The Emerald Isle is aptly named; in Australia, the spectrum of brilliant greens covering Ireland could only be found in the paint department at a hardware store. When driving around Ireland, the eye is constantly drawn to the neat fields and rolling hills, all outrageously verdant due to frequent rainfall.
The country, small on a map but large when you travel its winding lanes and byways, is charming in a picture-postcard sense, ancient and eternal. The people are friendly and voluble, and always
willing to suggest an interesting place to see in their homeland.
Most overseas visitors arrive via Shannon Airport in the western part of the country. Several agencies at the airport offer car rental, and to drive in Ireland you must have an international driving permit.
The road rules are similar – but visitors are advised to watch out for sheep. Few pastures in Ireland are fenced, with low stone walls serving as barriers, but between the sheep and the road: nothing.
It would be easy to spend a month exploring the back roads of Ireland but quite a bit can be seen in about 10 days. Distances in Ireland are deceptive: a map may indicate that such-and-such a place is 140km away, and tourists might assume that they will get there in a couple of hours.
They won’t. Roadwork, places to explore, and nearly indecipherable road signs will create detours that can be either frustrating or delightful. In Ireland it is most often the latter.
One place not far from Shannon that gives an immediate sense of Olde Ireland is Bunratty Castle. Built, razed by invaders and rebuilt repeatedly, the current castle dates to 1425 and is the
most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland.
It was restored in 1954 to its former medieval splendour and now contains mainly 15th and 16th century furnishings, tapestries and works of art that capture the mood of those times.
Replica thatch-roofed houses and cottages of the era spread out from the foot of its massive walls, and the caw-caw-caw of crows makes you feel far from home, in both space and time.
Ennis is the largest town in County Clare, about 20km from Bunratty on the river Fergus. Architecturally it is an old settlement with narrow winding streets dating to 1240, when Donnchadh
Caribreach O’Brien helped establish the Franciscan Order there.
Besides having excellent shops and pubs, Ennis is a fine base from which to make side trips throughout County Clare. The town offers many welcoming B&Bs where visitors can get their fill of local lore while enjoying a hearty breakfast that precludes the need to eat anything else for several hours. B&B hosts are a wealth of information about what to do and see, and will enjoy efforts
to pronounce the local, Gaelic-flavoured words and place names.
On the coast of the Connemara region, the town of Clifden is only a couple of hours from Ennis. Places such as Clifden give visitors a sense of how old Ireland really is. That part of the coast is lined with derelict castles that once protected it from invasion, and the ruins are dramatic and spectacular.
These long-abandoned fortresses are often found in cow pastures, and the locals will simply shrug if asked about them; their presence there is no more noteworthy than an abandoned bush shack might be to an Australian.
Even more ubiquitous are the pubs. Any crossroads big enough to honour with the name village will have one, along with a butcher, a chemist and a church.
Visitors should stop in and have a pint or two. The locals inside may even shout one, as they regale with tales of Eire. No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the home of Guinness beer,
Dublin, and experiencing its grimy allure and varied cuisine.
The over-the-top Guinness Storehouse in the city centre is a must-see. At the heart of St James’s Gate Brewery, the seven floors of this temple dedicated to the iconic brew are designed around a central glass atrium mirroring the shape of a pint of Guinness. Visitors experience the 250-year history of the beer and discover how it’s made, building up a prodigious thirst that can be quenched with a free pint at the tour’s end.
At some point, any drive through Ireland should include a trip to the seaside. Beaches in Ireland are often stony: covered with rocks worn smooth and ovoid by the waves. The water is a picturesque deep navy blue and only for those with wetsuits.
The drive from Dublin to County Cork can be accomplished in as little as three hours, but allow two days’ travel time to soak up the sights. The countryside is spectacular and invites side journeys.
Cork is the capital, but the town of Blarney, a few kilometres away, offers delightful accommodation in the form of the Muskerry Arms, which also has a massive restaurant and pub.
Visitors will need a great audience after kissing the nearby Blarney Stone, said to bestow ‘the gift of gab’ that the Irish famously possess on anyone who will give it the requisite smooch.
In order to perform this feat, people used to have to be hung off the wall of Blarney Castle, where the stone is set high in a wall, but in the age of litigation it can be accomplished merely by bending
over backwards while holding iron railings. And then it’s back on the road again.