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The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Exploring Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

As a photographer, I am always looking for destinations rich in natural beauty.  While I love architecture, and other man-made tourist sites, there is something particularly special about naturally occurring landmarks. One such place is the Cliffs of Moher, on Ireland’s west coast.

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Bunratty Castle

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Exploring Ireland

Bunratty Castle

Visiting historical sites is a great way of gaining an appreciation for events and places. In my previous post about the Castles of Shannon Heritage, I wanted to show history doesn’t have to be boring. I’d love to travel back in time, but sadly the time machine hasn’t been invented. However, there is Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, which does more than just present the history, it immerses you in it.

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Knappogue Castle, Quin, Co. Clare, Ireland

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Exploring Ireland

Dark and Foreboding, Knappogue Castle tower looms over the countryside.

Alison and I recently returned from a week-long road-trip of Western Ireland. One of the highlights was visiting the castles and heritage properties of the Shannon region.

While there, we visited no less than seven castles, abbeys, and tower houses. Even so, we barely scratched the surface, as there were hundreds of tower houses built during Norman rule, in the 12th century, and beyond. We decided to concentrate on properties maintained by Shannon Heritage. Each one had something special to engage the visitor and bring Ireland’s ancient history to life.

Studying history in school often requires boring memorization of dates and names. Luckily, I was inspired, early on, by a public school teacher who showed my class slides of his travels in Italy, Greece, and more. His personal descriptions of the places and their history made it more real to us as students.

Twenty-five years later, having had the opportunity to travel, I understand his passion for history.  When you visit historical locations in person, the story becomes much more engaging. If done right, such a visit should make you feel like you have stepped back in history. This is exactly what we found at the Shannon Heritage castles.

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After a day of recovering (read as sleeping and laying around in pjs) I’m sitting down to process my thoughts on Ireland. The week literally flew by, and I’m left struggling to remember everything that happened. The following is my (very wordy) account of our trip.

It’s never an auspicious start to a journey when the border control confiscates your passport for half an hour. But that’s just how my day began at 8:00 am, Monday morning. My flight departed from Charleroi airport, known also as Brussels South (It is indeed south of Brussels, technically, about two hours south…), so I had been up since 6:00am.

The officer looked at my passport, then my ID card.

“How long have you been in Belgium?”

I explained the story of my expat life for what felt like the hundredth time. He consulted his colleague. Then he asked me where my other ID card was.

Other ID card? This was it – the one, the only – according to the commune ladies it was all I needed. I explained that this was the only card I could get because I was not legally able to work in Belgium.

“My husband has the other card,” I informed him, the panic rising.

Andrew, who waited nearby, jumped into the fray. The officer was kind and assured me that we would straighten the mess out. Then he took off – with my passport and ID card – for what felt like an eternity.

When he returned he informed us that it was too early to reach anyone in Brussels but he would take care of it and phone Andrew later.

I went to my gate with a sense of dread at my return journey, for the second time in several months. How foolish I was to think that in a year I had cut through all of the red tape.

The flight itself was short and easy. I figured out how Ryan air is able to sell seats for 5 cents – the entire time you are on board you are encouraged to part with your money – food, drinks, lottery scratch cards, plus the ubiquitous airplane purchases of overpriced cosmetics and booze. The best however were the bus tickets that would take you from the airport to downtown Dublin for the bargain price of 8 euro – if you waited and bought them off the plane it would be 10 euro. What they failed to mention was the city bus that costs only 1.40 euro…

I managed to get off the plane with all of my money still in my wallet. I had an hour to wait until Sue’s flight arrived.

I went through customs.

“When are you leaving?”

“Friday”

“You’re leaving on Saint Patty’s day? You didn’t plan that very well…”

Sue and I had actually talked it over. When we made our initial plans we didn’t even realize we would be in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day. We thought about rescheduling but plans had already been made and we decided we were both too short to watch the parade and neither of us is big on crowds. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the best plan – but I’ll get to that, eventually.

We met up without too much fuss – just when I was beginning to think that Sue’s flight had been delayed, she arrived in her usual manner – a burst of fun and smiles, with just a touch of chaos thrown in for good measure.

We made our way into Dublin by bus. As it didn’t go to our hotel, we got off in the city center and hailed a cab. Our hotel, The Quality City Dublin, was brand new and very nice. The only negative points were we didn’t meet a single Irish person working there and it was still a bit out of the way.

I had been prepared for the latter as we had read several reviews on-line. It actually wasn’t as far as I had expected – just not the type of place you would want to walk alone at night.

We dumped our things and headed to the Temple Bar district. Tourists flock to this area of town – little wonder as this is exactly what we picture Ireland to be; colorful pubs and shops and loads of Guinness. I can imagine that as a local it would get old after a while, but we weren’t around nearly long enough to get tired of it.

We had lunch at a little vegetarian café and then set off to explore. We wandered about until suppertime, where we had a delicious Japanese meal. Then we headed back to the hotel to crash as we knew we had an early morning ahead.

The next morning we had a fantastic breakfast at a café in a shop called Avoca. Both the shop and the café were delightful and had my budget not been as tight as it was I could have easily found many ways to spend my euros.

Sue was determined to get to the photography museum and the girls in the café tried to be helpful and give us directions. Unfortunately they didn’t know any of the street names. After wandering for a bit, we were just about to give up and head to the station when we spied a map. I figured out roughly where the museum was and with a bit of luck (and my excellent navigational skills of course) we found it.

It was a tiny place with only one exhibition but it was an interesting one and the bookshop was well stocked. It had been worth the trip.

Time was getting on so we hailed a cab and popped back to the hotel for our bags. Then we made our way to the train station and found we had a bit of time to spare. The train journey itself was rather uneventful. The scenery (when we could see it) was quite lovely and it was our first taste of what Ireland would look like.

We finally arrived at Thomastown. The station was tiny and it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We called the cab (notice that I said the and not a…) and a kindly gentleman arrived a few minutes later to take us to our home for the next two days.

And what a home it was… The Mount Juliet Estate is listed in the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. I would wholeheartedly agree. From the moment we arrived we were treated like royalty. The only way we had managed to stay in the hotel in the first place was an incredible internet deal. We were supposed to be in one of the out-buildings but on arrival we were informed that we were upgraded to the main house.

Our room was beautiful but even had it been a total dive, the view alone would have made it worth while. Our window opened to breathtaking green fields full of horses with foals, sheep and a rushing river. The only sounds were water and birds.

Did I mention that the bathroom was every girl’s dream?

As it was getting late in the day and as we couldn’t exist on egg sandwiches alone, we went to check out the dining room. Since we were basically captive on the estate (it took a good seven minutes or more to drive from the front gate to the hotel) our choices were expensive or ridiculously expensive. We went for expensive.

I’d love to say it was the meal of a lifetime. It wasn’t. The service was superb. The food was fine but not great, certainly not worth the price. But it was all part of the experience so we decided not to sweat it. We spent some time in the cozy little bar and then headed for our enormous fluffy bed.

We were up early and had breakfast and then strolled down to see the horses. There is a stud farm on the estate and it was baby season. The foals were adorable.

We hiked back up to the hotel and grabbed the rest of our camera gear. Today was the day we had been waiting for. It was the only full day we had to explore Ireland and shoot photos. The man who would lead us on our adventure had just arrived and his name was David Stapleton.

I cannot say enough good things about David. To say that he made our trip memorable is an understatement. David helped us experience Ireland in one day, in a way that we never could on our own. He instantly made us feel like welcomed guests, family even, and went so far out of his way to make our day special. I can only say that if you are in Ireland and want a totally unique and special tour, David is your man.

So we loaded ourselves and our gear in to David’s van and set off. We had a hamper of fruit and snacks waiting for us in the back and David detailed what his plans for us for the day were. Even now I don’t know if I remember everything – we did so much. I’m sure when I get my slides back I will remember even more but the day went something like this:

Our first stop was a picturesque old building with a waterwheel beside a pretty bridge.

Next we stopped at the fabulous ruins at the Rock of Cashel. We spent a while photographing these stunning ruins and the surrounding graveyard and countryside. It was a breathtaking view.

For the sake of comparison, our next stop was Holy Cross Abbey, which had been restored to its former grandeur in the 1960s and gave us an indication of what the Rock of Cashel would have looked like intact.

Then it was time to do what we had set out to do – find the homestead that Sue’s ancestors had left behind. Her trail had some loose ends but amazingly they all came together. Perhaps we had a touch of Irish Luck or maybe it was just meant to be, but the fates aligned for us that afternoon.

Our first stop was the Nenagh (pronounced Nee-Nah) historical centre – an interesting spot in itself. The centre was housed in the remains of an old jail, in a hexagonal building. It had a little museum and an interesting model of the old jail.

Sue had one name to go on, that of a man who had shown her uncle the site twenty years ago. For all we knew, he could be long dead. As luck would have it, one of the workers at the centre knew who we were looking for and gave us the number of his workplace. He was out for lunch and they weren’t sure if he was coming back in or not.

All we could do was wait. So we did what any good explorers would do and found the local pub. We had fish and chips and watched the horse races on TV. I speculated that our man was probably doing the same somewhere. So after lunch we set out on our own.

We found the post office near our destination. The girl working the counter was lovely but had no idea where we were talking about. Behind the post office were the remains of an old church and graveyard. There were Hogan’s buried there and David felt that this was where Sue’s people had worshipped.

The phone rang. It was our man and he was coming right out to meet Sue and show her the spot.

Twenty minutes later Sue and this kindly gentleman were scrambling through brambles to find the foundation of her ancestor’s house. To say we never would have found it on our own would be an understatement. There was hardly anything to find. But Sue managed to get a couple of stones and of course lots of photos. Mission accomplished.

For Sue, the day could have ended then and there on a wonderful note but David wasn’t finished with us yet. Our travels had taken us through some of the most beautiful back roads I had ever seen. We drove though picturesque towns and stunning farmland. We saw every shade of green imaginable. We drove into the mountains and down through the valleys. It was one of the most stunning mystery drives I have ever taken.

Finally we arrived in Kilkenny. We had planned to get David to drop us off there for supper and we would taxi back to the hotel. He wouldn’t hear of it. He gave us his number and instructed us to call when we were done and he would take us back to the hotel. He even pointed out four restaurants that we might be interested in.

We had a nice meal and then set out to find Sue some beer. We learned a valuable lesson – You can’t find Kilkenny Beer in Kilkenny. After four attempts we ended up at a hotel bar and Sue got her beer. As a waitress walked by she nodded to the beer and said “So, you’re drinking the tourist beer then,” and laughed.

She told us that it was brewed in Dublin and none of the locals actually drank it. In fact none of the pubs could sell it except at the hotel. Live and learn.

We finished up and called David. He arrived and asked us if we were in a hurry to get back to the hotel. Of course we weren’t. So he took us to what became one of the highlights of our day – a tiny little local pub that probably had never seen a tourist in its long life.

The barman was his bank manager and he welcomed us in to his tiny pub. It was fantastic. David bought a round of Bailey’s (yes, it’s definitely better in Ireland) and we sat mesmerized looking around at the overloaded shelves.

Finally we headed back to the Mount Juliet, exhausted and thrilled at how wonderful our day had been. It wouldn’t have come anywhere close without David at the helm.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and packed up our things. David called from the road to wish us safe travels. Then we were back in the taxi to the train station. We made it back to Dublin in the early afternoon and found our Hotel, the Brooks, just around the corner from Temple Bar.

It was another lovely hotel with actual Irish staff. We decided to check out the shopping scene around the corner and had lunch at Stephen’s Green Shopping Center. The building itself was pretty but as for the shops… well a mall is a mall, be it in Dublin or Halifax.

We had some tapas and Sangria for a snack and then went back to the hotel to tackle repacking Sue’s bag. After much squishing and squashing, I managed to get it packed and closed. Then we needed some real food. About the only thing we hadn’t had yet was a decent curry so we found an Indian restaurant and I had a super spicy Vindaloo.

The next morning we were up early and having breakfast. It had been recommended that we get to the airport in the morning as most of the streets downtown would be closed for the parade. As we ate, the concierge came over and informed us that there was a taxi out front – the last taxi that would be allowed down the street. We could take it or take our chances catching the bus. We took it.

A side note about taxi drivers in Dublin – each and every one we had was Irish and a wellspring of information. While we didn’t have time to take advantage of many of their suggestions they seemed truly concerned about us having the best time we could.

This particular driver felt bad that we had to leave the city so early. He made it his mission to give us one final tour. He drove us by the oldest pub in Dublin and then to a beautiful cemetery where some members of the resistance were buried.

So there we were at the airport at 9:30 for a 2:30 flight. We couldn’t even check in until noon. It was a long wait but at least there were two of us.

On the flight home I started to worry about getting back into Belgium. Andrew hadn’t had a call from the customs officer. As we handed over our passports I had the usual dread. After the inevitable eternity, they were stamped and handed back. Phew.

Andrew met us and drove us home. Then we took Sue to one of our favorite local spots. We had a nice Belgian meal and collapsed at home.

The next day we gave her the whirlwind tour of Brussels and ended up eating supper at Citizen.

Sunday Sue decided to take the ferry back to London. Rather than mucking about with trains we decided to drive her. We made it to Calais with time to spare and watched her get on the boat. Then Andrew and I puttered our way back home. Monday I collapsed and slept.

Thinking back on it all now, I can’t believe we did so much in such a little time. I also can’t believe how everything seemed to come together so perfectly for us. Ireland was beautiful, but it is definitely the people that make it so special. So I thank all of those who made our trip so memorable. We will not forget your hospitality.

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