Ireland was a bucket list gig for me, and now that I’ve been there, it’s a bucket list gig to go back again, and again, and again for all of eternity. It will NEVER leave my list.
My family, our ancestry, and by proxy so much of my identity is held tightly in the arms of those of us from both parental sides who emigrated from Ireland and Scotland ages ago. I remember the moment my grandmother shared with me her letters and scraps of paper (which I still have) with handwritten family trees leading back to Ireland and Scotland. That would begin my obsession with genealogy. Both sides, McConnell and McCoy trace back to Ireland, but the McConnell stories are the ones I had ready and consistent access to.
I was lucky enough to take this trip of a lifetime with my daughter in August of 2017 for seven days, as a gift for her high school graduation…and the gift of a life long goal for me. She could have chosen to go just about anywhere, but she chose Ireland. She has inherited a lot of my interest in our roots, and she identifies with it in much the same way I do.
Let me tell you – it was every single thing I ever thought it would be and SO MUCH MORE. I give to you … our Ireland experience.
Not long after we landed in Dublin, excited and tired, our first adventure began. Renting the car. I had reserved an automatic, because even though I know plenty good and well how to drive a standard (I learned on one), we’d also be driving on the left hand side of the road. They were convinced that I had reserved a standard car. I had to spend a lot of time assuring them that I was not the sort to take my life into my own hands by having to concentrate on shifting AND driving in the opposite way of what I’m used to. An hour later and for some extra money that was unplanned, we had an automatic. Crisis averted? Mostly. Driving from the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road takes balls when you’re an American whose never done it before – or it might just be stupid, but you know, face your fears for the sake of adventure right? I had not one iota of practice or preparation for this moment. Only the hope that I wouldn’t kill us or anyone else. I have one thing to say. Giant multiple lane roundabouts. Obviously we survived, and I did eventually get used to it.
PRO TIP: AIR B&B, HOTEL OR REAL BED AND BREAKFASTS?
I rented us an apartment to use as a home base. It was an adorable 2 level cottage built in 1832 with a bright yellow door on Bayview Avenue in North Strand, however, my advice is this:
If you’re staying in Dublin and you only plan to travel to the outskirts of Dublin for day trips (plenty to see that way!) then by all means rent an apartment or stay in a hotel, but not in North Strand. Try for one that’s closer to City Center so that you can walk. North Strand is unsafe and not all that pretty, and it’s also a 20 minute drive from City Center. Even with how cute the cottage was, our surroundings seemed sketchy from the start. The safety issue came to our definite attention when we were not only warned by the gas station attendants twice, but we were also warned by the one taxi driver who finally accepted our fair from City Center to the apartment one evening, after we seriously didn’t understand why we had been ignored by Uber drivers and other taxi drivers. He explained to us that they didn’t want to drive to North Strand at night.
If you plan on driving a few hours in any direction more than once (like we did), do it like a proper gypsy. Stay in different Bed and Breakfasts along the way. Inns and Bed and Breakfasts are plentiful, quaint, convenient and honestly less expensive and less tiring than having a home base to drive back to, plus they feed you GOOD FOOD. We could easily have done it that way for not that much over half the price of having the apartment for the week, and we would have had more time in the places that we loved, and more time for more stops along the way while also being submerged in the Irish countryside where the real beauty is.
We spent our first full day in Ireland tooling around City Center in Dublin. We walked to Dublin Castle, visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral where we lit a candle for my grandmother, and Sky hung my grandmother’s name on the Tree of Remembrance, which is a war memorial first, but also encompasses remembering all those who have been lost to us. We walked down Grafton Street, and we walked all along the River Liffey which runs through Dublin with several bridges that cross it along the way. We visited Trinity College, but we were too late to get in to the famous Trinity Library to see the Book of Kells. We got lost looking for it. Ooops. We did make it to Marsh’s Library where we weren’t allowed to take photos, so of course we took photos. We rode the Hop On Hop Off bus which took us several places, two of which were the Guinness Storehouse and the Jameson Distillery.
PRO TIP: HOP-ON-HOP-OFF BUSSES AND BOOKING AHEAD
I will usually recommend the Hop On Hop Off busses to get the lay of the land pretty much anywhere you go (but not in Berlin!). You can buy 24, 48 or 72 hour passes, there’s always a guide on board or headphones for the recorded guide, and their maps are the best. I also recommend making reservations to actually tour the Guinness Storehouse and/or the Jameson Distillery well ahead of time, or you might miss it.
Irish Coffee, Saint Bridget’s Well, and The Cliffs of Mohor:
Our first road trip was to the Cliffs of Moher in Liscannor, County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. It’s a beautiful, expansive, rolling green three hour drive from Dublin. We passed sheep and cow filled pastures (fluffy Irish cows!) that wound past farm after farm, and fields of giant windmills. It was green for as far as the eye could see.
Driving through Ireland with Sky will always be one of the best and most meaningful memories I’ll ever look back on for all of my life. We blasted Siouxsie as loud as we could. We sang every Smiths song at the top of our lungs. Siouxsie used to remind me of highschool. Now she reminds me of us speeding through the Motherland together. It’s a treasure in my heart.
As we got closer to the cliffs, we got off the main roads on to the small and narrow country roads walled in by low rock barriers and lush low hanging greenery that closed in on us at every turn. The Irish travel these roads at much higher speeds than I was comfortable with given that there was only room for one car at a time. There were a lot of “oh shits” and “bloody hells” to be had from this American girl sitting on the wrong side of the car driving on roads that had no side at all.
The car park at the beginning of the cliffs was full up, which left us with some time on our hands for a proper Irish coffee made by a proper Irishman in a proper pub called Consioine’s (Sky had hot chocolate). It also left time for an impromptu visit to Saint Bridget’s Well – a sacred well steeped in the Pagan roots that I feel so close to, and where we spent more time than planned…just because. Note: Saint Bridget is her Catholic name, but make no mistake, Brigid is a goddess of pre-Christian Ireland.
We could see the beauty of the ocean from where we were, but there is nothing that could have prepared me for what we would see once we walked the long walk through the fields and climbed up the hillside to get out to those massive cliffs. Nothing could prepare me for how it would feel to stand out there with the wind and the mind-bendingly beautiful drop straight down to the sea below. To be standing on those cliffs in Ireland watching Sky as she was standing on the same ground looking at the same expanse as me was a real dream come true moment. I was where I have always wanted to be. It was as if Ireland had wrapped me up in her arms and bestowed upon me a quiet and peace I’d never known before. I listened to that quiet. It spoke to me. I sat down and legit cried.
We climbed all over where ever we could. I watched Sky climb out to places with her camera where my heart sank at the thought of the drop. Her feet dangled over the edge. We walked along those cliffs for a long long way, and as the sun began to set we found ourselves in a spot where there were more stacked rocks than we could count. There are those who say they wish tourists wouldn’t make these cairns, because it’s a bother to clear them. I disagree. They meant something to who ever made them. The way the setting sun rested across them was peaceful and beautiful. A modern yet ancient testament to the sacredness of where we were standing.
We made the long and misty trek back along the cliffs and through the fields, stopping to trespass into where the fluffy Irish cows stood for some photos, and then back to the car. We stayed the night in the tiny surf town of Lahinch at the Sancta Maria Hotel.
PRO TIP: Go horseback riding at Mountain View Horse Riding Center. Request to ride Max. Don’t question it. Just do it.
Irish Horses, Irish Sunsets, and Twin Peaks:
Sky knew I had always wanted to go horseback riding in Ireland, and we had talked about it, but we hadn’t made the move to seek it out. The next morning she found us a place that had an opening that day. I was EXCITED beyond measure.
We drove 20 minutes to the Mountain View Horse Riding Centre. We showed up about 45 minutes early (that’s how excited I was, omg) in hopes that we could get some good shots of the horses and of the countryside. We weren’t far from the cliffs at all, we could see the ocean. We were openly welcomed by the owner and horse whisperer himself, Peter Williams. He took us around and introduced us to all the horses, his son and his border collie dog. He allowed us to meander through the stables on our own. I rode Max, a formidable and sweet Irish draft horse. We were submerged in the quiet of the Irish countryside on horseback. Sky was happy. I was happy. We passed old famine ruins, and sprawling hills and we rode along the seaside…and we were allowed to RUN. There is NO BETTER EXPERIENCE. Peter continually yelled back to me asking, “Aye Erin, are ya happy!?” I was indescribably happy, yes.
When the two hour ride was over, he allowed us to stay on for the next ride. We rode for nearly 4 hours that day, me on Max and Sky on her horse. When we were done, my legs were absolute jelly, to which Peter replied, “Have yourself a hot whiskey, you’ll be just fine!” Peter gave us a lot of special one on one attention, and seemed genuinely happy to do so. He showed us more of the stables, and he told us stories of taming untamable horses, his mother and father, his life, and his love for Ireland. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.
Since we were a few hours behind schedule (SO WORTH IT) Peter was nice enough to call in a favor for us to stay at a bed and breakfast not too far away – as luck would have it someone checked out early, and he secured our spot. We were off to Twin Peaks Bed and Breakfast on Fisher Street in Doolin. It’s a super cute place with a view of the sunset like nobody’s business, and the best Irish breakfast ever. We checked in, and walked to Gus O’Connor’s Pub where I had a proper Guinness with bangers and mash. We sat and listened to live Irish music, and then we walked the little town at sunset. The next day we drove the three hours back to Dublin for some much needed resting time. We were dead tired.
Trim Castle, Giant’s Causeway and a Wee Cottage:
The next adventure was upon us. This time we’d drive to Giant’s Causeway located in Bushmills, County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Giant’s Causeway is also three hours from Dublin, but we decided to stop for a visit to Trim Castle first, since it’s on the way.
Trim Castle was part of the set for Braveheart. You know, the one about Scotland that was filmed mostly in Ireland? Make no mistake, I love that movie, even if it’s historically inaccurate, which the ticket takers at the entrance of Trim Castle will be sure to point out. It’s one of the largest stone castles to be built in Ireland and one of the largest Norman castles in Europe covering 30,000 square meters. It covers a lot of ground, and I wish we’d had more time there. PSA, do not eat the fish and chips at the little place right outside the castle entrance, where all of the Braveheart actors apparently ate. It sucks. Just…don’t do it.
With time ticking and two more hours to go (and the fact that we are not and never will be early risers, so no morning starts for us), we set out for Giant’s Causeway. As we passed through to Northern Ireland it went from Irish to British post haste. Upon arriving, the visitor’s center was closed, but you can walk around the visitor’s center through the open gates straight out onto the road/paths that lead to the causeway. Standing out there on those geometric rocks reminded me quite honestly of the Fortress of Solitude, only made from basalt rather than Kryptonian crystalline. As legend would have it, the columns are supposedly the remains of a causeway built by a giant (go figure). We walked, meandered and climbed as far as we could, and once again we found ourselves standing in a spectacular place in Ireland at sunset, only this time we were level with the sea rather than than so far above it. The sky was prismatic with sunlight. I sat for a long time watching Sky leap from rock to rock, with the sunset in her hair and her camera in hand to capture this place. If we had known better and planned better, I would have given us an extra day and night to drive along the Causeway Coastal Route, visit Ballycastle, and experience the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Next time!
As per usual, in need of rest and food, and running late (nearly 8pm) we went searching for a place to stay. There are lots of choices along Giant’s Causeway. Our first choice was all full up, but they directed us to Smugglers Inn. Smugglers Inn not only had room for us, but they kept the kitchen open late for us which allowed us to dump our things in the room and head back down for a late and delicious dinner, for which we were VERY thankful. I couldn’t shovel it in fast enough.
Dunluce Castle, Belfast, and the Titanic:
The next morning we were off to see Dunluce Castle, just seven minutes away! This medieval Irish castle shoots right out of the basalt ground and is located precisely on the edge of the sea with steep drops to marvel at from it’s ruin windows. Our castle experiences thus far had been that we were able to walk most of the grounds, and usually only partially through the inside which tended to be guided in most cases. Not so at Dunluce. Enter through the giftshop, pay a small fee, and then it’s free reign to explore to your heart’s content. Not to mention it’s featured in Game of Thrones! It’s breathtaking – worth an afternoon.
Thirsty and in need of something sweet, we walked up the hill to the Wee Cottage, which is absolutely worth a sit down. They had the fireplace burning and their handmade desserts were perfect.
We gathered ourselves into the car to head back to Dublin. On our way to Giant’s Causeway, we drove past Belfast – another place I’ve always wanted to go. As we approached Belfast on the way back I mentioned it.
Sky: You wanna stop in?
Erin: Yes. I believe I DO want to stop in.
Belfast is separated with peace walls, which are a series of barriers in Northern Ireland that separate predominantly Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from predominantly Loyalist and Unionist Protestant neighborhoods. Truth be told, every time I speak to this subject, I have to look it up, because that conflict is hard to keep straight. Driving next to the peace walls is a stark reminder of all the violence that was prevalent in Northern Ireland for so long. It’s also a reminder that even though the violence has mostly subsided, the divisions are still very much alive. The Britishness of parts of Northern Ireland is also VERY prominently displayed.
Sky noticed the signs for Titanic Belfast. We had room for one last adventure, and this was it. I HIGHLY recommend it. I wasn’t completely sold on it when Sky said she wanted to go, but I’m so very glad we did. This was the best museum experience I’ve ever had, and I wish we’d had a full afternoon to spend there. Take note, it has a ride. One day, I’ll spend a few days in Belfast, and give it the time it deserves – and I’ll absolutely go back to Titanic Belfast.
All good things must come to an end. We made our way back to Dublin, arriving in the dark to pack up and have our last night’s sleep in the arms of the Motherland. I will remain forever thankful to, humbled by, and in love with Ireland. I cried, I swooned, and my heart skipped all the beats. I’ll go back. I’ll always go back.