FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF IRELAND


Touring the south west of
Southern Ireland (Eire)

Ireland? Several times we had thought of caravanning there, yet somehow other places, usually France, won out.

After looking at a number of guides we were drawn by the beauty of the south and southwest of Ireland and decided to make our first trip. We chose a crossing from Pembroke to Rosslare and as we drove into Pembroke Dock in the early hours of the morning we were the only caravan in sight. So it remained; we did not come across another English caravan until the evening before we caught the ferry back home, two weeks later.

At seven o'clock in the morning we arrived at Rosslare, reasonably bright after a four-hour crossing and limited sleep. A site at Blarney was to be our first base and our journey took us along the coastline through towns like Waterford and Youghal. We travelled on roads that were much less busy than those at home but generally narrower and more winding. In places the most noticeable difference was the surface - bumpy hardly describes it! It soon became clear that special care needs to be taken to secure all loose items inside the caravan.

Blarney proved to be a good choice for our first few days in the country, the site (one of relatively few in Ireland open all year) well equipped and spacious. The town is famous for the Blarney Stone, said to be half of the 'Stone of Scone' over which Scottish kings once were crowned because of its supposed special powers. Set high into the battlements of the castle it has, according to Elizabethan legend, the power to bestow the 'Gift of the Gab' (or eloquence) on those who kiss it. It was surprising how many visitors queued to try the magic for themselves - we enjoyed looking around the castle and its beautiful grounds, but left the kissing (for which you must hang out over the wall) to others!

We spent a few hours wandering around Cork. At the Church of St Anne at Shandon, a short walk from the city centre, we climbed 120 feet up the tower on narrow, twisting stone and wooden steps to be rewarded by panoramic views of the city below us. Visitors are encouraged to play a tune on the church bells part way up the tower.

A worthwhile excursion from Blarney is to Cobh (or Cove), a town that acts as Cork harbour. Here the Titanic made its last call on that fateful only journey, and it was close to here a few years later that a German U-boat torpedoed the liner Lusitania. All is well explained in a Heritage Centre on the waterfront, along with an outline of the history of emigration from Ireland to the USA for which Cobh was the principal departure point.

Keen to see the southwestern coast we travelled on to Killarney, well positioned as a base for touring one of the most attractive regions of Ireland. Killarney town is full of interesting shops, restaurants and pubs, many with 'traditional' live singing performed late into the night. Nearby Muckross House and Gardens was a fine day out, with beautiful views across lakes to the hills beyond and the added bonus of a 'Traditional Farm Experience' illustrating the way of life on Irish farms before the introduction of electricity, complete with 'actors' and livestock.

From our site just outside the town we were able to look towards Macgillicuddy's Reeks (Ireland's highest mountain range at a little over 3,000 feet). Perhaps the most famous trip in this area is the journey around the Ring of Kerry that, at more than 100 miles, requires a full day at least to do it justice. The scenery is spectacular - dramatic views over coastline and cliffs. One of the highlights was a short ferry crossing across choppy seas and in strong winds to the island of Valentia, followed by a drive around the island itself and return to the mainland by road bridge at Portmagee. The views from the island back across to the mainland, or out towards the neighbouring group of islands (the Skelligs), were magnificent.

A few miles outside Killarney at the beginning of the Ring of Kerry is the Gap of Dunloe, a pass through Macgillicuddy's Reeks. The two most common ways to enjoy the scenery are either on foot or by riding in a horse-drawn jaunting car (looking suspiciously like a pony and trap). We chose to walk - a return trip of around eight miles that took more than four hours. The path was steep in places but the views - both on the way up alongside several small lakes at different heights and from the top of the pass - worth the effort.

Our favourite trip, though, was a tour of the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle is a pretty town acting as gateway to the most attractive part of the peninsula, known as Slea Head. Views from the coast road look down across wonderful beaches, or onto wide expanses of creaming waves breaking over rugged cliffs and rocks. At Dunquin, close to the most westerly point, the film 'Ryans Daughter' was shot in the late 1960s and although the only trace of the filming now left is a commemorative stone overlooking the beach, it was easy to imagine the views as they had appeared on the screen. A few miles off the coast another group of islands - the Blaskets - were inhabited until 1953 when the last families moved to the mainland to escape the isolation, primitive conditions, and extreme weather.

From Killarney we headed for Tipperary, and a two-night stopover. With no idea what to expect of the area (although we had heard that it's a long way there!) we were more than pleasantly surprised. County Tipperary is the home of the lovely Galty Mountains, rising almost as high as Macgillicuddy's Reeks. Many of the local views are stunning.

A bonus here was the Ballinacourty House Camping Site - nestling in the Glen of Aherlow, overlooked by the rolling green mountains, it was calm and relaxing. Ballinacourty House was originally a farm estate covering thousands of acres, and the aging buildings once were used as a regional headquarters by the forces of Eamonn de Valera (later President) during the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s. These days it is altogether more peaceful, with an excellent restaurant where we had a fine dinner.

The area is a centre for walking and during our stay we followed a well-signed route up into the mountains to Lake Curra. At a height of almost 1900 feet it lies in a near-circular bowl close to the summit, and is perhaps 100 yards across. The lake is surrounded almost completely by sloping hillsides, water trickling out over the rim at just one point to form a small stream that twists and turns as it drops slowly through hundreds of feet. We walked for several hours up steep slopes, across moorland, and amongst some of the whitest sheep we had ever seen - it was exhausting, but beautiful.

We should have liked to stay in Tipperary for longer but time was running out. The journey to the ferry at Rosslare was simple and uneventful with an overnight stop a few miles from the port ready for an early departure.

Caravanning is less common in Ireland than in the UK and sites less frequent, but all those we stayed on were well equipped, both for caravans and tents. Roads in Ireland are improving but there are fewer 'main' roads and the surface of many - major and minor routes alike - often bumpy and uneven. We found it best to tow along the National, or N roads, as much as possible. To balance this, there is considerably less traffic overall and we found drivers to be very tolerant of the caravan in 'difficult' situations.

The Ireland that we saw was a beautiful country, an ideal place for a caravanning holiday. No doubt its reputation for damp weather is well justified at some times of the year, but we had rain on only a few days during our two week stay in April. Lasting impressions? Spectacular scenery, both in the mountains and along the coast. Palm trees, emphasising the mildness of the climate. Plenty of good food, and the warmth of the people - throughout our stay everyone that we met was most friendly and welcoming.

Ireland proved to be a great place to tour by caravan; perhaps we should have been there sooner.

© GDS 2002
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Countryside around Killarney

The Blarney Stone is up there somewhere behind the ledge!

The waterfront at Cobh ....

.... and a memorial statue to the thousands who left Ireland at Cobh for the USA and elsewhere

Horse and cart travelling through the Gap of Dunloe

Muckross House

Typical coastline around the Dingle Peninsula

The area where the film 'Ryan's Daughter' was made

The Galty Mountains in the distance
Unusual shops are still to be found