Ireland is both my family’s ancestral home AND my first trip to Europe, and this post is more than a year overdue! One of the benefits of Corky’s job is I get to tag along when she checks out exotic destination marathons, and last year it was the Cork City Marathon, in–you guessed it–Cork, Ireland.

Most Americans visiting Ireland take a standard approach, a circuit around the island with single-night stops in major cities. I’ve never loved that type of approach. I prefer to linger, and have time to explore and get to know a place. It also didn’t work for us with the marathon, which really necessitates at least a couple of nights in one city. So we planned to stay in Cork City for a few nights, then move on to Dublin, with an overnight somewhere in between.

I’d also scouted out a ton of castles that I wanted to visit and to photograph, including a number of ruins secreted in remote sections of the countryside. This meant we had to rent a car–but more on that later.

Day One: Shannon to Limerick by Rental Car

We flew overnight from New York (JFK) to Shannon, which meant a very early arrival on Saturday morning. As a side note, it was neat as an American to fly a European airline (Aer Lingus) and have full hot meals served, an old fashioned approach I remember from my childhood, before American airlines mostly switched to snack boxes and such.

On the ground in Shannon, we picked up our rental car, which wound up costing quite a bit more than expected. I knew going in that renting a car for a full week in Europe was expensive. I only drive automatic, which is still rare in Europe. It can actually be a challenge even to find a car with automatic transmission for rental, and when you do the upcharge is significant. Still, I’d managed to book a reservation through Expedia for under $400, total including insurance. Once we’d filled out all the paperwork, it somehow ended up costing me nearly $1,000–I tried getting an explanation, but the agent talked circles around me.

There’s also the fact that the Irish drive on the left side of the road. Combine that with famously narrow roads, and Americans can have real problems. When I was a teenager, my family visited Ireland without me (I chose a beach trip that conflicted, instead) and on the first day, my father crashed the car. So Corky and I spent some time driving around the mostly-empty access roads behind the airport, just so I could get the hang of it. Getting on the highway still induced some anxiety, and I heard Corky gasping quite a bit, but (spoiler alert) we made it through the whole trip without a collision.

Bunratty Castle, Limerick, and King John’s Castle

Since we had to drive from Shannon to Cork City, Corky and I figured we’d stop along the way in Limerick, and visit the first few sites I’d scouted: Bunratty Castle, King John’s Castle, and a ruin called Carrigogunnel. Up first was Bunratty, a well-preserved 15th-century castle situated on a Folk Park (sort of a really tiny Renaissance Faire) just a hop from Shannon Airport. Unfortunately, neither the castle nor the Folk Park were open yet. It was early on Saturday morning, but we had unknowingly arrived on June Bank Holiday weekend, and it seemed all of Ireland was sleeping in. We took a few photos outside the park and Durty Nelly’s, a charming pub that sits on the Ralty River right outside the castle, and a frequent stop for tour buses. Then we continued on.

Corky outside Durty Nelly’s and Bunratty Castle, in the background

Our next stop was Limerick City, the streets still mostly empty as we passed 9 AM. Although we were fairly starving, nothing had yet opened, so we parked in the middle of the city and wandered a bit, past Saint Mary’s Cathedral and along the Quays where the River Abbey joins the River Shannon. We had great views of King John’s Castle, another well-preserved museum-style castle, dating to the 13th century, right smack in the middle of Limerick City. Corky also had the chance to meet some Irish kitties, which pretty much made her vacation. The castle opened before any nearby pubs, so we paid our admission and took a tour.

There are four sorts of castle in Ireland, by my count: (1) The privately-owned, which may function as homes, short-term rentals, or event spaces; (2) The preserved, museum-style castles with admission fees and signage; (3) The public park castles, which maintained in their ruined state, open to visit for free; and (4) The castle ruins, which may sit on private or public land, are often unmarked, and are left for nature to slowly reclaim.

We didn’t visit any of the private castles–although you can, in many cases, if you contact the owners in advance. Of the three types we did visit, I found that my favorite (by far) were the true ruins. The museum-style are ultimately my least favorite, because they feel too modern and preserved, but King John’s Castle offers a heck of an education in the history of castles, of Limerick, and of Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. Cromwell’s name is still a curse in Ireland–his brutal conquest is well-remembered, and it seemed the majority of the castles we visited had been slighted (damaged enough to render them indefensible as wartime forts) by Cromwell’s armies.

King John’s Castle and the Thomond Bridge, seen from the nearby Merchant’s Quay

King John’s Castle also offers excellent costumes and lighting for selfies.

The castle is very well preserved, with signage that explains the functions of different rooms. Much of the maze-like structure is accessible for exploration, and the location on the banks of the River Shannon in the center of Limerick means the view from the towers is pretty impressive.

A view of Limerick from atop King John’s Castle

I also learned something new! I always thought doorways in castles were short because people used to be shorter–but in fact, that was a defensive tactic! Apparently, it was not uncommon for castle invaders to be incapacitated by simply banging their heads on low doorways in the dark. Crazy.

Gallery: Bunratty Castle, Limerick, and King John’s Castle

Carrigogunnell Ruin and the Irish Countryside

By the time we finished at the castle, the pubs nearby were opening up, and we finally settled in for our first of many, many pints, along with Irish Breakfast. Well, I had Irish Breakfast–Corky doesn’t eat pork products, so she skipped the sausages and puddings. I’d never had black or white pudding before, and knowing what they’re made from, I wasn’t eager, but in the spirit of our visit I gave them a try, and turns out I love them! I don’t know exactly what I expected, but the high barley content gives them a nice oaty flavor, very much like the haggis I tried years before.

After breakfast, we headed out into the countryside to visit a ruin that would turn out to be maybe my favorite of the trip: Carrigogunnell. This is a true ruin, a mighty fortress dating at least to the early 13th century and standing (as many medieval castles do) on the highest point in the region–which makes for incredible views. The castle was slighted in the late 17th century, apparently with explosives, and since that time nature has worked to reclaim much of the structure.

Carrigogunnell Castle, or what’s left of it, seen from the country road just east.

Even though preserved castles try to maintain an appearance true to their era, something about ruins just feels more real to me. Untouched by modern restoration, with weeds and vines working their way through the stonework, they seem more connected to the people who built them and lived in them. There’s such beauty in the slow decay of something built by people long before.

If you’d like to visit the ruin of Carrigogunnell Castle, it’s marked on my Google map of Irish castles. Be aware that you cannot enter from the country road to the east, as signs there prohibit crossing the private farm in between. That is, however, the best spot to get a photo of the entire ruin standing atop its rock. To tour the ruin, you must enter from the road to the south. There is a small space to park at the dead-end, and a footpath that leads uphill into the ruins. You might also want to beware of the hag who roams the ruins–legend says if you look at her lit candle, you will die by the next morning. We did see one other woman there when we visited, but she was young and certainly not a hag, and did not carry any candle.

I should also warn you about Irish country roads. They are narrow. They have no shoulder–to the contrary, most are lined on both sides by stone walls, or at least hedges, often growing up and over the road to form a ceiling. Most are single-lane, which means if two cars meet going in opposite directions, someone has to put it in reverse and back up until they find a space to pull off and let their counterpart pass. Some are unpaved, or badly paved, and you have to be careful with those, especially if you’re driving a tiny rental roller-skate like we got from Europcar.

To the good, Irish drivers are generally pretty patient and polite, at least in the countryside. And parking is easy–there don’t seem to be any rules at all on country roads, other than “leave room to pass, so your car won’t get hit.” Near some of the tourist attractions there are signs warning of vandals or thieves who prey on parked cars, but in most of the open country, you can park where you want.

Gallery: Carrigogunnell Castle Ruin

Cork City and Some Much-Needed Sleep

From Carrigogunnell, we headed toward Cork City, our destination for the next few days. At this point I was pretty well exhausted and driving like a zombie. By the time we finally reached our bed and breakfast, it was a huge relief.

We stayed at Garnish House, a small inn across the Western Road from University College Cork. Fortunately, their tiny parking lot had a single spot available when we arrived, and we were able to lug our bags up to our room before returning to the shared dining room for high tea–although, being American and on the verge of collapsing, Corky and I opted to enjoy our complimentary home-baked pastries with coffee instead. They brought us an entire French press filled with dark, rich European coffee, which woke us up enough for the mile-ish walk across Cork City to the race expo.

The decor at the Cork City Hall for the Marathon Expo

I have to say that I loved Cork City. We stayed for several days, and I felt like I got to know the place–or at least the portion surrounding our hotel–but at this point I was so tired, I couldn’t really enjoy myself. After picking up her materials at the race expo, Corky and I pretty much found the first pub serving food within short walking distance of our inn (knowing that a couple of pints would be all it took to knock us both out), scarfed down dinner, and headed back to crash out for the night.

Gallery: Cork City, Day One

Series NavigationIreland from Cork to Dublin: Day Two >>

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