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My Irish love story

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Jessica Leow on 23 Feb 2017

The Straits Times

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I AM a happily married woman. But I recently had a whirlwind love affair.
 

Before you get your knickers in a twist, here’s the truth: I fell madly in love with Ireland.

 

On a recent seven-day Irish Highlights tour with Trafalgar, my heart was stolen by the Irish landscape and its million shades of green, its culture and rich history. Equally sparkling was the locals’ quick wit and infectious love for life and their homeland.

We started our trip with a quick introduction to Dublin and its most iconic attractions: Christ Church Cathedral, Trinity College, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the capital’s stately Georgian squares.

At the 707ha Phoenix Park, originally conceived as a royal deer park, we stopped at the Papal Cross, erected to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s visit on Sept 29, 1979.

The next morning, we headed for Galway, joining local worshippers at Galway Cathedral, a modern cathedral completed in 1965, whose huge dome dominates the city skyline.

I explored Galway’s labyrinthine cobbled streets and bohemian corners, while happily chomping on the classic Irish combination of cod and mushy peas.

Stuffed though I was, I was stopped in my tracks at The Pie Maker.

Hot and tender chunks of meat spilling out of rich buttery pastry were calling my name. Miraculously, I found space in my stomach for a chicken and mushroom pie. A simple but superb salad mitigated the guilt.

A walk along the Cliffs of Moher, located on the coast of County Clare about 90 minutes’ drive away, offered the chance to expend some calories.

Heading for one of Ireland’s most stunning spots — and for me the highlight of the trip — we prayed for the recurring drizzle to cease (one turns religious when there is a need).

For a while, our prayers were answered, and the majestic cliffs basked in glorious sunshine.

We stood in awe of the utterly breathtaking vistas. On a clear day you can see the Aran islands, Blasket Islands in Kerry, and as far as the Dingle Peninsula, more than 200km away.

Being here in the off peak season in January had its advantages; foot traffic was relatively light and we did not have to jostle with other tourists for our shots.

The Ring of Kerry

Unfortunately, the rain returned as we hit the 179km Ring of Kerry (a scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula) by coach. Our excursion on the Kerry tourist trail, including Cahersiveen, Waterville, the Black Valley and Moll’s Gap, was further marred by fog. But we made enough pit stops to be wowed by glacial valleys, picturesque lakes and stunning mountains.

Through ancient forts and abandoned monasteries, we gained insights into Ireland’s history and heritage.

We learnt about the carraig an aifrinn — the mass rocks — that served as covert altars when the Penal Laws were in place in the 16th and 17th centuries, banning Roman Catholicism and imposing civil disabilities on Catholics.

Castle galore

Dozens of ancient castles, some in better nick than others, dot Ireland’s lush green countryside.

Bunratty Castle, built in 1425, has been restored to its former mediaeval splendour and is worth visiting.

Rooms displaying 15th- and 16th-century furnishings, tapestries and works of art capture Ireland of a bygone era. We were fortunate to catch a group of local performers mid-rehearsal, adding richly to our visit.

The attractions in the adjacent Bunratty Folk Park were closed for the winter, but we were drawn to the whimsical Fairy Village located in a woodland section of the park.

I made a wish, sharing my heart’s desire with the Irish fairies that “guard” the magical wonderland.

Blarney Castle & Gardens was equally good craic (fun).

The star attraction of Blarney Castle, originally built in the 10th century as a wooden structure, is the Blarney Stone, a magical stone that bestows the gift of eloquence on whoever kisses it (I am not sure my husband is keen on that idea).

But it ain’t an easy kiss.

You must climb 100 steps, lean backwards while holding onto an iron railing, and be lowered headfirst onto the wall below the battlements to kiss the sacred stone.

Mission accomplished (perhaps now I can finally win the argument to have the toilet seat down), I scaled the Wishing Steps at the Rock Close.

I also visited the Poison Garden with its mix of dangerous plants such as mandrake (Harry Potter fans will know this one), ricin as well as opium and cannabis.

My love for castles was satiated in Killarney, where I visited Ross Castle after a bouncy ride on a horse-drawn jaunting car through Killarney National Park, watching locals as they fed the swans and ducks.

Treasured memories

On top of the popular tourist highlights, we were treated to several Hidden Treasures, a signature of Trafalgar tours.

Our brief stop at Saint Brigid’s Well in Liscannor, County Clare, left a particularly strong impression.

Locals believe that the holy well, which is dedicated to the saint closely associated with water sources, has curative powers.

It is strewn with handwritten cards, statues and religious artefacts. The small site is a living testimony to the religious nature of the Irish, and deeply moving.

My love affair ended on a high note, with Trafalgar’s signature Be My Guest experience.

Instead of dining at a restaurant or pub, our final dinner was an intimate affair at the charming home of popular local chef Catherine Fulvio, where she also runs a cooking school.

The ebullient hostess shared her family history while we tucked into a sumptuous three course Irish meal with an Italian twist (the slow-baked apple cake was the star dish).

Alas, before I knew it, my whirlwind romance had come to a close. Before heading for the airport on the final day, I managed to breeze through St Stephen’s Green Park in Dublin.

I blew a kiss into the crisp morning air, telling Ireland I was thoroughly smitten.

Slán go fóill, I whispered. See you later.

The writer’s trip was organised by Trafalgar.

Getting there

I flew on KLM from Singapore to Dublin via Amsterdam. From Dublin airport, it is a 25-minute taxi ride to the city centre.

Traveller’s tips

■ Don’t miss Ireland’s sheer variety of seafood. In Killarney, Gaby’s Seafood Restaurant has a divine starter of mussels and prawn tempura. The English Market in Cork, established in 1788, is a great place to pick up smoked salmon.

■ Pick a hotel near local attractions or the city’s high street. Many shops and attractions close early during winter, and being within striking distance of them will save you transportation time.

■ Weather in Ireland is highly unpredictable. Always pack a jacket and an umbrella or raincoat.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.