From trad to tapestries: Ireland’s hidden gems

By Paul Knowles

You probably won’t believe this –but we have spent two weeks in Ireland, and never kissed the Blarney Stone.

Nor, for that matter, did we visit the Guinness Storehouse, or see the Book of Kells, or enter the Titanic Museum.

I’m not knocking any of these popular attractions but I will suggest that there is so much more to do and see in Ireland. This is a destination that demands lengthy and multiple visits, with eyes wide open for adventure and discovery.

And this article is about some of the very special, although lesser-known, wonders you might discover along the way. Such as… the caves.

According to a professor at the University of Dublin, Ireland is home to 688 caves. Why so many? Half of the country’s bedrock is limestone, and limestone means caves. You cannot visit all of them – not only is that a highly impractical goal, most are not open to visitors.

But several are, and if you venture away from the coastal views and the pubs for an afternoon, you can have a remarkable experience. Two caves definitely worth visiting are the Doolin Cave, in the beautiful Burren region of County Clare, and Dunmore Cave, in Ballyfoyle, Kilkenny.

The experience in these two caves is quite different. Doolin demands a descent (and subsequent ascent, a factor to be kept in mind) down metal stairs, and then a trek along a low and narrow path. You’ll be wearing a hard hat, and you’ll need it.

The reward is spectacular – beautiful caves and underground features, including “The Great Stalactite” a natural, seven-metre sculpture hanging from the ceiling. Doolin is a privately-owned operation.

Dunmore is part of Heritage Ireland, operated by the Office of Public Works. Incidentally, if you are going to visit several OPW sites, it is very worthwhile to buy a Heritage Pass (visit at 40 euros for an adult, 30 for a senior.

Dunmore offers a slightly easier entry – no ducking, no hard hats, but about 375 steps each way (with rest stops if needed). There are several caves, all with unique beauty, and a powerful story attached to the deepest recesses, site of the final scene of a battle between Vikings and Irish. When you think Ireland, you may not think “spelunking” – but you should, and a trip to Ireland will almost always bring you within visiting distance of these amazing, secret sites.

Like almost every European country, Ireland is home to castles, both ruined and restored. No doubt, they’re all worth your attention.

But a little off the beaten track, you will find castles that are less visited, but fascinating nonetheless. Like Dunguaire in Kinvarra, County Galway, and Ferns Castle, in Co. Wexford.

Everyone knows the city of Galway, but fewer are aware of Kinvarra (also spelled Kinvara), across Galway Bay to the south. This small town has a lovely waterfront, fine restaurants, and the picturesque Dunguaire Castle. The castle is open for visits, includes a shop selling the work of local artisans, and hosts medieval feasts in a very authentic setting.

On the other side of Ireland, Ferns Castle is a genuine ruin. Tours are possible, although much of the castle has been destroyed. But what makes this stop worthwhile is the added attraction of a unique tapestry display in the visitor centre: 38 panels, depicting the history of Ferns, all done by the Ferns Tapestry Project – a community project launched in 2004. It’s an intriguing way to learn the history of this part of Ireland – and there’s a castle to explore, as well.

About an hour from Ferns, to the east, are two must-sees that many people don’t-see. One is perhaps the finest estate hotel in the country, Mount Juliet, near Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. If you can manage to stay here – do! And immediately agree to the estate tour offered by guides like the charming Des McGrath. If you are a golfer, the beautiful Mount Juliet course is the first Irish course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Or just come for a meal at one of the restaurants, but take the time to walk around the gardens and the estate.

Nearby, in the heart of the city of Kilkenny, is a pub called Kyteler’s Inn, a venerable establishment founded in the 13th century. It’s important to understand the difference between “traditional” and “trad” Irish music. Going to a traditional concert is likely to get you stereotypical Irish music of the “Riverdance” variety – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Those shows are great fun.

But “trad” music is the authenic Irish stuff, rooted in protest music and authentic heritage, played by bands with fiddles, tin flutes, button accordions, mandolins, guitars and bodhráns. Kyteler’s is one of the best places to find trad music – and once found, you will find it hard to leave.

If Ireland has many castles, it has many more monasteries, almost all ruined. They’re almost all worth your time, from the best known (such as The Rock of Cashel, which groups have to book at least a year in advance; and Clonmacnoise, with its many “temples”) to the least.

We’d suggest one lesser-known monastery, both because of the excellent personal tours, and because of its proximity to another lesser-known attraction. Tintern Abbey is in Co. Wexford (not to be confused with the Welsh ruin of the same name). OPW has done a remarkable restoration job – not in returning the abbey to a rebuilt state, but by removing a Georgian house that was literally fitted into its walls, thus again revealing the ruins of the original abbey structure. The grounds are beckoning, with woodland walks, a stone bridge, a ruined chapel in an historic churchyard, and more.

And a gentle walk away is one of the secret treasures of Ireland – Colclough Walled Garden, an early 19th-century garden that has been restored by community volunteers in the last seven years. It’s an amazing project, a genuine labour of love – and you can even taste the love if you donate a euro or two in exchange for some fruit or vegetables grown in the garden.

Not far away, also in Wexford, is the Dunbrody Famine Ship, in New Ross. While not exactly a secret (tens of thousands of people visit each year), we’d choose the Dunbrody over the Titanic exhibit, because here, you get in touch with the harsh realities that many of our own ancestors faced when they immigrated to Canada.

North of Dublin is the town of Kells – the place that gave the name to the Book of Kells, now housed at Trinity College, Dublin. Visitors line up for hours to catch a glimpse of the original. But in the town of Kells (a charming community), is St. Columba’s Church (Church of Ireland), which has a beautiful facsimile of the Book of Kells on display, as well as an impressive collection of large Celtic crosses, and a separate Medieval bell tower. Docents offer a warm welcome, and your visit is free of charge.

Ireland’s capital, Dublin, is of course full of intriguing sites and attractions. It will probably not be a surprise that, among them, there are galleries and museums. What might surprise you, though, is that the best of them – the National Museum of Ireland, with multiple sites (my favourite is the archeology museum), and the National Gallery of Ireland, are all free of charge for all regular exhibitions. At the archaeology museum, the prehistoric gold exhibit – with gleaming torcs, brooches, gold balls and more – will astonish you, while the National Gallery has an outstanding collection of Irish and European art. All, free to see.

There’s much more, of course – and there are all the more well-known Irish attractions, from Newgrange to the Cliffs of Moher, which draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.

But even if you kiss the Blarney Stone and sample the Guinness, be sure to take time to enjoy the lesser known secrets and surprises along the way. That experience will transform you from being a tourist in Ireland to being a lover of Ireland – a very worthwhile result.