By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “Ireland?” Well, probably green fields, sheep, and magnificent vistas. Sure, there are all three in Ireland but there’s so, so, so much more. It’s truly a place that has something for every taste. And, as they say, what’s not to like?
If you’re mad about sheep, there’s nothing better than seeing their charming faces everywhere although we are more than delighted when they are not in the middle of the road. For the most part, the sheep we see in our travels are black-faced and supposedly descended from Scottish imports. But last spring, I found a field full of the most spectacular white-faced sheep, and on the drive around Achill Island, there were odd-looking brown-and-white sheep that looked as though a white sheep had been crossed with a Jacobean sheep.
The spring lambs are especially endearing, although I also like the older sheep and I find that they have so much character in their faces. My favorite photography spot is Minaun Heights on Achill Island, Co. Mayo, where, after I have visited about half a dozen times, the sheep actually recognize my car and come running -- probably thanks to my secret weapon, the bag of sheep food I carry in the trunk. I dole it out as needed to draw the sheep and lambs closer and it works every time! Last spring, there were even sheep and lambs nibbling from my outstretched hand.
If just viewing, or feeding, sheep isn’t enough to satisfy your craving, how about visiting a place like Kissane Sheep Farm on the Ring of Kerry, between Kenmare and the Killarney National Park. You can even adopt a sheep at their website (Adopt-a-Sheep.ie) and gain free admission to the farm when you visit.
The goal of Adopt a Sheep is to preserve the Irish heritage of the mountain sheep. In doing so, the heritage of a traditional family farm in this Special Area of Conservation is also saved for future generations.
Kissane Sheep Farm also offers sheepdog demonstrations, sheep shearing demonstrations, a chance to cuddle and bottle-feed the orphan (pet) lambs, take one of three marked (mountain) walks or a puzzle walk and treasure trail.
Kissane sounds like a lot of fun to me!
And, if you’re heading up the coast into Westport, there’s a Sheep and Wool Museum in Leenane that’s interesting, has a good gift shop and good homemade lunches, soups, and desserts.
Do you like soft, rolling hills, like Vermont, or rugged, dramatic scenery more like New Hampshire? The midlands of Ireland remind me of the rolling hills of Vermont replete as they both are with lovely lakes and incredible greenery. The edges of Ireland are where you find the cliffs and more dramatic vistas.
Is scenery enough for the average traveler? Maybe not but if scenery is for you, why not take a hike along any of the many hill walks offered in various parts of the country.
Some are guided, like many walks offered by various people in the Burren in Co. Clare; you can find their information on the internet and a guided walk is worth doing if you have an interest in the amazing flora and fauna throughout that limestone, moonscape region.
There are also numerous guided walks through various parts of Connemara and other sections of the country. Just Google your request and you’re sure to find something interesting.
Last spring, two of Ireland’s most famous West Cork walking routes, Sheep’s Head Way and the Beara Way, were connected when the 20-km Mealagh Valley Walk officially opened outside Bantry. The Mealagh walk includes ancient settlements, a wedge tomb, standing stones, stone circles, and more.
You can, of course, see scenery from your car but there’s nothing like getting out and walking around or bicycling or riding horseback to see Ireland in its full beauty.
Fascinated by Titanic lore and the ill-fated liner’s connection to Ireland? If so, swing down to Cobh in Co. Cork, and take Michael Martin’s guided walking tour of Cobh that departs at 11 a.m. from the Commodore Hotel. Be sure to pre-book, especially in the winter, to make sure there’s a tour going.
There are lots of other walking tours in places like Dublin, Cork City, Galway, Belfast, and Londonderry, so check with the local Failte Ireland office or Northern Ireland tourist offices for details. Also check hillwalkireland.com.
There’s nary a sport you can name that doesn’t a have a foothold in Ireland. Every sort of boating and other water sport imaginable is here from sailing to sea kayaking as is every land sport from golf to horseracing to skydiving, rock climbing, show jumping, boxing, baseball, basketball, cricket, Gaelic football, cycling, handball, tennis, and hurling. Just ask and you’re sure to find your favorite pastime.
Fishing is extremely popular in Ireland and you can learn more from the websites fishinginireland.info and irishfisheries.com. There are many other websites with information, and there are hotels and lodges that cater specifically to fishermen, especially up in Mayo and the Shannon region.
Georgina Campbell’s guide to Ireland lists the 10 top fishing accommodations as Ashford Castle in Cong, Newport House in Newport, Enniscoe House in Ballina, Healy’s Hotel in Pontoon, all in Co. Mayo, Ballynahinch Castle and Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel, both in Recess, and Delphi Lodge in Leenane, all in Co. Galway; Mount Juliet Conrad Hotel in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, and Ballyvolane House in Fermoy, Co Cork.
Even if you’re not a sports enthusiast, those hotels are fabulous and any one of them would be a great take.
We were interested to see that Dromoland Castle, near Shannon Airport, has started a School of Falconry run by Dave Atkinson who has worked at Dromoland for years and knows the Castle’s history and all about the estate wildlife. You can experience live birds of prey as the instructor talks about the natural history of raptors and the role they play in the environment.
There are also Schools of Falconry at Ashford Castle, at Ailwee Cave in the Burren, and several in Northern Ireland.
There are lots of other different and interesting things to do in Ireland. How about taking an escorted digital photography tour of wildlife, landscape, and seascape from a variety of locations in West Cork, including Kinsale, Courtmacsherry, Timoleague, Rosscarbery, Baltimore, and Bantry? The tours run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a stop for lunch, critique of the images and small groups. For more details, visit thewildlifefilmschool.com
If you’re not into photography, how about going on a whale watch in West Cork with zoologist and writer Nic Slocum? For details, visit whalewatchwest
There’s a writers’ week in Listowel, Co. Kerry, in the late spring, that celebrates 40 years in 2011. Visit the website writersweek.ie for details.
There are many wonderful museums all over Ireland and one of our favorites is the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. The museum plans many interesting exhibits during the year and you can learn more about this museum as well as three Dublin museums at museum.ie.
There’s also a wonderful museum (the Burren Centre) dedicated to the Burren in Kilfenora with a fascinating cathedral next door that’s well worth a visit. The Kilfenora cathedral was dedicated to St. Fachtnan and built about 1189 on the site of an early monastery. See theburrencentre.ie for details.
If you’re near New Ross in Co. Wexford, be sure to stop by the Ros Expo (rosexpo.ie), a permanent exhibition of the 15 Ros Tapestries. The exhibit is currently closed for the winter but will reopen in the spring so be sure to check the website for times and dates.
HAPPY NEW YEAR
We wish all our readers the happiest New Year ever. If you plan a trip to Ireland, be sure to visit Tourism Ireland’s website, discoverireland.com, for information about happenings there.