SERIES PART 3 OF 3 – IRELAND
A land of incredible beauty and the warmest people I have met through my travels. History abounds here and remnants of it can be found everywhere. Music invites you and the story telling spellbinds you. This is the place to stop and talk to the locals! My 10-day tour through this magical place still makes me smile!
Day 1 – Arrival Day
We arrived into Belfast the day after the marches, which usually take place on or around July 12 of each year and there were still remnants and evidence of it around. Although much safer than in the past, I found I was still a little uncomfortable being there. I guess part of it might be that this was a Sunday and I chose to go to Mass instead of taking part in the 1-hour walking tour that followed our trip to Titanic Belfast. Colm did drop me off as close as he could to my church, but I was on my own and I found myself sticking to the main routes going back to the hotel rather than taking the “short cut” that was recommended.
This can be a confusing city to navigate, but there are major landmarks that can be used to keep you going in the right direction.
The name Belfast comes from the Gaelic meaning mouth of the sandy ford. History abounds here as well. There’s evidence of the Vikings having a presence here. From 12,000 inhabitants being hunter gathers to 5,000 farmers. In 1169 the English arrived and in the early 1600s penial laws came into affect if you were not a Protestant until the early 1800s. Catholics were second class citizens, not permitted to even attend school, and there is evidence of “classrooms” in small caves. There was unrest and famine throughout. Today, there is peace – somewhat uneasy though. Our hotel, the Europa was bombed 36 times and is the most bombed hotel in the world. Having said all that, it is a modern, thriving city and shouldn’t be ignored. It serves as a great jumping off point to visit the amazing Belfast Titanic Museum.
Of course, there’s so much to see and do in Northern Ireland than just Belfast, the Belfast Titantic and the Giant’s Causeway, but those were our focus points and what I’ll be talking about here.
Day 2 – Titanic Belfast
Let’s talk about Titanic Belfast and the Titanic Experience. This is an excellent interactive display both inside and outside. The first part explores Belfast’s industries and explains how the need for the shipyards evolved. As you continue through, you can see the original blueprints of the Titanic, look up (and down) at a scale model of the Arrol Gantry. Experience the atmosphere and hear the intake as the Titanic launches. You’ll have the chance to explore the ship from the boiler room to the staircase and up on the bridge on a very cool 3D tour. Then, meet some of the characters and see what life was like onboard and then finally experience the atmosphere change as the tragedy unfolds.
Finally, head underwater and see the wreck… This is an excellent museum and you must go and experience for yourself.
Some of our group did not go to the Museum and chose to do a full day Game of Thrones tour. Are you a fan??? Our tour did include a look at Hillsborough Castle, the official government residence in Northern Ireland and the official residence of the Queen and the royal family when they visit.
After our visit to the Museum we were in for a wonderful treat! We headed off to a local pub/inn, The Crosskeys, which was built in 1654, for dinner and entertainment. This was a great night! We’d been learning how the bogs contain rich resources of peat. Well, this peat that we had been hearing so much about, cooked our meal! Locals visit this Inn every night and local artists come and just share their music…it was excellent!
Day 3 – Giants Causeway, Dunluce Castle and Derry (Londonderry)
We began early and were promised a beautiful scenic drive through the Nine Glens (Valleys) of Antrim. I was not disappointed. Mountains, valleys and a rugged but peaceful coastline were the highlights of today’s drive. On our way we encountered Moon Fairy Trees and Black Thorn Trees (home of the little folk). Surrounded with folklore, the locals never uproot either! Our stop at Portaneveey offered up amazing picturesque views!
Steeped in myth and legend, this amazing coast must be visited. Myth and legend have it that these amazing columns are the remains of a causeway built by an Irish giant, Finn McCool. He was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonnier. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel by throwing chucks of the Antrim coast into the sea so the two could meet. Fear and mistrust caused Benandonnier to flee back to Scotland destroying the causeway behind him. Of course, across the sea, there are identical basalt columns. Locals believe that that between the hexagon rock formations lies real magic.
Today, The Giants Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It truly is a geological wonder with over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, a result of intense volcanic and geological activity. It was on my see-list and I felt small and peaceful standing on top and among them along the shore of the Sea.
You can walk to the stones for free, but parking is reserved. You’ll need to buy tickets for the Visitor Experience which includes a guided tour and use of the audio guide. If you go with a tour, all is included. It’s a bit of a hike down and there is an included shuttle that will take you there and back.
Once there, you too, will be able to climb the Shepherd’s Steps, find the Giant’s Boot, the Chimney Stacks, the Giant’s Gate and Harp and so much more! There are four amazing walking trails there too ranging from simple to challenging. If you are going there to do this, is best to plan a tour that allows for several hours at the Causeway. It’s easy to lose track of time and I found it amazing that I could easily spend two hours and then rush to make sure I wasn’t late!
Can you tell I absolutely fell in love with this stop???
On our way to Derry we made a quick stop at the Dunluce Castle ruins, the seat of the Clan McDonnell. Sitting atop and at the edge of a basalt outcropping its location must have served it well. First built in the 13th century it fell from the hands of the McQuillan family to the McDonnells in the mid 16th century. (Did I mention that history abounds here?) The castle has since deteriorated but serves as a vivid reminder of the history of Ireland. Today, it has made its way into our modern media including song, poetry and movies, notably serving as the filming location for the Game of Thrones Seat of House Greyjoy, the great castle of Pyke.
Our final stop for this day was Derry (officially known as Londonderry). It is located on the Foyle River in Northern Ireland is quite hilly, and certainly has a political and troubled background. We had a very informative walking tour with an amazing guide here. The 17th century walls encircling this city granted access to Derry through 7 gates and we were able to walk on those walls and saw 2 of the gates. It’s the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland. St Columb’s Cathedral, the Tower Museum and Guildhall all stand are must sees here.
With recorded rebellions in 1608 – and through time and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, World War 1 and 2, the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the Irish War of Independence and the Civil Rights Movement, the pedestrian Peace Bridge built in 2011 stands as a monument to a new movement. It stands with two structural arms that head in opposite directions representing a “handshake” of peace and symbolizing the unification of the Protestant Waterside and the Nationalist Bogside of the Foyle River.
Day 4 – Glenveagh National Park, Donegal and Kilronan Castle
Leaving the coast, we headed inland to visit Glenveagh National Park in Donegal County. This National Park surprised me. Donegal County is one of the poorer county regions in Ireland and that’s due in part to the type of land within its borders. It accounts for an incredible 12% of the world’s blanket bog! We’ve been seeing a lot of sheep and cows, but not here. The land is so devoid of nutrients that it can’t sustain them. We saw the occasional goat as they are great for tearing up the roots of the plants growing here. So, what makes this part of Ireland so compelling and beautiful on its own? It appears lush and green, but it’s blanket bog. It’s mountainous and rocky and waterfalls and streams are everywhere.
I loved our journey through the park and certainly our visit to Glenveagh Castle. We had a very interesting guided tour through the caste – sorry, no pictures were allowed inside the castle. It was built in 1870 by Captain Adair and it has beautiful gardens that you can stroll through. The castle was meant to be Captain Adair and his wife Cornelia’s home, however he died suddenly in 1885 and after his death, she took over running the estate, introduced deer hunting and actually made some additions to the castle and the grounds. She was well respected until her death in London in 1921.
Our next stop brought us to Donegal Town located on Donegal Bay at the mouth of the River Eske. We stopped here for lunch and some free time to do some shopping for Irish Tweed and sightseeing. The center of town, known as the Diamond is a very quaint square where it’s common to sit back and listen to musicians, shop, dine or people watch. I found the town square absolutely charming.
After our lunch break we stopped at Belleek Pottery for a guided tour. I didn’t know anything about it! Founded in 1857 the factory creates beautiful pieces of pottery of the highest standards and ships throughout the world. It was difficult to hear and understand our guide at times, but the people manning the stations we more than happy to stop a bit and explain their craftsmanship.
Our long day ended with our arrival at the luxurious Kilronan Castle where we had time to relax before our dinner. This castle was built in the late 1700’s and underwent additions into the 1800s. It’s beautiful and very comfortable!
Day 5 – Down Time at Kilronan Castle, Arigna Mining and Carrick on Shannon
After our very long day yesterday, we had the option of heading out or staying at the castle, or a combination of both. I opted for the combination option for one reason only – the first part of the day was a tour to the Arigna Mining Experience. As you know, I am very claustrophobic and even the thought of heading down into a mine just didn’t sit well with me! However, those who did go had an amazing experience. This mine entrance overlooks Lough Allen and has 400 years of mining heritage. An ex-Miner guide escorted the group where they took part in video presentations, hands on experiences and an underground tour where lighting and sound effects add to the reality of the experience. It was dark and wet and very cramped. They loved it – I would not have so much!
After the mining tour, the bus returned to pick up those of us who stayed behind at the Castle and we headed out to the historic town of Carrick-on-Shannon. I loved this little town on the River Shannon. We were invited to discover for ourselves the second smallest Catholic church in the world, the Costello Chapel. Colm didn’t give us any hints – just invited us to talk to the locals and go find it! So we did! The locals are so very happy to share their history with anyone who visits and asks. I love that about being in Ireland. We also found St. Georges Church of Ireland built in 1827 which was surprisingly modern inside. It showcases silvers, the seal of Carrick-on-Shannon, banners listing the names of more than 270 Leitrim men killed during WW1, paintings and the second oldest Telford Organ in Ireland. Also there is St Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1879. There’s much to see in this small town located on the longest river in Britain and Ireland.
Historically, control of the River Shannon was an absolute necessity. Canals were built to have access to Dublin and the river was also used by the Vikings as their “roads”.
Day 6 –Knock Shrine, Galway, Cliffs of Moher
On August 21, 1879 around 8:00 pm there was heavy rain falling. 15 local people witnessed the extraordinary vision at the gable wall of Knock Parish Church of Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist. To their left was a lamb standing on an altar before a cross. It last for about 2 hours. Since that time, Knock has been a site of pilgrimage
Imagine my surprise and utter delight and disbelief that our “comfort stop” was at the Knock Shrine. I had seen signs along the highway announcing that we were getting close to this Catholic Pilgrimage Site, but we were never told that we would be stopping there for our washroom break. I had 20 minutes to visit this holy pilgrimage site – I didn’t quite make it – I was back at the bus in 27 minutes! It spreads over 100 acres, has gardens, churches, outdoor Stations, a museum and so much more.
When we arrived back at the coast in Galway, we were met by our guide and taken for a brief guided walking tour through this absolutely charming place. I really liked it here. It had an inviting vibe to it. There was a street market on, musicians playing on the streets and people everywhere. The city is criss-crossed with narrow streets and medieval city walls surround it. It lies on the River Corrib between Lough Corrib and Galway Bay.
Galway is the fastest growing city in Ireland, in part to the incredible number of students that call this city home. Historically it was a City of Tribes – 14 families, 12 of which were French. Galway, like the rest of Ireland, was hit hard by the Potato Famine that began in 1845 and lasted until 1849.
We continued our day driving along the Wild Atlantic Way and through the Burren, an area of limestone hills. Unlike the bogs, this area is rich with flora. We were heading for the Cliffs of Moher. What surprised me most was that I was expecting a climb to a rugged coastline. Instead it is a gentle climb, through rolling lush green hills with the wild Atlantic Ocean on the other side.
The Cliffs of Moher are a very impressive site. This very rugged coastline is located in County Clare is Ireland’s most visited tourist attraction – and I was one of those tourists!
A warning here for sure – the weather has shaped this amazing coastline and it dramatically affects visitors how go there. We were very fortunate. It was a beautiful day (and we only had a few of them) when we were there. I had the chance to speak to a park ranger there that mentioned to me that IF we had been there one day earlier, we would not have seen anything – it was completely fogged in. It’s not unusual for the area, or part of it, to be closed due to high winds, fog, or driving rain, and for visitors to be stopped at the Visitors Center. I actually turned around on my way up to one of the highest point lookouts due to the wind.
Looking towards the Atlantic there are trails the head in both directions and follow the coastline. PLEASE be respectful of the “Do not enter” signs. Several people have lost their lives by falling or being blown over the cliffs. We saw people taking their lives into their own hands just to get a closer look at the very dramatic fall. This site is accessible to a point, but there are many stairs and paths that lead to various viewpoints along the way. One viewpoint – O’Briens Tower, is an observation platform. Cornelius O’Brien, a descendant of the first High King of Ireland built the tower in 1835. It was been restored in 1970, 2008 and again in 2019. On a clear day you can see the coast of Connemara to the north across Galway Bay and the Clare coastline. You do have to pay extra to go up the tower with a tour guide.
The Cliffs of Moher along the Wild Atlantic Way is incredible. Don’t miss it!
After or visit to the Cliffs we headed to Knappogue Castle for a medieval-style banquet and show. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is like a Medieval Dinner at Disneyland. Not even close! We dined on smoke salmon, tomato basil soup, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots, broccoli, turnips and gravy and finished it off with cinnamon apple pudding. During dinner we were treated to music and dancing and even a bit of a show that allowed for participation from us! It was a very good evening!
Day 7 – Dingle Peninsula, Killarney
This full tour is marketed at both an 11 day or 15 day experience. This is the day that we lost 9 of our group as they headed back home.
We took a very short ferry ride across the River Shannon Estuary to begin our Dingle Peninsula experience – and what an experience it would turn out to be! We were invited to watch for dolphins in the estuary – I didn’t see any, but some did. Dingle was totally Irish speaking until the late 1960s when English began to become more accepted. It is one of the wettest places in Ireland!
We stopped along the way as we could. The road is winding and narrow and “backing up” is definitely involved – well, not usually by the buses! The scenery is incredible rugged coastline. Star Wars filming locations are dotted everywhere along this journey and if it had been clearer, I could have had a great view of The Skelligs. There’s Druid history in these hills as well. “Beehive” homes made of stone, underground caves that offered protection from weather and sieges dot the hillside. A stop at the westernmost tip of the Dingle Peninsula, Slea Head is an absolute must. There aren’t really any words that can adequately describe this beauty and I know the pictures I took don’t due it justice either. It’s amazing.
We had a great stop at the South Pole Inn near Dingle where we enjoyed a fantastic storytelling of the life of Tom Creane, the Antarctic Explorer who’s life should be retold in story! During the story telling we enjoyed an Irish Coffee made either with Whiskey or Baileys. Since I am not a coffee drinker, I was offered a Baileys on ice!
Our day ended with our drive in Killarney. This beautiful town is surrounded by three lakes and stands in the shadow of Ireland’s highest mountains.
Day 9 – Killarney, Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry
Killarney is touted as the Capital of Tourism. I loved it here too! It’s just plain fun here. Pubs, entertainment, beautiful scenery – all tucked into one town.
We began our day with a very enjoyable horse-drawn jaunting car ride through the Killarney National Park to Ross Castle. Along the way we had great view of Lough Leane, Killarney largest lake. We had a chance to explore Ross Castle before making our way back to our waiting bus as we headed out to Kenmare and the beginning of the Ring of Kerry. Kenmare itself isn’t big on tourism but it is big on scenery! Short on time, we only got to experience a small portion of the Ring of Kerry, but enough of it to see why it’s a must do when here. Mountains, cliffs, beaches and ocean views all shine here and you can find many places to pull over and enjoy the scenery. It was VERY wet for us. The rain does bring out the different hues of this amazing journey, but I still believe in seeing it when it’s not pouring! (sorry Colm!)
We did have an amazing stop at the Kissane Sheep Farm where we got to watch the dogs herding the sheep and then experienced the sheering of the sheep. I’m allergic to dogs, and while outside for the herding demonstration all was good, but I couldn’t go into the sheering house.
Day 10 – Cork, Blarney Castle and Dublin
We continued our drive over the Cork and Kerry Mountains with a quick stop in Cork. Historically, the passage we took would have been a dangerous one due to bandits! It is known as a rebel county as it fought for its independence from the Viking invasions of the Irish War of Independence. Cork has the second largest natural harbour in the world and is built on a bog. It was a vital trading center in the global Scandinavian trade network. It’s well known for its rugged coast, megalithic monuments and as the starting point (and in our case, the ending point) of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s a pretty city!
We arrived at the Blarney Castle early in the day – and a good thing that was! We were told that there could be up to a one hour wait (or more) to “kiss the stone”, but when we got there, there was maybe a 15-minute wait! Well, worth the early morning departure!
There much more here than just “kissing the stone”.
This castle was built for defense. You have to duck to enter through its gates and doors thus leaving your neck and head open to being chopped off. There are corridors you need to manipulate, and they allowed for the option of hot oil being poured over you. You certainly did not want to come uninvited! The stairs are winding and narrow allowing for easier protection.
The Blarney Castle is the third structure to have to built on the site. In the 10th century there was a wooden hunting lodge and around 1210 it was replaced by a stone structure with its entrance some 20 feet about the ground. It was demolished for foundations of the third castle built in 1446. It is the present-day Blarney Castle.
The beautiful grounds are sectioned into individual “gardens” and you really should take time to stroll through them. There are over 60 acres of parklands including gardens, avenues, arboretums and watering for you to explore.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is said to bring the gift of eloquence and some believe that its powers are unquestionable. The legend began around 1314 and today thousands come to get the “gift of gab”. The origin of the stone is still debated. Some say it was Jacob’s pillow brought to Ireland by the Prophet Jeremiah. Later removed to mainland Scotland it served as the Stone of Destiny used in royal successions. In 1314 during a battle it was split in half and sent to Blarney. Some years later, a witch saved from drowning revealed it powers to the Macarthys and it was then incorporated into the parapet of the castle.
Another legend has Queen Elizabeth I trying to capture the castle, but at each attempt she troops were talked down by a Dermot McCarthy. The Queen referred to failed siege as “blarney”, so the name stuck and by the 1700s “blarney” was an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary!
The stone itself is a block of limestone embedded into the top of the main tower of the castle, and it’s not easy to get to! Be prepared for long lines and a slow ascend up very narrow, winding steps. Once up, you’ll lie on your back (being held by attendants), grasp the iron rods, bend backwards and go for it! Then you descend back down another set of winding stairs. If you are at all claustrophobic this is not for you! This picture shows the tower, four flights up and just above the top window in the little opening facing outward is the stone!
After our morning at the Blarney Castle we continued through the rich dairy country of Cork and Tipperary on our way to our final stop 2-night stop – Dublin. For dinner we headed out to the Abbey Tavern for a fun evening of food and music!
Day 10 was a very busy, long day and Day 11 was a welcome respite.
Day 11 – Dublin
We were given vouchers to enjoy the Dublin Hop On/Hop Off bus tour and a voucher for entry into the Guinness Storehouse, Teeling Distillery, EPIC Ireland or the General Post Office Museum.
Most of us took advantage of a later start to the day and tackled the city sights on our own. This is a great city to take advantage of the Hop On/Off system! I think I rode it 3 times visiting different sights along the way. The stops allow for easy access to all this city has to offer.
I was kind of expecting the “old charm” that I found in Edinburgh and for me, didn’t really find it. It’s a big city and “old and new” are mixed together. Having said that there is much history here that cannot be ignored or pushed aside. You will need at least 2 -3 days to experience all that Dublin has to offer. For us it was a great relief that the rain that had followed us decided to give us a break in Dublin – beautiful sunny days really made the visit here!
Day 12 – The Journey Home
As all things do, my incredibly memorable visit to London, Scotland and Ireland came to an end. This morning I took my private transfer to the Dublin airport and began my 15-hour journey home.
I was blessed to have such an fantastic group of people to travel with. The picture below sadly doesn’t have the 9 people that we lost at day 11, but they traveled with us for sure! I loved every minute of this trip with CIE Tours and loved sharing it with you! Don’t hesitate to contact me to confirm YOUR vacation experience to one or all of these destinations. Are they in YOUR Wishbook?
Thank you for coming along with me as I traveled through Northern Ireland and Ireland. This small nation holds incredible beauty and history, and they are happy and willing to share it with us, their guests.
I invite you to click here to view my Gallery pictures of my journey through Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Thank you for coming along on my journey through Ireland. This is the last in my three part series of Chronicles for London, Scotland and Ireland. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far. If you wish to read one the previous articles, click on the the one that you are interested in:
I also invite you to browse my pictures of Ireland by heading over to my gallery.