Follow in My Footsteps: Ireland Driving Tour


This journey from Dublin through the north of the Irish republic and part of Northern Ireland includes a variety of properties, from charming country hotels to one of the grandest houses in the British Isles. The route also takes you through some lovely countryside and puts you within easy driving distance of some memorable sights. It is probably a tour best suited to those on their second or third visits to Ireland.

DAYS 1-2

Ballyfin and Kilkenny

It is an easy 90-minute drive Dublin to Ballyfin. Setting out from Dublin Airport, you take the M50 ring road and look for the signs directing you to Limerick via the M7. Along the way, you will pass the Irish National Stud and the wonderful Horse Museum. Nearby is The Curragh Racecourse, which hosts all five classic races in the Irish calendar: the Irish Derby Stakes, the Irish Oaks, the Irish 1,000 Guineas, the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the St. Leger.

From Ballyfin, it is a quick 50- minute drive to Kilkenny, a small city of some 22,000 inhabitants built on both banks of the River Nore and county town of the eponymous County Kilkenny. The city contains historic buildings such as Kilkenny Castle and St. Canice’s Cathedral and is renowned for its cultural life, with craft and design workshops and the Watergate Theatre, as well as numerous public gardens and museums.

From Ballyfin, it is also less than an hour’s drive to the Rock of Cashel, reputed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster by St. Patrick in the fifth century. The Rock was the seat of the kings of Munster for several hundred years prior to the Norman invasion. The picturesque complex holds one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art to be found anywhere in Europe. Few remnants of the early structures survive; the majority of buildings on the site date from the 12th and 13th centuries.

During the rest of our stay at Ballyfin, we recuperated from the transatlantic flight, enjoyed the estate’s tranquil atmosphere, walked, read by the fire and relished every lingering second.

DAYS 3-4

Coopershill and Notable Burial Sites

After a fortifying breakfast, we headed out from Ballyfin, driving northwest through the towns of Longford and Carrick-on-Shannon, passing through Counties Westmeath and Longford and into County Roscommon. Along the way, we saw the gentle hills in many shades of green that are among the visual glories of Ireland. After Carrick-on-Shannon, the landscape takes on a more rugged character, particularly as you pass the town of Boyle and enter County Sligo. (The 40-mile Arigna Scenic Drive is a loop, beginning and ending in Boyle.) Shortly after Castlebaldwin, look for a sign for a left turn to Riverstown and then follow the narrow country lane to the signpost for Coopershill.

Coopershill is ideally situated for visiting two Neolithic burial sites, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore. Using the detailed directions from Simon O’Hara at Coopershill, I would go to Carrowkeel first. Getting to it requires some hiking, but you will see haunting burial mounds untouched for thousands of years. Carbon dating places the construction of the tombs at around 3,400 B.C. Set on high ground above Lough Arrow, Carrowkeel is one of the four largest passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland (the other three are Brú na Bóinne, Lough Crew and Carrowmore).

From Carrowkeel, head back to the N4 to the turnoff for the R292 and follow the signs to Carrowmore. A more developed site, it has a small visitor’s center and requires no hiking. While the focal point is the huge stone burial mound, I found the stone circles across the road from the visitor’s center much more intriguing. This makes for a full day, and we were delighted to find afternoon tea waiting for us on our return to Coopershill.

DAYS 5-6

Drumcliff, Belleek Factory and Lough Eske Castle

Heading North again on the N4 toward Donegal, we made two stops before reaching Donegal Town. The first, just north of Sligo at Drumcliff, was at the burial site of the poet W.B. Yeats. It was well worth pausing to see the pretty little church and the brooding brow of Ben Bulben, the mountain he loved. Continuing on the N15, we diverted to the N3 at Ballyshannon to visit the factory and visitor’s center of the famous Belleek china company in County Fermanagh. We backtracked into Donegal Town where, down the hill past the Craft Village, is an excellent tourist center offering detailed local maps. From here, we proceeded out of town to our next destination, Lough Eske Castle hotel.

This was the ideal location from which to make a foray into western Donegal. Our first stop was in the town of Ardara in search of handmade Donegal tweed. The importance of Ardara as a center for the tweed industry dates to the turn of the century. For more information on the history of Donegal tweed, visit the Ardara Heritage Centre, located on the town’s main street.

From Ardara, we headed to Carrick, where we took a sharp turn onto a narrow and winding road to the Slieve League cliffs, which fall 1,972 feet into the Atlantic. We then continued to Malin Beg, distinguished by the unexpectedly beautiful Silver Strand beach.

DAYS 7-8

Glenveagh National Park and Rathmullan House

Our plan had been to get up early, leave Lough Eske and further explore the west around the colorfully named Bloody Foreland — the evening sun here lights the rocks to a deep red — but the weather turned bad (as one person said to us in an appealing bit of Irish sophistry, “Oh well, if you didn’t have a bit of weather, you’d not have had your money’s worth.”). Instead, we headed to wonderful Glenveagh National Park. Here, we enjoyed the splendid gardens, a live performance of some terrific Irish music, some clog dancing and a tour of the castle, whose last owner was a jovial American who deeded it to Ireland. From the park, we proceeded north to Rathmullan House.

The hotel provides an excellent base for touring. The next day, we chose the following itinerary to the Rosguill Peninsula. Once past the town of Carrigart, look for the route marked Atlantic Drive. This will take you on a tour around the peninsula that affords stunning views. Head back to Carrigart and take the R245 to the Fanad Peninsula. Follow the signs to Fanad Head, where there is a splendid lighthouse. You will have to backtrack to the town of Portsalon on Lough Swilly, with its spectacular Ballymastocker beach, a wonderful place to stroll.

DAYS 9-10

Malin Head and Ardtara

Although it took us an hour out of our way, we were determined to see Malin Head on Inishowen Peninsula, the northernmost point in Ireland. This meant heading from Rathmullan to Letterkenny and Buncrana. (In summer, there is a ferry from Rathmullan to Buncrana, a real time-saver). The view was superb. We then backtracked to Strabane and proceeded to Upperlands, where we stayed at Ardtara.

It’s a pleasant drive up north from Ardtara to two recommended stops, The Old Bushmills Distillery — which received a license from James I in 1608 — and the Giant’s Causeway. A geologic oddity, the latter is a series of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns that scientists believe were formed some 65 million years ago by volcanic eruptions and the subsequent cooling of the lava. However, I prefer the folkloric explanation — that an Irish giant named Finn McCool wanted to battle a Scottish rival, Benandonner, so he built the causeway to Scotland. On seeing Benandonner, McCool took fright and asked his wife to hide him. She disguised him as a baby and tucked him into a large cradle. Benandonner, seeing so large a “baby,” assumed that the father must far outsize him and fled.

DAYS 11-12

Glaslough and Castle Leslie Estate

From Ardtara, we made the painless journey on the A29 to Dungannon, and from there to the little town of Glaslough and Castle Leslie Estate.

On the drive south to Dublin Airport, it is possible to make a short detour to Kells, an attractive market town in the Blackwater River valley. The famous illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, the Book of Kells (now in Dublin’s University College Library), was created by Celtic monks at the Abbey of Kells at the end of the eighth century. From Kells, it is just 17 miles southeast to the Hill of Tara. There stands the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, which served as the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland.

PRICE — Based on a party of two traveling together, and subject to the availability of room type, the cost of this 12-night trip is an estimated US$10,580. The tour includes two nights (full Irish breakfast included) at each of the six hotels: Ballyfin, State Room, outdoor pursuits and gourmet dinner included; Coopershill, Superior Room; Lough Eske Castle, Junior Suite; Rathmullan House, Superior Room; Ardtara, Garden Room; Castle Leslie Estate, Castle Master Bedroom. Also included in the price is a full-size car (Audi A6 or similar), with automatic transmission, air-conditioning and GPS. The rate does not include entrance fees to museums and castles or sightseeing. International airfares are extra. Should you wish to find out more about this itinerary, consultants in our Travel Office would be more than delighted to assist you. Tel. (800) 375-4685 or email [email protected]

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