Thursday, 4 February 2010

Places to visit in Ireland

Connemara and County Galway by hire car

You can drive round County Galway by hire car from the airport in a day and not see it all in a year. This marvelously diverse western shoulder of County Galway has no official boundaries, but Galway Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on another are generally accepted. There are only rough approximations for the rest.

Just beyond the wooded outskirts of Oughterard, the road bends and rises, the trees disappear, and the looming Maamturk Mountains appear ahead. For travellers from Galway, Connemara begins here with this small taste of astonishing geographical diversity.

Farther on, the landscape stretches over bog and lake, one minute wooded and shadowy, the next wild and beautifully stark. The coast is rocky and forbidding, but liberally studded with wide, sandy beaches and hidden, pebbled coves. To make it really your own, ride a Connemara pony along the broad beach at Dog's Bay near Roundstone or on the cliffside fields of Errislannen peninsula.

Or see Connemara from one of its high places, like the Sky Road in Clifden, so called because there's more sky than road. For the really energetic, a climb up Diamond Hill in the Connemara National Park will make you feel master of every bog, island, and inlet spread out at your feet.

County Sligo

Landscape, draped with song and story, inspired the young W. B. Yeats's poetic imagination. His Own legend now clings to those favorite spots, and Glencar Waterfall, the Lake Isle of Inishfree, and the Hazelwood are part of the landscape of great English literature as lovely as the poems they inspired. Yeats's grave, at the foot of Ben Bulben Mountain, is as dramatic a landmark as he intended and an authentic goosebump experience even for non-English majors.

Farther south, however, there is another Yeats landscape, the gentler one surrounding his ancient tower home, Thoor Ballylee in County Galway. Here, where he wrote the mature poems that are the bedrock of his genius, the poet's spirit lingers in the murmur of the little river flowing under the ancient bridge by the tower.

James Joyce and Ireland

Ireland was the country James Joyce loved to hate, but Dublin he simply loved. Never mind that many of the hallowed halls and houses of the hero of Ulysses no longer stand; devoted Joyceans follow Leopold Bloom's minutely described footsteps each Bloomsday, June 16. A visit to the Martello Tower overlooking Dublin Bay at Dun Laoghaire, site of stately, plump Buck Mulligan's blasphemous revels, evokes images of the irreverent master.

Galway Races

The city of Galway is a frenzy during July Race Week, for generations a fixture of this horse-mad country. Though crawling with serious fans, this meet has a holiday air and, sure, you need only know the front of a horse from the back to be part of it all. Sit in the stands to get a good view of both the flat and steeplechase racing. Galwegians, however, find the real craic (meaning fun and pronounced crack) in the popular enclosure, where betting, hawking, and all manner of amusements vie with the horses for attention.

The Burren in County Clare

It means rocky place in Irish, and it is an understatement. Hills and fields formed by slabs of limestone in a rainbow of grays conceal a wealth of tiny wildflowers in their crannies. Rivers flow underground, salt spray mists the stony coast, and tiny pastures form astonishingly fertile grassy oases in the rock. The Burren's unique and fragile ecosystem fascinates serious botanists and naturalists, and captivates the rest of us with its haunting, desolate beauty. Ireland's earliest people lived here and left rings of stones which look full of hidden messages. To walk in the ancient silence, broken by the hum and moan of the wind in the rocks, is to feel them trying to speak.

Golf courses in Ireland

Golf in Ireland is played with something of the spirit of American football, that is, with nearly complete indifference to the weather. At Royal Portrush. Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, it may hail, rain, or blow, but only darkness will surely clear the course.
The sight of old Dunluce Castle hovering cliffside in the distance is enough to take anyone's mind off the game, if the wind hasn't blown concentration already.

No fear, there's always a warming Bushmill's, Northern Ireland's own whisky from the oldest distiller in the land, to restore the body and soul. Other links we cherish: Royal County Down, more often called Newcastle, makes the most of its proximity to the Mountains of Mourne; in the Republic, Ballybunion's Old Course ranks among the world's elite.

Christianity in Ireland

Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century and took the country by storm. Tempest-tossed relics of this fervent hurricane litter the country; it is impossible to go very far without seeing a roofless church, usually with a companion round tower, both embraced by a crumbling stone wall. Some, like Clonmacnoise on the river Shannon, restored and carefully labeled, are nearly as busy with visitors and faithful as they were in their heyday.

Others, like Jerpoint Abbey near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, and Kilmacdaugh near Gort, County Galway, stand wrapped in silence. At small ruins like these, get the key from the caretaker as directed by the sign on the gate, and take a few minutes to find the old, worn small faces carved in the walls.

Their simple ancient lines speak of the particular, idiosyncratic kind of faith that still endures in Ireland as nowhere else. Less formal and likely more ancient sacred spots like holy wells and hilltop shrines are known in many country places. A climb up steep, pyramidshaped Croagh Patrick in County Mayo combines devout pilgrimage with that spirit of jovial outing the Irish bring to their religious observances.

Irish monasteries

Monks in Ireland's monasteries kept the lamp of learning flickering through Europe's dark ages, by laboring over manuscripts in their dimly lit towers. Another bookish explosion, which began with the Literary Renaissance in the early part of this century and is still going strong, keeps Irish bookshops well stocked with collectible first editions. Almost any Irish bookstore provides a diverting haven on a rainy day.

A gem like Kenny's on High Street in Galway combines a browser's heaven of old and collectible books and another of prints and maps with an excellent stock of Ireland's contemporary poets and writers. The shop rambles over 5 floors of two back-to-back old Galway houses, and includes a gallery featuring Ireland's best contemporary artists. Each member of the affable Kenny family will happily share his or her expertise or opinion, and while away an afternoon, rainy or otherwise.

Pubs in Ireland

Ireland has 10,500 pubs in the Republic and another 2,000 in the North a pub for every 360 people. There are high class bars in expensive luxury hotels, with modern, tiled WCs, and there are age-darkened country pubs with outside toilets (the state of the toilet being a fair indication of the pub's standard).

A Roscommon establishment, James J. Harlow's Funeral Requisites and Furniture Stores, is at once pub, hardware shop, and gallery of old advertising; Richard MacDonnell's pub in Dingle sells shoes, boots, and leather belts hand-fashioned by the octogenarian proprietor opposite the bar, where he pulls a wonderful pint of Guinness; at Joe McHugh's Bar in the lobter fishing town of Liscannor, County Clare (and at many others like it), it's possible to buy barley sugar, freshly sliced bacon, or a pair of rubber boots along with stout; the Humbert Inn in Castlebar, County Mayo, is crammed with musty memorabilia whips and cudgels from an old English jail, Victorian bottle corkers, and other curiosities.

There are sailors' and fishermen's pubs, expatriates' pubs, pubs with gallows and pubs with gardens, pubs with 90-foot bars, country pubs where the dart board is well used and the tables are marked with the rings of a thousand nights of wetbottomed glasses, city pubs with stained glass and elaborately paneled snugs that have witnessed all manner of clandestine meetings and revolutionary conspiracies in their day.

And that's just the beginning. But no matter what its type, the Irish pub and not the private party is where weddings, christenings, and funerals invariably end in Ireland, with the Guinness flowing like Niagara Falls and the gossip, discussion, banter, jokes, tales, and information flying fast and furiously, as it can only in Ireland. A pub is the poor man's university, says a sign in one of them, and talk is at its heart. So don't be afraid to enter into the spirit of things: Upend a pint or two or three, buy a round for your neighbors, accept one from them when your turn comes, and chat with all assembled. If you need advice, it will come in such torrents that you may be hard put to assimilate it all.

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