If you’ve been following my post series about Ireland – its landscapes, people, history and art – then here’s a cheat sheet for all the photos and travel notes from the two weeks of my trip.
Do you live in Ireland, or have you traveled there (or maybe you’d love to)? I’d really like to hear your thoughts! Post your comments anywhere on my blog or send me your feedback via e-mail.
This spring I had the amazing opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland, courtesy of some friends in Longford County. Home base for the trip was the hamlet of Carrickadorrish, nestled in the Loch Gowna Valley in one of the most scenic parts of the Irish Midlands…
The Newgrange Heritage Site in County Meath is one of Ireland’s archaeological treasures, and one of the world’s most important megalithic sites. The Bru na Boinne complex (meaning “Palace of the Boyne”) is dominated by three major prehistoric structures: Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth…
On Saturday morning (which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day) I set out early just as the sun was coming up, and most of the landscape was still shrouded in a heavy mist…
Clonmacnoise, situated on the Shannon River not far from the city of Athlone, is an important monastic site founded in the 6th century. The Birr Castle Demesne in County Offally is a privately-owned estate boasting magnificent gardens and a world-class science museum.
Leaving the beautiful Slieve Bloom hills (reluctantly) I watched the terrain change into a swath of rugged moorland as we approached the windswept west coast…
It would be hard to sum up my week in the Midlands, which passed all too quickly in the company of old friends and new ones. For the last leg of my trip we were headed to Dublin, with high hopes for museum-hopping and hiking…
Dublin is a place where street corners are named from Viking hangouts, and the pulse of revolutions still beats strong. Steeped in its own history, it is strangely familiar, but with a fast-paced and cosmopolitan vibe.
- Bus Ride to Dublin
- Trinity College Library, Chester Beatty Museum & more
- Natural History Museum, Downtown Dublin, National Concert Hall
- Dublin’s green buses, Kilmainham Gaol, and the Museum of Archaeology
- National Gallery of Art
- Walk in Killinney
8 Things About Ireland
Finally, all of my travel photos are posted. In retrospect, I thought it would be fun to gather some of the more interesting discoveries and observations I made over the course of my journey – so I’ve corralled a few of them up into the all-important “Internet list.” Here goes:
- Ireland time
Simply put, time moves at a different pace for the Irish. A small, mostly rural island nation that has seen the passing of so much history in continuity, Ireland inevitably has a unique stance when it comes to the calendar and the clock.
In practical terms, this means that days start a little later, plans are often made relative to mealtimes (and the weather), and most folks aren’t shackled at the wrist with a watch to mete out their schedules.
Here’s an example:
Visit Ireland: Irish Time
This tendency may be exasperating to some who would like to see Ireland move into the 21st century at a faster rate, both as a culture and as an economy. It’s a laid back approach that goes against the grain of much of the industrialized world, but it seems to mesh well with a culture where the ancient and modern overlap so closely. Maybe keeping a steady pace as much of the world races by at breakneck speed is not a such a bad attitude after all.
- Irish hospitality
Whether it’s the result of strongly traditional upbringings, or the legacy of past hardships that have reinforced the value of sharing – or the oft-cited line that the Irish are “the friendliest people in the world” – hospitality is deeply engrained in every aspect of Irish culture.
A warm welcome and a chat, a bite to eat and the ubiquitous cup of tea are part and parcel of the kindness extended to a visitor. Where I stayed in the rural Midlands, I found that sometimes this takes the form of a neighbor’s “just dropping by,” or an opportunistic visit to dodge a sudden rain shower, or a moment taken to introduce a new friend or a family member from far away. In every case the business at hand comes to a halt as chairs are pulled up for a conversation – suddenly the whole world revolves around your visit. The Irish have mastered the art of “social networking” – no computers or mobile devices required. It’s about real people.
Ireland is a nation of great talkers. It’s no surprise that the talent for language has loomed large in the form of an impressive literary heritage spanning from Swift to Wilde to the present day. But all kitsch about the Blarney Stone aside, I found Irish people in general to be exceptional communicators – eloquent, eager, and always on the beat with their legendary wit.
I defy a traveler to go even a short length of time in Ireland without striking up a conversation (especially if you’re in a group). You’ll find yourself drawn into fascinating discussions with complete strangers, never knowing their names, but aware that your lives have intersected for a brief moment to share a real, meaningful connection.
Our bus driver at the Bru na Boinne visitor center.
Note: Travel etiquette advises visitors to avoid controversial subjects such as politics and religion, which are especially sensitive and volatile issues that have hit generations of Irish close to home. This tip is hogwash. In every setting I found these were among the first subjects to arise. I was asked frankly and frequently about my opinions and my perspective as an American, and I was often surprised by the forthright discussion that ensued. Candor and humor are both prime traits of Irish conversation that I quickly learned to appreciate.
Wherever you go in Ireland, you can single out the Dubliners. As a rule rather than an exception, they’re friendly, outgoing, talkative – a refreshing reversal from my part of the world where city folks are generally hurried and standoffish compared with their rural counterparts. (A special mention here goes to Dublin’s cab drivers. They’re as friendly, funny, and offbeat as they come.)
Dublin has been an eclectic cultural hub for centuries, and this combined with a characteristic (and sometimes quirky) love of leisure also means that Dubliners know how to have a preeminently rip-roaring good time!
- The “Full Irish” (continue reading…)
Twelfth (and final) day in Ireland
My last day in Dublin (and the last day of my stay in Ireland) arrived far too soon. The spell of unseasonably pleasant weather that followed most of the journey had by now burst into a full-fledged summer – warm breeze, cloudless skies, and all.
The morning passed quickly with a trip to the northern part of the city and the Hugh Lane Museum, a public art gallery with free Sunday concerts. There I met up with the Dublin friend who had been kind enough to show us around the city that week. He’d planned a surprise excursion for the afternoon.
County Wicklow, which lies to the south of Dublin, is famous for its rugged natural beauty in places like Glendalough, a picturesque village nestled in a glacial valley of the Wicklow Mountains. The weather brought visitors out in droves, cramming the lanes with cars as eager hikers and tourists capitalized on the exceptional conditions. Parking further away gave us the chance for extra walking up the winding, wooded path leading to the park.
Image: Visit Wicklow
At the entrance to Wicklow Mountain National Park stands the monastic site of St. Kevin’s, named for Glendalough’s founder, an early 7th century Irish saint (some interesting lore surrounding his life can be found here). It’s home to several churches, a cemetery and a famous round tower, all part of the settlement built around the original sanctuary.
The park boasts an array of walking trails that vary from short lakeside rambles to (literal) cliffhangers along the higher ridges. The walk we took brought us through the ruins of St. Kevin’s and the beautiful woodlands overlooking the pristine Upper Lake, and finally to the precipitous gravelly walks of the old mining camps.
Some adventurous souls made it up this far with baby strollers in tow! Image: Wicklow National Park
The breathtaking beauty of the mountains, glens, lakes, streams, and flora in this place defies the description of all but the best photographs. We were privileged with a glimpse of Glendalough at its finest, basking in late afternoon as sunbeams filtered through the Scotch pines and skimmed across the glassy lake. Any more suitable words elude me – so what can I say? Find a special person and share a day together, discovering this place for yourself.
A long afternoon of hiking came to a close with a gorgeous sunset to enjoy on the drive back to Dublin, overlooking the gorse-lined fields of rural Wicklow and Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance – truly a “forever” kind of day.
That’s all folks – Next: A few recollections
Day Ten: National History Museum and the Bord Gais Theater
The site of Collins Barracks holds the record for the oldest occupied garrison in Europe. It was a base of British military operations in Ireland for centuries, and since 1997, it’s contained history in a different way as the home of National Museum of Ireland collections.
This branch of the National Museum highlights domestic & military artifacts, as its name suggests. The enormous floorplan holds everything from airplanes to tools to furniture to silverware. There were literally acres of finely-crafted table settings, like the world famous Irish crystal wares, and intricately worked dining utensils of every description, harking back to the fine living of yesteryear.
One of the most fascinating exhibits was the virtual closet exhibit, “The Way We Wore,” with preserved clothing displayed by era. It gives some appreciation to the effort “haute couture” demanded in the days when everything was hand-sewn. Some of the fashions looked downright uncomfortable. But the real astonishment was visualizing how much smaller in stature the people were in earlier centuries. It was almost embarrassing to stand beside the uniform of a 18th century soldier and realize my slim 21st century frame still dwarfed his!
The big event for the evening was the Russian State Ballet’s performance of Cinderella in what used to be the Grand Canal Theater, just recently renamed the Bord Gais Energy Theater. The sparkling new building is super-sleek and ultra-modern with a deceptively spacious interior, overlooking the docks with a spectacular view right about twilight.
Saturday passed way too quickly, and with one final day remaining of my trip to Ireland, I had high hopes for a grand finale to remember. Without any plans set in stone, I wasn’t sure what to expect; but I knew I wasn’t likely to be disappointed!
Up Next: Day 11 – Surprise excursion…
Day Nine (cont’d): Evening walk in Killiney
Before the day was over, there was yet more walking to do, and more sights to take in. My Dublin friend suggested a walk in Killiney, just on the city’s outskirts, to get a look at the Bay and sample the famous vistas at the top of the hills before nightfall.
On the walk to catch the Dart train, we passed the old Victorian gasworks (the namesake for the restaurant at the hotel). The unique, attractive frame was recently converted into new apartments.
Image: Travelogue of an Armchair Traveller – Dublin Gasworks Apartments (Photo by Panoramio)
Killiney is a Dublin suburb not far from Dun Laoghaire, nestled in the hillside along the Bay. It’s a plush and exclusive resort area sometimes referred to as “Ireland’s answer to the Bay of Naples” on account of its exquisite views and ideal location. On a fine day you can see Sugarloaf Mountain, the many ranges of neighboring County Wicklow, and occasionally the rugged Welsh coastline.
Visitors often catch a glimpse of the bottle-nosed dolphins that wander into the Bay, as well as some of Killiney’s more celebrated inhabitants, including singers Enya and Bono.
The half-hour hike up Killiney Hill is pleasant and beautifully maintained (as I’m sure our many stroller-pushing, dog-walking, hand-holding walking companions would have agreed!) The first part of the walk is heavily wooded with oaks and laurels, and then Scotch pines as you near the summit.
Our climb was rewarded with a stunning panorama of the glistening white villages perched on the rocky coast, partly shrouded in Ireland’s signature “sun mist” – an effect heightened by the sweet aroma of gorse that flooded the air. It’s the sunlight that releases the stirring coconut-like scent, as the oils in the blossoms warm. As my friend demonstrated (to my bewilderment) you can’t smell the flowers at all, unless you crush them in your hand. Anyone who’s experienced the sensation of gorse perfume on the breeze knows how the memory never leaves you.
Day Nine, cont’d: National Gallery of Ireland
After two rounds on the green buses in the morning, we hit the streets and spent a couple of hours at the Archaeology museum (where we also had lunch, incidentally, and for the record I found Dublin’s museum cafes really outstanding). On our way back to Grand Canal street, we passed the National Library – a tempting stop, but we decided to save it for another time.
Merrion Street in the wee hours. If you can find your way around Merrion Square, you can get anywhere in Dublin. The Georgian streets are wide and usually lined with art vendors (and sometimes musicians) and the brilliant doorways of elegant old buildings.
However my friend couldn’t resist a quick look into the National Gallery on the corner of Clare Street. The last time she dropped by, the selection was scarce as the museum underwent renovation. But once again, it turned out to be a brilliant impromptu call. We ended up spending much longer there than we could have anticipated, thanks to an absolutely stunning collection of some of the finest art around. Highlights? Too many to name, of course. But here is a sneak peek:
Goya, “Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate” (c1805) – one of the most beautiful Goya portraits I have seen. Don’t you just love the sunny contrast of the yellow against the black Spanish lace? His approach to this actress’s portrait is delicate, deeply genuine, and almost admiring – far different from the sarcastic and slapdash attitude with which he portrayed royalty.
This portrait is one of the most recent Goya’s to be exhibited publicly, because it has been in private collection for most of its life.
Velazquez, “Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus” (c.1617) – the earliest known painting by Velazquez. It’s really more a genre piece than a portrait, but a premonition of the sensitive portrayal of the lower social ranks, as seen in his famous later works.
Henry Raeburn, “Portrait of Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik” (1791) – Raeburn was a Scottish painter, a rough contemporary of Gainsborough and Reynolds. I loved this portrait for its gentle glowing sunlight and the touching affection between the husband and wife that this painting portrays so tangibly. Though childless, the Clerks were known as a happy couple and were much-loved in their community.
Finally, a painting I didn’t have the chance to see, but would be remiss to omit now that it’s officially recognized as “Ireland’s National Painting” – Frederic William Burton’s “The Meeting on the Turret Stairs” (1864).
This incredibly romantic painting is based on a tragic Danish legend, and hardly needs any commentary from me. But the info below gives a great look into the painting’s history.
All art images courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland
Day Nine isn’t over
Nope, not yet. We headed back to the hotel at last (with no mishaps in direction – I found Dublin surprisingly easy to navigate) but there was still more to see, and more mileage to cover, before the day was out.
Day Nine: Dublin by Bus
That’s my trusty visitor’s map of Dublin, with about a dozen places of importance marked out for easy reference (I did this before we got to Dublin, in homage to my lousy sense of direction!) We already covered of few of them on the first day in town so today’s plan was to see some of the attractions further out by using Dublin’s fantastic hop-on-hop-off bus system.
A two or three day bus pass is cheap and fun and makes a continuous wide loop past many of the city’s popular stops. It’s impossible to get lost because all the stops are numbered and the worst that can happen is missing one, in which case you hope off and backtrack at the next stop, or just wait until the next loop. The tour buses are color-coded green so you can jump on any one, anywhere, as long as your pass is good.
It would be easy to lose a couple of days this way, especially thanks to the experienced drivers who entertain their passengers with ad lib historical notes and anecdotes about the city and all the interesting sites along the way.
Since my friend and I were up before Dublin, we had some time to wander around Merrion Park before the first bus stopped by (like most of Dublin’s green spaces, it’s a beautiful spot in springtime, with the daffodils and cherry trees in bloom).
After a loop on the bus, our first stop was the Kilmainham Gaol heritage site – a sobering time capsule of Irish history that bears generations of the sad story of famine, oppression, and desperation. The exhibit walks a visitor on a journey from the prison’s early days as a British-built experiment in social justice that sought to redefine the penal system. It recounts the mass deportations of criminals and Irish rebels against British rule, alike exiled to Australia starting in the early 19th century. When the destitution of the Great Famine followed on the heels of the potato blight a generation later, the prison’s population exploded with desperate hungry people (many of them only children). Most famously, Kilmainham was at ground zero during the Easter Rising, where once again Irish resistance fighters were incarcerated and executed, making the prison a national symbol for Irish independence.
After the exhibit, the guests may follow a guided tour that leads through the dark corridors and even darker history of the jail’s levels. Areas of great historical significance marked with plaques are eloquently illustrated by the guide as you walk through the dank passageways. In some places, the broad stone stairs are worn smooth and bowed in the center, trodden down by centuries of heavy shackled footsteps – a poignant symbol of the crushing sorrow and suffering this place has seen.
I had my camera on hand for the famous East Wing, the location of many film sets over the years. Its strange blend of Victorian elegance is portentous and sinister. The Kilmainham tour is a long one, but a powerful experience to connect with the people and events surrounding Ireland’s birth as a modern nation.
National Museum: Archaeology and Ethnography
One of the most important stops on our city tour was Dublin’s great antiquities museum, the second of three Dublin branches of the National Museum (we saw one of these the day before, the Natural History Museum on Merrion Street).
This place is a paradise for ancient history buffs – the building itself is beautiful, and the facilities and exhibits are spacious, appealing and very detailed. (Sorry, no photos from the inside! But you can visit the official museum website of course.) The collection is presented in 5 departments:
- Prehistoric Ireland
- Viking Ireland
- Medieval Ireland
- “The Treasury,” famous treasure hoards and wonders of Celtic craftmanship. The amber beaded jewelry was especially gorgeous.
- “Or – Ireland’s Gold,” a special exhibit dedicated to Ireland’s fantastic ancient goldsmiths
Plus a few special exhibits from elsewhere in the ancient world:
- “Kingship & Sacrifice,” featuring the infamous “bog bodies” and the burial caches of Scandinavia
- “Ancient Egypt,” featuring real live mummies (well, not “live” technically…)
I got an up-close look at the Roman-period encaustic mummies like the ones I wrote about from the Louvre’s collection. The delicately worked turquoise pieces – one of ancient Egypt’s most popular precious stones – were some of the most impressive artifacts.
- Life and Death in the Roman World
- Ceramics from ancient Cyprus
Of course there was too much to recall here. There are things that strike you when seeing famous artifacts in person that never occur to you when seeing them on tv or in books. One thing that struck me most, however, was the elaborate ornamentation on ancient Celtic weapons, implements, and articles of dress. The people of the Bronze Age lived short, brutal lives. Whatever your region, scraping out a living was hard, warfare was an accepted part of life, and standards of living were quite low by most criteria. Yet these craftsmen took considerable time and effort – which otherwise would have been applied towards survival – to carve/engrave/weave the most intricate patterns in places where they served little functional purpose. Simply put, they went out of their way to make something beautiful.
Whether for symbolic or ritual value or marks of identity, their aesthetic sense is a moving example of timeless human creativity. They may have followed templates, but they are all unique, and show a quality that is far beyond what most of us would expect from that period. It’s a moving reminder of art as self-expression and a way of elevating us beyond our everyday lives.
We’d planned on seeing the Chester Beatty Library later in the week, but since we were already in the Dublin Castle complex, and still had time to spare, we decided to drop in. Boy am I glad we did.
The Chester Beatty isn’t your typical library with miles of bookshelves. It’s a spectacular museum collection – a true Irish gem – consistently recognized as the best in the country and one of the best in Europe. And you can just walk through the doors anytime! What you’ll see rivals the great artifacts in any of the world’s biggest museums. When ancient scripts die and go to heaven, they come here.
I can’t begin to describe the extent of the beautiful exhibits, mostly celebrating the history of the written word. Here’s a whirlwind tour of the things I had a chance to see:
- Gaelic illuminations that completely overshadowed the more famous Kells exhibit
- Woodcuts from Japan’s golden age
- Ancient Egyptian manuscripts (including fragments from the Book of the Dead and the single largest compilation of ancient Egyptian love poetry)
- Sumerian seals that I’d only ever seen in encyclopedias
- Priceless Biblical codices & rare fragments from Eastern scriptures
- Early Islamic texts in a variety of stunning calligraphic styles – one of the Koran copies was written out in perfect, microscopic script on a scroll small enough to be carried by passenger pigeon. Mind blowing.
- Illustrated Mughal literature and genre art (and the actual signature of the famous Mughal sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent – quite a John Hancock!)
- Did I mention imperial Oriental wardrobes and samurai armor?
You can see some of the wonders yourself on the museum website – but of course, there’s no comparison to the real thing. If you’re ever in Dublin, this is the place you can’t afford to miss!
Once I realized that I had completely lost track of time, we made it downstairs for a bite at the museum cafe before heading back out to the streets. Next stop was the Natural History Museum, affectionately known to Dubliners as “The Dead Zoo.”
This is one of three Dublin branches of the National Museum of Ireland (the other two being the Museum of Archaeology and Museum of History & Decorative Arts, which we would see in the following days). The stately building on Merrion Street has recently been renovated, I was told, with the new exhibits limited to the ground floor – but the massive collection was still fascinating.
No trip to Dublin would be complete without a walk through Grafton Street, a bustling boulevard at the heart of the city and one of the world’s most expensive in terms of shopfront real estate. The head-spinning melange of crowds, street musicians and high-end advertising was a far cry from the silence of the historic libraries and museums, or the tranquil farmlands just a short drive away.
In a country as green as Ireland, however, even the big city isn’t bereft of it. Our next stop was the most famous of Dublin’s many green spaces, St. Stephen’s Green – Ireland’s answer to Central Park. The average afternoon finds office workers, students and tourists strolling through the placid formal gardens or feeding the swans.
After this first day in the city, I mostly left the camera tucked away in the suitcase, resolved not to walk the streets of Dublin looking like a hapless tourist with my friend’s new Nikon hanging around my neck. (After all, who had time to stop for photos?)
We finished the day with some choral music at the National Concert Hall – a bright, expansive building with a beautifully finished Baroque interior. The performance was great, of course. With the pleasant springlike weather, we eschewed the drive and made the transit on foot. And did I mention that Dublin is a lovely city after dark?
At the end of the day I was beginning to understand the city’s promotional slogan, “Truly, Madly, Deeply, Dublin.”