Elegant castles and ruins are scattered across the Irish countryside and add an air of romance and mystery to this mystical island. It’s fun trying to imagine life in those feudal days and how castle dwellers coped without instant communication, grocery stores, or malls.
Some of these castles and tower houses have been restored, with many of the larger castles now serving as deluxe hotels, including Ashford, Kilkea, Dromoland, Kilronan, Abbeyglen, andf Ballynahinch.
Several years ago, we visited the construction site at Dunboy Castle Hotel, Castletownbere, Co. Cork, which looked very promising, but reportedly work came to a halt during the recession and has not resumed. This was to have been Ireland’s first six-star hotel. We’ll check on the progress again soon, but the last we heard, the property, which includes the derelict Dunboy Castle, was for sale. The hotel construction was at the site of the former Puxley Mansion.
Depending on which source you believe, there are anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 tower houses in Ireland, most of which are derelict. Some scholars say there were once as many as 8,000 of these fortified towers that were primarily built during the Middle Ages.
Some of the more famous tower houses include two that were once home to Granuaille, the notorious Pirate Queen who terrorized the English and ruled the West Coast. Five miles outside Newport, Co. Mayo, on a side road off the N59, is Rockfleet, also known as Carrickahowley Castle. Another of her tower castle homes, Kildavnet, is on nearby Achill Island. Both are accessible and well worth a visit.
Doolin, in Co. Clare, is the site of another well-known and oft photographed tower house: Doonagore Castle, which was rehabbed in the 1970s and made into a holiday home. Doonagore is reportedly still owned by the family of an Irish American, John Gorman (or O’Gorman depending on your source), who is said to have made his money from a cigar plantation in Ecuador. He also donated the bell from that plantation to Doolin’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church. This castle is a private home and not open to the public but it can be photographed from lots of different angles, from below, from above, and from a side road beside the castle that leads out to the great Clare Jam Company (be sure to stop) and the coast road.
Many of the other old tower houses across the country are in ruins now but they’re very picturesque and make for great photos.
If you’re looking for comfortable accommodation, be sure to check out Ireland’s numerous and excellent castle hotels. Many offer extensive outdoor activities for guests, great food, and outstanding service. Castle hotels can be pricey but you do get what you pay for in most instances.
We have stayed in many B&Bs in Ireland and have almost always had a great experience. There have been one or two in all our visits that were not too great but overall, B&Bs are economical, clean, and comfortable, and the hosts are outgoing and accommodating.
Recently, a group called “B&B Ireland” began to categorize properties into nine specialist services provided by owners: eco-friendly, pets welcome, golfers welcome, food lovers welcome, Gaeltacht experience, farmstays welcome, adventure seekers welcome, and anglers welcome.
Sounds like you can find almost any interest by visiting the website: www.bandbireland.com.
Wouldn’t it be fun to stay in a lighthouse or lighthouse keeper’s cottage? A different accommodation experience is surely in store when you book into one of Irish Landmark Trust lighthouses or stay in a Northern Ireland lighthouse keeper’s cottage.
How about booking the Blackhead Lightkeepers’ House at Whitehead on the County Antrim coastline? The scenery is breathtaking all along that coast and there are a number of seaside walks and other activities and attractions around the area, too.
There are a number of Irish Landmark Trust properties where you can stay, including Loophead Lighthouse in Co. Clare (sleeps five), and the still-working Galley Head Lighthouse, Co. Cork, where you can hire one or both of two connecting lighthouse keeper’s houses. Wicklow Head Lighthouse also offers accommodations with lovely views of the Irish Sea.
If you don’t want to stay in an Irish lighthouse, why not experience maritime Ireland by visiting one?
Hook Head Lighthouse, Co. Wexford, is the oldest operational lighthouse in the world and guided tours are available all year. The Mizen Head Lighthouse in Co. Cork is also worth a visit although, to reach the visitors’ center, you must be brave enough to cross the Mizen Head Bridge that is suspended high above the sea.
The world’s largest Titanic attraction, Titanic Belfast in Northern Ireland, opened last month and, even before that happened, more than 50,000 tickets had been sold to residents of more than 20 countries, including the US, Australia, New Zealand and even Réunion, the French island in the Indian Ocean.
The visitor center is described as “a spectacular physical presence featuring a unique architectural design influenced by several maritime themes, including ice crystals, ships’ hulls and the insignia of the White Star Line, the owners of the Titanic. Some 3,000 shards make up the building’s impressive exterior while the plaza includes one of the world’s largest outdoor maps of the northern hemisphere tracing Titanic’s route across the Atlantic.
“And dominating the approach to the building is a 15-ton Titanic sign recently winched into place. Laser-cut and made from eight 30mm-thick solid steel plates, the 4.5m tall, 15m long sign is the same length as the private promenades available on RMS Titanic’s most expensive accommodation, the First Class Parlor Suites. The new sign is also the same weight as Titanic’s main anchor.”
The Titanic Belfast Festival will feature a varied program of spectacular events through April. To learn more about these anniversary events, visit discoverireland.com/ni2012 www.titanicbelfast.com.
COBH TITANIC EXPERIENCE
The Titanic Experience, located in the original Cobh offices of the White Star Line, is part of a yearlong series of events and activities, called Titanic 100, taking place in this Co. Cork harbor town to commemorate the loss of the luxury liner. Events include concerts, Titanic trails and boat tours, a maritime festival, vintage and gourmet festivals, and tours of Cobh pubs where people enjoyed a farewell drink before they boarded the Titanic.
Cobh was the last port of call for the liner that stopped there to pick up 123 people heading for New York.The fate of the passengers who embarked at Cobh (then named Queenstown) is also revealed: only four survived.
Those of Irish descent are invited to celebrate their heritage by applying for a Certificate of Irish Heritage, an official program of the Irish Government.
Evidence of Irish Ancestry is required as part of the application process. Certificates can be given as gifts, subject to the ancestry requirement, so, for example, parents, siblings and partners could present them to other family members.
Says Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland: “The Certificate of Irish Heritage is a wonderful way for people around the globe to celebrate their Irish roots. As part of Tourism Ireland's promotions this year, particularly in markets like Great Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, we are targeting the Diaspora and those people who are interested in tracing their ancestry and we are maximizing the impact of online access to our genealogical records.
“In the second half of the year, Tourism Ireland will promote The Gathering Ireland to the 70 million people across the world who feel linked by family, friends or otherwise with Ireland,” Gibbons said.
The Certificates come in a number of designs, reflecting themes of emigration, landscape, and Celtic design. Apply or get further information at heritagecertificate.ie.
PRISON ART SHOW
If you’re in Dublin between now and April 15, there is an art show at Kilmainham Gaol Museum that sounds interesting and features 145 different pieces of prison art. The Irish Prison Service runs the national art show every two years, with work from serving inmates as well as from two post-release centers in Dublin.
A prison source said while works are not openly for sale, some had been sold in the past and if a potential buyer was very interested, contact could be made with an inmate with a view to selling the piece. “The money goes to the prisoner,” said the source. “But sometimes, if it was a group piece that was chosen, we might give the money to a charity or that kind of thing.”
Enjoy your trip to Ireland whenever you go. It’s spring, flowers are blooming, sheep are lambing. It’s a glorious time to visit. Be sure to go to the various airline websites for air and ground travel deals and visit discoverireland.com for information about happenings in Ireland at any time of year.