So you fancy yourself a travel fanatic, eh? If you are like me, you secretly (or openly) love when people ask you for travel advice. Someone starts to ask you, What should I see in… and before the words are out of their mouth, your pulse has increased by 200% and you are immediately Rick Steves on two cans of Red Bull.
The answers you give (or splatter in someone’s face like a dog whose master has just come home) will obviously depend on how they finish that question. On one end of the spectrum will be places like Italy which has so many famous sites like the Colosseum, Pompei, Tower of Pisa, Santa Maria del Fiori, Piazza San Marco, etc. etc. etc. On the other end of the spectrum are places like Ireland.
Ask a travel fanatic what the best sites are to see in Ireland and the answer will hardly consist of any sites at all. Ireland doesn’t have any sites which have crossed over into pop culture or have been made superstars by the Renaissance or the Roman Empire. A person who really knows Ireland will explain in their own way this basic principle. Sites in Ireland are merely interesting waypoints. The real “sites” in Ireland are the journeys to and between those waypoints. In fact, the sites that will be recommended when going to Ireland will consist of names such as Ring of Kerry, Dingle, Connemara, the Wild Atlantic Way, etc. What these have in common are that they are counties or regions with specifically recommended driving routes. Most of the names of the sites you see along the way will make most people stare at you blankly. Anyway, how does one explain to someone that the real sites of Ireland are its atmosphere, scenery, mysteriousness, starkness, sorrow, jubilation, music, color, stones, sheep, heather, whispers in the wind, and of course the stonewall-lined single lane roads with 100km/h impossible speed limits.
Note: If you really want to know how to experience the best of Ireland with your heart, look no further than my friend’s blog HERE.
Besides a beautiful hike or bike ride, my favorite thing to do in Ireland is to spend the day doing a scenic drive around a particular region going from waypoint to waypoint. The ones I have mentioned above have established routes where you will be competing for the precious space on the single lane roads with the occasional tour bus. Eventually I will find the time to write about them too. But this post will focus on a particular drive which I planned spontaneously earlier this year the day before my Slieve Donard hike. County Meath.
County Meath is a short ride north of Dublin, and its location made it a perfect place to stay for the Slieve Donard hike weekend. It will not regale you with the breathtaking scenery that you would get with the other aforementioned scenic drives, but it is perhaps the area where one can best come in contact with Ireland’s ancient past. One glance at Google maps and it didn’t take long to piece together a drive thru ancient Ireland sprinkled with a few Dionysian delights along the way. Hey its all really about getting to the whisky and beer, isn’t it?
- Hill of Tara
- Bective Abbey
- Trim/Trim Castle
- Slane Distillery
- Newgrange/Brú na Bóinne
- Boyne Brewhouse
Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara is where supposedly the ancient High Kings of Ireland were crowned. Most things that happened something like 2500 years ago fall somewhere on the supposedly scale, especially in regions steeped in myth like Ireland. There is a standing stone called the Stone of Destiny which would supposedly (there’s that word again) scream out if the acceptable contender for the crown touched it. The stone is believed to have been placed about 600 years B.C. Next to the standing stone, there is a grave marker for the 400 Irish rebels who died here in the Rebellion of 1798.
Another feature of this site is the 5000-year old Mound of the Hostages where up to 500 ancient people are buried. While the name is really cool and makes you think that the dead bodies inside were all unredeemed hostages from cheap and heartless families, the name actually derives from the Middle Ages, when this mount was a traditional spot where exchange of hostages took place. So the name has nothing to do with what’s buried inside.
Bective Abbey was a Cistercian abbey started in 1147 and dissolved during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-1500’s. So sadly I would find no abbey beer on the premises. The cloisters of the abbey was used in the movie Braveheart for the scene where the Princess and her lady-in-waiting are walking and talking about stories of William Wallace’s exploits. This would not be the last time that Braveheart came up on this day. The location of this abbey is along a quiet road in the middle of farmland. I arrived in the morning and found myself practically alone with the whispers in the stones. On a gorgeous late Spring morning, it gave that awe one gets when finding a spot while you are traveling that feels like your own.
Trim is not a household name but it is definitely one of the most interesting cities I have been to in Ireland. It seems everywhere you look, there is something provocative that fires the imagination. I had no plan when I arrived. I found a parking place at a shopping center as you enter the city and started following the signs to the castle. It was a short walk to the first of the city’s interesting features.
The Oldest Bridge in Ireland (…kind of)
This bridge was built in 1330 replacing a previous bridge which was destroyed by a flood. Depending on where you look on the internet, it is called the oldest “unchanged” bridge in Ireland or the oldest “in-use” bridge. Whatever it is or isn’t, it is old.
From the bridge, I went immediately to the Trim Castle to get my timed ticket for the castle tour. The time for the tour afforded me a chance to have a stroll around the small city center where I was introduced to Trim’s favorite son.
Strange that an Irish city would have a monument to a British Prime Minister and the war hero of Waterloo. But that is not so surprising once you realize that the Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin and went to a diocesan school in Trim. One of his family homes was Dangan Castle not far from Trim and for a brief time, the Wellesley family also owned Trim Castle.
Braveheart Trim Castle
While the imposing Trim Castle stands proud like an elder warrior of Ireland’s freedom, it was built not to preserve Irish liberty but to subjugate it. It is the biggest of all Norman castles in Ireland. Norman referring to the castles built after William the Conqueror invaded and conquered England from Normandy in 1066. This one was built sometime in the 12th century. I found Trim Castle to be a surprising breath of fresh air compared to other castles I’ve visited in that it has no reconstructed interior and it is not thronging with tourists. The castle grounds are open to the public and locals use it as a place to come and relax. Although I was disappointed to find that there was no gift shop and that meant no special beer for the castle, something that I have come to expect more and more. The tour was enjoyable and although it was filled with names, dates, and events I have since forgotten, it had one aspect that definitely appealed to me.
It was this castle where Mel Gibson in blue face paint besieged the city of York and came a-knocking with a battering ram. Later on in the movie, the castle was transformed from York to London and one side served as the backdrop for the execution scene. I feel a bit guilty that the things I remember most about an Irish castle are the scenes in which it was used to make a movie about a Scottish hero, which in turn was so inaccurate, it doesn’t even qualify for supposedly.
After the castle, I felt like a walk…. and a beer.
Newtown River Walk
Across the river from the castle is a river walk (about 3km loop) which takes you around Trim’s wonderful ruins. The first one is the 13th century Newtown Abbey which was also victim to Henry the VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The ruins of the abbey have become a cemetery of Celtic crosses which had me humming a little Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath.
A little further past the Newtown abbey are the ruins of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist.
At this point, the walk doubles back towards Trim, but first a stop at Regan’s Pub, the second oldest pub in Ireland.
Here I took a break with a stout from the local Brú Brewery. This is a traditional creamy Guinness-style stout rather than the typical modern craft beer stout. It was as delicious as it looks. I did seek out the brewery afterwards but the brewery itself is a small corner of an industrial park just outside of Trim. The actual brewhouses are located in Newbridge and Dublin, not on my itinerary.
On the way back, the final distinctive ruin is that of the Yellow Steeple which is most of what remains of St. Mary’s Abbey. Henry VIII clearly left his mark on this region.
After the river walk, it was back to the car and a thoroughly enjoyable ride thru the farm villages and rolling hills of the area until the town of Slane.
Slane Distillery and Slane Castle are two sites adjacent to each other. By this point, I was already castled out, and the distillery easily won my attention. Slane Distillery is owned by Brown-Forman, the American distillery conglomerate who also owns Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, and others. The distillery exists in what used to be the stables of Slane Castle. It was started up in 2015 in cooperation with the family owning Slane Castle to channel the long disappeared distillery tradition of the Boyne Valley. In a way, you could say that this is a whisky version of the Belgian Abbey beer where a commercial brewer licences the name of an abbey who hundreds of years ago had a brewing tradition and turns it into a marketing wonder.
But you know what? I love abbey beers so why should I think any less of Slane whisky. And what a whisky! It was smooth, flavorful, had a perfect golden color and went down about as easy as a whisky can. It is not a single malt, but I held no prejudice and gave it a try. I admit to being a whisky amateur but this one was one of the best I’ve had. The distillery grounds are pristine. It has definitely been manicured to look elegant like you would expect the stables of a wealthy land owner from 200 years ago to look. For the carry-on travellers, you will be happy to know the whisky is available in Dublin Airport Duty Free… so I did not have to go home empty-handed.
By the time I was finished overspending in the gift shop thanks to the warm, golden buzz of that delectable liquid, it was already late afternoon and I still had one cultural site to go.
Newgrange / Brú na Bóinne
Newgrange is an ancient burial mound which pre-dates the Great Pyramids by half a millenium. However, I had tarried too long with my whisky and it was not possible to buy tickets anymore for the site. This is one site you should probably reserve in advance. At one spot along the path to the welcome center, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the mound. Aligned east-west, it is designed to capture sunlight on the winter solstice.
Back on the road, I passed another site which which would have been interesting, Battle of the Boyne Visitor Center, but it also was closed. There was still one final stop. All day long I had been carrying a bottle of Oatmeal Stout from Boyne Brewhouse. What better cap off to a terrific drive than to visit the brewhouse itself.
I pulled into the brewhouse fearing that the establishment might be closed. There were several people making their way from a large tasting room to a waiting bus so I quickly used the confusion of people to blend in and make my way inside the room as if I had forgotten something. There I found myself standing among several picnic tables on top of beer kegs full of empty beer glasses and many empty and half empty bottles, like a big party just happened here. When the crowd finally left and the chattering of beer buzzed conversations died away, I looked around innocently hoping for attention. Just for your information, Boyne Brewhouse does not really accept walk ins. They give tours and tastings to groups on reservations, but the host was extremely friendly and offered me to take a beer glass and any unopened beers were left on the tables. Hey, they were already paid for! I gladly and enthusiastically accepted her wonderful Irish hospitality and you can see before you that I managed to salvage a few treasures.
There you have it folks, one of the best day road trips of my life. I love Ireland and days like this are the reason. I have never had so much fun getting behind the wheel of a car as I do when I am in Ireland (except maybe Scotland… thank God no one will ever put a gun to my head and make me choose… I think). You can see so much in such a short distance, so many eras of history, both factual and supposed, beautiful landscapes, whisky, beer, castles, abbeys, pubs, and did I mention whisky? There is also the pleasure of telling yourself over and over, stay to the left. So if you come up to me in the street and ask me what you should see in Ireland, forgive me if I get really excited, and prepare yourself for an answer that will take at least as long as a drive around County Meath on a beautiful day in May.