Must See Places In and Around Dublin, Ireland
I was fortunate enough to visit Ireland for my honeymoon in September 2011. Not only is the country beautiful, the Irish people are exceedingly polite and friendly. It truly is the "land of a thousand welcomes." We wanted to get the full Irish experience, so we opted to rent a car and drive a circle around the whole island to see as much as we could. We started and ended in Dublin, but also stayed in Kilarney, Cong, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. We took several day trips from those locations over the course of ten days. Although we saw quite a few of the more popular and well-known tourist attractions, like the Jameson factory and Giant's Causeway (both were worth seeing), the lesser known attractions were far more fun. The following places were some of our favorites in and around Dublin.
Kilmainham Gaol is a prison that opened in 1796 as the county jail for Dublin. There are two wings (east and west) that you are guided through in a smallish group. (Side note: all of the tour guides at all of the sites we went to were excellent. The guides were very knowledgeable and personable and most had a great sense of humor.) If you arrive ahead of a tour, there is a good-sized exhibition that gives a history of the prison along with photos and artifacts from some of the more famous prisoners.
The tour begins in the West Wing, which is the oldest and saddest part of the prison. In the early days of the prison, most of the population was debtors, but others were imprisoned for prostitution, assault, stealing, and even drunkenness. Prisoners were men, women, and children. Conditions were incredibly harsh, which is apparent as you walk by some of the cells and down the corridors. During the famine in 1845–1850, the prison was overcrowded, particularly with women and children charged with begging or stealing food. Along with these types of prisoners, there were several political prisoners starting with Henry Joy McCracken (founder of the United Irishmen and executed in 1798); Robert Emmet (another United Irishman and executed in 1803); William Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher (leaders from the Young Irelanders who were sent to Tasmania); several Fenians (secret group that swore to overthrow British rule), Charles Stewart Parnell (leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party); Patrick Parse (Commander-in-Chief of the Volunteers of the Irish Volunteers that was part of the Easter Rising in 1916); Joseph Plunkett (another leader in the Easter Rising and also has a very tragic story that they show you in a brief film); James Connolly (also in the Rising); and the very last prisoner, Eamon de Valera (anti-Treaty member during the Civil War in 1922-1924 who eventually became President of Ireland) who was released in 1924 when the prison closed. You are brought through the small chapel, which has a small door in the back of the alter that opens out to above the main entrance of the prison that was used to hang prisoners. From there, you move through dark and dank corridors lined with cells that then connect to the East Wing.
The East Wing was built in 1861 and is remarkably less like a dungeon than the West Wing. The main area is open and the cells are larger than in the West Wing. This part of the prison has been used in several movies including Michael Collins (1996). There is much more history to learn at this site, so I highly recommend you visit if you stay in Dublin.
For more information: http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/dublin/kilmainhamgaol/
Brazen Head Pub
We actually happened upon this pub on our trek back to our hotel from the Old Jameson Distillery. We thought it looked like a cool place to stop; little did we know it is quite the historic site. Brazen Head is the oldest pub in Ireland, dating back to 1198 when it was a coach house. There is a wonderful courtyard area that you pass through to get to the main pub. The pub boasts several famous patrons, such as James Joyce (who mentioned the pub in his book Ulysses), Jonathan Swift, and Michael Collins. Just being inside the pub you can feel the history surrounding you. In the evenings, there is live music and they have an evening of storytelling complete with a traditional Irish dinner. The staff was incredibly friendly and allowed several tourists to take photos behind the bar. The food was good too!
For more information: http://www.brazenhead.com/index.php
Glendalough, Wicklow Mountains
If you are an outdoors person and enjoy a nice walk or hike, check out the Wicklow Mountains. We visited Glendalough, which is within the Wicklow Mountains National Park. It is home to the Monastic City, which was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century and was an early Christian monastic settlement. St. Kevin crossed the Wicklow Mountains in the latter part of the 6th century from Hollywood (Ireland) to Glendalough. The path he took is now known as St. Kevin's Way. Even after St. Kevin's death in 617 A.D. the monastery continued to grow until Anglo-Normans took over Ireland in the 12th century when most religious and political activities were centered in Dublin. There are trails to take you to the various sites in the "city" as well as into the woods and around two lakes. The main sites to see are the Gateway, Round Tower (almost 100 feet tall with the entrance about 11 feet from the base), St. Mary's Church, the "Cathedral" (the largest church on the site, dating back to the 11th or 12th century), St. Kevin's Church, St. Kevin's Bed (which is actually a cavity in a cliff), Trinity Church, St. Saviour's Priory, remains of an old stone fort, several Celtic crosses, and Reefert Church (also dates back to the 11th century). Guided tours of the Monastic City are available, but we decided to just walk around at our own pace.
The walk is alone is worth going to the Wicklow Mountains. The paths are well marked and there are maps available in the visitor center that tell you where all the points of interest are. One of the natural points of interest is Poulanass Waterfall, which is certainly no Niagra, but still pretty to see along your nature walk. There are also nice areas around Upper Lake to walk around and even a snack stand to grab a quick bite or afternoon tea. We were lucky enough to even see a pair of swans in the lake. At the western end of Upper Lake there is an abandoned miners village that operated for almost 150 years before closing in 1965. We did not get to see this area, but anyone interested in geology should check it out because it sits on a geologic divide of granite and mica schist bedrock that has veins of metals formed between the two rock types.
This area is gorgeous and was a nice change of pace from city touring (Dublin, specifically). Nature lovers should not miss this place!
For more information: http://www.glendalough.ie/
Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth)
A little less than an hour from Dublin is a complex of Neolithic monuments known collectively as Brú na Bóinne (meaning palace or mansion of the Boyne). There are three main sites: Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. To access the sites, you start at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centere and take a shuttle to Newgrange and Knowth. Dowth is not on the official tour but you can explore outside the site by walking or by car.
We started at Newgrange, which was originally built in circa 3200 B.C. (that's right, it's older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza). The site was originally believed to be a passage tomb, but is now thought to be more of an ancient temple, which covers over an acre. Some of this site has been reconstructed due to how old the site is and how well it was preserved (it was discovered in 1699 by a landowner who was removing stones to build a road), but there are several standing stones with megalithic engravings. You are also guided inside the 62-foot long passage that leads to the main cruciform chamber where you get to experience what happens during the winter solstice. At dawn of the winter solstice, a beam of light comes through the roof-box and starts at the floor of the chamber. The beam of light gradually extends as the sun rises until the whole room is illuminated. There is a yearly lottery for the public to see the real deal.
Knowth was the second stop on the tour and was perhaps more fun because it wasn't as restricted. Because Newgrange is so popular and ancient, you had limited time inside the chamber and you were not allowed to take pictures. Knowth, on the other hand, had fewer people and you were able to take pictures within the Great Mound (main mound) chamber. The Great Mound has two passages (eastern and western); the eastern passage leads to a cruciform chamber just like Newgrange and the western passage ends in a rectangular chamber. Both chambers were used for burials. It is believed Knowth was constructed after Newgrange but before Dowth; however, as with most megalithic sites, much remains a mystery. There is a guide for the tour of the site, but you did have freedom to explore on your own after the tour. The tour included climbing to the top of the large mound for a stunning view of the Boyne Valley. This site includes the Great Mound and 18 satellite mounds with more standing stones with megalithic engravings. In fact, Knowth boasts 35 percent of all Neolithic art in Europe. The engravings are fairly typical; however, there are some more atypical images like crescent shapes. Our tour guide was also particularly animated and knowledgeable and even included some mythology about the area that was interesting and fun to hear.
For more information: http://www.newgrange.com/visitor.htm
Butler's Chocolate Cafes
This isn't a specific site, but something to keep in mind while traveling through Ireland. The first cafe opened in Dublin, but they are now all over Ireland (major cities, that is). Not only is the chocolate amazing, they have some of the best hot chocolate I've ever had. This is a great place to stop for a lovely hot chocolate and some people watching, or take it with you and enjoy while walking the streets. I still have dreams about this hot chocolate, it's that good.
For more information: http://www.butlerschocolates.com/butlers-chocolate-cafe/
If you are interested in must see sites outside of the Dublin area, check out my post Must See Places in Ireland.