My very own irish tour guide and I left County Wicklow on Tuesday morning and set off in a Foster family car (thanks to Alan and Caroline) on a whirlwind trip across parts of Ireland. The general plan was to see the west coast for two days and make it up to the Giant's Causeway in the north and back down to Dublin via Belfast by the weekend. I had maps with my wish list of places to visit marked out, and to help us take the right off-ramp.
Tuesday - our journey from Dublin over to the West Coast
There's not much you can do about traffic jams even if you have maps, so after passing our jammed up exit to Limerick we took a detour, which in 1 and a half hours had us near Clonmacnoise, a major site of religion and trade - founded in 548 by St Claran on the banks of the River Shannon.
Like Monasterboice, high crosses and a roundtower are featured at Clonmacnoise with a museum on site that holds many of the more delicate relics, including some well-preserved decorated grave slabs. The museum also provides a good illustration of how round towers were used with pictures of the clergy running up the tower by ladder to escape the viking, irish and Anglo-Norman raids. On each occasion Clonmacnoise was invaded (well over 20 times), the community there would re-build. However, it was finally reduced to ruins by the English garrison in 1552.
They say that good things come to those that wait. As I write this it's my birthday here in the northern hemisphere, and while I’m not telling how long I’ve had to wait – I can now say I've sat in front of a roaring fire, with a real irish guinness, in a real irish country pub, on a wintery Christmas night, with my irish boyfriend - what more could a girl want? After our long day of driving we stopped for dinner at a pub called Vaughan’s in the small seaside town of Liscanner near our B&B – I had monkfish stuffed in a red pepper – yum! I'm also loving the Guinness which has a different taste than at home, not as bitter.
At least I didn't have to wait as long as these unlucky creatures – take a look at this clever advertisement for Guinness. Thanks everyone for the birthday messages!
Wednesday – Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and Galway
We stayed the night at Carrig House a fun B&B overrun with Christmas decorations and with the biggest irish breakfast ever seen the next morning - black and white pudding, fried bread and more of that brown bread, it just keeps coming, but we like it - so its all good!
Our feast for breakfast set us up well for the morning out at the Cliffs of Moher and a climb over “the burren”. The Cliffs are a natural phenomenon and rise straight up out of the Atlantic Sea to a height of 400 feet/120m in places. Controversially, the area is being re-developed with a viewing platform being built into the hillside and glassed in. Locals have been concerned about the earthworks ruining the natural landscape and horrified at the 8 euro ($16 NZ) that will be charged to visitors once the new facility is opened.
When Glynn was young you could climb all over the cliffs, up to a roundtower and out to a concrete platform that hung out over the cliffs. Now viewing options are far more restricted, partially due to the redevelopments, but much has changed with the way the area is managed given the large number of tourists that visit daily. Sadly this still hasn’t stopped people taking risks, and tragically just last month a young Polish girl climbed over the barriers to the edge and the wind swept her off the cliffs.
You have to be careful on a windy day and with gale force winds on the cliffs that morning we stayed just long enough to get some pics and experience the atmosphere of the place – it was wild and just magic - and hope to come back someday to experience the incredible views promised by a fine sunny day.
Around the west coast the landscape changes quite dramatically and later that morning we drove into an area known as ‘the Burren”, around 300 square kilometres of limestone karst. A famous English Parliamentarian Edmund Ludlow - who during the irish campaign in the 1600s was responsible for hunting small bands of irish “tories” and “destroying food stuffs and crops” – once famously complained “It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him”. It is an inhabitable place that's for sure. However, it is a great place to climb and when Glynn was at Trinity the climbing club would drive over on a Friday for the weekend and camp, climb and soak up the atmosphere of the burren. We stopped by the road at Ailladie and enjoyed a safe climb down to the sea, albeit windy and wet, and I enjoyed seeing one of Glynn’s favourite college crags.
Around mid-afternoon we stopped at Poulnabrone which is the most photographed, and one of the world's best known, megalithic dolmens or portal tombs.
One of the greatest things about travelling around Ireland is the friendliness of the people, and after hugs from our B&B hosts as we left in the morning it was nice to meet some more irish hospitality at a small café in Ballyvaughan. We had a great talk to the owner of the café, an ex-fisherman, about the fishing industry in Ireland. Fish is expensive here because stocks - especially on the Atlantic Coast - are depleted. The EU while opening up many opportunities for Ireland, also opened up its coastal fishing zones to European fishing vessels, and many regions have been over fished. It became too difficult for Ireland to police the large number of fishing vessels off the coast, that flouted the restrictions and now many species are lost. Recommendations from locals have also been handy, and the owner of the café told us about a central city hostel in Galway called Sleepzone where we ended up staying for the night.
Galway is a great city – they call it the cultural capital of Ireland and I can see why. We had dinner at the Kings Head pub - with a kiwi and an aussie maning the bar. A taste of irish music at another local, just what I imagined an irish pub to be.
We took a walk around the lights at Eyre’s Square (the main town square) and saw the remains of a window where the Mayor of Galway hung his own son for murdering a Norman. See below the tasteful picture of Glynn. Despite this hilarity Glandular Man (he's now tested positive for glandular fever) was taking a break from alcohol to try and aid his recovery, so it was an early night for us in Galway.
Thursday - drive to Northern Ireland through the floods
We got up early the next day, with Glynn feeling better, and took a pamphlet from Sleepzone advertising another hostel in Downhill, Northern Ireland - very close to the Giant's Causeway. We made it our aim to get there by the end of the day. It was a long drive and we were slowed in our journey by flooding (the worst Ireland has seen for 50 years), bad drivers (Patrick they are everywhere - we need to talk when I get home) and tractors - about 50 of them Myra, so I've well and truly checked them off the list of things I was to see while in Ireland.
We headed north via Cong and Ashford Castle (near where Glynn's dad goes fishing in the summer, and also where Pierce Brosnan got married).
After being turned back because of flooding we retraced our steps from Cong back to the main roads and on to Sligo and then to Donegal for coffee and a walk around the town. The west coast in winter is quiet and we haven't had to queue with some places open shorter hours for winter. Unfortunately O'Donnell Castle in Donegal was already closed, so after an afternoon coffee we moved on into Northern Ireland. In Londonderry we stopped to get some Irish sterling (150 pound sterling from around $500 NZL - its killing me). We bought some things to make dinner at the hostel in Downhill. The hostel turned out to be a real gem and would recommend it to anyone. We made dinner, drank red wine (Glynn's self-imposed alcohol ban lasting all of 24 hours), and listened to vinyl records specifically Pink Floyd, and Dad, some Roger Whittaker.
Friday - Dunluce Castle, the Giant's Causeway and Belfast
The next morning we headed out to Dunluce Castle about 20 minutes up the road from the hostel. Dunluce is perched on the edge of a cliff (in the centre of the photo above) protected on all sides by sheer drops and access is only by drawbridge and imposing gateway. One night in 1639 part of the castle fell away from the cliff into the sea killing many of the servants and causing the Duchess who lived there at the time to leave the castle never to return. You can still see where the castle walls fell away.
On a cheerier note it was then off to the Giant's Causeway - the one sight that Glynn was most keen to see. We both enjoyed the audio visual presentation which explained the legend of the causeway, and then walked down to the rocks. The hexagonal causeway rocks were formed by vulcanic activity and appear to lead into the sea like a pathway.
The legend explains it slightly differently with two giants, one scottish and one irish taunting each other across the strait between Ireland and Scotland. The irish giant builds the causeway and invites the scot across to Ireland to do battle. However, as the scottish giant makes his way across the causeway the irish giant sees the actual size of his opponent and in fear disguises himself as a baby. When the scot arrives he sees the size of the baby and decides if that's the size of the irishman's baby son, he'd stand no chance against the irish giant. So he rushes back across the causeway to Scotland destroying it as he crosses so his opponent can't follow him home - I much prefer the version of the legend rather than the science.
Finally our last stop was down in Belfast. While waiting for our bus tour we wandered through the amazing Christmas markets at City Hall drinking mulled wine browsing the wine, cheese, fudge, pastries, sausage and many other european delicacies.
The tour began with the shipyards where the Titanic was built, which at one time employed over 30,000 workers. As part of the city's regeneration post 'the troubles' the shipyards are providing a new focus for development based on the history of the Titanic. Consequently, a huge commercial park and museum is planned in the old yards. The bus also drove down past the famous murals depicting political figures and events, the IRA memorial, and we saw many of the peacelines that still remain on the skyline even today.
However, the regeneration of the city was the focus of the tour, which was evident even when driving through areas where most of 'the troubles' occurred. There are construction and roading developments down almost every street. I really enjoyed Belfast and think it will be interesting to return in about 5-10 years time, which is when they predict most central city developments will be completed. It looked stunning as we left with the Xmas lights through the main street down to City Hall.
A quick trip home to Wicklow from Belfast that night with a stop in Dublin for dinner and a brief orientation. I have now spent the early part of this week acquainting myself with the capital city, but that will be a blog entry for another day.
What a great tour - this country is beautiful, and in many parts reminded me of Otago. I cannot believe the amount of roading and construction work going on everywhere you look, even on many of the roads out west. It really helped having a native irishman as a guide, and couldn't possibly have seen as much without him, so thanks to Glynn, and to everyone we met along the way who gave us directions, recommendations and friendly advice.