A trip to Ireland
IRELAND — The trip to the Emerald Isle was off to an ominous start, as my wife Kathie and I were lost somewhere near the center of Manhattan.
“Flag down a taxi and ask them how to get to JFK,” said a passerby, seeing that we were distressed about our predicament.
After all, we had to catch a flight to London within two hours. In addition we still had to turn in our rental car and take the shuttle from the rental car center to the airport terminal.
As it turned out, the advice we received from the passerby was spot on, as the first cabbie we hailed gave us clear, concise directions to JFK.
What a relief. However, we still had to navigate through rush hour traffic and battle the well-travelled Long Island Expressway. But after nearly two hours of bumper to bumper, white knuckle, high anxiety drama traffic, we made it to the terminal with about 15 minutes to check in and board the plane.
This, of course, was an international flight which the airline requires passengers to arrive hours before their flight departs. Needless to say, we didn’t make many friends.
Although the adventure leading up to our international flight was chaotic and unnerving, we reached our seats with a rush of pure elation.
Once in London, we then boarded an Aer Lingus Aircraft for the trip to Dublin where our tour would begin.
After de-boarding the plane and meeting our tour guide, it was off to our hotel in Dublin to check in.
But before settling in for the remainder of the day, we hopped back onto the tour bus to take an orientation drive through statue-lined O’Connell Street, elegant Georgian Squares and past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College.
Located in the heart of Dublin, O’Connell Street forms part of a grand thoroughfare created in the 18th century that runs through the center of the capital.
O’Connell Street is the most monumental of Dublin’s commercial streets.
It has often been center stage in Irish history, attracting the city’s most prominent monuments and public art through the centuries, and formed the backdrop to many public celebrations, protests and demonstrations through the years; a role it continues to play to this day.
Walking down O’Connell Street, one gets the sense of reliving the history time-line of Ireland.
Another prominent feature of Dublin is the many multi-colored front doors of private residences and The Georgian Squares located throughout the city.
The Georgian Squares of Dublin are iconic features of Ireland’s capital and perhaps the finest representation of the formal yet decorative architecture for which the city is renowned.
The next highlight to visit in Dublin was Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, also known as The National Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Patrick.
This is truly an impressive Gothic structure that was built in 1191. It is the larger of Dublin’s two churches of Ireland Cathedrals, and the largest church in Ireland, with a 140-foot spire.
The site of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is said to be the earliest Christian site in Ireland, where St. Patrick baptized converts.
Dublin Castle, which was the seat of British rule in Ireland until 1922, was our next stop.
Although, at first glance the structure does not appear to resemble anything close to a castle, but more of a large residence.
After closer examination, one can see the traditional castle structures. Most of it dates from the 18th century, though a castle has stood on the site since the days of King John, first Lord of Ireland.
Our final stop for the day was at Trinity College, formerly known as The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth.
The college was founded in 1592 as the “mother” of a new university, modeled after the collegiate universities of Oxford and of Cambridge.
Trinity College is one of the seven ancient universities of Britain and Ireland, as well as Ireland’s oldest university.
Among Trinity’s alumni are Bram Stolar, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, as well as an array of rebels and revolutionaries who helped create the Republic of Ireland.
The campus spreads across Central Dublin just south of the River Liffey, with cobbled squares, gardens, a picturesque quadrangle, and buildings dating from the 17th to 20th centuries.
Irish National Stud
Our second day in Ireland happened to fall on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day; however we did not stick around to enjoy the festivities.
With such a gathering of people and automobiles, there would be no chance of driving in or around Dublin.
Plus the fact that our itinerary did not include a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Instead, we travelled across the Curragh to County Kildare to visit the Irish National Stud.
The Irish National Stud is a thoroughbred horse breeding facility which was formally established by incorporation on April 11, 1946 under the National Stud Act 1945, and is owned by the Irish government.
The admission ticket entitles you to see the fine horses and foals that are kept there and it is an interesting walk around the numerous paddocks, stables and small museum.
Also included in the entrance ticket are two gardens: St. Fiachra’s, a large rambling woodland garden and the exquisite Japanese gardens that were created after 1906 by the founder of the National Stud. This garden is recognized as among the finest in the world. The garden leads by stages through the path of a lifetime from birth to death and is absolutely worthwhile visiting.
Next, we travelled to Tipperary, made famous in a wartime marching song, to The Rock of Cashel.
The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archeological sites — a collection of medieval church buildings and fortresses set on top of a limestone outcrop rising out of County Tipperary’s Golden Vale.
Many of the old church buildings still survive and a gentle trek to the top of the rock offers wonderful views around the 12th century round tower, high cross and Romanesque Chapel, 13th century gothic cathedral, 15th century castle and the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral.
The weather was cold, wet and windy, adding an eerie and surreal atmosphere to this old gothic monastery/castle.
Adding even more drama to the experience were crows flying above the ancient Celtic cross graveyard located high on the hill behind the castle.
Our next stop was Limerick, which was founded by the Vikings.
We visited King John’s Castle, which is located on King’s Island in the heart of medieval Limerick City.
The castle overlooks the majestic River Shannon and offers wonderful views of the city.
From here, we strolled along a beautiful walkway on the Shannon River that led us to St. Mary’s Cathedral. The cathedral occupies a very historic plot in Limerick.
In 1168, Donal Mor O’Brien, King of Munster, donated his palace — parts of which are possibly incorporated into the present structure. Previously, a Viking meetinghouse had been located there.
The cathedral’s architecture is a mixture of the Gothic and Romanesque styles. It contains many interesting features, such as a stone altar and Lepers’ Squint, an opening in the wall that permitted lepers to hear mass and receive communion.
After a busy day of travel and discovery we were treated to a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle, located in County Clare.
At the conclusion of our banquet we then proceeded onto the town of Ennis, where we would spend our second night in Ireland.
The Cliffs of Moher
On day three, we travelled along Ireland’s beautiful Atlantic coastline to marvel at the majestic Cliffs of Moher.
The sight was simply spectacular and basically rendered me speechless. The cliffs are located at the Southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare.
They rise 390 feet above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their maximum height of 702 feet just North of O’Brien’s tower, eight kilometers to the North.
On a good day, such as the day we had, visitors can see the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, the Maumturks and Twelve Pins Mountain ranges to the North in County Galway, and Loop Head to the South.
I couldn’t get enough of this place; it was truly one of the most beautiful landscapes that I have ever seen.
After our 90 minute stay at the Cliffs of Moher it was time to take a scenic drive along the limestone plateau of the Burren that will lead us to the beautiful city of Galway.
The city lies on the River Corrib between Lough Corrib and Galway Bay. Galway is a vibrant city with a great seafaring tradition, where you hear about the infamous Lynch Stone commemorating the day Mayor James Lynch Fitzstephen hanged his son for murder.
Walking the cobble-stoned streets of Galway transforms the visitor back in time to medieval Ireland.
Our busy schedule continued as we drove into the unspoiled region of Connemara and at Moycullen.
We made our final stop at the Rathbaun Farm to enjoy some warm Irish hospitality.
It is a picturesque farmhouse, in Ardrahan County Galway, where visitors are taken on a journey through Irish farming practices.
In fact, we were able to observe a farmer shear a sheep and maneuver a flock with the help of a sheep dog.
Visitors to the farm will be enchanted by its 150 year-old thatched cottage home, turf fire, stonewalls and an array of animals.
After enjoying a traditional cup of tea in the farmhouse, it was time to head back to our hotel in Ennis.
Ring of Kerry
Our fourth day in Ireland started off with a short drive via Clonderlaw Bay to Killimer, to cross the Shannon Estuary by ferry.
We then continued on to Killorglin on Dingle Bay to join the spectacular Ring of Kerry — or Iveragh Peninsula, which is the correct name — for a 100–mile panoramic drive around the island’s Southwestern tip.
The entire trip on the Ring of Kerry took more than six hours, but the photo opportunities were plentiful.
The Ring of Kerry provided an amazing insight into the ancient heritage of Ireland.
Highlights included Iron Age forts, Ogham Stones, old monasteries, the Lakes of Killarney and a landscape carved out of rock by the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.
Visitors to Ireland should not miss a trip to the beautiful Ring of Kerry.
After completing the trip on the Ring of Kerry, we then travelled to Killarney where we would be spending the night.
My wife and I decided to finish the day with a horse and buggy ride through the picturesque resort town of Killarney.
Famous Blarney Castle
Day five began with a drive across the Kerry Mountains and through County Cork to Blarney.
The town of Blarney is famous for the Blarney Castle,which is home of the legendary Blarney Stone.
The Blarney Stone is situated high up in the battlemounts of the castle. The stone is believed to be half of the stone of Scone which originally belonged to Scotland.
Scottish Kings were crowned over the stone, because it was believed to have special powers.
The story behind the stone suggests that Queen Elizabeth I wanted Irish Chiefs to agree to occupy their own lands under title from her.
Cormac Teige McCarthy, the Lord of Blarney, handled every Royal request with subtle diplomacy, promising loyalty to the Queen without giving in.
Elizabeth proclaimed that McCarthy was giving her “a lot of Blarney,” thus giving rise to the legend.
Regardless of the legend, I didn’t travel this far not to kiss the stone.
The kissing of the Blarney Stone is not exactly well fitted for the timid and it is certainly not casually achieved.
To touch the stone with one’s lips, the participant must ascend to the Castle’s peak — 127 steps that are very steep — and make sure to hold onto the rails, lie on your back, then lean backwards on the parapet’s edge.
This is traditionally achieved with the help of an assistant, although the parapet is now fitted with wrought-iron guide rails and protective crossbars.
Before the safeguards were installed, the kiss was performed with real risk to life and limb, as participants were grasped by the ankles as their body dangled from the edge.
Shortly after kissing the Blarney Stone, we proceeded onto the city of Cork. The city was built near the River Lee which divides into two channels at the Western end of the city.
At the Eastern end of the city center where the channels re-converge, quays and docks along the river banks lead to Lough Mahon and Cork Harbor, which is one of the world’s largest natural harbors.
This region of Ireland is where my great- grandfathers were born and raised.
From Cork we then drove to Waterford, which is one of Ireland’s oldest cities.
Waterford boasts a commanding presence next to the meandering River Suir.
A hotbed of history and heritage, this strikingly beautiful city was founded by the Vikings in 853 AD and experienced a further exciting architectural overhaul during its 18th century expansion.
And, of course, one cannot visit Waterford without visiting the world renowned House of Waterford Crystal.
Visitors are guided through the factory to see experienced craftsmen at work, creating new crystal pieces.
Just a few of the Waterford Crystal masterpieces on display throughout the world include chandeliers in Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Waterford Crystal made the 2,668 crystals for the famous New Year’s Eve ball that is dropped each year in New York City’s Times Square.
After our Waterford tour it was time to check in to our hotel not far from the crystal factory. But before settling in for the night, my wife and I and several other couples decided to take a pub tour.
We were able to discover Irish pub culture in a traditional inn where live Irish music was played.
We joined the locals in a bit of ‘Craic’ — Gaelic term for gossip, fun, entertainment, news and enjoyable conversation.
It is something so very special to see the magnificent landscapes that Ireland has to offer, but the people of Ireland are even more special.
The Irish are a hearty bunch and more resilient than any other people I have ever met.
Battle sites and beer
Day six arrived and we were off to Enniscorthy, which was the site of the final battle of the great rebellion of 1798.
Enniscorthy is an old Norman settlement and is situated on the banks of the River Slaney overlooked by the old 1798 battle site of Vinegar Hill.
On the West bank of the river, the Gothic Church of Saint Aidans reminds us that Enniscorthy is the cathedral town of the county.
There was no time to spare as we shuffled off to see Ireland’s oldest hand weaving mill at Avoca.
The small town of Avoca is located in County Wicklow and is famous for its copper mines and hand weaving.
In fact, Avoca Hand Weavers is the oldest working woolen mill in Ireland and one of the world’s oldest manufacturing companies. It is also Ireland’s oldest surviving business.
After our tour of Avoca Hand Weavers, we crossed through the Wicklow Mountains.
They form the largest continuous upland area in Ireland.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the mountains provided a handy refuge for opponents to English rule. Rebels who took part in the 1798 Irish uprising hid out here for years.
Today, this same road takes you through the Wicklow area to Glendalough at its south end.
Glendalough is a glacial valley that is renowned for its early medieval monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin, a hermit priest.
The Monastery flourished, despite repeated Viking raids, throughout the age of saints and scholars. until English troops destroyed it in 1938.
After this informative visit to Glendalough, we then travelled back to Dublin where we would visit another Irish trademark — the Guinness Brewery and Storehouse.
Guinness is a popular Irish dry stout that originated in the brewery of Arthur Guinness in 1759 at St. James Gate, Dublin.
Guinness is one of the most successful beer brands worldwide. It is brewed in almost 60 countries and is available in more than 100.
This would be our final evening in Ireland and to bid farewell, we celebrated with a traditional Irish cabaret evening.
After a terrific four-course dinner and Irish coffee, we enjoyed an evening of quality entertainment, celebrating the best of everything Irish in comedy, music, song and dance.
We took in a lively blend of traditional Irish dance, ballads and tunes.
The dancers thrilled us as they twirled and tapped with exuberance to the musical accompaniment of the accordion, vileann pipes, guitar and piano.
A truly amazing finish to a spectacular adventure.
Ireland is a mix of old and new, quiet countryside and exuberant cities.
Ireland’s green fields and majestic castles will stay with you forever.
The friendly people and vibrant cities will greet you with warmth; a sentiment echoed in the Celtic traditions and religious devotion so close to the Irish soul.
From the awe-inspiring landscapes to the lively pubs, you must get out there and discover Ireland. The Emerald Isle is truly a jewel of a destination.
Derek Miller is retired from the U.S. Air Force. Derek lives in Salisbury with his wife Kathie and daughter Brittany.