castle hopping in ireland

We’ve talked about visiting the birthplace of Guinness beer and Jameson whiskey, and some of the pubs that offer the atmosphere to go with these fine beverages – time to talk about the castles of Ireland. We couldn’t possibly tour every castle in the country, but we did manage to experience or see about a dozen ancient castles and numerous ruins during our short stay. We started in the south with Blarney Castle, made our way north to Cahir Castle and the Rock of Cashel, west to Bunratty, and lastly to Malahide, north of Dublin. We also walked around the grounds of Dublin Castle, climbed through the ruins at Hore Abbey, and walked or drove by many, many crumbling towers and churches.

Blarney Castle
If you ignore the hype about hanging upside down kissing some bit of stone, this castle and the grounds around it have a lot to offer. Like many others in Ireland, the castle is quite impressive. It features several floors and you can still see the chutes that would have allowed defenders inside to pour boiling water (or whatever else they chose) down on attacking forces. You can see where the grand halls were located, although many of the floors and the original wood roof are long gone; fortunately the stairwells remained intact although very steep and narrow! The view from the battlements (top level) is quite stunning, and it is here people line up to connect their lips with the fabled Blarney Stone – after all, can all the movie stars, politicians and other celebrities who have pressed their flesh against this famous rock be wrong? In a courtyard at the foot of the castle is an interpretive display with a timeline and history of the castle and area. In front of the castle is a tall guard tower, and around back is a cave that is said to have provided the castle occupants with an escape route during at least one ancient siege. We didn’t take the time to walk the trails or visit the restored stables, but one could easily spend 2 or 3 hours here.

Cahir Castle
We wonder if the people who live or work in the village give much thought to the fact there is a 700-year-old castle across the street from the cafes and stores they visit or work in every day. Coming from a city (Vancouver) where there are only a few structures more than 100 years old, We’re struck by the apparent ordinariness of walls and cemeteries and buildings that are several centuries or even a thousand years old. This is a modest castle, originally built around an even older tower in the late 13th century and expanded in 1375. Unlike many castles in Ireland, this one survived intact because it surrendered to Oliver Cromwell ‘s forces rather than face partial or complete destruction. The chapel was being renovated when we visited, so we were allowed onto the grounds for free but there was much to see and a great view of the village and countryside from the main building.

Rock of Cashel
No matter from which direction you approach the Rock of Cashel, you cannot help but be struck by the strategic location this massive shell of a castle occupies – the only piece of high ground for miles around. This means of course that from the castle, you have an awesome view of the surrounding countryside, including the ruins of Hore Abbey in the valley below (and a short walk away if you have the time). The main section of the castle, which eventually served as a high-ceiled church, collapsed centuries ago but work is proceeding on repairing and restoring parts of the structure – in fact a large portion of the ruins are hidden behind scaffolds and tarps. Just the same, the building is impressive and the view is breathtaking. It’s also worth the time to wander around the cemetery behind the castle; lots of ancient markers, Celtic crosses, and monuments from centuries past.

Bunratty Castle
The usual image we have of a castle is something grand and imposing with long and thick walls, numerous round watchtowers, and a drawbridge or two. Well, not Bunratty – instead it looks like a gigantic stone block has been dropped into the landscape. On one side of this castle, built around 1425, there is indeed an entrance that once featured a drawbridge, but other than that, this building is imposing simply for the huge square “blockiness” of it. Reading up on the castle later, we learned that when it was constructed, it was on an island in the river that now runs just east of the castle grounds. Inside there are many floors and numerous private rooms for the successive Earls of Thomond and their families, rooms for the guards and guests, a kitchen, chapel, and most impressive, the Great Hall. This is where the Earl received visitors, sat in judgment, and gave orders. According to the costumed guide, there was always a fire going in the very centre of the room, and visitors did not come closer than this to the Earl. When leaving, you moved backwards so that the Earl never saw your back. Adjacent to the castle is the Folk Park, a re-creation of life in the area over the past century or so. More period-dressed guides describe the buildings and the lives and livelihoods of the people who used to live or work inside.

Dublin Castle
We didn’t go inside this castle, but wandered through the grand entrance arch into the courtyard and around the main buildings. The oldest structure on site is the medieval Record Tower, dating from 1228 although many of the buildings are from the 18th century with a few newer ones filling in the spaces. The complex served as the seat of government in Ireland for centuries, and until 1922 was the base for the UK administration of Ireland. It currently hosts State ceremonies and visiting dignitaries, tourists, and conferences. You can certainly see the changes in architectural styles over the past few centuries, and if we had more time that day we might have gone inside to see the reportedly lavishly appointed State Apartments and Throne Room.

Malahide Castle and Gardens
Malahide Castle is renowned for having remained in the same family for more than 800 years, despite being on the losing side of the conflict that took the lives of many, many members of the extended family in 1690. Now owned by the county and operated by the same people who run Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher Centre, the grounds are well maintained and the tour through the castle itself interesting and informative. We learned much about the various iterations of the Talbot family, the expansion of the castle over the years, and the stories behind the wide range of furnishings and paintings acquired over the centuries. We were too early in the season for the flowers to be in bloom, but it is easy to imagine the gardens would be quite magnificent.

Cahir Castle

Cahir Castle

Rock of Cashel

Rock of Cashel

Rock of Cashel (interior)

Rock of Cashel (interior)

Bunratty Castle

Bunratty Castle

Bunratty Castle (interior)

Bunratty Castle (interior)

King John Castle (Limerick)

King John Castle (Limerick)

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle

sunny days and perfect pints, part II

Photo: Cauldron Bar

About to meet the friendly regulars at the Cauldron Bar, Limerick

Our last post described arriving in Dublin, establishing an “Irish Pub” research standard at the Guinness Storehouse, and then heading for Adare for several days. Despite the well-poured Guinness and mix of tourists and locals in each bar, we felt there was more to an Irish pub than we were finding in this cute little town.

Limerick is a 30-minute bus ride to the north, perfect for a day-trip from Adare. We caught an early bus that gave us time to wander around Ireland’s fourth largest city for several hours. We enjoyed the ancient buildings and bridges, found the famous Treaty Stone and King John’s Castle, and just off the well-travelled tourist trail, we discovered the tiny Black Cauldron Bar. We ventured in. The handful of men gathered at the near end of the bar paid little attention to us as we headed for a table along the side. Had we found an “authentic” Irish bar? There were the usual Irish pub decorations including numerous classic Guinness advertising posters, although these actually looked old and likely original from the time. The walls were also covered with regalia from Limerick-based Munster Rugby, one of four professional rugby teams in Ireland – good thing we weren’t wearing the wrong colours that day!

Photo: Cauldron Bar

Inside the Cauldron

But there was something else going on here. A television over the bar was broadcasting the horse races that were apparently taking place all over the country, a monitor behind us was quietly updating the race schedules and results, and the bartender was taking bets and paying out the winners. The server was handing out freshly made chicken sandwiches and brought a plate over to us. And when they saw we had not run off, one by one the regulars dropped by to say hello, introduce themselves and tell us their story, usually peppered with more than a few expressions of “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph”, and wish us well. But first, each would gently caution us to ignore everything their drinking buddy had just said to us. This was the Irish pub experience we were looking for!

Photo: Brazen Head

Oldest pub in Ireland: The Brazen Head

Of course, we did manage to sample more than a few famous pubs when we got to Dublin. The Brazen Head claims to be the oldest pub in Ireland and displays a Guinness World Record plaque as evidence. It certainly does feel older than the others, like a cluttered rabbit warren with creaky passages between rooms, walls covered in old photos and magazine clippings, and a set of taps in every nook and cranny.

Over in the Temple Bar district is the namesake Temple Bar, established in 1840. It is also a collection of rooms heavily decorated with old signs, photos, and memorabilia. One of the attractions is the daily program of live traditional Irish music. There is no cover charge but the price for a pint is higher here than elsewhere (although no one bothers you if you just wander in to listen to the music). Large groups of tourists would stream in, order one obligatory drink to say they “did Temple Bar”, and stream out. That’s no way to appreciate the music, soak in the atmosphere, and be in a place long enough to actually remember it!

Photo: Temple Bar

Irish music, live at Temple Bar

A few blocks around the corner is the Porterhouse Central brewpub. To the dismay of tourists searching for a pint of Guinness to say they had one in Dublin, this bar features only its own and guest craft beers on tap, and bottled craft beers from around the world. We grew very fond of their Hop Head Pale Ale, timing our wandering around Dublin to get us here for happy hour.

A large “after-work” crowd gathers each afternoon, not really many tourists so we had a chance to chat with locals about working and living in Dublin. The people we talked to spoke fondly about the city, even if they had arrived from elsewhere. They also assured us that the week of sun we were enjoying was unusual; before crossing the ocean we had been warned that it rains a lot in Dublin, but this visit, not a drop.

Photo: Old Jameson Distillery

Whiskey taste test at the Old Jameson Distillery

We managed to sample the fare at a number of other bars in Dublin, but these would be our top three choices, perhaps combined with a visit to the Old Jameson Distillery. The distillery once occupied a huge area in the Smithfield neighbourhood north of the Liffey River, complete with a workforce of thousands. Several decades ago the production was moved to Cork, and the distillery site mostly redeveloped for housing and commercial use. But they kept one building as a museum and tasting room. The tour is low key, but they do emphasis the triple distillation that is “the key to Jameson’s smoothness” and they offered a taste test to back up their claim. We were convinced, Jameson Irish Whiskey it is from now on!

sunny days and perfect pints, part I

Dublin: View from the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse

Dublin: View from the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse

We recently had the pleasure of spending ten unexpectedly sunny days in Ireland. We stayed in Adare (just south of Limerick) and Dublin, visited numerous castles around the country, the Cliffs of Moher, and a few Irish pubs.

Full disclosure: we mean many Irish pubs.

Kind readers of this blog will know we often remark on the likelihood, wherever we are in the world, of finding an Irish pub. Some make very interesting claims, such as being the southern-most Irish pub in the world (Ushuaia, Argentina), or the highest Irish pub in the world (Cusco, Peru). Most, however, simply claim they offer a “traditional Irish pub experience,” despite locations ranging from the small town of Granada, Nicaragua to the hyper-tourist-world of Phuket, Thailand.

Clearly it was time to visit the source of all this exported Irish pride.

Our research mission began by heading straight from the Dublin airport to the Guinness Storehouse for a tour and tasting. Built in 1904, the Storehouse is a relatively new building, considering Guinness started brewing on this 50-acre site way back in 1759. The operation still produces 3 million pints a day of “the black stuff.”

A full tray of tasters!

A full tray of tasters!

After reading about founder Arthur Guinness and learning more about the beer-making process, we were treated to a lesson on drinking beer. Who knew that would be needed, but it helped us taste the roasted barley and appreciate the art of pouring the perfect pint of Guinness. Of course the main event is to hang out at the seventh floor Gravity Bar with a fresh pint and a great view of the city. Guinness never tasted so good, what a fabulous start to our research!

We headed for Adare, about 2-1/2 hours southwest of Dublin, our base of operations for exploring the countryside. Adare itself is a favourite day or overnight destination for Dubliners, known for its quaint countryside setting and thatched roof cottages. It also features five pubs within a few metres of each other.

We started with Aunty Lena’s, clearly a favourite with locals, and quickly our favourite too. The servers were friendly and helpful, the food was good, and we appreciated the live music. We also quickly learned that, unlike elsewhere in the world, Guinness in Ireland is usually the least expensive beer on the menu, often selling for 4 euros and change.

Our favourite in Adare: Aunty Lena's

Our favourite in Adare: Aunty Lena’s

Over the next several days we continued our pub research up and down this short main street, visiting Sean Collins and Sons, Pat Collins, and Bill Chawkes, and returning to Aunty Lena’s. All make varying claims about offering the best traditional food and the best Guinness pour in town, and all did offer friendly service and a pleasant atmosphere, but we wondered if there was more to an Irish pub than the “prettiest town in Ireland” was offering. We needed to get off the beaten track; watch for “sunny days and perfect pints, part II” coming to a blog near you!
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