Travel Archives – Irish America Irish America Magazine Mon, 15 Jul 2019 20:00:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 Irish War Brides: A Little Irish Romance Wed, 01 May 2019 07:36:38 +0000 Read more..]]> A group of workers on the docks serenaded the passengers with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and “Come Back to Erin.” The sirens of other ships in the harbor wailed while the 314 Irish brides waved, held up their 140 babies, and sang “Auld Lang Syne” through floods of tears as the Henry Gibbins, a 12,000-ton U.S. Army transport vessel, sailed away from the Herdman Channel, Belfast, on March 7, 1946.

This was the first of three shiploads of brides from Northern Ireland and Éire to embark for the United States. Many had married GIs as early as 1942. The majority of the women were in their early 20s. The youngest bride was 17, the oldest 45, with three grown daughters in tow. At night, mothers slept in upper berths and babies beneath in the lower, where a screen was constructed to prevent them “falling out on their noses.” Days were spent listening to Red Cross personnel lecturing from A Short Guide to the U.S. on “The GI Bill of Rights,” “Becoming a Citizen,” and “Currency Differences.”

Although $75,000 had been spent on reconversion, the Gibbins, which carried 2,900 troops at a time during the war, was no luxury liner. However, The Northern Whig, a newspaper from that time, made much of the lavish menu aboard ship, which included “as many old-fashioned shell eggs as they liked.” No more coupons, points, and rationing for the brides. There was more meat, eggs, chicken, and fresh fruit than they’d seen in years. Unfortunately most of the women would be too seasick to enjoy the feast.

Seasickness was aggravated by their intense excitement at rejoining their husbands, regrets about leaving their families and homeland, and apprehension as to whether or not they would get a hearty welcome from in-laws in America.

Marion (Callendar) Carlson, from Belfast, got a terrific welcome when she arrived in New York aboard the James Parker in May 1946. “We were met by American Red Cross people,” she remembers. “They had big placards, ‘Welcome Irish War Brides,’ and a GI military band played Irish tunes.”

Other brides who weren’t so lucky remember being met by hostile groups of American women shouting, “You stole our husbands,” and “You stole our boyfriends.” By March 1945, U.S. naval officer T.J. Keane had disclosed that 25 percent of the men under his command had married women from Northern Ireland. The greatest number hailed from areas where the largest numbers of American troops were stationed, Cookstown, Derry, Coleraine, Kilrea, Portrush, and Belfast.

U.S. Immigration tables for the period from December 28, 1945 through 1950 account for 1,466 Irish war brides and three war “grooms,” but in fact there were many more. Those figures don’t take account of the 30,000 Irish and English brides transported secretly while the war was still on.

Although authorities after the war predicted that 80 percent of marriages between GIs and foreign women would fail, the opposite has proved true.

Beryl Lynch and Charles Colvin, who married in 1944.

Esther (Canning) Munger, her husband, and their five children can chuckle when she tells about her Irish friends who “had a bet on when I came to this country that I would be back home in six months.”

Esther, from County Wexford, was only 17 when she married, having met her future husband at a birthday party in Lincoln, England. Her parents told her she “was too young, that he was not Catholic, and that America was too far away.”

Parental fears and misgivings at the time were understandable. As one war bride put it, “Going to America was like going to the moon!” In all likelihood, parents might never see their daughter again, or be able to help her if the marriage failed.

One woman from Coalisland, County Tyrone, who had met her GI while working as a waitress in a hotel in England, sailed secretly aboard the Mauritania in February 1945 during wartime, along with 500 other brides, 200 babies, and 1,500 wounded soldiers. She remembers how they “took a zigzag course on account of U-boats.”

“Because of the U-boat threat,” another war bride aboard recalled, “I wasn’t allowed to notify anyone that I was on my way. All our written material had been censored – even my Bible – and was put into sealed packages which we weren’t allowed to open until we got to the U.S. There were no pressmen on the dock; it was all hush-hush because the war was still on.”

Another bride who came over secretly with 13 other women during the war remembers that puzzled soldiers aboard who saw these unaccounted-for women in the officers’ dining room and lounge started rumors that “the girls onboard were there for the entertainment of the officers.” The next day, it was announced that they were war brides.

Most war brides still marvel at how easily attracted they were to those Yanks in their smart uniforms, smelling of Old Spice, generous to a fault.

Marion Carlson, who met her Yank at an American Red Cross event, feels that basically there wasn’t really all that much difference between Irish and American men, “except Americans seem[ed] to treat women nicer, sending flowers, candy, and the like.”

According to Lillian “Betty” (Kearney) Frantz of Belfast, who met her husband on a blind date while working in England during the war, American men were “better dressed,” but “failed to use a knife and fork properly when eating, failed to open doors or light a cigarette, but treated women like queens.”

Some Irish women served in the British A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service) during the war and met their American husbands on the job. “Both of us worked in the Headquarters Allied Armies, Italy,” says Phyllis (Boyack) Lancaster of Clonmel, County Tipperary. Although she often found GIs to be “loud and brassy,” she also thought them “more outgoing” than British men.

At her wedding in October 1945, Phyllis wore an often-borrowed wedding gown, on loan from a Canadian women’s group to members of the A.T.S. Many wartime gowns were fashioned out of parachute silk. Gauze bandages were transformed into wedding veils.

Jean (Campbell) Corda, of Lisburn, County Antrim, who met Pvt. Elmer Corda at the movies in her hometown, remembers “three of us girls married Americans in the same church by the same minister on March 27, 1943.” Not long after they settled in Oregon, rising waters from the Columbia River broke a railroad dike and flooded their town. For a while, their only shelter was a tent. Elmer told Jean he wouldn’t blame her if she packed up and went back to Ireland. Jean told him that World War II brought them together and she wasn’t about to let hell or high water chase her away.

“We had our struggles,” Jean admits. “We didn’t have a lot when we first came, but we managed. You go up the hill and get kicked back down, then you go back up again. My mother used to tell me that when one door closes, another always opens up.”

“I wouldn’t do it again!” says Sally Kastl of Belfast in her clearly Irish brogue. She hasn’t forgotten that she “cried for five years” from homesickness. However, her mother-in-law, an English war bride from World War I, provided some understanding.

Getting a job with Michigan Bell Telephone Company as an operator helped Lillian Frantz get through her homesickness. In 1953 she was promoted to management and retired after 28 years of service.

A page from our 1991 archives.

“The terrible heat in Oklahoma,” was the worst thing at first for Marion Carlson to get used to. She, too, found satisfaction in a career and a happy marriage.

Sally, now a proud grandmother, is still as fiery as ever. She lives with her husband Frank in San Francisco, where neighbors have dubbed her “the mayor of San Bruno Avenue,” because of all the letters she writes to the city council and her involvement in political affairs affecting her neighborhood.

As much as Sally misses her homeland and Irish family, leaving was a liberating experience for her. “I had red hair down to my hips; Mother didn’t believe in cutting hair. First thing I did was get it cut!”

A friend who traveled recently in Ireland told me he stayed at a bed-and-breakfast, where he asked the proprietor about the photo of a Yank he spied on the parlor wall. “It’s me,” he answered. He turned out to be one of an unknown number of GIs who chose to stay in Ireland with his Irish bride.

On December 28, 1945, Public Law 271, known as the War Brides Act, was passed by Congress. The act facilitated the entry of alien spouses of U.S. servicemen by granting them nonquota status. This act remained in effect for three years, until December 28, 1948.  ♦


Ellie Shukert is the author of War Brides of World War II, published by Penguin Books. This article was published in Irish America in April 1991. War bride Sally Kastl passed away in 2004.

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Mighty Mayo Sat, 22 Dec 2018 08:27:05 +0000 Read more..]]> Steeped in history with landscapes that go from brilliant beaches to windswept boglands, lakes, mountains to islands, pilgrimage sites to pirate queens, Mayo has it all.


There’s something about Mayo…

Oh, the Green and Red of Mayo

I can see it still

Its soft and craggy bogland

Its tall majestic hills

Where the ocean kisses Ireland

And the waves caress its shore

Oh the feeling it came over me

To stay forever more

Forever more.

— The Saw Doctors

Ahhhh, Mayo. There’s something for everyone in Mayo. Whether it’s majestic hills or rolling waves you’re after, you’ll find them here, in this western county, geographically the third-largest in Ireland. Mighty, majestic, magical Mayo – the alliteration just rolls off the tongue. It’s a county of contrasts – of busy, bustling towns and quietly calm countryside; imposing hills and rolling valleys; tranquil lakes and surf-filled seas.

On land, the impressive Great Western Greenway stretches for 42 kilometers – taking in Achill, Mulranny, Newport, and Westport – keenly populated by cyclists and walkers from all over the world. The many coastal corners of Mayo – it’s the county with the longest coastline in Ireland – are heaven for surfers, kayakers and sailors of all shapes and sizes. Inland, its lakes are fishing havens for the many anglers who live locally or visit regularly.

Two surfers meet in Keel.

Dotted with museums, old churches, and monasteries, Mayo is full of historical treasures too, and it’s a rare drive in the county that doesn’t involve passing at least one local landmark. Sit back and relax while we take you on a whistle-stop tour, pointing out some of the county’s most endearing features and maybe one or two not-so-well-known gems.

Heading west from Dublin, through counties Kildare and Roscommon, you pass through the little village of Bohola, between the towns of Swinford and Castlebar. Comprising a church, a school and a couple of pubs, it’s a blink-and-you-might-miss-it little place, like many similar Irish villages. But this little spot is renowned as the birthplace of Ireland’s greatest-ever Olympic champion, the great Martin Sheridan. Representing his adopted home of the United States, Sheridan amassed an impressive five Olympic medals in St. Louis (1904) and London (1908). There is a memorial sculpture of him in Bohola. Also hailing from this parish were the well-known O’Dwyer brothers – William served as mayor of New York City in the 1940s and later as American ambassador to Mexico, while attorney Paul was renowned as a great defender of civil liberties and minority rights.

Ceide Field Visitor Center

It’s just a short hop from Bohola to the county town of Castlebar, a good spot for shopping and dining, with excellent fare on offer from such tempting restaurants as Dining Room, House of Plates, Bar One and Café Rua. Walking enthusiasts will enjoy the picturesque Lough Lannagh, complete with resident swans and ducks, and outdoor gym equipment strategically dotted around the scenic walk. Those looking for a longer walk, or a bike ride, should take in the Turlough Greenway, which runs 7.5 kilometers from Castlebar to the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough.

Nestled in the gorgeous grounds of Turlough Park House, this absolute gem is a monument to those who lived in 18th- and 19th-century Ireland. Housing the museum’s extensive folklife and folklore collection, and also featuring regular exhibitions of interest, it is a vividly interesting place to visit. A new children’s playground in the grounds of Turlough Park uses the natural environment to excellent effect. For those who have an interest in fishing, Ballina enjoys a reputation as a world-class angling destination, with the River Moy offering several prime fishing spots, including the Ridge Pool – paradise for salmon anglers. Other attractions in the town include the ruins of Moyne Abbey and Rosserk Friary, which date back to the 15th century, and the Jackie Clarke Collection – a massive private collection comprising more than 100,000 items, and now available for public viewing.

Ballina on the banks of the River Moy.

Letters from Michael Collins, Douglas Hyde, and Michael Davitt are among the many gems it has to offer, along with rare books, political cartoons, pamphlets, and personal items from leaders of the 1916 Rising. Housed in a beautiful old bank building (keep an eye out for the impressive safe) which was redesigned specially, it is the kind of place you could easily get lost in for a few hours! Ballina’s premium hotel destinations – Mount Falcon, the Ice House and Belleek Castle – are distinctly different but comparable in their attention to detail and determination to offer the perfect guest experience. Not too far from Ballina, worthy detours include the Foxford Woollen Mills, and Enniscoe House in Crossmolina. And, of course, the impressive Céide Fields, near Ballycastle in North Mayo, offer a tantalizing glimpse of prehistoric life and farming in Ireland. Another must-see for nature lovers is the Ballycroy National Park, one of six in Ireland, which is comprised of more than 110 square kilometers of Atlantic blanket bog and mountainous terrain. It’s also home to the Mayo Dark Sky Park, which in 2016 was awarded a gold tier standard of the international Dark Sky Path – meaning it’s now officially recognized as one of the best places in the world to view the wonders of the night.

The pretty town of Westport is one of the few planned towns in Ireland, and the views of the iconic Croagh Patrick and Clew Bay as you enter the town are simply stunning. It is said that there are 365 islands in Clew Bay – one for every day of the year – and on a clear day, when they gleam in the sun, you can find yourself believing it. John Lennon bought one of these islands in the 1960s, but only lived there in the fictional sphere of Kevin Barry’s 2015 novel Beatlebone.

Saint Patrick statue at the foot of Croagh Patrick.

Visit Westport at any time of the year and you’ll find the streets busy with locals and visitors alike, with peak crowds during the summer months. It’s a lovely town to wander through, with some notable restaurants including An Port Mór, Sage, The Tavern and Cian’s on Bridge Street. Lovers of traditional music won’t be able to pass by Matt Molloy’s pub, where there is invariably a session to be found, some even involving the man himself. Across the street, Moran’s is a cozy, welcoming pub which has remained largely unchanged through its many years in business.

The pretty town of Westport

Westport House is a must-see on any trip to Mayo – with attractions for all ages on site. Built on the site of an old castle belonging to Grace O’Malley (otherwise known as Granuaile, the Pirate Queen), the house is a treasure trove of décor, period features and portraiture. Sample the summertime Victorian afternoon tea or the pop-up Georgian dining experience (, or enjoy a leisurely saunter through the grounds. The excited shrieks of youngsters enjoying a soaking on the water ride can frequently be heard from the adjoining Pirate Adventure Park.

Heading out of Westport towards Louisburgh, you pass directly by the foot of Croagh Patrick in the village of Murrisk, with the Irish National Famine Memorial across the road. It’s a busy spot – the mountain is a magnet for climbers, never more so than on the last Sunday in July, known as Reek Sunday. In recent years, Croagh Patrick has also featured in several adventure trails, including Sea2Summit and Gaelforce West. The summit has suffered a little damage in recent years, due to the high volume of traffic, but there are efforts underway to try and repair it, using the expertise of specialist Scottish contractors.

The National Famine Memorial, Murrisk

For those who prefer their walking on a horizontal plain, rather than a steep vertical, the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail – which runs from Westport through Murrisk and Louisburgh to Clare Island – offers the opportunity to explore the thousand- year-old traces of Mayo’s heritage in a day, with 21 archaeological and heritage sites to explore. Beach lovers will find several spots to choose from in and around Louisburgh – Old Head is a good spot for kayaking and snorkeling, while the surf is definitely up at Carrowniskey, and Silver Strand is a gorgeous expanse of sparkling sand, exactly as the name implies. The drive from Louisburgh towards Leenane, on the border of Galway, is a visual delight if you are lucky enough to be a passenger. Passing by hills and mountains, with the gorgeous Doolough (“black lake”) winding alongside, it is simply breathtaking. The poignancy of the small, stone famine memorial, which marks the death of many locals during the height of the Great Hunger, offers a sharp contrast to the natural beauty of the area. So much of the west of Ireland is pock-marked with these Famine memorials, a constant reminder of the trauma suffered during those terrible years.

Traveling from Castlebar, through the picturesque little town of Newport – a popular watersports destination in summer, with plenty of pier activities for youngsters – on the way to Achill, there’s a pub / restaurant called Nevin’s Newfield Inn that is well worth a lunch stop. Pass by this establishment any day of the week and there are always plenty of cars outside, even though it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The Park Inn Hotel in Mulranny has one of the most stunning views in the area – overlooking the bay on one side and hills on the other. It’s also a great spot to take a break on the Great Western Greenway – park the bike and grab a coffee and a few photos of that view. The beach in Mulranny, an easy walk from the hotel, is a lovely sheltered little inlet that is very popular with locals in summer.

A couple of kids fishing away at Mulranny

The road from Mulranny leads directly to Achill Island, the largest island off the coast of Ireland. A wide bridge connects the island to the mainland, and Achill boasts some of the most stunning beaches in Mayo – with Dooega, Keel, and Keem Bay among the finest. Achill is heaven for those who love watersports – with kayaking, snorkeling, surfing and kite surfing all on offer. Binoculars can be a handy accessory also, as basking sharks and porpoises are regular visitors to the area. A Gaeltacht area, Achill is also renowned for its traditional music scene and for its mountain peaks. The scenic Atlantic Drive, which loops around the island, offers a multitude of stunning views. Other Mayo islands worth visiting include Clare Island, Inishturk and Inishbiggle.

A solitary cottage on Achill Island.

Fans of the iconic 1950s film The Quiet Man will not want to miss out on seeing the picture-perfect village of Cong, which straddles the Galway-Mayo border, with the Quiet Man Cottage Museum faithfully replicating the interior of the cottage depicted in the Oscar-winning film. Cong’s other major attraction is Ashford Castle, the five-star hotel hugely popular with visitors from the US.

Hand in hand with the county’s natural features and areas of beauty, Mayo is noted for its writers. The number of respected writers from the county is quite impressive: George Moore, Eimear McBride, EM Reapy, John Healy, Sally Rooney, Anne Chambers, Kate Kerrigan and Michael Mullen, to name but a few.

Mountains near Doolough Pass.

Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, last year’s deserving winner of the International Dublin Literary Award, sings Mayo from every page. It is a beautiful meditation on life and the importance of family, and McCormack’s wonderful ability to bring the reader right into the Mayo he describes so well makes for a very rewarding read.

Mayo people have achieved acclaim in other spheres as well, including politics. Former Irish President Mary Robinson, now hailed for her crusading work on environmental issues, is from Ballina. Former Taoiseach Charles Haughey was born in Castlebar, while more recent Taoiseach Enda Kenny also hails from the county town. Michael Davitt, who founded the Land League in Ireland in 1879, is buried in his native Straide, and his crucial role in shaping Ireland is commemorated in a small museum in the village. Mayo natives Major John MacBride and Kathleen Lynn each played an important part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Noted soprano Margaret Burke Sheridan was born in Castlebar, but went on to spend much of her life in Italy. Others who have roots in Mayo include former Vice President Joe Biden and Monaco Princess Grace Kelly.

Lastly, no mention of Mayo is complete without reference to its sporting heroes – the senior Gaelic football team who have brought their legions of supporters on an amazing journey over the past few years. Having lost nine All-Ireland football finals since 1989 (they haven’t won since 1951), including the three times they were bested by Dublin with just a point in the difference, they are the team that refuse to say die. With manager James Horan back in the driving seat, Mayo’s GAA fans will be eagerly watching the startup of the championship season in May of next year.  ♦


Getting there: Mayo has its own airport – Ireland West Airport Knock. No transatlantic flights to and from there, as yet, but for those traveling via the U.K. it’s a short hop across the water from any of the major airports. The train from Dublin to Mayo takes approximately three hours, and by car from Dublin or Shannon Airports, the travel time can vary from two and a half to three hours.

Read More: Exploring Mayo by Bernard O’Hara; The Story of Mayo by Rosa Meehan; Beatlebone by Kevin Barry; Solar Bones by Mike McCormack.;

Photos courtesy of Tourism Ireland.

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West Cork Thu, 01 Nov 2018 07:58:17 +0000 Read more..]]> Take a walk (or a drive) on the wild side. West Cork offers an abundance of wildlife, nature, and scenery.


Is there a more intriguing place in Ireland than West Cork? On a recent trip, I was dazzled by the wild beauty of its rugged coastline. I loved its small towns and villages, each buzzing with life. And I was thrilled to uncover its history through sites that still hold echoes of the past.

I started my trip in Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff. This seaside hotel is one of Ireland’s oldest and in its 250-year history, it has hosted the likes of W.B. Yeats and Maureen O’Hara. It’s a great base from which to explore the Beara Peninsula to the west and Bantry Bay to the south.

<em>Shops in Glengariff.</em>

Shops in Glengariff.

Ireland was sweltering in a heatwave when I arrived mid-summer, so I sought shade in the nearby Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve. These mature oak woodlands, with their babbling streams and light-dappled glades, gave me shelter from the sun and made me feel cocooned from all of the worries of the world.

The following morning, I took the ferry out to Garnish Island. If you have even the slightest interest in gardening, you have to visit this place. Seventy years ago, its owner Annan Bryce worked with architect and garden designer Harold Peto to transform the entire island into 15 hectares of exquisite Italianate gardens. Those gardens have since been bequeathed to the Irish State, and on my visit, they were ablaze in beauty.

Back on the mainland, I dedicated the next day to the Beara Peninsula. I drove along its winding roads. I stopped to take in its stunning views and I explored its picturesque villages such as Allihies, Eyeries, and Ardgroom.

I also braved the stomach-churning trip to Dursey Island. Located at the tip of the Beara Peninsula, this island is accessed by the only cable car in Ireland, a titchy thing that takes a maximum of six people.

<em>Eccles Hotel.</em>

Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff.

Once my nerves had settled, I spent a relaxing time exploring this island of few inhabitants. It has no shops, pubs, or restaurants but it does have lots of bogs, birds, cliffs, and antiquities such as standing stones, a ruined monastery, and a signal station dating from the Napoleonic era.

This isn’t all you can do on the Beara Peninsula. There’s a renowned Buddhist center here, the Dzogchen Beara, where you can take part in guided meditation sessions, enjoy wonderful vegetarian food in the café and savour the peace and quiet of the gardens.

A tall stone engine house amid the rocks above the village of Allihies marks what’s left of Ireland’s most westerly copper mines. There’s a museum in the village dedicated to the history of mining in this area. It starts in prehistoric times and continues until the mines closed in 1962. There are also fascinating displays on local geology and the social history of the miners.

Bantry is south of Glengarriff and is the perfect base from which to explore West Cork’s Sheep’s Head and Mizen Head Peninsulas. It’s also home to Bantry House, one of the finest historic houses in Ireland.

<em>The Gardens at Garnish Island.</em>

The Gardens at Garnish Island.

The house is owned by the Shelswell-White family, direct descendants of the first Earl of Bantry, Richard White. It was the first country house in Ireland to open its doors to the public, all the way back in 1946. Ever since, people have traipsed through its rooms, marvelling as I did at the collection of furniture, tapestries, and art.

Further south at the end of the Mizen Head Peninsula is the Mizen Head Visitor Centre. Its location is what makes this former signal station dating from 1905 special. It’s perched on top of a cliff on a rocky island that is joined to the mainland by an arched bridge. Merely getting there is an adrenaline rush.

Once you arrive, you can enjoy exhibitions that cover topics ranging from the local birdlife to the history of Fastnet Lighthouse, which is located on Ireland’s Teardrop, an island so called because it was the last sight of home for so many emigrants.

Travelling east, you’ll be delighted by the seaside villages that cling to the coast of Roaring Water Bay. Schull, Ballydehob, and Baltimore each offer their own twist on Irish seaside living.

<em>Road to the Church at Beara Peninsula.</em>

Road to the Church at Beara Peninsula.

Offshore, there are islands to visit. Sherkin measures three miles by 1.5 miles and always attracts artists, ecologists, and walkers.

Heir Island is even smaller and just as rugged. It’s home to a renowned baking school that runs day courses. You could take the ferry there in the morning, spend the day baking bread and then hop on the ferry again in the evening, this time with a few freshly-baked loaves in tow.

Furthest to the south is Cape Clear, where you’ll hear locals speak Irish. 45 minutes by boat from the mainland, it’s an island of sparkling harbours, cliffs, bogs and lakes. Archaeological sites – such as megalithic standing stones and a 5,000-year-old passage tomb as well as a ruined 12th century church and a 14th century O’Driscoll castle – tell of its long and storied history. It’s also the centre for birdwatching in Ireland and has the country’s only manned observatory.

Back on dry land, your next destination should be Skibbereen, a town that for many is forever associated with the ballad, “Dear Old Skibbereen.” This song tells of how the people of Skibbereen suffered during the Great Famine. It lost up to a third of its population to hunger, disease, and emigration during those dark years.

<em>VIsitors in front of Bantry House.</em>

Visitors in front of Bantry House.

You can pay your respects to some of those people at the Abbeystrewery Famine Cemetery. Not even a mile outside of town, it contains the mass grave of up to 10,000 locals who died during those years.

You’ll learn about how and why they died at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, which is located in the town’s old gasworks building. Its Famine exhibition is haunting.

If you’ve got time, try to fit in a visit to Liss Ard. This estate is known for its gardens, which have been designed as a series of experiences. The lakeside walk gives way to the waterfall garden, which flows into the woodland garden, then the water garden, the arboretum, and finally the wildflower meadow.

The crater, designed by American artist James Turrell and Swiss architect Gert Burla, is one of its highlights. If you lie on the stone structures at the bottom of the dome, you’ll appreciate the sky above you in a way you never have before.

<em>Mizen Head Bridge.</em>

Mizen Head Bridge.

Moving further east, you’ll arrive in Rosscarbery. The Dunbeg Stone Circle is on an exposed hill just above this village. Its 17 standing stones are oriented towards the winter solstice sunset and just beyond, there are the remains of an Iron Age hut and cooking pit. This place has been important for millennia.

Cork is known as the Rebel County and one of Ireland’s most famous rebels was born there. The Michael Collins Centre in Clonakilty tells of the life and times of this man. The exhibitions feature photos, letters, and even a reconstruction of the country lane in which he was killed.

A short drive from Clonakilty is Inchydoney Beach, one of Ireland’s best. A bracing walk here will give you the energy you need to continue on to our final destination in West Cork, the seaside town of Kinsale.

Kinsale has been popular with tourists for decades and it’s easy to see why. It’s got fantastic shops and restaurants. It’s got a picture-perfect harbor and it’s had a fascinating history.

<em>A beach in Rosscarbery.</em>

A beach in Rosscarbery.

One of the most interesting historical sites in Kinsale is Charles’ Fort, one of Europe’s best preserved star-shaped artillery forts. Dating from the 17th century, it was in use until 1921, when much of it was destroyed as the British withdrew from Ireland.

Exhibitions are now displayed inside its walls, showing the tough lives led by the soldiers who served here as well as the comparatively comfortable lives led by officers.

One such exhibtion is the Copper Miner’s museum in Dunmanway, these men worked in the mines in Butte, Montana where at one point there was 1,000 Sullivans and O’Sullivans in the phone book. These are just some of the wonders of West Cork. I haven’t even mentioned the Gougane Barra Forest Park, which hides one of the prettiest little churches you will ever see. Set right on a lake and surrounded by rolling green hills and trees, it’s well worth a detour.

But so are many places in this part of Ireland. There’s so much beauty here and so much hidden history too. I’m already planning my next visit. Perhaps you should too. ♦




<em>Author of </em>Brooklyn<em> and other books, Colm Toibin, at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry.</em>

Author of Brooklyn and other books, Colm Tóibín, at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry.

West Cork has long been home to artists and creative people and as a result, it hosts some of Ireland’s most exciting festivals.

1. The Baltimore Fiddle Fair attracts traditional musicians come from all over the world to this seaside village.

2. The Fastnet Short Film Festival takes place in the fishing village of Schull.

3. Bandon Music Festival is a festival for lovers of traditional and contemporary music.

4. The West Cork Islands Festival is an action-packed weekend offering opportunities to learn all about the heritage and history of the islands off the coast of West Cork.

5. The West Cork Chamber Music Festival takes place in Bantry House and in St. Brendan’s Church, and features concerts with internationally-renowned musicians.

6. The West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry showcases the best of Irish and international literature.

7. The Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival is a weekend of storytelling on Ireland’s most southerly island.



West Cork is a great place to bike, hike, and drive.

The Sheep’s Head Walking Route along the peninsula is rich in history and you’ll find traces of the Ireland of the long ago and magnificent views of the ocean. You can stop off in small villages for afternoon tea or pack a lunch, or stop at the Buddhist Center cafe overlooking the ocean at Allihies Beara, for some wholesome natural food, followed by a meditative stroll along the cliffs.

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County Galway Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:23:18 +0000 Read more..]]> Home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, County Galway also features and ancient city with ties to Spain that doubles as a modern-day thriving university town. 


To Hell or to Connaught, roared Cromwell’s troops. At the time, it was the direst of punishments, but if you were banished to this Irish province today and ended up in County Galway, you would probably think there had been some mistake. How could this county be seen as an alternative to Hell when it seems so much like Heaven? The City of Galway, at the heart of this county, is my favorite in Ireland. Its medieval center is small, which means everything is within walking distance. Its university and institute of technology give it a youthful energy. It hosts some of the country’s best festivals such as the Galway Arts Festival and the Galway Races – and needless to say, it’s also very pretty.

I’d recommend starting any tour of Galway in the place where the city itself first started – the western seaside edge of the city called the Claddagh. A fishing village stood here as far back as the fifth century, and with its colorful houses facing out onto the River Corrib, it retains a sense of that to this day. The area is also famous for the Claddagh ring. Legend has it that Richard Joyce was kidnapped by pirates on his way to the West Indies. They taught him the craft of jewelry and when he escaped their clutches, he returned to Galway and set up his trade. His design of two clasped hands holding a crowned heart symbolizes love, friendship and loyalty and has long been popular with both locals and visitors to the city.

The Spanish Arch is right beside the Claddagh. It was built in 1584 as an extension of the 12th-century Norman-era town wall and it used to house soldiers who kept watch and manned cannons on its roof. It’s thought to be named in memory of the commercial links that once existed between Galway and Spain.

You’ll find out more about this in the Galway City Museum, which is just behind the arch. It tells the story of Galway from its beginnings as a fishing village to a thriving medieval seaport of wine, spices, and fish in the Middle Ages and its later period of decline following the arrival of Cromwell in the region in the 1650s.

From the Spanish Arch, venture to the Latin Quarter. The cobbled Quay Street, Cross Street, and Middle Street are home to colorful shops and lots of cafés and bars. Be sure to call in to Neachtain’s for a quick drink and a taste of the real Galway. As you make your way past the buskers and street performers who are so much a part of life in Galway, keep an eye out for Lynch’s Castle on the corner of Shop Street and Abbeygate Street. It’s currently a bank but it’s a great example of a medieval fortified house with its carved windows, gargoyles, and ornamental mouldings and cornices.

Further on, you’ll arrive on Eyre Square. The square dates to medieval times when markets took place on the green in front of the town gates. Its green area remains a popular gathering place today and is often packed on sunny days. There are interesting things to see in the park, including the Browne family mansion doorway dating from 1627. There are lots of shopping opportunities around the park too and the city’s main tourist office is also located nearby. You might also like to visit Galway’s National University. Its quadrangle dates from when it first opened in 1849 and makes a great place for a stroll. On your way back into the city, you could pause to take a look at Galway Cathedral. Your sightseeing over for the day, you could then treat yourself to a meal followed by some traditional music in the Crane Bar.

Once you’ve explored Galway City, the seaside resort of Salthill is next. Almost two miles to the west of the city, it’s been a traditional holiday destination for decades and its promenade, amusement arcades, casinos, and pubs are testament to this. If you’re feeling brave, you might even consider diving off the iconic Blackrock Diving Tower, like some of the hardy locals.

Further west is the charming village of Barna. It’s got an excellent beach where you can swim safely. Beyond Barna, things begin to change. You now enter the Irish-speaking part of Galway, where the traditional culture of Ireland is still dominant.

The fishing village of Spiddal is one of the largest Irish-speaking settlements and you’ll hear lots of Irish spoken in its shops, pubs, and restaurants. Locals might even teach you a cúpla focal (a few words) if you ask nicely. The village has two beaches and piers which are used for shore angling. It’s also home to a fantastic craft center where you can watch craftspeople weaving and making candles, pottery, jewelry, and bodhráns (a traditional percussion instrument). Further along the coastline, you’ll find Carraroe. This village is closely associated with Galway Hookers, a distinctive form of native Irish boat. They’re immediately identifiable thanks to their unmistakeable rust-colored sails and if you keep your eyes peeled, you are likely to see one or two out at sea. While in Carraroe, ask the locals if any boats are currently being made in the area. Who knows? You might get to see a boat maker at work. Make sure you visit the beach too. It’s one of just two coral beaches on the west coast of Ireland, offering excellent scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. Your next stop is Lettermore where the landscape becomes even more barren and wild. The entire area is actually a series of small islands linked by a road which twists and turns between rocky outcrops that stretch out into the Atlantic. Watch out for Connemara Ponies, a hardy species that has evolved to thrive in this harsh environment.

A trip to the Aran Islands offers an opportunity to step even further out of time. These three islands about 30 miles off the coast of Galway have a culture, heritage, and beauty all of their own and can in some ways claim to be the real Gaelic Ireland. Inish Mór is the largest. It has a population of 900 people and more than 50 important historical monuments. The most impressive is the prehistoric fort of Dun Aengus. Thought to be more than 2000 years old, it’s built at the top of a 100-foot-high cliff and has three stone enclosures to defend against attack by enemies.

Inish Meáin is the least visited of the three and offers breath-taking views of the Cliffs of Moher and fantastic diving opportunities in its crystal-clear waters. Only 200 people live here and those that do depend on fishing and on rearing the sheep, whose wool is used to make world-famous Aran jumpers. Inish Oírr is the smallest island. It’s got one pub and it’s said to be a great place to hear traditional Irish music sessions. The best way of getting around these islands is by bike or by horse and cart. You can rent these once you arrive.

Back on the mainland, there’s the region of Carna and Kilkieran. It’s famous for its turf and the woven baskets known as creels that were used to transport it. Padraig Pearse’s summer cottage is located nearby. It’s open to visitors and gives a unique insight into the life of this revolutionary man.

The picturesque village of Roundstone is on the next headland to the north. This fishing village is built around its harbor which is still home to trawlers and traditional currachs. You can even charter a boat of your own.

Traveling further north, you’ll arrive at a town right at the foot of the Twelve Pins Mountains. This is Clifden, the largest town in Connemara. Its great claim to fame is that it was where Alcock and Brown landed in 1919 after travelling for 16 hours and 1,800 miles across the Atlantic. Today, it’s a lively town of boutique, gift shops, cafés, restaurants, and lots of great pubs. There’s a lot to do nearby. The Connemara National Park offers an unspoiled landscape of mountains, bogs, grasslands, rivers, and waterfalls. Connemara ponies run wild there and you’ll feel as though you’re wandering in a forgotten land.

Kylemore Abbey’s lakeside setting offers fabulous photo opportunities. Its walks, Victorian-era walled gardens, and its Gothic chapel merit exploration too.

From here, you should venture inland to the part of Galway associated with The Quiet Man. All around the shores of Lough Corrib, you’ll find destinations linked to this film.

Oughterard is worth a pit stop of its own. There’s a drive around the lake which starts and finishes here, taking in stunning scenery of mountains and valleys along the way.

The west of Galway always grabs the tourist headlines but there are places worth visiting to the east too. Claregalway and the beautiful ruins of its Franciscan abbey built in 1290 is one.

Ballinasloe is another. It’s got ruined churches and abbeys, old forts and castles and the nearby battlefield of Aughrim. The visitor center at Aughrim tells the story of the fight against William of Orange. Irish and Anglo-Irish families united against the Protestant invader but they were defeated and the course of Irish history changed forever.

Kinvara is located to the south of the county and is a lively fishing village. Its pubs are known for their welcome throughout Ireland. It’s also home to Dunguaire Castle. Dating from 1520 and guarding the entrance to the bay, this is one of the most picture-perfect castles in the west of Ireland and it holds nightly banquets throughout the summer. These banquets recreate the feasts that were served here by the O’Heynes, Shaughnessy, and Martyn clans, who were once lords of this castle. In the candlelit medieval chamber, guests are served extravagant courses of food accompanied by locally-brewed mead. They are entertained by costumed storytellers who recount the history of the castle as well as tales of local folklore.

In Cromwell’s time, a visit to Galway may have been a curse but this is no longer the case today. From its rugged coastline to the stone-walled fields of Connemara; from the vibrant streets of Galway City to fishing villages, castles, and ancient battlegrounds; you’ll find the best of the west in County Galway.

Some Things You Might Not Know About Galway:

I. It’s long been said that Christopher Columbus visited Galway. According to a note made in his copy of Imago Mundi, he visited in 1477.

II. The Galway Races, held at Ballybrit Racecourse, start on the last Monday of July every year, run for 7 days, and draw up to 150,000 spectators. The most popular days are Wednesday, when the Galway Plate is held, and Thursday, when the Galway Hurdle and Ladies Day take place, when women compete for the title of Best Dressed Lady, and Most Elegant Hat.

III. Lynch’s Castle in Galway City is the oldest building in Ireland in daily commercial use

IV. Galway was ruled by 14 merchant families in medieval times. These tribes are where it gets the nickname of “City of the Tribes.” They include Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martyn, Morris, and Skerrett.

V.  After the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell ordered the execution of Charles I. He looked for volunteers to carry out the execution. Two Galway soldiers called Gunning and Dear offered their services and Gunning carried out the deed on the 30th of January 1649. He was given property as a reward and that property is where the King’s Head pub now stands in the city.

VI.  Galway was one of the counties most affected by the Great Famine, with one fifth of the population dying. Relief works included the construction of Dyke Road and Threadneedle Road. The Irish name for the latter – Bóthar na Mine – translates as the Meal Road, telling the real story of why it was built.

VII. The Fields of Athenry” is a folk ballad set during the famine and it tells the story of Michael from Athenry, Co. Galway, who is sent to a penal colony in Australia for stealing food to feed his family. It’s widely sung at Irish rugby games, and Glasgow Celtic football games.

VIII. Galway is known as the festival capital of Ireland, hosting on average 122 festivals and events every year.

IX.   Galway’s Eyre Square, is officially known as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, marking the fact that he made a speech to approximately 100,000 people here on his visit in 1963. ♦


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Clothing-Optional Beach Established in Ireland Wed, 09 May 2018 05:53:46 +0000 Read more..]]> The County Council of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown announced plans in March to accommodate nude bathers at Hawk Cliff beach in Dalkey, County Dublin, making it the first Irish beach to do so. Signs indicating the permissible presence of unclothed beachgoers were posted at Hawk Cliff in April.

In a victory for Ireland’s naturist population, changes to the laws regarding public exposure were made in 2017. The revisions clarify that the act is only criminal if the individual in question aims “to cause fear, distress, or alarm,” or attempts to copulate publicly.

“We don’t go out to offend anyone,” Pat Gallagher, head of the Irish Naturist Association, told the Irish Sun. “We simply want to go there, lie in the sun, get in the water, have a swim, but we don’t want to wear anything, that’s all.”

While other beaches in Ireland still forbid nude sunbathing, many naturists seek secluded portions of traditional beaches to avoid detection. Popular spots include Silver Strand Beach in Barna, County Galway and Brittas Bay in County Wicklow.

The arrangements have upset some local politicians, who claim they were planned without their knowledge. The issue has proven the source of controversy in the past, nude bathers being threatened with arrest on numerous occasions by public officials. ♦


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Travel: Girls on a Bus Through Ireland Sun, 04 Mar 2018 15:06:10 +0000 Read more..]]> CIE Tours International’s Taste of Ireland Tour is a trip not soon to be forgotten. Irish America sent Tara Dougherty and Sheila Langan to discover its splendor. Scroll down for more photos and a chance to win your own 5 day/4 night Taste of Ireland tour for two.

An Irish American’s First Time in Ireland

Perhaps the sentiment you hear most about Ireland is just how nice the people are. For years I’d heard it, that the most striking element of the country was the warmth of its people. It may be my own cynical New York mindset but I couldn’t help but think, “How nice could they really be?” After the trip, I was singing the same tune as all those I’d known.

Having grown up a competitive Irish dancer and later studying Irish literature, music, history and language in college, it seems like part of me has always been in Ireland. So much of the music and culture of Ireland has been an integral part of my life and identity that it felt almost strange to be visiting the source of it all for the first time. Ireland has always had a mystical quality for me, and to say that my expectations were high would be quite the understatement. I was not disappointed.

Seeing Ireland Differently

From ages one to fourteen, a trip to Ireland in August was part of my yearly itinerary. My granny’s birthday was on the 1st, and that cause for celebration, combined with the prospect of  9:00 pm twilights, would bring my relatives back to Ireland, to Kerry, in droves.

Days were slow and lazy – I was stubborn about adjusting from jet lag, preferring to wake at noon and go to sleep after midnight. We visited neighbors, packed blankets and banana sandwiches for a day on the beach at Banna Strand. Nights were spent sitting together by the fire, eating Irish apple pie (tart, with whole cloves) and playing rounds of Old Maid and Thirty-One. My last August visit to Ireland had been in 2008 – a heavy and strange time to be there, due to the impending financial bust – when I spent two weeks with family in Naas and Dublin before starting a busy semester at Trinity.

This – being with family – is what Ireland in August has always meant to me, and it’s a hard memory to live up to. But when presented with the chance to return  with the CIE Taste of Ireland Tour, I leapt. This would be a trip on different terms and from different eyes. For the first time I would be seeing Ireland not as a daughter or granddaughter, or as a student, but as a tourist. And instead of nestled with my own, I would be part of a 30-person CIE tour bus family as we rolled through countryside from Dublin to Kerry and back again.

Sheila Langan and Tara Dougherty.


The trip began with a 5:00 am landing at Dublin Airport. Exhausted from the time change and a mostly sleepless flight, we spent the first day touring Ireland’s capital in a daze. The absolutely wonderful thing about a bus tour, though, is the luxury it affords you to sit back, relax, and let yourself be ferried from place to place – your only responsibilities are to be on time and take it all in. So it was all right that our first few hours on Irish soil were a pleasant blur of St. Stephen’s Green, O’Connell Street, Dublin Castle, the cheekily lounging Oscar Wilde statue and the Merry Ploughboys Pub in Rathfarnham.

The following morning we traveled south and west, stopping to take in the Rock of Cashel and to give the Blarney Stone its customary kiss before arriving in the lovely Co. Kerry town of Killarney, where we would be spending two nights. The third and fourth days took us through the hills, valleys and seaside cliffs of the Munster landscape, then across the River Shannon via car ferry and on to Bunratty Castle and Folk Village. The final day was spent returning to Dublin after an all-too-brief stop in beautiful Connemara and Galway City.

Of course, this was all made possible by our wonderful guide and driver, Pat Smith from Kells, Co. Mayo, who made navigating a 30-person bus around hair-bend turns while giving a lecture on Irish history seem like the easiest thing in the world. Pat was brimming with wonderful suggestions, facts and stories. He was also the model of patience and understanding, thoughtfully answering any question, including, on the third day, a few about when we were going to see the Ring of Kerry – when we had already been on the famous road for a few hours. “The Ring of Kerry is not a physical ring, if you like,” he cheerfully explained over the bus’ sound system. “It’s a driving route, and we’re on it.”

Tour groups are never short on new friends to be had. (Photo: CIE Tours International / Facebook)


Our first of two nights in Killarney was the most Irish night of our stay as far as the weather was concerned. We wandered the streets through a downpour, shoes soaked, umbrellas snapping in the wind, just trying to find the perfect pub to hear some music and get a feel for the town.

There are over 50 pubs in Killarney, which is not very big, so it wasn’t as though we were lacking in options. Dodging a tourist trap or two, we settled on a smaller pub, the Dunloe Lodge, drawn in by the lively tunes of a few men on guitar, fiddle and button accordion. Unfortunately, just as we arrived they were wrapping up their music seisún.

Seeing some stylishly dressed ladies around our age who had been enthusiastically singing and dancing to “The Fields of Athenry,” we decided to take a chance on asking for a recommendation. We only got as far as, “We’re not from around here and we’re looking for…” before we were instantly adopted. “You’re coming with us!” they declared, and with that a few girls visiting Killarney from Galway City became our personal social tour guides for the evening. They swept us up Plunkett Street and down Main Street to Sheehan’s at the Killarney Grand.

Inside, we did not find the absorbing seisún we had been looking for, but we did find, performing live, a group called J90, who turned out to be the best top-40 cover band either of us had ever heard. Even though they were performing contemporary hits, it was unlike anything you would see in the U.S. – especially on a Monday night. They were a modern-day equivalent of what the showbands of the ’50s and ’60s must have been, and, judging by the crowd and by the praise of Neill, a farmer who drives into Killarney every Monday to see them perform, just as popular.

The resounding lesson of the night was a valuable one, especially for a pair of slightly guarded New Yorkers with exacting expectations: if you go traipsing around dead-set on finding the authentic Irish experience, chances are you’re not going to find it. Better to take it all in, talk to people and enjoy what’s really going on.

The grounds and gardens of Blarney Castle.


The CIE Tour gave us the unique experience of interacting daily with a large group of fellow tourists. While this may not sound appealing to everyone, there is no quicker way to learn about the sheer magnetism of Ireland; the pull it has on so many people from different places and of different ages. We shared a few meals with our fellow CIE-ers, told our own stories and heard many more, and the theme of our conversations seemed to always harken back to family.

Of the thirty or so on our tour, we were just about the only ones traveling without a relative. Two older couples from the Mid-west were making the trip together – an epic double date by any standards. Chuck and Katie Cavanaugh, a father and daughter from Connecticut, were celebrating her high school graduation, and the Bachmans, a mother and her two daughters from New York, had also come to Ireland to celebrate the younger girl’s commencement.

We could see these groups bonding with each other and with Ireland itself. Another mother and daughter by the name of O’Brien, visiting from Florida, were excited to encounter the popular O’Brien’s chain of sandwich and coffee shops, and were even more delighted to learn that Bunratty Castle (which we visited on our fourth night) had been owned by the O’Brien clan. “We’re royalty!” they exclaimed.

The stories and connections went on and on in our bus full of families. Along the road we encountered another CIE group of over 30 brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins on a family reunion through Ireland and Scotland. They were on a quest to find a connection to their roots, but more importantly, it seemed, to renew their connections with each other.

A young boy poses for photos on the Ring of Kerry.

Even for those on our tour with no Irish roots, there was one moment in particular that made it difficult not to feel the pull of the ancestors. On the trip headed back towards Dublin from the west, we stopped for a brief visit to the family-owned Connemara Marble Factory in Moycullen, just eight miles from Galway City. Ambrose Joyce, Jr. welcomed us with a brief tour of the factory and delineated for us the types of Connemara marble. He showcased million-year-old slabs that varied in color from vibrant greens to lush pinks, some with full aquatic scenes imprinted from ages ago. Connemara marble can be found all over the world, from the floor of Galway Cathedral to the walls of the Senate Chamber of the State Capital Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

As Ambrose’s tour ended we were free to wander the gift shop and take a closer look at some of the factory equipment. Kim Clemons, a woman on our tour from Mattydale, NY, approached Ambrose with a question about her ring. She asked if the stone, an heirloom from her grandmother, might be the same Connemara marble.

To all of our surprise, Ambrose affirmed her theory and brought Kim over to meet his father, Ambrose Sr. To Kim’s shock and delight, Ambrose Sr. not only confirmed that the ring had been made in that very factory, but that he himself had cut the stone decades before. Kim had stumbled upon an almost unbelievable coincidence, and we couldn’t help but be moved to see the same man who had cut the ring for a grandmother clean up and polish the stone once again for her granddaughter.

The Cliffs of Moher.


For such a small country, Ireland really does offer something for everyone. Accordingly, so did our tour. For history buffs, there was time to see the sights of Dublin and Galway and, at the Skellig Experience museum, learn the fascinating history of Skellig Michael, the forbidding rocky outcrop off the coast of Kerry where a determined order of monks erected a monastery in the 6th century.

For those who wanted to sit back and take it easy, there was ample time for tea and scones before roaring fireplaces. And for those wanting to connect with the land, there were plenty of opportunities to explore the green fields and stunning vistas, and a memorable sheep herding demonstration by Kerry farmer Brendan Ferris, who had trained each of his dogs to respond to a specific whistle. “Now you know that your dogs can hear you,” he told the amazed audience after the sheepdog trials were over. “It’s just that they aren’t listening.”

The main attraction, of course, was the landscape, which, no matter what the weather, was amazing each day. After the Giant’s Causeway, the Cliffs of Moher are probably the most mentioned, photographed and visited geological attraction on the island of Ireland. And after just two hours of gaping at them on the fourth day of the tour, we completely understood why.

Fields lined by hedgerows on the Ring of Kerry.

When we disembarked from the bus, we were greeted by the sight of a few hundred visitors ambling up the sloping cliffs while complacent cows resting in the nearby fields looked on. Wooden signs asked us to stay within the bounds of fences so low they seemed to know they were futile, as tourist after tourist hopped over and continued on the well-worn path along the cliff’s edge. We would have kept walking and staring, staring and walking, for hours had Pat and the rest of the crew not been waiting.

The best night of the tour turned out to be the one for which we had the lowest expectations. Our home for the fourth night was Bunratty Castle and Folk Village, in Co. Clare, just a short distance from Shannon Airport. The 15th century castle, which has been owned by a number of families, from the O’Briens to the Studderts, is now open to visitors, and hosts a great number each night for a musical, medieval banquet. Our inner children were of course excited, but our adult selves couldn’t help but wonder if we were a perhaps a little old for this sort of entertainment. Judging by the expressions of our fellow visitors as we were handed goblets of honey mead and greeted as lords and ladies, we weren’t the only ones with this concern. The man and woman randomly selected to be king and queen for the night looked none too pleased as they were given their crowns and instructed to order the crowd to the banquet hall.

The infamous Durty Nelly’s.

We shouldn’t have worried. The hosts, servers and masters of ceremony, who, in addition to moving the evening along were all incredibly talented singers and musicians, as adept at speaking in rhyming couplets as they were performing madrigals, maintained that delicate balance between knowing kitsch and genuine entertainment.  By the time the banquet was in full swing, even the once-reticent king was gesturing royally and ordering subjects to the dungeon.

Back in the 21st century, we headed over to The Creamery bar to take in a trad seisún, and then to the infamous Durty Nelly’s. One of Ireland’s oldest pubs, Durty Nelly’s is, to say the least, welcoming. Its dark, low-ceilinged first floor was packed with both tourists and locals, a group of whom sat at the center of a large and enthusiastic crowd of singers, taking requests on guitar and piano. These were not your sensitive artist type musicians, they were large, mostly bald, and serious-looking; clearly not guys to be messed with. But they were also adept at playing and totally appreciative of any song people wanted to sing, from trad tunes to “Islands in the Sun” to “New York, New York.”

Bunratty Castle.

Up until this point, I (Tara) had kept my identity as a musician pretty well under wraps to all our fellow tourists, so what happened next came as a big surprise to me. As the local players finished up a bar-wide sing-a-long of Glen Hansard’s “Falling Slowly,” I felt a hand on my back pushing me up front. Before I knew it, I was face-to-face with the burly musicians, who met me with some fairly skeptical expressions, until I asked to borrow one’s guitar.

I played the first song that came to my head, an original song I’d written a year or two earlier. Much to my surprise, the rowdy bar was silent a minute into the song. Three songs later, the intimidating, singing Irishmen were wiping tears away and I was back in the crowd shaking hands, exchanging emails and promising to send CDs.
However, it really wasn’t until our loquacious tour guide Pat Smith told me, “I’ve been speechless twice in my life and you’ve just made me for the third. These guys are here every couple of nights. I don’t think you have any idea what you’ve done here” that I realized the significance of silencing Durty Nelly’s. It may not be the ten thousand seat stadium some musicians dream of, but it was more than a dream come true for me. I can’t wait to go back.

A double rainbow on our last day in Dublin.

Galway, where we stopped on the last day, on our way back to Dublin, was the place we were the saddest to leave, and where we wished we’d had more time. Dashing off the bus and straight into the city center, we could sense just how alive, interesting and special a community Galway is, and we immediately began making grand plans to return another time for the Galway Arts Festival. After strolling along the Quay and High Street, and the little tributaries of streets branching off, it was time to treat ourselves with stops at Powell & Sons Music and a local book store.

In true form, within the two hours we were in Galway the weather went from glorious to absolutely miserable and back again, and we had to spend the majority of the second hour sheltered in a café. But as we reluctantly walked back to the bus, holding a brand new fiddle and a pile of books not yet available in the U.S., respectively, we couldn’t help but feel that we had each found what we were looking for. ♦

(Click to enlarge)




This article originally appeared in Irish America’s December / January 2013 issue.

CIE, celebrating it’s 85th year in 2018, offers the largest selection of escorted coach vacations to IrelandScotlandEngland, and Wales. Tours last between 5 and 24 days and this year introduced new Family Collection Guided Vacations for the entire family ages 8 and up as well as new tours in Scotland, including an off-the-beaten-path journey to Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides islands and a 5-star luxury tour with castle stays. With numerous awards from Scotland’s Heritage, Travel Weekly, Travvy Awards, Flight Center, TravelAge West, and Irish Tourism Industry, including their 2015 Best International Marketing Initiative Award. 

Visit the CIE website for more information on the many tours they have to offer, or view the 2018 brochure now

Click here for a chance to win a CIE Tours 5 day/4 night Taste of Ireland tour for two.



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St. Brigid’s Tourism Trail Opens in Kildare Wed, 28 Feb 2018 06:47:36 +0000 Read more..]]> A tourism trail honoring Ireland’s female patron saint, Saint Brigid, has opened in Kildare. The town and county of Kildare are named after a monastery Saint Brigid established in the fifth century, near an oak grove: the Irish cill dara means “church of the oak.”

Launched in conjunction with the Feast of Saint Brigid, which occurs February 1, the newest tourist destination is meant to celebrate Saint Brigid’s legendary accomplishments, Kildare’s profound ecclesiastical significance, and the rich ancient history of the island as a whole.

“The Saint Brigid’s Trail will interest visitors from both home and abroad who want to learn more about Ireland’s female patron saint,” said Kildare Tourism Development Manager Aine Mangan. “The trail can be completed in approximately two hours, allowing visitors plenty of time to explore everything the town has to offer afterwards.”

The trail, spearheaded by the Kildare Tourism Board, leads from north to south through the town of Kildare. The self-guided journey begins at the Kildare Heritage Centre before heading to hagiographic points of interest, including the 185-year-old Saint Brigid’s Church and the ancient site known as Saint Brigid’s Well. ♦

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U.S.-Ireland Flights Increase in Number and Affordability Wed, 28 Feb 2018 06:31:42 +0000 Read more..]]> Spring of 2018 promises an array of new price and destination options for flights between Ireland and the U.S. In February, Irish national airline Aer Lingus and Norwegian Air both announced plans to increase the number of flights and destination options between the United States and Ireland. Aer Lingus will launch its first ever direct Dublin-Philadelphia service, beginning with four flights a week in March and increasing to daily flights in May, bringing their number of regular U.S. destinations to an even dozen. Norwegian Air, which last summer launched €99 direct flights from Dublin to New York’s Stewart airport, announced they would be doubling the regularity of those flights to twice daily. The moves are part of a recent trend of budget-friendly transatlantic service. In August, Dublin-based WOW Air announced plans for four new €130 routes from Dublin to Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, which will also begin in March.

The efforts to widen availability are being made to keep up with the noticeably high trend in travel between Ireland and the U.S., both business and pleasure-based. “The Irish links to Philadelphia are well-known and renowned. And so there is a strong heritage and legacy,” noted Stephen Kavanagh, Aer Lingus’s chief executive. “But there’s also strong business being conducted between Pennsylvania and Dublin.”

The introduction of new, increased services is expected to drive the prices for these flights down as the airlines compete for business, as well as generate income for the localities where they are based, Philadelphia city commerce director Harold Epps said. “It’s another way to access Europe for a lower fare. So business and tourists will have options.” ♦

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The Irish Airman’s Grave: From Padua to Kiltartan Mon, 29 Jan 2018 06:31:37 +0000 Read more..]]> The story of W.B. Yeats’s tower, Lady Gregory’s autograph tree, and the grave of Irish airman Robert Gregory, whose death inspired some of Yeats’s most well-known poems.


January 23, 2018, marked the 100th anniversary of the death in Italy of Ireland’s most famous aviator, Major Robert Gregory. His grave stands in a quiet corner of Padua’s elaborate Cimitero Maggiore in a well-maintained section distinguished by its symmetry and simplicity. Twenty-five Commonwealth casualties of World War I are buried in this section, their white tablet headstones set in two rows. From behind, a white stone cross reaches 15 feet up, with a metal sword set on its front and those all-too familiar words, “Their Name Liveth Forevermore,” carved into its base. A box hedge surrounds the plot, and a row of mature thuja trees stands opposite, shading a bench where visitors can reflect on the consequences of the Great War or pay their respects to those interred here. Gregory’s grave stands at the far right of the first row.

The balanced order of the plot reminded me of the balanced order in “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” the poem in which William Butler Yeats gave lasting voice to Robert Gregory. Symmetrically divided into two equal parts by its two periods, the halves are themselves divided into two stanza-like quarters, each four lines long, each rhyming a-b-a-b, and each containing numerous antitheses. All work together to celebrate the “lonely impulse of delight,” the moment of balanced stillness that ends the poem.

I know that I shall meet my fate 
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Soon after I recited this poem at Gregory’s grave, I heard above me the sound of a single-engine propeller plane, as if to remind me of what flight used to be. Gregory’s grave used to be different, too. It was originally marked by a wooden Celtic cross. Now, on the white headstone, the circle of that cross has evolved into the round crest of the Royal Flying Corps, with a crown at its top and the wings of an eagle breaking its circumference engraving: “Per ardua ad astra” (Through struggles to the stars). The Roman arms of the Celtic cross remain. Below them appear the words:

Only Child of Late Rt. Hon.
Sir W.H. Gregory K.C.M.G.
Of Coole Park Co. Galway

No mention is made of Gregory’s mother. Yet without her influence, Robert would be unknown today and two elegiac masterpieces by a Nobel laureate would not exist. Throughout her life, Lady Gregory credited Yeats with inspiring her to become a creative writer and giving her both a “means of expression” and “faith in myself.” She did not hesitate to inspire Yeats, in turn, to memorialize her son. When she informed him of Robert’s death, she urged: “write something down that we may keep.”

Cimitero Maggiore di Padova. Robert Gregory’s grave is front right. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Lady Gregory was born Isabella Augusta Persse on March 15, 1852 at Roxborough House, seat of the wealthy and staunchly Protestant Persse family. The 12th of 16 children, she demonstrated from an early age not only an independent frame of mind, which soon enabled her to overcome the biases of her Ascendancy-class background, but also a practical sense of ambition, which eventually put her at the center of Ireland’s 20th-century literary revival. In childhood, Augusta showed an interest in romantic literature, particularly in the stories of mythical Irish heroes told by a nationalist nurse serving her unionist family. In her 20s, she gained invaluable experience managing Roxborough House and the estate for her brothers, 25 miles southeast of Galway, near the parish of Kiltartan.

By the age of 27, however, Augusta’s prospects for marriage were dimming. Then she met Sir William Gregory, whose estate at Coole stood only six miles away. A widower, 35 years her senior, he had recently retired from his position as Governor of Ceylon, previously having served twice in the British House of Commons, first as Conservative M.P. for Dublin and then on a liberal-conservative platform for County Galway. Knighted in 1875 (thus the K.C.M.G. on his son’s headstone – Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George), the politically imperialist Sir William was attracted to Augusta’s literary interests as well as to her management skills. They were married in 1880, and the following year their only child, Robert, was born.

Throughout the 12 years of their marriage, the couple spent most of their time in London or abroad. After Sir William’s death in March 1892, however, Lady Gregory began to spend more time at Coole, which her husband’s will had left her to manage in trust for Robert, until he turned 21. In the challenging economic and political circumstances of the time (with land agitation and the struggle for Home Rule), this was no easy task. Coole was not a wealthy estate. While Lady Gregory had to pay off debts, government measures required her to sell off lands to her tenants, thus reducing her income by half within 15 years.

Lady Augusta Gregory, undated. (Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

The Gregory lands included a 16th century Norman tower-house or castle keep, which had first caught the romantic imagination of William Butler Yeats in the last years of the 19th century. By then he had begun to spend his summers at Coole, initially collaborating with Lady Gregory on a collection of Irish folklore and fairy tales, then developing with her the idea of a national theatre, which would eventually become the Abbey, in Dublin. Yeats described his find as “the old square castle, Ballylee, inhabited by a farmer and his wife, and a cottage where their daughter and son-in-law live, and a little mill with an old miller, and old ash-trees throwing green shadows upon a little river and great stepping stones.” In 1915, Lady Gregory suggested that he buy the tower, since the tenants now wanted just the land. Yeats feared it would prove too impractical for a 50-year-old bachelor.

A year later, the abandoned tower having passed into the hands of the Congested Districts Board, Yeats nevertheless began negotiating to buy it. Another year later, confident that his intention to marry would soon be fulfilled, he purchased the tower (now in heavy disrepair), along with its attached cottage and a surrounding acre of land, for the price of only £35. The cost of restoring it would prove to be considerably more. A roof had to be added, floors rebuilt, windows and frames replaced, and the cottage expanded. Having married Georgie Hyde-Lees during the interim (in October 1917), Yeats and his now-pregnant wife moved into the cottage in September 1918, while the tower continued to be restored. This would be, intermittently, the family’s summer home for the next 10 years. To announce their acquisition, Yeats reproduced as a postcard Robert Gregory’s drawing of the tower and its landscape.

Thoor Ballylee Tower. (Photo courtesy Lady Gregory Yeats Heritage Trail)

To approach “Thoor Ballylee” today (as Yeats renamed it in 1922) is to enter not only the scene that Robert drew, but also the setting that Yeats presented in his 12-stanza elegy, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory:”

For all things the delighted eye now sees 
Were loved by him; the old storm-broken trees
That cast their shadows upon road and bridge;
The tower set on the stream’s edge;
The ford where drinking cattle make a stir
Nightly, and startled by that sound
The water-hen must change her ground;
He might have been your heartiest welcomer.

Entering through the thatched cottage, I am struck first by a sharp smell from the fireplace just inside: “a fire of turf in th’ancient tower” invoking the third line of “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” Here I meet Rena McAllen, who manages Thoor Ballylee (with a small team of volunteers and one paid employee) for about 4,000 visitors each season, from June through September. Soon after she welcomes me with a cup of tea brewed in the cottage’s kitchen, I realize that her local knowledge matches her energetic hospitality. Born and raised only a mile away, Rena guides me through Thoor Ballylee with as many references to its history during her lifetime as during Yeats’s residence. Not to be missed is the 12-minute video written by the late Yeats scholar, Augustine Martin. Featuring archival footage, it sets Thoor Ballylee in historical context, reaching not only back to the Norman invasion of Ireland, but also out to the political troubles during Yeats’s time here.

Still, the highlight of Rena’s tour is the tower itself, particularly its “narrow winding stair.” While “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” includes the first references to both in Yeats’s poetry, The Tower (published in 1928) would become the title of what is generally considered his greatest volume of poems, followed by The Winding Stair (published in 1933). Embedded in a wall seven-feet thick, the circular stair connects the tower’s four floors, each with a single room and a window overlooking the river. While the ground floor served as the family’s dining room, Yeats also wrote on its “great trestle table,” which his wife Georgie kept covered with wildflowers. In a letter to his father, Yeats called this the “pleasantest room I have yet seen, a great wide window opening over the river and round arched door leading to the thatched hall.”

Winding stair inside the Thoor Ballylee Castle in County Galway. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The second floor, featuring a hooded fireplace and vaulted ceiling, served as the family’s living room, the third floor as Yeats’ and his wife’s bedroom. The fourth floor, the “strangers’ room” (where the couple may have intended to hold séances, in line with their occult interests) was never finished. A vent in the wall now houses 24 lesser horseshoe bats (a protected species, with only 600 remaining in Ireland). Similarly, a slit window off the winding stair contains a rook’s nest, reminding visitors of “The Stare’s Nest by My Window,” the penultimate section in Yeats’s “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” A final steep flight of stairs from the strangers’ room leads to the battlements, where Yeats would occasionally retire into the shadow of the large chimney, to escape horse-flies.

The walls throughout the tower remain unadorned, as they were in Yeats’s time, because the dampness sweating through the limestone would have damaged anything hung there. Reproductions of the original – furniture have been appropriately placed – the bed, the trestle table, a writing desk, a dozen three-legged chairs—and great brass candlesticks still flank the fireplace. Its hood has once again been painted black and gold, the surrounding walls deep blue. Together, the rich colors and heavy furniture enhance the medieval aspect of the tower’s stern simplicity. “It’s deliberately kept simple,” says Rena, identifying what she values most about the tower. Quoting “Blood and the Moon,” she explains: “I just love the fact that so little at Thoor Ballylee has changed, that you can still climb ‘this winding, gyring, grinding treadmill of a stair’ that Yeats walked up.”

Thoor Ballylee figures prominently in, and hovers symbolically over, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” But what about Gregory himself, who doesn’t enter until the sixth stanza, as “my dear friend’s dear son”? In the next three stanzas, Yeats repeats the line, “Soldier, scholar, horseman he,” ultimately following it with, “As ’twere all life’s epitome.” Gregory was indeed a scholar, having attended Harrow School per family tradition, from 1895 to 1899, before matriculating at New College, Oxford University. Gregory was a horseman, too, an intrepid point-to-point jockey famous locally for adventures mentioned in the eighth stanza of Yeats’s elegy: “At Mooneen he had leaped a place / So perilous that half the astonished meet / Had shut their eyes; and where was it / He rode a race without a bit?”

Yeats’s writing desk inside the Thoor Ballylee Castle. (Photo courtesy of the author)

About the “Soldier,” however, Yeats has little to say, though Gregory embraced that role early in the Great War. At age 36 (and with three young children) he was officially too old to fly, but he would nevertheless win membership in the French Legion d’Honneur as well as the English Military Cross. Still, Yeats resisted even Lady Gregory’s “suggested eloquence about aero planes ‘& the blue Italian sky.’” Instead, he chose to portray Robert primarily as an artist.

We dreamed that a great painter had been born 
To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.

Gregory was an accomplished painter, too. By 1902 he had left Oxford to study at the Slade School of Art in London, where he met the fellow art student he would marry, Margaret Parry. The two then lived much of the time in Paris, or traveled abroad, in order to paint. Yeats admired Robert’s work so much that he asked him to design sets both for his mother’s plays and for his own at the Abbey Theatre.

There was, however, considerable tension between the two men. Robert grew ever more resentful of the long periods of time that Yeats spent at Coole as Lady Gregory’s guest, where he occupied the master’s bedroom and had come to expect service. Though Robert had inherited the estate when he came of age in 1902, his father’s will had granted Lady Gregory residence throughout her lifetime. As for Yeats, he found Robert Gregory aimless and unreliable, showing little interest in the management of Coole and often failing to meet deadlines for his theatre sets.

None of this personal tension makes its way into “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” The poem’s chief tension consists instead of the opposed demands that the active life and the contemplative life present for any artist, Yeats as well as Gregory.

W.B. Yeats in New York City, 1920. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Ultimately, Gregory devoted himself to a military cause, Yeats to a poet’s “secret discipline.” Looking back over Robert’s short life, Yeats eulogizes him as a fire of “dried straw,” commenting: “and if we turn about / the bare chimney is gone black out / Because the work had finished in that flare.” The work would go for another twenty years for Yeats, until his own death at age 73. Lady Gregory suggested to him that for Robert, this poem would become “his monument – all that remains.” For Yeats, on the other hand, Thoor Ballylee would become (in his own words) “a fitting monument and symbol,” with all the wealth of reference that a great symbol provides: the artist in isolation, the mystery of romance, the resonance of history, the tradition of a cultured aristocracy, and, more personally, the proximity of that friend, Lady Gregory, “who has been to me for nearly forty years my strength and my conscience.”

Three-quarters of the way from Thoor Ballylee to Coole Park lies Kiltartan Cross, the crossroads identified as Robert Gregory’s “country” in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Here stands the attractive Kiltartan Gregory Museum, built as a two-room schoolhouse in 1892 at the behest of Sir William Gregory and designed by the architect Frank Persse, Lady Gregory’s brother. Beautifully restored in the mid-1990s, its grey limestone walls with red-brick trim and open arcade now preserve both a historic classroom and a collection of artifacts associated with Lady Gregory. Of particular note is an illuminated address, hand-painted on parchment, in which the Gregory tenants welcome Robert as their future landlord on the occasion of his 21st birthday. Lady Gregory later wrote about this “gathering of cousins,” with “the big feast and dance of the tenants.” Reflecting on the tumultuous 30 years that followed, she poignantly added (near the end of her life): “But the days of landed gentry have passed. It is better so. Yet I wish some one of our own blood would after my death care enough for what has been a home for so long, to keep it open.” The collection at Gregory Kiltartan Museum also contains photographs of what she never saw: Coole House being pulled down in 1942, for building materials, its contents having been auctioned off in 1932, shortly after her death.

Only the vestiges of the Gregory estate now remain. In accordance with the two-sentence will that Robert wrote in the train on his way to war, “everything I have” passed to his wife at his death.

Margaret’s efforts to sell Coole began within just a few years, but they did not reach a conclusion until 1927, when the house and its surrounding land of seven woods were purchased by the Forestry Commission. The sale gave Lady Gregory the right to live there until her death, at the cost of £100 per year.

Kiltartan Gregory Museum, Galway. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Today, the demesne comprises a thousand acres of woods, river, turloughs (dry lakes), and bare limestone in the Coole / Garryland Nature Reserve. Trails provide access to the landscape that inspired not only Lady Gregory, Robert Gregory, and W. B. Yeats, but also his brother, the painter Jack B. Yeats. Here, too, visited the painter Augustus John and so many writers in the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century: George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Synge, George Russell (Æ), George Moore, Douglas Hyde, and Sean O’Casey. What were the stables and barn have now been converted into a visitor center. Be sure to purchase here Colin Smythe’s excellent A Guide to Coole Park. In addition to its informative text, it contains reproductions of paintings and drawings by Robert Gregory, Margaret Gregory, and Jack B. Yeats, as well as photographs of Lady Gregory, her house and estate, and her many literary visitors. Also, be sure to watch here the equally excellent 30-minute video, Lady Gregory of Coole, which surveys her life, relationships, and accomplishments.

Still, the highlight of the visitor center is its permanent exhibit, based on the charming memoir Me & Nu, written by Lady Gregory’s granddaughter, Anne, about the time that she and her sister, Catherine, (nicknamed Nu) spent as children at Coole. The exhibit presents the rooms of the house (nursery, library, drawing room) from the children’s point of view. Especially interesting is the audio-visual material: footage from Abbey Theatre productions, a film clip of George Bernard Shaw commenting on Coole, and a recording of Yeats in “his humming voice” reciting his poem “For Anne Gregory,” in which he celebrates her “yellow hair.”

Outside, finally, in the walled garden stands a great copper beech known as the Autograph Tree. In 1898, Lady Gregory began a tradition by inviting Yeats to carve his initials into it. Thirty years later, she would remember: “And on the great stem, smooth as parchment… many a friend who stayed here has carved the letters of his name.” So too did her son. His are now aging into illegibility on the living tree, in a way that the “carven stone” of his grave in Padua’s Cimitero Maggiore never will. This time, however, his mother is rightly acknowledged, instead of his father. Lady Gregory carved her own A.G. into the “parchment” of the copper beech right above Robert’s W.R.G., which is carved just above Yeats’s W.B.Y. Here, we should pause to recite not “An Irish Airman Fore- sees His Death” or “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” but rather the conclusion to “Coole Park, 1929,” in which Yeats anticipated the results of his “most true” friend’s death:

Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate – eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade –
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.  ♦


Philip Kokotailo is dean of faculty at the Roxbury Latin School in Boston, where he teaches English. The author of John Glassco’s Richer World: Memoirs of Montparnasse (ECW Press, 1988), he has a particular interest in the literature, art, and music of the early 20th century.

Editor’s Note: This article was published in the February / March 2018 edition of Irish America magazine. 

Click here to hear a recording of W.B. Yeats as he introduces and reads his works “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “The Fiddler of Dooney,” “The Song of the Old Mother,” and “Coole and Ballylee” – with, in his words, “great emphasis upon the rhythm.”

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Roscommon, Part I: Ireland’s Lake District Fri, 01 Dec 2017 06:31:10 +0000 Read more..]]> A county that is rich in beauty and many historical sites.


The third largest of Connacht’s five counties, Roscommon is also the province’s most water-logged. Three-quarters bound by fresh water, it contains the longest stretch of the River Shannon of all 10 counties through which it flows. Quiet country roads, delightful views over undulating countryside dotted with lakes, streams, hills, and forests, and plenty of historical and archaeological sites await the Roscommon visitor.

The county gets its name (in Irish Ros Comáin, meaning “Coman’s woods”) from St. Coman, a bishop who founded a monastery on the banks of the River Suck that became a noted place of learning in the early part of the eighth century.

The land is rich in pasture that provides prime grazing for cattle and sheep, but given that the county is practically surrounded by water, it’s not surprising that Roscommon is known for its river and lake fishing.

Anglers from all over Europe come here for trout and pike fishing on Lough Ree, the River Shannon and the River Suck. In fact, the World Pike Fishing Championship was held on Lough Ree in October.

Joe McDermott, the 2017 World Pike Fishing Champion. 

The River Suck, flowing along the western side of the county, is the main tributary of the River Shannon. At 65 miles long, it forms the border between Roscommon and Galway, meeting the Shannon just south of the village of Shannonbridge, which gets its name from the bridge connecting County Offaly and County Roscommon.

From here you can enjoy a one-hour cruise, taking in not only the spectacular natural beauty of the River Shannon, but views of Clonmacnoise, Europe’s most highly regarded monastic site.

Founded in 544 by St. Ciarán, a young Roscommon man from  Rathcroghan, this sixth-century site is home to three high crosses, a cathedral, seven churches, and two round towers.

While Clonmacnoise is actually located on the Offaly side of the river, Roscommon itself sports some of Ireland’s best examples of early medieval architecture.

Donamon Castle (Dún Lomáin), set in one of the most beautiful sections of the Suck Valley region near Roscommon town, is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in Ireland. Mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1154, Donamon was once the seat of the Ó Fionnachta chief of Clann Chonnmhaigh. Destroyed and rebuilt over centuries of warfare, it was taken over, in 1932, by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who set up an IRA training camp on the grounds.

Today it is enjoying one of the most peaceful times in its ancient history.

Boyle Abbey is an impressive and well preserved Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century.

The Divine Word Missionaries (the largest missionary congregation in the Catholic Church) bought the castle from the Irish State in 1939, and it is still their home, though their numbers have greatly reduced. The former seminary is now occupied by Cuisle, a popular vacation resort run by the Irish Wheelchair Association for people with disabilities.

Another popular medieval destination in Roscommon is Boyle Abbey, regarded as the finest examples of a Cistercian church to survive in Ireland. Situated at the foot of the Curlew Mountains and near Lough Key, the Abbey is now a national monument in state care and admission is free while restoration work is being carried out. You can take a guided tour or walk on your own around the immense stone compound dating from 1160. There are Gothic arches, soaring towers and massive chimneys all still intact. And if you chose to stay in Abbey House, right under the walls of the monastery, you can see the river in the morning without ever leaving your bed. Or you can take an early morning stroll to the town and delight in the old world charm of its country shops and pubs.

A gargoyle on the wall of Boyle Abbey.

King House, an early Georgian mansion, built around 1730 for Sir Henry King whose family was one of the wealthiest in Ireland at the time, serves as the cultural center of the town. It boasts fascinating exhibitions on the history of the area. The “Gaelic Ireland” collection tells the story of Boyle before the arrival of the King family, when the Mac Diarmada (MacDermots) were the ruling dynasty. The clan held sway from the 10th through the 16th centuries, ruling from a stronghold called The Rock on Castle Island in what is now Lough Key Forest Park. Today, the island is home to a 19th-century folly castle built by the King family, and the park, encompasing most of the King family’s former estate, is a popular visitors attraction, featuring wooded trails, a canopy walk through the trees, ziplining, an indoor activity center, and modern lookout tower.

King House, located in Boyle, is a museum to the Connaught Rangers and serves as a historic and local cultural center.

The MacDermots were a lively bunch by all accounts. In ancient Ireland cattle raiding was a seen as a sport to show off one’s prowess and gain wealth, and the Gaelic Ireland exhibition shows the clan enjoying a feast in celebration of one such successful raid. History records that huge caskets of wine were opened with an axe blow and the wine flowed freely while the clan feasted on wild boar, venison and beef roasted on a great fire.

The Battle of the Curlews Pass, another major incident, fought between English soldiers and Irish forces in 1599, is also covered in the exhibition.

In the 19th century, the house served as a base for the Connaught Rangers, and the history of the regiment is explored. Maureen O’Sullivan, the Hollywood star whose father was an adjutant in the Connaught Rangers is also featured. The family lived three doors down the street, where the film legend was born. O’Sullivan is perhaps best remembered as Jane Parker in the Tarzan films of the 1930s. Her daughter, Mia Farrow, has made many visits of Boyle.

The queen of the jungle is not the only actor to come out of Boyle, Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, The IT Crowd) also grew up here.

Other famous Roscommon people include Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president. The songwriter Percy French (“The Mountains of Mourne,” “Are Ye Right There Michael”), was a proud Roscommon man who gained international fame. An annual summer school is held in his honor in nearby Castlecoote.

French and Matt Molloy of the Chieftains, are just two of many musicians to come from Roscommon, where traditional music has a rich history.

While Boyle is worth a longer visit, especially in August when the town holds a heritage festival every August with music, dancing, and street entertainment, there are many popular stops en route through Roscommon.

Roscommon Castle, to the north of the town, was built by the Normans in 1269. Four years later, it was captured by the Irish and razed. It was rebuilt in 1280.

Ballintober, home of the St. Ciarán, contains the remains of a stone castle first mentioned in writing in 1311; and at Tulsk, the village between Strokestown and Bellanagare, you’ll find the remains of a Dominican abbey founded in 1433. Three miles to the west is a small steep-sided hill that is reputed to have been the residence of Queen Maeve. And nearby, Relig na Ri, the burial ground of the kings, and Rath na dTarbh “fort of the bulls,” deserve a visit.

And no trip to Roscommon would be complete without a visit to Roscommon Castle, the imposing 13th century Norman ruin located on a hillside just outside Roscommon town. The castle, which defended the town until it was finally taken by Cromwell’s troops in 1652, is open to the public. Alas, there is no access to the towers. However, there is a beautiful park with walking trails adjacent to the castle. The park includes a crannog (an ancient fortified dwelling), known locally as the Hill o’ Bones, a turlough (disappearing lake), a wildflower meadow, bird walk, children’s playground, and car park.

Finally, for those hoping to uncover their ancestors’ pasts in their foray through Roscommon, the County Roscommon Heritage and Genealogy Centre, located in Strokestown, is worth a visit. The center contains a display of ancient artifacts from the region and presents an audiovisual show on the history and heritage of the county. It also provides a research service (for a fee) for people with Roscommon roots wishing to trace their ancestors. But as with any trip to Ireland, perhaps it’s best to leave your trip up to the travel gods and take the journey as it unfolds. You won’t be disappointed. ♦


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