My Top Ten Favorite Things to See in Ireland
1) Dingle Penninsula:
National Geographic Traveler once called the Dingle Peninsula “the most beautiful place in the world,” and I’d have to wholeheartedly agree. The day we spent on the Dingle Peninsula driving what’s known as the Slea Head Drive was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.
After our night in Anascaul, we woke up and headed straight to the town of Dingle to walk the harbor and catch a good Irish breakfast. After that we reboarded the bus for a trip up to Conor’s Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland. Conor’s pass was breathtaking. You could see Dingle to one side and the western Irish coast from the other. A rainstorm moved in while we were there, our first bad, or “Irish,” weather of the trip, and watching it swoop down the valley was an experience in its own.
We descended the mountain road down Conor’s pass to a car park near a semi-unimpressive waterfall. Our guide told us that we could either take pictures with the waterfall, or since the rain appeared to be moving away, hike up to Pedlar Lake, where the waterfall originated. The rain didn’t make the hike easy, but it was doable, and we were greeted on the top, well out of sight of the road, but a gorgeous glacial lake. I wanted to strip down right there and jump in, but decided against it. I might be my biggest regret of the trip.
We returned to Dingle for lunch where I got myself some real Irish fish and chips. I was expecting a more Americanized version than the entire fried fish, complete with tail and skin, that I received, but it wasn’t terrible. We had time to walk around Dingle, which reminded me of Cape Cod more than a little. I was disappointed we wouldn’t be around to stay the night, or catch the upcoming GAA games, as the bars in Dingle looked fun.
We continued the day driving Slea Head, which can’t be done justice by either words or photographs. The road hugs the coastline the entire time, which isn’t as craggy as the western coast. On the Slea Head drive you’re more apt to find pastures steeply rolling into the ocean, along with beautiful Irish beaches.
I posted a photo to Facebook with the caption, “Who knew they had beaches in Ireland?” and received a lot of “no shit dummy, it’s an island” type responses. I should have rephrased my statement. What I meant was that Ireland is known for its dramatic, rugged, cliff lined coast. I wasn’t expecting beaches that could rival those found in Bermuda and the Caribbean, yet the first beach we stopped at did just that.
Our bus driver (our bus driver and tour guide, Darren, was the same person) let us out about a half mile from the beach and allowed us to walk the road down. We then had a half hour on the beach. For the second time that day I was pissed I didn’t bring my bathing suit.
Our second stop of the day proved just how bi-polar Ireland’s weather is. While we were on the beach, it was sunny, warm, and gorgeous (although judging by the number of people clad in wetsuits, the water’s pretty chilly). This second stop was windy, overcast, and reminded you of a fall day. The panorama was gorgeous, and at the risk of being made fun of, it was the perfect locale to wrap up in a blanket, sit down, and admire the scenery (some Bailey’s spiked hot chocolate wouldn’t hurt).
Our last stop on the Dingle Peninsula was Inch Beach. Unlike our first beach, which required a steep hike down, Inch beach was flat, loaded with people, and had bars and restaurants surrounding it. In Ireland, the beaches don’t have a parking lot. You pull your car up on the sand. A built in tailgating opportunity at the beach is sheer brilliance. We decided to have some drinks at Inch and sat around bullshitting with our bus driver. He told us that the management had asked him if anyone was in need of a bartending job. They’d provide a salary and housing for the rest of the summer. I strongly considered it.
The thing about Galway is that I wasn’t there for very long. hardly at all when you compare the time I spent in Dublin, Belfast, Killarney, or even Derry, but I’ll remember it as one of the most fun nights I had in Ireland.
We arrived in Galway around 6:40 the first night of our tour. We were joining together with an already in-progress 10 day Paddy Wagon tour and getting a new driver who was supposed to meet us at the Au Pucan bar and restaurant at 7:30. We quickly changed, and rushed out to see the city. We popped down to the Kings Head Pub for a drink before going back to meet up with the rest of the group.
Maybe because it was the first night and the first chance we got to mingle with people on our tour, maybe it was because it was the first night out of Dublin, or maybe just that Galway is indeed the most fun city in Ireland, (it has that reputation). Either way, we had a blast. After a good dinner (or, ok dinner…the portions were so tiny) and making friends with some of our Paddy Wagon tour friends, we headed back to the Kings Head which at that point had live music. Tequila shots were involved, and we spent most of our night next to the stage jamming out to a really good cover band. The next morning, we were up and gone from Galway by 9:00, yet I’ll always associate it with fun.
You know how sometimes the less pictures you have, the better the time was? That was Galway. I do have this video of the band, singing one of my favorite Killers songs.
3) Croke Park & GAA Museum:
Prior to visiting Ireland I’d assumed the most popular sport would be soccer or rugby. Turns out it’s neither. The two biggest sports in Ireland are Gaelic Football and Hurling.
The best way I could describe hurling to those unfamiliar with the sport is the lovechild of lacrosse and rugby. Players move up and down a field using a stick called a hurley and try to hit a bar, called a sliotar either above the goal for one point or into the netted goal, past a goalie for three. The video below does a better job than me of showing hurling in action.
Gaelic football appears similar to rugby except the field is much larger, and players cannot go more than four steps without passing, kicking, or punching the ball to another player, or themselves. Gaelic Football is the most popular spectator sport in Ireland.
I learned all of this while visiting the GAA Museum located in Dublin’s Croke Park, the fourth largest stadium in Europe. The GAA is the Gaelic Athletic Association, an all amateur organization used to promote Gaelic sports including Gaelic Football, Hurling, Camogie (women’s hurling), and handball. Croke Park is the GAA’s flagship and tours of the stadium and museum were included with the purchase of our Dublin Pass.
The museum is located on the bottom of the stadium and is a fair size. Having no knowledge of these games, I found the exhibits and history fascinating. What was even more fun, was that on the top floors of the museum were several interactive games that let you test the skills you’d need for these games, from speed, to jumping, to agility. There was also an area to practice hitting the sliotar with a hurl, or kick a gaelic football into it’s goal. This is one of the less publicized Irish tourist attractions, but well worth the visit.
A further perk of visiting Croke Park was a chance to participate in the brand new Ethiad Skyline Tour. The skyline tour is a series of elevated platforms and walkways set seventeen stories high atop the lights of the stadium. You are clipped to a safety line the entire time and at each platform stop to listen to several audio tours describing the Dublin skyline in front of you. This was one of the first things we did in Dublin. It was a unique way to acclimate ourselves with the “city of a thousand welcomes.”
4) Antrim Coast:
County Antrim is the northeastern most county in Northern Ireland. A famous scenic drive known as the Causeway Coastal road connects the cities of Belfast and Derry. It’s driven heavily and well marked for those not used to the European driving scene (such as yours truly). Many points of interest, cultural, geographical, and historical sit along this path. Many companies offer bus tours here, usually with an emphasis on the Giant’s Causeway. I’m sure that’s a great way to see the sights, but there’s so many smaller places to stop and take photographs, small towns, and pubs on the way that I’d really recommend driving yourself.
We drove the portion of the coastal road between Derry and Cushendall, before we had to veer inland to make our way to the Belfast International Airport. The first place we stopped was Portrush, home to some very picturesque golf courses, and the only place in Ireland to host the British Open. I’m not a huge golfer, but I’d play in Portrush. The courses basically hung over the ocean and looked insane.
Dunluce Castle was our next stop. It hangs precariously on a cliff side, and is slowly falling into the ocean. You could pay to enter the castle, but for free you were able to walk below and see the cave that is forming underneath it.
Bushmills distillery sits along the Causeway Coastal Route, and while we skipped the tour because of time I did purchase my dad a bottle of their distillery reserve.
The Giant’s Causeway is the main tourist attraction along the Causeway Coastal Route. Ancient volcanic activity has left large hexagonal shaped rock columns that lead from the base of the cliffs into the ocean, somewhat mimicking a staircase.
The Causeway also has several hiking trails that scale the cliffs, which are no where near the size of the Cliffs of Moher, but impressive and beautiful all the same. It was extremely crowded when we went, but that didn’t detract anything from the experience.
5) Belfast Black Cab Tour & Free Derry Museum:
When I first told my mother we were going to Belfast, she expressed concern. I scoffed at her worry, as all the research I’d done assured me that Northern Ireland’s capital and hotspot for explosives during “The Troubles” was indeed tourist friendly and completely safe. She wasn’t the only one skeptical of Belfast. Our tour guide had expressed his own distaste for going up north and advised us not to “get shot” there.
There’s a marked difference between being in Ireland (or as they say, The Republic) and Northern Ireland. It’s hard to put you’re finger exactly on what it is, but it’s there. Ireland, to me at least, was all fun: the people were welcoming, the nightlife verging on the out of control, and with the exception of the banks of Dublin’s Royal Canal (which isn’t all that royal) everything looks like it jumped off of a postcard. Belfast was more muted, cautious, and not that I blame them, but the populace has a definite chip on their shoulder. It might have just been the weather, but even the landscapes and colors seemed more washed out in Belfast and Derry, then say Galway or Dingle; like life had put on one of the less flattering Instagram filters.
What’s apparent after spending some time in Northern Ireland, is that “The Troubles”, which crescendoed in a peace agreement in 1998 are still very relevant and still very, very much a part of the culture. Now, I’d done my research prior to visiting, but it wasn’t till my visit, and especially the Black Cab Tour and that it hit home that this was a country that was very much still a war zone during my lifetime.
The Belfast Black Cab tour was easily the most interesting thing I did on my trip. There are dozens of companies that offer these tours. We found ours by going to the cab queue (outside City Hall) and asking which was a tour guide (they will also simply take you to a destination if you wish). The Black Cab Tours give visitors a first hand look at “The Troubles” in Belfast, and takes you along the streets where violence was/and still is to a degree the standard. The tour guides don’t tell you whether they are of Catholic or Protestant descent so that visitors come away with an unbiased view of these struggles. Almost every review I’ve read of said tours is immensely positive. Most participants are unable to guess their cabbies’ religious affiliations afterwards. Ours never told us. I’d have to say Catholic if I ventured a guess, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The tour starts off downtown near City Hall and includes visits to various places of historical (I’m using the term historical lightly here) significance, the Belfast Peace Wall, Belfast’s infamous Shankhill Road, the Sinn Fein headquarters, and the political murals the decorate Northern Ireland’s cityscapes. These murals are often political in nature and make statements from either the Republican or Loyalist sides, memorialize the fallen, and show solidarity with other political movements around the world. In recent times there has been a shift in these murals so that some depict a hope for peace, or non-conflict related subjects, such as sporting events or culture. The murals are many and impressive and our tour guide was great with explaining murals more in depth if we asked about them.
Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland, and fourth in Ireland as a whole (after Dublin, Belfast, and Cork). It is the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland, and a hotbed for political movement.
Derry is thought of as the birthplace of “The Troubles” during the Battle of Bogside in 1969 (which interestingly juxtaposes the whole “summer of love” motif I associate with that year), and was the location of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre immortalized by U2. Derry, similar to Belfast, had a violent and often bloody history during the later half of the 20th century, and is also home to a bevy of murals, the most famous being the “Free Derry Corner”, where now just one remaining wall of a home reads “You Are Now Entering Free Derry.” “Free Derry” was/is a Catholic enclave that at times would cut itself off from the rest of the city, and is where both the Battle of Bogside and Bloody Sunday took place. The place is ripe with murals, placards, and the excellent Museum of Free Derry which helps visitors get an understanding of what happened.
What struck me most, and why I strongly would urge anyone to visit these places, is how relevant “The Troubles” still are to Northern Irish culture. You’re not in a location were men died years and years ago, but were extreme violence happened in your, or your parents’ lifetime. This wasn’t your grandparents’ conflict. Before this trip I was aware of “The Troubles”, but not exactly how violent and how big a scale they were. Most of the Northern Irish we talked to considered Belfast and Derry to be war zones. Bombs, shootings, petrol bombs (think a Moltov Cocktail), and kidnapping were di rigour in these areas. To top it off, several “peace walls” still run through portions of Belfast. The one we were brough to separates the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankhill Road in West Belfast. It runs three miles and has guarded gates that close every night at 7:00. The police trucks in Belfast have armored sides, and pointed fronts made for crashing through barriers. Still. It blew my mind that I’d never been aware of how intense this had gotten.
With the addition of a drive along the “peace wall” what really brought our Black Cab Tour to life was the handy addition of our driver’s IPad. He was able to show us video footage of riots on the streets were they actually took place. It was eerie to say the least. We also visited the Irish Republican History Museum, a small, self run museum comprised of simply one room of artifacts and a replica jail cell from the Armaugh Women’s Prison.
Both the Irish Republican History Museum and the Museum of Free Derry were run by people whose lives were affected by “The Troubles.” In the Museum of Free Derry we got to hear a speech by an elderly gentleman, whose brother was killed in the Bloody Sunday massacre. Much like our cabbie’s IPad, the museum, which was chock full of videos and photographs depicted a neighborhood at war, the same neighborhood the museum sat in and we had walked through earlier.
Northern Ireland was not my favorite place, but by far the most eye opening of my stay. A trip to Ireland would not be complete without immersing yourself in the political struggles that both devastated and shaped this nation.
6) The Real and “Mini” Cliffs of Moher:
The cliffs of Moher are a 390 foot set of cliffs on the west coast of County Clare. At their tallest they reach a whopping 790 feet. The Cliffs of Moher were the big get the second day of our Paddywagon Tour. In the morning, after visiting yet another ruined Abbey, we made our way towards the cliffs.
First, we stopped for photographs at what our driver dubbed the “mini Cliffs of Moher.” These were situated on the coast of County Clare near the village of Doolin (can’t remember for the life of me whether they were north or south). The cliffs were lengthy limestone formations that followed the coast for several miles. We were let out for picture opportunities. Now, I’m terrified of heights, but these cliffs were “doable” for me. We had fun taking pictures, and climbing around before getting back on the bus. On our way to Doolin for lunch, I noticed a number of groups camping, fishing, or hiking the flat area on the cliff top which I’d like to do on a return trip. We stopped at Doolin for lunch where I fortified with a few Magners and continued on to the actual cliffs.
I’d been hearing a lot about the Cliffs of Moher since arriving in Ireland, and much like the Grand Canyon, they were almost more spectacular than people made them out to be. The area where the bus let us out was tourist friendly and walled in. It was also windy enough to cause us to walk sideways, and splash us with water from over 400 feet down. The further you venture from the drop-off spot and visitor’s center, the less tourist friendly it becomes.
Inexplicably the fence moves from shielding you from the sheer drop, to shielding you from the relative safety of the fields on the other side. I made it approximately 100 feet (which might be generous) through this un guarded drop area before I succumbed to vertigo and had to clutch at the fence, with my back to the cliffs, like an asshole for about ten minutes before gathering the courage to make the trek back.
Despite my deathly fear of heights, I’d visit the cliffs again. I’d just stay safely in the wall partitioned areas.
7) Killarney’s Nightlife:
We stayed in the town of Killarney in County Kerry for two nights. Killarney is a decent sized city, but one of the bigger tourists draws in Ireland which probably account for the nightlife.
The downtown Killarney infastructure is small and simple to navigate. The two main roads where are the bars and restaurants are located form a T down the center of the town. We ended up spending both our nights at Killarney’s Royal Hotel, which seemed to be almost three completely different bar experiences.
Our first night in town we headed there at the advice of our tour guide. When we arrived, a traditional Irish band (known locally, as a Trad Session) was sitting at the front of the bar playing. Towards the rear, a stage was being set up for what we were told was more of a “rock” (translation: cover) band. The Irish music stopped around 10:00, and the bartender told us the band would take the stage around 11:30. What I found funny about this whole thing, was that it was Sunday, and at home if any bars were still opening, they’d be winding down, not just starting up.
The Irish band was excellent, the cover band was good, and around 11:00, the place started really filling up. And these people weren’t going for a Sunday nightcap, they were ready to straight up rage.
After watching the band for a while, we noticed a lot of the entering crowd bypassing where we were standing and heading towards a back room, so decided to see what was going up. The back of the bar was a clubbier scene: DJ, dance floor, techno remixes of top 40 songs, and a fog machine. Typically, this is far from my scene, but when in Killarney….
We went back to the Royal Hotel Monday night and it was almost the same experience, only a much better cover band.
There was more to Killarney nightlife than the Royal Hotel (it just happened to be the only bar open after 1:00). When trying to find somewhere the first night, we peeked into many other bars. Almost all of them had live music. I could have stayed at a bevy of them, but the people we were with wanted a younger crowd, which the hotel had.
Now, I don’t know if the people in Killarney don’t work, if they just have super human livers, or if they are primarily on vacation, but know that two nights, while fun, was enough.
8) Irish Ruins:
Some friends we met on the tour, who’d been to Europe previously taught us the phrase “ABC: another bloody castle.” Ireland is chock full of castles, and at first they’re fascinating. You want to learn about and take countless pictures of them. After a few days though, you get a little castled-out. First of all, many of the castle charge entrance fees. Secondly, I find a lot of “historical” tourist destinations to be hokey: redone with information on furniture, wallpaper, and art that I’m frankly not that interested in, with creepy wax figures “recreating” what life was like back in the day. What I didn’t get sick of, were the unkept, non restored castles that dotted the Irish landscape.
Almost every town we passed had some sort of ancient ruin, whether it be a castle, famine wall, abbey, church, or monestary. Sometimes these ruins were definite tourist attractions: busses and people lined up to see them. Other times, they simply blended into the landscape and people treated them as no big deal. I guess coming from the US where we have no “ruins”, I found it hilarious that some of these castle ruins were treated so nonchalantly. If I lived in Ireland, I’d regularly get friends together to pack up a cooler, bring some portable music, and chill at one of these castles for the day.
What’s more fun is that these ruins weren’t fit with safety rails, and designated areas you could or couldn’t go. My inner child relished the chance to climb, jump, and pose for pictures wherever I wanted.
We did Connemara on the first day of the bus tour. Connemara is a mountainous district in the west of Ireland, whose boundaries are somewhat disputed. It does include Killary Fjord, and the Twelve Pins mountains. Connermara is also notable for its strong Gaeltacht (Gaelic or traditional irish speaking) population. I thoroughly enjoyed Connemara because of it’s sparse population. It was remote. There were times we’d drive for miles without seeing other cars or houses, just these enormous green mountains, which gave it an almost otherwordly quality. I imagine that when misted over, it might be the creepiest place in the world.
10) Dublin Hostel Pub Crawl
Our first night in Dublin we did the Dublin Hostels Pub Crawl. It costs 12 Euros and starts every night at 8 at the Mercantile Bar (I just read that your second night is free). The cost of the crawl includes admission and covers, VIP entrance to a nightclub (we didn’t make it to see this), a shot as you walk into every bar, and drink specials.
The pub crawl is especially fun if you haven’t come to Ireland with a large group. It recruits mostly in Dublin’s downtown hostels, so mostly gets a crowd of 20-somethings. We talked to enough people, and I’m still floored at how many people backpack Europe solo. It turned out to be a fun night, and was a good start to our trip.
One disappointing, yet funny aspect was that we were promised good Irish music. The first bar had a traditional band that delivered. At one of our other stops, the pub guide emphasized that this was more of a locals-only, non-touristy bar with even better Irish music. The band was traditional, but they were also playing “American Pie”, followed by John Mellancamp, and then “Glory Days,” as an American musical trifecta if I ever heard one. Can’t win them all.