May 21, 2012

The Emerald Isle

We decided a long time ago with my parents that we wanted to see as much of Ireland as possible, so we rented a car in Dublin and hit the road.

This was our first time driving in nearly 4 months and we didn’t ease into it lightly. The roads in Ireland are windy and narrow and we’re driving on the wrong side…from the passenger seat…with a stick shift. There were only a few close calls with some parked cars and a biker. You can see here how Steve mastered all of this while balancing an ice cream cone.

For being such a small country (the size of Indiana), Ireland is blessed with countless treasures. Having a car allowed us do a clockwise tour of the entire island in just 9 days...which is nowhere near enough time, by the way. We drove through so many towns that they are honestly a blur, but we hit some incredible sites and here are our favorites.

After a wonderful reunion with my parents, one of our first stops was to the Guinness Storehouse. I’ve always heard that since Guinness doesn’t travel well, it tastes better at the Storehouse than anywhere else in the world. I really think that’s true. It was so creamy and delicious that we weren’t even bothered by a bogus fire evacuation.

We had a student tour us through Trinity College and their spectacular library, which houses the ancient and meticulous Book of Kells. The Trinity College Library houses over 5 million books, and in the main chamber, 200,000 of the library’s oldest books are all arranged from smallest to largest. Apparently the Dewey Decimal System has not made it here yet.

We also visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and were lucky to get a tour from the former deacon. This 10th century church was where St. Patrick is said to have baptized converts. It wasn’t until several days after our visit that I made the connection between this cathedral and 
St. Patrick’s Day…I guess I always thought that St. Patrick was a leprechaun who served beer in March. Regardless, the church had a book that I could have benefited from about 30 years ago...

Blarney Castle
This well-preserved castle is set on beautiful grounds and is famous for the Blarney Stone. 

According to legend, kissing the stone bestows you with the gift of eloquence. Getting to the stone requires a deep back-bend. Surviving the stone requires a healthy immune system.

Head of Brae
On the outer tip of the Ring of Kerry we did a short hike up to the Head of Brae. Along the way we got up close and person with a pack of pregnant cows, and at the top, we were rewarded with gorgeous cliffs.


Dingle Peninsula
This coastal area is lesser known than the nearby Ring of Kerry, but we liked it much better.
I never knew that Ireland had water like the Caribbean.

Famine Cottages
Along our way to the Dingle Peninsula we passed some of the old thatched cottages which were abandoned during the 1845-1850 potato famine.

We always knew about the blight that affected the potato crops, but we were shocked to learn that the famine could have easily been avoided altogether. Ireland was actually producing enough non-potato crops to feed their people, but England mandated that the good crops be exported. The Irish were reduced to boiling and eating dandelions, and many people did not survive. Now we know why all of the locals were cheering for Germany over England in the soccer finals.

Cliffs of Moher
I was pretty excited when I read that these were the “Cliffs of Despair” from The Princess Bride. Getting the best views required some minor trespassing on private property, but nobody seemed to care.

The Burren
This is a region in Western Ireland that is made up of a huge limestone sheet. There's a famous quote that goes something like this: "The Burren is a country where there's not enough water to drown a man, not enough wood to hang him, and not enough earth to bury him". All throughout the rocky landscape there guessed it...rock walls. These were completely pointless and just built to give the Irish jobs during the potato famine.

Aran Islands
These are a set of three islands that lie off the western coast of Ireland. It’s one of the last Gaelic-speaking areas of the country and is famous for its cable-knit sweaters and stone walls that crisscross every last bit of land, thereby creating a ridiculous amount of tiny farms for the island's 850 inhabitants.

To get to the largest island, Inis Mor, we boarded a 12-seater airplane and took the shortest flight ever….6 minutes.

This picture perfectly captures the mood in the plane…Dad is excited for the adventure and Mom is terrified.

Our guide on the island, Tony, was an ex-fisherman who drank away all of his money and is now giving tours with his trusty horse Jimmy. My guess is that Tony has kissed the Blarney Stone at some point in his life because he certainly had the gift of gab. He was our favorite Irishman of the trip.

The people of Ireland have the most charming self-deprecating humor. There’s also a sense that they’ve been through a lot and that they persevere. In about a week from now, the Irish people will be voting on how to handle their debt crisis. It’s impossible to miss the austerity signs on every lamppost.

Whenever we ask people how they think the vote is going to go, they let out a big sigh followed by a long silence before they answer, “I don’t know”. It’s obvious that the importance of the decision is weighing on them, but as one newscaster put it, they are a people that overcome.

Music is embedded in life here. Ireland is the only country that uses a musical instrument (the harp) as its national symbol. In fact, we rarely saw the shamrock used on signs or in architecture. The harp rules in Ireland.

We’ve tried some traditional Irish dishes like Bangers & Mash and Black Pudding, but we’ve also eaten a lot of familiar foods like Clam Chowder and Salmon. Restaurants love using their liquid national icons in sweet and savory dishes like Beef & Guinness Stew and Baileys Cheesecake. Not complaining! We may have sampled a few of those national icons along the way...

But easily our most lasting impression of Ireland will be the endless green pastures with sheep and rock walls. They cover every square inch of the country and make it feel like every day is a quintessential day on The Emerald Isle.


  1. Ireland has sandy beaches too as well as Caribbean water. This is my favorite post as Ireland is my favorite country. And I know there is a lot more but you guys really hit some of the most AMAZING places, good work.

    I love all things Ireland, especially the people :)

  2. I discovered your blog through Nomadic Matt's post today and immediately searched Ireland as I am leaving for a 6 month stint in the country soon.

    Your pictures are incredible! I especially love the ones of the Dingle Peninsula, and that first one of the Aran Islands, where you can see all the crisscrossing stone walls.

    1. Hi Jessica!

      Thanks for your note. I love those pics too!

      Did you see my post about Northern Ireland? I hope you have time to make it up to Giants of the coolest natural wonders I have ever seen.

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