One of the best open-air museums of its kind, the Folk Park grew up around the restored boyhood home of Judge Thomas Mellon (founder of the Pittsburgh banking dynasty). The park’s permanent exhibition, called “Emigrants,” examines why two million people left Ulster for America during the 18th and 19th-centuries.
It also shows what became of them, following stories of both fortune and failure. The park has more than 30 historic buildings, some of them original, some replicas. There are settler homesteads, a mass house, a post office, a schoolhouse, and a forge, some with craft displays, all with costumed interpretative guides.
There’s also an Ulster streetscape, a reconstructed emigrant ship, and a Pennsylvania farmstead, complete with log barn, corn crib, and smokehouse. The sixroomed farmhouse is based on one built by Thomas Mellon and his father in the early years of their new life in America.
The Centre for Migration Studies assists the descendants of emigrants in tracing their family roots. Popular American festivals, such as Halloween and Independence Day, are celebrated at the park.
Bushmills has an attractive square and an excellent river for salmon and trout fishing, but its main claim to fame is whiskey.
The Old Bushmills plant prides itself on being the oldest distilery in the world, its “Grant to Distil” dating from 1608. In 1974, Bushmills joined the Irish Distillers Group, based at the Midleton plant near Cork, but its brands have retained their distinctive character.
“Old Bushmills” is unusual in that it is made from a blend of single malt and a single grain. The tour of the distilery, which features audiovisual displays, ends with a sampling session in the “1608 Bar,” which is housed in the former malt kilns.
The bizarre regularity of the Giant’s Causeway’s basalt columns has made it the subject of numerous legends. The most popular tells how the giant, Finn MacCool, laid the causeway to provide a path across the sea to Scotland so that he could do battle with a rival Scottish giant.
The geological explanation is that 61 million years ago, in a series of volcanic eruptions, molten lava poured from narrow fissures in the ground, filling in the valleys. The basalt lava cooled rapidly. In the process, it shrank and cracked evenly into polygonal blocks.
Towards the end of the Ice Age, erosion by sea ice exposed the rocks and shaped the Causeway. Most of the columns are hexagonal, but some have four, five, eight, or even ten sides. They are generally about 30 cm (12 in) across.
There are, in fact, three causeways: the Grand, Middle, and Little. Distinctive features have been given poetic names, such as the “Honeycomb” and the “Wishing Chair.” Tourists arrive by the busload from the visitors’ center, but it is easy to escape the crowds by taking one of the coastal paths.
Belfast was the only city in Ireland to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution. Its shipbuilding, linen, ropemaking, and tobacco industries caused the population to rise to almost 400,000 by the end of World War I.
Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer, the three Aran Islands, are formed from a limestone ridge. The largest, Inishmore, is 13 km (8 miles) long and 3 km (2 miles) wide. The attractions of the islands include the austere land scape crisscrossed with drystone walls, stunning coastal views, and prehistoric stone forts.
The islands are a bastion of traditional Irish culture, with most of the islanders engaged in fishing, farming, or tourism. Ferries sail at least once a day in winter and several times daily in summer. Cars cannot be taken to the islands.
At Kilronan on Inishmore, jaunting cars (ponies and traps) and minibuses wait by the pier to give tours; bicycles can also be hired. Nearby, the Aran Heritage Centre (above) is dedicated to the disappearing Aran way of life. The islands are famous for their distinctive knitwear and traditional costumes.
This wild region, to the west of Galway, encompasses bogs, mountains, and rugged Atlantic coastline. The small market town of Clifden is a convenient and popular base for exploring. Starting from Clifden, the Sky Road is an 11 km (7 mile) circular route with spectacular ocean views.
South of Clifden, the coast road to Roundstone skirts a massive bog, impromptu landing site of the first transatlantic flight made by Alcock and Brown in 1919. Connemara National Park, near Letterfrack, includes some spectacular scenery, dominated by the mountains known as the Twelve Bens. Here, visitors have a chance to spot red deer and the famous Connemara ponies.
Nearby Kylemore Abbey (above) is a 19th-century romantic, battle-mented fantasy. It became an abbey when Benedictine nuns, fleeing from Belgium during World War I, sought refuge here. A Victorian walled garden and nature trails through the woods and along the lake make the abbey a popular destination.
Galway is the center for the Irish-speaking regions in the West of Ireland and a lively university city. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a prosperous trading port, controlled by 14 merchant families, or “tribes.”
Its allegiance to the English Crown cost the city dear when, in 1652, it was sacked by Cromwell’s forces. In the 18th century, Galway fell into decline, but in recent years, its fortunes have revived through high-tech industries.
The city stands on the banks of the Corrib River. Many of the best stores, pubs, theaters, and historic sights are packed into the narrow lanes of the “Latin Quarter” around Quay Street (above).
Nearby is the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, the city’s finest medieval building. To the south stands the 16th-century Spanish Arch, where ships from Spain unloaded their cargoes. Across the Corrib, facing the arch, is the Claddagh.
The only remnants of this once close-knit, Gaelic-speaking community are its friendly pubs and Claddagh rings – betrothal rings that are traditionally handed down from mother to daughter.
This formidable 15th-century castle is one of Ireland’s major tourist attractions. Its most important residents were the O’Briens, Earls of Thomond, who lived here from the early 16th century until the 1640s.
The interior has been restored to look as it did under the so-called “Great Earl,” who died in 1624. The adjacent Folk Park and the mock-medieval banquets held in the castle attract many visitors, but despite its commercialization, Bunratty is well worth a visit.
The Folk Park recreates rural and urban life at the end of the 19th century, with a village, complete with stores, a school, and dwellings ranging from a laborer’s cottage to an elegant Georgian house.
The castle’s grandest room served as a banqueting hall and audience chamber. Among the furnishings bought by the owner, Lord Gort, when he set about restoring the castle in the 1950s, was this Tudor standard.
This once remote Irish-speaking town is today a thriving fishing port and popular tourist center. Brightly painted – often fairly hippy – craft shops and cafés abound. Along the quayside are lively bars offering music and seafood.
The harbor is home to Dingle’s biggest star, Fungi the dolphin, who has been a permanent resident since 1983 and can be visited by boat or on swimming trips.
Dingle is a good base for exploring the scattered archaeological remains of the Dingle Peninsula. The most fascinating is the Gallarus Oratory, northwest of Dingle. This miniature dry-stone church, shaped like an upturned boat, was built from the 6th to the 9th centuries. West of Dingle, along the coast road, are the Iron Age fort of Dunbeg and Early Christian beehive huts.
Killarney is often derided as “a tourist town,” but this does not detract from its cheerful atmosphere. The infectious Kerry humor is personified by the wise-cracking “jarveys,” whose families have run jaunting cars (pony-and-trap rides) here for generations.