The big blue marble we call home is full of picturesque, charming, compelling places to visit, but one of my absolute favorites is Ireland. Back in 2015, Hector and I spent an all-too-brief two weeks circling this enchanting island by car counter-clockwise, trying to squeeze in as much of the country’s outstanding natural scenery, city and village sights, music and food as possible.
We started by flying into Dublin on a gray, chilly, mid-May day and made our way to the city center to check into our hotel in the touristy Temple Bar neighborhood. We went for a long stroll over to Christ Church Cathedral, then crossed the River Liffey that cuts through the city and followed the north bank of the river east to O’Connell Street and the General Post Office. This was the site where the 1916 Easter Rising — the independence movement to kick out the Brits — began. We checked out the statues of Irish historical figures Daniel O’Connell, William Smith O’Brien, Sir John Gray and James Larkin before crossing back to the south side of the River Liffey.
Needing to wet our whistles, we stopped in at the Palace Bar at the eastern edge of Temple Bar for a pint of Guinness. Immensely satisfied and feeling much more in the spirit of Dublin, we proceeded up the shopping thoroughfare Grafton Street to St. Stephen’s Green and watched families feeding the ducks in the park. We moved on and wound our way through the streets of town west to Dublin Castle. It was closed by the time we arrived but still explorable from the courtyard and in the lovely circular lawn of the Dubh Linn Garden behind the castle.
Jet-lagged though we were, we forced ourselves to wander up the block later in the evening for another pint of Guinness and a session of live traditional music upstairs at Gogarty’s Pub. The same house band I had seen play there during a visit 10 years ago was still cranking out popular jigs, reels and hornpipes and taking requests. This time, though, the crowd was almost entirely American, French, German and Dutch tourists, with the only locals on hand being the serving staff. And even many of them were non-Irish Europeans living and working in Dublin.
Early the next morning we took the convenient Airlink bus back to the airport to pick up our rental car. The bargain-basement rental I thought I had snagged for a mere $92 turned out to be $692 with taxes and the full insurance. But with narrow roads and left-side driving, who wants to chance Murphy’s Law and go without full coverage? Isn’t this, after all, Murphy’s homeland? Our next challenge was finding the car in the carpark, which had pitiful signage. Conflicting numbers painted on the support posts and stall spaces left us scratching our heads. An airport worker who saw us walking around in circles finally came to help us, but he admitted that he was just as confused, muttering that it was typically Irish to move signs around and have no apparent rhyme or reason to the numbering system.
Once on our way, we drove north to the Brú na Bóinne archaeological complex and toured Knowth, the largest Neolithic archaeological site in Ireland that dates back to 3000 B.C. The site preserves two burial chambers covered by a 40-foot-high, 220-foot-wide grassy mound. Smaller tombs surround the central mound, and kerbstones fringing the mound sport mysterious symbols carved by ancient builders. Unlike at the other site in the area (Newgrange, which gets more visitors), at Knowth the public cannot enter the passage tombs.
But our tour guide, an archaeologist named John, loaded us up with information and allowed us a little bit of time to climb atop the domed necropolis. Despite the off-and-on rain, the sun peeked out for a few brief moments and put on glorious display the multi-hued fields in the Boyne Valley surrounding the complex. On our next trip to Ireland we’ll visit Newgrange.
We drove on north, entering Northern Ireland and passing through Belfast before we finally stopped in the charming seaside town of Carrickfergus, utterly famished. The bartender at the pub across the street from the shore took our meal order and asked us if we’d ever tried Guinness. Did we look like the kind of people who’d never tried a Guinness?
Most travelers stop here to tour Carrickfergus Castle, built in the late 1100s to protect the Belfast Lough inlet. As with Dublin Castle, we had arrived after closing time and could only admire the fortress from the outside. A statue on the grounds pays tribute to William of Orange, the Dutchman who invaded and then became king of England as one half of the famed “William and Mary” ruling duo; he landed in Carrickfergus in 1690.
We continued up the road a short stretch to the smaller port town of Larne for our first overnight stay. Liz, the host at the Harbour Inn B&B, entertained us with stories of other guests and suggested the Olderfleet Pub up the block for some “local color” later that evening Here, too, the bartender asked us if we’d ever tried a Guinness. Hector found one fellow drinker utterly unintelligible, between the heavy accent and beery slurring.
As its name would imply, the Harbour Inn sits across from the harbor and ferry port, where people and goods arrive from and depart for Cairnryan in Scotland across the Irish Sea. The next morning we enjoyed watching containers being unloaded as we fueled up with the hearty “full Irish” breakfast. We had a very long day ahead of us on our onward journey north, which you can read about next.