"There are no strangers here, only friends you haven't yet met."
For me, these words by W.B. Yeats capture the essence of Ireland perfectly. While this land is filled with cultural expression and breathtaking landscapes, it is the warmth and compassion of its people that best tells Ireland’s tale.
To gain a full appreciation of all that Ireland has to offer, let’s venture off the beaten path to immerse ourselves in the rich history and culture of the island. We’ll start in southwest Ireland in a county known as “the Kingdom.” Kerry’s motto, “Comhar, Cabhair, Cairdeas” (which translates to “Cooperation, Help, and Friendship’’), is a nod to the many hearts it has captured over the years, including Charlie Chaplin and John Lennon. Full of charming villages and scenic expanses, Kerry is also home to Ireland’s highest mountain pass. Take a peek at the Ring of Kerry, a 179-kilometer stretch of stunning coastal views and pockets of mystical land. The full ring measures 111 miles in length, a route that would take around 3.5 hours to drive with no stopping (although who could resist stopping to see these views!). This stretch of land is also home to many traditional festivals, the oldest (and perhaps quirkiest) of which is the Puck Fair, a 400-year-old festival that culminates with a wild mountain goat being crowned king.
There’s no better place to observe the variety of species and habitats in Ireland than in its oldest and largest park, Killarney National Park. Delve into the park’s native wildlife, where you’ll learn how to spot the Northern Emerald (Ireland’s rarest dragonfly) and the Red Deer (the last surviving indigenous herd in Ireland).
One of my favorite gems to visit in this park is the Muckross House and Gardens. This nineteenth-century mansion was once owned by a member of the Guinness family and has hosted many notable guests, including Queen Victoria. Interested in the history behind this house? This radio interview of Mr. Wadding, an apprentice cooper who worked at the house during the 1960s, provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look. Of course, understanding his accent may present a bit of a challenge … Learn some phrases unique to Kerry to help you translate here.
Just beyond the house are the Muckross Traditional Farms, where you can experience life on the working farms. After you finish following one of the farm’s many trails, browse a series of videos that will transport you back to a more traditional way of life, one enjoyed in these parts of the world in the 1930s.
Wandering through the avenues of Irish history can be thirsty work, so why not have a pint of “the black stuff” — Guinness! Let’s visit Killarney’s oldest pub next, JM Reidy. Built in 1870, the pub was at various times a hardware store, agricultural supply store, grocery store, bakery and flour merchant. Steeped in charm and history, JM Reidy’s is the perfect place to enjoy a cozy pint.
Let’s continue west to the stunning Wild Atlantic Way. One of my favorite spots along this remarkable stretch of coast is the Dingle Peninsula, where a maze of fuchsia-fringed boreens (country lanes) winds along the shadow of Mount Brandon. Here you’ll find an ancient landscape of prehistoric ring forts, early Christian chapels, crosses and holy wells, picturesque hamlets and abandoned villages. You can almost picture this land in prehistoric times, can’t you? We can dive deeper into the history of this land thanks to one of Ireland’s greatest storytellers, Peig Sayers. Featuring Sayers, a woman who grew up in this part of the island and lived through the aftermath of the Great Famine, this podcast captures what life was like for her in this remote part of the world.
As we make our way to Galway, let’s stop and take in the staggeringly beautiful views of the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs of Moher rise to a height of 702 feet and drop off abruptly to the churning seas of the Atlantic Ocean below. You can take a virtual tour of the Cliffs of Moher here.
Often referred to as the “cultural heart of Ireland,” Galway has a reputation for artistic creativity and liveliness. The fourth-largest city in the Republic of Ireland, the city also has the largest number of Gaelic speakers. President John F. Kennedy marked the freedom of this city in 1963 with a moving address, which you can listen to here. Want to delve further into Galway’s history? Gain insight into the mix of prosperity and hardship that Galway endured by virtually browsing the exhibits of the Galway Museum. After your museum exploration, pop into O'Connor's Famous pub, a third generation family-run Irish bar where traditional music plays seven days a week!
Next we make our way to a county called Donegal, meaning “Fort of the Foreigners.” Politically, locals have gained a national reputation as a conservative base, particularly during times when social issues are at the forefront of Irish political life. Donegal’s contribution to Irish history in terms of politics and culture is considerable. The world-famous hymn “Amazing Grace” was penned by John Newton here when he sought refuge after a shipwreck on the Inishowen Peninsula in 1748. Perhaps more so than anywhere else in Ireland, Donegal remains a place where the ancient Irish language and traditions live on in everyday life among the locals.
Foodies keen to sample local delicacies will be delighted by the abundance of culinary treasures to indulge your taste buds in the bustling town of Sligo. Just outside the town amid the beautiful surrounding countryside you’ll find extensive neolithic burial sites at Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and Creevykeel. These sites have led modern historians to believe that Sligo could have been the cradle of Irish civilization. You can learn more about the history of these sites here.
We arrive next in Dublin, Ireland’s capital city. The Irish are a very verbal nation, and this is perhaps best reflected in Dublin, a city which was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2010. Dublin has produced an impressive crop of Irish writers, from Jonathan Swift to Patrick Kavanagh to James Joyce. Literary experts are on hand to take you on a journey through such works as Gulliver's Travels and Ulysses, combining anecdotal accounts of the lives of Dublin’s writers with the city's most famous landmarks. Trinity College, Dublin’s most prestigious college, is the Alma Mater to a literary legacy that includes Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. You can also explore the James Joyce Museum, the site where Joyce set the first chapter of his book Ulysses. For those who prefer more modern literature, this fascinating lecture by contemporary Irish writer Colm Toibín, author of the acclaimed novel Brooklyn, is sure to impress.
There is also a wealth of free museums in Dublin to visit, including the National Library of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland, both of which offer rich cultural experiences and insight into Irish history. You can take a virtual tour of the reading room within the National Library of Ireland here.
No matter which part of the island you set out to discover, you’ll find that Ireland packs a memorable punch. Stunning landscapes, rich culture and an unparalleled sense of community are the shimmering facets of this unforgettable emerald.
Road Scholar has been leading educational trips to Ireland since 1997. We hope to see you there soon! Until then, you can browse our educational adventures here.
Road Scholar recommends: The Best of Ireland: A Week on the Emerald Isle → Ireland at a Slower Pace: Countryside & Culture, Galway to Dublin → Edge of the Emerald Isle: Hiking Ireland With Your Grandchild → Ireland's Rugged Beauty Along the Wild Atlantic Way → Enchanting Ireland: Town and Country → Hiking Ireland’s Coastal Northwest → The Best of Ireland: The Coast, the Countryside and Dublin →
About the Author JoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President, Program Development and Strategy, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. JoAnn’s extensive travel industry experience informs her expert insight on everything from where to find the world’s most charming streets to must-see hidden gems across the globe.
Stay in the loop on our new blogs, special offers, new adventures and more.