Top 10 Things to Do in Northern Ireland

Hit the road on the Causeway Coastal Route, get down with Belfast's best musicians, and soak up the otherworldly scenery featured in Game of Thrones.

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Northern Ireland blends centuries of history with an engaging modern vibe that shows time definitely hasn’t stood still. Mix in welcoming smiles and jaw-dropping vistas, and it all adds up to ten travel experiences that simply can’t be had anywhere else.

 

ROCK OUT IN BELFAST

Belfast boasts a proud musical history and the beat shows no signs of slowing down. Modern bands that more than do their elders justice are on tap nightly at clubs and pubs all across town. The Oh Yeah Music Centre’s Belfast Music Exhibition proudly showcases memories and memorabilia of artists from Van Morrison to Snow Patrol. Take to the streets for a guided bus tour of musical Belfast including Ulster Hall, where Led Zeppelin first performed “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Van the Man’s” childhood home. Then dance the night away with an array of talented local musicians that you may not know yet, but will never forget. Culture Northern Ireland has the skinny on performers and shows from folk, rock, and reggae to techno and classical recitals.

 

TAKE A PASSAGE ON THE TITANIC

Arguably the world’s most famous ship was born right here in the Belfast shipyards. (“She was fine when she left here,” some locals like to say.) Titanic Belfast is an engaging exhibition of reconstructions, special effects, and interactive features that help you experience the Titanic journey from the docks, to the decks, and even to the bottom of the Atlantic. Continue the adventure on a boat tour around Belfast harbor for a different perspective on Titanic history and the entire port of Belfast. During summer months, the city’s large breeding seal colony, often appear over the bow.

 

TOUR THE CAUSEWAY COAST

The Causeway Coastal Route is world-renowned. There’s a good reason—those who soak in this road’s dramatic seaside vistas and emerald glens can’t stop singing their praises. Stop at the ruined Dunluce Castle, perched on an ocean cliff so precipitous that the castle’s kitchens dropped into the sea one night in 1639. Test your head for heights by walking the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge above the waves from clifftop to island and back. And marvel at the Giant’s Causeway, a 50-60-million-year-old pile of basalt columns, stretching into the sea, that has inspired awe and legends in equal measure throughout the long centuries of Irish history. When the day is done wet your whistle at another famed attraction. Take a tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery, the oldest working distillery in Ireland, to get a behind the scenes look at small-batch whiskey production and sample a smooth dram for yourself.

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WALK THE WALLS OF LONDONDERRY (DERRY)

Northern Ireland’s second city is vibrant, modern urban center with one of Europe’s youngest populations. But its heart is cloaked in 17th-century stone, an enduring engineering marvel of the age. Nearly a mile of stone walls, built between 1613-1618, encircle inner Londonderry (Derry) and provide a pleasant stroll around one of Europe’s very finest surviving walled cities. The ramparts are studded with seven gates and one of the continent’s greatest collection of cannons including Roaring Meg—famed for the terrifying sound she unleashed during the 1689 Siege. (The city never fell.) Learn more about the city’s fascinating history at the Tower Museum. Displays here include items salvaged from La Trinidad Valencera, which was one of the biggest ships in the ill-fated 1588 Spanish Armada before it came to grief just offshore.

 

TOUR THE SEVEN KINGDOMS

The real world Westeros features landscapes every bit as striking and unforgettable as those seen in Game of Thrones—and you can enjoy them without fear of being beheaded. Visit spectacular sites from the show scattered around Northern Ireland on your own, or on specialized tours catering to fans of the Starks and Lannisters—some including choose-your-own costumes, bonfires, and feasts fit for a king. Visit the Winterfell film set at Castle Ward and try your hand at archery or meet the Direwolves Odin and Thor. Stroll the Dark Hedges, an avenue of 18th century beech trees more familiar to fans as the King’s Road. If you dare, head north of the Wall into the Haunted Forest itself with a visit to Tollymore Forest Park. Tourism Ireland has painstakingly mapped the Seven Kingdoms to help fans plan their own quasi-medieval fantasy trips.

 

TEE IT UP LIKE RORY

With four major championships and counting, Rory McIlroy has raised Northern Ireland’s game in the golf world. You might not be able to play like Rory, but at least you can enjoy a round on the same courses he loves. Northern Ireland is home to some of the world’s best links courses and you’re welcome to play them even if your game isn’t quite world class. Royal County Down is a private club, but visitors are welcome to play the Championship Links (if reserved well in advance) several days a week. Royal Portrush Golf Club, which will be home to the 148th Open in 2019, also welcomes advance reservations from members of other recognized golf clubs. Although these two institutions enjoy global fame, don’t overlook a local favorite and Rory’s home club. Holywood Golf Club offers even duffers a scenic round set in the hills just a few miles outside of Belfast.

 

TAKE A HIKE TO HARE’S GAP

Some of the most rugged and inspiring scenery in the Mourne Mountains is found on the hike through Hare’s Gap, a moderately taxing jaunt of about 2 miles each way. As you climb to the pass imagine the ice sheets that once helped shape this range, and glimpse the inspiration for Belfast-native C.S. Lewis’s land of Narnia. Spare a thought for the smugglers as well. The gap was once a gateway for smuggled spices, coffee and other goods that were carried here from the coast along the Brandy Pad route for distribution into the Trassey River valley below.

For a more leisurely loop try the circular ridge trail around the top of Divis and the Black Mountain just outside Belfast. The moderate trail takes around three hours, and, on a clear day, it delivers incredible views of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

 

EXPLORE THE FERMANAGH UNDERGROUND

Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is a celebrated UNESCO site that shows off 895 million years of Earth’s history both above ground and below. Today the landscape surrounding Cuilcagh Mountain is an appealing one of uplands, lakes and forests. But over the eons it has seen mountains rise and fall, deserts, and even tropical oceans. You can read these ancient stories in the enduring rock, thanks to surprises like the coral fossils found on the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain. Below the surface an entirely different world awaits. Vast caverns, running rivers, waterfalls, and fascinating geological features are on display in Marble Arch Caves, one of the finest European caves open to the public. From March to October, take a 75-minute tour through this subterranean wonderland by boarding an underground boat ride that leads to a mile-long guided walk through and out of the cave.

 

EXILE YOURSELF ON RATHLIN ISLAND

Robert the Bruce is said to have been exiled on Northern Ireland’s northernmost speck of land in 1306. Once you visit Rathlin Island you’ll be tempted to linger voluntarily. So get away from it all. Take the local ferry from Ballycastle, which takes 25 to 45 minutes. Some 150 friendly locals call the island home, and their quaint port village soon gives way to quiet country best explored by walking or by bicycle, which can be rented on the island. Stunning vistas blend land, sea and sky. Many interesting birds call the island home, at least seasonally, including a colony of puffins. The experts at the RSPB seabird center are a terrific help to experts and would-be birders alike. Whether you stay a few hours or a few days, don’t forget to take in the view from the unique “upside-down” lighthouse before you head back to the mainland.

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LIVE THE LAKE LIFE IN COUNTY FERMANAGH

County Fermanagh may be landlocked, but the way to its heart is by water. Lough Erne, actually two connected lakes, is dotted with intriguing islands to explore. Devenish Island’s monastic site dates to the 6th century and its famed round tower was built in the 12th century. Curious ancient figures are found on White Island and on Boa Island where the two-faced Janus figure was carved by Celts circa 400 to 800 AD.

The local waters provide plenty of live action as well. The Erne system is famed for fine fishing of two distinct flavors; brown trout on Lower Lough Erne and pike on the Upper Lough. The lake’s scenic shorelines are home to a number of National Trust castle and great house properties. Celebrated inns, hotels, and restaurants serve up the culinary delights that are increasingly earning rave reviews in Fermanagh and across Northern Ireland.

The lake is friendly to paddlers with plenty of canoe and kayak rentals and a designated trail complete with camping. Non-paddlers can hop on a day cruise, or hire a boat and chart a course wherever they wish. If the lough only whets your appetite for more, consider moving on to the Shannon Erne Waterway. Thirty-nine miles of scenic canal, river and lake connect the lough with Ireland’s famed River Shannon—and hundreds more miles of adventure.

 

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Is this the most beautiful walk in Ireland?

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.

Day 1

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?

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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.

Day 4

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.

 

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Ireland’s hotel of the year named at Georgina Campbell Awards

Harvey's Point - TripAdvisor's top hotel in Ireland for four years running.

Harvey’s Point has been announced as Ireland’s Hotel of the Year at the 2017 Georgina Campbell Awards.

The Donegal four-star – also Ireland’s No.1 on TripAdvisor – was cited for its stunning location, luxurious accommodation and waterside fine dining restaurant.

“But the real USPs are its people,” Campbell said.

The 2017 awards, held today at Bord Bia in Dublin, also saw Good Things @ Dillon’s Corner in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, named Restaurant of the Year.

A special award for services to Irish food and hospitality was given to Peter & Mary Ward of Country Choice in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary.

Full list of award winners:

  • Hotel of the Year: Harvey’s Point, Co. Donegal
  • Restaurant of the Year: Good Things @ Dillon’s Corner, Skibbereen, Co. Cork
  • Chef of the Year: Sebastien Masi, Pearl Brasserie, Dublin
  • Outstanding Guest Experience: Ballyvolane House, Fermoy, Co. Cork
  • Host of the Year: Kathleen O’Sullivan, Seaview House Hotel, Ballylickey, Co. Cork
  • Business hotel of the Year: The Fitzwilliam Hotel, Dublin & Belfast
  • Newcomer of the Year: Nook Café and Restaurant, Collooney, Co. Sligo
  • Country House of the Year: Viewmount House, Longford
  • Guesthouse of the Year: Number 31, Dublin
  • B&B of the Year: Carbery Cottage Guest Lodge, Durrus, Co. Cork
  • Farmhouse of the Year: Killiane Castle, Drinagh, Co. Wexford
  • Bord Bia ‘Just Ask’ Restaurant of the Year: 1826 Adare, Co. Limerick
  • Taste of the Waterways Award: Two Cooks Restaurant & Wine Bar, Sallins, Co. Kildare
  • Seafood Restaurant of the Year: Jack’s Coastguard Restaurant, Cromane, Co. Kerry
  • Wine Award of the Year: ely, Ely Place & IFSC, Dublin
  • Pub of the Year: O’Dowd’s of Roundstone, Roundstone, Co. Galway
  • Family Friendly Destination: Brigit’s Garden, Rosscahill, Co. Galway
  • Pet-friendly Hotel of the Year: The Salty Dog, Bangor, Co. Down
  • Hideaway of the Year: Bishop’s Gate Hotel, Derry
  • Atmospheric Restaurant of the Year: The Duck Terrace Restaurant, Marlfield House, Gorey, Co. Wexford
  • Ethnic Restaurant of the Year: Pickle, Dublin 2
  • Casual Dining Restaurant of the Year: 4 Vicars, Armagh, Co. Armagh
  • Cafe of the Year: An Fear Gorta/The Tea & Garden Rooms, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare
  • Natural Food Award: Burren Glamping, Burren Free Range Pork Farm, Kilfenora, Co. Clare

Campbell’s annual food and hospitality awards, the longest running in Ireland, are independently assessed and notable for their unexpected choices and surprises, providing a September snapshot of the best in Irish hospitality.

In compiling this year’s awards, Campbell and her team kept “a sharp eye out for those exceptional establishments which are right on top of their game and going the extra mile for customers,” she said in Dublin.

“What we seek is not perfection but real food and hospitality with real heart, and we’re finding it in clusters of excellence all over the country.”

Campbell also noted Ireland’s growing sense of momentum as a food tourism destination, an “explosion” of casual dining and an investment in long overdue refurbishment “following years of stagnation”., in 2016.
However, this year also brought its disappointments.

“Our least satisfactory experiences have again tended to be in four and five-star hotels,” she said. “Higher prices mean higher expectations, of course, but the high level of dissatisfaction is often down to simple things that could easily be fixed at any level, plus a lack of hospitality (which often means lack of a host) and poor staff training.”
“One thing is certain, there are many more people – Irish residents and visitors from all over the globe – now wanting to have the full on experience of real Irish food and hospitality. So, however they find it, let’s make sure it’s real.”

 

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Ireland named one of world’s Top 10 summer destinations, thanks to three ‘luxury’ counties.

Ballyfin House Co. Laois 5

$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:

  1. Italy
  2. UK
  3. France
  4. Spain
  5. Netherlands
  6. Ireland
  7. Germany
  8. South Africa
  9. Greece
  10. Israel

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.

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TripAdvisor reveals its Top 10 Irish destinations, with two surprises

Dublin tops TripAdvisor's list of top Irish destinations, but who would have bet on Newmarket-on-Fergus to feature?

Dublin

The capital pips Killarney to top spot for 2016, with Galway, Dingle and Cork rounding out the top five in its annual Travellers’ Choice Awards.
The real surprises come further down the list, however, with Cong, Co. Mayo making No. 6 and Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co. Clare, coming in at No. 10.
TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Irish destinations are as follows:

  • Dublin
  • Killarney, Co. Kerry
  • Galway
  • Dingle, Co. Kerry
  • Cork
  • Cong, Co. Mayo
  • Westport, Co. Mayo
  • Donegal town
  • Sligo
  • Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co. Clare

Now in their 14th year, TripAdvisor says its awards honour “the world’s best-rated destinations”, with results based on millions of user reviews and opinions.
Sligo was voted Ireland’s best-value destination, with hotel rooms averaging €107 per night – almost a third (€43) less than Dublin, according to TripAdvisor.
Doolin and Tralee drop off this year’s list to make way for Cong and Newmarket-on-Fergus, who also beat off established cities like Waterford and Limerick, as well as tourism hotspots like Kilkenny, Kinsale and Kenmare.
Both destinations do come with the advantage of a five-star hotel, however – Ashford Castle in Cong, and Dromoland Castle in Newmarket-on-Fergus.
As well as topping the list of Irish destinations for 2016, Dublin ranked 22nd on TripAdvisor’s Top 25 European Destinations.
Meanwhile, London was named TripAdvisor’s top global destination for 2016, ahead of rivals such as Marrakech, Rome and New York.

 

Ireland Wants Star Wars Fans to Visit Location Used in New Movie

Tourism Ireland has released a video it hopes will attract Star Wars fans to Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of Kerry used as a location in the box office blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The video shows film director J.J. Abrams and other crew members discussing why the team chose the UNESCO World Heritage Site as a film location.

“I remember when we all flew in, it was special and we knew it,” executive producer Tommy Harper said in the video.

TheJournal.ie reports the video will be shared around the world. The campaign comes despite concerns last year that filming at Skellig Michael would damage the island’s ecology, although government officials said there was no substantial damage.

Tourism Minister Paschal Donohoe said Skellig Michael’s appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens exposed the island’s beauty to “potentially hundreds of millions of people.”

“By the end of November 2015, we had surpassed our best ever year on record for the number of overseas visitors,” Donohoe said. “We are determined to build on that.”

Skellig Michael will also feature in the next film of the series, which will be released in 2017.

 

Source: http://time.com/4166951/star-wars-ireland-tourists/

Kilkenny: The town that brews Ireland’s oldest beer

Kilkenny Castle

It’s a well-known fact that to get to the heart of any Irish town, you must reluctantly sniff your way to at least two of its pubs.

“Just don’t ever call Kilkenny a town,” counsels our guide, Ciaran Ganter, as we arrive at Kyteler’s Inn, founded in 1324 and set among the city’s medieval mile of ancient buildings.

“It might be small of stature and population,” Ganter continues, “but it holds city status thanks to a 1609 royal charter and locals don’t take kindly to being underestimated.”

The four husbands of this inn’s original owner, Dame Alice de Kyteler, may well have underestimated her. One wealthy man after another wedded Alice, only to die suddenly and mysteriously in the early years of marriage, leaving Kilkenny’s “Merry Widow” with a sizeable fortune of her own. By the time her fourth husband, affluent landowner Sir John de Poer, became ill, losing his hair and nails, and altered his will in Alice’s favour, she could no longer evade suspicion.

Accused of witchcraft by the English-born bishop of Ossory, Richard de Lederer, Alice fled. But the ensuing Kilkenny Witchcraft Trials saw her maid, Petronella, tortured, paraded through the streets and burned at the stake.

We’re told this tale, laced with humour, by musician Damien Walsh, during a raucous class in playing the bodhran, upstairs at Kyteler’s.

The bodhran is a traditional Irish drum, not unlike an outsized tambourine without the metal jingles, with a goatskin surface stretched over a round wooden frame. I’m gripping mine tight, sitting in a circle of 10 visitors, including a Guinness-swilling Irish American, a giggling German couple and an earnest Kiwi, and somehow Walsh is coaxing us all into some sort of rhythm.

After 20 minutes of riotous tuition, we can all feel the swaggering Irish beat in our veins, our knees jiggling and our knuckles pounding the bodhrans to produce a feverish but astonishingly musical sound.

Our jam session at Kyteler’s is my introduction to this lively medieval city on the River Nore. Close enough to Dublin, 117 kilometres to the south-east, to attract weekend revellers, a dynamic pulse thumps through Kilkenny’s old veins.

Roaming Kilkenny’s streets at night, you can’t go far without being lured into a bar by the hubbub inside. They’re not all easy to find, though. It takes our guide Ganter’s local knowledge to lead us down a narrow alleyway, through a small courtyard and into somebody’s front room.

Only it’s not a front room but the aptly-named “Hole in the Wall Tavern”, on the ground floor of a Tudor mansion built in 1582, and presided over by local heart specialist Dr Michael Conway.

“It’s probably the smallest tavern, in the oldest surviving townhouse in Ireland,” says Conway, as seven of us crowd around the bar, filling the room.

If his venue has Elizabethan origins, Conway himself is the epitome of a Renaissance man, a cardiologist who has written more than 20 singspiels (musical dramas) on subjects ranging from Edith Piaf to polar exploration, performed in an upstairs studio, and is working on the script for a second Commitments movie.

Conway would probably be happier being called a “Kilkenny cat”, the nickname given to locals, and the county’s hurling team, the most successful in Irish history, for their tenacious fighting spirit.

Either way, Conway is clearly one of many “cats” who adhere to the advice given by another Irish scribe, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, a student in Kilkenny from 1674 to 1682:

“May you live every day of your life.”

The saying rings particularly true in Kilkenny during the warmer months, when three festivals come to town, sorry, the city. First is the Rhythm and Roots music event, in May, and then there’s the Cat Laughs comedy festival, in early June, which this year featured British comedian Jack Dee and American Rich Hall as well as Ireland’s funniest talent. Finally, there is the Arts Festival, second only to Galway’s in prestige and popularity, which every August fills the streets, churches and castle of the “Marble City” with drama, music, art and audiences from across the world.

Year-round, Kilkenny’s heritage draws visitors keen for a sticky-beak into feudal Ireland, with its tales of bully landowners and exploited peasant folk.

There are few greater emblems of that divide than Kilkenny Castle, poised high above the River Nore and the seat of the Butler/Ormonde family, the most powerful dynasty in Anglo-Irish history, for 600 years.

Dating back to the 13th century, the castle retains the gravitas and grandiloquence required of it by the ruling clan, with four-metre-thick walls and black marble and locally mined limestone throughout its interior. Its cavernous Long Gallery is full of self-important portraits and the family’s wake table, two tonnes of 17th century Italian marble, is an immoveable symbol of their empire.

Yet, in 1967, in a very Irish transaction, Arthur, the 6th Marquess of Ormonde, gave this castle to the people of Kilkenny, for the princely sum of £50.

Across the road in what used to be the castle stables, is the National Craft Gallery, with modern studios dedicated to jewellers, basket weavers and other designers. Strolling around and meeting with potter Rory Power and silversmith Desmond Byrne, who produced a silver statue for the Pope’s visit in 1979, I’m stuck by the centre’s quiet industry and genial communality. In 1988, some Scandinavian designers visited and liked it so much they’re still here, adding their expertise to the mix of crafts, which these days lean heavily on Celtic history and motifs.

Kilkenny’s creative bent stretches back as far as its dominant dynasty. While the Ormondes were busy bossing the countryside from their lofty pile, something was brewing at the local abbey. Drawing water from the stream flowing beneath it, monks set about making it safe to drink by turning it into beer.

I learn this and much more besides, from the best brewery tour I’ve attended, The Smithwick’s Experience, at the site of the original abbey on the medieval mile. With portraits of Smithwick ancestors coming to animated life and relating the brewery’s history to visitors, the tour goes way beyond hops and barley, blending the past and present as effortlessly as does Kilkenny.

The amber potion itself, which smells of caramel and roasted coffee during production, may not have the cachet of Guinness, but it was first brewed in 1710, making it Ireland’s oldest beer.

The following day, keen to balance merrymaking with activity, I hire a bike and set off for Bennettsbridge, a riverside hamlet. Cycling in downy Irish drizzle, I follow a canal-side path through ancient woods and a country lane threading between chunky farmlands. I stop for lunch at the local craft centre, a piping-hot chicken and mushroom pie served by beaming mother hens who remind me of my Irish grandma. Then, by arrangement with Kilkenny Cycling Tours, I tether my bike outside the local butchers and trek back along the River Nore, with herons and herds of cows for company.

Dinner that night is at award-winning restaurant Campagne, another sign that Kilkenny isn’t stuck in the past. Set in a slick, stylish space, the restaurant emphasises seasonal produce and French cuisine, making excellent use of ingredients like wild Irish venison, cured and made into a tartare with pickled mushrooms as a starter, Jerusalem artichokes and my favourite meaty fish, turbot, presented as a main with clams, mussels and saffron sauce.

After that, there’s inevitably more research required into Kilkenny’s beating heart. It’s a task enthusiastically embraced by the Aussies in my group and by our Irish pal, Aiofe, who gets her Gaelic name from a legendary warrior princess and is therefore right at home among Kilkenny’s ribald “cats”.

We end the night – “just one more for the road” – at Tynan’s Bridge House Bar where a rousing jam, featuring musicians aged 19-75, is already well under way. We’re quickly caught up in the warm fug, which mixes misty-eyed sentimentality in songs like Danny Boy, the mournful defiance of nationalist ballads and the stirring modern Pogues instrumental, The Wild Cats of Kilkenny.

After an hour of prodding – “what will you Aussies be singing for us now?” – from those at the front, several Irish whiskies, and protestations – “trust me you don’t want to hear me sing” – from us, there are no excuses left. Fortunately, though, we have an Irish warrior princess among us ready to step up to the plate.

Turns out Aiofe is a guitar-playing songstress who nearly knocks the local “cats” off their bar stools with three songs, including a note-perfect rendition of Linger by 1990s Irish band, the Cranberries.

 

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