Posts Tagged ‘ireland’

An Irish Journey From Galway to Killarney

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011


Smithsonian Study Leader Cassandra Hannahs is a medieval historian specializing in British cultural and architectural history. Here, she describes an action-packed journey from Galway to Killarney. To learn more about Cassandra and traveling with her, click here.


The beautiful landscape of Connemara.

The beautiful landscape of Connemara.

As our Smithsonian group left Galway, I was struck again by the stunning contrasts of the Irish landscape. There are many types of beauty here, from the wild hills of Connemara which we saw yesterday to the elegant lake and parkland awaiting us in Killarney. We stopped briefly this morning at Dunguaire castle, which stands like a chess piece on the edge of Galway Bay. It was originally the fortress of a seventh-century king of Connacht, one who was among “the warriors of Erin” buried at Clonmacnoise.

Rebuilt in the sixteenth century, Dunguaire later served as a meeting place for the leading lights of the Irish literary renaissance. In the early morning mist, it was easy to imagine William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Synge passing underneath the grey stone archway, a romantic setting for the Celtic Revival.

The landscape emptied as we headed south into County Clare, lovely still but growing desolate. A famine wall snaked up a mountain and disappeared down the other side.  Through famine and eviction, the population of Country Clare plunged from 286,000 in 1841 to 104,000 in 1911. The hills through which we drove looked abandoned against the sullen sky. On their slopes, we could see the vertical scars that mark abandoned potato fields.

The ground grew stony as we approached the Burren, a name that literally means “a rocky place.” A different kind of beauty met us there, an eerie moonscape of eroded limestone. Cromwell’s surveyors famously reported that the Burren lacked enough water to drown a man, tree to hang him, or soil to bury him. But a microclimate mix of plants flourishes in this karst environment. They are strange neighbors — alpine, arctic and Mediterranean types combined with native species. But even stranger are the megalithic monuments that guard this landscape, “millenia deep in their own unmoving” as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it.

“Why here?” someone asked quietly as we walked across the craggy pavements to the Poulnabrone dolmen, one of the most striking of these structures. Its twelve foot capstone balanced carefully on the portal stones, Poulnabrone preserved the bones of some twenty people spanning five centuries, five thousand years ago. Today, it looks like a giant’s table, having lost the mound that once covered it, one of ninety megalithic tombs in the area. The question was repeated in expanded form, a little impatiently: “Why would people build monuments like this in such a barren place?”

The answer: it was not always like this. When the farmers arrived 6,000 years ago, pine and hazel woodland covered this land, and the growing season was long. Fire, axe and hoof cleared the trees and turf; without its cover, the soil slipped away with wind and rain, exposing the limestone skeleton. Ancient pollen attests these changes occurred gradually, and only recently — since the first millenium A.D. — was the bedrock laid bare. Like the once fertile land of Inismor which we also visited, where Aran farmers in recent times made soil out of sand and seaweed, the Burren is in large part a man-made landscape and a cautionary one as well.

Continuing south, we stopped next at the Cliffs of Moher, which drop vertically seven hundred feet into the Atlantic Ocean and inspire a different kind of awe. The new interpretive center offered a wealth of information about the geology, history and wildlife of the Cliffs, but nothing can compare with the sensation of being physically there, overlooking the Atlantic Edge. As we continued to Killarney later that day, the countryside grew softer and more gentle. A ferry ride across the Shannon River invited thoughts of Vikings traveling up those waters a thousand years ago, but the scene was peaceful and bucolic, all blues and greens and greys. We passed Saint Mary’s Cathedral on our way into Killarney, a lovely Gothic cathedral built in the nineteenth century. Even in this cheerful town, the hard times are remembered: a giant redwood tree in front of the church marks a mass grave of famine victims. After such a day of stark drama, the warmth and friendliness of the pub are welcome, but my thoughts this evening keep returning to the melancholy beauty of County Clare and the mystery of the Burren.

Packed yet? Click here to see our tours to Ireland or here for Cassandra’s next tour.

Video: The Beauty of Ireland

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

The Aran Islands, highlighted here in Skyview: The Emerald Isle from the Smithsonian Channel, are a group of three islands off the western coast of Ireland. Known for their traditional Irish culture, geography, and isolation, the islands have created a society unique to the rest of Ireland.

First, their isolation from the mainland forces them to be heavily dependent on subsistence farming and fishing. They do not receive print or electronic media as the rest of Ireland does, and instead rely on oral tradition to receive their news. They also entertain themselves through storytelling and song since there is not a constant influx of culture from the rest of Western Europe. Finally, the weather patterns in this region are known for being rough in the Galway Bay area and communities have adapted to these conditions while creating their own well known Aran Island sweaters. The result is a people with a strong ethnic identity and a love for tradition.

Would you prefer living on one of the Aran Islands or in Dublin? Share below.

See the Aran Islands for yourself on our Enchanting Ireland: A Tour of the Emerald Isle and have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Travel Hit List: Ireland

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009


The Gap of Dunloe, a narrow pass near Killarney, Ireland.

The Gap of Dunloe, a narrow pass near Killarney, Ireland.



There are so many reasons to visit Ireland. Take a virtual trip today, courtesy of our Travel Hit List.

Read: about the Hill of Tara, a rich archaeological and cultural site threatened by a four-lane highway.

Hear: Contemporary music from Northern Ireland.

Watch: Scientists from Ireland’s National Museum talk about body parts from 300 BC unearthed from a peat bog.

Eat and Drink: the best fish and chips in Ireland, according to Food & Think blogger Amanda Bensen.

Check out: A report from the Smithsonian National Zoo on why Ireland has no snakes.

Go: Now is a great time to book travel to Ireland.

Join: Smithsonian Journeys is on Facebook. Become a fan today.

Been to Ireland? Share your favorite memory. Haven’t gotten there yet? What are you looking forward to most?

Ireland: Past, Personal, and Historical

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Christopher Griffin has been a college instructor in Irish literature, poetry, and drama for more than 25 years, educating students from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Strayer University, and George Washington University. Christopher will be Study Leader on two of our 2010 Enchanting Ireland tours.

Clonmacnoise, the burial place of the last High King of Ireland. Photo: Christopher Griffin

Kilmacduagh, burial place of Griffn ancestors on the Galway/Clare border, near the Burren. Photo: Christopher Griffin

For me, traveling through Ireland is a journey back in time to my own roots, a sort of “remembrance of things past.” Each time I return to Ireland, I feel like Oisin coming back from the “Land of Youth” (Tir na nOg”). Oisin’s former home felt both familiar and strange to him, since St. Patrick came and changed it utterly while he was away.

I grew up in Gort, in south County Galway near the Clare border, so I like to think of myself as from “real Yeats country,” near his one-time summer home, Thoor Ballylee. My grandfather was the housepainter at Lady Gregory’s home at Coole Park, where the noted dramatist hosted the Irish Literary Revival. He brought Lady Gregory news of “the Troubles” in the Gort area during 1919-1923; he is quoted in her journals.

During our tours, we will visit the Aran Islands in Galway Bay for a taste of the old language and culture. Gaelic is still spoken as the first language on these fascinating limestone landscapes dotted with pre-historic ruins, but my Irish has become a bit rusty. Our trip to the land and sea of Galway will be a sentimental journey into the ancient past. (more…)

Photo: Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
Irish step dancers

Irish step dancers.

Saint Patrick’s Day (Gaelic: Lá ’le Pádraig or Lá Fhéile Pádraig), is the annual feast day which celebrates Saint Patrick (circa 385–461 AD), one of Ireland’s patron saints. As one of the island’s earliest Christian missionaries, St. Patrick is widely credited with converting Ireland to Roman Catholicism. Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated worldwide.

Fun fact: St. Patrick’s blue, not green, was the color long associated with St. Patrick. Green, the color most widely associated with Ireland and with St. Patrick’s Day, may have gained prominence through the phrase “the wearing of the green” meaning to wear a shamrock on one’s clothing.

Need a book to keep you company until the weather warms up for good? Click here to learn more about one man’s quest to play every golf course in Ireland.

Sailing more your style? Click here for Smithsonian Folkways’ Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea.

Much appreciation to Joanne Poesch for mentioning us in her Specialty Travel Column in the Examiner.

Click here to learn more about our next journey to Ireland. There are seats left for lucky folks!

What’s your favorite St. Patrick’s Day tradition? Share your thoughts!