Ireland – unusual attractions

Posted by on May 28, 2014 in In print this month | 0 comments

Exploring roads less travelled

Ireland means something different to each person who visits there. Otherworldly and ancient heritage sites, quirky folklore, rugged and wild beauty all live here along with the warm-hearted Irish people. There’s plenty of whiskey and Guinness too, with Irish music and dancing that’s completely irresistible.

It looks like a huge flying saucer that landed in farmland and the locals have hurriedly tried to disguise it with instant lawn. Only the front facade of white stone alludes to anything more than this being a massive grassy mound. All around white woolly sheep graze the green pastures that surround Newgrange, while throngs of fascinated people file in and out of this 5 000 year old passage tomb in County Meath. For just an hour on the winter solstice of 21 December, the sun shines directly through a roof box and onto the inner chamber. Nobody really knows why as much of Newgrange remains a mystery still to be unravelled. Even the entrance stone of carved spirals has no definitive explanation yet. It could be a map of tombs, depict the movement of the sun, or represent eternal life.

The Hill of Tara, half an hour away, is arguably even more bizarre in appearance. Here two huge, grassed passage tombs rise from the landscape and look like a landing site for UFOs. The tombs date back to around 3 000BC and the site was also the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. This was the most sacred site of ancient Ireland and it’s claimed you can see a quarter of the country from here. Also nearby, the historic town of Trim has more Medieval buildings than any other Irish town – and at the heart of it stands stoic Trim Castle built in the shape of a cross. The imposing castle was on the set of Brave Heart and when you see it you will recognise it immediately.

However, diminutive men dressed in green jackets and with hats of woolly mammoth hair are what you’ll find around Carlingford, County Louth – if you are lucky. This is the traditional stomping ground of leprechauns and leprechaun whisperer Kevin Woods says just 236 leprechaun spirits remain in Ireland, many inhabiting the forest surrounding the town. A tour and a chat with Kevin is truly enchanting. So too going for an oyster tasting on the edge of Carlingford Loch. Oyster farm owner Kian Louet-Feisser smiles and says: “Our oysters come with a guarantee. If they don’t work, we give your money back. We just want to make the world a better place.”

If you’re crossing to the west of Ireland, Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, epitomises the Ireland of postcards. This ancient monastic site was founded in 548 and is a series of temples and round towers, a castle, church and cathedral overlooking the Shannon River. Yet it’s the stone forest of Celtic crosses that is most impressive. Carved from white sandstone, some crosses stand as tall as four metres high and each one is individual and intricate. This is the Ireland I imagined: beautiful, ancient and with a stillness running through it.

That same stillness is felt in the moody landscape of the rugged Connemara on the mid-west side of Ireland. A mountainous area with peat bogs and interspersed with languid lochs and cool rivers, this area – amongst many others – is favoured amongst fly fishermen, who cast long lines in the mist. Flyfishermen can even be seen trying their luck in the rivers running through the city of Galway nearby. Ireland is nirvana for those tantalised by feathered flies and hungry trout.

The windswept, wild and beautiful Aran Islands lie just 14km off the coast of Galway, but it takes 50 minutes by ferry to get there – often over turbulent Atlantic waters. There are three Aran islands, though visitors generally visit the biggest one of Inishmore which can easily be cycled in a day. The Aran experience, though, is like stepping back in time. Everyone knows everyone, since there are only 900 residents, and all are fishermen except for a smattering of tour guides. The bank opens for two days a week and there’s one grocery store, along with four bars and no hospital on the island. It’s also the home of the intricately knitted Aran jerseys. These complicated jerseys are knitted for the mensfolk to wear when they go to sea fishing, and each family has a distinct design. The islands are often chilly and guide Owen Hernon candidly describes the weather as: “Rain with moments of sun.” He says for two weeks a year the weather is too wild to leave the island at all, “but there are also about 20 days of perfect sunshine.”

This is true as we drive in bright sunshine southwards past the renowned Cliffs of Moher, which are sheer rock walls with their feet in the sea, and down to the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Regardless of the weather – which is relatively cool even in the summer – the Irish carry on business as usual. So without any ado we head out to sea cocooned in misty drizzle to look for Fungi, the dolphin of Dingle Bay. This wild dolphin is so reliable that if he doesn’t show up on a cruise out in the bay, the tour company gives you your money back.

The water is calm, but there’s heavy mist and visibility is poor as we head out into the protected bay. It’s a completely different perspective to see the land from the sea, and while still admiring the little stone cottages on the green hillsides flanking the bay and sprinkled with flocks of white sheep, Fungie jumps right out of the ocean alongside the boat. All aboard squeal with delight as the lone dolphin swims alongside and under the boat, surfing bow waves as if providing a side show. The wild bottlenose dolphin arrived in Dingle Bay in 1983 and simply never left. His name is a mystery, but it’s said to originate from ‘fun guy’.

One thing’s for sure though: you can’t leave Ireland without tasting Irish Whiskey – try Kilbeggan or Tyrconnell – as well as a glass of dark and sultry Guinness. You can eat these tipples too, in Irish Whiskey fudge or Guinness potato crisps, bread, chocolate and muffins. If you’re a purist, though, order a pint in The Gravity Bar on the top floor of the Guinness Storehouse or on an evening out in the festive Temple Bar district of Dublin. Locals say it’s never too hot or too cold for the dark brew. Some claim “there’s poetry in Guinness”, but all swear it’s much easier to see leprechauns after a few pints of Guinness.

In Dublin don’t miss:

  • visiting Trinity College to see the famous Book of Kells
  • walking or cruising along the River Liffey
  • seeing the Spire of Dublin in O’Connell Street – a needle sculpture that beams light across the city at night
  • greeting the sculpture of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square. It’s fashioned from Irish marble in red, green, black and grey.

Contact:

Tourism Ireland in South Africa: tel: 011 463 1132; email: tourismireland@devprom.co.za; www.ireland.com

For more information:

www.heritageireland.ie

www.carlingfordoysters.com

www.thelastleprechaunsofireland.com

www.aranislandferries.com

www.digledolphin.com

www.guinness-storehouse.com

Recommended accommodation:

Meath heritage sites: Tankardstown House, Slane; www.tankardstown.ie

Cooley Peninsula: Ghan House, Carlingford; www.ghanhouse.com

Galway: Clochard Town House, Shantalla Road; www.clochardgalway.com

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