St. Patrick's Day in Ireland
This year I had the opportunity to check off an item on my bucket list - St. Patrick's Day in Ireland!! My reason for going was to compete in a negotiation competition on behalf of the Law School at Maynooth (pronounced Muh-NOOTH) University, which conveniently took place the weekend before spring break, and the weekend before St. Patrick's Day. So naturally I stayed.
After having traveled to several countries in Europe, I'm not going to lie - Ireland might have beaten them all out for the top spot. The countryside is beautiful and the people are among the friendliest I have encountered anywhere in Europe. So here is a guide to some of our favorite places to stay, eat, and see. Enjoy!
- Thursday, March 9: Arrived in Dublin, picked up our car, got really lost on our way into town. Finally arrived at Ariel House. Napped, then dinner at The Chop House.
- Friday, March 10-Sunday, March 12: Stayed in Maynooth for the negotiation competition
Monday, March 13
- Drove to Galway from Maynooth
- Lunch at Kings Head Tavern
- Walked around the central square area
- Drove to Doolin by way of The Burren. Checked into Killilagh House B&B.
- Dinner at McGann's Pub and B&B
Tuesday, March 14
- Breakfast at Killilagh House
- Drove to the Cliffs of Moher
- Lunch at the Cliffs Cafe
- Drove to Dingle via the Killimer/Talbert ferry
- Checked into our Airbnb
- Dinner in Dingle at Ashe's Seafood
- Trad music at An Droichead Beag
Wednesday, March 15
- Breakfast at Courtney's Bakery
- Wandered the shops in Doolin until 11 am
- Slea Head Loop Drive
- Lunch at Pottery Place
- Drove through the Killarney National Forest (stopped at Troc Waterfall and Ladies View Point)
- Checked into the Park Kenmare Hotel
- Dinner at the hotel
Thursday, March 16
- Breakfast at the hotel
- Drove to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone
- Drove to Waterford to see the Waterford Crystal Factory
- Drove to Dublin
- Checked into the Carlton Hotel near Dublin Airport
Friday, March 17
- Took the bus downtown
- St. Patrick's Day Parade
- Toured the Guinness Factory
- Saw the Book of Kells
- Dinner in Temple Bar at Elephant & Castle
Saturday, March 18
- Early flight to Frankfurt
- Spent two hours in Frankfurt
- Lunch at Zum Schwarzen in the Romer Platz
- Saw the Frankfurt Cathedral
- Back to the airport to fly home to D.C.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, you'll want to have a travel book of some sort to help you plan your trip. Personally, I am a fan of Rick Steves. I take his books with me anytime I go to Europe. He likes to get a feel for the local scene, rather than just the big tourist traps, so he'll give you tips on where the locals eat, stay, and hang out, as well as guides to how to make the most of your time at the big tourist sites. He also writes up his own walking or driving guides, giving you historical information while you work your way through an area, kind of like your own personal Hop-on-Hop-off bus. We used his book pretty exclusively for our trip.
Cities/Sites (in alphabetical order):
There was much debate about whether or not to stop at Blarney Castle. Rick Steves is not a fan, partially because it is one of the most touristy destinations in all of Ireland. But since we were there and since it was so close to St. Patrick's Day, we figured we couldn't pass it up.
Boy are we glad we went! Blarney Castle is actually much cooler than I thought. There is a fee to get in, but it's not too unreasonable (in 2017 it was 15 Euro for adults; 12 for students). The grounds are extensive and really well kept up. The castle has fallen into some disrepair, which some count as a point against it, but I thought it was kind of cool to walk up the circular stone staircase of an old, nearly ruined castle. It gives it a romantic air (especially since you kiss the top of it).
The Blarney Stone is located on the very top of the castle. See here for the legend of how the Blarney Stone gives you the "gift of gab". You come out of the staircase on the roof and wind your way along to the stone. As a nearly-graduated law student, all I could think is that something like this would never be allowed in the U.S. But hey - we weren't in the U.S.
To kiss the stone, you have to sit down on a mat, and then a worker helps you bend over backwards, where you hang slightly inverted, with not really much beneath you, to kiss this stone. Meanwhile, someone is taking your picture that you can then purchase for 10 Euro at the bottom. It's pretty quick, but both of us were really glad we did it. It's kind of fun and a great thing to say you've done once. And if you have time, walking around the grounds would definitely make the experience that much more worthwhile.
Dingle is always on everyone's list of top places to visit in Ireland. I agree. It is a gorgeous part of the country located in the southwest corner of the island. We didn't have much time in Dingle, but we loved our stay and wished we'd been there longer.
Things to Do:
Dingle is known for two things: the Slea Head Loop drive, and its thriving trad music scene. We took advantage of both.
The Slea Head Loop drive is quickly becoming a significant rival to the more well-known Ring of Kerry. We only had time to do one, so we asked the locals, and they all said Slea Head Loop. The Slea Head Loop drive takes you along a 30-mile stretch of some of the most beautiful coastline I've ever seen. I've heard it said that the entire island of Ireland is one big archaeological site - you could take a shovel and start digging anywhere and find something. Driving along the Dingle peninsula, I believe it. Old stone walls, ruined churches, ancient crosses or other Celtic icons just line the roads and wind their way through the farms and towns. Additionally, the Dingle peninsula is a little more mountainous (or hilly) than other parts of the island, which means that everywhere you turn are rolling hills with patches of green farmland and ancient stone walls. It's like an optical feast.
The drive took us about a half a day, and we didn't stop at every site. We did stop to see the Beehive huts (stone igloos dating from ancient times), the ruined church of Kilmalkedar, and every scenic turnoff we encountered. Film buffs might enjoy knowing that two movies - Ryan's Daughter, and Far and Away, were filmed in this area.
Since we sacrificed the Ring of Kerry for the Slea Head Loop drive, I can't compare the two, but I will say I'm not sorry we chose this one.
The other thing that makes Dingle famous is its trad music scene. Trad (traditional) music is everything you want in Irish music. Literally. If you're there in high season, pretty much every pub in Dingle has musicians playing all night, every night. Since we were there in March, our choices were a little more limited. However, our experience was no worse off for that.
Around 9:00 we found our way into the An Droichead Beag pub, to a full crowd and an awesome three-piece band. There was a drummer, a guitarist, and a girl playing a concertina accordion. I think we stayed for about two hours, but I could have stayed all night. I love Irish music. Nothing gets you up and moving like a good Irish tune. Bless the Irish for bringing us Irish music.
On our second day in Dingle, we walked through the town and stopped at the Harry Clark windows of Diseart. The windows are located in the convent of St. Mary's Church, right on Green Street. The windows tell the life of Jesus Christ and are brilliantly designed. Next to the chapel is the Nano Angle room, with murals depicting the life of Nano Nagle, the woman who founded the Presentation Sisters order in Ireland. It's small, but if you're in the area, definitely worth a visit.
Other good things to do in Dingle that we did not have time for:
- Fungie the Dolphin (yes, there's a dolphin in the bay and you can go see him)
- Blasket Islands
- Music concerts in one of several churches (different from the trad pub music)
Places to Stay:
We just did an Airbnb in Dingle and it worked out great. Our particular Airbnb was right on Green Street - in the heart of downtown Dingle. The apartment was lovely, comfortable, and had a washer and dryer in it. We would have loved to stay longer if we'd had time!
Places to Eat:
For breakfast, we stopped at Courtney's Bakery and got pastries and sausage rolls. It was just up the street from our Airbnb, so we went more out of convenience than because it was great food.
For lunch driving the Slea Head Loop, we stopped at Pottery Place near Ballyferriter. The restaurant is located on the upper floor of a darling pottery shop, and all of the dishes they use in the restaurant come from the shop. We ordered a grilled cheese with chutney (a little dry but the chutney was delicious), and a crab special on brown bread (which was delicious). I also got a hot chocolate because I was cold.
For dinner, before we went to listen to the trad music, we stopped at Ashe's Seafood just down the street. It's on the pricier end, but oh it was so good. I had brown bread and Herefordshire beef for an entree. We split the lobster trio appetizer. I would highly recommend this place.
Things to Do:
Book of Kells/Trinity College: Trinity College is in the heart of Dublin on the south side of the river. It's a fun place to walk around, and it plays host to the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). It's believed to have been created around 800 AD and is one of Ireland's finest national treasures. You do need tickets to get in, so try to get them in advance before you arrive. If you don't, you can still go same day (which is what we did), but you have to stand in the standby line and hope you get in. Depending on the time of year, this could be easier or harder to do. If you do get inside, DON'T MISS the Old Library on the upper level. As far as libraries go, it's amazingly gorgeous and well worth the time to see. It also houses the Trinity College Harp, a medieval harp from the 14th or 15th century, and the symbol of Ireland's national coat of arms (also the model for the Guinness harp).
Guinness Factory: Whether or not you're a drinker, the Guinness Factory is worth the visit. It's pricey, but - (tourist secret!) - you can come and go throughout the day of your ticket as many times as you want, which means you can stagger your time there, or use it as a sheltering place if it rains. The Guinness Factory is a serious operation. Several floors of museum and gift shop, with a 360 degree bar at the top, with one of the best views of Dublin. With your ticket you get a free glass of Guinness, or, for the non-drinkers, a soda.
Temple Bar District: This is the quintessential tourist neighborhood in Dublin. It's chalk full of pubs, restaurants, shops, and tourists. It's definitely a place to check out, particularly if you like the pub scene. But word to the wise - you won't hear many Irish accents here. As far as which restaurants are the best, just take your pick and you probably can't go wrong.
Other Things to See (which we didn't have time for):
- Dublin Castle
- Kilmainham Jail
- St. Patrick's Cathedral
Places to Stay:
Our first night in Dublin we stayed at Ariel House. I loved Ariel House and wish we could have stayed there longer. It is a cute little B&B located on the south side of the river near the Aviva Stadium. It's not right in the heart of town, but it's not far, and worth the extra few minutes of travel. During the afternoon, Ariel House serves tea in the front room, and they have an all-you-can-eat complimentary breakfast (which is WAY better than your standard complimentary breakfast).
Our second night we stayed at the Carlton Hotel Dublin Airport, mainly because it was close to the airport. We had a 5:00 am flight the next morning and didn't want to be far from the airport. As far as airport hotels go, the Carlton was really nice, and they have a shuttle to take you to and from the airport.
Places to Eat:
We didn't spend a lot of time in the restaurant scene in Dublin, just due to the timing of our schedule. But here's our list:
The Chop House: Located down near the Aviva Stadium. A little pricier, and you probably need reservations, but it was really tasty. I had the Light Tempura of Atlantic Hake fish 'n chips. My mom had the 35-day Irish Dry-Aged Prime Limousin 10 oz ribeye. Both were delicious. The green beans with the steak alone were worth it. I really wanted to try the board of Irish cheeses for dessert, but we were too full.
KC Peaches: cute, quick cafe in downtown Dublin. They have an all-you-can-eat buffet that's not terribly expensive and pretty tasty, so if you are starving and need a solid meal (or just want something quick), this can be a decent place to stop.
Elephant & Castle: located in Temple Bar. We stopped for dinner on St. Patrick's Day. It was good but not terribly memorable.
Galway / Doolin / Cliffs of Moher
Things to Do:
Galway itself is like a little big city. We drove in and decided we didn't really want to spend too much time there. So instead we went to lunch at the King's Head pub (an 800 year-old tavern), walked around the square, and then headed out to Doolin. But the old square is really cute.
Doolin is a small town located about an hour outside of Galway. It's a popular kick-off place for the Cliffs of Moher because it's only about 20 minutes away from the Cliffs, as opposed to the 1.5-2 hour drive from Galway. Doolin is much more rural than Galway, so if you're looking for Irish countryside, skip the city and just head here.
Doolin is also home to an innumerable host of B&B's, so you'll have no shortage of places to stay. We stayed at Killilagh (Kill-AYE-luh) House, where our host, Cormack, got us settled in and made us a nice breakfast of porridge and French toast in the morning. Killilagh House is also close to two pubs, which is great for dinner or a drink (during high season they also play music). We had dinner at McGann's. I had the half Irish stew (note: the half was actually huge, so don't order the full unless you're sharing or starving), and my mom had the fish and chips. Both were great, and I would highly recommend stopping here if you have the time.
The Cliffs of Moher are obviously the main attraction in this part of the country. If you have time, you can also hop a boat from Galway and head to the Aran Islands (famous for their wool), but we choose to skip the islands and head straight to the Cliffs.
The Cliffs are gorgeous. Everything in Ireland is gorgeous, but these are a must-see for a reason. We got there right around 10, which was good because it was before most of the other tourists - including the tour buses - arrived, but also bad because the morning fog was still hanging over the cliffs, obscuring most of them from view. The fog did lift within about a half hour to an hour, but that's something to be aware of when making your plans.
To view the cliffs, you can walk along a path that follows them around. If you have the time, you can even hike from the nearby towns up to the cliffs, but it's certainly not necessary to get the full view. Near the tower on the north side is one such path that a lot of people will traverse to get a better view of the cliffs. Note - once you head out on this trail, there is no fence to keep you from falling off the cliffs. The trail isn't right on the edge, but it's close enough that if you aren't careful, you could wind up in a lot of trouble. And if it's been raining, the dirt path will become slick from the mud, and the grass will become soft and prone to giving way. Basically, just be really, really careful once you leave the paved trails.
After we spent a couple of hours wandering around the cliffs, we went inside to the cafe for lunch. We weren't intending to eat here, but it was available and we wanted to get on our way to Dingle, so convenience won out. Luckily for us, the food was also delicious. Most of it is locally sourced, so it's fresh, well-prepared, and reasonably priced. We shared shrimp salad, seafood chowder, a cupcake (with green frosting), a scone, and of course - brown bread. I would recommend all of it. There are also several gift shops if you want to shop, but if you're just looking for scenery, get there on the early side and take off once the tour buses arrive.
We were only in Kenmare for a day, but I wish we could have stayed longer. Rick Steven thinks Kenmare is sleepy and encourages moving on quickly, but I loved the sleepy nature of the town. To each their own, I guess.
Since we were only in Kenmare for a very short time, I can only really talk about the place we stayed, the Park Kenmare Hotel. It was by far our most expensive night's stay, but OH MY GOSH it was worth it. The Park Kenmare isn't officially a castle, but it definitely gives the vibe of one. Lush rooms with a sitting room area, nice bathroom, beautiful beds, and gorgeous antique furniture everywhere.
The Park Kenmare also has two restaurants - a fine dining restaurant and a more casual restaurant. The casual restaurant still requires you to dress nicely, but not formally like the dining room. For dinner we ate in the casual restaurant and I had the most delicious 8 oz. Irish beef with green beans, a bread basket, and a lobster cocktail appetizer. (Seriously, I cannot get enough Irish brown bread.) For breakfast, we ate in the dining room, which you have to make reservations for ahead of time. I had the fried egg with potato hash, bread, hot chocolate, and apple juice.
After breakfast, we briefly walked around the extensive grounds of the Park and took a quick tour of the luxurious spa - basically an entire building added on to the existing structure of the hotel. One day, when I have enough money, I am going to spend lots of time in spas like that. Until then, I will just look at them wistfully.
Once we checked out, we had to head out of town quickly to get to our other destinations, so we didn't have time to do much more than drive around town on our way out. However, according to Rick, Kenmare is the best starting off point for the Ring of Kerry, so if you plan on driving the Ring, give yourself a lovely day of rest in this charming town.
Just a quick word on Maynooth, in case you end up there. It's about an hour's drive outside of Dublin, but there's not much there to see except the University and some pretty countryside. However, the University is home to one of the largest Catholic seminaries in the world, having ordained over 11,000 Catholic priests throughout its history.
Things to Do:
The University has two parts - an older part where the chapel and seminary are located, and a more modern portion where the rest of the courses take place. The campus is small but beautiful, and comes with several legends of ghost stories and exorcisms on its grounds. If you find yourself in Maynooth, the University is a must-see.
Places to Stay:
There aren't many hotels in Maynooth. The one we stayed at was the Glenroyal Hotel and Leisure Center. It's located right near the heart of the town and has great accommodations.
The last night in Maynooth my mother stayed in Celbridge Manor. It was nice, but had a musty smell.
Places to Eat:
Main Street is the only real center of activity in Maynooth. The Roost is a popular pub and has TV screens showing whatever rugby game or sports event is on at the time. Inside the Glenroyal is Saints bar and Shoda Cafe, both of which are fine options. Other than that, just go wander on Main Street and you'll have no trouble finding something.
Waterford Crystal Factory
Who hasn't heard of Waterford Crystal? Well, if you're in Ireland you can go explore their factory and buy something from the place where it all started. The Waterford Crystal Factory is located in the town of Waterford. Due to our brief stop in Blarney, we did not have time to do the factory tour, but I hear it's worth it if you have the time.
However, we did have time to go in the store. Note: it's probably more expensive to buy something directly from the showroom than online, but if you buy it in the showroom then you get to say you bought it directly from Dublin. Something to keep in mind. If you do buy something from the store, there are a couple of things to know about getting it home. You can ship it home, but it will cost you a fee to do so. If you are buying several items, the shipping charge is flat regardless of the number of items, so you can spread the cost out by buying more. However, if the value of your items is over approximately $200 US (in 2017), then you will pay an import tax on your items. In other words, if multiple people are buying things, combine them into one shipping package - just make sure the total doesn't go over $200. Also - most of the fees are negotiable, so keep that in mind when discussing details.
St. Patrick's Day Guide:
When I was researching information about Ireland on St Patrick's Day, there was surprisingly little on the web. So here is my take on it.
First of all, let me mention that there are several places to spend St. Patrick's Day. For me, if I was going all the way to Ireland, I wanted to spend the day in Dublin, since that seemed to be the place to celebrate. As a non-drinker, there's some irony to that statement, but you can still appreciate Dublin without joining in the Guinness-fest.
I will say, however, that if you're looking for an authentic Irish experience, Dublin probably isn't the best place to be. It's a city full of Americans and other tourists who are excited about wearing green and getting drunk. I'm pretty sure Ireland celebrates St. Paddy's for the tourists more than for their own celebrations. On March 17th, most of the locals stay home, or at least out of downtown.
Along those lines, several cities in the US (Boston, Chicago, etc.) probably have larger events than Dublin, which is both a pro and a con. When we were there, there was an estimated half a million people attending the festivities, which is a lot, but seemed small compared to the thousands that turn up for the parades in Chicago and elsewhere.
In spite of all this, St. Paddy's in Dublin really is pretty fun. Everyone is dressed in green and the whole city is in a really festive mood. Plus, all of the towns in Ireland get all decked out in the days leading up to the celebration, so it's a super fun time to be in Ireland.
Annual St. Patrick's Day Parade: The parade is cute and usually has a theme of some sort (this year's was "Ireland, you are..."). Lots of American high school and college bands go to participate, and there was a definite lack of Irish dancing. But the costumes were fun and I'm glad I went. A few tips for the parade:
- Don't worry about showing up at the crack of dawn. We got there about two hours early and it was PLENTY of time. We positioned ourselves near Christ Church Cathedral, partway between St. Patrick's Cathedral (the parade end), and Trinity College. We liked it because it was right near a whole bunch of food tents, was right near a grandstand where we could watch the dance performances, and had good views of the parade both coming and going. And since it was raining and cold, we definitely used the food tents for lots of hot chocolate.
- We looked into the grandstand tickets but decided not to get them. After getting there, I think we made a perfectly fine decision. They would have been nice once it started raining on us, but otherwise I would save the money for something else. If you do want them, they sell out early, so buy them in advance.
Here are some of other tricks to celebrating St. Paddy's Day in Dublin:
- Carroll's: if you're looking for last minute decorations and paraphernalia, Carroll's is the place to go. They have stores all over the city, filled with so much stuff you won't have any problem finding what you need.
- Greening of the city: For a few days before the 17th, several of the buildings are illuminated green. If you have the time, follow Rick's walking tour of the city at dusk so you can see the buildings all lit up.
- Temple Bar District: This is definitely the main tourist area where everyone goes to drink lots of Guinness and other spirits. In the late afternoon they impose security stops at Temple Bar and it gets really, really crowded, so know that ahead of time.
- The Guinness factory is always a hip place to be on Paddy's Day, and since your ticket allows you to come and go it can be a nice haven from the rain or cold weather.
Driving in Ireland
Driving in Ireland is pretty intense, but it's one of the only ways to really see the country, so just make sure you go prepared to handle the challenges. The Irish drive on the left side of the road, which is actually ok on the main roads, but can be scary on small two-lane highways where everyone drives way faster than they should.
When renting a car, I strongly urge getting an automatic transmission. They're more expensive than cars with a manual transmission, but shifting on a manual is backwards to what you're normally used to and can just add additional complexity that is both unnecessary and probably dangerous if you're not used to it.
Also, if you rent a car, the other passengers should have the following responsibilities:
- Make sure the driver stays on the left side
- Make sure the driver turns into the correct lane
- Make sure the driver doesn't stray too far over the left outside line
If you have multiple passengers, it's best to split up the responsibilities; if not, the main passenger will need to do it all.
Let's talk GPS. GPS is really useful to have while you're driving because roads are poorly labeled (if at all), and one wrong turn can take you hours to find your way back. But if you're like me and don't want to pay a horrendous amount for international data, there is another option. In Google maps, you can set up your route using Wi-Fi, then put it on airplane mode while you drive. If you have location tracking on your phone, the little blue GPS dot will move as you move, which means you can follow the pre-set route as you go.
Another note on phones here - pretty much every restaurant and hotel has wifi, so as long as you stay with your group, you don't really need to get an international cell service plan. I was there for 11 days and had no problem as long as I was with my group.
Ireland isn't necessarily known for their food, but I actually really liked it. Irish food is best in a pub. Eat all the steak you can. Cows in Ireland are fat and happy and delicious. Brown bread is amazing. Irish food is heavy and hearty, but when it's cold outside, nothing tastes better.
Traditional Irish food includes:
- Irish stew (a stew with beef tips, potatoes, vegetables, and gravy)
- Fish and chips (the fish is in slabs, not sticks)
- Shepherd's pie (real shepherd's pie is made with lamb; cottage pie is made with beef)
- Brown bread (also known as soda bread)
- Seafood (crab, fish, etc.)
Traditional Irish breakfasts include fried eggs, sausage, fried ham (that they call bacon), cooked tomatoes, and black and white pudding. Black pudding is made from blood sausage; white pudding from fat. Black pudding tastes kind of burned and is definitely an acquired taste. White pudding tastes much better, but you're pretty much eating straight fat, so of course it tastes better.
Gaelic is the official language of Ireland. So is English, but most places will have signs in Gaelic first, followed by the English translation. Pretty much everyone speaks English, but it does take a little while to adjust to each region's accent. All of the accents are pretty strong, but they're absolutely wonderful to listen to. Some of the more rural areas receive government subsidies to teach Gaelic in public schools, so in areas like the Aran Islands many students speak Gaelic first and English second. Ireland is very proud of its heritage and very adamant about being acknowledged as separate from England. There's a lot of bad blood towards the English, but they love Americans and will welcome you with open arms.
If you're traveling to Ireland outside of the main tourist season, make sure to check opening times for any sites you wish to see. Since March is technically still just a little early for tourist season, some things closed early or were closed altogether. So there's a little bit of a tradeoff in fighting fewer tourists but being more constrained by schedule or availability. Also be mindful of weather. I had a rain jacket, a sweatshirt, and a trench coat, and there was definitely more than one time when I wore all three simultaneously. I don't think there was ever a time when I wasn't wearing a jacket, even when the sun was out and the weather was nice. Ireland is farther north than anywhere in the contiguous 48 states in the US, so when traveling, just remember that the weather will likely be a little cooler than wherever you're coming from and dress accordingly. Also, if you have a good pair of rain boots or galoshes, take them (I took my ankle high Sperry's and wore them almost every day).
That's it for my tips and tricks for visiting Ireland! What are some of your tips and suggestions for traveling in Ireland?