Ireland’s South; the province of Munster, is a long standing and very popular tourist region which contains some of the best farmstays in Ireland. The majestic county of Kerry, home to the country’s largest mountain range the MacGillycuddy Reeks, is a particular favourite for agritourism. It is centered around the town of Killarney which gets an inordinate amount of tourists and though not really the prettiest of towns, its surrounding national park is famously beautiful.
Beyond that the Dingle Peninsula, down that windy road through the mountains to the town of Dingle itself, one of Ireland’s most atmospheric towns. Traditional music abounds, it is a folk music centre to rival the city of Galway up the West and though it also gets busloads of tourists it doesn’t seem to spoil the great atmosphere and spirit of the place.
Cork city is the main city of the South, and its a lively, friendly place in a nice setting between rivers and steep hills. To the west of the city, West Cork is wild and scenic, and has long been a rustic haven for many international artists, writers and the like, so it has a slightly bohemian, cultured air. The town of Kinsale for example is an internationally renowned culinary destination. Around that, you’ll find cute little towns like Skibbereen and Bantry and acres of ruggedly scenic countryside where farmstays and country cottages are popular accommodation choices.
The green, fertile farmlands of North Cork, Limerick and Tipperary to the north are much less visited with the exception of the slightly cheesy, but hugely popular medieval theme park of Bunratty Castle in Limerick and the stunning Rock of Cashel in South Tipperary. Waterford to the South East has the Comeragh mountains to explore, with lots of nice, not too strenous, hiking trails.
Last but not least in the province of Munster is County Clare, the land of the Burren, a ghostly, rocky flat plain that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is a unique ecological landscape where Alpine, Arctic and Mediterranean plant species grow side by side. Nearby the Burren are the Cliffs of Moher, an awesome sight that no visitor should miss. Clare also has many lovely little villages that are famous for traditional music, Doolin being the most obvious, a tiny, but extremely lively little place where, in its many pubs you can hear some of the finest folk music Ireland has to offer.
THE WEST OF IRELAND
Despite the fact that Connaught, the rugged, scenic area west of the River Shannon, is world famous for its rural landscapes, and the fact that the agriculture industry here is still very strong, it hasn’t developed as much of a farmstay or agritourism scene as you might expect. Nonetheless it is still, in its own way, a hugely popular destination for tourism, especially rural tourism. For it to be so coveted now might seem strange to many who lived in bygone years: For at least the last thousand years or so it was just a remote backwater that nobody paid much attention to, with neither Vikings nor Normans nor English ever bothering too much to try and control. ‘To hell or to Connaught’ once said the notorious, ironically named, ‘Lord Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, sent from England in the 17th Century to perform a somewhat aggressive foreign policy on the rebellious Irish.
So dismissive of the province was he that even he couldn’t be bothered to cross the Shannon to finish off his enemies.
Cromwell probably wouldn’t have been much into hill walking or taking photographs of donkeys and the like but whichever way a few hundred years later, what was akin to hell for Cromwell is now a wild, scenic heaven for nature lovers and tourists from all over the world.
Because of its relative isolation from what might be known as progress, the West of Ireland, in common with the South West and North West retained a lot more of the culture and spirit of its ancestors than most other parts of the country. Traditional music is a huge draw here, with Galway, the regions main city, being an internationally acclaimed hub. To the west of Galway city lies Connemara, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and atmospheric parts of Europe, and where to this day the Irish Gaelic language is spoken by most of the natives.
You’ll hear a lot of other languages too; Connemara goes into a kind of tourist frenzy in the summer, and strains to keep its poise amidst the clamour of long lens cameras and brightly coloured rain jackets. They may be a distracting sight but really, no one is complaining. Connemara was until fairly recently one of Ireland’s poorest, most neglected areas, so now that the world has taken an interest you’ll find the locals grateful, friendly and welcoming.
Galway, both the city and surrounding county, despite attracting a huge number of tourists, still feels strangely, very pleasantly, untouristic in a way that Dublin, with its tourist ghetto of Temple Bar for example, doesn’t.
North County Galway also contains undoubtedly Ireland’s most famous hotel; the spectacular Ashford Castle Hotel by the banks of Lough Corrib. Just to the north again is Mayo, which is a lot like Galway in terms of terrain; mountains, lakes, rocky cliffs and bogland, and subsequently full of natural beauty. But with the happy exception that it gets far, far less visitors. There, near Ballycastle, on its remote north coast, for example you will find the Ceide Fields, the world’s largest Neolithic site; Thirteen acres of Stone-Age monuments, tombs and field marking systems. And all looking out on to the Atlantic Ocean in a beautifully evocative position. But, this being Mayo not Galway you’ll sometimes pretty much have it to yourself.
Sligo to the north east of Mayo is W.B. Yeats country, the home of Ireland’s, and one of the English language’s, greatest poets. Yeat’s drew a lot of inspiration from his home county, its lakes and mountains and so can you, though I wouldn’t bother trying to compete when writing the postcards.
But take the time to look out upon ‘The Lake Isle of Inishfree’ and pay your respects at his grave in the Churchyard of Drumcliff ‘under bare Ben Bulben’s head’.
The low lying Roscommon and Leitrim, bordering the great River Shannon, make up the other two counties of the West, and can be sometimes overlooked as ‘pass through’ counties. North Roscommon for example contains the ancient site of Rathcroghan, the two thousand year old hill top bastion of Maeve, the legendary warrior Queen of Connaught and both Roscommon and Leitrim have an unassuming charm as very rural counties which are filled with rivers and lakes. Ireland’s longest river the Shannon obviously dominating the area as a very popular attraction for boating and fishing.
THE EAST OF IRELAND
Leinster, the East of Ireland where the capital Dublin is located is a large and varied province. The vast majority of visitors to Leinster are there for Dublin and nowhere else.
A trip to Wicklow just to the south though is sometimes done. The Wicklow Mountains, the slopes of which actually start almost in suburban Dublin have an abundance of hiking and biking trails and have the beautiful, but very touristy, Glendalough Valley with its sixth century monastic remains and round tower.
North of Dublin, in the county of Louth you’ll find the similar Monasterboice, which dates back about a thousand years, as well as the nearby Mellifont Abbey a huge Cistercian monastery which was one of the most important religious sites in Ireland in the 1100’s.
And amongst the fertile farmland of neighbouring Meath there is the fabled Hill Of Tara, probably Ireland’s most important historical site. It was for thousands of years the coronation site for Ireland’s pre-Christian high kings, some 142 of whom it is alleged, started their reigns here. Sitting on a flat green hill over the great plains of Meath it is a truly inspiring place.
Nearby is the Boyne Valley, site of the Battle of The Boyne, one of the most important events in Irish history, the results of which have resonated strongly through Ireland’s troubled past and continue to resonate to this day.
Next door Kildare has, since the last economic boom, started to become almost a suburb of Dublin but even still has huge expanses of some of Irelands best agricultural land where the keeping of horses is a huge business. It is the centre of Ireland’s horse racing industry, containing the well known Newbridge race course as well as hundreds of stables all over the county. Kilkenny to the south is famous for its prowess in the ancient Irish sport of hurling, still one of Ireland’s most popular sports and reputedly the fastest field game in the world.
Wexford in the South East is a popular coastal area, with an abundance of history. And the counties of Laois, Offaly, Westmeath and Longford are quiet, unassuming rural heartlands with some beautiful lakes and gentle farmlands, untouched by tourism.
THE NORTH OF IRELAND
The North of Ireland, Ulster, is a charming, thoroughly interesting and very much underrated tourist destination. Well, County Donegal on the Republic side being somewhat of an exception. The mountains and glens of Donegal have been appreciated by many for a long time now, and the whole county is just as beautiful and atmospheric, and as much a bastion of traditional Irish music and culture, as the more well known counties of Kerry and Galway farther south, though it certainly doesn’t get the same number of visitors, especially foreign visitors. Donegal’s coastline is majestic, with some towering rocky cliffs, looking out onto the North Atlantic with wild mountain and bogland at their back. The cliffs at Slieve League are the highest sea cliffs in Europe, higher even than the more famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.
Glencolumcille and the area around Glenties and Ardara are particularly beautiful areas as are the barren lands of Gweedore and the Rosses, still mainly Irish Gaelic speaking to this day.
Across the border is the old walled city of Derry; a lively, friendly city that gives way to the lovely Sperrin Mountains in the middle of the county and some very nice sandy coastline to its North, around Magilligan point with Mount Binevenagh behind being a conservation area and a lovely hiking spot.
Antrim has a wonderful coastline and not just the world famous basalt structures of Giants Causeway; Inland the green Antrim Glens are beautiful, picturesque and naturally inspiring. Antrim also has the tough rocky island of Ratlin to its north, which is just a short ferry ride from Ballycastle and well worth a visit.
County Down, south of Belfast is dominated by the Mourne Mountains and is allegedly the place where St. Patrick first re-landed in Ireland to convert it to Christianity, Strangford Lough to be exact. There are many early Christian sites scattered around the area, here and in neighbouring County Armagh. The north of Armagh is fairly industrialized, with prosperous towns like Portadown and Craigavon forming almost a conurbation below the huge Lough Neagh, Ireland’s biggest lake. The south of the county is more agricultural, hilly and scenic with Slieve Gullion mountain being a nice, energetic hiking diversion.
Across the border in the Republic again lies Monaghan and Cavan, similar in terrain to South Armagh and very strongly agricultural, with deep green rolling hills of farmland.
The lakelands of Fermanagh, and the great Lough Erne to the West have long been popular with visitors. It is great fishing and sailing country and also has much old woodland and many small, lovely villages scattered around the county. As too has its larger neighbor to the north, County Tyrone, another great farming heartland with the Sperrin Mountains dominating the skyline. Agritourism in the North of Ireland is increasing in popularity and you’ll find high standards and welcoming hosts.