Last month our writer Lee went on a trip organised by Discover Ireland, Stena Line and the Paddywagon Tours to help celebrate ‘The Gathering 2013‘ – a year-long celebration of all things Irish. So they set off crossing the sea from the UK by ferry and started their journey in Dublin before taking a bus tour through some of the country’s main sites (on what could have possibly been Ireland’s one sunny weekend of the year)…
Our visit started off promisingly with a forecast of sunshine and balmy temperatures – not exactly an everyday occurrence for Ireland but perfect conditions to sail across the Irish Sea. I was greeted at Dublin port by a sign proclaiming “When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart”, written by one of the city’s favourite sons, James Joyce, and by the time I left I realised it’s unlikely he’ll be the last to feel that way.
A whistle-stop mini pub crawl around Dublin’s Temple Bar area – including Buskers Bar, The Porterhouse and Farrington’s – enabled me to try the improbably-named Galway Hooker (get your mind out of the gutter, it’s an ale named after a type of fishing boat) and once again enjoy a pint of “the black stuff”. It’s true what they say, the Guinness genuinely does taste better in Ireland than anywhere else you may have drunk it. Only 20 years ago Temple Bar was far less salubrious and on the verge of being torn down, whereas now the reinvigorated streets are alive with locals and tourists alike.
I’d been told that many Irish people compare the attractions of Ireland to that of a ring doughnut – all the good stuff is around the edges, with little in the middle. I pondered over this as we arrived at Ashford Castle, built in 1228, which for a few hours allowed me to indulge my fantasies of starring in a kind of Irish version of Downton Abbey. This imposing castle has taken care of dozens of A-listers (Ronald Reagan takes pride of place on the wall of fame) but for a sliver of luxury it’s worth taking a look around the spectacular grounds or donning your finest threads to eat there – while devouring the best Irish stew I’ve ever had, I wondered whether the ex-President found time for a bit of falconry, or got taken to the dungeon (which thankfully is now a bar and function area).
We drove on into Ireland’s famously beautiful countryside and after passing and stopping to talk to a peat digger (and learning about a tradition I knew very little about), it was onwards to cross the strangely named River Suck to Galway, arguably Ireland’s most Irish city.
The city has a youthful population giving it a very vibrant feel. This is the place where musicians, artists, poets and dreamers are drawn to. A visit to The Skeff, Garvey’s or – arguably best of all – Club Aras na nGael and it won’t be long until you meet a chatty local. If you’ve got any desire to learn more about Irish culture or practice the language, Club Aras na nGael is a great place to start. Scrawled on their sign outside was possibly the highest form of recommendation I’d ever seen for a pub – “Jesus loves the craic”.
As wonderful as the cities are, I was especially drawn to the countryside of Ireland – they may not have Himalayan peaks or Brazilian jungle, but natural wonders like the Cliffs of Moher should still be on every traveller’s itinerary. Proving that context is all important, I ended up listening to “Beautiful Day” by U2 while driving through some of the loveliest scenery Ireland had to offer, and I can’t think of a better soundtrack to accompany such a view. Other highlights included the area to the north and west of Lake Corrib, the remains of Leamaneh Castle in The Burren, Inch beach on the Dingle peninsular and Lake Leane on the shores of Killarney National Park.
No trip to southern Ireland would be complete without visiting Blarney Castle, home of the famous Blarney Stone. There are a couple of different stories concerning the origin of the legend that we know of today – namely, that kissing the stone will bestow upon you the ability to talk eloquently, to deceive without offending, flattering someone with your wit.
With my journey almost at an end, my final insight into Irish culture was a night at Taylor’s Three Rock – a cavernous venue about 25 minutes drive from the centre of Dublin. With 800 covers, its the not the place for a quiet, romantic meal and even for someone like me who is not the biggest fan of Riverdance-type entertainment, I found it to be a jovial mixture of traditional and contemporary Irish song and dance, with decent food and excellent service. Once The Mighty Ghosts of Erin get into their stride, your foot will be tapping without you even realising it.
So I bid a sad farewell to the Emerald Isle, but things weren’t all that bad – on the return ferry crossing, I was offered a rare chance to go onto the bridge and meet the captain. Looking at the various screens and instruments I was a little concerned when he referred to other boats as “targets”, including one called the Foyle Warrior. Had I stumbled into a real-life game of Battleship? Seeing as our vessel was more than 20 times the size of the fishing boat, at least we didn’t have much to worry about.
All words and photos by Lee Hubbard our roving reporter who probably didn’t need to kiss the blarney stone.