The first thing I realised as we began our descent into Dublin was the reason for the poetic name for Ireland, the Emerald Isle; from the air, the countryside resembles an extensive patchwork of brilliant green squares joined together by countless rock walls. This was the Ireland I had imagined when I had booked my tickets, but, as I was soon to discover, the island offers visitors so much more than rolling green hills sprinkled with sheep.
The first stop was the medieval town of Galway, located on the west coast of the country and a short three-hour bus ride from Dublin. The town immediately won me over with its narrow cobblestone streets, quaint shops, and lively bars. A leisurely stroll along the River Corrib, from the Spanish Arch (dating back to 1584) to the impressive Galway Cathedral, is the perfect way to soak in the charm of the town. There’s also a lovely market that encircles St. Nicholas Church, which was constructed in 1320, and it’s a great place to get some food for a relaxing picnic in Eyre Square.
A visit to the Cliffs of Moher is a must, and several day tours depart from Galway, taking you through The Burren, a rocky limestone landscape punctuated with caves and a unique collection flora and wildlife. The Cliffs offer the most spectacular panoramic views. On a clear day you can see the Aran Islands, as far as Galway Bay, and the Maum Turk Mountains. It’s easy to see why it’s listed as Ireland’s most visited natural attraction.
The next city I visited was Ireland’s third largest city Cork, situated on an island surrounded by the River Lee. The first stop was necessitated by the need for lunch, so the English Market was a logical choice. The Market offers locally produced foods, from meat to fruit and vegetables and dairy products, as well as delicious baked goods. The city also has a vibrant shopping district that’s interspersed with restaurants and bars. A walk to St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, a Gothic revival cathedral of the Church of Ireland, is also recommended.
One of the highlights of my stay was a visit to Blarney Castle, where the legendary Blarney Stone lies, waiting for visitors to give it a kiss so that they may leave with “the gift of the gab.” This was one of my strangest experiences: after ascending a very narrow spiral staircase to the top of the castle, I had to lie on my back, grab onto the railing, and lean back to kiss the stone. With the gift of eloquence safely procured, visitors are then able to meander through the beautiful gardens on the grounds. Be sure to explore the enchanted Rock Close, where you’ll find inter alia the Witches Kitchen, the Wishing Steps, and the sacrificial rock where Druids once stood.
The capital city of Dublin was the final stop on this particular trip. It didn’t take long for me to feel the warm and welcoming embrace of the city (despite the chill in the air), and I felt quite at home as I navigated the bustling streets and enjoyed the serenity of its parks. Indeed, St. Stephen’s Green is the perfect place to take a break from the busy streets that surround it, especially in the spring and summer when the park is painted with the exuberant colours of its cherry blossoms and tulips.
Literature enthusiasts will also find plenty of interesting sites, including the Oscar Wilde house, the famous author and playwright’s childhood home, his statue in Merrion Square directly opposite the house, a bust of James Joyce in St. Stephen’s Green, Jonathan Swift’s burial site in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland, featuring the largest collection of Yeats manuscripts and artefacts.There are also several literary tours that focus on the life and times of the aforementioned Irish literary figures.
In addition, a visit to the Trinity College Library is also highly recommended. The main chamber of the old part of the library, the Long Room, is an awe-inspiring space lined with marble busts and thousands of books. The library also has a Treasury, which is home to the Book of Kells and other medieval manuscripts. The Book of Kells is a beautifully decorated transcription of the four gospels of the Bible, written in Latin by Irish monks over 1,000 years ago.
Dublin’s historical evolution as a city is a fascinating one, predating the settlement of the Vikings, and one that can be explored at Dublin Castle, which was built in 1204 at order of King John of England. According to the official Dublin Castle visitor guide, the castle became “the most important fortification in Ireland and over the next eight centuries functioned as the seat of colonial rule, the centre of military and political power, and as a glittering social stage for Ireland’s ruling classes.” Three of the four towers were destroyed, however the Record Tower remains and a guided tour will take you to the Medieval Undercroft to see the remains of the original Viking fort and the butt of the Powder Tower.
For a more eerie examination of Dublin’s history (and if the sight of bodies doesn’t terrify you), be sure to visit the crypt below St. Michan’s church. Visitors enter via a narrow stone stairway into a vaulted space that houses mummified bodies in coffins, covered in thick layers of dust. The National Museum also boasts a collection of so-called “bog bodies,” naturally preserved corpses from the Iron Age that were discovered in bogs throughout Ireland.
The final highlight was a day-trip to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, both significant historical and spiritual sites. Newgrange is a large, prehistoric grass-covered mound of stones that covers a small chamber, accessible via a single narrow passage. When the winter solstice occurs, rays of sunlight enter the passage way and illuminate the otherwise dark chamber inside. There are several theories regarding the purpose of the mound, some suggesting it was a sacred place of religious ceremony. Knowth and Dowth are two other mounds located in the Boyne Valley. Together with Newgrange, these incredible monuments are World Heritage Sites. The Hill of Tara was once a political and religious centre for the High Kings of Celtic Ireland, while legend has it that it was also visited by Saint Patrick. The mystical site offers unrestricted views of the surrounding counties.
And so my time on the Emerald Island came to an end, and all that was left to do was to raise my pint of Guinness and say “sláinte!” to Ireland, its friendly people, beautiful scenery, fascinating history, and charming cities. I have no doubt that there’s much more to explore and learn about this remarkable country. The highlights above are merely a taste of all the delights it has to offer.
— Uncharted101.com (@Uncharted1o1) April 29, 2017