If You Like
Beautiful Irish Villages
Nearly everyone has a mind's-eye view of the perfect Irish village. Cozy huddles filled with charming calendar-ready cottages, mossy churchyards, and oozing with thatched-roof, pewter-and-china-dog atmosphere, these spots have a sense of once-upon-a-time tranquillity that not even tour buses can ruin. Should you be after medicine for overtired nerves—a gentle peace in beautiful surroundings with a people so warm you'll be on first-name terms in five minutes—these will be your Arcadias. Many are so nestled away they remain the despair of motorists, but then, no penciled itinerary is half as fun as stumbling upon these four-leaf clovers. Here are four of the most famous—but why not summon up courage, venture out on the lesser roads, and throw away the map?
Kinvara, Co. Galway. This village is picture-perfect, thanks to its gorgeous bayside locale, great walks, and numerous pubs. North of the town is spectacularly sited Dunguaire Castle, noted for its medieval-banquet evenings.
Cong, Co. Mayo. John Ford's The Quiet Man introduced this charmer to the world and the singular beauty of its whitewashed single-story cottages with tied-on thatched roofs.
Adare, Co. Limerick. Right out of a storybook, this celebrated village of low-slung Tudor cottages is adorned with ivied churches and a moated castle from the days when knighthood was in flower.
Lismore, Co. Waterford. Set within some of Ireland's lushest pasturelands and lorded over by the Duke of Devonshire's castle, dreamy Lismore is popular with both romantic folk and anglers (the sparkling Blackwater here teems with salmon).
From rush hour on busy O'Connell Street in Dublin it's a long way to Tipperary's Cashel of the Kings, a group of ancient church relics—the largest in all Ireland—perched high above the plain on its famous rock. The journey is worth it, since it takes you back in time to the legendary days when Celtic Christianity conquered the isle of Eire. Beginning in the 5th century AD, hallowed shrines and monasteries sprung up across the land, often dotted with treasures sacred—the famous High Crosses, inscribed with biblical symbols and stories—and profane, such as the lofty round towers, lookouts for Viking raids. Just north of Dublin, around the Boyne Valley, you'll find two great sites: Tara, where "The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls" played, and also Newgrange, once seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly. The isolated monastery at the confluence of two rivers was famous throughout Europe as a center of learning. It's also a royal burial ground.
Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. A monastery founded by a hermit in the 6th century, attacked by Vikings in the 10th century, and plundered by the English in the 12th century—your typical Irish ruins.
Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary. A cluster of ruins—cathedral, chapel, round tower—crowning a circular, mist-shrouded rock that rises from a plain.
Tara, Co. Meath. Fabled home of one of Ireland's titular High Kings, the ageless Hill of Tara has fired up people's imaginations from early Christians to Scarlett O'Hara.
Ireland's stately homes are either proud reminders of a shared history with Britain or symbols of an oppressive colonial past. If you're interested in luxurious pomp and reliving the decadence of yesteryear, there's no denying the magnificence of these country estates and lavish mansions, erected by the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The wealthy settlers constructed ornate houses in various architectural styles, with Palladian designs popular in the first half of the 18th century, before the Neoclassical and neo-Gothic influences took over. In the last century, several majestic piles—notably Ashford Castle in Cong and Dromoland Castle in Newmarket-on-Fergus—became hotels, so anyone can now enjoy a queen-for-a-stay fantasy.
Castle Ward, Co. Down. An architectural curiosity, in that it was built inside and out in two distinct styles, Classical and Gothic—perhaps because Viscount Bangor and his wife never could agree on anything.
Bantry House, Bantry, Co. Cork. Set in Italianate gardens and perched over one of Ireland's most spectacular bays, this manor has a Continental air, thanks to its extensive art collection, tapestries, and fine French furniture.
Castletown House, Co. Kildare. Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio would surely have approved of this exceedingly large and grand Palladian country house.
Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh. With magnificent Georgian-period stuccoed salons, this shimmering white mansion is strikingly set against the Cuilcagh Mountains where, legend has it, you can hear the "song of the little people."
Once you get past all the traditional Irish leprechauns with "made in China" stickers on their bottoms, you'll find that Ireland has some of Europe's finest-quality goods. Objects like a Donegal tweed hat or a hand-knit Aran sweater, a Belfast linen tablecloth, or a piece of Waterford or Cavan crystal can be pricey but will last a lifetime. In Dublin look for antiques, vintage books, or au courant European and Irish fashions, many showcased at cool shops like Costume and Platform. Galway has its share of galleries and offbeat boutiques and is a great spot for book shopping. Keep an eye open for signs indicating crafts workshops, where independent craftspeople sell directly from their studios. The best of the North's traditional products, many made according to time-honored methods, include exquisite linen, laces, and superior handmade woolen garments. Traditional-music CDs and the unadorned blackthorn walking stick are two good choices at the other end of the price scale.
Kilkenny Design Craft Centre, Co. Kilkenny. Ireland’s favorite emporium for Irish-designed crafts includes the best of Irish knitwear, crystal, jewelry, and pottery.
O'Sullivan Antiques, Dublin. Mia Farrow and Liam Neeson are just two fans of this purveyor of 19th-century delights.
Ardmore Pottery and Craft Gallery, Ardmore, Co. Waterford. Home to potter Mary Lincoln, this is one of the most beloved, creative, and cleverly stocked crafts shops in the country.
Avoca, Co. Wicklow. The birthplace of the legendary Avoca mill, you can shop for vibrant throws, rugs, and scarves and meet the weavers at work.
It's not always easy to conjure up leprechauns and druids in today's Ireland, but head to any of its famously brooding landscapes and those legendary times will seem like yesterday. With its romantic coastlines, wild bogs, and rugged seascapes, the Emerald Isle is especially rich in rugged, wildly gorgeous spectacle. Around its natural splendors, the countryside is dotted with villages where sheep outnumber residents by 100 to 1. Unfortunately, sheep don't also outnumber tourists.
The Aran Islands, Galway Bay. The islands battle dramatically with sea and storm and now welcome droves of visitors who fall under the spell of their brooding beauty.
The Skelligs, Ring of Kerry. Be warned: these spectacular pinnacles of rock soaring out of the sea will haunt you for days.
The Burren, Co. Clare. A 300-square-km (116-square-mile) expanse that is one of Ireland's strangest landscapes, the Burren stretches off as far as the eye can see in a gray, rocky, lunar landscape that becomes a wild rock garden in spring.
Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare. One of Ireland's most breathtaking natural sights, these majestic cliffs stretch for 8 km (5 miles). At some points, the only thing separating you from the sea, 700 feet below, is a patch of slippery heather.
Giant's Causeway, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. There are equal measures of legend and science surrounding this rock formation—a cluster of 37,000-odd volcanic basalt pillars.
Irish literature developed its distinctive traits largely because of Ireland's physical and political isolation. Yet the nation has produced a disproportionately large number of internationally famous authors for a country of her size, including four Nobel Prize winners—George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. The list of literary notables is a whole lot longer and includes James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Sean O'Casey, Seán Ó'Faoláin, Brian Friel, and Edna O'Brien. Indeed, the country's literary heritage is evident everywhere you go. In Dublin you'll find Joyce's Liffey; Dean Swift's cathedral; and the Abbey Theatre, a potent symbol of Ireland's great playwrights. Yeats opens up the county of Sligo; the Aran Islands were the inspiration of J. M. Synge; and Cork inspired the works of Frank O'Connor. Wherever you are in Ireland, its literary heritage is never far away.
Trinity College, Dublin. Founded by Queen Elizabeth I, this university provided the greats—Beckett, Wilde, Stoker—with 30 acres of stomping grounds.
Limerick City, Co. Limerick. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes had thousands heading here to tour Angela's city and partake of the tearfulness of it all.
Sligo Town, Co. Sligo. Take in the town where William Butler Yeats grew up, then visit his grave in Drumcliff to view his beloved mountain, Ben Bulben.
Aran Islands, Co. Galway. See what inspired the dark genius of Synge's Playboy of the Western World and the black comedy of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan.
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