Best of South Ireland

Kept alight by pyromaniac monks during the Dark Ages, the Hook Head Lighthouse is now fully automated.
Cute Irish girls sell bags of "English Queens," as new potatoes are called in Ireland.
Kiss the Blarney Stone: Arch your back, don't bump your head, and try not to think of the saliva that others have left.
By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor

Driving from Dublin to Ireland's west coast (Dingle), the best stops to break the long journey are Kilkenny, often called Ireland's finest medieval town, and the Rock of Cashel, a thought-provoking early Christian site crowning the Tipperary Plain. With a few extra days, there are several worthwhile stops along the south coast.

The typical tour-bus route includes the Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre, Blarney Castle, Ring of Kerry, Killarney, and Muckross House — all places where most tourists wear nametags. A major mistake many tourists make is allowing places into their Irish itineraries simply because they are famous (in a song or as part of a relative's big-bus-tour memory). Spend the night in Killarney and you'll understand what I mean. The town is a sprawling line of green Holiday Inns littered with pushy shoppers looking for three-leaf clovers. On my last visit to Blarney Castle, heading back to the tour-bus parking place, a woman behind me asked her friend, "What is the Blarney Stone anyway?" Her friend said, "It's what you kiss when you come to Ireland."

If you're driving from Dublin to Dingle with just one overnight, do it in Kilkenny and see Cashel. If you have a couple of extra days, sleep in Waterford (to see the sights of the southeast) and Kinsale. Here are leprechan-sized descriptions of the highlights:

Waterford

The oldest city in Ireland, Waterford was once more important than Dublin. Today, while tourists associate the town's name with its famous crystal, locals are quick to remind you that the crystal is named after the town, and not vice versa. That said, Waterford is a plain, gray, workaday town. Pubs outnumber cafés, and freighters offload cargo at the dock. It's a dose of gritty Ireland, with fewer leprechauns per capita than other Irish destinations. Wandering the back streets, you're reminded that until a couple of generations ago, Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Western Europe.

Waterford Crystal Visitor Centre—With a tradition dating back to 1783, Waterford was, until recently, the largest and most respected glassworks in the world. However, the economic downturn in 2008 shattered the market for luxury items such as crystal, and sadly, the actual Waterford Crystal factory closed in January 2009. Although the crystal is likely to continue to be made by cheaper labor outside of Ireland, there is no longer a working factory here to tour.

You can still visit the glittering salesroom, surrounded by hard-to-pack but easy-to-ship temptations. Before leaving, go upstairs above the gift shop and watch the six-minute film on how Waterford came to be a mecca for glassmaking. Take a look at the copies of famous sports trophies (they make backups of their most important commissions...just in case).

The southeast corner of Ireland, peppered with pretty views and historic sites, is easily accessible to drivers as a day trip from Waterford. While most of the sights are mediocre, five worth considering are within an hour's drive of Waterford.

The Hook Head Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in northern Europe. According to legend, St. Dubhan arrived in the sixth century, and discovered the bodies of shipwrecked sailors. Dismayed, he and his followers began tending a fire on the headland to warn future mariners. What you see today is essentially a structure from the 12th century, built by the Normans, who first landed five miles up the east coast (at Baginbun Head, in 1169). They established Waterford Harbor — a commercial beachhead for the rich Irish countryside they intended to conquer. This beacon assured them safe access.

Today's lighthouse is 110 feet tall, and looks modern on the outside. (It was automated in 1996, and its light can be seen for 23 miles out to sea.) But it's 800 years old, built on a plan inspired by the lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Since it's a working lighthouse, it can be toured only with a guide or escort. Fine 30-minute tours leave about hourly. When you're inside — seeing the lighthouse's black-stained, ribbed, vaulted ceilings and stout, 10-foot-thick walls — you can almost feel the presence of the Benedictine monks who tended this coal-burning beacon for the Normans. Climbing 115 steps through four levels rewards you with a breezy, salt-air view from the top.

Oliver Cromwell arrived here to secure the English claim to this area. He considered his two options, and declared he'd take strategic Waterford "by Hook or by Crooke." Hook is the long peninsula with the lighthouse. Crooke is a little village on the other side, just south of Passage East.

Patrick Kennedy, JFK's great-grandfather, left Ireland in 1858. Distant relatives have turned the Kennedy Homestead into a little museum/shrine for Kennedy pilgrims. Physically, it's not much: A barn and a wing of the modern house survive from 1858. JFK dropped in by helicopter in June of 1963, a few months before he was assassinated. You'll view two short videos: five minutes of Kennedy's actual visit to the farm and a 16-minute newsreel tracing the events of his 1963 trip through Ireland (both fascinating if you like Kennedy stuff).

After the videos, you're led on a 15-minute tour by Patrick Grennan, a distant Kennedy relative whose grandmother hosted the tea here for JFK. You're then free to peruse the barn, lined with Kennedy-in-Ireland memorabilia that details the history of the dynasty. While it's just a private home, anyone interested in the Kennedys will find it worth driving the treacherous, narrow lane to see.

It's four miles south of New Ross near Dunganstown (look for sign off R-733, long one-lane road). Don't confuse the Kennedy Homestead with the nearby JFK Arboretum. The arboretum is lovely if you like trees and plants. It's a huge park with 4,500 species of trees and a grand six-county view — but no Kennedy history.

Permanently moored on a river in the tiny port of New Ross, the Dunbrody Famine Ship  was built as a re-creation of similar vessels full of countless hungry Irish who sailed to America. The Dunbrody is a full-scale reconstruction of a 19th-century three-masted bark built in Quebec in 1845. It's typical of the trading vessels that originally sailed empty to America to pick up goods; during the famine, they found that they could make a little money on the westward voyage. Extended families camped out for 50 days on bunk beds no bigger than a king-size mattress. Often, boats like this would arrive in America with only 50 percent of their original human cargo. Those killed by Potato Famine fever were dumped overboard, and the ships gained their morbid moniker: "coffin ships."

After a 10-minute video about the building of the vessel, you'll follow an excellent guide through the ship, encountering a couple of grumpy passengers who tell vivid tales about life aboard. Roots-seekers are welcome to peruse the computerized file of a million names of immigrants who sailed from 1846 through 1865.

Kinsale

While nearby Cork is the biggest town in south Ireland, Kinsale (15 miles south) is actually more historic, certainly cuter, and a delight to visit. Thanks to the naturally-sheltered bay barbed by a massive 17th-century star fort, you can submerge yourself in maritime history from the Spanish Armada to Robinson Crusoe to the Lusitania. Apart from all the history, Kinsale has a laid-back Sausalito feel with a touch of wine-sipping class.

Cobh

If your ancestry is Irish, chances are this was the last Irish soil your ancestors had under their feet. Cobh (pronounced "cove") was the major port of Irish emigration in the 19th century. Of the six million Irish who have emigrated to America, Canada, and Australia since 1815, nearly half left from Cobh.

The first steam-powered ship to make a transatlantic crossing departed from Cobh in 1838 — cutting the journey time from 50 days to 18. When Queen Victoria came to Ireland for the first time in 1849, Cobh was the first Irish ground she set foot on. Giddy, the town renamed itself "Queenstown" in her honor. It was still going by that name in 1912, when the Titanic stopped here before heading out on its maiden (and only) voyage. To celebrate their new independence from British royalty in 1922, locals changed the name back to its original Irish name: Cobh.

The Queenstown Story is Cobh's major sightseeing attraction. Filling its harborside Victorian train station, it's an earnest attempt to make the city's emigration and maritime history interesting. The topics — the famine, Irish emigration, Australia-bound prison ships, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic — are fascinating enough to make this museum a worthwhile stop. But the museum itself, while kid-friendly, is weak on actual historical artifacts. It reminds me of a big, interesting history picture book with the pages expanded and tacked on the wall. Those with Irish roots to trace are welcome to use the Heritage Centre's genealogy search service.

Blarney Stone and Castle — The 15th-century Blarney Castle is five miles northwest of Cork (the major city of southern Ireland). The town of Blarney is of no importance and the castle is an empty hulk (with no attempt made to make it meaningful or interesting). It's only famous as the place of tourist pilgrimage where busloads line up to kiss a stone on its top rampart and get "the gift of gab." The stone's origin is shrouded in myth (it was either brought back from the Holy Land by crusaders, or perhaps was part of Scotland's royal Stone of Scone).

The best thing about this lame sight is the opportunity to watch a cranky man lower lemming tourists over the edge belly up and head back to kiss the stone while his partner snaps a photo — which will be waiting for you for purchase back at the parking lot. After a day of tour groups mindlessly climbing up here to perform this ritual, the stone is literally slathered with spit and lipstick.

The tradition goes back to the late 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I was trying to plant loyal English settlers in Ireland to tighten her grip on the rebellious island. She demanded that the Irish clan chiefs recognize the crown, rather than the clan chiefs, as the legitimate titleholder of all lands. One of those chiefs was Cormac MacCarthy, Lord of Blarney Castle (who was supposedly loyal to the queen). He was smart enough never to disagree with the Queen — instead, he would cleverly avoid acquiescing to her demands by sending a never-ending stream of lengthy and deceptive excuses, disguised with liberal doses of flattery (while subtly maintaining his native Gaelic loyalties). In her frustration, the Queen declared his endless words nothing but "blarney." Walking back, you'll cross a stream littered with American pennies — as if the good-luck fairy can change them into euros.

While the castle is unimpressive, the gardens are beautiful, well kept, and picnic-worthy (if you are there anyway). There are even some hints of Ireland's pre-Christian past on the grounds; you can see dolmens beside the trail in the forested Rock Close.

Perhaps the best Victorian stately home you'll see in Ireland, Muckross House was built in 1843. It's magnificently set at the edge of Killarney National Park, a few miles south of the town of Killarney. This regular stop on the tour-bus circuit includes several sights in one: the mansion, a set of traditional farms showing rural life in the 1930s, a garden idyllically set on a lake, and an information center for the nationalpark. The poignant juxtaposition of the magnificent mansion and the humble farmhouses illustrates in a thought-provoking way the vast gap that once separated rich and poor in Ireland.

Ireland was a colony back then, with big-shot English landlords. During the Great Potato Famine of 1845–1849, most English gentry lived very well — profiting off the export of their handsome crops to lands with greater buying power — while a third of Ireland's population starved. You can read the Muckross House lord's defense in the fine souvenir book. Muckross House feels lived in (it was, until 1933). Its fine Victorian furniture is cluttered around the fireplace under Waterford Crystal chandeliers and lots of antlers. You'll see Queen Victoria's bedroom (ground floor, since she was afraid of house fires). Although they spent a couple of years preparing for her visit in 1861, she stayed only three nights. The only way to see the interior of the house is to take the 45-minute guided tour, which gives more meaning to your visit (included with admission, offered frequently throughout the day). Book your tour as soon as you arrive (they can fill up). Then enjoy a walk in the gardens until your tour begins.

Pat O'Connor is the co-author of Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook