It’s been a long time coming but finally, finally I toured the beautiful Republic of Ireland. In seven days I stayed in seven places and sampled seven very different types of accommodation, from the luxurious to the downright hysterical. With a long-held fascination for Irish history and memories of the stunning landscape from movies like Ryan’s Daughter, my expectations were high but held in check. I didn’t want to be disappointed.
The journey started in Dublin, landing at the airport and renting a car that, let’s say, had seen better days. My very kind and indulgent husband agreed to share the driving with me so neither of us were slaving over a hot steering wheel for a week. And ‘hot’ was the operative word. This was our first surprise. We’d been warned and warned. “Visit Ireland but expect rain every day. It’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing.” We just happened to fly in at the beginning of a heatwave. We drove straight to County Wicklow, stopping at the glorious Powerscourt House and Gardens.
Now I ought to admit from the outset how I feel about the Anglo-Irish absentee landlords and their treatment of the indigenous Irish so a visit to a wealthy estate was not going to be a frequent occurrence. I could feel my lip curl as soon as we entered the long driveway towards the house and resentment on behalf of the people living in poverty while the English lorded it over them and treated them like dogs was instant and furious. (The 1st Viscount Powerscourt was Sir Richard Wingfield (1550-1636), an Elizabethan military commander, originally from Suffolk , given the Powerscourt estate as a reward for defeating the Gaelic Irish during the 1594-1603 rebellion.)
Nevertheless it was a beautiful estate and now the house has been turned into a shopping mall, the gardens are really the star attraction. The current owners of the estate are not responsible for the English plantation of Ireland so I tried to let go of my ire for a couple of hours and just enjoyed the wonderful landscape. (I’ve only just noticed the irony here – for Ireland is indeed the land of ire as well as a land of beauty and lyricism.) There was so much to admire here I turned into a tourist taking photo after photo, growling when other tourists got in the way of the scenery.
There are formal gardens and Japanese gardens, water features and statuary, all set perfectly within the glorious landscape of the Wicklow mountains.
After leaving the estate we took a drive into the Wicklow Mountains National Park and along the military road built in the wake of the 1798 rebellion to help the British army put down insurgents hiding there. Here the scenery is wild and beautiful and standing overlooking Lough Dan, I could only try to imagine what life must have been like for the rebels.
Our journey ended in Wicklow Town where we stayed in a modest Bed and Breakfast establishment. Perfectly comfortable and adequate. We found a nice pub after a walk by the sea wall watching the locals teaching their children to swim by throwing them into the sea.
Before leaving County Wicklow the following morning on our long drive towards County Cork, we stopped at New Ross, a coastal town with an excellent visitor centre telling the story of Irish emigration during the famine years. There is a wonderful reconstruction of the 1840s vessel, the Dunbrody, with costumed interpreters bringing alive the story of people desperate for a new start in life. The Dunbrody was a converted merchant ship. So many tried to leave Ireland there weren’t enough passenger ships so some merchants took advantage of their short supply. If you were rich enough to travel as a cabin passenger, paying between £5 and £8, you could expect food and services to be provided on board. The only other class of passenger, steerage, had to find for themselves. They paid between £3 and £4 but even this was way beyond the means of the average farm labourer who earned about £1 per month. Steerage passengers mostly fended for themselves.
New Ross is also the ancestral home of the Kennedy family (JFK et al) and a trust was set up in 1988 to commemorate his legacy through involvement in community projects.
The intention was for me to drive from New Ross to Cork and Kinsale. However, our car was so knackered that the clutch was as stiff as a ship’s biscuit. With my dilapidated knees I was unable to depress it down to the floor so had to relinquish all the driving to my long-suffering husband. Which, let’s face it, for me was blissful as I got to see all the stunning scenery (whilst carrying the burden of guilt around with me all week).
So onwards towards Cork and Kinsale. It was a very long drive but we were spurred on by thoughts of a swim in our hotel’s pool. Finally, we arrived at Kinsale harbour for a quick walk. It was nice but nothing out of the ordinary in the harbour department though we had been told it was the ‘gourmet capital of Ireland’. We arrived at the Macdonald Hotel and Spa by late afternoon and were soon in the pool unwinding from the hot and dusty journey. The Proseccos over dinner also helped.Waking the next morning, I was amazed by the view from our bedroom. So keen had I been to swim and shower (not necessarily in that order) that I hadn’t really appreciated what a scene was before us as the curtains were parted. Not a bad place for our breakfast on the terrace. I seriously wanted to stay for the whole week.
But the itinerary was driving us (well my husband was) but we had an appointment with the Ring of Kerry and here was something I had longed to see all my life. It’s legendary, the beautiful drive which you are told you must do in a clockwise direction. This is because the coaches – and there are many – must travel anti-clockwise. Now the advice is given to travel clockwise so you don’t get stuck behind a coach/bus slowing you down. The problem then is that if you travel in the opposite direction going around the Ring, you are likely to meet them on a very tight, rocky, hairpin bend… and the bus ain’t giving way to you. Ever! Shall we just say that it was a blessing I wasn’t driving as I had my eyes shut tight for much of that journey around the more hairpinny of the bends. The Ring is very long, it is a lot of driving and there are a few viewpoints where you can stop the car and admire the wonderful landscapes. But there are also long stretches of road where the trees get in the way of the view and you are travelling endlessly with little reward.
We stopped for home made ice cream in a small, pretty town called Sneem which had the river running through it on its way down to the sea. The colourful shops and houses left you in no doubt that you were in wonderful Eire. There’s a unique sense of peace and contentment that settles on you as you wander around the west coast of Ireland. Surely I was a native here in another life? It just felt like home.
Originally when we set out, we thought we’d just get a little look at the Ring and then go back onto the main road towards our next destination. But it was beautiful and heaven only knows if we’ll be back so we carried on. It was worth it.
And so, tired and hot (the air conditioning in our heap of a car was useless) we arrived in Killarney. I would like to spend more time here; there are some lovely houses to visit and Killarney National Park is on the doorstep for walkers and drivers alike. Our hotel was a pleasant surprise. On Trip Advisor it had been reviewed as good but in need of a lift. When we arrived we were told our room was on the first floor. I groaned about the lack of lift and the receptionist’s eyes lit up. “No, no. We have one. There’s a lift now. It was installed two weeks ago. The staff can’t stop going up and down in it. Sure, it’s a wonderful thing!” And it was.
The next morning I was slightly anxious. The Dingle peninsula lay ahead of us and I was desperately hoping it wouldn’t be a disappointment. From watching ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ an epic filmic masterpiece, over 40 years ago, I had longed to see this part of the west coast. In the movie there were scenes of surf crashing onto rocks in force nine gales and our weather was calm, sunny and still. Would it be as beautiful as I imagined?
We set off for Inch Beach, one of the early locations in the film. It is a four-mile-long finger of golden sand, stretching out into the Atlantic ocean and behind it, an un-named range of velvet-green mountains.
We parked on the beach and wandered down its length, enjoying the cool breeze and sounds of the surf as it slapped the sand. Moving on towards the Dingle peninsula itself, there was nothing to disappoint. The scenery was breathtaking at every new turn and with many places to stop and admire it, we took longer to arrive in the town than we had estimated. Dingle is a nice enough place with a small working harbour of fishing boats and a yacht marina. We headed westwards and veered off the coast road, climbing up into the hills towards the town of Dunquin. Our overland route took us high above the coast and we were treated to some glorious views of the Blasket Islands, a few miles off the most western point, as we headed back towards the sea.
We stopped for lunch at the Blasket Centre, a cool, modern museum which tells the story of the Blaskets and the lives of the people who lived there including some well-known local writers whose names were too difficult to get my tongue around.
For me this was the absolute highlight. As we wandered into the gardens, to our right was the hillside where the town of Kirrary, the fictional isolated village from Ryan’s Daughter, had been created. No longer there as it was mostly built of hardwood flats, blown away over many years by the south westerly gales, you could still imagine what life would have been like for communities that did live here at the beginning of the 20th century. The schoolhouse where Robert Mitchum lived with Sarah Miles is still there, albeit now a crumbling ruin, it has to be found by intrepid detective work via a sheep farm.
We drove on around the coast away from Slea Head towards Dunmore Head and encountered some of the most teeth-grinding hairpin bends that took you either to the cliff edge or within millimeters of sharp jutting rock.
The place I wanted to find is called Coumenoole Beach and is the location for the most dramatic scene in the film where on a storm-tossed night, guns are being landed to help the Republicans’ rebellion but are being dashed against the rocks in stormy seas. The villagers, to a man, march down the slippery zig-zag path to the beach to help recover the arms.
We drove on and stopped at a small car park overlooking the sea and climbed up a steep hillside. At the top were a range of famine cottages; hovels where a family of farmers, starving during the potato blight, eked out a very poor existence.
It was a salutary experience, bringing back the reality of the dreadful conditions that faced the local people. Such ugliness amidst so much beauty was quite surreal.
As it was getting late, we headed back to Dingle where our B and B accommodation awaited. Advertised as a ‘Deluxe Double’ room, I wasn’t expecting palatial quarters and was quite happy to just put my head down on a comfortable bed for the night. However, when we arrived it was a bit of a shock. First off, the front door, which admittedly did face the harbour, opened onto a steep flight of steps. We had dragged our cases from the car and when we arrived at the stairs, could see no way to alert the proprietors that we had arrived (and could we have some help with the bags please?) We stood looking about us for a while and when it became quite obvious we would get no help, lugged our cases up the steep flight of stairs to the narrow corridor that led to ‘reception’ – a small counter off the breakfast room. Our host, a very jovial man, was busy joking with another couple who had also just arrived.
After he showed them into their room, we were shown ours. I can only describe it as a large en-suite cupboard. The double bed was squeezed between the door and the side of the wardrobe. No space either side to put a glass of water, let alone bed-side tables. The one window in the room was a Velux in the eaves which were so low hubby kept hitting his head. The bathroom contained a sink, a toilet and a shower. Nowhere was there to hang towels, keep toiletries or even to lay out the shower mat without first doubling it over to fit the floor.
We looked at each other in dismay I would wake up in this room on my birthday and it wasn’t quite what I had imagined when we planned the trip. On top of it all, our host was jokey to the point of over-familiarity and rudeness, at one point suggesting we would be rolling in drunk in the early hours so would need the door code so as not to disturb him! My sense of humour had trickled away on entering his establishment. And then I remembered the Dunbrody and the famine cottages and berated myself for grumbling about my first world problems.
The evening wasn’t wasted, we walked into the heart of the town and ate at a very nice hostelry returning to our cupboard and looking forward to moving on to somewhere more salubrious. I would compare it to Fawlty Towers but that establishment at least had an entrance hall, staff that would help you carry your luggage and rooms large enough to swing a hamster.
The next morning after opening my birthday cards, we drove on, very regretful at leaving the Dingle Peninsula behind. My sense of humour had returned now, it was Midsummer’s Day, my birthday and we were having a wonderful break.
So back on the road we drove north towards Shannon and Listowel. Our SatNav had a very strange idea of main roads at some stages. One road didn’t even look made up and was more suitable for horses and carts than cars. Still it was an adventure and we ploughed on until we reached Foynes.
We stopped here to visit the Flying Boat Museum as it was here that the transatlantic flying boat services began operating in 1937. At that time, crossing the 3,000 miles of the north Atlantic with a commercially viable load of passengers or freight and the large quantity of fuel required, represented a huge technical challenge. There were few, if any, airports with runways suitable for the large, heavy machines proposed, so flying boats were the preferred option and the search for a suitable landing place began. Survey flights for flying boat operations were made by Charles Lindbergh in 1933 and construction of a terminal began in 1935. Foynes became one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe during WWII with the first non-stop translatlantic New York service commencing in June 1942 taking 25 hours and 40 minutes. By 1946 technology had advanced, fuelled by wartime necessity and landplanes capable of true intercontinental flight had been developed. When construction of Shannon Airport on the opposite side of the estuary was completed, flying boat services ceased.
This museum was fascinating and we both had a go on the B314 flying boat simulator. I did really well, only crashing the aircraft once.
From Foynes we drove back the way we had come just a few miles to catch the Tarbet Ferry across the Shannon. This would cut about an hour from our journey time and was a very pleasant interlude. The next part of our journey was hot and a bit tedious. We travelled on tiny roads, across countryside which appeared to be a very long way around.
Ultimately we arrived at the huge car park for the Cliffs of Moher and it all turned out to be completely worth it. The cliffs have been used as a backdrop in many TV movies and films and it’s no wonder why when you climb up and get your first view of them. They are absolutely stunning.
Five miles of towering black rock-face rising out of the Atlantic ocean. On a clear day you can see the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, Connemara Mountains and the Dingle peninsula from the top. The cliffs rank among the most visited tourist sites in Ireland, with around 1.5 million visitors a year.
We continued driving and arrived at an area called The Burren, reminding me a little of Dartmoor. Wonderful countryside, very peaceful, we checked into our lovely hotel in the early evening. This was a 180 degree change from our Dingle accommodation. The Gregan’s Castle Hotel is an 18th century manor house which has welcomed guests since the 1940s. Our tastefully decorated suite overlooked one of the private gardens and could not have been more perfect for my birthday. The house is set in the most beautiful grounds and after opening more presents we had a walk before dinner, savouring the peace and tranquillity which has also been enjoyed by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney.
In the dining room we met a mother and daughter from California who were travelling around Ireland for the first time. After several glasses of Prosecco we had become quite the best of friends. When our meal arrived it was a gastronomical delight. If it had been possible to stay another night in this hotel we would have done so but sadly it was fully booked and with good reason.
The following day we moved on, just eight miles up the road to the sister hotel of the Gregan’s castle. It wasn’t comparable in any way but was perfectly fine for one night. En route we stopped at the Ailwee Caves for a tour of this mysterious subterranean complex.
Our hotel in Ballyvaughan overlooked the bay but before checking in we drove around the headland to Black Head, stopping at a viewpoint from which the Aran Islands and Galway Bay were clearly visible. On the way back I admired the old cottages opposite the hotel discovering later, a little to my disappointment, that they were now holiday lets.
The next day we left the tiny roads behind and followed the motorway to Athlone, stopping at the castle on the banks of the River Shannon. This castle has witnessed a huge amount of bloodshed and was the site of the great siege of Athlone in 1690, following the infamous Battle of the Boyne. The visitor centre here was extremely good and a worthwhile stop on our way back to Dublin.
We turned up late afternoon at our last hotel – in Dublin. It wasn’t great. But by this time we had come to accept that you can put up with anything for just one night – and we did. After squeezing our knackered car into the tiniest space in their miniscule car park, we went on a trek to find our room. The hotel was an old building grafted onto another old building and consequently finding anywhere was a major challenge. When we eventually arrived we just were grateful to be there – until we realised that the window stay was missing. We were in the middle of a heatwave with no air conditioning and there was no way of keeping the window open. Another major expedition was launched to find our way back to reception and they accepted our news courteously, apologised for the poor carpentry and handed us a couple of fans. This is what saved us from drying out like a couple of desiccated apricots. Later that evening we made our way to Dublin’s famous Temple Bar for our last night in Ireland, enjoying the ambience and a simple meal followed by an ice cream and a stroll by the Liffey.
The next day I walked to the Dublin Writers museum. Some of the exhibits were quite interesting but as others have said in their reviews, it’s quite outdated and needs a major overhaul. The shelves in the bookshop were almost empty, ridiculous for a museum about writers. I was keen to buy some of the books mentioned in the exhibits and had to wait to get home to buy them. Such a pity.
In the afternoon we visited Kilmainham Gaol the notorious prison where so many sons of Ireland sacrificed their lives for the cause of independence from England. Opened in 1796, it is the largest preserved Victorian gaol in Europe. Many years ago I had studied the Irish rebellion of 1803 and was keen to see where Robert Emmet had been imprisoned before his execution in Thomas Street.
His cell was in the west wing, the oldest and gloomiest part of the prison. Kilmainham has held scores of Irish revolutionaries, including the fourteen leaders of the failed 1916 Easter Rising, who were also executed there. The prison has been used in quite a few movies including The Quare Fellow, 1962. The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965 , The Italian Job, 1969. The Mackintosh Man, 1973. The Last Remake of Beau Geste, 1977. The Whistle Blower, 1987. The Babe,1992. In the Name of the Father, 1993. I certainly recognised the ‘new’ Victorian wing from some of them .
It was a very sad and sobering experience.
Leaving the gaol we drove back to Dublin airport and took our leave, with great relief, of our rental car. That said, I am delighted we finally made the trip. Nothing disappointed. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, it just got better and better, if possible enhancing the truly spectacular landscape.
Even the flight home was fabulous – it was only 45 minutes on account of the tailwinds and in the brilliant sunshine, we flew low and enjoyed a wonderful view of the Irish sea and the North Wales coast before landing. Writing this now a week later I feel I am still there. My dream of Erin fulfilled but perhaps, just perhaps one day I might go back…