Ireland is a fascinating place and I have some deep family connections there, which made a recent visit across the pond that much more rewarding. My father was born and raised in Dublin and immigrated to the US in his early 20s, and I made my first trip over at the age of eight to meet my paternal family. As an adult, I’ve been over every two or three years with my husband, Bryan. Our last trip was scheduled for 2020…and of course we know how that worked out. With the pandemic finally receding, we made plans to get over as soon as we could. My husband loves visiting foreign cities to see their Christmas celebrations, so we decided to go in early December.
We stayed at our favorite hotel, Clontarf Castle, which is located approximately a mile away from my uncle and cousins’ homes. It’s a quick bus, DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), or taxi ride from there to the Dublin city center. Aside from the fact that it’s well situated for us, and anyone visiting the city, it’s also an actual castle. A castle has been on the site since the 12th century, with the latest structure having been built in the early 19th century. According to the castle’s website, it “has a rich and varied history. From Brian Boru and the epic battle of Clontarf to the mysterious monastic order, The Knights Templar, and from the Vernon Family, the castle’s longest serving residents to George Frideric Handel who resided at the castle when premiering his most famous work, Messiah.”
The current structure is a combination of the 19th century castle and 20th century modern additions. However, the history and beauty can be seen throughout. Clontarf Castle also sports three food and beverage venues, the Knights Bar with its huge fireplaces and ornate ceilings, the Indigo Lounge that serves morning coffee, afternoon tea and offers comfortable stylish seating, and last, but not least, the Fahrenheit Grill, which specializes in local fish and beef dishes. If all of that wasn’t enough, they put on a spectacular Christmas display.
Since this wasn’t our first visit to Dublin, we didn’t spend too much time seeing the sites, aside from taking in some of the Christmas décor, which adorns the city center. However, on previous trips, we’ve taken advantage of the various day tours (via luxury coaches) to places like the Cliffs of Moher, Giants Causeway, Boyne Valley, Blarney Castle, Cork, Connemara and even as far north as Belfast, all of which can be picked up at locations throughout the city center. Thus far, we’ve done coach tours to 23 of their 32 counties, it’s a wonderful way to see the sites.
After a couple of days visiting my family in Dublin, we headed down to Gorey in Wexford County via Irish Rail (you can go by bus, but the train follows the coastline and it’s a very scenic ride) to visit more of our family. Although we’ve visited the Wexford/Wicklow area several times in the past, we managed to have two new experiences on this trip.
My husband loves castles almost as much as he loves Christmas, so we headed to Kilkenny – the city began as a medieval Irish walled town in the 16th century, with St. Canice’s Cathedral to the north and Kilkenny Castle at its south end. The majority of the town’s wealth was due to its location at the center of a rich agricultural area. Throughout the 16th century, the town grew and prospered under the control of a wealthy merchant oligarchy, the earls of Ormond. Today, Kilkenny is a popular tourist destination and includes several historic sites such as Kilkenny Castle, St. Canice’s Cathedral and round tower, Rothe House, Shee Alms House and much more. They are also known for their annual events, which include the Kilkenny Arts Festival, the Cat Laughs comedy festival and the Kilkenny Roots music festival. In addition, they have a vibrant food and shopping scene.
Kilkenny Castle was originally built in the 13th century by William Marshall, 4th Earl of Pembroke as a symbol of Norman Control and later symbolized the fortunes of the powerful Butlers of Ormond. The tours are self-guided, allowing you to take in the amazing craftsmanship and spectacular views from the many windows and terraces at your own pace. Our favorite spot was The Picture Gallery, which was built in the early 19th century by architect William Robertson. Its original flat roof was replaced shortly after completion due to leakage and a pitched roof was put in its place. The structure is supported by stone corbels, carved by the O’Shea brothers from Kilkenny and the entire ceiling was hand painted by John Hungerford Pollen (1820-1902).
The parkland surrounding the castle comprises 21 hectares (almost 52 acres) with formal gardens, pathways, and nature trails so that visitors can explore the amazing flora and fauna or enjoy a nice picnic on the grounds. The parklands are open to the general public and free to visit. We finished off our visit to Kilkenny with a stop at the Left Bank, a former Bank of Ireland branch dating back to the 1870s. It’s a beautiful building inside and out, and the food and beverage selection make it a worthy stop.
The highpoint of the trip was a walking tour through Wicklow Mountains National Park. The park consists of 20,000 hectares (almost 50,000 acres), covering much of upland Wicklow County and provides protected habitat for both flora and fauna. Our walk was guided by my cousin, Kevin Mann, who is a guide for Wild Walks Ireland*. Kevin has lived in the Wicklow area since the early 1980s and has extensive knowledge of the area’s history, as well as Ireland’s history as a whole. Kevin guided us on the Spinc and Glenealo Valley trail. The 9-kilometer (5.59 miles) hike starts with a (mildly) steep climb to the Poulanass Waterfall before joining a series of moderate trails through the woods, up granite stone steps and eventually to a set of more than 600 steps that ascend to an overlook of the upper lake at Glendalough. The views from this point are absolutely spectacular, and as we were treated to a crisp, but clear day, they were even more enjoyable. From that point we began our descent along the upper valley, which consists of a boardwalk trail.
The views include the twin lakes of Glendalough and the “Monastic City”, which was an early 6th century Christian monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin. There are a number of cloistered remains at Glendalough, the most impressive being the Round Tower, which stands almost 100 feet tall. In addition to the tower, there’s St. Mary’s Church, the Priest’s House, St. Kevin’s Church and several other remains. On a previous trip to Ireland, my cousin Kevin gave us a guided tour of Glendalough complete with an in-depth history of the monastic city and surrounding area (I highly recommend it).
The remainder of the walk included an encounter with two male Sika deer, a spectacular play of light on the lower lake and a quick stop at the quaint Visitor’s Center, where you can learn about the local wildlife. We topped it all off with a stop at Lynham’s of Laragh for a pint and a bowl of soup, it was the perfect ending to a perfect afternoon.
Travelling to Ireland—or anywhere for that matter—in the off season is a favorite of ours. It’s less expensive and less crowded than most places during their peak tourist season. Ireland’s weather tends to be similar to that of the Pacific Northwest, making it ideal for year-round travel (you know what to expect), although they do occasionally get a cold snap in the winter months, it is still worth the trip. Another bonus when travelling to Ireland (regardless of the season) is the US Preclearance Facility at Dublin Airport. This service allows you to clear customs prior to your arrival in the US, so passengers are treated like any other domestic flight—upon arrival, you deplane, grab your bags and head home and skip the long Customs lines.
Erin Go Bragh!
*Wild Walks Ireland guides are qualified Mountain Leaders, certified by the Mountain Training Board of Ireland MTBI and carry current Certificates of Remote Emergency Care Level 3 or higher, in addition they’re Garda vetted. If you’re interested in taking a tour with any of their guides throughout Ireland, contact them at email@example.com
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