Many visitors to Ireland make the trip in search of heritage, tracking down ancestors in obscure villages and wandering through ancient churches, pursuing the dream of a verdant, pastoral homeland. This year, Ireland is promoting this pastime with The Gathering, a tourism initiative of some 2,500 local events and ancestral reunions calling the Irish diaspora back.
But on a visit to Ireland last summer, despite my Irish blood, my wife and I decided to do a road trip rather than a roots trip. We set out for a week of pastoral rambling on the open road — or rather, the precipitous, cliff-hugging road.
We planned two or three days each in Kerry, Connemara and Donegal, connecting scenic drives along with hikes to stretch our legs and pub stops to make them wobbly. It was an ambitious haul — Ireland is about 300 miles top to bottom — and we left each county wishing to stay for another few days.
We meandered from the seaside foodie capital of Kinsale in County Cork, up to the Atlantic Ocean inlet of Ardara in Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly county. Tracing a squiggly doodle, we swerved in and out of the splayed peninsulas of the fingered coast. Occasionally, at places like Tarbert in Kerry, we cut a straight line on a ferry.
Ireland is mired in an ongoing recession following the collapse of an economic boom, resulting in prices that may seem low to tourists. But one lasting benefit of the Celtic Tiger has been the work done to the country’s roads. Highways have been built, rural roads paved and roadway fatalities have steadily declined for years. American visitors might still find the roads narrow, twisting and backward (they drive on the left), but it doesn’t take an exceptionally intrepid traveler to thrill to the scenic drives of the West of Ireland.
We had come from Dublin, but most tourists heading to Ireland’s West will find the Shannon Airport outside Limerick and south of Galway the best entry point. Car rentals there are inexpensive, about $133 a week for a compact with manual transmission (automatics are available but cost more). Drivers accustomed to sitting on the left will surely find themselves jabbing the right-hand driver-side door a few times while reaching for the stick shift.
Our first drive was the world-famous Ring of Kerry, a green loop of 111 miles around Iveragh Peninsula. Its sheer variety of topography, from coastal peaks to inland lakes, makes it feel like a craggy playground of countless secret pathways. You wouldn’t be surprised if a hobbit lived somewhere in Killarney National Park.
The Ring of Kerry is also one of Ireland’s biggest tourist draws, with renowned spots like the Gap of Dunloe and Ladies View. Tour buses line up throughout the town of Killarney, their large rear-view mirrors making them look like giant slugs clogging up the road. But getting stuck behind one simply provides reason for a detour to a random cove or hiking trail.
Other rings in the area, as the circular driving routes are called, include the Skellig Ring at the end of the peninsula. It offers a closer view of the Skellig Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to a frighteningly steep sixth century monastery. In the same neighborhood, in the village of Waterville, is a different kind of oddity: a bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin, who frequently took holidays there.
The Ring of Kerry’s northern neighbor, the Slea Head Drive, though less famous, is its equal. It starts outside the medieval hilltop town of Dingle (where Dick Mack’s offers one of the warmest pub atmospheres you’re likely to find), and takes you to the end of the narrow, 30-mile Dingle Peninsula. Out at Dunmore Head, the drive reaches a dramatic crescendo, braced against a cliff as it turns a corner and opens up to a view of a green slope leading into the sea, where the Blasket Islands stretch offshore.
It’s a spot steeped in history, too, with monastic stone beehive huts peering down from the hillside. Exiting Dingle is no less breathtaking, maneuvering through Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest mountain pass, toward Tralee.
From there, our trip skipped north, passing through the Burren, known for its bizarre limestone formations, stopping for dinner in Galway and carrying on to Clifden in County Galway, which would be our base for exploring Connemara. The area was the backdrop for director John Ford’s 1952 drama The Quiet Man, which starred John Wayne as an Irish-American reclaiming the family farm.
In Connemara National Park, we hiked to the top of Diamond Hill, and continued the scenic drive circuit with the Sky Road. Beginning on the north edge of Clifden, the 7.5-mile route rises to a staggering, wind-swept perch above Clifden Bay.
We made time for music in County Mayo’s Westport (where Matt Molloy of The Chieftains owns a pub that nightly cooks up traditional Irish music) but soon enough pushed north, past the dreamy, foggy, glacier-carved Killary Harbour.
En route to County Donegal, we spent an afternoon in the town of Sligo, which has grown in recent years but has not lost its fine old pubs. (We enjoyed our stop in one, Thomas Connolly’s.) Sligo is also famed as a place of inspiration for the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. We paused at Yeats’ grave in Drumcliffe, just outside of town, where a tip led us to a less heralded but unexpectedly charming loop by Mullaghmore Head. It was short enough to do on foot, and we caught it in the gorgeous late afternoon light, which bathed the jagged shoreline in a tranquil glow.
This late light — it can stay bright until 10 p.m. during the summer — frequently nearly did us in. Most restaurants don’t stay open past 9 p.m., so we often found ourselves, having stretched a stroll too long, racing to find dinner in time.
Luckily, innkeepers were always accommodating if we called ahead before arriving after dark. That was the case at Bruckless House, an 18th century, ivy-covered Georgian country house on 18 lush acres not far outside the town of Donegal. As our third and final resting place along the coast, it was the culmination of our journey: the bucolic idyll at the end of the road. The place teemed with almost comically picturesque country life: The Evans family and their young children could be seen running through the gardens with dogs; chickens hatched the eggs for our breakfast; a mare mothered a just-born foal.
The rugged north country of Donegal opened before us on the rocky seaside circuit past the towering Slieve League cliffs, the astounding expanse of Maghera Strand (a cave-walled beach outside Ardara), the deep valley of Glengesh Pass, and the herky-jerky scenic road up along the shores of Portnoo and Dooey. Nancy’s pub in Ardara, too, brought the trip to an apex with a trifecta of Guinness Stew, Guinness Cake and, naturally, a few pints of Guinness.
There were countless roads not taken — it pains me that we missed the Inishowen 100, named for its 100-mile route farther up in Donegal, and the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, for starters. But we spent our week in a happy daily cycle of drives, walks and pubs.
A few weeks after returning home, a speeding ticket arrived in the mail from somewhere northeast of Sligo, complete with a photo of our rental car as evidence. Every vacation needs pictures.