Traveling from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to its miniature equivalent in Shannon Ireland is like stepping into another dimension. While the two airports are polar opposites – finely tuned chaos compared to small-town bustle – it’s the shift in scenery that takes your breath away. Chicago, a major metropolis of towering concrete, percolates with honking horns and harried people. Ireland, on the other hand, embodies peace and lush green beauty.
Our ten-day bus tour of Southern Ireland began in the rural area of County Clare, where the countryside is dotted with traditional cottages, lush valleys, and ancient stone buildings. There are over 300 hundred castles, or the remains of such, in County Clare alone. It’s not unusual to see a country farmhouse sitting a stone’s throw from a crumbling 12th-century cathedral, the farmer’s cows grazing peacefully among the
The first stop on our journey was Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, located about 20 miles from the airport. The castle dates to the year 1277 and visitors quickly appreciate the challenge of medieval accommodations. Steep narrow stairs wind up and down between floors. Tiny rooms are set deep into stone walls, and a dungeon/prison is located far too close to the family living quarters. Our luxurious room at the Bunratty Hotel was greatly appreciated in comparison.
While you’re in County Clare you’ll also want to see the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, a sheer rock face that drops 700 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. On the morning of our visit, misty rain and heavy clouds threatened to obscure this famous view, but as we neared the site, the gloom receded. Within ten minutes, the sun was out and we had a pristine view of the entire coastline. As it turns out, extreme weather changes are not unusual in Ireland. During the course of a day, conditions can vary from blustery, to nearly sweltering. Dress in layers, wear sunscreen and bring an umbrella.
Meet Your Match
If you’re single, you may want to travel north to the tiny village of Lisdoonvarna. This is a popular place, especially in the month of September when the matchmaking festival takes place. Singles flock from miles around in search of an Irish match. Women sport their traditional Claddagh rings which – depending on how you wear them – indicate whether you’re available, considering, or your heart is already taken. Many happy unions have taken place as a result of this celebration of romance.
Traveling south from Lisdoonvarna, you can reach the lovely Ring of Kerry; a one-hundred-mile panorama of mountains, cliffs, and beaches. One helpful tip if you’re driving the ring is to heed the unspoken rule of traveling counter-clockwise. The roads are narrow with a sheer drop on the outside and when travelers meet in opposite directions the resulting do-se-doe can be rather hair-raising, especially if both vehicles are tour buses. On occasion, a foreign bus driver will commit this alarming faux pas. When we asked our driver what happened in this case, he smiled and said, “I don’t have to worry about it. They’re on the cliff side”.
In addition to knowing how to “do” the Ring of Kerry, our driver/guide, Tom Keane of CIE, was a master of terrible jokes, traditional songs, and great stories. The tour drivers are incredibly well informed about the details and history of their territories, and it was fun to have someone along who knew all the answers.
Bit O’ the Blarney
From the ring of Kerry we drove through Killarney, and east towards Blarney Castle. One thing that stands out as you cross the Irish countryside is the surprising tidiness of it all. Ireland has made a serious effort to clean up its act, and for the last few years the government has sponsored a county-by-county competition for the prettiest town. Apparently, the residents take this challenge seriously. The winding roads are lined with jewel-toned houses, complete with lace curtains and flower boxes at the windows. Immaculate farms and outbuildings caused us to wonder aloud, “Where is all their junk?” If they have it, it’s well hidden.
Arrive at Blarney Castle early to avoid the crowds. Here you’ll want to trek to the very top of the castle and kiss the Blarney stone (or practice a bit of the blarney and just say you did). There is also Blarney Woolen Mills for the shopping inclined, or for those on shopping overload, a lovely park with miles of meandering footpaths.
Waterford and the Village of Cong
Continue east and you’ll come to Waterford, home of the Waterford Crystal factory. Here, you can take an interesting tour of the operation, and once again, this is a great shopping stop.
Waterford, like most of rural Ireland, is top heavy with bed and breakfast establishments. We stayed in two during the course of our trip, and both were outstanding. The food was good, though Irish vegetables tend to be overcooked by American standards, but the pureed soups and fresh salmon were delightful. The B&B owners were efficient and very friendly. One hostess even got on the phone and helped an acquaintance track down a long lost relative.
In addition to sampling the local accommodations, you’ll want to be sure and duck into one of the pubs. Soft drinks are readily available if you’re not a Guinness fan, and you can usually catch a band playing traditional Irish music. Our favorite place was Kate Kearney’s Cottage in Killarney
From there we changed courses. We headed north through Kilkenny and on to Dublin for a tour of the city, and a visit to Trinity College. Here you may want to see the Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript of the four gospels. While this was an interesting stop, the actual display of the Book of Kells was a little disappointing. The traffic flow was unorganized, and the whole site too crowded to get a really good look at the famous relic. The real treat was upstairs where the original Trinity Library was housed. The luminous barrel-vaulted ceiling and hushed atmosphere of age-old knowledge made you feel as though you’d walked into a sacred place.
From Dublin, we traveled west to Clonmacnoise, the home of St. Ciaran’s monastery founded in 545 AD. To see it now, the area is the picture of peace and tranquility, but its history belies that impression. Clonmacnoise was attacked 40 times from the 8th to the 12th century and was destroyed 13 times by fire. After each onslaught the monks rebuilt, but when the monastery was reduced to ruin by the English in 1582, it was finally abandoned. The site has been painstakingly restored in recent years, and now stands as a monument to its former glory. If you’re a photographer, you won’t want to miss this one. Crumbling stone churches and tilting headstones rest on the banks of the River Shannon, and the haunting beauty of the place stays with you long after parting.
While you’re in the neighborhood, you may want to travel to the village of Cong. This is the area where the famous John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara movie “Quiet Man” was filmed, and if you’re in need of some exercise, you can enjoy the Quiet man Walking tour. Many of the movie sets, Reverend Playfair’s house for instance, are still in use today.
From here we completed our circle of Southern Ireland and headed back to the Shannon airport. All in all, this is a delightful area. The Irish people are enthusiastic and friendly and it’s not surprising that the traditional greeting, “Cead Mile Failte Rowhat” means One Hundred Thousand Welcomes. After spending some time enjoying their warm hospitality, I believe they really mean it!