Exploring Ireland – A St Patrick’s Day Tribute
As Irish people all over the world get ready for the biggest party of the year today, I thought it would be fitting to write a post about my travel experiences of Ireland. It won’t be the longest post in the world, as my exploration of the Emerald Isle is more limited than I would like. My grandparents moved to County Kerry more than a decade ago, and after visiting on several occasions for short trips with the rest of the family, I decided to visit alone and with more time and a hire car at my disposal. This trip, combined with a university field trip to Cork, are the basis for my recommendations.
Despite having visited arguably some of the most beautiful locations in the country, I would still insist that with Ireland, it’s not necessarily the locations which are the most important factor in a visit, it’s the spirit and atmosphere that contributes to some of the best experiences you can have, and I wanted to share my top four:
1. The craic of an authentic Irish pub
The term ‘irish pub’ has become synonymous with fun, music and plenty of drinking, and they can now be found the world over. Ireland’s most popular export, with its mandatory pints of Guinness and green interior decor, has in many cases now evolved way beyond its origins, however some elements remain the same. The comfortable atmosphere was present everywhere I went – I sat in several pubs for lunch during my road trips and never once felt particularly out-of-place.
I had my best experience of Ireland in a very rural pub in Kerry one night though, when my grandfather took me down to the local village to meet his friends. We were sitting at a table enjoying a drink (I was desperately trying to decipher the thick Irish accents of the locals and avoid their flowing whiskey bottle) when a man entered and sat at the bar, after a few minutes he reached into his bag and took out a tin whistle which he started to play. Around 5-10 minutes later, a lady walked in and also sat at the bar, she looked at the man playing the whistle then took a violin from her bag and started to play along with him while waiting for her drink. The guys who were propping themselves up at the bar were immediately humming and singing along to some of the songs, and before I knew it, most of the pub were clapping along and singing. The atmosphere was incredible for such a sleepy little local pub, and within fifteen minutes, people were up dancing around the pub, and believe me there were no excuses taken for not joining in – the old men were swinging the ladies around like they had dropped forty years! We only stayed an hour or so, but it was so spontaneous and unexpected and such good fun, that I can now truly appreciate where the spirit of the Irish pub comes from.
2. The taste of simple, fresh food
As I’ve mentioned before, food for me is a very important part of the travel experience, and in Ireland I was really pleased that I felt like I was getting good, wholesome fresh food that still tasted amazing. All the rain must be good for something as you could almost taste the goodness of the grass in the local butters and cheeses, these along with some time-perfected family recipes, also made for tasty cakes, scones and breads.
My favourite part of the culinary journey in Ireland was the fish however. The shellfish is often hauled straight out of the sea; I enjoyed plenty of local prawns and one of the best meals of the trip was a plate of local oysters washed down with a pint of Guinness and a hunk of homemade soda bread in a little pub in Dingle. The salmon in the area was also delicious, and on one occasion, my grandfather (a keen fisherman) took me out on his boat into the Shannon Estuary where we spent an afternoon fishing for dogfish (which we threw back) and rays (one of which provided our dinner!) I’m not sure if it was the effort of fishing or the quality time with my grandfather, or his simple recipe for cooking it, but it was one of the best fish dishes I have ever had!
3. The evocative sight of beautifully haunting castles
No matter what the weather when you visit Irish castles (although invariably raining), they always seem to have a mystical feeling to them. The country is scattered with medieval castles, monasteries and ruins and I have had the chance to experience both ends of the tourist scale. While in Cork, we paid a visit to Blarney Castle to kiss the infamous Blarney Stone – no easy feat as you have to climb up, queue, and hang your head backwards down a gap in the wall to reach it. This is one of most visited tourist sites in Ireland and as you’d expect was therefore full of coach loads of tourists, each queuing to pucker up and receive the gift of the gab. Whilst it was an experience, it is not the kind that I relish when travelling, much preferring the other end of the scale. Carrigafoyle Castle on the Shannon Estuary was much more peaceful, in fact to start with, we were the only visitors, and although it is now in ruins, it has so much character that you can really breathe in when you have the calm and quiet to do so.
4. The green waves of unspoilt countryside
The hire car was my best friend during my stay in Kerry. I had heard and read plenty about the area and was keen to explore one of the world’s best road trips – the Ring of Kerry. This is a 179km coastal circuit with some of the best views and countryside – I didn’t want to spend a night away from my grandparents so I actually covered the whole trip in one (long) day but I would recommend people take longer and explore more. The route took in misty mountains, windswept beaches, abandoned monasteries and weather-worn islands through towns and villages lined with colourful houses and hand painted Guinness pictures, and past secluded farms and roadside Catholic idols and monuments. The second road trip which was equally beautiful, but which had fewer coaches of tourists, was around the Dingle Peninsula. This route was a another full day trip for me and involved a drive right up into the clouds through Connor Pass, the highest pass in Ireland at 456m, and back down to the beaches and long stretches of sand dunes and farmland. In the centre between the two was the stunning Killarney National Park where the three huge glacial lakes make up almost a quarter of the park, making the small boat tours the best way to appreciate the beauty of the park (even in the middle of a rainstorm as I experienced first hand!)
These favourites may come from a fairly limited experience (although I am due to visit this September and plan to take in more of the island during this visit) however I am convinced that even with more experience and mileage under my belt in Ireland, I will still come back to these top four experiences, just hopefully with more examples. Check back in September to see if I’m correct in my predictions!