County Louth, Ireland: The Wee County

The kiddos and I spent the last two days exploring Ireland’s smallest county- Louth. Even though The Grey has returned to the Emerald Isle, it stayed dry so we were able to pack a lot in.

Blackrock

This is your quintessential Irish seaside town. The small quirky village looks onto a lovely beach with a crazy tide. We really lucked out with our Airbnbs on this trip. This one was above a cafe overlooking the town and directly opposite the entrance to the beach. The kids were delighted!

Everyday we spent some time on the beach playing in the sand, collecting shells and building forts.

The tide on this beach is insane. It goes out a whopping three kilometers twice a day, and you can walk all the way out on the shore.

By the time the sun was setting. The tide had come all the way back in. Here was the view from our window.

The spotless town has won the Tidy Towns a few times so it was fun to take a gander through the village and check out its nooks and crannies. We came across Blackrock Park which has a playground. My two were all over it!

We discovered two more tiny beaches on the other side of the village; The Priests Beach (opposite the church) and The Ladies Beach. Because the tide was out, the two were fascinated by the jelly fish lying scattered for miles.

The town is filled with dinky stores, cafes and restaurants. We filled our bellies in Belle’s Tearoom before the afternoon spin in the car. My two are really going to miss Irish scones when we hit back to Seattle next week.

Carlingford

In the afternoon, we took a thirty minute spin in the car and ended up in the medieval town of Carlingford. There’s the ruins of two castles, the ruins of a Dominican Friary and Carlingford Heritage Center all within a small space. You also have gorgeous views of the Cooley Peninsula.

The Priory is the most impressive of the ruins, but after KJ discovered a dead bird on the ground…and then another….and another….and another, I decided this couldn’t be a good omen and we needed to get out of there.

As we were trying to make our rushed escape, the kids let out an excited squeal. A couple of horses were making their way towards us and when the riders let them pet the horses, they were delighted!

There’s also signs leprechaun shenanigans all over Carlingford.

The underground leprechaun caverns were closed but we discovered a gem of a place right across the road. There’s a tiny, magical themed park on Ghan Road and, maybe because it was completely unexpected, this was possibly my favorite part of the Louth trip. Each exhibit has a sign explaining it’s story. As we had done The Giant’s Causeway a few days prior, we were delighted to find Finn McCool’s chair. The hens were also a highlight for the kids.

Monasterboice Round Tower and High Crosses.

These historic monastic ruins date back all the way to the 5th century. The impressive high crosses are some of the oldest of their kind in Ireland. The high tower protected the monks and their valuables against the many Viking invasions and is as impressive as the more famed Gelndalough that we visited last week.

Old Mellifont Abbey

We have seen quite a few ancient ruins in the last few weeks, but I found Old Mellifont Abbey to be quite impressive. A fifteen minute drive from Monasterboice, it’s well worth a visit! Considering it was the first Cistercian Monastery founded in Ireland in 1142, it has held up well!

KJ tried his hand at a few photos.

Cuchulainn’s Castle….is closed!

After growing up hearing the stories of the ancient Irish warrior, we were disappointed to find this outside Cuchulainn’s castle.

St Peter’s Parish Church Drogheda

You might be wondering what the big deal about a church is. Well, this one houses a relic- a pretty gory one actually. A shrine to Saint Oliver Plunkett containing his head- his actual REAL head- lies within the church! I had to see this one for myself.

Next up- Wexford where I meet up with my mom and my sister and her family. Not going to lie, when it came to it, I was a little daunted by the idea of travelling around Ireland on my own with two little ones. But I’m so glad we did it! Of course we missed Wyatt, but we did and saw so much and I got to be a tourist in the parts of my home country that I had never seen before. The best thing I did was go to Mr Price before I left and spend thirty quid on some knick knacks. This bought me a few hours every few days. For example, if I was trying to pack up a house on my own to go to the next place, I would bust out new coloring books and colors. Or after a day of hiking and exploring when the two were starting to get a little snippey with each other, I would throw an activity box their way and BINGO! Two hours of uninterrupted peace! Looking forward to seeing what Wexford has to offer.

County Antrim and County Derry, Northern Ireland: My Happy Place!

My dad always says that when he wins the loto, he will buy his second home in The Isle of Palms in South Carolina. Can’t say I blame him- it’s a beautiful part of the world. This weekend, I found my ‘loto home’ location. It’s in Portballintrae, Co Antrim!

This place, as well as Northern Ireland in general, is STUN-NING! When we visited Slovenia a couple of months ago, I thought, “This is it! Nothing can beat the beauty of this country.” Who knew that I would be proven wrong by a corner of my own home country! County Antrim and County Derry were spectacular. It helped that we had good weather for our four nights there and our Airbnb was fabulous. Here is the view from our living room window. The Giant’s Causeway is behind that cliff.

The view of the back was quite lovely too.

And when I lay on the couch after putting the kids to bed, the view from the skylight was fab!

Here are some of the highlights from the Northern Irish portion of our trip.

The Giant’s Causeway

Let’s start with the obvious one. I was not expecting much from The Giant’s Causeway as I had heard many times that it was overrated. Along with our talented drama teacher I have taught my Seattle class a play about the story of The Giant’s Causeway for over ten years, but had never been there myself. So with our house five minutes away, the kids and I got up relatively early on the first day and hit for Antrim’s main attraction.

…..and I LOVED it!! We spent two hours there. As expected, it was busy enough when we got there at 9.30am. It was heaving with people when we left.

I had told the kids the story of Oonagh, Finn McCool and Benandonner on the way down to the causeway and they were fairly certain they had found Finn’s big toe in this next photo.

Money saving tip for The Giant’s Causeway: The National Trust would have you believe with their signage that there is an entrance fee for the attraction. It is actually free to walk down to The Giant’s Causeway. The fee is for the visitor center and parking at the center. Instead we saved a bucketload by parking at the railway station three minutes away, paying 6 pounds to park the car for the day, and strolling down through the tunnel to the volcanic formation.

Who knew rocks could be so much fun!

Portballintrae Beach

The North really has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world! There is one tiny shop at Portballintrae Beach and, as I had promised my kids some buckets and spades, we took a wander in to buy some. There was no prices on anything and when I got to the counter and the lady charged me 10 pounds sterling for two crappy, plastic buckets and spades, I was fuming. I was thinking What A Rip Off! the whole way down to the beach….that was until the kids spent three glorious hours having a whale of a time digging and playing. Best 15 bucks (when you currency convert!) I ever spent!!

Dunluce Castle

We finished our first evening by taking the five minute spin out to the Medieval ruins of Dunluce Castle. These haunting ruins have a dramatic effect on the rugged Antrim coastline. It’s a really cool, unique sight that smacks you right in the eyeballs as you round an unassuming corner in your car.

Ballintoy Harbor

The next day we hopped in the car, headed west and saw where the day took us. This is where my Game of Thrones obsession continues. Last month in Croatia I visited many of the GOT filming locations. Little did I know that Northern Ireland has just as many, if not more, GOT locations. (For the non- GOT fans, sorry for making you trawl through my slight addiction! There’s lots more to come…..) Ballintoy was the setting for the Port of Pyke which hosted Theon’s return to his sister Yara and the Iron Islands.

The kids had a blast climbing up on the rocky dunes and looking for fish in the rock pools.

Kinbane Castle

Next up was the small but stunning Kinbane ruins. This is one of the unknown, quiet castles in the area sitting on a little headland jutting out into North Channel. We counted 135 steep steps down to the ruins…..which meant 135 steeeep steps back up the cliff! I thought this was an amazing gem to find- the kids, not so much!

Ballycastle Forest and Loughareema.

We stopped off briefly at Ballycastle Forest as it makes a cameo in GOT as the whitewalker forest.

Loughameera is five minutes up the road from the forest and is known as The Dissapearing Lake. Once a year, the lake completely disappears. We just so happened to be there during its vanishing time. Apparently this is because of an underground sinkhole but the myths and folklore surrounding it are much better. At this point, the kids were exhausted from the Kinbane climb and wouldn’t even get out of the car for me!

Next time I am hoping to get a picture of a full lake!

Cushendun

This is a small fishing village right in the heart of The Nine Glens of Antrim. It is home to Glenmona House and Church with a lovely beach across the road.

The kids met Eireen The Goat and fell in love!

Ok, ok….I’m not going to lie. The real reason we visited Cushendon is because this is home to the caves that Melissandre gave birth to a demon on Game of Thrones. They are called The Red Caves and are pretty small and not all that awe inspiring. BUT…..we found out that the GOT crew had been there the day before filming!! You can see the equipment in the cave photos. The guy that worked there seemed to think the death of a major character would happen at this location. Hmmmmmm.

The Dark Hedges

On the morning of Day Three, we headed straight for The Dark Hedges on Bregagh Road. This road was iconic long before GOT featured it, and last year was voted one of the most beautiful places in the world so I knew it was going to be busy! It is basically an enchanting avenue of beech trees planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family. Their manor is opposite the most photographed attraction in Northern Ireland.

On their own, the singular beech tree isn’t anything special, but a street of them and you have something visually stunning. The ghost of Lady Grey is said to make an appearance around dusk on some evenings.

And in keeping with the theme of this post, here is the scene GOT used The Dark Hedges.

Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple

This was one of my favorites to visit. The Demesne takes about an hour to walk around and is made up of the grand ruins of The Downhill Mansion, The Mussenden Temple, and The Belvedere Temple along with a walled garden.

The view of Downhill Strand Beach from the Mussenden Temple is spectacular.

This was the final GOT filming location we visited- Stanis and Melissandre burned the old Gods on Dragonstone here. (Couldn’t find a picture of this.)

After rambling around for an hour on the demesne, we headed down to the strand for some beach fun! Always a favorite for my two littles!

The Walls Of Derry.

The Walking Tour of Derry is voted the number one attraction on Trip Advisor so I had to see for myself. It costs 4 pounds and was so much value for money. Growing up in the South, there was something about The Troubles and the bombs on the telly nearly every night! In fact, when I asked my mom how come they had never taken us to Antrim and Derry before (my folks ‘dragged’ us all around Ireland every summer in a trailer tent when we were kids) she said, “Well it wasn’t exactly the safest place to come with kids!” Duh! Amazing how two decades of peace can kind of make you forget. This tour gave personal insights in to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as well as the general history of Derry. Our tour guide Tony was excellent and I learned a lot!

We saw The Peace Walls of Derry…..

….the second most bombed building during The Troubles (bombed 12 times)…..

…..the parking lot outside the second most bombed building where the English army had a massive base!!…..

….The Bogside and the iconic murals of The Bogside…..

……and The Apprenticeboys building peering down on The Bogside.

An excellent tour well worth doing. Long may peace last!

Bushmills

On our last morning we took a stroll around the historic town of Bushmills. I am not a whiskey connoisseur so had little interest in the Bushmills whiskey tour, but I heard it’s supposed to be very good. Now if there had been a famous winery tour……

Northern Ireland, you have blown my socks off! We will absolutely be back next year. And then we will do some of the things we missed this time- like the Carrick a Rede bridge, The Gobbins cliff experience and Rathlin Island. Next up- County Louth!

Wicklow: Ireland’s Garden County.

Um- there’s a bloomin pyramid in Wicklow! More on that later!

And now we come to the portion of the adventure that’s just Mommy, Ro Ro and KJ traveling around Ireland. First up, the gorgeous county of Wicklow.

Before I get going, I want to preface this post. If you see me in a photo (that is not a selfie) and a head or limb is chopped off, it is because a four or six year old took the photo. Cases in point:

We had a whale of a time in Wicklow. I think it is the county that inspired many of the Irish fairytales and folklore. It’s a beautiful place with so much to do- we stayed four nights and could have easily stayed another three. It also helped that the weather was savage most of the time! Here are some of the adventures we had while in Wicklow.

Aughrim

This was our base and it was ideal. Our Airbnb was in the small Aughrim Holiday Village where the kids had new friends to play with every evening. The tiny town of Aughrim has won the Tidy Towns competition a few times and I can see why. The place is spotless. It’s a charming spot with lovely walking trails winding around the outskirts of the town.

Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens

This place is gorgeous. We packed a picnic, wandered around for an hour and soaked in the sunshine. The Cromwell seized Kilmacurragh House now sits in ruins after a 1976 fire. Rumor has it a renovation may be in its future.

The good old game of banana phone is still alive with my two!

Brittas Bay Beach

Brittas Bay Beach is a lovely, sandy Irish beach on the coast of Wicklow. We went on a glorious June bank holiday Monday not realizing that half of Dublin would also be there. Rock collecting and burying each other in the sand kept my two very busy. They also took a dip in the Irish Sea.

Glendalough

No trip to Ireland, not mind Wicklow, is complete without a visit to Glendalough. The name actually means ‘the valley of the two lakes’. It has monastic city ruins right in between the two lakes. We got in early to avoid the crazy crowds (it was still pretty busy) and parked at the lower lake. It costs 4 euro to park, but entry in is actually free.

There are nine walking trails of varying length at Glendalough. We followed the pink trail which fed in to the beige trail. This led us to the upper lake, on a steep climb up along Poulanass waterfall and down past Reefert Church. All in all, a three hour leisurely adventure including the trip to the monastic city.

If you ask my two littles what the highlight of Glendalough was, it will have nothing to do with the cool ruins or the beautiful surroundings. They will tell you all about the sheep that ‘followed’ us some of the way.

Clara Lara Fun Park

This is an outdoor park for kids five minutes away from Glendalough with a waterslide, a little race track, mini golf, lots of playgrounds and outdoor water activities. The promise of this park after Glendalough was the reason the kids hiked so well for me. Bribery at its finest! Poor KJ though- there are height restrictions on a lot of the activities. This place is more suited for six year olds and above. You also need a change of clothes for the kids. I did not realize this and Ro was like a drenched rat in the back of the car for the twenty minute journey home. Well worth it though. This was the highlight of her trip in Wicklow.

KJ did in fact do the waterslide one time, but I was too busy yelling at him to hold on tight that I didn’t get a picture. He said ‘he almost losted his brain’ doing it so once was enough for him.

Avoca Village

This small village has a few things going for it. First off there is Avoca Weaving Mill where three sisters started a now thriving business in 1723. You can take a self guided tour of the operating mill. One of the workers gave my two littles some yarn and made their day! It really is the little things with those two!

Avoca is also the setting for the the 90’s Irish soap Ballykissangel. (Game Of Thrones, Eat Your Heart Out!)

The Meeting of the Waters is also in the Avoca Vale. This is where the Avonmore and the Beg Rivers come together to form the Avoca River. It is the famed place that Thomas Moore wrote the verses of his most well known Irish poem.

Greenam Maze and Farm

My two LOVED this place. Obviously enough, there is a maze. We spent twenty minutes inside it but could not solve it! Actually, we were lucky to get out again. Lol!

The farm itself is pretty small but the nature walk around the grounds has lots of beautiful fairy doors and a treasure hunt with clues that kept the two littles enthralled and at the end they got to pick a ‘gold’ chocolate coin.

There are also two small farm museums here. One of them had a bottle exhibit. I am a self professed history nerd and I could have spent a lot longer in this room if I had been kid free.

Hidden Valley

This was the one attraction that was way over-priced in my opinion. It is a holiday home park that has a few activities for kids, especially on the weekends. Alas, we did not go on a weekend. We got a playground and a nice paddle boat ride out of it though.

Kilbride Old Cemetery and the Howard Mausoleum Pyramid

This was one of the highlights of my Wicklow trip. The cemetery itself is tiny, forgotten and hard to find! The GPS coordinates for this place are close but not exact. I’m so glad I persevered though. The Howard Mausoleum Pyramid was commissioned by Ralph Howard, the Viscount of Wicklow, in 1785 at the height of neoclassicism. Eight people have been laid to rest in this pyramid.

Powerscourt Estate and Gardens

Yep- this one might have been my Wicklow favorite. It is one of the many grand mansions in Wicklow but it is the gardens that sets this one apart. Just gorgeous. Two glorious hours were spent here.

This place gives the garden from Alice In Wonderland a run for its money.

There is a Japanese Garden in the center of the huge grounds.

Another garden houses The Pepper Pot Tower.

The favorite of the two littles was the garden with the pond that had tadpoles!

The estate also contains a little pet cemetery from the early 1900’s. Dogs, cats, horses and even cows have been laid to rest here.

Wicklow- what an amazing little county you are. Next up-  magical Northern Ireland.

Spike Island: Ireland’s Alcatraz

I read an article last year stating that Spike Island in Cork had won the World Travel Awards (kind of like the Oscars of the travel industry) beating out Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. Spike Island is a former prison site half an hour from my home place in Ireland and I thought, Why haven’t I visited yet?? So last week, while back in Cork, I loaded the two littles into the car and headed for Cobh.

You could actually spend an afternoon in Cobh without ever getting on the ferry to Spike Island. A grand cathedral and a wall of colored Georgian houses round out the harbor. The infamous Titanic’s last port of call was Cobh, formerly known as Queenstown.

The ferry ride over to the island is a tame fifteen minute spin. If you have any kind of g for history, especially Irish history, Spike Island is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.

The island was home to a 6th century monastery and an 1800 built, star shaped fortress. During the famine, Britain used this same fortress as their biggest prison. It was closed down for many years, but when the island was handed back to the Irish Free State in 1938, it once again opened its doors (or closed them depending on which way you look at it!) as a prison. It was actually open as a modern day Irish prison as recently as 2004. A sense of sadness tinged the day, as stories of some of the prisoners unfolded.

When you get off the ferry, you are given a tour lasting about an hour and then you get about two hours to ramble and discover the island on your own. The first unassuming white house that greets you actually plays a huge part in Irish history. It was where the English handed the island back to the Irish in 1937. The island is home to many cannons and much artillery. If the island had not been handed back, it is fairly certain that Ireland would not have been able to claim neutrality during World War Two as the British would have used it as a base.

There is a man-made, convict-built slope up to Fort Mitchel, where many hours of hard labor ensured the officers had a place to shoot golf balls. The fort itself is divided into different eras of the prison. At the height of the Great Famine, starvation and desperation meant people committed petty crimes such as stealing bread so they would be placed in prison (on purpose) which ensured they recieve a (terrible) meal everyday. Men like these were housed side by side with hard core convicts at Spike Island.

This part of the prison was burned in a fire in 1916.

The most eerie part of the prison for me was The Punishment Block. On the outside the shiny limestone almost makes it look welcoming.

But it was far from that! This 28 cell unit had the harshest conditions in the prison and housed many political prisoners. Our guide informed us that this building was a key part of Irish Australian history. When given the choice to spend the rest of their lives in The Punishment Block or be deported to Austrialia, many of the prisoners chose Australia.

The prison has many nooks and crannies to explore, each room telling its own story.

The modern day part of the prison is also hauntingly eerie. Ghosts of the past seep through the metal doors. I’m glad we came here during the day. I would be a wreck on the night time tour.

We had time to hike around the fort and soak in the beautiful views all around the island. I was fascinated to learn that there were non- prison residents living on the island until fairly recently. This little community were forced to abandon their tiny village during the 1985 prison riots. Now most of the buildings lie debilitated, a reminder of another time.

This was the school house- slightly different from my little school!

I highly recommend a visit to Spike Island. For me, it was one of the rare tourist attractions that lived up to its hype.

Next up, the Tour De Ireland with just me (Wyatt is back to work in Seattle) and the two littles where we take in Wicklow, Antrim, Louth and Wexford.

Do You Have The Gift Of The Gab? Blarney Castle, Cork Ireland.

Nearly every town and city has a tourist trap. For a Corkonian, it is the Blarney Stone. I grew up ten minutes away from this attraction but did not actually visit it until my early twenties when an American friend came to visit. The Blarney Stone is to Cork as the Space Needle is to Seattle. An enthrallment that foreigners flock to and locals stay well away from.

My good friend Julie, who also lives in Seattle, had a wedding in Kinsale over the weekend. So when I got a text from her on a Tuesday morning saying she would be visiting Blarney Castle and would I like to join, I thought why not! And me oh my! Was I surprised.

On the other two times I had visited The Blarney Stone, I had only ever visited the castle. I had never explored the rest of the grounds. This place has a lot more than meets the eye and the kids and I spent four lovely hours taking it all in with Julie and her crew. It was a surprisingly fabulous afternoon!

The fifteenth century Blarney Castle and tower house greet you when you first enter.

There are also little caves under the castle that you can explore. They are tight though! Not recommended for anyone prone to claustrophobia. We got about half way through before turning back.

The grounds themselves are stunning. Three or four trails lead you into gorgeous lush gardens such as the fern garden and the arboretum.