The 3500km (2200 miles) of Ireland’s coastline embrace a remarkable diversity of scenery and conditions from long, gently sloping strands (beaches) and rocky sea cliffs and headlands to raised bogs, outstanding mountains, attractive villages and towns, prehistoric and religious sites – and a laid-back approach to life that is without equal. The shape and comparatively small size of Ireland means that nowhere is very far from the sea. But beware, many of Ireland’s roads are narrow, and the through routes are heavily used.
Resorts and beaches in Ireland are uncrowded, and the tourism infrastructure is underpinned by a network of more than 50 tourist information offices offering help, advice, accommodation and suggestions on all aspects of travel. Most tourist offices are open Mon-Fri 0900-1800, closing on Saturday at 1300, but times vary, with offices at seaports and airports generally open longer during the summer months.
In this review, the country has been divided into six arbitrary regions embracing a number of counties within each:
Dublin and the East Coast: Counties Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow.
The southeast: Counties Waterford, Wexford, Tipperary and Kilkenny.
The Midlands: Counties Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly and Laios.
The southwest: Counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick.
The west: Counties Clare, Galway, Roscommon and Mayo.
The northwest: Counties Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal.
Dublin and the East Coast
The capital city of Ireland sprawls across the Liffey valley, reaching in a great sweep from the headlands of Howth in the north to Dalkey. Dublin is a complex city of almost dual personality, divided by the Liffey into the heavily populated north and more genteel south. This is a city with a quirky sense of humor, ideal to explore on foot. The historic heart of the city lies south of the Liffey, unaltered in appearance since Georgian times, though the last decade of the 20th century saw major urban regeneration that makes the place buzz with excitement, especially around Temple Bar. This upbeat part of the city got its name from Sir William Temple, the Provost of Trinity College. Today, the area boasts fashionable pubs, good places to eat, discos and inordinate joie de vivre. Founded during the reign of Elizabeth I, Trinity College, the city’s most famous landmark, was a symbol of English dominance to which, until 1873, admission was restricted to Protestants. Many of the college’s students have achieved a measure of fame, notably Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett and Jonathan Swift. The Old Library houses a number of important manuscripts in its Treasury, among which the Book of Kells is the best known. West of Trinity College stands Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule in Ireland, and worth a visit for its beautiful state apartments. On the corner of Suffolk Street and the popular shopping area, Grafton Street, stands the statue of Molly Malone, the Dublin beauty. Merrion Square is the city’s most elegant place, lined with classical Georgian houses with stunning doorways, canopies and fanlights. Oscar Wilde lived at 1 Merrion Square, Daniel O’Connell at 58, with WB Yeats only a few doors higher, at 82. St Stephen’s Green is an important 24.8 acre (10 hectare) open space, popular with office workers and a delightful place to soak up the atmosphere. The National Gallery houses one of the finest collections in Europe, and includes works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Hogarth.
When the Normans invaded Dublin, in the process they forced the Vikings to the lands north of the Liffey, where they established Oxmanstown. The south continued to prosper, but the northern part of the city only became urbanized in the 18th century. Today, this is a less well-known area of busy pedestrianized streets, shopping centers and the popular Moore Street Market. In the 18th century, O’Connell Street was known as Gardener’s Mall, a fashionable area, renamed in honor of Daniel O’Connell. Worth seeking out here are the National Wax Museum at the corner of Dorset Street and Granby Row, and the James Joyce Center in North Great George’s Street.
To the northwest, Phoenix Park is the largest city park in Europe, and a good place to watch the city going about its business. Dublin Zoo is in the southeast corner of the park.
Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dun Leery) has attractive Victorian buildings, castles and a fine seafront. The James Joyce Tower and Museum, at Sandycove, is housed in a Martello Tower built in the early 1800s. Many personal effects of James Joyce are gathered here, including a first edition of Ulysses. Three castles at Dalkey survive from the 15th and 16th centuries: Bullock Castle (not open to the public), Archbold’s Castle, now the town hall, and Goat Castle, housing the Dalkey Heritage Center. Malahide Castle, north of the city, was built in the 12th century and houses some lovely furniture and a portrait gallery with paintings by Irish and British artists. Castletown House, west of Dublin is a stunning Palladian building, among the best in Europe. It was built for the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, William Connolly, who contrived to become the richest man in Ireland.
Counties Louth and Meath
These two counties have much in common: outstanding Neolithic, Celtic and early-Christian history; extensive settlement by Normans; and a wealth of castles, monasteries, and rich farmland. They also share the River Boyne; wide, gentle and very beautiful, and famous for the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when James II sought to regain the English throne, but was outmaneuvered by William of Orange.
Astride the Boyne, Drogheda, the harbor town of Co Louth, holds an important place in the history of medieval Ireland. It was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in 1649, who massacred or transported most of the inhabitants. Today, it is a useful center for exploring the Boyne Valley, which fashions a meandering course between Trim and Drogheda, hallmarked by an extensive list of prehistoric sites.
The prehistoric burial sites of Brú na Bóinne, west of Drogheda, number more than 40 and predate the pyramids. Among these, Newgrange is western Europe’s most outstanding chambered tomb, built around 5000 years ago. Monasterboice was formerly a sixth-century monastery; in the cemetery stand three of the finest High Crosses in the country.
Dundalk is an industrial, harbor township, founded in the 12th century but largely rebuilt during Georgian times. Bordering Northern Ireland, the Cooley Peninsula forms a huge upland covered by heather, megaliths and pine plantations. The best way to see the peninsula is on foot, following parts of the Táin Way, a circular walk from Carlingford and Omeath.
Famed for its oysters, Carlingford looks across the lough to the Mourne Mountains. Historical links are found in King John’s Castle, a small stronghold overlooking the sea, and Taaffe’s Castle, one of many fortified residences in the area dating from the 16th century.
Bounded by the Liffey and the Wicklow Mountains, County Kildare lies between the built-up area around Dublin and the boglands of The Midlands. The county has an enviable reputation, founded on the luxuriant turf of the Curragh, for the breeding and exercising of thoroughbred horses.
Kildare Town is built around St Brigid’s Cathedral, which contains a number of Renaissance tombs and a splendid timber roof shaped like the hull of a ship. Close by is the round tower, the only one in Ireland to have an external staircase.
Peatland World, at Lullymore, 25km (15 miles) north of Kildare, tells all there is to know about peat. The National Stud at Tully, just outside Kildare Town, was started by Colonel Hall-Walker (to become Lord Wavertree), and its importance in the racing world is immense; open for guided tours, it includes a Horse Museum.
Naas (pronounced Nace) is a small industrial town on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains. Once the seat of the kings of the Province of Leinster, Naas was the heart of the ancient Irish kingdom of Ui Dunlainge. Today, it is a good shopping center, and very much a hunting and horseracing locality.
On the banks of the huge Poulaphouca Reservoir, 20km (12.5 miles) southeast of Naas, Russborough House is a stunningly elegant Palladian mansion begun in 1741, built in Wicklow granite. On show here are works of art by European masters like Murillo, Poussin, Reynolds and Rubens.
The beauty of Wicklow is renowned far and wide. This land of mountains, forests, waterfalls and lakes takes its name from the tiny county town and the adjacent mountain range. Wicklow lies sandwiched between the heavily urban areas of Dublin and Wexford, and has the Irish Sea to the east. For centuries, the county was a stronghold of Celtic Christianity, with a focal point around Glendalough.
At the northern end of the county, Bray is a lively seaside resort with an air of Victorian charm, now rather faded and heavily reliant on daytrippers from Dublin. A fine beach, backed by amusement arcades and the National Sea-Life Center, continues to make Bray popular. Killruddery House Gardens, offer splendid formal gardens, lakes and canals. Glencormac Gardens, southwest of Bray, were created by James Jameson of the famous distilling family. The fine 18th-century house at Powerscourt, west of Bray, is hugely popular, as are its formal gardens. A pleasant footpath leads to the Powerscourt Waterfall, the highest falls in Ireland, formed by the Dargle River which drops over cliffs 122m (400ft) high.
The county town of Wicklow is a delightfully sleepy place bordering a shingle bay. The main attraction in the town is the Wicklow Historic Gaol, which recounts the grim events and unsavory personalities of Irish history. The luxurious displays of Mount Usher Gardens were set up in the 1860s by a Dublin linen manufacturer, Edward Walpole, and are a plant-lover’s paradise. Glendalough, the glen of the two lakes, is a place of holiness among the hills and a place of pilgrimage, where St Kevin founded a monastery in AD 570. The tall round tower is a familiar landmark, variously used as a look-out post, a grain store and a belfry. The cathedral is now in ruins, but is no less evocative for that. Down towards the river is St Kevin’s Church, a modest building with a chimney-shaped belfry. The little village of Avoca achieved fame as Ballykissangel in the television drama of that name.
Lying in the southeast corner of Ireland, Co Wexford has an enviable sunshine record, beautiful countryside and a string of delightful harbor towns and sandy beaches. The climate is milder than elsewhere and produces a number of stunning gardens, open to the public by arrangement.
Built close to the mouth of the River Slaney, Wexford is a busy commercial and fishing town named by Vikings. Shops, pubs and an atmospheric charm make Wexford an appealing place to visit; that and its internationally renowned week-long Opera Festival, held in October.
The Irish National Heritage Park at Ferrycarrig, northwest of Wexford comprises 17 sites linking Ireland’s history from prehistoric times to medieval. The mudflats of the Slaney Estuary (known as ‘slobs’) make up the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, at its best between October and April when wildfowl are here. Kilmore Quay is an attractive fishing village with fine sandy beaches, thatched cottages, pubs and a maritime museum. A short distance offshore, the uninhabited Saltee Islands, one of Ireland’s most important bird sanctuaries, are worth visiting. More easily accessed from Waterford, there is a beautiful drive down from Arthurstown to Hook Head Peninsula, which boasts many lovely sandy beaches and clifftops that are ideal for walking, cycling and horse riding.
Surrounded by farmland and stretched out along the River Slaney, Enniscorthy’s moment of fame arrived in 1798 in the form of the Battle of Vinegar Hill, when the United Irishmen made their last stand against the British. The thriving market town, by far the most attractive in Co Wexford, was established by the Normans – it is still dominated by the Norman castle and the much later St Aidan’s Cathedral. The castle houses the Wexford County Museum.
Well inland for an old port, New Ross, perched along the River Barrow, was the original family base of the American Kennedy family and remains devoted to the US President. The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Park and Arboretum, south of New Ross, is dedicated to his memory and was opened in 1968 and is a popular place for easy walks. Kilmokea Gardens are arguably the most beautiful gardens in the southeast of Ireland, and not to be missed.
Bordered by the sea and divided by two upland ranges – the Comeragh and the Monavullagh – Waterford has both rugged beauty and an attractive coastline of fishing villages, holidays resorts and beaches.
Tightly compressed into a curve of the River Suir, Waterford was founded by Vikings in order to control shipping entering the rivers Suir and Barrow. Above the quayside, Reginald’s Tower and Museum, built in 1003, is a forceful reminder of a turbulent past – Waterford was one of the few places to successfully oppose Cromwell’s forces. Organized tours of Waterford Crystal Glass Factory illustrate the comprehensive story of crystal manufacture. Dunmore East, southeast of Waterford, is a charming village close to safe bathing beaches and attractive coves, including Lady Cove, a neat sandy bay popular with local people and tourists. Tramore, south of Waterford is one of Ireland’s main holiday resorts. It has a racecourse, plenty of pubs, a large amusement park, miniature railway, boating lake and a 4.8km- (3 mile-) sandy beach caressed by the Gulf Stream.
The small harbor town of Dungarvan is found where the River Colligan flushes into Dungarvan Harbour. It provides a good base from which to explore the clifftops of Helvick Head. Nearby, Ardmore is renowned for its long, fine beach set against high cliffs and its place in Irish history as an important ecclesiastical site based on a seventh-century monastic settlement founded by St Declan.
The second-smallest of Ireland’s counties, Carlow, sandwiched between the rivers Barrow and Slaney, is mostly flat acres of rich farmland that edge along the base of hill country to the south, east and west. This is an unspoilt part of Ireland, a place of sleepy villages and lush countryside. Carlow Town used to be an Anglo-Norman stronghold, but these days it is largely concerned with the manufacture of sugar beet. It was the southernmost outpost of the area controlled by the English Crown and, as a result, heavily fortified. Carlow County Museum is in the town hall on Centaur Street.
This is a busy agricultural county, a place of lush, well-tended countryside, neat, attractive villages, homely cottages and dramatic castles along the river valleys of the Nore and the Barrow. Fishing, horseracing, riding and golf are the main activities in this manicured landscape.
Kilkenny is named after St Canice, who established a monastery here. Kilkenny Castle continues to dominate the town, a blend of Gothic, Classical and Tudor styles. Built on a hilltop site in the sixth century, St Canice’s Cathedral dates mostly from the 13th century.
Dunmore Cave, north of Kilkenny is one of the most famous in Ireland, notably for its great beauty. In the past, people took refuge here from the Vikings, not always successfully. Kells Priory, south of Kilkenny, the site of an Augustinian priory, is little known in Ireland, but is one of the most beautiful and finest ruins in the country. Jerpoint Abbey, south of Thomastown is a remarkable Cistercian ruin, famed for the carvings on its tombs. It dates from 1158, but was embraced by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
The lack of a coastline does not affect the beauty of this county in any way, as a walk to the top of Slievenamon (the mountain of the fairies), north of Clonmel, will reveal. Northwards, amid farmlands, rises the limestone Rock of Cashel, to the south are the Comeragh Mountains. The countryside of Tipperary is dotted with Norman castles and churches, and Stone and Iron Age sites.
The town of Clonmel sits on the banks of the River Suir, and dates from the 10th century, but there is considerable evidence all around of occupation from prehistoric times. Today, Clonmel is the most important town in the county. The County Museum in Parnell Street has a diverse collection of artifacts, including Roman coins and prehistoric items.
The Comeragh and Knockmealdown mountain ranges are vast uplands of forest and bog, but easy to explore either by car or on foot. Ballymacarbry on the River Nier is also a good base for walking.
Carrick-on-Suir, a thriving market town east of Clonmel is today best known for Sean Kelly the cyclist who had noted success in the Tour de France. Ormond Castle, just outside the town, is a fortified Elizabethan mansion and well worth visiting.
This county lies between Fermanagh to the west and Armagh to the east, and has a delightful landscape of low, rolling hills. Lakes abound too, making this a popular place with coarse fishermen. The central part of the county is hilly but intensively farmed.
Monaghan is a market town, built on a monastic site, with some excellent architecture. The Monaghan County Museum on Market Street contains the Clogher Cross among its treasures, a sample of early Christian metalwork.
Castleblaney lies at the head of Lough Muckno, the county’s largest lake and a source of excellent coarse fishing. Carrickmacross, south of Ballybay, is famed for its handmade lace. To the north stands Mannan Castle, a 12th-century motte and bailey.
Known to anglers as a place of lakes and rivers and the very best in coarse fishing. Non-anglers scarcely know it at all for Cavan is an undiscovered county, peaceful and unspoilt, an attractive countryside dotted with woodlands and folded into wild glens that rise to the summit of Cuilcagh at 665m (2182ft), which it shares with Co Fermanagh.
Cavan, the county town, is uninspiring, but nearby Clough Oughter, a circular tower castle, tells of a time when this was the stronghold of the O’Reillys, the princes of Breffni. A short way out of Cavan, is a group of standing stones, Finn MacCool’s Fingers, said to be the place where the princes were crowned. West of the town, Lough Oughter is the name given to a collection of lakes, part of the River Erne system, and a major coarse fishing area.
Like Co Cavan, Longford holds great appeal for anglers. It sits in the middle of Ireland, and lies in the catchment of the River Shannon. Lakes abound, notably Lough Gowna in the north and Lough Kinale in the east. Today, Co Longford is primarily given to farming. Perched on the River Camlin, Longford Town grew up around a fortress of the O’Farrells. The towers of the Cathedral of St Mel dominate the town. A few miles west, Cloondara is worth a visit: an attractive village on the Royal Canal. During the summer months, Irish music is performed in the teach cheoil (Irish music house). Ballymahon is famed for Oliver Goldsmith, author of She Stoops to Conquer and the classic poem The Deserted Village. He was born at Pallas, a few miles to the east.
This county has an air of quiet beauty, being a place of lakes and wooded countryside, and a huge slice of untamed bogland, producing a unique habitat for flora and fauna. Old-fashioned pubs and ruins dot the landscape, and make Westmeath a fascinating place to explore.
The former garrison town of Mullingar is now an important center for angling and one of the most agreeable market towns in Ireland, with an atmosphere that is lacking in other towns in The Midlands. Hunting, shooting and fishing are the main pursuits here.
In Crookedwood village, at the foot of Lough Derravaragh, stands St Munna’s Church, the stuff of fairytales, complete with 15th-century tower and battlements and a lakeside setting. At Castlepollard are the beautiful grounds of Tullynally Castle, the family seat of the earls of Longford.
Counties Offaly and Laios
Sharing almost the same identity – of remote, unspoilt boglands unaffected by mass tourism – the counties of Offaly and Laios lie at the heart of The Midlands. Co Offaly is bordered to the west by the River Shannon, which offers cruising tours, as does the Grand Canal that runs through the middle of the county. Co Laios (pronounced Leash) is a place of attractive villages with fine houses. Co Offaly shares with Co Laios the beautiful glens of the Slieve Bloom Mountains which, in spite of a low elevation and a distinctly boggy feel about them, nevertheless convey a sense of grandeur and remoteness.
One of Ireland’s most holy places, Clonmacnoise, was founded in AD 548 by St Ciaran at a strategic crossing point of the Shannon. During medieval times, it developed into a great seat of learning, acknowledged by kings.
Using a former trackbed built for the transportation of peat, the Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Railway is the key to the natural history of bogs, as it fashions an 8.8km- (5.5 mile-) course around the Blackwater Bog.
Birr is an attractive town of Georgian streets and buildings. The grounds of Birr Castle are superb, though the castle itself is not open to the public. Here, too, is the Historic Science Center, housing a large reflecting telescope - the largest in the world in its day.
There is little of interest in Portlaiose itself, though there is a defensive fort, the Rock of Dunamase, just outside the town, and a Steam Traction Museum at Stradbally.
Emo Court, west of Kildare, is an elegant neo-Classical building constructed in 1792. Not far from Mountrath is Roundwood House, a lovely Palladian mansion, now a guest house.
This is Ireland’s largest county, combining rich agricultural land, an important sea port, glorious coastal and mountain scenery, gentle bays and romantic castles. Tourism and related activities form a major part of Cork’s economy, but instead of brashness and tackiness, the county has become more discerning and produced a wide range of quality shops, pubs, hotels and restaurants. Although the county extends northwards to Limerick, its most dramatic landscapes are in the southwest, where long fingers of land probe the Atlantic Ocean, making for stunning car tours and breathtaking excursions on foot. Ferries reach out to the offshore Sherkin Island, Bear Island and Cape Clear Island.
The name Corcaigh means ‘swamp’, a reminder that Cork is built on the marshy ground flanking the River Lee. The city is lively, buzzing with industry, academia and, invariably, the sound of impromptu music recitals, making this a delightful place to amble through the streets or sample Irish pub hospitality. The main part of the city is squashed onto an elongated island linked by elegant bridges. The English Market, at the rear of St Patrick Street, is a wacky place to wander around, not dissimilar in atmosphere to the open-air flea market on Cornmarket Street. North of St Patrick lies Paul Street, the trendy part of Cork, a place of pedestrianized streets, buskers and high-quality shops. Other places worth taking in are the tower of St Anne’s Shandon, the Butter Exchange which houses the Shandon Craft Center, Cork City Gaol, Elizabeth Fort (now a Garda station), the Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald Park and St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.
Blarney Castle is renowned far and wide for the Blarney Stone, a kiss on which endows ‘the gift of the gab’. While in Blarney, the Woollen Mills and Blarney House are both worth seeking out.
Cobh (pronounced Cove) is Ireland’s main trans-Atlantic port, grown out of a former fishing village. The town center is dominated by St Colman’s Cathedral. The history of the port and its luxury liners (which included the Titanic) is told in Cobh Heritage Center.
Along the coast
Kinsale, an attractive seaside town at the mouth of Bandon River, has superb restaurants and fine buildings. Each October sees a gourmet festival here. Kilbrittain, Timoleague and Courtmacsherry are all unspoilt in lovely settings around the bay. Clonakilty is famed as a center for Gaelic culture and music. Castletownhead is another charming Georgian village, while nearby Skibbereen is a small market town renowned for its opinionated local newspaper, the Skibbereen Eagle. The isolated fishing village of Baltimore lies at the far end of one of the peninsulas, the place from which to visit the islands. Bantry is ideal for exploring Bantry Bay and the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. Bantry Bay House deserves a quick visit, with its glorious view and some important French tapestries.
The county is blessed with the finest scenery in Ireland, from the tranquil beauty of Killarney Lake to the majestic crags of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the highest mountain in Ireland, Carrantoohill. The Iveragh Peninsula is without equal and is circled by the Ring of Kerry. The Beargha Peninsula is less well known, and relatively unexplored.
Set against a backdrop of mountains, Kenmare is a busy market town at the meeting of three rivers – the Roughty, Finihy and Sheen. The town has craft shops, restaurants, pubs and Kenmare Heritage Center. St Mary’s Holy Well is reputed to have healing properties.
The Ring of Kerry is a stunning, 180km- (112 mile-) scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula, with numerous diversions along coastal roads and out to islands like Skellig Michael. A drive through the hills via Ballaghbearna Gap and the Ballaghisheen Pass, promises rugged landscapes studded with lakes and carved by rivers. The resort town of Killarney spreads itself in the shadow of MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, the finest ridge walk in Ireland. A traverse of the ridge is not for the faint-hearted, nor is the climb to the top of Carrantoohill an easy stroll. The town bustles to the needs of visitors, but its best feature is undoubtedly St Mary’s Cathedral, which boasts an untypically tall spire.
Killarney National Park embraces three lakes all linked by a river. A good starting point is Muckross House and Gardens, a neo-Tudor building with rooms furnished in the Victorian style. Torc Waterfalls are modest, but lie in a beautiful woodland setting. A nearby stairway of over 170 steps climbs to a fine viewpoint. The Dingle Peninsula has lovely beaches and the fine town of Dingle itself, the westernmost town in Europe. It is a slim peninsula with a spectacular coastal road and numerous diversions. Not to be missed is Brandon Mountain and Brandon Bay. Ventry has a lovely white-sand strand, on which legend claims the King of the Other World landed to subjugate Ireland.
It was Edward Lear who popularized the five-line limerick of nonsense verse that is forever associated with this lovely Irish county. Today a farming region, Limerick has hundreds of castle ruins that tell of more troubled times. Astride the River Shannon and fringed by hills and mountains, the county has a long history of monastic settlement.
Limerick stands on both banks of the Shannon and the Abbey River. It is Georgian in character and has a grid pattern of streets. Limerick is still undergoing a renaissance in its culture, music, drama and self-esteem. Mass tourism has yet to discover Limerick, and it remains an agreeable base for exploration. King John’s Castle is a weighty Norman stronghold built on the site of a Viking settlement. The English Town and Irish Town are the more interesting areas to explore. The Hunt Museum in the old custom house is the finest museum outside Dublin, containing artifacts collected by John Hunt, a specialist in Celtic culture.
Adare is picture-postcard country, a place of thatched cottages. Loch Gur, hidden in the hills, is surrounded by archaeological remains - including stone circles and dolmens - and guarded by the remains of two castles. Murroe lies among the foothills of the Slievefelim Mountains. The village is dominated by the Mansion of Glenstal, now a Benedictine monastery. The gardens are especially beautiful in spring and early summer.
More than 2000 stone forts litter the landscape of Co Clare, a county that would be virtually unknown were it not for The Burren, a beautiful limestone district overlooking Galway Bay and formed around an ancient barony of that name. More than three-quarters of the county is fringed by water and the main activities are farming, fishing and tourism.
Ennis sits on a bend in the River Fergus, a place of narrow, winding streets and the ruins of Ennis Friary. The spectacular Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most dramatic sights, extending for 8km (5 miles) and rising to more than 200m (650ft) above the sea, hosting huge colonies of seabirds. The Burren Coast is for those interested in geology and outstanding landscapes. Here, limestone pavements shelter unique flora that develop in their fissures. The Burren Display Center is at Kilfenora.
If one place typifies the visitor’s image of Ireland it is Co Galway, a place of contrasts from prime bogland and rich farming, to mountains, loughs and stone cottages. Long, lonely valleys, sublime hills and vast golden beaches are the hallmarks of the county, which reaches from the banks of the Shannon to the wild region in the west known as Connemara.
Galway stretches along the Corrib River, divided by it into the traditional fisherman’s village of Claddagh and the medieval town of ancient streets and quaysides. This is a bustling, vibrant city and the center of trade for this part of Ireland for centuries. Today, it is one of the fastest developing towns in Europe, with a fascinating blend of modernity and Celtic culture.
The Aran Islands are great swathes of limestone defending the approach to Galway. Legend has it that they were inhabited by a tribe expelled from the mainland, and they certainly have been inhabited for centuries. Clifden lies at the western edge of the beautiful region known as Connemara, a place of bogs, lakes, mountains and moors, and a coastline etched by deep bays and inlets. Letterfrack is a tidy village laid out by Quakers, one of a number of mission settlements along the coast. Connemara National Park Visitor Center is close by.
Green and fertile Roscommon has numerous lakes and rivers, its eastern boundary formed by the Shannon, largely in the shape of Lough Ree. The center of the county is given to sheep and cattle farming, the east and west runs to bogland. There are numerous archaeological sites. Lough Key Forest Park is laid out with trails and gardens.
The small town of Roscommon is dominated by the ruins of its Norman castle. Nearby are the remains of a Dominican Friary. Strokestown Park House is a fine Palladian mansion with original 18th-century furniture.
Land of wide sandy beaches and high mountains, Mayo is a quieter version of Connemara, rising to the sacred mountain of Croagh Patrick, an annual place of pilgrimage. Mayo is one of Ireland’s loveliest counties, extending round Clew Bay to the Corraun Peninsula and Achill Island, and beyond to the windswept corners of the Mullet Peninsula. This northern part of Mayo is virtually unknown.
A delightful little town, Westport contrasts remarkably with the wild countryside all around. Ideal for walkers visiting Croagh Patrick, Westport lounges along the Carrowbeg River, exuding a busy air from the elegance of its Georgian designs. The annual Westport Sea Angling Festival and the Horse Fair are great attractions. The sea angling in Clew Bay is reputedly the finest in Europe.
Achill Island, linked by a bridge, is best explored on foot, from the high cliffs at Achill Head, to the lovely beaches at Keem Strand and Trawmore Strand. The Atlantic Drive is the finest way to view the island by car and begins from the village of Mulrany. Along the north Mayo coast is the archaeological site known as the Céide Fields, supported by an imaginative visitor center that explains the 5000 years of settlement in this part of Ireland.
In the southeast of the county, the small town of Knock has an internationally recognized Marian shrine. Approximately 1.5 million pilgrims visit the shrine annually.
This county owes a good deal of its fame to WB Yeats, the Nobel Prize winner, who used to visit here with his artist brother, Jack. Crannogs (lake dwellings) were once a common feature here, and their remains can still be found.
The town of Sligo grew in prosperity, trading on beer, spirits, rope and linen, and was one of the main ports sailing to the USA. This is the largest town in northwest Ireland, built around bridges spanning the River Garavogue. Sligo Abbey is a ruined Dominican priory, founded in 1252, but destroyed by Cromwell’s forces; it is the town’s oldest building. The Municipal Art Gallery and Sligo County Museum have a good deal about the Yeats brothers. Doorly Park and Sligo Racecourse have some lovely walks.
Carrowmore is an important prehistoric site with a vast number of stone circles and dolmens. The Arigna Scenic Drive gives good views of Lough Key. Benbulben is a distinctive mountain to the north of Sligo; the climb is steep but not especially demanding, and the view worth the effort.
The county of Leitrim is a perfect place for a peaceful holiday; with its foothold on the Atlantic coast, and forming a long and narrow county divided by hills and rivers, and the beauty of Lough Allen. The main pursuit here is angling, though walkers will find solitude among the Manorhamilton Hills.
To the south of the county, Carrick-on-Shannon was always an important crossroads and meeting place. Today, it is the center of river cruising on the Shannon, and heavily geared up to all aquatic pursuits, with over 40 lakes where fishing is unrestricted. Costelloe Memorial Chapel claims to be the second-smallest chapel in the world.
All Ireland is represented in Donegal, from the heather moors, mountains and bogs of the Gaeltacht in the west, to the rich farmlands and towns of the east. Taking the full force of Atlantic gales, much of Donegal’s beauty is fashioned by the sea. The coastal cliffs around Slieve League are stunning as is the great arc of Donegal Bay. But the county is primarily one of rocky landscapes and hauntingly beautiful moorlands.
Donegal has an air of charm about it, in spite of being busy and often crowded. Donegal Castle was once the stronghold of the O’Donnells.
St John’s Point sticks out on a limb; Slieve League is outstanding, from the cliffs of Bunglass to the glorious sands of Silver Strand. Glencolumbkille is named after St Columba, who founded a monastery here. The Northern Peninsulas and their islands are a world apart, stretching northwards from The Rosses through Gweedore, Cloghaneely and across Lough Swilly to Inishowen. Inland, Glenveagh National Park is a region of undulating peat hills that embrace Glenveagh Castle and Gardens.