Is Ireland on your travel bucket list?
In honour of St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to write a little about Ireland - in green, of course!. I've been there 4 time, including a week where I visited Limerick, the Aran Islands, Galway, and Dublin, a summer as part of my graduate studies research. I lived in a Dublin hostel for a month and then traveled around the entire country and finished in Northern Ireland. While Ireland is a dream location for many travelers, for me it had many pros and cons (just like any destination, I suppose). Here's what I loved about Ireland - and what I wasn't so keen on.
5 Things I Loved About the Emerald Isle
1.) My favourite thing about Ireland is the literary tradition. I loved visiting the writers’ museum in Dublin, the Yeats house in Sligo, retracing the footsteps of Millington Synge in the Aran Islands. A trip to Ireland is greatly enriched by reading some of the amazing work by its diverse authors before you travel. There is so much more to Ireland than scenery and pubs and, for a fan the arts you will feel right at home. A trip to a writer’s centre or even an independent bookstore is an essential part of an Irish tour.
Writer and playwright John Millington Synge is a favourite of mine. I love his role in the Gaelic Revival, the time he spent connecting to history and tradition in the Aran Islands. During my first visit to Dublin, just days after visiting the Islands, I was able to take in an anniversary performance of Millington Synge’s seminal work, Playboy of the Western World, atthe Abbey Theatre. The Abbey Theatre was an integral part of the Gaelic Revival and Playboy of the Western World, it’s first major production, was seen as so controversial is caused riots. Despite this rocky start, the Abbey, founded by Yeats and Lady Gregory, went on to become the National Theatre of Ireland and the first state subsidized theatre in the English speaking world. Today, they offer a wide range of material, from traditional to modern, and it’s well worth a visit.
2.) You often don’t think about the visuals arts in Ireland the same way you do for France or England, but Ireland has produced some terrific artists and one of them, Jack Yeats (yes, brother to W.B.) is my favourite. His beautiful work in oils is just captivating and his work is made even more fascinating with a bit of historical context. He designed sets for the Abbey Theatre and had three of his plays produced there. A friend of Millington Synge, he went on to illustrate two of his travel guides. And Yeats became the first Olympic Medalist for the free state of Ireland, when he won a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics – for painting! As part of the Game’s Art and Culture component, the work had to have an athletic theme and Yeats painted the “The Liffey Swim”
3.) While most of my studies concentrated on modern themes – from the Gaelic revival, to the civil war, to the more recent knowledge-based economy – when I traveled I really enjoyed seeing the much more ancient sites. Ireland’s very early Celtic history is fascinating, and among the best preserved and documented in the world. For instance, Newgrange passage tomb is older than the pyramids, the Hill of Tara has archaeological evidence dating to 2500 BC, and Jerpoint Abbey in county Kilkenny, dates to the 12th century.
4.) A trip to any ancient site in Ireland is well worth a visit and, as a bonus, you are guaranteed beautiful scenery as you travel. There are many day trips from key cities, especially Dublin, that are geared towards budget travelers and take in key nearby sites. As someone who was staying in hostels and travelling by bus, I found these to be a tremendous deal. While first very hesitant about the financial value and quality, I was pleased to find I was wrong. They cost little more than the cost of admission, and include visits to several small, free sites (like crumbling castle ruins), which are a wonderful brief detour that you would never likely venture off and find for yourself.
5.) As someone who studied Irish history and politics, no trip for me was complete without a visit to Northern Ireland. I absolutely loved Northern Ireland. The coastal beauty, the ancient sites, the castles, the music – you’ll find them in the North as much as in the Republic to the south. I love how the North has worked so hard to rise up from a tumultuous history and how much progress there has been to peace and reconciliation. Despite the volatile and inflammatory events still fresh in many minds, I always found museums, memorials, and mural tours to be well balance and insightful. Derry, a vibrant, youthful city ringed by ancient walls, is one of my top choices for a female solo traveler who’s on the road for the first time.
And 3 That I Didn't...
There were, however, a couple of things I wasn't such a big fan of in Ireland. This might sound sacrilegious, but I wasn't overwhelmed by the scenery. Yes, it was beautiful. But it didn't look all that new, exciting, or unusual for me. I grew up in the Canadian Maritimes and had recently started doing graduate school in Newfoundland. I had previously lived and traveled in rural East Sussex, England, and, overall, was very accustomed to rolling green hills, twisty lanes, rugged beaches and the rolling waves of the Atlantic. Hopefully the Irish scenery will have a greater impact on you than me!
2.) I know I just praised the hostel, budget friendly day tours, but I have to say I was disappointed in the big “tourist” tours. Buoyed by the success of my mini-bus, hostel organized tours in Dublin, I did two “tourist” tours around the Ring of Kerry area. These day trips were an automated affair that had clearly seen their better days. The first trip promised a stop for lunch and we ended up a cafeteria clearly built and designed for the exact purpose of serving massive quantities of canned Irish stew to hoards of bus tours for 15 Euro a bowl. Not quite authentic Irish hospitality.
The second tour consisted of a short bus ride, a horseback ride or wagon ride through the Gap of Dunloe, then a boat ride across the lake. The riding organization clearly took their standards from the same people who ran the restaurant roadhouse (and, for all I know, helped supply the meat!) I was expecting an idyllic mountain ride and was a naïve new rider. I was told that beginners were welcome, but I was given no instruction whatsoever and my poor horse, clearly unhappy with his lot in life and not accustomed to receiving top care, was only interested in finishing his route as quickly as possible. Miserable and terrifying – I was a wreck at the end.
I learned a key lesson here: Bus tours take many different forms. Those operating small ventures from a hostel might be much better than a ‘brand name” operating from the tourist office - no matter what the country.
3.) Finally, the thing I hated the absolute most is something that you’ll like never experience. Ireland is now almost entirely smoke free in public places, but when I was there it was still a smoker’s paradise. I avoided pubs almost entirely as a result and it really limited my interactions with different people and places. It would be great to go back and try Ireland again as a smoke free destination!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Do you have Irish roots?
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