The Emerald Isle
R. Mangio, owner of Magical Escapes Vacations and a Shamrock Club
small country of Ireland holds an almost mythical place in the stories
of our childhood, home to fairies and leprechauns and amazing adventures.
Nearly 45 million Americans are descended from Irish Immigrants,
so it’s small wonder that this country’s folklore has
found its way into our own. As a resident of the Boston area in
Massachusetts, I’m not only familiar with the influence of
the Irish, but one of my own great-grandparents hailed from the
Even Walt Disney World now welcomes
“the luck of Irish,” with the opening of the Raglan
Pub in Downtown Disney – a charming Irish pub, offering great
food, live entertainment in the form of dancers, musicians, and
storytelling, and a great time. Be sure to take a small step onto
the Emerald Isle next time you visit Walt Disney World.
So what it is about this little country
that holds such appeal in the hearts of so many Americans? Given
the number of Americans who claim Irish Ancestry, it is not surprising
why some refer to Ireland as the “51st State.” But ancestral
ties aren’t the only reason this country holds such allure:
it truly is a fairytale land, of rolling hills and glistening lakes,
of castles and churches and ancient ruins, where the people are
warm and friendly and the day ends in laughter, good food, and good
drink at the local pub.
But, more, it is a country that evokes
that sense of coming home, even while you’re visiting a place
new and exciting. It is that warm welcome that brings visitors back
again and again to Ireland.
Roughly the size of the state of
Maine, Ireland is an island country located west of Great Britain,
and the only European country with no direct connection to mainland
Europe, either natural or manmade. Despite its small size, however,
there is much to see and do in Ireland. In fact, its small size
is often its biggest draw, as it is easy to travel all over this
country, and experience the diverse scenery and experiences. Ireland
is also easy to reach, and a short five or six hour flight from
many East Coast cities.
Ireland has a mild climate, and its
very possible you might experience all four seasons in a single
day. Showers are possible at any time, so it’s always advisable
to bring layers, especially if you are going to be out and about
all day. The day may start off chilly, then warm up, then rain,
then grow cold again.
Yet for all the hype that Ireland
receives about the amount it can rain in the Emerald Isle, most
visitors report that weather did not impact their vacation. In my
own travels to the Emerald Isle, I have seen more sun than rain
(though it did rain!). But even if it does rain, you can almost
count on then being able to experience another amazing sight: one
of the most brilliantly beautiful rainbows you’ve ever laid
eyes on. And when the sun comes out, you will quickly learn why
Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle.” There aren’t
enough words to describe the shades of green blanketing the rolling
hills when the sunlight brings the countryside alive.
arrive in Ireland at either Shannon on the West Coast, or Dublin
on the East. Dublin is the capital of Ireland, and a city rich in
history and culture. Here you can visit Trinity College, and see
the famous Book of Kells – the most beautifully illuminated
medieval manuscript in Ireland; St.Patrick’s Cathedral, the
oldest Christian site in Ireland; St. Stephen’s Green, a tranquil
park in the midst of the bustling city; Dublin Castle, or the Guinness
Brewery. There are also many museums, and don’t forget to
visit Temple Bar, a collection of cafes, shops, art galleries, bistros,
live music venues, nightclubs, and pubs.
And speaking of pubs, let me dispel
a myth about Irish pubs. They are not the same as American bars.
In fact, they are a social gathering and meeting place, where neighbors
and families come together at the end of the day to relax and enjoy
each other’s company. Most pubs also offer some form of entertainment,
and even if not, you might be treated to the local patrons improvising
their own. Children are welcome, and my two year old nephew was
the star of one pub when he danced to an Irish jig.
Dublin’s location makes it
easy to add a trip to England, Scotland, or mainland Europe, as
well as a short drive to Northern Ireland if you wished to visit
the part of the country still under British control.
An hour’s drive from Dublin
will bring you to the Wicklow Mountains, an exhilarating country
where rock-strewn glens provide sharp contrast to the forested mountains,
and heather paints the bog lands with a purple sheen. Glendalough,
nestled in the mountains among two lakes, is not to be missed; aside
from historic and archaeological attractions, the sight of the morning
sun sparkling through the valley’s fog evokes the sense that
you have traveled back in time. For garden lovers, a stop at the
Powerscourt House & Gardens is a must; even so, stop for lunch
here to take in one of the most amazing views in Ireland.
North of Dublin is the Boyne Valley,
where the famous archaeological site of Newgrange be visited; a
World Heritage Site, this tomb is also the oldest solar observatory
on Earth. Nearby are the Hill of Tara, for centuries the spiritual
heart of Ireland and seat of the High King.
To the West of Dublin, visit the
Shannonbridge Bog Railway, a 45 minute tour that will make the landscape
come alive. Here as well you can visit Clonmacnoise, once a thriving
ecclesiastical center of scholarship.
Journey south, then, to Kilkenny,
considered Ireland’s most popular heritage town. Kilkenny
Castle is the town’s largest and most impressive visitor attraction.
From there, you can easily visit Jerpoint Abbey, the best kept Cisterian
abbey in Ireland, before continuing on to Waterford, where you can
stop at the Waterford Crystal Factory and watch glasscrafters at
work, much as they have for the last two hundred years. Here you
can also visit the JFK Homestead or continue to New Ross to tour
the Dunbrody, a replica of the ship that carried Immigrants to the
US during the Irish Famine.
along the south of Ireland, magnificent coastlines, dramatic mountains,
and peaceful lakes will greet you. The south also has a rich heritage,
displayed in the number of prehistoric monuments, Norman castles,
fortified manor houses, Georgian architecture, and heritage towns.
The climate is warmer here, thanks to the Gulf stream, and the scenery
For food lovers, a stop in Ballymaloe
is a must (dine at the Ballymaloe House) – one of Europe’s
foremost culinary schools is also here. Visitors can take short
classes (ranging from one to five days). Continue on then to Kinsale,
the culinary capital of Ireland, and its annual Gourmet Festival.
From there you can visit Blarney Castle and kiss the famous Blarney
Stone – said to grant eloquence to those who kiss it. If you
dislike heights, keep in mind that to kiss the stone, you have to
lean out over the edge of one of the castle towers to do so. An
assistant holds on to you so you won’t fall, but it can be
Continue on to Cork, the third largest
city in Ireland, also known as the Festival City. Many festivals
are held here throughout the years, including the Guinness Jazz
Festival, the Irish Folk Festival, and the Choral Festival.
The Ring of Kerry, a route around
the Iveragh Pennisula, beckons next. The route begins in Killarney,
wandering through villages, hugging the edges of mountains high
above rocky shorelines before dipping down to sandy coves and forests
below. Many argue that the Ring of Kerry is the most beautiful scenic
route in Ireland.
Returning to Killarney, be sure to
stop at Ladies View, which offers a soul-stirring view of the Lakes
of Killarney. But if there is one thing you must do in this region,
it is the Gap of Dunloe. You can hike, bike, or drive up through
the Gap, and you will be astounded by the amazing scenery all around
you. Afterwards, take an open boat tour through the Lakes, ending
at Ross Castle.
North of Kerry is the Dingle Pennisula,
which is my personal favorite scenic tour in Ireland. Nothing compares
to Connor’s Pass high in the mountains, where you might find
yourself spending hours just looking out among the countryside,
lakes glistening like jewels below you. It is the most unforgettable
view in all of Ireland.
In Dingle, you can also meet Fungie,
a solitary, friendly dolphin who made Dingle Bay his home. Boat
tours will take you out to meet him (with a moneyback guarantee
if he is not sighted).
From here, you can journey into the
West of Ireland, a region characterized by wild and dramatic scenery,
interspersed with interesting towns and beautiful countryside. The
Rock of Cashel, the seat of the Kings of Munster beginning in the
5th Century, is not to be missed – an immense stone fortress
on top of a rise, it rises dramatically over the surrounding plain.
The Cormac Chapel within boasts stunning carvings, and the view
of the countryside of the castle gives you a sense of the power
and majesty this place once held.
Here in the West is also the city
of Shannon, where Ireland’s second international airport is
located. There are also many famous castles in this region. A tour
through King John’s Castle will give you a sense of the power
of the kings of old. Bunratty Castle, one of Ireland’s top
rated attractions, is also home to nightly Medieval banquets. The
Bunratty Folk Park, near the castle, is a meticulous recreation
of life at the turn of the 20th Century. Durty Nelly’s is
a pub located next to Bunratty Castle, and is also a great place
Adare, located nearby, is considered
to be the prettiest town in Ireland. Thatched cottages, stone buildings,
and ruins give this town a quaint feel. The Adare Manor has been
converted to a luxury hotel – spend a night in a castle!
Continue northward to the Cliffs
of Moher, where you will feel as if you are standing at the edge
of the world. The Cliffs, at nearly 650 feet high, drop off dramatically
to the ocean far below.
North of the Cliffs, you will enter
The Burren and its unique “Moon Landscape” – huge
stretches of limestone, with vertical fissures, cover the land.
With the Burren, many massive Dolmens and prehistoric Wedge Tombs
can be found, but its most amazing feature is its sparse plantlife:
to this day, botanists are unable to explain why rare plants such
as foxglove, rockroses, and an abundance of plants found only in
the Artic, Alpine, and Mediterranean regions are able to thrive
the Burren, you will soon reach Galway – a lively University
city – and the Connemara region. Connemara is a vibrant, wild
countryside of mountains (the Twelve Pins), valleys, bogs, and lakes.
Be sure to take some time to hike in the Connemara National Park.
Kylemore Abbey, perhaps the most famously photographed “castle”
in Ireland, is also in this region, a romantic fantasy sitting on
the edge of a lake against a forested mountain. The Abbey is near
the Sky Road, a circular route beginning in Clifden which offers
stunning ocean views. The nearby Delphi Valley is also the last
untouched Glacial Valley in Europe.
Finally, plan a trip out to the Aran
Islands, rugged islands whose isolation has preserved traditional
Irish lifestyles even to this day. The islands are crisscrossed
with stonewalls, and marked by several prehistoric stone forts.
The most dramatic of these is Fort Angus, sitting high on the edge
of a cliff. Don’t forget to buy your Aran sweaters while here!
For nature and animal lovers, a trip
to Clare Island makes a memorable final stay in Ireland, where you
can see seals, dolphins, otters, and falcons.
Ireland offers many types of accommodations,
including traditional hotels. But for those looking for a more immersive
vacation, I highly recommend staying at a Bed & Breakfast. Often
more affordable than hotels, Irish B&Bs provide the opportunity
to meet local families and experience a taste of “being at
home,” even in a foreign country. Full, hearty, traditional
Irish breakfasts are served every morning. Ireland also presents
the opportunity to stay in a castle or a manor house, including
one that is reputed to be haunted.
This tiny island holds an amazing
wealth of culture, history, scenery, and activities. Don’t
let its size fool you: you could easily spend a month or more traveling
all over just to catch the highlights.
There are many informative websites
out there to help you begin to plan your vacation to Ireland, including
Tourism Ireland’s website at http://www.tourismireland.com.
From there you can also search for a “Shamrock Club”
member, a travel agent who is an Ireland Specialist certified by
Tourism Ireland. They can help you tailor a vacation based on your
desires and needs. Remember, the peak season is during the summer,
and many popular attractions will be crowded – or sold out
– so be sure to plan in advance for many of the sites that
you most want to visit.
This fairytale country is so close
to our own, not only as the closest European country, but also due
to the many Americans who claim ancestry with the Emerald Isle.
A vacation to Ireland will give you the chance to explore a new
country, yet still evoke a sense of home. The haunting beauty of
this country will stay with you long after you return – and
you will quickly learn why visitors to Ireland return again and
(This article originally appeared in edited
form in the Passporter
November 25, 2005 Edition)