Last week I discussed the differing landscapes of Ireland – the bustling cities versus the small lively towns versus the rural vistas – but this week I want to discuss something Ireland does well in every region of the country: authentic, unusual, off the beaten path experiences.
The Abandoned Mansions outside Galway
Mansions are pretty great even when they aren’t abandoned off the side of a rural Irish highway, but the whole rural-Irish-highway angle takes them to the next level. I was searching for something unusual and unique to occupy part of a weekend I’d be spending in Galway, and a few Google searches led me to the Tyrone House.
The house was built around 1780 and it is thought to have been designed by John Roberts of Waterford, who also designed Waterford Cathedral. By 1912 it had been abandoned, and then in 1920 it was partially destroyed in the Irish War of Independence. In 1972, the house was acquired by the Irish Georgian Society. As you can see, the house is imposing and impressive, especially considering its location overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is surrounded by a few private estates, very narrow roads, and several fields of cows (because most things in Ireland are surrounded by fields of cows).
How to Get There: Take a train to Galway Ceannt Station (two hours from Dublin, with trains leaving frequently everyday), and then it’s about a 30 minute drive or bus ride towards Kilcogan. The roads are narrow as it gets closer to the house, so if you are traveling by bus, ask the driver for the closest stop in Kilcogan. If you are driving, try to find parking near the house in one of the little alcoves so as not to block street traffic.
Sheep are everywhere off the side of the road in western Ireland, so why would anyone take a detour to see even more sheep at a sheep farm?
Sheep are a big deal in Ireland. We were driving through a small town on our way back to Dublin and there was a weekend market taking place – the main attraction was a sheep shearing presentation in the middle of the road. The western coast is field after field of sheep and cows. Travelers flock to Ireland for wool products. Sheep pretty much rule Ireland.
During our trip to a sheep farm we were introduced to the primary farmer and sheepdog. Sheepdogs aren’t just any old dogs – some dogs have the temperament for sheepherding, but many do not. When farmers find a sheepherding dog who takes to the task quickly, they will use that same dog for up to 20 years (depending, of course, on the dog’s health/abilities).
We were treated to the ever popular sheep-shearing demonstration, and two of us were offered the chance to feed little lambs a bottle of warm milk! It was definitely the most adorable meal I have ever shared with another creature.
Sheep farms open for visitors: Rathbaun Farm, Kissane Farm, Killary Sheep Farm
Nellie’s Apartment/Iveagh Trust Museum Flat
To be honest, I wasn’t as excited about this particular stop compared to the others. I didn’t think that seeing a preserved house would be all that exciting. I’ve seen ghost towns and those little miniature rooms at the Chicago Art Institute – why would I care about this?
To keep being honest – it wasn’t the most exciting thing I have ever seen in my life, but it was definitely a pleasant surprise. For one thing, the apartment is TINY – three rooms for 7 or 8 or sometimes up to 10 people. Kind of puts New York City apartments to shame. The apartment is so well preserved that it does look a little like it’s frozen in time, which is slightly eerie. It’s meant to serve as a sort of time capsule for Dublin social life during the turn of the century.
Nellie lived in the apartment for decades, up until her death in 2002 at the age of 95. The building was constructed by the Guinness Family (as much of Dublin was) in the early 1900s to house low income families.
One of the nicer things about this visit is that it’s completely off the tourist track despite being located in the middle of Ireland’s most touristy city – even many locals are unfamiliar with its history! It’s down the block from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and would make a nice 15 minute detour on the way to your next stop.
How to Get There: Nellie’s Flat is located at Flat 3b Iveagh Trust, Bull Alley Estate, Patrick Street, Dublin 8, down the street from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Viewing by appointment only. If you are taking the Dublin City Sightseeing Tour, get off at the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral stop.
Connemara Marble Factory
Connemara is the region just outside of Galway, famous for its green rolling hills and for being the entryway to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most iconic sights. Connemara Marble is known for its “forty shades of green,” which refers to the similarities between the surface of the stone and the landscape from which it comes. Marble from this region has been used in everything from jewelry to housewares to building materials for hundreds of years.
The factory is a tiny, family owned and operated establishment off the side of the road in County Galway. Immediately upon entering the building you’ll find yourself in the marble shop, where you can purchase almost any item you can think of (much of it jewelry), crafted exquisitely with Connemara marble.
In the back section of the building, behind the shop, is the marble factory and workshop, where you’ll see craftsmen at work and piles of sample marble showing all of the different colors, patterns, and even textures. There is one slab leaning against the wall that hasn’t been turned into any object because its natural coloring and shape look like the composition of a landscape painting — an ocean and sky.
Marble craftsmanship is one of Ireland’s oldest trades, and this factory and shop offer insight into this side of traditional Irish culture.
How to Get There: The Ceannt train station in Galway is an excellent starting off point for sightseeing on the western coast. From there, hop on bus 923 (about a 45 minute ride).
This was one of my favorite places during my three weeks in Ireland. Glendalough monastery is mostly just ruins now, but the ruins are sitting in the mouth of a green valley surrounded by greener mountains and even greener forests. So much green! The former monastery sits outside the city of Dublin and through the mountains of Wicklow, making it feel like its own little secluded world away from the city.
The area isn’t entirely off the beaten path — there are bus tours running to the site almost daily and so you will see other tourists around when you visit — but there is a road running along the border of the monastic grounds that leads away from the action, and after walking along this road for about 10 minutes I was able to find a view of the monastery that was entirely my own, without any tourists around.
This is the perfect stop for anyone looking to find a quiet, atmospheric place to visit outside the city.
How to Get There: From Dublin there are daily guided bus tours; it is also easily accessible by car (about a 1.5 hour drive). If you’re traveling with a Eurail Ireland Pass, one of the pass bonuses is a discount on day tours throughout Ireland, and Glendalough is included as one of the destinations.