At New Year’s, looking back, looking forward at the things we love about the island of Ireland

It's hard to believe that another year has sped past, leaving behind some good and some not-so-good memories, and that 2012 has now been launched. As the year turns, it's fun to remember all the things we love about Ireland, especially what we experienced during the previous year.

Here are a few 2011 favorites:

  • We really enjoyed the Fota Wildlife Park ( in Co. Cork. It's a wonderful place to take the family, walk around and watch the animals, stop for lunch, shoot some great photos, and just have an interesting day learning about some of the animals there that are unfamiliar to us. The park opened in 1983 and animals were chosen that can roam free, mix with other species, and thrive in the free-range environment.

    While in Co. Cork, we also enjoyed the Cobh Heritage Centre, Jameson Distillery in Midleton, Donkey Sanctuary in Liscarroll, and the lovely seaside town of Kinsale, the gourmet capital of Ireland where food choices are many and quality is superb. Be sure to tour around West Cork, too, for some truly beautiful scenery.

  • In Co. Offaly, the Clonmacnoise monastic settlement, founded by St. Ciaran in 548, is stunning and well worth a visit. The settlement is on the River Shannon and, while you're near the Shannon, you might want to add a river cruise to your itinerary. Of course, you also have to visit Moneygall, a one-horse town that Barack Obama visited last spring when he was in Ireland and where some of his family originated.
  • In Co. Tipperary, be sure to visit the Rock of Cashel, an amazingly well-preserved and fascinating attraction, and in Co. Meath see Newgrange, Knowth, the Hill of Tara, and Trim Castle.
  • In Northern Ireland, don't miss the Giant's Causeway, Dunluce Castle, Ballintoy Harbor, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the historic homes and gardens. One of our favorite places is Carnlough and the Londonderry Arms Hotel. Visit for lots of tourist attractions, accommodations and more.
  • In Co. Donegal, we enjoyed the colorful fishing boats in the harbor town of Killybegs, the lovely drive down into the town of Glencolumbkille, Glenveagh Castle, and the magnificent grounds and gardens there, and the scenery on the Inishowen Peninsula. There's so much to see there and all over Ireland.
  • In Co. Kerry, our favorite accommodation is Heaton's Guesthouse ( in Dingle. Heaton's is spotlessly clean, welcoming and comfortable with beautifully appointed rooms and delicious meals in the dining room. We've stayed there a number of times and always had most enjoyable visits.
  • In Connemara, my absolute favorite accommodation is Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel in the pristine Inagh Valley. Rooms are wonderful with an "old-world" feel to them, food is great, and the staff acts as though you were family returning home - in short it's a wonderful place to stay, dine, visit - whatever you can manage.

    If you happen to be in Connemara in October, the Maam Cross Fair is a great day out. Vendors of all ages hawk everything from live ducks to ice cream and the side roads are jammed with horses, goats, dogs and puppies, donkeys, and thousands of people. This and other Irish fairs offer an amazing slice of country life.

  • Favorite B&Bs include magnificent Cahergal Farm (very near Shannon airport) and Riverfield House in Doolin, both in Co. Clare. Favorite castle accommodations: Dromoland (also very near Shannon in Co. Clare) and Ashford in Co. Mayo.
  • Kylemore Abbey in Connemara is a wonderful place to visit, walk the grounds and enjoy the gardens;
  • My favorite rental car company is, and for many years has been, Dan Dooley ( The cars are current (last year I had a great Skoda - automatic, of course), well maintained and the Dooley personnel - Michael, who collects you outside the airport at Shannon and drives you to pick up your car, the counter staff and staff at the nearby lot - are friendly, helpful, and totally top-notch.
  • Great pubs abound in Ireland where food is usually very good and reasonable. A couple of West Coast favorites are the Granuaille in Newport and McDermott's in Doolin. You can find quality Irish food products in stores across the country, too. And, Irish crafts are outstanding and sold in many fine stores. Some of our favorites are The Beehive on Achill Island, Co. Mayo (which also serves delicious, fresh lunches); O'Reilly & Turpin in Westport (a fun town to walk around in), and Cottage Handcrafts in Moyard, Co. Galway. There are also many stores in the cities - Dublin, Galway and Cork - where you'll find excellent Irish goods.

If touring and tourist attractions aren't for you, there are many other activities available all over the country. You can sign up for hill walking through the Burren, Glendalough, Kerry, or other areas of Ireland (many internet sites offer suggestions), biking or equestrian holidays, play golf at some of the more than 300 golf courses. There really is something for everyone in Ireland no matter what time of year you go or where you travel.

It was interesting to read a recent story in The Mayo News about a mysterious and massive Stonehenge-like structure that appeared on an Achill hilltop one recent weekend. The story says about 30 trucks arrived in Pollagh from Galway carrying pre-cast concrete and work on the structure began. The huge ring was raised over one weekend by a group of men and, the paper says, the cost was believed to have exceeded a million euro.

We have not yet read of any reason for the structure but it sure does sound bizarre, doesn't it? Apparently it is 15 feet tall, 30 meters in diameter, and has a circumference of about 100 meters.

Mayo County Council has taken the matter to the High Court.

We were sad to read in The Irish Times recently that Ashford Castle is in receivership. The paper said Galway businessman Gerry Barrett turned over ownership and control of Ashford to Bank of Scotland from which he had taken loans that he had not repaid.

The well-known hotel in Cong, Co. Mayo, is on 365 acres and overlooks Lough Corrib. It's a wonderful place to stay, have tea, eat, or just walk the grounds.

The Times story said the receivers' appointment would ensure that the hotel would continue "without any interruption to guests, staff and suppliers." Ashford employs about 140 staff members. Barrett bought Ashford in 2008 from a group of American investors for 50-million euro through his company Edward Holdings of Galway.

The Times story also noted that "Irish hotels have been badly hit by the recession, with the number of tourists declining since 2008 and domestic spending falling sharply. Earlier this year, Ashford Castle took over the running of Lisloughrey Lodge, a 50-bed hotel built on castle grounds in 1865 for the estate manager. It is now called The Lodge at Ashford and it is understood that receivers have not taken charge of The Lodge."

Ashford Castle dates back to the 13th century when it was founded by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family. It later came under the ownership of the Guinness family. Famous guests have included Ronald Reagan, who stayed there while on a state visit in 1984, Britain's Prince Edward, and Hollywood actors Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe. The hotel also became famous in 1951 when John Ford filmed much of his classic, "The Quiet Man," with Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne, on the castle grounds. Every year "The Quiet Man" fan club meets there.

We hope your 2012 plans include a visit to the Emerald Isle. You couldn't choose a better place to enjoy vacation activities. Travel deals are available from numerous sites on the internet and information about Ireland is always available at, Tourism Ireland's excellent and informative website as well as through Aer Lingus and other airlines.