If you’ve been coming down the west coast of Ireland, everything changes when you hit County Cork. The coastline mellows, the cities get bigger, the weather tends to be a bit nicer, and you no longer feel like you’re traveling through the landscape of a bygone era. That bucolic atmosphere doesn’t go away completely, but villages are replaced by cities, and two-lane roads cut through seaside farms give way to eight-lane highways plowed through the flat interior of the country. If you’ve spent a week or so traveling down the coast, you have to adjust your expectations. This is, for the most part, not postcard Ireland, but it’s not devoid of charm either.
Dingle—Cork, 93 miles
County Cork is the largest county in Ireland by a significant margin and it’s a bit of a world unto itself. The accent is completely different than anywhere else and though Cork the city is not exceptionally refined, the rest of the county is where you’ll find some of the country’s nicest hotels and restaurants.
Cork (the city) has a bizarre history. For a while it was an English stronghold in an otherwise heavily nationalist part of Ireland before it became an important battleground in the Irish war for independence as one of the country’s staunchest pro-Home Rule cities. Cork likes to call itself the “Rebel City” for its resistance to the British during war in the 1920s, and I think many people there consider Cork more authentically Irish than Dublin. I’m not sure I totally agree with that, but Dublin is perhaps a touch on the hoity toity side for the Irish sensibility.
Though Cork feels very Irish, vestiges of its British heritage are everywhere. The sprawling indoor, high-end food market, the English Market, is one of the city’s biggest attractions and there’s a strong opera and arts scene here, particularly for a city of less than 200,000. By Irish standards, Cork is a pretty diverse city, with a sizable European population from Eastern Europe in particular, but it’s all relative. On paper, Ireland is about as non-diverse a country as you can get. They’re 88 percent Irish in ethnicity and 95 percent white overall.
Cork definitely lacks the polish of Dublin, but it doesn’t have the grittiness of Belfast either. The whole city was pretty thoroughly destroyed in independence war, so it’s much newer than many of the other places you’ll see around Ireland. Sightseeing mainly consists of some churches and an old prison, but it’s a city as much about pub hopping and sampling the local restaurants as anything.
South of Cork is the town of Kinsale, the official end of the Wild Atlantic Way. The entire county is known for its food, but Kinsale in particular is a surprisingly gastronomic city, as much as anywhere in Ireland can be credited for good food.
In Midleton, just east of Cork, is a place that likes to think it invented the farm-to-table movement and whatever the validity of that, the food in Cork is a definite step up from elsewhere in Ireland. As compared to England, the pub offerings in small villages in Ireland are a lot better, if for no other reason than they have more than fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. Practically anywhere you visit in Ireland will be on the coast or very near to it, but really good seafood is by no means a guarantee, save for in Cork.
Compared to a lot of other villages in Ireland, Kinsale is almost too perfect. The buildings are expertly color coordinated and painted in complementary shades in the full color spectrum. The proliferation of good restaurants came before the tourists did, so twenty years ago, Kinsale was probably an absolute gem, a food oasis in a hidden port town. Nothing about Kinsale is undiscovered anymore, but it’s still a pleasant and fitting end to a fantastic Irish road trip.
East of Cork are some of the last small towns in this part of Ireland before you get to the urban area around Waterford. Cobh is almost a suburb of Cork, a small fishing town that, like Belfast, likes to cash in on its piece of Titanic history. After it stopped in Southampton and on the north coast of France, Cobh (at the time, known as Queenstown) was the final port of call for the Titanic. The ship sank less than four days later. Rather unfortunately, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat not far away a few years later and the survivors ended up in Cobh.
About an hour further east is Ardmore. For a place that will make any list of must-see Irish towns, it’s almost entirely undeveloped. There’s a very nice hotel on a cliff overlooking the town, but the beachfront and harbor areas look probably as they have for decades. Starting in Ardrmore and heading north you get into a very old and historic Christian part of Ireland, with 1,000-year-old churches and abbeys everywhere you turn. Depending on what you read or who you ask, the earliest Christian settlements anywhere in Ireland are in Ardmore.
The Blarney Stone is something you really only need to visit once and having seen it on a previous trip through Cork, I almost forgot about it. But it is the kind of thing you’ll likely want to check off your list. Untangling the legend of the Blarney Stone is a bit of a challenge. A goddess is involved in its origin story and Scotland’s own Robert the Bruce makes an appearance at one point, but the gist of it is that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone is endowed with the “gift of gab.” In other words, the gift of eloquence and flattery, two things that have entirely different meanings and connotations but which they seem to lump together as being more or less synonymous. Anyway, you do this by literally hanging upside down on top of a parapet in a castle and kissing a rock the looks identical to the stones around it. Like taking a picture pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or grabbing the tip of the Eiffel Tower, a trip to Blarney Castle is more of a trite tourist rite of passage than it is a cultural endeavor, but for a country that doesn’t have a lot of cheesiness, we can forgive them this.
Cork—Kilkenny, 97 miles
Like elsewhere in Europe, Ireland is a country with a long history, but Kilkenny is one of the few places where you can still see it. The first witch trial in Ireland took place in Kilkenny in 1324, when Alice Kyteler was tried after the death of her fourth husband, her fourth spouse to die rather mysteriously. Alice managed to get out of Ireland before they could burn her at the stake but her pub, Kytler’s Inn, is still open today and is one of Kilkenny’s best bars for live music.
County Kilkenny is where things start to feel a bit British. This is a sentence that will set any Irishman howling in shame, but it’s true. When you get away from the coast and head to the inland villages, the atmosphere is very similar to the Peak District in the Midlands.
Much of Kilkenny’s original medieval architecture is still standing, most notably St. Canice’s Cathedral and the Black Abbey, both of which date to the 13th century. Kilkenny Castle predates them both by almost a century and is in remarkable condition today. This is basically the Clipart version of a castle: huge grey stones, a corner tower with a parapet, a moat (not wanting to go to the trouble of actually building one, they’ve just used the River Nore). It was originally a Norman castle and was owned by the same family, the Butlers, for almost 800 years before they sold it to the city in 1967 for the mighty sum of £50. The inside has been done up with 19th century furnishings and is one of Ireland’s best-preserved castles. The entire county has some of Ireland’s most intact medieval structures.
As compared to Doolin or Dingle, the music scene in Kilkenny is not particularly strong, as there are really only a few bars worth going to, but in my experience, the single best pub for live music in the whole of Ireland is The Field. Everything about The Field violates what usually makes a pub great. They have TVs. It was originally a bar in the Bronx that moved to Kilkenny 20 years ago. Nothing about this sounds like a legit pub. But for live music, it’s hands down the best. There’s a duo who practically live there and call themselves Wrong Direction, who like to introduce themselves as having just returned from a tour of North Korea’s mental hospitals. What more could you want? This is not the place to go if you want to see Ireland’s most skilled musicians or most traditional music, but you will absolutely have a great time.
The last thing you need to know about Kilkenny is hurling. Hurling is a game native to Ireland that you don’t find almost anywhere else, and while it’s popular all over the country, it’s huge in Kilkenny. For the uninitiated, this is a sport that makes Australian Rules football look sane.
Even if you have a basic grasp of the rules, it’s nearly impossible to follow the action because the pace is so unbelievably quick, but kind of hypnotic. You’ll always know when a hurling match is on in Kilkenny and you’ll want to grab a seat at a bar when it is. People in Kilkenny turn out for hurling matches the way Europeans on the Continent go crazy for soccer.
If the western coastal towns have begun to feel a bit monotonous, Kilkenny is a noticeable change of pace. Not quite a city and a little more than a town, Kilkenny is ever so slightly pretentious, a place where gift shops are “artisanal emporiums” and where aristocracy means something. And I mean that as a compliment. Kilkenny is not aggressively rustic like many other popular tourist towns in Ireland, but it’s hardly upper crust either. By Irish standards, wherein any clean shirt counts as dressy attire, it’s a touch on the formal side, but in a good way. Which makes it a fitting warm-up to Dublin.
Kilkenny—Dublin, 85 miles
You haven’t really experienced Ireland if you haven’t seen Dublin, but you also will have only seen a very small part of Ireland if you never leave Dublin. Dublin was the first place I visited in Ireland, so it will always be a special city for me because it was my first point of contact with a country that I find thoroughly awesome. That said, if you come to Dublin for the first time after seeing the west coast of Ireland, it might disappoint. Dublin presents a totally different version of Irishness from anywhere else in the country. It’s so much larger than any other city that it’s a bit of an island, culturally speaking. Dublin has just over 1 million people; Cork, the second largest city, has less than 200,000.
What I like about Dublin is that it’s the only place in Ireland where you can see what highbrow Irish culture looks like. Ireland’s appeal lies in its lack of pretension and the kind of snobbery they accuse the British of, which is absolutely valid. There is an Irish aristocracy, but you don’t feel their presence hardly anywhere, as compared to parts of rural England that are overwhelmed with monuments to the wealth of the former and present low-level royalty. Ireland is right to assert its claims to simple pleasures and art and music that is both good and accessible to the masses, but it’s also a country with a rich literary and culture history that is very refined and sophisticated. There is no writer in the English language more pretentious than James Joyce, after all.
That said, Dublin’s most famous attraction is the furthest thing from highbrow: Temple Bar. For a while, this was Dublin’s red light district and things have only slightly cleaned up since then. This is the de facto party zone, with pubs both historic and fabricated to look so. Temple Bar is something to check off your list in Dublin, but anyone can tell this is not in any way authentic. It’s also not the bacchanal it’s purported to be. The first time I ever went to Temple Bar was on Arthur’s Day, a “holiday” Guinness used as a promotional stunt for a few years. It was cancelled after five years because politicians claimed that it was getting out of control and promoting “excessive drinking.”
When we went to Temple Bar for Arthur’s Day in 2013, we didn’t even know it was any kind of holiday, assuming that was what a normal night there looked like. So, all that to say, Temple Bar is really not as crazy as it would like you to think it is. It’s worth a quick visit and good for some live music, but no one will be fooled into thinking this is an authentic Dublin experience.
In general, the pub experience in Dublin will probably not live up to elsewhere in Ireland. Live music is not as common at your average corner pub and while you’ll still find a proper pint of Guinness anywhere, it doesn’t have the same communal feel as pubs in smaller towns, which, in a city of a million people, is to be expected. For an authentic grungy Dublin pub, try O’Donoghues on Merrion Row or Grogans.
Because this was my third trip to Dublin, I didn’t do a lot of the big touristy things this time around, but I think almost all of them are worth doing. So consider this a quick list of the things to do on your first trip to the capital.
- Guinness Storehouse: This is not your average brewery tour because it’s not really a tour at all. St. James’s Gate Brewery has been on the site since 1749 and famously has a 9,000-year lease signed by Arthur Guinness. Guinness, unlike a lot of breweries open to the public, won’t let you get near the actual beer-making process. Instead, they’ve built a kind of cathedral to the beer, with a museum, excessively theatrical “tasting room,” and a bar where they teach you how to pour a proper Guinness, which you can take to their rooftop bar with a 360-degree view of Dublin. This is a bit of a racket, as you essentially pay €14 for a pint of Guinness and a bunch of folderal, but it’s only right that one pay homage to the sacred brew.
- Old Jameson Distillery: It’s currently closed for renovations apparently, but this is frankly a better experience than the Guinness Storehouse. Jameson is no longer actually made in Dublin—you can visit the working distillery in Midelton in County Cork—but the Dublin location was the original distillery opened not long after Arthur Guinness set up shop at St. James’s Gate. It’s impressive to see the level of drama they can wring out of the whiskey distillery process.
- Little Museum of Dublin: this really stretches the definition of “museum” where “hoarder’s organized attic” might be more appropriate. The Little Museum of Dublin is housed in a beautiful old Georgian house right on St. Stephen’s Green and is essentially a chronicle of the last 100 years of Dublin history. “Little” is not an exaggeration; the museum has two rooms dedicated to the permanent collection, an exhibit upstairs about U2, and one room of temporary exhibit space. The collection consists of tons of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and pretty much anything else you can put in a frame. The two main rooms are packed floor to ceiling with all the various documents and despite my making fun of them, it’s actually a really interesting and very quick history of Dublin; the whole tour lasts barely 30 minutes.
- St. Stephen’s Green: it’s not fair to call St. Stephen’s Green a tourist attraction and it’s the kind of thing you’ll see in Dublin without trying. St. Stephen’s is at the very center of Dublin and extraordinarily British in design. The rectangular shape and layout could be taken from any city park in London and on a rare warm summer day in Dublin, you won’t be able to find a open patch of grass anywhere. The 1916 Easter Rising, one in a long series of anti-British protests, was based out of St. Stephen’s Green, which a contingent of IRA occupied for the duration. One of the best stories to come out of this has to do with the park’s groundskeeper, who demanded there be a ceasefire every afternoon so he could feed the ducks. He got his wish and the ducks still flourish in St. Stephen’s Green today.
- Trinity College, the Long Room, and the Book of Kells: Ireland’s oldest university has a nice campus right in the middle of Dublin, but you come here for the Long Room, the two-story, wood-paneled reading room that probably never gets used for any actual reading, but is a beautiful room nonetheless. This is also where you’ll find the Book of Kells, an ornately illuminated New Testament that perhaps dates as far back as 800.
- Viking Splash Tours: In general, I think any tour that involves an open-topped vehicle should be avoided. But once you add an amphibious car to the mix, how can you go wrong? Anyone’s who been to Boston will recognize the Viking Tour vehicles as the same buses the ubiquitous Duck Tours use, so you can cruise around Dublin looking like a fool before wading into the Grand Canal Harbour. As far as I can remember, the only reason for this latter bit is so you can see the building where U2’s recording studio is. Lest there be any confusion, this is cheesy and touristy in every way, but actually a very informative introduction to the city. Plus, heckling pedestrians is an integral part of the tour.
- Grafton Street: your standard issue pedestrian shopping thoroughfare, where you’ll find mostly tourists but also Dublin’s most expensive department stores. Grafton Street is known for its buskers.
- Powerscourt Centre: It took me three trips to Dublin to finally get here because unless someone tells you about it, you’d never know it’s there. Powerscourt is a high-end mall right in the city center, but it’s in an old Georgian home with its original façade, so behind what looks like a slightly bigger than average home is this:
- Howth: if you’ve been traveling around elsewhere in Ireland or if Dublin is your first stop before venturing further afoot, Howth is maybe a bit redundant. But if you’re staying in Dublin, Howth is a great way to get a taste of rural Ireland looks like. It’s now a suburb of Dublin but it was originally a totally separate fishing village and is still where most of the city’s seafood comes from. From the city center, it’s about an hour to get there by train.
Much of Ireland can feel like it exists in a time capsule, but Dublin is absolutely the exception to this rule. A lot of the city’s Georgian architecture is still around, but Dublin is a new city, despite its 1,000+ years of history. It’s hard to see it today but Dublin struggled through much of the 20th century thanks in part to nonstop bickering and fighting with the British, and 2008 hit them hard. It’s somewhat odd in Ireland to see a city on the mend because in so much of the country, you wonder if things have ever changed.
One thing that you notice in a country as small as Ireland is that because nowhere is really that far from anywhere else, you don’t get the same kinds of divisions between people. Of course there are regional rivalries and antagonisms, but as compared to a country the size of America, or even a place like Germany, there is not a clear disconnect between urban centers and the rural country. What I like about Dublin is though it’s massive—almost 40 percent of the population of the entire country is in the greater Dublin area—it hasn’t lost touch with the rest of Ireland. Almost no one thinks Paris is a true representation of France. If Brexit proved anything, it’s that London doesn’t understand what the rest of the UK thinks. And is there any place less in touch with the rest of America than D.C.?
Dublin does not exist in a bubble. Of course people from elsewhere in Ireland think of Dubliners as uppity city slickers, but there’s more that unites the Irish people than divides them, I think. It takes a nation of 4.5 million to have a collective chip on their shoulder about the British. This is a place that finds unity in the fact that they’re always chaffing at something, but they’re not bitter and downtrodden people because of it. Whatever the good fight is, they’ll be there. Comparing the Irish to the Scots is the most obvious connection, but they have a similar stalwartness. Near constant agitation at something does not breed discontent. It makes them heartier people who take pride in their culture and who aren’t fussy. Even in Dublin, high-end cocktail bars and fancy restaurants and hotels are not the norm. Grungy, dimly lit pubs are still the main sphere of social interaction and community. The Irish national anthem, when translated into English, is called “The Soldier’s Song.” That’s not an anthem for a country that’s about to lay down and take it as it comes. That said, they’d really prefer a cold pint and a fast-paced tune.
Before I started this trip, I wouldn’t have hesitated to list Ireland as my favorite country. Now, I wouldn’t say definitively that it is or isn’t. It’s not that Ireland is anything less than I remembered, but perhaps I underestimated everyone else. So with that, this is my final write-up of a particular place but I’ll be putting up a few final wrap-up posts over the next week and will indulge in more general musings at that point.