Dublin, Meath, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Offaly and Kildare
- Andrew - 1995
Antrim, Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh and Armagh - Andrew - 2001
Dublin and Newgrange - Roy and Sarah - 2001
Click here for a more detailed map
Ireland, England's close neighbour to the west, still bears the scars of British occupation with the divide between the North and the Republic. Although the 'peace process' continues it will be some long time before the division of this small but beautiful country has been healed.
The Republic of Ireland was formed in 1923 when the Provinces of Leinster, Connaught and Munster plus three of the Counties of Ulster became independent from Great Britain. Dublin became this new country's capital city.
Ireland is famed not only for the beauty of it's landscape, but also - perhaps more so - for the Irish people who are without doubt the friendliest, most welcoming people in Europe.
Dublin to Kerry and Back - Andrew -
1995 (Travelogue written
Like many holidays this one started in the dark in the middle of the night, struggling out of bed and lugging heavy hold-alls into my Father's car. Then there was the remarkably brief journey to Stansted - arriving there at the same time as the sun showed itself over the unhilly horizon.
Having hung around for the usual hour or so, it was off through customs (no passports required) and onto the monorail which takes you from the Terminal building (such an unpleasant term) to the Departure Gate.
The journey took less than no time, no sooner had we stopped climbing than the familiar ear-popping sensation announced to me that we were heading downwards. I peered eagerly out of the window, but the clouds were not green and looked much like the ones I had passed through as I left Essex.
However, I am glad I was looking out of the window because when we did finally break through the cloud cover a nigh-on magical sight greeted us. I had expected to emerge over fields, but no, the view from my little porthole was of Dublin Bay; the Howth Peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea and the Wicklow Mountains glowering darkly in the background.
Necks all around craned to get a better view as the plane descended into a chilly, but bright Irish morning.
Having passed once more through customs it was off to the bus stop to get a bus into Dublin's fair city. Thus, one of my first encounters with people on Irish soil was with the bus driver who - like bus drivers everywhere - was a demonic lunatic once behind a steering-wheel. By the time I actually got off the bus, I had discovered that this was a national characteristic.
Having dumped all my un-needed baggage at my B&B, I set off to discover Dublin or as they call it Baile Átha Cliath.
The first of its more famous sights I found was the Customs House - a huge Georgian building (like all of Dublin's buildings!), with great stuccoed pillars and a brilliant green dome (copper I presume, not just patriotism). I then, quite by accident, found myself in O' Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare. Here is the General Post Office with bullet wounds from the Easter Rising. Here is the modern statue of a woman sitting in a fountain which Dubliners call "The Floozie in the Jacuzzi".
Onwards, I determined to find the Liffey. Quite easy, as it turned out. I was off across the famous Ha'Penny Bridge and heading for Grafton Street. After a detour which found me back at the River, I eventually found Dublin's best-known shopping street. At the end of the street stands Molly Malone, or as they call her here "The Tart With The Cart" - a buxom wench, but not as lovely as the women of Dublin who seem almost unnaturally beautiful. I wandered up Grafton Street for a while and then decided it was time to start sight-seeing. First port of call was, of course, the Guinness Hop Store. Here I tasted my first of the black stuff - or properly the very very very dark red stuff, as this is what colour it actually is. Then, slightly shakily, it was back towards the centre of town and the Dublinia exhibition which led on to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin's Protestant Cathedral and a quite graceful building with an arch across the road modelled on the Bridge of Sighs. Having been to one, it was off to the other Protestant Cathedral called - not surprisingly - St. Patrick's. (The Catholic Cathedral, oddly, was the one I didn't get to.)
St. Patrick's was a nice Cathedral, but unremarkable really. Then on to Dublin Castle. My first Castle of the trip. It would, on first appearances, be a disappointment. Not very Castular, it looks like the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. However, having been around the State Apartments, the tour takes you down to the foundations of not only the Norman Castle, but the Viking fortification which predated it. All moist and dripping with the underground River Poddle (I kid you not) flowing around it's ancient stones.
My day in Dublin - where the weather was very kind to me indeed - began to draw to a close. I wandered the Liffey for a while, and went to write some postcards in St. Stephen's Green. This place reminds me of Paris. Then I went back to my flea-pit B&B and settled in for my first night on Irish soil.
Morning broke in a moist sort of way. I had expected as much and had been surprised that the weather had been so good yesterday. First things first, I had to pick up what was to be my transport for the next week. It turned out to be a Ford Fiesta, Wine Red, with the registration 94 D 23096, the "D" I later realised meant it was registered in County Dublin. I would soon come to recognised the "OY" from Offaly, the "MN" from Monaghan and the "KY" from Kerry amongst others.
It seemed a little peculiar but I started my journey heading for Belfast, although I knew I was going to get nowhere near. I was heading for Newgrange, probably the greatest Burial Mound in the World. It is in County Meath, but to get there I had to go through Drogheda (Droichead Átha) in County Louth. It was in Drogheda that I got lost for the first time. Having found myself heading out of town in all the wrong directions, once going along the wrong side of the River Boyne I could see the road I wanted to be on but couldn't get to it. Eventually I found my way and got to Newgrange. A wonderful place, mystical and mysterious. This is the place where the sun shines into the tomb on one day a year - the Winter Solstice - and no other.
Newgrange was considerably out of my way, so now I had to head back past Dublin into County Wicklow. Against my better judgment I decided to head across the hills towards the Wicklow coast. I began to discover at this point what true Irish roads are like, having thus far been on nice smooth major by-ways.
Irish roads are not straight. In fact, legend has it that they are based upon the famous inter-twined Celtic designs. Irish roads are definitely not smooth. Never again will I complain of English roads, I am glad it wasn't MY car's suspension! And, as I travelled across the Wicklow Mountains, these particular Irish roads were ..... well, nigh on invisible in the thick fog.
The fog denied me my wide views of Wicklow, but it did plunge me into the deep end of Irish driving. At one point I stopped by a picturesque little trickle of a stream, only to discover that this was the wide and majestic River Liffey, which just a few miles away ran through the heart of Dublin.
I came down the other side of the Mountains to the little town of Greystones (Na Clocha Liatha), home of one Shenda Taylor, in many ways the progenitor of this trip. It is a pleasant enough little place, with a little row of shops and a nice wide but stony harbour. Not so Wicklow town (Cill Mhantain) which is where I stopped next. A most disappointing town with nowhere to eat and little to see. Nevertheless I walked down to the "seafront" - a row of houses and a road which happen to be at the water's edge and looked out across a bleak and unfriendly looking Irish Sea.
Leaving Wicklow, still having not eaten, I headed towards my camp for the night in a place called Redcross. Having not eaten, my dinner on this my first night of camping turned out to be some bread and butter, crackerbreads, two raw carrots, a pint of milk and a nectarine. It was windy and cold, but as it was my first night I managed to put up with it magnanimously, although as I lay in the cold trying to get to sleep I did begin to wonder whether I would be blown away that night.
Well, I'm still where I was last night. Having packed away the tent and eaten some more bread and butter, it was time to set off once more. My first stop was to be the beauty spot of Glendalough. But the Irish roads had other ideas and it took me somewhat longer to get there than I wished. The weather at this point was changing its mind every second, but when I finally arrived at Glendalough it was dry - grey, but dry. This place was my first inkling of the Ireland I had come to see. Monastic ruins and a superb round tower reached up into a misty sky with mountains and lakes behind it. As if to confirm its Irish-ness, I met up with my first coachload of Americans.
Onwards once more and off to Kilkenny. The idea was to go via Carlow (Ceatharlach) - once more the Irish roads had other ideas and I went via Arklow (An tInbhear Mór), Shilleleagh, Carlow and Port Laoise. (Port Laoise (pronounced Leesh) is about as far from the sea as you can get in this country.) Eventually though I did arrive at Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh).
Kilkenny is a beautiful medieval town after the fashion of, say Lincoln, and quite English-looking (dare I say it). However, there is nowhere to park! After a frustrating half an hour trying to find somewhere to park I ended up in the shadow of the Castle, which was what I had really come here for.
Having been guided around the Castle - quite an interesting tour, including a cursed table which is unlucky to touch - which an inebriated George III slept on one night when he couldn't find his way to the bedroom. It was then farewell to Kilkenny, for now I had a long way to go.... to Tipperary (Tiobraid Árann).
I actually managed NOT to get lost between Kilkenny and Tipperary, although the road was scarcely what we would call direct. I went via Clonmel (Cluain Meala) and Cahir (An Chathair) (nice Castle). It is indeed a long way to Tipperary - and the town sign as you approach informs you that "You Have Come A Long Way"! I was going to eat in Tipperary, but after a big struggle all I managed to find was a kebab takeaway. They did chips, so I once more sat in my car and ate.
I then headed off through a not so fine rain and ended up staying at a camp site on an orchard between Tipperary and Cashel. Here I sat waiting for the rain to ease off, and watching a rainbow over the apple trees. It seemed vaguely idyllic, but somewhat moist.
Moist. That was the first thing I noticed. It had been an awful night. It was freezing cold, my teeth were chattering and I had had little sleep. Sometime in the night it had rained quite hard and the rain had (inevitably) found its way into my tent. I was wet and cold and not too pleased. Bugger this for a game of soldiers, thought I, and packed my tent away never to emerge again.
Almost as if this decision was a turning point, the Rock of Cashel, my first stop, was an impressive and amazing sight. Rising on its own little rock above the otherwise quite flat Tipperary plains, this Irish Acropolis is topped off with a Cathedral, a round tower, a couple of churches and a Castle. Up here, high above the town and looking west, I finally felt like I was really in Ireland.
Back down to the car park and, avoiding a coachload of Italians this time, I set off once more to head for County Cork.
My first stop in Cork was at the Jameson Whiskey Heritage Centre in Midleton (Mainistir na Corann). This is a superb place, well presented, a big LONG tour and a free whiskey tasting. I volunteered to be put through the whisk(e)y test. This involved tasting four Irish whiskeys (Jamesons, Powers, Paddy and Bushmills), one Scotch (which turned out to be Johnnie Walker) and a Bourbon. In my mind there was no doubt as to which one was the winner. It was Paddy for me. I was then treated to a free measure.....this measure was huge to say the least - about four or five times an English measure! I staggered happily away towards the nearest restaurant to have something absorbent to eat and a strong black coffee - not my usual tipple by any means.
Feeling capable of driving once more I headed off for the island port of Cobh (pronounced Cove). This place is beautiful. Houses stacked up the cliff-side are crowned by the glorious Cathedral with twin spires (albeit somewhat scaffolding clad) in which I lit a candle for a friend of mine who had requested me so to do. Down in the town is "The Queenstown Story" which mainly concerns itself with Cobh's role as the departure point for many thousands of Irish bound for America, fleeing from the Great Famine and other deprivations.
I liked Cobh.
I decided that Cork City was for another trip and so my next appointment was at Blarney Castle. I thought I wouldn't get there on time, but in the summer Blarney is open until sunset. Something I think perhaps our National Monuments could learn from. And so, at about six o'clock in the evening I sat above a one-hundred plus foot drop and leant backwards as far as I could being gripped firmly by an Irishman in order to kiss a piece of saliva-worn shiny stone set in the battlements of Ireland's most famous Castle.
On returning to an upright position - having looked down - my only comment brought out the Irish in me "Jaysus", said I.
I liked Blarney.
As this day was beginning to close I thought perhaps I should head towards Killarney (Cill Airne) to stay. I actually didn't quite leave County Cork. I stayed near Macroom (Maigh Chromtha) in a little house standing on top of a hill with a fantastic view of the Mountains ahead of me and from my room I watched the sunset over them.
This morning I was glad I had chosen to forsake my tent for the comfort of B&B's. I opened the curtains to a glorious day. It was, perhaps, a good thing that I was in a good mood. My first act this Sunday morning was - yes, you've guessed it - I got lost. I drove around some of the most astonishing roads I've ever seen. One of them - straight as a die - had such a wide piece of grass growing down its centre that I actually stopped and photographed it!
Eventually, I did find Killarney. The town itself is nothing special. But head for the Lakes and you are in the Ireland of your dreams. Ross Castle overlooks one of the lakes and a more romantic setting is hard to imagine. The guide around this Castle was a most astonishingly lovely young girl whose name, alas, now escapes me.
From Ross I went to Muckross, the National Park Visitor Centre and the House. Here the rain came again, reminding me that I am in Ireland and that the weather is by no means predictable. I found it wonderfully amusing watching crowds of Americans running for cover, and felt good just strolling around in the rain, knowing that I was English and thus immune.
Happily, this rain was but a passing shower and by the time I got up to MacGillycuddy's Reeks - Ireland's highest mountains - the sun was glaring and it was T-shirt time. I stopped many times driving around the Ring Of Kerry to take in the views, especially at "Ladies' View", so-called because it was the favourite view of Queen Victoria's ladies in waiting. I can see why because it is breath-taking.
At the very western tip of the Ring Of Kerry sits Valencia Island and on it the Skelligs Experience. The Skelligs are islands, once inhabited by monks, but now inhabited only by seabirds. There should have been a boat trip too, but they had cancelled it because of lack of people - at £15 a time I am not shocked. A bit annoyed I headed back for the mainland and got caught up in an Irish day out. Some teams of boatmen were racing up the sound between Valencia Island and the mainland. This was all very picturesque and exciting, but I wanted to get through the crowds and parked cars. The problems were compounded when a huge camper van decided to attempt to get through a gap which it quite clearly would not fit through. Much cursing and scratching of heads went on and in the end it was me who had to back up until I found an awkward but just about large enough gap to squeeze into. I then had to sit there and fume whilst rows and rows of cars passed in either direction.
All in all the lack of boat trip and the lunacy of the traffic had done little to calm my nerves. I was pleased to reach the Dingle Peninsula, the western-most point of the British Isles. Here I stayed in Dingle town (An Daingean), a lovely little place, nestling against brooding mountains, and slept in a small house twixt pub and church.
I woke up calmer than the day before and set off around the Dingle Peninsula. This is another wonderful place. At the most westerly point are the Blasket Islands, deserted now like the Skelligs, but more visible and with a decent visitor centre. Scattered ancient remains dot the mountainous and dramatic land, most famous of which is the Gallarus Oratory - a place too popular in my mind with one particular coachload of French people. It was then back to Dingle for my real reason for coming here.
For the last 12 years Dingle Bay has been blessed with the presence of Fungi. An effusively friendly dolphin who will happily entertain boats full of tourists.
I am delighted to say that Fungi performed well for me and our boat got a good view. It was very exciting being out on this small boat (although we were not alone) and rushing from side to side as Fungi showed himself. As we headed back for Dingle town after an hour on the water, the clouds rolled in from the Mountains and cast the place in a misty and mysterious vein. It is one of the views which will stay with me. Also in Dingle I was happy to buy myself a bodhrán, one of those flat Irish drums, something I had wanted to buy. All in all I left Dingle with its straight roads and cheerful people as a very happy bunny.
As I approached Tralee (Trá Li) the heavens really did open. There is a theory that the Irish weather system works like this. Firstly, the sun evaporates water over the Atlantic. Then wind blows the clouds over to the Hills of Kerry. Then the Atlantic falls out of the sky. At this point I could present no argument to this theory.
I pressed on, I can visit Tralee sometime when it is a bit dryer! I pressed on into County Limerick and Limerick City (Luimneach) itself. I found Limerick City a bit disappointing. True, I was not there long and didn't explore fully, true the weather was not too grand, but apart from a quite nice Castle and the wide River Shannon it could be Anytown.
At Limerick Tourist Centre I got a leaflet which informed me that Bunratty Folk Park was open until 7. Surprised, but pleased, I headed off to Bunratty to be told by the people there that they had closed at 5.30.
I evidently must have looked crestfallen because the lady behind the desk took pity and let me through to have a quick look around the Park whilst it was shutting down and charged me nothing! Although I would have liked to have seen the place open properly, this at least convinced me that the Irish really were kind to strangers, even English ones.
That night I stayed in Ennis (Inis), capital of County Clare. Ennis has a brooding ruined Friary and a nice but not mind-blowing Cathedral. I stayed in what can only be described as a total dump, complete with peeling wall paper and shadeless lights. But it cost just £10. That night I went into the pub across the road and got my taste of Irish pub life, with a not-quite-traditional group who were actually rather good. Ennis, despite my lodgings, was a place I quite took to.
Today I awoke knowing it was my last full day in Ireland. As if to make this poignant the first thing I did was get lost. I took the road heading west from Ennis when I thought I was heading north. So I got to see a lot more of County Clare than I had bargained for. But I was pleased, it was a nice place and I got to travel along the coast road towards the magnificent Cliffs of Moher. These startlingly high and angular cliffs stand 250 feet above the crashing waves of the Atlantic. The highest point is marked by a tower which you can climb for views across Galway Bay to the Aran Islands and Connemara beyond it.
From the Cliffs of Moher it is not far to Lisdoonvarna, a pretty town which is Ireland's only Spa town - and oddly enough is quite reminscent of Tunbridge Wells or Bath!
I had seen pictures of The Burren. But they had not prepared me. Nothing could prepare you for this indescribably strange place. Rising from the green fields are huge grey "blobs" of mountains. They aren't sharp, but rather from a distance have the appearance of hardened lumpy porridge. When you get closer you find out that this is made up of huge great chunks of limestone, long square runnels of the stuff. There is no water on The Burren. No Rivers, no Loughs, no puddles even. When it rains all the water drains straight through the limestone within about half an hour. The upshot of which is a lunar-like nearly plantless landscape riddled with hugh cave systems, one of which, Ailwee, I went down.
There really is nowhere else like The Burren. You can only see this in Ireland.
My last full day was turning out well. The weather was brilliant once more and I headed for Galway City (Gaillimh), which I was expecting to be my last major port of call. Galway City is thriving. It is cosmopolitan, hectic and colourful. Most of its ancient buildings are long since gone, but somehow this City doesn't need them. I liked Galway City.
I had two choices now. Head out into Connemara to take in the scenery there, or head towards Dublin and be on the safe-side for getting back to the Airport in time. I opted for the safe-side, as I knew how the Irish roads could be slow by now. It turned out I could have seen some of Connemara, but then I have saved that for my next visit - what more incentive could I need?
I stopped off in Loughrea (Baile Locha Riach) on the shores of Lough Rea, and stayed at the Lough side for longer than I might normally. I was aware this could be one of the last great views I have of Ireland on this trip. It turned out I was wrong there too!
Eventually, I got to Ballinasloe (Beál Átha na Sluaighe), just in County Galway, where I stayed the night at a place with an effusively friendly landlady, who seemed to be interested in everything. I was made to feel hugely welcome, and it made me a bit sorry to be leaving the following day.
In a way, when you get to the end of the holiday you start thinking of home. I thought that my last day would be mostly made up of travelling. I wasn't exactly right.
My effusively friendly landlady told me it would take about two hours to get to Dublin from Ballinasloe. I had allowed about eight. So I had time to kill. She advised me to head for Clonmacnoise, so I did.
On the way I stopped briefly at Shannonbridge on the border between Roscommon and Offaly and had another look at the River Shannon. It turned out that Clonmacnoise was also on the Shannon. This was, for centuries, the most important monastery in Ireland. It has two round towers, many churches and the inevitable visitors centre. There is also a Castle next door! I was very glad to have seen this place, it turned out to be one of the nice places and one of the most interesting....somewhere I might have missed had I gone to Connemara.
Onwards, and within a few miles of Dublin I stopped at the little town of Maynooth (Maigh Nuad) in County Kildare. This really was the last port of call. I found myself a Chippy, at long last, something which turned out to be rare in Ireland. I also had a Castle to myself as it is accessible only by getting a key. It was absolutely peaceful inside that Castle, only the pigeons made any other noise.
Then it was back to the Airport, stopping very very briefly at Swords. I said a sad, but fond, farewell to 94 D 23096 and checked in.
As we travelled back across the Irish Sea the sun set and we descended over Luton in the darkness with the lights of Luton, Stevenage and so on glittering below us. It was totally totally night time when I arrived back at Stansted. A quick monorail journey back to the Terminal and then it was back to my Dad's car and the drive home.
I was tired, totally broke, but I was happy and satisfied. My verdict? Go there....I know I will be.
Northern Ireland Trip - Andrew - 2001
It was an early start for this trip to Ireland - my flight was 7:15 AM, so I had to be up at 3:45 to drive to Stansted and check in. The flight seemed to go very quickly indeed. At one point I looked out the window trying to identify the towns below, as one does, thinking I could spot Leicester I was trying to work out what the big town just north of it was... it turned out to be Liverpool and what I had assumed to be Leicester was Manchester! Incredibly the plane began it's descent over Liverpool (fantastic views) and was quite low by the time we went over the Isle of Man allowing me to pick out Castle Rushen. The descent into Belfast International Airport was nearly as dramatic as the one into Dublin with the Mountains of Mourne and Lough Neagh as the scenic backdrops.
The bus journey to Belfast centre took quite a while (Belfast International Airport is some long way from Belfast), and my first stop was inevitably my bed & breakfast to get rid of my heavy bags. This was another bus journey away near Ormeau Park. Having started walking the wrong way up the road I eventually managed to divest myself of my baggage and set out to walk back into the City Centre to see the sights.
The first of the sights I saw was the two cranes of the Harland and Wolfe shipyard (known as Samson and Goliath they dominate the Belfast skyline), sadly the cranes don't get used much these days, but it was in this shipyard that the Titanic was built. From here I walked up into town hoping to see the Albert Clock Tower (which famously has been leaning more and more each year due to subsidence). I found it completely shrouded in scaffolding - the lean now being arrested before it topples over. So I didn't really see that particular landmark. From here I moved on to St. Anne's Cathedral, the Protestant Cathedral of Belfast. For a relatively modern Cathedral it was quite picturesque, most impressive being the massive Celtic Cross that decorates the north wall).
From here it was a short walk to Donegall Square, the main centre of the City, which is dominated by the massive bulk of Belfast City Hall. Unfortunately I didn't have time to go on the guided tour as I only had one day in the City, but even from the outside the building is very impressive. Belfast continually surprised me with the size of it's civic buildings and the open airiness of it's streets, not at all what I had expected.
Even less what I had expected was the Crown Liquor Saloon - the only pub owned by the National Trust. I knew it was ornate, but I didn't think it would be so wonderful. Pleasant little snugs with ornate wooden panelling and, I kid you not, stained glass. I had decided to eat in the Crown expecting to get a small meal and pay dearly for it. I actually got a massive meal that was more than value for money and was certainly delicious, plus a perfectly poured Guinness. I was impressed.
My next, brief, stop was at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral just off the Falls Road. It isn't a particularly spectacular Cathedral and the interior wasn't open, so I could only look at it from the outside. From here I went back onto the Falls Road and began my political tour of Belfast.
It has become a fashionable excursion to take a taxi around the political murals of the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. I decided not to bother with the taxi and to walk the route instead. Neither area is what you would call exactly salubrious, long before the political and religious tensions this was always a poor area of workers in the linen trade. Unemployment is still higher in these parts of Belfast than anywhere else.
The Falls Road was my first destination to view the Republican Murals. These are mostly concentrated in a small area by the Falls Cemetery at the far end of the road from the City Centre, although there are some most of the way along. The most spectacular depicts the island of Ireland with lilies at it's centre. Other murals draw parallels with Catalonia and Israel, still others depict IRA "freedom fighters" dressed in the ubiquitous balaclavas.
From Falls I walked down through one of the least pleasant areas I encountered in Belfast, through what was until recently a no-man's land between the two areas. As I approached the Shankill Road I walked through the riot gates, now open, but in the past put there to keep the two communities from each other's throats.
The murals around Shankill are even more militarised and sinister than those around Falls. A large number of masked gunmen watch you from the walls with Loyalist dogma phrases such as "No Surrender" and, most sinister of all, "We Know Who You Are". However, one couldn't help but be impressed by the scale of the murals around one particular estate where almost every street end was decorated, not to mention the red white and blue kerb stones and lampposts.
It was a short walk back into the City Centre from Shankill, and I have to admit it was refreshing to leave the atmosphere of subdued menace that begins to set in after a few hours walking around looking at messages of hate and intolerance, albeit ones with some artistic merit.
I had a fair amount of time left, so I took the bus out to Belfast Castle, which stands some way to the north of the City on the side of Cave Hill, the big square mountainside that is constantly in the backdrop wherever you go in Belfast. I found the Castle interior shut, but the gardens with their cat motifs open. From the edges of Cave Hill - I decided not to climb right to the top - there were some good views of Belfast Lough far below and the ferry from Scotland coming up the Lough.
After a while at the Castle I headed back into the City Centre, found some food, although after my massive lunch at the Crown Liquor Saloon I wasn't particularly hungry, and then I walked back to my digs. It had been a long day, but I was satisfied and had enjoyed Belfast much more than I had expected.
My first stop was at the car hire company to pick up my car for the next few days. This was another Ford Fiesta (as it had been when I was in Ireland six years ago). I got out of Belfast quite easily and headed up the A2 to Carrickfergus which was to be my first stop.
Carrickfergus is quite a small place, far smaller than it's historically important role would suggest. It is dominated, of course, by the wonderful Castle - the best preserved and most impressive Norman Castle in Ireland. I spent a while looking around the Castle which is decorated with a number of "medieval" figures including a knight on horseback and an archer. Slightly disappointingly you can't get out onto the roof of the keep, but otherwise a very enjoyable Castle. From the quayside where William of Orange arrived in Ireland the Castle presents an impressive site indeed.
Carrickfergus itself is quite a neat little place and at one end of town is the Knight Ride - the only "dark ride" in Ireland (dark rides being the sort of audio visual things where you sit in a little carriage that takes you around an exhibition - a kind of educational ghost ride). This is probably more for children than 32 year old men, but it was still quite interesting and I always have a bit of a sneaking liking for these things!
From Carrickfergus I headed north along the majestic Antrim Coast Road. This is one of Britain's most scenic rides and as you head further north the landscape becomes slowly more and more dramatic. You begin to hit the Nine Glens of Antrim, the most dramatic of which is the so-called "Queen of the Glens", Glenariff. I drove some way out of my way to reach Glenariff Forest Park which was where I encountered the first anti-foot and mouth (my visit was during the big outbreak of early 2001) measures. You could get out at the picnic area, but the walks were closed. As it cost £3 just to park your car I decided I wouldn't bother and turned straight around.
Shortly after Glenariff, just after the town of Cushendall which was the centre of an outbreak at that time, I was diverted inland down what turned out to be Glendun. Here my car was disinfected for what turned out to be the first of several occasions. Before I headed back down the other side of the Glen towards Cushenden. From Cushenden the road cuts inland slightly to Ballycastle. It was now about two o'clock and the weather was glorious, so I made the decision not to bother stopping at Ballycastle but to head straight for one of my major targets - The Giant's Causeway.
The Giant's Causeway certainly did not disappoint. It was actually much bigger and more impressive than I had expected it to be. For anyone that doesn't know, the Causeway was created in one of two ways. One way is it is the result of the heating and cooling of a lava flow creating crystalline structures of basalt in hexagonal columns, the flow coming out of the sea again at Fingal's Cave off the island of Mull in Scotland. The other way is it is the remains of a bridge built by the Giant Finn MacCumhail to reach his love in Scotland. Whichever way you look at it the Giant's Causeway is one of the marvels of the British Isles and was probably the highlight of my whole trip to Northern Ireland.
I spent quite sometime wandering around the weird structures and shapes of the Causeway, making sure I saw it from every angle and making the most of the wonderfully sunny afternoon with which my visit had been blessed.
A little way back down the coast is the second of the three great attractions of the Causeway Coast - the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Which, as it's name suggests, is a rope bridge which is erected every spring to allow access to the small island offshore which has a salmon fishery. 10,000 tourists a year cross the bridge, but when you are halfway across with an 80 foot drop to the sea below you you suddenly seem to forget this fact, particularly if the bridge begins to bump and sway. Holding on very carefully I crossed the bridge, surprising myself as I am not a great one for heights at the best of times. Having looked around the really very small island at the other side I realised that I had to cross back again. The return journey was considerably less worrying, having got across alive once I figured it would be okay going back again.
Having survived Carrick-a-Rede I briefly stopped to look at the very scant remnants of Dunseverick Castle before heading towards Portrush where I intended to stay that night. On the way I passed the third of the Causeway Coast big attractions - Dunluce Castle. This was shut for the foreseeable future because it happened to be situated on a sheep farm owned by the same farmer whose flock had caused the outbreak of foot and mouth at Cushendall. This was my first big disappointment because of foot and mouth... it wouldn't be the last.
Slightly dispondent I arrived in Portrush to find a pretty grim and rundown seaside town with very little character and even less to make you want to stay there overnight. I ate fish and chips in my car and then drove back to Portballintrae, a tiny place nearer to the Causeway where I found some digs on the seafront.
I awoke to a typically hearty Ulster breakfast. "Will you have some more toast?" "No thanks" "Right you are, here it is." "Will you have some more tea?" "No thanks" "Right you are, here it is" - "Will you have some more tea?" "No, really, not any more" "Go on" "No" "Go on, go on, go on, go on..." etc. Why is it certain landladys hear "No thank you" as "Yes, pile some more or on I haven't eaten for months"?
Anyway, having run the gauntlet of massive sized breakfast I dragged my stuffed bulk back into the car and drove the very small distance to Bushmills Distillery, the oldest (licenced) whisk(e)y distillery in the World. It got it's licence in 1608 (from England's King James I) and has been continuously producing the golden stuff ever since. Slightly disappointingly you weren't allowed to take any photographs during the tour - according to our guide for safety reasons as the atmosphere is full of explosive liquor evaporations... odd that it never bothered them at Jameson's or any of the Scottish distilleries I've visited. As ever the tour ended with the customary tasting - which this time I didn't take part in as I had to drive for the rest of the day and at my previous visit (see my previous trip to Ireland) to the Jameson's distillery I knew that the tasting involved large amounts of whiskey.
As the tour ended so the rain began, I climbed into the car and headed off to County Derry - or County Londonderry depending which side of the political fence you happen to stand on.
It was further than I thought to drive to Derry City, but I didn't see a great deal to distract me on the way. The landscape became less dramatic almost immediately I passed from County Antrim and the road veered inland away from the coast, passing by Coleraine and Limavady neither of which seemed particularly interesting.
So eventually I arrived in Derry City and parked up. The first thing that struck me about Derry was how steep it is, somehow I associated walled cities with being on the flat but the whole of the old City, including the walls, are on a very steep incline down to the River Foyle which is almost completely ignored for some reason.
Derry is one of Ireland's oldest towns and has a long history of trouble dating back long before the Troubles of the modern age, although it was at the heart of them also. One of Derry's most famous incidents was the Siege of 1688 when some Apprentice Boys of the City famously closed the City Gates against the forces of James II thus beginning a long and unpleasant siege which lasted 105 days and held up James II long enough for William of Orange to be able to win the Battle of the Boyne which decided the succession in England and the history of Ireland, particularly in the North. The people of Derry are very proud of their siege and mention it everywhere they possibly can.
Of course, my first stop in Derry had to be a circuit of the City Walls. I began this at the Shipquay Gate opposite the ornate Guildhall which is one of Derry's landmark buildings and was being used for a wedding on this day. The City Walls were completed in 1618. This part is probably the most impressive section of the City Walls with it's line up of cannon, two Gates and reasonable height, terminating in the Cowards Bastion where the walls turn uphill away from the River. By this point the rain was coming down with avengeance. Also standing at this corner is the Tower Museum, a replica of a fortified tower which used to stand at this point (more of which later). Walking up the Walls as they shadow Garrison Street you find for the first time that their height undulates wildly which seems really odd at first as some parts of the Walls are barely a foot high - which seems pretty pointless. This side of the Walls has some of the highest sections - not without reason for it overlooks the Bogside, always the Catholic enclave of Derry and the sight of terrible rioting in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the Bloody Sunday shootings. The Bogside is today much more peaceful and famously declares itself "Free Derry".
Another corner turn and you are at the "top" of town. Midway along this section of Wall is the Bishops Gate which gives a superb view down the centre of the City past the Diamond and down to the Guidhall which stands directly opposite. A little further on and you happen upon St. Columb's Cathedral, Derry's Protestant Cathedral. It is an unremarkable building, although quite attractive. I was surprised, in fact rather disappointed considering the fuss made of it, to discover it was locked shut so I could only view it from the outside. The Cathedral roof was used to mount cannon during the Siege.
Once you pass the New Gate and head toward the River once more the Walls suddenly sink to a minimal height and you find yourself wondering if they were always this height - because if they were it would seem that the Apprentice Boys' actions were wasted as the besiegers could merely have walked over the Walls to get into the City. All in all the City Walls of Derry were slightly disappointing because I had been expecting something more like the Walls of York or Chester, whereas these walls (which admittedly are nearly 400 years younger) are more like the walls around a Napoleonic Fort.
Having got quite thoroughly wet on my wallwalk I decided I'd head for some food. I happened upon the attractive little "Derry Folk Craft Village" - a set of shops and restaurants arranged around a couple of rather picturesque courtyard which was quite charming and a good place to rest from Derry's turbulent political history.
After lunch I went to have a look at The Diamond, which is the square in the centre of Derry. Most Plantation towns have a Diamond at their centre, so called because they are square (i.e., diamond shaped). Derry's Diamond is dominated by a war memorial at it's centre - more conflict!
I then headed for the Tower Museum, housed in the replica of a tower house which once stood at this point. The Museum has won many awards, and I think that's fair as it is an excellent museum and tries very hard to present a balanced view of Derry's complicated history from it's early settlement by St. Columb right through to the segregation and violence of more recent times. Perhaps Derry has finally come to terms with it's unique past.
I left Derry satisfied with having done the City justice and broke for the Border...
I crossed into County Donegal - and thus the Republic of Ireland - at the checkpoint on the main road to Letterkenny. Here I was thoroughly disinfected for foot and mouth - my first reminder of the day that the disease is hugely feared in the Republic whose economy is very much a rural one.
As I headed onto the Inishowen peninsula the weather began to close in and deteriorate considerably. By the time I reached Buncrana (Bun Cranncha) it was pouring down. I had this odd idea that today I wanted to stay as far north in Ireland as I possibly could - preferably somewhere close to Malin Head. So that was the direction I headed in. I passed through Carndonagh and Malin village and there seemed to be plenty of B&Bs around. Persevering I headed for Malin Head and briefly stood admiring the desolation - my first view of a bleakly awe-inspiring Donegal landscape.
As it was cold and very windy I got back into the car and decided I'd come back tomorrow if I was staying close by and the weather was better. I then began a frantic search for a place to stay. For the only time on this trip it proved hard work. There were plenty of B&Bs around, but only one I tried out of about 10 had anyone in it and they were fully booked up. I slowly began heading further and further south and my idea of staying close to Malin Head disappeared into frustration. I ended up on the other side of the Inishowen peninsula in Moville.
I woke to sunshine, which was a pleasant surprise at least. Having driven a good many miles from Malin Head I decided not to bother returning there this morning. Instead I headed for Greencastle to see it's main tourist attraction - Green Castle. This is a tremendous romantic ruin which apparently has a plan very much like Caernarvon Castle in Wales. It was a satisfying start to the day. Then I turned back on myself and headed down Lough Foyle. I arrived at the tiny border town of Muff and cursed myself for missing the entendre-filled chance of spending a night in Muff.
From here I kept just in the Republic and headed for the Grianán of Aileach. This involved a very long windy road up to the ancient Fort which stands on a high hill overlooking the Foyle valley one way and Lough Swilly the other. I got out of the car and was staggered to look down at the view of Lough Swilly from the car park, one of the most magnificent views I'd ever had in Ireland and splendid weather too! Then I walked up to the gate leading to the Fort only to find it closed off because of foot and mouth. I stared at the sign for a while - I even videotaped it expecting it to be the only place I couldn't reach in Donegal. This turned out to be a sad misconception and a theme began to develop of driving for a long time on windy roads only to find at the end of it disappointment because of somewhere being shut because of a disease that didn't even exist in Donegal.
A little peeved I headed for Letterkenny with it's famous Cathedral, St. Eunan's, the spire of which dominates the small town (although it is Donegal's largest town Letterkenny is really rather small). I forgot where I was. This was Sunday morning and I was in Ireland. The Cathedral was absolutely jammed solid - I couldn't have fitted inside if I'd been allowed. I have never in my life seen a Cathedral so packed. Although it meant I didn't see the inside of the Cathedral there was something pleasing about seeing one being used for the purpose it was built for rather than merely a tourist attraction as is the case most of the time in Britain.
From here I decided to head to Doe Castle near Creeslough. To remind me that I was now in the Republic not the North I got thoroughly lost on the way to the Castle and found myself quite literally in the middle of nowhere amongst the Derryveagh Mountains. In every direction there was nothing, nothing at all save the brooding profile of Mount Errigal. It was quite quite breathtaking. After a while I got back on track and found the windy road to Doe Castle. Once again though when I reached the Castle car park I found the Castle shut off because of foot and mouth. It was crazy - the field next to the Castle was open, so was the car park and the long road down to it - but the small field in front of the Castle and the Castle itself - both of which seemed quite devoid of sheep, cows or pigs - were shut. I took some photos, probably the same one I would have taken if I'd got into the grounds anyhow, and then left. It was time for lunch.
Lunch happen in the very attractive small town of Dunfanaghy and was very good. It was really hot by now and the town looked idyllic.
I have for some years been a fan of Clannad and Enya, the family Brennan came from Donegal - from the region called Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair). So I was looking forward to touring their home area. One stop had to be Leo's Bar - owned by their father, Leo Brennan, and where the group played their first gigs. Leo's Bar was tiny and a little dilapidated, but did contain a number of Clannad and Enya's gold and silver discs which was interesting. I found myself in a landscape familiar from their songs - Dunlewey Lough, Bunbeg, Derrybeg, Tory Island.
I began to see Donegal's most stunning landscapes as I drove around to the Bloody Foreland - one of the best views was down at Ballynes Bay. From there it was around to the classic view of the Bloody Foreland - so called not (surprisingly) because of some battle that happened there but rather because of the colour of the rocks in a certain light.
From here I headed around the coast to Derrybeg and Bunbeg - two towns so close together it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins and further down into the area called The Rosses which has a quite different look to Gweedore. Gweedore is barren but green and dramatically hilly, The Rosses are flatter but scattered with massive boulders of limestone with an almost plantless like The Burren. Both areas are very beautiful in a rather empty and desolate sort of way.
I continued on my journey around the coast heading for Crohy Head near Dungloe (Na Clogha Liath). This provided me with yet another stunning view of emptiness with tumbledown cottages and rugged cliffs down to the raging Atlantic. This place is a poet's dream, so stunning in the sunshine. I have to admit, though, I don't think I'd want to live right out here - it's a bit remote even for me.
The day began to draw slowly in, so I headed back to the Bloody Foreland where I ended up staying in a quite superb guesthouse - the view from my window being of the Bloody Foreland point slowly getting darker as the sun went down. It was quite magical.
Today turned out to be quite frustrating. I had returned to Bloody Foreland because I wanted to take the ferry from Bunbeg to Tory Island the following day. When I reached Bunbeg harbour I was told that the boat would only stay at Tory for about an hour so I would either have to stay overnight or only spend an hour on the island. For £12 it didn't seem worth an hour's visit, so I left Bunbeg having not reached Tory Island - one of my intended highlights.
Things didn't improve as I headed instead for the Slieve League cliffs. These are the highest seacliffs anywhere in Europe - and as such must surely be quite a sight. They also have "Tir Eire" written on them apparently so that in World War II any enemy bombers would know that this is Ireland a neutral country and not the UK (presumably only passing Germans who could read Gaelic). It is a long long drive through fishy-smelling Killybegs and along some of the windyest roads I've seen in a long time until you reach the Slieve League cliffs. Having driven about 8 miles out of my way I arrived at a sign just before you get to the car park saying that the whole area was shut off because of foot and mouth. I couldn't believe it - why could they not have put a sign up somewhere miles ago, there is nothing else out here. For a moment I sat in the car stunned into a non-ambulatory mode. Then angrily I put the car in gear and decided enough was enough... I was heading back across the border where, although they've got foot and mouth, they've only shut off the stuff they really need to.
The drive to Enniskillen took some time, which was slightly frustrating as it was another gloriously hot day and I'd spent most of it in the car. Still, I arrived at Enniskillen at about 2:30 intending to first visit the Castle and then maybe go to Devenish Island. My first port of call was the Tourist Office where they told me the ferry to Devenish goes from further up the side of Lower Lough Erne (I'd actually passed it on my way into town!) and that there was a ferry due at 3:00. I thought I might as well try to get to Devenish first and so backtracked until I found the tiny little lane (and even tinier sign) to the jetty. When I arrived, in view of the Monastic site of Devenish Island, I found no ferry, but three men fixing their own private boat. I asked them about the ferry and they pointed to where it was moored by the island. They suggested I wait until the ferry operator returned to see if I could go over today.
When he got back he informed me he wasn't as his boat was broken but if I came back at 10:00 the following morning he'd take me over for nothing. Feeling slightly frustrated I agreed and drove back into Enniskillen. Enniskillen stands strategically on an island between Lower Lough Erne (in true Irish style the bit above town) and Upper Lough Erne (which is, of course, below town). Enniskillen actually derives from the Gaelic for "the town on the island".
It's most famous landmark is Enniskillen Castle. This is where I headed next. At last something went well on this difficult day - the Castle was still open. Inside is a small visitors centre and a museum which deals with the Enniskillen Regiment and the history of the town. The Museum is okay without being anything particularly special. The Castle has been very heavily modified over the years to the extent that the keep is almost unrecognisable as such. The most distinctive feature of the Castle is the Water Gate which gives the Castle a unique outline and makes it one of the most recognisable of Irish Castles. How defensive such a delicate looking structure might be is another question!
After visiting the Castle I headed into town. The skyline is dominated by the ship-like bulk of the Church of St. Michael which positively dwarfs the Roman Catholic Cathedral which stands across the road from it. At the other end of town is the Coles Monument which in the summer can be climbed for excellent views (it wasn't summer, so I couldn't go up). I admit I was quite taken with Enniskillen it was a pleasant, sunny little town, very clean and quite lively. One can only imagine the impact that the IRA's disgusting Remembrance Sunday bomb must have had on a place like this.
As I was required at the Devenish jetty at 10:00 the next day I decided to try to stay quite close to it. I located a B&B not far away and drove over to it. As I approached the house a black dog the size of a small horse came lumbering out of the house. As I'm not a great lover of massive demon-dogs-from-hell I turned the car around and decided to try and find somewhere else to stay. This turned out to be a dairy farm, the irony was not lost on me after a day when foot and mouth had dominated my trip so much. My landlady was another of those who considered their entire mission in life to feed their guests, I was installed in the lounge with a massive pot of tea and vast selection of cakes and breads where I settled down to read more of Bridget Jones's Diary which had accompanied me on this trip.
The next day it was raining rather hard when I woke up. After another huge breakfast I headed back through Enniskillen to the ferry for Devenish Island. I arrived good and early so sat in the car reading and listening to the rain pinging heavily off the roof. A little after 10:00 the boat arrived and as the rain slowly eased off to a vague drizzle I was taken across the Lough to Devenish Island with it's Monastic settlement. This consists of one of the best preserved Round Towers in Ireland, two churches and a monastic cell plus a small museum. Normally you can go up the interior of the Round Tower, but only a few months earlier the Health and Safety had shut the Tower saying that the ladders inside were six inches too short - not question of interfering for no reason there then. I was a bit disappointed at that (Devenish is the only Round Tower in Ireland you can ascend) but nevertheless I was quite impressed with the site and got some very moody photographs.
An hour or so later the boat came back to pick me up - and true to the boatman's word I wasn't charged - and took me back to the shore.
From here I headed south - back through Enniskillen again - to the very edge of County Fermanagh near the border with the Republic. I was heading for the Marble Arch Caves. Unfortunately because of the heavy rain the boat trip part of the cave tour wasn't open, but the part on foot actually took quite a long time and was certainly spectacular. One of the most impressive parts was the walkway which quite literally goes through an underground lake (it is built up from concrete and is nicknamed the "Moses Walk").
After more than an hour walking through the wet tunnels staring at outlandishly shaped rock formations I emerged blinking into something approximating daylight, although it was still overcast. I had decided to go from here north to Belleek to eat. To do this I had to loop for a few metres into County Cavan in the Republic... sure enough I was heavily disinfected as I crossed the border. Even as this was occuring I listened with amusement to a news announcement that farmers in Tipperary had been smuggling cheap cattle across the border from the North - still rustling cattle in the 21st century!
Belleek was a rather pretty little place of approximately one street. It is dominated by the famed Belleek Pottery which you can tour if you so wish, not being a great pottery fan myself I didn't bother but satisfied myself with dinner. After this I headed down the south side of Lower Lough Erne. Unfortunately a lot of the viewpoints are in Forest Parks and these were shut off, although I did manage to get one or two panoramic views, as it was overcast they wouldn't have been that much wider however high I had got.
Part of the way down the Lough shore is the small Plantation Castle, Tully Castle, which I stopped to visit. It didn't take a huge amount of time as it is a very small Castle - but I was pleased to find it open. Alas Monea Castle which is nearby wasn't open, so I couldn't visit that. For the last time I drove through Enniskillen and headed into County Tyrone. I had thought about stopping somewhere in Tyrone that night but eventually I decided to press on to Armagh.
In the end I wished that I had stayed in Tyrone as Armagh City was, to say the least, not the most attractive of Cities. In fact, it looked positively derelict aside from the two Cathedrals. I drove a little out of a town and found my digs - at a Floodlit Golf Driving Range of all things - and then went back into town to get myself a portion of chips, peas and gravy which I brought back and ate at my digs. My last evening meal in Ireland was not the best I've ever eaten!
I had spent the rest of the evening watching bad Italian TV in my room. The next day the weather had certainly not improved any, if anything it had deteriorated. After breakfast I headed back into Armagh City which looked slightly more appealing in daylight, but not much.
My chief targets here were the two St. Patrick's Cathedrals which stand facing each other across the town - one Catholic, one Protestant.
I visited the Protestant one first, as it is the oldest. It is on the site of St. Patrick's own church, and there has been a church on this site ever since, although much of the current Cathedral was built in 1268 and 1834. This is also the burial place of Brian Boru, last of the great Irish High Kings. Inside there were four priests at their daily morning prayers, otherwise there was nobody around.
I then walked down the hill and up the one facing to the far more impressive but considerably less historic Roman Catholic Cathedral. It has a very impressive situation and as a building is much more visually pleasing. Inside it was packed, I had wandered into Morning Mass. Once the gathered had began to depart I started to look around the Cathedral which is beautifully decorated with mosaics on every surface (ceiling, walls, pillars, floor - everywhere!). The altar looks like a pagan sacrificial monument and seems hugely out of place in an otherwise fairly traditional church.
Consulting my watch I decided I had time to have a quick look at St. Patrick's Trian - which is merely a visitors centre and museum despite it's enigmatic name. As these things go it was done quite well, featuring very heavily the life of St. Patrick (no surprises there) plus Armagh's role as Ireland's Ecclesiastical Centre. As I left I reflected that it's a shame that Ireland's Ecclesiastical Centre didn't keep itself in somewhat better nick.
As I left Armagh I was stopped by the Army at a checkpoint. It was as if Northern Ireland was reminding me that The Troubles aren't really over - just in the background a bit. The image of a British Soldier standing, gun in hand, by an armoured landrover was straight off a news bulletin and was the last image I took home of this complex and beautiful part of the British Isles.
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