After a short week in London, we decided we’d spend the last bit of our journey touring around the U.K. and Ireland. It wasn’t something we’d initially planned, and we knew the weather might [finally] be a bit squirrelly, but we figured what the heck, right? I mean, we were right here.
As with a large portion of our trip, we decided to scope out the ground transit to Ireland. (1) It’s typically cheaper than flying, (2) I’m (as we’ve already established) a nervous flier, and (3) you get to see more of the scenery when you’re on the ground. We found a combo ticket for a train running from London to the ferry port in Holyhead, Wales, followed by a three-hour ferry service that completed the journey to Dublin. Perfect, we thought. What’s more relaxing than a little cruise on the water? We hopped on our Virgin train at London’s Euston station for the three-hour ride to Holyhead.
Although a bit slow, it was comfortable and relaxing as we rolled through England’s rural countryside. The train terminated right at the ferry terminal, making for an easy transition to the ship, and the subsequent ride across the Irish Sea was also quite peaceful, allowing us to catch up on culling and editing photos as we enjoyed the gently rolling waves. Once we arrived in Dublin, though, things unraveled rather quickly…
We pulled into Dublin port around 5:00 pm, well aware that we were a good 7 kilometers (4 miles) from our flat but also certain we’d have no issue finding a bus or taxi in the city. What we were completely oblivious to, however, was that the “ferry terminal” in Dublin was pretty much a glorified warehouse. Because we were arriving from the U.K., we had a solid stash of Pound notes on us, but no Euros. Having never had a problem finding an ATM in the 50,000+ miles we’d traveled so far, we peered around the building for a cash machine. None to be found. ‘Well that’s odd,’ we mused. They certainly aren’t going to dump you in a warehouse four miles outside the city in a country with a different currency and not provide a way to get cash, right? Ooohh, but they are!
The nice lady at the Irish Ferries desk confirmed to us that, indeed, there was no ATM at the “terminal” or even anywhere nearby (bonus). To be fair, though, the terminal did provide amenities such as a baby changing station, an arcade game, and some type of neon, flashing gambling machine. So, if you have a stinky infant, the urge to play a quick game of Pac Man, or a strong desire to piss away your Euros on a slot machine (if you even have any), you do have some options here. You just can’t get to town.
With no way to pay for a bus ticket, we watched dejectedly as the hourly number 53 bus came and went. Feeling all the more agitated, but not quite yet at the peak of misery, we resourcefully moved on to the next option – ordering a cab online using the ‘Hailo’ app, with which you can request a driver and pay by card. Unfortunately, our request was rejected by driver, after driver, after driver – none of whom wanted to drive all the way to the isolated port for one customer pickup. Really? Not even for the freakin’ $40 quote we’re seeing on the app?! I know a lot of tuk tuk drivers in Asia who’d have been all over that like ants on a lollipop. But not to despair, I suppose… there is always a way. Unfortunately, our way was going to be on foot. Thus, nearly forty minutes after stepping off the gangway, and with tempers flaring, we swung our hefty packs onto our shoulders and set off in the frigid darkness on our four-mile quest for Irish civilization…
As Dublin port was clearly more industrial dockyard than developed port of call, the roads were equally unfit for pedestrian traffic. We trudged down a nearly deserted, divided highway, passing stacks of shipping crates and getting buzzed by the occasional 18-wheeler. As our luck that night would have it, after we’d walked about a mile in the blustery wind, the sky suddenly opened up without warning. Now even further away from any trace of humanity, we were absolutely drenched and pissed at the ferry, at each other, and the torrential rain. And I was grumbling with every begrudging step I took. Finally, I’d just had enough. I threw myself into the street, thumb extended outward. Although Stephan was really annoyed with me at this point, I’m pretty sure I saw him crack a smile at the pitiful sight of his incensed partner trying to hitch a ride with a trucker, all the while blinded by her rain-soaked glasses and looking much like a wet rat that had just emerged from the sewer.
While there wasn’t much in the way of traffic, I was gradually rejected by every single tractor-trailer that passed. I didn’t get it. I mean, even Miss Piggy ended up with a friggin’ ride on a deserted London street in the middle of the night. Of course, she had to hurl the disinclined driver out of his cab and steal his rig while shouting, “I’ve tried to be nice!” But nonetheless, she ended up with wheels. Maybe next time I’ll be a bit bolder and use Piggy’s approach. Although, that would still require a driver to at least stop first before I’d be able to toss him out onto the cold pavement. Whatever… minor details.
Our luck finally changed about three-quarters of the way to the city, when a nearby taxi driver (a last-ditch attempt using our Hailo app as, again, we had no cash) finally took pity on us and carted our sopping wet asses the remaining mile to Grand Canal Square. After getting some dry clothes and a bit of supper, our cortisol levels eventually returned to normal. And even though our Dublin welcome is a bit funnier now that it’s long behind us, I do still have some beef with Irish Ferries. To be reasonable, it’s fine if they have no significant infrastructure; and it’s even fine if they have no cash machine. All I ask is that the nice ferry employees include, with the rest of their general boarding announcements, something to the effect of, “Attention! All you ignorant boneheads carrying nothing but Great Britain Pounds! It would behoove you to make your way to the reception desk sometime in the next three hours to exchange your useless currency… because there’s no ATM at the desolate dockyard in which we’re about to drop your sorry asses.” That’s it, that’s all we would have needed. Sigh.
Once we got past our rocky arrival on the island, everything quickly smoothed out, and we enjoyed a couple days wandering Dublin’s charismatic streets. We checked out the greenspaces of bustling Trinity College and the more secluded Iveagh Gardens, and also enjoyed a stroll along the River Liffey, crossing over the Ha’penny Bridge. The small pedestrian bridge was built in 1816, to finally relieve citizens of having to cross the river via overcrowded and unsafe ferries. A ha’penny toll was charged to those who crossed, to match the fare of the now defunct boats, giving rise to the bridge’s moniker. Back in the heart of the city center, we made a visit to Dublin Castle and the adjacent Dublin Garden, whose twisted paths form a Celtic design that’s discernible from the air. The ring-shaped courtyard was apparently once the location of the tidal ‘black pool’ (the city’s namesake) that formed a confluence with the River Liffey. Adjacent to the Dublin Garden, we also paid a visit to the Chester Beatty Library, at the recommendation of our AirBnB host. The small gallery offers free admission, and hosts an impressive display of antique texts and leather book bindings from Sir Alfred Chester Beatty’s personal collection. The affluent mining engineer became a dedicated collector of ancient manuscripts in his leisure, as he was attracted to both their striking artistry as well as their historical significance. With Islamic scripts, a magnificent collection of Qur’ans dating back to the 11th century, Chinese calligraphy, Eastern Asian art, and Egyptian papyri, the masterful works span from around 2700 BC to modern times, and are certainly something to be appreciated. An exhibition of centuries-old, leather bindings are particularly exquisite, and many feature incredibly delicate filigree details hand-tooled into the tanned pelts.
We also visited a couple of Dublin’s noteworthy churches during our stay – Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (the National Cathedral) and the Christ Church Cathedral. We were particularly fond of the latter, which boasts quite a history. The religious site dates back nearly 1000 years, when it was originally a Viking church (c. 1030). By the middle of the 12th century, the Christ Church was incorporated into the Irish church, and underwent extensive renovations during the Victorian Era. I don’t know if it was the way the midday sun washed over the stone, but the church’s façade was incredibly eye-catching. Although much less ornate than many of the gothic cathedrals that seem to dominate Europe, it was easily one of our favorites to photograph. Lastly, before departing the capital for our twelve-day tour of the famous Emerald Isle countryside, Stephan had to made a quick stop up the street at nearby Leo Burdock – the city’s oldest chipper. Originally opened in 1913, the historic establishment has managed to create quite a name for itself, boasting a ‘Hall of Fame’ of some 250 or more celebrities who have enjoyed a basket of the legendary fish and chips. The establishment is also big on tradition, even cooking in coal-fired pans until 1991.
After a couple days of chilly but lovely weather in Dublin, we headed south to Cork, a smaller city perched on a large, natural harbor. To break up the three-hour drive, we made a pit stop in Kilkenny to check out the charming medieval town and, in particular, its prominent 12th-century castle. Standing majestically on the banks of the River Nore, the fortress was owned by the town’s wealthy Butler family for an astonishing 600 years. The family’s ownership of the property finally ended in 1967, when James Arthur Butler bestowed the castle to the populace of Kilkenny for the nominal sum of £50. The estate exudes grandeur and, for me, the castle was made even more beautiful by a little piece of “arm candy,” an ornamental tree in the adjacent rose garden that was festooned in some dazzling yellow foliage. After enjoying Kilkenny’s sundrenched medieval architecture and quaint downtown, we made one final stop at Jerpoint Abbey, a mere 12 miles south, just as the receding sun illuminated the 12th-century Cistercian abbey in a warm amber glow. We eventually made it to Cork, and spent the following morning exploring the historic city, established as a trading port by Viking settlers around the years 915–920. We took a frigid, early morning walk along the River Lee, and checked out some of the city’s prominent cathedrals, including the impressive Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral and the Red Abbey Tower – the last vestige of a late 13th– or early 14th-century Augustinian abbey, and the city’s only remaining relic from the medieval period.
From Cork, we made haste for Ireland’s western coast, celebrated for its dramatic, cliff-lined shores and pastoral countryside. After stumbling across the most charming farmhouse on AirBnB, Stephan decided we’d make the rural town of Sneem our home base for a few days. Serene countryside and cute animals? The guy certainly does know how to make a girl swoon. After a slow, rambling, 6-km drive from the town center through nothing but rolling pasturelands speckled with grazing sheep, we arrived at Bridget’s Cottage, an adorable stone bungalow on Sue & Gary’s small family farm. We hadn’t even crossed the threshold when we greeted by the ostensible chair of the welcoming committee – a beautiful little pigeon, her head and matching feathery feet the color of snow. She strutted back and forth across the stone pavers, seeming very keen to share her love for her hometown with her new guests. Always striving to treat our hosts with gratitude and appreciation, we tossed her some freshly-baked whole-grain bread we’d picked up earlier, and watched as she spastically flung the crumbs around with the utmost enthusiasm. I named her Bernice (after Bert’s friendly, feathered companion on Sesame Street), and we became fast friends during our stay. Sue later informed us that she’d showed up at the farm just a few days prior, and had quickly proclaimed it her new home; she’d even taken up roost on a wooden shelf on their back patio, protected from the chill of the late autumn winds.
Just down the path from our cottage, in a large wooden barn, lived Gordon – a rambunctious, three-month-old goat who enjoyed romping around the farm with Nell, his ever patient and tolerant mother (aren’t they all?). While Nell was content to chomp all day on a freshly-picked head of cabbage, Gordon fancied leaping around rowdily, occasionally stopping for a bite of apple, his snack of choice. Lucky for him, we had just purchased a bundle at the supermarket. Always letting his playful personality shine through, the fuzzy little friend refused to simply stop eating the apple when he was full; rather, he much preferred to headbutt you repeatedly, just to make sure you really got the message that snack-time was finished. When Gordon wasn’t enjoying a mid-morning nosh or tormenting his poor mom, he was hanging out with his barnyard buddies – some laid-back chickens and mischievous ducks that enjoyed splashing in the small stream (I know you’ll empathize with the cowlicks on that little green-headed guy, Chase… he’s had them since he was just a wee duckling). We very much enjoyed spending time with little Gordon, and every ounce of his big personality.
Although the weather was a bit dicey in Sneem – leaving more time for petting the animals under the shelter of the barn roof (eternal optimist, here) – we did enjoy a lovely day in nearby Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first national park and an important conservation area for native forests and a variety of vulnerable species. To reach the park, we navigated the interior portion of one of Ireland’s most iconic scenic drives – the Ring of Kerry. The route circles the Iveragh Peninsula, passing along swaths of deciduous forests, sapphire lakes, charming churches and castles, and rugged coastline. The drive is, indeed, quite spectacular, boasting panoramic views of the Purple Mountains and the lakes of Killarney. Once in the park, we enjoyed spotting some of the native wildlife, including some red deer that we spied grazing in a meadow through a ribbon of woodland, and a number of sociable songbirds flitting around the meticulously-landscaped grounds of Muckross House. We wandered the shorelines of the sprawling lakes, visited picturesque Ross Castle, a 15th-century fortress perched on the bank of Lough Leane, and walked the Gap of Dunloe, a slender pass dotted with lakelets that winds between the Purple Mountains and MacGillycuddy’s Reeks (‘the black stacks’).
Though we were sad to say goodbye to our furry friends on the farm in Sneem, we eventually headed north on a drizzly morning toward one of Ireland’s most prized treasures, the Cliffs of Moher. While the 3.5-hour drive was slowed a bit by the intermittent showers, the less-than-perfect weather did present us with some unexpected treats – a whole host of vibrant rainbows. In total, we spotted seven rainbows along the coiling, northbound road, and it seemed like every 10–20 miles I’d be squealing at Stephan to pull over so I could admire the colorful arcs, as the less-impressed sheep grazed near their distinct termini.
We arrived in diminutive Miltown (just south of the cliffs) to the gregarious welcome of our host Patrick – an erratic, easily-distracted Englishman who’d been living and making signs in the small village for years. He kindly showed us to our in-law suite above his garage, and invited us down for a cup of tea after we got settled in for the night. We accepted his offer and joined him for some evening company. As we sipped our tea, Patrick (all at once) amused us with colorful travel stories, excitedly whizzed through some of his favorite vinyls (heavily-synthesized rock by the 1970s German band Kraftwerk, and some punk tunes by Ian Dury), and taught us the basics of Backgammon. It was certainly a rousing – if not overwhelming – evening, and the next morning, we put some of our outgoing host’s local knowledge to good use.
At Patrick’s advice, we skipped the main road leading to the Cliffs of Moher Visitor’s Center, instead opting for a more rural road that took us past Doonagore Castle down to the seaside village of Doolin. From Doolin, we headed on foot to the cliffs via the Cliffs of Moher walking trail, ‘The Burren Way.’ The four-mile (one-way) path snaked along the craggy coastline, crisscrossing through pastures of curious cows and uninterested sheep (much like their similarly-indifferent cousins in New Zealand). When we set off from the trailhead, the sky was aglow in the bright morning sun, but as we reached about midway to the cliffs, short bursts of rain began to roar in off the tempestuous, northern Atlantic. We tried to dodge the short squalls, but that unfortunately meant merely burying our heads, and camera lenses, in our saturated jackets and pressing onward through the piercing drops (Forrest Gump was spot on when he talked about that “little bitty sting-ing rain”). By the time we reached the top of the cliffs, we were pretty well drenched, having endured three brief but heavy downpours along the way. Fortunately, however, we arrived to some reemerged sunshine, whose warm rays showcased the pinnacle of the remarkable coastal landscape – a string of soaring, shadowy cliff faces draped with blazing green grasses, tumbling precipitously to the roiling aquamarine sea below.
After a pleasant yet damp day at the Cliffs of Moher, we faced a nearly five-hour trip to the far northwestern edge of Ireland. Not wanting to make the journey in total darkness and miss the scenery, we decided to drive just an hour and a half north and stop for the night in Headford, a small town just north of Galway. The last couple hours of retreating afternoon sun gifted us with some gorgeous light as we made our way through The Burren – a barren, karst terrain where mounds of limestone boulders dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. Just beyond the stark surroundings of The Burren, we were treated to a lovely view of Dunguaire Castle – a 16th-century bastion nestled on the rocky shoreline of Galway Bay.
The following day, we finished out our pleasantly-shortened drive up to Killybegs, a small village on Donegal Bay that’s home to only 1,300 residents. Thus, we were somewhat surprised to learn that Killybegs is, in fact, Ireland’s largest fishing port. Large fishing vessels are moored in the quiet harbor, enveloped by rolling, green hillsides that are speckled with beautiful country homes. Our charming rental cottage showcased Killybegs’ rural beauty with a spectacular view overlooking the port’s cobalt waters. And inside our rustic bungalow, a cozy peat stove offered a warm welcome and an inviting place to escape the biting winds of Ireland’s northern seaboard.
About thirty minutes (13 miles) west of Killybegs stand the Slieve League (Sliabh Liag) Cliffs, not only some of Ireland’s tallest sea cliffs, but also some of the highest in all of Europe. The coastal summit of Slieve League towers some 600 meters (1,972 feet) above the pounding surf of the North Atlantic, offering an even more majestic backdrop than the more southerly, and considerably more visited, Cliffs of Moher. Walking trails atop the Slieve League Cliffs provide stunning vistas at every turn, and offer a great place to explore the boggy hillsides. The main trail ascends the bluffs past a glassy lakelet, eventually winding along the exposed edges of the towering cliffs. Looking down to one side, the rugged hills are blanketed with emerald grasses; to the other, the slopes are more windswept and barren, and smolder with a fiery, orange hue. Hundreds of feet below, cerulean waves transform into frothy, white breakers near the shoreline, crashing relentlessly into the craggy rock walls. The cliffs are just spectacular, and we spent several hours atop the lofty bluffs enjoying the scenery as well as the serenity. When we eventually descended towards the car park, we watched with anticipation as an ominous squall moved in off the water. We snapped photos as it moved closer and closer, and eventually sought shelter in our small, white Kia as the bitter rain stormed through. Just as we’d experienced at the Cliffs of Moher, the squall was fast-moving and short-lived (although we happily remained dry this time), and a cheery swath of sunshine and blue sky trailed behind the driving rain.
Our final stop during our two-week tour of the island was in Ireland’s northeastern region, which we visited after a short expedition around neighboring Northern Ireland. About 30 miles (an hour’s drive) north of Dublin sits Brú na Bóinne, a prehistoric settlement along the River Boyne laying claim to Neolithic art and funerary monuments that date back more than 5,000 years. Dating to ~3200 B.C., a cluster of megalithic ‘passage tombs (graves)’ dominate the otherwise-ordinary, pastoral landscape. Here, three massive passage tombs – Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth – erupt conspicuously from prominent hillsides, while some forty smaller satellite graves are scattered around the larger sites. The megalithic mounds are above-ground burial chambers constructed from enormous stones, seemingly designed to mirror the hillsides. A ring of enormous kerbstones forms the base of the monument, over which layers of rocks are then stacked – in an arrangement comparable to a beehive. A giant capstone is used to cover the chamber, and the entire mound is then encased in soil. Human remains, many of which were cremated, were then placed in the mass grave. Of particular interest at Newgrange is the passage entrance, which appears engineered to face the rising sun on the winter solstice. Each year on this day, sunlight filters through the narrow entryway, illuminating the tomb’s central interior for seventeen minutes. While the significance of this design is unknown, it does raise questions as to the prehistoric society’s views on death and the afterlife. Overall, the site is of great archeological importance, and provides evidence that the area was occupied at least 5,000–6,000 years ago by a sophisticated society with complex burial practices and even a working knowledge of astronomy. It’s thought that these impressive tombs were used until around 2900 B.C., the start of the Early Bronze Age. The Neolithic-age chambers weren’t rediscovered until the 1600s, and excavation/restoration wasn’t initiated until the 1960s. The site gives a really interesting glimpse into ancient human history and, for us, it was all the more intriguing to consider that the site predates Egypt’s great pyramids by at least several centuries (not something you typically think of when conjuring up images of Northern Europe).
From legends and lore to chapels and chippers; from rainbows and ranches to castles and cliffs, Ireland seems to have a little bit of everything, and a whole lot of beauty. And even though we perhaps settled on a less-desirable season for an extended journey around the northerly island, Ireland certainly did not disappoint.