To be honest, Ireland was down the queue in the list of places I wanted to visit. I originally thought it was a green country with some scattered castles, but it was really so much more than that. Ireland was a true experience. From its monasteries and ruins to its hearty food and welcoming people, Ireland became a place I’d like to frequent.
My Irishman and I were looking to go on trip, when we saw a castle trip in Ireland too good to pass up. Since booking our whim vacation, we noticed Great Value Vacations had some bad reviews. I guessed they were a fairly new company but through the months, the phone queues got shorter. We started to get worried about stories we were reading, so we emailed the hotels, airline, and the car rental place ahead of time. Within 24 hours, we received overly enthusiastic responses, like “Yes we have you booked! We can’t wait to see you!” We already knew the kind of people we were going to meet. While I would recommend Great Value Vacations, it would be better to make your own itinerary. It would probably be cheaper and you would have greater control over the cities and hotels you visit. We had no idea what we were doing, so it felt like help at the time but there were a few places we would’ve skipped.
Here’s my very ambitious itinerary. It involved at least two hours of driving per day, but the Irish countryside was stunning and their radio stations made us laugh. We often stopped to see a ruin or a charming village. It truly didn’t feel like we were wasting time and I enjoyed seeing a different city every day.
Outlet converters – I bought a cheap 3-pack of type G on amazon for around $7. These adapters did not convert energy, making it safe for only certain wattages. Our laptops, phones, and cameras were fine but unfortunately my hair straightener didn’t make it.
Rental Phone – Typically, it’d be best for your wallet to buy or rent a phone at the airport of your destination. However, my technology illiterate mother was house sitting and I wanted to give her my phone number and instructions before I left. Otherwise my paranoid mind would be wondering if she lost my dog again. I found the best rates at TravelCell. They shipped me my phone and chargers before I left. Incoming calls were free and local calls were cheap. My eight-day rental with two local calls, and my mother calling to ask how to work the DVD player/confirming the dogs were still alive ended up being $45, making me less stressed during and after my trip with no hidden data charges from my iPhone.
Day 1 – Dublin to Meath (A – B)
We had the luxury of flying with Aer Lingus, a comforting airline I recommend. We then headed to get our car from Dan Dooley. I made sure we had an automatic, since the package standard was a manual. We didn’t end up needing the insurance, but we paid an expensive euro for the peace of mind. The GPS was also extremely costly per day. Fortunately, I had downloaded the Irish maps for my Garmin, and put the addresses in ahead of time. This could be an exhausting task, since this was the country where some of the streets literally had no names, but I did my best to find coordinates. We ended up buying a European car charger for it, which cost ten euro, saving us a great deal of time and money.
I expected that we would be given some sort of driving lesson, but we were handed the keys to our tiny car with a sticker on the glove compartment that read, “Fasten seat belts. Drive on the left.” Right to the point. My Irishman hit the curb and almost turned onto the wrong side of the road several times, but he quickly got the hang of it. Once we drove out of Dublin, driving was significantly less intimidating. Even though you can avoid driving at all, I truly feel that the tour bus would take away from a richer experience.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral – 21-50 Patrick’s Close, Off Clanbrassil St., Dublin 8, Ireland
A cathedral so magnificent, I will be honored to drink on March 17th. St. Patrick’s was a church with a serious wow factor. We spent about an hour here admiring the small details and chapels as well as the outside garden.
Lunch at The Brazen Head – 20 Bridge Street Lower Dublin 8 (01) 6779549
I picked this pub, since it had an outstanding history as the oldest pub in Ireland, also known for it’s charm, rich character, and live music. I opted for a traditional stew with soda bread. I’m sort of a bread snob, so I didn’t care for it, but the stew definitely went to my heart. I ordered my first pint of Guinness with enthusiasm, but after a few sips I grew sick and nauseous. I’m truly embarrassed that I left a glass almost full on the table, but I honestly tried my best. I’ll just have to live with that.
Guinness Store House St. James Gate | James Street, The Liberties, Dublin 8, Ireland 353 1 408 4800 – visitor car park on Crane Street
I bought my tickets online in advance, as there was a slight discount. The tour of this amazing facility was rather interesting, even for a non-beer drinker like myself.
The tasting room on the top floor was a wonderful place to relax and attempt drinking my second Guinness. I didn’t get very far but I enjoyed holding it and looking out of the glass walls, overlooking Dublin. Ironically, I didn’t like this fresh Guinness as much as the Guinness from The Brazen Head. Later in Sligo, the owner of a pub said something like, “Yer, I changed thee ol’ system and pe’le were complainin’ ‘bout thee taste so ay ‘ad to change it back to thee ol’ one.”
I smiled as I thought I too preferred the tasty dirty beer.
Dunboyne “Castle” in Meathe
There were real-deal castles and then there were politically incorrect impostor castles in Ireland. The Dunboyne was such that and if it were up to me, would be stripped of it’s title. While the hotel was nice, Meath was about an hour out of the way. I couldn’t find anything worth seeing and I would have rather spent the night in the middle of Dublin or closer to Galway. Impostor castles were not welcomed on the midst of our fantasy vacation.
Day 2 – Meath to Sligo to the Kilronan Castle (B – C – D)
Breakfast at the Mint Leaf – Summerhill Road, Dun Boyne
We had our first Irish breakfast at this lovely café. We enjoyed rashers, formerly known as bacon, fresh pancakes, and a hot pot of tea.
Sligo pronounced “Slaego” was a two-hour drive from Meath. It was a charming town on the Garavogue River. My main reason for wanting to come here was to see the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery.
Carrowmore had graves and circles that were 7,000 old. Yes, that’s older than the pyramids and by far any other structure in Ireland. (I’m choosing not to give you the address since the one I had ironically brought us to another Carrowmore thirty minutes away.) Despite getting lost, the locals were more than willing to help us find our way, which made me feel silly getting so worried about getting lost in the first place. A part of me wished I had been daring enough to leave my GPS at home, forcing me to talk to these wonderful strangers.
Carrowmore was unfortunately closed for the season, but we were able to see some of it outside. The small visible piece definitely gave me an intense feeling, and I hoped we would be back to experience all of it.
Lunch at Coach Lane – 1 Lord Edward Street. Sligo.
I read Coach Lane had fantastic music, even late at night, but unfortunately we didn’t stay in this precious town long. This badass chowder blew me away, making me wonder how many minutes ago the fish and clams had been caught. If someone were to tell me, they journeyed all the way to Sligo for this chowder, I’d shake my head in understanding. I gave it five clams.
Credentials: I’m originally from Boston, so I’m qualified to talk about clam chowder.
The Convent of the Holy Cross aka Sligo Abbey was built in 1252 and definitely worth a visit. The fragile megalithic ruins were unfortunately closed, but we were able to get close enough to take some pictures.
We took a walk down O’connell St. and checked out the Quay Shopping Center on Wine St. I had hoped to take a romantic walk at Knocknarea or Downey Rock Forest Park but we were soon exhausted and eager to see our castle. I heard the nightlife in Sligo had a lot to offer, with the musical equivalent of larger Irish cities. If you’re ever in the area check out some of these pubs:
Garavogue Sligo’s – McGarrigles- The Harp Tavern – McHugh’s Bar – Foley’s – Hargadon’s – Shoot the Crows – Shenanigans.
Kilronan Castle in Roscommon
Now the Kilronan, built in the early 1800s, was a legit castle. The common rooms were truly luxurious, keeping my eyes and imagination preoccupied at all times. The dungeon was turned into a wine cellar, the drawing room became a restaurant with a full bar, and the lobby looked like it could have been a sacred chapel. Our room also had antique furniture, rich velvet drapes and jacquard bedding.
We were having a drink in the drawing room when we asked the waitress if there was any good craic around. Craic, our favorite new word (pronounced like crack) meant fun. The term was typically associated with pubs but alcohol didn’t have to be present. The Irish rated a bar based on the amount of craic the place typically generated. Our young waitress recommended Dunnes, which definitely did not disappoint.
Dunnes had a bar and a dance floor, playing the most amazing eclectic playlist. We soon learned this treasure was the preferred destination for local Hen parties, which were the next level of a bachelorette party, where the women often dressed ridiculously or in full costume. Mother hen was typically there, making me hope they had gotten her drunk previously in order to cope with all the crazy shenanigans happening.
I noticed a girl who looked uncomfortable with the douche bag hitting on her. Yes, even Ireland had them. Nate and I rescued her and in return she introduced us to Baby Guinness shots. We drank until the lights came on. As we walked out the door, a man poured our drinks into a red cup. We proceeded to the afterhours bar down the road. I was unfortunate to witness a man throwing up on the side of the street, who probably became a disgrace to the town of Carrick on Shannon. We weren’t allowed to get breakfast at 7:00am because it was considered cheating, never mind losing it all. After this amazing night, I thought just maybe Irish nightlife was far better among the small towns than the big cities. We were off to Galway to find out.
Day 3 – Kilronan Castle to Galway (D to E)
Driving towards Galway we passed through the adorable town of Boyle, jamming our breaks to admire the Boyle Abbey. We stopped at Benny’s Deli in Castlerea, as recommended, and made our way to the special city of Galway.
Galway pronounced “Golway” was by far my favorite Irish city. It was full of life, musicians on every corner, and of course THE place to go for an authentic claddagh ring.
We arrived at Galway and strolled through adorable cobble stone streets, as we passed colorful stores and pubs. We found our way onto the lively Williams St. Garavan’s had an outdoor patio, perfect for people watching and listening to the live folk music. We ordered our first real Irish coffee, which was heavy yet softened by the fresh cream on top. My mother was able to call me to ask how to work the DVD player and confirmed my apartment hadn’t burned down. I relaxed as I breathed in the intimate city.
Galway Abbey – 8 St. Francis Street, Galway, Ireland
Galway Cathedral – University and Gaol Rds. | Cathedral Square, Galway, Ireland
Europe’s youngest great stone cathedral, as it was built in 1965. I guessed newer meant less fine details. Galway’s abbey and cathedral weren’t nearly as impressive as St. Patrick’s but still stunning in their own way.
The shopping in Galway was fantastic. We stayed around Williams street and Quay St. It was definitely hard for me to choose my claddagh ring since they had all kinds. You could find authentic rings at Thomas Dillons. They were established in 1750 and the only jeweler able to stamp “ORIGINAL” on their claddagh rings. My intention was to get one from there but I was able to find a beautiful one more in my budget at a different store.
Other Galway Attractions:
Dunsandle Castle and Woods Kiltullagh, Athenry, Galway, Ireland
Connemara National Park Letterfrack, Connemara, Co Galway, Galway,
Dinner in Galway
I have no idea where we had dinner in Eyre Square. My food itinerary had been thrown out by this point. Live music and craic had become the deciding factor. We ate at a pub as were serenaded by two talented musicians. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Galway at night was just a cluster of craic oozing into the streets. Locals, musicians, hen parties, and tourists filled the pubs jigging, singing, and talking loudly with enthusiasm. The day I get engaged, I would certainly pray my made of honor would be able to take me here.
We took a walk to Tig Coile’s on Manguard St. The pub was fun and rowdy but became too jam-packed. We walked in and out of some pubs, obviously admiring The King’s Head. Manguard and High St. were a great time, even walking around listening to music with a delicious hot chocolate in hand.
We gave up our second night at the Kilronan Castle and paid an extra 80-euro to stay here. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The Petra B&B was located on a quiet street within a ten minute walking distance from Galway and five minutes from the bus station, where our tour would be leaving from in the morning. Staying here enabled us to experience the nightlife of my favorite Irish city while saving us two hours of driving. The price was competitive and the owners, Joan and Frank, were the friendliest hosts. Joan’s hearty breakfast, including her homemade scones, was a great start to my day. I unfortunately caught a stomach bug and Joan was kind enough to give me the rest of her medicine since she hated the idea I wasn’t feeling well on my vacation. Petra B&B had great reviews on Trip Advisor, and they were truly well deserved.
I wished we had more time to spend with this lively city and Joan’s scones, but we were on our way to explore the Burren National Park, the Cliffs of Moher, Adare Manor, Blarney Castle, Cork, the Rock of Cashel, Kilmainham Gaol, the Jameson Distillery, and of course more craic.