Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Week in Ireland

On Tuesday morning we began the three hour drive down to the port for our ferry to Belfast. The drive itself was lovely, despite intermittent rain (although that certainly wasn't unsual). On the way we actually got a good look at Stirling Castle, and some pretty good pictures I think. We also got to see some amazing views as we drove through all the coastal towns on our way to Cairnryan.

The ferry ride itself was nice as well, especially since we got premium tickets and spent the trip in the Stena Plus Lounge. In any case, the trip was only about two hours, and before we knew it, we were on the road again, this time in Northern Ireland.

After arriving in Belfast, we went directly to the Titanic Belfast Museum, the exterior of which is intended to simultaneously evoke the iceberg and the prow of the Titanic. The museum left me feeling a bit drained, especially when you consider how much of that tragedy could have been avoided.

In need of a pick-me-up, we headed over to the Mount Stewart house and gardens. The house wasn't particularly impressive, partly because it was under restoration (lots of scaffolding); but the gardens were spectacular, and surprisingly Mediterranean feeling. In addition, the location of the house afforded some wonderful views of Strangford Lough.

To get to our flat in Belcoo, we actually had to head back through Belfast, which was lucky because this time we managed to stumble across some of the Unionist murals (those who supported Northern Ireland remaining with Britain), as well as one of the "peace walls" containing the Catholic neighborhood.

The flat in Belcoo was my favorite yet, not least because it provided a good Wifi signal (finally). It was actually located just across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, so all of our phones decided we had already crossed the border. Luckily the pub owner next door was willing to call our host so he could come meet us with the keys to the flat.

The next day we took advantage of the location and the sun, and walked around the park that could be seen from the windows of our flat. We even walked across the bridge and into the Republic of Ireland (which marks the first occasion on which I can say I walked into a different country). Later on, we drove into Enniskillen, where we saw the castle and cathedral, although we didn't actually stop at either.

On Thursday we got up fairly early, so that we could head up to the Causeway coast. We made our first stop at Mussenden Temple and Bishops Gate. The temple was originally built as library and is modelled after the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. Located right on the cliff's edge, the temple provides an amazing view of the ocean. The grounds of Downhill Estate, on which the temple is located, were full of rolling hills (there were definitely some "the hills are alive" pictures taken).

Next we headed further along the coast to Dunluce Castle, which was mostly ruins, located on an outcropping of cliffs above the ocean. What was cool was that you could walk down, almost to the water at the bottom of the cliff, and see a little cave running under the castle and into the ocean.

The final, and best, stop along the coast was obviously the Giant's Causeway, which was absolutely breathtaking. We also had enormous fun climbing around the various formations, which made me think of honeycombs. I picked up a necklace which imitated the pattern. This was probably my favorite stop of the trip thus far.

After that we decided to head home, because it was already past four, and the drive back would take at least another three hours. On the way back we drove through the Sparrin mountains, which were admittedly a bit more like giant hills, but still amazing to look at (not so amazing to drive through - hello motion sickness).

The next day we had a bit of a late start driving up to Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your perspective on the whole "Northern Ireland being a part of the UK" thing). Our first stop in the city was the Guildhall, which was the location of the Saville Inquiry after the events of Bloody Sunday.

After a quick lunch at a cafe near the Shipquay Gate of the wall around the city, we walked up onto the wall itself. The wall is the only completely intact city wall remaining in Ireland, as well as being the last city wall to be built in Europe. We walked along the wall for a bit, making a stop in St. Columb's Cathedral (the stones of the original cathedral are actually a part of the wall). We also walked down towards the Peace Bridge (which looks a bit like ship's sails passing each other) before getting back in the car.

We drove around the city for a bit, seeing several of the murals in the Nationalist (those who supported Northern Ireland becoming a part of "free Ireland") neighborhoods of Derry, the Diamond War Memorial, and the "Hands Across the Divide" Sculpture.

After leaving Derry, we drove up to the Inishowen peninsula, which was beautiful. We made a stop at Grianan of Aileach, a ring fort located at the top of one of the tall hills in the area. The height definitely allowed for some amazing views of the surrounding area, and the ring fort itself was pretty interesting.

The next day Michael wasn't feeling particularly well, so Mom and I headed out on our own. We drove all the way down to Galway and wandered around the town for awhile. We stopped in at the Thomas Dillon shop, the original makers of the Claddagh Ring, and I found a Claddagh necklace to bring home (I already wear two rings regularly and I don't really want to add another). We also walked down to the river and saw the Spanish Arch, which was originally a part of the city's walls and protected the quays. We had lunch at a pub in town before leaving the city.

On our way through the countryside we drove through Athenry, which is partly known because of an Irish folk ballad "The Fields of Athenry." We stopped to look around at Athenry Castle, as well as seeing remains of a stone gate.

Our next stop was Clonmacnoise, a collection of ruined temples, round towers, and (best of all) high crosses. Clonmacnoise is near the river Shannon and houses three high crosses. The best preserved is probably the Cross of the Scriptures, although I preferred the more abstract South Cross. One of the round towers is the only remaining tower in Ireland whose roof is unaltered.

As we headed back up to Belcoo, we made a quick stop at Boyle Abbey, which was pretty, but not quite as interesting as Jedburgh Abbey back in Scotland.

The day after that we took it embarrassingly easy, by which I mean we didn't do anything at all. Sometimes, even when you're traveling and want to make the most of everything, you have to take a break and just relax.

On Monday, our final day in Ireland, we decided to take it easy. We took the comparitively short drive of about an hour down towards Sligo to see Drumcliff, where Yeats is buried and the home of another round tower and high cross. This high cross was pretty interesting too, featuring carvings of Cain and Abel and the Fall of Man.

After Drumcliff we drove out to Rosses Point, which is the tip of one of the nearby peninsulas and which is home to a lighthouse and a monument called "Waiting on Shore" of a woman holding her arms out towards the sea.

We made a quick stop at the Creevykeel Court Cairn, before heading out to Carrowmore. Carrowmore has several examples of passage tombs and dolmans, and is the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland, as well as one of the oldest (ranging from five and half thousand to six and a half thousand years old).

We tried to make a stop at Knocknarea, the tomb of Queen Maeve (or Queen Mab as she is better known), but the weather, and our footwear, did not really permit a hike uphill. On our drive back to Belcoo, we also saw the Glencar waterfall, which we had passed on our way down that morning but hadn't really noticed.

Overall, Ireland was spectacularly beautiful, even during the few rainstorms we experienced, and I will be sad to leave it behind. However, there is still almost another week in England left ahead.

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