Ireland by Car

I arrived in Dublin late at night courtesy of Air NZ and Virgin Atlantic via Shanghai and Aer Lingus from London. There's no getting around it, it's a long way in one hit, I was tired and wanted to get to my bed. Having achieved this I awoke the following ready to go. I rediscovered black and white pudding which is clearly the pre-requisite for a full Irish breakfast. Having packed up I grabbed a cab to the Hertz rental depot with a very loquacious chap who had clearly visited Blarney. 

At Hertz I was given a 2 Litre Hyundai i20 which has bigger than I expected so was pleasantly surprised. The taxi driver told me how to get out of Dublin so off I went, got kind of lost then found the road I was after en route to Glendalough. First part of the journey was through the utterly desolate Wicklow National Park. If you want to know what the end of world might look like a visit here is essential. Granite and tussock that looks like it is in the early stages of growing back dominate along with cyclists. It was Saturday morning so half of Dublin was out risking life and limb on the narrow and twisty thoroughfare. I wasn't the only one driving a rental car for the first time on the route so they are a game bunch.

Glendalough is a small monastic settlement dating back to a long time ago ... in a galaxy ... never mind, I have long been interested in what motivates people to do things, being a monk amongst them. In this case Kevin, subsequently St Kevin, clearly had his wits about him when he set up here. Idyllic valley with a fresh water lake at one end flanked by hills on either side to protect them from the worst of the weather. He obviously had an eye for a bit of comfort. The buildings are not extensive but in the setting the round towers stand out. I really liked it here.

Glendalough

I determined that I would also visit the Rock of Cashel on this first day. I thought it would be a bit of a stretch but thankfully eventually found my way onto the motorway. With the speed limit 120 km I quickly carved the miles off. The Rock stands atop, you guessed it, a rock overlooking a large plain. It was originally the home of the Irish kings up until the end of the 11th century when it became a religious settlement. First sight is really impressive, I liked it. I arrived just in time for a guided tour and very entertaining it was too. Sometimes when the Irish speak you just laugh and when they make a joke that is actually funny it is all the more powerful. I know this sounds hippyish but the place has power from the position it commands and the buildings that stand atop it. The medieval Irish made their buildings tall and narrow so the main buildings basically soar into the sky from ground level.

Rock of Cashel

From here I drove to Cork finding the Gresham Metropole Hotel with a little bit of difficulty. This place was far better than my Dublin accommodation. Nice room sort of overlooking the River Lee and a decent bar. Settled in and headed down to end the day with a couple of Murphys and a Steak and Guiness pie.

From what I had read of Cork I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do this morning. 19th and 20th century buildings didn't hold that much interest for me so thought I might just head straight off to Blarney. Nah better have a bit of a look. To be fair the view from the hotel wasn't that enticing but apparently it was just a few minutes’ walk to centre. So having had an almost identical breakfast to the other hotel I set off down St Patricks Street for a look. The central area is actually quite nice and I can see why people would visit but it being Sunday morning not a thing was open. 

I headed back to the car park and headed down the N20 to Blarney Castle, went straight past it, turned around and entered the famed locale. I was actually considering not visiting here either and spending more time around the wilds of Kerry but with the weather not looking great decided semi indoor locations a better option. Glad I did as like so many things around here the place has 'presence'. Nothing you can put a finger on as it is just a big square block of a thing but it just has something. The process of kissing the stone is a long one. I managed to arrive just in time to join a tour group full of Americans so it took about 20 minutes stuck in a narrow staircase before finally emerging for air at the top of the castle to prepare for the dramatic moment when my lips would connect with the famed Blarney Stone. I was guessing there was no imminent threat from H1N1. The actual experience is pure pantomime, it must be one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time ... then again I find myself writing more than I have for years!!! Anyway you lie on your back, some guy makes sure you don't fall to your death then you kiss a slimy, cold, wet rock ... fantastic.

Onward to Killarney. The weather by now was grey and misty, not the best for visiting a National Park, so I checked in to the Victoria House Hotel and had some soup. By the time I finished the weather was marginal so satisfied myself with a visit to the nearby Muckross Abbey. 

The Victoria House Hotel was a bit of a step up from all of the other places I stayed at, they actually asked me if I wanted the full Irish breakfast before they delivered it freshly cooked. It was however exactly the same as the previous incarnations. This brings up the subject of coffee. My goodness it is truly awful, there is not a barista in sight. Even in so called cafes it is all produced from an automated machine. I thought I would try an espresso in one place and they served it with milk. For a country with close links with France they have missed the boat on this. Having said that the croissants are really good.

Anyway the Ring of Kerry is a circular route around the Ivereagh Peninsula. I really didn't have any idea of what to expect and to be honest expectations weren't high. I don't get too excited by scenery and pre historic round things don't excite me either. What I was rather intrigued by was the nature of the road. The advice was to drive clockwise to avoid being stuck behind coaches that run counter clockwise as there isn't enough room for them to pass each other. This sounded quite exciting! 

My expectations weren't raised any at the first stop, Torc Falls. Water falling down some rocks, Ross Creek has more appeal. However I was blown away by the next place. It is called Ladies View, I have no idea why, and it is some view. Some places just have something, it's that presence thing again, and the view down into the Killarney National Park was just stunning. I guess I associate scenery with snow capped mountains and lakes. This had the lakes but the harshness of the landscape just added an edge. Invigorated I decided to take a detour to Kenmare having read some good things about it. Mistake, it is nice enough but not nice enough to get my camera out which is saying something in this digital age. Back on track I resumed the Ring wondering if I had seen the lion kill 5 minutes after entering the Serengeti ... with 150 kms to go could anything possibly rival the scene from Ladies View?

Ladies View

While not exactly rivalling it, Staigue Fort was another revelation. You know what I said about basic stone round things. Well this was a basic stone round thing but it was perfect nestled in a amphitheatre of hills with a view cascading down to the Atlantic. This was no prehistoric structure, it was only around 1000 years old, but it was obviously for someone relatively important and unlike some places I have visited, it made sense. It was defensible, there were ditches clearly dug around it and you could live there. There was water and plenty of arable land. Inside the structure the walls were layered creating steps to the top. It is really, really impressive. Vowing to visit every stone round thing on the peninsula I tackled the one car width road back to the main road. A particular hazard on the route are the black headed sheep, they turn up everywhere were you least expect them. 

The views never really exceeded the first one. There were some nice beaches, not that you would go swimming, and some pleasant enough vistas, but Ladies View would not be exceeded. What would be exceeded was the fort. I thought Staigue would be the pinnacle but the fort at Cahergall was stupendous. It was twice the height and the intricate layered interior walls could still be climbed to reach the top, great stuff.

Cahergall

I had contemplated a visit to the Skellig Islands to visit some monastic remains but the boat service wasn't operating. I did drive to Port Magee to have a look from the mainland. Shaped like a couple of pyramids sticking out of the Atlantic I was relieved the boat wasn't operating. I have yet to come across any kind of motivation that would empower me to jump in a glorified bathtub and make my way across this particular stretch of water to go and see out my days on a rock. 

I also wanted to have a look at Dingle before I returned to Killarney so made my way on the variable roads to Tralee before heading up Cormacs Pass. I made an irritating diversion to a so called vista before getting here figuring every other diversion I had taken today had worked. Guess my luck had to end at some point. The pass was great fun to drive. A single lane in parts with rocks overhanging everywhere. The weather had turned a bit grey by the time I reached the summit so the view was average at best. Downhill I quickly reached Dingle, I immediately liked it. I also wanted to drive around the headland to have a look at the Blasket Islands so resolved to do this before having a wander around Dingle. Kind of glad I did but I was pretty knackered by the time I got back to Dingle. Irish roads require a hell of a lot of concentration. One minute you are on a perfectly tarmaced stretch with a shoulder then you are on a roller coaster barely two car widths apart. The speed limit on some of these stretches is 100 Kim's so you have to have your wits about you the whole time.

I allowed myself to be diverted by some famine cottages related to the potato crop failure of the late 1840s ... complete rip off. As I would discover anything privately run as a tourist attraction is ropey, the state run stuff is fantastic. There were some nice views en route but nothing mind altering. I looked forward to some respite from driving in Dingle but it took an age to get there. The roads were increasingly undulating that it felt as though it was possible to get the car airborne in places. Fortunately Dingle arrived. This place basically encapsulated a lot of the villages I had driven through. The Irish in this part of the world really go for painting their houses brightly. It's probably a reaction to the dour grey rock and sky they have to endure for most of the year. Either way it makes for vibrant looking towns and suggests the rough exterior that a lot of them like to portray in their character and clothing is undercut with a bit of daring when it comes to home design.

Dingle

Well and truly knackered I eventually arrived back at the hotel, took up my stool at the bar, ordered a Smithwicks and some food and settled in to watch Aston Villa decimate Sunderland.

On my way back into Killarney the previous evening I saw a sign to the Gap of Dunloe. The Gap is the premier view in the area but as far as I was aware you needed to take a day to get to it by horse or trekking. Doing some research the previous evening it seems some people had driven it. I asked the receptionist on my way out and she said it wasn't accessible by car. Mmmmm, probably worth a go I thought. One report I read said the horse and buggy drivers would try and stop you using the road touting their service as the only way to go. All well and good but I didn't have half a day to spare stuck in a buggy. Sure enough about a km out from the starting point a horse and buggy driver leapt out in front of me. I gave him a wave and carried on. At the entrance to the park a sign states the road is primarily for the use of the horse and buggy set but as the report said there is nothing to say it cannot be driven. Setting off with a good deal of anticipation I was soon rewarded by one of the most stupendous sights I have ever seen, here I was alone in an utterly compelling landscape. The road was single lane in several parts but no dramas plus there were other cars treading a similar path. I was so glad I did this setting off to Galway in a exuberant frame of mind.
 

Gap of Dunlop, loved this road!

I was looking forward to driving on an N road which is one step down from a motorway and enjoyed the drive as far as Limerick. There is a castle in Limerick that was closed for renovations but I couldn't resist going to have a look. St Johns Castle sits on the bank of the Shannon. The exterior wasn't really up to much but I did get the camera out. 

Bunratty Castle was a marginal call in much the same way Blarney was. Unfortunately it is no Blarney, in fact I was indignant this circus had fleeced me for 15 euros. The castle is ok but doesn't have anywhere near the same presence as the other castles I visited. They have also set up a kind of theme park around recreating amongst other things a village street from the late 19th century. I couldn't for the life of me see the point of this. It was no different to most of the villages I had travelled through in Kerry and they were real. I determined I wasn't going to spend any more money here and went across the road for lunch.

My next target was the Cliffs of Moher, I wanted to get there around 6pm for the best views. Over lunch I saw there was a castle and abbey just up the road. The castle was average but Quinn Abbey was worth getting the camera out for.

Quin Abbey

Hit an M (motorway) road for some light relief before entering an area called the Burren. My god if I thought the area around Dublin was desolate, this is purgatory itself. It is beautiful in its way but how people make a living, farming here is a mystery. It is just a mass of rocks, the fences are rocks, the houses are made of rock, everywhere you look there are masses of rock, it's almost like they grow them. The roads around here are really challenging, narrow, undulating and twisting. Unfortunately one of the premier sights Ireland has to offer is located in this region. The Cliffs of Moher not only have a cool name they are spectacular, no question. Again I think the attraction for me is I haven't seen anything like it before.

Cliffs of Moher

I was knackered again by the time I left here and had to grit my teeth a bit to tackle the coastal route to Galway. The cliffs are undoubtedly the highlight but the area is appealing in its harshness. Along the coast the rocks roll into the sea. You get the impression the sea is full of rocks and there is nowhere left for the ones on the land to roll into. Dotted all over the place are the remains of castles and tower houses just to add to the mystique. The most impressive is Dunguaire Castle.

I thought Galway was little more than a fishing village but no, it is quite big with one way streets that make no sense. Fortunately I stumbled on the Eyre Square Hotel and parked. First impressions were not good, the place stunk of cigarette smoke and just looked rough. However first impressions aren't everything, my room was big, the shower powerful and the bar downstairs was showing Real Madrid versus Borussia Dortmund. I grabbed a stool and finished the day with a burger and a beer.

I planned a reasonably quiet day out of Galway allowing time in the afternoon to have a look around the city ... yeah right!

Having a look at the map in the morning I noticed a castle was en route to my aim for the day, Commemara National Park. It wasn't too far out of Galway so thought I best have a look at it. Glad I did as it was another little gem. The advantages of driving around were now becoming so stark I have resolved that it is the only way to travel ... as an aside it's 7 AM as I write this, I’m at Dublin Airport and the waitresses in the restaurant I'm sitting in are wandering around serving Guiness as if it was the most normal thing in the world ... Aughnaure Castle was just brilliant. The sun was blazing, had the whole place to myself and because it was a specific day of the month, monuments owned by the government were free. The government run establishments have really good concise explanations of everything you are looking at.

Onward to Connemara I stopped off in Clifden to refuel. The Connemara region is like a fusion of the Burren and Kerry. Rocky, but not as rocky, and a bit softer to look at than Kerry. I was only going to drive around until I saw a visitor centre. I went in to have a look. Unfortunately they offered some walks up mountains. I thought "but this was supposed to be a relaxing day" knowing full well I was going to climb as far as possible. The track was steep and rocky but not too taxing. At the top views were provided of the mountain range at the centre of the Commemara region punctuated by lakes. The lake immediately below had an abbey on the shores. I was actually intending to spend some time at the abbey, but I think the better deal was to see it from where I was. The climb down was more taxing on the knees than the way up, by the time I returned to the car I was again knackered. 

Instead of visiting the abbey I just settled for lunch there. It was only a couple of hundred years old so didn't feel I was missing anything and I really wanted some time to look around Galway. I took a coastal route back to Galway which was more of the rock fest prevalent in the Burren.

I was kind of right when I said Galway was little more than a fishing village. It still is but a lot of stuff has grown around it. It has a very definite heart centred around a collection of pubs. It is reputedly the musical pulse of Ireland so there are a lot of windswept and interesting people hanging out busking and generally making a racket. Having walked through it I couldn't really be bothered investigating much further. Besides Barcelona versus Bayern Munich was about to start and the barman at the Eyre Square Hotel was a very interesting football pundit.

Fair to say Galway wasn't my favourite place in Ireland so I was out of there and returning to Dublin. Couple of things I wanted to see on the way, Clonmacnoise and New Grange. The road out of Galway was heavenly, possibly the smoothest I have ever been on, or could this be a reaction to the lumps I had been travelling on over the last few days? Normal service resumed as I turned off to Clonmacnoise via the picturesque Shannonbridge on the River Suck. Clonmacnoise is a monastic settlement dating back to the 9th century. It was raided multiple times by fellow Irish, Vikings and Anglo Saxons. The Irish themselves were the most prolific raiders. A collection of churches remain. This was a government run place so exceptionally well organised and informative starting with a 20 minute movie. The remains are situated on a flood plain of the Shannon so easily accessible for traders and raiders. I took some time to try and imagine the sheer terror of watching a Viking longboat make its way up the river with the sole intention of looting and maiming you. I found it difficult to comprehend why you wouldn't have an escape plan sorted as it happened so often in the settlements history, I guess the protection of the shrines and relics was foremost.

Connemara National Park

Briefly back on to the M6 before turning off via Trim, Navan and Slane to New Grange. I wasn't going to come here but my interest had been aroused with my experiences around Kerry. Access was by guided tour and very good it was too. This thing was built 500 years before the pyramids, I.e. a long time ago. It is an enormous mound faced with white stones. It is quite impressive from the exterior but nothing can prepare you for the interior. Squeezing through the entrance passage you eventually enter a vaulted chamber with 3 recesses surrounding it. The engineering and imagination to create this is staggering considering the amount of weight it has held for the last 5 or 6000 years. There are bowls in the recesses apparently used for placing human ashes. The guide turned the lights off and it was probably the darkest place I have ever experienced. She then demonstrated what occurs on the winter solstice when the chamber is flooded with light for 17 minutes. The rest of the year the chamber remains in total darkness.

I returned the car in one piece to the Hertz depot in Dublin and got a taxi back to my hotel. Again the TV didn't work and the bed was a joke, I could feel the slats through the mattress. Too tired to really care I thought best have a look at Temple Bar at night and get some food and hopefully watch Chelsea lose to Basle. I ended up at Gogarty's for a Guiness and a Coddle. Temple Bar is much like any other entertainment area in a big city just with more Irish music than normal.

My final day in Ireland was to be in Dublin. I added this in at the last minute of planning thinking I had better have a look and very glad I did. Architecturally Dublin is relatively uniform in comparison to other large European cities. There is very little of the ancient or medieval, it’s almost exclusively Georgian. Up bright and breezy first stop was the General Post Office scene of the most dramatic events in the 1916 uprising against the British. Trinity College followed. By the time I arrived the sun was barely up, let alone any students and entrance to the Book of Kells was an hour and a half away. I decided to go and have a look at the leafy and immaculately groomed Merrion Square Park and the main shopping precinct, Grafton Street.

By the time I had returned to the College and the library to see the Book of Kells there was a queue about 400 metres long. Fortunately it dissipated quickly as the doors opened. There is a good display before you actually see the book detailing the provenance of the book and how it was made. It is all a bit of an anti-climax when you see the book itself. It would be great to have been able to pick it up and thumb through it. Alas there is one page displayed through a significant amount of glass. Slightly disappointed I made my way up the stairs to what I thought was the exit. The sight that opened up before me was truly something to behold. An entire cathedral of books laid out in immaculate rows … I’m lost for words. I don’t get too many spine tingling moments in my life these days but you could have run a lightbulb off me. The Old Library is an absolute must see on any visit to Ireland, one of the most splendid things I have ever seen.

The Old Library

I was going for contrasts today and Kilmanhaim Jail was next on the list. I felt I had had one Irish breakfast too many so decided to walk. Would probably have been a better idea to get a cab but the walk wasn’t too bad. The jail was again state run so super organised. The only downside with this is you have to wait for the guided tours. This was May and I had to wait an hour and a half. No problem but thinking ahead to the busier months it’s certainly something to consider when planning. The jail had been in operation since the 18th century and closed in the early 20th century not long after the leaders of the 1916 rising had been executed within its walls. As it happened I was visiting on the 97th anniversary of this event and the guide was the great, great nephew of one of those executed. Initially the tour was everything I expected it to be with dark grisly cells embellished by stories from the most excellent guide. However once we arrived in the modern part the mood changed a bit. This part was designed with reform in mind and was much brighter and more open than the rabbit warren we had emerged from. The mood changed again as we went outside. We were introduced to the area where the children were allowed to exercise. Most were in there for the crime of trying to survive. A little further on was the scene of the 1916 executions. Despite the guide’s association with one of the executed he just told the story leaving the listener to decide for themselves the travesty or legitimacy of the event.

Needing to do something of a lighter nature the Guiness Storehouse seemed appropriate. At EUR16.00 to get in I did wonder what I would get for this not insignificant sum. Free wi-fi was good I could check in on the football scores from home. Then I had the opportunity to shop, great I love paying to get into a shop! The actual edifice is shaped like a giant pint, I guess I could be excited about this but not really. I wondered around with nothing really gripping me. It wasn’t until I got to the Sky Bar overlooking Dublin and being served a complimentary pint that I really felt the effort was worth it. People say Guiness tastes better in Dublin than anywhere else in the world. I’m no expert, it was fine.   

Ireland doesn't possess the pyramids in that I must go to Egypt one day because I must see those. However it does have a load of rugged scenery dotted with architectural gems dating from pre-history to last century that combine to make it really worth visiting. Driving is relatively straightforward but the roads can be challenging if you get slightly off the beaten track.