Inishbofin Beach Collection

The snow is melting away my winter blues. Is it time to start planning for summer now?

I just want to go back to Inishbofin: walk its windy roads, take photos of the sheep and errant cows and take in the quiet calm.

 

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#throwbackthursday Skellig Michael

On a sunny day, it’s as breathtaking as you can imagine. A monastic settlement founded between 6th and 8th century, it was abandoned in 12th century. This is one of my favourite trips around Ireland, and a place I will be going back to next summer.

Skellig Michael, or Great Skellig (Irish: Sceilig Mhór)

 

A close neighbour, Little Skellig

 

The lush Kerry coast with the Skelligs in the distance

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For more of my photos from this epic trip, see Flickr.

Bunratty Castle & Folk Park

One-legged chicken

A place from my childhood, steeped in memories of bulls eyes, school tours and visiting American relatives, Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is one of my favourite attractions in Ireland. I visited often as a child. Now, I visit with the next generation – my nieces.

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At €16.55 for adults, it’s one of the priciest sites in the country, but worth it for a day’s adventure. Tickets for the park and banquets can be purchased online. Set on 26 acres, the park holds 30 buildings in a village and rural setting. It also has a 15th century castle restored in 1954. Scrambling up the narrow steps in the stairways, visitors can get great views of the rest of the park and surrounding countryside from the top. The charming 19th century village street has a school (always my favourite), post office, doctor’s clinic, pub and hardware store which visitors are free to snoop around in. There is a lot more besides. Costumed characters can be found in the schoolyard or in the farmer’s house making apple pie. Musicians dot the old thatched cottages, treating visitors to traditional Irish music.

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We were greeted by pygmy goats at the entrance, munching on grass as tourists vied for a good spot to take a photo. Adults and children alike were enthralled by the family of chickens scratching around for food and the click click click of cameras could be heard from the Loop Head house, the first house you can peer into. This house is a reconstructed house of a fisherman/farmer from West Clare. Thatched and dark inside, it takes a moment for your eyes to get used to the small space. It is the smell of turf burning in the open fire that takes me back to childhood, not just visiting the park decades earlier, but being told to stack the turf after a delivery at home. How I hated the dust that got into my eyes and under my finger nails, but how I loved the fragrance and warmth turf gives off. It is rare to come across a turf burning fire nowadays and is one of the fondest memories I have of the park.

From the fisherman’s house, we ambled along into a blacksmith’s forge and more farmhouses of varying wealth. Each had its own character, demonstrating quite quickly where on the social ladder dwellers found themselves at. Some were abject, like the bothán scór and some declared their wealth at the doorstep, like the golden vale farmhouse, with a well kept garden and the smell of freshly made scones floating out the door.

You will spend most of your day outside, walking around the park, from the old cottages to the walled garden and the recently added fairy village. Having visited with two young children, it was the fairy village that was by far the winner. In a small woodland area of the park, fairy doors, a now popular item both in Ireland and abroad, were attached to a small area of trees. The village also contained a bug hotel, along with a fairy pirate’s residence, rope bridges to connect one tree to another, large mushroom tables and chairs and of course fairy lights. There was a church and two wagons for the fairies to sleep in. Ribbon of all colours decorated every tree, signifying wishes made by kids for the fairies to grant. Of course, as everyone knows, fairies are shy. So sadly we didn’t spot any. But I’m sure they only come out when the park is closed and it’s quiet in the village. With all the tourists buzzing around, they probably sit indoors waiting for the din to die down.

There was delight in the faces of the children, of all languages and nationalities, jostling to gape into doors to spot fairies. Perched on mushroom stools or inside the wicker deer tepee, even the adults got in on the fun. For someone who grew up on Enid Blyton stories, this enchanted and enchanting village made my day. Such a simple idea (the Park even runs workshops for children to decorate their own fairy door and take home), but an important one. In an age of tablets and smartphones, imagination is the only thing you need in this part of the park.

I spent about five hours walking around the park with young children who thoroughly enjoyed themselves. If you are visiting the Midwest region of Ireland, a visit to Bunratty is a must. It’s a fun day out/side and crammed with activities for all ages.

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin

I didn’t venture too far this weekend – just to Dublin city centre to visit Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, and take the backstage tour.

We were met in the lobby by Helena, our guide for the next hour and a half. And what a 90 minute tour it was. I learned so much, about Ireland at the turn of the last century, the revolutionary ideals the theatre were based on, and the number of theatre staff that took part in the 1916 Rising.

Founded in 1904, it was closely associated with the Gaelic Revival that swept through the country. Leading figures in the Abbey were W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn (Leaving Cert history anyone?). The original building was destroyed in a fire in 1951. What you are met with at the entrance are paintings of its founders and leading figures in the Irish theatre scene, a plaque to commemorate those who took part in the Rising and a glorious shield crafted in Youghal and inspired by the Book of Kells and Celtic design. You wind you way around narrow corridors with actors scuttling to and fro, getting ready for the matinee show. Hair and makeup is a chaotic scene, complete with glamorous wigs and a plethora of cosmetic products, most of which I didn’t recognise.

My favourite part of the tour was being able to stand on stage while it was set up for a play that afternoon, Jimmy’s Hall (check out the story behind the play here. You’ll be intrigued by this ludicrous piece of Irish history.). Up close, you can see how the stage was put together and the props used to create effects like the gravel on the steps, the texture of the walls and the scuff marks on the floor. There’s history in those scuff marks and bits of torn off tape.

Take the backstage tour at the Abbey and learn about the contribution theatre has made to the cultural life of Ireland. You won’t be disappointed.

Inis Oirr, Aran Islands

I’ve finally arrived on Inis Oirr (Inisheer) and I’m immediately struck by the amount of houses. It’s like a smaller Inis Mór, less people and traffic and I get the sense as I step off the ferry that it will retain its identity and culture regardless of the numbers of tourists, sometimes quite a difficult thing to do in the face of tourism.

As part of the Wild Atlantic Way, and with a population of 260 permanent residents, it is the smallest of the Aran Islands. Amenities on the island include hotels, pubs and cafés, bike hire and grab and go snack options, all suitably located around the pier for day trippers.  My favourite eatery of my visit was a recently opened café by the pier that served great coffee and one of nicest salads I’ve had in a long time (sadly I don’t remember the name). The island also has a wide variety of accommodation, from the sturdy hostel (I stayed at Brú Radharc na Mara a clean, modern hostel with six-bed dorms and private rooms) to BnBs and hotels and for the more adventurous traveller: the campsite.

Ferries go from Doolin in Co. Clare during the summer months and from Ros a’ Mhil in Co. Galway throughout the year. I went from Galway, having dashed across the country that morning to make it to Galway city for the ferry company’s handy shuttle from the city. It’s about a 50 minute journey from the city to Ros a’ Mhil. I arrived at the pier early, amid a scene of chaos as families clambered to get their suitcases and great boxes of food aboard. Bikes and waterskiing equipment, along with buggies and cases were loaded onto each boat and people were then allowed to trickle on, finding their spot on deck to watch the hour-long journey, first to Inis Mean and then on to Inis Oirr.

 

Inis Oirr, the south island, is close to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, and on a clear day, the Cliffs fill the background for a picture perfect view from the teach solais (lighthouse) on the island. At 3km by 3km, the island is easily accessible on foot. About two hours and dry weather would be needed to walk its circumference. Bicycles can be rented at the pier for the day for €10 but the island is best seen on foot. The whole island has breathtaking scenery that sometimes seems like it’s out of a National Geographic magazine. Its landscape is carved out of karst limestone. Botanical displays include maiden hair, spring gentian, bee orchid and bloody cranesbill against a backdrop of meadow grasses and ferns. Fields are demarcated by stone walls that sometimes look precariously placed, but nonetheless, stand up to the wild Atlantic breeze. You will need to be quick to catch a glimpse of island birds such as cormorants, arctic terns and swift kestrels as they dart to and fro.

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Walking the boreens out to the lighthouse or to An Plassy, the famous shipwreck from the opening credits to Father Ted, around the island, you will inevitably come across ancient burial sites, castle and church ruins, the oldest dating back to the Bronze Age.

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Stepping off the ferry, you are informed that this is a Gaeltacht [Irish speaking] area and once the Leaving Cert Irish oral-induced panic has subsided, it is a strange and slightly wonderful experience to hear natural conversations in Irish taking place. Taken out of the classroom, the language sounds melodic and you are aware that here it is a living language. Picking out words or phrases is a fun game, and having practiced ‘dia dhuit’ many times in my head, it was thrilling to be able to use it. I was greeted warmly in the hostel by such a gesture. All of the signs around the hostel were also in two languages. Eavesdropping, I tried to make out even casual conversations among the locals in a language I had spent 14 years studying.

It’s not difficult to see why the island inspired artists, painters and writers. Its rugged landscape, heritage and sense of community are inspiration for many who stay on the island. Crafts like basket making, model currach making and crios making workshops and classes are available to visitors. But the island itself spurs on many to use the quiet space to let their artistic mind roam. Whether you are a writer or a photographer, you will find something to awaken your artistic soul.

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My short trip to Inis Oirr was a break from the noise of urban life. My view was filled with flowers, animals and quick darting birds flitting from hedgerow to hedgerow. The Atlantic breeze provided the soundtrack to the weekend. Wandering down the winding boreens the quiet was soothing. I’ll be back.

Farming in Dundrum, Dublin

Airfield Estate, Dundrum, Dublin

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Taking a risk it wouldn’t rain in the time it took to cycle to Airfield Estate today, I ventured over to Dundrum to finally visit Dublin’s only working farm. I’d lived in Dundrum for over a year and never followed the brown signs all the way into the beautiful estate.

Airfield is a self-funded charitable trust, established in 1974. Its 38 acres sit on Overend Avenue, close to Dundrum village. It is easy to get to, with the Luas and Dublin Bus making it a great day out. Bikes are also catered for, with a covered parking area close to the ticket booth. It was established by the Overend sisters, Letitia and Naomi, for recreational and educational purposes. And educational it certainly is. Even for adults, it has signs everywhere explaining the trees, animals and everything in between.

My first sight was the tall slightly sinister-looking wicker scarecrow in the kitchen garden, guarding all the food meant for the restaurant from mischievous beaks.

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The hens have some of the most impressive housing I’ve ever seen. A suburban dream of blues, maroons and lavender await the lucky fowl.

In the three cornered field, a curious kid goat got itself stuck in the fence reaching for a more delicious looking grass.

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You can visit the Overend family’s house, an interactive experience; or wander the farm. If you come at the right time, you might be lucky to see the egg collection or the calf feeding. There is a vintage car garage, wild and productive gardens and a short woodland walk. Let’s not forget the wild pond, where I scoured the reeds looking for frogs and newts. I think they were all in hiding. The two brown donkeys didn’t seem to mind me taking their photos. In fact, they casually wandered over and nonchalantly posed for a few. They must be very used to being the centre of attention for passing visitors.

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All in all, I spent about 2 hours walking around, talking photos and of course, stopping for the obligatory coffee. Here is what impressed me most. Their use of compostable cups and cutlery, various bins for recycling, reinforced their commitment to sustainability.

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In the middle of Dundrum, and a stone’s throw from the uber commercial Dundrum Town Centre, Airfield Estate is an oasis of calm. You are even removed from the noise of traffic. It is really like being on a farm in the middle of the countryside. Perfect for visitors big and small, I’ll definitely be back.

Great Saltee

A visit to the Saltee Islands in June

It was my second visit to the Saltee Islands. A photograph trip to capture the wild and natural landscape and wildlife that live on the island, undisturbed except for a few ambitious photographers. We were there to shoot the birds. I mean, shoot the birds, not shoot the birds.

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According to Lonely Planet, it was once the haunt of smugglers. It is now an important bird sanctuary, one of the world’s major sanctuaries. It can be found 5km from Kylemore Quay in Co. Wexford. A ferry takes passengers on the 30 minute journey across to the Great Saltee (the Little Saltee is not open to visitors). You scramble out of the ferry onto a dingy and clamber onto the sand hopefully with your dignity, although that is not always guaranteed.

The Great Saltee is privately owned by the Neale family, since 1943, and visits are limited to certain times of the year. An empty house can be found on the island, close to the pier. The curtains are drawn and even thinking of peering in the windows is somehow forbidden. Leaving the pier and the house behind, you walk past the throne (a memorial to the owner’s mother complete with coat of arms and an inscription) and out onto the cliff edge, where you will find puffin and razorbills. The island is also a breeding ground for gannets, guillemots and lots of other birds. Spring or early summer is the best time to visit. It’s nesting time and once nesting is over, the birds leave.

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My goal this time was to get that elusive shot of a puffin with fish in its mouth. We spent about 7 hours on the island, from the pier to the southern tip that is home to thousands of noisy gannets. It is a green oasis away from technology and the intrusions of modern life. Photographers are the only things you will have to grapple with. Bring a camera, lunch and beware there are no toilet facilities on the island. It’s a beautiful quiet place, a sanctuary for more than just the birds.

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