I visited Ireland when I studied abroad in 2010, but it was a quick trip of about 4 days on a coach bus with 30 or so others. Don’t get me wrong it was fun, but that trip I focused more on taste-testing Guinness than really exploring the country.
As soon as my mom said she was planning a trip to Ireland, I invited myself along. She’s been a couple times before, but my dad never had and she figured it was time for them to visit together, seeing as they both have roots over there (as does practically everyone else in the States). And I’d been itching to return ever since I left.
A few days after I finished wrapping up my tour season, we flew out to Dublin where we spent 3 nights. We did a historical tour of the city, visited Trinity College, poured our own pints at the Guinness Storehouse, went to the Irish Immigration museum and – my favorite part – went on a musical pub crawl. There were two musicians who led us pub to pub, mostly in private rooms and played us traditional Irish tunes and reels. They explained to us anyone who plays Galway Girl (the original, not Ed Sheeran– but also the Ed Sheeran version for that matter) or Bob Dylan is NOT a traditional musician. Often the real deals are called sessions and the musicians don’t play for the audience, they just play for fun.
We rented a car in Dublin and spent the next two and a half weeks making our way around the perimeter of the country. We spent time in Glendalough in County Wicklow where my dad’s relatives are from. It’s a beautiful little town nestled in the Wicklow mountains and is a popular spot for day trippers from Dublin, which unfortunately meant a lot of coach buses and annoying German school groups. We avoided the crowds by hiking up and around the lakes.
After Glendalough we made our way to Kinsale, stopping briefly in the charming medieval town of Kilkenny and had lunch at one of the oldest pubs in Ireland, originally ran by a lady in the 1200s who was accused of being a witch. Kinsale was another charming town with very lively colored buildings and shopping streets full of tourists.
We then made our way over to the Beara Peninsula, where we spent a few nights at a cousin of a cousin’s B&B. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip, especially since it was much less touristy than Kerry and Dingle but equally as beautiful. My mom’s grandmother was born here and as it turns out many other Irish emigrated from the Beara to Butte, Montana, where my mom was born! One pub where we ate lunch was full of newspaper clippings talking about Butte and they even had a Montana license plate so that was a cool connection.
We spent three nights in Killarney, where we kinda ignored town itself, but drove the ring of Kerry one day and the Dingle peninsula another. My favorite day in the area was when we walked the Gap of Dunloe. We took a boat across the lake to get to one side of the gap and hiked (more of a walk really) to the far side and ended the day at a pub with beers. The only downside was we thought cars weren’t allowed, which wasn’t true, but the majority of people going through the gap were walkers and bikers anyway.
On the way to Galway we spent a rainy, eerie day at the Cliffs of Moher and doing a short walk around the Burren. The following day we took a ferry out to the Aran islands and biked around the biggest one and had a beautiful day for it.
We visited Kylemore Abbey and Connemara national park on our way to Clifden. Connemara was stunning and the hike we did afforded us 360 degree views of both mountains and sea. We spent the night in a “castle” (I’m skeptical that it really was one- but it was nice nonetheless!) ate great food and found real trad(itional) music in a packed pub.
We had a long drive north to Killybegs, which is a funny town with a funny name. We only stayed there because we couldn’t get accommodation in Donegal which was a shame. But we had a good lunch at a thatched cottage pub and almost got blown away by extreme winds while walking along a beach.
Another one of my favorite days was after Killybegs where we drove out to Slieve League. Kind of like cliffs of moher but taller, more dramatic and way less crowded. I could have sat and looked at those cliffs for ages. We crossed into Northern Ireland (new country!) and stayed in Derry, which I quite liked. The next day we drove back to the republic (regular Ireland) to visit Glenveagh National Park where we biked down the far end of the lake past a castle. Another stunningly beautiful part of Ireland.
Leaving Derry we visited Dunluce castle, Bushmills distillery and Giant’s Causeway on our way to another silly-named town called Ballygally. I wasn’t sure what Giants Causeway was before going, and after having been I’m still slightly confused; it’s pretty much a giant (ha) hill that you walk down to see the strange formations that folklore says were formed by a giant. It was interesting because the formations are pretty weird but it was also crawling with tourists.
We backtracked a bit the next day to visit the Glens area, which I wish we had more time to spend in. There’s 9 glens along the north eastern coast and we did a small hike in one of them, which was filled with waterfalls and more green than your mind can handle.
We had two nights in Belfast and I liked the city more than I was expecting to. We did the black taxi tour and learned about the Troubles and how divided the city still is between catholics and protestants. We visited the Titanic museum of course (because you can’t not in Belfast), and then the museum of Ulster which had a good exhibit on the Troubles as well as a tapestry depicting the events of the entire series of Game of Thrones. I tell ya, Northern Ireland really plays up the whole Game of Thrones thing, which is a smart play by the tourism board.
We had one last walk on a beach and then it was time to drive back to Dublin, drop off the car and head back stateside. (Where I had 12 days to get ready to leave for Antarctica! But more on that later…)