To my eye, Ireland looks pretty small on the map. My UK and Irish family are slightly surprised by the amount of ground we plan to cover in such a short period of time, but they forget, of course, that we’re from Australia, a land of wide open spaces, where, depending on where you live, your local milk bar could be 100 kms away.
This country, steeped in history and culture, has been attracting tourists from around the world for centuries, but despite strong family ties, it has eluded me until now. I’d always had visions of touring the winding roads of the Emerald Isle, taking in scenes of green, rolling hills, crisp, blue skies, and healthy looking cows, but to complete this picture we actually need a vehicle, and our early investigation into the dire state of the Irish car hire industry confirms our fears – there are very few cars to choose from and those that are available are incredibly expensive. Not wanting to lose $500 a day of our holiday money to Europcar, I devise a cunning plan to hire on the mainland for a fraction of the cost, and take said car across on the ferry.
Later, as we navigate our way onto the 2pm service departing from Pembroke, Wales, I feel the surge of adrenalin I experience every time I head out to sea. Nana once explained it was due to our seafaring heritage – our ancestors spent hundreds of years making their living from Southampton port as ship builders, sailors and fisherman. Meanwhile my land-lubber wife is less impressed, and watches the clock tick, hoping for calm waters. The low clouds and dreary outlook back towards the coastline make me wonder if some poor Welsh publican has made an unwise investment in a lavish beer garden. “Summer” can be short in these parts. Regardless as to whether the experience was viewed as exhilarating (me) or excruciating (her), we roll safely off the ramp into Rosslare Harbour 4 hours later. We find a cute, snug little inn in nearby Kilmore Quay, and after a good night sleep and early morning walk on the windy dunes, we’re on the road to Cork by 9am.
As we aren’t staying here overnight, we’ve researched a couple of destinations in town, and forgoing economy for the sake of convenience, head straight for an expensive central car park. On foot, we wander along the River Lee and the town’s busy streets, taking in buskers, giant murals and neat rows of souvenir shops. The day is as warm as Ireland ever gets (23 degrees) and the city is currently being hammered by wall to wall Spanish and Italian tourists; being part of the EU certainly does benefit the travel industry. Accordingly, the famous English Market is stuffy and crowded, and after taking our gastronomic spoils away to enjoy a private picnic in the quiet Bishop Lucey Park, we’re ready to move on. We’ve been told Blarney Castle is overrated, and not a patch on Ross Castle in Killarney, and with a COVID wave ripping through the country, we’re unlikely to queue with the hordes just to share spit as we kiss the castle’s world renown Blarney Stone anyway – I’d rather have surgery without an anaesthetic.
Killarney is the last place we expect to (literally) bump into a movie star, but it is the first place we expect to enjoy a pint of Guinness and feast on the famous local lamb stew. We’re still trying to work out what Martin Kove, the “bad sensei” in the Karate Kid movies and recent TV-reboot, could possibly be doing here during pint number three, by which time none of it matters anyway. We stop ourselves there as an early morning hike around the fabulous castle and clear waters of the Killarney National park beckons.
By lunchtime the next day, content in having touched our fingertips in the cool, mirror like surface of Lough Leane, sighted wild deer, and breathed in the air of the forest, we head for Galway via the delightful Adare, a charming village in County Limerick known for its quaint, thatched-roof cottages and pretty streets – the perfect setting for coffee and fresh scones.
The towering Cliffs of Moher offer awe-inspiring views of the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding countryside, making the parking lot battle and human traffic jams worth all the effort. It’s a beautiful sunny day and with some stunning photos in the bank, we roll on to Galway by late afternoon. Like Cork before it, Galway’s centre is compact yet lively, its streets lined with brightly coloured buildings, Irish flags and packed bars. In a lot of ways the cities here all remind me of a deconstructed Irish-themed pub – they feel slightly fake, and all the traces of Ye Olde Ireland are attached to the outside, yet everywhere we go the Craic is still alive and well.
From Galway, we travel to Westport, a postcard-esque heritage town in the seemingly condiment inspired County ‘Mayo’. The bridge crossings of the Carrowbeg river feature well-maintained flower boxes and wreaths, all of which contribute to our buoyant mood as we hunt down the famous Curry’s Bakery and Tea Rooms, which do not disappoint. Having gorged ourselves on chocolate eclairs and lemon tarts, a walk around the port is just the tonic before we squeeze back into the car for the cross-country drive to County Monaghan, and onto my ancestral home.
In the out-of-the-way town of Castleblayney we are greeted warmly by my Aunt, who gives us the obligatory tour of all the old haunts and their ghosts. That night we are treated like royalty by a procession of what feels like a hundred cousins – this is the heart of Catholic Ireland after all. Our time together is brief but filled with laughter and storytelling, and we promise to return.
We end our adventure in Dublin, staying several nights in a gorgeous boutique hotel facing the lush St. Stephen’s Green – the lungs of the city and only a few minutes walk from the cafe and shopping districts that line the River Liffey. We explore the area, taking in its rich history, and vibrant culture. From the colourful doors of Temple Bar to the striking architecture of Trinity College, Dublin is a city filled with character (and characters!) The weather is on our side, and we eat most of our meals outdoors, accompanied by Irish red ales and our latest discovery – porn-star martinis. With our return ferry beckoning, our last full day includes a trip to picturesque Dún Laoghaire for the market and a walk along the pier out into the bay, eating fast-melting ice-creams and enjoying smiles and warm hospitality at every step.
As the ferry slowly pulls out of port I’m having a flashback to the rolling green hills, bright blue skies, and magnificent landscapes, which will always hold a special place in our hearts, as will the charm of the Irish lilt, heard everywhere we go. I think I’ve even picked some of it up, to be sure, to be sure.