Travel Stories for IA – Irish America Irish America Magazine Sat, 20 Jul 2019 03:40:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 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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Irish America Sweepstakes Winner Named Fri, 06 Apr 2018 21:48:07 +0000 Read more..]]> On Thursday, April 5, the winner of the Irish America sweepstakes for a luxury vacation package to Ireland for two was announced. The luck of the draw went to Stephanie Sullivan of Chicago, Illinois.

Stephanie, who works in sales and marketing for mapping and location data company HERE Technologies, was overjoyed upon being contacted with the good news, and said, “It was like a miracle.” She told Irish America that she has already selected her sister, Rosemary, as a travel companion, and that the two are eager to reconnect with the land of their ancestors.

An avid genealogical researcher, Stephanie also told Irish America that her first known Irish ancestor arrived in the United States bearing the surname Hagan (one of the first families recorded in Chicago) in 1849. He was a stonecutter by trade – and went on to become no less than the president of the Stonecutter’s Association.

Another branch of Stephanie’s ancestors hail from Ballinasloe, Co. Galway – one particular unit of which produced a woman who grew up to become a Sister of Mercy, and, incredibly, one of the first women in Australia to cast a vote.

Stephanie and Rosemary plan to begin their travels coming September (the height of the oyster season in Ireland!). They will fly courtesy of Aer Lingus airlines, and the CIE “Taste of Ireland” tour will take them on the journey of a lifetime, filled to the brim with the sights, sounds, and tastes of the Emerald Isle! ♦

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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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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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Ireland’s First President Fri, 01 Dec 2017 06:30:50 +0000 Read more..]]> Douglas Hyde, born in Roscommon in 1860, was a leading figure in the Gaelic revival and Ireland’s first president.

A couple of unplanned events shaped the course of Douglas Hyde’s early life. He should have been born in County Sligo, where his family resided, but instead he arrived on January 17, 1860 in Castlerea, County Roscommon, where his mother was visiting her parents. Seven years later, the family were back in Roscommon, this time in Frenchpark, after his father – the Reverend Arthur Hyde, Jr. – was appointed rector in the parish of Tibohine.

With two older brothers away at school, Hyde would have been expected to follow in their footsteps – as was customary for Anglo-Irish gentry at the time – but an illness (some accounts refer to measles; Hyde himself wrote “I hurt my left thigh, and it was a great hindrance to my studying”) saw him return home from Dublin after a very short time. On his return, he continued his schooling at home under his father’s supervision.

His relative freedom at home also ensured that he came in regular contact with the Irish families living nearby and he practiced his newly-gleaned Irish phrases with “James Hart, the keeper of the bogs” and “Mrs. William Connolly when she came to milk the cows in the evening.”

In December 1878, three weeks before his 19th birthday, reviewing his life to date, Hyde wrote: “When I started learning Irish I had no hope at all that there would ever be any interest in it, or that it would be of any use to me, only that I thought it was a fine worthy language; but when the society for preserving the Irish language started last year I knew then that I had done well in learning it.”

Statue of Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president.

By 1880, Hyde himself was a member of said society, and had been admitted to the divinity program at Trinity College Dublin (much to the disgust of his rabidly anti-TCD father). He soon garnered a reputation as an outstanding scholar, and life in Dublin allowed him the freedom to join the Gaelic Union, and a social circle that included Maud Gonne and W.B. Yeats, which styled themselves “the Young Irelanders” in homage to the 1840s revolutionary movement of the same name.

Hyde’s father Arthur, himself descended from a long line of clergymen (and Arthurs), assumed that at least one of his sons would follow family tradition and enter the ministry. But Hyde, who had long rebelled against his father’s tendency to force his son to teach Sunday School when the reverend was indisposed (i.e. hungover), instead threw himself into his study of languages and amassed a huge range of scholarly publications, with his studies eventually culminating in a law doctorate.

His dedication to the Irish language continued, and between 1879 and 1884 he published hundreds of Irish poems under the pen name “An Craoibhín Aoibhinn” (the charming little branch). A visit to Scotland in 1886 revealed the “healthier and more vigorous” regard the people there had for their native tongue, which he ascribed to its predominant use in churches and schools. In 1889 he published his first book, Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta (A Book of Storytelling), a collection of folk-tales, rhymes, and riddles – the first of its kind in the Irish language.

The following year, Hyde took a post at the University of New Brunswick as interim professor of modern languages (“I did not find any great difficulty in that,” he noted). On his return to Ireland, he became president of the National Literary Society, and continued to espouse his views that Ireland should do more to protect its mother tongue “not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish and hastening to adopt pell-mell and indiscriminately everything that is English simply because it is English.”

Two significant events in Hyde’s life were to happen in 1893: he got married (to a young German heiress named Lucy Cometina Kurtz) and the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) came into being. Hyde is generally referred to as the founder of the League, but his own diaries make light of that: “We established the Gaelic League and I was made president of it. MacNeill and Lloyd … were the people who did most of the work. I didn’t do much.” He was altogether more enthusiastic about the other big news: “The greatest thing I did in the past year – indeed, the greatest thing I ever did in my life – was that I got married.”

But the Gaelic League, of course, was to prove hugely influential in shaping the course of Irish history, and Hyde along with its other leaders was determined to keep their goal of preserving and reviving the Irish language as non-political and non-sectarian as humanly possible. In 1905, he and his wife embarked on a fund-raising tour of the United States, covering ground from New York to San Francisco over a period of eight months. By 1908, the year in which the National University of Ireland was founded, there were more than 550 branches of the Gaelic League throughout Ireland.

After the politicization of the Gaelic League in 1915, Hyde stepped down as president and left the organization. After a short stint in Seanad Eireann, he returned to academia as Professor of Irish at University College Dublin. On retirement, he and his wife returned to live in Frenchpark. A second short stint as a Senator was cut even shorter by his election as the first President of Ireland, on May 6, 1938, after an inter-party unanimous recommendation. Hyde set a precedent by reciting the Presidential Declaration of Office in Irish. His recitation, in Roscommon Irish, is one of a few recordings of a dialect of which Hyde was one of the last speakers. Upon inauguration, he moved into the long-vacant Viceregal Lodge in  Phoenix Park, since known as Áras an Uachtaráin.

He served his seven-year term, despite the death of his wife in December 1938 and a severe stroke in 1940, and died on July 12, 1949. After a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, his funeral cortege travelled to Frenchpark, passing through the towns of Mullingar, Longford, Carrick-on-Shannon and Boyle, with an honor guard standing ready in each to pay tribute to Ireland’s first president. ♦


This article was originally published in the December 2017 / January 2018 issue of Irish America.

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Ireland At Christmas Fri, 01 Dec 2017 06:28:17 +0000 Read more..]]> CHRISTMAS is the most magical time of year in Ireland, where the festive atmosphere is not to be missed. Cheerful Christmas markets spring up all across the island, traditional decoration displays are top class, and bars are bustling. Family and friends are reuniting by the crackling peat fires with a hot toddy or creamy pint. This is the perfect time of year for friends, both old and new, to visit and savor the joyous season in the Emerald Isle.

No matter what part of Ireland you visit, the Christmas markets thrive as locals and visitors alike gather to enjoy a day of shopping, browsing homemade Irish crafts, drinking mulled wine, eating mince pies, and listening to carols. With fun attractions for kids, festive music carrying in the wind, and fairy lights glistening, the Christmas markets have been a thriving recent tradition.

Dublin’s New Year’s Festival is getting bigger and better every year as well, with two days of cultural events, live performances, and activities day and night. Ring in the New Year in Ireland’s capital, where the landmarks are transformed with spectacular light shows, and the streets come alive with pop-up performances, and high-flying acrobatics, and so much more? Christmas is a special time to visit, but there is so much to see and do in Ireland year-round. Here we put a spotlight on Ireland’s incredible cities for your 2018 vacation.


Kayaking by the Four Courts on the River Liffey in Dublin.

Named among the 21 Best Places to visit in 2018 by National Geographic Traveler, Dublin offers something for everyone. Along with many cultural aspects, it is a city brimming with historical sites, such as the GPO (General Post Office), castles, national museums, and the former prison Kilmainham Gaol. One cannot leave the city before visiting one of its iconic landmarks. Also not to be missed is the opportunity to take a stroll through the city parks, or see the wild deer walking through Phoenix Park on the way to Dublin Zoo.

The Guinness Storehouse is home of Ireland’s world famous stout. In 1759, Arthur Guinness took out a 9,000 year lease on the brewery, which has since become Ireland’s number one visitor attraction. During a visit to the Storehouse, experience the 360-degree views from the Gravity Bar on the top floor and learn how to pour a perfect pint of the “Black Stuff.”

Guinness Storehouse, Dublin.

Trinity College is one of the oldest universities in Europe. A charming campus founded in 1592 it is located on College Green, opposite the historic Irish Houses of Parliament. Many well known alumni have come from here, including poet and playwright Oscar Wilde; satirist, essayist, and poet Jonathan Swift; and author Bram Stoker, best known for his Gothic novel Dracula.

The Long Room Library, Trinity College, Dublin.

A trip to Trinity College allows you to experience a unique Irish treasure – the Long Room Library. This impressive library holds over 200,000 of Trinity’s oldest books, including a rare copy of the 1916 Proclamation, but most famously, the Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells, an early Christian illuminated manuscript created by Celtic monks some time around the ninth century, is a masterwork of Western calligraphy which contains the four gospels of New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) along with rich and colorful illustrations of humans, animals, and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots.



Titanic Quater, Belfast.

Lonely Planet named Belfast and the Causeway Coast as its number one region to visit in 2018, calling the city “the epitome of great things coming in small packages.” This perfect city break is packed with history, culture, rich food, and exciting events. The home of the Titanic and the capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast is a destination not to be missed.

Built on the slipways where the Titanic itself was constructed, visit Titanic Belfast, which isn’t just a museum, but an experience. Located in the heart of Belfast, just beside the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was designed, built and launched in 1912, Titanic Belfast’s six-story building has nine interactive galleries to give you the ultimate experience.

St George’s Market, Belfast.

A weekend in Belfast requires a visit to St. George’s Market. Built between 1890 and 1896, this market is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. Open Friday to Sunday, the market offers some of the finest fresh produce and displays of local arts and crafts. The atmosphere here is always electric, with local musicians and bands showcasing their talents.

City Hall, Belfast.

City Hall is another iconic fixture in Belfast. The exhibition stretches over 16 rooms and takes you from the city’s’ past to present. The collection of stained glass windows, original architecture, and historic memorials add to the singular experience of this particular attraction.



The River Lee and Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.

Cork is a culturally rich, laid-back, and, best of all, accessible city in the southwest of Ireland. From the city’s multiple festivals every year to its unique craft beers and friendly locals, it’s a must visit stopping point during a stay in Ireland. Getting around is easy as the city center is easily walkable. And minutes outside the city, a landscape laced with beauty and history is waiting to be explored.

The English Market, Cork. (Photo: El Keegan)

Any trip to Cork City is incomplete without stopping into one of Ireland’s most famous covered food markets. Situated in the heart of the city, the bustling English Market has been in existence since 1788. This thriving arcade has 55 stalls, where local traders sell high-quality, fresh produce. The smells that fill the air when you enter here will leave your mouth watering and have your stomach rumbling, so be sure to have a light bite in the upstairs café before you leave.

If you enjoy discovering contemporary art, then you will love the Triskel Arts Centre. Cork’s principal visual and performing arts center is located in Christchurch, a beautiful 18th century building. With live performances, art exhibitions, unseen Irish movies, and more, Triskel Arts Centre is committed to providing quality art forms to suit every taste.

Cork City Gaol.

A short walk from the city center, and located within earshot of Cork’s famous Bells of Shandon, is a unique example of Gothic Revival architecture, previously home to the city’s prisoners until 1923 – otherwise known as Cork City Gaol. Take a trip back in time and wander. The life-like wax figures in furnished cells give the experience an extra realistic feel.



A busker in Galway City.

A vibrant and creative city in the west of Ireland, Galway is a city you will want to make sure to soak up the atmosphere in during your trip to Ireland. Take a stroll from Eyre Square, also known as John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, down the cobbled city streets. Pop in and out to local stores for authentic Irish gifts, while pausing to listen to the city’s special busking performances. It’s very common for people to breakout into dance on the streets to accompany the musical performers, so be sure to get those feet tapping and join in.

JFK Memorial Statue, Eyre Square, Galway.

Built in 1584 overlooking the River Corrib, the Spanish Arch is an iconic landmark in Galway. The two arches that still stand today were an extension from the city wall as a means to protect from intruders or thieves coming in from the River Corrib. The Galway City Museum is located just behind the Spanish Arch. After a visit here, enjoy some fine local cuisine and a refreshing pint in one of the nearby pubs on Quay Street.

The Spainsh Arch and quayside, Galway.

Take a leisurely cruise sailing from the heart of the city onto Lake Corrib, the Irish Republic’s largest lake. The Corrib Princess is equipped for all types of weather and departs daily. This cruise offers incredible views of castles, wildlife, and the rich, green countryside. Enjoy a cocktail or an Irish coffee as you cruise around in comfort and luxury.

Many people either own a Claddagh ring, or else intend to purchase one during a trip to the Emerald Isle. Stop in and say hello to the staff at the oldest jewelers in Ireland ­­– Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Shop. The original makers of the Claddagh ring, dating back to 1750, they will happily share the story behind the famous design. ♦


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Kerry: The Beautiful Kingdom (Photos) Sun, 01 Oct 2017 05:28:18 +0000 Read more..]]> Photographer John Wesson on the landscape and people of Kerry that captured his imagination more than 30 years ago.

I am lucky enough to have had a long association with Kerry, having returned on a regular basis for nearly 30 years. Each year I spend more and more time in “The Kingdom.” In most of Kerry, and certainly in the south and west, you are never very far from the sea or from a mountain. The county rises rugged and mountainous out of the Atlantic Ocean. Cliffs and steep slopes abound, and safe, sheltered access is limited. In the north, the land is sweeter, less acidic, and perfect for dairy farming.

The green fields of Ireland are green for a good reason: rain. It pours for days on end, sometimes for weeks. With the temperate oceanic climate, grass grows all year round, and conditions are perfect for rearing cattle and for milk production. Kerry’s main export, food, is only possible because of copious amounts of annual rainfall. Most visitors come to Kerry to experience its raw beauty; they do not come for the weather. But a period of high pressure can lead to days of settled weather, and there are those who are lucky to have their visit coincide with fine weather.

If you are interested in landscapes and seascapes, Kerry is the perfect county. It is a joy to experience the astonishing and continually changing Atlantic light at first hand. My favorite times of the year to capture it are spring and autumn. This is when Atlantic showers blow in, bringing dark clouds that contrast with low, clean sunlight, illuminating the landscape in a way that has to be seen to be believed. It is possible to see more rainbows in a single morning here than in a whole year elsewhere.

Wintertime brings low light all day, picking out the landscape in rich, fine detail. The usually quiet beaches are now completely empty. Huge Atlantic rollers come crashing in, and the cold weather puts white hats of snow on the mountaintops. These mountains really do look remarkable; the golden hues of the dead, dried grasses and heathers look wonderful against a cold, blue sky. It is often asked how many shades of green are there in Ireland. I would also like to know how many shades of gold there are on a Kerry mountainside in winter.

Due to Kerry’s westerly position, you will notice that it gets dark later than you might suppose, allowing plenty of time for a “sundowner” while you admire the receding light … and take another sunset picture. Does the world need any more sunset pictures? I hope so.

There is a lot more to Kerry than just scenery. Its people are fierce and proud of all things “Kerry,” be it sport, culture or produce. The locals are friendly, enquiring, helpful people who will direct you, quiz you and learn all there is to know about you – all in no more time than it takes to order a Guinness or fold away a map. They are delighted to have so many people visiting from around the world, are interested in where they live and are always curious, given the chance, to find out where visitors come from and what they do for a living. A ten-minute chat with a local will most likely have you both informed and laughing in a way that simply does not happen elsewhere.

I have had a lifelong interest in photography, first picking up my dad’s camera as a schoolboy and taking it on fishing trips to record the catch. I still have some black-and-white prints of those unfortunate fish. Cycling the lanes of Derbyshire looking for new places to fish or explore, my friends and I acquired an interest in the countryside in all its glory, flora and fauna – a passion that I still have today. Later, as an engineering apprentice, I bought my first SLR camera, a 35mm Canon FTb, along with a 50mm lens. It cost me a month’s wages! It was a great camera that I used for years, and still own. I travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles with it, on various motorcycles. These days, I am still using Canon cameras, both full-frame and APS-C, and my subject matter is much varied. My favorite subjects are Irish seascapes and landscapes; however, I am interested in everything from weeds to weddings.

I hope that my enthusiasm for the Kerry landscape, people and wildlife is portrayed through this book and helps you, the reader, to a greater appreciation of “The Kingdom.” There is an “edge” here, an anticipation. Who knows what you might find around the next bend, or over the next hill? My desire for the perfect image has never diminished, and the quality of the constantly changing light suggests that the search will continue for many years to come. Here is Kerry: with its big skies, huge vistas and big-hearted people.  ♦

St. Finian’s Bay: The cows are about to get wet again as yet another shower blows in from across the bay. The “white horse” waves on the west coast of Ireland can be enormous, having had more than 3,000 miles of uninterrupted ocean in which to travel and grow. The prevailing westerly winds that propel them also result in this air being the purest in Europe, if not the world, thanks to the vast Atlantic Ocean between here and the eastern seaboard of America.

The Skelligs: Boatman Eoin Walsh on board the Agnes Olibhear heads out of the Portmagee Channel with another group of lucky passengers. I first traveled out to the Skelligs nearly 30 years ago with local boatman Dan McCrohan on board his famous wooden boat, Christmas Eve. I have returned many times sense, but that first trip, on a beautiful blue day in June, left an impression on me never to be forgotten.

North Kerry: Friesian cattle heading back to their fields after milking. Less mountainous than the county, from the Shannon to Tralee is lush, rolling, verdant green countryside. History, heritage, culture, and scenery are all around you, with many Blue Flag beaches for bathing, surfing, and angling. Kerry’s “gold” is found here – be it the “written word” or the finest dairy produce in the world.

Killarney: The Upper Lake. Situated on the shores of Lough Leane, Killarney is the tourist capital of Ireland and centrally placed within the country. The breathtaking Magillicuddy’s Reeks, the Gap of Dunloe, and the Black Valley are all nearby, and there is hiking, angling, golf, cycling, pony-trekking, wildlife (and photography!) all on one doorstep.

Killarney: The McCarthy Már Castle on Lough Leane. The Killarney National Park sits on the very edge of town, along with Muckross House, Muckross Abbey, and Ross Castle, situated in ancient woodlands. Surrounding the lake, too, are what are often referred to as “famine cottages,”dwellings that were abandoned in the mid-1800s when the potato crop failed and famine gripped rural Ireland.

Dunquin: Twists and turns down to Dunquin Pier. There is hardly a more idyllic place to work than at the top of this windy road down to Dunquin Pier. There, a woman named Sibéal sells boat rides out to Great Blasket, the only one of the Blasket Islands open to visitors. Perched high on the cliff above the pier, Sibéal’s shed looks out over the Blasket Islands and the Atlantic Ocean.


Excerpted from photographer John Wesson’s Kerry: The Beautiful Kingdom (O’Brien, 2017), a stunning book of photographs with well-thought-out captions that are full of information about the landscape and people of Kerry located in the southwest of Ireland in the province of Munster. Kerry faces the Atlantic Ocean, is bordered on the north by the River Shannon, and is one of the mountainous regions in Ireland. Known for its rugged beauty and friendly people, the county is featured in several Hollywood movies, including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ryan’s Daughter, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and this fall’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

For more information see

Mail: O’Brien Press: 12 Terenure Road East, Rathgar, Dublin 6, D06 HD27, Ireland

Phone: +353-1-4923333  



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Reading West Cork Tue, 01 Aug 2017 06:25:02 +0000 Read more..]]> A trip to the West Cork Literary Festival turns into an unexpected and inspiring look at Bantry Bay and the people who call it home.

In the words of Man Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright, “Ireland is a series of stories that have been told to us.” For me, Enright’s words couldn’t have rung truer. My father’s stories of growing up in Country Cork, told to me as a child, had the power to transport me to a time and place that I only knew in my mind until I arrived in Bantry for the West Cork Literary Festival in mid-July.

Bantry did not disappoint, and neither did the festival. The town is nestled on the coast, at the head of Bantry Bay, and the scenery is stunning in all directions – the Beara peninsula is to the northwest, with Sheep’s Head also nearby, on the southern peninsula. The festival provided a week of endless literary talks, poetry readings, music, theater, and countless opportunities to meet great writers such as Enright, Colm Tóibín, John Boyne, and Eimear McBride, as well as fellow book lovers, artists, and thespians. All this in a splendid setting so beautiful that it has been designated part of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

One of the most enjoyable events of the festival was when BBC talk show host (and native of the nearby Bandon) Graham Norton read from Holding, his debut novel on small town Irish life, and proved during his Q&A that he could dazzle a crowd just fine on the other side of the mic.

Colm Tóibín, the author of Brooklyn, talks Sasha de Buyl-Pisco, the current literature officer at Creative Scotland. (Photo: Ben Russell)

Irish Times Paris correspondent Lara Marlowe, meanwhile, elicited gasps and debate with her recollections of the horrors she has witnessed in her time as a wartime reporter in the Middle East; and in the autobiographical category, there was acclaimed South Korean violinist Min Kym, who told the highs and lows of her life story as a musical prodigy devastated by the theft of her instrument in Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung.

If, like me, you are charmed by the discipline of children’s fiction, you might like to know that all were welcome to join younger patrons of the festival in an impassioned discussion with Jane Mitchell, author of Syrian refugee story Without Refuge, or enjoy the sunshine in the yard of St. Brendan’s National School while painting a thirteen foot-long dragon mural, overseen by children’s storybook illustrator P.J. Lynch, Ireland’s current Laureate na nÓg, or Children’s Laureate.

TV host Graham Norton speaks about his debut novel Holding. (Photo: Ben Russell)

The festival made full use of the town’s amenities, including Bantry’s Maritime Hotel, the event’s home base for the week. The hotel is managed by Fionnbar Walsh (whose own book, Donal’s Mountain, tells the moving story of his son’s battle with cancer) and played host to several events each day, frequently double-billing highlight authors such as Sara Baume and Lisa McInerney to incite a juxtaposition of literary techniques. Baume, for example, noted that she could “write a whole novel without dialogue if it was possible,” whereas McInerney would happily write one that featured nothing but character back-and-forth. The Maritime continued the fun with nightly open mic sessions, emceed by journalist Paul O’Donoghue for festival attendees and tourists alike.

Other events brought literature aficionados to the enchanting Bantry House, a well-maintained manor constructed around 1700, with a much-lauded seven-terraced garden that served as a dazzling backdrop for many an afternoon’s conversation, one of which featured weaver of feminist fairytales Marina Warner, who emerged, oh-so-fittingly, from a hidden passageway to begin her Q&A. The festival also spread its cheer to the local library (an architectural wonder set atop a moving watermill at the top of the high street), which, one afternoon, hosted a reading by American authors Dean Bakopulous and Alissa Nutting, a married couple whose novels are both concerned with the disintegration of relationships; their own, they assured the audience, did not serve as inspiration. One of the festival’s most popular events, Emma Jane Kirby’s reading of The Optician of Lampedusa, took place on the LÉ Samuel Beckett, a ship deployed twice in the Mediterranean in 2015 and 2016 and responsible for the rescue of over 4,000 migrant lives, docked for the day in town.

Illustrator P.J. Lynch, Ireland’s Laureate na nÓg, supervises a dragon mural. The position, literally “laureate of the young,” promotes the importance of literature for children. (Photo: Ben Russell)

Just off Bantry’s shore is the storied and beautiful Whiddy Island, a roughly triangle-shaped piece of earth brimming with gentle hills and fertile land that takes up much of the eastern head of the bay, buffering the town from the harsher bay weather. It is currently home to some 30 islanders, though prior to 1880, the number was closer to 450. As most islanders own boats for the ease of mainland visits, fishing has always been Whiddy’s signature trade. During the Napoleonic era, English forces constructed batteries on the island to prevent a repeat of the 1796 storming of Bantry Bay by the French, accompanied Wolfe Tone (for whom Bantry’s town square is named), in an attempt to free the Irish from British rule. In the autumn days of World War I, Whiddy served as a U.S. naval air station. Today, the island hosts a large oil terminal that dominates its southwest corner and is home to Ireland’s strategic oil reserves.

Despite its diminutive population, Whiddy Island is no reclusive, water-locked hamlet. Connected to the mainland by a small local ferry, Ocean Star III, its peaceful shores and pastures draw in many a visitor, particularly during the summer months. The very night before my tour with Tim O’Leary, islander and owner of the island’s sole pub, the Bank House, it hosted the West Cork-based Fit-Up Theatre Festival’s opening night with a play called Sharon, the story of an Irish woman’s search for a life of her own in her conservative hometown. The play brought in theater lovers aplenty, many of whom lingered at the Bank House for a pint after curtain.

The Atlantic Ocean provides a breathtaking view from the summit of Sheep’s Head peninsula. (Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan / Courtesy Tourism Ireland)

Whiddy was also the very appropriate location of Wanderlust magazine editor Phoebe Smith’s five-day travel writing workshop. Walking tours, guided by Tim, are also a strong draw to the island. They offer a chance for both tourists and locals to get active while learning about the island’s intricate history and culture in ways precluded by reading about it, online or elsewhere. Easily bypassed without an insider’s knowledge, for example, is the island’s coffin stone, inlaid into a jetty where islanders traditionally rest the casket of one of their own before the body is ferried to the mainland.

Past the island’s western strand is Bantry Bay proper, one of several long, slender bodies of water on Ireland’s southwest coast that look as if someone had dug their fingers into Cork and Kerry 30 miles inland and scraped away the earth underneath. It separates the Beara Peninsula to the north and Sheep’s Head Peninsula to the south, the latter of which I was lucky enough to steal a morning to explore alongside West Cork Music CEO Francis Humphry, a resident of the nearby village of Durrus. Perhaps it was the way that the Literary Festival was igniting my imagination with new ideas at every event I attended, but as we drove up the green, crinkled hills to reach the nose of the peninsula, I could have sworn we moved along the skin of a slumbering green giant, at rest so long that wildflowers had claimed his hulking form as home.

Fans of Graham Norton enjoy his reading from his new novel, Holding, at the Maritime Hotel. (Photo: Ben Russell)

Francis was quick to supply the flowers’ formal names as I marveled at the variety – meadowsweet, oxbow daisies, and honeysuckle, which I was happy to recognize as one of the flowers carted by the statue of a small donkey in Bantry’s Wolfe Tone Square. Also familiar to me was the spiky, fire-orange montbretia, which Francis informed me was a foreign species. Despite this, I remembered it too had a home in the donkey’s cart, growing proud and vivid for the town to see. Pausing often to take in the rugged loveliness, the peninsula and be carried away by the walloping echoes of ocean on cliff, we eventually reached the tip of Sheep’s Head, and an entrancing view like none I had experienced yet. Looking out onto the endless stretching horizon where sea met sky, soaked, in the words of poet Eavan Boland, in the “hard shyness of Atlantic light,” I thought of America, invisible, somewhere beyond my line of sight, a world away. As a pair of thoroughly unfazed sheep rambled by, I had to laugh at their timing.

Passengers aboard the Ocean Star III, which serves as the Whiddy Island Ferry. (Photo: Patricia Harty)

The West Cork Literary Festival was, according Francis, “born from the arms” of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival (which was held the first week of July this year), a provider of top-class master class programs, student concerts, composition workshops, and an array of Bantry-based pop-up events since its own genesis, in 1995, as an arrangement of performances during the bicentennial celebration of St. James Church just outside of Bantry, a site still utilized for the festival’s musical showcases today. Like the Literary Festival, the Chamber Music Festival continues to attract more lovers of the arts each year, its status as one of the largest chamber music events in Europe necessitating the committee’s current fundraising plans for the construction of an official venue for festival performances. The music hall, development consultant Deirdre O’Donovan told me, will serve the Bantry community in other capacities during the off-season, and will allow the West Cork arts scene to soar at entirely new heights.

Aspiring travel writers line up to take the Whiddy ferry on the first day of a five-day workshop.

The Literary Festival began in 2000 after the Chamber Music’s annual congregation began to attract artists beyond those musically inclined. Poetry readings and writer’s workshops were soon in such demand that establishing a yearly tribute to the world of words was the only logical step. It has thrived ever since, and if the excitable crowds gathering before each event to secure the best possible seats were any indicator, the momentum shows no signs of dropping off.

Before returning to Bantry to rejoin the excitement of the festival, Francis and I paid a visit to Durrus Cheese, a family business located by the valley of Coomkeen, about five miles west of Bantry, that approaches its fourth decade of providing artisanal cheese made from local milk. Cheese maker Sarah Hennessy gave me a tour of the facilities, teaching me about the unique West Cork cultures with which the family’s cheese is washed to give it its distinctive pink rind. The company’s cheese making process was developed by Sarah’s mother, Jeffa Gill, who brought home a gold medal from one of the first Irish Farmhouse Cheese competitions in 1984. Suffice to say that after sampling the classic Durrus cheese, the softer Durrus Óg, and the hard, mature Dunmanus version that the family produces, the many national and international awards they have continued to claim over the years came as no surprise to me.

Donkey and cart filled with wildflowers in Bantry’s Wolfe Tone Square. (Photo: Olivia O’Mahony)

The village of Durrus is also home to another family business of a very different style. For 30 years, the natural beauty of this area has stoked the flames of inspiration for the Cronin family, who operate Cronin’s Forge, providing handmade ironwork in the form of everything from candleholders to exquisitely crafted garden gates. A strong Celtic influence is clear when one examines the Cronins’ creations, and I was invited into their workshop to observe the forging process. The lines of Seamus Heaney’s “The Forge” came back to me: “Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring / The unpredictable fantail of sparks / Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.” As I watched the masters at work, I recalled that in the poem Heaney never actually sees the forge’s interior, instead evoking an imagined scene from the sounds of the blacksmith at work. He had it so right.

Wrangling words for one week straight can prove quite the mental workout, so it was fortunate for all festival-goers that Bantry’s many restaurants were up to the challenge of refueling that brain power. Fresh seafood dishes were plentiful and beyond compare, and I came away from each meal a degree more convinced that, fulfilling the old “you are what you eat” adage, I’d soon find myself growing gills. In O’Connor’s Seafood Restaurant, pan seared hake was complemented with a bright swirl of butternut squash and smoked sundried tomato purée. The crab cakes served up by the Fish Kitchen, a tiny, intimate spot tucked above a real fishmonger’s, were delicately formed but packed a flavorful punch. Only in chef Christian Barcoe’s Donemark West was I tempted to depart from the bounty of the bay to enjoy a perfectly prepared breast of duck, courtesy of one of the nearby farms.

Deirdre O’Donovan, development consultant for West Cork Music Ltd.

On the last morning of my visit, I took a walk around Bantry Bay and reflected on my father’s stories of Cork. By delving into the area’s festivals, industries, and rock-solid community spirit, I had made memories aplenty to play against his, and, reluctant to close the cover on the West Cork Literary Festival for good, I promised myself to one day return. In truth, I’ve always had a penchant for a good serial, and so until the next installment, I’ll remember this one by heart. ♦

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