Picture Postcard: 1,242 Miles Around The Emerald Isle

This month we took on the challenge to drive 1,242 miles of coastal road around the Emerald Isle, taking in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 7 days. We found abundant beauty, charm, humor, nature, fun, adventure, and laughter all the way.

It is a story best told in pictures.

Winding narrow roadways circle the outer reaches of land across Ireland. Sometimes it's a lonely road traveled heavily by wandering sheep.

Winding narrow highways circle coastal Ireland. Much of the time it’s a lonely road.

We started from Dublin on the east coast and drove south to the coastal town of Wexford. Along the way, we visited the Irish National Stud, where the Thoroughbred racehorse, Ireland’s most treasured export, is nurtured and preserved.

This mother watches carefully over her precious baby and seemed to be advising us to keep a respectable distance.

This Thoroughbred mare watches carefully over her precious foal and seemed to advise us to keep a respectable distance.

After stopping in coastal Wexford at the charming Riverbank House hotel we continued along the southern route through Cork to Killarney on the N25. This highway is dotted with cute little towns and thatched-roof houses. Killarney is the gateway to the Ring of Kerry– a lush tropical rainforest, full of bogs and wildflowers, ferns and deep forest.

Surrey on the Path

This southwestern tip of Ireland is the stuff of dreams and fairytales. Solid walls of blue-green hedge lined the narrow roadway and soon we were encased under a thick canopy of trees. Castles seemed to rise from a mist that settled over luscious valleys and low mountains. Wild Iris, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Hydrangeas in purple, pink, and blue peek from the blanket of ferns on the forest floor. Ireland is truly an emerald green jewel.

Ancient Ross Castle stands like a timeless sentinel, silent and proud, in the Killarney National Park.

Ancient Ross Castle stands like a timeless sentinel, silent and proud, in the Killarney National Park.

From Killarney we drove north on the westernmost coastal highway, aptly named the Wild Atlantic Way. We slept in the coastal village of Dingle at the Ard Na Mara B&B. Dingle was the setting for the films Far & Away and Ryan’s Daughter. And this is the spot where we first tasted that famed Irish hospitality. We were so smitten by our stay at an approved B&B, we cancelled all remaining hotel reservations and booked B&Bs all the way back to Dublin. There is not a more comfortable, friendly, delicious, and affordable way to travel in country Ireland.

The coastal route out of Dingle took us through some of the most rugged and wild landscapes we’ve ever seen. At times it reminded me of the vast, lonely landscapes of eastern Montana and then, after just a few miles, the scenery changed again.

It was common to find ruins of ancient dwellings unattended on the coast. Within this homestead is a beehive rock dwelling like those used 1,000 years ago.

Ruins of ancient dwellings appear all along the coast. This homestead includes a beehive rock dwelling used 1,000 years ago.

Sheep-jams were a common road hazard. There are no fences to contain them for hundreds of miles. There are also no billboards, no fast food outlets, no gas stations, and a thrilling absence of roadside trash. Ireland defines pristine.

Sheep run loose throughout Ireland; a common road hazard.

Sheep run loose throughout Ireland. Farmers paint the sheep in colors to distinguish one farmer’s animal from another.

Coastal Ireland is full of surprises too. Kylemoor Abbey is one of the most beautiful, elegant, and refined surprises we’ve ever found. It sits on N59, a lonely stretch of road between Galway and Achill Island. Mitchell Henry, a wealthy investor, gave it as a gift to his wife Margaret in 1867. And what a gift it is.

Kylemoor Abbey is love letter written in stone.

Kylemoor Abbey is a love letter written in stone.

Kylemoor became home to a community of Benedictine nuns in 1920. Unfortunately, the community is dwindling and today only 12 nuns remain. A funeral for the 13th nun was held at the Abbey cathedral on the day we visited.

The 13th remaining Benedictine nun was buried on the day we visited Kylemoor Abbey.

They buried the 13th remaining Benedictine nun on the day we visited Kylemoor Abbey.

We then drove to Achill Island, a windswept peninsula where sheep and golfers compete for the green. A marathon was forming on the day we arrived and there wasn’t an unoccupied room anywhere. Good thing we had a reservation. Uh. Well, we had one. But by the time we arrived it was given to someone else. By a great bit of luck, we snagged the last room at another B&B after a late cancellation.

Achill Island is the most westward point on the north coast.

Achill Island is the most westward point on the north coast.

From Achill we continued north to Donegal, considered the most authentically Irish spot in the country according to the Dubliners we met. And it certainly seems true. We met people in smaller villages whose first language is Irish (not Gaelic, as we had assumed). Thirty miles west of Donegal is Slieve League, the highest cliffs in Ireland and a breathtaking spot. I felt such severe vertigo that I couldn’t stray from the path. Peter had no such problem and that frightened me to the core.

Slieve League boasts the highest sea cliffs in Ireland at 1,972 feet.

Slieve League boasts the highest sea cliffs in Ireland at 1,972 feet. The Cliffs of Mohr, a major tourist attraction, are only 702 feet.

But the sheep who live on Slieve League just seem to take it in stride…

Mountain Sheep Near Donegal

This seemingly wild mountain ewe belongs to someone. The red paint on her fleece designates ownership.

Driving cross-country from Donegal through the medieval walled city of Derry (or Londonderry) toward Northern Ireland provides a scenic taste of country living. We stopped in Raphoe to watch a sheep auction on the way to Giants Causeway, a National Trust site of geologic wonder. From here you can see Scotland, just 13 miles across the sea.

Giant's Causeway on N Ireland's upper coast

Giants Causeway on N Ireland’s upper coast is an astounding natural rock wonder.

Northern Ireland is revered for its natural beauty and we saw why as we drove to our last stop in Glenariff. Dieskirt Farm B&B sits down a backcountry road that seemed impossible for car traffic. We were so glad we persevered. Ann and James McHenry’s farm covers 350 acres, is an active enterprise, and yet they still find the time to be welcoming hosts. The breakfast was absolutely wonderful– homemade, fresh, and delicious. I wished we could have stayed on indefinitely.

The mountain and waterfalls around Glennariff are spectacular.

The mountain and waterfalls around Glenariff are spectacular.

Our final drive from Belfast to Dublin was easy. We’d been challenged by the coastal roads over the last week so it was nice to have a wide, smooth, and modern highway. Yet we missed the charms of the byways. One of the last delights we saw before we joined the A1 was this remnant of the Giro d’italia, which held a stage in N Ireland this year. It’s a quirky reminder of the fun to be found all across Ireland.

Someone created this pink tableau to commemorate the Giro d'italia which passed through N. Ireland in the summer of 2014.

Someone created this pink tableau to commemorate the Giro d’italia which passed through N. Ireland in the summer of 2014.