Ireland’s central western coast is probably the most famous area in Ireland outside of Dublin, and here you’ll find a lot of the country’s most popular sites and towns. The Gaelic culture is particularly pronounced in this region and it feels like as pure a version of Ireland as you’ll get. Dublin is a wonderful city and very Irish, but the eastern part of the country still has a distinct British undertone and you see more evidence of a cultural hangover from the days of English rule. Counties Wicklow, Carlow, and Kilkenny, which sit to the southwest of Dublin, could easily be mistaken for regions in the Midlands in England. But along the western coast, particularly in Clare and Kerry, you get to what is really the soul of the country.
You can find Ireland, Part I here.
Newport—Galway, 50 miles
Thanks to Steve Earle and the popularity of Claddagh rings, Galway enjoys enormous popularity and is in many ways Ireland’s second city, though it is only the fifth biggest. I find that a lot of people who come to Ireland really want to visit Galway, perhaps more than anywhere else. Among Americans, this can be almost entirely attributed to “Galway Girl,” the famous Steve Earle song from the early aughts that he recorded with a local Irish musician with perhaps the most Irish name ever: Sharon Shannon. It has since become both the unofficial national anthem and the most hated song in Ireland, depending on who you ask. You will hear it endlessly.
Galway has its advantages. It’s one of only a few real cities in Ireland so you get the perks that come with that; better food, more than five pubs to choose from, prolific ATMs. The next town I visited, Doolin, is famous for not having an ATM at all, though I think that is no longer true. Galway isn’t a big city like Dublin, but it’s still very much a city.
It’s big, glaring problem is that it’s a tourist town. One of Ireland’s best assets, I think, is that as popular as it is, it hasn’t lost its Irishness. There are so few things in Ireland that I would describe as exclusively touristy. The best pubs in any village will have a good mix of locals and travelers. Of course you won’t encounter many Irish people visiting the Cliffs of Moher or various castles, but even the most popular sightseeing spots don’t have that mechanical vibe, churning and spitting out busloads of people. More than almost any other country I’ve been to, the locals and the tourists can usually be found in the same places.
Galway is the one place where this isn’t true. Many of the pubs feel like the kind of Irish pubs you might encounter in Times Square and the ones that aren’t are strangely morose. Any of the recommend pubs in Galway are either tourist traps or places that so hate tourists being there that it isn’t really a good experience. The one place this isn’t true is Barr An Chaladh, which is bizarrely never mentioned almost anywhere in any literature about Galway. It skirts the line of being too kitschy, but it’s the only place in town I’ve found where you still get that mix of regulars and visitors, and in my experience, they always have the best musicians.
The key to Galway is to get away from the town center. The main pedestrian street through town has a distinctly tourist vibe and unfortunately Galway’s fishing village charm is largely gone. Many people recommend Salthill, a town about 10 minutes away, as an antidote to this, but it’s not much better. North of the city along the western coast of County Galway you get back into that more typical Irish coastal village tableau, but it’s not as impressive as up in Donegal or further south in Clare and Kerry. If you can make it to Roundstone, it’s one of the region’s best preserved fishing villages.
It’s not that Galway is so bad, but it doesn’t show you anything new about Ireland. In such a small country, you don’t have to go more than 50-75 miles to be in a place that feels noticeably different than wherever you just were. You still don’t get the kind of variation you do in a place as big as the U.S., but there are still a lot of different faces in Ireland. Galway doesn’t provide anything that’s terribly memorable. For whatever reason, people feel obligated to stop here when traveling down the west coast, but you’re far better off passing through briefly and spending more time further south, in Clare or Kerry.
Galway—Doolin, 44 Miles
If you’ve heard of the Cliffs of Moher and if you’ve ever heard any Irish music, you have Doolin to thank. The population of Doolin is less than 500 but will balloon well into the thousands during high season. A typical romantic notion of Ireland is drawn from County Clare. There’s no town larger than 25,000. Fishermen wear thick cable knit sweaters and sit on the docks petting mangy dogs and watching the rough seas. Pubs are the size of walk-in closets with musicians and patrons all sitting on top of each other, swaying dangerously close to open fireplaces and vigorously stomping their feet. There appear to be more sheep than people and the accent is unlike anywhere else in Ireland, the most singsongy lilt in the country. Father Ted is set in this part of Ireland.
I’m not sure it’s fair to say that traditional Irish music was born in any one place, but Doolin has the most solid claim on this distinction, with many of the country’s best known folk musicians coming from County Clare.
You can’t come to Ireland and not go out for live music nearly every night. It’s as much a part of seeing the county as any sightseeing. There are basically two flavors for live music: traditional and kind of serious, often involving several musicians, and then the more ridiculous, usually one or two guys with guitars who do brief comedy bits, take requests, and do Al Yankovic style rewrites of Johnny Cash songs.
Doolin is as traditional as it gets. You’ll still hear the usual pub songs that you’ll hear anywhere else, but music in Doolin is as much about the craft as it is about entertainment. Elsewhere, your average pub singer is much more concerned with the latter. But “traditional” is not to say stodgy, or that everyone sits in silent rapture before the musicians. Live music is always great fun and a bit cheeky, and often locals at the bars will get up and sing after a few drinks and much harassment from musicians.
Not to suck the fun out of something utterly joyful, but it’s worth doing your homework before coming to Ireland so you know some of the songs. Pretty much anything The Dubliners have every sung is fair game and below is a list of songs I’ve heard a lot in pubs over three trips to Ireland.
- “Dirty Old Town”: honestly my least favorite song and it’s about a guy living in a disgusting industrial city in the English Midlands. But it’s possibly the most sung pub song in the whole country. I once heard it four times in one night at three different bars.
- “Galway Girl”: you should really already know this and it’s a song that simultaneously makes every Irishmen in the bar roll their eyes while they sing every word. Be careful requesting this. Every once in a while you’ll come across a musician who staunchly refuses to play it.
- “Take Me Home, Country Roads”: the Irish love their John Denver. Probably the song I’ve heard most often after “Dirty Old Town.”
- “Folsom Prison Blues”: Johnny Cash is another American who’s been thoroughly adopted by the Irish. Having written the famous “Forty Shades of Green,” Cash is obviously adored, but his song that’s actually about Ireland never gets any play. They also love to do a parody version of “Ring of Fire” that I won’t give away.
- “Molly Malone”: a classic
- “The Rare Ould Times”: most pub songs have easy choruses so once you’ve got that down, you’re in. This one has a particularly easy chorus
- “Fields of Athenry”: a really beautiful song and for advanced singers, there’s a whole call-and-response bit if you’re in bar with a lot of locals
- “Wagon Wheel”: for some reason everyone insists on singing it as “Johnston City.” Another American song you’ll hear everywhere
- “Black Velvet Band”: pub song with a side of history about penal colonies in Australia
- “The Wild Rover”: note to Americans: if you can’t clap correctly, don’t clap at all. This is a good opportunity for me to talk about Americans in Irish pubs. There are a ton of Americans in Ireland and I actually like seeing them. They tend to make asses of themselves and they get really into the music and “dance” (read:flail) about, which is exactly the atmosphere you want at a bar. White, middle-aged Americans are not a group known for their rhythm, but I’ve never met so many people who cannot simply clap to the beat. I watched one guy in the fight of his life just trying to clap to the beat of the song. Anyway, there’s a lot of clapping in “The Wild Rover.” Proceed with caution.
- “Whiskey in the Jar”: there’s a pistol and a rapier, some theft and betrayal, and, of course, whiskey. Metallica once butchered this song.
- “Beeswing”: a bit of a deep cut, but still popular and the most beautiful pub song you will hear anywhere. You should just add it to your slow jams moody playlist right now.
- “Black is the Colour”: file it under “broody mournful Irish love songs.” We’d be here all day trying to list them all, but this gets a lot of play.
- “Oro Sé Do Bheatha’ Bhaile”: it’s all in Gaelic and less often played but when it is, the bar will turn into a scene from Braveheart. It has an awesome battle cry chant to it and even if you have no idea what it means, it’s fun to shout along.
- “The Irish Rover”: this is Ireland’s answer to McLean’s “American Pie.” It has so many verses with long lists of people and things and it all gets very complicated, very quickly. If you know every word to “The Irish Rover,” you’ve achieved a unique level of Irish obsession.
- “Boston Rose”: okay, I had to ruin the tidy 15, but “Boston Rose” is so popular and is a good excuse to insert an interesting Irish factoid. First of all, know Boston and Chicago are honorary Irish cities. Every year Ireland holds its annual Rose of Tralee festival, which is, for lack of a better description, the Irish version of the Miss America pageant but not half as sexualized. Every county in Ireland (there are 32) sends a contestant but then other places around the world get to send contestants if they’re deemed Irish enough. The winner this year? The “rose” from Chicago. The idea that a non-Irish woman could win an Irish beauty contest is somewhat bizarre to me but there it is. Anyway, this is song is not strictly about the Rose of Tralee festival, but you can see how much they like Boston.
- “The Parting Glass”: you’ve found a true Irish pub musician if he ends his set with “The Parting Glass.” Even if it is originally a Scottish song.
- “Fisherman’s Blues”: a great song from the 1980s that captures the essence of Irish coastal life perhaps better than any other song. If you’ve seen Waking Ned Devine, “Fisherman’s Blues” opens in the film. If you haven’t seen Waking Ned Devine, that’s your first stop.
- “Leaving Nancy”: the last one, I swear
Between the music history and the natural scenery, there’s a lot to do in Doolin, but the Cliffs of Moher are the main event. Located about five miles outside town, they’re not Ireland’s tallest cliffs but have nevertheless become the most famous, with striking views north and west to the Aran Islands. The main way to see the cliffs is to actually stand atop them, looking down and south along the coastline. The views here are spectacular but you get a very different perspective when you’re here than when down on a boat looking up.
You would think given that you can’t really see much of the cliffs at any one time on land, a boat trip would be the way to go, but this method is much less popular. After doing it, I know why fewer people go this route. The ocean is so rough that you have to keep well away from the base of the cliffs, though you still get a better view of the entire expanse than from above even if you don’t get close enough to really see them towering over you. From the top of the cliffs, because the hills are so green and you can only see portions of the rock at any one time, it’s a very idyllic scene. From the water, you can see just how black the rock is and it’s a much more menacing sight. This scene from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was filmed along this coastline:
The only real problem with this approach is that fighting off seasickness while continuing to look at the cliffs will be a challenge even for people who like boats. I pretty much had to adjust the horizon by 45 degrees in these pictures to get everything to come up straight, such was the rocking of the boat and the unsteadiness of my hands.
While you’re on the boat, it’s worth the short trip out to the Aran Islands (you can do the Cliffs and the islands in one trip). Most people go to the Aran Islands from Galway and visit the largest of the three, Inishmore. Closest to Doolin is the smallest island, Inis Oírr, but it’s the most scenic and because it’s smaller, more easily explored. The middle island is almost never visited, but perhaps enjoys the most fame as the setting for the thoroughly overrated play, The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Even on a sunny day, Inis Oírr feels incredibly isolated and in bad weather, that effect is only magnified. On a clear day, the mainland is certainly visible, but seems far away, and even a little bit of fog would obscure the view completely. On a map, the islands look very close to shore and they are, but once you’re out there, it can feel like you’re hundreds of miles from anything else. For such a remote place, there’s a lot going on, at least in the summer. Between day trippers and the smaller group of people who overnight on Inis Oírr, the island is crowded in a quiet way, bustling but half speed. On the southeast coast is the haunting shipwreck of The Plassey from the 1960s, which ran aground one early morning. Nearby is a lighthouse that clearly didn’t do its job very well.
On the north edge of the island is the dock and the town center, with small shops set up along the beach selling fudge, handmade wool sweaters, and bike rentals. The constant traffic from the port in Doolin keeps things active, but I’m sure even with a few hostels on the island, things get incredibly quiet here after dark.
The line between mythology and straight history is always a little fuzzy in Ireland, with dragons and Neolithic civilizations often appearing in the same historical accounts of an area. This really comes to a head in Clare, where there’s always a bit of mysticism mixed in with the otherwise no-nonsense pastoral lifestyle. If Dublin is the head of Ireland, Clare is the heart. This is the most unspoiled, untainted version of Ireland that you can find today. You hear it as much as you see it. From the music to the accent that seems like something you’d only hear in a movie, Clare is where you can get closest to that authentic Irish heritage.
Doolin—Dingle, 140 Miles
“Dingle” is not the most sophisticated name in the world and the town’s character matches its whimsy title. This is a town that has a resident dolphin in the harbor named Fungie and a 1:1 ratio of people to ice cream shops.
This is in the heart of Ireland’s summer tourist country, but still doesn’t feel maddeningly crowded. I’d previously been to Dingle in March when it was completely dead and had anticipated August being really hectic. This is, I think, the real magic of Ireland; its ability to absorb an amazing number of visitors without compromising the atmosphere of these very small towns. The population in Dingle is less than 2,000, but it feels much bigger.
The music scene here is completely different than in Doolin. Traditionalism gives way to bawdy sing-a-longs, the occasional Irish step dancing routine, and accordion-guitar duos who will switch from Coldplay to Enya to The Pogues mid-song. Dingle has more of a rollicking party atmosphere than most of the other small towns along the Wild Atlantic Way, but it’s relative. A crazy night out in Ireland (outside of Dublin) will end by 11:30 when the musicians have to end their set. The below video is very bad quality, but you can still see (and more importantly, hear) how good this guy was, a world champion Irish dancer who showed up one night for a quick jig.
If you look at the southwest corner of Ireland, there are several small peninsulas that stick out like fingers into the Atlantic. The Kerry Peninsula is, for whatever reason, the most famous. The drive around the entire peninsula, the Ring of Kerry loop, is one of the most popular things to do in Ireland, but it can’t begin to compete with the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula. Just east of Dingle Town is Inch Beach, a magnificent sprawl of sand whose vastness completely contradicts its name.
The area west of Dingle is what you come here for though. Slea Head Drive, in addition to its fantastic views, has an added adrenaline rush. The road at many points is barely wide enough for one car, let alone two or a tour bus, and you haven’t really experienced Slea Head in summer until you’ve had to reverse a quarter of a mile along a single-lane road carved into the side of a cliff. The pictures from Slea Head render any other description useless. And if you’ve been wondering for the last year where the photo in the banner at the top of the page was taken, you just got your answer.
If forced to choose, Dingle might be my favorite town in Ireland. Particularly after seeing the effects of tourism all over the world, I’m even more struck by how resilient Ireland has been, and in large part that’s due to the locals’ attitude. Any country that’s not kidding itself (France) understands the value of tourism dollars and while people are across the board very welcoming of visitors, there’s always grumbling among the local population about tourists. New Yorkers are the worst when it comes to this. Ireland is the only place I’ve been where the local people don’t seem to suffer or even tolerate the tourists; they wholeheartedly embrace them. “Tourist” is not a epithet here and ironically, the effects of this industry are much less noticeable here than elsewhere.
Dingle is probably the “worst” in this regard, in that there are more souvenir shops and other services and stores that have taken over the town and cater exclusively to non-locals. But you never feel like you’re seeing some kind of performative, Disney version of Ireland. This is at the essence of what makes Ireland so cool to me. You never, never feel like you’re getting some kind of cheap, watered down version of the country that’s being put on for the benefit of getting you to open your wallet and pay someone for the privilege of visiting their country.
The result is they don’t need pubs and restaurants exclusively for tourists. There’s an open door and an empty seat wherever you go. I think most locals like having travelers at their regular watering holes. These are people from small towns who are in no way provincial and seem to genuinely enjoy the company of whoever has just wandered in from whatever corner of the world they’ve come from. With very, very few exceptions, the people I’ve met all over the world have been incredibly kind and welcoming, but you don’t get this sense of belonging anywhere else. That unique hospitality is 100 percent Irish. Despite every reason not to, the Irish seem to have a particular fondness for Americans and if you say you have even an ounce of Irish heritage, you’re an instant hit. If not, all the better. They’re always looking for new recruits.
Dublin and southern Ireland to follow in my third and final post.