European DestinationsIreland

Exploring the Irish Countryside

Exploring Irishcountryside scenes.

How to See Irish Countryside

I have made a lot of road trips in my lifetime, but for all out glorious scenery, and quirky, charming appeal, few can compare to driving the Irish countryside.  It is a land where history and myth intertwine.  The lines between Druids, Celts, and Saints have become blurred through the centuries.  The marks of the Spanish Armada, and pirates are sprinkled along the coasts.  The remnants of tribal chiefs, Vikings, and British landowners, with their fabulous castles and manor homes, are scattered across the remainder of the island.  There may be traces of these tales in the cities, but the real reminders lay in the Irish countryside.

There are several ways to tour Ireland.  Major cities are connected by train, and there are extensive bus routes throughout the country.  However, in this coveted and storied land, those who stick to public transport miss out on they myth, mystery and magic that can only be discovered by wandering the meandering back roads.  A car or a bicycle is the way to go.

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, sheep.
Long walkway in County Kerry.

Some frequent visitors to Ireland make their entire holiday without destinations or schedules.  They have little more than a starting and ending point.  They make their way between by going in a general direction, and stopping to explore what they find along the way.   When rest is needed, the find an inn or a farmhouse bed and breakfast, and stop for the night.  Those who traverse Ireland this way describe these vacations as a true delight.  

This is a bit too informal for me.  I prefer to know where I will lay my head each night.  However, I understand the appeal.  In this land of sudden landscape changes and random back road historical sites, getting lost is almost essential to discovering what can be found.  Many wonders are discovered around a bend or over the next hill in the Irish countryside.  Those who do not wander a bit can never absorb the true essence of Ireland.

Driving in Ireland is not exactly easy though, and not always comfortable. Driving in British fashion, on the left side of the road, requires acclimation. Developing skill with a left-handed stick shift takes outright concentration.  And of course, those beautiful country roads are typically a bit winding and quite narrow, and I do mean narrow to the extreme in some cases.  (And don’t forget the roundabouts, which are always a challenge for Americans, let alone a backwards roundabout!)  Still, it is worth the challenge to master these skills.

Quaint village on Dingle Peninsula, part of our Perfect Ireland Itinerary, Ireland Highlights.
Seaside village. One of the homes is a bed and breakfast, a perfect place to stop for a night.

 We will not presume to provide any tips for renting a vehicle in Ireland.  It was our first European trip, and our first international car rental, and we made some big mistakes.  Ireland has required fees and insurances that are not included in the quoted prices on many travel reservation sites, and we were misinformed.  To be short, we did not have sufficient funding on a single credit card to pay for our car, and had to switch out mid-trip.  We call it our Ireland car rental fiasco, and it was the reason for our adjusted travel plans in our Ireland itinerary.  

Believe me, we are not the first visitors to have a car rental fiasco, nor will we be the last.  To ensure you have the correct information, and are not at risk of repeating our mistakes, some expert information is  required.  You can get that information from our more knowledgeable fellow travel writers at Peanuts or Pretzels.  They seemed to have it all covered in their story, Renting a Car in Ireland  Once you get all of that rental business taken care of, get yourself a bit of driving practice, and get out on the road.  

What We Love in the Irish Countryside

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, landscape.
Countryside landscape County Kerry.

Sometimes driving in another country looks quite similar to driving in one’s homeland.  This is true of Ireland in some small ways.  The foliage and plant life are very similar to that throughout much of North America and mainland Europe.  When driving through an area of more modern homes or industry though, it is similar to many western countries.  You may forget you are on the Emerald Isle, even though it truly is a bit greener. 

There are surprisingly few trees though. The unfortunate fact is that many of the off-kilter things across Ireland were brought about by the British oppression through the 18th and 19th centuries.  Thus it is with the lack of trees.  Shipbuilding was a key industry, and the timber was in demand in the name of progress.   There was also an intentional deforestation imposed by England in the 19th century to clear the land for crops.  Today, much of that cleared area remains in wide expanses of pasture.

 Sheep, Everywhere!

And other farm sites.
 
Exploring Irish countryside scenes, sheep.
A lonely lamb, in County Kildare.

There really are sheep, everywhere.  I don’t even know how to describe everywhere in a manner that conveys the meaning.  The most recent statistics indicate that there are 5.2 million sheep in Ireland.  Shoot, there are only 4.8 million people!  Sheep farms are actually more common on the western side of the country, while cattle is raised on the east.  Nonetheless, these cute and cuddly little creatures will be seen on nearly every road, nearly every farm, and in many towns and villages. 

 And why are all of these sheep there?  The were brought to Ireland during the famine years, to offset some of the financial loss that the landlords were facing.  Prior to the 1850s sheep were not common in Ireland.  Since then, their population has increased, and they have become a way of life across the island.  Today they are farmed for wool and lanolin, and of course food.  

 

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, sheep.
Small farm scene County Kerry.

There were several different breeds across the island, which also surprised us.  We really didn’t know that there were multiple breeds of sheep to begin with, but eventually we could distinguish different ones.  Apparently Scottish Black Faced sheep are one of the most common, although we did not see as many of them.  Not only do they have a black face, but their wool has a yellower shade to it.

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, sheep.
Sheep along the road in County Kildare.

The red and blue markings were originally a source of curiosity until we learned that they are a modern-day and painless form of branding.  Each owner has a distinctive color combination and pattern which is painted onto the animals owned.  When a lamb wanders astray, everyone in town knows where to take it home.  Ink is also used during the breeding season, so that once a ram has mounted a ewe, a mark is left.  That enables the farmer to separate the impregnated ewe from the others.  

The Burren, our Ireland highlights on the Ireland route, the ireland itinerary.
Cows grazing in the Burren, along the coast.

Sheep are not the only livestock in Ireland.  There are also cows seen along the road, but they are far less numerous.  Now, to be accurate, the cattle in Ireland actually outnumber the sheep.  But they are not out grazing on what seems to be random land so often.  They are maintained within their farmlands.  Cattle farms are more prominent on the eastern side of the country, although this photo was taken in County Clare, on the west.

A larger portion of cattle farms are for beef production, but there are significant portion of dairy farms as well.  The Irish grass seemingly provides a very good diet, as the cows produce a rich cream.  Still I had to wonder how they were able to be sustained and navigate through the rocky landscape of the Burren.  Apparently they do though, as this area is known for fresh ice cream,  which makes for a nice roadside treat.  

 

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, stone fencing.
Stone fencing in County Kerry.

Among the farmland you notice that the stone fencing often seen in pictures of Ireland are a real thing.  These are not strips of fencing for a yard decoration. These are carefully stacked strips of stones that separate entire sections of grazing land and farms.  There are actually called dry stone walls, and there are three distinctive styles.

History tells us that although the English did not introduce the stone walls in Ireland, they did bring about the great numbers that seemingly separate nothing, in some cases.  The stones were not brought to the land, they were actually dug from the ground.  The task of digging the stones, and laying them out as barriers was given to the peasants, as their work during the famine.  This was allegedly done to produce more crop bearing land. 

In some cases, the land was never used for planting.  High in the hills along the Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula, the walled strips of land that were constructed during the famine, still lay barren, 160 years later.  They can still be seen from the roadside on the Slea Head Drive.  Further north, in Connemara, the walls divided already tiny farm plots to the point that even during a growing period, they could not sustain a family.  

The idea that the peasants who lived these lands did this by hand is quite fantastic, and horrible. They are a demonstration of pure human determination and the will to survive.  Although the stone walls give the Irish countryside a sort of rustic charm now, there is only sadness in how they came about.

A Rugged and Majestic Landscape 

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, dolmen Newcastle..
The unique and fascinating landscape of the burren.

Ireland was formed by ancient volcanoes.  It was later smoothed and refined to a degree by the ice age, and glaciers.  The rise and fall of the Atlantic then left a mark on the island as well.  The result is a diverse landscape, built upon geologic formations.  The most familiar of these formations would include sites of world-renowned beauty, such as the Giant’s Causeway, the Burren, or the Cliffs of Moher.  But these are only just the beginning.  

Irish countrysie scenes.
The result of Atlantic erosion is quite dramatic.

The island now sits at the tail end of the Gulf Stream.  Despite the position high in the northern latitudes, the climate is still quite mild as a result of the Gulf Stream.  This fosters the lush and verdant green that the namesake Emerald Isle is known for.  Even in rocky landscapes, there is so much brilliant green.

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, sheep.
Rugged coastline County Kerry.

The coasts and the peninsulas may have the most dramatic scenery.  The impacts of weather and sea erosion, leave stunning results, often in unique combinations. The coastline drives are among the best drives in the world, and the Irish Tourism Board rightly celebrates them.  The Wild Atlantic Way may be one of the most well-known road trips world round.  The Cliffs of Moher are only a single location along a coast of intermittent and beautiful cliffs.

The view from the Skellig Ring, on the Iveragh Peninsula, in Ireland.
Tiny islands off the coast in County Kerry.

Smaller islands are sprinkled through the Atlantic along the west side of mainland Ireland.  Some are inhabited, some once were, and others have never been.  Either way, the are striking to see, particularly when both the sky and the sea are blue.  

There are ferries that transport visitors to some of the larger or more popular islands.  The Arans are populated islands where the world-famous Aran sweaters are still handmade.  The Blaskets are now deserted, but day trips can be taken to explore the once inhabited shores.

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, h
Coumeenole Beach, along the Slea Head Drive.

The coast is also lined with intermittent beaches.  Many of these earn the highest honor of being a Blue Flag Beach.  Although some are large, they are not the miles of endless sand often seen in more southerly locations.  They are often small pockets of beachfront tucked into nooks of rocks and cliffs, with a secretive and magical feeling. When exploring the Irish countryside, a stop for a walk on the beach is quite a pleasure.

Religious Remnants

Ireland is steeped in both history and myth, in both politics and religion, which of course, we all know are often intertwined.  Although we knew a bit, due to our ancestry studies, and we learned a lot during our visit.  Still I could not even begin to cite more than a handful of the country’s historical facts.  Remnants of that history are scattered across the Irish countryside.  Although it may be quite commonplace to the residents, to a foreigner, it is quite amazing to be driving along and suddenly come upon historic sites that are often thousands of years old.

The island  was inhabited at least as far back as the bronze age, and there were forms of religious practice, or at least rituals, taking place in those times.  These ancient Celtic religions are often assumed to be Druidic, and the remaining sites are among the oldest on the island.  Some of these are government-owned, and protected, while others are not.  In many cases, you can simply park, and go explore the site of a ruin.  They are fascinating.  They are often burial sites, so please be respectful.

 

  • Dolmen- Portal Tombs

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, dolmen Newcastle..
Small Dolmen in Newcastle, which we visited.

Dolmen, or ancient portal tombs, date from 3,000  to 4,000 B.C.  Dolmen are actually found worldwide, and are not unique to Ireland, but there are at least 172 known to exist in the country.  They are easily recognized by their very large capstone, often weighing tons, precariously balanced upon other base stones.   You can't help but wonder how in the heck they got that topstone up there!

The exact significance of this form of burial is not known, but in many ways it is reminiscent of the manner we mark our graves today.  The most well-known in Ireland is probably Poulnabrone Dolmen, in the Burren of County Clare, lying in a protected UNESCO Geopark, which is visited by 200,000 people each year. It is known that at least 33 people are buried beneath Poulnabrone.  

Exploing Irish countryside scenes, dolmen.
Poulnabrone Dolmen, By Steve Ford Elliott via Wikimedia Commons

The largest Dolmen in Europe is Brownshill Dolmen, near Carlow town, in County Carlow, and it is indeed HUGE!  Quite a few Dolmen can be located by using Google Maps, so it is relatively easy to see if one that is well-known is along your path of travel.  If you are extremely interested in the portal tombs, and want to ensure that you can see one, there are a few websites that document a large number of the Dolmen found in Ireland. Some are located on private farmlands, but quite often in Ireland, farmers are willing to allow respectful visitors onto their land to view a site, and tell you a few tales along the way.

Irish countryside scenes, dolmen.
Brownshill Dolmen, the largest in Europe. By Jotempe via Wikimedia Commons
  • Passage Tombs

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, Knowth Passage Tomb.
Knowth Passage Tomb, By AndieW via Wikimedia Commons

Passage tombs, such as the widely known Newgrange, are also found in Ireland.  Passage tombs consist of an opening passage that leads underground, which is typically surrounded by a number of tombs. They are also not unique to Ireland, and can be found in countries near with an eastern coast along the Atlantic.  In Ireland, passage tombs are most frequent in County Sligo and County Meath, but they are also found across the island.  

Passage tombs have been studied, and it has become more evident that they were not actually built as tombs.  A very large percentage of passage tombs have keystones with astronomical alignments, and configurations specifically designed to allow a ray of sunlight to pass through on the winter or summer solstice.  So, their original purposes remain a mystery, which of course, adds to their intrigue.  

Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, are the most widely visited passage tombs.  This group is now part of the protected Bru na Boinne UNESCO World Heritage site in County Meath.  Informational tours are given, but the area is strictly protected.  Access can only be obtained by purchasing tickets, and riding a shuttle bus to the actual tombs.

However, there are also astonishing examples of tombs at Loughcrew and Carrowkeel, which are not so busy.  

  • Stone Circles

Sights on the Ring of Kerry, Kenmare Stone Circle.
The Kenmare Stone Circle, known locally as the "Shruberries."

Stonehenge is probably the most famous stone circle in the world, in England, but stone circles are also found all over Ireland.  There are 187 known stone circles in the Republic of Ireland, and more in Northern Ireland, with County Cork having the highest density.  

To this day, the exact reasons and meanings of stone circles is unknown, making them a fascinating mystery for modern visitors.   It is commonly known that we really do not know anything, and what we believe is all theoretical.  Most of those theories are based upon the precise alignment with celestial phenomenon.  One cannot help but speculate as to exactly how the stones were moved or positioned in such a way, and why one would take on such a task.

Prior to visiting Ireland I was not aware that there were so many stone circles all around the world.  The preponderance in the British Isles though. Learning that there were hundreds in Ireland was a surprise.  Most of them are not composed of the 6 foot tall pillars of stone.  Still they are all made up of large stones typically weighing thousands of pounds.  Even circles that are smaller, such as Kenmare that we visited, the individual stones still literally weigh tons.  Kenmare Stone Circle is just off the town center, with easy public access.  There is a trust box requesting a 2 Euro fee for admission.  

  • Christian Monasteries and Cathedrals

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, St Brigihds Cathedral.
St. Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare, built in the 13th century, and still in use today.

This is the land of St. Patrick, and tales of his conversion of the Celts to Christianity are known throughout the western world.  Through this conversion, there was a melding of traditions, so many of the Irish Christian traditions have some resemblance to the Celtic traditions.  But, once the transition completed, Ireland was a deeply religious land.  Christian sites and ruins abound.  

With over 1,600 years of Christian history, including clashes between the Catholic church and the Church of England, there have been numerous branches of monasteries, friaries, priories, and nunneries, across the land, as well as amazing cathedrals.  There are places of worship as well as former places of worship and study, in every corner of Ireland, in varying conditions.

Many of those in cities, such as St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, St. Nicholas in Galway, or St. Finn Barr Cathedral in Cork, are still in use to this day, and maintained in outstanding condition.  This is quite remarkable since in many instances the cathedrals were chosen to be military bases during times of turmoil, such as in St. Nicholas Cathedral in Galway, where Oliver Cromwell's troops opted to use the Cathedral as a stable for their battle steeds.  

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, Hore Abbey.
Hore Abbey ruins, County Tipperary.

Others have fallen to ruin, sometimes intentionally destroyed during periods of military conquest, other locations simply from disuse, and even vandalism over the centuries.  Only partial structures of some sites remain, and little more than piles of rocks in others.  Hore Abbey in County Tipperary, is a fantastic structure, even in ruins.  It must have been an incredible building at one time.  

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, Drum Monastery ruins.
Drum Monastary Ruins, County Roscommon.

Many of the Christian sites are now strictly protected, and exploration is only allowed through guided tour.  Still others are come across while driving the Irish countryside, and can be explored at will.  We came across the ruins of the monastery in Drum while passing through the area.  It was not a huge or dramatic site, but still intriguing.  Later Christian monks often practiced in solitary, or in meager settings, and Drum is representative of that.

  • High Crosses

Irish countryside magic, Monasterboice highcross.
Monasteroice High Cross, By Sitomon (Flickr) via Wikimedia Commons

High Crosses are often considered a symbol of St Patrick, although they do not actually date back to his time.  Most that still exist stand from a couple hundred years after the time of Patrick.  Still they religious monument that is fairly unique to Ireland, and are also often considered a symbol of the country.   

A high cross is a free-standing cross, generally composed of three parts, a broader base, a four-sided middle section, which gives the height, and the top, which is the cross-section. While the term may seem self-explanatory, they are often referred to as Celtic High Crosses, due to the circular portion that is often around the arms of the cross.  Some historians believe this circle was added simply to provide stability for the cross arms.  Others believe this circle is a residual addition resulting from the gradual transition of the people from Celtic traditions, and sun worship.

Another fact of note is that while many of the crosses have intricate biblical stories depicted on their faces, such as Monasteroice High Cross,  pictured to the left, others have intricate Celtic patterns, such as braidwork, sculpted.  Again, an interesting interweaving of traditions.

The base of a High Cross are actually square, and each of the four faces have distinctive and intricate engravings.  The pictures created are quite detailed and ornate, and are considered to be an art that is both sophisticated and unique to Ireland.  In some ways the work can be seen as similar to stained glass pieces in other countries.  

Authentic high crosses are often found near monastery ruins, and sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Contrary to what might be expected, they were actually not used as burial markers.  It is assumed that their placements were as a memorial to a particular significant event in a location.  As such, the cross itself may be the only remaining indicator of that event.  

The symbol of the High Cross is well-known, and replicas often lead to confusion, but there are actually only a handful of authentic High Crosses remaining in Ireland.  Most that remain are very weathered, and close examination is required to fully appreciate the detailed engraving.  Some are missing pieces, most commonly a wing of the cross being broke off.   There are modern replicas in many locations throughout the country, and the casual onlooker may not know the difference.  The lack of weathering would be the easiest indication, without inquiring with a local.  

  • Holy Wells and Shrines

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, roadside shrine..
Shrine to St Brigid, Newcastle.

There are hundreds of holy wells honoring numerous different saints, throughout Ireland, and there are roadside grottos and shrines everywhere.  Coming from a land where this is virtually unheard of, I found it utterly fascinating.  Many are simply alongside the highway, and a quick roadside stop can reap a blessing.

Those of us not familiar with Catholicism may not be aware of just how many saints there are, many who we have not even heard of. There are actually thousands, known to varying degrees.  Some are very region specific.  There are a few that are not celebrated anywhere else but Ireland, as is the case in some other countries with a long Catholic history.  All kinds of saints have holy wells and shrines throughout Ireland.  There are so many that they truly cannot be documented.  

Irish countrysie magic, holy well.
St Brigids Well Mullingar

In our Ireland Itinerary I shared a couple of pictures of one holy well visit, in Liscannor, and shared that I feel an affinity towards St. Brigid.  I started researching her holy wells months prior to our trip to Ireland.  I could not find a single source with a comprehensive listing of her wells.  There are a couple of websites and even books, that list quite a few, and even claim that they have documented all of them.  Nonetheless, I still found more through other sources, such as a church parish newsletters, and actually came across some while driving through the Irish Countryside.  This is only one of the many saints!

Exploring Irish countrysie magic.
St Brigids Well Mullingar

Some of the holy wells are very popular, and can be found on a map, such as St. Augustine’s Holy Well, in Galway.  Another way to find them is by the cities that are named for them.  Tobar is the Gaelic word for well, and any town whose name starts with Tobar, Tubber, or Tober, generally speaking, was built around a holy well.  Others actually use the word well, such as Brideswell, where there is a well to St. Brigid, who in Celtic, was also referred to as Brid.  Sometimes though, you are just driving along, and happen upon the brown informational sign that tells you a well is present, and sometimes, you may notice the cloughtie trees, that sometimes surround the wells.  As for the shrines, the only way they are found is by happening upon them.

When visiting a holy well or a shrine, the first thing noticed is the number of offerings made to the saint.  These offerings are left by locals and visitors, who seek blessing.  Sometimes there will be candles that are burning, that let visitors know that locals revere the site, and come daily to light the candles in honor of their saint.

  • Other Religious and Mythical Sites

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, Croagh Patrick.
Paul McIlroy via Wikimedia Commons

Since most visitors to Ireland will bo more familiar with St. Patrick, you may be more interested in locations that are specific to the story and history of his life and work.  There are many different places which claim some link to Patrick.  In some cases, Patrick's experiences there are historical, and well-known.  In other cases, it is presumed that many of the stories are myths that grew up after his renown spread.

Croagh Patrick, pictured above, is the legendary location where St. Patrick spent 40 days fasting and praying.  There is a shrine located at the top of the mount now, and the pilgrimage path is clearly visible in the photo.  Many visitors to County Mayo are drawn to make the climb to the top to pay homage and pray.

The Rock of Cashel, in Country Tipperary, is another site where it is known that St. Patrick once walked and ministered.  It is said that he baptized and converted the Kings of Ireland on the Rock.  The other locations are not as clear, but visiting invokes a deeper understanding of his significance to the people.  

Irish countrysie magic, cloughtie tree.
A fairy tree can often be recognized by the rags tied around the branches.

There are a few other types of religious artifacts and sites that are occasionally found in the Irish countryside, and some are entirely unique to Ireland.  They are however more rare, and sometimes harder to recognize.  We will not go into a lot of details about these, but they should be noted.  

Olgham Stones are among the oldest religious symbols that remain on the island.  They are pillar like stones with engraved lines that are actually a form of language that appears similar to binary.  

Fairy trees, fairy circles and fairy forts are other legendary sites that can be found across Ireland.  There are many tales about their meanings and why they are located where they are.  A casual onlooker would not often recognize them, but locals almost always know of their presence.  The tales have been passed on for generations. 

A fairy tree is often recognized as a cloughtie tree, or rag tree, that is not adjacent to a holy well.  Hawthornes are considered sacred in Ireland, and are often fairy trees.  The rags are tied to bring good fortune or blessings.  As the cloth withers away, the blessing sought is said to come to pass.

A fairy circle is often a group of bushes or trees that somehow grow in a circle, and a fairy fort is a round mound of earth, that looks sort of like an unexplainable hill.  It is said that they are homes for the fairies. 

There are a number of superstitions about fairy forts, and the locals leave them in their natural state, undisturbed,  so as not to invoke the wrath of the little people.   In modern times, there has been local dissension when progress interfered with the fairy forts.  As recently as 2014, an expansion of the highway was put on hold for an extended period of time because the route passed through the fort.  Ultimately the highway was built, but to this day, whenever bad luck strikes nearby, it is said to be the result of disturbing the fairies home.  

Historic Scenes

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, castle ruins.
Castle ruins in County Laois.

Outside of religion, there is yet an entirely different  intricate and fascinating political history.  It is a country once ruled by tribal chiefs, each with land and people of their own.  These chiefs had one high king who they all reported to, although the rule of that high king was loose.  The four provinces, Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster, also had a hierarchy of leadership within them.  This system went on for centuries, since well before the time of Christ.  

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, norman castles..
Castle near the town square in Kildare.

The Norman invasion of 1100s technically ended tribal rule, it lived on in a less powerful form for several centuries.  It would only be the domination of English rule that fully ended the feudal system of Irish chiefs, but replaced with a similar but crueller system of land owners and tenants.

There is so much history, and so many names and lineages, it is hard to keep track of, and it is quite impressive that school children learn a significant portion of this history.  What it means to a visitor, is castles- lots and lots of castles, with a few more modern manor houses interspersed.  

There are truly castles everywhere in Ireland.  You can be literally driving down the road, and oh, there is a castle.  At first it was really awe-inspiring, and then there were so many, it became almost expected.  I truly should have taken more pictures, rather than just wowing and pointing out features.

Exploring Irish countryside scenes, white castle.
Caslte along the city street in Kilcullen.

Like the churches and monasteries, some of the castles have been in use, and maintained over the centuries.  Some, have been updated and upgraded, and serve as luxury hotels, such as Dromoland, Ashford, or Waterford.  Others are open for daily tours during summer hours, such as Trim, Birr, King John’s Castle, and of course, Blarney.  Others have only pieces remaining, such as the Gate House of the Kildare Castle, or Whites Castle, in Athy, and some are little more than ruins.  Many stand on farmland now, and some are even surrounded by equipment and animals.  

Bear in mind that a large percentage of the castles in Ireland were built before or during the period of Norman rule, and these Norman castles distinctly different from most of those that are seen on mainland Europe.  They were built almost entirely for defense rather than luxury, with hightowers, and gate towers, with a number of defensive features built-in.  

Trim castle was used for filming Braveheart, if that gives you an idea.  In castles with a guided tour, many of these features will be pointed out, but if you just happen upon one, and stop to observe some of these features might not be apparent unless you are informed.  An example would be the very narrow high windows, that were added specifically for archers.

In this land of legends, it is also believed that several of the castles are haunted.  In some cases, the alleged specters are related to the turbulent history.  In others, it is said to go back to a single person who performed unthinkable acts of wickedness.  The legends of ghosts and hauntings in some castles are well-known, such as Leap castle.  Whether you believe in ghosts or not, many in Ireland believe these stories.  Some of these haunted castles can be toured.

As a seafaring nation, Ireland also has a history of naval battles and piracy.  Harbor towns are often filled with the legends of battles and pirates.  Perhaps the most unique and infamous of Irish pirates is Grace O'Malley, known as the Pirate Queen, who once filled the British navy with such fear that the Queen called an audience with Grace.  A few sites associated with her life and conquests still stand for curious visitors to explore along the western shores.  In County Mayo, on Achill Island, the castle she called home still stands lonely and proud.

Unique Cultural Findings

Exploring Irish countryside scenes.
Countryside road signs, By Night of the Big Wind , via Wikimedia Commons

The famous quaint street signs are still used throughout the Irish countryside.  Sometimes they are there, even in abundance, and at other times, they are not there at all.  They really are not that different than street signs in other countries, but for some reason, their size and shape give them a whimsical feeling.  Most of the time their direction was clear, but there were a few times, particularly at a three-way intersection, when it was really unclear which direction the signs pointed, so we made a logical guess.

We also loved the other, random signs we saw throughout the country.  The unique Irish sense of humor comes through in many, even those that are there for a valid reason. We saw a number of signs that were hung in tourist locations, or on private property, that had a humorous way of reminding visitors to do what they should already be doing.

  • Lighthouses Harbors
Exploring Irish countryside scenes, Baily lighthouse.
By YvonneM (Own work)via Wikimedia Commons

As an island nation, seafaring and fishing has been a way of life for centuries.  Both harbors and lighthouses skirt the shores all around the island.  Some of the lighthouses were constructed in very remote places, and it is hard to imagine how they were constructed.  Today, some are no longer in use, but still stand as a reminder of times past in their lonely locations.  Others have been converted to provide unique lodging experiences for visitors.  Stays must be arranged in advance, and they are sometime a bit costly, but for a lighthouse lover, it is often well worth the cost.  

  • Towns and Villages

  • View of the bay, in Portmagee, Ireland.

Fishing boats, docked for the evening.

A few of the cities in Ireland are quite modern, and there are normal suburbs that look exactly like a suburban neighborhood in the US.  But they are the exception.  Most towns are small, and more akin to villages, and remain quite traditional.  The colors are bright and happy, exactly as many visitors expect.  Every village seems to have a church, named for a particular saint, and equally as important, a pub. These towns feel good.

Business in the villages are often small and local, with a family name.  They also sometimes serve dual purposes, such as hardware store by day and pub by night, or apothecary and lunch counter.  Traditional craftsmen are often found, and it is a great place to purchase unique souvenirs that truly represent your visit, and support the local economy.   On the coast, it is also a great place to do one of my favorite things, which is watch the fisherman come in with their daily catch.

  • Neighborhood and Backroad Pubs

Pubs in the L one of our Ireland Highlights on the Ireland route that could be a perfect Ireland Itinerary. atin Quarter,
A pub where we stopped for a measure, in the Latin Quarter.

The pubs may be the absolute best thing you will find driving through the Irish countryside.  Certainly every town has a pub or two, but there are also pubs sitting in what seems like odd places in the middle of nowhere.  Although it seems weird, quite often there is a lively crowd present, particularly in the early evening.  

In some countries, stopping at such a place, that is obviously local, can be unnerving, and even a bit risky.  In the US, I would be hesitant to stop into a small town bar in some areas.  In Ireland, travelers are always welcomed at the pubs.  Many also still serve as inns, such as the one pictured above.  In many cases, pubs serve up some of the best traditional food that can be found.  If you have a **thirst, hunger, or need rest, pull on over, and step inside.  

The atmosphere in most pubs is warm and inviting.  The barkeeps are extremely friendly, and often full of information about the area.  The locals are typically ready to strike up a conversation with newcomers.  They are both curious about the guests, and proud to share tales of their lives and homes.  If you really want to find out what kinds of mysteries lie in the surrounding area, these locals will be your best source of information!  Tales and legends are passed on from one generation to the next.  If there is a haunted castle in the next town, a Dolmen on Flannigan's farm, or a fairy fort behind the highway, they will know.

Get Out There and Explore the Irish Countryside!

The Irish Countryside is a magical place, filled with all sorts of surprises.  Anyone visiting the country should take advantage of any opportunity they have to get out and explore.  I cannot say that I recommend a random road trip, on a lodge as you go basis, I do certainly recommend going out for a drive when time allows at any location.  We found so many different gorgeous views, and intriguing religious places just on our little route around the country, that documenting every fantastic place we came across in our own 12 day experience would take 15 or 20 articles.  

If you are especially interested in finding some of the particular features mentioned, and do not want to leave it to chance, the links provided in the text will lead to websites that specialize in those types of sites.  In addition, I have found Google Maps to be one of my best tools for planning.  Some of our best finds came from a zoom in on the map the night before. Then again, some of our other best finds came from the roadside.  Get on out there, drive the Irish countryside, and make your own discoveries!

Need more Ireland??

Try these stories.

** Most people are aware just through media that a beer is ordered as a pint in Ireland, and it will generally be draught (draft.)  Sometimes there will be only one choice on tap.  

For those who prefer a harder drink, liquor is served by the measure, and not by the shot, although technically it is the same.  A measure is actually only .75 oz, as compared to 1 oz in the US.  

If liquor is ordered with another beverage, say a whiskey and Coke, the whiskey will generally be measured into a 6 oz glass and will come with the Coke in a small bottle alongside.  If ice is desired, it must be requested, otherwise it will be served without.  

For those who order water, typically sparkling water us served throughput Ireland, in a glass, without ice.  Still, or flat water, must be requested, as must ice.

20 thoughts on “Exploring the Irish Countryside

    1. YOu definitely find some of the most intriguing things, and it reduces stress a ton. I always feel mentally better after a day in the country!

  1. All of this is exactly why I loved Ireland too! Although I found the driving easier as we drive on the left in New Zealand too so it wasn’t a change for me – but some of those streets in the countryside are just so narrow it’s a bit scary! I loved seeing all the stone walls too and of course the sheep – quite similar to NZ in many ways. I loved the Burren too – I immediately recognised the photo!

    1. I actually did not know that NZ was lefside driving! You have taught me something today. It is however, on my list of must visit places. The flight from the US scares me a bit though. In Ireland, we did have some of those moments where we actually had to pull into some grass on the side, to let another approaching vehicle pass. Definitely some NARROW roads, as you said!

  2. It all looks and sounds incredible! We’re going to be staying next to Killarney National Park at the beginning of next month and will be venturing towards the coast!

  3. One of my main bucket list things is to road trip around Ireland – see the countryside and a few of the cities. Major, major inspo here!! Thank you for all the tips – saving for later.

  4. Rugged and majestic indeed – I have yet to visit Ireland but its on the To Do list! Sounds like I ought to get my driving license first though to make the most of it. I hadn’t heard of Dolmen’s before, they sound fascinating. I’d love to see one!

    1. I hadn’t heard of them before planning my trip either. Then to find out they are all over the world was weird. There are so many in Ireland though, and they made me feel a bit reverent.

  5. LOVE all your pictures! Everything about Ireland seems so perfect. The castles, the countryside, the farm animals, the vibe, the hiking. I’d probably want to spend most of my time just getting lost in its beauty and hiking. So awesome you got to spend time there!

  6. I was laughing (with you, trust me) at your description of learning to drive on the left side of the road. I can only imagine the added adventure this created. Wonderful post and super detailed. Love the fact you got to truly experience pub culture … unique to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England … though sadly in many larger cities, too many local pubs are giving way to coffee houses.

    1. I am thinking we will have a “driving adventure” whereever we go! The pubs are so fantastic, but I was disappointed in a couple cities also, when the so-called pub, was more like what we call a bar. Those in the smaller cities and country were amazing. Hopefully, this unique culture will live on for centuries to come.

    1. I didn’t go into a lot of deatil about the car here since I had shared it on another website in a collaborative post, but I was having panic attacks that morning! Definitely prepare yourself. That was truly the only downside of this beautiful country!

  7. Irish Countryside is a treasure trove of myth, history and legends. Your article has given a perfect detail of this specially Poulnabrone Dolmen and stone circle. Road trip is also my way travel and hence loved every bit of your post. You have captured some amazing shots. Thanks for sharing.

    1. There is nothing like being out on the road, no matter what country you are traveling in! I could have sat at the stone circle half the day, and just soaked in the vibration if I were alone. They really are awe-inspiring.

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