According to EPIC , the Irish Emigration Museum, there are 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry and heritage. Recent census information reveals that one in six Pittsburghers claim Irish ancestry. With so many having green roots, chances are you may be Irish or know someone who is, and you may also be wondering what it would be like to return to the homeland. I am nearly 60 percent Irish, and we recently found out from a DNA test that my husband, who for 60 years thought he was half Italian and half Slovak, is 19 percent Irish. To celebrate our 35th Anniversary and our only common heritage, we decided a trip to Ireland was in order.
If you are considering going to Ireland, here are some tips that may help you to enjoy the trip even if you aren’t Irish at all.
To Tour or Not to Tour?
Because Ireland is an English-speaking country and is relatively small (about the size of Indiana) many think it is an ideal place to explore independently by rental car. However, we opted for a tour and were quite happy that we did for several reasons. First, while you would think it would be easy to drive in Ireland, they drive on the opposite side of the road from the U.S., which takes some getting used to. Remembering to look left first when crossing the street plays tricks with the mind. Imagine how much more so it does when driving. Also, there are roundabouts everywhere, which take some getting used to as well. The highways are smooth and well-marked, but once you get into the countryside, the roads become impossibly winding and narrow. At one point, the road was so tight that we could have reached out of our bus window and shook hands with the truck driver beside us as we inched past each other. Our tour director, Dennis, also made a good point. The country lanes in Ireland are usually lined with rock walls and hedges. When you are on a tour bus, you sit up high above the walls and can see all the gorgeous scenery, while those in a car most often see only miles of hedgerows.
Another reason we chose a tour is that we enjoyed traveling with a group. We have been to Europe once before and went with a tour and found that being part of a group is an additional pleasure. I’m not the most extroverted person, but I enjoyed meeting the people in our group, learning about their lives, and we still remain friends with several of them via Facebook.
Perhaps the number one reason for our choosing a tour is having the services of a tour director. While independent travelers were navigating roads, we sat back in our comfy bus seats Dennis entertained and educated us. During seven days of touring, he gave us the history of Ireland from prehistoric times to present day, along with tips on where the best pubs were located, who served the best ice cream in town, and what it was like to be Irish. He entertained us with tales of Fairy Trees and explained the intricacies of Gaelic Football. He helped the golfers in the crowd arrange tee times and pointed out department stores for the poor woman on the tour whose luggage was lost. And during quiet times, he played Irish music. I don’t think I’ll ever forget listening to Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” as the magnificent scenery of mysterious mountains, castle ruins, and silvery, shimmering seas rolled by our windows.
There are many tour companies to choose from, but we chose the CIE 8-Day Best of Ireland South tour because it hit all the must-see sites, and it coursed through the area of Ireland where my ancestors hailed. We spent three nights in Dublin, two in Killarney and two in Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Highlights of the Trip
Dublin is ancient, historic, clean, and packed with things to see and do. We went to the Guinness Storehouse and EPIC Ireland, which is new and gives a nice overview of how so many in the world came to claim Irish ancestry. We arrived a day before the official tour began and made use of the Hop-on-Hop off busses and public transportation. In addition to the Guinness Storehouse and EPIC, we toured the National Gallery of Irish Art and the National History of Ireland Museum as well as doing some shopping on legendary Grafton Street. When the official City Tour began, it included a tour of Trinity College and a view of the Book of Kells. The days in Dublin were capped with a rollicking night at Taylor’s Three Rock Tavern complete with Irish food, drink, dancers, singers, and comedians.
On our way to Killarney, we stopped for photos at the Rock of Cashel, where the Kings of Munster resided. It was incredible to think that my ancestors may have walked these same grounds. We also had a sheepdog herding demonstration at an Irish farm and then tea and homemade scones and jam inside the farmhouse. Next, was Blarney Castle, the home of the McCarthy chieftains. There are 105 Medieval, steep, irregular, stone stairs up a narrow turret to the top of Blarney Castle. Once there, you then must lie on your back over the edge of the castle and do a chin-up to kiss the famous stone. Definitely, not an easy feat. As one woman said on the tour, “Why didn’t old Cormac McCarthy just put the darn stone on the first floor!”
Killarney is charming. It is crammed with colorful pubs and shops and was our home base as we explored the southwest of Ireland. Our first day there, we rode to Dingle and took a cruise around Dingle Harbor. The scenery was otherworldly. No wonder this area was chosen as a site for filming the new Stars Wars movie. Then we rode though the countryside, which looked like a green patchwork quilt, to Slea Head, the westernmost part of Ireland and Europe. On the way, we stopped at a ringfort that was older than Stonehenge.
Before we left Killarney the next day, we took a horse-drawn jaunting cart into Killarney Nation Park to see the ruins of Ross Castle, which is set on beautiful, placid Lough Leane.
Then we headed north to our next hotel on the grounds of Dromoland Castle in Newmarket-on-Fergus. On the way, we stopped for lunch in Adare, a quaint town that still has thatched cottages. Then it was on to Limerick and a tour of King John’s Castle, which overlooks the River Shannon. That evening, we went to a Medieval Banquet in Bunratty Castle, where we drank mead and used only our “daggers” and fingers to eat while we were entertained Medieval style.
The next day, we toured Galway and its medieval city center. Our guide, a Ph.D. student in Irish Archeology, dazzled us with information. Inside St. Nicholas Cathedral, he pointed out that back in those days, only the rich were buried inside the church. When they decomposed a stench rose, giving us the phrase the “stinking rich.” He also pointed out that when the clock tower was built, a clock face was only installed on three sides of the four-sided tower. Under oppression from England, the Catholics weren’t given a clock to face their side of town. Hence the phrase “They wouldn’t give you the time of day.”
Next up was The Burren, one of Ireland’s National Parks, and its miles of exposed limestone mountains. Amazingly, this lunar looking landscape supports plants from Artic, Mediterranean, and Alpine climates. Then it was off to the iconic Cliffs of Moher, where we had beautiful weather to take in these majestic sea cliffs. Our trip concluded with a stop at the Irish National Stud, where thoroughbred horses are bred.
When the tour company sends you a rain poncho with your documents, you know to prepare for inclement weather. However, it rained only twice: it misted on us as we left Blarney Castle and when we were eating lunch in a thatched cottage in Adare. Most days a sweater sufficed as Ireland doesn’t have wild swings in temperature because it is warmed by the Gulf Stream. There are beaches and people do surf in parts of Ireland, but if you are looking for a shore vacation to work on your tan, you will be deeply disappointed.
While Ireland’s cuisine isn’t as celebrated as other countries’, all the food that we had was fresh and tasty. Sheep and cattle are plentiful in Ireland, but the farmer we visited told us that most of the Irish lamb is sold to France. You can find lamb in Ireland, but it is more expensive than beef. We enjoyed Shepherd’s Pie, Guinness stew, fish and chips, chicken, and ham. We had potatoes at every meal and they tasted especially yummy. The produce was fresh, local, and flavorful, and even the Applegreen, Ireland’s version of Sheetz, served hearty cock-a-leekie soup, and sandwiches on warm bread. They even served my hot tea in a china cup with a linen napkin and demitasse spoon.
The number one tourist attraction in Ireland is the Guinness Storehouse. This either says something about the beer in Ireland or is a sad commentary that people would rate this site over all the other amazing things on the island. Nevertheless, the Irish are finicky about their beer, and Guinness reigns supreme there, but there are numerous other beers like Crean’s Irish Lager, (a Killarney favorite named for native son Thomas Crean, who accompanied Earnest Shackleton on his expedition across the Antarctic), Smithwick’s, and craft beers with names like Buried at Sea and Of Foam and Fury.
Ciders are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, and according to Dennis our tour guide, “Ten years ago, if you’d have asked for a flagon of cider, you’d have been drinking out of a paper bag in an alley somewhere.” Bulmer’s and Cronin’s were a few of the popular ones we sampled. Dennis also told us that in the Irish language, uisce beatha means water of life, a term which has been anglicized to be whiskey. He also told us that the Irish invented whiskey before the Scottish and that the Irish spell whiskey with the “e” and the Scottish don’t. Whether they invented it first or not, the Irish certainly like their “water of life” and have more than 350 Irish whiskeys to choose from.
In Brooklyn, the 2015 movie that shows what it was like to be an Irish immigrant to the U.S. in the 1950s, Eilis, the main characters, described the Irish as calm and civilized and charming. We found that all to be true. While Dublin is more fast paced, it is not frenetic. Clerks, waiters, and staff that we came across were friendly, helpful, and interested in the U.S. They like us in Ireland. You see the Stars and Stripes hanging outside many of the pubs across the country, probably because almost everyone in Ireland has a relative or friend living in the states. The Irish possess a great sense of humor. When the guard in the National Museum saw me looking a bit confused about what to see first, he said, “I’d start with the Prehistoric Ireland. The artifacts there are only thousands of years old. So, don’t be afraid of breaking anything priceless because we can always blame that on the French.”
Do a Little Homework
Should you decide to go to Ireland, do a little homework. Online you can research things you’d like to see and do. Ireland is a small country, but it has a long history. There are prehistoric ruins, Viking churches, Norman castles, and beehive monasteries, as well as reminders from the times when Ireland was ruled by England. Also there are some of the most dramatic land and seascapes on earth. So, whether you want to take in the standard attractions or just relax and enjoy the lovely scenery, doing a little bit of planning ahead, will help you to make the most of your time if you ever cross the sea to the Emerald Isle.
By: Janice Lane Palko