A First-timer’s Take on Ireland and Scotland, with Belfast in Between. Part I

Here are some highlights from a trip my wife, sister, and I took through Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, which collectively spanned most of May, 2019. We met up with my sister late Saturday morning on the 11th in downtown Dublin. Cath had just returned to the city by bus, after spending a week in Edinburgh and Belfast, and Jamie and I had come in on an overnight flight from San Francisco. A week later, after driving together through much of the southern half of the country, Cath would close out her travels and head back home, while Jamie and I would go on to have adventures in Northern Ireland and Scotland of our own.

Three things to expect to see on Fleet Street in the warmer months: Guinness delivery trucks in the morning, throngs of tourists during the day, and partiers packing every establishment on the strip — visitors and locals alike — right up until a few hours before it starts all over again. After cracking his first joke, the old cabbie who picked us up at the airport asked us where we were going. When we told him he became more serious and said, “There’s only one good thing about Fleet Street: the location.” We thought it was another joke, just as we thought the same when hotel reception asked if we wanted ear plugs. By the close of the second sleepless night in our second-floor, street-facing room, we knew better. Meanwhile, my sister, set up in a loft on the opposite side of the River Liffey, slept like a toddler in a car seat after a long day at the amusement park.
The Guinness Storehouse is probably a site every first-time visitor to the city should see, whether you like Guinness or not. During the couple days were were in Dublin, we heard it said a few times that Ireland’s two greatest exports are U2 and Guinness. Of course, this was just another joke; looking it up, it turns out Ireland’s top ten exports are all very boring, #1 being packaged medicaments. It’s undeniable though that Guinness is a hugely significant product of the country, as well as an integral part its culture. On top of that, the story behind its founding and growth as a company is fascinating. As a long-time consumer of the product and a person of Irish descent, I felt a little ashamed by the time we left, for not previously knowing a little more.
The tours at the Guinness Storehouse are self-guided, which gives visitors the freedom to explore the multiple floors at their leisure. However, probably the best part of the whole thing, and what likely draws many people to come, is the Gravity Bar. Perched atop the building, with walls constructed mostly of glass, it offers a spectacular, near-360 view of the city. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit the cloud cover was near 100% and massive cranes spanned the entire skyline. But Gravity is great all by itself, and if you buy a ticket to tour the museum, a free pint is waiting for you at the bar. Above are Jamie on the left and Cath on the right, enjoying theirs.
Trinity College in Dublin is one of the most iconic learning institutions in the world, and the Long Room is one of its most revered and architecturally distinctive structures. Built between 1712 and 1732, it holds over 200,000 of the college’s oldest books, and serving as a copyright library as well, every publishing house in Ireland must deposit at least one copy of all their publications there. Included in the vast literary collection is a rare copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, yet its most famous holding is an illuminated copy of The Book of Kells, believed to have been created around 800 AD.
Among other films shot here, if you’ve seen the original “The Italian Job” or the Daniel Day-Lewis film, “In the Name of the Father”, you’ve seen parts of Kilmainham Gaol. Now a museum dedicated to the history of Irish nationalism, Kilmainham was a prison where many Irish revolutionaries were incarcerated and executed, perhaps most notably the leaders of the 1916 rebellion, The Easter Rising. Built in 1796 and decommissioned in 1924, the building sat vacant for decades until its final restoration was completed in 1971, concluding an eleven-year project commenced by a volunteer workforce of sixty volunteers. Above is a view of the landing where the 1916 leaders were held before execution.
After two delirious days in Dublin, we picked up our rental at the airport and drove 170 miles west, to the coastal village of Doolin. A Little About Driving in Ireland and Scotland: If only to keep things simple, I did all of the driving in Ireland, and in Scotland when it was just Jamie and me. From the start, one frustrating aspect of the experience — aside from having to get accustomed to driving on the “wrong” side of the road in a hurry — was being stuck behind the wheel for hours, amid so much pastoral beauty. Ireland and Scotland present endless photo opps in that regard, more so than any other place I’ve been, but for every shot I took, I drove by thirty chances at more. While on the road, the countryside always made for a stunning backdrop, but as the photographer of the bunch, not having access to shoot it oftentimes was an aggravating part of the deal. Altogether, we logged over 1400 driving miles, (a Google map showing our road routes in their entirety can be found at the end of Part II) and our itinerary was always tight. In addition, apart from the highways, roads in both countries are narrow and winding — especially in Ireland — and often afford few places to pull over. So, we raced west, made a quick stop once, and pulled into Doolin twenty minutes before boarding the boat above, which was to take us to Inisheer, the smallest and innermost of the Aran Islands.
After hopping off the boat onto Inisheer’s dock, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before we found ourselves moving along aboard this contraption: an old wagon converted into a people cart, being pulled by an ancient tractor, and operated by a cheerful, seasoned island local, Caoimhin, who went by the name of Kevin.

Inisheer Island and Kevin

Kevin is a man of about sixty, with white, unruly hair poking out from underneath a woolen knit cap. His face is sanguine, angular, and weatherbeaten, he is tall, and his archetypal build is one that usually comes not from the gym but is the result of decades of hard, physical work. As we approached on the small ferry, several landmarks on the island came into view, most prominently a shipwreck, midway point on its eastern shore. Not knowing what to expect once we landed, I immediately launched into figuring out just how long it would take to walk from the harbor to the wreck, which looked to be about a mile or so over an unfamiliar, rocky shoreline. Waiting for us at the dock, in the driver’s seat of his rig perfectly designed for its purpose, Kevin presented to us a better idea, and so after a brief introduction and Inisheer history presentation, we were off.

Kevin has only lived on the island, and yet is a man who’s existed in two very different worlds. While navigating us through the stone-walled maze above, possibly built centuries ago, he told us about life on Inisheer when he was a young man. He was a fisherman then and he told us about how in those days, long before the ferries or practically any other boats ran out to the island, they would row the day’s catch the six miles to the mainland. It was a near-perfect day when we took the ferry across, and yet the ceaseless wind characteristic of the area was so strong I could see just docking the power boats here required a specific skill set. For good reason, sometimes a couple approaches had to be made before a line could be thrown from deck, to help haul the vessel alongside the pier. As a former boat operator myself, who worked the windy San Francisco Bay for years, I still couldn’t help but be impressed by the boat handling displayed by the captains pulling into Doolin. On our hour-long ride out to Inisheer, the weather conditions only strengthened, with sizable swells and whitecaps spread across the Atlantic, horizon to horizon. Later, on the ferry ride back to the mainland, I did my best to imagine what it must have been like in earlier days, four men rowing a small wooden boat loaded to the gunwales with fish, miles across a wind-whipped, angry ocean, wet and chilled to the bone in the dead of winter, with a storm approaching.

Kevin and most of the other 260 year-round residents of Inisheer now subsist primarily on tourism. In addition to the ferries, there are small planes that run to the island, received by a tiny regional airport, and we spotted at least one hostel and a bed-and-breakfast in our walk about the neighborhood. Artisans sell their wares here and there, a bar well-known for its fine local music is nearby, and a small fishing industry still exists, keeping the island’s history and traditions alive. Given the stories we’d heard about the antediluvian way of life he once knew — one easy to romanticize from a distance — somewhat tone-deaf, I asked Kevin if he missed the old days on Inisheer, expecting an ambiguous response. Instead, he said affably, “Not at all.”


Early morning, on March 8th, 1960, the MV Plassey was caught in a severe storm and ran into Finnis Rock, while making way north through Galway Bay. A twenty-year-old converted cargo vessel carrying whiskey, stained glass, and yarn, all eleven crew members were saved by the actions of a team of Inisheer inhabitants, alerted to the danger by a single flare shot from the foundering ship. A few weeks later, the area was struck by another heavy storm, one this time lifting the Plassey off Finnis Rock and depositing her high on the eastern shore of Inisheer, where she has rested ever since.
In the distance is Inisheer’s small harbor, where anything coming to the island by boat is deposited, and around which many of the 260 locals reside. In the foreground is a tight view of a newer, more conventional section of a once-concealed ancient burial site. On these hillside grounds, among the more modern grave markers but not pictured, is Cnoc Raithni, (Prehistoric Ruin) a Bronze Age burial mound. A simple, low-to-the-ground stone structure concealed under soil and sand for possibly centuries, it was discovered in 1885 after the passing of a significant storm, which uncovered some of the oldest artifacts on the island, some dating to 1500 BC.
Near the island’s highest point sits O’Brien’s Castle. Built in the 14th century, during the Middle Ages the island was ruled unchallenged by the O’Brien dynasty. However, in 1582 the regime was defeated by the O’Flaherty clan, effectively ending O’Brien dominion, after which the victors took over the castle. Seventy years later, after the O’Flahertys were in turn defeated, the property changed hands again, coming under the control of the Cromwellian invasion force. Soon after, with the CIF finding no use for the fortress, it was partially dismantled, abandoned, and has stood unoccupied ever since.
One of the craft shops we came upon while wandering through town, far up in the hills and away from where the tourists arrive to the island.

Cousin Emer

After the ferry dropped us back in Doolin, we made for our lodging for the night, not more than a few minutes’ drive from the pier. Pulling into the gravel parking area, we knew instantly which shelter was ours, as it looked just as advertised on the website: the most yurtish yurt on the lot. If you don’t know exactly what a yurt is, the first definition I came upon describes it pretty well: a tent-like dwelling of the Mongol and Turkic peoples of Asia, consisting of a cylindrical wall of poles in a lattice arrangement with a conical roof of poles, both covered by felt or skins. In this case the covering was canvas.

Having never been glamping before, I didn’t know what to expect, but upon entering the teepee-like construction, I was stunned by the almost storybook-like space inside, one that also seemed twice the size of its modest exterior. If there’s such a thing as a standard “glampground”, this place is probably whatever that is, plus one or two more. For Jamie and me, this was our third full day in Ireland, and for me alone, the fourth full day with little to no sleep, and I was really starting to feel it. At the end of the night, after the three of us had spent an excellent evening with cousin Emer, at a pub just down the road pulled straight out of a movie scene, this glorified tent — one even cozier than it looks — would finally set my clock to Ireland time.

The walk to O’Connor’s Pub was short and even though we’d gotten there early, the place was nearly full, so we were lucky to grab an open table, situated near the entrance. Never having met before, but being connected on Facebook for a couple years, Cath and I knew what our cousin looked like, and when she entered through the front door, due to my position at the table, I was the first to see her and recognized her immediately. Emer is somewhat tall and slender, with shoulder-length, straight, reddish brown hair, has dark blue eyes, high cheek bones, and a calm, disarming smile. Descriptions are necessary here because this night I had left my camera behind, the only time I didn’t have it with me during the eighteen-day trip; I didn’t want to be in picture-taking mode this evening, a mindset I get into easily, that usually distracts me from everything else.

Not surprisingly, Emer’s appearance was aligned with a pleasant demeanor and soon the four of us were talking about all kinds of things, most of which I can’t remember. In time though, we began to discuss exactly how we all fit together, and that’s when it became clear our cousin knew more about the subject than Cath and I. When it comes to family in the States, (which makes for most of it that I’m aware of) my sister and I were among the last to visit Ireland. Always on the to-do list, but never done. My sister and I grew up “Irishy”: We had been in and out of stateside Irish pubs since we were kids, had heard plenty of stories about the country, gathered some history about where our family had come from, and had even picked up a little about who within it was still there. But even as adults, Ireland had always been an anachronistic, almost mythical place, and the stories, regardless of the familial characters, were still nothing more. We never had more than bits and pieces to a picture we were too far from to see. Fortunately, Emer had brought some more pieces with her.

After finishing some of the best food we’d have in the country — fish and chips, for Jamie and me — we all stepped outside. Only coming from a couple towns over, Emer had brought her dog along, a white, curly-furred little guy named Ernie. Sitting on a picnic table across the street, we talked some more about this and that for a length of time, while Ernie played around and enjoyed himself in the vicinity. Although it was well into the evening, the sun was still up, as in these northern lats it drops late in the spring and summer. The wind was blowing between a breeze and a howl and it was getting chilly, so Ernie was put to bed in Emer’s car and we went back inside. Surprisingly, we were able to reclaim our table by the entrance, one that still sat unoccupied, and looking about the place again, I saw the scene had changed a bit; the lights were dimmed and a band was playing out of sight, hidden somewhere within the larger, epicentral room conjoined with ours. We could only hear the music from our location, acoustics that of course provided a perfect soundtrack to the new setting. The pub had more people now, and things were livelier, with folks lined up along the long dark wood bar, most of whom were Irish, and more than a few, by all appearances, locals. Seated on stools at the end of the bar near our table, we struck up a conversation with a man and his teenaged son who by chance were from a place in Maryland not more than forty minutes’ drive from where my sister and I grew up. He was the proud owner of a few Ledo’s Pizza restaurants, a regionally famous franchise headquartered in the state’s capital. It was their first time in Ireland as well and we swapped a few stories about our experiences thus far, and talked a little about home, too.

Having not yet even ventured past our table and farther into the heart of the pub, and wanting to see the source of the music, I walked over to the next room. Situated on old, plush sofas and easy chairs arranged in a circle, five men and a woman were playing traditional Irish instruments. Some folks were seated next to the musicians, sharing the same furniture and intimate amphitheater, while others stood behind them, forming a larger circle of their own. I honestly can’t remember if there was a lit fireplace in the room or not, but from some source a soft orange-yellow light reached nearly to the edge of the long bar at the opposite end of the communal space, which dimly illuminated a conference of cheerful, chattering customers. Standing on the seam connecting the two rooms, waiting for my Guinness near the end of the long bar, I looked over and saw Jamie, Cath, and Emer were engaged in a lively conversation, while through the front door I could see the sun had finally dropped and another group was coming in from the outside chill.


A southward view of the Cliffs of Moher, upon returning to Doolin by ferry from Inisheer Island.
A tour boat takes in a dramatic, head-on view of the Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs of Moher is one of Ireland’s most recognizable landmarks, and receiving around 1.5 million visitors a year, makes for one of its most popular tourist destinations. Located at the southeastern edge of the country, in the Burren region of County Clare, in addition to being awe-inspiring, the cliffs and surrounding area serve as an important wildlife habitat, home to over twenty species of nesting seabirds, such as Atlantic puffins, razorbills, and kittiwakes, while off the coast sightings of grey seals, porpoises, dolphins, minke whales, and basking sharks are common.
A model southwest Ireland landscape, shot from the side of the road, outside the coastal village of Dingle.
Stone supports and walls in the Irish countryside are familiar sights, and I couldn’t help but wonder how long this particularly well-constructed one had been standing. So many things in Ireland have an abiding aspect to them that for an outsider looking in, when it comes to how long a thing’s been around, it’s so often hard to tell.

Inch Beach: Driving along a stretch of curvy, coastal road cut high into south-facing hills, while headed from the seaside village of Dingle to Kenmare, we came upon the view of a wide, rock-less beach. From our elevated vantage point, it was easy to see the entirety of it, and we could also make out the figure of a surfer, sitting on his board, maybe a few hundred feet off the shore. Although we were pressed for time, I pulled over to take a few shots. I’ve been surfing once — spring of 2017, in Costa Rica — and I don’t know what exactly makes for a perfect surf spot, but to me this place looked like it could be one of them, and this guy had it to himself, late on a Wednesday afternoon.
Out of all the castles we saw in Ireland and Scotland, Kilkenny is my favorite. Aside from being in excellent condition, for me, it was the one that best provided a sense of what it may have really been like to call a place like that home, whether in the 12th century or the 20th. A bit of trivia: Ireland’s highest officially recognized temperature of 91.9 F (33.3 C) was measured at Kilkenny Castle on June 26th, 1887.
The State Dining Room: This was the formal dining room of Kilkenny Castle, until the 1860s when it was converted into a billiard room.
A nursery of a sort at Kilkenny Castle.
Built in the 13th century and restored between 1844 and 1867, St. Canice’s Cathedral is the second longest cathedral in Ireland, after St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Like the town of Kilkenny itself, for centuries much of the building’s medieval appearance has been maintained. It also houses some of the finest ancient artifacts in Ireland, as well as the tombs of many bishops of historical note and several owners of Kilkenny Castle. At the time of our visit, a choir from Worcester, Massachusetts happened to have begun rehearsing.
On the south side of the cathedral is a 100-foot, round tower, built in the 9th century. A wood Celtic Christian monastery once stood on this same site, believed to have been constructed by St. Canice himself, sometime during the 6th century. One of only three towers in Ireland open to the public for a climb to the top, it’s the oldest standing structure in Kilkenny City.
This was taken right after we hopped off the bus in Belfast. After spending a couple days in Kilkenny, early that morning we headed for Dublin again, where we dropped off our rental at the airport and said our goodbyes to Cath, who was wrapping things up and flying back home. An hour after she boarded the plane, Jamie and I were on a bus going north.
This is Marty. Marty was a bit of a creep, although a fun-loving one under the right circumstances, which seemed to exist intermittently for about half of the two-hour walking tour he took us on through the city. Getting to our downtown Belfast hotel late Saturday afternoon, Jamie and I had only the night to play with before we’d be taking a ferry across to Scotland early the next morning, and not really having any other thoughts on what to do, an hour before it was scheduled to get underway, by phone we arranged to be part of a guided history tour of Belfast. The man at the other end of the line (most likely, Marty) informed us there were still spaces left, and then instructed us to go to a certain street in the heart of town, where we should wander around and look for a man wearing a purple hat. Despite the oddness of the rendezvous strategy, it did work perfectly. Marty is a distinctive character and thus, even on a busy city sidewalk, one hard to miss. As an example, for the entire two hours he walked generally situated as you see here: body slightly reclined, hands up, and fingers constantly fidgeting, which made him appear much like a begging puppy, or as one who was going to start wildly gesticulating at any moment, but then over and over again decided just to keep it all to himself.
To our surprise, but not Marty’s, Jamie and I were the only people to show up for the tour, although in his defense, it could have been the rain that kept the others away. It was the first we’d experienced since the trip began, one heavy enough to require us to hide for cover often, usually in one of the many bars around town. During our customized tour, we also discovered that Marty possessed true encyclopedic knowledge when it came to the complicated history of his home town, and no matter what question we asked, he had a long and detailed answer. Encyclopedic knowledge or an immense talent for bullshit, either way, by the time the tour ended, right in front of our hotel lobby door, I had come to like Marty. And then, after he repeatedly refused to accept even a modest tip for the tour that had gone twice as long as scheduled and what we had paid for, he disappeared in the shadows of the dark street seen below.