On a sunny September day in 2013, I left my job and flew to Ireland on a one-way ticket. I had been harbouring this thought of spending a number weeks there ever since I had first visited Dublin in 2012 and immediately fallen in love with it. I’d been back on a regular basis during the in-between time, but work in London meant my visits always felt cut short, and when I decided I’d had enough of my job it seemed the perfect time to finally do what I’d been boring friends about for a year.
I hadn’t made much of a plan before I left. I knew I wanted to fly to Cork to start the journey, and I was planning to be in Dublin 5 weeks later for the Dublin Theatre Festival , which meant anything could happen in the middle. I had considered picking up a car at some point along the way, but as it turned out I ended up giving myself the extra interesting personal challenge of doing it all on foot and public transport.
I arrived in Cork late at night and headed straight to a hostel up in Shandon where I settled into my private room (I’m happy to stay in budget accommodation, but drew the line at dorm rooms, I’m too old for sharing), cracking open a bottle of wine and unpacking some belongings. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay so wanted to make it as homely as possible, and was happy in my room that night, with my travel books, relishing all the ideas of what might be to come.
The next morning was beautiful bright and sunny, something which was to become almost guaranteed on this trip – remarkably I hardly saw any of that pesky rain I’d heard so much about – and the most wonderful morning to get out for the first time.
Cork is a brilliant city and the perfect place to begin this kind of trip, a blend of vibrant city life and traditional Irish culture, offering a warm welcome to someone travelling alone. I spent the best part of a week getting to know the place and settling in to my new solitary existence, chatting to people in bars when I felt like conversation and burying my head in a book or walking for miles when I was happy with the seclusion. I saw a show at the wonderful Cork Opera House, took the bus out to Kinsale to walk up to Charles Fort, admiring the most beautiful views, which were just the very beginning of something that grew more and more spectacular as I made my way around the country. I ate a lot of sea food chowder and soda bread, drank a lot of Guinness and enjoyed the English Market in Cork city centre. It was the perfect start and I’d even made a couple of friends who I still see now, but after about a week it was time to move on and I had to start considering where was next and, indeed, how I was going to get there.
I’d been glued to one particular guide book for months before I left London and had kept coming back to gaze at the most beautiful centrefold picture, which was a panoramic shot of Killarney National Park. I couldn’t wait any longer. I was going there.
I must admit, I’ve never really been the ‘outdoorsy’ type. I don’t even run for the bus. But there was something about Killarney, and the fact I still seemed to be avoiding any rainy weather whatsoever, that turned me into a person I didn’t recognise, much to the amusement of friends and family. I hired a bike on my first day in town and spent the next 2 cycling miles and miles of the park and out to Ross Castle. It was breath-taking and exhilarating and I loved every minute of it, even taking it a step further on the 3rd day and going horse-riding around the park, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
The lack of (motorised) vehicle almost became a problem when I became absolutely desperate to go out to the Dingle peninsula and stand on mainland Ireland’s easternmost point, but there were options which involved going on a bus tour, and as this was my only way out, I went for it. I can understand that a guided tour might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really enjoyed hearing the driver’s stories of Irish myth and legend as we made our way out west on the Dingle Peninsula, as well as historical facts about the Blasket Islands and various properties that we saw along the way. It also meant that, thankfully, I hadn’t missed out on another unbelievably beautiful bit of coastline, and a stop at Inch Beach in the glorious sunshine, as well as a couple of hours mooching around Dingle town were the perfect ways to break up a bus journey.
After all that wonderful fresh air and outdoor activity, I was ready to get some city time and next on the list was Galway. Once again, this could have been easier had I picked up that car, but I am quite partial to a bit of train travel (outside of England’s terrible services, I might add) and the thought of a drawn out journey on 3 trains around the country to get there sounded appealing. It is stunning, looking out of the window and taking it all in, on any journey in Ireland. I had to go via Limerick though having spent a weekend there the year before, decided not to make it a stop on this trip and to carry on to pastures new, and about 4 hours later, I was arriving in Galway.
A friend came to meet me. It was welcome after a couple of weeks only talking to new people and I relished the opportunity to spend a few days with someone who lives in Ireland so I could share stories of my trip so far on a highly enjoyable pub crawl around this new city! The pubs, bookshops and eateries of Galway are all as wonderful as I’d hoped, and buying a couple of books from one of the amazing second hand bookshops then settling down to enjoy them with some beautiful red wine and cheese at Sheridan’s Cheesemongers was a memorable treat, the owner there happy to give out tasters and make recommendations.
I had thought I’d be in Galway for 3 or 4 days, but it turned into a week, and then 10 days. (A very short trip, compared to a friend who told me afterwards that he went for a weekend and stayed for 6 years!) That’s about the time I decided it was best to carry on, but I’d really made the most of it, a trip out to the Aran Islands being one of the major highlights of the entire month. I took the ferry from Galway city out to Inishmore, hired another bike, and made it right the way round the island before I had to catch my ferry home. The sun was beating down all day and on a great deal of the routes, the only other living creature I came across was a couple of horses. In fact, the heat of the day and the feeling of relative seclusion meant that by the time I found myself pulling up at Kilmurvey Beach, I was so warm and so alone that I decided a little dip in the water would be an excellent idea. Oh, how refreshing it was. And how I needed to do some serious cycling immediately afterwards in order not to catch my death – I suppose however tempting the North Atlantic looks, there’s always going to be a bit of chill in early October!
So onwards from Galway city, and next up was a relatively short bus trip west through the wilds of Connemara, to the town of Clifden, and the plan to get back out on the bicycle and cycle a tiny bit of the Wild Atlantic Way.
On arrival into town, I was simultaneously delighted to find that the Clifden Arts Festival was taking place on the very weekend I have chosen to visit, and terrified that there didn’t seem to be a spare bed in the entire place.
It’s a wonderful and freeing feeling to play a trip like this completely by ear, but I must say, I was regretting my complete lack of forward planning at that particular moment. Though, in what I was discovering to be the truly Irish way, the residents of Clifden were not going to see me go room-less, and within a couple of hours of door to door enquiries, I had been offered both a ‘put me up’ in a basement under an art gallery, and the tiny single room usually reserved for kids in a lovely guest house. I opted for the latter, but ended up having a few large glasses of wine with the charming and generous owner of said art gallery later that evening anyway. Wonderful.
The arts festival is fantastic and I thoroughly enjoyed an evening of parades through the streets, fireworks and Arial acrobatic displays, the place so alive with creativity and excitement and crowds having come from near and far to celebrate such a wonderful collection of performance and art.
Nursing a fairly sore head the following morning, it would have been tempting to avoid leaving my tiny room, but I only had that day to hire a bike and get out on the way. As I’ve mentioned, the scenery only got more spectacular as I moved my way around and up the country, and this little glimpse of the Wild Atlantic Way is etched in my mind forever. I won’t lie, I had to walk my bike up a particularly steep bit, but once I had, there was the most incredible, indescribable panoramic scenery I’ve ever known. It was the perfect cure for the fun of the night before and a most excellent final bike ride of the trip.
I had decided to leave Clifden the following day and head further north to Sligo – a journey I managed to make such a meal of, I won’t even go into it. It was worth it, of course. Although when vaguely planning the trip, there had been some mention of learning to surf once I reached this point, that wasn’t to be – It was early October by this point and, although I was still feeling quite proud of myself for having taken a dip in the open sea the week before, the weather had changed quite dramatically and I was quite happy exploring on foot or being inside a fair bit more than on previous stops! I enjoyed the churches and architecture of Sligo a great deal, and after covering most of it on foot, decided to take the final leg before heading to Dublin, and have a couple of days in Donegal.
I spent most of this time reading by the fire in a particularly welcoming pub near my guest house, taking a charming Waterbus boat trip around Donegal Bay enjoying views of the Bluestack Mountains, and playing pool with some locals who seemed quite perturbed by my journey.
Then it was time to head off, and after a few more glorious hours on the bus, I was there, in Dublin, ready for the theatre festival, the nightlife, and a hot bath!
I’d had it on good authority from a long-time Dublin resident that Grogans and The Long Hall were ‘must visit’ pubs in the centre of the city, and this proved valuable information indeed. I made myself at home in these spots, did a fair amount of walking in the city, ate some wonderful food and thoroughly enjoyed the shows I saw as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. I had (and have since) been back to Dublin, and it’s a city I could never tire of, with is welcome and it’s bars, and it’s beauty.
In all, this was an incredible, memorable trip and I would love to spend more time in this beautiful country. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Though saying that, I might consider taking my driving license next time.