Like so many others, my wife and I put off traveling after COVID arrived in 2019. This year, after a more than two-year hiatus, we started traveling again, first with a trip to Southeast Alaska in the spring that was awesome and now with a recently completed trip to Ireland that was equally amazing. We were fortunate to spend the COVID lockdown in the beauty of the mountains of Western North Carolina, but with so much hatred and bitter tribalism infecting everywhere from the neighborhood where I live in to the nation that I served, it’s been good to venture out and take a break from the insanity.
We had a incredible time during our eight day visit to Ireland. The people were universally friendly, the food was outstanding, and the weather cooperated ... and I think I drank more Guinness in eight days than I have in eight years.
If you’ve never been there, I recommend you put Ireland on your must-see list. It’s particularly appealing now given that the exchange rate is about as favorable for Americans as it's ever been. During our trip, one Euro cost less than one dollar, a rarity that hasn’t happened in nearly twenty years. In September 2021, one Euro cost about a dollar and eighteen cents. When we arrived this September, one Euro cost ninety-seven cents. That may explain why everywhere we went in Ireland you couldn't swing a dead squirrel by the tail without hitting at least a half-dozen American tourists.
We spent two days in Dublin, two days in Galway, two days in Killarney, and two days in Newmarket-on-Fergus, with some side trips along the way. Two days in any one location is not long enough to get to know it well, but it did give us enough time to get a taste of each of these four distinct destinations.
The Republic of Ireland has a total population of about 5.1 million. I’d never thought about it before, but the population of Ireland is about half the population of the State of North Carolina and its total landmass is less than two-thirds the size of North Carolina. That means you can drive from Dublin on the east coast to Galway on the west coast in about the same amount of time it takes to drive from Asheville to Charlotte. And speaking of Dublin and Charlotte, there's a direct flight between the two, which makes travel to Ireland relatively easy for North Carolinians.
We stayed at The Fitzwilliam Hotel in the heart of Dublin at the top of Grafton Street and within easy walking distance of most of the major attractions, including the Guinness Storehouse and Trinity College. It was a modern hotel with an attentive and courteous staff. We were very grateful that first day when the hotel staff managed to get us into our room early where we crashed for a power nap after the long journey from Asheville.
Dublin is far and away the largest city in the Republic of Ireland with a population of one and a quarter million people or about one-fourth of the entire population of the country. There's a lot to see and do there, and we barely scratched the surface.
I wasn’t familiar with the Book of Kells, so I learned a lot on the Book of Kells tour. About fourteen hundred years ago, monks painstakingly transcribed and illustrated the four New Testament gospels. The book survived a Viking invasion and the passage of time, and today resides at Trinity College.
Trinity College was founded in 1592 and includes among its alumni Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. I also learned a lot on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl where, as you move from pub to pub and from a pint of Guinness to another pint of Guinness, actors tell stories about literary and political greats who frequented each of the sites back in their days. I was pleased to win the quiz at the end of the tour and return to America with an official Dublin Literary Pub Crawl t-shirt as my prize.
We picked up our rental car in Dublin City Centre on day three for the rest of our journey. I had only driven on the left side of the road and from the right side of a car once before many years ago and only in rural areas. Getting through city traffic and out to the motorway was an adventure, and I was grateful that my wife could call out the GPS directions so I could concentrate on driving.
Our second destination was Galway on the opposite coast from Dublin, but before heading to Galway, we made a side trip down to Wicklow for a quick visit with Catherine Fulvio. Catherine is a renowned Irish chef who owns and operates the charming Ballyknocken Cookery School.
Catherine is also the host of ”A Taste of Ireland,” an Emmy nominated show on Recipe TV, which is where we first discovered her before we eventually became social media friends. Catherine had just returned from an appearance at the National Ploughing Championships the night before our visit and she had a group from Switzerland coming in that afternoon for a cooking class, but she graciously took time out to allow us to stop in and say hello. What we admire most about Catherine is her passion for food and cooking and her obvious pride in her Wicklow community.
Catherine suggested we visit nearby Glendalough and tour the monastic city established by St. Kevin in the late 500s AD.
In America, we tend to think of things that date back to the 1800s as old and historic. In Ireland, it’s common for historic sites to date back to times when years only had three digits. When we reached Glendalough, it was apparent why St. Kevin chose it as the site for his monastic settlement. It’s a beautiful, peaceful mountain setting adjacent to two lakes. If you’re going to lead a monastic life, this would be the place to do it.
Then it was on to Galway. By that point, I was beginning to get comfortable with driving on the left while seated on the right. I was impressed with the roads in Ireland. Their motorways, which are comparable to our interstate highways, were wide, smooth, and well marked. Even the secondary roads were in great shape and most had a six to ten foot paved shoulder for bike riders. I wish we had the same in the Asheville area. That’s not to say that all of the roads were ideal by current standards. Many secondary and city roads were extremely narrow, which made for a tight squeeze when two tour buses crossed paths. The narrow roads weren’t the result of trying to skimp, instead they were roads that were established long before motor vehicles came along and widening them would require knocking down buildings and walls. I also became a fan of roundabouts, which keep traffic moving rather than coming to a dead stop at stoplights like we do here in the States.
We stayed at Glenlo Abbey in Galway, a beautiful 138 acre estate that dates back to 1740. It includes a first rate golf course that is a lush green and meticulously maintained.
The first night, we asked the front desk staff for a dinner recommendation and we were directed to The Seafood Bar at Kirwan’s Lane. When they say “lane,” they literally mean lane. We put the address into GPS and still walked past the “lane” several times before we finally stumbled upon it. It ended up being the best meal of the trip, even better than dinner the next night at The Pullman Restaurant at Glenlo Abbey, which is in train cars that were used in one of my favorite movies, the 1974 classic “Murder on the Orient Express.” The food at The Pullman was good, but at double the cost of dinner the night before at Kirwan’s Lane, it seemed we paid a substantial premium for railcar ambiance.
While we were in Galway, we did a tour of the Cliffs of Moher. We found Lally Tours through TripAdvisor. The bus driver knew the area well and his narration made for an interesting and enjoyable day. The cliffs were spectacular. My wife and I agree that if we had to pick the most stunning part of the trip, it was the Cliffs of Moher. The tour included several other stops, including Dunguaire Castle, Aillwee Caverns, and lunch at a pub in Doolin.
Next, we headed south on the M18 for the two and a half hour drive to Killarney. Since we couldn’t check-in at our hotel until the afternoon, we stopped off in Limerick along the way. It was a Sunday, so downtown Limerick was fairly quiet and that made it easier for me to drive. We visited King John’s Castle, which was completed in about 1210 on the banks of the River Shannon. At the time, the castle stood guard over the thriving port city of Limerick.
The walls of the castle were severely damaged in 1642 when the Catholic forces led by Garret Barry dug under the walls to weaken the foundation and dislodge the Protestants who had sought refuge in the castle when they fled the Irish Rebellion of 1641. This process of mining under a fortified location to weaken it and cause it to collapse gave us the term “undermine.”
In Killarney, we stayed at The Arbutus Hotel. It was conveniently located in the center of town, but it was an older hotel and in need of some TLC. We had a large and comfortable room, but it overlooked a main road and came with the associated road noise. The folks in the room next to us and the room above us weren’t terribly noisy, but you could hear muffled voices through the walls and creaking floorboards above. The other three hotels we stayed in were each stunning in their own right, which didn't make for a fair comparison with The Arbutus Hotel.
While in Killarney, we did the Ring of Kerry Tour. Again, we used TripAdvisor and found Deros Tours. The bus driver was very knowledgeable and made it a very enjoyable day. We saw a sheepdog demonstration, which made us realize that either we are lousy dog trainers or Maggie isn't the sharpest tool in the canine shed.
These dogs could cull out two sheep from a herd and move them to a precise location with just a few commands communicated by the shepherd whistling. I can’t even get Maggie to do a sit-stay.
We stopped in Waterville, a small town along the southern coast of Ireland. Waterville is famous for two things. First, it‘s the site of the once bustling Waterville Cable Station operated by the Commercial Cable Company from 1884 to 1962 providing a connection between Ireland and Canada by an undersea cable.
Second, it’s where Charlie Chaplain brought his wife and eight kids to vacation every summer for over a decade starting in 1959. Waterville now hosts an annual Charlie Chaplain film festival and they erected a statute in his honor.
Before leaving Killarney, we visited Muckross House located on the Muckross Peninsula between Muckross Lake and Lough Leane in Killarney National Park.
Muckross House was built in the 1840s and with 65 rooms, it’s reminiscent of a smaller version of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate. The original owners, Henry Arthur Herbert and his wife Mary Balfour Herbert, hosted a visit by England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1861. Muckross House was later owned by Arthur Guinness who rented it out to wealthy hunters and then in 1932 the last owner, American William Bowers Bourn, donated the house and 11,000 acres of land to the Irish government and it became the first national park in the Republic of Ireland.
The Torc Waterfall is about a 15 minute walk from the house and there were several red deer grazing in the pasture along the way who kept a close eye on us. The waterfall and the surrounding forest and pastures reminded me of Western North Carolina.
As I mentioned at the start, while the forecast when we left called for rain every day, the weather cooperated. It rained one morning while we were in Dublin, but that was the day we toured the Guinness Storehouse and had lunch at their restaurant, the 1837 Bar & Brasserie. By the time we were done at Guinness, the rain had moved out. The second day that it rained was the day we visited Muckross House in Killarney and then drove to Newmarket-on-Fergus. We got a little wet walking from the Muckross House to Torc Waterfall, but it was a light rain and not a big deal. By the time we were done and in the car driving to Newmarket-on-Fergus, the rain tapered off and it stopped by the time we reached our fourth and final stop.
Our final two days in Ireland were spent at the Dromoland Castle Hotel. Dromoland Castle dates back to 1014 and Donough O’Brien who built it as a defensive stronghold. The Ladies European Tour held the KPMG Women’s Irish Open golf tournament at Dromoland Castle the weekend before we arrived, so the golf course and the hotel grounds were in immaculate condition.
We enjoyed the hotels we stayed in and each was unique, but Dromoland Castle Hotel was the most impressive and the staff was the most attentive. If there was something they could have done better to have made our stay more enjoyable, I'm at a loss to say what it would be. We were so impressed that we're considering a family Christmas trip to Dromoland at some point in the not too distant future.
The highlight of our stay at Dromoland Castle was a hawk walk with a Harris Hawk named Grace and her handler Michael.
We learned from Michael that several commonly used expressions originated in falconry. He said they weigh the birds each morning to determine which ones are best suited for working that day. If a bird is at or above it’s normal weight, it’s likely full and won’t be interested in hunting or flying for treats. Instead, it would likely fly up into a tree and just sit there. A bird who is full and not interested in more food is said to be “fed up.” The leather strap around a bird’s leg to keep it under the falconer’s control when it’s not flying is called a jess. The falconer holds the jess between his thumb and index finger or wrapped around his little finger to keep the bird tethered and under control while it is perched on his gloved hand, hence the terms “under my thumb” and “wrapped around my little finger.” Hunting birds tend to be high strung, particularly falcons. One way to calm them down is through sensory deprivation, usually by placing a hood over the bird's head so it is denied visual stimulation and tricked into believing there’s nothing going on around it. The process of using a hood to block visual information and deceive a bird is how we got the term “hoodwinked.”
I'll close with a couple of final reflections.
First, we felt very safe everywhere we went. To my knowledge, there were no shootings or murders in the eight days we were in Ireland. Even in a major city like Dublin, we were told it was safe to walk the streets at night and at worse to be mindful of pickpockets.
Second, Ireland was extremely clean and pristine. You saw people picking up, pruning, and painting all along the way. I found it interesting that they look at rhododendrons the same way North Carolinians look at kudzu. On one of our stops, a local said he and others had been working for years trying to get rid of rhododendrons in the nearby forest with little success. We've been trying, with little success, to get them to grow in our yard in Asheville.
Third, and somewhat related to my last point, the Irish are very proud of Ireland, as they should be. The government awards one town the title "Tidy Town" based on an annual competition to find the single tidiest and most attractive town in the country. We got to see a couple of towns that were "Tidy Town" winners and it was apparent the pride the local residents felt because of the time and effort they put in to get their towns this coveted recognition. I wish we saw more of that kind of volunteer spirit here in America.
Fourth, I was shocked by how affordable real estate is in Ireland. I saw a seven bedroom house that dated back to 1828 on nearly twenty acres of land that in my mind would qualify as a country estate for less than $825,000 and from the ads we saw I'd say the average price for a nice, normal size house was in the $250,000 to $350,000 range. You can't buy an undeveloped lot in my neighborhood for that price. If I ever chose to live somewhere other than America, Ireland would be at the top of the list: Reasonable prices, friendly neighbors, won't have to learn a new language, and good Guinness ... what's not to love?
And finally, we booked this trip through Costco Travel. We had never done that before, but as I think you can tell, we were very pleased with the trip and we'll definitely use Costco Travel again. The travel agent we dealt with on the phone was very polite and helpful, and all of the arrangements she made for us proved to be exactly as she described. I was particularly impressed that while we reserved an economy car, when we picked it up it was a BMW 5-Series. Thank you Costco!