Subject: Impressions of Ireland

We recently returned from a two week family visit to Ireland (Republic and Northern Ireland). The country has changed considerably since our last visit in 1993 partly as a result of Eurodollar investment. Employment is high in the Republic and the Irish seem to be on an up beat. The border crossings are very easy: simply drive from south to north and back again. No more barbed wire, guards or look-out turrets. The downside to entry to the EU is that the Republic is expensive but roads are well maintained, even the countryside "famine roads" built during the Great Hunger in the 1840's.

Rather than offer detailed suggestions on what to do and where to stay/eat, here are my impressions from our visit. Pull out a map and find the places mentioned below. Questions on specifics are welcome.

In Northern Ireland, we stayed in Annalong on the Irish Sea and at the Banagh River near the town of Kesh, which is a border town. In the Republic, we stayed in Ballybunion, Galway City and Portnoo, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The weather was rainy and cool, but the hospitality was warm.

Here are highlights that Ziners might find worthwhile. It follows the approximately 2000 kilometres we drove around the island. We arrived in, and left from, Dublin airport.

Annalong is a village on the Irish Sea, situated at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. There is a 22 mile stone wall built throughout the Mourne for conservation purposes and today walkers come out every weekend It's up the road from Newry, which figured prominently during the "Troubles". Today Newry is a quiet town trying to get on with life. There are fields of sheep, cattle and horses everywhere, grazing in fields marked by the ubiquitous stone fencing. After a week in Ireland, I began to think that the Irish national motto is: find a field and we'll put livestock on it.

We had a day trip to Carrick-a-Reade, County Antrim, with its swinging bridge and a magnificent view of Rathlin Island. You can see Mull and Islay, Scotland, but "you can't get there from here" because ferry service ceased due to lack of business. With more time, we would have hired a local fisherman to take us to one or both of the islands.

After a few days in Annalong we headed south, stopping in Kildare for a visit to the National Stud. It is fascinating. Apparently all thoroughbred racing horses in the world can trace their lineage to the horses from the Stud. If you go, take the tour. The guides are knowledgeable and personable. Try to visit in April or May when the foals are born. We were very lucky to meet a foal that was a few hours old.

Ballybunion, County Kerry, forms part of the Gaeltecht, the part of Ireland which heeds its roots and is making an effort to preserve Gaelic culture. We stayed at the Harty Costello Hotel, operated by friends of ours. I'm biased because we know the owners, but it is a great place to park yourself if you want to explore The Ring of Kerry. While there, we spent a day in Listowel, which hosts an annual horse race, a cattle market and is the soul of the written culture of this area. Visit The Seanchai (Writers' Museum) and leave plenty of time for it. A small building, it is deceiving at first, because it holds only five rooms, each dedicated to a Kerry writer, but the visitor can easily spend hours in it. Check out this site. Ziners may recognize some of the writers.

We were lucky to be around for a concert that night by Liam O Maonlai (pronounced O'Mewley) of the Hothouse Flowers. This was a night of traditional Gaelic music, very important to this part of the country, and it was a real treat for us.

If you visit Ballybunion, there is a world class golf course there and the beach is one of the most beautiful we've seen. Take an hour for a seaweed bath at Collins, right on the beach. Mary will offer you tea or coffee after your soak. You won't soon forget it.

We explored the Dingle Peninsula from Ballybunion and spent some time in Annascaul. The lake is beautiful and worth the detour. Annascaul hosts a writers' school and a famous pub, 'The South Pole', established by Tom Crean, the Antarctic explorer. He's gone now, but the pub is operated by his family.

We moved on to Dingle for lunch, but it was too touristy for our liking. We drove back through the Connor Pass. Not for the faint-hearted.

After our Ballybunion stay, we headed north through County Clare with a stop to view the Cliffs of Moher and an overnight stay in Galway City. We weren't too impressed with Galway, which we had previously enjoyed, but we were probably not ready for an urban environment. We stayed at Kilcullen House whose owners offer suggestions on places to eat. We did enjoy traditional music at the Crane pub.

We arrived in Portnoo, County Donegal, which is definitely not tourist country. It has some of the most spectacular geography in Ireland. The next day we drove to Fanad Head, a northerly point of the island, via the national park which holds Errigal Mountain. Driving was slow on the narrow, roller-coaster roads and we had to stop for sheep on the road.

After Portnoo, we headed south to the area of the Banagh River near Kesh. The Hotel Lough Erne has very good food with the added bonus of overlooking the Erne River where diners can watch a stallion in the field.

We ended the trip in Annalong with side trips to Omagh and Belfast to visit family. I was surprised at the beauty of Belfast and plan to return to spend some more time there.

Two final notes. The Republic is moving toward using Gaelic names wherever possible so make sure you have a map that includes these. Also, Dublin Airport operates 24 hours a day, so when we arrived at 6:00 a.m. for our flight home via Heathrow, the place was in full swing. We had enough time to enjoy a last Guinness - the best beer in the world.

This trip was one of the most enjoyable I've had in a long time and the plan is to return very soon.

Lucy, Toronto