By Jean Miller Spoljaric
As I stood in my closet pulling clothes from the shelves like candy from a ‘Pez’ dispenser, I was thinking about the weather in Ireland in June; cool, sweater weather. “I like that!” I thought to myself.
There’s an old Irish saying that goes something like this… “It only rains twice a year in Ireland, once for seven months, and again for five.” I’d better pack my rain coat!
Excited for this trip, I prayed to the travel gods in hopes my flight would make it off the ground this time! My first attempt was halted due to the Icelandic volcano that spewed ash all over Europe and wreaked havoc on airports and travelers alike. I wanted to visit the land of silver tea sets, magical castles, national parks, and Guinness, the liquid gold of Ireland.
Lost in ‘Bog Land’
Traveling by bus, I visited many towns from Dublin to Sligo, I was in awe of the beauty that the mountains of Ireland projected. Its rolling hills, dotted with sheep, seemed like a patchwork quilt. The mesmerizing views of the expanding Atlantic were interrupted by the bumpy road that seemed to move and drop and to give way to the sinking bogs of Ballyshannon.
I watched as people gathered piles of peat from the acres of bog. I learned that peat, the rich, earthy bog-land soil of Ireland, was their household fuel of choice. People gathered the peat, formed it into squares, dried it, and burned it in their fireplaces for heat. It was then that I heard my guide say something about visiting ‘The Holy Well.’ “The Holy What?” I thought in my mind.
The Holy What?
As a ‘recovering Catholic’ who is not really into any religion anymore, The ‘Tobernault Holy Well’ in Sligo County held the promise of a spiritual moment for me. Visitors stop by and say a prayer and perhaps leave a personal belonging behind, such as a hair tie or a shoe lace.
Religion or not, I entered the silent holy ground and carefully climbed my way up the old, crumbling stone staircase towards the thousand-year-old Holly Tree. It appeared to be weeping; the boughs heavy with burden, as if the protecting of all the special objects left behind had taken its toll on the poor old tired tree.
I said a little prayer, and slowly retraced my steps back to the bus. My thoughts were quiet, my mind was still, peace and a sense of calm had taken over. I seemed to be protected by a cone of silence. I had a ‘moment’ at the Holy Well, not exactly certain what the magic was, but I will never forget the feeling I had from within my soul.
The Stone Womb
Newgrange is the best known of the three great Irish passage tombs of the Bru Na Boinne complex. Constructed during the New Stone Age, the passage tombs at Bru Na Boinne are about 5,000 years old. The people who built the giant hand-carved stone womb belonged to a thriving farm community.
A passage tomb is as it suggests, a passage leading into a chamber where the remains of the dead were placed, perhaps, to be reborn. I say this because, for me, it felt more like I was entering a giant stone vagina!
The walls of this giant womb were narrow and musty. As I crouched to enter the dark zone with only a flashlight, I had a mental flashback to a recent visit to my gynecologist.
It was the vast opening into the giant uterus of the tomb that made me think about the years of engineering that must have gone into this art form.
After 5,000 years, the corbelled roof at Newgrange is still waterproof. Constructed of granite boulders and quartz stones from the nearby River Boyne, it’s estimated that the tomb weighs 200,000 tons.
Newgrange sits high on a hilltop, overlooking the sheep filled hills of Meath. The giant circular mound is regarded as one of the finest achievements of the European Neolithic Art period. One must experience what I like to call the giant stone womb.
The Castles of Ireland
The castles of Ireland are National landmarks that are adventures unto themselves. I visited a handful, but the opportunity exists to visit a different one everyday. One of my great memories was time spent at Castle Leslie. Sir John Leslie himself was my tour guide. At 93, a descendant of Atilla the Hun, still a vibrant old fellow, a lifetime bachelor, he spends his free time hitting the nightclubs, and he loves to disco!
In fact, Sir John loves the club scene so much he has partied with rockers like Mick Jagger. Over the years the Leslie Castle has under gone many phases of construction. The enchanting Victorian Hunting Lodge at Castle Leslie offers 30 oversized bedrooms, most with balconies over looking the stables. The Hunting Lodge is nestled in a storybook setting and is located in the picturesque village of Glaslough.
The Estate boasts an Equestrian Center and a Victorian spa which make it an excellent choice for a fairy tale wedding. And, you can experience, as I did, the ‘Hot Box’! It’s a coffin-like wooden box that produces sauna like dry heat that allows the toxins to release from within.
When you visit, be sure to ask to see ‘Norman’s Room’. He’s the spirit and resident goast of the castle. You can reserve his room, if you dare!
I boarded my bus for points further north, eventually crossing over the border into the West End of Bundoran in County Donegal. Bundoran is a charming little beach town, a horseback riding paradise, and a surfing mecca. After lunch, it was time to explore.
I walked up the hill that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and was drawn to a little pub called the ‘Emerald Bar’, an original IRA pub. I was on the border of Northern Ireland and I approached the pub with some hesitation. Yet, I was craving a Guinness! (If you’ve never imbibed a Guinness in Ireland, you have not fully lived! The creamy texture is much lighter than it appears and a pint of the dark stuff slides down your gullet like a penguin in a wet suit!)
Once inside, you couldn’t help but notice the reminders of the struggle that once was. The posters that lined the walls told the story of a troubled past. I bellied up to the bar and was greeted with a nod. I felt safe enough, but I knew I was an outsider.
The bathrooms told the story of a real Irish pub; no toilet seats. It was as if to say, ‘don’t get too comfortable’. Another Irish saying goes something like this…”A bird can’t fly on one wing”. So, I did just that and ordered a second Guinness. ‘Slancha!’(Cheers), I exclaimed, as I finished my pint and glided with two wings out of the pub.
The Gardens of Glenveagh
Glenveagh National Park is set along the Derryveagh Mountains in the Northwest corner of Donegal. With over 16,000 hectors (or about 40,000 acres) of mountain, lakes and woodland, the park offers the ultimate getaway for outdoor enthusiasts, adventure junkies, or those just seeking peace and tranquility.
You are free to roam the Park on your own or you may sign up for a guided tour with a knowledgeable park guide. It was the Gardens Of Glenveagh that held the magic for me for it a nature lover and bird watching paradise. The colors of the gardens are most vibrant in the summer months, lasting into the Fall.
The walled gardens had hedges of sweet pea with brightly colored allium, poppies and inula, mixed with organic vegetables in the center; known as ‘Jardin Potager’ style. My favorite, by far, of all the flora and fauna was the saucer-sized rare Himalayin Blue Poppies. Its paper thin petals swayed in the gentle breeze. As the butterflies fluttered above, I thought how lucky they were to call Glenveagh home.
Fishing in Killybegs
Ireland offers two and a half thousand miles of coastal area. The longest river in Ireland, the River Shannon, starts in the North and runs through County Clare and, like most rivers, is filled with salmon, trout, and mackeral. And, Ireland’s 365 lakes make fishing a top commercial and recreational choice.
For only 12 Euros, you can obtain a fishing license and head out for some casting fun. The town of Killybegs is the largest fishing village in Ireland and is Ireland’s version of its own ‘Deadliest Catch’. It has quite the impressive fleet of commercial and recreational vessels.
Top of the World
Europe’s highest sea cliffs are found at Sliabh Liag (Slieve League) and offer the most stunning views in all of Ireland. The awe inspiring sight of the turquoise waves from the Atlantic Ocean as they crash onto the shore some 1,972 feet below will take your breath away. The road leading up to the cliffs is also a unforgettable experience.
With its twists and turns and sudden breath-taking drops, you might think your bus is tipping over. Leave your high heels at home ladies; the walking pathways are rugged. I hiked One Man’s Pass, a five-feet wide trail made up of very steep slopes on either side.
As I climbed my way to the top, my heart was beating faster. I stopped for a moment, the wind blowing hard, and took a deep breath as I became entranced with the natural beauty of the unspoiled landscape. As I reached for my water and then for my camera, I realized I was on top of the world. Note: The 400 meter pathway is not for the faint of heart on a windy day.
It will be the evening I spent on top of Tober Nalt Mountain, overlooking the panoramic view of the Hazelwood Estates, listening to poetry of the legendary W.B. Yeats at ‘The Broc House” that will hold a very special place in my heart forever.
The art covered walls and warm welcome I recieved from my hosts, Damien Brennan and his wife, Paula Gilvarry, MD, made the evening a once in a lifetime experience. While Damien recited the well crafted words of the great William Butler Yeats, it was Paula that prepared and served up a gourmet meal fit for royalty.
The ‘Broc House’ is a perfect setting for a romantic poetry reading… even the cows came strolling home in the evening, as if to listen in to the magical words.
As a young man, Yeats was deeply affected by the idea of romantic love or, as he called it, “ the old highway of love.” Most of his poetry written prior to 1910 is about courtship. When Yeats was 23 years old, he met and fell in love with a beautiful Irish nationalist. Although she repetedly refused to marry the poet, she would become the object of his passion and his poetry.
His words, sometimes hopeful and other times bitter-sweet, were pure in their language and attitudes about love. I became a big fan of Yeats’s early love poems because they are passionate, simple, lyrical, and dreamy.
They speak of innocence, devotion, desire, and the fear of rejection that I believe lies within all of us. It shapes who we are, and although we all don’t write poems about it, we understand it fully.
Perhaps, it’s the romantic inside of me, but an evening spent at the ‘Broc House’ will be an evening well traveled through your heart and soul.
Ireland is not just about shamrocks, leprechauns, or the luck of the Irish. It’s much more about the beauty and magic that you will take from this beautiful country. From the bustling city of Dublin, where the streets are clean, the people friendly, and the pubs come alive with music, to my once in a lifetime afternoon with Sir John Leslie of The Leslie Castle Estates, Ireland gave me so many magical moments.
Magic Awaits you in Ireland
Glenveigh National Park will stay with me for it’s natural beauty and sprawling gardens. The breathtaking views and the free roaming sheep of Slieve League Cliffs left me invigorated. I will never forget the stone womb at Newgrange, or my spiritual moment at the Holy Well in Sligo. My evening spent at The ‘Broc House’ will always stay close to my heart. And, the Rail Tour from Sligo back to Dublin was a great way to reflect on everything while seeing a big chunk of Ireland in only a few short hours.
For sure, Ireland belongs on everyone’s bucket list. The magical feeling comes to you in so many different ways and is worth more than all the Guinness in Ireland.
For more information about the North West areas of Ireland visit DiscoverIreland.ie/northwest
People and Places
Glenveagh National Park-Donegal – The park is open year round, 7 days a week from 10am – to 6pm. (9am – 5pm in the winter)
Sheephaven Bay Walk Guides
Dunfanaghy, Co. Donegal, Ireland
Brendan Rohan- Owner of Corcreggan Mill, Hostel-B&B-Camp Grounds, Dunfanaghy
The ‘Broc House ’ on Holy Well Lane, Sligo, Ireland. Home of W.B. Yeats poetry readings. yeatssligoireland.com
The Tobernault Holy Well, Sligo, Ireland irelandforvisitors.com
St. Columba’s Church-Drumcliffe,Co.Sligo. The Cemetary- Final resting place of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) email firstname.lastname@example.org
Killybegs, Irelands Liveliest Fishing Port killybegs.ie
Newgrange, Irelands Passage Tombs newgrange.com
Sliabh Liag (Slieve League Cliffs) Europes highest sea cliffs over looking the Atlantic Ocean 1972 ft below. sliabhleague.com
TO AND FROM
I flew Aer Lingus from JFK airport in NYC to Dublin, Ireland. The flight was enjoyable, and the staff could not have been friendlier. For more information or to book your flight to Ireland contact Aer Lingus at this web site. aerlingus.com
Once I reached Sligo, Ireland I traveled by Railtours Ireland back to Dublin.
From half day tours to week long tours, Railtours Ireland is a great choice for travel throughout Ireland. Their slogan is” Do a big chunk of Ireland in one or more days”
FOOD, WINE and PUBS
O’Donoghue’s Bar & Guesthouse in Dublin for Live Irish music and pub fun.
Maddens ‘Bridge Bar ’ in Bundoran, Co. Donegal. maddensbridgebar.com
THE Mill Restaurant in Figart, Dunfanaghy themillrestaurant.com
ti Linn Cafe’& Crafts Shop located next to Slieve League Cliffs sliabhleague.com
WHERE TO STAY
Arnold’s Hotel in Dunfanaghy Co. Donegal. A family run hotel, not a fancy hotel, best known for it’s warm welcome and friendly atmosphere. arnoldshotel.com
IN Dublin- I have two great choices The Marriott Dublin merrionhotel.com or the The Westbury Hotel doylecollection.com Both hotels are located in the heart of Dublin, and either one would be a great choice to call home for your visit.
The Hunting Lodge at Castle Leslie Estate castleleslie.com
Harvey Point, Lough Eske Donegal Town harveyspoint.com
Cromleach Lodge Country House 4 Star Hotel & Spa -Co.Sligo www.cromleach.com
Jean Miller Spoljaric has a great time when she travels, and it really shows in her stories and her eye-popping photos. She brings her unique brand of enthusiasm to the art of travel writing. She lives in New York’s Dutchess County.