One of the joys of an Irish summer is the 17 hours of light every day and how easy it is to get around this relatively small island. One taxi and two trains later I went from an office worker in Dublin city to following the Kerry Camino in the footsteps of Saint Brendan the Navigator.
Over two days we took on the challenge of walking from Tralee to Dingle (39 km / 22.4 miles) taking in some of the most wonderful countryside and sights.
The Kerry Camino route, from Tralee to Dingle, is believed to have been taken by pilgrims and monks on their way to St. James Church, in Dingle, and onward further afield to Santiago, Spain.
It’s also the route followed by St. Brendan, one of Ireland’s most famous saints, in 512AD. According to the text “The Voyage of St. Brendan” it was this traveling preacher who first reached the shores of America.
Not only is this area steeped in history it’s also one of “the most beautiful places on earth,” officially, according to National Geographic. For a personal added bonus the sun shone upon us for our whole trip. Absolutely magic.
Our first port of call was Tralee, the county town of Kerry, and a lively spot with bars, cafes, shops, and restaurants lining the streets. We stayed at the Grand Hotel and enjoyed a really delicious meal in the bar (mussels served with brown bread and plaice served with a seafood bisque).
What’s great about walking 39 kilometers (22.4 miles) in two days is that you have free rein to eat whatever you desire and sleep like the dead. What could be better?
The next morning we were driven to the small village of Camp to start our walk. We were instructed by our driver to stick to our walking notes and keep our eyes peeled for the clear signs along the trail. Of course, we managed to get lost almost immediately, but after getting ourselves back on track the walk went without a hitch.
The walk from Camp to Annascaul is 17 km (10.2 miles) and takes you through the wonderfully lush and empty valleys below the Caherconree Mountain.
What was breathtaking was that during our four-hour walk (we were very pleased with that time, by the way) we saw only two other people. We were surrounded by the rolling hills, exposed rocks, with quick glimpses of the sea in the distance, and thankfully the blissful sun.
We had lunch at Inch Beach, the longest beach in Ireland and a favorite among water sports fanatics. Even in though the winds are almost too strong to stand on the beach there were kite surfers and brave swimmers heading out into the break.
Far more sensibly we took refuge in Sam’s Cafe for coffee and cake.
We arrived in Annascaul, the birthplace and home of the much admired Antarctic survivor and hero Tom Crean. Our first stop, almost the centerpiece of the town, was the South Pole Inn, the bar that Crean opened after he retired from the British Navy in 1920.
The walls of the pub are filled with the most amazing photos of hardy Polar heroes that really put your last 17-kilometer walk into perspective. The heroes’ bar is a lively spot with great food (we tried the fish and chips and braised lamb and mash), their own lager named after the man himself, and live music.
That evening we also ventured to Hannafin’s bar to sip wine, play board games and listen to the chat around the bar. The bar run by John (a retired teacher, turned farmer, and bar owner) played Bowie and the atmosphere was perfect for folks bewildered by too much fresh air and walking.
By the end our one-day stay in Annascaul we were already calling Noel and Moira, our hosts who run the Annascaul Bed & Breakfast, our Fear and Bean an Tí (Man and Woman of the House). They made us feel instantly at home and most importantly provided a hearty Irish breakfast the next day.
Feeling like pros after one day of walking we set out from Annascaul and headed towards Dingle, a 22 kilometer (14 miles) walk.
Our first stop was definitely the most memorable stop of our trip. The natural storm beach next to Minard Castle is such a beautiful spot it borders on being surreal. Sitting on the black boulders of the storm beach next to the remains of a 16th-century castle we looked out at the Dingle Bay and the Iveragh Peninsula stretching into the distance.
Did I mention it was still sunny? Truly, there’s nowhere in the world better than being in Ireland in the sun.
Onward we headed to Conor’s Pass and this is where the walk got a little more difficult. However, the payoff was the amazing views. The route took us up through farmland, over streams and on through gorgeous sparsely inhabited roads dotted with beautiful houses.
The road into Dingle did seem to go on for an eternity and when the village eventually appeared it was like an oasis. Dingle is just like a postcard. Having seen so many photos of the beautifully colored houses and shopfronts and the harbor and the fishing boats going out to sea, the town felt almost familiar.
After checking in at the Lantern B & B we headed to the wonderful Dick Macks, a beautiful, family-owned traditional pub built around the remnants of the old family shoe shop.
For dinner, we went to the Out of the Blue for what was definitely one of the best meals I’ve had in some time. We tried the gambas al aglio, monkfish with gambas, followed by a hot dark chocolate brownie. Truly delicious.
A little achy we checked out and wandered the beautiful boutiques that have becomes synonymous with villages like Dingle, selling Irish-made products like pottery, jewelry, and clothes. We then popped into the neatly designed and strangely urban Bean in Dingle for a serious cuppa Joe and on to the now famous Murphy’s Ice Cream where I tried their sea-salt ice cream before we jumped on the bus to get the train back to Dublin.
Regrettably, I come from the Ryanair generation and while growing up at every opportunity I was on a plane to Europe instead of enjoying our own gorgeous island. This trip has given me a stern lesson…get out and see what’s in store in Ireland.
Only one word describes it…Magic.
For more information on the various tours and vacations available like this visit Camino Ways here.
Driving holidays in Ireland
Donegal is arguably the most off-radar county on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Its drawcards range from Star Wars locations to snap-fresh seafood, from Blue Flag beaches to Blue Book boltholes, yet just 8pc of domestic holidays are spent here, according to Fáilte Ireland figures.
With no cities, no rail or motorway access and weather that swings from biblical to brilliant with the impulsiveness of a toddler, it’s not always an easy holiday choice.
But that’s all the more reason to visit.
Donegal is a dream landscape, and a scarcity of visitors (particularly off-season) has left parts of it spectacularly unspoiled. I spent a recent visit mapping out a three-day drving loop. It’s by no means definitive, but it is a thrilling taster.
1. Donegal Airport
Did you know Carrickfinn is one of the world’s 10 most scenic landings? That’s according to a global poll by private jet booking service, PrivateFly.
Dublin and Glasgow are Donegal Airport’s only destinations — but that makes it even more nostalgic. The terminal is tiny, the staff super-friendly, the queues short and the location just a short drive from Gweedore.
Flying from Dublin will save a four-hour drive, and Enterprise (enterprise.ie) — the airport’s only car hire desk — is warmly efficient. You’ll be good to go in minutes.
Distance: 50 minutes (flight) from Dublin Airport.
2. Arranmore Island
Donegal’s islands are a galaxy unto themselves, with highlights ranging from the King of Tory (Patsy Dan Rogers) to rock-climbing on Gola. Arranmore is easily reached by a 15-minute ferry crossing, depositing you right on the fringes of Western Europe.
Drive the island, potter about the harbour or go for a hike — when the weather co-operates, the thrashing ocean, brackish corrie lakes and boggy, wind-whipped hills are beautifully desolate. Oh, and before (or after) your trip, grab a quick seafood fix at The Lobster Pot (lobsterpot.ie).
Distance: 13km (allow 20 minutes) from Donegal Airport.
3. Horn Head
The drive from Burtonport past Bloody Foreland and the sweeping strand at Magheroarty is a stunner, but Horn Head is in a league of its own. Its 7km loop is the Wild Atlantic Way in a nutshell — from breathtaking cliffs to bobbing lobster pots and beaches like Trá Mór (which can only be reached by foot). Look out for Tory Island offshore, and the golden sands of Dunfanaghy peeled back at low tide to the southeast. On my last visit, the sky looked like it was made of sheep, but the impact remained.
PS: Horn Head can be walked or cycled as a loop from Dunfanaghy. See govisitdonegal.com or wildatlanticway.com for more to see and do in Donegal.
Distance: 56km (allow 1 hour, 15 minutes) from Burtonport.
4. Do Dunfanaghy
Bundoran gets the lion’s share of Donegal’s surfing press, but there’s just something about Dunfanaghy.
On a lesson with Narosa Life (from €35/€25), beaches like Marble Hill or the back bay at Falcarragh are your oyster. Instructors are clued-in and easygoing, thick wetsuits take the edge off the Atlantic, and kids as young as five or six get a kick out of riding ‘magic carpets’ in the froth (a tip: bring snacks or hot chocolate — peeling wetsuits off in chilly wind is the worst).
If you don’t fancy surfing, take a ride on the beach with Dunfanaghy Stables (€32/€27 for an hour), located just across the road behind Arnold’s Hotel. After your exertions, you’ll have earned an overnight and a bite at this cosy, family-run three-star on the strand (two nights’ B&B on special from €99pp this autumn).
Details: narosalife.com; dunfanaghystables.com; arnoldshotel.com.
5. Fanad Peninsula
The Fanad and Rosguill peninsulas are the smaller siblings of Inishowen, but both are full of the stonking views (pictured main) Donegal seems to produce on tap. Highlights are Portsalon’s epic sandy beach, overlooking Ballymastocker Bay, and the Blue Book’s Rathmullan House. The Tap Room here does a mean wood-fired pizza — make a point of washing yours down with a local Kinnegar farmhouse beer.
Distance: 57km (allow a good hour and 20 minutes via Portsalon, with detours).
Star Wars recently touched down for a location shoot on Inishowen, giving some idea as to its rugged beauty. A day or two could easily be spent circuiting this peninsula alone — but however you manage it, don’t miss Malin Head and the Mamore Gap.
A cycling tour with Cycle Inishowen or rock-climbing adventure with Wild Atlantic Way Climbing will step up the adrenaline. At the right time of year, you may even see the Northern Lights.
Details: cycleinishowen.com; mountaintraining.ie; visitinishowen.com.
Distance: The Inishowen 100 is a 100-mile (160km) loop of the peninsula, but shorter drives also bring rewards.
7. Hit Harry’s
Harry’s Bar & Restaurant may not look like a foodie crossroads, but it most definitely is. Donal and Kevin Doherty’s roadside hub in Bridgend is low on food miles, high on quality (be sure to order at least one fish dish, though the belly of pork is hard to resist) and plates up what, pound for pound, is probably the best food in the county. For a detour, try Harry’s Shack at Portstewart, or the outlet soon to open in Derry City… every county could use a Harry’s.
Distance: 48km (allow 50 minutes, without stops) from Malin Head.
8. Gorgeous Glenveagh
First, a warning. Do not underestimate the midges — these pesky park residents can lay the best plans to waste… picnics in particular. Other than that, Glenveagh is a slice of National Park paradise, with a slick visitor centre, dramatic valley and Victorian castle reminding me of Hogwarts whenever I visit. You can walk or cycle the 4km to the castle, or take a bus (€3/€2 return). Watch out for Golden Eagles, don’t skip the wonderful gardens, and round off your visit with midge-free munchies at the castle café. Even in inclement weather, there’s something otherworldly about the place.
Distance: 52km from Bridgend (allow around 45 minutes).
9. Solis Lough Eske
Solis Lough Eske Castle is Donegal’s only five-star hotel and, along with near-neighbour Harvey’s Point, one of the county’s twin towers of luxury.
The sandstone castle cuts a dramatic shape against the woodland and lake setting, with garden suites, a spa and leisure centre adding modern opulence. The old building offers the best atmospherics (wallow in the high-ceilinged Gallery Bar, with its enviable craft spirit selection), and breakfast in Cedar’s genuinely exceeds expectations.
Ooh-moments range from a dedicated pancake maker to takeaway hot chocolates, and friendly staff action things quickly. Variable Wi-Fi was being addressed on our visit, but it’s a space you’ll feel like coming back to again and again.
Distance: 64km (allow an hour and 10 mins) from Glenveagh National Park.
10. Slieve League
From Donegal, the final section of our driving circuit veers on to the Slieve League Peninsula — crazily under-rated in comparison to the tourism honeypots of West Cork and Kerry. The soaring cliffs (and dizzying One Man’s Pass) are justifiably famous, but don’t miss the more off-beat attractions, including a dip beneath the lighthouse at St John’s Point, seafood at the Village Tavern in Mountcharles, and the Gaeltacht around Glencolmcille.
Distance: 55km or just over one hour from Donegal town to the cliffs.
11. Malin Beg
Is this Donegal’s most breathtaking beach? Granted, a county with 13 Blue Flag beaches will throw up its fair share of competition, but it’s hard to top Silver Strand. Cut from the cliffs at the edge of the earth, set way beyond the reach of phone signals and overlooked by happily munching sheep, those who make the journey in the off-season are often rewarded with the place to themselves.
Distance: 20km (allow 40 mins) from Slieve League to Silver Strand/Malin Beg.
12. Nancy’s of Ardara
Ardara is famous for its tweed and knitwear, but visitors shouldn’t miss the modern crafts at the Donegal Designer Makers’ shop, and the warren of old rooms making up Nancy’s bar. Sit in the back for the best light and gobble a juicy prawn cocktail before moseying around the memory-lane interiors (check out the teapot collection in the sitting room). You’ll leave smiling.
Distance: 41km (allow 1 hour) back to Donegal Airport in Carrickfinn.
$35 billion question
An analysis of $35 billion worth of travel transactions has seen Ireland named one of the world’s hottest destinations to visit this summer.
Luxury travel network Virtuoso, which last summer named Ashford Castle as the world’s best hotel, lists its 10 hottest destinations as follows:
- South Africa
The list comes after an analysis of travel-related transactions in North America ahead of summer 2016, Virtuoso says, and shows a 58% increase in Irish bookings.
“Travellers visiting Ireland are flocking to Dublin and Galway in particular,” it says, “along with County Laois in the centre of the country.”
Laois is home to the 5-star Heritage Resort and Ballyfin, where Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are reported to have honeymooned in 2014.
“It’s another well-deserved accolade, which provides Tourism Ireland with a great hook to continue to promote the island of Ireland as a ‘must visit’ destination for American and Canadian travellers,” said Alison Metcalfe of Tourism Ireland.
2015 was Ireland’s busiest ever year for inbound tourism, with first quarter results for 2016 showing North American visits up 24.5pc.
Avoided, underrated or just plain forgotten, Belfast is a city that’s been fighting a bad reputation for half a century. A visit today, however, is an eye-opening experience in the best possible way. Belfast has been coming into its own in the last few years, developing a vibrant restaurant scene, award-winning architecture — the Royal Institute of British Architects gave the MAC, a sleek arts venue, a National Award in 2013 — and a new cosmopolitanism, although fried breakfasts and a heightened awareness of sectarian conflict are still an integral part of most residents’ days. The friendliness of the people is what’s most appealing in this small and very walkable city, from smiling servers to talkative bartenders to helpful strangers on the street. Visit Belfast to soak up good vibes, to eat well and to drink unstintingly. It’s a city that’s at its best when enjoyed from behind a pint glass.
1. Lunch with a view | 1:30 p.m.
Kick off the weekend with lunch at Robinson & Cleaver, a new restaurant housed in what was a 19th-century linen warehouse and department store. The “Taste of Ulster” sharing boards, with selections of smoked salmon, grilled mackerel, Oakwood cheese and wheaten bread, are perfect for sampling locally produced fare. Find a spot on the terrace, which looks directly out onto the ornate Edwardian City Hall. To its right is the imposing Scottish Provident Building, a late-Victorian sandstone edifice that’s currently metamorphosing into a high-end business center. Lunch for two around £30, or $44, at $1.47 to the pound.
2. Botanics and background | 3 p.m.
After lunch, stroll through Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, 28 acres of green lawns and trees near Queens University. Stop at the Palm House, an elegant Victorian greenhouse with a curved iron and glass structure that’s just as gorgeous as the abundance of exotic plants growing inside. Emerge from the gardens at the Ulster Museum (free admission), a well-designed space with exhibits on Northern Irish history, art and natural history, and one that offers a comprehensive background on the country’s heritage.
3. Crown jewel | 5:30 p.m.
The Crown Liquor Saloon is a treasure: a Victorian gin palace that’s been beautifully restored by its owner, the National Trust. Everything from the snugs — semiprivate tables sequestered by mid-height walls — to the red granite bar to the antique bell system for summoning staff looks like it’s straight out of a period movie. Order a pint of Guinness here (£3.90) and it comes with a shamrock traced in the head. The Crown manages to sit on the fence of sectarian feuds: While the name sounds decidedly Loyalist, there’s a mosaic of a crown decorating the ground outside the entryway upon which Republican clientele can happily step. Look up the street to see the Europa Hotel, known for a time as “the most bombed hotel in Europe.” The Europa was hit dozens of times during the Troubles, though it kept its doors open throughout.
4. From the sea | 7:30 p.m.
Though Ireland’s an island, all too often its best seafood is exported and the remainder overpriced at home. The Mourne Seafood Bar, though, has built a reputation over eight years on serving top-quality, locally caught fish and seafood that doesn’t cost the earth. Book ahead for dinner in this city center restaurant and feast on oysters brought straight from nearby Carlingford Lough, along with fresh langoustines, salmon, lobster and more elaborate tidbits like poponcini peppers stuffed with crab mayonnaise and watercress salad. Dinner for two, around £70.
5. Breakfast of champions | 10 a.m.
The debate over where to get the best “Ulster fry” in Belfast is never-ending, but Bright’s is a top contender. This no-frills restaurant serves up the basics (fish and chips, eggs and beans) to locals who crowd in, three generations to a table. Push past the herd of strollers in the entryway and order the “Bright’s fry” (£3.50), a plate packed with eggs, sausages, potato bread, soda bread, bacon and black pudding, along with grilled mushrooms and tomatoes as a (meaningless) gesture toward health consciousness. Pair this with plenty of tea from the ubiquitous workaday steel pots and you’ll be set up for the day, as they say.
6. Taxis and Troubles | 11 a.m.
While the Troubles may seem like a part of Belfast’s past, Troubles tourism is alive and well. Visiting the areas most affected is essential for understanding the city’s fraught history. Ninety-minute “black taxi tours” (around £30 for up to three people, additional fee for more) take passengers through the Falls and Shankill Roads, Catholic and Protestant, respectively, and still strongly sectarian. Drivers also deliver a running commentary on the Troubles, and explain the significance of the numerous political murals that so clearly divide the neighborhoods. The Irish nationalist Bobby Sands is a staple of the Catholic murals while terrifying images of paramilitaries in balaclavas holding machine guns are popular in Loyalist areas. Many companies run black taxi tours; stop by the Visit Belfast Welcome Center on Donegall Square for brochures. The companies are much of a muchness — they all cover the same areas and advertise themselves as impartial, although individual taxi drivers, most of whom were born and bred in one of these neighborhoods, will make their politics quite clear.
7. Cathedrals and craft beer | 1 p.m.
Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is the trendiest neighborhood in town, its cobbled streets now home to bustling restaurants, pubs and arts venues. Begin with a visit to St. Anne’s Cathedral (admission, £5), a turn-of-the century Romanesque building with two quirky features: the 1,000 colorful hassocks hand-embroidered by churchgoing women since 1950; and the Spire of Hope, a 76-meter stainless steel spike that punctures the roof and was added in 2007. Nearby, tucked away on tiny Commercial Court, is Hadskis, which opened in late 2013 with a focus on local ingredients. Sit at the long bar overlooking the open kitchen for a lunch of pheasant, pearl barley and horseradish with a side of champ (an Irish spin on mashed potatoes), washed down with a Headless Dog or Titanic Quarter — both craft beers from the Northern Irish Hilden Brewing Company. Lunch for two, around £50.
8. Architecture and the arts | 4 p.m.
One of the shining examples of the new, more sophisticated Belfast, the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Center), which is free (performances require tickets), is a stunning asymmetrical tower of brick and volcanic stone housing seven stories of high-ceilinged galleries and cleverly designed reading nooks. It’s the ever-changing roster of exhibitions and live performances that’s the real enticement, however. Pop in to see the latest visual art exhibitions or check out the frequent experimental live performances (theater, music and dance). The MAC is well situated in the Cathedral Quarter overlooking St. Anne’s Square, which has emerged as a restaurant hot spot.
9. Drinks at the Duke | 5:30 p.m.
At the other end of Commercial Court from Hadskis is the Duke of York pub, where a young Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, tended bar in the 1960s. Outdoor drinking is a growing trend in Belfast, and the Duke claims a charming stretch of alleyway with brick walls, window boxes and benches. It’s a local haunt, and it’s worth walking across the alley to the parking lot to check out the mural of local celebrities. If the weather’s not conducive to sitting outdoors, take your Guinness (£3.70) inside, where the walls and ceiling are plastered with old-fashioned advertisements for stout and whiskey.
10. Seasonal Menu | 7:30 p.m.
Sitting pretty at the top of the Belfast culinary scene is OX, which opened in March 2013 to great fanfare. The former tile shop has massive plate glass windows that look out onto the River Lagan, and a menu that matches the décor in simplicity and modernity. Friday and Saturday nights are tasting menu only: five courses of seasonal dishes with a vegetable focus, like broad bean and radish leaf soup, and Mourne lamb with spelt, girolles and beetroot. With just 40 seats, it’s best to book in advance. Tasting menu for two, around £110.
11. Tour the Titanic | 11:30 a.m.
Allow several hours for Titanic Belfast (admission, £15.50), which is a 20-minute walk or short taxi ride from the city center in the recently designated Titanic Quarter. The museum’s four wings are designed to look like high-tech ships’ hulls, covered in silver anodized aluminum shards. It opened in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Belfast-built ship (though the locals say, “It was all right when it left here.”). The exhibits are impressively detailed, from the recreated staterooms to the personal histories of builders, waitresses and guests. Don’t miss the compelling beginning exhibits, which describe life in Belfast’s linen mills at the turn of the century. Also essential are the interactive projection of the ship’s plans and the Shipyard Ride, a narrated, amusement park-style ride that’s entertaining and not just for kids.
A former seed warehouse, Malmaison (34-38 Victoria St.) is a boutique hotel with a funky atmosphere and an abundance of cushy couches, plush cushions and deep colors. Amenities include free wifi, king-sized beds and a bar popular with local luminaries.
The Merchant (16 Skipper St.) boasts a chic Victorian-meets-Art Deco aesthetic accented by bespoke furnishings and a gorgeous old-fashioned bar. Situated in the Cathedral Quarter, it’s a good base for exploring the city.
In a country with a rich literary history, it’s no surprise that travelers journey to Dublin to find those inspiring places made infamous by the writings of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Doyle.
From historic buildings to the pubs of Temple Bar, the capital of the Emerald Isle offers an endless array of must-see places to find the lasting mark of Irish writers past and present. Discover and learn about Irish literature’s best-known scribes (and a healthy dose of Irish history) through these well-known neighborhoods and places.
Journalist and novelist Maeve Binchy grew up in the pretty seaside suburb of Dublin that is now home to Irish A-listers. Starting her career at The Irish Times, Binchy soon turned to writing novels and short story collections like Circle of Friends and Tara Road, which can be easily found in Dalkey’s The Gutter Bookshop, a popular local independent bookseller.
Opening its doors in December of 1904, this theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) was founded by poet W.B. Yeats and dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory. The first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world, the Abbey Theatre is also noted for staging the first (and highly controversial) production of The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge.
The James Joyce Centre:
The avant-garde poet and novelist has left a lasting mark on his hometown. Local revelers dress up as Leopold Bloom for the annual celebration of Bloomsday on June 16, the date on which Joyce’s novel Ulysses takes place. If you can’t visit on that day, the James Joyce Centre (hosts of Bloomsday) has permanent and rotating exhibits that give you an intimate look into Joyce’s life. Learn about Joyce’s legacy, and then toast his life at Davy Burn’s Pub, a 100-year-old gastropub well known for its amenable atmosphere, tasty cuisine and mention in Ulysses.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral:
Also known as The National Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Patrick, this is where St. Patrick baptized converts in Dublin. Its best-known literary connection is cleric and writer Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. Swift was dean of the cathedral from 1713 to 1745, and is buried in the church’s graveyard.
Make the pilgrimage to this pretty Georgian park to gaze at Danny Osborne’s colorful sculpture of poet, essayist, novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde. But what’s more important is across the street at One Merrion Square; the author’s childhood home is now restored and part of the American College of Dublin.
Although his stories showcase fictional Barrytown, readers of novelist Roddy Doyle can visit the real life inspiration. One of the oldest neighborhoods of Dublin, Kilbarrack is where Doyle grew up and worked as a teacher. The suburb also became a star in the filming of his book The Van, as local pub The Foxhound Inn was included as a movie location.
The oldest university in the city has many literary alumni, including Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker. Trinity College is also home to the largest library of Ireland. Featuring The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament dating to 800 AD, the library also includes The Long Room, containing 200,000 of the library’s oldest books and one of the remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
National Library of Ireland:
With over eight million items, this reference library focuses on preserving Irish cultural identity through its collection of personal papers, letters and writings of many Irish writers. Fans of writer Colm Tóibín can learn about his early years as a journalist and burgeoning novelist/playwright at the library, where his literary papers, as well as works from his teacher/father Michael Tóibín, are accessible.
Ireland’s verdant green countryside is dotted with castles, from imposing stately edifices to atmospheric ruins, and no visit is complete without climbing to the turret-top of at least one of these beauties. Whether you’re looking for weekend activities to keep the kids busy, or you fancy swatting up on your Celtic legends and Irish history, here are our pick of the best Irish castles for you to explore.
1. Dublin Castle, Dame St. Dublin
There may be no turrets here, and not even a hint of a moat, but this collection of historic buildings in the heart of the Fair City is still well worth a visit. Wander at will around the outside of the Norman Tower, the nineteenth century Chapel Royal and eighteenth century Bedford Hall or take the tour of the State Apartments – the guided tours are well worth the extra €2. Standard admission is €8.50, while for children it’s €3 with or without the guided tour. Open seven days a week until early evening (4:45pm), it’s the perfect place to get some culture in before you hit the bars.
2. Cahir Castle, Co. Tipperary
One of Ireland’s best preserved castles, Cahir still has its keep, tower, walls and battlements, as well as a portcullis in full working order. Cross onto its rocky island in the middle of the River Suir to explore the thirteenth century complex. Don’t miss the scale model of what the castle looked like in the medieval period. Those of you lucky to bag Gravity Festival tickets this year will enjoy live music and street food all within the castle’s walls – Cahir is home to the annual charity event each September.
3. Kilkenny Castle, The Parade, Kilkenny
Commanding a crossing on the River Nore, Kilkenny Castle dominates the eponymous city and demands a visit. Restored to its 1830s glory, the interior is truly lavish and on a tour here you’ll see the library, the drawing room and the impressive Long Gallery, which occupies an entire wing. Guided tours cost no extra, though you may have to wait in summer as it can get busy – it’s worth noting that entrance is by guided tour only November to January. Open daily
4. Doe Castle, Co. Donegal
Doe Castle provides a masterclass in natural defences, surrounded by water on three sides and built into the rock on the fourth. But man had his hand in building the castle’s reputation as one of the strongest fortresses in northwest Ireland; the sixteenth century tower has walls so thick (some eight feet) that the dungeon could be located on the third floor. The castle achieved more modern notoriety in 2001 when Brian McFadden proposed to Kerry Katona here. Admission is free, though the interior isn’t open to the public.
Here’s your chance to be king (or queen) of the castle for a night. This fairytale-perfect thirteenth century castle was once owned by the Guinness family and is now a five-star hotel with 82 guest rooms, including the Presidential Suite with original fireplace and views over Lough Corrib. Although if you want the royal treatment it’s going to cost you, as rooms start at €305 a night! Can’t stretch to that? Go for afternoon tea instead, served daily in the spectacular Connaught Room for the princely sum of €34 per person (plus 15% service charge).
6. Bunratty Castle, Co. Clare
Bunratty Castle is Ireland’s most complete medieval fortress, restored in 1954 using fifteenth and sixteenth century furnishings and works of art to return it to its original 1425 splendour. Feast on an authentic medieval banquet inside the castle’s great dining hall (€53.50), or visit during the day to check out the Folk Park, a sympathetic recreation of a 19th century village completed with post office and pub, populated by actors in period dress. Arrive along the N18 between Limerick and Ennis.
7. Donegal Castle, Bridge Street, Donegal
Persian rugs, French tapestries and fine Jacobean architecture unrivaled in beauty and style by any other of its kind in Ireland; it’s hard to imagine that before the 1990s Donegal Castle sat in ruins. Now, proudly restored and standing tall on the banks of the River Eske, it makes for a fascinating visit in the heart of this pleasant little town.
You’ve heard of the Blarney Stone, of course, but there’s much more to this castle than just the chance to grab the ‘gift of the gab’ by kissing the legendary Stone of Eloquence. Keep your hands to yourself in the Poison Garden and stick to the boardwalk through the bog, before climbing the steps to the stone (you know you want to) and joining the queue to lean backwards off the parapet and kiss the stone. Save this until late in the day or arrive early to avoid the crowds.
9. Dunguaire Castle, Co. Galway
Reflected in the flat calm of Galway Bay, Dunguaire Castle is the quintessential Tower House and looks as if it might have been placed here with the specific aim of selling picture postcards. Be inspired to take your own perfect castle shot before heading inside to see where literary greats WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and JM Synge were once inspired themselves. There’s even a twice nightly banquet with live entertainment featuring extracts of their work.
10. Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary
You get plenty of bang for your buck at the Rock of Cashel, the rearing outcrop of limestone home to a full crop of medieval buildings including a twelfth century round tower, thirteenth century gothic cathedral and a fifteenth century castle. There’s plenty to see here (and a free 45min guided tour) but perhaps the best moment comes when you take a step back, and admire the collection of turrets, towers and crenellations from afar. You also won’t notice the numerous coach parties from a distance!