Welcome to Ireland! One of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen. It really is green, and we haven’t even started talking about the shamrocks and the leprechauns. There is a surprise around every corner here; you see quaint little villages, beautiful castles, like Blarney Castle in County Cork. From its dramatic cliffs and green rolling hills, to its tiny villages and trendy big cities, there’s plenty to see on the Emerald Isle! Once the land of feuding clans and oppressive foreign lords, today it’s known for its independent spirit, which you’ll see reflected in its wealth of history, culture and traditions.
One of the most defining characteristics of Irish society is their belief in superstitions. Ah, yes…this is the land of the leprechauns and fairies! And, since I always believe you should embrace the local customs, let’s be off to participate in one that’s world famous… kissing the Blarney Stone. For that, we head to Blarney Castle, a 10th century fortress located in southern Ireland, just outside of the seaside city of Cork.
The imposing stone walls are said to hold the key to everlasting glibness! You’ll climb right the way up to the top, go through a hole, sit down and lean back. Then you kiss the Blarney Stone.
The origins of the Blarney Stone and the tradition of kissing it are unclear. Some believe that it was a gift from a witch who was saved from drowning. Others believe it’s the Stone of Scone which Scottish kings were crowned under. Regardless of its origins, tourists have been flocking to Blarney Castle to get a chance to kiss the stone for centuries.
Why would anyone do something as silly as that? Well… to get the gift of gab of course! How hard is it to kiss the stone? There’s a 10 story walk up a lot of stairs and the stone is in quite an awkward position, but… this is what you do when you come to Ireland. So first conquer all those stairs! We’ll talk about your fear of heights later! It only takes about twenty minutes to reach the top and you can rest along the way.
Do you know the reason that the stairs go clockwise and not counter-clockwise? So the warriors attacking the castle would have trouble with their swords while the people who were defending had a full swing. Makes sense to me.
Once you reach the top you can enjoy the view, which I have to say is breathtaking. But it’s time to kiss that stone, sure hope it’s sanitary. You set down and lean back with your hands on the rails behind you, and back you lean, kissing the smooth stone surface. It’s clean, or so they said when I went to grab my sanitizer. You want to hear a joke? I know some great jokes now. And that’s the magic, you’ll be great at telling yarns!
But, don’t rush back down and out of the castle just yet. There are still a few more sites to see. You can stop by on the way up or down and see the kitchen, with its huge the fireplace and chimney. They must have done a whole lot of cooking back in the day. Can’t you imagine the big pots hanging down? There’s also a little girl’s room that a priest also occupied. Wonder if the fairytale of Repunzel was modeled on this tower her? We are pretty high up.
But these buildings weren’t just homes. They were also fortifications. You can actually see the murder holes in the walls where they used to dump boiling oil on all the invaders attacking them below.
For those brave souls that made it past the oil but not past the guards, there was a much worse fate waiting for them in captivity. Every castle has to have a dungeon. So take a look at this one. It’s really dark. I wouldn’t want to be left there for who knows how long. If you bring your own flashlight, you can go into the tunnels, because it isn’t closed or off limits. Wow, you should see how far back it goes, it’s amazing! Aahh…the tortures that were inflicted!
After a visiting the dungeon you might be ready to high tail it out of blarney but you shouldn’t leave without visiting the town first. The world famous Blarney Woolen Mills are where you can find all those expensive Irish sweaters and capes at a deep discount. Perfect to accompany Ireland’s cool climate.
But wait, there’s more… There’s culture and history too and it’s just a few miles down the road in the city of Cork, which is Ireland’s second largest city. Cork is mostly a walking city. You can get out and go exploring, ramble down some of the little side streets. Take a seat, have a coffee, have a bite to eat. They have the cutest little doughnuts, be sure and try some.
Cork is a culturally rich city from its famous opera house, to great shopping at Emmett square, or my favorite tradition, ringing the Shandon Bells. Francis Mahoney wrote, “…with deep affection and recollection, I often think of those Shandon bells.” Despite this being my first time at Cork’s St. Anne’s Church, I’ve heard of the Shandon Bells and I can’t wait to ring them. But first you have to climb all the way up to the bell tower. Yep… more stairs!
It takes about two minutes to reach the belfry! These must be the bells oh! You are now in the belfry, and about to play the famous Bells of Shandon. Ok. Select your favorite tune from the bench, play the tune by pulling the number indicated. If you can’t decide, just give it a good old ring!
There are many traditions in Ireland, but no matter where I go, I always adhere to my favorite traveling custom, which is. of course, shopping! And the most picturesque place with the cutest boutiques is nearby, in the seaside village of Kin sale. Kinsale is a fishing village whose narrow streets all lead down to the harbor. It’s exactly what you expect a little Irish town to look like, with a massive stone fort, little 18th century painted houses and storefronts, window boxes filled with flowers and a harbor full of sailboats!
This is a great little day trip from cork. Ok, here’s what you do. You come over here in the morning, you look at the fort, then you walk around, look in some of the shops, and have lunch. It’s really a lot of fun. But you know what? Don’t make the same mistake I did. Bring a little bit of cash, because a lot of the cute little cafes and restaurants you’re going to find, they don’t take credit cards.
One little bit of history you’re going to hear about while you’re here is the Lusitania. It was an Irish, foggy morning in 1915 when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine right off the coast of Kinsale. If you’re interested in taking a piece of the Lusitania home with you than this is the place to come, because Kinsale’s antique shops are filled with memorabilia. Plus, it’s a great excuse to shop! If you can’t find the piece you’re looking for, don’t worry, Kinsale has a lot of good antique dealers. Not to mention art galleries and great food. Oh, and don’t worry about these beautiful pieces being out of your price range because they’re not as expensive as you may think. First off, if you are taking it or sending it home, you get your Value Added Tax back. And, most antique dealers will negotiate a price—within reason. I love it when they talk my language!
This little fishing village is called the gourmet capital of Ireland. Ireland is very famous for its food, anyway. But Kinsale, because of its location beside the sea, has a wide variety of seafood, from shellfish to john dory, mackerel, pollock, and sea bass. All the different kinds of fish that are caught locally. The restaurants all offer fresh local fish which is fresh and prepared with local ingredients. The restaurants established a food circle, to offer visitors different choices of eateries when they visit, by pointing them in the direction of a restaurant that suits their tastes.
But for another one of Ireland’s famous experiences, we’ll head to the northwestern part of the country, to one of the most famous castles in Ireland, Ashford Castle in Lough Corrib. Okay, now this has always been my fantasy: coming to Ireland and staying in a medieval castle, doing the ‘gentry’ country sports, like riding and shooting, and then dressing for an elegant dinner and sitting by the fireplace. So very civilized! Well, I found a place where that fantasy became a reality!
Imagine a real 13th century castle, strategically located between a lake and a river…surrounded by hundreds of acres of private woodland…that’s also a five star hotel; and you’ll have discovered Ireland’s premier vacation destination, Ashford Castle. Originally a monastery, dating back to 1228 ad, its imposing facade is a reminder that, here in Ireland, time appears to stand still! All your dreams of castles and kings instantly come alive at your first glimpse of its towering presence guarding the shoreline of Lough Corrib. What is more, it was once owned by the Guinness Ale Company.
My fantasy of falcons soaring over the forest and knights in shining armor protecting the castle walls has truly become reality! Coupled with the modern realities of a spa, gourmet dining, boutique shopping, wifi and sports of the gentile! *For more details of this living fairytale castle, please visit the hotel section of this website.
Well, I couldn’t leave Ashford Castle without doing a little falconry, so no sooner said than done! After all, its part of my fantasy, remember? It’s definitely an incredible experience…and very easy to learn with a bit of coaching! It’s also a great experience for kids, who are absolutely thrilled to work with these magnificent birds, and from what they told me, the feeling is mutual!
Continuing with the lifestyle of the sporting crowd, let’s move on to one of the original diversions here at the castle, sport shooting. Not for game, like they did a hundred years ago, but for clay targets! There’s an expert at your side, so you can learn what to do, or quickly brush up on safety and technique, then actually hit a few!
With your aim tuned in, another sporting diversion will catch your attention…..archery! Once necessary to put food on the castle table, it’s now just for fun! But again with some expert coaching, you’ll have a great afternoon. Bull’s eye!
If you have ever seen John Ford’s movie, The Quiet Man, you will have seen the Ashford Castle Hotel and the village of Cong Abbey in the scenes. For many, their first awareness of Ireland as a country, was seeing the Quiet Man movie with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The majority of top name celebrities all stayed in the castle during the shoot. The movie was filmed down road in the town of Cong Abbey, which is still a wonderful place to walk and explore. It’s a lovely little village with small storefronts and streets, and it looks exactly like what you’d expect to see here in Ireland!
The buildings still remain, you’ll find Squire Danaher’s house from the movie right where it was on film. Now, you have to imagine it with a thatched roof and without that red front porch that adorns it now. There’s a little old lady who lives inside the place and she’s got a sign in the window that says ‘ Quiet Man postcards sold here.’ I went up there and I rang the doorbell, and she sold me some postcards from the movie. She was so cute! Only in Ireland!”
Next up, is Connemara, which has got to be one of the most extraordinary places in the world. You’ve traveled extensively, I know, but I doubt that you would ever find anything like Connemara anywhere else. It’s just one of these areas that are so peculiar to the west of Ireland. The scenery is breathtaking. The colors in the sky have to be seen to be believed. You will never find, I mean, purples, reds, and pinks all simultaneously, in the skylights at night when the sun is setting. A great way to get a feel for this incredible part of the country is to take a boat cruise out on to the lake. The views are spectacular, and they say there are at least 365 islands on Lough Corrib….one for every day of the year!
Cruisin’ for castles? Can’t get enough? Well, feast your eyes on one of the best preserved and impressive castles in Ireland, none other than Castle Cahir. This castle is hard to miss. It sits close to the center of Ireland, on a major crossroad on the routes between Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny. But why would you ever want to miss it? Castle Cahir is not only formidable, it is also beautiful, and the best restored castle around these parts. With its location on the River Suir, visitors are offered some of the most picturesque views in all of Ireland. And for a country this spectacular, that says a lot.
Now after you’ve seen the castle doesn’t rush off to the next town. Stay awhile and savor the region, because the Irish are best enjoyed slowly on an individual basis. There are several things to see, like Swiss Cottage, and you’ll just want to savor the country flavor that abounds. Take time enjoy a quaint Irish town and its citizens.
All right that’s enough of country charm. We’re ready to head east and hit the big city. And in Ireland there is only one place to experience city life. Dublin! This city has a lot of little areas and neighborhoods, which I love. My favorite, is one the Temple Bar area. It’s kind of a redeveloped pedestrian zone now, really cute, with cobblestone streets. You’ll find it’s filled with restaurants, bars, music, and Irish pubs, and great if you enjoy the night life.
Temple Bar is not just hot spots and trendy people. There’s also a lot of history in the district from the Ha’ Penny Bridge to the winding medieval streets that still remain.
When you venture out of the Temple Bar district, you’ll discover that Dublin is a city filled with history from the bullet holes at the general post office to the book of kills at trinity college.
Of course, you absolutely must visit an Irish pub, pull up a chair at the bar and sample the world famous brew that Ireland is known for, namely Guinness. The dark ale is full of protein and I heard they even gave it babies to fatten them up! Nothing like a year old alcoholic, right? You can savor a pint and enjoy some traditional Irish music.
Ah, Ireland is a country filled with traditions, culture and history. And whether you’re Irish or not you’ll feel your Celtic blood rising with pride as you experience everything this incredible country has to offer. What a beautiful place to visit! Everywhere you look it’s a picture. And the people? Ah, they are the best!