The Best of West Ireland:
Dingle, Galway and the Aran Islands
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves and this time we're exploring the best of Ireland's west. And we're starting as west as you can get...on the Aran Islands, where, as the people here say, the next parish over...is Boston.
Ireland, especially its west — has a unique charm. It's where its rugged natural beauty and vibrant traditions can be seen and actually felt. We'll delve into the best of the West — not polished and on a museum shelf — but wonderfully raw and unrefined.
After imagining this island's misty past — old as the pyramids, we enjoy plenty of traditional Irish music, from a foot stompin' small town dance show to local pubs where every night's a music fest. We explore the biggest city of the west coast, hang from a dramatic cliff, and eat really well...all with my favorite travel partners...my kids Andy and Jackie and my wife Anne.
Ireland lies at the far west of Europe and we're exploring the far west of Ireland. Starting on the remote Aran Islands, we cruise to Galway, hike the rugged Burren, and marvel at the Cliffs of Moher before venturing to Dingle and finishing on Great Blasket Island.
We're beginning here on Inishmore. Eight miles long and two miles wide, it's the largest of the three Aran Islands. Inishmore is also the most populated, interesting, and visited.
Inishmore's main attraction is the 2,000-year-old fortress of Dun Aenghus, which hangs precariously on the edge of a cliff 300 feet above the Atlantic. The concentric walls of this mysterious Celtic fort are 13 feet thick and 10 feet high.
As an added defense — effective even today — the fort is ringed with a commotion of spiky stones called Frisian soldiers. Sticking up like lances, they're named after ancient soldiers who used a wall of spears to stop a charging cavalry.
Little by little, as the cliff erodes, the walls of this circular fort fall into the sea below. Dun Aenghus can be mobbed by day-trippers. But since we spent the night, we're here early — and the place is all ours. I make a point to be all alone here, where the crashing waves below seem to say, "You've come to the very edge of Europe."
Kilronan is the only real town on the Aran Islands. But it's still just a village, with a handful of shops, pubs, restaurants, and B&Bs. Kilronan huddles around its pier, where groups of backpackers wash ashore with the landing of each ferry. Bring cash: There are no ATMs on the island.
The islands are a Gaeltacht — or Gaelic speaking area — a kind of national park for Ireland's traditional culture. While the islanders speak English for visitors, they chat among themselves in this old Irish language.
Locals: Speaking Irish
Like all Gaeltachts, Kilronan has an abundance of folk traditions and music. The Ragus dance show gives visitors an intimate look at Irish hard shoe, or step dancing accompanied by traditional Irish instruments.
If you were here in earlier generations, you'd see step dances like these at a county crossroads — with neighbors dancing around a fire to whatever instruments showed up.
Kilronan is a springboard for island exploration. Renting bikes is safe, inexpensive, and scenic. Pony carts — while pricey — are more romantic. And shared minibuses — which await the arrival of each ferry — provide cheap guided tours for a quick and efficient look at the island's sights and a chance to get to know and learn from a colorful local guide.
We've snared a minibus for our family. Anne, Andy, and Jackie are joining me for a tour with Thomas O'Neil, who's lived on the island all his life.
Thomas: [Irish phrase] that's in Irish now — "It's a nice day." We're taking the coast road up to the end of the island. It's a nice day, hey? Couldn't get any better huh?'
Eight hundred islanders live in 14 hamlets, with three elementary schools and three churches. Many families own small-detached fields where they keep a few cows — sheep are too much trouble.
There's a stark beauty about these islands and the simple lives its inhabitants eke out of six inches of topsoil and a mean sea. Precious little of the land is productive. Until the advent of tourism, people made a precarious living from fishing and farming.
Thomas: They're shifting them now from field to field — he's going half a mile maybe, to another field. The fields are so scattered here.
The rocky fields are small, divided by hundreds of miles of dry stone wall. They are built in a way that allows gates to be made in them wherever the farmer wants. When a farmer needs to move his livestock he can dismantle and rebuild the walls easily.
Thomas: I'm going to knock this wall down now. This is the way they do it. If I had cattle, now, when it's down to the ground, the cattle would walk in and when they are inside we build it up again.
We're not trespassing here. This is Thomas' field and there's plenty of work to be done while the sun is out.
Thomas: That s my hay there now, that's o.k.
Rick: Jackie, Andy, help me. Now you stacked it up anticipating rain right?
Thomas: That's right. It's wet, so I'll have to scatter it around to dry it before I put it in the shed.
Rick: So tonight this will be dry?
Thomas: That's right, it will be dry.
Rick: So, tomorrow it will be Weetabix for the cows.
Thomas: No, I wont use it until winter.
Well, Thomas managed to trick my entire family into an afternoon of labor but in return we made a friend and learned about the hay and gates of Inishmore.
A couple of centuries ago when the English took the best parts of Ireland in the east, they told the Catholic locals to go to Hell or go to Connemarra — the poor land, out here in the west.
Over time, the English even took most of the west...but they never reached these remote Aran Islands.
Today, those desperate days are long gone as Ireland enjoys one of Europe's hottest economies. To feel the pulse of today's Ireland, we're heading for mainland and the biggest city in the west: Galway.
For the first time, the Irish are making as much money as the English. And you feel the boom time in Galway. With 60,000 people, it's a lively university town with one of the youngest populations in all of Europe.
According to local tradition, Galway's name tells its story. 'Gal' is an old Irish word for foreigner. That makes Galway "the town of foreigners." It was just a medieval fishing until the 1200s, when the English came. These foreigners threw out the Irish and built a wall to fortify their town. The dispossessed Irish — now outside the wall — called the town Galway...town of foreigners.
The Spanish Arch, where Spanish ships would unload their cargo 400 years ago, is a reminder of the trading importance Galway once enjoyed. The town's tiny museum is humble — but if it's fragments of old Galway you're looking for, this is where they're kept.
While the town has a long and interesting history, its British overlords who ruled here until 1922 had little interest in preserving its heritage. Consequently, very little from old Galway survives.
This rare remaining bit of its once formidable wall is now engulfed in a modern shopping mall. And the 400-year old fortified homes of the local nobility — this one's now a bank — are now swallowed up in Galway's commercial hubbub.
Eyre Square, downtown Galway's central park, is a popular hangout. It contains the John F. Kennedy Park — established in memory of the Irish-American president who visited here in 1963, just a few months before he was assassinated.
The River Corrib cuts through the center of town. Salmon run up the river most of the summer. Fishermen book long in advance to get half-day appointments for a casting spot.
What Galway lacks in sites it makes up for in ambience. Spend an afternoon wandering its harbor area and feel the fishing village it used to be, or just stroll its streets with their delightful mix of colorful facades and youthful crowds.
From Galway, it's just an hour's drive to the Burren, an intriguing 50-square-mile limestone plateau. The Burren is so barren that when Cromwell invaded this part of Ireland in the 1650s, his disappointed surveyor described it as "a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him."
But he wasn't much of a botanist. Local guide Shane Connolly loves to show how the Burren is a unique and thriving ecosystem. We're here in early July — the best season for flowers.
Shane: ...All this rare botany, the orchids, the Dryas octopetala, the heathers, wild thyme, the smallest wild rose in Ireland, over 600 varieties of plants.
Rick: Lets take a close look over here
Shane: There's a lovely example of a geranium, bloody cranesbill. You see it in June, July. That's why they call it bloody cranesbill — see the seed head here? In the shape of a crane's beak and that's what goes a bloody color, not the blossom here. When the blossom falls off, that's the red sepals. Now, that's' a lovely example of the Potentilla — four-petaled — unusual for its family. Right beside it yet to come out is St. Johns Wort. That's slender St. Johns Wort. It comes out St. Johns Day, 24th June, and hence the name, St. Johns Wort.
The Burren supports the greatest diversity of plants in Ireland. Like nowhere else, Mediterranean and Arctic wildflowers bloom side by side.
Shane: What you're looking at here is the foliage of Dryas octopetala. It's a plant of the tundra. This area was tundra, it's disappeared and this is still here — in other words, it came with the glacier. We are looking at the Mediterranean orchid, the heat spotted orchid. It came with the land bridge and survived the change. There you have it; A plant from that climate, that landscape, alongside a plant from the Mediterranean
Wander for some quiet time with the wildflowers. Limestone, created from layers of sea mud, is the basis of the Burren. The earth's crust heaved it up and the glaciers swept it bare — dropping boulders as they receded.
The Burren is also rich in mysterious ancient sites. This is the Portal Dolmen. Four hundred years ago, locals thought this was a "druid's altar." Four thousand years ago, it actually was a grave — covered by a now long-gone mound of dirt.
The western edge of the Burren is marked by the Cliffs of Moher. A visit here offers one of Ireland's great natural thrills. For five miles, the dramatic cliffs soar as high as 650 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
While I wouldn't recommend this, thrill-seekers find a special peace all alone here at the edge of Ireland. You'll find yourself in a dramatic world where the only sounds are the waves, the wind, and the gulls — playing in the updrafts.
In Ireland you drive on the left. On narrow roads like these, take your time — everybody works together in a scenic do-si-do up and over the mountain. With the help of a good map, I often take the slow, more memorable route. The dramatic Connor Pass leads to the scenic southwest tip of Ireland, Dingle Peninsula. Over 100 inches of rain a year give this area its famous forty shades of green.
Dingle Peninsula offers an ideal mix of far-and-away beauty, archaeological wonders, and desolate walks or bike rides — all within convenient reach of its main town.
My Irish dreams have long been set here on this sparse but lushly carpeted peninsula. The people of Dingle are close to the land. When I asked a local if he was born here, he thought for a second and said, "No, it was about six miles down the road." When I asked if he'd lived here all his life and he said, "Not yet."
Dingle is traditionally Irish because it's another Gaeltacht, a region where the Irish culture survives, subsidized by the government. While English is always there, the signs, menus, and songs often come in Irish or Gaelic first.
Teenagers from Ireland's big cities come here for summer camp — filling old time schoolrooms to learn the traditional language and Irish ways.
And here, Irish songs are sung in Irish.
And old churches do double duty as concert halls where those enthusiastic about traditional music share their art.
The town of Dingle is the perfect home base for peninsula explorations. It's just large enough to have all the necessary tourist services and a steady beat of Irish folk music. Although a popular tourist destination, Dingle still has a relaxed feel. This is a place where the fish and farm still matter. A faint whiff of burning peat fills its streets, tractor tracks dirty the main drag, and forty fishing boats still sail from its harbor.
Like any town with tourism in Ireland, Dingle has an abundance of B&Bs. The Captain's House B&B is a shipshape place fit for an admiral in the town center. Its homey peat-fire lounge is perfect for a cuppa tea. Guests enjoy comfy rooms and a magnificent breakfast. Mary, whose mother ran a guest house back before Dingle was discovered, loves her work. Anticipating a big sightseeing day, Anne's enjoying another slice of Irish soda bread. And for Jackie's breakfast: another kipper.
Five hundred years ago, Dingle, with its ideal harbor, was a busy seaport. It was a gateway for trade with Spain — just a five-day sail south. Like Galway, it was a fortified English town surrounded by Irish peasants.
Dingle is filled with shops showing off local crafts. At Lisbeth Mulcahy's you can buy traditional woven wear right off the loom. And the West Kerry Craft Guild — a co-op selling the work of local artists — is fun even if you're just browsing.
The town has restaurants to please every palate. Andy and Jackie's included. They're eating kid friendly at the local diner.
We've found it's smart in small towns to let the kids have some time on their own to deal with the menus and foreign money. They enjoy a break from mom and dad...and vice versa.
Anne and I are dining adults only...elegantly at a top-end Dingle restaurant. The Beginish serves modern European fare in an elegant Georgian setting.
The kitchen creates beautifully presented dishes that the kids just wouldn't appreciate. Anne and I dine confident that Jackie and Andy are enjoying their meal as much as we are enjoying ours.
Locals claim that Dingle, with 52 pubs for its 1,300 residents, has more watering holes per capita than any town in Ireland. Visit several until you find just the ambience you're looking for. There's live music galore. Or, for good conversation, you have some fascinating options.
Foxy John's is one of several Dingle pubs with a dual identity. By day it's a handy hardware store...after hours a pub. It's great for craic — that's pub lingo for conversation. If you sit at a table, you'll be left alone. Stand or sit at the bar and you'll be engulfed in conversation with new friends. And if you need a hammer or some hedge clippers, the bar tender is there to help.
If you're pub hopping, keep an eye on the clock. Last call for drinks where we're heading is "half eleven" (that's 11:30).
O'Flaherty's is reliably good for traditional music — or "trad" as it's called in Ireland.
Tim Collins, Dingle's retired police chief, is an amateur archeologist who takes my tour groups around when they're in town. Today, his group is really small...just me and Andy. On this trip around the peninsula Andy is learning some history the way I like to — from a local.
The Dingle peninsula is like an open-air museum. It's dotted with more than 2,000 monuments dating back to 4,000 B.C. Some of Ireland's ancient and complex history can be sorted out by visiting these sites.
Tim: This is known as Dunbeg promontory fort. It's one of about 2,200 archeological monuments we have on the peninsula. This site was built by the early settlers about 500 B.C. It has been excavated about 25 years ago, because half of it has fallen into the sea due to coastal erosion. I suppose there's no part in Ireland that has as many archeological monuments intact as you've got in the Dingle Peninsula. And probably that's due to fact that this area has never been industrialized.
This remote peninsula was also busy during early Christian times. The Gallarus Oratory was a church built without mortar about 1,200 years ago. Shaped like an upturned boat, its finely fitted walls — stone without mortar — still keep out the rain.
In the depths of the Dark Ages, monks fled the chaos of Continental Europe. They sailed to the fringes of the known world — like Dingle Peninsula. Living in monastic communities of stone igloo-type huts like these, they kept literacy alive for western civilization. In fact, Charlemagne, who ruled much of Europe in the year 800, imported monks from Ireland to be his scribes.
Tim: This was the typical lay-out of early Christian monasteries — several stone igloo-type huts and a church within a fortified wall. The inner wall divided the community into two sections — one for work and one for worship.
Tim: This monument is thousand years older that what we've been looking at — it's a slab-cross erected by the Celts in 500 B.C., red sandstone. They decorated the stone with these Celtic motifs, or these concentric circles which run through the front of the stone, and they remained until the sixth century A.D. when the Christians came and Christianized the cross by superimposing this Greek cross on the upper part of the older Celt monument. This explains the two traditions on the one slab cross, the Celtic and the Christian.
When the English came in the 12th century, they replaced the old monastic settlements like the one we just saw with their own churches in an attempt to centralize their control. During that era, this ruined church was a center of worship for the peninsula.
And here on Dingle peninsula the soil itself reveals the struggles of the Irish people.
Tim: Now, in prehistory the soil here was worthless, very barren. This soil here we're looking at was actually made by the hard work and endeavors of the peasants who had to reclaim this barren land by going to the beach and drawing up seaweed and sand to augment the very barren soil that was there to grow their potatoes and crops
Rick: So there's seaweed and sand in this?
Tim: Seaweed and sand mixture, and some peat, which has developed into clay over the centuries.
Patch by patch, they created fertile fields for potatoes, climbing ever higher up the hillside. In 1845 they planted. But a blight swept across Ireland and nothing grew...the potatoes rotted in the ground.
For the next four years Ireland starved. The village of Dunquin with its many abandoned homes is a reminder that Ireland's population was decimated by the great potato famine.
Just off the shore is Great Blasket Island. The story of its tiny community — just a ghost town today — gives an insight to the soul of Ireland. Taking a boat ride there is a highlight for anyone interested in traditional Irish culture.
And, back in Dingle, our family's doing just that. Weather permitting, the Peig Sayers zips to Blasket Island in 40 minutes — unless Fungie comes out to play.
Fungie, Europe's friendliest dolphin and Dingle's most famous resident, playfully greets boats as they come and go.
Even in today's drizzle and choppy seas, the boat ride to Great Blasket Island is both exhilarating and scenic.
The landing is as tenuous today as it was for the original islanders. Just a little nook along its rocky coastline provides enough protection to land a small boat.
Wandering through the scant remains of their homes, we try to imagine the life these hardy islanders led.
This village was about the only one in Ireland to escape the famine because they harvested the sea rather than potatoes. Forming the most traditional Irish community of the 20th century — the Blasket Islanders became a symbol of antique Gaelic culture.
The island's population peaked at 160, then dwindled until the government moved the last handful of residents to the mainland in 1953.
Each family had a cow, a few sheep, and a tiny garden. There was no priest, no doctor...and no pub. They heated their humble homes with peat cut from the high ridge and fed their families with fish.
The Blasket Islanders may be gone but their story, which in many ways echoes the story of Ireland as a whole, lives on.
So rich in history, people and scenery, Ireland — rain or shine — is a fine place to experience. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.