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IRELAND: The Emerald Isle
By Michelle R. Mangio, owner of Magical Escapes Vacations and a Shamrock Club Ireland Specialist


     The 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 Emerald Isle.

     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.

     Visitors 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.

     Continuing 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 breathtaking.

     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 unnerving!

     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 to eat.

     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 here.

     After 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 again.


(This article originally appeared in edited form in the Passporter November 25, 2005 Edition)






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