Roadtripping in Ireland
In May of 2009, my boyfriend and I wanted to see as much of Ireland as possible while only requesting a week off from work, so we decided to set a course and drive around the country. I booked through a company called Irish Getaways, which I believe may no longer be in business, as I can no longer find their website. I see from a quick online search that some people had problems with them, but we had no issues, found them helpful and had a great time in Ireland. We booked a self-drive tour, which included non-stop airfare from NYC, car rental (for an automatic!) for the week and vouchers for seven nights of accommodations plus all taxes for a total of about $2,400 (for both of us, so $1200 each). The accommodations consisted of four nights in B&B’s, one night in what they called a “Manor House”, and two nights in a 3-star hotel in Dublin. Since we went through a tour operator, we received vouchers showing that we had pre-paid, but I used the website www.bandbireland.com to research and select the B&B’s, and I’m sure that you could easily book through their website or else contact the B&B directly. You can also research or book Manor Houses on manorhousehotels.com, and obviously hotels in Dublin aren’t hard to come by, so everything we did could be done without the assistance of a tour operator.
Our basic itinerary was:
Arrive Shannon International Airport
1 Night in Galway City, County Galway
1 Night in Clifden, County Galway (Connemara)
1 Night in Killarney, County Kerry
1 Night in Cork City, County Cork
1 Night in Glendalough
2 Nights in Dublin
Depart Dublin International Airport
The most confusing and frustrating part of your trip to Ireland will likely occur prior to ever leaving the comfort of your computer screen. It’s the saga of renting a car in Ireland, and it can be a bit overwhelming, but a Google search for “Ireland Car Rental Tips” should help. There is a bounty of information, at least for citizens of the US and Canada. I won’t even try to get into all of it, but basically, you’re going to need to pay for the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), which reduces the amount of your deductible in case of accidents. Ireland is one of a handful of places that American Express doesn’t cover, and from what I understand there are very few credit cards that DO cover the CDW. There is also “Super CDW” coverage, which reduces your deductible even further; whether or not you want to get the Super CDW really just depends on your level of comfort, but I don’t think we got it. There are charges and holds on your credit card, and it’s very important to do your homework and to read the fine print in the rental agreement. All of this hoop-jumping over rental car insurance, in my opinion, is because driving in Ireland is a big fat pain-in-the-ass hassle that is nonetheless a wonderful, beautiful adventure and a fantastic way to see the countryside. And that’s easy for me to say because Scott, my wonderful boyfriend, did ALL of the driving.
We arrived into the Shannon Airport at 7:00 AM, having taken an overnight flight from New York. Everything had been planned and booked, so we knew where we were going and picked up the rental car, a four-door economy. As I mentioned, Scott was kind enough to drive the entire trip, bless him. People always ask about driving on the left, but according to Scott that wasn’t the hardest part; in fact, it hardly made the top ten list of the challenges of driving in Ireland. Before we even exited the airport property, we were almost hit by a bus, which would not prove unusual. We had downloaded maps and brought along our trusty TomTom GPS, along with actual printed road maps, which came in handy when there had been recent construction and the GPS maps were not up-to-date. It was foggy and raining, and just when we thought nothing could make the driving more difficult, there came the sheep. We would come to find that these bold Irish sheep sometimes just stop, en masse, in the middle of the road. You can’t drive too fast anyway, due to the road conditions and all of the other obstacles, so you have time to slow and stop for them. One would think these sheep would scuttle out of the way of oncoming traffic, but no, they stand there, looking at you. Once when this occurred we were stopped for a while before a herder came along in a van and shooed them out of the way, but most of the time we just waited a bit until the sheep decided it was time to move along.
I had wanted to drive straightaway to see the Cliffs of Moher, which we did, but when we got there is was so foggy that we could hardly see the ground in front of us, much less the cliffs. I was visibly disappointed, but weather happens, so we headed away from the coast and toward the Burren, an area south of Galway in County Clare.
It’s a cool-looking barren landscape of layers of limestone, formed over 300 million years ago, home to ancient dolmens, ring forts and tombs. (Yeah, I had no idea what a dolmen was before I went there, and could only guess that a ring fort was a fort shaped like a ring. Wikipedia to the rescue.) A portion of the Burren is one of six National Parks in the Republic of Ireland, and Scott and I love to check out National Parks. When I think of Ireland, I picture rolling green countryside, and we saw plenty of that, but the Burren is a totally different and very interesting rocky region with a long history. My favorite thing was seeing little flowers pushing up amongst the stones.
We stopped on the edge of the Burren in Kilfenora for a break and saw some gorgeous high crosses and the ruins of a 12th century cathedral.
Back on the road, we passed the ruins of Leamaneh Castle, which was built around 1480, then continued on to Cahercommaun Stone Fort, a ringfort built around 800 AD. We also stopped at the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb dating between 4200 and 2900 BC. It was likely used as a ceremonial site, and excavations found numerous adults and children buried there.
By this time, the weather had somewhat cleared up and Scott was up for another try with the Cliffs of Moher. We drove to Black Head, then drove along the coast and through Doolin to the Cliffs.
By that time, the fog had lifted and the cliffs were then gorgeous. Extraordinary. We were so glad we drove back! One view is at the top of this post, and here is another, showing O’Brien’s Tower, the highest point of the Cliffs:
It was time to head to our place of rest for the evening, so we drove to Galway City, where we were staying at Almara House for the night. Almara House was very comfortable, modern, and clean. They listed GPS coordinates on their website, which didn’t work for us, but we found it using a regular map. They provided free Wi-Fi, and the included breakfast was excellent. It wasn’t right in the heart downtown, so I wouldn’t say the location was a selling point, but it was fine. We were at each of these B&B’s for only one night, and generally we checked in, went back out for the evening, came back to sleep and woke up in time to eat breakfast before leaving, so I can’t offer detailed critique. I CAN tell you that the hosts were very friendly and Almara House was a lovely introduction to Irish Bed & Breakfasts.
The next morning, we couldn’t believe we had seen so much in only one day, but we headed out toward Connemara National Park. The Park is a beautiful area, and we drove around a bit then went to the lovely Kylemore Abbey.
Kylemore includes a castle, a Gothic church, and several acres of gardens. It is home to Benedictine nuns whose abbey in Ypres, Belgium was destroyed in World War I. Admission is currently €12.50 for adults, and complimentary guided tours of the abbey are provided from May – September.
After visiting the abbey, we drove around Kylemore Lough and saw many, many sheep that we enjoyed very much. We loved the Irish sheep, despite their habit of moseying into the roads.
That night we stayed at Abbeyglen Castle Hotel for the night – our “Manor House” – and what a treat! It is located on the Sky Road, a route with amazing scenery that we drove the next morning. The Castle was built in 1832, was later used as an orphanage, and eventually fell into disrepair prior to its being developed into a luxury hotel. We were in a Superior Room, with a beautiful view and a massive four-poster bed. I only wished to stay longer! We walked the short 5-10 minute walk down to the town of Clifden in the evening for dinner and drinks. A full Irish breakfast was provided in the lovely restaurant, and I completely enjoyed this overnight stay.
The next day would be the rather long drive to Kerry, and we started off by driving the 11km/7ml circular Sky Road. The Sky Road separates into upper and lower portions, and I recommend the upper section for the wonderful views out over the area. It’s certainly beautiful and a quick drive, and there is a place at the top to park and take photos if you like. On the way south to Kerry, we experienced some of the worst of the narrow roads and bridges in Ireland. We got very familiar with the sensation that at any moment we could be forced off the road, into the plants and bushes, in an attempt to avoid the large trucks seemingly coming directly at us. All in all, we laughed a lot and thankfully, Scott is an excellent defensive driver!
Our accommodation for the night was the Applecroft House in Killarney. This B&B is a family home, with absolutely gorgeous landscaping and a farm in the back. The room was comfortable, and felt a bit like staying with a distant but very welcoming relative at their home. I loved the farm animals, especially the piggy. It was an easy walk into town, and I thought Killarney was charming and fun. There were plenty of great restaurants, bars, and shops. We spent some time at The Laurels Pub & Restaurant and enjoyed pints there before heading back for a good night’s sleep.
The next day, we drove the famous Ring of Kerry from Killarney to Kenmare. The Ring of Kerry is extremely popular with tourists, and is therefore discussed at length on many websites, but basically it’s a route around the Iveragh Peninsula, and it’s spectacularly pretty. There weren’t that many places that we wanted to stop, really; we just wanted to drive it and see the exquisite region, although we certainly made stops along the way. Heading out of Killarney, we went through Killorglin, a small town that holds the annual Puck Fair, said to be the oldest traditional fair in Ireland. I made Scott pull over so I could take a photo of the King Puck statue, which I thought was adorable.
I later read that for each Puck Fair, a goat is crowned King Puck and kept in a cage in the middle of town for the three days of the festival, then released. Sounds a little sad for the caged goat, but at least he’s king – a caged one, but still – traditions are what they are, I guess. We then drove along the west side of the Ring, stopping at the 16th century ruins of Ballycarbery Castle near Cahersiveen.
We also visited the nearby Cahergall Stone Fort, reportedly built around 600 AD, which has been reconstructed and was great fun to trek around. No one else was even there when we happened upon Ballycarbery, and only a couple of others came to the Fort while we were there. Both sites had some helpful signage, and it was cool that you could just walk around them for free. We continued the drive then to Waterville, where we stopped at the cute Peter’s Place Café, which had coffee, tea and some tasty baked goods, and I believe it had Internet access. We drove onward after our snack, next heading up over the mountains and stopping for photos at Coomakista Pass.
Our final stop along the Ring of Kerry was the Staigue Ring Fort, which was possibly built between 300 and 400 AD, although the dates listed for creation of this fort vary wildly. It’s the largest of the ring forts we visited, and it’s surprisingly well preserved, although I don’t know if it may have been partially reconstructed. It’s in a valley and is surrounded by fluffy, fabulous sheep just wandering about the place. Clearly, we had a lot of fun watching the sheep.
Next stop was Cork City for the night at Number Forty Eight, which was easily the least nice of the B&B’s at which we stayed. In my opinion, the only thing it really had going for it was the location, which was close to the city center. For one night, when we were hardly even in the room, it was fine, but I am happy we weren’t there long. It just seemed run-down and not as clean as the others. I read some reviews saying that the proprietor was really nice, but I didn’t actually interact with him much, so I couldn’t say either way. The parking situation (parking on the street, trying to follow the signage regarding what was allowed) was confusing, but we found a place and our car was there in the morning, so I guess it was fine. We took a walk over the St. Patrick’s Bridge, down St. Patrick’s Street a bit, and located a place to eat. Then we stopped into a bar with a guy playing guitar and singing in the back, and he was quite good, even taking requests and doing a smashing job when I asked to hear “Come Together”. It wasn’t busy at first, but we left when a large bachelorette party (they call them “Hen Parties” and apparently they really make a night of it) came in and took over the place with their loud drunken craziness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disparage them for having their fun, but it definitely impacts the feel of a pub and there were plenty of other places to check out. I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of the bars we dropped in, as I wasn’t thinking about sharing them at the time, but I know we walked down Oliver Plunkett Street and we likely found some spots in that area. Cork is the second largest city on Ireland, and it definitely seemed to be a party town from what we experienced.
We were up the next morning bright and early to kiss the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle. We did get there early and didn’t have to wait, so if you don’t like to deal with the queues, get there first thing. I kind of leaned back with help of the assistant, grabbed the bars and kissed away. They say that kissing the stone gives you the Gift of Gab, and although I never was terribly lacking in the gabbing department, I had to give it a go. I went to college at Texas Tech University, and there is bit of stone outside one of the buildings that tradition claimed was part of the original Blarney Stone, but I never kissed that one, assuming it to be a whole lot of big Texan hooey. (Unlike, of course, kissing this other random stone in Ireland, which is clearly completely logical.) Scott didn’t kiss it, probably because he’s a sensible person who has no desire to get down on the ground, lean over backwards and put his mouth on something that’s had the mouths of millions on it over the years. The castle itself was cool, and we walked the grounds a bit after I got in my smooch.
We had time, so we decided to stop at the Rock of Cashel. Admission was €6 and includes a group of Medieval buildings; there is a 12th century tower, High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, 13th century Gothic Cathedral, and the 15th century castle. There was a guided tour, which was informative and helped us appreciate the history of the buildings, because the blurb in my guidebook was fairly limited and this was long before the days of downloading Wikipedia to our iPads for offline use.
We left Cashel for the Wicklow Mountains, as we were staying in Glendalough for the evening at Bracken Bed & Breakfast. We arrived in the area early enough to walk around a bit and take in the scenery, which was lovely. Bracken was very clean and comfortable, and the owners were friendly. I honestly don’t recall what we did for dinner that night. We had been so busy that day touring about the countryside that I have no idea. We were only there for the night, and it was a short trip to Dublin the next day.
The roads finally got better (as in, paved and wide enough for at least two normal sized vehicles) as we came closer to Dublin. If all anyone did was drive in the Dublin area, they might think I was crazy talking about the poor road conditions and all those friendly sheep. We arrived at our hotel, the Paramount in the Temple Bar area, and checked in so that we could start checking out the city. I was excited to be in an actual city again, and there was so much for us to see and do. We parked at the Christchurch Car Park, as instructed by the hotel, and walked around the town, not using the car again until it was time to depart for the airport. First we went to Trinity College, where we saw an exhibit about the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript created by Celtic monks circa 800 AD containing the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. It was a very thorough and interesting exhibit, which I highly recommend. We also went by the National Museum of Ireland, and toured the Dublin Castle. One of my favorite things in Dublin was the Ha’Penny Bridge, a pretty cast iron pedestrian bridge over the River Liffey. It’s just a bridge, but it kind of represents Dublin in my mind, thinking about strolling across leisurely, looking at the River.
The Porter House Bar was right across the street from our hotel. I liked that place. There were several different levels, but plenty of places to kind of tuck away and have a conversation, and it was great to get a seat by the windows. There was some good live music and a nice beer selection, along with tasty pub food. I’m pretty sure we had burgers, and I know we had many a pint. It was convenient to trot right across the street back to the hotel, so it was a perfect spot for us.
The next day we checked out Christchurch Cathedral, which is quite a good old church, built circa 1028.
If you’re touring you will want to make sure that they aren’t holding services at the time of your visit. I particularly liked the medieval crypt beneath the cathedral.
Earlier this year, I happened upon a story that the preserved heart of Dublin’s patron saint Laurence O’Toole had been stolen from Christchurch, and I recalled having seen it when we were there. I remembered it because it was housed in a wooden heart-shaped box inside a metal cage-like device, and when we saw it I thought about the Nirvana song. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s very sad to me, having lived through the grungefest of the 90s.) Heart or no heart, Christchurch is worthy of the €6 ticket price.
The last full day we were in Dublin was my birthday, and we took the Guinness Storehouse Tour. Yes, at the Gravity bar atop the Storehouse at the end of the tour, we got the best pints of Guinness I’ve ever had. Yes, the 360-degree views of Dublin from the bar are super cool. It’s a really fun experience to see the storehouse and learn about how they brew Guinness.
I would imagine that it’s just as fun if you don’t drink, but I can’t say for certain since I was certainly enjoying the fine Guinness pints at the bar and in the tasting area.
After we left Guinness, we were walking around and stopped by the Brazen Head Pub for a couple more drinks. (I mean, come on, it was my birthday, and I was in Dublin, what else should I have been doing?)
They say it was established in 1198 and claim it to be Ireland’s oldest pub. I don’t know that we realized this; I think we just walked by and liked the looks of it. We sat in the courtyard and enjoyed a little outdoor day drinking. There was a fair amount of seating in the courtyard, but it was slightly crowded and we snagged the last table. It was a perfect way to spend the afternoon and wrap up a wonderful trip around Ireland: sitting in the sun, sipping a pint.