You may or may not have time for all of these sights and activities, but hopefully you’ll benefit from a little “been there, done that” wisdom. Many of these sights are quite touristy, but keep in mind that the Irish economy thrives on tourism so you’re just doing your part to help out:
I firmly believe that the U2 song “Where the Streets Have No Names” is about Ireland. Be prepared for small signs, confusing signs, or no signs at all. Asking directions is advised, but be prepared for Irish directions (e.g. “Go to the corner where Mick’s pub is, which has a very nice carvery lunch, and pass it, but not too far, and then turn slightly right at the church. My mother is buried there, God rest her soul, and you’ll…”)
Dublin Airport – it’s small and old and so confusing to get around if you’re driving – just thought you should be warned.
Don’t look for good coffee–there is none. But, the tea is out of this world. If you’re buying some to take home, Lyon’s Gold label is great.
B&B’s are dynamite and the owners are delightful, for the most part. Be prepared for a huge breakfast every day, which is a good way to tide you over until lunch. Watch out for the black pudding (it’s blood pudding, but heck, it still tastes good). Their lunch is like our dinner – most people eat a big meal at a pub in the middle of the day and then have tea and sandwiches in the evening. We ate big meals all the time, but that’s us. You don’t need to book ahead of time, if you want to wing it. We would figure out where we thought we’ll be that night, and call ahead before we checked out of the B&B in the morning. Sometimes we just drove to the town and stopped at one that looked good. Tourism is down, so odds are in your favor. (extra fact: look for B&Bs with the description “power showers,” because showers often dribble on you, at best.)
Never, never, never say how small their things are and how much bigger that item is back in the U.S. They’re a little touchy about that. Just quietly get a kick out of the little Coke cans/tiny showers/miniscule cars and keep it to yourself.
If you like chocolate, buy everything you can with the name Cadbury on it. Their stuff is so fresh, there are expiration dates on them.
Newsagents – every town has them, and they’re the Irish version of a 7-11. I recommend loading up on Club Orange or Club Lemon sodas (also see above mentioned Cadbury instructions; my favorite are the Cadbury Snack) if you’re roadtripping.
Money – the Euro is strong over the US dollar. There really are ATMs in just about every town, and I find there to be a much better exchange rate using ATMs than exchanging travelers checks. Check with your bank, but I was still charged the standard rate ($1 at my credit union) for using a different ATM when I made withdrawls.
Music – if you’ll be doing the driving yourself, be advised that there are about 3 radio stations and they play the same 5 songs constantly. If I heard Kylie Minogue one more time this past June, I was going to scream. You might want to see what your rental car can handle and take tapes or CDs with you.
Cars – be sure to arrange your rental car in the U.S.; you’ll pay way more if you do it over there. I found Budget to be the cheapest for manual transmissions, and Avis the cheapest for automatic. FYI, automatic will double the cost of your car, so if you can handle shifting with your left hand, go for it. Economy cars are sooo small that you’ll fit two people, some luggage, and nothing else, but I do recommend getting a small car because it’s easier to drive on the little roads. And, the roads are little. Just repeat to yourself, “Keep left.” One last thing – only MasterCard will cover insurance in Ireland (not so for Visa or AmEx), so be sure to use that if you’re forgoing the rental company’s insurance.
If you love pottery and want to take some home with you, let me know. Several of the potters you’ll see in the expensive stores have studios around the country, so you can plan visits into your trip.
Ciara’s Handy Translations & Facts
- Bonnet = car hood
- Boot = trunk
- Lorry = truck
- Roundabout = circle in the road
- Craic = pronounced “crack” but it means “fun”
- Brilliant = frequently used adjective; means “terrific”
- Carvery = buffet lunch; often seen on hotel signs
- Take away = carry out
- Diversion = detour
- Tomato paste = ketchup; a seldom-used condiment for which you sometimes have to pay extra (especially in McDonalds)
- Biscuit = cookie
- Chips = french fries
- Crisps = potato chips
- Soda = soda water, not Coke or Sprite (p.s. Coke & Pepsi taste differently than they do here. Consider yourself warned)
- Bulmers = a delicious alcoholic cider you might want to try out, but don’t overindulge (well-documented nasty hangovers, complete with the chills).
- Budweiser = an imported beer
- Soccer = soccer
- Football = Gaelic football; watch for kids to be decked out in their county’s team jersey; each town will have a GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) club and you can see practices all the time
Like most big cities, it’s crowded and noisy but you’ll find lots of charm. Check out the walking tour of Trinity College; if memory serves me correctly, it also includes admission into the Book of Kells (a must-see). There’s excellent shopping on Grafton Street – a pedestrians-only street – as well as all of the side streets around it. Beweley’s Coffee Shop is a great old art deco shop and they do a nice lunch buffet. If you’re looking to shop like a local, check out Clery’s on O’Connell Street.
I recommend at least an open-top double-decker bus tour. There are several operators and you’ll get information on them at the Visitors Centre downtown near the Temple Bar district. Speaking of Temple Bar, don’t miss it. It’s the artsy part of town, and U2 owns the Clarence Hotel with it’s very trendy bar, The Kitchen. Be sure to get to the Guinness brewery – free samples at the end of the tour and Guinness just tastes better in Ireland!
Wacky site – Glasnevin Cemetary: Has over 1 million people buried there, including Michael Collins. There’s a walking tour, and lots of Irish history is reflected in its “residents.”
South of Dublin you might want to check out Powerscourt. It’s a mansion that used to be owned by the Guinness family, and it has gardens that are out of this world.
North of Dublin, up near Drogheda, is Newgrange (including Howth & Dowth). Definitely go to this. It’s fascinating, but you’ll want to get there early, and you might end up getting a ticket to come back later (it’s quite popular). If that’s the case, you can check out Drogheda city. There’s an old Catholic church there (St. Patrick’s, I think) with the mummified head of St. Oliver Plunkett on display in a glass case. Totally creepy. Somewhere in that area is also Monasterboice – the high crosses of Ireland can be found there, and it’s very interesting.
Midlands & South
The Rock of Cashel is mind-boggling. It’s a massive old castle and the tour is terrific. If you stay overnight, check out the Bru Boru show – it’s like a small Riverdance show in the evenings and it’s near the castle.
Waterford’s factory is, of course, wonderful. The showroom alone is worth the trip.
Kilkenny City has a gorgeous castle – it’s a little more modern than most. They also have a fine arts center associated with the Kilkenny Design Centre store. This is a popular town, so you might want to reserve a B&B ahead of time if you’re going.
The Jameson Distillery is in Midleton, County Cork. There’s also one in Dublin, but the Cork centre is so cool. They start out with a video, and when they ask for volunteers be sure to raise your hand immediately. Four people are selected to do a whiskey tasting at the end of the tour. Pick your designated driver beforehand. Go to www.jameson.ie for a preview.
When in Northern Ireland, be prepared for armed soldiers, but that shouldn’t deter you from going because it’s a beautiful part of the country. Some hard-core towns will have curbs painted red, white and blue – that’s a Loyalist town and predominantly Protestant. Others will have green, white and gold – a Republican town, and predominantly Catholic. If you have a car with Dublin plates, don’t park in a Protestant town.
The Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-rig (not sure about that spelling) rope bridge are must-sees, and you can also hit the Bushmills whiskey factory in that part of the country. It’s less toured than Jameson’s, and more of a “working” distillery. They, too, have a tasting at the end.
Belleek is a fine parian china, quite pricey, and just beautiful. The factory is in Fermanagh and they do a tour. I liked it, but you can pick up Belleek items throughout the country. Check out www.belleek.ie
Donegal is a little wilder and windier than other parts, but still beautiful. If you’re going to Conemara, be sure to visit Clifden, which is quite charming, and drive the Sky Road. It brings you way up and there’s a terrific view of the ocean on a clear day. Just eight miles from Clifden is Kylemore Abbey. It’s a beautiful girl’s school and former castle. If you’re interested go to www.kylemoreabbey.com
If you’re looking for an athletic challenge, you can climb Croagh Patrick. It’s a mountain that’s a pilgrimage sight, and it killed my legs. It’s located outside of the town of Westport in County Mayo.
Everyone does the Ring of Kerry. It’s great, but also include the Ring of Beara in your plans. It’s just as beautiful, mountainous and less traveled. Valentia Island, off the Ring, is rugged and raw. We took a boat from there out to see Skellig Michael – an island with an ancient monastic settlement about eight miles off shore. Our captain, Des Lavelle, wrote a book about the Skellig Islands and was a hoot. Unfortunately, the sea is a fickle mistress and we had to wait it out for an extra day until it was safe to go. Also unfortunately, it was still rough; my breakfast & lunch were donated to the fishies.
Kinsale is a beautiful town in Cork, but it’s so popular that we had trouble finding a room so we blew it off. We did a drive-by, and the coastal drive to get to it is wonderful. We stayed in Baltimore instead and had incredible seafood. Be careful if you order the shrimp – comes with the heads on. Just couldn’t eat them.
This is probably more than you wanted to know. Or less!!
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