BY JUDY ENRIGHT
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
A new year has dawned, bringing with it the potential for many new adventures for us all – hopefully they’ll be pleasant, fun, and memorable adventures. We like to start the year by mentioning some of our favorites with the thought that readers might find them enjoyable, too, when visiting Ireland. FAVORITES
• Ireland has amazing ancient churches, friaries, and ruins where you can spend hours reading inscriptions on tombstones and admiring detailed carving, architecture, and Celtic crosses.
In Co. Offaly, the Clonmacnoise monastic settlement, founded by St. Ciaran in 548, is awe-inspiring and well worth visiting. There, on the eastern bank of the Shannon, you can see the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th-13th century), two round towers, three high crosses, and the largest collection of Early Christian graveslabs in Western Europe.
In 2016, another historic site, Ballintubber Abbey in Co. Mayo, will celebrate the 800th anniversary of its founding by King Cathal O’Conor. Ballintubber is the only church in Ireland founded by an Irish king that is still in daily use. Mass has been said there every day since 1216.
Ross Errilly Friary in Co. Galway, founded in 1351, is said to be the most extensive and best preserved of all the Franciscan friaries in Ireland and, even though it’s a ruin, it is still beautiful and worth a look.
In Co. Clare, the Kilfenora Cathedral sited next to The Burren Centre is another interesting ruin. The cathedral, with five high crosses, was built around 1190 on the site of an earlier monastery, and is dedicated to St. Fachtnan.
Those are some favorites but there are many, many more to visit as you’ll discover when you drive around.
• Irish shopping is another of my favorites. Outstanding crafts are sold in many fine stores and visitor centers. Some of my favorite shops for unique gifts are: in Co. Mayo, The Beehive in Keel, Achill Island (where you can also get a delicious, fresh lunch); O’Reilly & Turpin in Westport (a fun town to walk around in); and Seamus Duffy’s Bookshop on Bridge Street in Westport. In Co. Galway, I have found great gifts at Kylemore Abbey’s beautiful shop (shop.kylemoreabbeytourism.ie); Cottage Handcrafts in Moyard (cottagehandcrafts.ie); and at the Clifden Bookshop (clifdenbookshop.com). Many stores in Ireland have websites now but many still do not.
• In Co. Donegal, I am always drawn to the buzz of the interesting and bustling port of Killybegs with its colorful fishing boats, piles of nets and buoys, and scenic harbor. If you stay in that area, there is a great restaurant nearby – Kitty Kelly’s (kittykellys.com) - where we enjoyed the food and excellent service. Be sure to make a reservation, though, as Kitty Kelly’s is always busy.
When you’re up in Donegal, a visit to the nearly 40,000-acre Glenveagh National Park, one of six national parks in Ireland, is highly recommended. Glenveagh, once owned by several Americans with Harvard University connections, was officially opened to the public in 1986.
The story behind many of Ireland’s landmarks is often as interesting as the landmarks themselves. John George Adair (1823-1885), a Co. Laois native, built Glenveagh Castle in the 1870s. He made much of his fortune in the US and owned a ranch in the Texas Panhandle. In 1883, its peak year, the JA Ranch had more than a million acres in portions of six Texas counties as well as 100,000 cattle.
In 1869, Adair married Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie, daughter of James S. Wadsworth, a Union general in the Civil War. On returning to Ireland, Adair bought large tracts in Donegal and set about building the castle and estate.
American Henry Plumer McIlhenny, grandson of an Irish immigrant who invented and developed the gas meter, was the last private owner of Glenveagh Castle. He bought the property in 1938 from his Harvard professor, A. Kingsley Porter, after renting it for several summers. McIlhenny sold most of the land to the Irish state in 1974-75 for a national park and gave the castle and gardens to the Irish state in 1979 while retaining the right to live there for his lifetime.
McIlhenny had many Boston area connections. He studied at Milton Academy, graduated from Harvard, and completed a graduate degree in art history at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. He served as the curator of decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (for an annual salary of $1) from 1935 to 1963 with time out for four years in the Naval Reserve during WWII. He regularly used Glenveagh as a part-time residence until 1982 and died in Philadelphia in 1986.
Be sure to visit the extraordinary gardens at Glenveagh to see the variety of exotic plantings and magnificent rhododendrons. Tours and booklets are available at the visitor center. The gardens are primarily attributable to McIlhenny, who personally supervised their development from 1937 to 1983.
• In Co. Cork, if you are looking for a great place to take the family, be sure to stop by Fota Wildlife Park, a joint project between the Zoological Society of Ireland and University College Cork (UCC). The park, opened in 1983, was an idea originally conceived in the 1970s by a former director of the Dublin Zoo, Dr. Terry Murphy. Animals were chosen based on their ability to roam free, mix with other species, and thrive in the free-range environment. It’s a fun place to visit and there were some fascinating animals there that I had never seen before – like the capybara.
While in Co. Cork, we also enjoyed the Cobh Heritage Centre, Donkey Sanctuary in Liscarroll, Jameson Distillery in Midleton (we had a delicious lunch at the Distillery and a great dinner that night at Farmgate Restaurant in Midleton), and Kinsale, the gourmet capital of Ireland. Be sure to tour West Cork, too, for gorgeous coastal scenery, great accommodation, and great food.
• In Co. Tipperary, the Rock of Cashel is a “must see” and in Co. Meath, be sure to visit Newgrange, Knowth, the Hill of Tara, and Trim Castle.
• Northern Ireland boasts many splendid attractions, too. Don’t miss the Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, Ballintoy Harbor, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, or the many historic homes and glorious gardens there. Visit discovernorthernireland.com for details on these and other tourist attractions, accommodations, and more.
• In Co. Kerry, my favorite accommodation is Heaton’s Guesthouse (heatonsguesthouse.com) in Dingle. Heaton’s is clean, welcoming, and comfortable, with beautifully appointed rooms and delicious meals. I have stayed there a number of times and have always had an excellent visit.
• If I were to name my absolute favorite Irish hotel, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s the lovely, small, and homey Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel in the Inagh Valley, Connemara. Rooms are large, bathrooms have been updated from bathtub-only to walk-in showers, the food is delicious, and every member of the staff acts as though you are a family member coming home. In short, it’s a wonderful place to stay, dine, or visit. A friend with a time-share in Barna stopped there for lunch one day last summer and then returned for lunch every day that she could manage thereafter because she and her traveling companion were so impressed.
There’s a lot to do at and near Lough Inagh too – golf, fishing, hill-walking, and more for the athletic types. For the artistic, there’s a watercolor workshop at Lough Inagh with accommodation included by Rosemary Burns (rosemaryburnspainting.com) - usually several times a year.
Kylemore Abbey, a great place to visit, shop, and dine is nearby as is Clifden, a nice little town to walk around and dine at Mitchell’s, my favorite seafood restaurant. The late, great Peter O’Toole was said to have owned a place near Clifden and was often seen in the town.
• B&Bs are plentiful everywhere, but a few of my favorites are Cahergal Farm (very near Shannon airport) and Riverfield House in Doolin, both in Co. Clare, and Helen and Christopher Kelly’s wonderful Lough Bishop House in Co. Westmeath.
• Favorite castle accommodations include Dromoland (also very near Shannon Airport) and Ashford in Cong, Co. Mayo. Red Carnation Hotels bought Ashford last year for 20 million euro. During the high-flying Celtic Tiger years, Ashford was sold by a group of American investors for 50 million euro to Galway-based property developer Gerry Barrett, but the hotel went into receivership in 2011. During the boom years, Ashford guests were reputed to be lavish spenders - one wedding party reportedly spent 250,000 euro on flowers alone and helicopters were a common sight ferrying guests in and out. The asking price for Ashford was 25 million euro before Red Carnation clinched the deal for 5 million less and bought the hotel. Today, most of the Ashford’s guests are American, with the greatest number coming from California.
This year, Ashford celebrates its 75th year as a hotel. Noel Huggard, from a family of Co. Kerry hoteliers, bought the property from the Guinness family trust and opened the estate as a hotel in 1939. He bought 18th-century Ballinahinch Castle in Connemara 10 years later. At one time, the Huggard family owned seven Irish hotels – Ashford and Ballinahinch Castles, The Lake Hotel, The Royal in Valentia, Caragh Lake Hotel, The Bay View, and The Butler Arms in Waterville.
• Another favorite – this time for my rental car - is Dan Dooley (dandooley.com) and my favorite car in Ireland is a Skoda – automatic, of course. I have heard that other car rental companies are less expensive, but I am happy to pay a bit extra for the security of having a vehicle that is so well-maintained and backed by outstanding Dooley personnel who are friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and totally top-notch. I once rented from another company and discovered that someone had been sick in the back seat. The evidence had not been very well removed.
• Great pubs abound in Ireland where food is usually good and reasonable. A couple of West Coast favorites are the Granuaille in Newport, Co. Mayo, and McDermott’s in Doolin, Co. Clare. You can find top Irish food products – like St. Tola Goat Cheese and Cashel Blue, Burren Smokehouse salmon, and other products - in stores across the country. My favorite store there is Tesco – their store brand products (the fish pie is divine) are excellent and the variety is amazing.
Here’s hoping you were lucky enough to get tickets to Ireland for the holidays and, no doubt, you’ll return from your trip with your own list of favorites. Be sure to visit Tourism Ireland’s website - discoverireland.com - for events, accommodation, and more on the Emerald Isle and enjoy Ireland whenever you go.