Rich in history and culture, Ireland remains an ever-popular tourism destination and, being a small island, can be explored in a matter of weeks.
With the country beginning to open again to visitors, I embarked on a driving tour from the northwest, south to Cork, returning along its eastern coast.
Here are some of the highlights of my round-the-coast, 2,000 kilometer journey.
Best known as the burial place of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s national Nobel winning poet, this northwestern county has also created an interesting center devoted to the Spanish Armada.
Launched in 1588, the Armada was an attempt to conquer England but after hitting a ferocious storm, many of the fleet’s galleons sank off Ireland’s coast.
Three ships washed up on Streedagh Beach and the Spanish Armada Ireland center in Grange, 15 kilometres north of Sligo town, grants visitors insights into the entire historic nautical disaster in which thousands of sailors died. Among artefacts displayed are a rare letter by a survivor, Francisco De Cuellar, as well as maps, coins and costumes. A short film captures the dramatic events.
Tucked away amidst scenic rocky countryside, the ‘Burren Perfumery,’ a 30-minute drive from Ennis, capital of county Clare, makes cosmetics inspired by the surrounding landscape. Visitors can view the blending rooms where organic creams and balms are made and also its herb garden to learn about their traditional uses. The perfumery also hosts a free audiovisual presentation on the flora and fauna of the region. During high season, staff give talks on perfumes, soap-making and skincare. Its tea rooms offer a selection of organic cakes, scones and pies, as well as homemade soups with freshly -baked bread, local cheeses and salads made with organic vegetables.
Opening their 50-acre Burren Nature Sanctuary almost ten years ago, Roy and Mary Bermingham have introduced thousands of visitors to the wonders of Nature in a playful and imaginative way. A treat for the whole family, the sanctuary, a 30-minute drive from the perfumery, features a wild orchid meadow, a ‘Magical Hazel Fairy’ woodland and a three acre ‘Disappearing Lake’ that fills every 12 hours. There’s also an adventure playground, a 10-stop audio tour, a biodiversity film to watch and a dome-shaped ‘Botany Bubble featuring Burren flora in season. Among many adorable animals is my favorite – cute, cuddly and curious alpacas.
Known as the Titanic’s last port of call in 1912, the charming town of Cobh was also the point of departure for almost half of the six million Irish people who emigrated to north America between 1848 and 1950.
Several museums offer insights into the town’s checkered history including the Titanic Experience, a themed attraction in the former White Star Line ticket office where the last 123 passengers embarked on the ill-fated cruise ship. A 30-minute tour includes a virtual journey to board the Titanic for her maiden voyage to New York and a view of the original pier known as Heartbreak Pier, the last land contact for passengers. Experiences include seeing conditions aboard ship for third and first class passengers, as well as the chill of its sinking through unique cinematography. Visitors also learn how RMS Carpathia rescued survivors, the outcome of British and US investigations into the tragedy and the discovery of the wreck at the bottom of the sea.
Located within a restored Victorian railway station, the Cobh Heritage Centre nearby explores how this harbour town became such an important emigration center. Visitors go on a journey into the lives of those who left from the 1600’s through to the 1950’s, with exhibitions on the town’s maritime, naval and military history.
For even greater perspective of Cobh, sign up for one of the guided walks led by historian and author Dr. Michael Martin, an encyclopaedia of local lore. His Irish heritage walking tour comprise the entire town and its rich architectural legacy. Other tours include nearby ‘Spike Island,’ former site of a remote monastery in the Celtic Sea and later one of the world’s largest prisons.
Castles are in no short supply in Ireland, so much so that when we were teenagers travelling around it, we used the code word ABC often to mean ‘another bloody castle’ (sometimes we used it to mean ‘another bloody church’). Now, somewhat older and wiser, hopefully, I can appreciate the immense architectural feat castles represent.
Tipperary has a beauty to admire, one that has been a popular film and TV location, including productions such as Excalibur and The Tudors.
Situated on a rocky island in the River Suir, Cahir Castle is one of the largest and best preserved nationwide. Built in the 13th century on the site of an old stone fort, it was enlarged 200 years later before being restored in the mid-1800s. Guests can wander freely along the castle’s three floors, taking in the portcullis and gatehouse, its various towers and its expansive courtyards. An audiovisual show provides sightseers with a detailed appreciation of the castle’s history.
Located on the western side of Waterford county is the serene market town of Lismore featuring a charming heritage centre in an old courthouse beside a 12th century castle. Creative curators have used modern virtual reality technology to produce an entertaining experience focusing on the castle and its environs, once owned by Adele Astaire, sister of movie actor and dancer, Fred. A separate audio visual display, narrated by actor Niall Toibin in the guise of a monk, takes visitors on a journey through monastic, Viking, Norman and medieval Lismore to the present day.
For added fun, try the ‘Robert Boyle Escape Room,’ named after a local 17th century inventor. Donning cape and wig, enter Boyle’s study and search for hidden clues, keys and codes to unlock the secrets of his alchemy box.
Based on the French Revolution, an Irish rebellion against England took place in 1798 led by a group called the United Irishmen, culminating in the battle of Vinegar Hill. In the town of Enniscorthy, a few miles from the actual site, the National 1798 Rebellion Center is now devoted to that fateful period. Through paintings, photographic depictions, video and life-size manequins adorned in authentic costumes, as well as an intriguing ‘chess room,’ visitors learn about key figures in that rebellion, participate in a 4D battle experience, discover weapons used then and learn how 20,000 rebels faced an enemy five times that size. Actors often play historic roles, bringing the era dramatically to life.
A 30-minute drive from Enniscorthy is the riverside town of New Ross with its popular tourism attraction, the Dunbrody Famine Ship, moored at its quayside. A reproduction of an 1840s emigrant vessel, an onboard guided tour, costumed performers and themed exhibitions inside the heritage center grant insights into the desperate situation faced by brave families forced to flee Ireland. If hungry, try ‘The Captain’s Table,’ an onsite restaurant overlooking the River Barrow.
Highlight of my visit to the Kildare Heritage Centre, a 40-minute drive from Dublin in a refurbished 19th century market house, was being led by a guide in medieval costume to enjoy a 30-minute virtual reality experience focusing on the town’s ancient Pagan past, a powerful goddess known as Brigid and the arrival of the Normans to Ireland, then to walk across a quaint square outside to see a pre-Christian site now occupied by a round tower and cathedral where a fire in honour of Brigid is kept lit.
Kildare is also famous for its horse-breeding, serious business in Ireland for centuries. To highlight this illustrious heritage, a multi-million euro, 850-acre ‘Irish Stud and Gardens’ attraction has been developed featuring diverse artefacts and computerised enhancements, including an uplifting video showing the birth of a foal and the skeleton of ‘Arkle,’ one of the most famous of Irish racehorses. Horses have been bred here since 1900 and on guided tours visitors see stallions at the paddock, watch mares protecting their offspring and take part as jockeys in a simulated race on a giant computer screen. They can also wander through a special Japanese Garden, which includes the ‘Bridge of Life’ and a traditional tea house. A special fairy trail and a play area with swings, slides and climbing frames keeps children entertained.
The second largest city in Northern Ireland, Derry is known for its 17th century stone walls and impressive stained-glass windows adorning its neo-Gothic red sandstone Guildhall. In addition, it boasts a comprehensive Tower Museum which houses two permanent exhibitions – one telling its history from prehistoric and geological beginnings to the 20th century, the other focusing on La Trinidad Valencera, one of the largest ships in the Spanish Armada, which sank off the nearby coast and was discovered by local divers 30 years ago.
Along with maps and coins are weapons, including a massive carriage cannon and a full suit of armour. A special ‘zone’ in the museum encourages young people to investigate the city’s development through miniature models, games and quizzes, as well as a science laboratory. Kids even get the chance to wear period costumes. The museum also offers some of the best aerial views over the city and the River Foyle flowing beside it from its fifth floor open terrace.