by comparison to walk along the riverside, enjoy the quiet streets, and appreciate the view of a swan floating ob the water during sunset.

Dublin – what a great city.  I loved being there during the month of December on a business trip almost ten years ago, and it was still the vibrant city today. A great walking town.

St. Stephen’s Green was jam packed with people – with the temperatures so warp-around warm, everyone was out and enjoying the balmy spring air. Dublin seems to be a United Nations of sorts – just about every continent was on exhibit. Young, old, families, people dancing to unheard music in the gazebos – a multitude of people watching opportunity. We found The Hairy Lemon  – a local pub right down the road from our hotel. Good homey Irish fare, a great bar, more Kilkenny on tap! And friendly to boot. I thoroughly enjoyed the fresh lamb stew.

Active skies accompanied us on our City bus tour. Lots of Georgina architecture, old and new side by side as the city has grown in spurts over the years. We stopped and got off at Phoenix Park – one of the largest in Europe. Again, we saw hundreds of deer just hanging around and having a grand old time. Both the President of Ireland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland reside on the borders of the park. Separate residences, of course.  The U.S, gets this distinction because it was the first country to officially recognize Ireland as a Republic. (You also get to pass through customs on Irish soil at Dublin airport, another perk having such a chummy relationship.)

Exams were on at Trinity College. There was an informative tour led by a University graduate student, and we saw both where Oscar Wilde and Dylan Thomas were residents, and then dutifully lined us for our peak at the Book of Kells. And to think just the previous week we passed the islands were the books were believed to have been created! The library was amazing as well – I just love the scent of books.

James Joyce may have his own statue on the north side of the River Liffey, but none of the tour guides volunteered information – I had to ask and was quickly diverted.  Hmmm….they must still be mad at him for being so open and honest about Irish living. His books had been banned for decades.

Another place where “you must go” is the Guinness Brewery. Yes, it is very tourist-ized.  No, you can’t tour the actual plant and see actual Guinness in the making.  But you can go to the Gravity Bar (for a price, of course) on the 7th floor – this is one of the tallest buildings in the city – and enjoy the 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin and its surrounding geographies as you enjoy your pint or glass of the brown stuff. Clear skies offered a miles-long vista that was particularly enjoyable. The beer wasn’t too bad, either. But then I’m a Guinness gal, after all. Next time we’ll have to make it to the Jameson Distillery tour, but that will have to wait for a while.

All too soon it was the last evening of our tour.  Everyone in the group showed up and shared goodbyes and good luck wishes.  A few in the group would continue on a tour of Wales and other points in England. But 20+ days on the road was at our limit, and while we were sad to not see more, we were glad for the wonderful time we had, and all the things that we were able to see and do! If we had our own car and maps, we never would have been able to cover as much territory as we did. So we were happy for the opportunity, grateful for our luck with the weather and the good group with which we kept company. But it was time to go home, and homeward we headed.