Author: Martha W.
Date of Trip: September 2009
An Irish Odyssey September 10-21, 2009
By: Marty Walkington
On Thursday, September 10 we folks in Bloomington/Normal (7 people) were picked up by a stretch SUV limo and transported to O’Hare airport in Chicago where we met the 65 others who were going to be on the tour to Ireland. We were flying Aer Lingus to Dublin which left at 6:50 p.m.
We arrived there at 8:15 a.m. Friday, September 11. A CIE tour company representative met us at the airport and promptly loaded our luggage aboard the tour bus. Since our group consisted of 72 travelers we were split among two busses. After boarding the coaches we were taken to our hotel, Bewley Hotel in the Ballsbridge area of the city. Ballsbridge is an upscale area of Dublin. The hotel was a beautifully restored 19th century Masonic school for orphans.
Once we were settled in we joined a group to go out for lunch in the area. Following lunch we were given a tour of the city center by a step on local guide. She pointed out several public buildings such as Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and ended the tour with a visit to the Kilmainham Gaol (jail) where many of Ireland’s leaders were imprisoned during the 19th and 20th centuries while striving to create a free nation.
Before dinner we met our fellow travelers over a welcome drink in the lounge area of the hotel. A large group of us went to dinner at Bellemy’s Pub and enjoyed fish and chips.
Saturday, September 12 we were given a huge buffet breakfast in the hotel dining area. The selections were juices, scrambled or fried eggs, rashers, (Canadian bacon) sausage, (including blood sausage) hot tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, dry cereals, yogurt, fruit, pastries and coffee or tea. It is a good thing we filled up at breakfast as we did not have time for lunch.
During the day we all rode the coastal route to Malahid Castle, owned and inhabited by the Talbot family from 1185 until 1973. It contained amazing furnishings and portraits. We then visited the National Botanic Gardens founded in 1790 and containing exquisite old greenhouses. In the afternoon we took the On and Off bus to the Guinness Brewery. We toured the brewery and then enjoyed a pint of Guinness atop the brewery which afforded you a 360 degree view of Dublin City. We were sorely in need of more time to visit other sites but had to limit ourselves to a photo at Molly Malone’s statue and a shot taken of the pedestrian street before we boarded the coach back to the hotel.
This evening we were treated to dinner and a show at the popular Abbey Tavern for Irish cuisine and some lively traditional song and dance. We enjoyed the ride from the hotel to the tavern as it was along the coast to a small seaside village. It was a delightful evening.
After another hearty breakfast on Sunday, September 13 we left Dublin and headed south to Cobh. (Cove) Along the way we paused for a photo at the Rock of Cashel which is a group of ruined buildings exhibiting the spirit of Celtic Christianity and Irish kingship. The towers on Irish castles were built with bells in them to warn of danger and not for hiding as one would be unsafe there without an exit.
We arrived in Cobh at lunch time. A group of us ate at Eleven West and then were given a walking tour with a guide explaining the port city. The city was the point of departure for hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants who sailed to North America in the late 19C and early 20C. Their passage is commemorated in the statue of Annie Moore, the first emigrant to pass through the Ellis Island immigration reception center in New York . Cobh was also the last port of call for the Titanic in April, 1912 before setting off on her fateful maiden voyage. This town is delightful, with its multi-colored houses and storefronts and the beautiful St. Colman’s Cathedral rising on the hillside behind it. This is a spot we must visit again! Driving on to Cork, we checked into the Kingsley Hotel. Our room looked out on the River Lee. We had a lovely dinner and crashed for the night.
Monday, September 14 we left Cork and drove a short distance to the Blarney Woolen Mill. The shop is so named because of the mills which once were an industrial enterprise surrounding the castle. It offered excellent Irish-made products under one roof. This shop proved more popular than the castle to many on our tour. While there we walked to Blarney Castle and climbed its many steps to the top to kiss the Blarney Stone. It is said, “Those who kiss the Blarney Stone will have the gift of eloquent speech.” One must lie upside down with a guide holding one’s legs in order to accomplish the feat.
We continued on our journey to Killarney and checked into the Killarney Towers Hotel which was very centrally located. After check in we were bussed to Muckross Gardens located in the Killarney National Park. Muckross House, built in 1843 is adjacent to the gardens. The extensive gardens extend down to the lake which is Muckross Lake. Before and after dinner we walked about the town of Killarney and visited the shops, taking many photos of buildings and pubs along the way.
On Tuesday, September 15 we arose very early to go out to take more photos, hoping to avoid traffic and pedestrians. After another enormous Irish breakfast we boarded the coach to discover the Dingle Peninsula, made famous by two movies that showcased the scenery in “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Far and Away.” We paused in Dingle before continuing to the Blasket Center in Dunquin to learn about the offshore Blasket Islands, inhabited until 1953 by hardy families who made a living by farming and fishing. In the evening after dinner we walked with others to the St. Mary’s Cathedral. It was used as a shelter for famine victims. Many deceased children of the famine are buried in a large common plot in the churchyard.
Wednesday, September 16 we packed up and left following breakfast. We were on the road to the Ring of Kerry and Bunratty, one of the world’s most scenic drives. It has an ever changing succession of landscapes. Our lunch stop was on the main road between Limerick and Ennis at the site of Bunratty Castle. It has one of the most splendid tower houses in Ireland. Built in 1460 by the powerful O’Brien family, it stands on the banks of the Bunratty River. It was restored in the 1950’s. Two eating places beckoned us for lunch, The Original Durty Nelly’s and the Creamery. We opted for the Creamery where we could enjoy lunch out of doors on a beautiful sunny day.
After lunch we passed by many peat bog fields where people were working to harvest the peat to be used as fuel for the winter. Continuing on, we visited the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. The cliffs are dark sandstone 600 feet high and about 5 miles long. They rise out of the Atlantic. Adjoining them is O’Brien’s Tower built in 1853 as a “look out.” It is a beautiful sight to behold on a lovely day. We continued on through the hilly Burren region with its limestone hills full of rock/stone fences and thatched roof houses. It was wonderful traveling along Galway Bay to our Salthill Hotel which was seaside in Galway.
Thursday, September 17 we visited the Celtic Crystal Factory/Showroom to hear the owner explain the production process and show us many of their signature pieces. We were warned not to talk during her tour as we would be sorely reprimanded. We were asked to guess her previous profession after our tour. Seems she was a former school teacher! We viewed an interesting demonstration of glass cutting given by a young man in his 30’s. We purchased a Celtic cross necklace and a Claddagh Ring with crystal adornment. The crystal is green and is my May birthday color. History tells that the people of Claddagh, a small fishing village overlooking Galway City, had its own laws and customs. They wore a specially designed ring of which they were extremely proud. It was fashioned of joined hands of friendship, a heart signifying love and a crown signifying loyalty. It is often worn as a marriage ring and is traditionally before marriage worn with the crown nearest the knuckle and upon marriage with the crown nearest the nail.
Our afternoon visit was to Kylemore Abby. The name Coill Mhor in Irish means “the big wood.” The Abby is indeed in a lush woodland setting. It was built 1860-67 of granite and now houses a community of Irish Benedictine nuns and a convent school. A walk along the wooded shore takes you to a Gothic church (1874) used for ecumenical services and concerts. Also accompanying the Abby is a Victorian Walled Garden on its way to being restored. It contains glasshouses and a head gardener’s cottage. We ate lunch in the Visitor’s Center and visited the gift shop where we viewed beautiful Kylemore pottery that is made at the site. Dinner was back at the Salthill Hotel in Galway.
Today, Friday, September 18 we headed north to the village of Knock, a popular place of pilgrimage. In 1879, two local women saw an apparition of the Virgin, St. Joseph and St. John by the gable of the church of St. John the Baptist. It was witnessed by 13 more onlookers and validated by the Catholic Church. Every year over one million visitors make the pilgrimage to the shrine, including Pope John Paul II in 1979. Nearby is the Basilica of Our Lady, a modern basilica. We continued onward through County Sligo to view W. B. Yeats’ (1865-1939) grave in Drumcliffe Churchyard. His great grandfather had been rector at the church in Drumcliff. Yeats died in the south of France but, in accordance with his wishes his body was later interred here. Continuing to follow the shoreline of Donegal Bay to Donegal town we made a lunch stop. We had a wee bit of time to look around the town before going on to Derry. (Londonderry) When entering Derry we saw school kids leaving school on Friday. We noticed the uniforms and the apparent glee that school was out. After checking in to City Hotel we took a guided walking tour around the ancient walled city. The walls of the city were erected in the early 17C. The city was the site of “Bloody Sunday” events of 1972. City Hotel was full of wedding guests attending a reception. Quite interesting outfits were worn by the women. It seems the tight fitting mini dress is very popular among the young Irish lassies! The mother of the bride was bedecked beautifully, including a very fashionable hat. Friday’s are the most popular day for weddings in Ireland.
We left Derry on Saturday, September 19. Our coach driver made a brief stop for photos at the murals in Derry. These murals depict the events of the bloody fighting that occurred in the north, one of which was “Bloody Sunday’ when fourteen civilians were shot dead in the violent aftermath of a banned protest march. Bill Clinton is revered by the Irish as having been instrumental in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The area is still not a part of the Republic. They are under British rule and the Pound is the currency used in the north.
The highlight of the day was our visit to the Giant’s Causeway. The Giant’s Causeway lies at the foot of cliffs along the sea coast on the edge of Northern Ireland. It is made up of some 40,000 massive black basalt columns sticking out of the sea. The dramatic sight has inspired legends of giants striding over the sea to Scotland which you can see on a clear day. Geological studies of these formations over the last 300 years have greatly contributed to the development of the earth sciences, and show that this striking landscape was caused by volcanic activity some 50–60 million years ago.
The Ulster American Folk Park was a nice visit this afternoon. We viewed many cottages, including the boyhood home of Thomas Mellon, who founded the Mellon Bank The park depicted the world famous story of Irish emigration. We followed the emigrant trail we journeyed from the thatched cottages of Ulster, on board a full scale emigrant sailing ship leading to the log cabins of the American Frontier. We met costumed characters along our way with traditional crafts to show and tales to tell. After a very busy day we arrived back in Dublin at the Clontarf Castle Hotel. This hotel is set in a leafy northern area of Dublin. In 1172 the castle was built as an inner circle of defense sites protecting Dublin. In 1649 it was sold to John Vernon. The Vernon’s were in Clontarf for almost 300 years. In 1660 when John Vernon passed away it was owned by his son Edward Vernon. After his death in 1664 one of his sisters took over the castle. The estate passed through the family and in 1835 the original building was declared unsafe. It was demolished and the castle as we view it was rebuilt in 1837. It opened as a four star hotel in 1998.
Day 11 Sunday, September 20 was our last full day in Ireland. It was a beautiful, sunny day. After breakfast we left for a tour of Megalithic Tombs at Knoth. The tour guide explained the discovery of these tombs which are over 5000 years old. We were told how primitive people managed to align these tombs with the sun and moon. It is here in the gift shop where Lin purchased his Irish cap.
Today is the day of the Irish football playoff. It is comparable to the Super Bowl in the United States. The teams vying to win are Cork and Kerry. It seems all of Ireland turned out in Dublin to watch or attend the event which is held in the 82,300 seat stadium. The Kerry team won the game, as expected. We watched the game in the hotel bar while eating lunch and then took a walk in the neighborhood around the hotel. Tonight we dressed for a Farewell Dinner in the dining room. Entertainment was provided by tour members.
Monday, September 21 we said our goodbyes and transferred to Dublin Airport for our return trip home. After check-in we had time for some last minute shopping in the duty free shops. We ate lunch before boarding. Our flight left at 2:20 p.m. and arrived at O’Hare at 4:30 p.m Our limo once again met us and brought the seven of us back to Bloomington/Normal.
Summary: We had a marvelous holiday in Ireland. We are especially appreciative of our tour director, Cheryl Thorne from First State Bank of Mendota and our CIE coach driver/guide, Irishman, Pat Smith. They provided crack (fun) and information throughout the tour. Both were flexible when possible and this allowed us to enjoy many things that were not on the itinerary. Questions were encouraged and addressed. Our fellow passengers were congenial and courteous.
The Irish people seemingly do not have an easy life. However, they accept it and work hard to provide for their families. Family is most important in Ireland. Taxes are high on most everything, but they do not have a real estate tax on their homes. There are many government rebates available for a variety of purposes, including keeping the hedges trimmed on your property along the roadway. This is due to the narrow roads and the need to pull over or off to the side for opposite bound traffic. Small cars abound because of high taxes on autos and the narrow roads. The Irish are most courteous when driving. They are quick to give the right of way and greet you with a wave as you pass by. We were treated kindly by the people, and they were very helpful when we needed directions, etc.
Food in Ireland is very good and you are served potatoes with every entrée. If you order meat or fish it comes served on mashed potatoes. Boiled potatoes are also put on the plate. Coffee is served only with dessert and is usually limited to one cup, unless you request more. They love their beer and refer to a serving as a “pint.” The pubs come alive very late in the evening and many offer musical entertainment.
Northern Ireland is cautiously calm. Unrest is not apparent. The area in the north is just as beautiful as in the rest of Ireland. Much rebuilding is occurring due to the fighting there in the past. We felt perfectly safe during our visit there.
Currency used in Ireland is the Euro except in the north where it is the Pound. The exchange rate to the dollar was very unfavorable during our visit. An ATM card used to exchange currency or charge card was the most useful payment for goods and services if one lacked Euros or Pounds.