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NOTE: A big thanks to Sara for providing her journal log for this article.
The day after St Patrick's Day, after moving all our belongings out of our place in Galway and saying goodbye to our flatmate Brian, Sara and I put most of our stuff in storage up the road and set off on our two-week car trip.
We headed east through Counties Roscommon and Longford until we reached County Meath, where we stopped at Kells. That's where the famous book of Kells originated, although there wasn't much to detain the visitor so we moved on to Slane. It's a charming little town with stone cottages, and a big private castle where the likes of U2, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have played. We walked up the Hill of Slane behind the town, where there is a round tower, a graveyard and the remains of a Franciscan friary. Legend has it that St Patrick lit the first Easter fire here in 433AD, and if that's true he picked a good spot for it - there were great views of the Hill of Tara and the Boyne Valley below. That night we stayed at a place that had converted old farm stables into lovely cottages.
The next day we visited Newgrange, a huge mound covering the oldest Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland, predating the Egyptian Pyramids. You can only go inside in small groups, and the boulders inside are covered in ancient graffiti of swirls and other strange markings. It's quite dark inside, but one day a year, on the summer solstice, the sun is in the right position to light up the whole passageway (it's like something out of an Indiana Jones movie!). Visiting on that day is so popular that it's done by lottery!
Later we visited Monasterboice in Louth, a site that contains two of the best examples of high crosses in the country. They are both really tall and covered in religious carvings.
We looped around the Cooley Peninsula for great views of the Mourne Mountains across the water, before crossing the border into Northern Ireland. There isn't any drama with this anymore - the Eircom phone boxes changed into BT ones, An Post became Royal Mail, and those were the only indications we had that anything had changed. As we drove further north we started to see the Union Jack colours painted on the kerb, and British flags flying.
Our first stop was Armagh, which was a lovely Georgian town with some impressive cathedrals. We just wandered around the town, but it was pretty quiet. Sara wasn't too happy when one of the ATMs up there decided to eat her London cash card though!
That evening we arrived in Belfast and were a bit worried when our hostel turned out to be a bit of a dodgy place in an unsavoury area.
It wasn't as bad in daylight though, and we discovered Belfast to be a very attractive city, considering a lot of it was badly bombed in WWII. The first thing we did was go on a highly-recommended black cab tour, where we learnt a bit more about The Troubles and were taken to the areas in West Belfast where huge walls, or "peace lines" have been constructed to stop the warring parties. We also got to see murals painted on houses in both the Protestant and Catholic areas. In the Catholic area it amazed us to see big annexes off the back of the houses to protect them from petrol bombs.
Our taxi driver was very objective and we had trouble guessing (amongst ourselves) whether he was actually Catholic or Protestant. The tour gave us a bit more perspective on where both sides are coming from, but it still seems ludicrous that such violence can happen for so long in a westernised country. The strange thing is that in the city, Catholics and Protestants will work side by side, queue up to buy groceries next to one another, and treat each other like anybody else.
That afternoon we visited the Linen Hall Library, a restored building off the main square that houses every book written on Irish Politics since 1966. Then we embarked on a tour of the City Hall, a huge building that takes up most of Donegall Square. It was raining torrentially when we emerged, so we had a drink in the old Crown Liquor Saloon, a fabulous Victorian pub complete with booths, where you used to ring a bell inside an a waitress would come and serve you.
The rain cleared up for a while so we decided to walk to the Botanic Gardens, but typically we'd only been there for five minutes and down it came again. We had noticed that it was much colder on the east side of Ireland than the west, as we'd gone from about 13 degrees in Galway down to six in Belfast. It was Saturday night so we went out for dinner at a great pub/restaurant on the river, but it wasn't a late one as we were back on the road the next day, heading north up the Antrim Coast.
The coastline was beautiful but slightly marred by the downpours every five minutes. We saw some cute villages, and the rain stopped enough for us to go for a walk to a waterfall in Glenariff Forest Park.
For the next two nights we stayed in a great relaxing guesthouse at Downhill, which had been recommended to us by friends (thanks Deb, Clay and Josie!). From there we explored the coast and visited a number of sites, including Dunseverick Castle and the Giant's Causeway. It's amazing how the basalt columns formed perfect hexagons so many years ago.
Up the hill behind the hostel was another forest park, the ruins of Downhill House, Mussenden Temple right on the cliff top, and Black Glen, which all made for interesting afternoon walks.
Magillian Beach in front of the guesthouse was lovely, extremely long and had white sand. It seemed to stretch half way to Derry, our next stop. We did a walk around the city walls which informed us about the history of the city. There were peace lines here too, which we could see from the walls. We also visited the site of Bloody Sunday, where there are more murals and a memorial. It was an attractive town though and not at all marred by the reminders of the violence.
Crossing back into the Republic, we spent the next four days in County Donegal, in the northwest of the country. It was our favourite county so far - not only was the landscape beautiful, but the people were the most friendly of anywhere we've been yet.
First we explored the Inishowen Peninsula. On the eastern side we could see back across Lough Foyle to County Derry, and we could even just make out Mussenden Temple on the cliff where we had walked.
We did another big walk around Malin Head, Ireland's most northerly point, where the cottages all had thatched roofs. Sara was happy on that walk because she finally saw some little lambs close up, We'd seen them from the car the whole way around and she really wanted to pat one!
We picked a clear afternoon to climb Mount Errigal, on the edge of Glenveagh National Park. It's Donegal's highest peak but not as big as some of the mountains we climbed in Wales and Scotland. There were wonderful views from the top - we could see all the way to the beaches of the coast, the mountains around us and through to the glens of the national park.
We weren't so lucky with the weather the day we wanted to see the Slieve League Cliffs, the highest cliffs in Europe. A big fog had rolled in and as a result we saw zilch. Donegal Town was very nice, and we visited the castle there as we could get in free with our Duchas cards. Shortly after that we said goodbye to County Donegal and entered Sligo.
Sligo Town was pleasant but not all that exciting, although we spent about half an hour wandering around the big ruined abbey there, which is quite distinctive. Rather than stay in the town, we booked accommodation at Strandhill, a small beach town where we surprisingly found a Kiwi serving drinks in the local pub.
The next morning we went on a walk up a small mountain to Knocknarea Cairn, a huge pile of stones where legend has it that Queen Maeve of Ireland is buried. The cairn wasn't really that impressive but the view of surrounding Sligo County was, and we had a new appreciation of the area. It also helped that it was brilliant sunshine and about 16 degrees, which we hadn't seen in quite a while!
Further down the road we got off the beaten track looking for some passage tombs, and got ourselves into a spot of bother with the car. We had followed signs in the beginning, but we didn't see any more and we started to descend on the track. We could see a road leading away and decided to take that back to the main road, but there was an electrified gate obscured by trees and we couldn't see it until we were at the bottom of the hill. There wasn't enough room to turn around, and the ground was so slippery that when we tried to reverse we got bogged. As it turned out, the gate wasn't electrified, but by then it was too late and the car was perched near a big ditch.
Sweating about our E800 excess and getting out of there before dark, we decided that Sara would stay with the car and I would go to the nearest farm for help. So I waited patiently with all the sheep (they had come up thinking we were going to feed them and you should have seen them scatter when Nath jumped the fence, it was hilarious) while Nath went and got a kindly farmer and his tractor to get us out. We were really embarrassed but he was so nice about it, and actually told us we weren't the first to do it, and wouldn't be the last. Apparently the sign for the tombs was thirty years old and fell down recently.
By that time we had had enough of Sligo and drove south to Boyle in Roscommon, where we had a hot choccie in a cute café by the river to calm down.
That night we stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast in Killala, County Mayo. The town was very quiet and scenic, set on a sandy bay. It was not far the next day to Ceide Fields, a 5000-year-old farming community that was buried and preserved in the bog for so long.
Then we drove further south to Achill Island, just off the coast of Mayo. It only took a couple of hours to drive around, but was very picturesque, with lovely bays and some impressive cliffs. We stayed at a lovely Georgian hostel/guesthouse before heading back to the mainland the next day.
Westport, the largest town in Mayo, was much prettier than most other Irish towns we have seen. All the buildings are quaint and the riverside streets are lovely. We only had time for a wander around, and we wished we had stayed there the night.
From there we took a scenic coastal road down to Aasleagh Falls, on the border of Counties Mayo and Galway, before entering the Connemara region. It's a huge national park about an hour west of Galway city, and we spent the next few days exploring it. The first day we went and had a look at Kylemore Abbey, a huge abbey-turned boarding school set against a mountain and by a lake. We stayed at Clifden, another cute town, and it was so warm outside even at 7pm that we had first drink outside for the season.
We'd wanted to hike up one of the Twelve Bens, an imposing mountain range in the middle of Connemara, but it was very windy and according to our guidebook and local info there was no actual track to follow, so we abandoned the idea and spent the day in and around the coastal peninsulas, where there were lovely sandy beaches and sparkling bays to appreciate.
We stayed at a town called Oughterard that night, so the next morning we were up early and back in Galway mid-morning to collect P45s, last payslips and rescue our extra luggage from the storage place.
article published 6/10/2004