A gaggle of long-time friends who two years ago rented a canal boat and a villa in southern France decided we wanted to do something similar this year in Ireland.
So, mid-September, off we went. For some of us , this was a first trip to Ireland; for others, including me, it was our second trip together there (although my first trip to Ireland, four years ago, was mostly to the southwestern coast). This time Kris, who was on both trips, went over a week earlier than the rest of us so she could attend an annual Matchmaker’s Festival and to do some genealogy research. Kris also skipped the boat rental phase of the trip (week #1) and joined us for the house-renting/day-tripping part (week #2). Joyce and Walter also opted out of the boat rental week, but they stayed in a town near where the rest of us rented the house.
The Boat Trip
Because Ireland’s canal system hasn’t been spruced up with amenities for tourists to the extent that the canals in England and France have been, we opted for cruising down the Shannon River instead of navigating one of Ireland’s canals.
We decided to pilot the boat ourselves, as we had on our previous boat-renting adventures. The boat we rented for the Shannon was huge – it sleeps eight people, even though there were only six of us aboard. We used the same excellent company we’d rented our boat from in France LeBoat.
The experience of maneuvering this large vessel down a river was very different from merely mooring it anywhere we might want to stop, as we did in the canals of England and France. Also, like all canals, the Shannon has several locks that must be navigated into and out of in addition threading our way under the river’s bridges and parking our gigantic vessel each night into a narrow slot in a crowded marina!
We started our week-long cruise down the Shannon at Carrick-on-Shannon, heading downstream toward Portumna. Although we stopped at several towns along the way, we spent the most time in in Athelone, the largest town in the area and located about mid-way between where we started and our intended destination.
For me, the scenic highlight of the river cruise was our post-Athlone stop at the ruins of Clonmacnoise, the site of a large and famous medieval monastery, located directly on the river and far from any visible towns. We spent a leisurely afternoon there wandering around the site, having lunch in the tea shoppe there, and taking photos.
Resuming our course down the Shannon, our self-piloted river cruise was abruptly cut short on our next-to-last day when one of our pilots (it doesn’t matter who – it could’ve been any of us amateurs!), while trying to dock the boat in a town where we wanted to spend the night, broke the boat’s propeller! (Note to self: piloting a huge boat through the unmarked shallows of a flowing river is much trickier than piloting a smaller boat down a uniformly narrow and uniformly deep canal!) The boat company sent a rescue team (aka “Connor”) to tow us to the next town by commandeering another boat piloted by another (and not very happy) group of tourists..
We never got to Portumna: instead, we spent the night on our disabled boat in Banagher where our boat had been towed. The following very rainy morning, our rescuers hauled our boat out of the river to replace the propeller, and we bundled ourselves and our considerable collection of (somewhat soggy) luggage into a taxi to be driven back to Athlone. There we picked up our rental cars and headed for the west coast of Ireland for the second week of our trip.
The House Rental and the Road Trips
The house we rented as our road-trip base for week #2 is located at the end of a winding quarter-mile-long driveway off the highway that runs through Ballintubber, a tiny rural village in the countryside of County Mayo, about halfway between Galway and Sligo.
Although the surrounding countryside was suitably pastoral, the house itself is a large, modern, comfortable structure that – especially compared to the place we had rented in Gordes, France two years ago – is decidedly non-quaint. But we certainly enjoyed settling into our spacious accommodations and the convenience of preparing breakfasts and dinners there (vs. doing that on a boat).
Our numerous day trips from Ballintubber were often to destinations along the coast – via the glorious countryside and tiny villages in Connemara.
We also ventured several hours south of Galway, to make our obligatory visit to Ireland’s most visited outdoor spot, the Cliffs of Moher.
Ireland’s Tourist-Promoting Powers That Be have signposted the country’s most scenic network of coastal roads the “Wild Atlantic Way,“and some of us spent a good deal of jaw-dropping time driving through and stopping along those extremely narrow, extremely windy, and extremely scenic roads. Among, them, the “Sky Road” beyond Clifden:
…and the coastal roads of Achill Island:
All of us also spent time – at different times, and some of us more time than others – exploring Westport, the largest town near the rental house.
Most of us made an excursions to the justly-popular tourist spot of Kylemore Abbey.
The trip to Kylemore was particularly gratifying for me because Kylemore’s beautiful grounds include the only formal garden I visited in Ireland…
I am also glad to have gotten to Kylemore Abbey because I later skipped an opportunity to tour with my fellow travellers Ballintubber Abbey, located within a few miles of our rental cottage.
Incidentally, the afternoon at Kylemore was the only time I got caught in a rainstorm. Kris took a photo of me pinned behind the door of a completely-mobbed bus stop at the edge of the gardens, where we all fled when the heavens opened:
The Final Days: Dublin
Though some of us were there at slightly different times than the others, all of us spent the final days of our Ireland vacation in Dublin, which now ranks as one of my favorite cities in Europe.
Four of us, including me, stayed at the conveniently-located and excellently-managed (if somewhat overpriced) Kilronan House.
Some Particularly Memorable Ireland Moments
- The afternoon we explored Clonmacnoise.
- The afternoon we explored the town of Cong, including the ruins of its abbey…
- Driving through the countryside along the lakes on either side of Cong:
- The hour or so that Randall and I spent gazing out over one of the beaches on Achill Island:
- Walking around Westport, shopping with Kris – and taking a quick peek inside what’s got to be one of the most congenially-sited public libraries I’ve ever seen:
- Wandering through, and stopping at a pub’s outdoor seating area overlooking, the pedestrianized area of Galway: people-watching at its most interesting! Ditto wandering through two of the pedestrianized areas of Dublin: Grafton Street and Temple Bar.
- My impromptu visit with a local calligrapher, who happens to live near the house we rented (and who happens to be the sister-in-law of the rental house’s owner).
- The final day of the house-renting/day-tripping portion of the trip. I spent that morning exploring the mostly-Victorian architecture of the town of Sligo.
After my morning in the town, I spent the afternoon gaping at the gorgeous countryside surrounding Sligo, which the tourist authorities have dubbed “Yeats Country.”
I knew very little about Yeats before my trip, and still don’t know much about him, other than realizing in the middle of my trip that he had written one of my favorite poems.)
Highlights of my day in Yeats’s Country:
- Stumbling upon an exhibit in Sligo’s town hall about Yeats’s life.
- Visiting the churchyard in the village of Drumcliff where Yeats is buried (and where Yeats’ great-grandfather was once rector):
- Driving many, many, many miles down a one-lane, incredibly curvy – and blissfully scenic – country road to a spot on Lough [Lake] Gill where I could get a good look at the tiny island of Innisfree that Yeats once owned and wrote a famous poem about.
- My thoroughly blissful (if rather roundabout) search for the Glencar Waterfall, where I stopped for lunch. (Compared to the scenery I’d passed through to find the waterfall, the waterfall itself – as well as the lunch there – was underwhelming – but only relative to the exceptional fare I enjoyed elsewhere on my trip.)
The view from the parking lot at the Glencar Waterfall is as bucolic as anyone could wish for:
- Exploring Dublin on foot. Especially my several walks through St. Stephen’s Green; walking along the river and across its Halfpenny Bridge, and around Trinity College’s campus.
- Locating the building in Merrion Square where Oscar Wilde spent his childhood. and finding the statue of Oscar in the park across the street.
- My long-looked-forward-to visit to the Old Library at Trinity College, where I (after waiting in line for at least an hour) I finally laid eyes on the Book of Kells (which, by the way, was created by monks in Scotland: long story). My encounter with the Book of Kells was for some reason a bit disappointing; more exciting for me was reading the inspiring words of the library’s rare copy of the 1916 Easter Uprising Proclamation. However, spending a half-hour inside the Long Room of the Old Library was the opposite of disappointing. (Although I was shocked to learn that the library’s famous and gorgeous barreled wooden ceiling was part of a 19th-century renovation – the original ceiling was flat and made of plaster!)
- A final Especially Memorable Trip Moment had nothing to do with any scenery or architectural or cultural or culinary wonder. Instead, it was the moment when I retrieved my much-used down jacket (a Christmas present last year from my friend Harvey) from where I’d inadvertently left it at the Dublin airport’s security checkpoint!
(Confession: Losing valuable objects while traveling abroad is not unusual for me. On a six-month backpacking trip with Harvey to Europe in 1983, I left my passport in the dresser drawer of a hostel in Lisbon – something I didn’t discover until the next day, when we were hundreds of miles away. On a trip to Italy with Larry a decade ago, I left behind in our rental car my camera – and therefore all our photos from our trip. I can’t remember what I left behind on my trip to Mexico three years ago, but surely I came back to Atlanta minus something. In Italy two years ago, I left behind on a bus my iPhone. And on my way back home last year from a trip to Costa Rica, I left a another jacket Harvey had given me ten years ago and that I had worn almost every day since buying my motor scooter. Although I was lucky in retrieving at the last minute in Dublin the jacket I’d left behind while checking through airport security, what I ended up leaving behind in Ireland – although, fortunately, not until I was able to use it every day on the sometimes-chilly boat trip – was a really nice wool neck-warmer that my thoughtful sister Gayle had given me specifically for this trip.)
Aside from the sad fact that I will apparently never convince the people I otherwise enjoy spending time with to leave behind their electronic devices when travelling in exotic climes, the only major regret I have about my second trip to Ireland is that – apart from a few street musicians and some recordings playing in a few tourist shops (and, rather irritatingly, in the breakfast room of our Dublin hotel) – I heard not a single note of Irish music!
This disappointment is completely my own fault: I was unwilling to schlep out to any of the plentiful Irish pubs at 10pm, when the music in all Irish pubs apparently begins. The one time that I visited a pub at night – visiting, in fact, the world’s oldest pub, Sean’s Bar, in Athlone – I left after a boisterous conversation with a bunch of friendly Germans we’d previously met along the river, but before the musicians began playing and/or singing.I did, however, have the pleasure of hearing plenty of Gaelic spoken in the pubs where we ate lunch along the Western coast.
Some General Reflections
- The people of Ireland are the country’s most memorable feature. No matter where we were in Ireland, we encountered unusually friendly, cheerful, helpful, sweet people, every single one of them somehow able – no matter how brief or superficial the encounter – to display his/her sardonic sense of humor. (And the men of Ireland – quite a few of them red-headed and blue-eyed – are very handsome; their accents making them even more swoon-worthy. Speaking of Irish men, guess what Randall and I missed by coming to Ireland a week too early:
- The scenery of Ireland lives up to its reputation. As does its reputation for narrow, curvy (but, hey, very scenic!) roads. Actually, I found Ireland’s though very narrow and very curvey, to be in extraordiarily good repair. We encountered narry a single pothole in hundreds of miles of driving! On the other hand, I don’t think I ever saw, in that week of driving, a completely dry roadway! Although the rain never seems to fall for very long, it rains often: the roads – and most of the grass – seem eternally wet. But then, that’ presumably why so much of Ireland is so dog-gone green!
- Although the scenery along the Shannon River is beautiful – and eerily deserted, in general I found the scenery along the canals in England and France to be more enchanting and varied.
- The oddest thing for me about traveling around Ireland, at least via rented boat and via rented car – and regardless of whether one is wandering around rural Ireland or in the coastal areas or floating down the river flowing through Ireland’s interior – is how seldom you see any Irish people! During our boat trip and during our many drives, I rarely saw anyone out walking along the road, working in their yards, or hanging out on the streets of the smaller towns. Many of the roads we traveled were completely deserted (with the exception of an occasional tour bus roaring into view from around some hidden curve). Yes, there are plenty of pedestrians to be seen in the larger towns (a fourth of the island’s populaton live in Ireland live in Dublin, something very obvious while you’re there), but the rural landscapes are extraordinarily empty spaces, as well as beautiful ones.
- If you like looking at sheep, Ireland is the place to go!
- Ditto rainbows. Saw more of those in Ireland in two weeks than I’ve seen in a whole lifetime of living in the United States!
- If, like I do, you like looking at water – lakes, rivers, ponds, coastlines – Ireland’s got lots of it. Some of my favorite drives were the ones around Ireland’s plentiful lakes. They are all so amazingly unspoiled by development of any kind.
- The food. Oh my goodness, so delicious! (Only two disappointing meals in our entire two weeks!) The seafood chowders alone are almost worth a trip to Ireland. And then there are the “full Irish breakfasts” we’ll remember.
- I need to learn more about the history of Ireland. What little I know of it is so very, very sad. Centennial-celebrating reminders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion were ubiquitous during our trip. As with Irish history in general, I know precious little of details about this event – although I’ve long been aware of the prolonged and relentless, indefensibly brutal treatment of Ireland and the Irish by the British.
Ireland is a country I could imagine re-visiting indefinitely. It is small enough to make getting around relatively convenient (either by car or, as Kris found, even by public transport), yet varied enough scenery-wise to make you want to explore every part of this amazing island. I still haven’t set foot in the far northern or far southern areas of Ireland, but look forward to seeing their natural and cultural wonders some day. And Dublin alone deserves multiple visits.
As I’ve done in a few other places abroad where I’ve traveled (Italy, England, Greece, and France), I spent part of this trip fantasizing moving to Ireland. The Irish Tourist Board has thoughtfully provided me with twenty-one reasons for doing that. Except for the excessive rainfall, these reasons are mighty compelling!
Notes on the photos: They aren’t all mine. Some of them were taken by my fellow travelers: Randall Cumbaa, Royce Hodge, Martha Hodge, Kris Kane, Joyce Purcell, Walter Purcell, Nancy Ward, and Robert Ward. I’ll be eventually be inserting additional photos they took. The hyperlinks to the place names mentioned in this blogpost, as well as the hyperlinks to Sean’s Bar and the Kilronan House, will lead you to images of those places that are posted on the Internet, which is also where I found one of the photos of our boat, the Oscar Wilde statue, Innisfree Island, the Long Room in Trinity College’s Old Library, and (below) the NASA photo and the map of Ireland. The internet is also the source of the images you’ll see if you click on the hyperlinks to the Book of Kells, the 1916 Easter Rebellion, and the Easter Rebellion Proclamation. If you decide to click on only one of the hyperlinks to look at the images, click on the images for “Yeats Country” if you want to get a sense of why I loved visiting this country so much.