1. Explore Ancient Castles: Ireland is chock-a-block with castles. You see them in farmer’s fields, atop rocky outcrops, guarding rivers and in towns. Some are romantic ruins entwined with vines and trees. Others have been restored to their former glory and furnished with paintings, antiques and expensive fittings. Many castles rent by the week. One has been turned into a bank.
I prefer the lonely, battle-scarred castles that wear their age like a badge of honor. Observe how part of a wall was blown up by Cromwell’s soldiers leaving a gaping hole open to the elements. Notice a rusty cannonball from the Elizabethan Wars still stuck in a tower. Wander up small, spiral stone stairs that are waiting to stumble the unwary tourist – just as they were meant to slow down invaders. Look through arrow-slit windows at glimpses of the countryside. Feel the damp air and smell musty stone rooms. Battlements that once hid soldiers now house nesting birds. In the old ruins you can let your imagination run wild – to battles won and lost, pirate queens, bards entertaining at banquets, lords and ladies, serfs and knights. Each one has its legends, history and ghosts…if only you take the time to observe.
2. Walk the Beach: Choose a beach. Any beach. With a coastline over 3,500 miles long, Ireland has a surfeit of beaches. Search for seashells and smooth, round rocks. Explore a shipwreck. Feel the sand crunch under your feet. Hear the waves lap at the shore and sniff the briny air. Watch the birds wheeling overhead or playing tag with the waves. Look out for the tide! It can come in quickly and trap you where you stand. Bring a picnic or your surfboard or – if you are brave – your bathing suit.
3. Stay at a Bed-and-Breakfast: Ireland has elegant castles, modern hotels with spas and historic manor houses. They all have their place. But if you want to enjoy the real Ireland stay at a B&B. It is someone’s home where they take paying guests and provide a bedroom with bathroom and breakfast in the morning. Your hosts know the local area, the best restaurants, what sightseeing you should not miss and where the nearest laundry is. Most hosts are truly interested in their guests and are happy to dispense their knowledge with a delightful brogue and a touch of Blarney. Where else can you get so close to a real Irish family?
4. Discover the Night: Go outside, look up and marvel at the darkness. In most of rural Ireland you can behold the night sky in a way you might remember from childhood. Without light pollution the magnificence of the Milky Way is strewn like a silken veil across the black velvet sky. Every spot above you seems to twinkle with a star if you look long enough. The moon seems close enough to touch.
5. Visit a Garden: Ireland is a paradise for gardeners. With its damp, temperate climate blooms can be found almost year round. Each season produces its own flowers from early daffodils and lily-of-the-valley to spring cherry trees and tulips, to summer roses and rhododendrons and fall heather and furze. You can visit gardens at ancient castles, elegant manor houses, serene abbeys, planned parks, little villages and even in big-city Dublin.
6. Learn a Legend: It looks like an old pile of stones. But there are interesting rounded depressions filled with rainwater in the boulder. A tourist has paused for a snack and left behind an orange peel. But what does the legend tell? Over a thousand years ago a saint found an abandoned baby and the monastery adopted the infant. But with no women about they could not feed it. So they prayed and a white deer appeared every morning. The monks milked the doe, and its milk was caught in the bowl-like depressions in the stone. The baby thrived and today it is called the Deer’s Stone. What was it five thousand years before St. Kevin passed this way? Only the ancients know.
And why is that old tree covered with strips of cloth and trinkets? Could the fate of the English crown have been decided on an Irish battlefield? Am I walking in the footsteps of a pirate queen? Is this the wood the poets trod? Every inch of Ireland has a legend just waiting to be discovered by you.
7. Meet the Friendly Irish People: The number one request of visitor’s to Ireland is to meet the Irish. Strike up a conversation with people anywhere. Just a comment on the weather, a question about where something is or a friendly greeting on the street or in a shop can elicit the Irish interest in you as a visitor. Where can you meet Irish people? At the pub, in a shop, at Bingo night, attending the races, at church services, at a dance, in a restaurant, at a B&B. The list is endless. Forget the rule that you should not speak to strangers. After all in Ireland there are no strangers, only friends you have yet to meet!
8. Get off the Beaten Path: Turn off the GPS. Put the map away. Get off the highway and take that little road with grass growing in the middle of it. Maybe it is only wide enough for one car, but how many cars do you expect you will meet on such a road? If you do meet a car the local driver will likely know the nearest wide spot in the road where you can pass each other safely. A smile, a quick nod of acknowledgment with the other driver and you have safely navigated a little country boreen.
Where will the road take you? Probably over a hill and around a bend. Maybe beside a lake or up a mountain. If you are lucky, through a grove of ancient trees and past a fairy mound. Where will it end? Where else but the ocean? Ireland is an island after all.
9. Sing Along in Pubs: It is not always easy to find traditional Irish music or Trad as the locals call it. More often than not you will find country-western music emanating from the pubs. But keep searching or ask in town for a trad session. Usually they start late – after nine or even ten. But seeking trad out can be worth the trouble. Grab a table, order a drink and be prepared for toe tapping, hand-clapping music and songs you can sing along with. If you don’t know the words, just hum.
10: Take Time to Daydream: Take a deep breath. Forget the schedule. Throw out the itinerary. Stop and look around you. Observe what you are seeing, feeling, smelling and hearing. Breathe in the salty tang of the sea along with a whiff of pungent smoke from the chimney of a distant cottage. Watch the clouds scud across the sky – sunshine and shadow – followed by a thin gray veil of rain. A sudden rainbow, a blast of damp breeze and a quick shower scatters the grass with sparkling raindrops. Birds twitter overhead and on the hills sheep are baaing as they graze. This is what you saved and planned for. This is what you dreamed of. Enjoy Ireland!
© 2009 Michele Erdvig