Our first stop after Connemara was at Kinvara to visit my cousin Maura and her husband Pat. I had visited Kinvara with my Dad on my previous visit when we were lucky enough to be in town for the Galway Hooker Festival… Not quite the revelation you’d expect for a thirteen year old boy, over here Hookers are a type of fishing boat. This year there wasn’t a hooker in site but it was still a lovely harbour village, Jess was both excited and relieved to see that my description of a town with one pub for every house was not entirely accurate. We had a lovely dinner with Maura and Pat who took us on a tour of the region and then for a few sneaky pints before heading to bed.
We said our goodbyes the next morning and set off on the Wild Atlantic Way, our first stop being the Aillwee Caves. The caves were discovered by a farmer walking his dog in the 1940’s who decided to explore the caves on his own and didn’t tell anyone about their existence for another thirty years. We did the tour of the cave which allowed us to get 300m into the system of tunnels, this is only a third of the way in but it isn’t possible to go any further without entering the submerged caves and using dive equipment. We decided to give that a miss. Good caves though and a really hilarious tour guide. Definitely worth a look and not so many tourists there as at a lot of the places we visited on this leg of the journey.
After the caves we checked out the Birds of Prey Centre, the weather had started to set in at this stage and it was raining quite heavily which meant that there were only a few people there for the demonstration. The guy leading it did a great job in pretty difficult conditions, African birds don’t love doing tricks in Irish rain we quickly discovered. We all got an opportunity to see the birds up close with the Barn Owl a fan favourite and the falcons stealing the show with some fast flying to take down some aerial targets. The centre is involved in quite a few breeding programs and has been reintroducing species back into areas they had been hunted out of decades ago, helping to restore the original ecosystems.
We also stumbled across a gourmet food centre here and set ourselves up with enough fudge & cheese to last us a week, the agreed favourites being the garlic & nettle cheese and the salted caramel fudge.
We had intentions of getting out into The Burren and doing some hiking but the weather was getting terrible so we just went for a quick drive around the area instead. We stumbled across Poulnabrone Dolmen, another neolithic site Jess was keen to see. The rock formation was impressive, as were the natural limestone formations all around it. After our drive we headed into our home for the night Doolin and went in search of supplies for our picnic dinner. Unfortunately there was no supermarket in Doolin, the teenage guy we asked for directions in the tourist office told us that the nearest shops were in Lisdoonvarna but warned us that it was not a good time to visit. The Matchmaking Festival was apparently on, he gave us a dire warning to get in and out as quickly as we could because the village would be overrun by weird old farmers who can’t talk looking for love and crazy old cat ladies dancing in the streets. We immediately set out for the festival. We were not fortunate enough to stumble across third generation matchmaker Willie Daly or any of the previously mentioned cat ladies. We did however see hundreds of the farmers we were forewarned about and found the town almost impassible due to the traffic, we had arrived at a time between organised dances and events so people had spilled into the street and under the advice of our young friend we got in and out quickly and back to our B&B for a gourmet picnic of delicious local produce.
The apocalyptic rains continued overnight causing washouts and flooding all over the west coast of Ireland. Despite this we decided to continue our plans and head to The Cliffs of Moher, the iconic stretch of cliffs that run for 8km and bare the brunt of the Atlantic storms we were becoming quite familiar with. The cliffs have been used as a shooting location in many Irish and international TV and movie productions ranging from Father Ted to Harry Potter and were pretty spectacular to wander along. We didn’t take the cliffside path as the weather was pretty severe with high winds and rain so retreated into the visitor centre. It was here that we realised why Irish people tend to make so many jokes about American tourists, wow. We have seen and chatted to a heap of Americans on this trip and had without exception found them to be nothing like the stereotypical loud obnoxious tourists played up on TV, thats because those guys aren’t hiking in Albania… They are on fluorescent green coaches driving around Ireland yelling at each other about whats in their guide books and/or the gift shop. Was an education and Jess banned me from making impersonations fearing we would be overheard and overrun, we were definitely outnumbered whenever a Paddywagon rolled into town.
As we were leaving the cliffs the weather finally broke and we set off to go walking in The Burren, fortunately we had driven through the area and scouted out the trails we wanted to walk. Unfortunately we didn’t notice flyers and signs up for a charity bike ride and fun run which we nearly joined, in our car. I was clever enough to not think anything was amiss when we drove past four full car parks and streets packed with cars in a town with a population of around one thousand, nor when we hit a section of road with traffic cones everywhere to stop anyone parking on the road. Fortunately I stopped before actually running anyone down or driving onto the course and the organisers thought it was a great laugh and set us up inside with a cup of tea and some freshly baked muffins until the competitors got down the road a bit. After a delicious morning tea we travelled a few miles down the road and headed out on a hike on one of the nature trails. There are loads of great walks around the area, we chose a relatively quick one but still got to take in the amazing geology and flora of this unique landscape.
We spent a couple more days in the area down around Spanish Point and got to check out a surf lifesaving comp which was pretty intense in the massive surf and freezing cold. The highlight was in the pairs rescues where one team member had to swim almost a kilometre out to a set of bouys and wait to be rescued, then their partner swims out with a flotation belt and tows them back in. It was a fairly gruelling ocean swim and one guy got about halfway out, gave up and then swam back in, leaving his partner out in the freezing ocean for ages with no idea what was happening until someone came and brought them back in, they didn’t love it. We also had the luxury of having a private pub for the Manchester vs Liverpool game, the entire village had gone off to watch a local hurling game leaving only Jess, myself and the barman (also a Man United fan) to enjoy the game on the big screen. It was a great result if a little lacking in atmosphere but at least Jess finally got to watch a game she enjoyed half of.
Before driving down to the Dingle peninsula we decided to head down to the Loop Head lighthouse, we had not had a great deal of luck with lighthouses thus far as regular readers would know. Loop Head was no different. The wind was so strong that it nearly pulled the door off the car when I tried to get out, we stayed long enough to walk ten metres towards the lighthouse before giving up and getting back in the car. We did park up for a little while to watch the wind blowing waves up over the cliffs which is something we’d never seen before and attempted to capture in the first picture below.
We then caught the ferry over to the Dingle Peninsula and headed down towards Inch Beach where we were staying for a couple of nights whilst exploring the area. On Shane and Irene’s recommendation we stopped in at the South Pole Inn, formerly owned by Antarctic explorer Tom Crean and now filled with information and stories from the expeditions he went on and his heroics at the South Pole. We had a couple of great meals here during our stay and learned heaps about Tom, who we had never heard much about previously. I don’t think he is big in America either because despite his name being on the pub and articles about him and photos off him being on every wall I heard at least two American tourists on separate occasions start conversations about why the pictures of Mel Gibson were on the wall…
Our self guided tour of the Dingle region was quite funny, in the last blog post we mentioned the amount of neolithic tombs and monuments in the fields around Shane and Irene’s place. The difference we noticed between people in Connemara and people in Dingle is that in Dingle people are seemingly much more keen to mow around these sites and charge three euros for people to walk around their field for ten minutes. They were doing a good business and we checked out a few of these sites as you can see in the pictures below. Some very impressive stone structures that are built with no mortar, just stones, yet are completely watertight and have stood for centuries.
The masterpiece of this building methodology, known as drystone corbelling, is the Gallarus Oratory. The Oratory is thought to be over 1300 years old and is much bigger than the stone beehive huts that are found in the area. No one really knows the original purpose of the building but many suspect it was used as a ritual gathering space. It was pretty solidly built anyway to have lasted for over a thousand years with no material used in its construction other than stone.
We had also hoped to make it out to the Blasket Islands, a rugged cluster of islands which are the most westerly point in Europe and were abandoned in the 1950’s due to their isolation and a declining population. Prior to that they had been inhabited by a wholes Irish speaking population who produced some of the most celebrated Irish literary works when visited by scholars interested to learn their language and document their stories. If you can’t make it out on to the islands there is a great visitor centre on the mainland that shows a documentary in it’s cinema and has permanent exhibitions on the landscape, history and culture of the Ireland’s, we really enjoyed it and it’s definitely worth a look.
On our way back to the accommodation we decided to take everybody advice and take a drive through the Conor Pass, we were glad we did the views were spectacular and the road itself was impressive. We stopped at a few viewing points along the way and I pulled over at one point and climbed up the side of the mountain to find a lake and some waterfalls hidden in a valley high on the side of the mountain. Jess didn’t climb up as she didn’t believe me that it was the right spot and because there was no marked path so missed out on some of the action, that being said even from down below the views were spectacular.
Sad that she had missed out on the secret mountain top lake Jess talked me into doing another nature walk, it was nice but one of the ones run by forestry through their plantation forests. We found a few great spots there and Jess found a ‘u” shaped tree to hang out in as well as a red river. After that it was back to Inch Beach where I went for a run on the beach, this run was very necessary because when you stay in B&Bs for weeks and all the ladies say you remind them of their son and feed you heaps you get fat really quickly. I’m not going to lie, going for one twenty minute run in three weeks did very little to address this issue.
Our next stop was at Killarney where we had planned to get out on the lakes kayaking and boating. Unfortunately Killarney was still pretty much flooded, the entrance to the castle was almost under water and the road down to the boathouse to hire kayaks was also underwater so we figured it was not to be our day. Plan B was to hire bikes and go cycling but the cycle paths were also flooded so that being out as well we chose to go mega tourist and hired a horse and buggy driver to take us for a tour of the Abbey, the waterfalls the lake and of Muckross House. It was much more fun than I expected, seemingly Jess always expected it to be good because she was super excited to do it, our guide was great and most of the time we could understand some of what he said.
The weather wasn’t great so we decided not to head out into the Killarney National Park and instead decided to head on to our next destination. As we were driving the weather broke and we got some great sun so decided to take a break and check out the scenery at Ladies View, a popular viewpoint with a cafe. We climbed out onto some rocks and took in the view and some sun for a while and when heading back we found a baby deer grazing on the side of the hill, Jess took around a hundred photos of it, I decided to just go with this one rather than give it a dedicated blog post.
Our last big stop on our Wild Atlantic Way adventure before heading down to Clonakilty for the guitar festival was Mizen head, our last chance at lighthouse glory. On arrival we were told by the lady signing us in that it was a shoot out between Australia and Germany for who had the most visitors for the day. Jess went to the bathroom and in the first minute six Germans came through, game over. We were however to finally have a lighthouse victory, Mizen Head is spectacular, we definitely got an assist from the weather but the views would be stunning on the most wretched day I reckon. To get out to the lighthouse you must first cross a bridge over a ravine, underneath three seals were plating around in the water and sunbaking having a great time so we chilled out here for a bit before pushing on.
The lighthouse itself wasn’t too impressive, more of an emphasis on the function than the aesthetics, but the views out to the Atlantic and North and South down the coast were amazing. There were a range of viewing platforms available around the point and all had signposts indicating walks of at least fifteen minutes to reach them, we got the stopwatch out and the longest walk took ninety seconds… Super conservative, maybe so everyone is pleasantly surprised and scores big on trip advisor.
The rest of our stay in Ireland was to be in County Cork, we had heard a lot of talk that Cork was the best part of Ireland, or at least that everyone from Cork is happy to say so… The entrance was more spectacular than we were expecting, you literally drive through a giant tunnel cut through a mountain and emerge onto a mountain top road that circles round one of the most picturesque valleys we had come across in out travels, so started strong. It was more of the same everywhere we went to be honest with a few stops at lovely villages and national parks… Cork is pretty nice.
We had a quiet night to kick of our festival, we saw a band that played inside a van and had a wander around the pubs before turning in early to rest up. On day two we headed out of town to a small pub close to where Shane & Irene’s friends lived to watch the Irish rugby games, the pub only had 5 Corkmen in it whom we could barely understand and the others ended up running a bit late, fortunately there was a promo running and for whatever reason the barman gave everyone in the bar a free pint every time Ireland scored and converted a try… Not entirely sure that was exactly how it was meant to work but the result was that I’d had a few free pints by the time the crew turned up. After the match we headed into town with Shane, Irene, Ciara, Toby and Frank to try and catch the festival. It took us until about 11 to find an act that played guitar at the International Guitar Festival, incidentally that was The Minutes who played at an ear rupturing level that forced us all to flee into the night with the exception of Frank who stuck it out and rocked hard into the night. For the rest of us the big highlights of the night were watching Japan roll South Africa in a big upset but above all the antics of Shane’s creepy entourage of middle aged women who kept following him all over town running their hands through his hair and trying to get him to take his gear off. It was funny for the first few hours but I think that Shane was actually genuinely disturbed by the end of it…
The next day we said our final farewells to our friends and headed off to Cork City, probably our favourite city in Ireland, at the same time feeling very contemporary yet retaining it’s charm and character. We caught another Man United victory in a bar here whilst Dublin won the all Ireland football title to most of the bars disgust, then headed off to the cinema to watch the movie Everest which was great.
The next day we went to the Middleton distillery and checked out the Jameson’s Experience and bought some samples of the incredibly expensive Irish whiskey we otherwise couldn’t afford, I’m yet to get into them but expectations are high. After the distillery we headed over to Rosslare for the night at our last Irish B&B and after an amazing breakfast we jumped on the ferry and headed for Wales, our Irish adventures over for this trip.
Thanks for reading!!