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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Irish Castles on Our 2018 Tour

When you think of visiting Ireland you likely picture the lush green terrain quite likely with a stone wall or even a one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, a castle.  Ireland is home to numerous castles and castle ruins, some truly iconic – like Blarney Castle, and others lesser known but all part of a rich history.   

The Rock of Cashel (County Tipperary)
On Day 4 of our tour we’ll stop at two ancient castles, the first being the Rock of Cashel.  This ancient fortress was donated to the Catholic Church at the start of the 12th century by the King of Munster, so it is often thought of more as a religious monument than a castle. 

 The oldest and tallest part of the castle, as with many Irish castles, is the 90 foot tall round tower.  Cormac’s Chapel dates from the 12th century and features vaulted ceilings, decorative carvings over the doorways and remnants of multiple frescoes.  A cathedral built in the 13th century and the Hall of the Vicars built in the 15th century add to the grandeur of the Rock of Cashel.  The museum and a short film will offer more background on the Rock of Cashel’s history.

Blarney Castle (County Cork)

Our second castle stop on Day 4 is the famous Blarney Castle.  Though most famous for the tradition of kissing the Blarney Stone to acquire the “gift of gab” or eloquent speech, Blarney Castles grounds also add to this tourist spot’s allure.  

photo by Christie Brook
The Blarney Stone is actually a block of limestone on the battlements of Blarney Castle.  To kiss the stone you must first go to the top of the castle, then lean over the edge of the parapet backwards.  There are rails to hold on to and someone to hold on to you as you perform this somewhat awkward feat. 

Aside from the famous stone, the view from the top of the castle is quite breathtaking.  The grounds also boast extensive gardens, including a poison garden.  The original stone castle dates form the 13th century, but was rebuilt in the 15th century.  Our tour will also include a stop at nearby Blarney Woolen Mills.

 Bunratty Castle (County Clare)

On our way from Killarney to Limerick on Day 6 we’ll stop at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.  The present castle was constructed in the 15th century by the MacNamara family, but later was held by the O’Brien family, who expanded the castle in the following century.  Many of the rooms of the castle have been restored and are open to visitors, and the view from the upper portions of the castle is quite lovely.

photo by Christie Brook
photo by Christie Brook

Beyond the castle itself, the site also features a folk park with multiple Irish cottages visitors can tour.  Shops, other buildings and costumed characters enhance the 19th century replica village of the folk park.  There is also a fairy village for in the wooded section of the folk park and a walled garden at Bunratty House.  

King John’s Castle in Limerick is a 13th century riverside fortress.  The Norman structure was built on the orders of King John of England and thus named for him.  The castle came under attack as the city was besieged several times in the 17th century, most notably in 1642 when Catholic troops attacked 600 English Protestants who had taken refuge in the castle during the 1641 rebellion.  A section of the wall had to be pulled down later as its foundations were weakened in the sieges.

I’ll be posting later in the month about other castles that would make good free time outings during our tour, as well as, sharing some great posts on these castles on our tour's Facebook page. 

One other castle we'll see on tour, which I foolishly did not include in this post, is Dublin Castle. Full of history, Dublin Castle was built in the early 13th century. It served to imprison many notable figures in Irish history, housed the provisional government in 1922, and today is used to host official state visits.

A few links on Dublin Castle's history:


Friday, July 07, 2017

Irish Souvenir Ideas

Though traveling, especially on a budget, is all about the experiences you have on tour, having momentos of your travels is also a comfort and joy in itself.  So whether you’re shopping for something to help you forever remember your dream trip to Ireland or for a present to bring back for friends or family, this month I’m posting on great Irish souvenir ideas.

I’ve taken suggestions of fellow Ireland travelers and my own favorite ideas and grouped them into a few categories.  

1.       Clothing:

Easy to find, useful and generally easy to bring back … clothing is a practical and beautiful souvenir.  My personal souvenir of choice falls into this category as I have a collection of scarves from each country I’ve visited, but Ireland also has its own unique clothing items. 

The most iconic of Irish clothing souvenirs is easily the woollens of the Aran Islands.  Sweaters and caps from this very traditional corner of Ireland are greatly sought after and easily available throughout the country (though for those going on the optional Aran Islands excursion on Day 8, where better to get your woolen souvenirs!).  And there are plenty of other sources of woollens all over Ireland.  We even have a scheduled stop at Blarney Woollen Mills on Day 4 of our tour.

Handmade leather belts, bags and wallets from stores like Lee River Leather in Cork can also be nice and easy to transport souvenirs. 

Most clothing is a relatively easy souvenir to bring back in your luggage, but for bulkier woollen items like large sweaters or blankets, you may want to have them shipped home to save space.

2.       Jewelry:

Though it can be pricier than other souvenirs, jewelry is always a beautiful keepsake and Ireland has some truly unique styles to offer.  Irish jewelry can be distinctive in design and in materials. 

The most quintessential Irish jewelry design, originating from western Ireland, is the Claddagh.  The design consists of two hands holding a heart with a crown on top of it.  It is a symbol of love, loyalty and friendship.  Traditionally the Claddagh is given as a ring, but nowadays it can be find in any number of fashions.  Claddagh rings have been a product of the Galway area since the beginning of the 18th century, but the name we know them by was bestowed on the design in the 1830s.

Other traditional Irish symbols that can be easily found in the form of jewelry include Celtic crosses, harps, St. Brigid’s cross, shamrocks and the tree of life.  Celtic knots, which come in a wide variety, including the popular trinity knot, are also common in Irish jewelry.  One prevalent souvenir from the Emerald Isle are shamrocks enclosed in glass pendants.

Some jewelry is uniquely Irish thanks to the materials used to make it.  The most striking of these being Connemara marble.  The green marble is native to the west of the island and comes in a wide ranges of shades.  Connemara marble is also a great keepsake in other forms.  My favorite is the worry-stone, though you can also find Connemara marble used for coasters, vases and tiles to hang on your wall. 

3.       Glasses:

Whether you just want a Guinness glass straight from Ireland or some local crystal, glasses can be a great souvenir.  Both Waterford and Galway crystal are highly prized, though also more expensive than most souvenirs. 

For breakable and heavy souvenirs, the trick is to have them shipped home by the store rather than trying to take them along in your bags.

4.       Music:

One of the best suggestions from fellow travelers has been buying music CDs from local artists as a souvenir.  What better keepsake of the traditional Irish music you heard at your favorite pubs?  Granted not all local musicians have CDs to sell, but it’s becoming more common.

Irish musical instruments can also be a unique keepsake.  Some uniquely Irish instruments include tin whistles, bodhr√°ns, fiddles and Uilleann pipes.  Again, for larger and more breakable items it’s best to have them shipped home vs carrying them in your luggage.

5.       Art:

Art can take many forms but when created by local artists it is certainly a truly Irish keepsake.  Watercolors and prints can be a lovely keepsake of the areas you visit.  The Cork area boasts handmade Irish potter from Dunbeacon Pottery, though there are many sources of Irish pottery and ceramics throughout the country.  Other handmade crafts, including wooden & wool sheep figurines and ceramic or wood Irish cottage likenesses, can be found in little shops in most Irish towns.

Depending on where you buy a work of art and how heavy or breakable it is, you may want to see if you can have it shipped home rather than trying to cram it into a suitcase.

6.       Religious Keepsakes:

Ireland is a Catholic country after all, so another natural choice for souvenirs is something religiously inspired.  The most widely suggested of this type of souvenir is rosary beads … and just for something uniquely Irish, why not some Connemara marble rosary beads?  Celtic crosses are also a common souvenir (in the form of jewelry or as a design on clothing and other items).  The straw St. Brigid’s cross is also an iconic Irish souvenir, whether handmade from straw as is traditional or cast in metal for jewelry.

7.       Other Irish Souvenirs:

Irish lace, linens, soaps and perfumes are among the other items most suggested by fellow travelers to Ireland.  One Irish perfumery is even inspired by the Burren, which we’ll visit on Day 7 of our tour. 

Beautifully painted Irish Christmas ornaments are also a popular souvenir, and books of Irish poetry can be a nice keepsake.

8.       Photographs:

On any of my travels photographs play a huge role in commemorating my journeys.  With its lush green landscape and breathtaking sea sides, Ireland offers much to photograph.  Even the cities with beautiful Georgian architecture, quaint pubs and peaceful parks have much to remember in pictures.  And, of course, medieval castles and ancient religious ruins abound all over Ireland. 

No other souvenir is more telling of your personal journeys than the pictures you take yourself.  Whether you have grand plans to frame them or have them turned into keepsake canvas prints or photobooks, or if you prefer to share them online or in basic prints; your photographs are something you and everyone back home will enjoy.  In fact, on my first tour of Ireland I desperately wanted something to bring back to my grandmother who was not well enough to visit Ireland herself, and one of her greatest treasures was the frame holding pictures I had taken while visiting the Quiet Man cottage and bridge near Cong (which also has a museum dedicated to the movie).

I’ve seen stunning pictures taken by amateur and professional photographers alike in Ireland, and with phone cameras, digital and 35 mm “relics” like my own.  So my best advice is just to make sure you have plenty of memory cards or film to store as many breathtaking images as possible.  

For more Ireland souvenir and traveling ideas, check out our Facebook page: