Upon graduating college, I found myself in possession of a month with nothing to do and a desire to do something a little crazy before becoming a ‘real adult’. I had originally planned to move to Chicago directly following graduation, but with a month delay before I could start work, it felt like the universe was giving me a chance to go on an adventure.
So like any rational person, I found a cheap flight, a couple of girl friends, and booked a trip to Ireland.
The emerald isle. This was a land I had dreamed of seeing since I was a little girl. The lush rolling greens of the moor, dotted with sheep and cattle and Celtic castles. The pubs full of dancing Irishmen, with their rough brogues cheering whiskey while clapping along to the fiddle that played traditional drinking songs. The beastly cliffs towering over the Atlantic, both wielding a significant beauty and danger in their presence. This was a land of magic.
Our week in Ireland, though short, held more adventures than I could have imagined, and I can’t wait to soon return to the isle of whiskey and love to make more memories.
We flew in early on a Thursday morning, and to avoid jet lag, set off to explore Dublin. We were hosted for the first few nights by some lovely family friends who lived in a local neighborhood on the south side of the river known as Ballsbridge. Opting to explore public transportation (which I recommend in any city), we took the local DART train into the City Center. We strolled along the river towards Ha’Penny Bridge (a pedestrian bridge built in May 1816 over the River Liffey, which required a toll of a ha’penny from anyone who crossed it for the first hundred years).
Crossing through Merchant’s Arch from the bridge, we made our way to a popular area of city center known as Temple Bar. Though it is certainly a touristy area to go for drinks at night (spirits may cost you a little extra), it is still a fun and vibrant experience, as the area is full of pubs boasting live music and crowded with locals and travelers alike. Though it was mid-afternoon, we went to the pub Temple Bar for our first taste of Dublin Guinness and traditional Irish music.
We then walked Grafton Street – a popular shopping district in Dublin – up towards the central park St. Stephen’s Green before returning home, giving into brutal jet lag.
Rock of Cashel
On Friday, we ventured out with a tour company to explore the castles and towns of Ireland. We first visited the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. According to myth, when St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave, he took a bit out of the mountainside and threw it. Legend has it that the measurements of the Rock equate the bit missing from the hillside, and it was here that the King of Munster built a castle. The castle is also home to St. Patrick’s first chapel. The castle towers over the town of Cashel. A Celtic cemetery covers the hillside – just don’t trip as its Irish bad luck to trip in a cemetery!
From Cashel we ventured to Blarney. Kissing the Blarney Stone has long been on my bucket list, so this was an excursion that I was most excited for. The grounds surrounding the Blarney Castle are beautiful, with blossoming trees and a rippling brook that runs through the park. A poison garden behind the castle is worth exploring, as well as surrounding caves. We first snuck into a crevice of the castle that led to the dungeons, and then up through the narrow and winding steps of the castle, past the grand hall and chambers to the roof. To kiss the Blarney Stone, one must lean backwards over a gap while holding on to railings – and to be honest, the castle was much higher than it seemed from the ground. But it was absolutely worth doing, and I could cross it from my list. Many legends claim the origin of the stone, but it is said that kissing it will grant the visitor the ‘gift of gab’ – or of eloquent speech.
From Blarney, we traveled to Cork. Though it seemed to be a beautiful town, we were only given an hour to explore it, which was not nearly enough and was rather disappointing. I hope to return to see more of it someday.
That night, we sat at the pubs of Ballsbridge, taking in local nightlife. A word to the wise: don’t order a margarita in rural Ireland. They will likely give you a dirty look and spend twenty minutes Googling how to make it!
On Saturday, our hosts took us to explore the coastal towns surrounding Dublin. This was an unfamiliar area to me, and we were eager to see the beauty that Ireland’s eastern coast offered.
We began by taking the Dart train to its most southern stop in Bray. This beach town offers a beautiful promenade down the length of the coast, bordering a rocky beach. A tall hill stands at the end with a cross on top, and many visitors hike to the top for a beautiful coastal view.
From Bray, we took the train back to another coastal town known as Dalkey. This quaint town has a castle that towers among restaurants, pubs, and shops. And if one is lucky, they may come across Bono, who is said to hang out at local restaurants.
From Dalkey, we walked along the coastline through Sandycove and to Dun Laoghaire. Here the rocky coast was a stunning sight, with sailboats dotting the horizon on the azure waters. We passed Martello Tower – the setting for the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses and now home to a James Joyce museum. We continued on down the coastal beaches to Dun Laoghaire. The towns reminded me of those lining Lake Michigan back home, or even something from the American south. I had not expected to find palm trees in Ireland, but they were certainly a welcome sight.
Everyone had said it would be rainy and cold in Ireland. I suppose we brought some warm weather with us.
That evening, we ventured out to city center to explore the pubs of Temple Bar. By sheer Irish luck (in search of a bathroom), we stumbled upon a pub called Trinity Bar, which became our favorite nightly hangout. Just around the corner from the touristy pubs of the area, Trinity is less busy and has a warm ambiance. We would go to listen to a duo called the Hairy Badgers sing classic sing-alongs and local Irish tunes.
Though it may be crowded and occasionally overpriced, the atmosphere of Temple Bar on a weekend is incomparable. It is a wonderful place to meet locals and travelers alike, listen to wonderful live music, and enjoy your share of local Guinness or Jameson.
Sunday was a day of rest for us. We transferred to our hostel home on the north side of the river, where we would be staying the last few nights. We wandered down O’Connell Street – the city’s central avenue. That evening, we explored Temple Bar once again, returning to Trinity for more live music, which is perhaps my favorite part of the Irish pub scene.
Since we only had a limited week in Dublin, with several days spent out of the city, we allowed ourselves to be full-blown tourists on Monday. The hop on and off city bus turned out to be a convenient way to see most of the city’s landmarks. We drove around the city in a full loop, passing the iconic harp bridge, back out to Ballsbridge and on to St. Stephen’s Green.
Trinity College Library
We first stopped at Trinity College to wander the beautiful campus and visit the Trinity College Library. There is an exhibition here housing the legendary Book of Kells – a Latin manuscript containing the four Gospels marvelously painted on calf skin folios. The library’s long room is a masterpiece unto itself, and the word-lover in me could have spent days exploring the shelves had I been allowed. The long wooden hall boasts an arched central ceiling, and the walls are lined with row after row of double-storied shelves full of ancient books. Busts of Aristotle, Socrates, and the likes line the hall, and ladders climb their way up the shelves. The best part is that the whole room smells strongly of musty old pages.
We then drove past the architecturally beautiful Christchurch Cathedral, and then visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral – a stunning gothic sanctuary.
Next, we ventured to the Guinness Storehouse. Though Guinness is by no means my beer of choice, I drank enough of it in Ireland to appreciate it’s rich part in Dublin’s history. The museum was interesting and well designed, and at the top, we were treated to a pint of Guinness at the Gravity Bar – a circular room atop the storehouse with glass walls overlooking the city from above. This definitely makes my list of best views while enjoying a beer.
That night, we sat at Trinity Bar once again to enjoy a new musical duo, the Shamrógs, play traditional Irish music. By now, I was beginning to learn the words to my favorite songs like ‘Galway Girl’ and ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’.
Our last day in Ireland was perhaps the most fulfilling of them all. We once again traveled with a tour company, this time to the west coast of Ireland to visit the Cliffs of Moher. I fell asleep on the bus just as we were leaving Dublin, and awoke to the Ireland I had dreamed of. The rainy sky loomed above lush green fields lined with ancient stone walls and dotted with sheep. Rolling hills grew from the horizon and the navy coast of the Atlantic sparkled in the distance. This felt like the Ireland I had always imagined.
While Dublin is wonderful, it is modern, and I do wish we had spent more time on the picturesque west coast. But again, just another excuse to return someday.
We first visited a coastal town called Kinvara. Docked along the port were wooden sailboats known as Galway Hookers. The buildings were colorful and thatched cottages surrounded the area. We walked out to Dunguaire castle, towering over the water.
Doolin + Mini-Cliffs
We then drove on, stopping to visit what our guide called the ‘mini’ cliffs. These one-hundred-foot cliffs stood over the coast, and standing at the edge was enough to make anyone nervous. I laughed that these were the mini cliffs, wondering how tall the real things could be.
Cliffs of Moher
As it turns out, about 700 feet. The Cliffs of Moher put the first cliffs quickly to shame. We first took a ferry ride along the coast to behold the cliffs from below. As it is also a bird sanctuary, thousands of puffins and other winged creatures surrounded us, nesting on the cliffs or floating atop the waves. The cliffs towered like beasts above us, but my favorite view was from above.
The Cliffs of Moher are by far the most beautiful thing I’ve ever beheld. Its a pity that they aren’t noted as a great national wonder of the world, because they certainly area wonder. The monstrous cliffs tower along the coast line, both beautiful and foreboding in their powerful presence. Signs warning caution greeted us as we arrived at the top, and I realized I was right, there was danger in such great beauty. It gave me anxiety as I watched others approach the cliffs’ edge.
But as I sat at the edge myself, looking down a 750 foot drop to the Atlantic far below, looking across at the miniature O’Brein’s watchtower and ant people on the opposite cliff, I felt as if I was on top of the world. It was a moment of sheer awe and fear and exhilaration, and I felt incredibly honored to have been chosen to witness some of the beauty that this world has to offer.
In other words, go visit the Cliffs of Moher. It is worth it. Just don’t fall off.
On the way home, we stopped in another medieval town called Bunratty. A castle looks over the village, and our guide laughed that in Ireland, they call them the ABC’s. Another bloody castle, cathedral, cemetery… you get the idea. In Bunratty we had a beer at Durty Nelly’s – a 400 year old pub, founded in 1620.
That night was our final night in Dublin, and we celebrated by once again exploring the now-familiar Temple Bar area. Gogarty’s and Quay’s became regular visits, as well as Trinity. We met travelers from all over the world – even a stranger who had just graduated from the University of Michigan with us.
And I wondered what brought us all there, to that random pub in Dublin, far away from our homes, whether we were from Michigan or London or Argentina.
An innate sense of wanderlust. And Ireland called to that sense in us, because like I said, it is a land of magic.
Six short days gave me enough memories for a lifetime with friends I got to know better and a country that I fell in love with. But six short days were just that – not enough to see it all.
I’m counting the days until I can return.
Stay tuned for most posts and tips for exploring Ireland!
xx, Siúirtáin (J)