12 Most Significant Places in Ireland to Visit
Many Americans claim to be of Irish heritage and a good percentage of them are proud of it. Sadly, almost the same number of Americans think Killian’s Irish Red is actually an Irish beer. For shame. But there’s hope. If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, it’s essential that you do a little reading (actually you only need to read this blog) before you go or there’s a chance you’ll miss out on appreciating some of the most historically significant locations in the Western Hemisphere.
Ireland and the Irish have impacted so much of U.S. culture, it’s hard not to appreciate the many gifts they have brought and the ways they have impacted world history. After numerous personal visits and extensive study, I humbly present an itinerary of one dozen moments in history and culture influenced by the Irish.
1. The Spanish Armada
Launched by King Philip II of Spain against Elizabeth I of England (despite the fact they were almost once betrothed), the Armada was a crucial tactical move of one superpower against another. Yet Spain’s proud fleet floundered in horrible storms and 17 out of 24 Spanish galleons were lost on the Irish coast. Stop by the adorable little seaside towns like Killybegs and try some oyster shots with Guinness. You can stare at the steel grey sea and imagine the survivors of other ruined ships clamoring aboard their last attempt to return home on La Girona. She never made it and of the 1300 on board, only 9 survived the ship’s sinking near Giant’s Causeway. With the Armada destroyed, England’s dominance of the seas was secure for several decades and it’s control of Ireland irrefutable. English control of Ireland would lead to several more key influential events.
2. Famine and diaspora
Fondly but incorrectly known as the Irish Potato Famine, it was actually a potato blight that precipitated one of the massive Diasporas in modern history. When in Dublin, visit a brutal sculpture of emaciated figures at the Customs House in Dublin is in stark contrast to the buxom and bounteous Molly Malone. Scholars, and the average person, blame the policies of the governing English for the resulting massive emigration. Over 2 million Irish left for greener pastures. They headed to the United States, Canada, and even Australia and now over 80 million people claim some Irish ancestry. Many never returned home but carried their creativity, their industry and their traditions on to make an impact in their new homes. Nine signatures on the Declaration of Independence are from Irishmen, and since John F. Kennedy became President of the United States, every single President thereafter has had some Irish blood in them. Even Che Guevara is of Irish ancestry!
3. Famine and death
While over 2 million risked their lives in the coffin ships bound for American, over 1 million Irish died in their homeland, unable to feed themselves despite the abundance of food. But the policies of the government, at the time British-controlled, ramped up exports. Debates still rage on as to whether English policies constituted systematic genocide. The Famine led directly to Ireland’s fight for independence, and one of the first major cracks in the mighty British Empire. Ireland is now the leading country in the world per capita in providing famine relief to other starving people. Remnants of work houses can still be found across the country, as well as memorials like the ones at Doolough in Connemara. Honor those that were left behind at the mass grave in Skibbereen. Don’t do a u-turn in the middle of the road, though, it’s entirely illegal and the Garda will surely pull you over.
Not only was the Titanic built in Northern Ireland at the Harland and Wolff Shipyards in Belfast in 1912, but Ireland was also the last port of call for the ill-fated boat. When you visit idyllic Cobh in the south of Cork, where the final passengers embarked with it’s sparkling blue bay and dramatic cliff-side vistas, you will be hard-pressed to feel the terror and panic of the poor Titanic passengers. Visit the memorial or the excellent museum and take a moment to appreciate your good fortune. This combination of pure beauty and deep sorrow is truly Irish in nature.
Without question, one of the most influential forces in modern musical culture is the band U2. Go out of your way to find Ballymun, Bono’s Dublin boyhood home and seek out the “seven towers with only one way out.” From their beginnings as untrained teens jamming at their drummer’s house to worldwide sellout stadium tours, the band has made its mark on world culture. Bono meets with Presidents. Even people’s grandparents know who he is. They were early adopters of musical revolution called the iPod. Get to Slane Castle and imagine it in 2001 when half a million people (and me) basked in the glow of the lights from the stage and celebrated life with joy, hope and love. Bono and the band champions the fight against poverty, found the ONE Campaign, and across the globe world leaders listen to them.
6. Water of life
Uisce Beatha, or whiskey, as its more commonly known, isn’t made exclusively by the Irish. But it’s made the best by the Irish, to be sure. As early as 1405, Irish chieftains were dying from over-indulgence. There is no doubt this beverage has influenced world history. Without it, we’d have no Whiskey Rebellion, and Prohibition wouldn’t have been nearly as profitable (and Walgreens wouldn’t be around today) and we probably wouldn’t have the Dukes of Hazzard! Being partial to Cork, I recommend raising a glass at Midleton’s Irish Whiskey Distillery. Make sure you learn how to pronounce slainte correctly ahead of time.
7. Leviathon of Parsontown
From 1845 until 1917, the largest telescope in the world lived in Ireland, at Birr Castle in County Offaly. A replica is still available for tourists of a scientific bent. William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, built this stunning beast to better study the cloudy nebulae and distant galaxies. People came from Europe and beyond to view the Moon like it had never been seen before. The Earl was actually able to prove for the first time that the fuzzy nebulae were really separate galaxies, comprised of their own unique and terribly distant stars, apart from our own Milky Way. It was a phenomenal discovery that reshaped the understanding of the universe.
Remember how no one bought gas from Exxon after the Valdez spill? Or for the younger crowd, remember how no one bought gas from BP after the Macondo Well disaster? That’s a boycott and you can thank the Irish for that. When the land agent, Captain Charles Boycott, refused to lower the rent for his tenants, everyone in the surrounding area refused to work in his fields. He even brought in scabs but to no avail. The first implementation of organized isolation was a success and Boycott left in shame. If you’re in love with labor unions, or just enjoy trout fishing, Lough Mask in County Mayo, is a lovely stop on your itinerary.
9. Times Square ball
Celebrate New Year’s without the sparkling ball drop? Not a chance! This icon is such a part of American culture, you can even follow the Times Square Ball on Twitter. The birthplace of the ball is Waterford, Ireland, where skilled artisans meticulously crafted the glass triangles forming the geodesic sphere 12 feet in diameter. When you’re done touring the Waterford Crystal factory, feel free to enjoy the rest of Ireland’s oldest city.
10. St. Patrick
If it weren’t for St. Patrick, would you anyone have thought to dye beer green, let alone an entire city river? Bars across the U.S. are forever grateful for the misguided celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day and the ensuing revelry. But the real St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is a holy day of fasting and sacrifice celebrated on the last Sunday of July. Head west to County Mayo and find Croagh Patrick. A sacred site from long antiquity, it is also the place where St. Patrick fasted for 40 days and then used his holy power to banish snakes and demons from the land. Climbing the Reek is an act of penance, and there’s sure to be something you need to apologize for after your last St. Patrick’s Day party.
There is no dearth of literary history in Ireland, but of all the places to visit to honor that tradition, Limerick city tops the list. It is of course, a prominent place in the stories of Frank McCourt, a modern Irish seanachie (storyteller). But for many of us, it is the eponymous birthplace of a classic poetic style both romantic and raunchy.
The only holiday that permits children to wander the streets begging for candy from complete strangers originated in Ireland. The offspring of the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain merged with Christian holy days honoring the saints gives us origins of our current Halloween celebrations. You can’t blame the Irish for ridiculous costumes like “Smokin’ Hot Firefighter” and “Julius Pleaser” but you can thank them for the jack o’lantern. In Ireland, gifts of food were left for fairies who roamed the earth on All Hallow’s Eve. Newgrange is a well-known fairy mound but for a more personal encounter with these mysterious places, Carrowkeel is an excellent choice.
Some of us will read Thomas Cahill’s very readable account of how ancient Ireland preserved civilized practices and learning in the face of barbarian chaos. But he keeps his focus narrowed on the time of St. Patrick in Ireland (a figure Americans love to celebrate but without the fasting and the prayer) and there’s much more to marvel about in the Emerald Isle. Some of us only have time to read a quick overview of thousands of years of history like this blog. Journey around the country and discovering for yourself the many way Ireland has influenced the ancient and modern world. Undoubtedly this tiny island has had enormous impact on the U.S. and the world, and you, too, will be changed by your visit.