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Musicians on Grafton Street in Dublin. photos by Mariel Kennison.
Musicians on Grafton Street in Dublin. photos by Mariel Kennison.

GoNOMAD in Ireland


The first stop on a Journey Around the World...

By Lauryn Axelrod, GoNOMAD Senior Editor

Ireland. For some, the mere mention of the name conjures images of all-night Guinness sessions in smoky pubs. For others, it is barren, rocky landscapes beneath gray skies. And still for others, it is lush green valleys, warm smiles, and Irish humor.




Ireland is all these things, and more. Especially
when travelling with children. For those not old enough to drink a pint, the Emerald Isle is an educational and entertaining fantasyland of castles and kings, richer than any leprechaun's pot of gold. And for those adults travelling with them, the experience of Ireland goes far beyond the pub.

This June, my 11 year-old son Joshua and I toured the Republic of Ireland for two weeks at the beginning ofRead Dublin hotel reviews our Around-The-World Trip, The GoNOMAD Adventure. Our route took us from the Rock-n-Roll streets of Dublin to the remote reaches of County Clare, from the ragged coast of Kerry to the fertile hills and valleys along the Shannon. From castles to kayaking, traditional music and pub lunches, we discovered Ireland to be one of the most kid-friendly and alternative destinations in Europe.


Doing Dublin

Dublin has changed. No longer the grimy, grey city of Angela's Ashes, like the rest of Ireland. Both sides of the River Liffey are filled with colourful shops, homes, and pubs. Grafton Street is body to body on Saturdays (the shopping day), and Temple Bar pulses to the beat of the best of Irish contemporary rock (and traditional music) all night long. Dublin is fast becoming the next big European destination, taking over London's role as the place to go for cutting edge culture.

Josh and I spent our time in Dublin learning about Irish history - religious, political, natural and musical. We visited Dublinia, a multimedia museum that brings Medieval Dublin to life. In addition to stories about the Plagues and the wars, there is an exceptional collection of Viking artifacts culled from an archaeological excavation on the shores of the River. Unfortunately, the nearly intact Viking village - one of the few ever found in Europe --was reburied beneath an office building, but at Dublinia, you can still see what it looked like.

Next we stopped in to the Dublin Museum of Natural History. This unique museum, located off the sedate Merrion Square, is one the last remaining Victorian Cabinet museums in Europe. Walking in is like stepping back in time: hundreds of species of animals, birds, fish, insects, and even protozoan from both Ireland and around the world are on display in glass cases.

Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Phoenix Park, Dublin. photo by Mariel Kennison.

The skeletons of two extinct Giant Irish Deer guard the entrance, and the silent eyes of sloths, polar bears, monkeys and even Dodo birds (one of the only actual skeletons to survive) stare out at schoolchildren and doddering adventurers. Though a bit morbid, the museum is actually highly educational. I for, one, had never seen a Kingfisher up close, let alone a sheep worm!

The 1,000-year old Book Of Kells at Trinity College, Dublin was an excellent introduction to the history of the monastic tradition in Ireland, and the exhibition created around it gives children a good understanding of how hard it was to create something so elaborate. Though we would see many monastery ruins in the next two weeks, we would never see something as intricate as the drawings of the Book of Kells.

Finally, we needed to pay homage to the reason Josh wanted to come to Ireland in the first place: the music. Not the traditional music that enthrals so many, but the Irish flavoured rock and roll that has formed the tastes of anyone between the ages of 10 and 45. Van Morrison, U2, Sinead O'Connor, The Pogues, and the Cranberries were all favorites of ours, and so we went in search of their footsteps along the quays of Dublin.

You would think this history would be easier to find: after all, everything here seems to have a relationship to James Joyce. Why don't pubs also have signs like, "Bono Sang Here?" Eventually, we found a few remnants of Dublin's Rock and Roll History along what is called the "Rock and Stroll Trail." But don't look for it on a map: it seems to be a well-guarded secret.

The U2 Wall is located down an alley way near the docksides on the south side of the Liffey. Marked only with a small plaque, the grafitti covered crumbling walls mark the now vacant Windmill Lane Studios where U2 recorded their early albums in the late 1970s. Some of the grafitti is touching: homage to the band that changed the lives of many a young Dubliner and foreigner alike. Josh was able to add his thank you, as well: After all, he was named after a U2 album.

We also found a few other traces of Dublin's musical legacy: the Litton Lane Studios, also once a haunt of Van Morrison, Bono and others, is now a hostel (albeit a funky one with Warholesque posters of pop stars), and the Rory Gallagher Corner in Temple Bar marks a place where the famous Irish blues guitarist used to busk. A hotel and nightclub partly owned by U2 warranted a glance, but we spent more than a few hours in a record shop in Temple Bar that sells bootleg tapes of concerts given by top bands in Dublin clubs. Unfortunately, the Irish Music Hall of Fame, which claimed to house a huge collection of Dublin rock and roll memorabilia, had closed and left no forwarding address.

Nonetheless, we were in the town that Bono still calls home. Our taxi driver said that he still hangs out in certain pubs around town, on the condition that no one bothers him. No one does, apparently: Even Bono isn't a superstar in Dublin, says our taxi driver. "No one here is any better than anyone else. If they thought they were, Dublin would bring them down to earth straight away."

Castle Climbing

According to tourist information, there are more than medieval 2500 castle tower houses in the Republic. I think we saw them all. At least it seems that way. From ruins in a farmer's field to beautifully restored fortresses, we climbed and explored our way through era of Ireland's clans and battles.

Beach at Bray, Ireland.
Beach at Bray, Ireland. photo by Mariel Kennison.

Of the more than one dozen castles we visited, Joshua voted Cahir Castle the best both for history and imagination. Built in the 13th Century and held by the Norman-Irish Butler family, the mighty walled fort sits alongside the River Suir with a commanding view of the fertile valley below. Since the 3rd Century, Irish kings have built strongholds here. The legendary Brian Boru, the great high King of Ireland, even had a place here. More recently, the castle's imposing exterior and well-preserved keep, towers and banqueting halls have been used as settings for such notable films as John Boorman's "Excalibur" and "Barry Lyndon."

More importantly, unlike most of the other castle monuments in Ireland, visitors are free to wander the walls, dungeons, rooms and grounds of the castle freely. The optional 30-minute tour, however, is very informative, detailing the various ingenious defensive techniques used by the medieval castle dwellers to keep the bad guys out. Clockwise staircases (to foil right-handed knights), trip stairs and murder holes are just a few of the tricks that helped keep these castles secure.

Josh's second favorite castle was nothing more than an empty tower house in a farmer's field. Clara Castle is not on any guided tour, or even on most maps, but it's a real gem. Located off a dirt road near Kilkenny, it is completely unrestored. But with the key from Mrs. Murphy next door, the gates open to reveal four stories of partial rooms - some still have floors - and hours of fun climbing stairs, discovering secret rooms and pretending to be king of the castle.

Though we saw numerous other castles - some more like palaces, others mere shells with ivy growing up the sides, some on islands of their own, some on the tallest mountain you can see - the most entertaining castle was Bunratty Castle near Shannon.

Yes, it's a major tourist stop, but no other castle brings medieval Ireland so completely and colourfully to life. Each room (and there are many to visit) is not only meticulously restored, but also richly furnished in 15th Century period detail. Frankly, the O'Brien stronghold makes a regular tower house look like a leprechaun's dwelling.

Josh particularly enjoyed the Medieval Banquet held in the castle's main banquet hall later that night. Again, it's touristy, but the food is plentiful and delicious, the wine (and mead) flows, and the singing, music and general medieval silliness bring out the kid in everyone. And after two weeks of climbing over and around history, for a few hours, children and adults can actually feel the stones of these silent castles come to life.

Rocks, Rocks and More Rocks

It's the general image of Ireland: a barren land covered in stones. To a certain degree that is inaccurate. The land here varies between lush, forested and barren and desolate, but there are certainly a lot of rocks. Some of these rocks are piled into castles, and others are carved, shaped or built into other structures. But no matter what form the rocks take, visitors quickly discover that every stone on the island has a history.

For example, the ancient stone circle at Lough Gur, one of Ireland's most important prehistoric sites, is 4,000 years old. The huge stone slabs dedicated to the summer solstice stand unobtrusively in a farmer's field, and on the day we visited, only a few calves were worshipping there. But it didn't take much to try to imagine the ancient rituals that might have taken place there.

Kells Priory, a 13th- 15th Century fortified monastic complex on the banks of the Kings River in County Kilkenny, is an awesome, almost intact mass of stones. For several hours, Joshua and I were the only ones there, climbing over high walls, through towers and beneath ancient archways.

At the Rock of Cashel, perhaps Ireland's most famous rock, we explored the ruins of another religious complex and gazed for miles in all directions as far the eye could see.

In Killarney, we rode horse-drawn Jaunting Carts through the stunning ice carved Gap of Dunloe, whose 5 lakes nestled between rocky mountains include Serpent Lake, where St. Patrick banished the snakes of Ireland.

In County Clare, we scrambled over the limestone shelves of the Burren, the remains of a glacial wave that wiped all the soil from the hills, leaving eerie, barren mountains that bloom with the most amazingly colourful collection of alpine, arctic and Mediterranean wildflowers.

We braved fierce winds to climb to the top of the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, against which many a sailor's ship was certainly dashed.

Nearby, we crawled through the narrow passages of the Ailwee Cave, a million year-old series of underground caverns accidentally discovered by a local shepherd. Stalactites and stalagmites that have been growing for tens of thousands of years gave new meaning to the term "history."

But of all the rocks we came to know, the most impressive piles were the Skelligs: two impossibly craggy islands 10 miles off the coast of County Kerry. The smaller Skellig houses a colony of over 20, 000 pairs of sea birds: from the land, the rocks appear white, but upon approach it becomes clear that the rocks are covered, covered with gannets, puffins and other North Atlantic species.

But the main attraction is the Big Skellig, Skellig Michael. This profoundly intimidating and desolate rock is the former home of a colony of deeply dedicated monks who, in the 6th Century, built a monastery on the top (made of more rocks) and lived there for 600 years, braving everything from gales to invasions.

Reaching Skellig Michael is an adventure itself. The boat trip from Ballinskelligs, a village on the Ring of Kerry, takes about 50 minutes in good weather and is not for the easily seasick. The sea swells can be very rough. Josh loved it; I survived it.

But once docked on the island, the real adventure begins. Thousands of hand-carved stairs lead up the windy slopes to the monastery complex at the top. These are the same steps the monks used in their daily meditations. Once atop the rock, the complex includes several beehive huts, and an oratory, all made of mortarless stone constuction. The view is truly awesome, and it's not hard to understand why the monks retreated here, though even the most jaded amongst us will find it hard to grasp what madness might have inspired them to pitch camp on this rock in the first place. Then again, the history of Irish monasticism was more colourful and more fervent than most traditions. After all, this is the land of St. Patrick!

Seafaring Ways

Not all the attractions of Ireland are rocky (and not all attractions are historic!). With miles of beaches, coastlines, lakes and rivers, there is plenty to explore and learn on the water.

The beaches of Kerry and Cork offer miles of unspoilt sand and water, perfect for sunbathing, building sand castles (especially after climbing a few) and horseback riding. In Ballinskelligs, our hosts Dominick and Lillian of The Old School House took us riding along the beach in the evenings.

In Killarney, on the Ring of Kerry, hiring a boat to take you through the lakes and around the islands is one of the best ways to enjoy a warm day in the beautiful countryside. The boatmen are also full of local lore and the storytelling makes the trip even more enjoyable.

And at Killaloe, on the shores of Lough Derg, you can rent your own boat and go fishing or pull up to Holy Island, an ancient monastic site.

But if you want to do some more active watersports, you need to go out to Union Hall, West Cork, where the affable Jim Kennedy runs Atlantic Seakayaking, the only seakayaking outfitter in the country. A former champion kayak racer (and rock-n-roll roadie), Jim and his able guides learn open water kayaking tours along the shores, coves and lakes of West Cork. They also offer a special moonlight paddle on the calm waters of Lough Hyne, the largest inland saltwater lake in Europe and a protected marine reserve.

We were lucky enough to join this midnight paddle through one of the most untouched regions of the country. And with the long summer nights, and rare clear skies, it would prove to be one of the most memorable experiences in Ireland for both Josh and I.

At 9:30, with the sun still high in the sky, we gathered on the shore and suited up in fleece, hats, gloves and dry suits. Though it was still fairly warm, we knew that when the sun did eventually set, we would be glad we had our warm clothes on.

After a few minutes of instruction, Jim and his guides emphasized that this paddle was to be an easy one, more about the experience of the peaceful lake and clear night than mileage or bravura. Judging from the fact that half our group had never been in kayak before, he meant it.

Dublin Castle. 
Dublin Castle.

For the next 3 ½ hours, there would be no wild rapids, no overturned boats, but the sleek ocean kayaks glided smoothly around the lake. We explored the shoreline, discovering sea urchins, and marvelled at the remains of a famine village on an island. We paddled backwards into an old smuggler's cave and when the tide came in through the narrow channel, we made a big raft and rode the gentle waves back to the lake.

Near midnight, the moon finally rose and the sky darkened and we paddled back to the dock, enjoying the silence and the glittering phosphorescence, like Irish fairy dust sprinkled in the water.

Where the music never stops

It is said that everyone in Ireland plays an instrument of some kind, and truly, it would be hard to spend anytime here without taking in some music, whether in a pub session or a traditional music performance.

Josh and I did both. In Cashel, we spent an evening at Bru Boru, the center for preservation of traditional music and dance, and were treated to a performance of step dancing and traditional fiddle, according, bodhran and tin whistle songs by students of the center. Following the show, the students joined us in the "pub" for an informal jam session and dance lesson.

In Killarney, we spent an evening at The Danny Mann, a famous singing pub, where the Irish Weavers entertained us with both traditional Irish melodies and some popular sing-alongs.

But the highlight was in Doolin, a small village in West Clare, known far and wide as the capital of traditional music in Ireland. Gus O'Connor's pub is the place to be at night, and Josh and I spent a late evening listening to local musicians play the best Irish music to be found on the island. Josh loved it, as he was able to sit at the elbow of the guitarist and study his every move.

But of course the best is when you happen upon some music, entirely by chance: the buskers on O'Connell Street or in Temple Bar; a B&B host who pulls out the guitar or the fiddle; U2 playing on the stereo in the cybercafe…it's hard not to want to pick up a tin whistle yourself.

The island of hundred thousand welcomes and returns

The saying in Ireland that greets you in every town and home is "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes." We certainly received that and more, as everyone we met, from Dublin to Clare showed us warmth and humor. Traveling with children anywhere gives you a special treatment, but no place is it more evident than in Ireland, where children are so much a part of the culture. Josh was welcomed many times over, taught the Celtic language, given guitar lessons, fed and fed and fed!

Two weeks is far too short to discover the many charms of Ireland, and we leave with an appetite for more. A hundred thousand returns would be welcomed! But, it will have to wait: England, France, Belgium and Germany are next. Stay tuned!

IF YOU GO

If you plan to visit the castles and monuments of Ireland, buy a Heritage Card from Duchas, the government heritage service that overseas most of the sites. It will be much cheaper than paying for admission at each site. Purchase the card at the first site you visit and use it for the rest!

Getting There and Around

Aer Lingus flies directly from most East Coast cities to Shannon or to Dublin. Alternatively, you can fly to London and take a short flight to Dublin, Shannon or Cork, or take a ferry from northern England.

Though there is an extensive train and bus network in Ireland, renting a car is both the easiest and most convenient way of getting around. Murray's Europcar has offices in all major cities and at the airport in Dublin. Road signs and maps are easy to follow, and the streets are all very well marked.

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