On our first morning in Ireland, our bed and breakfast host spontaneously volunteered the Irish origins of my last name. I explained to him that as far as I knew neither my wife’s nor my own ancestors were Irish; Welsh, yes, but not Irish. “Why were we in Ireland, then?” he asked. Apparently unlike most people, we were not there to trace our non-existent Irish roots. We went because we wanted to see Ireland, specifically the Republic of Ireland. It had been a booming economic Celtic tiger, had nearly gone broke in the crash of 2008, was now a developing technological and finance center, and was enticing many Irish emigrants to return. Plus, Clodagh McKenna‘s TV show made the food look incredible. And then, to quote the not really Irish author, Patrick O’Brian, I am a sucker for “wild, romantic views” and the “Wild Atlantic Way” along Ireland’s west coast looked wildly romantic indeed.
After landing in Dublin we took the train for Galway, a relaxed college town on the west coast. It is worth a longer stay than we had; there are a great many festivals, races, and events in town and the immediate area. The city museum is very interesting and had an emotionally moving exhibit about the Irish famine, which claimed something like a million people, even though for many reasons the exact toll can only be estimated. The famine had a pivotal role in the emergence of the Irish Republic.
We then took a short ferry ride to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, which are west of Galway. Humans have strongly shaped the wonderful scenery there. The islands are essentially lumps of rock, limestone rock, specifically. To keep the thin topsoil in place, miles and miles of stone walls have been built – a labor beyond imagining. We rode our rented bicycles across the island to view Dún Aonghasa, a huge Bronze Age ring fort overlooking 100’ cliffs, itself the product of huge amounts of backbreaking labor.
Off in the distance one can see Dún Aonghasa, a massive stone hill fort overlooking a sheer cliff. The stonework is 4 meters (12 feet) thick in spots and encloses an area of 6 hectares (14 acres). Lacking a drone, I photographed a poster in the information office. I apologize to the original photographer.
After returning to Galway, we rented a car. (I’m good with a manual shift, but I’ve never had to use my left hand to shift through a gate that had not also been reversed, while sitting on the right side of the car. It was a challenge.) We then proceeded south and, while the entire west coast is beautiful, the Cliffs of Moher are very special indeed.
Our next stop was the town of Dingle and the Dingle Peninsula. Again, there was more to do here than we had time, but the scenery was spectacular. Several movies have been filmed here, notably Ryan’s Daughter on Slea Head (below). Just below is a photo of fishing boats in Dingle Harbor. (The red boat is the trawler Melodie from France. The blue boat to the far left is the Apollo (INS179) from the United Kingdom, while the blue boat next to the dock is the Aspin (BA 544859) from France.) Ireland is, of course, a member of the European Union (EU) and EU boats have access to its waters. EU fishing access is one of the things the United Kingdom sought to eliminate by leaving the EU. It has proven to be one of the more difficult issues to address in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, which are unresolved as I write this.
Farther south yet, we stopped in Kenmare, a really nice town in County Kerry which has been a multi-year winner of the Irish “Tidy Towns” contest. (I’m not sure many towns in the US would want to be thought of as “tidy,” but it is nonetheless a nice place.) Situated between the Iveragh Peninsula and the Beara Peninsula at the head of Kenmare Bay and the Roughty River, it makes for a good stop between the two peninsulas. (We stayed at Whispering Pines B&B where Mary Fitzgerald was a wonderful host. Two thumbs up!) It is also part of the Ring of Kerry, a 179 kilometer (111 mile) tourist route around the Iveragh Peninsula. Lots of massive tour buses make the anti-clockwise drive down very narrow stone-walled roads (lanes?). Dodging buses did not appeal to us, so we happily spent our time around Kenmare. It is pleasant and almost serene.
The Beara Peninsula lies south of the Iveragh Peninsula. Even though it has been glaciated, its terrain is rugged with steep hills and twisting roads. We especially wanted to see Kilcatherine Church, which is on Ballycrovane Harbor, i.e., the north side of the peninsula.
I found several online references to Kilcatherine Church, but none of them seemed definitive. It is a very old church (11th or 12th century), which is now in ruins and was itself built on the ruins of a 7th century monastic site. It is said to be named for St. Caithinghearn, who is usually described as “mysterious.”
The face on the gargoyle looks to me like a human face, but if you are trying to make the stretch from St. Caithinghearn to Cat Goddess to Kilcatherine, then I guess it works. Certainly the transformation of old gods by newer cultures is not at all unusual (e.g., Zeus for the Greeks became Jupiter for the Romans), but the name itself seems too convenient. You will have no trouble finding more Irish folk legends about the church.
We then drove to the town of Kinsale, which is on the southeast coast of Ireland. Now a popular tourist and yachting destination, it has a history as an important military site and had long figured in English control of Ireland. Charles Fort, the larger of the two forts which used to guard the seaward entrance to the town, dates from the reign of Charles II in 1682 and is huge. Built high on a bluff overlooking Kinsale Harbor it was designed to withstand cannon fire and housed a large garrison force within. It was burned during the Irish Civil War in 1922. It is now managed as an historical monument by Heritage Ireland.
We then returned our rental car in Cork – with, miraculously, NO scratches – and then left for Dublin via the train. Ireland is not all that large and its trains are sized accordingly. They are really very pleasant; we recommend them!
After spending the better part of two weeks on the dramatically hilly west coast of Ireland, Dublin came as something of a shock. It is flat. Much of the central part of the city is composed of Georgian apartment buildings, originally built for wealthy residents near St. Stephen’s Green.
I found the not-so-Georgian style more interesting.
Despite being inhabited for millenia, the sense of recent history is very powerful in Ireland. St. Stephen’s Green, for example, is an attractive Victorian park in central Dublin similar to urban parks found elsewhere. Once a marsh, then a public hanging (execution) ground, then a private park to encourage nearby development by wealthy residents, it was opened and funded as a public park by Sir Arthur Guinness in 1877. We saw people here on the weekend enjoying themselves amidst the flowers and the good weather.
During the Easter Rising of 1916, however, things were very different. Irish rebels seized the park along with other parts of the city in their rebellion against the British. It was a site of intense fighting (and dying) during the attempted overthrow of British rule. Although the rebellion itself may have failed on that occasion, the execution of Irish leaders by the British served to build later support for independence. There are markers throughout the park showing where rebel forces lay and were fired upon by British forces from the nearby hotels and buildings. There are several other monuments and memorials, one of which is an austere memorial to victims of the Irish famine.