Emerald Isle's Charms Abound
Posted March 5, 2007 11:18 a.m. EST
It is the land of my ancestors, a country of castles, mountain heather, stirring literature, scholars and saints.
We journey north toward Galway. The drive takes us past stonewall-lined roads and farms, two of the signature sites of the typical Irish countryside. The beautiful fieldstone fences are a testament to the residents’ resourceful nature. Stone-laden fields were cleared by hand to make way for farms and pastures and the heavy stones carefully stacked, creating miles of picturesque stone fences.
Galway lies at the mouth of the Corrib River. Once a medieval center of narrow stone streets, it’s now a lively city with cathedrals, universities, shopping districts, fine dining and the Galway Irish Crystal Centre, one of the most popular tourist destinations. Here, you can watch artisans cutting glass with skilled precision. Years of rigorous training are required to create world-renowned stemware. Although Waterford Crystal is better known, Galway Crystal has its own distinct charm and beauty. After a visit to the showroom and gift shop, most visitors are unable to resist bringing home the hand-cut crystal treasures.
Our travels take us from man-made beauty to the mythical splendor of the Irish landscape, which has inspired countless poets, musicians and artists over the centuries and continues to captivate visitors year after year. Along the coastline, you’ll discover boulders as large as houses and stone cliffs hundreds of feet high, such as the famous Cliffs of Moher--about an hour south of Galway--which plummet 700 feet into the raging Atlantic below. The cliffs extend for some five miles and form one of the grandest and most breathtaking coastlines in Europe.
The ocean air fuels the appetite. Fresh salmon, mussels, Atlantic lobster, and oysters are common fare at restaurants and pubs up and down the coast. People from all over the world descend upon Galway to sample the world-famous oysters of Galway Bay and the legendary craic (fun) of the west of Ireland.
Western Ireland is home to more than 900 castles in the counties of Clare, Limerick and Galway. Some have been turned into luxury hotels; others sit quietly in ruin along the roadside.
Bunratty, near Shannon Airport, is one of Ireland’s most famous castles. Built in 1425 by the MacNamara Clan, the history of Bunratty stretches over 500 years of turbulence. The stone fortress was in shambles until it was bought in 1954. Bunratty houses one of the finest collections of medieval furniture in the country.
On the castle grounds, Bunratty Folk Park recreates 19th-century Ireland. This historical village includes a river-driven flour mill, a hardware store, blacksmith’s forge, printer’s workshop and many elaborate thatched farmhouses.
A few miles west of Galway is Connemara, a wild and beautiful region of patient mountains, expansive lakes, turbulent rivers and rushing streams. One of the three Gaelic-speaking areas in Ireland, Connemara has many summer schools where students come to improve their Irish language skills. In the heart of Connemara rests Kylemore Abbey. This neo-Gothic castle was built in 1860 of Dalkey granite. Mitchell Henry and his wife Margaret entertained on a grand scale until her death in 1874. The lavish mansion now houses a community of Irish Benedictine nuns and one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in Europe.
Hovering on what feels like the edge of the world, Ireland’s Atlantic coastline is studded with the fabled Aran Islands of Inis Mer, Inis Meein and Inis iirr. Accessible by ferry, the islands are ideal for day trips. Gaelic is the everyday language of the islanders, and much of Ireland’s folklore and culture are enshrined in their songs and stories. Aran is known for its hand-knit sweaters, stone-lined fields, horses and buggies, and four Celtic forts that sit defiantly on towering cliff tops.
Nearby Galway is County Mayo, most notable for Croagh Patrick, a perfectly cone-shaped mountain. Legend has it that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, chased all the snakes away as he was converting the country to Christianity. Another holy site is the Knock Shrine, where local residents reportedly saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1879. Today, the mountain and Knock Shrine are important pilgrimage destinations. One Sunday every summer, thousands of people flock to the area to climb the mountain.
As you travel through Ireland, your choice of accommodations are as varied as the country itself. Fancy staying in a haunted lighthouse? How about a medieval castle or a quaint bed-and-breakfast where you’re treated to piping hot tea and a traditional Irish breakfast? Top-of-the-line luxury accommodations are also plentiful throughout the countryside and in the larger cities.
We continued on toward Dublin, once called home by James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats. Along the way, we stopped at a local pub for lunch. The Irish pub is a center for music, mesmerizing meals and great conversation. Irish pubs are also the source for the national drink, Guinness, the world’s most celebrated pint, with 2 million pints brewed daily by Dublin’s brew house. And there is no shortage of warm, friendly establishments happy to serve a glass of ‘the dark stuff’ and toast your health. The toasts are as Irish as the beer: "May the roof above us never fall in and the friends beneath it never fall out."
The city of Dublin combines Old-World charm and cosmopolitan chic, high-tech commerce and unpretentious magnetism. Visitors will have no challenges finding affordable, guided or private tours to learn its fascinating history. More than 1,000 years ago, Viking invaders founded Dublin. Later, the Normans enlarged and strengthened the city. In 1191, they started work on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whose most famous dean was Jonathan Swift.
Dublin’s first university was founded in 1320 and lasted until 1539, when it was abolished due to lack of funds. Trinity College replaced it in 1592. The university houses some of the country’s most precious historic treasures, including the seventh-century Book of Kells, a spectacular group of brilliantly colored manuscripts depicting the four gospels. In the same library, visitors can view handwritten works that were created prior to the invention of the Gutenberg press.
Like many European cities, summertime is an especially pleasant time, when cafes set up sidewalk tables and the warm, gentle sun guides your path. But any time of the year, you’ll find the warmth of the Irish people most charming.