Ireland may be a relatively small island but its beauty, history and opportunities for exploration are vast and wide-ranging. The country’s breath-taking splendour and warm, welcoming people are what first greet visitors taking an Ireland tour but there is much more to experience while on the ‘Emerald Isle’ than smiling faces and gorgeous scenery. Known as ‘the land of saints and scholars’, Ireland’s rugged landscape and complex history have always been intertwined and are, quite literally, the stuff of legends.
To take a tour around Ireland is to travel through time, discovering its many natural and manmade wonders – from enchanting cities like Dublin to remote castles in the countryside. We love Ireland and offer many holidays to the country including relaxing hotel stays and tours. Take a Saga tour and enjoy a carefully mapped route, hand-picked accommodation and fascinating excursions. Here we’ve put together a brief introduction to some of the excursions you can take on Saga’s Legends of the Emerald Isle tour.
For centuries the Giant’s Causeway has been an inspiration for both artists and scientists. Flanked by crashing Atlantic waves and spectacular cliffs, Northern Ireland’s main tourist attraction is a mind-boggling collection of uniform hexagonal basalt columns (approximately 40,000) sliding into the sea. According to one of the numerous legends surrounding the causeway, a local giant named Finn McCool built them as stepping stones to reach his lady love on the Scottish Island of Staffa. However, the more logical, if less romantic, explanation is that the columns were formed when lava erupted from an underground fissure 60 million years ago, crystallising into the stunning formation that can be seen today. Whatever the cause, the sheer magnificence of the Giant’s Causeway is sure to capture your heart – a true symbol of Ireland.
Birr Castle Demesne
Created and cultivated by generations of the Parsons family, the award-winning gardens of Birr Castle and its interactive science centre are amazing testaments to scientific research and engineering, as well as tributes to Ireland’s flora and fauna. The 50 hectares of gardens are home to rare plants from all over the world that have been collected by the Earls of Rosse for the last 150 years. The grounds are beautifully landscaped around rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Be sure to tour the millennium gardens where you’ll find picturesque pathways of hornbeam cloister in the formal French garden style.
In addition to the earthly delights available for visitors to enjoy, Birr Castle is also home to what was once the largest telescope in the world. The Third Earl of Rosse designed and built the telescope in the 1840s in his quest to observe and better understand the stars. It was here that while scrutinising the sky, the Third Earl first discovered the spiral nature of certain galaxies. Upon making this revolutionary breakthrough in space study, Lord Rosse graciously opened his home to anyone wishing to witness this phenomenon and his open door policy has been in effect ever since.
While Lord Rosse was studying the heavens through his telescope, his wife Mary was looking through a different type of lens, as she experimented with photography. Her early photographs of Ireland are on display at the centre. Their son, Charles Parsons, inspired by his parents’ innovation and love of knowledge, invented the steam turbine on the family estate, thus changing the entire concept of seafaring; not only that, the device is also credited as the basis for the invention of the modern day jet engine. All of Charles’s electrical and engineering equipment are exhibited in the science centre alongside interactive tools explaining their history and how they were used. A remarkable family!
Known as ‘Ireland’s Friendliest Town’, Ennis is the capital of County Clare and a charmingly pretty historic market town dating back to the 11th century. The history of Ennis can be felt on a tour through its narrow lively streets and lanes and taking in its monuments and waterways. As much as its history is based on its foundation as a place of commerce, the town is primarily known worldwide as the home of traditional Irish music and hosts festival and ‘trad’ sessions throughout the year. Ennis abounds with pubs featuring live sessions every night of the week and its abundant music scene is regularly cited as the best reason to visit and stay in the town.
Cliffs of Moher
High above the Atlantic Ocean, with the crash and boom of waves against the soft shale and sandstone more than 700 feet below, the views off the Cliffs of Moher are some of the most majestic in Ireland. Stretching for nearly five miles, on clear days the cliff’s panoramas include the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, the Twelve Pins and the Maum Turk Mountains. It’s impossible to find the right words to describe the appeal of these cliffs though many have tried to describe them: vertigo-inducing, awe-inspiring, rugged and magnificent are just a few adjectives you will hear in connection with them. They are one of Ireland’s most visited natural attractions, with over one million travellers walking their trails and experiencing the raw power of nature each year. While their allure may be impossible to articulate, the cliffs are an experience not to be missed.
To truly step back into Irish history, an expedition to the Shannon region of Ireland wouldn’t be complete without visiting Bunratty Castle, the country’s best-preserved medieval fortress. Meticulously restored in the 1950s, the castle was originally built on the site of a Viking trading camp and today’s remaining structure is one of four castles built on the location over the years. The castle dates back to the early 1400s and is completely furnished with 14th to 17th century furniture, artwork and tapestries and features a grand main hall, an immense great hall and a dungeon. It has been opened to the public since 1962 and is the most authentically restored castle in Ireland.
The castle is accessed via a 26-acre folk park, a fully reconstructed Irish village with over 30 buildings in its ‘living’ community, including thatched cottages, a forge, blacksmith, weavers, post office and pub. An effort has been made at social commentary, with the eye-opening spectrum of homes on display, from a meagre single-room dwelling to the fine Bunratty House, a Georgian aristocratic residence. Walking through the park offers a genuine view into the past.
Cormac MacCarthy, one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains, built Blarney Castle nearly six hundred years ago. Over the last several centuries millions of travellers have assembled at Blarney, establishing it as one of the country’s greatest treasures. The castle building is beautiful and its glorious estate grounds are steeped in more legends than just about anywhere else in Ireland.
Within the grounds is Rock Close, an archway of limestone rocks that lead to the Wishing Steps. Legend has it that if a person can successfully walk up and down the steps with their eyes closed without stopping and thinking of nothing but their wish, that wish will become true within a year. Not far from the Wishing Steps is Witch Stone where it is widely believed that the Witch of Blarney has been imprisoned since the dawn of time. Some say it was this witch who revealed the power of the Blarney Stone to MacCarthy and that she escapes her prison and roams the grounds after nightfall. Visitors needn’t worry about bumping into her, however, as the castle closes every day at dusk securely locking her in!
But it is the Blarney Stone that is the jewel in the castle’s already sparkling crown. Also known as the mythical Stone of Eloquence, yet another legend declares that those who kiss it will never again be at a loss for words. For more than two hundred years, once the news of the power of the stone spread, politicians from the global diplomatic arena, literary giants and movie stars have climbed the steps, along with millions of everyday pilgrims, to kiss the Blarney Stone in an attempt to acquire the gift of eloquence. Who’s to say if it’s just a legend, as Ireland boasts more Nobel Prize winners for literature than any other country, there may just be something in the power of the Blarney Stone!
With hospitable locals, staggering scenery, abundant folklore and a fantastically diverse culture, a tour of Ireland is a guaranteed trip of a lifetime. Discover for yourself its treasures and have yourself a famous Irish ‘craic’ (good time) on the Legends of the Emerald Isle tour.
No matter what preconceptions or expectations you may have, be they stunning landscape or foot-stomping music, chances are they’ll be fulfilled and celebrated on a tour of Ireland. As the Irish say, you’ll have a ‘whale of a time’!