Ireland, Part 1 (touring the countryside)

Stephen was in charge of planning this vacation, and he did a wonderful job.  We arrived in Dublin on Thursday, after a mere 3 hour flight, then immediately hopped into the car and drove out of town.  We spent 5 days driving through Ireland, each night a different hotel, each day a new sight.  He did wonderfully well in his planning!

Once we got into the shuttle to the rental car agency, I was a wreck.  I remained a wreck for the first several days.  First of all, driving on the other side of the road?  CRAZY!  It just felt so weird.  Making turns, especially – right turns across traffic, left turns while cars are coming from the left.  And the road width (narrow) didn’t make things any easier!  Stephen had to spend some time reorienting himself, and there were a couple of near misses with the left side mirror that had me flinching.  But he did amazingly well, and I was quite impressed.  I don’t think I would have done as well!

The other thing that struck me right away was that I have been living in a small town for entirely too long.  The amount of people, driving, walking, really set me on edge.  Everything was so busy and loud and congested, the roads and the sidewalks, and I just haven’t experienced that in…well, eight months.  Even when I drove through downtown Helsinki a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so overwhelmed.

Okay, enough about that – onto the fun stuff!

We started out driving south down to Kilkenny and stayed the night there.  We stopped in at a pub called Paris Texas, where we enjoyed pints of Kilkenny Ale – quite tasty.  We also witnessed an Irishman ordering a pint of Coors Light.  Go figure.

Kilkenny Castle, built in 1195 and restored to it’s late 19th century decor.

Our next stop was Waterford, where we took a tour of the factory.  The tour was quite good, following the process from the original blowing of the glass through to the cutting of the design.  The people working in the factory were an added bonus – they were more than willing to talk to the tour group, answer individual questions, and explain things in more detail.  That may have actually been the highlight – the craftsmen actually talking to us one on one.

A craftsman cutting the design on a piece of Waterford Crystal

Traveling west now across southern Ireland, we spent the evening in Blarney, a tiny town with two inns and four Chinese restaurants.  We woke to a beautiful full moon outside our hotel window – does it still count as being a blue moon if we didn’t see it until September 1?

We walked the quarter mile to Blarney Castle, enjoying the fresh dewy morning and lack of crowds.  We spent some time exploring the castle on the way to the top, where we were only about the 10th in line to kiss the Blarney Stone.  The guys who work there have it down pat – I wonder how many times a day the Holder says “Lie on your back, grab the bars, scoot back, lower down, there you go.”

Me, kissing the Blarney Stone! Which means I will now write like crazy, blessed with the gift of eloquence…right?

We took a nice walk through the grounds, passing by Blarney House and the Stable Yard, then explored the caves under the castle some.  I’ll tell you – this was quite possibly my favorite part of our trip, and I’ll be writing more about that later.

Blarney Castle

Leaving Blarney, our navigation system decided that we needed to see some more “authentic” countryside, and took us on increasingly narrow back roads to Killarney.  Although I was stressed about where we were, especially when the GPS signal kept dropping out, we did have a fun time.  Here in Finland, we often complain about how slow the rural highway speed limit is (often 80kmh, with very wide lanes and shoulders).  In Ireland, on this back road one lane road with blind curves and no shoulder, we also had an 80kmh speed limit.  It was like a roller coaster!  Especially when you fly around a blind curve and find a sheep in the road…which happened….  (Don’t worry, it’s still alive to tell about it.)

On to Killarney, on the Ring of Kerry.  Unbeknownst to us, there was also a horse race in town the day we were driving in, and traffic was a nightmare!  We were staying far enough out of the main town center that we needed to drive into town for lunch, and we stayed at the hotel for dinner that night, so we didn’t explore the town much.  But the next day we went out to Killarney National Park for a little hiking and sight-seeing.

Killarney National Park includes three lakes, four mountain peaks, and the Muckross Estate.  We stopped in at the estate to grab a map of the area, then took a nice walk to Muckross Abbey, a Franciscan Friary.  I was surprised at the number of recent graves in the graveyard there – even though the Abbey is a roofless ruin, there were graves as recent as this year.  It made me wonder what the burial guidelines were.

Muckross Abbey, in Killarney National Park, founded in 1448 as a Franciscan friary.

We walked back to Muckross House and continued on to Torc Waterfall, across the highway and up a short hill.  I had read that this waterfall wasn’t very impressive unless after a big rain, but I thought it was great.  There were several hiking trails that continued up the mountain, but I wasn’t aware Stephen wanted to do one.  So our little 2-3 mile hike turned into more of a 5 mile hike, up to the top of the falls and around.  A good little workout and beautiful views from the top made it worth it.

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park

Our next stop was Limerick, north of Killarney.  Sadly, even though the view from our corner hotel room was beautiful, revealing downtown and three medieval looking structures, we didn’t do any sight-seeing in Limerick.  We did have dinner at a wonderful restaurant in town, Cornstore, which I later found out was part of a small chain.  Great food, nonetheless, and the wine we had was wonderful.

After a night in Limerick, we headed on to our next sight-seeing location, The Cliffs of Moher.  We were interested in them because they are The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride, but I also learned that they were featured in one of the Harry Potter movies (among others).  The cliffs rise 700 feet from the Atlantic, and the photos I took simply can’t compare to the real thing.

The Cliffs of Moher, aka The Cliffs Of Insanity!

Cliffs of Moher, with O’Brien’s Tower on top.

To be honest (and it’s well documented), the cliffs are a little bit of a rip off.  The parking area is run by the same people who run the visitor center, and they charge 6€ per person to park.  This includes access to the visitor center and the museum (and bathrooms) inside.  There’s also a “tower” on one side, called O’Brien’s Tower, built in 1835 for the tourists who were already coming to the region.  Getting to the top of the tower is an additional 2€.  The views are not that much better, and the platform on top is not very big.  A single spiral staircase causes some major traffic jams, as the 10 people wanting to go down must wait for the 20 people who are coming up onto the platform, which holds about 8 people comfortably.  Worst 4€ we spent on the trip, hands down.  Regardless, the Cliffs were amazing to see – I just wish we could have figured out where to park and hike in (since the cliffs themselves are public land).

I was surprised, during the first couple of days of our trip, at how many American accents I heard, in Dublin, Kilkenny, and Waterford especially.  Then I found out why.  The week we came in, Ireland saw an influx of about 40,000 Americans.   Why?  The Notre Dame-Navy game was being played in Dublin that weekend!  As an added bonus, we listened to several hours of college football (and explanation!) coverage on the car radio.  It warmed our poor, college-football-homesick hearts.  The best part was Mike (from Mike and Mike) trying to explain tailgating. “So, this game, which lasts 60 minutes, actually lasts for 3 hours, and beforehand everyone gathers for 5 hours of drinking and eating?”  Heehee!!  We even got to watch a little bit of the game while we were in Killarney…until the locals decided they had had enough and changed it to Gaelic Football (youtube link).

Thus ends our tour of the Irish countryside.  After taking a walk along the cliffs, we drove almost directly due East back to Dublin, where we spent the next four days.  That’s the next post!  In the mean time, please enjoy these video clips of the Cliffs of Moher:

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