In February 2016 John and I embarked on our first European vacation to Ireland! We booked through Great Value Vacations totally on a whim (fully explained in the Day 1 post) and it ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We’d spent the last nine years seeing as much of the US as possible (38/50 states!) but it was finally time to go abroad. Éirinn go Brách!
Day 2 began bright and early, with a breakfast call at 7:30AM in the hotel restaurant (Gulliver’s at the Newpark Hotel). It was a buffet with tons of options (and was included in the cost of our trip). I am not a lover of breakfast food but I managed to have a great breakfast. At this point I was definitely hooked on Irish brown bread!
Our hotel departure was set for at 8:30AM, and we piled into the bus and took off from Kilkenny.
Our drive took us through County Tipperary and County Cork. It was a cloudy morning, mist covering the long stretches of farms and pastures, quiet with only sheep in sight.
Here in southeast Ireland common agricultural industries are farming, lambing in spring, and growing winter wheat. Most of the farm land is used for grazing and Ireland dairy (milk, cheese, grass-fed beef) is sent to over 140 markets/countries all over the world. They don’t have any factory farms in Ireland (unlike the US); the farms here are family owned/operated.
The drive was a perfect portrait of rural Ireland. Verdant, beautiful, cold, hushed. Pictures cannot do this place justice. On one side, open grasslands. On the other, castles and ruins springing up like weeds. Everywhere you look something both foreign and familiar.
A 13th century monastery site, now in ruins. In the early Viking raids (800-900AD), Vikings looted and plundered many monasteries throughout Ireland and left what was once sacred, lost and destroyed.
After about an hour’s drive west, we arrived in Cashel.
We stopped quickly to get a glimpse of the Rock of Cashel, a sacred historical site with a huge castle on top, and to take some photos.
The land itself is an outcrop of limestone with buildings that date from the 12th, 13th, and 15th centuries. Hore Abbey, located in the valley below, is a ruined Cistercian monastery built in the 13th century.
From Cashel we drove an hour south towards Cork. We passed through Cork City and Tony gave us a quick, but thorough, tour of the Lee River waterfront. The Port of Cork is the main port serving southern Ireland and is the second busiest port in Ireland.
Here we saw the old Ford factory (above, right), which closed in 1984. In 1917, this Ford plant was built by Henry Ford and it was the first of its kind outside of America. The Ford family hailed from Cork but were forced out of Ireland in 1845 during the Great Famine. Henry’s father, William, would come to America, buy land in Michigan, and the rest is history. The Port of Cork also has several bonded warehouses (below, right), built in the 1700s, that held whiskey, tobacco, and other goods before being exported from Ireland.
Parliament Bridge, a single-arched limestone bridge, is the unique centerpiece of the urban landscape of Cork, leading right into the Grand Parade in the center of downtown Cork.
On the way out of Cork City we passed the Heineken Brewery (left) and Murphy’s Brewery.
Cork is a place I definitely want to come back to someday. It was urban and modern, with a welcoming spirit. Cork has long been an Irish nationalist city and continues to be a metropolitan hub and the third most populous city in Ireland, with a strong connection to its industrial roots.
Just 15 minutes from Cork was our main stop for the day: Blarney Castle. We arrived at 11:30AM and Tony let us know we had three hours to shop, eat, and sightsee, due back at the bus at 2:30PM.
There was a lot to do in Blarney in just 3 hours so we needed a game plan. We headed to Blarney Castle first since it was the thing we wanted to do the most and needed the majority of our time for.
I think when Johnny Cash wrote “Forty Shades of Green” about Ireland, he must have written after coming to Blarney Castle. Not only is the castle itself awe-inspiring, the grounds are gorgeous and in all shades of green. I know that phrase is much older than his song, and all of Ireland is lush and green, but looking at this sight made me think of it.
The site of Blarney Castle has been in existence since 1200 – first with a wooden structure, rebuilt into stone in 1210, and currently with the present castle which was built in 1446. The castle was built as a medieval stronghold and remained that way through the 1700s.
There is so much to explore at the castle – a dungeon, the court, battlements, the castle itself, caves, and of course the Blarney Stone.
Winding our way up the path, around the castle, and getting to the entrance in the back…
Finally inside the castle – you start in the main hall. It is fantastic ruin that immediately gives off a medieval vibe. Up one flight of stairs – more on that in a minute – you enter the old kitchen and can make your way through the smaller rooms where you can look at the gardens below through the many arrowloops.
To get to the Blarney Stone, you must climb to the top of Blarney Castle. Sounds easy enough but it was actually pretty scary. The stone stairs – see below – wind sharply and go straight up, they are slimmer than the length of your foot, they were wet and slick, and the only thing you have to steady yourself is a wet metal bar around the edge of the steps or a wet rope hanging down the middle of the steps. To reach the top you need to wind up five flights like this. Five terrifying flights! When we got to the top I had jelly legs; the climb was nerve-racking and I really don’t like heights. Thankfully there is one staircase for going up and one for going down so you’re not bumping into other people, but that didn’t make it any less awful.
Finally up at the top!
From the top of Blarney Castle, looking down in to the main hall. Is this not giving you Game of Thrones realness? (Fun fact: GoT primarily films in Belfast and Northern Ireland so it’s not really a stretch to see the similarities!)
At the top I took a few deep breaths and tried not to look down too much. I was ready to kiss the Blarney Stone and get the heck back down to solid ground. Enter the second most harrowing thing I did that day. But first, some history:
The Blarney Stone itself is a piece of limestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle. Even though it is world renowned, there is conflicting lore about its origin. We were told it was a piece of the Stone of Scone (a sacred coronation stone used since the 14th century) that was built into the castle parapet for protection. We also heard that it was a gift to the builder of the castle from the King of Scots in 1314. It is also said to be a simple stone that was kissed by the castle’s builder on his way to court to deal with a lawsuit. He did it for luck but ended up winning his case, due to exceeding eloquence in court that day. In any case, the stone was set into a tower of the castle in 1446 and has been there even since – receiving kisses in exchange for eloquence, luck, and the gift of gab. It’s an Irish folk tradition and had been on my bucket list for years.
Little did I know that to actually kiss the Stone, you had to do the following: take off any loose items like hats, glasses, etc. For me, that meant my glasses which then meant I was totally blind for the rest. Get down on the wet ground, lay on your back, scooch as close as you can to the wall, tip your head and upper body backwards over the railing, hold tight to two slick metal bars above you, entrust a stranger who holds on to you for dear life, and kiss the stone! SMOOCH!
Here’s what kissing the Blarney Stone looks like from the ground:
Oh my god, it was one of the scariest things I have ever done, but I’m glad I did it.
From the top we took a few photos of the incredible views and made the climb down.
We stopped in the “family room” on the way out, which is basically the interior of the first floor of the castle. This is where the men would have gathered, fires roared, and meals were had. On the far right is a photo of folks queued up at the top of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone.
One final wet, slippery, moldy staircase and we were back on solid ground. Whew!
Done at the castle, it was time to check out the grounds. Again, there is so much to do here; we could have spent all day exploring. Immediately outside of the castle exit are signs for the gardens. Poison Garden, you say?
Yes, there is a Poison Garden right behind Blarney Castle! It is exactly what it sounds like – a garden of poisonous plants. Some are actually poison (like poison ivy and oleander) and some are plants that were once thought of as toxic, but used as herbal remedies (like rhubarb).
In this garden, the most dangerous and toxic plants are kept in large cages. They are not playing around!
Tobacco, marijuana, oleander:
Opium poppy, wormwood, deadly nightshade:
The Poison Garden was, without a doubt, one of the coolest things I have ever seen. So unique, interesting, and totally unexpected. Oh, and right behind Blarney Castle – one of the most famous landmarks in the entire world. Is this real life?
From the Poison Garden we made our way through the rest of the Irish gardens and the stumpery. I learned a new word on this trip – stumpery. Still makes me laugh. Who knew a garden of stumps would be so interesting?
Old lookout tower in the stumpery:
Down the path, we walked through the old stables and through the rock close.
From there we made our way back to the entrance and back to downtown Blarney in search of some lunch.
We got to The Square and saw there were dozens of little restaurants. We decided to do a loop of the center and pick the best one. As we walked by the first restaurant, John laughed and said “I saw two nuns in there!” Well, after walking the whole center and looking at a bunch of other lunch places, we ended up at the place with the two nuns. Go figure. It was called The Lemon Tree and was probably my favorite meal of the whole trip (spicy tomato bruschetta with vegetables, a wedge of brie, and a piece of crusty sourdough bread over a salad).
After lunch we had about 30 minutes left to shop before we needed to be back on the bus. We went to Blarney Woolen Mills, built in 1750 and known as the largest Irish goods store in the world, famous for their Irish sweaters. John bought two gorgeous sweaters; I got a sweater too and a scarf. They offered shipping directly to the US so we did that; it was super fast and we didn’t have to take up precious suitcase space with bulky sweaters. Win! (The sweater reveal will be in the last post of our Ireland trip recap series.)
I grabbed some tea and we headed back to the bus, leaving at 2:30PM sharp. We drove an hour and a half due west to Killarney. The ride was windy and very rainy.
During the ride from County Cork to Killarney, Tony pointed out the change in landscape from east to west in Ireland. The west is where poor and uneducated Catholic peasants were forced to settle in the 17th century. The British oppressed all separatists and imposed the Penal Laws, which attempted to force Irish nationalists to accept the English state and the Anglican church. In addition to being forced to live in the inhospitable west, under the Penal Laws the Irish Roman Catholics could not practice their religion, own land, obtain an education, serve in the military, own arms, or hold public office (among other oppressive rules).
It’s no surprise that many Irish emigrated to America to flee this oppression. It is said that roughly 25-30% of George Washington’s Revolutionary Army was Irish. In fact, the origins of the first St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US were of George Washington giving his troops the day off to recognize their heritage and their hard work.
We enjoyed the rural landscape, including the flowering yellow fir bush, and more castle ruins along the route. Come on with these castles, Ireland!
Around 4:30PM we arrived in Killarney. We checked in to our hotel, the Killarney Towers Hotel, quickly got settled in, and then went out for a walk.
We walked around downtown Killarney, window shopping and chatting, until about 6PM. We stopped at the convenience store next door to our hotel and stocked up on water and Cadbury chocolate. Oh my gosh, I got so addicted to this chocolate on our trip! It’s so good. Better than anything we have in the States, which is sad for a chocolate fiend like me.
Didn’t buy these cookies but totally took a picture – no one ever spells my name right (there’s an extra E between the L and the Y, people!) and I was so thrilled to see these treats with the right spelling in the mother land. Haha!
We got back to the hotel, dropped off our candy, and met our group at 6:30PM for dinner. The hotel had a buffet dinner set up just for us! It was really nice and a great chance to get to know each other (and it was included in the cost of our trip). Our group shared tables together and chatted until 8:30PM.
After dinner, John and I went back to our room, changed into pajamas, and watched Parliament election coverage. I was stone cold asleep by 10PM.
A footnote about the Parliament Election:
I didn’t know anything about Ireland’s Parliament Election at all before this trip, including the fact that it would be happening when we were here (the general election happened on 2/26/2016). Because John and I are politically-minded people, we were immediately interested in the election process in Ireland. It’s fascinating.
There are over 10 political parties in the Republic of Ireland (so different from our 2/3!). Ireland is a parliamentary, representative democratic republic. They have a President which is a mostly ceremonial position (toal aside: the President’s residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin, was designed by the same architect who designed the White House, so it basically looks identical), Prime Minister and government cabinet ministers who hold executive power, and Parliament which holds legislative power.
The election itself has a lot of moving parts – ballots are cast per county on a rank order basis. Votes are tallied to obtain quota majorities. Once a majority is obtained, that individual(s) is/are elected. If there are not enough votes to reach a quota, the candidates with the fewest votes are removed from the running. The election proceeds with a re-count, including the second and third (and so on) tier rankings of the individuals who voted for the bottom tier candidates (those who who just got kicked out of the election). It’s complicated and goes on for weeks; I obviously can’t begin to explain or pretend to know all of the nuances. Thankfully Tony explained much of the process to us and it was a really cool learning experience.
The Irish locals we met were awesome in this regard, totally willing to explain the election and local politics, in general, to us. The Irish are fiercely political, always have been. Tony talked politics quite a bit throughout the trip and surprisingly knew a lot about American politics (ragging on Trump, asking if we were ready for the first female president). It’s funny, since the Irish are so political, it’s not taboo to discuss openly in Ireland like it is here in the US. Tony talked American politics with our group a bit more than was comfortable given our diverse backgrounds and where we were all from (half liberals, half conservatives). Just as in the US of late, anti-establishment politics has given rise to younger, fringe political groups in Ireland. It’s another aspect of why the multi-party parliament exists. Also, because there are so many, coalition building within parliament is popular however, that adds sensitivity and vulnerability to the system if/when those coalitions break down. Which has happened year after year within the Irish government. I could go on and on, it’s just so interesting!
Stay tuned for Day 3 where we explore Killarney and the Ring of Kerry!