Our driving tour after Cork took us north on the western coast of Ireland. We decided to spend a few nights in Limerick and a few nights in Galway. By doing this we would have good access to the local tourist sites. The towns themselves weren’t anything special, but the natural and man-made wonders in the area were definitely worth a visit.
Limerick, which sits on the River Shannon, is a good jumping-off point for visiting the Cliffs of Moher and King John’s Castle. The castle is the most imposing landmark in Limerick and is surrounded by interesting medieval streets. Nearby is a contemporary bridge and lock system to facilitate trade, primarily textiles. We also saw a stone wall that was once used as the town marketplace.
One great find we stumbled into while running about was “Possibly the best Cheese Toastie in Ireland” (per the Irish Times) at The Cheese Press in Ennistymon in County Clare for 8.50€.
It was very tasty and scored high on the Nosrat scale with lots of salt, fat, and heat! The town itself was quaint, and Mike managed to avoid driving the car into the river, too.
King John’s Castle
The most noticeable landmark in Limerick is King John’s Castle. We hadn’t heard anything about it before arriving, but you can’t miss it. King John’s Castle is made of solid curtain walls, drum towers and a strong, turreted gateway. The castle was built between 1200 and 1210 during the first Norman conquest of Ireland. During that time it was used as a base from which to subdue the Gaelic Chieftains of the west. The site was originally a Viking village.
Aside from the fabulous views from the walls and towers, one of the most interesting displays in the castle told about the siege of 1691 between the Jacobites and the Williamites. Both sides built siege tunnels underneath for formidable walls and some of the tunnels can be seen today.
The Cliffs of Moher
Welcome to tour bus heaven (or hell, depending on your perspective). This was one of the few places that tour buses go with their day trippers from Dublin and parts east. Our trip to Ireland wouldn’t be complete until we saw the Cliffs of Moher, so that is what we did.
The operator has made the most of the famous cliffs, with a Disney-worthy visitors center and some nice paths to the views. The cliffs are spectacular and host lots of bird species including puffins. I try to see puffins whenever possible but I’ve never gotten close enough to get a good view. This was no exception. You might be able to see a brightly colored foot in one of the photos but that is all.
Since the trails to the cliffs are wide and go in two directions, once you are outside of the visitors center, you don’t notice all of the people. The cliffs are dramatic and are said to be the second tallest cliffs in Europe. In fact, most of the Irish coast looks like the rugged part of the California coast south of Big Sur.
Castle Medieval Dinner
While in Limerick, we took the opportunity to attend a medieval dinner at Knappogue Castle. We had another encounter with tour buses that delayed our ability to park by 20 minutes but eventually, we entered a large hall set with long tables and benches. In the middle was a stage where all of the people there were playing their parts as medieval servants and entertainers.
It was dark and cool as one would expect in a 500-year-old castle. The players, an MC, and others introduced and delivered each course in an entertaining manner. We started with mead, which put everyone in a good mood. Then there was a traditional story, musical interludes, and singing. It was great fun, the food was really good, and I would definitely recommend attending one if you have the opportunity.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Village
The Bunratty castle and folk village were highly recommended and I would agree. They recreated and maintained an entire period village around a 13th-century castle. We toured the village first before entering the castle. In the village, we saw both a waterwheel mill and something called a horizontal mill that used the flow of water downhill to power the mill. There were farm animals in pens near many thatched-roof cottages set up just the way they would have been in medieval times. There was also a manner house that would have been used by the local gentry.
We were able to talk to a man who was repairing/replacing a thatched roof on a cottage and I was shocked to learn that a thatched roof can last 30 years, longer than a modern roof. The cottages were of different sizes for people of differing wealth. The village, which was quite large, provided a really interesting window into how people lived in medieval Ireland.
The castle itself was originally built as a defensible tower then expanded over the centuries by several different families. Today, it is the O’Brien Castle as it looked in 1619. After entering through a drawbridge we were able to tour the entire restored castle with bedrooms, great rooms, and an interesting kitchen. The castle is modest but it boasts some very beautiful ceilings in the dining room and in the chapel.
Galway is a relatively small town, in County Clare, on one of the many inlets on the west coast of Ireland. The town started as a fishing village when the area was settled by the Celts. The history proceeds much like the history of the rest of Ireland. The Normans invade so the town builds a wall, rich English and Irish people build themselves castles, then there is a famine and many people die or emigrate. The only remaining portion of the wall is rather small and called the Spanish Arch.
Since this was our last stop in Ireland and we had seen lots of cute towns, I’ll tell you about Quay Street and the Cathedral. Quay Street is the main pedestrian street that runs from the harbor into downtown. The street is crowded with people, shops, pubs, and restaurants. As in the rest of Ireland, we saw lots of young people socializing at the end of the day.
The Cathedral called St. Nicolas was built in the 20th century and opened in 1965. The interior of the church is quite ornate and it boasts an impressive blue dome in the middle of the nave.
Of course there is always time for a drink and some Irish music and dance.
Kylemore Abbey and Walled Garden
On our way to Kylemore Abbey, I was concerned that it might be just another church but I was sure wrong. The abbey is a huge house with crenellations built in the late 1800s on a lake by a rich Irish businessman. The house was sold to an order of Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium in World War 1. The nuns maintained the abbey, gardens, and a girls boarding school until 2010. Since then, they have opened the grounds for tours and are developing a conference center.
The walled garden is just as it sounds, a huge walled garden filled with plants, flowers, fruit trees, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. It was truly impressive and fun to wander around and discover all of the plantings. We spent quite a bit of time in the garden before visiting the abbey building itself.
Connemara National Park
Our last stop before heading back to Dublin was the Connemara National Park. The park is a beautiful area with boardwalks, mountains, marshes, and hiking trails. We came across some ruins and an old cemetery too. I must admit that at this point in our travels in Ireland, we weren’t interested in seeing another pile of rocks. There are so many ruins in Ireland and we only scratched the surface. But the outdoor space in the moors was really beautiful and peaceful.
Final Thoughts on Ireland
We really enjoyed our month traipsing around Ireland this summer. Dublin was a fun town and we wouldn’t mind a chance to enjoy more music and fresh stout if we return. Our visit to the south and west was a constant stream of bucolic villages, castles, and stunning scenery. I would recommend allowing enough time to see it all, but our stay was perhaps a week too long for my preferred travel pace.
What place in Ireland would you like to visit?