04 Sep Ireland Road Trip: 8 days on the Emerald Isle
Somewhat laughably, despite having CITTADINANZA: IRLANDESE (Nationality: Irish) stamped on all my Italian documents in big, capital letters, until very recently I’d never actually been to the Republic of Ireland.
(In my defense, I have only technically been a citizen since just-after-June 2016. And yes, it’s exactly what you think.)
Anyway, this year I decided it was about time that I finally set foot on the Emerald Isle, and an invitation to the wedding of one of my closest pals in Northern Ireland this summer gave me the perfect excuse to start planning an Irish road trip, with S in tow.
Our itinerary for this trip was influenced, as usual, by those good old friends Time and Money. I didn’t have a lot of days of holiday to take from work, and I also know from experience that I can’t afford to survive anywhere north of the Alps for longer than 10 days on my measly Italian salary. So in the end, S and I decided on a just-over-a-week-long trip.
For logistical and economic reasons, we had to fly into and out of Dublin Airport. We needed to be at the wedding in Northern Ireland on the 4th August, and I had to be back in the office in Turin by 9.30am on Monday 6th. Besides those limitations, Ireland was our oyster.
I (obviously) wanted to see everything – the Wicklow Mountains, Blarney Castle, the Cliffs of Moher, Giant’s Causeway, Donegal, the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig Islands puffins… the whole shebang – but eventually had to back down and admit that maybe, maybe, visiting the whole of Ireland in just over a week wasn’t all that feasible. Or at least, not if we ever wanted to get out of the car. Or sleep.
So we made a more realistic itinerary, which looked something like this:
Now, before I tell you what we got up to, I’d like to point out straight away that this particular trip didn’t exactly go to plan.
While the rest of Europe, including the UK, and even flipping Scandinavia, was in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave this July, the Republic of Ireland was enjoying… near constant drizzle and a daily average temperature of 14°C.
I’d been checking the forecast religiously in the days before our trip, willing it to change much in the way one opens the fridge for the 8th time in the desperate hope that something more delicious will have appeared inside since the last peek, but the little raindrops on my weather app were just not going away.
I’d had the inspired idea to go to Decathlon and pick up their very cheapest raincoat the day before we left, just in case, but deep down I did optimistically imagine I’d be shoving this turquoise beauty in the bottom of my backpack and never letting it see the light of day. It was JULY. It couldn’t possibly rain enough to warrant more than an umbrella.
In reality, I spent the vast majority of the 8 days with my ugly blue hood up, wishing I’d spent €10 more and got myself a waterproof jacket which didn’t make me look like a rainy day version of Sully from Monsters, Inc. We live and learn.
Here I am, in all my turquoise glory, modelling a wind-proof Buddha bun and a pair of very cold ankles:
Anyway, it turns out that the Irish do not let a little bit of water get in the way of their summer fun, so we tried not to let bad weather ruin our trip either.
Sure, we didn’t get the outdoorsy holiday that we were hoping for, full of hiking and pony rides (OK, “we” were hoping for hiking, only half of “we” was hoping for pony rides), but I suppose we did at least get a true Irish experience.
We rushed out to make the most of a moment of sun whenever it (rarely) came out. We used our hire car to see as much of the countryside as we could without getting drenched. And we sometimes couldn’t resist (or better – had no other option), got out of the car, got soaked, and then ran off to dry off in the nearest pub with a warming glass of Irish Mist and/or a plate of… well… usually potatoes, because Ireland.
For the record, the photos you see here are not entirely representative of our trip – it was often too rainy for me to even pull my Nikon out of my bag, so I only captured the drier moments. Don’t be fooled.
Day 1: Dublin Airport to Birr
As you all know by now, I
am not rich enough to take flights at normal times simply love an early morning airport experience. So after a late night in the office and very little sleep, we hopped on the 5am bus to Bergamo Airport, arriving on Irish soil by early afternoon.
We picked up our hire car (a VW Golf which initially felt like a spaceship, but which I quickly came to adore) and were soon on our way, driving on the correct side of the road now, thankyouverymuch.
We skipped Dublin – more on that later – and instead made our way towards the very centre of Ireland, to a little town called Birr.
I’d picked this place almost at random after deciding – in a rare moment of lucidity – that it would probably be sensible not to drive across an entire country on 3 hours’ sleep, even though I did want to get to the Cliffs of Moher as soon as humanly possible.
But luckily for us, tiny Birr turned out to be more than just a convenient place on the way to the Atlantic seaboard.
Birr’s most famous asset is its stunning Medieval castle, which remains a private residence, but whose grounds are open to the public, with various paths to follow through the gardens. Here are a few photos, so you can admire the grounds in all their glorious green-ness.
Due to closing time being at a very Northern European 6pm, and having arrived in Dublin with a slight delay, we ended up having a brisk walk – rather than a gentle stroll – around the Birr Castle Gardens.
Speedy tourists that we are, we still managed to get around most of the grounds, also enjoying our first Irish drenching when the heavens unexpectedly opened as we wandered.
Anyway, the castle greenery was nice enough, but what both S and I loved the most was… the kids’ play area. Have you ever seen such an awesome treehouse?
In theory, the play-castle is an adult free zone, but it was almost kicking out time, it was drizzling on and off, and there was not a single soul around, so we asked the staff member closing up the castle if he could make an exception for some big kids, and in we went to play before heading off. It was just as fun on the inside as it was on the outside, let me tell you.
Our room for the night was in an adorable little chocolate box cottage, home to super smiley Andreena, one of the friendliest Airbnb hosts I’ve ever come across.
Side note on Airbnb in Ireland: it’s really not like anything we’d ever experienced before. Andreena was particularly wonderful, but all of our hosts were so much friendlier than in any other Airbnb we’d ever stayed in, always going out of their way to give us ideas, advice or – at the very least – a really good breakfast. They’re a friendly bunch, the Irish.
We only had one evening in this area, so we took a restaurant recommendation from Andreena and tried out The Thatch in nearby Crinkill – one of the oldest pubs in the county.
Not wanting to risk imprisonment on our first night away, we agreed that drink driving would be an extremely bad idea, didn’t much fancy spending our holiday cash on a taxi, so instead chose to walk the 1.5 kilometers from our Airbnb, along a road not even slightly designed for pedestrians.
We (miraculously) made it unscathed to The Thatch, which turned out to be a cute, cosy, warm little pub, with not a tourist in sight. I ordered a duck dish, expecting to be given a normal quantity of food, and instead found myself tucking into what was almost certainly an entire bird, on a bed of many, many potatoes, served with a few vegetables (but mainly just more potatoes) on the side. Potatoes with a side of potatoes is, apparently, a thing here.
The Thatch is not a super cheap place, but considering a single portion fills you up for at least the following 4 days, it’s really quite a bargain.
Bellies full, we made our way back down the lethally under-lit rural road back to Birr, and fell asleep to the sounds of mooing cows.
You can’t beat the countryside.
Day 2: Birr to the Cliffs of Moher to Doolin
Cliff walks, Irish sunburn, and S’s first authentic pub experience
We left Birr early in the morning and arrived at the Cliffs of Moher car park just before 9am – thankfully before most of the other visitors, who all flooded in a couple of hours later. We paid our €8 entrance/parking fee, and made our way across the road towards the cliffs.
The Cliffs of Moher is one of those places you can’t go to Ireland and not see. It’s one of those spots that you seem to hear people talk about all. the. time. but can’t really imagine until you visit in person.
Also, a bit of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was filmed there, so… there’s that.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that there’d be quite so many tourists at the cliffs (at the start of the paths close to the visitor centre, you have to fight your way through a kind of selfie stick obstacle course), but the good news is that the further away you go, the fewer other tourists there are. So that’s what we did.
There are something like 20km of walking trails around the cliffs. Considering it was – surprisingly – not raining, we decided to go for the approximately 10km route taking us to Hag’s Head and back, past cows and ponies and the odd sock-and-sandal-wearing German tourist.
We might even have gone all the way around to Liscannor if it hadn’t been for the fact that we’re both donuts and didn’t bring any water with us.
Anyway, the Cliffs of Moher were absolutely stunning, and the sunshine and mild Atlantic breeze made for a very pleasant walking experience, as well as for some rather sunburnt noses. The visibility was great too, giving us views all the way across to Connemara, where we’d be heading in a couple of days time.
This was exactly the kind of Irish summer’s day I’d been looking forward to.
After arriving back at the visitors centre and grabbing some much needed sustenance, we made our way towards the colourful nearby village of Doolin. Naturally, the Irish weather was not planning on allowing us a full summer’s day, and we arrived to a very angry looking sky.
We checked into our Airbnb in the centre of the village, and went for a little walk towards the harbour, but had to turn back when it got too cold and rainy. We headed into a shop to buy some not-entirely-summery woollen gloves and scarves, and then dived into a nearby restaurant for a hearty plate of fish and chips, hoping that the rain would pass. Which it, of course, didn’t.
Luckily, teeny tiny Doolin is a pretty famous place for something which does not involve being outside at all. It’s the capital of traditional Irish music, and without a doubt The Place To Be if you want to catch some live Irish tunes in a traditional Irish pub.
Of the few local pubs on offer, we picked – for no particular reason – Gus O’Connor’s. Inside, we found a lot of pleasantly rowdy people, the sound of traditional instruments, and nowhere to sit. This was surely a good sign.
We grabbed a couple of pints, hunted down two stools, plonked ourselves near to the musicians, and soaked up the moment. Even though most of the people in the pub were certainly tourists, the musicians were clearly having so much fun and the entertainment didn’t feel contrived at all. Irish music is all about sharing stories with whoever is sitting listening, so tourists or not, we were doing it right.
Not bad for S’s first “real” pub experience.
Day 3: Doolin to Galway
A drive through the Burren, Dungaire Castle, and… a trip to Irish Primark
Over breakfast, our lovely Airbnb host Kate gave us some suggestions for the day ahead. We needed to end up in Galway, but weren’t too fussed about how to get there, so she recommended going through The Burren – an area in County Clare famous for its karst landscapes (yep, I had to Google that) and a pretty nice place for a morning drive.
We made our way down to the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a famous site featuring what I would ignorantly describe as Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge. It’s actually a Neolithic portal tomb (thanks again, Google) perched on a moon-like rocky surface which feels light years away from the lush green fields just down the road.
Naturally, after a beautiful drive over, the heavens opened the moment we stepped out of the car. As we approached the tomb, the raindrops got more enormous and more painful, and we essentially had to run up to it, peek out from under our raincoat hoods, and then retreat immediately to the car park.
Of course, as soon as we drove off, we saw the clouds open behind us.
Further down the road towards Galway, we pulled over just past Kinvara to see Dunguaire Castle, one of the best-known castles in Ireland, and one I’d seen a lot of photos of during my intensive pre-trip Instagram research (call me millennial, but it’s more effective than it sounds, OK?).
I was slightly confused to find that the lake I’d seen in so many photos of this place had dried up, but soon figured out that the “lake” is actually a part of the sea water from the surrounding bay, meaning it’s not actually there unless the tide is in. Mystery solved.
We ended up not actually going inside the castle because, to be brutally honest, it didn’t look like it’d be all that great on the inside and we were just too cheap to part with €6 each. Shallow, I know.
Anyway, we did a lap from the outside, and then headed back towards colourful Kinvara to grab some seafood chowder in a café before setting off once more.
We arrived in sunny Galway mid-afternoon, and went for a walk around town after checking into our B&B.
We took advantage of the oddly nice weather by wandering around the harbour, into the super colourful Latin Quarter… and then… diving inside a shopping centre and buying things we didn’t need in Penney’s, aka the original Primark. Don’t tell me I don’t embrace the local culture.
In the interests of honest blogging, I will make a confession: I was expecting to love Galway, but I didn’t. Which is perhaps why we ended up spending so long browsing novelty socks in Penney’s rather than soaking up the city’s atmosphere.
The streets in the Latin Quarter are colourful and make for some pretty photos, but this area is really just one street, which is too crowded and feels so tourist-trappy, while the rest of the city was just… OK.
I’m sure Galway is great for a certain kind of holiday (i.e. one involving a lot more Guinness and a lot less sleep than ours did) but it just wasn’t for me.
And so, after some very traditional *ahem* Thai noodles, we went to our B&B to sleep, ready to get on the road bright and early in the morning, away from the city and into the wilderness once more.
Day 4: Connemara by car
As I sipped my tea in the conservatory, under a deafening rainshower, while wearing 2 jumpers on top of each other (in July, may I remind you), the owner of our Galway B&B – Norman – asked what our plans were for the day.
I gave him a bit of a sad look as I told him that we were actually going up to Connemara, an area known for its natural beauty, where I had been excited about the fresh air, the stunning scenery, the walking trails, and the potential for a horse ride down a long, sandy beach.
Our host enthusiastically told us that Connemara is stunning on rainy days too, and that actually it’s a pretty great place to drive around if it’s too drizzly for walking. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I believed him.
The original plan for the day had been to go to visit Kylemore Abbey and to take on the Diamond Hill walk in the National Park to admire views over the whole Connemara area from above.
Needless to say, neither of these things was going to happen.
I admit that I would have been considerably happier if the sun had been out and if we’d been able to explore “properly” on foot, but I must admit that Norman from Galway wasn’t wrong – Connemara really is pretty fascinating without the sun, all moody and mysterious.
Norman had been kind enough to recommend us a driving route which would offer us the best of Connemara without having to leave the comfort of the car. And so, we drove around, admiring the greenery and the lakes and the fjord (yes, you read that right) from the warmth of our little Golf.
We did a loop which passed through Maam Cross, up to Leenaun (home to that famous Irish fjord), across to Letterfrack (with a view of Kylemore Abbey from the road), through the town of Clifden, around to the stunning beaches of Ballyconneely and the tiny harbour town of Roundstone, and then back over to Recess, in order to cut through the middle of the loop towards Renvyle, where we were staying.
Connemara isn’t a huge area, so if you don’t stop along the way and/or spend several millennia searching for a parking space in Clifden, this whole loop only takes a couple of hours.
Most of the towns in the Connemara area are very tiny, so to be in with a chance of easily finding somewhere for lunch, we chose to stop at Clifden – the so-called capital of Connemara (boasting a whopping 3,284 inhabitants).
Clifden is Ireland’s answer to a Cotswolds town, I suppose – all quaint shops and elderly people in raincoats and tea rooms serving diabetes-inducing baked goods.
After driving around the town’s one way system a good 4 times, we finally snagged a parking space and found a spot in a café with suitably chunky sandwiches. After a pot of tea to ensure we were properly warmed up, we headed off again into the drizzle.
Pretty much every time it stopped raining, we pulled over, got out, and made an attempt at admiring the view through the mist. We even stumbled across some absolutely stunning beaches, with miles of white sand, beautiful water, and not a single soul there. Obviously, these coastlines aren’t exactly tropical, and you’d be mad to go for a swim, but goodness me they are pretty.
There was no way we were ever going to see the Connemara we’d been expecting, but there’s no denying that this place is stunning even in sub-par weather conditions.
By early evening, we’d made our way up to Tully Cross and checked in to our accommodation. We immediately wandered down the road to Paddy Coynes Pub where we stuffed ourselves with absurd quantities of food and enjoyed the warm cosiness that only a real pub can give you, before heading back up the hill through the rain to our lovely, dry B&B, crossing our fingers that the sun would be out for us the following day.
Day 5: Kylemore Abbey
The dampest day of my entire existence
We woke up to find that the sun wasn’t even slightly out for us. In fact, it was pouring with rain.
Incidentally, it was at this point, a few days into our trip to what is surely one of the drizzliest places in Europe – if not the world – that I remembered why I’d moved to Italy. The lack of sun was officially making me a bit miserable.
We only had one more day in Connemara, and if we wanted to go to visit Kylemore Abbey (which, we did), it was now – in the deluge – or never.
We thought about it over a long breakfast, and decided to go for the “now” option, although more sensible people in our position would have been forgiven for choosing otherwise.
We drove towards Kylemore Abbey, but the rain only intensified. We sat in the car park for a few minutes, waiting for the worst of it to blow over before getting out. It didn’t. We took a deep breath and legged it to the ticket office.
It was raining so much that we probably would have arrived at the Abbey drier if we’d skipped the tickets and just swum across the lake from the car park.
You know that kind of rain which gets you so soaked that you have to just embrace the fact that there’s no hope, and laugh as you let it drench you? That’s what we were dealing with here.
We did a little jog up to the Abbey, trying to shield ourselves as much as possible from the horizontal rain, and went inside.
As it turns out, on the outside, Kylemore Abbey is incredibly impressive, but on the inside it looks (and, bizarrely, smells?) a lot like like the primary school my brother went to. In fairness, it was a particularly nice school, but not necessarily somewhere I would choose to spend my holidays.
What made the Abbey more unpleasant was the fact that it was packed full of damp bodies, standing around in dripping waterproof jackets, waiting for the rain to stop. We were, of course, doing exactly this as well.
After walking around the inside of the Abbey a full second time, we decided to make a dash through the rain back to the café at the entrance, planning to sit there with a coffee until the rain eased up, so that we could at least walk down the road to see the Gothic Church.
Needless to say, it just continued raining, so once our coffee was finished, we just walked towards the church in the downpour.
Again, from the outside, this building is lovely – it’s like a tiny, doll’s cathedral. But, again, admiring from the outside was not really on the cards. We joined a few other drenched travellers on the inside of the church which was certainly less nice than the outside, before legging it back to the car and turning the heating on. We had been beaten.
I’ve done my best to salvage the photos of Kylemore Abbey, but there’s just no denying it just wasn’t the day for top notch photography.
We drove off, through flooded roads (OK, I drove through flooded roads while S talked me through a flood-induced near-meltdown from the passenger seat), and made our way over to Roundstone for some coffee and cake. There are usually some pretty stunning views from this little harbour town, but I don’t need to tell you that we didn’t see anything except greyness, do I?
Despite a few moments of respite, it seemed like the rain was simply not going to give up, and we were struggling to figure out what we should do about this aimless afternoon…
So, like the good Irish girl that I am, I gave up and took S back to the pub.
Day 6: West Coast to Enniskillen
Via Westport and Sligo
After the rainy day to end all rainy days, it was time to get out of Co. Galway.
We’d decided to head towards Northern Ireland a couple of days before the wedding in an attempt to be somewhat well-rested for it. So we spent a day slowly, ever so slowly, moving from Co. Galway, through Co. Mayo and Co. Sligo, and into Northern Ireland’s Co. Fermanagh which, incidentally, I still don’t know how to pronounce.
Our first stop was Westport – another Irish town which could be plonked in the middle of the Cotswolds without anyone really noticing. S had his first experience of parallel parking on the “wrong” (correct) side of the road, and we got out of the car for a short wander in the drizzle, and an all-important coffee to dry off before heading onwards.
In Sligo, it was also raining (surprise!). We parked as close to the centre of town as we could manage, and set out on a mission to find somewhere to have lunch. We stumbled across a nice little place called Knox, where we had some very hearty meat-filled sandwiches, and then… well, we headed back to the car, because it was freezing cold and chucking it down.
We crossed the (invisible) border into Northern Ireland and were in Enniskillen by early evening, by which time it had finally stopped raining – hooray!
We wanted to go to check out Enniskillen’s castle, but it was already closed for the day, so we went for a little aimless wander around the edge of the lake instead.
By now, it was 8.30pm, or as it’s known in the rest of Europe, dinner time. In Northern Ireland, however, eating at 8.30 is apparently unheard of, because literally everything was closed, having stopped serving at 7pm (how??).
We found one place still doing food and had an incredibly sad Caesar salad before heading home to sleep.
Day 7: Exploring County Fermanagh
Marble Arch Caves and the Cuilcagh Trail (followed by The Incredibles 2)
Day 7 was one of my favourites, although I wasn’t expecting it to be.
I am not a big fan of caves, but considering I’d chosen where we were going on holiday, and made the itinerary, and was dragging S to a wedding of one of my friends, I thought it was only fair to take him to do something he might like. Meaning spending the morning in a dark, damp hole in the ground. Joy.
But the Marble Arch Caves weren’t actually all that bad, which – coming from claustrophobic, cave-hating me – is pretty much as good a compliment as it gets.
The tour usually involves walking around part of the cave, and taking a little boat journey around another section of it. As you might have already gathered, it had been raining rather a lot lately (and in fact, still was) so the boat section was sadly off limits, but S still had a lovely time amongst the stalactites and stalagmites while I tried to forget that we were inside a rock hole.
We emerged from the cave to find that it had stopped drizzling, so we drove down the road to the start of the day’s walk: the Cuilcagh Legnabrocky Trail (ah yes, another place I can’t pronounce).
On paper, this place doesn’t sound particularly sexy – it’s a very long, mostly straight, wooden boardwalk plonked on top of a blanket bog. But in reality, it’s a beaut.
The walk is mostly very easy, the surroundings are lovely, and while we weren’t totally alone there, there weren’t a huge number of other people either, so we were able to make our way along the path in near silence, surrounded by sheep and lovely Northern Irish greenery.
At the end of the path, you come across a rather steep set of wooden stairs which, let me tell you, are not for the faint of heart. I didn’t take any photos at this point because I was too busy trying not to die. We huffed and puffed our way up, looking forward to the view from the top of the hill and… climbed right inside a rain cloud. Oh Ireland, you tease.
We sat in the white-out for a while, waiting for the wind to blow the cloud off from on top of us, and eventually got a semi-view over the surrounding area.
We walked back down towards the car, and drove our tired legs back to Enniskillen, with no firm plan for the afternoon. This somehow turned into going to sit in a practically empty cinema, watching The Incredibles 2, before another somewhat underwhelming dinner in town. All part of the cultural experience, I assure you.
Day 8: Northern Irish Wedding Day
The morning of my friend Melissa’s wedding, we drove across from Enniskillen to Moira, a little town not far from the wedding venue, where we were going to be staying that night.
We’d tried to ask the B&B if we could arrive earlier than the designated check-in time of 3pm, considering we’d need to be on the way to the wedding by midday, and wouldn’t be coming back until late. They just said “no”, and then ignored any further attempts to contact them, so we showed up at 11am anyway and talked our way in, as good Mediterraneans do.
After getting ready in approx. 15 minutes (hair chucked into the same scruffy ponytail I wear to work every day – no regrets) we got a taxi across to the adorable Riverdale Barn and had the loveliest afternoon/evening celebrating Mel and Josh, and catching up with some of my old university friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen for 6 years.
There was Guinness, there were potatoes, and there was cheesy dancing. It was the best kind of wedding.
Day 9: Quick pitstop in Dublin, and home
We woke up feeling surprisingly fresh, and set off from Moira fairly early, airport-bound.
The drive turned out to be much quicker and simpler than we’d anticipated, so we found ourselves back in the Republic of Ireland and with a bit of time on our hands.
To avoid spending an entire afternoon in Duty Free, we decided to take a whistlestop detour into the Irish capital.
We’d originally decided to skip Dublin, reasoning that this was the only part of the country that we could easily fly back to for a weekend break, and prioritising other parts of the country for this road trip. But considering we were here already…
As we parked the car, S said, “You won’t be disappointed that we can’t see the whole of Dublin in 2 hours, right?”. Wrong. I’m the world’s biggest fan of trying to see an entire city in an impossibly short amount of time. But I admitted that two hours was too little even for me, and we went for an aimless stroll.
We were only in Dublin for long enough to wander down the river, walk around Urban Outfitters, and grab two toasted sandwiches in a nearby café, but we still managed to soak up a tiny bit of the city’s unique energy.
Dublin has a really cool vibe, and definitely left us wanting to come back to see it properly… so watch this space!
And that was that.
Soon enough, we were back in sweltering Torino, complaining about how it wasn’t raining any more.
Our summer road trip on the Emerald Isle was certainly not always smooth sailing, but it was exactly as a trip to Ireland should be: full of music, greenery, and loads of carbs.
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