Summer may be slipping away, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do in Ireland in August. The country is still buzzing with activities for all ages.
40 YEARS OF CHANGES
I’m often asked how Ireland has changed during the four decades or so when I’ve been a frequent visitor. Probably the most obvious change is the complete transformation of Irish food from “meat and potatoes” to gourmet, farm-to-table, and sometimes more exotic fare. Many Irish chefs are now trained in France and other culinary hubs as well as at top-notch Irish cookery schools.
You seldom find a pub or restaurant meal today that’s bland and tasteless, and you can find almost every type of cuisine, especially in the cities. You can also sign on with several groups that offer “gourmet tours of Ireland,” a concept that would have been unheard of in days past.
There’s a big focus now, too, on health and healthy food. One group, Slow Food Ireland, celebrated the 11th annual Burren Food Festival in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, this spring with special emphasis on the “Best of Irish gin and Irish raw cheese.” (Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.)
Foodies will want to be at the Pier in Donegal Town for the annual Taste of Donegal Food Festival from Aug. 25 to Aug. 27. More than 120 food and drink exhibitors, hotels, and restaurants will participate and sell produce, wine, and craft beer from Ireland and the UK. See: atasteofdonegal.com
If you decide to hike Ballycroy National Park in Co. Mayo, be sure to stop at Ginger & Wild Café in the Visitor Center for a delicious homemade lunch, tea, or snack. See gingerandwild.com for details.
If you ferry over to Clare Island (a destination for walkers, hikers, cyclists), be sure to stop by the Sailors Bar for a great meal and, if you’re lucky, an impromptu show by local or visiting musicians. When you’re in Galway, I highly recommend Martine’s of Quay Street. A friend and I enjoyed a delicious lunch there. For more, see martines.ie
There are many other great places to eat all over the country but not enough space to mention them all.
The other big change I’ve seen is the focus on sports and active adventures. Visitors who love to move can find every sort of activity in Ireland from golf and cycling to hill walking, mountain climbing, zip-lining, and active water sports like surfing. There are gentler water sports, too – like swimming at one of more than 80 Blue Flag beaches.
A number of dedicated off-road routes for walkers and cyclists have been developed in various parts of the country. Among these are The Great Southern Trail, along the former Limerick to Tralee/Fenit railway, and the Great Western Greenway in Mayo, which also follows an abandoned railroad track from Westport to Achill Island. More greenways are open and on drawing boards in other areas.
These pathways are welcome additions as a draw for active tourists who pump money into local economies, enhance existing businesses, and spawn new businesses – like bike rental and eateries along the routes.
Acknowledging the uptick in active tourism is stately Westport House in Co. Mayo, which partnered with Killary Adventure Co. this summer to offer an assortment of activities to visitors.
Among the activities at Westport House are archery, zip wire rides and an orienteering course. All run through August and are suited for families or groups.
Another popular adventure center in the West is Delphi, on a 300-acre site near Leenane in Co. Galway. The center has a 4-star hotel, hostel, spa, adventure center, restaurant, and café. Some 20 activities are offered there from archery and a high ropes course to mountain biking, surfing and climbing.
Many towns and cities offer guided walks. In Clifden, you can join local historian Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill to hear stories of famine, war, religious conflict, street riots, and more. Tours run through September. Private tours are also available. For more, visit: connemaragirlpublications.com.
Take an historical walking tour of Galway on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. More information is available on goreofgalway.com.
Learn about St. Patrick, Granuaille (the Pirate Queen) and the Clew Bay Tragedy on a walking tour of Westport, Co. Mayo. The one-hour tour runs every day in any weather. For details, see westportwalkingtours.ie
You can also walk, hike, trek, or tour with Walk Connemara. To book, contact Paul Phelan at walkconnemara.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
From May to October, there are walking tours of Cork City that are about 90 minutes and limited to 15 walkers. For details, visit: corkcitywalktours.com
Tour County Kerry with a company called backroads.com, take walking tours of Belfast, Dublin, Cork and other cities, or join wildatlanticadventures.com for sailing, island adventures, guided walking, and more.
Go to visitdublin.com to learn more about a “Best of Irish Rock and Roll Music Tour” or a Literary Walking Tour. The Rock and Roll tour is two hours and explores the Irish music scene from the early mid-20th century to contemporary. See where Bono of U2, Sinead O’Connor, Imelda May, West Life, Thin Lizzy, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, and the Undertones started their careers.
On the literary walking tour, you can visit the birth home of Oscar Wilde and follow in the footsteps of literary legends, including James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula.”
This is, of course, just a small sampling of tours available all over the country. On the internet, you can find many, many more.
There is much to do in Ireland, too, for those not interested in working up a sweat. Nothing beats a drive around the country to enjoy stunning vistas. And it’s always fun to stop at one of the birds of prey exhibits/shows around the country (Ailwee Caves in Clare, Westport House and Ashford in Mayo, Dromoland Castle in Clare, Eagles Flying in Co. Sligo) or walk through acres of fenced wild critters at Fota Wildlife Park or see the assortment at the Kiltimagh Pet Farm in Mayo. There are also many heritage and cultural opportunities everywhere.
You can also join a whale/dolphin tour at Dolphin Discovery in Co. Clare; Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours, Dingle Peninsula; Dingle Dolphin Boat Tours; Whale Watch, West Cork; Cork Whale Watch, Union Hall. Or go fishing – see: fishthewildatlantic.com for more.
PEARSE CULTURAL CENTRE
When you’re in Connemara, be sure to stop in Ros Muc to see Pearse’s Cottage where Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, spent summers from 1909 to 1915.
A cultural centre recently opened there and visitors can experience the Irish language and culture of the Gaeltacht while enjoying the countryside.
The development has four elements, including a new visitor center, Pearse’s Cottage, 10 acres and a looped walk, and an interpretive space focusing on Patrick Pearse.
Fulltime guides are available and, according to Sonya Nic Lochlainn from Údarás na Gaeltachta, “the response by locals and visitors has been very favorable.”
I want to share a story about Aer Lingus. There is more than one airline that services Ireland, but I have always flown Aer Lingus for its excellent safety record and outstanding service.
The Aer Lingus crew is almost always pleasant, helpful, and accommodating, but I witnessed two exceptional flight attendants in action this spring.
An elderly man sat in the aisle seat in the row ahead of me on the May 27 flight from Shannon to Boston. Two air hostesses on the flight – Sarah Jane and Noreen – were so sweet and attentive to this complete stranger and his needs that it was heartwarming. They checked on him often, knelt in the aisle beside him to ask if he needed anything, and treated him like a beloved family member, which he wasn’t.
In my opinion, they exceeded their regular duties. It was refreshing to see such kindness in today’s not always so kind world.