Our 2017 family trip to Ireland revealed people demonstrating the extraordinary power of kindness toward others, echoing the spirit of the Gaelic saying “céad míle fáilte” or “a hundred thousand welcomes.” The friendly encounters began on Friday, June 23, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport when “Ruth,” the senior American Airline agent, worked her magic to rebook us on a United Airlines flight to help us avoid an unwelcome delay. The new stopover in Newark, NJ, originally planned for Philadelphia, PA, offered a majestic image of the Statue of Liberty and New York City that led me to believe that despite the morning’s turbulence, this vacation would become one to remember.
On Saturday, June 24, shortly after we arrived in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland welcomed us with its amazing landscapes and ancient history at Brú Na Bóinne in County Meath. The ‘mansion of Boyne Valley’ is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the banks of the Boyne River with over 40 passage tombs and an additional 90 monuments built around 3300 BC. Neolithic landscapes of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth reveal the history of a highly organized and settled society with a sophisticated knowledge of architecture, engineering, astronomy and art. We visited Newgrange where a triple spiral kerb-stone greets visitors at the entrance and each December during the Winter Solstice, the morning sun illuminates the passage and chamber marking the start of the New Year.
On our way out of the Visitor Centre, advertisements persuaded us to visit the nearby 18th Century village of Slane, best known for its association with the St. Patrick as well as an important monastery founded by St. Erc at the nearby Hill of Slane. With a little luck we drove upon the hill and did so during the start of a free walking tour. The tour of the historic site was one of many across town in honor of noted Irish poet Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917), who was born in Slane one hundred years ago. A wonderful find, both for the remarkable medieval monuments and views of the County Meath landscape as well as for the delightful food, drink and conversation we experienced later at Inside Out, an Irish, Mediterranean restaurant in this charming village.
There is not much fanfare when crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and, Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom as only a small motorway sign welcomes visitors. I imagined the passengers in our car would have applauded, however, all were asleep, understandably exhausted from the cross-Atlantic flight. After a little self-directing because the GPS was “lost,” I found our next attraction, Cave Hill County Park. The park is an iconic landmark named for five nearby caves rises 1,200 feet above the Belfast Lough and City of Belfast. Here, we briefly explored the Belfast Castle, a Scottish baronial estate and former WWII naval command center dating from 1870, with its towers, chapel and Cat Garden.
The drive from the castle to our accommodations at the Blackhead Lighthouse was an adventure as the route is lined with several roundabouts and narrow roads bounded by walls and hedges. The lighthouse, originally built in 1902 and recently restored by the Irish Landmark Trust, is perched high on a black volcanic cliff overlooking the Belfast Lough. We arrived just before 5 pm in time to meet Pamela, the House Manager, and her family for a tour of the charming Lightkeepers House #2. Though they had to an evening commitment, each received us with a genuine enthusiasm, an Irish tradition that has survived since an ancient “Brehon law” mandated that guests be welcomed at any hour. Even the local Irish couple lodging in the neighboring House #1 welcomed us to Ireland and offered us a beer and several hearty laughs. Céad míle fáilte indeed!
As if the impressive interior and views were not enough, the lighthouse provided access to a coastal path that led to the nearby Victorian village of Whitehead as well as convenient routes to the City of Belfast and the Antrim Coast. Theresa and I ran each morning on trail before rejoining the rest of the family for breakfast back at the lighthouse and to discuss the day’s itinerary.
On Sunday, June 25, our first full day, we visited Belfast, which developed from a small village along the River Lagan to a home of linen, tobacco, rope making & shipbuilding industries and finally into the urban capital of Northern Ireland. Our points of interest lied within the City Centre and the Cathedral, Titanic, and Gaeltacht quarters. (We missed out on the Queens quarter simply due to the lack of time.)
The Cathedral quarter, named after St Anne’s Cathedral, is an old trade and warehouse district with highlights that included the cobbled streets and painted murals of the Duke of York, the Customs House and Albert Memorial Clock in Customs House Square, and the Bigfish, a 32ft ceramic mosaic salmon with texts and images relating to the history of Belfast near the River Lagan. Though we discovered that most commercial businesses are quiet on Sunday mornings, we enjoyed the local food and drink at The Cloth Ear.
After lunch, the extraordinary Titanic Experience, which honors the iconic RMS Titanic and the country’s maritime heritage at former Harland & Wolff shipyard, occupied three hours of our afternoon. We followed this tour with a drive through the central business district, seeing the Grand Opera House, Ulster Hall, and Scottish Provident Building, before a brief walk and admiration of the grounds and striking Edwardian baroque architecture of the Belfast City Hall.
Finally in the Gaeltacht, “Irish-speaking,” quarter, we were absorbed in the local culture and history through observations of the painted murals of the International Wall and a heartwarming conversation with “D.M.”, a local resident just outside of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The visual and oral words communicated centered on the history of the warring Catholic (nationalist & republic) & Protestant (union) neighborhoods during “The Troubles” (1968-98) as well as the community’s current political stances on world affairs. The kind gentleman gave us two Irish pins that demonstrated again the authentic hospitality inherent in the people of Northern Ireland.
On our way back to the lighthouse, we stopped in Carrickfergus, named for the Christian King of Dalriada, Fergus (498AD), whom drowned after a shipwreck on a rock that now is part of the foundation for the Carrickfergus Castle.
On Monday, June 26, our day involved a scenic tour of the Causeway and Antrim Coasts. Inspired by the popular book Game of Thrones, we first stopped at the Dark Hedges, a chiaroscuro avenue covered by over 150 beech trees along the entrance to James Stuart’s Georgian estate, Grace Hill. Next we all raised a toast at Bushmills, Ireland’s oldest “grain to glass” distillery. In good spirits, we hopped back in the car for a short drive to tour the ruins of Dunluce Castle, where tales suggest that the resident McDonnell family were forced to move when the kitchen fell into the sea.
Continuing along the Causeway Coast, we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made of 40,000 massive black basalt columns created from volcanic activity 60 million years ago. From this geological wonder we drove past 16th century fragments of Dunseverick Castle and the fishing harbor of Ballintoy to reach Ballycastle. Here, a couple of us enthusiastically walked the half-mile to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. The two-hand railed bridge, first erected by salmon fisherman, connects to an adjacent island 100 feet above the Sea of Moyle with views of nearby Rathlin Island. We watched the more adventurous tourists cross the bridge, before turning back to meet the others who were waiting at the top of the rugged coastline along with a few roaming sheep.
On Tuesday, June 27, the drive back to Dublin the next day, we first stopped at Mount Stewart, a neo-classic mansion recently restored by the National Trust and located on 950 acres near Newtownards. Though time constraints prevented us from taking a tour to observe the collection of over 2500 artifacts, artworks and memorabilia collected by the socialite family, glimpses through the windows as we walked on the grounds revealed a few Sir Thomas Lawrence portraits, a dazzling assortment of silver, and magnificently furnished rooms. Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry, whom occupied the home with her family in the early 20th Century, designed the formal gardens with extraordinary collection of plants, fountains and sculptures set between hedges that formed “rooms” with titles such as Italian, Spanish, Mairi, Shamrock, Sunk and the Dodo Terrace.
Located in Downpatrick is Down Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity and supposed burial place of St. Patrick. With limited documented history, tradition has it that St. Patrick brought the Christian faith to the country and this area in the early part of the 5th century. We arrived at midday to learn about history of Down, the cathedral, and, unexpectedly, that Ireland’s patron saints, St. Brigid and St. Columcille, are also interred on Cathedral Hill.
In Dublin, the capital of The Republic of Ireland, our accommodations for the week were at the Merrion Mews, which like the Blackhead Lighthouse, is owned by the Irish Landmark Trust. Built in 1793, the Mews is comprised of a historic main house that overlooks a private garden and stable yard. On occasion, the stables on the ground floor are used for the Mounted Unit of An Garda Siochana, or Irish police, while on duty in the city.
The Merrion Mews is located near Merrion Square, A gated park surrounded by Georgian redbrick houses once occupied by famous residents such as Daniel O’Connell, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats and government buildings including the Natural History Museum, Leinster House and the National Gallery of Ireland. Designed as a large ornamental garden and park for the nearby residents in 1762, the park holds an open art fair on Sundays and attracts several tourists, markedly to the sculpture of Oscar Wilde lounging on a rock.
Nearby, St. Stephen’s Green, a former pasture, is 22-acre park with a formal garden, lake and bandstand surrounded by several 18th to early 20th century buildings. We walked by The National Concert Hall, the Iveagh House and Gardens, and the Newman House as well as monuments such as Fusilier’s Arch, the Edward Delaney’s Famine Memorial, and the statue of Arthur Edward Guinness, who donated St. Stephen’s Green to the people of Dublin in 1880. After an impeccable meal on our first night at Etto, we walked through the parks, observing the historical architecture, beautiful landscape and diverse people of Dublin.
Dublin boasts a rich history and culture built on a mixture of old and new developments that receded and succeeded with each social, political, economic and armed defeat or victory, that I likened to the city’s derivation from Dubh Linn, a large dark tidal pool near the River Poddle, a tributary of the River Liffey. As the unofficial tour guide, I mapped out and led the family on four self-guided and titled tours , benefitted by the Hop on Hop Off Bus that conveniently transported tourists around the city, often with historical and humorous commentary provided by the drivers. Although we often deviated, we experienced in some capacity most of the attractions over the course of our 6-night stay.
Tour one, as discussed above, took place on Tuesday evening. I named the tour “St. Stephen’s Merrion-Go-Round” as the walk centered around St. Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square. The highlight for me during this tour on our first evening in Dublin was the unexpected sunshine that welcomed us to the city and the friendly service and delectable food and drink we experienced at the Etto restaurant.
On Wednesday, June 28, tour two, named “W.A.R.”, focused on the northside of the River Liffey, and revealed the people behind the places that made Dublin and Ireland what it is today. The tour featured whiskey and writers, art and architecture, and the river and the rebels that fought for the Republic. For the majority I would guess the enchanting stories about Irish folklore and mythology told at National Leprechaun Museum and the sips of whiskey Sine Metu, or “without fear” at the Old Jameson Distillery topped the list of favorites on a particular “soft day” in Dublin.
On Thursday, June 29, the “RGIII” tour, or Ryan’s Gardens, Guinness and God, explored nature, beer and churches. In the morning, the architecture and history of City Hall, Dublin Castle, and Christ Church Cathedral captured our attention. At midday, we enjoyed a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where we observed thematic memorials honoring the life of the saint, the lives of Irish people and the people in our lives at the Tree of Remembrance. Before the day’s end at the People’s Flower Gardens in Pheonix Park and Ryan’s Victorian Pub, we bused to perhaps our most anticipated stop in Dublin, St. Parks Gate Brewery, the home of the Guinness Storehouse. For a little education, we poured our own perfect complimentary pint at the Guinness Academy, and throughout the vacation I read about the faith, philanthropy and impact of the family and business of Guinness in the book The Search for God and Guinness.
On Friday, June 30, we escaped the hustle and bustle of the city by booking a Collins Day Tour to the Wicklow Gap, the Glenalough medieval monastic settlement and the city of Kilkenny. Our tour guide enriched and entertained the group with historical, trivial and humorous commentary throughout the excursion. The guided walk through the narrow alleyways in the town of Kilkenny included commentary on the history of Kilkenny’s Castle, the Court House and Grace’s Castle, and the Black Abbey, among other sites.
On Saturday, July 1, the “C-Tour,” included city attractions that started with the letter C; namely a college, castle, church, cathedral, culture, collections, and a pub-crawl. After a morning visit to the Book of Kells and The Old Library at Trinity College, we stopped for a coffee and sweet snack and quickly realized how fatigued we were from our travels. Since we covered much of the city and this tour earlier in the week, we decided to push a few destinations to the following day and make our way back to the Mews.
From the College Green area, we passed by the Molly Malone statue, then on to Suffolk and Grafton Streets for a little window shopping. Back at the Mews, we cooked a nice dinner, then played a game of cards or read by the wood burning fireplace. After dinner, we went on a short pub-crawl in Merrion Row to O’Donoghues and Reilly’s Bars, where we enjoyed some traditional Irish “craic” and live music.
On Sunday, July 2, everyone was encouraged to create their own itinerary. While Theresa and her family attended Sunday mass at St. Teresa, a 19th-century Catholic Carmelite church, I experienced the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibition National Gallery of Ireland. Amazed by the exceptional quality of works by Dutch painters and the gallery’s permanent collection, my thirst for more propelled me across town to the Dublin City Gallery – The Hugh Lane. Although I was disappointed to learn that a number of the French Impressionist masterpieces were on loan to the National Gallery of London, Francis Bacon’s Studio and a mixture of works by Irish artists collected by Hugh Lane, an art dealer who died on ill-fated RMS Lusitania, emerged as wonderful surprises.
After reuniting for lunch with a traditional Irish meal at The Old Mill, we walked the cobbled streets past galleries, bookstores and souvenir shops of The Temple Bar district to the popular 19th Century traditional pub with the same name. Among the hundreds of patrons, we found a table in the corner to rest our weary feet, enjoy a pint, and absorb the remarkable social and cultural interactions that surrounded us. Soon we found ourselves immersed in the environment, sharing stories, photographs and an extraordinary connection that continues today with two couples from England, who like Theresa’s family, have a child with Down’s Syndrome in their lives.
As we learned from our remarkable encounters throughout our memorable trip, the Emerald Isle is truly the Land of a Thousand Welcomes. Sláinte!