Story and Photos by Pamela A. Keene
Journeying with Overseas Adventure Travel mostly unplugs the politics and brings travelers to the hearts of the people —
You haven’t seen green until you’ve visited the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s reputation for lush green spectacular scenery is true pretty much all year long but it’s never more evident than in the spring.
My recent trip to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland focused on the coast. We flew into Dublin and took the Dublin Coach across the island to meet our fellow travelers from Overseas Adventure Travel.
Our trip leader Tom met us in Ennis, just north of Shannon. The itinerary for the 12 of us included castles, mountain hikes, a trip to a sheep farm and larger cities of Dublin and Belfast. It was an adventure, but it was also a chance to better understand the people of this tiny island torn for decades between Catholics and protestants, battling to retain their independence or bowing to the English crown.
From the outside, it looks simple to solve, but with the arrival of Brexit, the future remains to be seen. No matter if you’re a Republican or a Royalist, the two countries are treasures, not to be missed for world travelers eager to visit the former movie sets of “Game of Thrones” or to visit the sites of old churches, local pubs with characteristic Irish music and dance, or just soak in the scenery. Visitors can enjoy a blend of the outdoors with history and culture in the major cities.
Journeying with Overseas Adventure Travel mostly unplugs the politics and brings travelers to the hearts of the people — one-on-one interactions with local fishermen, weavers using centuries-old looms, families making a living at farming or running small multi-generational shops and restaurants.
Traversing the coastline northward, the Cliffs of Moher’s rugged coastline provide breathtaking views of the blue Atlantic Ocean. In the spring, the hillsides are splashed with bright yellow gore, similar to Scotch Broom. From June to September, add in the deep lavender pinks of fine heather for a watercolor backdrop against clear-blue skies. As we approached small villages, the roadsides were lined with rhododendrons in full bloom in the late spring.
Considered a weed in Ireland, rhodies are often dug up and discarded or severely pruned to keep them at bay. A boat trip from the Cliffs of Moher to Aran Islands introduced us to the studio of a weaver who used an authentic centuries old loom to craft wool jackets, scarves, skirts and capes in softly hued fabrics. We took a horse-and-buggy ride around the island before having a traditional lunch of fish-and-chips at a local pub.
A visit to a sheep farm north of Clifden showed us the strong bond between the shepherd and the sheep dog. The wolf-like dogs are loyal to only one master, who commands the canine through whistles and hoots. One dog can herd dozens of sheep, corralling them across fields and streams or bringing them back to the pens, effortlessly doing his work.
We soon crossed the border from The Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, where the residents are subject to British rule. When we were there, the border was open, with no checkpoints or formal process to move between the two countries. Our guide, a citizen of the Republic, expressed concern that when Brexit takes affect, the transit between the Republic and Northern Ireland may become more difficult.
A large park filled with giant 20-foot tall aluminum statues of people reaching toward each other and arms raised in celebration marked the passage between the Republic and Northern Ireland. By the way, we used Euros when we were in the Republic, but spent our money in British Pounds in Northern Ireland.
Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland attracts tourist from around the world. Known to the Irish as the 8th Wonder of the World, the area along the coast is populated by large hexagonal rocks created more than 6 million years ago by a lava flow. Legend surrounding the natural formations includes a competition between an Irish giant and a Scottish Giant. Local guides and guidebooks provide more details.
Northern Ireland’s Belfast is home to Guinness beer, the famed black cabs that toured us around the city, and many murals that tell the varying viewpoints of the two countries’ conflicts. Tom explained that the murals are the people’s way of preserving history They include images of Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass.
The Titanic Museum details the construction in Belfast of the so-called unsinkable ocean liner, the pride of the city until its collision with an iceberg on its maiden voyage. The Titanic Experience recreates the ship’s elegant interior with interactive galleries and special effects. Our last stop in Northern Ireland brought us to the famed Tree Tunnel, Dark Hedges, featured in the Game of Thrones. Towering trees with twisted trunks and gnarled branches created an eerie mood.
The trip ended in Dublin in the Republic, where we learned about the 1916 Easter Rising against the British and resulted in the creation of two countries on the Emerald Isle. Two weeks was not enough to see all that Ireland has to offer, but it’s a good start. And being able to experience both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland provided an excellent overview of why the island is called “The Emerald Isle.”