The Saltee Islands

Back when I started this blog three years ago, the Saltee Islands was one of the places I was really excited to see.  However, due to its distance from other sites I was interested in and the potential difficulties in reaching it, I quickly cut it from our planned 2016 itinerary.  But it’s still an interesting place worth considering, especially if your travels take you to the region.

The Saltee Islands, both Greater and Little, are located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) off Wexford’s coast and are best known for their resident sea bird populations.  Like the Cliffs of Moher, they provide ideal nesting habitat for over 200 species, including gannets, manx shearwaters, and puffins.  The Greater Saltee was also home to a bird observatory from 1950-63, allowing ornithologists to gain valuable information about Ireland’s migratory seabirds.

But seabirds aren’t the only sight found here.  The island serves as one of only a few breeding sites for grey seals in Ireland, with up to 20 pups born each year.  Visitors can also catch glimpses of whales and other marine life in the waters around the island, making it an interesting stop for nature lovers of all ages.  And with traces of forts and other structures from its thousands of years of human activity, there’s something to see for just about everyone.

The main reason I’m hesitant to plan on seeing the Saltee Islands is simply the task of getting there.  Although the visitor’s information page says nothing about a charge to step foot on the island itself, it clearly states trips must be arranged from Kilmore Quay, with no recommendations to contact.  Scrolling through TripAdvisor leads me to believe many people wait until they’re in Kilmore to charter a boat, though several people recommended Declan Bates, the only person I’ve found a definitive price for who will take you directly to the island.  The cost is 30 per person, and it’s best to remember there aren’t toilets or man made shelters on the island, so the four hour stay on the island can be unpleasant if the weather turns bad.

Alternatively, I did find one charter tour that loops around the islands for 20 per adult and 10 per child, with whale watching trips also available.


Additional Links & Resources:

Delan Bates – Boating Charter information

Discover Ireland:  Saltee Islands

The Golden Book:  Ireland, page 47

Kilmore Quay Angling Charter “Karen Ann” – Saltee Islands

The Saltee Islands official website

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Kylemore Abbey

Kylemore Abbey is another one of those places we visited in 2011 that, if given the chance, I’d definitely see it again. We only saw half of the grounds due to time constraints, something I feel is a true shame and one of the biggest drawbacks of traveling with a tour group.  But if that other half is as beautiful as the part we did see, it’s definitely worth a second look.

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Our first view of the abbey, back in 2011.

Though currently home to Ireland’s oldest community of Benedictine nuns, Kylemore’s history extends farther back than their arrival in 1920.  The abbey’s construction began in 1867 by Mitchell Henry as a gift for his wife, Margaret.  The couple had visited the region on vacation in previous years and fell in love with Connemara’s rugged beauty.  At that point in its history, the abbey was considered a small “castle” and used to showcase how the land could be made to flourish.

As part of this effort, Mitchell had a 6 acre walled garden built a mile west of the castle.  The garden was one of the last Victorian walled gardens built in Ireland, and the only one located in a bog, but through ingenuity, it flourished.  Twenty one glass houses grew exotic fruits and vegetables, and were heated by boilers and a network of underground pipes.  Today, the garden still grows the same kind of plants and vegetables that the Henrys would have planted, though this is only due to great restoration efforts in the past 20 years.

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A sketch of the garden grounds.  Image Credit:  Connemara.net

Sadly, Mitchell and Margaret only shared Kylemore for a short time.  The Henrys vacationed in Egypt in 1874 – just a few years after the castle was finished.  Margaret fell ill while in Egypt, and after two weeks, passed away.  Her body was embalmed in Cairo before being transported back to Kylemore, where Mitchell constructed a stone mausoleum for her.

Four years later, he began construction on one last building in Margaret’s honor, a small Gothic church farther down a woodland path.  Though the chapel included burial vaults, for unknown reasons Margaret’s body was never interred there.  Both she and Mitchell remain buried in the modest mausoleum, tucked between the castle and chapel along the trail.

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The Gothic church.

With so much to see in a short amount of time, our tour guide made it clear from the start that we wouldn’t be able to see both the gardens and the abbey itself.  While a large chunk of our tour group went to see the gardens, my family and I chose to explore the abbey itself, then walk along the lakeshore to the mausoleum and small gothic church.

Connemara is another one of those regions that makes my heart soar, awash in awe over the mountains’ brilliance all around.  But walking through Connemara feels different than through the Ring of Kerry – the land has a different character to it, a different level of severity.  In places like Kylemore’s lakeside trail, you can get a good taste of that difference as you look out at the mountains reflected off the water.  For me, those moments brought peace, and quickly it didn’t matter what we were walking to see – I just wanted to take in the journey, and isn’t the goal of every traveler to reach that point?

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Looking out at the lake while walking back from the church.

Honestly, I’d say that’s Kylemore’s greatest strength – its natural beauty.  Sitting here nearly six years later, my clearest memories aren’t of the artifacts on display within the abbey, but the views around it.  The way the soft breezes came off the lake, adding a comfortable chill to the air while walking from place to place.  The architecture, though gorgeous in its own right, simply can’t compare to the picturesque landscape.  And when you set the two together, man’s creation nestled in nature?  Then a special kind of magic happens.

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The view from in front of the abbey.


Kylemore Abbey and its grounds are open year round from 9:00am to 5:00pm.  Tickets are reasonable, starting at €13 for adults and €10 for seniors.  Tickets for students and children ages 11-17 both cost €9.  Children 10 and under are free.


Additional Links & Resources:

Connemara.net:  Kylemore Abbey

The Golden Book:  Ireland, page 90

Heritage Ireland:  Kylemore Abbey

Ireland.com:  Kylemore Abbey

Kylemore Abbey official website

Fourknocks Megalithic Tomb

Amongst the various megaliths we’d plan to see on our trip in 2016, Fourknocks was probably one of the most remote.  Since its tucked away in the Boyne Valley region like Loughcrew, it made sense to see both at the same time.  However, with GPS difficulties rearing its ugly head again, our plans were quickly dashed and we gave up, ready to reach our bed and breakfast in Kells.

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Aerial view of Fourknocks.  Image Credit:  Knowth.com

Dating back around 5,000 years, Fourknocks (from Fuair Cnocs, or “”Cold Hills”) is another example of a cruciform passage tomb with its short entry passage, big central chamber, and three smaller side chambers.  At 42 square meters (around 452 square feet), its central chamber is more than double the one found at Newgrange, and it’s probably for this reason the original tomb lacked the roof seen today.  Its believed that, if anything, Fourknocks had a wooden roof supported by a central pole.

The National Museum excavated the site from 1950-1952 and found numerous human remains of all ages and sexes.  Grave offerings were also found, and are now in the side chambers, and are now on display at the National Museum.  After the excavation was complete, the dig team created the current roof from concrete.  Some holes were left to allow sunlight to filter through, illuminating the different carved designs.

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Carving believed to be the first depiction of a human face in prehistoric Irish art.  Image credit:  Megalithic Ireland.

Fourknocks is only 10 miles southeast of Newgrange, and the two sites are actually in alignment with each other. But unlike Newgrange, Fourknocks is not illuminated during the winter solstice; though in line with the sun’s path, it’s too far north for any light to enter its chamber.   The site did once align with an astrological feature however.  Astronomers know that, when Fourknocks was built, Cassiopeia’s “W” shape would have been in perfect alignment with the four mounds.  It’s been suggested this is why a “W” motif commonly appears in the site’s carved stones, and that perhaps the roofless design was intentional for stargazing.

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Lintel stone with “W” motif.  Image Credit:  Megalithic Ireland.

Directions to the site can be very complicated, especially since signs telling you where you are aren’t very common.  But if you can find it, Fourknocks is said to be a wonderful, secluded site.  The mound is on private property, so visitors need to stop by Mr. Fintan White’s house roughly 800 meters away from the tomb to get a key.  He asks for a 20 euro deposit, to ensure you’ll bring the key back before 6pm, and his phone number is easily found across various websites.  Perhaps I’d written the number down while preparing for our trip, but I was unable to reach him.  If you do try calling him, I wish you better luck!  The number is 353 (0) 1 8354722.

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Front view of the main mound.  Image Credit:  Knowth.com

I definitely still would love to see Fourknocks someday, though I’m a bit wary of trying to find it on my own after our experience.  Since coming back to the States, I have found private tours of the site, including other Boyne highlights, exist.  But the price is steep – €380 after a direct booking discount, for 1-3 people through Boyne Valley Tours.  Mythical Ireland offers tours as well, though they do not quote a price on their website.

Still, it might be worth considering, depending on what other sites could be combined with Fourknocks for this personalized tour.  Avoiding the nerve-wracking hunt for the site would definitely be a nice refresher!


Have you been to Fourknocks?  If so, what do you think, and do you have any tips for someone like myself who had difficulty finding the site?


Additional Links & Resources:

Boyne Valley Tours: Fourknocks

Directions to Fourknocks

Knowth.com – Fourknocks

Meath Tourism

Megalithic Ireland

Mythical Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway

As I mentioned in my last post, my family and I went to the Giant’s Causeway with our tour group back in 2011.  As was the case at Dunluce Castle, the views of Antrim’s rugged coastline were spectacular, though because of the Causeway’s nature, we were able to get a lot closer to the water’s edge.

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The Giant’s Causeway is a modern day UNESCO World Heritage site, but its natural beauty has drawn in visitors for centuries.  Its iconic hexagonal basalt stacks were formed by rapidly cooling lava 60 million years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the human imagination from coming up with other theories for their existence.  Some of the first visitors believed it had to be the work of men armed with picks and chisels or even Finn McCool, giant and hero of the Fenian Myth Cycle.

Finn McCool is described in many different myths, but one of the first I heard was of his role in the Giant’s Causeway’s creation.  The story goes that Finn and the Scottish giant Benadonner hated one another, and after another day of exchanging insults, Finn tore up chunks of land to build a stepping stone path to reach Benadonner.  The latter quickly destroyed the path, separating the two countries once more and creating what we know today as the Giant’s Causeway.  Interestingly enough, the same basalt pillars can be seen in Scotland, too, on the Isle of Staffa.

Finn’s folkloric touch on the landscape can be seen in the names of different formations too, from the Giant’s Boot to the Wishing Chair, and the story of his fight with Benadonner is commemorated with a sign post at the main site.

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Of course, the Causeway also holds a special place in my heart due to a friendly argument my eldest sister and I still bring up every once in a while – whether or not to walk on the black rocks.

When our tour group arrived at the Causeway, we dispersed quickly.  I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but my sister and niece ended up well ahead of our parents and me, while the three of us took our time and kept pace with a few other people, taking in the sights and reading over the travel brochure.  The brochure mainly served as a map, for anyone interested in pushing past the main site, but it also offered a warning – don’t walk on the slick black rocks, closest to the water’s edge.  Signs along the path reiterated this – walking on the black rocks made it easy to slip and fall, possibly into the ocean’s hard surf.

Then one of the people in our makeshift group noticed two small pink dots, way off in the distance, right on the black rocks.

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Guess who?

We jokingly pretended we didn’t know who those people could possibly be, though we knew right away from the raincoats it was my sister and niece.  And soon enough they wandered back our way, joining us up on the path to the main site with a laugh about not seeing any signs warning about the black rocks, insisting the warnings just weren’t there.

Even with the warnings though, it ended up being perfectly fine to walk on the black rocks when we were at the Causeway.  The sea wasn’t as rough as it could have been, and we were careful to watch our step whenever we did wander closer to the water’s edge.  But it’s still a fun joke to bring up every now and then when we look back on the trip, especially since she still insists there were no signs.

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Our time at the Giant’s Causeway felt all too short.  We only had a few hours to explore and eat before getting back on the road, so we were confined to the main spread.  Even then, I would have loved to spend more time walking along the stacks, just reveling in what nature can do.

My mom and I both want to visit Scotland someday, to see the Scottish side of the Causeway at the very least.  By the sounds of it, if we went, we’d be in for a very different experience…

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Isle of Staffa.  Image Credit:  The National Trust for Scotland.


The Causeway itself is open from dawn to dusk daily and is free to visit on foot.  However, if you wish to visit any of the facilities or park at the center, you will be charged an admission fee.  This fee is £9 for adults and £4.50 for children, but discounts are available by either booking in advance or arriving by public transit.  The visitor center itself opens at 9:00 am, with closing times varying by season.

A shuttle bus is also available on site, making runs between the main site and the visitor center.  I personally recommend walking at least one way of the trip, both to enjoy a slower pace and to cut down on costs – it’s £1 per adult and 50 pence per child, each way.


Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland: Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway official guide

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 105-107

Ireland.com:  The Giant’s Causeway

Ireland Legends & Folklore, pages 34-35

The National Trust:  Giant’s Causeway

The National Trust for Scotland:  Staffa National Nature Reserve

Visit Scotland:  Isle of Staffa

Dunluce Castle

After getting helplessly lost while leaving Sligo, my mother and I were quite eager to get back to sight seeing.  Thankfully, our bed and breakfast in Portrush wasn’t too far away from our first site of the day, Dunluce Castle.  After a mere 15 minute drive down a road hugging Antrim’s beautiful coastline, we reached the castle before the large tour groups had begun to arrive.

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Perched on one of Antrim’s cliffs, the castle has a very iconic look and has been called one of Ireland’s most romantic castles.  Parts of the castle were first built in the 1200s, but most of what remains today is much more recent – major additions were made through the 1600s.  But by the mid 1600s, the castle was abandoned by its last resident, the second Earl of Antrim, Randall McDonnell.  Story has it that in 1639, part of the kitchen fell into the sea during a storm, taking part of the kitchen staff along with it and prompting the Earl and his family to move first to Ballymagarry, then to Glenarm Castle when it was rebuilt in 1756.

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Our time at Dunluce stood out most for its beautiful views of the ocean and Antrim coastline.  Since we arrived at the very start of the tourist season, the visitor’s center hadn’t gotten any postcards or brochures in yet, leaving us with little to go on aside from signs posted around the site.  I had downloaded a companion app for the site, but we found it more enjoyable just to take in the rugged beauty of the place and wander where we will rather than follow a structured tour path.

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With a clear sky above and cool breezes coming in off the ocean, it was the perfect way to start another long day.  And though it was one of the busier sites we went to, it was easy to lose ourselves in both the moment and memories of our previous trip.  We’d seen a different part of Antrim then, with no idea how close we’d been to the castle – merely 15 minutes away, at the Giant’s Causeway.

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Looking from the castle toward Portrush, where we’d spent the previous night.

Both sites are truly fantastic, and I highly recommend seeing them at the same time, if you can.  Along with the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the Dark Hedges farther inland, they make a fairly nice cluster of sites that give a good sense of Antrim’s beauty.  But as a word of warning, plan on dedicating a full day to see them all – it’s a long drive back to the Republic.  My mother and I learned that the hard way.


Dunluce Castle is open daily from 10:00am onward, with closing hours varying from season to season.  Admission is £5 for adults and £3 for seniors and children.  The site also has a small tea room with bathrooms and souvenirs different than what you can find in the true visitor’s center.


Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland:  Dunluce Castle

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 107, 109

Parks & Gardens UK:  Dunluce Castle

The Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are probably one of Ireland’s most iconic sites and a true natural wonder.  With evidence of human activity stretching back at least two thousand years and the recognizable backdrop appearing in films such as The Princess Bride and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, it’s easy to see why this landmark’s a must see for anyone exploring Ireland’s County Clare.

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North branch of the Cliffs, August 2011.

At their highest point, the Cliffs reach 214 meters (702 feet) before plunging straight down to the Atlantic Ocean.  But as one would expect from a signature point along the Wild Atlantic Way, the Cliffs are in a constant state of change – constant waves erode the mix of sandstone, siltstone, and shale at the Cliff’s base, causing higher levels to crumble and fall away.  For this reason, the very edge of the Cliffs is considered a protected area, and stone barriers have been erected to help prevent visitors from venturing too close to the edge.

The Cliffs are also home to mainland Ireland’s largest seabird colony, attracting thousands of pairs of breeding seabirds representing more than 20 species during the summer months.  Many of the seabirds have declining populations worldwide, further prompting sections of the Cliffs to be designated a protected area.  A worn footpath does extend past the barriers into this protective area, and visitors can cross over the barrier to reach it with little difficulty, but doing so is generally discouraged for both safety and conservation reason.

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The Cliff’s edge.  The dirt path on the left side of the shot is what we were walking on once past the barrier.

On the southern branch of the Cliffs, O’Brien’s Tower serves as a viewing platform.  Built in 1835 by Cornelius O’Brien in the hopes of bringing tourism to the area, the tower offers one of the best views of the Cliff’s northern branch, and on clear days, allows visitors to see as far as Connemara to the north and county Kerry to the south.

Hag’s Head, the Cliff’s southernmost point, is also visible from the tower, as is Moher Tower, built where a 1st century BC fort once stood.  It’s from this fort the Cliffs get their name – “mothar” means “ruined fort” in old Irish.

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View of O’Brien’s Tower from the Cliff’s Northern branch.

The hours my family spent at the Cliffs back in 2011 was definitely a highlight of our trip, even if the second half of our walk was nerve wracking for me.  I’m afraid of heights and prone to moments of vertigo, so when my family followed other tourists past the walled region of the cliffs to the protected area, I was a bit uneasy.

We didn’t push too far into the protected area, mainly due to time constraints, so I can only imagine what the views would have been like from farther out.  No matter how far we walked, the Cliffs stretched on and on, remaining hazy in the distance even though my telephoto lens.  And looking out at the Atlantic Ocean with its strong breezes, the Aran Islands clearly visible in the fair weather…  It’s a treat a landlocked midwesterner such as myself holds close to their heart, even long after the moment’s passed.

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Looking out at the Aran Islands from the Cliff’s North branch.

Admission to the Cliffs of Moher and visitor center is 6 for adults, but free for those under 16.  It’s an additional 2 for adults and 1 for children to visit O’Brien’s Tower on the south side of the cliff range.  The site is open year round from 9:00 am onward, with hours extending to 9:00 pm during July and August.


Additional Links & Resources:

Cliffs of Moher official site

Discovering Ireland:  The Cliffs of Moher

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 80-81

Ireland.com:  Wild Atlantic Way

The Wild Atlantic Way

Mountains of Mourne

But for all his great powers he’s wishful like me / To be back where the dark Mournes sweep down to the sea…”

Sometime before my first trip to Ireland back in 2011, I remember stumbling upon Celtic Thunder’s version of “Mountains of Mourne.”  Like many other songs, the words captured my imagination and even inspired my senior quote in high school.  I became overjoyed, then, when our tour guide told us we’d skirt them on our way south from Belfast, quoting the song with a grin in my direction.

Unfortunately, we did exactly that – we skirted the mountains, avoiding the more scenic routes in order to make good time.  So when my mother and I visited again this summer, we made a point to see the Mournes up close.

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Situated in County Down, the granite mountain range provides beautiful views of both the sea and forest protected by The National Trust.  Many hiking trails exist, some gentle enough for a relaxed afternoon stroll versus a more grueling endeavor.  Its tallest peak, Slieve Donard, stands at 850 meters (2,789 feet), making it the tallest point in Northern Ireland and the 19th highest peak on the island.

The Mournes have also served as inspiration for writers for centuries, ranging from Percy French’s song to the well known Narnia series by CS Lewis.

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With time getting away from my mother and me on our second visit, we ended up taking the costal route rather than a road through the mountains themselves.  Shortly after leaving Ballynoe for our bed and breakfast in Carlingford, we found ourselves sandwiched between the Irish Sea to the left and the mountains to the right.  Even when the sea gave way to Carlingford Lough, the mountains remained, dominating the landscape as we drove around their base.

And looking across the lough, at the southern arm of the mountain range, it was impossible to conjure any description better than that first penned so many years ago. 

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Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland

Down District Council:  Scenic Drives

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 123-124

Ireland.com:  The Mourne Mountains