Ireland: Enchanting Emerald Isle

From the food to the people to the sights, Ireland is a fascinating land of contrasts

Walking along the pub-lined streets of Killarney on a mild October evening, I hear the notes played by an accordion and possibly a banjo and am led to a little pub fronting The Killarney Grand hotel (www.killarneygrand.com).

A trio - the third is a guitarist - are playing a traditional Irish reel, or simply known as trad.

As the music quickens to toe- tapping tempo, a white-haired man sets down his Guinness and rises to his feet. A woman from across the room meets him and they break into a little dance. Another couple, and then another, join them.

The audience of about 50 - locals and out-of-towners who are all clearly baby-boomers - erupt in cheers and clap along.

  • See and do in Dublin

  • 1. Temple Bar

    A maze of alleys and cobbled streets, Temple Bar is dotted with eateries and Irish pubs. The Saturday market has amazing baked goods and stews.

    2. Trinity College and the Book of Kells

    The barrel-vaulted Long Room (www.tcd.ie/Library/book ofkells/old-library/) is the inspiration for the Jedi Archive in 2002's Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones.

    3. St Stephen's Green

    Once the site of public whippings and hangings, this garden is a splendid respite from the buzz of Dublin.

    4. Shopping in Grafton Street

    Check out Avoca Handweavers (11-13 Suffolk Street, Dublin 2; tel: +353-1-677-4215) in Dublin's main shopping street for locally woven shawls.

    5. Georgian houses

    These houses and their colourful doors from the Georgian Dublin era are a city hallmark.

    6. Guinness Storehouse

    Learn to pour the perfect pint of Guinness and the four aromas of Ireland's most famous export at the former grain storehouse (www.guinness-storehouse.com).

    7. Irish breakfast

    Game for what locals call "a heart attack on a plate"? Then try The Winding Stair eatery's (40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1; tel: +353-1-872-732000) Ha'penny Breakfast, which includes eggs, sausages and bacon.


    GETTING THERE

    Several airlines fly from Singapore to Ireland's capital Dublin with transits in London, Dubai or Istanbul.

    Guests on the Insight Vacations eight-day Irish Elegance - A Country Roads itinerary (prices from US$1,886 or S$2,670) travel in a business-class coach with free Wi-Fi and plenty of legroom. Highlights of the itinerary include a stay at the luxurious Ashford Castle, a visit to a local sheep farm and a student-led tour of Trinity College.

    For details, go to www.insightvacations.com or call 6922-5950.

As I head towards the bar for a pint of my own, I hear someone say: "There's more music at the back."

Past the divider, there is another trio on a stage bathed in pink and purple lights.

Armed with an electric guitar, a full drum set and a bass guitar, they are jamming to a dance floor filled with young adults. They are Clockworks (www.facebook.com/Clock works-187985483101), an Irish post-punk revival band.

The two contrasting gigs - traditional music out front; rock concert at the back - held at the same venue strikes me as a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new.

It is also symbolic of the Ireland I am experiencing on an eight-day round-the-country trip with Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com).

Be it the food and people or its sights and sounds, the Emerald Isle is a land of contrasts and juxtapositions, shrouded in myths and paradoxes.

Irish author Sean Moncrieff captures the very essence of this in his book The Irish Paradox.

"We can be kind and cruel, guilty of dopey optimism and chronic fatalism. We're friendly, but near impossible to get to know. We peddle myths to ourselves and to anyone else prepared to listen to them in hope that the myths prove to be true," he writes.

"We're proud to be Irish but often crippled with self-loathing. We think we're great, but not really."

It may sound harsh, but perhaps Ireland has a good excuse.

With a long and convoluted history spanning the Celts, Vikings, Normans and the English - then throw in periods of famine, financial tumult and immigration - modern Ireland is still dancing at the crossroads and in search of its identity.

This becomes more evident as I journey from the energetic yet exquisite capital of Dublin through the rugged yet ruminative Irish countryside of Kilkenny, Killarney and then up to Galway.

The morning after my pub adventure, I tour Killarney National Park in a horse-drawn carriage, also known as a Jaunting Car.

The 10,236ha park and its surrounding wilderness are a stark contrast to the touristy Killarney Town with its wild herds of native red deer peering through the autumn foliage.

We then hop onto a coach to traverse the Ring of Kerry, a 179km circuit that winds around the south-west corner of Ireland.

I have a tendency to snooze on long coach rides, but views of rugged coastline, rolling emerald pastures and mountain vistas keep me awed and awake.

In the distance, the morning fog that snakes through the valleys is still visible. That, as the Vikings would have it, is the "dragon's breath", my tour director tells me.

As a journalist, I instinctively whisk out my smartphone to verify it on Google, but nothing concrete shows up. Maybe that one got left out of the books.

Travelling anti-clockwise on the Ring, we stop not far from the town of Killorglin for a photo stop at a magnificent vista of Lough Caragh.

I get distracted, however, by a couple of gypsies, accompanied by an odd trio of a goat, donkey and dog.

Gypsies are not rare appearances along touristy routes and this couple are peddling local honey and knick-knacks such as small Brigid's crosses hand-woven from rushes. These crosses are from Ireland's pagan days and used as a talisman of sorts.

Many mediaeval ruins, most of them castles and monasteries raided by Nordic Vikings in the eighth century, punctuate the Irish landscape. They not only bear witness to the country's history, but also add to the romantic flavour of rural Ireland.

We end the tour with an hour-long hike back at the Killarney National Park that takes us to the stunning Torc Waterfall and Muckross House, a 19th-century mansion beautifully restored to its former glory.


Torc Waterfall (above) at the base of Torc Mountain is a landmark in the Killarney National Park.  ST PHOTO: DERRICK HO

That evening, I am treated to a cooking demonstration and a buffet dinner of lamb broth, beef stew, smoked salmon, trout and Tipperary ham at The 19th Green (www.19thgreen-bb.com), a traditional Irish guesthouse run by Mrs Freda Sheehan and her family.

The food is simple, delicious and a far more authentic representation of traditional Irish cooking compared with sophisticated versions found in restaurants and even pubs.

Much of the food in Ireland is closely linked with its history and, in turn, its days of poverty and hunger, explains Mrs Sheehan's husband and award-winning chef John Sheehan.

For a long time, the country was haunted by the 1845 Irish Potato Famine when more than a million starved to death. Food was for sustenance; not enjoyment. It was not until recently that chefs started adding gourmet touches to their dishes, he says, as he pours a bottle of wine into a cream sauce that goes with the trout.

Restaurateur and chef Padraic Gallagher hopes these touches are a way to reconnect the Irish with their roots when it comes to food.

"We've come to terms with that with our new wealth and travels, and yet most Irish people will prefer Indonesian, Thai - anything foreign as opposed to Irish," he tells me during my visit to Dublin another day.

He is giving the boxty, a traditional Irish potato bread, a new twist at the dish's namesake restaurant in Dublin's Temple Bar area (www.boxtyhouse.ie).

Among his signature dishes is the Gaelic Boxty. The wrap is made from a potato pancake stuffed with beef medallions seared medium- well and doused in an Irish whiskey and mushroom cream sauce, and reminds me of a heavier version of a stuffed crepe.

The next part of the tour takes me farther north where the highlight is a two-night stay at the opulent Ashford Castle (www.ashfordcastle.com), about an hour's drive from the city of Galway. The 800-year-old property is set on 142ha of land on the shores of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second largest lake. Dating back to 1228, the property was once home to the Guinness family and first opened as a hotel in 1939.


A bagpiper (above) leads guests across River Cong to the award-winning Ashford Castle hotel. ST PHOTO: DERRICK HO


At Ashford Castle, guests can visit Ireland’s oldest established school of falconry, flying Harris hawks (above) under the guidance of an instructor. ST PHOTO: DERRICK HO

After being "piped" across the River Cong to the castle by a bagpiper, I am greeted by a row of hotel staff who lead me into a lavish wood-panelled hall decorated in an ornate yet modern Victorian fashion. It almost feels like I am on the set of the hit television series, Downton Abbey.

All 85 guestrooms in this award-winning and newly restored castle are one of a kind.

Mine is done up in deep sky-blue with nature-themed embroidered walls and cushions. There are interesting hints of an Asian influence with its two oversized porcelain vases that double as bedside lamps and enamel drawers embellished with Chinese art.

Among the activities lined up at the estate is a session at the School of Falconry where I get to fly a hawk through the woodlands.

I am wary at first. These birds, which turn out to be American Harris hawks, have to be merely show birds trained to do this, I think.

But as Milly, a female hawk, sits just centimetres from my face on my hand, I am overcome by a sense of wonder at this hunter's sheer strength and how sharp her senses are. Hawks are, after all, akin to cheetahs in the sky, Milly's trainer Tommy Durcan explains. It feels unreal to hold such a venerable predator in this peaceable countryside.

No trip to the Irish countryside is complete without a visit to the Dingle Peninsula and the winding Wild Atlantic Way coastal route, where I take in the sight of the vertiginous Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs stretch over 8km along the coast and rise to a height of about 200m, their edges falling away abruptly into the constantly churning Atlantic.

The cliffs have been featured in movies including Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince (2009), so be prepared to face throngs of tourists.

A short drive away, I get to a beach at Murroughtoohy, known for its uninterrupted limestone paths that give the landscape a monochromatic moonscape look.

Little Druid temples - in this case, stones stacked in odd numbers - dot the beach and add to the almost- sacred feel of the place. These are "stones that bring you home", my tour director tells me. Legend has it that these temples serve as a portal for the souls of Irish migrants to return home, whether in times of homesickness or in death.

My tour director implores me to build one of my own. Together with my travel mates, we stack our stones and stand in contemplation.

Among all the juxtapositions and paradoxes of the Irish, I have a special affection for its brooding landscape and merry people. There is also a certain lure in its tall yet seductive tales; its modern twist on traditional and toe-tapping tunes; and the emergence of luxury in the food that originated from poverty.

There is still so much more of Ireland to explore. But if I do not get a chance to revisit the island, I now know there will still be a way for my soul to find its way back there.

The writer was hosted by Insight Vacations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Enchanting Emerald Isle See and do in Dublin'. Print Edition | Subscribe