Friday, December 23, 2016

1. Wicklow - The Sugar Loaf

The Sugar Loaf Mountain is a majestic peak that both welcomes visitors to Wicklow and bids them goodbye as they head for the capital., When we were young it seemed that much bigger than it actually was and became a sort of Wicklow Mount Everest but with a much cooler name and way cooler facts, which, as we grew older, we realised we had been hoodwinked into believing.
Things we once believed about the Sugar Loaf that we now know to be false[HF]
·         It’s one of the biggest mountains in Ireland. It’s not. In fact, it’s not even one of the biggest mountains in Wicklow! It just seems big because there is no other summit near it.
·         While even the most ambitious child probably suspected that the Sugar Loaf wasn’t made up of sugar, pre-M11 children were always led to believe that it fitted somewhere on the food pyramid. It doesn’t. Later still, we learnt the bastards lied to us again when we discovered that it was not even comprised of Devonian granite, like its western cousins, but is made of Cambrian quartzite!
·         Finally, there were whole generations of us who used to drive by the Sugar Loaf hoping it would erupt and that we would have to outrun its sugary lava flows. How cool would that have been? Unfortunately, it is not now nor had it ever been a volcano! It is just an erosion-resistant metamorphosed sedimentary deposit from the sea who, once people started calling him a volcano, didn’t have the guts to tell us the truth.
You would think that discovering all this about one of our heroes would leave a bad taste in our mouth, but we soon got over it. After all, it’s only a mountain. And as we grew older, we realised that, while it might not be edible or about to explode, it is both welcoming and accessible to almost all visitors and even on the most mediocre of days, it offers some of the finest panoramic views of Wicklow, Dublin and the Irish Sea.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

2. Wexford - Ballinesker Beach & Curracloe Strand

A little known fact is that Wexford is home to the only successful liberating land invasion in Irish history. This liberating land invasion was nothing to do with the 1798 rebellion, when more than 16,000 Wexfordites, led by a priest (a profession not usually known for its military prowess), managed to wrestle control of three of the four major county towns before being defeated on a hill named after a table condiment.
No, instead the liberating land invasion took place when Hollywood came to Wexford and filmed the Normandy landings, with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon’s dead fictional brother and Triple X storming Ballinesker Beach and Curracloe Strand. In doing so, they gained a foothold in France and begin the slow repulse of Germany’s Western Front before finally Saving Private Ryan. While D-Day didn’t actually take place in Wexford, a win is a win is a win, as any of their county hurlers will tell you.
Situated on Ireland’s sunny south-east, the two Blue-Flag*-waving beaches, along with their nearby neighbours of Courtown, Morriscastle, and Rosslare, make up the true Costa del Sol of the Irish coast and this winning combination of white sand, fresh waves and occasional bursts of sun is why Wexford beaches are amongst some of the most popular in the country.
*The Blue Flag: A certification by the Foundation for Environmental Education that a beach meets its stringent standards of being kept entirely clear of soiled nappies, Choc Ice wrappers and half-broken bottles of Budweiser.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

3. Westmeath - Lough Derravaragh

Reflecting its wonderfully soft name, Lough Derravaragh is one of the Ireland’s most beautiful midland lakes. Stretching for nearly ten kilometres upwards and four kilometres across, it looks like a skinny lake version of Italy with as much beauty and charm as its Latin twin.
While the lough is well-known for its lakeside walks, angling and boating, it is probably most associated with the Irish myth of the Children of Lir.
The story goes that when Bodb Derg was elected king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ancient Ireland’s supernatural answer to Charlie’s Angels, all of his rivals consented to this except King Lir. Rather than just tell him to suck it up, Bodb Derg decided to set Lir up with his daughter Aoibh. This was a success and together with her, Lir had four children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. Unfortunately, Aoibh soon died in a horrible BBC mispronunciation accident. Bodb Derg, sensing Lir’s sadness, decided to arrange a second marriage with his other daughter Aoife and it was from this that things went down-hill.
Aoife, jealous of the affection that Lir showered onto his children, plotted to get rid of them. However, neither she nor her servant could perform the gruesome task of murder so instead she turned the children into swans and set them out into the neighbouring Lough Derravaragh.
While this was obviously disastrous for the kids (there were very few job opportunities in Ireland at the time for swans), what was even more tragic was that the children had to then spend the next 300 years on Lough Derravaragh, 300 years in the Sea of Moyle, and finally 300 years on the Isle of Innihglora in Mayo before a pagan druid would be able to bless them and break the spell. To add insult to injury, by the time 900 years were up, St Patrick had converted all of Ireland to Christianity and there were no pagan druids left!
As to how the story ends, there are several endings to the Children of Lir:
1.       Some say the Christian monk Mochua in Mayo took pity on the children and was able to break the spell, thus turning them back into withered old people who they lived out their final days.
2.       Others talk of a failed attack by Lairgean, the King of Connacht, on Mochua’s sanctuary to capture the swans. During this raid, a silver chain that had previously been unremarked upon but now linked them together broke and the swans turned back to humans and promptly died.
3.       Others still tell of how St Patrick met the swans, who told him their story. Bringing them back to his house, they heard Christian bells toll and were turned back to humans, at which point St Patrick baptised them. However, because they were now 900-year-old humans they died soon after. Good job St Patrick! Finally, in the Director’s Cut, after 900 years in the wilderness, they met that last remaining pagan druid who changed them back to humans, at which point Fionnuala is said to have uttered ‘I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time ... like tears in rain ... Time to die.

Monday, December 19, 2016

4. Waterford

Located along Ireland’s sunny south-east Waterford, or the Déise as it is commonly called, has a wealthier abundance of tourist sites than it is sometimes given credit for. From the cosmopolitan centre of Waterford city in the east to the welcoming atmosphere of the Ring Gaeltacht in the west, and from walking along the Comeragh Mountains of the north to lazing about any number of the secluded beaches on the Copper Coast in the south, Waterford is well-stocked with reasons to visit.
That said, Waterford does have a darker side, with several things that it will probably have to be held accountable for on Judgement Day, including:
1.       Newfoundland’s accent: Although residents of Newfoundland, Canada, usually get a hard time from mainland Canadians due to their isolation on an island off Canada’s east coast, their accent doesn’t help matters. A traditional ‘Newfie’ accent sounds like a Waterford native on steroids, and this is due to the large numbers of Déise fishermen and families who emigrated over in the 1800s, boy!
2.       €70 fees for printing boarding passes: Ryanair’s first flight was a swift hop from Waterford to Gatwick airport. The rest is history.
3.       The global dominance of the New Zealand rugby team: Ireland has never beaten the All-Blacks and this is because of Waterford. Back in 1840, Déise-born Captain William Hobson co-authored the Treaty of Waitangi between Great Britain and the Maoris of New Zealand, a document that would establish trust between both groups and thus make the Maoris more amenable to taking part in English games such as rugby, which is a pity because they are so bloody good at it!
4.       Corporal punishment: The first Christian Brothers school was established in Waterford, which, as any young teenage boy who has had his locks pulled or a chalk-duster thrown at him to grab his attention will tell you, is not entirely something to cheer about.
5.       Cardiac arrests: While it may be a little strong to blame heart attacks on one county, the Déise did come up with the curing process for bacon, when Henry Denny developed the modern-day rasher back in the early 19th century. Irish breakfasts and cholesterol levels have never been the same since.
6.       Celebrity weddings: The forerunner for celebrity weddings took place in Waterford on 29 August 1170 when Strongbow married Aoife. This union between the infamous Norman leader and the daughter of an Irish lord not only gave Strongbow succession rights to the kingdom of Leinster, it lay the template for the lavish ceremonies we have today.
7.       Nuclear apocalypse?: Ernest Walton. Dungarvan native. Nobel Prize winner in physics. Helped usher in the nuclear age by being the first person to split the atom – need I say more?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

5. Sligo - The Glen

The Glen is one of the most magical dells in Ireland and one of Sligo’s best-kept secrets.
In the heart of the Coolera peninsula, running for over a kilometre, 20 metres deep and 12 metre wide, the Glen is one majestically long cleft in Knocknarea Mountain, said to be formed by some ancient eruption or earthquake that parted the side of the mountain, tore apart veins of limestone and filled the gaps full of fairies.
Filled with every sort of vegetation, the Glen could be the backdrop to an Indiana Jones movie – it would be no surprise if the only thing that disturbs you, as you wander amongst its holly and honeysuckle, bramble bushes and beech, was the soft rumble of a giant boulder rolling down towards you as you escape with a golden idol.
Of course, you are unlikely to find anything like a golden idol here but then for a long time you were unlikely to find anything here at all, so secret was the Glen to anyone outside Sligo. In fact, such was the omerta of silence that surrounded the Glen that any local found telling a non-Sligo person about it risked inviting a fatwa against them or, worse still, being exiled off into Leitrim.
While this has changed and tourists are now welcome to come and visit the Glen, finding it can still prove a challenge with the best directions a Sligoman gave me being ‘head out towards Knockarea until you get onto a steep slope overlooking the sea. Park here and then continue along the road until you get to the second tree on the left. You can then climb across a fence here, head through a gate and you’ll find it. After that, I was on my own.

6. Tyrone - The Ulster American Folk Park

In the noughties, you left because the sites had dried up, the economy gone south and half your Junior A team-mates were already getting tans in Brisbane. You got a lift to the airport in your parent’s Octavia, wearing blue jeans and your county jersey, and took a 777 to a new life and a place Down Under or in Dubai. Others took the boat to England.
In the eighties, you left because there was zero employment for your age group and hadn’t been for years. You travelled to the airport in your folks’ Fiat 131, wearing blue jeans, a denim jacket and big hair, and took a 747 to a new life and an apartment in Boston or the Bronx. Others took the boat to England.
In the sixties, you left because you were the fifth child of eleven kids on a family farm with no long-term prospects. You made it up to the airport in your oul pairs’ Triumph, wearing a suit and tie with an occasional mini-skirt or flare, and took a 707 to a new life on camp in Canada. Others took the boat to England.
Any time before the sixties, you only took the boat.
While I can’t do justice to all the stages of emigration our people underwent over the past three centuries, the Ulster American Folk Park just outside of Omagh can. Here, in an open-air museum, those three centuries of Irish emigration are illustrated, with more than 30 exhibit buildings that take the visitor from the thatched cottages of home, on board a full-scale emigrant sailing ship (sans the typhus) to the log cabins of the American Frontier. Led by the actual people who took these journeys (or maybe just well-versed and -costumed actors), the full Irish emigrant experience is retold in authentic detail.

Friday, December 16, 2016

7. Tipperary - Rock of Cashel

It’s next to impossible to take a picture in or around the town of Cashel without the Rock photo-bombing into the background (the Rock in question being the 60-metre high mound of limestone covered in monastic buildings and not ex-pro wrestler and film actor Dwayne Johnson).
And while there are plenty of other alluring things to Cashel, such as its fortified townhouses, beautiful Georgian cathedral, spacious central plaza, intriguing Bolton library and charming Victorian town centre, it is the Rock that is the real draw to this south Tipperary town.
The history of the Rock is quite interesting, having apparently started life as part of a cave in which Satan was squatting at the nearby Devil’s Bit. Legend has it that the Rock ended up being cast out by accident at the same time St Patrick was evicting the Dark One for rent arrears. Landing at its present spot in Cashel, it soon became the traditional seat of the kings of Munster before changing hands in 1101 when the Church took over.
Their tenure saw the construction of so many wonderful buildings on top of it that it soon became one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Europe. Now, while there may have been some medieval architectural traditionalists who thought building a cathedral beside a chapel beside a 28-metre-tall round tower, not to mention the castle, might have been a bit OTT, several hundred years later it seems to have worked. For when the Rock of Cashel is not half-covered with scaffolding, it is one of the most stunning tourist sites in the country, perched high above the town where it commands spectacular views over the surrounding Tipperary countryside.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

8. Offaly - Obama Plaza

First came the Declaration of Independence, which found ‘that all men are created equal’. Then, Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address argued that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. After this, there was Martin Luther King’s dream ‘that one day’ his nation would ‘rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed’. And later still, Barack Obama promised that ‘yes, we can’. Finally, there came Obama Plaza.
While it might be a little far-fetched to draw a direct line of descent from America’s Founding Fathers to a fuel court just off the M7, there is the slightest hint of a connection.
This is because, nine-score and two years ago, Barack Obama’s great-grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, left the small Irish parish of Moneygall, County Offaly, for the United States in search of prosperity. Settling into a log-cabin in Ohio, he might not have become the most successful emigrant Irishman to cross the water but he did set off a chain of events that one day would lead the 43rd President of the United States back to his ancestral homeland in Ireland. And it is here, back in Moneygall, that Barack Obama pulled a pint of Guinness, shook every hand in the village and gave inspiration for what might well be the classiest service stop in Ireland – a place you can ponder the American Dream as you fill your tank full of diesel.*
*That Moneygall’s Obama Plaza station is actually within the county boundary of Tipperary and not Offaly is just a small little snag, not unlike Barack Obama saying he is from the United States but actually being born in Kenya. (What? He was born in Hawaii? You mean Donald Trump was wrong?!)

9. Leitrim - Glencar Waterfall

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star …
– ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B. Yeats
Though a story about the abduction of a child could hardly be considered the best promotion for a beautiful natural wonder like Glencar waterfall, you can get away with it when it’s a poem by the nation’s favourite writer, W.B. Yeats. In fairness to Yeats, ‘The Stolen Child’ is a tale set to verse that is less a bundled-into-the-back-of-a-van-using-a-packet-of-Smarties abduction but more the return-to-innocence-by-running-away-with-the-fairies sort, i.e. the best type of childhood abduction.
Thankfully, no one in the poem’s tale comes to harm and the poem can be appreciated for its fond references to several wonderfully scenic locations from Yeats’ childhood, such as Rosses Point and Sleuth Wood of Sligo and the impressive 15-metre cascade surrounded by verdant foliage that is Leitrim’s Glencar waterfall.

Monday, December 12, 2016

10. Monaghan - The Oasis Niteclub

There was a time in the ’80s and ’90s when the Oasis Niteclub was the epicentre of the Irish Saturday night out. While other counties and provinces had their behemoths of disco, the Oasis Niteclub seemed to occupy a realm of its own.
Situated just outside the town of Carrickmacross, for a period of Irish disco history, going to the Oasis Niteclub was a pilgrimage that every young man and woman from the borderlands and beyond hoped to accomplish at least once in their ‘going-out-out’ lifetime, if not every weekend. Every Saturday, buses from Monaghan, Meath, Cavan, Louth, Leitrim and Longford, as well as further afield, would gravitate towards it so their passengers could disco long into the night.
I can still vaguely remember the one time I made the trip. It was a Christmas in Trim and for the only time I can ever recall, a 50-seater coach was outside our local, taking everyone to Monaghan. Today, the trip to Carrickmacross takes an hour but back then it took at least two, especially with stops and there would be stops, you can be sure.
While there are a myriad of legends that emanated from the Oasis, it is important to separate what was fact from what was fiction.
Fact: It was the largest nightclub in Ireland when it opened.
Fiction: The Oasis was the first place in Ireland to spell it ‘Niteclub’.
Fact: It had the longest bar in Ireland.
Fiction: When time was called at one end of the bar, you could still get another round at the far end if you were quick, due to the time difference.
Fact: Local areas had their own particular spots in the night-club which operated strict no-fly zones for neighbouring towns. Kingscourt, I am reliably informed, was ‘left, beside the bar in the open space between the sofas’.
Fiction: At its peak, 42% of marriages taking place in Monaghan and Cavan and 12% of unplanned pregnancies originated here.
Fact: A bus came up from Cork at least once a month.
Fiction: Post-disco chipper vans were making so much money here during the early ’90s that they were ahead of IT and just behind pharmaceuticals in terms of the contribution to Ireland’s GDP.
Fact: In order to minimise rows in the car-park, Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ was played after the national anthem to send people off in a good mood.
Fiction: The Oasis narrowly lost out on the fifth seat in the 1992 General Election for Cavan–Monaghan.
Fact: Meatloaf played here in 1989.
Fiction: Meatloaf’s 1990 hit ‘I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ was inspired by him seeing a couple from Castleblaney chewing the face off each other in the Oasis. (The couple were actually from Clontibret.)
Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last forever. By the turn of the millennium, the Oasis had turned its back on cheesy pop tunes, slow sets and the occasional mosh and had become purely dance. Numbers started to fall. Buses stopped coming en-masse. The writing was on the wall and when, during a huge Garda raid in the early noughties, 43 people were arrested for ‘not being’ in possession of drugs, its time was up and with that the Oasis finally dried up and only the hotel where it once was housed remained.

11. Mayo - Achill Island

Achill is Ireland’s largest island. Despite being connected to the mainland by bridge, when you’re in amongst its vast blanket bogs, soaring sea cliffs, secluded sandy beaches, rocky headlands and rugged mountains, it can feel a world away from civilisation – despite civilisation being less than an hour away in Newport. This feeling of isolation only doubles when winter closes in.
While the island is a walkers’ and cyclists’ paradise, particularly during those few fine summer days, one of the most striking features on Achill is the Deserted Village at the base of the Slievemore Mountains. The Deserted Village was one of several communities, concentrated in the west of Ireland, whose inhabitants, when faced with the brute force of the Great Famine, had little option other than to pack up and leave, thus turning them into an empty uninhabited shell and Ireland’s original ghost estates.
Today, you can visit the village and see the ruins of the 80-odd houses that still survive. And if you take part in one of the country’s most scenic 13-milers, the Achill Half-Marathon, your route will even allow you to follow in the footsteps of those who left this village, albeit travelling a lot faster.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

12. Meath – The Hill of Tara

While it might not be as otherworldly as Angkor Wat, as palatial as Petra or as pointy as the Pyramids, the Hill of Tara is just as important culturally to the country of Ireland as these majestic locations are to theirs. From neolithic times up to the 12th century, the Hill of Tara was of huge significance in the ruling of Ireland. Though it is now believed that Tara was not in fact a true seat of kingship, it was long held as a sacred site associated with kingship rituals and was the ceremonial capital of the High Kings.
However, it wasn’t just kings that Tara was home to. Celtic pagan druids also employed Tara as their base. Unsurprisingly, it was here that St Patrick’s first came to when he returned to Ireland, setting up the mother of all grudge-matches with the druids, which St Patrick won by TKO.
While Tara might now appear at first like a hill with a bad case of the mumps, closer inspection and reading of the hill gives a fascinating insight into life back then. Perhaps the most interesting feature at Tara is its Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny. Seated atop the hill’s most prominent mound, this stone was said to scream once the would-be High King met a number of challenges and was the spot where he was then conferred with kingship. Today the Lia Fáil no longer screams, which is probably a good thing, but does give a damn fine panoramic view over Meath and the surrounding countryside.

13. Limerick - Thomond Park

Situated in city of Limerick, west of the Shannon and with a current capacity of 25,630, Thomond Park has long been an institution for Munster rugby. From the heady days of 1978 when between 5,000 and 50,000 people came to see the province beat the great All-Blacks 12–0 to more recent feats of marvel against the like of Gloucester and Northampton in the Heineken Cup, Thomond Park has few rivals when it comes to cauldrons of noise on match-day weekends.
As well as offering fascinating spectacles of rugby, Thomond Park also plays host to the five basic pillars of Munster rugby, which every Munster fan should perform.
1.       Pilgrimage: At least once in your lifetime, taking the trip to Thomond Park.
2.       Charity: Throwing a few euros into a bucket for a local hospice outside the stadium or buying a couple of lottery tickets from the local U-15s in the pub before the match.
3.       Fasting: Waiting until the half-time whistle and the Munster penalty kick that will bring the sides back to level before you rush out for a pint and a hot-dog.
4.       Prayer: Rosaries and prayers to Paulie, Rog, Strings, Zeebs or whichever Munster saint past or present you see fit when you are down by two converted tries with just ten minutes to go.
5.       Faith: Believing that Munster will pick and drive, pick and drive, pick and drive to score that fourth bonus-point try with the clock firmly in red.

Friday, December 9, 2016

14. Louth

Long before border cattle raids were popular, the Wee County of Louth was blazing a trail with the original and the best, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, taking place along its wild and windy Cooley Peninsula. Unfortunately, despite being defended by legendary warrior and decent hurler Cú Chulainn, Louth would lose its legendary stud bull Donn Cuailnge, an event that was the first of several unfortunate historical blows to befall the county.
Over the coming centuries, Louth was one of the first places to be invaded and settled initially by Vikings and then by Normans. Just when things appeared to be settling down, the town of Drogheda was unlucky enough to play host to an arriving Oliver Cromwell, who promptly laid siege to the place, burning large parts of it, throwing all its shopping trolleys into the Boyne before finally slaughtering hundreds of its residents.
It took a long time for Louth to recover and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that Louth entered a Golden Age, as the commercial success of Harp lager coupled with the remarkable international success of the Corrs and domestic success of Drogheda United and Dundalk FC combined to boost the Louth economy and the county’s morale.
While this confidence briefly took a bump with the loss of the controversial 2010 Leinster final to Meath, the wonderful Wee County of Louth has firmly re-entered the national consciousness and, boosted by the beautiful mountains of Cooley and inviting harbour of Carlingford, is no longer the second last county people remember when trying to list the 32 counties of Ireland.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

15. Longford - Corlea Bog Road

Corlea Bog Road, often referred to as the Corlea Trackway, is an Iron Age road built with oak planks around 147–148 BC. Stretching for about a kilometre, the road was discovered, buried two metres under the surface, in 1984 during peat harvesting. Made up of 100 toghers, or causeways, that during this period would have allowed traffic to traverse an area of land predominantly made up of bog, quicksand and the type of swampy stuff you hope you never get stuck in, it is the widest Iron Age trackway built by the Celts ever discovered in Europe, putting paid to that popular Iron Age theory ‘all Roads lead to Rome’, unless Rome was located in a bog in south Longford.
While we might never know why these causeways were built, we can guess a number of associated pros and cons.
Corlea Bog Road pros and cons
Pro: The trackway must have more than halved the local commute time into the bog.
Con: Who wants to hurry into a bog?
Pro: There were probably no speed cameras on it.
Con: It must have been hard on the suspension and a hoor to overtake on.
Pro: Made of freshly cut renewable wood, the road when first built must have looked and smelt great.
Con: Made of freshly cut renewable wood, it was never going to last and under its own body-weight and rising surroundings was on the way to the bottom of the bog within ten years.
Pro: Because it sank into a watery anaerobic environment, much of it was preserved and an 18-metre oak stretch of it is now on display in the welcoming Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre where there is never a queue to see this rare antiquity (in your face, Book of Kells!)
Con: That’s because the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre is also in a bog.

16. Laois - Electric Picnic

Back in 2004 someone had the bright idea to create an Irish music festival with a difference. They wanted to offer a festival that wasn’t just about the music, the dirty burger and chips and 15 year olds urinating against your tent. They envisioned a festival that was as much about arts as it is about  music, open to all ages and full of “good intentions”. They imagined an Irish Glastonbury that would be a wonderful weekend out.

The only problem was they needed a string of empty fields where not a lot was happening to put it in.

And this is when Laois stepped in.

Laois; that wonderfully centrally located county in Ireland which, as luck might have it, had quite a lot of empty fields where not a lot was happening.

And with a home in Stradbally, in the east of the county, Electric Picnic was born and for more than a decade young and old have washed up here to enjoy one of the best music and arts festivals in Ireland. A festival where you can enjoy  the headlining behemoths of the main stage or the afternoon humour of the Comedy Tent; a relaxing Sunday massages in Body & Soul or late night jams by “isn’t that yer man from that band” at the Salty Dog; legendary sets by “I didn’t know she was still alive” in the Electric Arena or mid-morning discussions at Mindfield; “up and coming, I saw them when no one knew them” new musical outfits in the Cosby Tent or family fun at Soul Kids all topped off either with a quiet sleep in a Yurt or a rave in the woods, if only you could find it, well past midnight.

Monday, December 5, 2016

17. Kildare - The Big Ball of Naas

Despite failing in its bid to join the Taj Majal, Machu Picchu or the Great Wall of China as a new Wonder of the World, the Big Ball of Naas today remains one of the nation’s most iconic pieces of road art.

Roughly 9 metres in diameter, the Big Ball is a great big sphere that sits just off the Dublin Road roundabout in Naas and is visible to anyone who has ever travelled up or down the M7. It is covered with a myriad of road markings that according to Kildare County Council “follow and symbolize the motion of traffic on the nearby roads” and which also “suggest the movement of the winds and ocean currents over the surface of the earth – a planet in perpetual motion”. Indeed “Perpetual Motion” is its official title though the term “perpetual motion” is kind of ironic, especially for anyone who has ever tried to join the motorway westbound off the roundabout on a Friday evening!

While this is the official explanation there are some local rumours as to what the Big Ball is, with tales ranging from it being a scientific experiment involving a cryogenically preserved ex-Transport minister to it being a time capsule containing old Nokia phones.

Finally, though the Big Ball had been well known to anyone who knows or has passed Naas since its original installation back in 1996 it sprung to national prominence in 2008 when it co-starred in that Guinness advert starring Michael Fassbender. (What?! A Guinness advert starring Michael Fassbender! Drop book! Rush to YouTube!). In the advert Michael leaves Dublin, walks westward and then swims the Atlantic to New York to apologise to his brother. We don’t know what for but I’m thinking he either did the dirt with his brother’s girlfriend or wore his good shirt to the local disco without asking. For true Naas-onians however, they’ll know that when Michael walks by the Big Ball in advert he is in fact walking in the direction of Dublin, which we can only presume is because he forgot his passport (we’ve all done it).

18. Kilkenny – Medieval City

The medieval city of Kilkenny, aka the Marble City, is one of Ireland’s top tourist destinations. What makes it somewhat unique amongst its peers is that those who visit Kilkenny often come for very, very different reasons. Indeed, those who wander through its medieval heart fall into five distinct categories:
1. The stags and hens: In 2009, Kilkenny marked its 400-year anniversary of being granted city status. It was a bumper year as it happened to also coincide with the city celebrating its centenary as one of Ireland’s most popular stag and hen destinations. For a very long time, stags and hens have come to Kilkenny to either commemorate their departing singledom or celebrate their approaching marriage. In fact, so popular has Kilkenny become that, along with its stag and hen-hosting younger siblings of Carrick and Carlingford, it is believed that 76% of Ireland’s bubble soccer, paintball, go-kart and clay pigeon shooting venues are concentrated within a 10-kilometre radius of these three towns, and at least one Chinese industrial city is kept in business solely from sales of its willy-straws, blow-up dolls and penis hats that end up out and about on their streets.
2. The comedy lovers: Back in 1994, someone had the bright idea (for ‘bright’, read ‘bizarre’) that Kilkenny was naturally placed to host Ireland’s premier comedy festival because, as everyone knows, Kilkenny has a long tradition of humour that stretches back all the way to … er … 1994. And it worked, with the Cat Laughs now one of the most internationally-acclaimed comedy festivals.
3. The economics and comedy lovers: Back in 2010, someone had the bright idea (for ‘bright’, read ‘even more bizarre’) idea that Kilkenny was naturally placed to host Ireland’s premier economics and comedy festival because, as everyone knows, Kilkenny also has a long tradition of economics and humour that stretches back all the way to … er … 2010. And, not for the first time it worked, and Kilkenomics is now one of the most internationally-acclaimed economics and comedy festivals.
4. The music and arts aficionados: With a roots festival and a gospel festival bookending the summer, as well as an arts festival that ushers in autumn, this cohort of visitors make up one of the largest segments of the non-penis hat-wearing tourists that visit Kilkenny.
5. The history connoisseurs: And last but not least, Kilkenny welcomes those who are drawn to its history and who come to visit what was briefly the medieval capital of Ireland. Along its recently christened Medieval Mile, tourists can stroll through the city’s historic centre, which stretches from Kilkenny Castle to St Canice’s Cathedral, taking in such sights as Rothe House, the Black Abbey, Grace’s Old Castle, Tholsel Town Hall, St John’s Priory, the Butter Slip, Talbot Tower, Kyteler’s Inn and finally the Smithwicks Experience, home to one of Ireland’s most distinguished ales that has caused our pubs to smell of old man’s farts a full 49 years before Guinness starting doing the same. And let them never forget that!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

19. Kerry - Sceilig Mhichíl

Situated off the coast of Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula, lies the island of Sceilig Mhichíl. It is one of two prominent land masses that emerge from the ocean and which are popularly known as the Skelligs. What sets it apart from its smaller nearby sibling, Sceilg Bheag, are the Christian monastic settlements that lies near its summit. Led up to by a steep stone stair, these structures are characterised by their beehive design and were built early in its 600 years of existence from the 6th century to the 12th.
On the bouncy boat ride over from Portmagee, it is easy to wonder how the group of monks, led by St Fionán who is said to have founded the place, must have decided on whether they would move to Sceilig Mhichíl. You can only imagine they weighed it up with a list of pros and cons.
  • Peace.
  • Solitude.
  • One of the world’s largest gannet colonies next door on Sceilig Bheag.
  • Great drying for the clothes.
  • Peace.
  • Puffins with hundreds of these colourfully crazy-looking beaked birds for company.
  • Low smog levels.
  • Great views over the whole world during those few annual days of Atlantic sunshine.
  • The perfect hideaway for a Jedi Knight trying to keep a low profile.
  • Peace.
  • Nearly 12 kilometres off the county in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Atlantic storms.
  • No shops nearby.
  • Limited parking.
  • No chance of rescue.
  • Atlantic storms.
  • Terrible mobile phone coverage.
  • Bird poo.
  • Atlantic storms.

Whether it was the peace or the puffins that swung it in the end they decided to move. And if you don’t mind heights, sea travel and the wet ankles you might have to endure to get out here, reaching their simple but stunning beehive huts on one of those rare sunny days you realise it was the right decision.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

20. Galway - Dún Aonghasa

·         Paranoid that someone will sneak up behind you?
·         Interested in a panoramic ocean view?
·         Not worried about getting connected to the water supply this millennium?
If the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes, then Dún Aonghasa (or Dun Aengus, as it is known in English) is the place for you.
Constructed 1,000 years before three wise men with at least two crap presents went looking for a stable in Bethlehem, the prehistoric fort that is Dún Aonghasa stands proudly facing the Atlantic at the edge of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.
With a 100-metre sheer cliff-drop down to the ocean for a back garden, not only does Dún Aonghasa provide never-ending photographic opportunities for brave tourists, the fort is effectively impregnable from behind, meaning you could leave the back door on the latch if you decided to tip off to the shops and have no fear of a burglary. And while it is not the type of place you’d allow Seanín out to play frisbee, growing up in or around the fort with its vast views over the Atlantic, taking in the Burren and County Clare to your left and the immense Atlantic Ocean to your right, must have put a different spin entirely on the term ‘home schooling’.
Today, one of the nicest ways to visit what one 19th artist called "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe" is to rent a bike and cycle the 7 kilometres from the island’s main town of Kilronan to its interpretive centre from where you can walk the last few hundred metres. Once done, with or without the almost obligatory photo of you peering out over the edge, the prevailing wind and gravity should help carry you back down to the harbour town and straight into one of the several warm and welcoming village bars for a quick pint before you catch the ferry home.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

21. Fermanagh - The Boa Island Figures

Found together in Caldragh graveyard on Boa Island in Lough Erne, the Boa Island figures are two of the most enigmatic and remarkable stone figures in Ireland.
Even though it is thought to be a woman, the smaller and more-weather worn statue is often known as the Lustyman, a name that derives not from her night-time antics but from the fact that she was found on the nearby Lustymore Island.
The other figure is the more detailed and far more impressive-looking Boa Island idol. It is a two-sided statue, one-half male and one-half female, clearly identifiable to the amateur art historian by the large pointed mickey that the male half has.
With thick square torsos, pear-shaped heads, big tired-looking owl eyes, no necks, hunched shoulders and crossed arms, what makes the Boa Island figures so enigmatic is that we don’t really know what in the name of Jaysus they are doing.
So we asked 100 people what they thought and this is what we got:

·         42: Standing in a wall defending a free kick.
·         26: Embarrassed as they pose nude for a life-drawing.
·         19: Some sort of dance routine.
·         10: Trying to keep their hands warm as they wait for a bus.
·         2: Preparing for their final dive in the men’s/women’s 3-metre springboard.
·         1: Something to do with the god Janus.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

22. Dublin - The South Quays

A first date guide to the South Quays
Meet at the gates of Ireland’s foremost university, Trinity College. While this is not on the South Quays, it is by far the easiest place to meet on the southside – as long as no disgruntled pensioner is currently trying to ram his car through it. If you fancy your chances, head for the Book of Kells inside its grounds. Queuing to see it on a summer’s day is the relationship equivalent to six months backpacking together through South America. If you are still talking by the time you finally reach the top of the line, you’re as good as married.
 (If you’re coming from the northside, meet on O’Connell Street – at the Spire if your date has only moved to Ireland; under Clery’s clock if they are originally from the country; or at the GPO if you’re one of those people who hate it when others don’t stand up during the national anthem.)
Cultural you: Head first for cultural quarter of Temple Bar. Unless you want to give the impression that you have a small drinking problem, don’t suggest joining the English stag from Lancashire for a pint. Instead, save the €100 you would have spent on a round of drinks and bring your date to any of the myriad of cultural hot-spots surrounding you, from the IFI and Meeting House Square to the Project Arts Centre and the National Photographic Archive. To help impress, be on first-name terms with someone working in a shop at the far end of Temple Bar who you just happen to bump into, preferably one that sells books.
Historic you: Bring them up the river to Wood Quay, where one of the most extensive Vikings ruins in northern Europe was uncovered in the 1970s and then buried in concrete when Dublin Corporation built their headquarters here. Point out the half-buried Viking ship on the pavement just up from it, which they left out as a warning to others. Mumble under your breath something about ‘Charles Stuart Parnell’, ‘Romantic Ireland being dead and gone’, how ‘it eats you up every time’ and look emotional. Wave a fist at the building if you feel it appropriate and then lighten the atmosphere by heading up to grab some fish and chips in Leo Burdock’s before visiting Ireland’s oldest cathedral, Christ Church – because who doesn’t want to see a mummified cat chasing a mummified mouse? Good times!
Social you: Head down to your final stop, the Guinness Storehouse. Resist the urge to tell him/her that you brew your own craft beer. Instead, wander around the most-visited tourist destination in the country, getting to know each other and playing ‘What country do you think they are from?’. Finish it with a night out (for ‘night’, read ‘early evening out’), hanging with a group of really friendly American retirees from Utah in the Gravity Bar. Not only will your witty Irish ripostes make you seem like the friendliest person there, thus guaranteeing a second date, but you can be sure that most of those Americans are not going to drink their complimentary Guinness, which means there will be plenty of spare pints to go around. Word of warning: this only works the once before the barman get wise to your ways so choose that first date carefully.

23. Down - Titanic Belfast

On the Down side of the River Lagan lies Titanic Belfast. Located on the slipway where the boat was launched, it is the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction. Built for £100 million, it is no surprise that, since its opening in 2012, it was an immediate success at home and abroad.
While the 150-year-old Harland & Wolff ship-building yard, characterised by the still standing H & W yellow shipbuilding gantry cranes nicknamed Samson and Goliath, built many, many ships that never sank, none of these struck an iceberg off the coast of Canada and then went on to star in a hugely successful Hollywood block-buster. If any had, then maybe that ship would be at the centre of one of the most-visited tourist attractions on this island.
Instead it was the Titanic, the so-called Unsinkable Ship, which sank in the early morning of 15 April 1912, having collided with that iceberg about 600 kilometres south of Newfoundland, that is at the heart of this exhibition. And it is the story of this ship – its construction, its voyage and the tales of those who travelled on her, including the 1,503 who died that fateful night (1,504 if you count Leonardo Di Caprio) – that is told with great detail and respect throughout its 12,000 square metres of informative space.

Monday, November 28, 2016

24. Roscommon - Oweynagat Cave

Oweynagat Cave
·         Creatures emerging from the ground to wreak havoc on the surrounding lands
·         A place where people live in fear, not knowing who the next victim will be
·         A difficult past with an uncertain future
No, we’re not talking again about cryptosporidiosis and the ‘boil water’ notices but Oweynagat Cave in central Roscommon, which plays host to Ireland’s ‘Gate to Hell’. The cave is situated in Rathcroghan, not far from Tulsk (the town, not the incorrectly-spelt 12th album from Fleetwood Mac). The idea of Roscommon being the mouth of Hell might come as a bit of shock to some people (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the cast of Stargate and Joe Public for a start), but it shouldn’t, given the number of megalithic tombs dating back more than 5,000 years it contains and its history of rich Celtic myths and legends.
In Celtic mythology, warrior queen Medb of Connacht was said to have lived, ruled and watched over the area in which Oweynagat Cave sits. However, she might have overlooked this one among the many in the area, as what self-respecting warrior queen would allow a Hell Mouth open up in her backyard? While no-one knows exactly how many monsters use Oweynagat Cave to commute in and out from the underworld, one mythological being that definitely resides in it is the Morrígan, a goddess of death often associated with crows, ravens, Roscommon underachieving in the football and er ... death!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

25. Donegal - Glenveagh National Park

As a national park, while it might not be our largest (the Wicklow Mountains) or smallest (the Burren), our wettest (Connemara) or even our most renowned (Killarney), Glenveagh National Park is certainly one of our most beautiful.
Set over 170 square kilometres of remarkably wild Irish countryside, Glenveagh is a wonderful place to wander around, trekking any of its umpteen walks from the Derrylahan Nature Trail to the Lough Inshagh Walk, the Lakeside Track to the famed and fabulous Bridle Path to choose from. With as much chance of catching a glimpse of a red deer or a golden eagle as you do of being bombarded by midges as big as your fist, Glenveagh National Park is real slice of adventure in a ‘paradiscally’ untamed corner of Ireland. (And yes, I made that word up.)
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring chunk of Glenveagh is where it extends into the ice-carved corrie (hollow) infamously known as the Poisoned Glen. Like a setting for a high fantasy movie, the Glen sits at the foot of a real mountain-lovers’ mountain, Mount Errigal. With the eye-catching Old Church of Dunlewey also holding court here, hewn from locally-sourced white marble and blue quartzite, it is no wonder that the whole area is one of the most treasured spots in Donegal.
But why then is such an awe-inspiring location named the Poisoned Glen? Thankfully, it’s not the result of a disastrous oil spillage here but is instead attributed to two possible events.
The first is the legendary murder of Balor of the Evil Eye, that ancient one-eyed giant king of Tory, by his grandson, Lugh. Balor’s Evil Eye was so destructive it had to be covered by seven curtains and, when revealed, would set the whole land alight, making him the least popular guest at a birthday party ever. Legend has it that during the Battle of Mag Tuired, Lugh threw a spear or a sling or a scissors or another of those things your mother is always warning you not to run with, and it hit Balor square in the eye. It killed him, but not before he first spun round in pain, setting fire to his own army (hate that) before collapsing onto the ground, Evil Eye still open, splitting a rock and poisoning the glen forever! Forever! Foreverrrr!!!
Then there is the second story, that locals wanted to call the place An Gleann Neamhe, meaning ‘The Heavenly Glen’, but the English cartographer in charge of the process replaced the ‘a’ with an ‘i’, An Gleann Nimhe, meaning ‘The Poisoned Glen’. Twat.

26. Derry - The Walls of Derry

Four metres high, over ten metres wide and running approximately a kilometre and a half long, the Walls of Derry make Derry not only the sole remaining intact walled city on the island of Ireland but also one of the finest examples of a fortified town in Europe.
With a distinctive central diamond at its centre, the city was the first planned city in Ireland and was built between 1613 and 1619 by The Honourable The Irish Society (no, that’s not a misprint – that’s what they actually called themselves). Its distinctive city walls were constructed to help defend the city from Irish insurgents who opposed the plantation.
So formidable were these defences that they managed to withstand several sieges, including one in 1689 that lasted for more than a hundred days, earning Derry its nickname, the Maiden City. This nickname is not to be mixed up with its other nickname, Stroke City, which originates not from the town’s proud history of heavy petting but due to the political correctness of calling the place Derry-stroke-Londonderry for much of its troubled history. Fortunately, with the Troubles falling away into the past, the Walls of Derry, once closed to the public due to the ideal vantage point over the city they would provide for more than just tourists, have long since reopened. Today, they now constitute Derry’s most-visited sites and one of Northern Ireland’s favourite short walks.
If you like the Walls of Derry, here are some other walls in and outside Ireland you might also enjoy:
  • Hadrian’s Wall: Pretty ineffective wall spanning northern England that failed to keep out the Scots.
  • The Walls: Irish rock band, coming soon to play a local summer festival near you.
  • The Wall Street Journal: Business newspaper that has everything you need to know about stocks and shares but lacks a good horoscope and the TV listings.
  • Great Wall of China: Hugely impressive Chinese construction that used to be known as the only man-made object visible from space, until everyone realised that it was only as wide as the length of their semi-detached house, which is definitely not visible from space.
  • The Wall: 11th studio album from Pink Floyd. A classic.
  • The Walls of Limerick: Traditional Irish dance that’s a particular favourite of aunts and visiting tourists.
  • The Wailing Wall: Fun-loving peaceful place in the middle of Jerusalem. Very hard to miss.
  • The Berlin Wall: Used to separate the part of Berlin where you could find McDonald’s and the part where you couldn’t.
  • Wall-E: Hugely successful and critically-acclaimed science-fiction robot-love-story animation movie. What’s not to like?