Northern Ireland: Game of Thrones

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.
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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.*

Dark Hedges

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dunluce (again)

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.

Castle Ward

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Inch Abbey

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Island: Natural Beauty

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.


In Between

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Bushfoot Beach

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.

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Dunluce Castle

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.

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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.

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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!

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Giants Causeway

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

20190808_185238However, 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).

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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.

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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.

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Northern Ireland: Cultural Legacy

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. 


Belleek Pottery

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Derry

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.

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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.

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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.

Bogside Murals

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.

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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.)

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

What is Up with 2 Irelands Anyway?

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.

20190803_095046.jpgI’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.

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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.

The Lordship

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.

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The Kingdom

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.

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Cromwell

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.

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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.

Unification

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).

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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.

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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

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.

Bloody Sunday

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.

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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.

Sigh.

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.

And yet…

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.

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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.

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Finally Writing About Ireland

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Long story short, if you can use the public transit to get someplace, do it. If there is no public transit, then make sure you pick a reputable tour company with plenty of positive reviews for the tour you are interested in. You can find the links for the tours I went on here:  Kylemore Abbey with Galway Tour CompanyWicklow Mountains with Gray Line Dublin.

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.

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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:

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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

Day 1:
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

Day 3:
Kerry Ring
(ancient stone forts, sheep, waterfalls, chocolate, and prehistoric fossils)

Day 4:
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin & the cliffs of Star Wars

Day 5:
Inis Oir (of the Aran Islands)
Doolin Cave
Traditional Music House

Day 6:
Lough Key: castle in a lake + treetop walk
Seaweed Baths @ Enniscrone

Day 7:
Belleek Pottery
Derry: Bog Murals, Guild Hall, Peace Bridge
Downhill Demesne

Day 8:
Giant’s Causeway
Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
Dunluce Castle

Day 9:
Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Dark Hedges
Glenarm Gardens
Glenariff Waterfall

Day 10: Game of Thrones Day
Belfast TEC: GoT Exhibit
Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)
Inch Abbey

Day 11:
Newgrange
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.

Day 12:
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.

Day 13:
Trinity College Library & the Book of Kells
The Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Natural History, aka “The Dead Zoo”

Day 14:
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.

Day 17:
Downtown Galway + unexpected Pride march

Day 18:
Kylemore Abbey (Galway Tour Group)

Day 19:
Inishbofin Island (public transit)

Day 20:
More downtown Galway… really good Irish food.

Day 21:
Bus back to Dublin airport and fly home.