Ireland is known for many things. Irish coffee, Irish whiskey and Irish Stew. They also have a lot of rain; 280 days of precipitation on the average. However, for our first week on the Emerald Isle, Mary Lou and I have enjoyed the longest stretch of sunshine that Ireland has experienced this Summer. Until yesterday.
We visited Kylemore Abbey in a driving rain. It is a stunningly beautiful home built by a wealthy Englishman as a wedding gift to his bride in the 1860s. The home and grounds were designed to be as fine as any royal palace. Unfortunately, the wife died at the age of 45 while travelling with her husband and their nine children in Egypt.
Mitchell Henry later built a miniature cathedral on their property as a memorial to his wife. Now fully restored, it is a wonderful tribute to the love of his life. The home and grounds have served as an abbey for Benedictine nuns since 1916 when they fled France during WWI.
Ireland has long been on our bucket list. We booked this trip back in 2018 for the next Summer but were sidelined by Hurricane Michael. Covid-19 delayed the trip a second time. Finally, we boarded the long flight to Dublin with our traveling companions from St. Louis.
Three days in Dublin gave us a chance to adjust to the time difference and to take in some of the sites in this metropolitan city of a half million. It is the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Our rooms were not ready, so we immediately started exploring the city on just a few hours sleep. Within an hour, we were in our first cathedral. The Christ Church Cathedral dates back almost a thousand years. Its role in British and Irish history over the past millennium could fill a book.
A block away we discovered the hall where George Frederick Handel presented the first performance of The Messiah. The year was 1642, over one hundred years before America gained its independence. I do not know that much about Irish history and Dublin was a good place to begin my lessons.
It seemed like a good place to start my education was the world famous Guinness Brewery. We learned many things about the growth of this company around the world and its influence in Ireland. We even learned the proper way to sip a bit of Guinness Stout, something I have apparently been doing incorrectly since my college days.
We toured Trinity College, which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. In addition to its world class ranking, it has many distinguished graduates including Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith and more philosophers, mathematicians and politicians than could be named here.
We also toured many other famous sites in the city, including the national governmental buildings, stopping along the way in a variety of Irish pubs to sample the food and the music.
Several days later, we left for Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. Along the way we were treated to wonderful coastal vistas and charming little villages. The currency and flag both changed as we crossed the border. The predominate religion changed from Catholic to Protestant, a subject intertwined within the two countries’ political history for many centuries.
Belfast was where the most famous ship in history, Titanic, was built. We have seen some smaller regional exhibits about the Titanic since the discovery of the wreckage of the ill-fated ship. However, everything I have ever read or seen paled in comparison to the excellent Titanic Museum built in 2010 in Belfast.
Belfast was the ship-building capital of the world at the end of the 19th century. It was also the center of the world’s rope making industry. These companies and their associated suppliers employed tens of thousands of workers still struggling with the after-effects of the potato famine. The famine killed over one million Irish in the 1800s and led to the emigration of millions of others seeking a better life in America and other parts of the world.
Later in the week we ventured out into the countryside, spending two nights at the Lough Eske Castle before finding ourselves at the incredible Ashford Castle, the ancestral home of the Guinness family.
Ashford Castle dates back to 1228, or an astonishing 995 years. Parts of the castle, which is where we are currently staying, date back 800 years. The dining room is named for King George V of England, who visited for six weeks in 1905 to hunt woodcock. The opulent restaurant was actually constructed just for the King’s visit. The adjoining bar is named the Prince of Wales Bar since the King was actually still the Prince of Wales at the time of his visit.
The hotel has undergone extensive renovations over the past eight years under new ownership. The company has spent over 70 million Euros in restoring the castle to its full glory. It is widely regarded as the finest hotel in Ireland and ranks among the top hotels of the world in many rankings.
Ashford Castle and its extensive grounds are truly like stepping back in time. The food, service, grounds, and attention to every detail have made it exceed our already high expectations. The flowers in the hotel are grown in the greenhouses on the estate. It is like walking through a florist shop as you notice the many different varieties of cut flowers throughout the huge facility.
In fact, the biggest surprise of our visit so far has been the flowering shrubs and bushes in the cities and countryside. Dwellings ranging from castles to modest cottages take pride in their blooming plants, giving an almost storybook feel as you travel from village to village. Combined with the rolling pastures and variety of trees, Ireland has truly earned the compliment as a place with forty shades of green.
Dan Ponder can be reached at email@example.com