We did a mini road trip around Ireland and attempted to hit as much as we could along the way, to really get a feel for the country. We began in Dublin, but my favorite part of the trip was driving through the countryside and along the west coast.
I, of course, always do quite extensive research for trips – including looking at lots of photos for inspiration. But no amount of photos could ever form a picture of Ireland in my head that was quite accurate. You see the photos of rolling green fields and crumbling castles, but photos just can’t convey the magical charm that you feel when you’re actually experiencing it in person. And part of that magic is randomly stumbling across fantastic hidden gems on your way to the next destination.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a coastal route starting at the bottom of Ireland and stretching up the entire western coast to the tippy top of Northern Ireland. It is some of the most incredible countryside I’ve ever seen, and although parts of it draw big crowds it’s still completely possible to plan a trip that mostly keeps you away from other tourists. Although I primarily like to view places through architecture, there’s always something so refreshing about an occasional jaunt off the beaten path into nature. This is definitely one of those places where getting lost on country roads is a good thing!
**THE HIGHLIGHTS: ARCHITECTURE & NATURE**
[near town of Gort, Co. Galway]
There we were, driving through the countryside from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher, down a super narrow rural road lined with fields, stone walls & hedges. And, all of the sudden, boom – there it was. We could see some sort of stone ruin off to the side, in the middle of some pastures. Off we went to explore.
Thankfully, there was a sign with some information. There are several buildings & a cemetery that all make up this abbey, all enclosed by stone walls. It was founded in the early 7th century and the ages of the buildings varies, with the oldest remaining ones dating to the 13th century. The abbey is [clearly] no longer in use, but it is so beautiful. Despite being in such a remote location, it was apparently important enough that in the 12th century it became the bishop’s seat for the region. It was destroyed in the early 13th century, but was subsequently replaced with a new abbey, which is what we see the remains of today.
Unexpectedly finding this abbey was what first really tuned me in to the magic of Ireland. I like planning the crap out of our trips and marking out what exactly we’re going to see. I had looked up lots of castles, but I hadn’t realized there were so, so many monastery ruins all over. Silly me! Realizing that there’s still plenty to stumble across by happenstance, even for the most thorough of trip planners, made me very happy. Sometimes I’m so busy making sure we see all there is to see and fitting it all into the official schedule that I forget to just… explore. Especially when we’re not in an urban environment. It’s a work in progress, for sure 🙂
[Leamaneh North, Co. Clare]
This was actually one of the “official” stops I had planned out, and it was the reason we were driving on rural roads and discovered the above abbey. First of all, lesson learned. Taking the local roads is way better than the efficiency of the highway. Secondly, this was totally a worthwhile stop… although we actually spent much more time at the abbey we accidentally found [above]!
Architecturally, the castle is quite surprising for its location. It began as just a tower house in the 15th century, which was then substantially added to in the 17th century to create an imposing four-story mansion. As incredible as it looks when you pull up in front of it now, I imagine it must have been quite astonishing during its years of use.
As this castle is private property surrounded by a fence, it’s not possible to do more than admire it from the roadside. Likewise, there is no actual parking. We were very mindful to stop where we were able to pull as far off the road as possible, but it seems that not all tourists are so considerate. There was a family that pulled up after us, clearly having spotted the castle as they were driving and decided to take a peek. They were only partially pulled over and obliviously had their car doors open into the road for an extended time, in the way of passing cars. Yet when a car honked at them for it they seemed quite put out and surprised. I find it extremely frustrating when I see other visitors behaving like that. We are guests in every place we visit and we try very hard to be as inconspicuous and considerate as possible. Sadly, I see far, far too many tourists who seem to have no idea of that concept.
Cliffs of Moher
[Liscannor, Co. Clare]
This is a classic for good reason! If you’re lucky, you’ll get a day with clear, blue skies like we did, although foggy days certainly have their own appeal. It’s kind of strange to be in rugged coastal Ireland and then suddenly see a big ol’ parking lot of cars and tour buses. We had picked up our rental car in Dublin very early [as soon as the rental counter opened], so even with our off-the-beaten-path route & stops at the ruins along the way we still made it there on the earlier side. We had perfect weather & just enough of a breeze to keep us cool. When you reach the cliffs if you turn left the “official” path eventually ends, at which point you can go onto a dirt path that’s private property. At this point the railing ends and you’re literally walking along the edge of a cliff. Given my record of clumsiness I was making R a bit nervous!
Funny story: shortly after we moved to Germany, R had a nightmare that I fell off the edge of a cliff in Ireland while we were taking a selfie. Which I found to be a pretty hilarious representation of how his brain thinks of my accident prone self. I was kind of having fun [maybe a little too much fun…] giving him a hard time about that when we were at the Cliffs of Moher. We made sure to only take selfies sitting down, to be extra safe.
[near Kinvara, Co. Galway]
After leaving the Cliffs of Moher we drove north along the coast toward Galway, making a stop at another castle along the way. Dunguaire Castle is a 16th century tower house sitting at the edge of Galway Bay. They apparently host medieval banquets, but we just stopped for a quick bit of exploring. There’s not much to see in the courtyard of the castle, but the outside is fun to walk around. I kept spotting little bits of broken dishes amid the dirt of the walkway. I seem to have a good eye for that, judging by the many little baggies of finds I have from various trips!
Claddagh Quay & Nimmo’s Pier
After walking through the bustling touristy area of Galway, we found ourselves at this little harbor. On the opposite side was a nice view of the rows of colorful houses & lots of cool old boats. Fishermen were out cleaning & repairing their boats on Nimmo’s Pier. There’s also a strip of land that sticks partway out into the water, which functions as a park. There were tons of young people sitting out, enjoying the sunshine & some cool beverages, listening to music. It seemed like a pretty perfect way to relax if you live there.
Ross Errilly Friary
[Ross, Co. Galway]
This medieval [15th century] monastery is a bit like the first abbey we visited – surrounded by fields. It’s a bit farther off the road, though, so you’re unlikely to come across this one by chance. The friary was larger than I expected, with lots of different little sections in the complex. As it’s a ruin, the only thing that remains of the structure is the stone shell. What I was truly fascinated by was seeing stairs, doorways, fireplaces & the beam supports for what was once an upper floor. It’s not very often that you get to see the “guts” of a historic building in that way!
This picturesque island is part of the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast of Ireland, a little north of Galway. It’s a bit of a winding drive to get there, but you access it via a bridge [i.e. super easy, since no ferries are required]. The entire island is pretty spectacularly & delightfully quaint. There are sheep wandering freely all over the island, which made me squeal with delight! I love fluffy sheepies! Most of the line of cars turned off in the earlier parts of the island, but we were headed all the way to the end of the line [literally… as far as the road goes]. We were part of a small line of cars driving across Achill & I grew increasingly pleased as the other vehicles turned off one by one til we were the only ones heading to our awesome destination [below]. There were lots of areas that looked like they would be fun to explore if we had been there longer [like the abandoned village of Slievemore & a megalithic tomb] but, unfortunately, we had very limited time to spend there.
This is a wonderful hidden gem of Ireland! To get there you have to drive onto Achill Island and go across the island allllll the way to the end of the road. No, seriously! Just before the end of the road, it curves to the right along the top of a cliff before going down a bit to the beach below. There are a couple little areas to pull off up there, which we did on our way out to get a great view of Keem Bay & Keem Beach.
So how exactly did I come to find this out-of-the-way hidden gem? Funny you should ask… Keem is actually my last name! As soon as I had enough internet savvy & self-awareness to Google my last name out of curiosity [back in high school] I became aware of this random little place in the wilds of Ireland that had my name. Our family’s name isn’t Irish, so the beach/bay technically has no connection to us but, nevertheless, I’ve dreamed for many, many years of someday visiting “my” beach. It was honestly a bit surreal to actually make it there!
It was difficult to find much information when I was planning our visit, but we arrived to find a gorgeous, secluded beach, surrounded by steep, green cliffs. With sweet, fluffy sheep casually roaming all around the beach. Despite being prime tourist season, it wasn’t at all overcrowded. It was the perfect place for our little picnic lunch, and it was as magical as I ever could have hoped that “my” beach would be. Oh, and they were even nice enough to put up a cool “Keem Bay” sign that was perfect for photos – how thoughtful of them! Even further adding to my delight: when we stopped at a coffee shop on the island as we were heading out the guy taking my order saw the name on my credit card and said “Hey, you have a beach named after you!” Yes, sir… yes, I do.
Moran’s Oyster Cottage
[The Weir, Kilcolgan, Co. Galway]
Have you ever sat outside eating oysters so fresh that you’re literally watching the fishermen haul in the next ones? No? Well, that’s exactly how they do it here! This little restaurant is only a 30 minute drive from the center of Galway, yet it feels like you’ve ventured far off into nature. The tables outside the thatched-roof restaurant are the perfect place to enjoy the local specialty: world famous Clarinbridge oysters. Sitting out there enjoying our lunch and taking in the fresh, earthy air, I would never have guessed it to be a place visited by numerous celebrities. The oysters, followed by an open sandwich of brown bread, jam & cheese, made for a perfect chill lunch. This is the sort of relaxed moment that you always hope to have on a vacation.
The Pie Maker
[10 Cross St. Upper, Galway]
I. Love. Pie. To be fair, it’s baking pies [typically fruit ones] that I love the most. But pie is pie and I’m sure not going to turn down the chance for delicious homemade pie of any variety. Does anyone remember the TV show Pushing Daisies? As a pie aficionado, I adored that show for its plot that charmingly centered around the Pie Maker and his restaurant called the Pie Hole. So, the name of this Galway restaurant, alone, got me excited. For all my pie making adventures, I don’t have any experience in savory ones, so I was also happy for the chance to try some top notch ones here. The main pies here are meat pies and fish pie, but they do also have dessert pie. The restaurant is a veeeery tiny space [they seem to do a lot of takeout business] and was swelteringly hot, but that hardly diminished my enjoyment of the food. Now I just need to start practicing my own savory pie making!
No offense to Ireland, but I think that the reason it took us so long to visit Ireland is because it almost seemed like a bit of a cliche to me. I know quite a few people who have been there and, although they recommended visiting, its widespread popularity took away some of the appeal. Now that we’ve finally been there I can say that, personally, I think the only way to see Ireland is to spend most of your time in the countryside – that’s where the real magic is!