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Away We Go: Things to Explore in Ireland

For the last five years I’ve dreamt of going to Ireland. In fact, you might say that I’ve thought of little else, as in the intervening period two boyfriends have come and gone, yet the call of the emerald isle —unlike the boyfriends— remained. I’m not going to lie, going to Ireland is an expensive proposition and it took an extreme amount of willpower and more than a little sacrifice on my part to set aside enough money to make my dream a reality. It had been difficult to raise the funds for a trip, but by January 2014, the funds were raised. And before I could spend my money irrationally, I purchased a plane ticket – I was going. My belief is simple. Visiting a new continent, a new city, a new town, is an enriching experience. Exposure to new foods, new politics, new behaviours and systems, provides a moment for you to understand more about the world and your place in it. It broadens your sense of what it means to be human; forces you to glimpse —and momentarily live outside— your regular life, allowing  the opportunity to build compassion for others. Whether or not travelling imbues the same sentiment in you, I have compiled a list of highlights from my trip in order to encourage you to visit  Ireland, or anywhere in the world for that matter.

Let me begin by stating what may seem obvious. Refrain from expectations regarding the weather, for Ireland’s weather is fickle. Once you have done this, you will have a grand time.


 Dublin, The City that Guinness Built

While in Dublin, I strongly encourage you to visit Kilmainham Gaol. Here, at one of Ireland’s most prolific prisons, you can partake in a guided tour that leads you through the gaol’s cold, dimly lit hallways, stopping at cells to tell you stories about the people who lived in them, many of whom also died within the prison.  Kilmainham Gaol played an integral role during the 1916 Easter Uprising, as a political prison. The Easter Uprising was a rebellion started by fourteen leaders, fighting for Ireland’s freedom from Britain’s domination. Over the course of the Uprising, these fourteen men were locked away and eventually executed. It wasn’t until these men’s executions that the Irish people began to support their cause. And knowing this will make your Kilmainham experience all the more poignant. One of the stories which really stuck with me was that of Joseph Plunket: a young man whose last request was to be married to his fiancé before being executed. They were married in the prison chapel and as his fiancé, Grace Gifford, was taken from the hall she heard the resounding gunshots as her fiancé was executed. Other stops along the tour included the exercise yard (a cramped and confined space where the prisoners were forced to walk in circles for an hour in silence) and the prison’s secondary yard which was primarily used for executions. The yard now sits empty, save for the two black crosses that stand at either end. One cross signifies where thirteen of the Easter Uprising leaders where executed by firing squad. The other serves as a memorial to the fourteenth leader James Connelly. Connelly had suffered wounds which left him close to death; nonetheless, he was brought from hospital by ambulance to Kilmainham after being summarily sentenced. Unable to walk, he was tied to a chair at the nearest end of the yard, and was then executed by firing squad. The heart wrenching brutality of human beings is brought to the forefront in Kilmainham.

The gaol’s museum enhances the poignancy of the tour. On display are original letters written by these leaders to their families which give voice to a painfully significant point in Irish history that will  remain with you long after you’ve gone home.

For literature enthusiasts, a gratifying stop is the small unassuming Writers’ Museum, located in the Northern part of Dublin. One can spend a few quiet hours here, reading about Oscar Wilde, W.B Yeats, and many other well-known Irish authors. The real treat is being able to view the various published works of these literary luminaries, such as the first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or the third edition of Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Another worthwhile sight is Trinity College, home to the Long Room, the campus’ original library. Not only does the room live up to its implied lengthiness, it’s also filled with 200,000 of the oldest books in Dublin. Display cases line the centre of the room, showing off books from as far back as the 800’s, their worn pages brown and curling at the edges. These pages hold poetry, music and stories, many of which are about Brian Boru, an Irish man who is said to have defeated the Viking King in the battle of Clontarf. The rest of the library is filled with floor-to-ceiling shelving, and old wooden ladders that lean delicately against these shelves. It is here that you can also see the oldest (9th century) religious text in Ireland: The Book of Kells.

There is no need to rush from the Long Room to the next item on your agenda. Feel free to take a gentle stroll along the cobblestone walkway through the college grounds, and soak in the beauty of the grand architecture, and the enormous-trunked trees that stretch their limbs skyward, adding a lovely touch of green between the stone buildings. If you are still in need of some greenery, and you have had a long day of sight-seeing, there is always the option to retreat to one of Dublin’s parks, where you can enjoy a languid walk, perhaps with a gelato in hand.

Dublin has three stunning parks. Phoenix Park, Europe’s largest urban park, contains a full-sized zoo. It’s also a great place to enjoy a bike ride (there are bike rentals at the entrance), have a picnic, or watch the multitude of wild deer that gather in the fields. St. Stephen’s Green is a spectacular park, as it offers a lovely pond, filled with laid-back seagulls, ducks, and swans to watch, as well as numerous pathways to follow at your leisure, beneath the lush canopy of trees. The centre of Stephen’s Green is a courtyard with benches and gazebos scattered between flower gardens and fountains. Lastly, there is the smallest, but no less stunning park, Merrion Square. While you are here, be sure to take the time to venture across the street and take a look at Oscar Wilde’s childhood home.

Welcome to Temple Bar

The Temple Bar is the beating heart of Dublin’s nightlife. And whether or not drinking until the sun rises is your idea of a pleasant evening, Temple Bar is well worth a visit. If you aren’t in the mood for standing on sticky floors, elbow to elbow with people, as the overpowering sweet aroma of beer fills your nostrils, fear not, an alternate option is available. You can spend the evening meandering along the cobblestone walkways, absorbing the energy that is Temple Bar. Street lamps  and light from the bars keep Temple Bar from growing dark while musicians and the locals liven the streets with their lilting accents and celtic inspired riffs on both folk tunes and more modern fair.  You may, as I did, chance to see an impromptu collaboration of Rollin’ on the River between a street musician and an unassuming young woman having a night out on the town. You can watch the cop-like bouncers, donned in black pants and a black windbreaker, standing guard at the sides of pub entrances and politely interacting with people. Not quite the rippling-muscled, tattoo covered stereotype you’re likely to see in Toronto. It was made clear, by the bloodstains on various street corners, that bouncers are occasionally needed: alcohol doesn’t always put people in a jovial mood.

My Goodness My Guinness

As a non-drinker, I didn’t take the opportunity to visit the Guinness storehouse, which resides within the confines of the Guinness factory, but I think it deserves honourable mention; it does attract 10,000 visitors a day. While writing this article, I realized I never bothered to find out what, exactly, the storehouse offered. Growing curious, I did a little snooping on Google and I was faced with this lesson: don’t make assumptions that allow you to disregard something you know nothing about. The Guinness storehouse offers numerous activities, such as an exclusive tasting session mixed with a lesson in Guinness history; a step by step walkthrough of the brewing process, visiting the Guinness atrium shaped like a glass; the worlds largest, and learning how to pour the perfect pint.  As entertaining as the storehouse sounds, I don’t think it can amuse the way Guinness-no-punch-backs, has done.  Every time you see a Guinness truck, you punch the arm of whomever you are with. It adds a little something to those long walks around Dublin.

On To Greener Pastures

Ireland’s countryside sets you in the middle of unceasingly spectacular landscapes. Rolling green hills, with dry stone walls (walls built by hand, stone by stone, without the use of adhesives or binding agents) sectioning off the land, as sheep and cows speckle the hillsides. Awe of the continual beauty that surrounds you is inevitable. However, there is no easy access to these back roads: you need a car. If you don’t have the funds to drive yourself around the hillsides in the southwest of Ireland, there are excellent bus tours that will take you to all the must-see destinations.

In Galway, you can book a day trip (I used Galway Tours) to experience Ireland’s countryside. Along the way, you will stop to behold – and they are sights to behold – castles (originally called tower houses) and ancient ruins before making your way through the Burren region – a mountain range of smooth limestone – to the piece de resistance, the Cliffs of Moher, known to select moviegoers as the Cliffs of Despair. These Cliffs are around 214 meters (702 feet) in height, and extend for 8 kilometres (5 miles) along the coast. Not only have the Cliffs been featured in the Princess Bride, they have also made an appearance in one of the Harry Potter movies.

The only attraction that I believe bests the Cliffs of Moher, is the bewildering natural phenomenon known as the Giants’ Causeway. Both the Cliffs of Moher and the Giants’ Causeway have been dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, at least by their respective tour guides. The Giants’ Causeway is a mass of stone pillars along the coast, all hexagonal in shape, created by the cracking of cooling magma millions of years ago.  Science provides the former explanation, while the popular Irish legend say they formed when two giants, Angus, from Scotland, and Finn McCool, from Ireland, got into an argument. McCool hurled a boulder over to Scotland, an invitation to Angus to face him in a fight. Angus replied by throwing his own boulder back over to Ireland. There was one problem, Angus could not swim, and therefore could not get to Ireland to fight McCool. Thus begins the hurling of boulders by both giants until a large stone walkway, or causeway, was formed. It was only at this point that McCool realized he was in trouble; Angus was much larger than him, and there was simply no way he could beat him in a fight. Alas! McCool was much more devious than Angus, and he proceeded to disguise himself as a baby. Angus arrived at Ireland’s shores, saw the staggeringly large infant, and thought, ‘if the baby is this huge, the father must be massive!’ Scared, Angus ran back to Scotland, never to know the truth. Nowhere else is there anything so beautiful, aside from Scotland, the only other country to have the same natural phenomenon.

The Giants’ Causeway inspires contemplation of the complexities of planet Earth, and the coincidences that occur to create the many natural wonders that exist around the world. And that is the beauty of travel. It’s a chance to give in to situations that will allow new thoughts and ideas to permeate your mind. The purpose of flying across the ocean is to immerse yourself in new ways of thinking, new lifestyles.Travelling can help you shift your perspective, and I believe it can ultimately change you. For these reasons, I hope what you have read encourages you to pursue your own trip to Ireland – or anywhere in the world – as long as it motivates you to follow up on your intention to see the planet. Don’t let money discourage you. Focus on saving up the right amount for one trip. When you have finally saved up all the money you require, don’t hesitate, just buy the plane ticket.

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