While planning a recent trip to Ireland, it was easy to find photos, maps, and long lists of things of interest to do, but often information on the cuisine was lacking. I had a few ideas of what to expect, but was especially unsure of what types of desserts (and lets admit THAT is the most important part) would be available. Once the trip began I came to expect the unexpected as I sampled (consumed completely with greed and delight) desserts all along the circumference of Ireland. I even managed to
maintain my exact weight due to all the amazing walking available. Join me on an oh so pleasurable sweet list of my favorite Irish treats, and block out any guilt by planning a stroll along to walk it off, Tips for this are located at the end of each recommended dessert. (Besides, everyone knows vacation desserts are calorie-free).

Dublin: Queen of Tarts for lemon meringue tarts piled high with meringue and even a little whipped cream on the side to really gild the lilly in the best way. There are two locations open seven days a week at Cows Lane and Dame Street. www.queenoftarts.ie Walk it off by hoofing it over to the Guinness Storehouse, and really feel the burn by taking the stairs up seven stories to the Gravity Bar (where you will then add a few calories back with a free pint of Guinness, but there is always the walk back).
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Kinsale: Max’ s Seafood Restaurant for a baked rhubarb tart with meringue and a mini creme brulee garnish. The sticky toffee
pudding is nothing to sneeze at either! Located at 48 Main St. www.maxs.ie . Walk it off up and down the hill of this medieval town or out to Charles Fort built in the 17th century.
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Dingle: Murphy’ s Ice Cream in the town of Dingle on the Dingle Peninsula is all about tasty, but sometimes unusual flavors made from the milk of Kerry cows. Pick your own favorite or go with the recommended flavor combinations. Peanut butter with brown bread is a killer combo. The hot chocolate list is such a dream it will make you cry (in a good way). I may have gone back a second time for strawberry and dark chocolate Valrhona ice cream combo with a Valrhona white hot chocolate on the side to
wash it all down nice and proper. Located on Strand Street (also a Dublin location)
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The Chart House, voted best restaurant in Co. Kerry in 2008 and 2010, does not disappoint on any level, but especially wooed me with a rhubarb tart topped with rosemary ice cream. www.thecharthousedingle.com Walk it off in a breathtaking way by hiking out to the lighthouse for spectacular views, and if you are lucky like I was, you might just see a dolphin jumping about. (I can’ t swear it was Fungi the Dingle Dolphin, but it was a dolphin for sure).
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Portrush: This Northern Ireland resort town inaugurated my obsession with banoffee pie which is a luscious concoction of graham cracker crust, bananas, caramel, whipped cream and a dusting of pure cocoa powder. Try your fork at two different
locations and see which version you prefer at either 55 North www.55-north.com, or Ramore Wine Bar, where the banoffee pie slice is the size of an iceberg, www.ramorerestaurant.com . Walk it off with an evening stroll along the beach or catch a ride over to The Giant’ s Causeway, or Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
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Belfast: Co Couture was an unexpected treat in Belfast. I especially enjoyed the chocolate brownies there. For an extra wow, they even have high heeled shoes made out of chocolate, located at 7 Chichester Street www.cocouture.co.uk . Walk it
off by strolling over to the St. George’ s Market open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but be warned, with so many goodies available you probably will be adding, not subtracting calories.

It begins, as all good Irish stories, in a pub. Sitting, Guinness in grip, with old friend Karen Coleman, a radio and television host in Dublin, she effluxes: “You’ve got to go to the west of Ireland. It’s good craic??” So, a spell later a road trip ensues, with traveling pal (and erstwhile Everest summiter) Didrik Johnck. We recruit Ciarán Ganter, 16-year-veteran local guide, as escort, and in rented silver Mercedes Viano set out to craic the code.

It’s a bit of a haul from Los Angeles to Shannon, so arriving in the pearly light of early morning Didrik and I are a tad rattled and in need of a pick-me-up: something to sooth the nerves, yet keep us awake. So, Ciarán wheels us over to the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, where the original Irish Coffee was invented. Foynes, it turns out, was once the center of the universe, the original server farm for the world wide web, as from 1935 to 1945 it was the terminal for the first long-haul planes, the flying boats. “It was a mini-Casablanca,” pipes director Margaret O’Shaughnessy, whose grandfather was the communications manager for Foynes, meaning that, like Paul Revere, when a plane skid in he rode around town on his horse alerting folks to come and offer up food, drink and services. This was the hub, the vital link, as planes radiated from here to Newfoundland, New York, Africa, Brazil, Bermuda and the good of the Continent. But the flights didn’t always go as planned. In the winter of 1943 a Pan Am Clipper was nearing the half-way point to North America as a storm over the North Atlantic tossed the plane around like a cork in heavy seas. The pilot decided to turn around, and arrived back at Foynes in a wee hour of the night, with passengers cold, damp and unnerved. Joseph Sheridan, the local chef, was asked to concoct something for their condition, and splashed some Powers Irish whiskey into cups of coffee, dolloped on some heavy cream, and served ‘em up. “What is this? Brazilian coffee?” a delighted passenger asked. Joe thought for a moment, then, “Nope…Irish Coffee”….and a wicked neologism was born.

Grainne Walsh, the museum accountant, is our barista, and she shows the technique, and offers up that Irish Coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat. Ever seeking good health, we each order two more glasses. Buzzed yet groggy we make our way to our motel, a little Renaissance roadside attraction called the Dromoland Castle, ancestral home of the O’Briens, Barons of Inchiquin. My word. Even in the dungeon, where I bore down to find my room, the accommodations are bloody royal, though the wallpaper you would not wish for your home, or Oscar Wilde’s, whose last words reportedly were “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.” And there’s no cell service. I overhear an American guest in the lobby, “Why did they build the castle where there aren’t any cell towers?”
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Motel Dromoland

But sleep is not yet a companion, so we make a visit to tweedy flat-capped fellow Dave Atkinson, the on-grounds falconer. Dave has his head in the clouds, literally. He’s taller than Big Bird, and as such is an ideal beacon for raptors, a name derived, he informs, from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force.

Dave is a kind of raptor wrangler, and as such takes us on a hawk walk, across a swath of the 410 acres of castle grounds, introducing Limerick, a female peregrine whom he plucked from a seaside cliff overlooking County Limerick at 4 weeks old and has nurtured into adult hood. And of hoods, Limerick wears a tidy leather one over his head, “where the term hoodwinked comes from,” so says Dave, as he lifts the cover and off to the treetops wheels the bird. Then when Dave swings a rope with a dead mouse attached in a wide circle, Limerick comes swooping, winged lightening, precision predation. “Eyesight is six times better than ours. The fastest living thing in the world, 240 miles an hour,” Dave crows as I evoke a more considered avifauna, and duck.

Which brings us to dinner, a recherché affair with a menu of fish, fowl and hearty viands, from pot-roasted guinea fowl to grilled paillard of swordfish to duck confit in the Earl of Thomond restaurant. I indulge in the loin of glazed suckling pig, and afterwards make my way through the labyrinthine hallways lined with mullioned windows and portraits of the O’Brien clan, down the dank stairs, and fall, bloated yet unshackled, into bed.

What is Ireland but an ever greenway? We take to the links this first morning, wearing two pair of socks, not just because it is nippy, but in case we get a hole in one. We steer into the Lahinch Golf Club, the “St. Andrews of Ireland,” as much for its beastly weather as its dunes, which wave to a sea supple with surfers. The weather is actually quite agreeable, though with some blust, sending balls to the far end of the links, where graze a couple of oblivious goats. Back at the clubhouse we find why the blessed skies, as a sign in the locker room instructs: “See the goats for the weather. If goats near the clubhouse, bad weather. If at the dunes, good weather.” We ruminate on that for a moment and then pile in the van and continue up the road.
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Swinger at the Lahinch Golf Club, photo by Didrik Johnck

It’s a lonely and treacherously beautiful road roving under a big sky, lined with flagstone fences, showered in chiaroscuro and ethereal northern light. We pass the Submarine Café, across from which John P. Holland invented the submarine; and then we come upon a figurine of Dusty the Dolphin, after Dusty Springfield, as when her ashes were tossed into the sea near here, a female dolphin appeared, and witnesses dubbed the marine mammal with the eponymous tag. And we pass a string of shuttered pubs. “A good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub,” James Joyce quipped. But with the fall from Celtic Tiger to Celtic Kitten in the past years, and with new indoor anti-cigarette laws and stricter laws on drunk driving, folks are staying closer to home. Ciarán refuses to even take a sip of Irish Coffee at lunch for fear the consequences. Pint-sized Ireland just got smaller. “But the craic stays big,” promises Ciarán.

Later, we head downtown to a proper Irish pub, and quite providentially turn into the bright blue doorsill of The Quays, reeking with age, as the interior is the transept of a medieval church, complete with stained glass, Gothic arches, and pews. Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder here, so we belly up and order a pint of Irish mothers’ milk, aka Guinness. The verger-barkeep Simon Powell asks, “Want to see how I pull a perfect pint?”

He first double cleans a dry glass, and then holds it at 45 degrees under the spout. He slowly pulls the handle and allows the beer to flow smoothly down the side of the glass. As the glass fills, he straightens the glass. He then stands the glass on the counter and allows the gas to surge through the beer. To create the fabled head, he pushes the handle backward slightly, topping off the brew as the head rises just proud of the rim. Then he adroitly swirls the glass to etch a shamrock in the foam. For the denouement, he picks up his stout, holds it up to the light where a gleam steals into his eyes, and with an economical nod says, “That’s savage craic!”
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In the footsteps of history

Yet the pièce de résistance of the trip comes that evening, after Karen Coleman, who inspired this quest, calls and says she is in Galway visiting friend Dr. Frank Sullivan, and asks if we would we like to join for a dinner of whelks and home-made Irish stew. We spend a few delicious hours sipping, feasting and recounting the wanderings and encounters of our rove through western Ireland. As the night winds down, Karen lathers the summary question, “So, all in all, how was it?”

What else could ever be returned? “Karen…it’s absolutely impossible to describe. But I’ll try….We had great craic!”

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We were to go to Dublin in February 2006. My eldest son (`BJ’) and his wife, Jo, are rugby football fanatics and wanted to see the international game between Wales and Ireland. We have not had many times together, so I pushed the cost bit (Dublin is expensive) to the back of my mind and looked forward to a family get-together. I was accompanied by my wife, Diane, and my youngest son, Iain.

What happened? The day before we were due to travel, Jo discovered her passport was out of date! So BJ and Jo didn’t go, and the reason for our very expensive short break suddenly evaporated. Everything was already paid for, so there was no point in cancelling – I was also using the visit to write a few travel articles! We used a budget airline, Ryanair, and those who book-in early can have `priority’ stamped on their boarding cards, and get on first. We reached Dublin in less than an hour and I went to find the car rental desk. Got the car and we were away. Well, almost.
First, I had to find a way to get out of the car parking area…I drove around many times looking for the way out. There was just a single barrier, but the arm was down and there was no slot in the machine to put my car ticket into. Eh? Eventually, an airport worker saw me going round in circles and said “The barrier is automatic – just drive up to it and it will open.” So I did and we were out at last.

The drive into Dublin was easy, almost one straight road, but it was during that drive I discovered a big negative about Dublin – traffic! It was fast and continuous. Dublin has pedestrian crossings, but I’ve never seen such slow changes. Waiting to cross roads must have taken two days off our visit time. We got to the correct road, Parkgate Street, and looked for the Ashling Hotel. According to the map, Parkgate Street was literally less than a quarter of a mile long, but could we find the hotel? Nope! I drove up and drove down, then repeated it, time and again. We did that for over an hour. So, I drove back to the start point and sat looking at map, hotel directions sheet, and buildings. Okay, then, I’ll drive down the main street (Parkgate) toward the centre of the city.

As we drove Diane said “There it is!” and I quickly turned left as other vehicles screeched around me. Left again and we were in front of the hotel – not in Parkgate Street, but in Benburb Street! Was this one of those famed Irish moments? The hotel gave the name of the main road closest to its location…hm. A little further down was another Irish moment – a sign on a gate that said “If you enter, you will be on premises.” Okay.
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After signing-in we went for a quick walk. In true explorer style I said “I think the centre is this way”. After all, the hotel literature tells us the centre is “only a 15 minute walk away”. An hour later, and we were still on the edge of town, and the weather was clear but very cold. I was looking for the famed Temple Bar and, without doubt, the map shows it as a single street fronting the River Liffey, which runs through Dublin, giving it a north and south side. Could I find it? Nope.
Next day I discovered the map had its own Irish moment, because Temple Bar was behind the riverside and was a small area, rather than a single street! Oh well. Anyway, we were hungry and we crossed back over the river and found the small Jervis Shopping Centre. In we went, cold. We walked around for a few minutes (it really is small) and found a fast-food floor on top. That will do! I ordered croissants and coffee. The person serving was Eastern European and I didn’t quite understand his English. We came to a sort-of understanding as to what he was actually saying and I handed over some Euros to pay. He asked for another fifty cents, and I handed him a fifty coin. “No good” he said. I had given him a UK fifty pence coin that had found its way into the Euros. He huffed, and I just ignored him, giving him a large denomination Euro note instead. Dublin is an odd place in many ways. I expected it to be closer to British than foreign, but it was unlike other places I had been to. Can’t really explain why. And, almost every other accent I heard was east European, Russian!
We had an evening meal later in the bar of the hotel – the restaurant was expensive. Average food costs in Dublin run from about 6 Euros (sandwiches) to beyond 30 Euros. That’s about $7 or £4, to $35 and £20. Most places, however, charged very much more. There are hundreds of eateries, mainly crammed into in and around the main tourist areas of Temple Bar, Grafton Street and O’Connell Street (north of the river). You can certainly get into the well-known eateries like Bewleys, so long as you are willing to wait for ages. Bewleys is very interesting – a take-away on the left, a sea-food section on the right (with dishes from 25 Euros) and an `ordinary’ section at the back with less expensive meals. The same wait was experienced everywhere so we tended to go for very small, reasonably-priced cafes just off the main streets.

Second day I thought we would drive through Dublin to the docks, to find a particular restaurant, ready for the evening. I reversed the car out of the parking space in the hotel and prepared to turn down the ramp to get out…and…scrape, scrape! Yes, I had driven over an absurdly placed low kerb sticking out from the corner, gouging the skirt of the car. Great! That’s an extra cost to the holiday. We started to drive through the city and found the docks, but nothing else. The drive was frenzied and anxious, such was the traffic. Forget this! No restaurant and no place to stop…back to the hotel and park (carefully). The whole journey took about an hour, over a distance of no more than about 4 miles. If you visit Dublin, don’t attempt to drive in the city! In Ireland they drive on the same side as us in the UK, on the left – but even I found it hair-raising. A cheap modern tram system runs all around the centre, so try using it. It is safer and more convenient and you can get on and off anywhere along the route.
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Park the car and out again. This time we stuck to the riverside road and finally reached Halfpenny Bridge. At one time you had to pay a toll of half a penny, hence its name. Across the road and through the archway and we finally found Temple Bar. It’s only a small area, and the best features are the very colourfully painted pubs.
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From there we went to Grafton Street, an older shopping street, and then into a larger grander shopping mall (it would fit into a corner of an American one), with ornate ironwork. It took up the corner of Nassau Street and Grafton Street. Outside was an Irish drum player, sitting on the plinth of a bronze statue of Molly Malone.

We came out of the mall and tried to make our way back toward Temple Bar. Oh, I forgot to say – we were in the middle of a full-scale riot. Republicans rampaged from O’Connell Street, north of the river, up the hill through Temple Bar and into Nassau Street. We turned up Nassau Street to be stopped by a wall of riot Gardi (police). It was absolutely freezing.
Next day, Sunday, I relented and took the car out of storage – we would drive north of the city, up the coast and then west. We went through small towns with nothing of real tourist interest, and found ourselves in the port town of Drogheda. It was very cold and nothing seemed to grab us enough to get us out of the car, so we drove on into the countryside. My impression of that part of Ireland is distinctly indistinct. The countryside was uneventful for miles and miles. So we turned back again to head back for Dublin and only on the outskirts did we find two small towns of interest – but it was now late in the day, so we went to the hotel.
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Monday. Iain and I go to find the Guinness Storehouse, a five-storey museum. As we walk we realise the enormous size of the brewery site. It is massive. The museum is big and noisy, but in a nice way. It costs 14 Euros entrance for adults. What makes it worth a visit is the social and economic history it contains. On the very top of the building is a round glass fronted room with a bar. There you get a free pint of Guinness (or soft drink) and a view of Dublin which, it must be said, is not spectacular. You can also see the same view from Chief O’Neil’s Chimney Tower on the other side of the river (costs 4 Euro).
Back again to the hotel – Diane didn’t want to visit the brewery – and we got in covered by snow. On the way back out again, the sky was clear. We all went back to Temple Bar, this time for an unhurried and non-riotous visit. Tuesday, we looked for the `Viking Experience’, advertised on leaflets and in guides. But guess what? We searched and searched, and couldn’t find it anywhere. We went back to the Tourist Information Centre, and yes, the leaflet definitely called it the `Viking experience’. We found the street it was supposedly on and, you’ve guessed it – another Irish moment! Oh, okay, I said, we’ll go to the museum called `Dublinia’ instead; we could see it the other side of the cathedral. Over we went and…the `Viking Experience’ is not a separate attraction on a separate site – it is inside the Dublinia museum! And on a totally different street!
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It cost us 6 Euro to get in and I was disappointed. What we saw did not live up to its leaflet description. I expected a mock-up Viking village, but what we got was a standard museum presentation mainly on posters. Overall, I do not rate it, but its use is in the information about early Dublin. T hat last evening we threw caution to the wind and ate in the hotel restaurant. Cost us about 30 Euro each. We left for the airport in plenty of time. As I parked the car and the rental guy looked it over, I was expecting a big bill for the damage to the skirt, and to pay for fuel…but he said nothing and we were away! We again had `priority’ boarding cards, the flight was shorter, and we got through baggage reclamation quickly, so all was well.
My total impression of Dublin? I had always wanted to go there, but the actuality was not as good as the hype. It is more busy than `lively’. The traffic was horrendous, and there is very little to see apart from in the very centre – O’Connell Street, Temple Bar and Grafton Street. Loved the colourful pubs, though. I think the way to approach Dublin, especially if you are travelling a long way to get there, is to try and discover the history, from Viking times onward. It was a bleak and dreary place until recently. Maybe sun would enhance a visit – but you would struggle to find much by way of tourist spots in the city itself.

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It had been over 14 years since I was last in Ireland, and the changes, particularly in the cities, were amazing. Now, you need to travel to the more remote areas of Donegal or Connemara to see the quaintness of the village life that once was found in most of Ireland. But the populace is still much taken with the ancient myth, legend, and folklore, which sustained the spirit of the land through the lean and hard years. It is a culture based more on the mythical than historical tradition, which may be behind its transcendent nature and appeal to the imaginative traveler. Our circular tour from Dublin, Ireland, northwest to Donegal, down the coast to Galway, and eastward back to Dublin, was magical. Around every bend scenes captured our imagination and senses, prompted by reading Irish folklore and myth, as well as poetry of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney prior to our trip.

Tara-IrelandDriving on the N3, our first destination Tara and Bective Abbeyin County Meath, a place steeped in ancient legend and folklore. The advantages of Ireland’s inclusion in the EU can readily be seen in the new, four-lane highways. This new prosperity has gained the country the title of the “Celtic Tiger.” Views over the plains of Meath, and the mounds along with the Stone Age passage grave dating back to 2,500 BC made us realize this was an ancient, sacred place. Much of the Hill of Tara’s mystique is its association with the mythical goddess Maeve and the image of Druid rites taking place on this spot. This was also a place purported to be where the high king of 1st and 2nd Century Celtic chieftains held the royal court. It was also here that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Christian Trinity; hence, the shamrock became the Irish national symbol. The kings of Leinster used Tara as a center of operation through the 11th century. A 15th Century church next to the Hill of Tara has the Visitors’ Center and an excellent audiovisual presentation. The name “Tara” in “Gone with the Wind” was taken from this ancient place. We found this a great place to begin our immersion into the myth, legend, and folklore of Celtic past.
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ICountrly Mansionn Northern Ireland we reached Enniskillen, between two large lakes, the Upper and Lower Lough Erne, formed on the River Erne. This is where the writers Oscar Wilde and Samuel Becket were schooled. The Enniskillen Castle houses the Fermanagh History and Heritage Centre and the Regimental Museum of the Royal Enniskilling Fusiliers and is worth a visit to gain an overall historical orientation of the area. Just out of Enniskillen we found the mansion Castle Coole. This 18th Century neo-classical estate was designed by James Watt and is one of the purest forms of neo-classical architecture in Ireland.
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We traveled along the A46 which took us beside the Lower Lough Erne with many quaint villages and scenic vistas. If you have the time there is a waterbus that cruises the lough for about 2 hours, departing from the Round `O’ Quay at Brook Park just out of Enniskillen. Devenish Island in Lough Erne is the site of a 6th century monastery founded by St. Molaise and sacked by Vikings in 837AD. Further along A46 a signpost directs the traveler to Tully Castle, built in 1613 for a Scottish planter’s family. From here it is only 16 km to the border of Northern Ireland and the small town of Belleek, famous for its fine porcelain factory, which you can tour.
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Entering again the Republic of Ireland in the far northwest and most remote region, we proceeded to Ballyshannon on the coast and turned north on the N15 to Donegal. The region is marked with thatched roofed cottages, rolling green hillsides dotted with sheep, and spectacular cliffs jutting up from the sea. The town of Donegal is built on the River Eske with the 15th century Donegal Castle set at a bend in the river in the center of town. Donegal is famous for its woolen Donegal tweeds. All along the roads are shops selling and displaying every kind of woolen wear from sweaters and hats to bolts of fabric and bundles of yarn. But most impressive to the region is a drive along the cliffs bordering the sea on the road to the fishing village of Killybegs and beyond. At the village of Carrick we found the Slieve League. These are cliffs which drop 300 meters straight to the sea. The face of the cliffs can be seen from a boat to change colors, as if by magic. This is a wonderful place for a picnic with extra time just to absorb the ambience.
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Far west at Glencolumbcille, we stopped for tea at the Heritage Center, where we found thatched roofed cottages built and furnished in the way that inhabitants of the region would have lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The smell of peat burning in the fireplaces gives a cozy, inviting feeling to the cottages, which offer the visitor shelter from the wind coming in from the sea.

The feeling of remoteness struck us as we moved through this valley that ends at the river and the town of Ardara, not far from an inlet to the sea. Ardara is a center for the weaving industry and the heritage center there demonstrates weaving with handloom weavers at work. The Ardara Weavers Fair the first weekend in June has been held here since the 18th century.

Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats spent his childhood in the Sligo area and drew on the folklore and myth prevalent throughout this region to enliven his poetic imagination. The town straddles the River Garavogue which leads westward to Sligo Harbor and the sea. Rent a boat and row eastward to Lough Gill and the surrounding hillsides that locals claim to abound in elves and fairies. The best-known island here inspired Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. At the eastern end of the lake stands Parke’s Castle. Swans add a feeling of enchantment to the scenic surroundings. One legend associated with Lough Gill is that a silver bell from the abbey nearby was thrown into the lake and only those who are free from sin can hear the bell ringing.
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We stayed at a B&B just outside Sligo near Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. When I asked about the belief of the existence of elves and fairies in the area, our wonderful hostess could not wait to take us out for a drive to point out how to recognize a “fairy fort” in the countryside and show us the dells where elves and fairies were known to dance and play at night. She cautioned us about such things as throwing dish water out the door in the evening for fear that a passing elf or fairy might be drenched by it, become angry, and place a spell on the inhabitants of the dwelling. In the morning while the dew was still on the grass our hostess wanted us to walk out into the nearby fields in search of fairy circles made by dancing fairies in the night.

Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, with over 60 stone circles and passage graves, is one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe. From the adjacent Information Center excellent guides take groups of visitors to various grave sites, or dolmens. Many of the dolmens are still capped by three massive stone slabs with a fourth set on top resembling a large stone stool. We were cast into ancient mythology as we viewed across the misty countryside to the mountains that surround Sligo. The dominant mountain is Knocknarea with the cairn or tomb at its top, the burial place of Queen Maeve. An estimated 40,000 tons of stone were carried to the top of Knocknarea during ancient times to form a pyramid mound, a huge cairn which has never been excavated. We spent the afternoon climbing to the top for a wonderful view. If you climb Knocknarea, you are suppose to carry a rock to place on Maeve’s tomb for good luck, which we certainly did. You can not escape the feeling that you’re in the presence of the ancient celtic spirits.

Another mountain that shadows Sligo is Benbulben, prominent in many of Yeats’ poems. According to his wishes,Yeats is buried in the churchyard of Drumcliff church at the foot of Benbulben . His gravestone reads, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” In Sligo we could sense that both the seen and the unseen imprinted something into our imaginations and memories that will not be erased. This region left its imprint on Yeats, and Yeats, in turn, left his imprint on Sligo, both with everlasting imagery.
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South of Sligo is Connemara. The area is one of the most scenic in Ireland. It is a rocky, somewhat treeless, and sparsely populated area but captivating. The green valleys are dotted with lakes that are interconnected by streams, offering the fly fisherman a wonderful venue. It is also great for cycling tours with winding, seldom traveled roads taking you from seaside haunts to the beautiful mountains of Connemara National Park. By whatever means you’re traveling, the region evokes the feeling of wilderness and adventure as if you ride along on the spirit of the ancient celtic tribes that moved up and down its valleys. You have a wonderful choice of side roads to explore, streams and lakes on which to picnic, mountains to climb, beaches to stroll, and abbeys and ruins to inspect.

It was difficult to pull ourselves away from Connemara and head farther south towards Galway. This city is a wonderful transition from the wild and barren Connemara. The narrow streets and the many shops and restaurants bring you back to the delightful entertaining side of the Irish. The main shopping area, which is a pedestrian only street lined with shops and restaurants, is lively. The University of Galway, one of Ireland’s best universities, is near center of the city. Once a small fishing village on a large, well-protected bay, Galway is now one of Ireland’s fastest-growing cities. The nightlife and pubs are a major attraction for the tourist wanting to experience the wonderful Irish friendliness, talk, and song. Some of the main spots we visited were Lynch’s Castle, Lynch Memorial Window on Market St., the once home of the writer James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle, and St. Nicholas Cathedral. You can also take a ferry from the docks of Galway and travel out to the Aran Islands.

We had run out of time for our stay in Ireland but not our desire to come back and continue exploring.

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I had never touched bullet holes. I had never read a condemned man’s last letter to his wife. I had never sat alone, silent, in the stony rain and reflected upon the fierce sense of pride and sadness that accompanies a war memorial. A tour of Dublin’s Irish Independence monuments is a moving and worthwhile journey, even for those not of Irish descent. I was freshly arrived in Dublin and determined to experience what the city had to offer in the way of war monuments – specifically, those in honor of Ireland’s struggle for independence.

Dublin is a typical city which bustles with construction, businessmen and women hurrying to their various jobs. As
I wove through the crowd, I arrived at the General Post Office. Not fifteen minutes in the city and I had already found a major stop on my tour of Irish Independence monuments and sites. Still in use as the main post office, the
building is functional yet beautiful with Grecian pillars and towering statues. It’s gray façade matched the morning sky, but the Irish flag over the building was a burst of green and orange snapping in the bitter wind.
As I slowed my pace, people streamed past me looking rather disgruntled at the woman attempting to get a closer look at the pillars in front of the building. This was not an especially notable building for the majority of
Dublin’s population; at least, not at nine o’clock in the morning when work is about to begin and there’s still the morning coffee to buy.

The bullet holes riddling the giant pillars are a silent reminder of the siege that occurred on Easter in 1916. These remnants of a night filled with gunfire and screams are now just background noise, another building in
a vibrant city full of history. Rebels making a stand for Ireland’s independence from English rule overtook the Post Office; a standoff between the rebels and English soldiers resulted in destruction of the post office,
and indeed, most of the surrounding buildings. The rebels were arrested and taken to Kilmainham Gaol, the local jail. Most of these men were executed, and the public was swayed to support the rebellion.
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The follow-up to the Post Office was Kilmainham Gaol, where I truly began to appreciate the terms dank, dark and cold. It was frigid within those stone walls. Our guide took on a Nationalist slant as she led us through
the unforgiving halls, and it was not difficult for me to sympathize as I peered around the corner at yet another line of small dim cells with heavy wooden doors. The tour culminated in the yard, which was confined by high stone walls. There are simple black crosses at either end of the yard, marking where the rebels of Easter 1916 were executed. The silence was palpable as we gazed on these small icons of the ultimate sacrifice to freedom. I couldn’t help but remember the bullet holes in the pillars.

There are a great many artifacts in the museum at the jail, including handcuffs, prisoner ledgers, and of course, a ball-and-chain. The most memorable of these was a letter written by one of the rebels, Seamus Brennan, to his wife on the eve of his execution. I was moved by the desperate passion in his words, which ended simply, “Goodbye, pray for us.” His execution was stayed, however, and he later returned to help preserve the historic jail. Also sentenced to execution was Eamon de Valera, who would be spared at the last moment by his father’s New York connection. De Valera would become Ireland’s first elected president.
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My walk through Parnell Square and the Remembrance Garden was a powerful experience. I walked along the cross-shaped pool filled with brackish water and swollen leaves towards the Irish Independence monument. Here I was very much alone; falling rain and a gray sky added to the solemn and silent ambience. The monument itself is a striking towering statue of men and women crumpled and dying at the foot of the monument, while the upper half shows a number of swans taking flight from the desolation. A moving inscription in Irish is carved into the concrete behind it, with an English translation mirroring it on the other side of the monument.

The Irish spirit is still alive and well in the local pubs. People from all walks of life frequent these pubs, and all have a differing view of present day Irish politics (although unless you actually are Irish, it’s best to not put forth a strong opinion). I met a local man one night by the name of Henry. We got to talking politics, as will easily happen over a pint, and I mentioned The Wolfe Tones, an Irish band strongly linked to the IRA and anti-English sentiment. Henry begged me not to become caught up in what he called “playing to people’s baser desires,” and told me that if I was interested in the Irish spirit I should go see the local musicians play traditional music. “It’ll make you want to run out and grab the nearest Englishman by the neck,” he quipped.

I was not so anxious to involve myself in fisticuffs, but I did want to take in the music scene. The next evening, I met two Irish gentlemen who were both in town for a Sinn Fein conference. As we sat and drank our pints I could see that the music brought tears to their eyes. “We’ve all got to do our part,” one said when I cautiously asked about the conference. I told them I had been out to see Kilmainham Gaol.

“Did you cry in the cathedral?” the other asked.

“No, but I shed a few tears when I read Brennan’s letter to his wife,” I admitted.

“Aye,” they agreed. “Not many boys like that anymore.”

I thought again of the bullet holes in the pillars, and thought that it was certainly not for a lack of reminders.

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I am always baffled when people call me brave for travelling alone, for at heart I know I’m a coward. My fear flared up in full force that morning, as I stood in the two-room airport, just outside of Galway, waiting for the fog to lift. Before me on the tarmac, a ten-seater plane shaped like a chubby Tonka toy crouched in readiness, and I found myself debating (once again) the relative merits of death by sea and death by air.

My destination that day was Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands which lie about 30 miles off the coast from Galway in the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean. Inishmore means Big Island, and is 9 miles in length. It is long and flat like a fish, which suits it, since for centuries the main industry was fishing. Fishing still plays a large part in the economy, although the tourist industry also provides income these days for the 900 or so souls who live on the island.

However, I wasn’t going to Inishmore for fish. I was going, first of all, to climb the cliff and see a 2,000-year old stone fort; to experience the beauty and harshness of the land; and to try to discover what has made so many generations cling so tenaciously to this rocky outpost in the sea.

While I was musing about death and my plans, the fog lifted and suddenly we were ready to go. The ticket clerk gaily told me to hop into the front seat beside the pilot, and to “mind your head when you go ’round the wing.” These last words, along with the pilot’s suggestion to buckle our seatbelts, were the sole emergency instructions provided for this flight.

My fear vanished as soon as we left the tarmac and started to float over the fields toward the water. The world looked upside down, and below me I could see the backs of sheep, cows, and a crazy patchwork blanket of tiny green fields hatched with grey fences made of boulders. When we reached the water, I was surprised by the turquoise patches. The ocean looked tropical in parts. Apparently millenia ago, the Aran Islands belonged to the land mass of Spain, but they broke away during the last ice age. Botanists believe this could account for the bizarre existence of rare tropical plants in this corner of northern Europe.

I hardly had time to admire the water before the plane was heading nose-down towards the airstrip on Inishmore. During our brief, eight-minute flight, I had somehow miraculously merged with the plane – I yearned to dip and stretch my arms like wings, but was afraid of obstructing the pilot’s view. Gently, I leaned forward to catch my first glimpse of Inishmore.

The landing was soft and we rolled to a stop in front of a small white one-room bungalow, which turned out to be the airport. A smiling American woman (a sort of Katherine Hepburn type) and a large white fluffy dog came walking out to greet us. The dog circled and sniffed us (was he security? looking for drugs?) then submitted benevolently to our petting and pats on the head. A man with a mini-van was waiting to take us the two miles into town. I paid the £2 and climbed in.
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The roads on Inishmore look like the rural roads anywhere in the West of Ireland: gravelled and narrow and lined with fences made of stacked boulders. Walking through these fences can make you feel a bit like a rat in a maze – and in busier parts of the country, a maze with on-coming traffic and no place to escape. Driving is only for the experienced, the brave or the reckless.

The landscape of Inishmore has been described as lunar, because the ground is made up of slabs of rock. Picture Peggy’s Cove multiplied about a thousand times. In-between the cracks in the rocks grow weird and startling mixtures of northern and tropical wildflowers. The tiny patches of green fields that do exist have been painstakingly made by hand over the centuries. The islanders began by digging up the smaller boulders, and stacking them in rows wherever they could find a use (to outline fields, to make roads). Then they placed seaweed on the little scraps of stripped soil, and “grew” the fields. The land provided just enough grass to keep a few sheep, cows and goats alive, and to grow a few potatoes, to supplement the diets of the fishing families.

After passing by some scattered farm houses, we arrived in the village of Kilronan, which is the main port on Inishmore. Ferries and fishing boats sail in and out all day. It’s pleasant to sit at the water’s edge and watch the comings and goings in the harbour. Around the port, there are shops selling the famous knit Aran sweaters and scarves, cards and prints by Irish artists, and CDs and cassettes of Irish music. The tourist office stocks books by local authors, in Gaelic and English. The buildings in the village are one or two stories high, and there are several traditional Irish cottages, with their creamy white-washed walls and dark thatched roofs. Frequently a simple pot of red geraniums in the window adds a splash of brilliant colour.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this island is on foot, so I immediately headed out on my own. After exploring the local folk-museum and having a light lunch, I spent a few hours tramping along the roads, feeling footloose, and enjoying the scenery. When I was tired, I lay down on a rock ledge a few feet from the water, as the sun and breeze took their turns scorching and cooling my skin. Meanwhile, the wind and the rush of the waves beat a noisy racket around my ears; I had forgotten how loud the ocean could be. I pictured myself floating happily off into the air with the seagulls who dipped and dived above my head and cried out to each other in their raucous foreign tongue. Even with the hundreds of visitors who come to the island on summer days, it is remarkably easy to get away and have the ocean to yourself for hours on end.

By the time I got back to the town, I realized I’d made a small mistake. The local mini-vans that offered tours of the island had already left for the morning, and the afternoon tours would get me back to town too late for my flight. It’s good to keep this in mind if you only have one day to explore. Luckily, I was free (and eager, by that time) to return to Inishmore another day.

On my second visit to the island, I travelled by ferry, which is half the price of the plane but less exciting. A huge, modern vessel, the ferry looks much like an airplane on the inside. I kept expecting to see flight attendants whisking up and down the aisles. The ride was so smooth I could hardly believe we were moving.

As soon as we docked at Kilronan, I looked for the mini-vans. A dozen men in soft tweed caps were milling about, talking quietly to each other in the soft Gaelic tongue, looking expectantly but not aggressively towards the newly-arrived tourists. Our driver waited until there were about six or seven passengers, then off we went, lunging down the bumpy roads toward the mysterious sites that make the Aran Islands famous. He filled us in on some of the social history and the sites as we went along.
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The jewel of Inishmore is Dun Aengus, a prehistoric site perched on a cliff overlooking the sometimes turbulent Atlantic ocean. On the day I visited, the waters seemed still and serene, but the site still emanated an eerie feeling. The driver let us out at the foot of a rocky hill and we climbed slowly up the slippery, pebbly footpath leading to the structure. The site is fairly isolated, and the walk through an almost lunar landscape takes a good fifteen minutes.

At the top of the cliff stands a high curved stone wall, enclosing a half-moon of space facing the ocean. Inside the half-moon, at the edge of the cliff, there is a raised stone platform. The structure was built more than 2,000 years ago but no one is really sure why.
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Although the word Dun signifies fort, this is just one of the archeologists’ theories. One of the main arguments against the fort notion is the difficulty of access for all but the fairly fit. (If the fort theory is true, it would give new meaning to the expression “survival of the fittest”.) Other archeologists point out that the lack of a source of drinking water within the site would have made long sieges impossible, and speculate that the platform might have been an altar area where religious ceremonies and sacrifices were performed. When you are standing on the platform, watching fools lying on their stomachs, dangling their arms over the edge of the cliffs for the thrill, it is easy to imagine former generations tossing victims off the edge to their deaths. In any case, this is an emotionally powerful setting. The plain stone platform crowning the cliffs, with the endless ocean and sky as background, surpasses in beauty any gilded church altar I have ever seen.

Our mini-van tour also stopped at the remains of 8th century churches, monasteries and burial grounds. Some of the gravestones, showing entire families of brothers “lost at sea”, made me shiver. The whole island is dotted with pathetic wayside crosses honouring those who died on the water and asking for a prayer for their souls. These reminders of the fragility and shortness of life increased my appreciation of the wonders of the land and the fierce love the islanders must have felt for it when life was on the island was such a struggle. How tempting it must have been to take (as many did) the ferry to Galway and never return.

At the end of the day, my departure from Inishmore was bittersweet. After just two days on the island, I felt like I was leaving an old, charming and fascinating friend. As the ferry pulled away from the port at Kilronan, I looked back, and knew I would return some day. This promise sweetens my memories whenever I think of the Big Island.

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My inability to read a train or bus schedule properly has landed me in hot water before, but occasionally it results in a pleasant surprise, as was the case one Sunday in Ireland.

I’d chosen Galway, the main city in the west of Ireland, as a base for day trips to Connemara, the Burren and the fabled Aran Islands. I’d luckily made all my bus connections until that Sunday when I was on my way to Oughterard. I had misread the Bus Eireann schedule, not realizing that I was too early for summer Sunday service to Oughterard. I now know that summer starts in late June in Ireland.
Stumped, I asked the ticket agent if the transit system went anywhere else. “There’s a train to Athenry in ten minutes,” he replied, “and one coming back this evening. It’s only a fifteen minute trip.”

Well, what is travel if not a venture into the unknown? “Fine, I’ll take it,” I said, handing over about the equivalent of about $11 US. Who knows, Athenry may surprise me, I muttered as I scurried off to catch the train.

Athenry, it turned out, didn’t just surprise me; it delighted me. I discovered a medieval town with Ireland’s finest surviving town wall, stone gate, thirteenth century castle, priory, churches and romantic graveyard ruins picturesquely overgrown with wild flowers and climbing vines.

My exploration of Athenry began where the town began: at the Castle. This rectangular, three-story building towers over everything else in town, which makes it easy to spot upon arrival. Built as an Anglo-Norman stronghold sometime around 1240, the castle lay in ruins for 500 years until it was finally restored in 1990. I walked around the grounds for free but needed to buy a ticket to climb the exterior staircase and look inside.

Apart from a small room set aside as a movie theatre showing a 20-minute video on the history of the town, the castle is eerily empty, although if you listen closely you might easily imagine strains of music from banquets held long ago: the Great Hall packed with revelers dancing, drinking and feasting, then lining up near a door at the back of the room.

118c96da0Why yes – the door leads to a quaint medieval toilet – just a closet with a hole for the seat. From the outside, the tiny room juts out like a glassless bow window; below, on the ground, stands a large stone pit.
A few hundred yards south of the castle, the 13th century Dominican priory of S.S. Peter and Paul lies in elaborate ruin. Stone walls pierced with elegantly-shaped gothic windows stand as mute reminders of an ancient power struggle. Moss-covered grave slabs honor the fallen. Here invaders and natives knelt before the same God, each praying for the destruction of the other side.

In 1316, it seemed clear whose prayers had been answered. That year, the Anglo-Norman army defeated the local Irish forces in a decisive battle that, according to the chronicles, left 8,000 dead in one day. From the booty collected after the battle, the victors built a stone wall, which still stands today, enclosing 69 acres.

Not far from the North Gate (the only remaining gate), I found the ruins of the 13th century St. Mary’s Church. At first glance, it’s hard to distinguish this ruin from the stern Protestant Church of Ireland (c. 1828), which stands in the same grounds and seems to sprout miraculously from the ancient foundations. Looking closer, though, I saw that the walls and prim stone steeple of the newer building are dark grey and smoothly cut while the remains of the medieval building are paler, roughly hewn blocks of stone whose cracks are filled with moss, a fertile ground for the weeds and flowers that cover the top third of its surface.
In the church yard, tombstones lie scattered about, many topped by Celtic crosses, many more overgrown with weeds and made illegible by centuries of Irish rain.

While the grounds may still be hallowed, the churches that stand in them are not. The newer building is now home to the Athenry Arts & Cultural Centre, which hosts a small exhibit on the history of the town, including a model of Athenry as it would have appeared in the 14th century, and its ceremonial Mace.

The Center’s gift shop features a curious scene: souvenirs resting casually against a wall covered in memorial plaques dedicated to former parishioners. I found this brash commerce among the dead jarring and disrespectful at first, but then I thought that there was something oddly reassuring about the practice. It reminded me that the town is more than a static historic tourist attraction. I hadn’t just stepped into a time capsule or a movie set; this ancient town is a lively home to Irish descendants of its late sons and daughters, and it is their enduring link to past and present events.

118e96db0The evening I was there, for example, I heard a distinct buzz in the air, and followed the sound to find people filing into a large park. Over supper at the Newpark Hotel (an old-fashioned, typically Irish hotel with hearty food, homey decor and meals for about $15 US), I learned from the waitress that a very important hurling match was being held that night. The honor of Athenry, it seemed, was at stake and even though it was a sleepy Sunday night, the townsfolk were out in full force to defend their reputation.

As I boarded the train back to Galway that evening, I reflected that my forced detour had turned out much better than I’d expected. I’ll know now not to panic the next time fate takes me by the hand and leads me down the path to unexpected discoveries.

IF YOU GO:
For more pictures and history of Athenry: http://www.athenry.net/history.html
Ireland West Tourism: http://www.irelandwest.ie
Irish Tourist Board: www.ireland.travel.ie/home
Bus Eireann: http://www.buseireann.ie
Heritage Ireland (for information about Athenry and other heritage sites): http://www.heritageireland.com

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If you are a traveler who likes to have your imagination stimulated beyond the scenery of the place being visited, a trip to Ireland’s Northwestern regions will more than satisfy your mind. You can begin the trip by flying into Shannon and driving north, exploring the coastal areas up through Galway and on to Donegal, or do as we did and fly into Dublin and go northwest to Donegal, making a circle back down the coast to Galway before turning east to head back to Dublin. This route enabled us to see more without backtracking. The main problem here is not wanting to stop exploring, as you will find around every bend scenes that capture your imagination and senses. Before going invest some time in reading Irish folklore and myth as well as the poetry of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney.

We left Dublin on the N3 with our first destination Tara in County Meath. Near the village of Tara the ancient site known as the Hill of Tara and Bective Abbey is a place steeped in ancient legend and folklore. The hill offers visitors a view over the plains of Meath, and the mounds along with the Stone Age passage grave dating back to 2500 BC evoke the feeling that this was an ancient, sacred place. Much of the Hill of Tara’s mystique lies in its association with the mythical goddess Maeve and the image of Druid rites taking place in and around this spot. This was also a place purported to be where the high king of 1st and 2nd Century Celtic chieftains held the royal court. It was also here that St. Patrick was said to use the shamrock to explain the Christian Trinity; hence the shamrock becoming the Irish national symbol. The kings of Leinster used Tara as a center of operation up through the 11th century. A 15th Century church next to the Hill of Tara has the visitors center as well as an excellent audiovisual presentation. The name “Tara” of the book and later movie “Gone with the Wind” was taken directly from this ancient place. We found this a great place to begin our immersion into the myth, legend, and folklore of Celtic past.
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We continued NW on the N3 entering Northern Ireland and reaching the city of Enniskillen, which is situated between two large lakes, the Upper and Lower Lough Erne, formed on the River Erne. This is where the writers Oscar Wilde and Samuel Becket were schooled. The Enniskillen Castle houses the Fermanagh History and Heritage Centre and the Regimental Museum of the Royal Enniskilling Fusiliers and is worth a visit to gain an overall historical orientation of the area. Just out of Enniskillen we found the mansion Castle Coole. This 18th Century neoclassical estate was designed by James Watt and is well known for being one of the purest forms of neoclassical architecture for that period in Ireland.
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We traveled along the A46 which took us beside the Lower Lough Erne with plenty of quaint villages and scenic vistas. If you have the time there is a waterbus that cruises the lough for about 2 hours, departing from the Round ‘O’ Quay at Brook Park just out of Enniskillen. Devenish Island in Lough Erne is the site of a 6th century monastery founded by St. Molaise and sacked by Vikings in 837AD. Further along A46 a signpost directs the traveler to Tully Castle, built in 1613 for a Scottish planter’s family. From here it is only 16 km to the border of Northern Ireland and the small town of Belleek. The village of Belleek is well known for its fine porcelain factory, which you can tour. Some find the lure of the region around Lough Erne enticing them to circle the lakes and spend more time exploring Boa Island where one of the oldest stone statues in Ireland can be found, the Janus figure, or Killadeas Churchyard with its Bishop’s Stone dating to the 7th Century, or the stone figures on White Island. But after our tour of the Belleek factory with its porcelain delicately displaying the wee folk of Irish folklore, we wished to move on to the area most steeped in the tradition of fairy forts and leprechauns, as well as the locale of the activities of the fianna, or mythical warriors of ancient Irish legend.
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Entering again the Republic of Ireland, we proceeded to Ballyshannon on the coast and turned north on the N15 to Donegal. This is the far northwest region of Ireland and possibly one of the most remote. The region is marked with thatched roofed cottages, rolling green hillsides dotted with sheep, and spectacular cliffs jutting up from the sea. The town of Donegal is built on the River Eske with the 15th century Donegal Castle set at a bend in the river in the center of town. Just due east of the town of Donegal is the small lake Lough Derg where pilgrims come to spend three days on a small island in the middle of the lake believed to be a place St. Patrick stayed and fasted. B & Bs are plentiful around Donegal as well as rural houses such as the Arches Country House, the Ardnamona House, and Harvey’s Point Country Hotel on the shores of Lough Eske. Donegal is famous for its woolen goods, known as Donegal tweed. All along the roads are shops selling and displaying every kind of woolen wear from sweaters and hats to bolts of fabric and bundles of yarn. But most impressive to the region is a drive along the cliffs bordering the sea on the road to the fishing village of Killybegs and beyond. At the village of Carrick we found the Slieve League. These are cliffs which drop 300 meters straight to the sea. The face of the cliffs can be seen from a boat to change colors as if by magic. This is a wonderful place for a picnic. Some time should be allowed just to absorb the ambience of the surroundings.
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Leaving the cliffs at Carrick and driving as far west as the road will take you, the village of Glencolumbcille is found. We stopped for tea at the heritage center located near the village. The center consists of thatched roofed cottages built and furnished in the way that inhabitants of the region would have lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The smell of peat burning in the fireplaces gives a cozy inviting feeling to the cottages, which offer the visitor shelter from the wind coming in from the sea.

From Glencolumbcille we drove to Ardara through the Glengesh pass, which is a beautifully winding road down through a glacially formed valley. The feeling of remoteness struck us as we moved through this valley that ends at the river and the town of Ardara not far from an inlet to the sea. Ardara is a center for the weaving industry of the Donegal region. At the heritage center in Ardara the story of weaving is told, and we viewed the handloom weaver at work. The Ardara Weavers Fair, which takes place the first weekend in June, has been held here since the 18th century.

Leaving Ardara we circled back to the city of Donegal along the edge of the Blue Stack Mountains and then headed south again, backtracking through Ballyshannon and on to County Sligo and Yeats Country. Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats spent his childhood days with his mother’s family in the Sligo area and returned many times as an adult to draw on the folklore and myth, prevalent throughout this region, to enliven his poetic imagination. The town of Sligo straddles the River Garavogue, and if one travels west on the river, you will arrive at Sligo Harbour and the sea. If you travel east on the River Garavogue, it will take you to the legendary Lough Gill and the surrounding hillsides that locals claim to abound in elves and fairies. Rent a boat in Sligo and row from downtown to Lough Gill. The island best known inspired Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. At the eastern end of the lake stands Parke’s Castle. Swans travel the river and lake, adding to a feeling of enchantment to the scenic surroundings. One legend associated with Lough Gill is that a silver bell from the abbey nearby was thrown into the lake and only those who are free from sin can hear the bell ringing.
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Sligo has several hotels downtown, one being the Silver Swan in the center of town on the river, and a large number of very good B&Bs to chose from. We stayed at a B&B just outside Sligo near Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. When I asked about the belief of the existence of elves and fairies in the area, our wonderful hostess could not wait to take us out for a drive to point out how to recognize a “fairy fort” in the countryside and show us the dells where elves and fairies were known to dance and play at night. She cautioned us about such things as throwing dish water out the door in the evening for fear that a passing elf or fairy might be drenched by it and become angry and place a spell on the inhabitants of the dwelling. In the morning while the dew was still on the grass our hostess wanted us to walk out into the nearby fields in search of fairy circles made by dancing fairies in the night.
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Our visit to the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery added to the feeling of ancient myth. Here scattered over several fields are over 60 stone circles and passage graves. Carrowmore is one of the largest stone age cemeteries in Europe. A well done information center is adjacent and guides take groups of visitors to the various grave sites or dolmens. Many of the dolmens are still capped by three massive stone slabs with a fourth set on top resembling a large stone stool. From Carrowmore the visitor has a view across the countryside to the mountains that surround Sligo. The dominant mountain is Knocknarea with the cairn or tomb at its top, which legend has as the burial place of Queen Maeve. An estimated 40,000 tons of stone was carried to the top of Knocknarea during ancient times and piled there to form an almost pyramid looking mound that forms the huge cairn that has never been excavated. We spent the afternoon climbing to the top of Knocknarea and then to the top of Queen Maeve’s tomb for a wonderful view of all the surrounding area. If you climb Knocknarea, you are suppose to carry a rock to place on Maeve’s tomb for good luck, which we certainly did. You can not escape the feeling that you’re in the presence of the ancient celtic spirits as you ascend Queen Maeve’s tomb and see the dolmens of Carrowmore scattered throughout the fields below.

Another mountain that shadows Sligo is Benbulben, prominent in many of Yeats’ poems. Yeats wished to be buried at the foot of Benbulben in the churchyard of Drumcliff church. Here at Drumcliff churchyard you will find his grave with the words “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” But it is hard to just pass the Sligo area without feeling that the seen and the unseen have imprinted something into the imagination and the memory that will not be erased. This region left its imprint on Yeats, and Yeats, in turn, left his imprint on Sligo, both with everlasting imagery.
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South of Sligo we traveled only a short way before turning west on N59, which took us to the region of Ireland known as Connemara. N59 carries you out and around what is almost a peninsula of land although much bigger. The area is one of the most scenic in Ireland with its mountains and valleys and beautiful flowing streams. It is a rocky, somewhat treeless, and sparsely populated area but captivating to the eye. The green valleys are dotted with lakes that are interconnected by streams, offering the fly fisherman a wonderful venue. Cyclists find this area great for cycling tours with its winding but not much traveled roads taking you from seaside haunts to the beautiful mountains of Connemara National Park. By whatever means you’re traveling, the region evokes the feeling of wildness and adventure as if you ride along on the spirit of the ancient celtic tribes that moved up and down its valleys. You have a wonderful choice of side roads to explore, streams and lakes on which to picnic, mountains to climb, beaches to stroll, and abbeys and ruins to inspect.

It was difficult to pull ourselves away from Connemara and head farther south towards Galway. But the city of Galway is a wonderful transition from the wild and barren Connemara. The narrow streets and the many shops and restaurants bring you back to the delightful entertaining side of the Irish. The bustle of the main shopping area, which is a pedestrian only street lined with shops and restaurants, gives the feeling of liveliness. Galway is a university town with the University of Galway, one of Ireland’s best universities, not far from the center of the city. What was once a small fishing village on a large, well-protected bay, has become one of Ireland’s fastest growing cities. The nightlife and pubs are a major attraction for the tourist wanting to experience the wonderful Irish friendliness, talk, and song. Some of the main spots we visited were Lynch’s Castle, Lynch Memorial Window on Market St., the once home of the writer James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle, and St. Nicholas Cathedral. You can also take a ferry from the docks of Galway and travel out to the Aran Islands.

By the time we had reached Galway, we found that we had run out of time for our stay in Ireland but not our desire to come back and continue exploring. We found our way to the N6 and headed east to Dublin. The advantages of Ireland’s inclusion in the EU can readily be seen in the new four lane highways built and being built to span the country. This new prosperity has gained the country the title of the “Celtic Tiger.” It had been over 14 years since I was last in Ireland, and the changes, particularly in the cities, were amazing. Now, you need to travel to the more remote areas of Donegal or Connemara to see the quaintness of the village life that once was found in most of Ireland. But the populace is still much taken with the ancient myth, legend, and folklore, which sustained the spirit of the land through the lean and hard years. It is a culture based more on the mythical than historical tradition, which may be behind its transcendent nature and appeal to the imaginative traveler.