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I absolutely fell in love with Ireland. But I only had planned 3 days driving and 1 day in Dublin. How could I possibly learn anything in that short-a-time? Well, I covered over 800 miles in that short period and enjoyed some great discussions at various pubs and bed and breakfasts. It was a glorious time. So let me share with you a list of the top 10 things I learned about Ireland during my trip!

10. It’s Worth Knowing a Little Irish History Before Castle Hunting

  • Gotta admit, I knew very little Irish history. St. Patrick and the Irish War of Independence. Missing about 1500 years of history.
  • When you’re hunting ruins, it doesn’t help. Many of the castles I visited only had one or two signs that told you anything about the castle. And then it was all dates and the endless names you’ve never heard of.
  • The impact and fun of history - my history professor. Names and dates.

Two suggestions:

  • First, make sure to do a human guided tour (especially if you have kids - castles are not for reading, they are for exploring - and I find audio tours a bit lifeless - again usually stuck on names and dates).
  • Ross Castle in Killarney was great for that. Not a ruin. Very story driven. Free parking, only cost 5 Euro to tour it (3 for kids).
  • Stairwells, clockwise - running up with left hand and down with right. Left handers were looked down upon (Right hand of God, God’s left hand was Gabriel an angel of death - book of Matthew, people who fall from favor are on the left) - psych people out to use their right hand. Step heights. Got a sense of daily life. Also found out why lifespans were so short back then and it wasn’t just the lead dinnerware.
  • Also showed us features like the door construction.
  • Second way is to read up and research yourself before you go. A little more tedious, but it can help you pick the castles you want to see.
  • I have created guides on a few of the castles I’ve visited, telling not only prices and the experience you can expect there and photos, but also some very basic history and a cool backstory on the castle or ruin.

In a nutshell, here are some of the castles and ruins I went to and did reviews on:

    • Ross Castle in Killarney (best guided tour)
    • Rock of Cashel (best St. Patrick stories and imposing view from below)
    • Cahir (Kay-hear) Castle where John Boorman’s Excalibur was filmed and Tudors. Kells Priory, the sight of the first witch burning with a twist. Video that goes over history of castles.
    • Blarney Castle (beautiful gardens, poison garden - Mandrake, the stone, murder hole)
    • Rock of Dunamase (best ruin to explore with fantastic view Slieve Bloom Mountains) Fire-breathing dog protecting a treasure.

Irish History in brief:

  • 5th Century: St. Patrick’s rise (pagan Celtic history to Catholicism)  
  • 10th Century: Viking invasion
  • 12th Century: Norman invasion from England
  • 16th Century: Nine Years’ War (Elizabeth I’s conquest of Ireland) Kay-hear
  • 17th Century: Eleven Years’ War (Confederate war and Irish Rebellion, ending in Oliver Cromwell’s invasion)
  • 19th Century: Irish Potato Famine (the time when the Irish language began to disappear)
  • Early 20th Century: Easter Rising through the Irish War of Independence and Civil War (Michael Collins, the Republic of Ireland, and creation of Northern Ireland)

For tall people like me, watch your head!

9. Woolen Cap Wearing Used To Be Serious Business In Ireland

  • Woolen flat cap, originally called a bonnet, tweed cap - No one knew what to call it.
  • Wool lobby was pretty strong back in the 16th Century
  • 1571 an act of English Parliament to stimulate wool consumption, Sundays and Holidays all commoner males over 6 had to wear one or pay a fine. 26 years.
  • A LOT of sheep!
  • Blarney Castle: Quiet Man - John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara. Doing my part for wool production!

8. The Irish Language Is Alive and Well

  • A close relative to Scottish Gaelic the Irish language is prevalent along the western shores. Someone I met in a pub from Donegal said the two can understand each other.
  • On all the road signs (and in some areas, only the Irish language)
  • Gaeltacht (gail-tuckt) - Irish speaking regions. Dingle Peninsula, Connemara above Galway, and Donegal are principal areas that still heavily use the Irish language. 

Accents can be hard to understand. What? Excuse me?

Chips, crisps, lorries, petrol

And then there is this...

Brad Pitt's portrayal of a Pikey in Snatch is pretty much spot on for what I heard. SMH

For someone who loves to talk to people. More frustrating than being in a country that speaks another language.

Football or soccer - (k)Celtic or (c)Celtic - Gaelic - pronunciations vary widely

7. The stereotypes about Irish pubs are true

Was hanging out in a pub McGann’s in Doolin’ near the Cliffs of Moher

  • On the outside, they tend to have that same look you’ve seen mimicked in other countries.
  • John F Kennedy all over the walls
  • The Guinness flows like water
  • While you can’t always understand them, the people are very warm and welcoming. Full of stories and love for being ambassadors for their country and traditions.
  • And there is most definitely music. Dueling pubs in this small town.
  • Food can range from non-existent to the most amazing comfort food imaginable. My meal’s in both Dingle and Doolin’ were like Thanksgiving. Roast lamb, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, vegetables, the works!
  • But the one thing you won’t easily find is Scotch or American whiskies. Oh you might find the obligatory Jack Daniels or Southern Comfort, but the Johnny Walker is hidden on a back shelf. Instead you’ll find Powers, Dingle, Midleton, Teeling and of course, Jameson. Triple distilled, unlike Scotch which is mostly double distilled. The Irish will say the scots just forgot the last step. It does remove some of the bite from the drink and that is why many people find Irish whiskey more approachable.

6. Varying degrees of political opinions

I didn’t have the pleasure of getting to a lot of pubs in Ireland, but when I did, after talks on a variety of other subjects, I would always tender foot into politics.

Politics and Religion are both subjects I tend to avoid on the podcast, only because they are very personal to people and today’s politics seem to be more about talking and less about listening.

But in a pub, after you sit at the bar and get to know who you’re talking to, it is amazing the conversations you can have. 

Brexit was the thing most on people’s minds and I really wanted to get a feel for how they saw it.

  • Some find it as a great embarrassment for England
  • Others talk of it maybe bringing together a unified Ireland
  • And there are those that talk about how Northern Ireland’s current weak economy might be a reason against unification
  • What I was happy to see was the old Catholic and Protestant arguments no longer being mentioned. In fact, while I was there a demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland lead to the death of a young reporter. There was a unifying condemnation for it, very different from the days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The other subject was Donald Trump. And what I found is people were willing to give their opinions, but they were also very curious as to why Americans voted for him (not from a “have you lost your minds” standpoint, but from an honest curiosity of what they may be missing in the story).  I was surprised to hear many had shut off news sources like CNN because they were so focused on Trump they didn’t feel like they were getting news anymore. When I told them I watch BBC News and Al Jazeera because it’s the only way I can get world news in America, I got varying degrees of opinion on those sources as well.

In the end, I realized we’re all pretty embarrassed about our politicians these days.

And we, as the everyday people, get together and talk without prejudice, we really find that for all of our differences, at heart we’re very similar. . It’s what I absolutely love about travel and why I’ll always head to the bar in any pub I go to.

5. The best Guinness is not necessarily at St. James Gate

Because I was driving so much - B&B’s were isolated. Didn’t have my first Guinness until day 3.

I was determined to put to bed this rumor that the best Guinness can only be had in Dublin.

Let me tell you about my love for Guinness.

  • Didn’t start well (Extra Stout) - tasted like a shoe after walking through fresh tar
  • Grew on me. Cheers in Boston. A whole technique to how they poured it.
  • Thick and creamy, was like a desert. Gone was the flat overly bitter taste I had from the bottle and in came a smooth velvety goodness. I was hooked.
  • Over the years, varying degrees of quality. Everytime a friend tries.
  • It was 10 years ago, friend - amazing Guinness, only in Dublin. American crap comes from Nova Scotia or something.

Now in Ireland, it was time to find out.

Got to Dingle asked while on the Dingle Distillery tour, the best place to get a Guinness.

  • Dick Mack’s or Currens in Dingle (some less than sober Irish singing and flirty Welshman local - worked as electrician on Ryan's Daughter, Bridge over the River Kwai - all talked about movie) - fun to hear the stories, made the Guinness better. How would I rank the Guinness, excellent!
  • Paul Geanies - for dinner delicious stuffing, potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Comfort food! Another Guinness. Very smooth. Boston advice from cousins Erica and Molly - Doyles! Bartender - how he pours (and vs Murphy's) pour, let it settle, top it off. Don't want a flat Guinness. But old timers actually prefer a flat Guinness and ask for straight pour. How would I rank the Guinness, also excellent, maybe slightly better for me than Currens.
  • Next night was McGann’s in Doolin, right across from McDermott’s. Two rival pubs. There I enjoyed some amazing Irish music, another incredible meal, and the Guinness, excellent, ever as good as in Dingle. I asked the bartender about the “best place” claim and he said it is ever as good on this side of the island.
  • Drove all over Scotland for 14 days mostly drinking whisky in the pubs. Sometimes would end with a Guinness. Had some very good Guinness in Scotland and some on the bitter side.
  • Finally back to Dublin. Guinness Storehouse tour at St. James Gate Brewery. Taught me how to taste it. Bitter on the back of the tongue. I couldn’t shake that bitterness. Got to pour my own pint. Followed every rule. Still couldn’t shake that bitterness. I actually didn’t enjoy that Guinness very much.
  • That evening, I stopped in a pub called Peter Browns, down near my hotel. Got into a great conversation with a local. He tried to teach me about Snooker pool. He told me how brilliant the national sport of  Hurling was. Had a fun chat with the bartender. And again, I had an excellent Guinness in a pub.

On my journey I heard every theory as to why certain areas had better Guinness than others:

  • Distance from the distillery
  • Distance between where the keg is and the tap
  • How fresh the Guinness is (ie, if they drink a lot, you get fresh kegs)
  • The pouring technique
  • The country it came from.

Dispel a myth: All current Guinness comes from Dublin according to the brewery. It’s been this way since the 1950’s. But they are looking at using an American brewery in the future.

Where is the best Guinness and why?

  • Inconclusive.
  • Sure, some places pump it out in high volume so it’s almost always fresh.
  • Some places are fun to drink it, with friends at the pub, not alone at St. James Gate.
  • But it’s also down to personal taste. Some people like it flat, some people like it with nitrous, some people like the bitter edge, some people like it smooth.
  • All I can say is, it was fun doing the experiment, but I have to disagree that the best Guinness can only be found in Dublin.

4. Bed & Breakfasts are the way to go

It’s hard to find name brand hotels

In Tullamore - chatting with Lucy at the Littlewood B&B, talking about driving on the left, enjoying my first Irish breakfast, seeing this little historic cottage and getting all the feel of being in rural Ireland. Waking to bird songs I’d never heard before. Feeling like you’re at home in another country.

In Baltimore - got advice on castles to see, had a chat with a grandmother and granddaughter from Reno at Channel View in Baltimore. Found out the granddaughter at 24 couldn't rent a car. The grandmother at a very young 80 couldn't rent it either because of age. But she ended up getting the rental. Art of negotiation. Told me about Kilkenny (talk to other travelers and B&B owners for advice) Both were heavy on the cellphones sending pictures. Part of the reason I decided to wait until I got home to blog and post pictures.

In Doolin, got advice on the best way to see the Cliff’s of Moher, met German travelers who gave me advice for my fall trip to Germany and talked to people from Minnesota about my upcoming trip there (it’s a great way to bump into serendipity)

3. Irish Breakfast

Scottish, Irish, English breakfasts are very similar.

Couldn’t eat them everyday - cholesterol

Found my love for poached eggs and mushroom. Also includes grilled tomatoes, sausage links, baked beans, bacon...and Black pudding and white pudding

Black pudding - pigs' blood, pork fat, onions, herbs, spices, oatmeal or barley. Sliced and lightly fried.

Use every bit of the pig. (the high percentage of cereal grains are what sets it apart from blood pudding). If good, tasty with only a slight grainy dryness. If bad, well, I was lucky and didn’t really have any bad black pudding, but I had some that was a bit more mealy.

White pudding - basically the same as black pudding without the blood and maybe some additional pork fat.

Worth a taste. I like that they use every bit of the pig. Reminded of my time in Alaska the Aleut Natives would use every ounce of a whale when they killed it, to honor the sacrifice of the animal.

2. Ireland roads can be challenging, but doable

Taking a road trip, I had my concerns. You never know until you try.

  • Motorways, starting with M’s are in the best shape, but there are tolls. Usually around 3 Euro. One in Dublin on M50 snaps a picture of your license place. Hopefully car rental pays.
  • No pull-offs! Photos. Stone wall, earth or trees and bushes.
  • Less rules on single track roads. People drive fast, but are courteous.  Road markings are different - center is mostly solid or dashed but always white (confusing).
  • Get used to some new road signs:
  • HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicle), "Concealed Entrance" "Black Spot (Blind)" "Traffic Calming"
  • Your GPS may not always be helpful. Don't be afraid to stay on the main path.
  • Pump and pay. Visa has to sign. Gas prices are unpredictable.
  • Towns can get a little hairy with the roundabouts.

Would I take a bus, train or bike instead? Up to personal preference, but have to talk to previous guests Keith and Gabriele about riding a bike, narrow roads, fast cars, no shoulder...wow!

1. Incredible Mountains and Landscapes

Everyone knows Ireland is very green. All that rain.

  • Especially down around Ring of Kerry - big long mountain ridges
  • Glengarroth - nice views, lots of bumps.
  • Glengarroth 80kph just north of town, great winding road but narrow, be careful!
  • Kaha pass road gets a lot rougher, but amazing sweeping views. Not even in the Ring yet.
  • And the dwellings all feel like history passing you by, No vinyl siding! Stone, plaster, and wood.
  • Look up information on the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s a path than runs up the coast of Ireland. You can hike it, ride it, or drive it. I’ve been told it gets even more beautiful in Northern Ireland along the Giant’s Causeway.

 

All I can say is, I didn’t see enough. 3 days was definitely not enough. You could probably spend a lifetime here and not see it all. It is incredible and I will definitely go back.

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