I am finally free of the oppressive summer humidity that is South Korea as the cooler (and shorter) fall days are sweeping in. It’s definitely having an impact on my mood and body, but is it enough to counteract the pandemic-dystopia blues…. meh… probably not.
2020, eh? What a wild ride. No matter what corner of the earth you are in, you have not escaped, and in many ways, Americans in particular are experiencing a heretofore unknown to us level of total failure at all things. I will not barrage you with tales of woe from what once was the bright shining beacon of freedom, hope, democracy, and economic prosperity (you can read the news if you don’t know but want to), suffice it to say that most of us who have the dubious honor of bearing citizenship of that country are going totally bonkers in a way that previously was only known outside it’s borders and it’s civics textbooks.
*note: those links are just top google search results to make it easy on you, but feel free to search for more if you are somehow oblivious to the horrorshow that is this American life in 2020.
I am personally safe, healthy, and financially stable while all those I love stuck stateside are in freefall. I have lost one friend (yeah, metaphor for he died, not that we parted ways) this year, and another is struggling with what may be permanent disability due to a Covid infection in the spring. Friends are loosing jobs, healthcare, homes, and those who are stable are terrified it will all go away if they do get sick, but they can’t avoid crowds and maskless idiots all the time.
What have I been doing?
Since I last wrote about my pandemic teacher life in Korea, I am still doing intermittent fasting (it sucks less, but I’ve only lost like 3 kilos), all my plants died, my D&D game is still going, but my players jumped into the Abyss for no reason, I managed only one single outing during the hot weather (it was NOT a fancy hotel, but it did result in adorable birbs), and I managed a few Ireland posts before all my steam diffused into the broader steamy air of the oppressively hot Korean summer and my world shrank to one highly airconditioned bed and a Netflix hookup.
I’ve also been reading books about trauma recovery and Vladimir Putin, which may seem like an odd combination until you look at the politics of it all. I thought really strongly about doing a book review of any one of the books by Massha Gessen that I’ve read, but I just don’t know if I have the soul within me to recap her already devastating recounting of the transition of Russia from USSR to almost democracy to Putin autocracy. Read them, though, or do the audiobook thing.
And if you’re interested in the work I’ve been doing on trauma, you can check out these books:
I’ve had no good days. There have been ok days, bad days, and HORRIBLE days. Horrible days involve involuntary non-stop crying, panic/anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, and total isolation. Bad days, I can get through the bare minimum of “eat/hydrate/teach” and then have to sink into dissociative distractions like video games, binge watching Netflix, or reading pop-YA fiction to keep it from becoming a horrible day. Ok days I might actually experience fleeting moments of “that’s nice” before the ennui sets back in. And from what I understand, this is pretty much the new normal for almost everybody I know.
I’ve been writing long Facebook treatises on loneliness, social isolation, the dangers of unverified memes and bandwagon political movements. They go into the void and are never heard from again. There is only a wall of depression, fear, fatigue and “other responsibilities” separating us all from our loved ones near and far. I have never felt so alone in the 6+ years I’ve lived abroad as I do this year, and everyone else posting into the void says they feel lonelier than ever, too, trapped behind social distancing and quarantine measures.
Are you there, Internet? It’s me, Kaine.
The point I’m making here (badly) is that I logged into my own website for the first time in almost two months today and realized that I felt like a complete SLUG for not having written more during this unprecedented period of free time. After all, I can’t GO anywhere or DO anything. I’m basically primed to be my artistic best, right?
I hope by now this is not the first article you have read about why we can’t (and shouldn’t) be holding ourselves to the same standards of productivity we do when we are stable and healthy, but we can’t. I bought a huge box of art and craft supplies over the summer and it’s still sitting there, only having been opened long enough to check the contents matched the order. I DID get my e-reader after several months of trying (why Korea, why) and I have been reading a LOT, not only the above books, but a tidal wave of bubble gum fantasy and sci-fi to aid in my voracious search for dissociation aids. After all, if I don’t have to think about the terrible things, they can’t hurt me, right? right??? (again, no). I have written exactly nothing, created … well, does designing my Animal Crossing island count as an artistic endeavor? And now I found myself with a little extra time after doing my teacher job, and not feeling totally exhausted/overwhelmed, and open my blog to realize the gaping hole in my narrative ability.
Will I write more? Eventually, yes. I am writing today, though not a story of globe trotting. The writing may change to reflect the world I’m living in now, because it’s hard to get excited about travel when it feels like my favorite most wonderful toy that just got yanked away by some mustache twirling cartoon villain. Perhaps avoiding thinking of my past adventures keeps me from being sad about my current and future adventures that have been cancelled. Perhaps another day, thinking about my past adventures will be a happy memory again. I expect it will go back and forth a few dozen times before the pandemic is under control enough for my hobby to resume.
Maybe the next time I log in, I’ll be willing to write another post about Ireland or Spain. Who knows. Until then, thank you everyone! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, smash the patriarchy, and support Black Lives Matter!
Regardless of your feelings about the series finale, one cannot argue that Game of Thrones failed to leave a lasting mark on the collective TV viewing audience around the world. Even if you are not a Game of Thrones fan, I think you can still enjoy the photos and descriptions here since I’m telling my story, not JRR Martin’s. I enjoyed the books a lot (wish he’d finish!) and I like most of the TV show as well, even many parts that diverged greatly from the books. However, this is not a blog about a TV show, it is about Ireland: the museum exhibit in Belfast, and the outdoor landmarks which would are enjoyable on their own, minus the CGI and regardless of their attachment to the show.
Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition: Belfast
At the time I was in Ireland, the GoT Touring Exhibition was in the TEC in Belfast. I understand that it was in Belfast from April – September of 2019. I was told that there will be some part of the exhibit which will permanently stay in Belfast due to it size, but as I write this, there’s zero information on the TEC website because it’s all closed due to Covid-19. Additionally, the exhibition’s tour schedule is currently suspended for the same reason. I’d love to be able to tell you where to go to see it, but I can’t.
Warning: there are SPOILERS. If for some reason you are living under a rock and haven’t seen season 8 (or already had it spoiled for you) and still want to experience that… uh, experience, then maybe just look at the pictures or skip to the outdoor part of the GoT sightseeing.
I booked tickets well in advance because I was warned it might be sold out and we were on a bit of a schedule. There’s plenty of parking at the TEC and a place to get a cup of coffee and a snack in the lobby. It was such a relief to have an indoor activity on a rainy day. I got there before opening because I wanted to be in the door before the crowds arrived. There weren’t actually that many people there, but I’m still glad I went early because it was filling up by the time we left about 3 hours later.
The exhibit hall was enormous. It was divided into smaller rooms by theme and there was a suggested path to follow. There was a plethora of information about every item on display as well as knowledgeable staff everywhere, most of whom had worked on the show when it was being filmed and had personal on set anecdotes to share about the actors or scenes. Generally all of them were happy to have had the experience which made it nice to have the staff share fandom and enthusiasm.
Photos were allowed everywhere, but flash photography was forbidden and the lighting was very low, so most of my photos did not turn out terribly well, I’m afraid. Honestly, you can see wide shots of the costumes and props in the show, so the impressive part of the exhibit is being able to look at the close up details involved in the dresses, jewelry, weapons and other props that are never seen on screen, or shown for only fractions of a second. There are so many more things in the exhibit than I can show here, in part because no one wants to see that many photos and the rest because so many of my photos turned out blurry or dark or both.
The display starts by introducing the houses of Westeros and their relationships and fealty with a dazzling array of flowcharts accompanied by a variety of common or popular character costumes for the main houses.
It moves next into an area that replicates the Stark family crypt at Winterfell. I was told by the guide for this portion that these statues would not be moving on with the exhibition tour since they were too large and fragile. The room was dark and the statues lit moodily as though by torch light. It was a fun effect to walk through, but a frustrating one to photograph.
The third module gets into the further houses such as those of Dorne and the Iron Islands as well as Stannis Baratheon’s unholy union with Melisandre.
The fourth section is arguably the best. It’s a room full of dragon skulls, the very same ones Tyrion finds while under the palace in Kings Landing that belonged to the Targaryans of days past. I have rarely been so sad about low lighting, but it did make the skulls feel a little creepy and alive, and lived experience is always better than a photo. The skulls are seriously dinosaur sized. The smallest one could probably bite me in half, and the largest could swallow me whole. Standing up. Without opening it’s jaw all the way. So incredibly cool.
Following the dragon skulls were all things Mother of Dragons. Daenerys’ most iconic costumes and jewelry as well as models of the dragon eggs and baby dragons.
There’s an interactive display of the temple of the Faceless Men. Arya trained there, learning deep ancient secrets of how to assassinate people and then NEVER USED THEM. *sigh The display is still cool. You can pose for a photo and have your face digitally added to the wall of faces.
Next up is the Wall where John Snow joins the Night Watch to protect the realms against the coming of the Night King and his horde of walking dead that kill all the Dothraki and then… shatter?… when Arya stabs him, not using her Girl Has No Name skills in any way… ugh. Look at the shiny costumes!
The final display is the Iron Throne in King’s Landing with some of the later season costumes arrayed around it. In addition to all the beautiful set pieces and costumes, there are several interactive stations where you can pose with Arya’s sword Needle, John’s sword Longclaw, the Wall (a cute trick with mirrors to make it look like you’re holding on to a rope for dear life), and the Iron Throne itself. You can walk both forward and backward through the display, so I was able to double back and have a closer look at a few things. All in all, a lovely experience combining museum quality displays and fantastical world building.
On the way out, one of the staff told us to keep an eye out in the parking lot for the King’s Landing set. He implied that one day it might be open to the public as part of a permanent exhibit, but not yet. I tried to find any information about it online, but again, since tourism is closed, there’s no telling if or when the full size set that was used to film the burning of King’s Landing in season 8 will ever be a public attraction or not.
The Film Locations
A large number of the stunning landscapes of the show are part of Northern Ireland. There are scads of websites dedicated to helping people find and enjoy GoT filming locations. Many of the locations are empty fields where this or that battle was filmed, while others had significant CGI added in post production. There are specialized tours where you can play dress up and act out scenes from the show. There’s even a very expensive opportunity to spend some time with the actual animals who played the Stark children’s direwolves.
*The photos that follow are a mix of screenshots from Game of Thrones and my own photos of the locations I visited for comparison and contrast.*
This was probably the shortest stop and yet the most beautiful. The Dark Hedges were a popular site in Northern Ireland even before the show. They also have the honor of being one of the only locations that was not CGI enhanced and are therefore quite recognizable as the King’s Road in seasons 1 and 2, as well as the place where Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing.
From the outside, the dark hedges just look like a little stand of trees in between two large fields. The short stretch of road runs through a private farm, and although the patient farmer has to put up with tourists on the public road, he also seems to have a good sense of humor about the situation. Busloads of tourists come through both on Game of Thrones themed tours and on regular tours of the area because it’s famous for more than just it’s show appearance. As a result, parking is scarce. There was supposedly a parking lot some distance away, but everyone simply parked on the side of the road that ran perpendicular to the hedges. There’s not supposed to be any cars on the hedge road itself, but of course there are always people who think the rules don’t apply to them.
It’s a short stop for most tours, so if photography is your goal, you might want to go on your own. I only spent about 30 minutes there and took a lot of photos which I was eventually able to parlay into a version that makes it look totally empty! Yay, photoshop? Otherwise, it’s very easy to see how true to life this set is between the show and the reality.
Downhill Demesne & Mussenden Temple
Here is the filming location of Dragonstone in Season 2. Downhill Strand is the place where the seven gods of Westeros were sacrificed by Lady Melisandre. Dragonstone was the ancestral home of House Targaryen and current stronghold of the Stannis Baratheon. The scene in question is filmed at night on the beach below, so there’s no real way to see it in the show. Nonetheless, it seems that the tourism board has installed statues of the seven on the beach for eager fans to see. I didn’t make it down to the beach, but rather came through the Downhill Demesne gardens and grounds. If you want to see the beach, I think the A2 road goes there pretty directly.
We entered via Bishop’s Gate and enjoyed the gardens with a variety of flowering bushes and trees, water features and stonework. Following the trail, we came upon an open area where the ruins of the old manor stood. Finally, walking all the way to the cliff edge, I found Mussenden Temple. Contrary to it’s name, it was never a temple, merely modeled after one. It was in fact a library. It is possible to enter the “temple” during the day, but by the time we arrived it was locked up for the night.
I did not actually realize it at the time, since it didn’t show up on my initial searches for GoT locations, but Dunluce Castle was also Pyke Castle of House Grayjoy on the Iron Islands. I had to look it up and it turns out this is one of the locations that was extreme CGI. I would say more that Dunluce was the inspiration rather than the location, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. I wrote more about Dunluce in my description of the Causeway Route.
This was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing, and turned into the greatest disappointment. It’s advertised as “the real life Winterfell” and while it was technically the place where Winterfell was filmed… CGI.
In all fairness, one of the reasons I did not enjoy the stop was that we were experiencing some of the hardest and most vicious rain of the entire trip that day. Ireland kind of always rains. For some reason, I thought that was like Seattle rain which is really just heavy mist and no native Seattlite owns an umbrella (at least not for rain). I had a travel umbrella and I had rain booties to keep my shoes dry and I thought that would be enough. Mostly it was. There was one terrible soaking I got while on a ferry, but other than that, I’d been mostly dry or at least only merely damp.
Not so this day. The rain was opaque. It was as though the sky was trying to be the sea. In addition, the signage for where to go and park in the sprawling acreage of Castle Ward is not clear. I followed the signs for Winterfell and wound up in a very small parking lot which in retrospect might have been staff parking, but we were so lost by then that I just gave up and parked anyway. (Now I know we should have parked at the Shore Parking Lot, but it was not obvious in any way when we drove in that day) It turned out to still be a long walk from the trail head to the actual “Winterfell” area, and on a beautiful day, or even a merely drizzly day it probably would have been a lovely walk through the National Trust. It’s still very pretty, but it was harder to appreciate while wet.
Another reason I think I was disappointed is that I’ve been to Hobbiton in New Zealand. There are plenty of LOTR locations you can visit there that are just unchanged landscape and like Northern Ireland, they are beautiful and worth seeing, just… not like the movies. Hobbiton, on the other hand, was purpose built (twice) for the LOTR and Hobbit movies. Although the farmer who owned the land originally didn’t want permanent structures, after seeing the huge influx of tourism money, he decided to keep them after all.
Thus, walking around Hobbiton, you feel like you are THERE. I knew that most of the locations I visited for GoT were not altered for the show or for tourism, but Winterfell was so highly advertised as this great experience, like being in Winterfell, stepping into the show, that I imagined it would be at least a little like Hobbiton, and give me a sense of being at the Stark family home.
When I finally arrived at “Winterfell” I felt very let down. It looked like a reconstructed historical village, the kind that kids take school field trips to see. I expect that it was meant to be a replica of the original Castle Ward. It wasn’t ugly or anything, it just wasn’t at all like Winterfell.
There are a ton of pay to play style activities at the Winterfell center. You can take an archery class, an axe throwing class, rent a bicycle and tour the park while wearing a cape and a special GoT messenger bag that purportedly takes you to 20 different filming locations within the grounds, most of which are “this tree” or “that field”. I don’t want to diminish from anyone who enjoys this kind of experience. If that is your jam, rock on. For me, a place has to be cool for more than just being the canvas on which CGI was painted. In addition, I was traveling with an older person who simply wasn’t up for lots of hikes or bikes.
I wanted to simply see the grounds and enjoy the castle. The thing is… it’s not really there. The closest you come is one short tower and part of a wall that kind of look like Winterfell if you squint. In the courtyard there were a dozen or so cars and a huge tent, which made getting decent photos of the type that are shown on the website nearly impossible. This is the closest angle of any building that I found to resemble the castle on the show (show: top, reality: bottom). The resemblance is there, but the feel was lacking.
In addition to the experience selling shops, there was a small art gallery and a gift shop. I spent a long time hiding in the replica ruins of an old mill waiting for another torrent to pass long enough to walk again. The rain was so extensive that the ground was almost entirely underwater.
It just goes to show that managing expectations is extremely important. I think I would have been able to overlook the disappointment of either the weather or the failure to be anything like Winterfell, but I wasn’t able to overcome them both and I left feeling profoundly damp in shoes and spirits.
Thankfully, that day I had one more GoT location to visit, and it was the ruins of an old abby, which it’s almost impossible for me to feel let down by. The scene is where Robb Stark’s bannermen rallied to their leader after taking victory (and Jaime Lannister prisoner) at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. While Winterfell had made the cut onto my list because of my (mistaken) belief that it would be a grand immersive experience, Inch Abbey made the list just for being old ruins.
The first traces of a sacred building on this site go all the way back to 800 C.E., although it is thought that the monestary of Inis Cumhscraigh (as it was called at the time) was mainly earth and wood, so little of it remains today. The beautiful stonework remains that makes this site stand out were not built until 1180-88. It remained an active catholic monastery until 1542 when Henry the Eighth left the Catholic church because he wanted a divorce and then forced everyone under his rule to become Church of England.
The rain had eased back significantly, and one of the local tour bus drivers even offered us spare ponchos as his passengers were offloading. The tour group was rather amusing, and seemed to be having an absolute blast. They were equipped with cloaks and replica swords which appeared to be blunt steel, not plastic or wood. The tour guide, like many of those working on GoT tourist sites, had been an extra on the show and enjoyed telling stories from being on set.
They all gathered together and, at the guide’s prompting, everyone bent the knee to one lady, swords aloft and shouted “the queen in the north!”, echoing the original scene in which Robb was named such for the first time, but with a nod to the fact that Sansa (at that time) had taken up her brother’s title. I didn’t reach the group in time to catch that pose, but I did happen to get another that shows off their costumes and props. Once the group photos were over, they had a few minutes to go and take individual poses around the ruins before being herded back onto the bus.
At one point the guide expressed a thought that had not occured to me as a fan, and I want to share that as well. I think a lot of fans were disappointed by the final battle of Winterfell because it was SO DARK (among other things, so many other things). The guide for the group that was at Inch Abbey that day had been an extra in the final battle and talked about the extreme conditions that the cast and crew worked in: not sleeping, being wet and cold all the time, running up and down over and over again until they were just physically wrecked. It was something he put a lot of work into and it was really hard for him to turn around and face the criticism online.
I still think the shows writers, producers, and cinematographers FAILED in every way for that scene, but I now I also think about all the people who didn’t have any creative control, or any idea what the final product would look like who were just excited to work on such a popular and groundbreaking show. In addition, the tragedy that is season 8 has not stopped most fans from continuing to love the series, the characters, and the world of Westeros. We complain a lot online, but I think it’s important to use fan voices to say thanks as well. So, thanks to all the cast and crew who worked their asses off and had no control over what happened in the scripting and editing process.
The group didn’t stay long, and soon we had the ruins to ourselves and I was able to tramp around with impunity, my umbrella enough to keep the now light rain off. The ruins themselves are stunning, and I think that the rain brought out the beautiful contrast of the stones and the grass that would not have been as strong on a sunny day. The stones themselves are fascinating as you can see the remnants of interior structures long since crumbled and it was exactly the kind of film location I had been hoping to see combining real life beauty with my fandom.
Inch Abbey was the final stop on both my Game of Thrones self-tour, and the Northern Ireland portion of the road trip. We tried to go to Newgrange on the way back to Dublin, but there was a series of unfortunate events involving Germans and cars (why is it always Germans I have car problems with?) that only Lemony Snicket could possibly narrate which prevented us from doing so. I did learn that you have to go there and put your name on the wait list in person. You can’t make reservations ahead of time and you can’t go without signing up… so. This seems like an event that it might be easier to do with a tour group than on your own. Maybe next time? Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed my sojourn through Northern Ireland, and I hope you’ll continue to join me as the story takes me back into the south.
Northern Ireland is stunning. I was incredibly lucky to have very nice weather on the days we were exploring the country and the coast, but I can’t imagine it is any less stunning when it’s cloudy and ominous than when it’s sunny and blue and you can see Scotland from the cliffs. This isn’t only wild, untamed scenery. It includes some ruins which have begun to merge with the landscape and some cultivated gardens that show the lovely flowers to their best advantage. In the tradition of saving the best for last, you have to wait till the end to see the Giant’s Causeway.
There are places in Ireland that everyone wants to go to, me too, but driving from one of those to the next could mean endless hours of highways OR it could mean tiny back roads and mini stop offs to lesser known, but still beautiful sights. Guess which one I chose? Here are a few of the in between places that were added to the itinerary purely because we wanted somewhere to stop between points A and B.
Grianan of Aileach
I almost forgot about this stop. For shame. It was a bit of an afterthought on the day we visited as well. On the road between the Belleek Pottery factory and the city of Derry, we drove up a little side road to find this ring fort. The view from the top is breathtaking, and it’s just my type of mountain top that you can drive up and park on top! There were not too many other people out, but there was a small cafe style food truck hoping to sell some refreshments. There’s no toilet facilities however, so we declined.
The fort was built in the late 700s-early 800s, raided by Vikings in the early 900s, and finally destroyed around 1100. The restoration project started in 1870 and is protected and maintained by the Office of Public Works today. It’s one of many tiny little treasures that make driving a much more appealing option to bus tours. We only spent about 15 minutes at the fort, just long enough to gasp at the view and enjoy the archaeology.
Glenarm & Glenarife
These two stops were along the west coast of Northern Ireland, after we finished the Causeway and before we arrived in Belfast. Glenarm is a beautiful castle estate (not a ruin) with cultivated walled gardens. Genarife is a beautiful forest hike with a waterfall.
Glenarm Castle is related to Dunluce Castle, a ruin located on the Causeway Coast which I’ll get to that later in the post. The story goes that in 1639 as the McDonnell family were waiting for dinner one evening at Dunluce, the kitchen – along with kitchen staff – fell into the sea. After that, the family commissioned a new castle to be built on their land at Glenarm which was finally completed some 80 years later. Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce and their family still live there today. Tours are offered of the public portions of the castle, usually between 12-4pm (although the website gives a lot of COVID closure warnings these days).
While I’m sure the inside of the castle is stunning, we were much more interested in the walled garden on our visit and so I can’t tell you anything else about the home. The garden is well worth the visit, however. It is one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens and it is impeccably maintained. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful examples of flowers, fruits and vegetables, a lovely miniature maze, a small “mountain”, and multiple lovely statues placed throughout.
The afternoon we visited was quite gray and rainy. We were forced to wear our outer shoe rain booties and carry around umbrellas, but I personally think that raindrops on flowers make for beautiful scenery (and photos) so I wasn’t too upset.
Sidenote: We lost MS Video Maker, then YouTube Video Editor and now Google Photos has decided to make the photo slide shows vertical for some unholy reason, I had to go find a quick and dirty way to make a slideshow. I’m sorry that the quality is a little rough. If one of the hip people could clue me in on what we’re all using these days, I’d really appreciate it.
Glenarife was a bit of a back track for us on the road trip, but we had made the decision to go there second so we could have dinner at the restaurant inside the park. I plan to write a separate post about the food in Ireland, but I want to stress that planning meals on any vacation is really important, but especially on a road trip through the countryside. If you’re staying in a city, it can be easy to just head down any major street and walk into any restaurant that looks interesting. If you’re driving (or busing) around, then taking time to find where there are restaurants and WHEN THEY ARE OPEN can save you a lot of heartache and petrol station snack meals.
There is not a lot in the way of eateries on this particular stretch of the Irish coastline, so when I found the Laragh Lodge attached to a waterfall I was excited to get two birds with one parking lot, so to speak. We arrived at the Lodge around dinner time and were quite surprised to find the place very full. They had a wedding party in. Thankfully, there was a dining room off to the side for the general public, so we could still eat there. Because the day was drawing to a close, we decided to go on our waterfall walk before dinner. Same gray rainy day, still, but the raindrops had mostly stopped.
The trail leads a over a little creek which looked like it was made of Guinness, and up a slight hill. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the falls. There are longer hikes around the enormous forest park for those who want to spend more time in the great outdoors. I personally was there for the waterfall and the food.
When you look up the Glenarife falls online or go to their website, you see pictures of a pretty little fall with usually 2-3 streams down the broad rock face. When I was there, it had been raining. A lot. No cute trickle of water, not even a stout fall, no — that day, the torrent could be used to power a whole hydroelectric station. Waterfalls release negative ions, which reduce depression and stimulate the brain and body. I know sounds kind of like pseudo-science bunk, but it’s been tested I swear! #waterfallinlove
One Day on the Causeway Coast
The Giant’s Causeway may be the most popular thing on the north coast, but it’s far from the only one. We spent an entire day from dawn to dusk travelling the Causeway Road, visiting both it’s famous and less well known attractions. Technically the Coastal Route extends from Derry to Belfast and would therefore include my stops at Downhill Demesne, Bushmills, and Glenarm, but I am focusing on those parts most immediately surrounding the Giant’s Causeway itself.
Carrick a Rede
The rope bride of Carrick a Rede is often included on a tour of the Giant’s Causeway. After my initial research about things like parking and ticket times, we decided that the best way to do the bridge was very first thing in the morning. There is a parking lot near (1km) from the bridge access, but it’s small and fills up fast. Alternate parking is, of course, farther away. In addition, you must buy tickets in advance and reserve a ticket time. If you miss your window, then you don’t get to go. The bridge can only accommodate so many people at once, so the staff on site work hard to make sure everyone can have a good and safe experience. Weather is also important. As you may have seen in my Aran Islands post, the Irish weather on the coast is extremely fickle, and tourists aren’t able to enter the bridge if the weather makes conditions unsafe.
I was so happy that our weather was clear and blue. We showed up to the parking lot with plenty of time to walk. We had no trouble parking since we were in the first group. There was a little confusion at the ticket booth, a little bottle neck where we all clustered together waiting for them to let us in already! The other advantage to early morning tickets is that the tour buses almost never show up that early, so those of us who had made this effort really wanted to get the jump.
Finally, our e-tickets were scanned and we started the hike from the gate to the bridge. It’s not a hard hike, but there is an upward incline and many stairs. The great news is that the whole path walks along the cliffs and so you spend the hike up with the view to your left, and the hike down with the view to your right. Almost all the photos I took were on the way back down since we were in a hurry going up.
The bridge was built by salmon fishermen way back in the day because the little volcanic island had much better fishing than the mainland. The bridge today is purely a tourist attraction, but you can see the remains of the small fishing “village” on the island after you cross. There is a gate at the point where the trail meets the bridge manned by park staff who ensure that the safety measures are followed and to help people who may be nervous. The narrow (one person wide) rope and plank bridge is 100 ft above the sea and sways and wobbles as you walk on it. It is recommended that you and your travel buddies take pictures with the camera holder on solid ground while the other poses on the bridge. There’s no time for perfect Instagram poses, though, because while the staff will let you take a couple snaps, they urge everyone to keep going. Being so narrow, the bridge cannot accommodate cross traffic, and so a small group goes to the island, then when the bridge is clear a small group returns.
I could have spent the whole day on the beautiful little island. It was just such perfect weather and the grass was soft and fresh. I took a small infinity of photos of the sea and the sky, as well as the little flowers and volcanic rocks. It was only with great reluctance that I finally left to get to the next stops on the day’s itinerary.
I found a slightly alternate route back that took me up a little farther and gave some spectacular views down onto the path and island, and I positively delighted in the tiny flowers and busy bees along the cliff-side path on the way back down.
Dunseverick Castle & Falls
Along the Causeway Road are a large number of small sights. The rope bridge and the Giant’s Causeway are the main stops on every tourist bus tour, and in order to avoid those crowds, we decided to spend the prime tourism hours going to the smaller locales. The first one of these as we drove westward was Dunseverick Castle and Falls. What? Castle ruins and waterfalls? in one place? Twist my arm.
Dunseverick has been a seat of power in Ireland from the 400s! It was a ring fort for a bit, and supposedly visited by St. Patrick himself. Invaded by Vikings, and contested by clans, it was owned by the O’Cahan (anglicized as McCain or O’Kane) family until it was destroyed by CROMWELL (ugh, that guy again)in 1642. All that remains of the castle is the ruins of the gate lodge.
There’s a long walking trail that also runs alongside the cliffs which some people choose to hike, and you can access the ruins this way. I was not particularly interested in the route from parking spot to ruin, but the falls looked decently close, so I hopped a stile and headed off through the nettles to find a waterfall. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Stiles are meant to be hopped, they’re just ways to step over fences that humans can do but animals can’t. Also, nettles only hurt you if you grab them (which I didn’t) or fall on them (which I did, ouch).
Nonetheless, the day persisted in being superb and I found the low and wide falls amid the dark brown and black volcanic rock. I don’t think I’ve ever seen falls along the seaside, so while they were a bit short, they made up for that by being unique.
There are a few “beaches” along the coast as well, but not especially the kind you think of for sandcastles or bathing. We looked for Runkerry Beach, but I wasn’t able to figure out how to get the car there. Bushfoot Beach was adjacent to a golf club so we parked there and meandered down to have a look. It was small, and cute, with a nice bench to sit on and rest. Locals were out walking dogs along the path, and there was a river that came down and flowed into the sea right where we were. It wasn’t a highlight, but it was a beautiful and quiet place to have a little rest before the next stop.
Sound familiar? Yeah! This is the same Dunluce castle that dropped it’s kitchen and staff into the sea, prompting the McDonnells to move to Glenarm. The McDonnells are not actually Irish, they’re Scottish originally.
In case it wasn’t abundantly clear by now, I am an absolute sucker for ruins. Literally, if I could take a vacation that was made of waterfalls and ruins with a few good restaurants, I would be in heaven. I try to look up the history and learn things about the ruins I visit. They often have fascinating secrets or at least interesting stories. In the case of Dunluce, the kitchen staff falling into the sea might be the most interesting thing that ever happened to it until it was used by Led Zeplin as album art.
There were some very informative signs on site, showing artist renditions of what the house and grounds may have looked like when it was alive, and there’s a very dry Wikipedia article about the Earls and the invasions. I could recite that for you, but why? A far more amusing resource is this Belfast Telegraph article. Otherwise, please enjoy the photos!
This is what we’re here for right? If you’ve come all the way to the tippy top of Northern Ireland you are here for THIS and everything else is pretty much frosting and sprinkles. Don’t get me wrong, everything else was wonderful, and I’m extremely grateful that I had the chance to drive myself around to the variety of stops. If you can’t rent a car or don’t want to drive on the left, there are tour buses that go to Carrick-a-Rede, Dunluce, and the Giant’s Causeway in a day, but after having done a driving tour and a bus tour (later) I have to say that driving in Ireland is (mostly) very easy and pleasant and having the freedom is well worth it.
The Giant’s Causeway is a totally unique geographical formation of honeycomb-like stones reaching from the base of high grassy cliffs out into the sea. These formations are called basalt columns, and are made by lava cooling. As a not-geologist, I can’t really understand, let alone explain why some lava makes pumice, and some makes lava tubes, and some makes these cool hexagonal shapes, but I trust that there are geologists who can. The short and easy version is that something in the molecular makeup of basalt causes it to form cracks in these shapes when it cools rapidly. Probably why these formations are almost always found near water.
Although the Giant’s Causeway is by far the most famous, there are many other examples of basalt columns around the world, so you can still see them even if you don’t make it here. I was most fascinated to see there’s one here in Korea, on Jeju Island, that looks like a tiny version of the one in Ireland. It’s not a popular tourist attraction yet, so my tour didn’t go there when I visited Jeju several years ago. I’ll look for it if I ever go back.
Today we understand the science behind these fascinating formations, but when humans first came into the area, they incorporated the stones into the mythology of Ireland. I talked briefly about the pre-history mythology in my Two Irelands post. The beginning of Ireland was fraught with many races of monsters, giants, gods, and fairies, each one supplanted by the next. The 5th race was the Tuatha Dé Danann (from which almost all modern fairies seem to be descended), and the 6th and final were the humans. The stories of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) seem to be set toward the beginning of the humans arrival into Ireland since he fights with giants and at least one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The myth, like all myths, is tricky, and not every source agrees on the details. Most of us are more familiar with the Arthurian legends, and as anyone who has tried to sort out the details knows, it’s not possible. So, I’m presenting a vague and “best guess” version of Finn McCool here.
He was born into if not actual royalty, then the next best thing. His father’s clan was said to be descendants of the Fir Bolg (the 4th race) and his mother was recorded as a granddaughter of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Finn himself became the leader of the Fianna, a kind of warrior band, and had all kinds of fantastic feats attributed to him. You can’t go anywhere in Ireland without finding some piece of local Finn legend. According to the most popular stories, he (like Arthur) is not dead, but merely sleeping in a secret cave and will return in Ireland’s greatest hour of need.
When it comes to the Giant’s Causeway, there are still a few versions of the tale, but the most common involves a Giant named Benadonner. Benadonner was a fierce Scottish warrior and a giant (one of the races previously driven from Ireland). One day Finn challenged him to a fight, but the giant didn’t want to cross from Scotland and made excuses about the sea as an obstacle.
Finn then built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland. This is one of the closest points between Ireland and Scotland, only about 28 miles to the nearest Scottish peninsula. When the bridge was complete, Finn sent a message to Benadonner that he had no more excuses, so come along and fight me!
However, when Finn saw Benadonner crossing, he realized the giant was much bigger than he previously thought. He fled the coast, retreating into his home. His wife Sadhbh (omg Gaelic, amirite?, that’s probably pronounced “Saive”, maybe?) heard what he’d done and quickly dressed her husband up as a baby.
When Benadonner came to find him, he saw the disguised Finn alone in the house and thought to himself, “If this is the infant, what must the father be like?”, and quickly fled back to Scotland, tearing up the bridge in his haste, leaving only the remnants at either end: The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish Isle of Staffa, named for Finn himself. (Although the nearest point is only 28 miles from the Causeway in Ireland, Fingal’s Cave is 82.5 miles as the giant flees).
Whether you are drawn to the science or the more whimsical heroic tale, there’s no doubt that the natural beauty of the Causeway is breathtaking. We scheduled 4 hours for it and that was barely enough. It’s a hard choice to make as far as what to see in a single day. If I had it to do over, I might have scheduled one day for just the Causeway, and a second day for all the other stops. We planned to arrive around 3pm so that we would be walking in about the time that most of the tour buses were walking out.
I found some shuttle bus information online, but it turned out not to be as accurate as I’d hoped and in the end, we decided that paying for parking at the visitors center was going to be better for us convenience-wise than trying to take the shuttle bus from Bushmills, and honestly only slightly more expensive. If you happen to have a National Trust membership or possibly even a tourist pass, you can get steep discounts on things like the shuttles, the parking and the entry tickets (many are free included), and I also looked into buying that, but since only Northern Ireland is run by the UK National Trust, we just weren’t going to go to enough places to make pass worthwhile. If I were to plan a trip that included even one more day in the UK, I think it would have been.
The parking lot is enormous and the walkways funnel tourists to the Visitor’s Center. You don’t have to go there. The outdoor parts of the park are FREE (after you pay for parking or the shuttle bus) and the visitor’s center is like 13£. I opted to spend my time and money seeing the sights in person, but I can see if you perhaps had bad weather, the visitor’s center might be appealing.
Another travel blogger advised me to take the red trail from the Visitor’s Center to the Causeway. There is a main road (paved wide road) that goes very directly. People who are in a hurry may use this, and there is another shuttle bus that runs between the Causeway and the Visitor’s center which I think is very nice for those with limited walking ability. However, the red trail leads up along the cliff tops before descending to the sea, and it has some really stunning views. It’s much easier to walk it going down than going up, so starting on the red trail and then using the wide seaside road to return seemed the way to go.
The main trail starts by going through a tunnel near the visitor’s center, while the red trail starts before the tunnel and off to one side. There are signs. It is marked as a more demanding route, but that is only in comparison to the smooth wide paved main path. It’s about a mile (UK, back to imperial not metric!) and there are maybe 100 stairs going down. I thought we could take the shuttle bus back up, but that stops running when the visitor’s center closes at 4pm, so if you are mobility limited, make sure you plan your visit earlier in the day that I did.
The red trail is not for those afraid of heights. It goes along the edge and has some harrowing narrow paths and steep steps on the climb down. I thoroughly enjoyed the walk which included yet more stunning cliff-side views, a million tiny flowers and the little bugs that live in them (one of my favorite subject for photography), and a chance to see the organ pipes formation and the giant’s boot on the way down (something those who take the main path would have to climb up to see).
It was charming to see the tourists delighting in hopping from rock to rock like a childhood game of hopscotch. I climbed as far out to the edge as I could, marveling at the geometrical patterns and the tiny lichens and barnacles living there.
Finally, as dusk loomed, we headed back up the road, enjoying the tide pools and sunset over the water. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Giant’s Causeway is the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s natural beauty and I’m grateful that I was able to experience it on such a beautiful day.
Going into Northern Ireland I was not really sure what to expect. When I was growing up, the North was known for it’s hard life and angry militant (terrorist?) political movements: The Troubles. There are three great reasons to visit the North: the stunning natural beauty, the unique and historical culture, and Game of Thrones. That last one seems a lot less important after the series finale aired disappointing literally every fan, but dragons are always cool. Today’s post focuses on the culture and more recent history. I wrote a much more detailed account of the two Irelands what seems like an eon ago (before the Plague), and while I prefer to focus on my experiences while traveling, sometimes those experiences include some painful history and deep thinking.
The first stop on my road trip after crossing the unimposing border (marked mainly by the sudden change from Euros to Pounds at the petrol stations) was the Belleek Pottery factory. I didn’t know anything about Belleek Pottery. I know we had some in the house growing up, but I guess it went with my stepfather when he did.
Founded in 1857, it is the oldest pottery factory in Ireland (either of them), and was initially started because of the availability of special mineral ingredients locally. Eventually, it became more common to source materials from Cornwall or Norway, but the unique Belleek style has continued to make the pottery famous and sought after.
The factory was in holiday mode during our tour so there were only a few employees on site. Perhaps this made for an emptier experience, but I thought it was nice to be able to focus on a single work table or look closely at the pottery without being rushed or in someone’s way. Our tour guide walked us through the process of making the beautiful and unique ceramics from the artistic conceptualization to the making of molds and refining of pieces. We had the chance to see workers attaching separate pieces and refining the details from the mold by hand. We were also offered the chance to break the rejects, since the factory will never allow “seconds” or flawed pieces out into the world.
However lovely the molded pieces are, they are as nothing compared to the beautiful hand crafted flowers and lacy woven baskets that represent iconic Belleek. We had the chance to see some of the craftspeople at work on these fine details. The flowers and detailed add ons are simply stunning tiny craftsmanship, but the weaving was simply the most unique. The clay used for the basket strands is blended in such a way to make it slightly elastic and so less likely to break when manipulated over and over. Don’t try this with your regular clay in pottery class, kids.
The painting center was no less beautiful. Each finished piece is painted by hand to give a unique finish to every piece and to make sure that the little green shamrocks are just right. At the end of our tour we were let out into a small museum showcasing the evolution of Belleek styles over the years. The special pieces showed even more detail in the handmade flowers, but my absolute favorite was a pearl glaze that was only in fashion for a few brief years.
I doubt I would have chosen to tour Belleek on my own, but nonetheless, I did enjoy the trip. Non-solo trips can be a mix of “well, I wouldn’t have picked that myself, but cool”, and “yes, please!” kinds of stops. While Belleek was the former, Bushmills was definitely the later.
Bushmills has been in my family and house for as long as I can recall. It was my grandmother’s whisky of choice and hers was the immigrant family with some deep dies to the Irish diaspora culture in America. She passed when I was 17. It was a very sudden turn from being old and chronically ill, but lively – to hospitalized, comatose and gone. I know, morbid, but it was about a week of me sleeping on the hospital room floor and then it was over. Her children (my mom, aunt and uncles) and I shared out the remains of her last bottle of Bushmills while we told stories about our memories of her. Bushmills holds a place in my heart as well as my tastebuds.
There is no photography allowed inside the distillery to protect their trade secrets, but we had a fun tour that took us from mash to cask. It was very interesting to me to do this after my lovely brewery tours in Belgium since the basic process to start both beer and whisky is very similar. The malting, mashing, and fermenting is more or less the same (a great deal more similar than to wine-making), the shiny and hot copper stills is where spirits take a hard (pun intended) left turn from beer.
The still room in Bushmills felt like walking into a sauna. The entire room was warmed and steamed as the low alcohol “wash” is heated and pressurized into boiling at about 78C (much less than the boiling point of water). This causes the alcohol to evaporate where it is caught in the tubes and condensed back into liquid form in a new reservoir while the water remains in liquid state below.
Amid the giant copper contraptions was a small and extremely climate controlled glass walled room where a further refinement process took place in small batches under intense supervision. Neither the large copper nor the smaller stills can be left unattended, so a highly trained employee has to spend hours a day in that hot and sweaty room just to make sure that the resultant distilled spirits are correctly balanced and purified.
The main method of distillation is well known and basic still kits can be assembled fairly easily (that’s where moonshine comes from after all), but each of the worlds best distilleries has a few proprietary methods and Bushmills is no exception. The tour guide did an excellent job answering all my questions about the science without giving away any trade secrets.
(The photo is an old copper still on display in the tasting room.)
After the stills, it’s still not whiskey. The magic that turns white lighting into that dark amber ambrosia is cask ageing. This might be my favorite part of any alcohol tour (ok, except for the tasting) when we get to enter the cool and dark rooms filled floor to ceiling with dark barrels and simply redolent with the luxurious smells. Our guide explained the different types of casks used to flavor and age the whisky and showed us examples of the changes in color and volume over time. Not only does the wood of the cask color and flavor the alcohol, but the alcohol leaks out through the porous wood over the years. This loss is referred to as the Angel’s Share (I guess Irish Angels like a wee dram, too) and in areas like Ireland accounts to 2-3% loss per year. A 50 gallon barrel can be reduced to less than 15 gallons in a 25 year age! Those heavy price tags are not only taking into account the amount of time the whisky must be stored before sold, but also the sheer volume of alcohol lost to the angels.
However, the longer it ages, the more the sharp and harsh flavors of the distilled moonshine soften and the more of the flavors of the wood become absorbed. Mostly 10-12 years is enough to get a good mellow flavor for the non-aficionado. Less if you’re planning to mix it with (shudder) coke. In addition, some of what evaporates is yet more water and the finished product of maturation can be between 115-150 proof. But wait, Kaine, I’ve had Bushmills and it’s only 80 proof, what gives? Well, the factory puts some lovely fresh Irish spring water (honestly I don’t know where the water comes from, but it sounds nice?) into the mix before bottling to create a consistent and ideal proofing. This is for two reasons: product consistency is super important to a brand, so they do need to be sure that all bottles are the same. Second, and to my mind more importantly, you simply cannot enjoy the taste of the whisky at 150 proof! Even 100 proof is pushing it.
The great debate about whether you should add water to your whisky is almost hilarious in this context, knowing that the distillery did it for you. However, 80 proof is simply their best guess where most people would be able to enjoy the flavors ideally, so if you wanna add a little water to enhance your own flavor experience, go for it. Bushmills itself served a small pitcher of water along side the whisky in the tasting room for just that purpose, so obviously they don’t mind.
I really enjoyed the 12 year distillery reserve (lower right, sky blue label), a unique flavor profile and of course not sold anywhere but the distillery… literally, not even in the duty free shops. I heavily debated buying a bottle but there were no small sizes and I knew that without the duty free sealed bags, I’d have to try and lug it in the checked bag, not to mention lugging it around the rest of my Ireland trip (not even half over yet), and the fact that if you want to bring more than 1L of booze over borders you have to figure out how to pay them taxes (not a huge burden, but …). A smaller bottle would have meant easier packing or just enjoying it in Ireland, but alas. I did end up with a bottle of the fantastic Dingle Peninsula Gin from the duty free, which almost makes up for this loss.
Also known as Londonderry, it is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and home of The Troubles. I am going to have to get political/historical again because almost all of the major landmarks in Derry are related to the Troubles in some way or another.
The first big one we came upon was the Peace Bridge: a beautiful bridge that eases pedestrian traffic and makes for a lovely riverside view. It’s easy to think of the clashes in Ireland as being in the distant past, but they are not. The Peace Bridge was only built in 2011 and it’s construction was an attempt to ease communication and interaction between the unionists (stay in the UK) ‘Waterside’ on the east bank and the nationalists (join Southern Ireland) ‘Cityside’ on the west bank.
Mere steps from the riverside is the Guildhall. This is an iconic work of architecture built originally in 1890 to be a ceremonial government house / town hall. It’s been destroyed a couple times in fires or bombings, but the restoration project of 2012 has been very successful. To be honest, I thought it was a restructured church given it’s beautiful stained glass windows and enormous pipe organ, but I’m told it’s intention has always been secular in nature. There were several memorials inside dedicated to those who fought (and died) during various stages of revolution against the British occupation. Since at the moment of writing this, the unionists still outnumber the nationalists, that occupation is ongoing, and while the conflict hardly ever results in whole historic buildings being bombed these days, it is far from over.
However, even if you aren’t interested in Irish history or politics, the Guildhall is worth a visit for the exquisite stained glass in every available window.
From the Guildhall, we headed over to the Bogside neighborhood to see the murals. Bogside is … perhaps more politically relevant in 2020 (as I write this) than it was when I visited a year ago. The global Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have highlighted clashes between state sponsored police and citizens who are tired of being treated as less than.
I gave my own detailed account of the IRA in the Two Irelands post before, and then as now, I ask people to remember that any comparisons between the Troubles in Ireland and the BLM protests in America should only be examined as “shitty police state problems” and NOT used as a way to compare white (Irish) struggles to black (African American) struggles. Just. Don’t.
For those less familiar with American culture, it is a common white supremacist tactic to argue that white Irish immigrants in America had it just as bad or worse than black slaves (lol). Lots of really well meaning white people get caught up in this because at first blush it sounds very reasonable. It isn’t. (You can find more details here,here, and here as a starting place.)
In this case, the discriminated against minority were the Catholics who had all manner of extremely bigoted laws passed to keep them down including limiting their employment, education, marriage and property access. It was only marginally a religious issue, as the lines of unionist and nationalist were also generally drawn along church lines. The nationalist Catholics were understandably pissed about it. When protest marches were banned, some marched anyway and were brutally attacked by the police. This was in 1968 so the actions of the police were filmed and shown on television, prompting demonstrations of solidarity at the Guildhall and elsewhere.
As the civil unrest went on, off duty police officers in plain clothes attacked protesters who were involved in marches or demonstrations. Uniformed on duty officers refused to protect the protesters from the assault. By January of 1969, police were breaking into protesters homes to assault them and the residents of Bogside erected barricades to keep the police out, declaring a “Free Derry”.
Enter “The Apprentice Boys”. I cannot make this stuff up. No, they aren’t an obviously white nationalist group like the Proud Boys, but… come on. They are a Protestant fraternal (men only -read: patriarchal) order, however, and at the time in 1969, they enjoyed keeping those dirty Catholics “in their place”. Something something shoe fits.
The annual Apprentice Boys parade in August 1969 came so close to Free Derry that a fight erupted. Guess which side the police took. The police effectively dismantled the barricades, letting the Apprentice Boys into the neighborhood and leading the Catholic residents of Bogside to include the police in their targets.
A three day riot ensued. The neighborhood was flooded with tear gas and well over 1,000 residents were injured in some way. Police from neighboring areas were brought in, but due to a severe lack of training, they only made it worse. On the third day, the British Army came in and basically separated the three sides: Apprentice Boys (Protestant), Bogside residents (Catholic) and police (Protestant) — while allowing the Bogside residents to maintain their barricades (probably the only reason it worked).
Free Derry was maintained for three years by armed IRA soldiers patrolling to keep British soldiers and Irish police out. This was not a time of peace, but of intensified armed conflict between the British state and the IRA. Free Derry was eventually dismantled after the massacre of Bloody Sunday where 14 people (13 outright and one later from injuries) were shot down by British soldiers during a protest march against the practice of imprisonment without trial. The soldiers were exonerated on the basis that they claimed to be shooting at armed targets.
If I took out the names and dates, these details could be from any number of American cities in 2020. I will not apologize for the comparison, or for getting political in my blog. We are repeating historical mistakes by continuing to find those among us to “other” and diminish based on pseudo-science and hate-fueled religious arguments. Derry may be a lovely place to have a holiday now, covered with boutique shopping and delectable cafe eateries and pubs, but 50 years ago it was a bloodbath as those who strove for equal rights were murdered by those who valued the status quo.
Do I like the bombings, the riots, the violence employed by the IRA? No… but I understand it – why it happened and why it was necessary to achieve equality under the law. What you would do if your country made it so you and your family always have less, are always be behind or under someone “preferred”, and allowed to be beaten or murdered without consequence after decades of peaceful protests and political marches were systematically ignored or criminalized?
I hope that America listens to BLM before it gets any worse because the result of these kinds of clashes are decades of pain and destruction. There is no question that the history being remembered here is one of state sponsored oppression and violence. You cannot visit and be unaffected by the striking contrast between the now peaceful streets and the murals dedicated to the fallen.
History kept alive in the neighborhoods affected serves to remind us what we are capable of as a species, best and worst. If you travel the world and you skip the hard parts, you’re missing out on a magical opportunity to open your mind and grow your heart. Thanks for coming with me. Stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, destroy systemic forms of oppression and end police brutality.
The Aran Islands are another quintessential Irish bucket list. There are three, and you can take a boat out to any of them. If you are travelling via tour bus, then the most likely path is from Galway through Rossaveal, but we had a car and decided to go out of Doolin. Doolin itself is spoken of with a kind of reverential awe by those who visit regularly and now I know why. If you are lucky enough to plan your trip to the islands from Doolin instead of Galway, make sure you plan time for some trad music in the evening.
We chose to go to Inis Oírr (pronounced roughly “inis sheer”), the closest and smallest of the islands. It seemed like a nice way to see them without being overloaded with tour groups which all go to Inis Mann or Inis Mor. When I was planning the day, I looked at a map of all the things to do and see, mostly ruins but you know I am a sucker for ruins, and I figured I could just rent a bike and ride around to see it all. It’s also possible to get into the carriage and ride around, but I like to go at my own pace, and the island was neither large nor described as very hilly, so a bike seemed great. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the O’Brien castle, the sunken graveyard, and the wrecked battleship. In addition, I was planning to hunt down some Aran knitted wool products because, well, they’re famous. So much I did not know…
On the day of our ferry tickets, we made it to the parking lot and drove aimlessly looking for a spot for longer than planned. It was with some relief that we made it with a few minutes to spare, or so I thought. I was informed at the ticket office that our ferry had already left! Of course, like every ticketed event, they advised us to arrive 10-15 minutes early and the parking dilemma set us back from that goal, but we were still at least 5 minutes early. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave! I began to protest and ask about refunds since they left before the scheduled time, and they agreed to put us on another boat. The longer I watched the docks, the more it became obvious that there was almost no order to the ferries at all. It seems like a few boats make the trip, and a few companies sell tickets, but they are not connected. Both going out and returning, we were just put on whatever boat was most convenient and the staff collected a variety of colorful tickets. I suspect that they then use those to collect their passenger fees from the ticket selling companies later. It’s confusing and disorienting and more than a little frustrating, but I guess it works. It was such a lovely day with clear skies and bright sunshine that my companion wanted to sit on the deck instead of in the covered portion of the boat. There is something to be said for this, as one is much less likely to get seasick on deck, however, one is also much less likely to stay dry. We were hardly out of the harbor when the wind picked up and the waves began to splash in, covering the floor.
I pulled my shoes up to try and keep dry as the water swirled around. We were not allowed to move once the boat was in motion due to the extreme bouncing, so I was stuck. Then the waves began to come over the side. Small splashes at first, but soon large drenching waves. It began to rain. Sudden hard sheeting buckets of rain combined with waves splashing us in all directions. I did not have any waterproof clothing on whatsoever because the day was so lovely when we were on land. By the time we arrived to the island 30+ minutes later, I was entirely soaked: socks, underwear, everything. This extreme damper on my mood was not tempered by the fact that the rain had once more evaporated as we pulled into the island harbor and beautiful sunny blue skies prevailed. If anything, it made me even more grumpy. If I’d just sat inside on the boat, I’d have gone from sunny dry land to sunny dry land. Instead I got soaked to the bone with no change of clothes ahead for hours. I declined the carriage and the bike rental shop and immediately set off in the opposite direction of all the other ferry passengers, hoping to find a quiet and empty place to soothe my emotional distress and dry my wet socks.
I did find a quiet section of beach with no humans around and I traded out my layers of clothing, alternately wearing and sun/wind drying. I managed to go from totally soaking to slightly damp over the course of about an hour. I listened to some music and watched the ocean. I let go of my expectations and my plans, and was finally able/willing to head back toward the cluster of buildings and see what there was to see nearby. I didn’t really have the time or energy to bike around to all the sights, so I just walked. I got to see some of the homes, quaint little cottages all divided by stone walls. I found a sweater shop. I learned a lot more about Aran Knit. The Aran knitting patterns are unique, especially when combined with a rougher, less treated (more waterproof) type of wool. They were made by fishermen’s wives to stave off the rain, seawater, and cold winds that I had gotten only a tiny taste of on my boat ride over. (I got drenched on a “sunny” day, imagine what it was like for the fishermen?) The tradition is maybe 100-150 years old, and the sheep aren’t from the Aran islands (anymore, not enough sheep). There’s a strong mythology about the types of stitch and patterns in the knit, but it’s mostly from a single source, which always makes me skeptical. Whether or not the patterns link to certain clans or whether the original ladies who knitted them ascribed the mythological meaning to bring health, wealth and such to the wearer we can’t be sure. What is sure is that the distinctive patterns are unique and in high demand. Such high demand that there’s now factories churning out machine made versions of the traditional fisherman’s wear. You can order them online, you can buy them in any city in Ireland. I doubt any casual observer will know the difference. The machine made sweaters are lovely and affordable. I didn’t want one.
I perused the shop’s offerings, observing tags and occasionally asking questions. The hand knitted sweaters were truly lovely, but they started around 100€ each. I thought a lot about how often I’d wear a really thick wool sweater in my life. It would be great for the 20 minutes I’m outside each day in the depths of winter, but then it would be too hot to wear inside. Plus, I’m already quite fluffy, and bulky clothes are not flattering on my figure. I looked longingly at the scarves, because I love scarves, but I also have too many already and am trying to figure out which ones to leave behind on my next major move. Finally, I settled on a hat. It is hard to keep my head warm in the cold winter winds and they’re meant to be taken off inside, plus don’t take up so much room in the luggage. I chose a hand knitted hat in a lovely moss green with several different classic Aran stitches. The gentleman at the counter and I chatted for a while about the changes in Ireland and on the island specifically in his lifetime. He told me when he was younger, everyone went down to the lighthouse to watch the football (soccer) game on the only television on the whole island, and now they had stuff like WiFi! His wife was part of the group of ladies that knitted the in house goods, but he wasn’t sure if she had knitted the hat I chose or one of the other ladies had. The wool itself was from the Connemara area because there just weren’t enough sheep on the Aran Islands themselves to support the knitting, it being more a fishing (and lately tourism) economy than a sheep based one. I actually wore the hat a lot during the rest of my trip in Ireland and it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe that was packed for a more summery climate than I ended up with.
With my souvenir goal achieved, I continued to explore and came across a small meadow behind some abandoned buildings. Down among the grass and weeds was a zoo of tiny life. Little black winged and red spotted moths, fuzzy bumble bees, stripey caterpillars, and beautiful butterflies. I had a wonderful time crawling around on the ground and taking pictures.
The line for the ferries back was almost as chaotic as the ferries out, but I had more faith that we wouldn’t be left behind. The weather was getting squally again, and the ships captains were having chats about the best way to get back. They started out asking all the people subject to seasickness to get into certain boats which were less likely to be as impacted by the waves and which would take the most direct route back to Doolin. Our reservations included a trip past the Cliffs of Moher and would be about twice as long as the direct route.
Sadly, by the time we all bundled onto the boats, the captains had decreed the weather was too bad to go to the cliffs. I made sure to get a seat inside for the ride back, turned on my music and had a little nap. I have been known to get seasick when I’m below decks, but this ship was fairly wide and had big picture windows. It was not a real question of being wet and cold vs being a little nauseous. Once more, I learned that no matter what the weather looks like on land, it is not related to the weather even 5 minutes out to sea and that whatever plans you make in Ireland that involve the ocean are subject to drastic change and cancellation without warning. I think the boat trips were worth it, and I’m glad I went to the island, even if it meant getting soaked, but if you only have a couple days in Ireland, maybe stick to mainland activities to avoid disappointment.
When putting together the day plan, we had a few hours in the late afternoon free and the cave looked like a good “all weather” option. I booked the tickets for pretty much everything we did ahead of time online because summer is the high season in Ireland and popular sites sell out fast. Even though I wasn’t feeling great after my very wet morning, it seemed like a waste not to use the tickets that were already paid for, so we headed to the cave. The cave is famous because it has the longest freestanding (or free hanging I suppose) stalactite in Europe. It is quite impressive. Tours go down in groups with hard hats and a guide. There’s a LOT of stairs, a fairly short walk, and a very dramatic presentation where you walk into the main cavern in the dark (flashlights pointed at the ground) so that when the lights come on, you get a stunning view of the star stalactite. Originally, there was meant to be a garden walk involved in this as well, but the rainy weather which had prevented us from seeing the Cliffs had caught up to the mainland and it was positively pouring down. On top of that, the cafe was closed by the time we came back up. I think the stalactite was stunning, but overall, I wish we’d been able to enjoy the other things at the location.
Doolin Music House
Whatever hardships the day threw at us, the evening plans made up for it all. I was able to change into dry clothes, which helped a lot, and our nighttime plans were for some trad music in a local house. I’d reached out to Christy and Sheila via email and arranged for a space in their house show. Trad (traditional) Irish music is a big draw both for locals and tourists in Ireland and while a lot of it is available in pubs, those can be loud and crowded – a challenge to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long, hard, rainy day of touristing. The idea of sitting in a nice quiet living room and listening to music and stories was far more appealing than the pub. Sheila welcomed us in and invited us to sit by the fire which was burning local peat and smelled amazing. Peat is harvested from the bogs of Ireland. It’s dead and decaying organic matter that’s been pressed into turf. It’s dug up in chunks and dried in the sun, then used for fuel. Ireland doesn’t have a lot of trees, which is why so much is build of stone and why the people burn peat for fire. Even with new gas and electric heating systems being installed around the island, a lot of folks still use peat in their fireplaces and stoves. I also had the chance to see some of the harvesting and drying in process when we drove through peat bogs later on.
When we first came in, we entered Sheila’s painting studio where she creates and displays her artwork. In the living room, however, the walls are covered with charcoal sketches of some of Ireland’s most influential trad musicians of yore. Sheila brought us some wine and other guests filtered in. It was mostly people over 50, I may have been the youngest in the room, but they were lively and talkative (I think the Irish might be the only people who talk as much as the Americans). We were served a light meal of local salmon and local cheeses with fresh bread and we just ate and chatted for a while. It was very relaxing, like a dinner party at a friend’s house.
When we had all finished eating, Kristy and James came out with a fiddle and an armload of flutes. James stuck to his fiddle the whole night and only very rarely spoke. Kristy was every inch the Irish story spinner and played a variety of flutes and even the spoons at one point. Between songs, Kristy would tell us all stories about the music and about growing up in Ireland. Although he never said his age directly, I gather he must at least be in his 70s if not older. He’s been performing professionally for more than 40 years, but the stories he told about his childhood experiences lead me to believe he’s been playing much much longer.
I did not have the kind of memory capacity in my phone to record all those wonderful stories, but I was charmed by tales of the older way of life that had still been common when he was a boy. How all the men worked hard physical labor jobs, and almost no one had any money, but it barely mattered because they could go round to each others homes at night and play music and dance. He told us the history of the instruments and how the music grew up as something more to accompany dancers than as it’s own art. Dancers were the percussion and the main entertainment. A musician who couldn’t follow the dancer’s beat wouldn’t soon be invited to play again. Sheila and her friend came out to show a small demonstration of the dancing, so focused on the movement of the feet and the stillness of the body. The whole world has seen Riverdance by now, the famous show that came from this traditional dance style. It has been heavily adapted to appeal to a broader audience with more movement and flash, but the original style is very subtle and very challenging to master.
We listened to music and stories totally captivated. It is one of my best memories of the entire trip. My Airbnb host, Marcella, lives just up the road, and of course has known Sheila for years and was stunned to find they were asking so “high” a price as 25€ per person for the experience. I found it to be totally reasonable for such a wonderful evening. No public show could have compared to the warmth and personal touches of being in their home, and yet they were impeccable hosts with regard to our comfort and keeping our wine glasses full. Plus, while they may just be the neighbors to Marcella, Kristy is a world renowned and award winning musician with a lifetime of amazing stories to share.
Every night is different because different musicians and dancers show up to accompany Kristy. Plus, although the night I was there, none of us were brave enough, Kristy did say he likes it to feel more like a group event than a performance, and anyone is welcome to sing, play or dance as they like.
The main website is very classy, and doesn’t properly give the impression of the impish charm that Christy exudes. I took a single video for my own memories and to share with you all, but if you want to see more, their Facebook Page has a much wider selection than the primary website.
The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin
I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.
Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation. Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.
I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment. However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.
I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.
There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.
The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.
Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.
When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).
We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.
As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.
I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.
I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.
The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.
There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.
Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.
Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.
The Blasket Islands
Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.
The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do. I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.
After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.
We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.
The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.
I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.
In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.
Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.
Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.
If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.
Car or Bus?
Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.
I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.
This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.
The Challenge of Skellig Michael
Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing. Even before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.
Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.
As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.
There are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well. Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.
What I Actually Did on the Ring
Cahergall Stone Fort
Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.
There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.
I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside.
Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across. It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.
Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.
On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.
Valentia Tetrapod Trackway
There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land. There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.
I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go. We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.
It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland. It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.
The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.
Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.
It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.
Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates
Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views. I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.
As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.
Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.
Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.
If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.
I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.
The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.
Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.
I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.
There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.
The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!
Kenmare Stone Circle
Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars. Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)
Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates. I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.
As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.
The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.
I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.
After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.
The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep. Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.
Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.
One of the things that bothered me most while I was on the Emerald Isle was realizing how little I knew about Irish history between the potato famine and now. Like, I know some fun things about the pre-history, and the Celts and druids, and how those terrible Anglo-Saxons invaded and enslaved … well impoverished anyway, the native Gaelic people. And I know that Ireland is free now… and somehow also 2 countries, but, I really had no idea how that happened. So, this post is going to be all about my discovery of Irish history, how many and what kind of countries it is today, and how we got there.
Pre-History & Myth
A while ago, I got a book of Irish Folk Tales that I have long since passed on to other needier readers, but one of the stories toward the beginning has stayed with me. Irish pre-historic tradition tells of a series of invaders that came and conquered the island in waves. They’ve been Christianized now so that some of the earlier inhabitants are the descendants of Noah, but earlier versions describe them as gods or demi gods, followed by the kind of super-humans that do things like discover how to plow or build tools. There’s a race of monsters and one of giants.
The 5th wave of invaders is known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, which is a familiar word if you ever watched Willow. The Tuatha were described as beautiful, blonde and wise, skilled in magic. Their enemies were the Formorians, described as ugly, deformed and monstrous. It really could be Tolkien’s elves and orcs.
The 6th and final wave were the humans that make up the Gaelic people, also called Milesians, a name which means “soldier of Hispania” because the Milesians were said to have sailed to Ireland from Hispania (Spain) after wandering the world for centuries. They defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, but didn’t kill them all. The remaining Tuatha went underground and became the fairy folk of Irish folk lore.
I was completely fascinated by the notion of this tiny island with zero decent natural resources being invaded by wave after wave of supernatural races before finally being settled by humans. It explained so much about the modern persistence of Irish fairy-tale beliefs well into their Christian conversion and even the Enlightenment and modern age.
I’ll be sharing some of my own experiences with Irish pre-history in the form of ring forts and museums in a later post.
Here There Be Vikings
Recently, some archaeologists found a whole ton of Viking relics around Ireland, especially in Dublin. Previously, historians thought the Vikings just came to raid the settlements and monasteries in Ireland before returning home, but the recent digs show that there were full on Viking settlements in Ireland as early as 759. If I ever get around to writing about the Viking Splash Tour or the Dublin History museum, I’ll go into more detail there, but I thought it was worth mentioning that after the 6 mythical waves of settlers, there was also a real wave of tall, blonde, fair skinned, skilled at metalwork and… wait, they kinda sound like the Tuatha Dé Danann, don’t they? But, no, the Vikings didn’t appear in Ireland until well after the semi-mythical defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann, aka the much less mythical arrival of the settlers from Spain.
The British Invasion
I am not a historian, I’m not trying to write the definitive work. I’m not even going to try to compete with the 17 Wikipedia articles about this. I am just writing a short, hopefully oversimplified, series of events for perspective.
From the 12th-16th century, there was an almighty struggle for the soul of the island. The Normans (aka the English) really wanted to introduce landlordship and feudalism to Ireland, but the Gaelic chief system was more about people (clans) than land because sheep move around, and not much grows in Ireland that’s edible, so the whole feudal peasants farm the land and pay taxes thing (think Robin Hood, right?) did not go over well. Dunluce Castle (below) is an example of the kind of medieval castles used by the lords during this time.
In 1542, King Henry VIII of England was made King of Ireland. Yes, that Henry the 8th. The one who 8 years prior had taken his whole country out of Catholicism because he wanted a divorce. There was an almighty row between the Protestant and Catholic countries, and many catholic countries refused to acknowledge his (Anglican) rule over (Catholic) Ireland, but eventually it sank in. One example of this struggle can be seen at the the Ross Errily Friary (below). It was a highly contested property from Henry VIII’s invasion until it was finally abandoned after the Franciscans were forced into hiding by the Popery Act of 1698, which placed a bounty on Catholic clergy. From then, the monks lived in hiding, pretending to be a textile factory for a while, and taking up residence on a now vanished nearby island. The last of the friars died in the early 1800s.
They SAY it was the Kingdom of Ireland until 1800 (remember this year, it will be important later), but there was the little matter of Oliver Cromwell, and his Irish invasion. Cromwell was an ambitious and possibly crazy dude who led a very early anti-royal rebellion in the 1600’s, got King Charles I beheaded and lead England as a Commonwealth (no king = no kingdom). He also invaded the fuck out of Ireland.
To be honest, before this, I really only knew about Cromwell from the Monty Python skit/song, and now that I’ve learned more about him, it’s almost too hilarious not to share. I went looking for the skit, but all I could find was the song (with lyrics). I definitely remember watching it as a younger person, and it’s probably somewhere on the internet still, but not on the Monty Python YouTube channel. Regardless, it’s still Monty Python and funnier than any other version of history. Have a listen:
Cromwell finally got Charles I executed in 1649, whereupon Ireland and Scotland were like, “okay, Charles II is king now!”, so of course he had to invade and do terrible war to spread his anti-royalist sentiment for all of… 4 years. It really was horrible and mostly because of how much he hated Catholics, and only slightly because of how much he hated royalists. Anyway, Cromwell kicked the bucket in 1658, and I don’t usually go in for exact dates, but in this case it’s important cause this dude only ruled (um, commonwealthed?) England for 9 years… slightly more than 2 American election cycles… and he is STILL remembered for the atrocious mess he made. I got to see some of his leftover forts while I was there. This one is on the small western island of Inish Bofin in Galway county… yes that is on the opposite side of the country that’s close to England. Cromwell was a dick.
People hated him SO MUCH that 3 years after his death by natural causes, they dug his body up so they could have a public execution posthumously. WHAT? True.
Aside from Cromwell’s pogrom of oppression, there were multiple violent occurrences (aka wars) during this time because of the systemic oppression of the Catholics under Protestant rule including: the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53), the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–91), the Armagh disturbances (1780s–90s) and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Feel free to read more about them at your leisure. I’m not going to.
Remember that year I told you to remember? What’s so special about 1800? Interesting you should ask. The Irish Parliament actually voted to erase Ireland! It was ratified by the British Parliament and they officially became ONE dysfunctional country. Why did the Irish agree to such an obviously dick move? Weeeeell, it seems the British might have lied slightly about the quid pro quo. Most Irish who supported unification thought that the horrible, yet very legal, discrimination going on would finally stop.
For those of you who think that I mean like, oh people just didn’t like them, no. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t inherit wealth. They couldn’t GO TO SCHOOL. They couldn’t gather for worship and prayer. The clergy had bounties on their heads and lived as fugitives in the woods. Catholics were cut out of government entirely with no possibility to ever get a member in Parliament. They were also outright forbidden from certain jobs.
This oppression started with Henry and continued until 1829… that’s like… almost 300 years. The Irish Catholics are bitter for a reason. Even after 1829, there was still a lot of the more “everyday” sort of discrimination like people not wanting to rent to them, or hire them, or let them in the pub or whathaveyou, and there was no such thing as the ACLU.
Also, I swear to all things I hold dear, if ONE person tries to use this as some reason why the Irish/white ppl are “as bad off” as the African Americans/former slaves — I will scream. It is NOT the same. Please don’t even.
The Potato Famine
Everyone with even a drop of Irish blood probably knows about this at least a little. This 4 year period from 1845-49 was one of the greatest losses of life in the 19th century, and it didn’t only affect Ireland. Everyone that relied on potatoes as a food staple was affected. This whole mess was generally blamed on the oppressive British rule that left the Irish farmers super poor and reliant on a single crop for food. Almost all the other food around was taken by the landlords or exported (also by the landlords, so the people got no money from it).
It’s a long and complicated socio-economic mess, and again, I’m not going to try to explain it all here. Suffice it to say that if you have Irish ancestors, it’s likely they left Ireland as a result of this famine. More than 2 million Irish left following the famine, many going to America. The diaspora is still felt in modern day Ireland. Ireland is the only country to have fewer residents TODAY than they did in 1840. All other countries experienced a massive population boom as a result of the industrial revolution and improved travel/economic factors. Ireland had a bit over 8 million people before the famine hit, and only slightly more than 6 million today. There are literally more sheep than people in Ireland today. Those sheep pictured above are special Connemara sheep. You can tell because they have curly horns. Apparently they taste better, too.
Easter Rising, The IRA, & Irish Independence
Back up a minute…. Ireland and England never stopped struggling over class, religion, and land. In 1916 there was the Easter Rising, which was a mostly political move (yeah, there was definitely fighting and dying, but there was also some election stuff) to establish some degree of Irish independence. While I was visiting Trinity College in Dublin, I got to see one of the original declarations of independence that was put up on the post office during the Easter Rising as well as a number of random bullet holes on buildings and statues around town that were left as reminders of the event.
The upshot of this was that in the 1918 elections, the political party known as Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats in parliament, but then REFUSED to sit with the British. Instead, in January 1919 they formed the ‘Teachta Dála’ and declared the Independent Irish Republic, of which the IRA (Irish Republican Army aka Army of the Irish Republic) became the guerrilla military.
These guys fought the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921, and eventually won “dominion” status for Ireland… well southern Ireland… Northern Ireland opted to stay part of the UK at that time. What is “dominion” you ask? Me too! Apparently it’s the baby step between being part of an empire and being totally independent. Canada did it, and I guess maybe Austria too? It wasn’t until 1937 that (southern) Ireland created it’s very own shiny constitution and became a real boy, er, country.
The IRA had it’s first of many splits over that dominion treaty, since some of them thought it wasn’t good enough and it was still just British rule with a nose job. So, the OLD IRA who accepted the dominion treaty went on to become the National Army, while those who opposed the treaty remained the Republican Army, and they rejected both the new Republic of Ireland (south) and the still-part-of-Great-Britain Northern Ireland.
I know, I always think of the IRA as being part of North Ireland, too. I’ll get there. For now, this iteration of the IRA hated everyone for being too British and kicked off the Irish Civil War. Even after they lost the war, IRA 2.0 continued to cause trouble, a little bit like some other civil war losers I know.
The Troubles are a very sensitive topic. I am going to make jokes, but not because I don’t take it seriously. Rather, I need some humor to keep from screaming at the sheer bloody-mindedness of the human race.
Aaaaanyway. There was a (probably) non-violent protest about Catholic rights in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was at the time mostly protestant and still part of the UK, and while the big huge discrimination laws had ended… the actual discrimination had not. Go figure. The British police responded with violence and the whole thing got way outta hand, and the IRA was like, “fight the man” — with bombs.
In 1969, the IRA split again, giving us the “Official” IRA (OIRA or as I will call them, IRA 3.0) and the “Provisional” IRA (PIRA aka IRA 3.5). I *think* the OIRA were Marxists who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and also participated in politics as the Workers Party. And. I *think* the PIRA were not-Marxist but still left leaning folks who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and practiced a kind of politics known as abstensionism, whereby one runs for and wins seats in a legislature, but then doesn’t participate, rendering said seats… obstructive, and I guess maybe also preventing things like quorums or majorities. Honestly, I’m kind of freaked out by that tactic and I think it might be what the Republicans are doing in America right now.
While I was in Northern Ireland, I took the opportunity to pass through Derry and see the Bloody Sunday bog murals (one of which is pictured below), which was certainly a large part of what piqued my interest in learning all this history. Bloody Sunday, also captured in a U2 song, was a brutal example of police violence in 1972 when 13 unarmed men were killed by police in a civil rights protest.
Now, maybe they were “not angels” in the sense they may have belonged to one or more violent groups, but at the time they were killed by police, they were unarmed and not committing any violent acts. They were killed without an arrest or a trial. By the police.
I swear to all my gods, if you wanna compare this shit to what is happening re Black Lives Matter in America, please do so only within the context of shitty ass policing and do not try to say shit about the white people being victims too. It is NOT the same.
Then in 1986, yet ANOTHER split created the Continuity IRA (CIRA, or IRA 3.8). I gather their main objection to the PIRA was that around this time the PIRA stopped practicing the rather shady tactic of abstentionism, and the CIRA thought that was not cool. Other than that, the CIRA didn’t really do anything until 1994, when the rest of the IRAs were gearing up for peace.
The Northern Ireland Peace Process
Getting to a part of history I sort of remember! In 1994 there was a real movement to create some kind of peace and to end the decades of violent clashes between the various IRAs and the British forces in Northern Ireland. This went on for a while, and it danced around a lot, which I think is how I ended up with such a wildly confused idea of modern Irish history. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1997 supposedly fixed things, it wasn’t until 2005 that the IRA actually declared they would stop fighting, and not until 2007 that the Troubles were declared officially over.
What’s with Northern Ireland now that they stopped bombing stuff?
The IRA lives on. I saw quite a bit of pro-IRA graffiti (below) while I was looking around the bog murals in Derry. A new splinter group called the “Real” IRA (IRA 2011), came about as a faction who rejected the peace process decided to remain active. They are considered by all governments to be a terrorist organization and have no legitimacy as a political party or national military force (unlike previous incarnations of the IRA which had one or both). Attacks this year (2019) have included Derry, Belfast, London, and Glasgow.
As long as Ireland remains split, there remain unionists (who are for British union) and the nationalists (who are for a single non-British Ireland). Nowadays most nationalists are far from violent, and prefer to imagine they can either persuade the Northerners to vote themselves out of England or (as one of my tour guides told me) that the Catholic minority in the north will overtake the Protestants by virtue of birthrate (Catholics don’t go in for any of that “family planning” after all) and that on that day, they’ll have the pure numbers to push a vote through. The spirit of the IRA and the goal for a single free Ireland lives on, but nowadays it’s (mostly) just talk.
Beware venturing your opinion in earshot of an Irishman though. However much they may feud with one another, like any family, they can take exception to outsiders choosing sides. I recommend a pint of Guinness and a willingness to listen more than talk as the key to smooth international relations.
Don’t let the politics put you off a visit. Northern Ireland is insanely beautiful, that’s why they shot Game of Thrones there, after all. Just look at this stunning coastline! Plus, it really is quite safe, especially outside the major cities. I’ll go into more of my personal experiences there in my futures posts so you can be charmed like I was.
I have published something like 6 posts that are distinctly NOT about Ireland since I got back this past summer. Usually that would be because I was hard at work chronicling my adventures and polishing each post into a sparkly gem, but this time… it’s not. This post is going to be the start of the Ireland Chronicles, however, I’m going to take some time at the beginning to talk about a personal issue, so for those who are just here for the tourism, please feel free to skip down to the second segment.
Why Aren’t You Writing About Ireland Yet?
It’s starting to feel like I can’t go traveling with anyone really important to me. I’ve now had two close relationships disintegrate after a trip, while the travels I take with friends who are less close have been great. I don’t define “relationship” as only romantic or sexual, by the way. I happen to think that any degree of association can be a relationship (work relationship, teacher-student relationship, my favorite barista relationship, etc). In this case I am talking about people with whom I felt a long term and deep emotionally intimate connection.
In reality, those close relationships were never actually healthy, and the constant close exposure of travelling together simply put them under a microscope until it was impossible to deny the core problems. As I learn about healthy relationships and boundaries, I find that it’s easy to spot the red flags in a new person, but almost impossible to drag myself out of denial with a person I’m significantly attached to. When you’re so used to something being a certain way, even if that way is awful, it just seems normal, and the abnormal situation of long international trip can cast it into sharp relief.
In this case, I think I was most of the way out of the fog of denial before we actually embarked, but the plans had been made and the money spent, and I genuinely hoped that a nice, low stress holiday would reduce the big problems that I was still blaming on things like job and life stress. The only thing that could have made that more sarcastically apt is if we’d gone to Egypt instead of Ireland and I could really make some d’Nile jokes. I suppose I’ll have to settle for Blarney jokes instead.
I know in my heart of hearts that a single vacation cannot ruin or fix any relationship, it can only blow the truth up to billboard sized letters. However painful the experience was, I’m glad it happened because I think it’s better in the long run to identify unhealthy relationships so that we can either work to make them healthy or if that’s impossible to walk away. However, it makes it hard to write about a holiday when the memories are either good memories tainted by loss or just plain old bad memories. It’s like that movie, Inside Out, when Sadness touches all the memories and they turn blue and sad forever.
When I wrote about the Philippines I did my best to simply leave out any and all references to the person I was with, treating it like a blank space in the narrative and jumping around the timeline to avoid describing the personal details of arguments and emotional clashes. I think it helped, too. The memories of that relationship are still painful, but now I can look at the experiences I had in the Philippines and remember the joy I took from them, happily recommend the island, and even think positively about going again someday.
I’m going to try to take the same approach with Ireland, yet at the same time, I don’t want to paint this in some kind of idyllic holiday life. Those who read this blog often know that I don’t like fake-positive online life, but I struggle to balance my need to be honest about the challenges I face with my desire to share only the best and most delightful experiences. I’ve been putting off writing about Ireland explicitly because I don’t want to think about the hurtful parts, and yet I think it’s vital to my gratitude practice and to my remembering self that I take the time to tease out the good parts and keep them alive.
So here’s the disclaimer: I’m cutting out all the personal negative experiences, I’ll only be including things that could happen to any traveler or group based on regular travel challenges. It could result in a choppy or unbalanced story, but that’s just how it has to be. My life is far from perfect, but I’m trying my best to be better.
Without any further ado… Irish Road Trip
Renting a Car
I enjoy road trips when I’m getting out of a city. I love public transit and happily take buses and trains on most of my excursions, but I had some lovely experiences driving in the US, and later in Germany, France, New Zealand and Sweden. When I choose to get a car it’s because I want more freedom to go to places that are off the beaten track, way outside the city, or just generally hard to get to. Ireland is no exception.
When I was planning my trip, a friend of mine told me that he and his wife had done an Irish road trip about 20 years ago, before there was any kind of highway system at all. Although there is a large intercity highway system today, most of the things we wanted to see in the countryside were still on the old roads (more on that later).
In case you’re curious about renting a car, we used EuropeCar. I looked at a few local rental places, but it seems that there are a fair number of hidden fees with those places that can add up and be frustrating and expensive. By opting for a larger company, we got a real price quote up front and the process of picking up the car was much smoother. I was initially irritated that they were trying to up-sell us the “full coverage” insurance (quite expensive) at the pick up. I was extremely tired from running around Paris all day and a delayed flight into Dublin, so all I wanted was to get to our hotel. When we were standing there it felt like a scam sell, and I was very dubious.
The regular minimum insurance covers any scratches or dings that are less than a 2 Euro coin size (it’s a law) so the car companies can’t charge tourists for tiny chips, dings and scratches that occur in the normal course of driving. It also covers a minimum amount of liability in case you damage someone else’s car or property, or have to go to a hospital. There was a high deductible, but to me, it seemed worth it not to pay a few hundred more in insurance. However, since I wasn’t the one paying, we got the full coverage, and after I saw the driving conditions in the countryside, I was very glad that we did. To sum up, if you want to drive anywhere other than the cities and highways, get the extra insurance. If you want to stay in the cities and highways… ride the bus.
Driving in Ireland
The first thing to mention here is that driving in Ireland is done on the left side of the road, and that the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car… completely backwards from the US where I learned to drive. Lucky me, this wasn’t going to be my first time driving left as I’d had a chance to learn in New Zealand some three years previously. Nonetheless, I still spent a good portion of the first few days just reciting “left side, left side, left side” under my breath the whole time.
You also need to know how to use a roundabout, which is a complex system of yielding and merging that is supposed to be safer and more efficient than traffic lights. Basically, anyone already on the roundabout has right of way over anyone trying to join it. Interestingly, some of the busiest roundabouts at major highway interchanges also included traffic lights because otherwise no one would ever get on.
The road signs are pretty good, written in both English and Irish, and the streets often have painted arrows to help you remember your lane, and also let you know which lane to be in if you want to turn or go straight. There were a few times that the signs an Google Maps did not agree and I got a bit tangled up, but it never took more than a few minutes to sort out. Except Coleraine (pronounced call-rain) in Northern Ireland, which is a hellhole of one way roads and inaccessible streets. My Google travel history looks pretty linear everywhere else, but in Coleraine it looks like a Gordian knot. Don’t get sucked in, drive around.
There’s only one more very important note about driving in Ireland which is that outside the cities and arterial highways, the roads are typically only one car wide, but accommodate two way traffic. Even in the villages with two lane roads, there are so many cars parked along the roadside that traffic is reduced to a single lane’s width. In a lot of places, they are also lined closely with thick hedges, deep ditches, or stone walls meaning you have zero shoulder room. Two way traffic includes other normal sized cars, tour buses, farm equipment, and livestock.
On the one hand, it can be a relief driving these roads because there’s no need to worry about left-side or right side. On the other hand, when you meet oncoming traffic, your knuckles immediately whiten on the steering wheel as you try to figure out how not to have a head on collision.
The good news is that the locals are very used to this. There are a fair number of turn outs on the most narrow roads, and often there is *just* enough room for two cars to pass on the single lane if we’re both willing to rub up against the shrubbery. Once I realized that the vast majority of other drivers were polite, careful, and familiar with the process, I did relax a little bit. As intimidating as these roads can be, it’s worth it to drive them because a lot of little hidden gems can only be accessed this way.
Public Transit in Cities
While we were in Dublin, we were actually able to simply walk everywhere we wanted to go by getting a room next to Trinity College. The main tourist district is quite tightly packed and walk-able, but if you want to go a little further or it’s just too rainy, there’s a great system of buses and trams. However, paying for these modes of transit are unnecessarily complicated. Fares change based on where and when you board and exit, so you can easily end up paying the maximum if you don’t know how to navigate the system.
The easiest way around this is to get a LEAP card. There’s a few ways to do this, but the simplest is to walk into nearly any convenience store and buy one. They cost about 5 Euro and are re-loadable. Fares are automatically calculated if you tap in AND tap out, plus you get a fare discount for using the card instead of cash. I wasn’t able to get the reloading app to work for me, but it’s very easy to reload at any number of grocery shops and convenience stores.
There is a tourist LEAP, but I’d shy away from that one because of the limitations. They are technically unlimited travel, but they only apply to city transit (and a few airport options). Generally, visitors to Ireland want to see the countryside or travel to more than one city, and the LEAP doesn’t cover that. The LEAP is good for most major cities (NOT Derry or Belfast as that is a different country), so I think the top-up card is the way to go.
Please note that the LUAS tram system is a bit unique. There is a post at the tram stop OUTSIDE the tram where you need to tap your LEAP card BOTH before you get on and AFTER you get off. If you don’t tap when you leave, you’ll be charged the maximum fare! I was a bit thrown off by the tapping posts being at the stops rather than inside the tram, but it did make boarding more efficient. I used this in Dublin.
I used buses in Galway. With a bus you need to tell the driver what stop you plan to get off BEFORE you tap your LEAP card. The driver will program your fare and then you can hold your card to the reader. It takes much longer than the tram, but the drivers are generally pretty nice about it. Just make sure you use Google Maps or similar to know the name of your stop before you board. Again, failure to do so means a much larger fee.
Traveling Outside the Cities: Public Bus and Tour Bus
If you do want to travel to another city, there are great and affordable inter-city bus options. I used CityLink. You get a slight discount for booking online. The drivers don’t generally require a printed ticket, so you can book online from your phone or hostel no problem. You can also buy tickets at the bus stations in each city.
Finally, another great way to see Ireland without a car is to join tour buses that leave from the major cities and head out to the countryside. I personally did this twice: once from Dublin to the Wicklow mountains, and once from Galway to Kylemore Abbey.
I shopped around using Viator to compare deals and I found that a LOT of agencies overcharge or misrepresent their tours. Read the details carefully. One of my day trips from Galway was to go out to Inishbofin. I did find a “tour” but it was nothing more than the public bus (CityLink) and the public ferry. They wanted to charge three-four times the cost of those tickets and didn’t even offer a guide to help you find the bus/ferry!
If you do choose to join one of these tours, please be aware that not all the buses offer all the amenities. WiFi, charging ports and the like are hit or miss, but the seats are comfy and the drivers are very entertaining. I would recommend bringing lots of snacks or even a pack lunch as the timing doesn’t always allow you to eat when you’re hungry or both eat and sight see. They also have deals with some random tiny towns that they stop in for lunch. There’s usually only one place to eat, so it can get crowded or expensive.
Planning the Route
We had decided on a basic road trip itinerary before arriving. I think it’s important on any time sensitive vacation to schedule a certain amount of things. I like to schedule where I’ll sleep, as well as breakfast and dinner (lunch can be on the fly unless there’s a special reason to schedule it). I like to schedule one or two things in a day and also leave myself room to change, rearrange, add or subtract. The schedule for Ireland was unusually tight because my travel companion had a very long bucket list and while I might go back one day, it’s unlikely they will, so I tried hard to accommodate them. Even with a tight schedule, I don’t like to buy tickets in advance unless they’re likely to sell out so that I have the freedom to change things around as needed.
Our schedule was also based on not doing more than about 4 hours of car time a day. It’s a holiday after all, there’s no point in spending all day driving. As a consequence, there were a couple places we visited just because we needed to stop. No regrets, though, even the small out of the way places were awesome. Our final road map looked like this:
Finally, the end of the trip we spent in Dublin, so we returned the car and used the excellent buses or just walked from our very central hostel next to Trinity College.
After 16 crazy busy days, my travel companion returned home, and I had a much more slow paced week spent between Dublin and Galway where I relied on coach bus tours and public transit to enjoy myself.
EXPANDED 3 WEEK ITINERARY
For those who either want a sneak preview or need some ideas to plan your own Irish holiday. You could use this in all or part: two week drive -day 1-14 one week drive: South = day 2-6+12&13 or North = 11-7 (backwards) + 12&13
one week Dublin/Gallway no-car experience – 12, 13, 15, 16/17 combo, 18, 19, 20/21 combo
arrived very late at Dublin airport, picked up car, stayed in a hotel near the airport
Day 2: Irish National Stud Leap Castle (haunted?)
Sol y Sombra Tapas, Killarney
(ancient stone forts, sheep, waterfalls, chocolate, and prehistoric fossils)
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin & the cliffs of Star Wars
Inis Oir (of the Aran Islands)
Traditional Music House
Lough Key: castle in a lake + treetop walk
Seaweed Baths @ Enniscrone
Derry: Bog Murals, Guild Hall, Peace Bridge
Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Dark Hedges
Day 10: Game of Thrones Day
Belfast TEC: GoT Exhibit
Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)
return car to Dublin Airport
Pub Crawl in Temple Bar This is the day we were supposed to go to Newgrange, but had a “zero damage” accident with a German family in the parking lot and ended up doing police and insurance reports instead, then had to leave to get the car back to Dublin on time.
Viking Splash Tour
Dublin Walking Tour The walking tour was cancelled last minute, but we were so tired that neither of us actually minded and we spent the afternoon resting.
Trinity College Library & the Book of Kells
The Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Natural History, aka “The Dead Zoo”
End of two week version, companion departed from Dublin airport As the person doing the 3 week version, I took this day to rest and do laundry.
From this point, the schedule is FAR more relaxed… and I really needed it after so much fast paced adventuring. I also did the final week on public transit or tour groups.
Day 15: Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough (GrayLine)
Day 16: Bus to Galway Honestly, you could do more, but I was enjoying the slow pace life.
Downtown Galway + unexpected Pride march
Kylemore Abbey (Galway Tour Group)
Day 19: Inishbofin Island (public transit)
More downtown Galway… really good Irish food.
The majority of the August 2019 was spent in the Irelands, but I decided that I wanted to spend a few days in Paris on the way. You can’t really fly direct from the US to Dublin (without forking over a fortune). Connecting flights go through Heathrow or CDG. Any excuse to visit Paris. I know it’s very stereo-typical, but apparently I’m more basic than I want to admit: I love Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Paris is one of my favorite cities on Earth.
Where All Good Food Goes When It Dies Pardon my mangling of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, but this was the thought I had the first time I had a meal in France (not actually Paris yet, since I was on a road trip from Prague and my first stop was in Metz: photo album). I have not had any disappointing food experiences in France at all. I have been trying to figure out how to afford to live and work in France doing nearly anything just so I could have daily access to the food. Since I haven’t yet figured that out, I am having to make do with an annual pilgrimage to see my favorite art and food stops.
I was only able to spend a few days in Paris this time around, so it was mostly a food oriented excursion. I wanted to get a full range of food experiences from fine dining to street food. The first dinner was at a beautiful souffle-centric restaurant called Le Souffle which serves a three course menu of entirely souffles. I was a bit apprehensive that it might be textually monotonous, but they serve each course with some sides like salad or croquette, and the main course was a mild cheese souffle with the beef bourguignon in a side dish so you could pour the meat and sauce into the souffle, breaking up the taste and texture. For dessert, I was torn between chocolate and creme brulee… I love both, but the idea of a creme brulee souffle was too intriguing to pass up. My only regret was an inability to finish everything.
I got to have just “regular” (amazing) French food in a nice neighborhood bistro. I got to have breakfast at my favorite chocolaterie: Angelina’s. This place has arguably the best hot chocolate, and the breakfast pastries were exquisite. I got some “fast food” at Paul’s, and a picnic lunch from the Marche d’Aligre which included this fantastic “blue” cheese. It’s actually a Tomme duBerry a la lavande. It’s a mild, uncooked, pressed cow’s milk cheese that’s colored blue and flavored with lavender and rosemary. With some lemon olives, fresh bread, ripe apricots, and a lemon tart for dessert it was a magical meal in the park.
I could go on and on about the food in Paris. Many people have. I was going to say I have, but it turns out that for some reason I never actually wrote about my first time in Paris, and when I wrote about the second trip, I wasn’t very food focused because of the extreme heat wave going on at the time ruining my appetite. Perhaps the next time I go, I’ll actually dedicate myself to taking good food photos and notes so I can do a proper foodie write up of all my favorite places.
Let’s Go For a Walk
Since I never actually wrote about my trip in 2015, all the main Paris attractions that I did on the first trip never actually made it into the blog: Eiffel Tower, Père Lachaise cemetery, Sacré-Cœur, the Champs-Élysées with Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the beautiful Tuileries Garden.
If you happen to be in Paris when the weather is nice, these are all wonderful places to go. In 2018, I went on a cycling tour and I have almost no photos and less memory about what we saw because it was 37°C and I didn’t bring enough water. The moral here is, don’t force yourself to see the beautiful outdoor attractions if you aren’t going to be able to enjoy them. There’s plenty of museums and indoor / covered activities like street markets. I made it to the March d’Aligre on this last visit which not only had plenty of wonderful fresh food on offer, but also had a rambling rummage sale of old and lost things.
I personally think that places like the Eiffel Tower (photo album), the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe (photo album), and the Place de la Concorde are all things you could go and see one time for a few minutes and check that off the Paris bucket list. They just aren’t that exciting… Although, it was fun to realize that I’ve now seen the matched set of obelisks that reside in Paris and Luxor respectively. The one in Paris was given to France by Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ruler of Ottoman Egypt in exchange for a French mechanical clock in 1832. It’s twin still stands outside the temple of Luxor.
Notre Dame (photo album) is a place that I would have recommended as a one and done, however, since the fire, I’m not sure this stands true any more. I personally will be interested to see how it looks in a few years. Regardless, unless gothic architecture is your jam, it’s not worth more than a couple hours one time. It is totally worth that, because it’s a very beautiful structure, but it can be very crowded and I think it’s a little overhyped since there are a few hundred (thousand?) churches around Europe that are very very similar. But you’re in Paris, so you might as well.
The Père Lachaise (photo album) could easily be several days of wandering through a stunning gothic mausoleum laden park taking endless photos of the natural and the macabre. Plus, lots of famous graves like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. If you’re really into the dead, I think the Catacombs are a great indoor option, although I highly recommend a skip the line ticket because when we went, people were waiting 3+ hours for a tour. Also, while the above ground cemetery is definitely good for repeat meandering visits, I think that the catacombs are a single visit attraction unless you REALLY love bones.
The Sacré-Cœur (photo album) as a church is on my “one and done” list, but as a beautiful part of Paris is on the repeat visit list. The views from the top of the hill are absolutely stunning, and the culture around Sacré-Cœur is fascinating: from the roving “vendors” selling anything and everything on the steps to the famous Place du Tertre where local artist are painting and selling beautiful original works of art direct to the public.
Last but not least, the Tuileries Garden is a large green space between the Louvre and the Musée de l’Orangerie. It’s a beautiful place to have a stroll any time of year. There’s wide open green spaces, chairs placed freely around the fountains, shady tree lined pathways, little bistros and of course a bit of a fun park at one end with a giant ferris wheel. I love to come here when I need a break between sights to enjoy the day and people watch.
Paris Art & Feminism
I wrote a broader piece about my experiences in these two museums (d’Orsay & l’Orangerie) from my visit in 2017. In this essay, I’m going to focus on a temporary exhibition in the l’Orangerie about cubism and the unexpected feminist moment I found there.
In case it was never obvious before, I do consider myself a feminist (no I don’t hate men, no I won’t use the term “equalist”, yes I have lots of reasons. This Bustle article sums them up nicely if you want to read more). I’m constantly frustrated by the way in which all the historical artists, musicians, scientists, writers, politicians, philosophers… everything … of any note or record are almost always men. White men. Old. White. Men.
It’s not because old white men are better at these things. It is because the women who did them were suppressed. They were put down in their own lifetimes. Their work was stolen by men who took the credit. Their work was copied by men who took the credit. They were just written out of history. By the men who write history books.
Women are supposed to cook for the family, but only men can be great chefs? Women have historically been expected to spin, weave and sew yet fashion is a man’s business? Art forms that men can’t steal are just demeaned, like embroidery or textile crafting. It’s nice this is finally starting to break down in the 21st century, but we still don’t have enough of a balance in the way we teach and promote artists in mainstream culture. Adding women artists to the public consciousness doesn’t mean removing male artists, and it’s high time we start.
Many of the artists and composers and even authors on my “love it” list are dudes. I’m not going to stop enjoying their work just because I’m adding female artists to my worldview. I don’t know if I would have identified with any female artist growing up simply because I wasn’t ever exposed to any. I don’t think we have room for a limited number of artists in our lives. I think the more art the better. While we’re at it, maybe start adding non-eurocentric art and POC artists too, like Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) who was an African-American man who escaped to Canada during the Civil War and taught himself to paint.
The museums in Paris, in particular the l’Orangerie, have been trying to have more women artists on display. Last time I was there in 2018 it was Helen Frankenthaler. I wasn’t that into her art because I am not a fan of abstract impressionism, but I was really happy to see her in an installation that included Rothko and Pollock. The museum talked a lot about her life and the challenges she faced being a woman in the highly sexist art scene. She was talented, dedicated and prolific yet she’s not discussed when most people talk about this period of art history.
This time, the featured woman artist was much more personally to my liking and I became much more invested in her art and identity. I am only human, and tend to spend more time and energy on the things that personally interest / impact me. If you’ve never seen her work before, then it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to the art of Marie Laurencin.
“Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) initially studied porcelain painting, before going on to study drawing at a school in Paris and at the Academie Humbert. She was part of the circle of friends at the Bateau-Lavoir known as the “Picasso gang”, and it was here that she met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire with whom she had a passionate and stormy affair.
Attracted to Fauvism for a time, Marie Laurencin, the “Cubist Muse”, simplified and idealized her forms under their influence. From 1910, she preferred a palette of pastel tones, particularly grays and pinks. She went on to discover the painting of Goya in Spain.
In 1920, she began to paint the willowy, ethereal female figures that she would return to later in paintings with pastel tones, evoking a magical world. She painted portraits of famous Parisian figures, and designed stage sets, for the Ballet Russes in particular. Through this, she became interested in metamorphosis, bringing together two of her favorite themes: young women and animals.”
— Informative sign at l’Orangerie
It’s not that Laurencin or Frankenthaler have been erased. They have (short) Wikipedia pages and it’s not hard to find their paintings online. Before the internet, however, they were virtually invisible to anyone who was not an art history student. Artists like Pollok and Picasso have had hundreds of books, movies, and t-shirts made about their lives and art. They’re referenced frequently in pop culture and have been made to stand as the premier examples of their art eras.
Picasso was a womanizer, an abuser, a narcissist and highly misogynistic. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s well documented. Yet we treat him and his work as sacrosanct as though it is the ONLY example of cubism in all of history. I’m not suggesting we bury the male artists just because they’re jerks, however I think it’s time we start taking a look around and who else might be worthy of historical preservation and artistic praise. Honestly looking around the museum that day, there was plenty of Picasso on display. It isn’t that impressive.. OK cubism did all this great stuff for “art” and the advancement of creativity, but he wasn’t the only one. I found his works that day to be coarse and overly focused on women as sexual objects. I’ve had a chance to go back through a photo collection of his body of work and I think that whoever curated that particular display may have been selecting for contrast, and I acknowledge that wasn’t a universal trait. However, that day, it was jumping out at me that he was painting women as breasts with a body and maybe a face attached.
Even though Picasso insisted on referring to her as a Cubist Muse or “Our Lady of Cubism” Laurencin didn’t think of her art as cubist, but rather more impressionist. She’s still classed as a cubist artist to this day because art historians would rather listen to how the men defined her rather than how she defined herself.
Despite all this feminism, Laurencin didn’t paint women for empowerment. She also thought they were beautiful. “Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier,” she once said.
To me it seemed that she focused on their beauty rather than their ability to please a male gaze/touch. Her paintings reached out and grabbed me despite their pastel colors and watery images. The idea that a women could paint women because they are pretty the way flowers or rainbows are pretty rather than because they stir the passions of men. There have been a few queer male artists in the well documented side of history that painted beautiful women in an absence of sexual desire, but mostly you get people like Raphael who literally made up non-existent sex goddesses to paint out of the most attractive parts of the hundreds of ladies he seduced. Really early photo-shopping of models, I guess?
It isn’t to say that Laurencin didn’t sexualize women at all. Apparently she was known for attending sapphic parties “comprised of lesbian and bisexual women socialized and discussed links between female desire and creative production”. If anything she was likely bi- or asexual since her long term relationship with Guillaume Apollinaire is well documented. However, if she did sexualize women in her paintings, it serves to highlight the extreme difference in what a male and female sexual gaze focuses on.
Regardless of Laurencin’s sexual orientation, the sapphic parties weren’t lesbian orgies. The hostess and participants of those parties were early first wave feminists seeking to own their desire and creative power at a time that most women were expected to stay home and raise a family. For context, the suffragette movement in France was happening at the same time (1909-1945).
It doesn’t surprise me to learn in retrospect that she was a feminist and (probably) queer. I didn’t really know any of this while I was standing agape in the museum wondering how it was that Picasso had been shoved down my throat my whole life while I had never once seen these ethereal and graceful monuments of feminine self-celebration. All I knew was that they were beautiful and yet strong. They were made by a woman for women (Coco Channel, above, was one of her more famous clients) and that they showed beauty within a wholly feminine framework.
For a longer and more comprehensive story of her life, I recommend this website: