Must See Places in Ireland
For my honeymoon in September 2011, I was fortunate enough to visit Ireland. 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 rented a car and drove a circle around the whole island to see as much as we could. We started and ended in Dublin, but also stayed in Killarney, Cong, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. We took several day trips from those locations over the course of ten days. In my previous post, Must See Places In and Around Dublin, I focused on all the great places in Dublin or close to Dublin. This post is all about the sites we loved outside of the Dublin area.
Probably our favorite part of Ireland was County Kerry, and a big reason for that was the lovely town of Killarney. The town is charming and is surrounded by beautiful countryside. There is plenty of shopping, pubs, and cafes to leisurely enjoy. Nature lovers will love the scenic views, particularly from Aghadoe (at the northern end of Killarney Valley), and lovely walking trails in Killarney National Park that lead to Muckross House. We actually stayed at Aghadoe Heights Hotel and Spa, which overlooks the lakes of Killarney and is right next to Aghadoe Cathedral and Round Tower (11th century ruins). If you are looking for a bit of luxury, this hotel has it as well as the most breathtaking views of any hotel we stayed.
Killarney National Park and Muckross Abbey
To get to Muckross House and Gardens, you enter through Killarney National Park. At the entrance of the walking path from the main parking area, there are several jarvies (horse carriages) and the drivers can be a bit pushy in getting you to ride. If you love horses and/or you aren't up for the approximately 2-kilometer walk, the jarvies are a nice way to travel around the park. We decided to walk because the weather was nice and wanted to go at our own pace (and save a bit of cash!). Much like the Wicklow Mountains, this is a must see and do for nature lovers and hikers. The trees are massive and you feel like you are in a fairy tale forest as you walk among them.
Along the path you first approach Muckross Abbey, which is an Observantine Franciscan friary founded circa 1448, most likely by local chieftain Donal MacCarthy. Observantine refers to the rigid observance of rules dictating diet, clothing, and private property ownership. The friary was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and thought to have a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary at one time. The Abbey endured violent times (including Henry VIII's order in 1541 that suppressed them until they were re-established in 1612) and the friars remained there until Cromwellians drove them out completely in 1652.
The ruins and adjoining graveyard are free to explore and are unguided. The ruins include a church with a tower and a vaulted cloister with arches around a square courtyard. There is an ancient yew tree in the middle of the courtyard that is said to be as old as the abbey. Along with local chieftans, the graveyard is also the final resting place of Irish poets Geoffrey O'Donoghue, Aodhagan O'Rathaille, and Eoghan Rua O'Suilleabhain and still has burials there each year.
For more information: http://www.killarneynationalpark.ie/
Muckross House and Gardens
From Muckross Abbey you can walk along a wooded path that goes along the edge of Lough Leane with some views of Ross Island and eventually ends at Muckross House and Gardens. The Muckross House is a Victorian mansion built in 1843 for Henry Arthur Herbert and his wife Mary Balfour Herbert. It was designed by the well-known Scottish architect William Burn. Muckross House became more famous due to Queen Victoria's visit in 1861. In anticipation of the queen's visit, the Herberts made elaborate preparations including a separate wing for the royal family's apartments and tapestries, silverware, linen, china, servants' uniforms, and more were specially commissioned. The queen's bedroom remains as it was for her visit and can be seen in guided tour of the mansion. These elaborate preparations most certainly contributed to the Herberts' financial troubles in the late 19th century when Lord Ardilaun (member of the Guinness family and related through marriage to the Herbert family) purchased the estate through auction. The estate changed hands again in 1910 when wealthy American William Bowers Bourn bought the property for his daughter Maud Bowers Bourn Vincent as a wedding present (she married Arthur Rose Vincent). A few years after Maud's death in 1929, Arthur presented Muckross to the Irish nation to be maintained and managed as a national park for the public because it became too big an undertaking.
The Herbert and Vincent families continue to maintain a relationship with the property with frequent visits and family reunions. The mansion is meticulously maintained and worth checking out. Photos are not allowed inside the mansion, so it is certainly a place you'll have to see with your own eyes. The gardens are beautiful as well and worth seeing if you're an avid gardener or appreciate well-groomed gardens.
Muckross House and Gardens also includes the Muckross Traditional Farms, which is a working farm depicting farm life during the 1930s and 1940s. This is separate from the tour of the mansion but you can purchase a joint ticket for both tours. We did not get to tour the farm part, but anyone traveling with children may enjoy visiting. The farm includes a petting zoo and picnic area and has a complimentary shuttle around the buildings for anyone less inclined to walk or you've spent the full day on your feet.
For more information: http://www.muckross-house.ie/
While staying in Killarney, we decided to take a scenic drive to tour the area. Rather than taking the Ring of Kerry like so many tourists do, we took Slea Head Drive instead to tour the Dingle Peninsula. Although we drove, this circular route is also good for biking. The route starts and ends in the town of Dingle, which is a quaint fishing port with great shops and pubs. Dingle is also known for a very special dolphin named Fungie. The story goes that Fungie was noticed by the lighthouse keeper in 1984 as the dolphin escorted the town's fishing boats to and from port. Later that year, the local Ministry of Marine manger officially called the Fungie a permanent resident of the entrance channel. Soon after, Fungie was more than just an escort and interacted with visitors as well as fishermen. He can still be seen during summer months, but if you are there during spring or fall, you can still take a picture with the statue erected in his honor.
The Slea Head Drive route is picturesque with several ancient and more modern sites to visit. We spent almost a full day on the route and still didn't get to see everything, so if you are interested in seeing all the sites, you may want to make this a two-day trip (there are several bed and breakfasts and hotels along this drive).
Something else to note is that the Irish language is still spoken in this area of Ireland. Most street signs will have both Irish and English and you will certainly hear natives speaking it. We didn't have any problems conversing with people, but the accents are a bit thicker than in cities like Dublin.
Celtic and Prehistoric Museum
Our first stop along Slea Head Drive was the Celtic and Prehistoric Museum, which we just happened to see on the side of the road and thought it looked like an interesting place. I am so glad we stopped! This museum not only has the only fully intact woolly mammoth skull in Ireland, it also has the only complete dinosaur skeleton and a towering skeleton of a cave bear. There are artifacts from the Jurassic, Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Celtic and Viking eras, as well as a great little gift shop. We were free to explore the small museum as we liked and were the only ones there, so no competition to get to see all the cool artifacts. This is a fairly quick stop that is worth exploring.
For more information: http://www.discoverireland.ie/Arts-Culture-Heritage/celtic-prehistoric-museum/13166
One of the more heart-wrenching sites we stopped for was the Famine Cottage. This is a preserved cottage built in the early 19th century built from mud and stone (it even had a thatched roof at one point). The cottage is on a bit of a hill (with breathtaking views) surrounded by outbuildings (such as a stable) and several animals. We were greeted by chickens upon entering the cottage, but there were also horses, goats, llamas, donkeys, and a red deer in surrounding fields. Touring the grounds and cottage was like stepping back in time to see what life was like for rural families during the Famine years (1845 to 1850). There are several artifacts from the time period as well as informational placards with historical information as well as the history of a specific family that lived there. Much like the Celtic Museum, we were the only visitors and allowed to freely walk the grounds and various out buildings. I admit the mannequins they used to show daily life were a bit creepy, but overall you feel the sad history all around you and remember that Ireland is not only beautiful, but tragic.
For more information:
No stay in Ireland is complete without staying in a castle. There are several to choose from, but we went with Ashford Castle because of our trip route, affordability (it's still pretty pricey, but castles tend to be), and accommodations at the castle. This expansive castle was built originally in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family after defeating the O'Connors of Connaught. The castle changed hands many times over the years, which included additions to the castle and grounds. The Oranmore and Browne family added a French style chateau to the castle in 1715; Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness extended the estate to 26,000 acres including new roads, adding thousands of trees, and building two large Victorian style extensions in 1852; Lord Ardilaun (son of Sir Benjamin Guinness) developed the woodlands and rebuilt the entire west wing of the castle; and Noel Haggard transformed the castle into a first class hotel in 1939. Even after becoming a hotel the castle continued to change hands: John A. Mulcahy bought the castle in 1970 and restored and expanded the castle (doubled its size), built the golf course, and developed the grounds and gardens; and a group of Irish-American investors bought the castle in 1985 and has since been voted one of the best hotels in Ireland. This place was so much fun to explore. You can see the many styles of architecture while walking the immediate grounds of the castle. There are tons of walking areas and gardens to explore as well. If you are more adventurous, you can take falconry lessons, shoot clay pigeons, or do some archery. If you prefer more low-key activities, there's golf, fishing, horse riding, and lake cruising. I'm sure you're also wondering about a helipad...yes, they have one of those too. There is no shortage of things to do and see in and around Ashford Castle, and the food and staff were excellent.
For more information: http://www.ashford.ie/index.html
The castle is in the small town of Cong, which is also worth checking out (the center of the town is walking distance from the castle). There is a 12th century Augustinian abbey that was built on the site of a 6th century monastery as well as the Quiet Man Cottage Museum. "The Quiet Man" is a John Wayne film from 1951 that was filmed in Cong (you can access the home used in the film through paths at Ashford Castle), and along with a museum, several shops have memorabilia for the film. We didn't have as much time in Cong, so I can't speak to the other activities, but sites of interest include caves in the area that can be explored, Inchagoaill Island (on Lough Corrib and has monastic ruins from the 5th century and the Church of the Saints, which was built by Agustian monks in 1180), and two lakes (Lough Corrib and Lough Mask).
Belfast, Northern Ireland
If you are thinking about a trip to Ireland, save some time for Northern Ireland. There are plenty of sites to see, such as Giant's Causeway, and it is interesting to see the differences between the independent Republic and the British ruled Northern Ireland. If you are limited in time, I recommend checking out Belfast at the very least. Belfast is the vibrant capital city of Northern Ireland with great shopping, pubs, clubs, and restaurants. We unfortunately had nasty weather the one day we had to explore Belfast, so we weren't able to do as much as we wanted, but we were able to see the City Hall, shopping district, and Cathedral Quarter. The City Hall was opened in 1906 and is located in the heart of Belfast. The interior of the building is stunning with a grand staircase, large dome, stained glass, and marble everywhere. Walking around the building you find several memorials and statues as well as public art and exhibitions in the coffee shop. There are guided tours of the building but you are also free to walk around the main areas like we did.
If you want to do some shopping, Victoria Square is not to be missed. This shopping center (basically a mall) is seamless with the streets. You barely realize you're entering a mall until you're surrounded by stores on four levels with a giant dome overhead. (This is how we discovered it.) The glass dome includes a viewing gallery where you can see an amazing view of Belfast.
Continue shopping by taking a stroll in Cathedral Quarter, which is the oldest part of Belfast. The streets are cobblestoned and many of the buildings date back to the seventeenth century. Along with several historic sites, such as St. Anne's Cathedral (namesake of the area), Albert Memorial Clock, Customs House, and Northern Whig House, there are art galleries, dining, and shops (not to mention great people watching). This area is also known for its art scene and many festivals year round. Cathedral Quarter was my favorite part of Belfast because of the eclectic stores and art galleries and amazing street musicians.
For more information: http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/destinationNI/cityBelfast.aspx
Right outside of Belfast is the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, which has a very interesting Titanic exhibit. We only had time for the transport part of the museum that included the Titanic exhibit, but there is far more to see and do here. The Folk Museum is a separate part that includes Discovery Farm. The museum is really a town that takes you back 100 years to see what life was like (basically like going to Williamsburg, VA). Discovery Farm is connected to the town and is the rural experience of 100 years ago complete with farm animals. If I ever go back to Belfast, this is on my list of places to see.
The Transport Museum is also a must see place, especially if you are into trains and vintage cars. The museum's collection includes all types of transportation including trolleys, trains (some you can go through), carriages, planes, boats, and automobiles. You can even take a picture next to a DeLorean. We visited specifically for the Titanic exhibit. The exhibit has more than 500 artifacts including the original plans and design changes to the ship, a porthole from the ship, personal effects, and a soup tureen. There are tons of photos and audio exhibits of firsthand accounts from the sinking and interactive displays. The exhibit also includes information and artifacts from the Titanic's sister ships Olympic and Britannic. What better place to learn about the Titanic than in the city she was built?
For more information: http://www.nmni.com/titanic/Home/Titanica.aspx#story
If you are looking for even more Titanic history and information, check out the new Titanic Belfast attraction. It was still under construction when we were in Belfast, so I can't comment on the visiting experience, but it looks like an amazing museum/education center. The exhibition includes nine galleries that take you through conception, construction, demise, and even a live oceanic exploration center. For more information, check out the website http://www.titanicbelfast.com/Home.aspx.
The Old Inn
Between the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum and Bangor is the Old Inn in the small town of Crawfordsburn. This is one of the oldest hotels in Northern Ireland and the building dates back to 1614. The thatched portion of the roof is the oldest part and was built circa 1600 (toward the end of Elizabeth I's reign). There were several additions made in the eighteenth century and the east wing is more modern (Irish Georgian era), but exterior remains true to the preserved village of Crawfordsburn. The inn has had some famous guests as well, most notably C.S. Lewis. This was a beautiful and unique place to stay and is convenient to Belfast and Bangor (a pretty seaside town also worth seeing if you have time).
For more information: http://www.theoldinn.com/
Although Giant's Causeway is a big attraction that can be full of tourists, I think it's still worth seeing because it is so unique (and you may even get to see a seal like we did!). It is a little over an hour from Belfast, so it makes a great day trip. You can walk to the causeway from the visitor center or take a shuttle. The views are spectacular and it was fun to climb the hexagonal stones. There were several tourists there as well, so be prepared to have people around, possibly photobombing your shots.
For more information: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway/
If you are interested in seeing Dublin, check out my post Must See Places In and Around Dublin for must see sites in the Dublin area.