The Republic of Ireland, an EU country and distinctly separate from Northern Ireland which is covered in my other video, boasts an astonishing coastline and incredibly rich heritage.
While I was living in Northern Ireland, I had a few visitors from Canada: my friend Laurel, my mom, and her friend Carol. Knowing that I would be returning home shortly myself, I embarked on two huge road trips to ensure that no adventure was left undone. Also making sure to redo some of the absolute highlights from my previous trip.
The majority of the population of Ireland is in Dublin, with a lattice-like smattering of small cities across the rest of the country. Of the nearly 80 million people across the globe with Irish descent, only 4.9 million of them still live in the republic!
Forty-five minutes north of Dublin, you’ll find Newgrange which is a prehistoric monument from 3200 BC. Yep, that means it’s older than the pyramids and even Stonehenge. Through various excavations they found human remains and artifacts.
Uniquely, on the days of the winter solstice — usually December 21st — the morning sun shines through the entryway illuminating the passageway. And, some of the stones were from as far away was Wicklow (over 110 km south). There are also numerous legends about the magical properties of the burial site, notably involving its ability to produce endless food and drink. As time would go on, monks would farm the nearby fields.
Mellifont Abbey and the Monasterboice High Crosses
There a couple other things up here that you need to see as well. The first is Mellifont Abbey to roam the ruins. Built in 1142, it once housed up to one hundred monks and another three-hundred lay brothers. It became the template for other abbeys of its kind to be built in Ireland.
But more importantly don’t miss the Monasterboice High Crosses. From roughly the 10th century, the crosses were used for a variety of purposes like worship or to mark areas of sanctuary around a church. This location features the greatest of all high crosses in the country. They’re inscribed with biblical themes, and are believed to have been originally painted. They were never intended to be markers for graves.
Before heading back to Dublin, it’s possible to detour slightly west to check out Trim Castle, but skip it if you’re heading to more luxurious castles like Blarney later on. I used to have a nasty habit of wanting to do 100% completion for attractions on a trip, and it became pretty mind numbing. Choose two or three of the best castles and churches each, and find other creative things to see instead.
Being the tourist hub for the entire country, Dublin has some of the BEST highlights. My personal favourite was the prestigious Trinity College. Not only does it have a copy of the “Sphere Within Sphere” bronze sculpture that you’ll also find at the Vatican in Italy, but it features an Indiana Jones-esque traditional library, as well as the Book of Kells.
Seeing the Book of Kells and the Library is a journey unto itself. You’ll definitely need to buy an entry ticket and be prepared to wait in a mighty long line — likely in the rain. Created in the 9th century, it contains the four gospels of the New Testament illuminated in elaborate visual detail.
It was time to liven things up a bit. But, I wasn’t prepared for how elaborate the tour of the Guinness Storehouse was going to be! I’m not even a beer drinker, but considering the stuff was invented here back in 1759, I couldn’t miss it. Plus, they had samplings of limited edition brews found nowhere else in the world! I had originally budgeted about half an hour for a quick visit, but wound up joining for the, and get this, THREE HOUR TOUR.
Kilmainham Gaol was just like the one in Belfast, but on a much larger scale. It housed many Irish revolutionaries that were executed by the UK. Most cells only had a single candle for heat, and men, women and children were mixed together — some children as young as seven. It was well known for it’s dangerously deplorable conditions.
Temple Bar had me really confused when I first arrived. It’s actually the name for the entire neighbourhood not a particular bar! It’s teaming with tourists and locals and offers a huge diversity of multi-ethnic foods, as well as local Irish cuisine and live music.
I could go on about Dublin for an hour, but other essentials are
- National Gallery of Ireland
- National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology
- St Patrick’s Cathedral
- Dublin Castle
- The Brazen Head – the oldest pub in Dublin
- EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum
- and the National Leprechaun Museum of Ireland for a splash of comedic relief
Killruddery House & Gardens
The Killruddery House & Gardens, just 30 minutes south of Dublin are a calmer afternoon escape, with their elaborate gardens complete with ponds and sculptures. Not to mention their high class tea room!
Heading south the sixth-century monastic city at Glendalough was much more my jam. Aside from wandering around the ruins of the cathedral, try throwing your arms around St. Kevin’s Cross. Legend has it that anyone who can stand behind it and wrap their arms around the entire front with fingertips touching will have their wishes granted.
The whole area is well known for being one of the top picnic spots in all of Ireland, presuming of course, you know how to dress for the weather!
A couple minutes from the ruins are the Lead Mines which harvested lead, zinc and silver in the 1790s. At its peak, over 2000 miners were employed, and it was open right up until 1957!
Irish National Stud & Gardens
As you make your way south east towards Blarney, stop at the Irish National Stud & Gardens if you’re a race horse fanatic. Carol was in love! She could have easily spent all day there and been just as content. Invincible Spirit boards here and his “stallion fee” for breeding has been as high as €100,000! Absolutely unreal!
Other Sights En Route to Blarney
Other quick and fun stops en route are the “Rock of Dunamase,” the mysterious and un-excavated Brownshill Portal Tomb (built around 3000 BC), Kilkenny Castle, King of the Vikings, the Titanic Experience, and the treasures and crystal in Waterford.
Hiking in Tipperary
I joined a local hiking group and spent a few days in Cashel — right at the foot of Tipperary mountain ranges. Cashel is famous as being the seat of the Kings of Munster, and legend has it the site was borne from a stray rock during a fight that St. Patrick had with Satan in a cave at the Devil’s Bit.
My mom at this point made sure to remind me of some classic Irish songs that were sung to her as a child like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” It felt, in some ways, magical to be in a country where my distant ancestors roamed the hills and now here I was doing the same.
The most legendary hike I did with the group was Knockmealdown. It’s only 10.5 km, but with the pace of the group it took us a solid six hours. It wasn’t particularly steep or cold, but the wind was howling and the clouds continually hid the route during our ascent. At the top, classic checkerboard-like Irish farmland lay below. The mountains were almost entirely bare, courtesy of heavy logging in the middle ages, so the views were panoramic! But, we were there to adventure, right? We descended down a create-your-own-adventure route through the knee-high scratchy heather and ankle-deep soggy bog.
If you’re only going to do one castle in all of Ireland, Blarney should be it. Arrive early morning well before the crowds to bee-line it for the Blarney Stone. The climb to the top is via some rather precarious and steep steps, but is suitable for most. When it’s your turn to kiss the stone, you lay on your back and a guide will inch you backwards down the wall for your photo-op and smooch. Congratulations, you now have the gift of the gab! Contrary to popular rumour, locals don’t pee on the blarney stone after hours.
What was really cool was the poison garden. It’s a small gated area of the grounds where the keepers would intentionally plant poisonous foliage to educate or use as ancient herbal remedies. Today, it includes poisonous plants from all around the world.
Afterwards, take a stroll through the gardens and Rock Close for a magical escape including waterfalls and rocks named after witches and druids.
Blarney is also famous for its Woollen Mills and Cork for it English Market, but if you’re not in a shopping mood head straight to Cork for the Shandon Bells & Tower St Anne’s Church. As a tourist, you can go up the bell tower and pull ropes to swing the eight bells to various tunes that are hung on the wall. Now that was a powerful feeling!
Ring of Kerry
Prepare to embark on a journey as you drive the Ring of Kerry. It is one of my favourite destinations in all of Ireland, and it has a level tourism to validate that impression as well.
Use Killarney as your starting point. Have a luxurious dinner at the Great Southern. Just make sure you’ve packed some dress clothes! The next day after doing the Muckross house tour, take a carriage ride for a view of the bay and gardens and begin your drive counter-clockwise. Ross Castle is easily skipped.
There are a ton of potential stops along the way. I was pulling over every fifteen minutes for another photo op, or short excursion. I would highly suggest taking at least two or three days to fully enjoy the circuit. On the south: the Torc Waterfall, Moll’s Gap, the Staigue Stone Fort, the Derrynane House, amongst many seaside viewpoints.
I would have loved to have taken a charter tour out to Skellig Michael which is house to an ancient Monastery and was also a filming location for Star Wars. Either way, taking a stroll at the stunning Kerry Cliffs, it’s still possible to see the island from afar. The Kerry Cliffs put the Cliffs of Moher to shame with their beauty.
Valentia Island was an unexpected but worthwhile stop for nature photography as well, although there aren’t many facilities on the island itself.
On the north, don’t miss the Kells Bay House, Gardens and beach before heading on a second loop through the Dingle Peninsula.
Dingle, the peninsula just north of Kerry, is very much more of a scenic drive than it is a place for specific tourist stops. It will take significantly less time than the Ring of Kerry. Some of my favourite stops were: Inch Beach, the Eask Tower, Coumeenoole Beach (now, I know I’ve said that wrong, but good luck finding someone to help you pronounce it – even the internet wasn’t helpful!), Conor Pass and the viewpoint at Clogher Strand.
One of the eeriest experiences on Dingle was visiting the The Famine Cottages where it’s possible to see the living conditions of what it would’ve been like. There are the creepiest zombie-esque mannequins decorating the place that’ll haunt your dreams as you fall asleep that night. I was half expecting one of them to come to life.
My mom also added a few bonus stops to the list, like Ionad Cuairteoirí Aireagail Gallarus, to absorb the energy of the past.
Limerick & Area
Heading north, Adare Manor is a lavish place to grab a lunch, or for the elite, also serves as a five star hotel and golf resort.
Limerick has your typical attractions like King John’s Castle, St. John’s Square and Cathedral, art galleries, museums, and abbeys. Honestly, it isn’t worth the drive from Dublin if it weren’t for the other nearby attractions like the Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.
It is one of the most complete and authentic castles in Ireland, which was built in 1425 and then recently restored in the mid-1900s. Its historic “living” village features a school, post office, doctors house, hardware shop, and pub! Comparable to Barkerville for anyone who’s been to British Columbia, Canada. Indulge in the evening Medieval Banquet for a full dinner experience with dancing and music.
Cliffs of Moher
Just over an hour north west of Limerick are the famous 200 meter tall Cliffs of Moher, which were featured in the Princess Bride. I’m not quite sure when my fascination with these cliffs began, but somehow they worked their way into being a fantasy destination of mine where I always thought I would get married one day! That was, until, I saw the Kerry Cliffs or the Gardens of Ninfa in Italy, anyway.
Aillwee Cave enroute to Galway is a cute stop if you’ve never done a cave tour before, but the mounds of peat that began to line the roadside as we began to drive further north really caught our attention! It’s a combination of moss and other plant matter that was used as a replacement for coal. It even provided 40% of Ireland’s power in the 60s.
My mom broke out into tune as we entered Galway and we played classic folk tunes on YouTube. We were on a race against the clock as the sun was setting and we couldn’t miss seeing “the sun go down on Galway Bay” at Salt Hill. Apparently we weren’t the only ones with that idea, and finding a good parking spot was as challenging as a Costco lot.
Nimmo’s Pier was quaint and reminded me of my trip to Halifax. But then again, to my mom every town we’d entered was “cute and quaint” — and, she wasn’t wrong!
Their big stops in Galway were the shopping district at the Latin Quarter and Quay Street, and then the Connemara Marble shop up the road. This exclusive type of marble was formed in the sediment of the adjacent sea over 600 million years ago.
Our second to last stop, and one thing I had been dying to see based on photos I saw online, was Kylemore Abbey. It’s one hell of a detour. Literally the complete opposite side of the country from Dublin. Mind you, that’s only a three and a half hour drive!
It’s a Benedictine monastery built recently in 1920 for Belgian nuns who fled the country in World War I. The unique Victorian-style architecture makes it look more like a LEGO castle or something out of a children’s fairytale. It also features a stunning walled garden.
We wrapped up our final days in Ireland with a stop at Sean’s Bar in Athlone. It was built in 900 AD, which easily makes it the oldest bar in the country, and likely the entire world. But, you’d never guess that from the contemporary exterior. Inside, cuddle up by the medieval-feeling wood burning fireplace with some of their 900 AD beer or Sean’s brew and reminisce about the journey…