Long tales and reimagined truths create a theme for your journey through Ireland set on a stunning backdrop of rugged coastlines and emerald foliage. There are plenty of Irish storytellers to guide you through a tapestry of intrigue, battles, and years that were, by turn, lean, hungry and ultimately triumphant.
Two kings briefly raged a bloody battle in County Meath, on the River Boyne, on July 1, 1690. More than 50,000 troops stood on either side of the narrow river ready to slash each other to pieces. Tour host Mary Gibbons, from Dublin, recounts the day-long battle almost blow-by-blow until one king high-tailed it back to France.
Equally fascinating is the conflict that led to that battle.
Thousands of years before the kings stormed the valley, the same rolling landscape played an important role in the history of Ireland. Roughly 5,000 years ago, Stone Age farmers stopped toiling in their fields to build passage tombs. In all, Ireland has 53 known passage tombs and Newgrange is one of the finest examples of the incredible efforts of these farmers.
Gibbons explains the monumental effort required to build these monuments. Be sure to hop off the bus, use the bridge over the River Boyne and duck into the Newgrange passage tomb, where a local storyteller lays out theories on why the dirt and rock was piled so precisely.
Was this and its 52 similar passages built to bury the dead? To celebrate religions? To watch the seasons pass? Nobody knows for sure. The solstice and the equinox sun beams perfectly align through the narrow tunnel, signifying a time to plant and a time to sow.
On the wild shores of the Atlantic, you can meet a storyteller who will fill your belly with fine food as you meander through Galway. Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours weaves through stores, bakeries, restaurants and markets while telling the history of the area. Learn about the oldest pubs, the weirdest foods, and the best whiskies. Find out why one bakery that has passed through six generations of one family sells at least 15 monster loaves every day of “Conger Bread” – the length of a conger eel, which is typically 1.5 metres.
Take a ferry from Galway to Kilronan on Inishmore for a day or two of tales told by local historian Cyril O’ Flaithearta of Aran Walking and Biking Tours. Ride in a pony cart, pedal a bike or walk while Cyril tells the story of the land. Stop at a few forts, at ancient cemeteries, ruined and rebuilt chapels, and on windswept ridges. Be prepared to be moved by his passionate stories – tales of hardship, triumph, feast, famine, love and persecution.
Even bigger stories unfold in Northern Ireland, the land of swinging bridges and the Giant’s Causeway.
At the turn of the 20th century, rail traffic was the way to move about the country, but the rail companies wanted to be more than just a utility. They wanted to fill the trains with tourists, too. So, in 1902, the Gobbins Cliff Path was created. Guides tell tales of the thousands of people who came to snake along the cliff wall with little or no protection from falling.
Today, thankfully, the tubular bridge, tunnels through the rock, swinging bridges and cantilevered walkways are fortified. Foaming waves crash against the rugged shore below your feet carrying a salty spray to your face. You’ll deserve a pint of Guinness after you hike up the hill at the end of the tour.
Another coastal walk ends on an island where fishermen of the 1700s had tiny shacks for protection against the wind and rain. You’ll easily walk on the swinging bridge at Carrick-a-Rede to see how the fishermen used to stand on the cliffs to bring in the salmon. Alex Colgan was the last of the tough fisherman to work the shores.
“I suppose it was dangerous, but we never had any accidents,” he says. “When the weather was bad, it was dangerous enough.”
Should you believe geologists who say the red rocks are formed into strange columns by volcanic activity some 60-million-years ago? Or were they stepping stones tossed into the ocean by feuding giants of Ireland and Scotland? According to John Higgins of the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, it’s the giants. He’s got proof – or so he says. Either way, the topography, the science or the tales are worth the hike to the shore where waves crash over the hexagonal rocks, towers and shore.
Ireland is built on wild stories. Some true and some told with a wink. Take the journey to create your own. Your best source of information starts with a visit to Tourism Ireland.
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