Ireland: Jedi Training
For our second trip to Ireland, we planned an open-jaw trip from the east coast to the west coast. We started in Dublin then road tripped it toward County Kerry with the aim to explore as many castles as we could find along the way. We flew in from Frankfurt Hahn Thursday night, arriving in Dublin after midnight. We immediately noticed loud partygoers outside pubs and lively crowds walking along the river that divides the city.
We woke up early Friday morning and began a five hour walk about town exploring all of the major city sights. We explored St. Patricks Cathedral, then saw Trinity College, Temple Bar, Christ Church Cathedral and even the Guinness storehouse. We allowed our inner child spirits to come out to enjoy Dublin's history from the viking era at the Dublinia exhibit, which featured a life-size mannequin seated on a middle ages toilet, complete with very disturbing sound effects. We enjoyed the variety of food and activity choices Dublin has compared to Luxembourg and took advantage by having breakfast at a vegan restaurant and juice bar, lunch at a falafel shop, afternoon hot yoga and Nepalese food for dinner. We walked around a bit after dinner to take in the pub scene and people-watch.
Dave visited Dublin's Crests and Arms to trace back his Irish heritage and discover his family coat of arms: Moran - They Shine in Darkness.
The following morning we shopped around town and then jumped in our tiny red hatchback to head out on a castle road trip. The rental car agency gave us a car called a "Mii", which turned out to be pretty much a child's toy car made only slightly larger and no safer for the road. It featured roll up windows and plastic hubcaps that were dented in by the end of our trip.
Our first stop was Kilkenny to check out the 12th century Kilkenny castle. The small town was having an arts festival, so we enjoyed browsing pop-up shops and food vendors selling crepes, fish and chips, fudge and homemade breads during our walk up to the castle. The structure itself was imposing and very cool, but we were immediately drawn to what looked like a series of connected bounce-house like colorful domes stretching out across the castle lawn. After inquiring, we learned that the main attraction of the arts festival was this very special art installation made up of domes, tunnels and paths of translucent colorful rubber and plastic. We were intrigued and purchased tickets. Upon entering, we were totally shocked by the intensity of the colors contrasted with the serene, atmospheric music. Despite having to dodge kids who thought this was a bounce house fair attraction, we were entranced by all of the colors, patterned ceilings and maze-like rooms and we wandered around with our mouths wide open for a while before retiring to a hidden lounge area to chill under the intense colors made brighter from the outside sunrays.
After Kilkenny, we headed to Cashel to check out the famous rock, hilltop castle and cathedral known collectively as The Rock of Cashel. According to local mythology, the Rock of Cashel originated in a mountain 20 miles north of Cashel and when St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave, the huge stone flew through the skies and landed atop the hill in Cashel. Just as we arrived, the sky turned gloomy and grey making a perfect backdrop for the storied stone structure. We pulled off to the side of the road in our Mii to head to the Rock but noticed crumbling cathedral ruins that looked perfect for climbing and exploring in a field nearby. We jumped a stone fence and headed for the ruins, where we spent an hour climbing around, viewing old stone carvings and enjoying the surrounding pastoral scenery - complete with wandering cows, green rolling hills and hay bales. After our bouldering session we took a rocky path up to the back of the Rock of Cashel and explored. The views from the hilltop out across County Tipperary were gorgeous and were just what we pictured Ireland would be before ever visiting.
Our next stop was the famous Blarney Castle - we arrived just after closing but thankfully Dave took our Mii down a one way back alley in the wrong direction so we were able to catch a peak before heading to Killarney, our home for the night. We enjoyed walking around the lively town filled with pubs and street musicians and enjoyed Thai street food before heading to bed early for our Jedi training the next day.
We woke up around sunrise and drove the hour and a half from Killarney to the tiny fishing town of Portmagee for our boat journey to the Skellig Islands off the cost of County Kerry. The Skellig Islands are made up of two small, steep Atlantic rocks. The smaller island is closed to the public and is covered by more than 70,000 gannet birds, making it one of the world's most populous bird colonies. The larger island, Skellig MIchael, features wildflower-covered peaks rising more than 230 meters above sea level and a clifftop early Christian monastery that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We found out about the islands when Skellig Michael was featured in the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. On our trip we learned that while the Harry Potter films were being made, movie scouts checked out a variety of locations around Ireland to shoot, and ended up storing all of the unused footage in a vault in England. The makers of Star Wars happened upon the footage whilst looking for Star Wars locations in the vault archives, and decided to make the islands a centerpiece of both The Force Awakens, and, we are told, the next Star Wars movie. After touring this iconic island out in the open ocean, we're sure the Jedi training montage to open Episode VIII will be epic.
A blanket of fog covered the village of Portmagee upon our arrival. The town is dotted with multicolored houses, pubs and small shops. We pulled into the small port and headed for our traditional Irish fishing boat, captained by a preppy elderly gentleman named Brendan Casey who totally fit the part of the old Irish seaman. Since the islands are protected sites, only a few boats a day can access them, and each boat can only hold 12 people. Due to the limited seats and high demand, we had to book our boat trip months in advance knowing there was a good chance the trip could be cancelled due to the rough Atlantic waters.
We had a choppy ride out for about an hour into the Atlantic, passing by emerald-green cliffs and a few whales on our way to Skellig Michael. There isn't a dock on the island, so we pulled the boat up against a stone staircase and climbed off. The island doesn't have any facilities at all, not even bathrooms or guardrails along the cliffs. It's completely rugged and untouched. In a haze of wonderment, we climbed the 600 stone stairs - which were laid my monks hundreds of years ago - up to a small basin in the center of the island known as Christ's Saddle.
We took a small picnic to admire the views and then ascended the final set of stairs to the monastery, which featured beehive shaped stone huts, a walled garden and hundreds of stone crosses all built in the 6th-8th centuries by monks who survived independently on the islands for hundreds of years - totally isolated from the rest of the world. The monks even constructed three sets of steps from sea level to their monastery, affording access during differing weather conditions. They also built in-ground cisterns to collect rainwater for drinking. We explored the little civilization on the cliffs and then headed back down to climb the cliffs on the other side of the island. Although the rocks looked too jagged and steep to climb, Dave discovered a bouldering root to the absolute top of the island. Meanwhile Erin clung to a narrow ledge to view another one of the monks' staircases.
After a few hours of exploring and marveling at the wild nature, we returned to our boat to circumnavigate the island. In the 1800s, the Irish constructed a small lighthouse on the island and more recently a helipad was added for rescues and private visits, but these are the only signs of modern civilization on the whole island. Although it was hard to visit, we appreciated that the island is almost as it would have been more than a thousand years ago when the monks first arrived from the mainland.
After rounding Skellig Michael we motored over to the little Skellig to observe the tens of thousands of gannet birds nesting and swooping around the island. Erin was totally entranced while looking up at the sky that featured more birds than it did open space. The captain told Erin she was very lucky after one of the birds "guanoed" on her phone. Despite this, we both were totally stunned by the sheer number of birds swirling and squawking around the rocky island. It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park. From there, we headed back to land through the wavy sea, both totally in awe of the nature we just encountered.
In the afternoon, we stopped at the famous Skellig Chocolate Factory for some samples, and then drove along the Ring of Kerry through some of the most spectacular nature we've ever experienced. We traversed one-lane roads lined by stone walls teeming with wildflowers along the coast, through rolling hills and deep forests. We drove past castle ruins, country estates, waterfalls, viewpoints, lakes and harbours, and were totally taken aback by the colors and wildlife. We stopped a few times to feed sheep wandering alongside the road. For anyone visiting Ireland, the Ring of Kerry drive is a must.
Our stop for the night was Parknasilla, a resort seated on 500 coastal acres that was once a family castle and manor dating from the 1700s. We spent the next 24 hours hiking along a few of the resort's many seaside trails, enjoying the spa ritual featuring various steam rooms, ice baths, saunas and outdoor hot tubs, ordering room service and generally relaxing after a busy few days that covered 700 km by road and 3 hours on the choppy sea. Erin picked herbs and rhubarb to snack on from the resort garden and Dave climbed around on the rocks surrounding the purple stone beach.
We headed out the next day for our flight from Kerry, and stopped along the way to take in a gorgeous deep blue loch pressed up against a lime-green grass mountain. What we like most about Ireland is that it is totally free and open for exploration - nothing is roped off and it is totally acceptable to pull off to the side of the road and just talk a walk around anywhere. This was one of our best trips yet and we will definitely be back.
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