So when my youngest daughter, Katie Ann, requested Ireland for her high school mom/daughter senior trip, I was pretty quick to say “Yes.” Ireland had long been on my travel bucket list, and in the four years that our family had lived in Germany, somehow, we had not made it to Ireland, even though we were prolific travelers during that time. So off Katie and I went to this new place we had only seen in pictures up to this point. And the new place did not disappoint.
We landed in Dublin and immediately rented a car. Why? Because I have always wanted to drive a stick shift from the right seat while shifting with my left hand and driving on the left side of the road. (Just kidding!) No, really, we did it because for the first 8 days of our trip, we were heading south through the Wicklow mountains, into Kilkenny, onto Kinsale, and then along the southern coast to the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula before heading North to the Cliffs of Mohr, and finally ending up back in Dublin where we happily (ecstatically) turned in our rental car and spent the last 4 days in this beautiful city as pedestrians. That is a different Travel Blog entry. Part 2 you might say.
Renting a car is a must if you are planning an extended trip and drive around the country side. Sure there are great bus tours you can do, and if you are staying in Dublin or Shanon or Belfast and just taking day trips, then I think this is an excellent option. But if you are leaving the city for a significant amount of time, then driving allows you an excellent vantage point for taking in this breathtaking scenery, for making impromptu stops, and to just be leisurely along the way. Yeah, we were often driving around with the old “deer in the headlights look,” but we did it. You can too. I would highly recommend, if it is your very first time to drive on the wrong side of the road, (oops I meant the left side of the road), that you do it with someone in the passenger seat. Katie Ann was indisputably the best navigator ever. And she was extremely helpful with her constant motto: “Left side mama, left side mama!” Yeap, this was a crucial reminder. I rented online with Hertz from my kitchen table in Houston and paid about 257 US dollars for nearly 8 days of rental. But all the usual suspects in car rental agencies operate in Dublin.
Glendalough, or the Glen of two Lakes, is one of the most important sites of monastic ruins in Ireland. St. Kevin, an Irish Saint, built a monastery here in this glen in the 6th century. It’s in the middle of the Wicklow Mountains. Once you leave Dublin Airport in your nifty little compact rental car, the mountains and Gleandalough are just a short drive away. Be on guard. Glendalough is very touristy. It was definitely one of the most crowded places we visited. But even though, don’t miss it.
Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough
After Glendalough, we continued South to Kilkenney where we spent our first night at JB’s Bar and Guest House. And guess what? JB had a oscillating fan ALREADY in our room. You have to love that. Don’t expect AC in many places you stay. It is few and far between, and we visited in one of the hottest weeks of a summer on record in Ireland. JB’s is located on the main drag in Kilkenny and we parked for free just across the street. We visited Kilkenny castle while here. After breakfast at a nearby cafe, we set out for Kinsale with stops at Jerpoint Abbey and Cahir Castle, just because we could. The benefits of traveling in a rental car. Kilkenny Castle is a castle first built in 1195 to control a fording-point of the River Nore and the junction of several routeways. Jerpoint Abbey is a ruined Cistercian abbey, founded in the second half of the 12th century. The abbey is pleasantly quiet and free of crowds, but yet so mystic and enchanting.
Kilkenny Castle and Jerpoint Abbey:
Cahir Castle is situated on an island in the River Suir. It was built from 1142 by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond. The castle is well preserved and has a guided tour and audiovisual shows in multiple languages. We were satisfied with the self guided tour.
After our short stopover at Cahir, we set out for our evening destination of Kinsale, Co Cork, Ireland, but actually stayed at a lovely BNB called The Blue Horizon in nearby Garrettstown. The two best things about the Blue Horizon were the views and the breakfast. And alas, one old but working oscillating fan.
Things we loved about Kinsale and Garrettstown:
History: On May 7, 1915 about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale ( which is just down the road from our B&B in Garretstown) the Lusitania crossed paths with the German submarine U-20. The commanding officer Walther Schwieger gave the orders and a single torpedo was on its way. It struck on the starboard bow, alongside one of the cargo holds and moments later a second explosion erupted from within the hull. The ship began to list steeply and within 18 minutes the Lusitania was gone. Of the 1960 on board only 767 survived, and four of whom died over the following months. The survivors were mostly taken from the water by merchant mariners (fisherman) from the harbor of Queenstown (Now it is Cobh-pronounced Cove) The link between this harbor with the Titanic is also an irony. The Titanic also made its last port of call here at Queenstown (Cobh) in April 1912 just days before it hit an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic en route to NYC. But back to the Lusitania, here is a shout out and plug to Erik Larsen’s book “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania:” There are lots of books out there on the Lusitania but this was a great one. It was such an honor for me and Katie Ann to be able to visit the very places that mark this tragedy in history. And it is good for us to honor the lost. We live in such times of peace, comparatively. In some ways, they died for our freedom in that war, in the same way that the soldiers did on the actual battlefield.
Also the town of Kinsale is adorable and colorful and the marina is lovely. Parking was super easy and cheap on the outskirt of the center of town.
Fort Charles is a must see if you are a history buff like us, and if you aren’t, that’s okay because the views alone are fantastic. This was just minutes away from our Blue Horizon BnB in Garrettstown. Had we more time, we would’ve laid a blanket down and taken a nap on the grounds. Seriously, beautiful views and so peaceful. And the history is incredible. “This star-shaped military fortress was constructed between 1677 and 1682, during the reign of King Charles II, to protect the town and harbour of Kinsale in County Cork. William Robinson, architect of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham Dublin, and Superintendent of Fortifications, is credited with designing the fort. As one of the largest military forts in the country, Charles Fort has been associated with some of the most momentous events in Irish history. These include the Williamite War in 1690 and the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Charles Fort remained garrisoned by the British army until 1922.” Source: Discoverireland.ie
So off we went after two beautiful days visiting Garrettstown and Kinsale and Cobh, we headed along the coast and a little North to the very touristy Blarney Castle in Cork. We. just. had. to. We bought our tickets ahead of time online, but you don’t have to. And we were smack dab at the end of June, a busy travel season. Blarney was built nearly 600 years ago by a famous Irish Chiefton, Cormac MacCarthy. Blarney is an odd castle in that, touring the castle and kissing the famous Blarney stone is all the same queue. You do not have to kiss the stone, you can walk on by, but it is not two separate attractions. The line goes pretty fast. We were there in June. I can imagine it is even faster in the off season. But you know what the true show stopper is at Blarney castle that makes the visit worth it, are the gardens. They are some of the most spectacular castle gardens I have ever seen. Truly engaging and beautiful. Also the Blarney House, a Scottish baronial-style mansion, was built on the grounds in 1874, is also open to the public. We just missed its opening time. So check the hours of operation for that ahead of time. Plan on a full morning or afternoon at Blarney. But if you bring a picnic basket, maybe longer.
Next, destination Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland. Think Ring of Kerry. Here we opted for a good old fashioned Holiday Inn, but guess what? No AC as we had hoped for. But they did produce at my request, the tiniest oscillating fan I had ever seen in my life. Truly amazing that it had not been put in the Guinness Book of World Records. Truly. Our first stop: Muckross House and Gardens. We did the guided tour, this being the only way to see the mansion. Built in 1843. First lived in by Henry Herbert and his wife Mary Balfour Herbert. They entertained Queen Victoria here but ended up bankrupt and and sold the estate. The new owner was Arthur Guinness (of the Guinness brewery family) and he rented it out to wealthy groups as a hunting lodge. In August 1911, not long before WWI, the house was bought by a wealthy Californian mining magnate William Bourn. He and his wife gave it to their only child Maud as a wedding present since she married an Irishman. They had two children. Maud died an early death in 1929 and her parents subsequently presented the house and its 11000 acres estate to the Irish nation. The grounds are beautiful and the Lake you see is one of the three Lakes of Killarney, Muckross Lake. Beautiful. Something I would plan for here if I had to do it all over again, is to swim in the lakes. We did not plan for this and were neither parked or dressed accordingly. We did however, splurge on a horse and carriage ride to the lakes and the waterfall just before we had to hustle back through the main gates by closing time.
So after checking in to our very American Holiday Inn in Killarney, we ate a slow dinner and caught our breaths. The next morning we set out for the “Ring.” I would say that the beauty of rural Ireland never ceased to amaze us. We drove the whole approsimately 110 miles around the Ring of Kerry, making many stops and taking in incredibly wonderful, simply divine views. Along the Ring of Kerry we meandered Skellig Island, driving around the Skellig Ring, and walked Kenmare City. We had to cross over on the 10 minute car ferry from Cahersiveen to Skelllig Island where we took a somewhat treacherous drive to the Lighthouse in Valentia Island.
The Cliffs of Kerry
Our last and final sleepover along the southern coast of Ireland, the Dingle Peninsula. We opted for two nights at the Broigin Bed & Breakfast just a stone’s throw from Dingle Town proper, but far enough if you don’t have a rental car, you might want to consider staying right in town. On the other hand, I wouldn’t opt to travel all the way to the Dingle Peninsula without a rental car. Broigin BnB was lovely and our host, Anne, did a custom breakfast with piping hot coffee every morning at exactly the time we requested. Anne was wonderful. Very hospitable. She was also great with advice for your itinerary and helpful with directions.
As soon as we checked in and digested all of Anne’s advice we shot out for the Slea Head Drive which makes a loop, starting and ending in Dingle. There are many places to stop along the way. One of them was an abandoned farm from the potato famine that occurred in Ireland in 1845–49 when the potato crop failed in successive years. There were also monastic beehive huts speckled around Dingle which have their origins dating from thousands of years ago; beaches beaches beaches and for us, everywhere sunshine! Bring on the Slea Head Drive.
In the afternoon, we decided to do the other loop in Dingle, which we now look back on as so memorable both in a wonderful and frightening way. Wonderful, because the views and the drive were fantastic. Frightening, becasue one time driving through the Conor Pass is enough to last me a lifetime.
“The Conor Pass, which runs from Dingle on the southern end of the peninsula towards Brandon Bay and Castlegregory in the North, in County Kerry, is one of the highest mountain pass in Ireland, at an elevation of 410 m above the sea level. Conor Pass is situated in the Dingle Peninsula and offers to drivers the breathtaking, cliff hanging experience of navigating through Ireland’s highest mountain pass, in a road tight and precarious, weaving its way around the sharp cliff faces. The views from the road are breathtaking, as the glaciated landscape of mountains and corrie lakes comes into view. From Dingle Town the road runs some 4½ miles rising to 1500 ft as it winds its way to the pass.” Source: Roads.org
Along the way back to Dingle, we found the perfect beach for swimming, relaxing and enjoying the Atlantic on a warm day. Fermoyle Strand Beach:
The next morning after our breakfast at Broigin, we arrived at he Dingle harbor for our Blasket Island tour. We were taken to these iconic islands by our boat captain, Billy from the Dingle Bay Speed Boat Tours & Great Blasket Island Experience. In the 1920s and 1930s the Blasket Island resident writers produced books which are deemed classics in the world of literature. They wrote of island people living on the very edge of Europe, and brought to life the topography, and life and times of their Island. They wrote all of their stories in the Irish language. Sadly, the Blasket Island community declined as a result of the persistent emigration of its young people, until eventually the Island was abandoned in 1953 when only 22 inhabitants remained Those who immigrated largely settled in Springfield MA and a few in Butte MO. We also saw seals, lots of different birds including Puffins. And one lone dolphin who is the resident dolphin in the Dingle Harbor.
After checking out of the lovely Broigin BnB, we left the beautiful Kerry Region of Ireland by way of the Shannon Ferry in Kilrush, which took us to the Shannon Region of Ireland and the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered there only a little while before heading to Dublin and turning in that rental car. As sad as I might have been to depart the Irish countryside, I was never so happy in my life to turn in a rental car! This wrapped up a glorious 8 days of travel, not soon to be forgotten by two little Texans.
Cliffs of Moher
All in all what a jaw dropping place to visit. Entry costs at tourist sites were so inexpensive, and if you are traveling with a student, you can buy the OPW Heritage Card for 10$ for entry into all sites labeled “Heritage Sites.” Now feel free to ask me questions if you have them. That’s part of the package. And stay tuned for part 2, “Dublin: A Travel Blog.”