Poised at the very edge of Europe and in the heart of one of Ireland’s most beautiful counties, the city of Galway is “the most Irish of all Irish cities.” The ancient Gaelic love for language and music flourishes here in Ireland’s unofficial arts capital, one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, its energy level kept vibrant by the local university.
The city can seem to be one big festival, particularly in the summer, emphasizing the people’s love for all things Irish. It is also the country’s most musical town, so those who come for the famous Oyster Festival (which launches the September— April season of the Galway Bay oyster, Ostrea edulis) will find the pubs and streets filled with the lilt of the Irish fiddle.
An “Oyster Pearl” beauty queen reigns over the festival, which has spawned similar events in the neighboring fishing villages of Clarenbridge and Kilcolgan (usually in early September). Many make the short trip to Kilcolgan just to experience a meal at Moran’s Oyster Cottage on the Weir, legendary oyster headquarters.
Willie Moran is the sixth generation of his family to run this venerable thatched cottage pub serving award-winning oysters from the Morans’ own private oyster beds.
Connemara is difficult to pinpoint: it is not a town or a valley, but a ruggedly poetic area of Galway, a part of Ireland known for its romantic landscape. Making up the western third of County Galway, Connemara was once part of the biggest private estate in Ireland.
Wild, lonely, and for the most part uninhabited, its peat bogs and rocky coasts conjure up Yeats’s vision of “a terrible beauty,” and are a main reason why so many artists and poets are drawn to this country (and this county).
The immensely scenic Sky Road is one of Western Ireland’s most delightful (and less- trafficked) drives, a steep and narrow one-lane corniche that twists and turns along the coastline to offer glimpses of the Twelve Bens, a dozen sharp—often mist-enshrouded—gray peaks, culminating at 2,388 feet. This is the untamed heart of the Connemara National Park, 3,800 acres of heaths, grasslands, and some of Ireland’s best hiking trails. Herds of red deer and Connemara ponies, the only horse breed native to Ireland, can sometimes be glimpsed roaming the park.
Within sight of the Twelve Bens and near the entrance to the park is Rosleague Manor, a wonderful supplement to the Connemara experience. Owned and run by the brother-and-sister team of Paddy and Anne Foyle, the two-story Regency home draws anglers who come for the excellent salmon, trout, and sea fishing. Everyone else comes for the comfortable country-house living and Paddy’s renowned dinners of seafood and home-grown vegetables that epitomize the spirit of Connemara.
A trip through the singular beauty of Connemara comes to a perfect conclusion at Cashel House, a gracious country estate with its own handsomely stocked pony stud farm and stables. Idyllic paths meander past the estate’s award-winning gardens and through 50 stream-crossed acres of rolling hills, shaded woodland, even a small private beach.
No sooner did owners Dermot and Kay McEvilly purchase the 19th-century country house in 1968 than it achieved fame as the vacation spot of choice of President and Madame de Gaulle. So enchanted were they by the grounds, the hospitality of the McEvillys, and the little-promoted wonders of Connemara’s natural beauty that they proposed to retire in this western region of Ireland.
The conservatory-style dining room is the relaxed setting for sophisticated but unpretentious meals showcasing the fresh bounty of Connemara’s lakes, hills, and coastal waters. Choose from dozing in front of peat fires; an afternoon of tennis, biking, or boating; or the glory of getting lost in a good book, topped off with wonderful dining.
With an ever-dwindling population (now about 1,500), the trio of windblown Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast is a pocket-sized window onto the hardscrabble life of centuries past. “Three stepping stones out of Europe” wrote poet Seamus Heaney, describing the stark scenario. Pony-drawn carts still outnumber cars here and English is spoken only to the few visitors who come for the moody, heart-stopping beauty that can be interpreted either as starkly romantic or monotonously bleak.
Against all odds, the islanders have made do with the harsh elements—most notably on Inishmore, the largest island, which is nearly devoid of vegetation. Immortalized a century ago by Dublin-born playwright J. M. Synge (who set his play Riders to the Sea here), the Aran Islands represent, in Synge’s words, “Ireland at its most exotic, colorful, and traditional. The weather often keeps everybody, visitors and residents alike, locked away in the pubs” where the murmur of Irish Gaelic (once steadily vanishing—before a recent revival—save in isolated outposts such as this) and the telling of tall tales will linger on in one’s memories long after the return to terra firma.
A visit to the haunting ruins of the 11-acre Dun Aengus, a 4,000-year-old megalithic cliff fort, is a highlight for those who want to be alone with their thoughts and the haunting cries of wheeling seagulls. The islands, long known for their heavy homespun and handmade knits (“Irish” sweaters are called “Aran” sweaters in Ireland; each family knitted a distinctive pattern so that if a family member drowned at sea, the body could be identified by its sweater), are a place of idle hours and daylong bike rides.
Robert Flaherty, the American director of poetic documentaries, made Man from Aran here in 1934; it is often shown on the island. The smaller islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, promise almost complete isolation with but a handful of ancient fortresses, churches, rooms for rent, and a couple of simple museums to visit.
Just as the once sleepy Dublin continues its renaissance, so does its favorite old dowager hotel, Le Meridien Shelbourne. Not that it was ever out of style, but showing off its new renovation, the massive reddish Victorian building stands stately once again on the north side of the city’s landmark St. Stephen’s Green (Europe’s largest garden square). Built in 1824, it is the last survivor of Dublin’s great 19th-century hotels.
Steeped in tradition, the Shelbourne holds on to much of its historic grandeur—the Irish Constitution was drafted here in 1922—with public areas replete with chandeliers, glowing fireplaces, and fine art. The Lord Mayor’s Lounge is a great spot for a sumptuous tea: like William Thackeray, who took to the deep armchairs overlooking the green, Dublin’s elite gather here to nibble finger sandwiches, pastries, and scones with thick preserves and cream.
The famous Horseshoe Bar is the only place to be for August’s prestigious Home Show Week, or any Friday night, for that matter. The Shelbourne speaks more of the Dublin of literary legend (think Ulysses) than of the new Dublin, morphing into one of Europe’s trendiest capitals. And though it has for years been a destination for those of wealth and pedigree, it remains both welcoming and unstuffy.
Dublin has every reason to be proud of the French-owned and-run Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud: It is the country’s most acclaimed restaurant and had much to do with launching the image of the Irish capital as something more than a pub-grub-only destination. Lavish, classy, and sophisticated, this is Dublin’s stellar proof that it is evolving into a gastronomic presence to be reckoned with.
At first glance, with its ebullient French owner, chef, and staff, the menu might appear of a Gallic bent. But using the best of the local bounty — Connemara lobster, Dublin Bay prawns, plump Bantry Bay scallops, salmon straight from local rivers, and venison from the outlying Wicklow mountains—the menu deftly combines an otherwise French cuisine with Irish underpinnings.
After spending his first ten years across town, restaurant owner Guilbaud has happily ensconced his Franco-Gaelic eatery in these new, airy, and elegant quarters on the ground floor of the luxury Merrion Hotel. Composed of four conjoined Georgian townhouses lavishly furnished in a period decor, the hotel also features lovely formal gardens of box hedges and fountains.
Traditional or newly cosmopolitan, Dublin’s greatest asset has always been its people, and their gifts of music and gab. The most entertaining ticket in town is a visit to any of the city’s 1,000-some pubs, where the thick oil-black “Dublin gargle” (Guinness) continues to be the national drink and music is almost always a by-product. Dubbed “poetry in a glass” and brewed in Dublin since 1769, the brew was once accompanied by advertising slogans such as “Guinness is good for you!” and still inspires a kind of reverence that has little to do with the bottled stuff found around the globe. To get the head just right, a good bartender will pull it from the tap a little at a time, over two or three minutes.
By the middle of the prosperous 18th century, Dublin could count 2,000 alehouses, 300 taverns, and 1,200 brandy stores. Who serves the best stout in today’s Dublin, where Guinness accounts for seven out of every ten pints of beer consumed? Start with a creamy pint of what James Joyce called “the wine of Ireland” at the lantern-lit Brazen Head, known as the oldest pub in town. Born as a coaching inn in 1198 and licensed as a pub in 1661, it has added a few new rooms that might have less character than the original ones, but offer live music as compensation.
Doheny & Nesbitt, a mere 130 years old, is a handsome Victorian specimen of carved wood, etched glass, spit-and-polish pride, and “snugs”—small semi-partitioned nooks where women could be served in the old days. Few wind up their pub crawl with the same impression as the acerbic Yeats, taken by a friend against his will to a local bar: “I’ve seen a pub. Now would you kindly take me home.” Poor Yeats would not have fared well during the annual March fanfare that fills the pubs and streets of Dublin in celebration of the world’s most famous Irish icon.
No other figure, sacred or profane, living or dead, is associated as closely with Ireland as its venerated patron St. Patrick. Born in Scotland and brought to Ireland as a slave in A.D. 432 (and never proved to have actually rid Ireland of serpents, as folklore goes), he is beloved among both the Irish diaspora and the Irish of the Emerald Isle itself.
March 17 is dear to every heart in every town, but the home of the largest annual celebration is Dublin and its pubs. While a number of U.S. cities hold large parades that are treasured by the Irish-American (and Irish-for-the-day) community, foreign celebrations pale in comparison to Dublin’s: it’s a four-day festival that has experienced the same zeal of renewal that much of the city’s arts and cultural scene has enjoyed within the last few years. The parade that proudly marches down O’Connell Street is still the holiday’s grand centerpiece, with drill teams, floats, and delegations from around the world.
Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College, is home to the 9th-century illuminated Book of Kells. Founded in 1592, Trinity (familiarly known as TCD, Trinity College, Dublin) boasts an impressive roster of alumni that includes Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett. But its most important role today is as privileged custodian for this early medieval manuscript, the most important—and the most beautiful—work of art to survive from the early centuries of Celtic Christianity. Each page is magnificently decorated with elaborate patterns and mythical animals, influenced by the hand-wrought metalwork traditions of that period.
The illumination is unlike any other in the intricacy, complexity, and variety that cover every one of its 680 pages, rebound in the 1950s into four separate volumes. Such fanciful illumination by the scribes and monks of the monastery of Kells was called “a work not of men, but of angels” by a 13th-century chronicler.
The Book of Kells is housed in the ground-floor Colonnades area of the college’s Old Library, built in 1712 and enlarged in the 19th century. It still suffers from lack of shelf space to accommodate the quarter of a million volumes stacked floor-to-lofty-ceiling. It is one of eight buildings on the 40-acre site that collectively hold more than 4 million volumes: Trinity College has received one copy of every Irish or British book published since 1801.
In 1922, at the age of forty, revered Irish novelist James Joyce published his masterwork, Ulysses, which details a single memorable day in the life of Leopold Bloom, Irishman, Jew, and modem Odysseus. Today the quirky citywide Bloomsday festival celebrates that one day—June 16, 1904—with wandering Joyceans following Bloom’s every footstep and seeking to relive the sights, smells, and sounds of turn- of-the-century Dublin.
With much of the city little changed since then, this is not such a stretch. Davy Byrnes, the famous “moral pub” mentioned in Ulysses, is a case in point, drawing writers and poets since 1873 and still going strong. Devout Joyce lovers from Dublin and abroad, often dressed in Edwardian garb of boater hats, waistcoats, long skirts and parasols, retrace Bloom’s day by ordering Gorgonzola sandwiches, sipping (much) Burgundy wine and Guinness stout, and buying cakes of lemon soap.
The James Joyce Center, focal point for the popular ten-day festival (but one of many organizations involved), offers an extensive roster of activities such as lectures, walking tours, readings, and reenactments of the best-known scenes from Ulysses.
Located in a beautifully restored Georgian town house, the center’s archives, exhibits, and reference library are open year-round. Erratically scheduled but worth checking out: the chance of accompanying Joyce’s nephew on a walking tour of neighborhood sites in local “Joyce Country.”
Rural, isolated, rugged, and always breathtaking, Donegal—Ireland’s northernmost county—has a distinctive, top-o’-the-world feel. Its 230-plus miles of sea-torn, largely uninhabited coastline define the northwestern comer of Ireland that faces the open sea toward Iceland. Slieve League, the tallest sea cliffs in Europe, are its dramatic highlight. But like a microcosm of Ireland, it also includes heather- covered moors, peat bogs, and the island’s steepest mountains.
A corner of Ireland that the bus caravans of Waterford shoppers and Blarney-kissing tourists never allot the time to visit, independent Donegal still clings proudly to Gaelic, Ireland’s native language (it is the largest area where it is still widely spoken), and ancient customs. Deep within the county, far from its distinctive coastline, is Glenveagh National Park, considered Irelands most beautiful (the concept of national parks is still rather new to Ireland) and one of the country’s most important natural attractions.
The park itself is closed to traffic, but a jitney from the Visitors’ Center provides drop-off service at Glenveagh Castle, built in the 19th century, whose important exotic gardens flourished under its American owner, who left it to the Irish nation in 1983. Beyond the 4 acres of cultivated gardens of flora brought from Chile and Tasmania, the Far East and the Himalayas, the park gradually reverts to a wild lonely loveliness that takes many visitors by surprise.