IrelandTourism Ireland/Holger Leue 2005

By Tim Johnson

It was a fresh, green, typically Irish morning, and we were hopelessly lost. Having diverted off the main carriageway in search of some off-the-beaten-track adventure, we’d gotten rather turned around, and pulled alongside an old man in a newsboy cap carrying an armload of groceries, seeking a little direction. But he was little help. His Irish lilt so thick that we could scarcely understand him, he laid out a complicated and convoluted plan that would take us along the many tiny byways that criss-cross this lovely island. Thoroughly confused and none the wiser, we pulled away and just drove wherever we felt looked best, getting more and more lost with every turn. Looking back, we all agree that it was our finest day in Ireland.

I was in Ireland with two friends, making a giant loop from Dublin, taking in the country’s south and west in a rental car, along narrow old roads fringed with centuries-old stone walls. With warm people, beautiful natural attractions, ancient history and all the Guinness you can drink, a trip here may just make you feel like you’ve found a pot of gold, or have the luck of the Irish.

Temple BarTourism Ireland/James FennellOur trip, like most, began in Dublin. Set on the lovely River Liffey, Dublin is the country’s capital, largest city, and home to a great deal of Irish culture. We experienced some of this at Trinity College, visiting the world-famous Book of Kells, a beautifully illustrated Biblical book that bears a distinctive, Medieval monastic TK touch. On the other end of the spectrum, the Guinness Storehouse took us through the history of this great, dark Irish port, and finished with a pint of the stuff at the seventh floor Gravity Bar. Knowing that we had limited time in the city, we took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour to its other sights, including Dublin’s many galleries, gardens, both St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedral’s, and the natural history arm of the National Museum which, with its large collection of Victorian, stuffed animals, is known to locals as the “dead zoo.” We finished our time in the city by roaming around Temple Bar, visiting one of the great pubs in the neighbourhood (calling it an “Irish pub” here would be redundant), listening as a local band played some of the classic songs from the days of the Revolution.

And then we hit the road. Navigating south to the charming harbour town of Dungarvan, we stopped at the famous crystal-making city of Waterford. One of the oldest cities in a very old country, Waterford has a well-preserved Medieval feel, as well as an excellent Treasures Museum that displays the thousands of artifacts culled from many archeological digs. The crystal, however, is the main attraction. At the hour-long Waterford Crystal tour, you can see master craftsmen at work, and stroll through many showrooms that showcase their fine handiwork.

StoneTourism IrelandFrom there, we headed west to the famous Blarney Castle. Now a soaring, hulking ruin just outside of Cork City, the castle has been abandoned for longer than most of the world’s structures have been in existence. Built way back in 1446 on a site that has been inhabited since the 10th century, the castle was abandoned after the exile of the Lord of Blarney after his defeat by King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. But, history aside, most people visit here with one goal in mind – to plant a kiss on its famous Stone. Said to endow great eloquence on the lips of those who smooch it, we proceeded up ancient stone staircases and joined the line at the top. Each of us, in turn, assumed the position. Lying down on my back, cantilevered over a gap that dropped all the way to the ground far below, secured in place by the kneeling embrace of a tired-looking white-haired man, I planted a good one on the stone, receiving a certificate to vouch for the fact that I had, in fact, kissed the Blarney Stone and would be rewarded for my efforts.

DingleTourism Ireland/Holger Leue 2003
Then, on to Dingle. A green peninsula jutting off Ireland’s western coast, Dingle is a place of surpassing, breathtaking beauty (National Geographic Traveler once called it “the most beautiful place on earth”). Here, we just drove wherever the winds led us, past vertiginous sea cliffs, around Mount Brandon (whose 1,000-metre peak is one of the tallest in Ireland), and over rises that provided sweeping vistas over a sun-dappled landscape that seemed so perfect, it must have been painted by the brush of a master. We lingered on Inch Beach, a 6.4-kilometre piece of paradise where a mural painted on the side of a nearby building said it best: “Dear Inch must I leave you/I have promises to keep/Perhaps miles to go to my last sleep.” Sleeping in charming Dingle Town, we grabbed a pint in a pub and chatted with the locals until our conversation was drowned out by the sound of penny whistles playing a jig, an impromptu concert emanating from the stage.

And then we got lost, trying to find a back route to Kilkenny, back on the eastern side of the island. After our misguided attempt to get directions, we drove up and down hills, through hamlets so tiny they didn’t even appear on our map – a piece of useless paper that we soon threw behind us, onto our suitcases in the hatchback of the car. We just rolled with it, enjoying the scenery – the rocky fields, the tiny byways, the friendly villages – carving a slice through the very heart of Ireland. That evening, by some small miracle, we arrived in Kilkenny, rolling up to our historic B&B just as the sun started to fade. The next day, we would explore the city’s famous castle, a massive, grey Norman relic (and, if you ask me, the exact thing you picture when you close your eyes and think “castle”), but that night, a little bit road weary and a mite punchy, we found a warm pub and settled in at a corner table with a pint of the town’s namesake brew, happy to look back and recount the stories of a great day and a fantastic trip on this, the Emerald Isle.