Enchanting Ireland

| October 4, 2012 | 0 Comments
Truly experiencing Ireland means getting out of the cities and into the pastoral countryside.

Truly experiencing Ireland means getting out of the cities and into the pastoral countryside.

By Jessie Reynolds

Ireland, a country less than 1/100th the size of Canada, holds an incredible number of surprises. Dublin reminds one of London, the west coast reminds one of Newfoundland and the south reminds one of Maine. There are ruins, scenic coastal drives, the world’s best bread pudding and small towns that can only be described as idyllic. Trying to see the island in a few weeks is impossible, despite its size. Pick north or south. I covered the south, and will go back to see the north another — warmer — time.

Some suggestions: Use a rental car, bring an umbrella, don’t spend more than 10 percent of your trip in big cities and take at least two weeks. Ireland has two nearby international airports. Take advantage of that by flying into Dublin and out of Shannon to see more of the country and avoid doubling back.

The grand scale of the eight-kilometre expanse of sheer stone at the cliffs of Moher astonishes visitors.

The grand scale of the eight-kilometre expanse of sheer stone at the cliffs of Moher astonishes visitors.

Dublin is a strange mix of young and old. A modern glass building backs onto a pub built 200 years ago. It was founded by the Vikings, lived to see the Norman invasion and, eventually, became the country’s capital.
For modern art lovers, cross the ha’penny bridge (or one of the other multitude of bridges that cross the River Liffey) and head to the Spire. Formally titled the Monument of Light, the Spire is a large, unadorned, stainless-steel monument on the north side’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street. It was built on the site where Nelson’s Pillar stood before it was destroyed by a bombing by former IRA members in 1966. The shiny spire regularly garners extreme reactions, some positive, some negative.

A few feet away, you’ll find a fantastic quick-grab seafood restaurant called Beshoff, founded by Russian immigrants in 1913. It offers high-quality seafood, quick service, and an upstairs dining area with a view of the Spire, bridge and O’Connell Street.

Make your way to nearby Henry Street, a great place for shopping. It’s the north side’s answer to Grafton Street, the other principal shopping street in Dublin. Phoenix Park is close to downtown Dublin and is a gathering place for locals on a (rare) sunny day. If you’re a sports enthusiast and don’t want to brave the local pubs during game nights, head to Phoenix Park and watch any number of amateur sports on the well-maintained and numerous sporting fields or pitches.

The Spire was erected where Nelson's Pillar once stood.

The Spire was erected where Nelson’s Pillar once stood.

On your way back to the city’s south side, where you’ll likely spend the rest of your time in Dublin, is The Winding Stair. As charming as its name, it’s one of the city’s oldest bookstores. Two narrow flights up is a restaurant of the same name with a great view of the river and ha’penny bridge. Surrounded by bookshelves, a bustling kitchen and wall of windows, most diners seem to take their time. I did, too. With a glass of Australian red, I ordered the Irish cheese and charcuterie board and a bowl of local steamed mussels from nearby town Lissadell, famous for its shellfish exports.

The culinary specialties of many tourist destinations are well known. Italy has pasta, pizza and gelato, France has wine, Japan has sushi. And it turns out Ireland has perfected all that’s required for a delicious meal: bread, cheese and shellfish. The bread is always fresh and many restaurants make their own. The cheese industry is bustling — there seems to be no end of sheep and cow cheese selections by county: soft or hard, curd or aged, and they’re all memorable.

The Irish don’t shy away from stronger, more challenging flavours, a discovery I happily made. The watery bries from France have had their day and should make way for this cheese that reflects its country — hard, strong and rugged.

Back on the south side of the city, there are two days’ worth of things to do. I recommend a stay at the Trinity Capital Hotel. It’s centrally located, and can be described as both bohemian and Victorian. Suitcases with travel stickers are placed around the lobby below vintage posters advertising the adventures to be had in exotic locations.

As always, I start a big-city explore with a hop-on-hop-off bus tour. It provides orientation, free transit for the day, unusual trivia from locals and a chance to rest the legs. My first stop was Guinness beer’s St. James’ Gate Brewery. It’s one of Dublin’s most popular sites, so it’s advisable to go in the morning.

The history of Arthur Guinness, the infrastructure (hospital included) he provided to Dublin, the mid-1700s brewery’s floor-mounted 9,000-year lease and the history of Guinness advertising were fascinating. And the free beer sample (it’s 5 p.m. somewhere) was most welcome. One can savour the quotation pasted on a large wooden drum: “The equipment you see around you, like the building you’re standing in, comes from another time, when machines were works of art.”

Consider visiting Trinity College where the Book of Kells (Leabhar Cheanannais) is kept. This is likely the second-most popular site in Dublin, so it’s a good idea to visit early in the day. The book of illustrated gospels was made by monks in approximately AD 800. What makes it unique isn’t simply its age, but the incredibly intricate and ornate designs. The exhibit gives viewers a chance to see a few pages of the book and to learn about book-making more than 1,000 years ago, including the imported raw materials used to make the coloured inks.

After that bout of culture, you might head to Grafton Street for some shopping. Don’t miss Karen Millen, if only to admire the designer’s unique and tasteful use of bright colours and vintage cuts. For dinner, hop in a cab and head to the Whitefriar Grill where the slow-cooked rabbit and the sticky toffee pudding made one of the finest meals of the trip.

Where else to go in Dublin at night but Temple Bar (Barra an Teampaill)? A popular spot for tourists, and charming with its cobblestone streets and old buildings, it’s a good place to find a pub and watch people from all around the world share their love of Guinness and Jamieson’s Irish whisky. If you can get a seat at one of the local pubs a few hours before game time (which sport doesn’t seem to matter), you’re in for an uproarious evening.

The next morning, grab breakfast at the Queen of Tarts. The bright red façade, Alice in Wonderland ambiance and charming round bistro tables at the smaller of two locations turned a simple breakfast into a warm memory.

Well-fuelled, you can head to a tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Built in the 1200s, its value is spiritual and historic. Portions of the cathedral’s interior are decorated with aging and worn flags carried during wars over the past 150 years, and several beautifully decorated plaques were erected to honour the Irish who died in the wars fought in South Africa and the Sudan. The location of St. Patrick’s, as well as the cathedral’s name, can be attributed to the accounts that Saint Patrick baptized Christian converts in a nearby well in the 5th Century.

Newgrange is a 3000 BC religious site or tomb seen as one of the most important historic sites in the country.

Newgrange is a 3000 BC religious site or tomb seen as one of the most important historic sites in the country.

A few general points on taking a driving trip in Ireland: Thanks to the narrow roads, numerous small towns and surprisingly wonderful things you’ll happen upon, try not to book hotels in advance (unless you’re travelling in July or August, the busy season, which I wouldn’t recommend), and pack in two full buffer days. Also, if Google Maps or your GPS says the drive will take two hours, allow three, given the many single-lane and small community roads.

More so than its big cities, Ireland is the rolling hills, the incredible green flora that gives the island its nickname, the fields of livestock, the ruins, oceanside golf courses and fishing villages.

The first stop, and in some ways the most awe-inspiring, is Newgrange (Sí an Bhrú), a prehistoric religious site or tomb (the debate continues). Built in approximately 3000 BC, it’s widely seen as one of the most important historic sites in the country. On the tour, they’re proud to tell you how much older it is than the youthful great pyramid of Giza and adolescent Stonehenge. Speaking in superlatives, it’s the world’s oldest calendar-based sundial.

The view from Sceilig Mhichíl, an island that holds a preserved monastery dating from the 7th Century.

The view from Sceilig Mhichíl, an island that holds a preserved monastery dating from the 7th Century.

The only way to tour Newgrange is to head to the not-so-nearby visitors centre, buy tickets and get on a bus, which takes you to the actual site. Otherwise, you may not find it. A short trip later, you receive an in-depth and passionate history lesson from an informed tour guide. The Neolithic art is especially captivating.
Skip the interior tour if you’re claustrophobic. The room you’re going to visit could comfortably hold no more than a few people and, at points on the walk through the narrow passageway, you’re touched by rocks simultaneously on both sides. Inside, it feels like a man-made cave in which the ceiling is completed, at the top centre of the chamber, with a single large, flat stone.

Above the entrance to the main chamber is a constructed rectangular hole. Through this hole, the sun’s rays enter and spread a narrow band of light across the chamber floor. This is the solar phenomenon that draws so many people to the site. It can be witnessed on winter solstice — the shortest day of the year — if you’re lucky enough to hold one of the 50 winning lottery tickets for entrance into the main chamber on December 21. Tens of thousands of applications are received annually from around the world.

In contrast, you can take the half-day trip from Newgrange to Cork and enjoy the quiet drive along the country roads and small towns, stopping where the mood catches you.

Once you arrive in Cork, Blarney Castle is on the far side of town. Built in the mid-1400s, it’s more than just a very affectionate stone: It has a castle, manor, lake, extensive flower gardens, expansive grounds, a fern gully, a poison garden and horse graveyard.

Built in the 1200s, St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s value is spiritual and historic.

Built in the 1200s, St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s value is spiritual and historic.

Many people have heard of kissing the Blarney Stone. I, however, was unaware that it was done while suspended upside-down on the castle’s top floor, over one of its many murder-holes. A murder-hole is an open space above a castle or fortress entrance, which was used to pour hot oil or water, rocks or any other deterrent down upon unwanted visitors.

While the origin of the modern meaning of blarney is disputed, all agree that kissing the stone will bestow the kisser with the ability to converse in a smooth, flattering and disingenuous manner. (Kiss the blarney stone off-season, if you can, and very early in the morning and be ready for a high-pressure pace enforced by employees.)

The next highlight of the trip, a few hours’ drive from Cork, was Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichíl), an island that holds a fantastically preserved monastery dating from the 7th Century. The island itself is tall, rocky and jutting and lies approximately 10 kilometres off the south-western Irish coast. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site and noted as an extreme example of monastic dedication, ascetic self-denial and isolation.
Boats head to the island once a day, so stay the night in the nearby town of Cahersiveen. The day of your trip, drive the short distance to Portmagee, the fishing village from which the boats depart. The Ring of Kerry Hotel in Cahersiveen will do: it’s clean and good for a quick overnight stay. At the front desk, I learned that the best way to get to the Great Skellig was by phoning John of the red boat at Portmagee’s dock. With only a few minutes to spare, I finally found the right harbour town, right dock, right John and right boat.

Dromoland Castle Hotel and Country Estate, dating back to the 1400s, is the gold standard in accommodations.

Dromoland Castle Hotel and Country Estate, dating back to the 1400s, is the gold standard in accommodations.

The warnings posted relating to Skellig do not overstate the risks and shouldn’t be ignored. There are no washrooms, no drinkable water and the island is cold and windy. If you can’t walk up 600 steep steps, smoothed by age, unbalanced and shallow, keep the ferrymen company and enjoy the few hours of fantastic fishing. If you choose to explore the island, you may still be offered some fish by the captain during the return trip. The two hours to explore the area allowed for a close look at the monastic beehive-shaped stacked stone residences and ancient graveyard. And I was able to enjoy the view during a small picnic I’d brought. Be careful on the descent: Heading back down the steps was more treacherous than the ascent.

Next stop: Adare. A small town among hundreds of small towns in Ireland, Adare populates a disproportionate number of pages in all of the books as “Ireland’s Prettiest Village.” No matter your preferences, Adare will fulfil them: Antiques, golf, fine hotels, historic pubs, crafts, beautiful gardens and parks, family heritage information sites, churches and ruins. It’s also a convenient launching place to visit many of the country’s west-coast sites, such as The Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle and numerous world-renowned coastal golf courses.
When you arrive, check into the S.L.H.-approved Dunraven Arms. SLH, or Small Luxury Hotels, is a must-visit website when planning travel. It has member hotels in more than 70 countries (including Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel near Yorkville and Bloor Street). Dunraven Arms is a fine, beautifully decorated 18th-Century inn. The welcome package includes a description of available laundering services for hunting equipment, complete with a half page dedicated solely to britches.

The hotel offers a high-end traditional Irish breakfast buffet, maps for touring the town and a layout that lends itself to exploring the art-covered hallways. After breakfast, I suggest a visit to the famous thatched-roof cottages across the street, Adare’s antique shops and family heritage sites. Then follow the locals to Aunty Lena’s pub, established 1806, to enjoy a pint of Bulmer’s Irish cider.

I spent a wonderful second night at Dunraven Arms and then headed off to nearby national attraction, the Cliffs of Moher (Aillte an Mhothair). The grand scale of the eight-kilometre expanse of sheer, stone cliffs astonishes visitors. The highest point of the cliffs is approximately 200 metres. Bypass the more developed (paved) route towards O’Brien’s Tower, an 1800s stone tourist viewing structure, in favour of the path towards the far end of the cliffs.

Soon, you’ll hit the end of the sanctioned portion of the cliff-side path. Now, follow the heavily walked trench around the stone wall, over the broken fence and past the corner of the farmer’s field. You’ve now crossed into a narrow walkway between the fenced boundaries of the nearby farms and the cliffs. As there’s no fence or divider, be very careful. Sometimes, the path will take you within inches of the edge, but you can crouch and hold onto rocks as you pass. The walk to the far point is several hours round trip; I completed half of it and enjoyed feeling the strong ocean breeze, cliff-side. It’s one of the places in Ireland where you feel insignificant, free and amazed by the immensity and permanence of very old places.

A one-hour drive from there, past Irish meadows and fields, will take you to the gold standard in accommodations: Dromoland Castle Hotel & Country Estate. Originally built in the 1400s and 1500s, and updated over time until it reached its current design in the mid 1800s, Dromoland Castle is one of a handful of five-star castle hotels in Ireland. Many have award-winning golf courses, beautiful grounds, spas and fine dining.

There is enough to do to justify spending a week on site, living like an earl every minute.
I spent several hours simply walking around the castle’s hallways and stairwells. Upgraded on check-in for no reason other than unbelievable luck, I was able to stay on the second floor of the front turret in a beautiful room with a view of the lake, golf course and deer-trodden grounds, including the archery range (more on that later).

The social centre of the castle is its restaurant, The Earl of Thomond. Yes, it has been honoured with a Michelin star, yes the wine menu is at least 30 pages long, and yes, the wallpaper is made of velvet. Select your libation (mine was a 2009 Wither Hills Pinot Noir from New Zealand) and try the locally sourced, fresh and delicious Malbay crab and Kinvara smoked salmon salad.

The next day, after the obligatory traditional breakfast — and if you’re going to try black pudding anywhere in Ireland, try it here — you have an unusual list of possible daytime activities. I opted for golf, archery, a golf cart rental for touring the property and clay pigeon shooting. Sadly, there was no time for fishing, horseback riding or falconry.

Perhaps being slightly more experienced at golf would be a good idea on this course. Tee-off times, it turns out, are non-negotiable. Luckily, I had a patient teacher. The highlight wasn’t the top-rated course (second of the world’s international golf courses by Condé Nast Traveler, 2010), its famous design (by Ron Kirby), or the green, rolling hills. It was the stone ruins mid-way through the course.

I then headed to archery, and archery — if you aren’t practised — can challenge your upper-body, even with beginner bows. Patsy, the world’s most Irish person, is the teacher for many of the onsite activities. Believe the hype popularized by The Hunger Games and Disney’s Brave — archery is plain old fun. It’s also one of the sports where small suggestions made by your excellent coach immediately improve results.

The off-site post-sports “dining event” was corny and touristy — and an absolute blast. Bunratty Castle & Folk Park Medieval Banquet is held in a 1420s castle, adorned with historic art, furniture and gigantic mounted antlers. It offers live music, mead (honey wine), good fare and costumed servers and entertainers.

The next morning, before checkout, I squeezed in some clay pigeon shooting with Patsy. Almost as entertaining as archery, shooting isn’t as hard as it looks so I managed to connect with most of my pigeons. Request Patsy’s plaid blanket to fold over your shoulder to protect it from the shotgun’s kickback.

If you have more than a week in Ireland, add Burren’s limestone lunar landscape, Northern Ireland’s rural towns and Belfast. Ireland, in many ways, is a preferable destination to its more popular European counterparts. It has an incredibly long and varied history and an extensive list of unique sites. Its size is also well-suited to the single visit. Armed with a good road map and warm jacket, you’ll find nothing wanting from your memorable trip to the Emerald Isle.

Jessie Reynolds is a senior analyst (asset protection and crisis management) at Barrick Gold Corp. Reach her at jreynolds.diplomat@gmail.com.

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Jessie Reynolds O’Neil lives in Toronto, and worked for four years as the senior security analyst for Barrick Gold Corp. She trained employees on security for international travel, and currently provides contract services relating to security, investigations, international industry software systems, data analytics and legal ethics and compliance programs. She travels whenever she can.

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