Blarney Castle

Blarney castle with its famous Blarney stone is high on the agenda for most tourists. The thing to do is to climb to the top of the castle where you lean into the machicolation ( gap between floor opening at top of castle through which oil or projectiles could be hurled at attackers) and kiss the Blarney stone. Kissing the stone itself is supposed to bestow eloquence and persuasiveness and the very word “blarney” now means to waffle aimlessly.

The origin of this dates lies in the 16th century when queen Elizabeth the first sent the duke of Leicester to seize the the stone from the McCarthys who were the Gaelic lords in possession  of the castle at the time.  As the Gaels were firmly defeated at the time and were unable to mount a military defense the best the head of the McCarthy clan could do was stall the queens emissary with excuses and promises etc.  When the queen received the reports from the duke she dismissed the talk of the McCarthy elder as “Blarney”.

The stone itself as a dazzling array of origin stories associated with it including (brace yourself), that it was the famous lia fail stone on which Kings were crowned, that it was taken during the crusades of the middle ages, that it was a gift from Robert de Bruce as a gift to the McCarthys following his help in sending men to assist in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and another tale tells that it is made from the same material rock as that at Stonehenge. The University of Glascow put a dampener on all this “blarney” however when they analysed the rock and found it was made of local limestone in 2014. Ah well.

The grounds of the castle are beautiful and relaxing and contain many interesting plants and includes a poison garden which features mandrake, wolfsbain, ricin, opium and cannabis. The latter are of course illegal in Ireland which goes to show that there is one law for the rich.

The castle is still in private ownership and it has to be said that the castle does not appear to have been refurbished to any extent beyond the minimum required to meet  health and safety, although the gardens are immaculately maintained. On a rainy day , lines of tourists are exposed to the wind and rain as they queue to kiss the iconic stone.

There can be long queues to kiss the stone and if you want to avoid the queues my advice is to go early. This is very much part of the tourist trail and most tourists arrive after travelling from Kilarney in the morning. This means it gets busy from 11/11:30 each morning. If you can get there before then, there is a much better chance that you will not be caught up in large queues.

Personally, I would be inclined to skip the stone kissing experience. While it can be fun, especially for teenagers, there are often queues and it does make you feel very consciously like a tourist. The gardens are gorgeous though and I do find them very relaxing to visit.

Entry is 13/5Euro and there is ample parking just opposite in the Blarney Castle hotel and Blarney Woolen Mills car park. The Blarney Woolen Mills shop is very popular with tourists and has really excellent products for reasonably good value. It is a wonderful place to buy Irish clothes and the perfect place to pick up a quality souvenir.

So my advice, if you go, go early and take time to enjoy the grounds. But I’d understand if you want to give it a miss. For me, it is not a must see. It is a fun but, in the end, very touristy experience that will make you feel very much like a tourist.

Giant’s Causeway

Perched on the North Eastern edge of Ireland, if you travel through the loyalist towns with their Union Jack flags, lies one of my favourite spots in the country, the giants causeway.
The causeway is a strange looking series of hexagonal basalt column’s that extend a few hundred meters into the ocean. There they sit and have sat for up to 40 million years, withstanding the ocean’s daily assaults and the ice sheets that come along every few thousand years or so. If rocks have spirits it must seem to them that  the ice-age comes every five minutes or so.
I will tell you where these strange hexagonal rocks came from but the Gaelic myth associated with the causeway is much more fun and I’ll start with that. The story concerns two giants ( with giant sized ego’s! ). On the Irish side of the Irish sea is the mythical giant Fionn MacCumhal. On the Scottish side of the Irish sea is the giant Benandonner. The two get into a ferocious argument and start to threaten each other. Eventually an enraged Fionn decides to settle the argument once and for all. He starts to pick up rocks and hurl them into the ocean to create a path across the sea so that he can cross to challenge Benandonner. When he gets to Scotland however, he realises his mistake as Benandonner is much larger than him. He hightails it back to Ireland and tells his wife, Oonagh, about the trouble he has made for himself. Luckily he has married a clever woman and she invents a plan to save him. She disguises Fionn as a baby and when Benandonner comes looking for Fionn, Oonagh lets on that the infant is their son. When Benandonner sees the size of the baby, he is shocked at the size of the baby and thinks to himself that the father must be a fearsome prospect indeed. He himself then runs back to Scotland as fast as he can and for good measure destroys most of the pathway after him, leaving only the few hundred meters of causeway that are visible today off the coast of Belfast.
The scientific explanation is actually simpler ! The rocks were formed in volcanic activity from 50-60 million years ago. The molten lava formed a lava bed and as it cooled it contracted into the hexagonal vertical structures we see today.

The causeway itself is accessible via a beautiful coastal walk of about 30 minutes from the car park and buses run also which only cost 1£.  If you are able do the walk. It really is a very pleasant stroll and is not demanding. I absolutely love clambering over the  irregular rocks. I always get a giddy thrill from their surreal aspect, jutting out as they are into the ocean. Their black shiny surface sitting in a stony defiance against the ocean is so emblematic of the Ulster spirit !

There is a visitor center at the causeway which documents the scientific explanation and how it was arrived it by geologists in the 19th century and there is also a beautiful video installation which chronicles the mythological explanation beautifully. It is well worth a visit but a bit pricey at 10.50£ adult and 5.25£ for a child, with discounts available for groups and families. Also the shops, cafe and toilet facilities are all located inside the visitor center, which you must pay to access.  There are free toilets in the carpark but these are not as pleasant as the ones in the visitor center.  Note that the causeway itself is entirely free.
Important note on Admission and parking:  The National Trust operate the Causeway and charge per adult using the facilities. Visitor center and admission is charged together. This means that if you drive to the visitor center carpark you will be charged 10.50£ /adult for parking and entry to the visitor center.
But be aware that admission to the Causeway itself is totally free. You can either park at the railway carpark (6£/day) or park in the nearby town of  Bushmills and get a bus to and from  the Causeway.
For families, I’m going to recommend that unless you are very cost conscious,  that you go ahead and pay for parking and admittance to the visitor center. It is a much more pleasant experience to enjoy the cliffs at your leisure and have access to the visitor center afterwards for bathroom facilities, coffee and, of course, education !.  Family tickets are available for 22.50£.
If you area  party of adults and are not interested in the visitor center then it makes sense to park for 6£ in the railway park, use the toilet facilities in the nearby hotel and walk to the causeway.
Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Belfast and Derry. From Dublin travel time is over three hours each way so you will be on the bus for much of the day. From Belfast or Derry, I would argue that the Causeway is an absolute must.

 

Cliffs Of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most visited tourist sites and easily the most visited attraction outside of Dublin. The cliffs themselves rise up to 214 metres above sea level and the sheer vertical descent makes for wonderful, dramatic views. On a clear day one can see the Aaran islands in Galway bay as well as great views of the surrounding ocean and countrywide. They are located on the West Coast of Ireland in the county of Clare and are accessible via day trips from Dublin, Galway or the nearby village of Doolin.

There is a wonderful visitor center that is a beautifully constructed, hobbit like, construction that is built into the hill adjacent to the cliffs. It was opened in 2007 and features geo-thermal heating, solar panels and grey water recycling. Here you will find the Atlantic Edge exhibition which contains a wealth of information about the local geology, coffee shops and shops. Admittance is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking. If you travel by private coach, the admittance fee will usually be covered also.

Cliff walk. There are 20 km. of cliff walks running from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher and down to Liscannor. The stretch from the visitor center to Hags head is about 5km and is doable within an hour and a half, or up to three hours there and back. I’m going to suggest that if you are relatively fit and able this will add immeasurably to your experience of the cliffs. Driving the coast of Ireland is a beautiful experience but to get off-road and feel the elements in your hair and face is a refreshing and bracing experience.  The cliffs are, of course, a major tourist attraction, so the walk will also enable you to escape from the hoardes and have some quiet time with nature in all its splendour. Please be mindful of weather conditions and note that the route is not advisable for children U12. See https://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/plan-your-visit/beyond-the-cliffs/  for more information on these walks.

A note on the weather: The West coast of Ireland has a notoriously changeable climate and it is often foggy or even raining at the cliffs. That too is nature in all its glory ! One can only enjoy the weather one gets. The surly drama of an Atlantic rain storm or watching the fog and mist roll gently up over the cliffs is all part of life here too.

The cliffs are a beautiful, scenic and iconic part of Ireland’s coast but to be honest, much  of Ireland’s West Coast features similar scenic beauty, much of it as breathtaking as the iconic cliffs. So is it worth the trip ?

If you are staying in the vicinity of Galway or Clare then a visit to the cliffs is relatively easy proposition. From Galway the Cliffs are an hour and a half drive but the drive itself is worth the trip as you travel down the coast enjoying wonderful views of Galway Bay,  and drive through the pretty towns of Kinvarra and Doolin. These towns are also well worth stopping in with a pleasant tourist oriented atmosphere in summer and a more local, but always welcoming, feel outside of the tourist season.

From Dublin, the drive to the cliffs is three to three and a half hours across the midlands of Ireland so you won’t enjoy much coastal scenery on route. Of course, if your trip is entirely city based then it can make a welcome break from the city but you do need to ask if it is worth the drive. If you want to get out into nature for a day then I would suggest exploring the possibility of visiting Glendalough or Powerscourt  in Wicklow which are within an hour of Dublin. It is not the Atlantic coast but has its own special magic and you will be able to take more time there because it is nearer. If you are intent on visiting the cliffs, then why not spend a night on the West coast. It will make the whole experience more relaxing and you will have more time to savour rural Ireland.

A note on admission: The cliffs themselves are free but you pay for parking and/or entrance to the visitor center.

Visitor Center Admission: 6Euro/adult, 4.50 Euro Seniors and students, U-16 -free

Getting There:

Driving:

If you are driving, you can park in the car park adjacent to the visitor center. Cost of admittance to the visitor center is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking.

Public Bus:

From Galway or Doolin the 350 bus will get you there and back with plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs. Check out http://www.buseireann.ie/news.php?id=1490&month=May for information.

Cost – 20 Euro approx. return.

Private Coach tours:

Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Galway and Doolin