In September 2022 we spent a week in Ireland, after we realised that it was three years since we had been anywhere but the UK and Andalucía, due to Covid restrictions followed by mobility problems. The fact that an Irish visit wouldn’t count towards the 90 days in 180 rule for visiting the European Union helped us to make the decision. It didn’t start well. Our afternoon flight from Newcastle was four hours late and we had to share the airport with seven planeloads of Jet2 passengers off on their holidays – peaceful it wasn’t.
Steve had been to the Irish Republic before – the first visit involved hitchhiking around the West coast in 1982. There are not many bushes to hide behind when the after-effects of umpteen pints of Guinness hit you the following day. Colin and Steve had weekend breaks in Dublin in 1995 and 2003 with friends – what I can remember was highly enjoyable. Most recently, in 2008 Steve led a Great Rail Journeys tour to Ireland which, apart from the train from Dublin to Cork, was almost entirely by coach. This time the plan was to travel by rail, to give Dublin a miss apart from arrival and departure and visit places we hadn’t been to – particularly Cork (the tour had only transferred from train to coach there).
Ted at Kinsale Harbour
Flying into Dublin the typical landscape of scattered cottages gave way to distribution warehouses and tech company sheds as we approached the airport. By the time we checked into the hotel it was after nine at night. Fortunately, there was a pub near the hotel – the Brew Dock in Amiens St – run by Galway Bay Brewery, founded in 2009 and now one of the largest independent brewers in Ireland. This provided the first impression of the range of craft beer now available in Ireland – there were 22 taps and it was busy on a Tuesday evening – in marked contrast to virtually every pub we passed on the way in from the airport.
Dublin to Waterford and Kilkenny
The following morning we pootled round to Connolly station, sorted out our ticket for the week and set off by train for Wexford. We were heading that day to Kilkenny but, rather than take the direct route, we travelled via Wexford and Waterford. The aim was to take in the line down the east coast which our research suggested is the most scenic in Ireland. Through the Dublin suburbs to Bray (pictured above) and beyond it follows the shoreline closely with views of the seaside cliffs and inland to the Wicklow Mountains . After Wicklow the line travels inland through the hills to Rathdrum and follows the narrow Vale of Avoca back to the sea at Arklow. The Wicklow Mountains are a national park and back in 2008 our coach took us deep into the area with a stop at Glendalough (pictured below), a famous medieval monastic site founded by St. Kevin, who now sells ice cream and burgers nearby. Back on the railway the line heads inland again though farmland to Enniscorthy, with its castle and cathedral, before following the River Slaney to reach the sea once more at Wexford.
We planned to spend an hour in Wexford but the station is slightly out of the town centre and round the corner we spotted a bus about to depart for Waterford and off we went. The journey took an hour through farming countryside and calling at the historic town of New Ross before crossing the crossing the River Suir and into Waterford city centre.
Waterford, from across the river
We had a quick walk round then it was time for our lunch break in the traditional and friendly Tully’s Bar. A young lad bought me a pint but refused to allow me to return the compliment. Thank you, whoever you are. Useless fact from Wikipedia – Waterford was the starting point of Ryanair’s first ever flight, a 14 seater turboprop to Gatwick.
We traipsed back across the bridge to the railway station in plenty of time for the train. Trains are not frequent in Ireland (there are seven a day from Waterford to Kilkenny) and you don’t want to risk missing it. The green flag was waved and we were off. A short journey of 35 minutes brought us to Kilkenny. We managed to find our way out of the station – most of the railway land has become a shopping centre – checked into our hotel and set off to explore.
Kilkenny is a tourist town because of its medieval centre, cathedral and the Norman castle, which we had a look around. Along the way we managed to find a couple of cheap souvenirs for the tat shelf back home. Many of the tourists were American, far more than Brits, presumably because of family connections, and this was the case throughout our trip. We were here for the beer and it was time for a few pints. First was Daniel Bollard’s in St. Keiran’s St, a pleasant though touristy pub. We called it at the Harp Bar in the High Street, very definitely an old fashioned and non-tourist pub. We had seen ads for Sullivan’s Taproom in John St where the beer was tasty but it was a bit too large and corporate to have any atmosphere, Our favourite was Tynan’s Bridge House Bar, (pictured) unsurprisingly by the bridge over the river Nore, which was popular with both locals and tourists and served an excellent pint of Guinness – you could tell people came here specially.
Cork, Kinsale and Tralee
The following day we set off by train for Cork, our base for the next three nights. The easiest route is via Dublin – a ninety minute journey via Carlow and Kildare through agricultural land. Around Kildare and Newbridge it becomes clear that we are in the Curragh – an area well known for horse breeding and training and the eponymous racecourse. From there the countryside became more urban as the suburbs of Dublin spread ever further out. We arrived at Dublin Heuston at a platform miles from anywhere, hobbled to the main concourse for some food and a drink, then discovered that the Cork train was departing from where we had arrived.
Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork, above and below
Dublin to Cork is the Irish Republic’s main intercity line with hourly trains taking about 2 hours 40 minutes for the 266km journey. We travelled back to Kildare then onwards via Limerick Junction and Mallow. By now we were realising that the most dramatic scenery in Ireland is on the coasts – the interior is pleasing enough but unspectacular – arable farming in some areas but predominantly grazing land for sheep and cows. Closer to Cork there are hills in the distance, followed by the final few kilometres through the suburbs, through a tunnel and into Cork Kent station. We found the walking route to the city centre – we were disorientated as the railway arrives from the northwest. – made our way to the hotel, had a rest then set out to explore.
Cork is Ireland’s second city, with a population of 222,000. The large natural harbour extends almost to the city centre which sits on an island where the River Lee divides into two canalised waterways – the North and South Channels, which presumably control the risk of flooding. Hills in the distance and water nearby make for a pleasant environment, and, while the city has little in the way of outstanding architecture, it is easy to walk round, which we did in the course of our stay.
As is our wont we explored the pubs over several evenings. On the island we visited the Long Valley Bar, Counihan’s Bar, the Poor Relation, and the Welcome Inn. We enjoyed them all and found Counihan’s Bar in Pembroke St. particularly friendly. We were there when the UK Queen’s death was announced – the manager’s daughter was in London, had tipped him off and the TV was switched to BBC News. Fortunately the volume was muted, so we were spared much of the mawkishness. Within an hour the Guardian website had more than a dozen pre-prepared articles online. The event led to a few interesting bar-room discussions over the next couple of days, while in Ireland we were able to avoid the endless coverage. Stout-wise Cork remains a bastion of Murphy’s and Beamish which complement the newer craft beers.
The choice of beer at the Bierhaus
Across the North Channel we visited several excellent pubs. The Bierhaus on Popes Quay has 30 craft beer taps and a great selection of Irish and European beers. Nearby, in the Victorian Quarter, The welcoming Abbot’s Ale House also has a fine selection and Sin é combines good beer, traditional music and a friendly crowd.
On the Friday we had a trip out to Kinsale (pictured) for lunch, having heard it was worth a visit. The bus takes less than hour, leaves from Cork railway station and travels via the city centre (though not everyone waiting was able to get on our packed bus), Cork airport and through the countryside to terminate by the Kinsale harbour. Kinsale is picturesque, full of multicoloured houses and craft shops and a couple of decent boozers. We did notice a couple of boarded up traditional pubs – presumably one of the effects of the Covid lockdowns.
On Saturday we headed for Tralee – the trains were full, a combination of a concert and match in Dublin, tourist season and cheap fares. We changed trains in Mallow then headed deeper into the countryside and watched more cows grazing, this time with the mountains of West Kerry and Cork in the distanced. En route, the train called at Killarney where most passengers alighted. The train then performed a rather strange manoeuvre – it reversed out of the station, stopped, reversed once more and headed off towards Tralee up a slight incline above the station platforms.
From the train to Tralee (above) and West Coast weather on the Ring of Kerry (below)
Back in 2008 our coach tour spent a couple of nights in Killarney at the Plaza Hotel where, most unusually, as the tour manager I was given one of the best rooms, rather than a cupboard on the landing. We spent a day driving round the Ring of Kerry, a scenic 179km drive around the Iveragh Peninsula through a rugged coastal landscape – recommended if you are in the area.
Walking into the town centre of Tralee, the county town of County Kerry, from the station isn’t impressive – the area comprises modern flats and offices which could be anywhere. However, things soon improve. The Town Park (pictured) is well kept and provided an opportunity for Ted to sit in the Cauldron of the Dagda (an important god in Irish mythology who possessed a magic bottomless cauldron). The Georgian Denny Street is also impressive. After our walk we managed to find a couple of open pubs, An Chearnóg and Paddy Mac’s. We noticed once more a feature of every Irish town – a credit union office on the main street. They have taken off in Ireland in a big way and there are 3.6 million members in the islands of Ireland. Also fascinating was the revelation that Tralee has three taxi ranks. Then it was time to return to the station.
Back in 1982 I stayed overnight in Tralee in a B&B with a man who had picked me up while hitching and drove through Ireland stopping for a pint in every village along the way. We pretended he was my long lost uncle but I don’t think the owners were fooled and the less said about it the better. After I escaped the following day I made it out to Dingle on the Atlantic coast, where I recollect lots of bars all with musicians playing.
I mentioned above that in 2008 we were collected by coach from Cork station. We were driven to Cobh, a visit which I recommend. Known as Queenstown until 1920 Cobh was where 2.5M of the 6M Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950 departed. It was the final port of call for the Titanic and is still in use as a cruise terminal. The Heritage Centre focusses on the history of emigration – the sculpture of emigrants is outside the centre. From there we went, of course, to Blarney, where there is a castle and a stone.
A final view of Cork – this is the North Channel
Galway, Claremorris and Dublin
Back in the present our next stop was Galway – we left Cork in pouring rain and were soaked by the time we reached the station. The Dublin train, which we used as far as Limerick Junction, was full once more. From there a freezing train took us to Limerick and Galway. We weren’t able to stop for a break in Limerick due to limited Sunday services, though a couple of people we spoke to told me I had made the right decision to avoid the town – it seems to have a bit of a reputation within Ireland. In 2008 we stopped over nearby in Bunratty, which has a castle and a Folk Park (pictured) with old buildings from all over Ireland in a village setting.
We crossed the Shannon on the route out of Limerick – the line from Limerick to Athenry is the Western Corridor, a line that had been closed but reopened as far as Ennis in 1988 and eventually to Athenry in 2010. While the train was not as busy as the intercity services to and from Dublin there was a decent load of passengers. At Athenry the train reversed and headed to Galway, alongside Galway Bay.
We had time for a pint in O’Connell’s Bar in the central Eyre Square before checking in, then back out once more to explore further. The city was busy with locals and tourists doing much the same thing. We had a pint in Barr an Chaladh, wandered along the pedestrianised Shop Street (which was lined with shops) and across Wolfe Tone Bridge over the River Corrib to the Salt House, which had been recommended. And excellent it was too – some decent beer and a fine group of musicians playing on an early Sunday evening.
South of Galway are the Burren, Lisdoonvarna and the Cliffs of Moher, all firmly on the tourist trail. We visited the area by coach in 2008, but as you can see from the pictures below it wasn’t the best of weather. To the West of Galway is Connemara – I remember catching a bus through fine scenery to the town of Clifden in 1982, and spending an enjoyable night there.
There are proposals to extend the Western Corridor railway line north to Claremorris, but nothing has happened so far and we caught the bus instead. We bowled along through a series of villages and the town of Tuam. En route we noticed that every minor track has a road number and that even the most modern upmarket houses rarely have built-in garages. Maybe people are not so worried about their cars being stolen or maybe they just leave cleaning to the rain rather than a carwash.
We reached Claremorris by 1130 and walked up and down the main street looking at closed bars – O’Briens wasn’t open. After a stop for a sandwich we discovered the Shamrock Bar. This was obviously the place where the local boozers go, serves a fine pint of Guinness and was heated by our first coal fire of the autumn. Then it was time for the station to catch the Dublin train. An overgrown track heads off into the wilderness – presumably the route of the Western Corridor line.
The train journey took us through Ballyhaunis, Castlerea, Roscommon, Athlone, Tullamore and Portarlington, where we joined the Dublin-Cork line. Much of this area is peat bog country. Bord na Mona had almost 1000km of narrow gauge railways in this part of Ireland to service the extraction and distribution of peat of which nothing remains. Old maps show large networks of peat railways south of Athlone and north of Portarlington. For environmental reasons the commercial use of peat has greatly declined though people in rural areas still cut and use peat for heating. From time to time you can spot the signs of peat cutting from the train. It may be coincidence but this was the first journey where we recollect seeing significant numbers of wind turbines. Unusually the ambience was not disturbed by music leaking from kids devices but by someone watching a religious service on a Monday afternoon.
From Dublin Heuston to our hotel near Connolly station we caught a LUAS Red Line tram – the system seems quick, cheap and efficient. This time we had the whole evening to spend in Dublin so we wandered over O’Connell Bridge and visited JW Sweetman on Burgh Quay – a large brewpub. From there we called in at the Palace Bar, Fleet St on the fringes of the Temple Bar area, which always has an interesting mix of people and good beer. On our first visit in 1995 (we were very much younger) an old, fat, florid Irish man tried to pick Colin and I up – it turned out he was a TD (i.e. MP) in the Irish parliament (possibly even a minister). His name has been diplomatically forgotten, though it is unlikely that he is still around. From there it was back to the Brew Dock, the pub where we started this trip, for a final drink and an early night.
Our flight was in the early afternoon so there was no rush to catch the airport bus. The incoming plane from Cagliari was more or less in time – it was a delay on this flight this that resulted in our delay a week previously. As usual, Ryanair fly from the gates which cost them least, furthest from security, which at Dublin airport means a long walk. We can report that halfway along there is the Tap and Brew craft beer bar, which helped pass the time. And it was plain sailing (or flying) home.
To encourage the use of public transport after the Covid pandemic all fares were reduced by 20% in May 2022 until the end of the year – it is not yet clear what will happen in 2023. For example, this means that I saved €32 (reduced from €160 to €128) on my Irish Explorer rail pass.
Irish trains are modern – most are diesel multiple units built within the last 10 years. They are comfortable and almost all seats line up with windows, though they are not particularly fast or frequent. Most trains we used were on time, none were more than 10 minutes late and we didn’t encounter any cancellations. Many trains were very busy – perhaps the fare reduction has been too successful – the picture is at Mallow, the junction for the line to Tralee. Our Explorer Pass gave us the freedom to use any train in the country on any five days out of fifteen – note that it can only be purchased at station ticket offices. For fare and timetable information see the Iarnród Éireann website www.irishrail.ie where cheap advance fares are available, including reservations.
No train is marked as requiring compulsory reservation but, on some services, virtually very seat had been reserved – the most likely place to find an unreserved seat is at the extreme ends of the train. The reservation signs above the seats just show a name or ticket number, and not where the seat is reserved from and to. It appeared on occasion that people without passes or reservations were being turned away. Note that in all main stations there is a ticket check to enter.
In 1966 fifteen principal stations were named after Irish patriots who were executed for their roles in the 1916 Easter Rising. For example we used Dublin (James) Connolly, Dublin (Seán) Heuston, Wexford (Michael) O’Hanrahan, Waterford (Joseph) Plunkett, Kilkenny (Thomas) MacDonagh, Cork (Thomas) Kent, Tralee (Roger) Casement and Galway (Eamonn) Ceannt. Useless fact – Galway Ceannt is the most westerly station in Europe).
There are buses and coaches into the city and to many places around Ireland from Dublin Airport. The cheapest and most frequent option is Dublin Bus service 41 which departs from stand 15 at the airport and runs to Lower Abbey St St. in about 35 minutes, every 20 minutes. Note that it does not accept contactless cards at present, though this may change soon and does not give change so ensure you have some coins. The current fare (November 2022) is €2.60 single, reduced from €3.30. For details see the Dublin Bus site www.dublinbus.ie . If you plan to stay in the city and use public transport get a LEAP Visitor Card for unlimited travel, which can be purchased at WH Smith in Terminal 1 Arrivals and the Spar shop in Terminal 2 Arrivals. Within the city the LUAS tram services run every few minutes and the single fare is €1.70 with the current reduction.
At one time virtually all bus services in the Irish Republic were operated by Bus Éireann but today there are a number of private operators that compete on some routes. The Bus Éireann site is www.buseireann.ie while the Transport for Ireland journey planner at www.transportforireland.ie shows all options. From Wexford to Waterford there is a choice of Bus Éireann 40 or Wexford Bus 340. From Cork to Kinsale Bus Éireann number 226 runs from outside the railway station, picks up in the city centre and runs hourly. From Galway to Claremorris there is a choice of Bus Éireann services heading towards Sligo, Ballina or Londonderry. Bus Éireann also operate a regular bus service from Galway Bus Station to the Cliffs of Moher, which is much cheaper than the tours advertised in local hotels.
The hotels we stayed in were:
Dublin: Beresford Hotel, Store St. near Connolly station, the bus station for all parts of Ireland, a LUAS tram stop and the airport bus stop and a few minutes walk to O’Connell Street and the bridges across the Liffey.
Kilkenny: Kilford Arms, John St, between the railway station and the town centre, about five minutes walk from each.
Cork: Jurys Inn, Andersons Quay, by the river midway between the railway and bus station and a short walk from the city centre.
Galway: Victoria Hotel, Queen St off Eyre Square In the city centre round the corner from the railway and bus stations.
All the rooms were comfortable. Prices were expensive, even compared to the UK. Whether this is always the case or due to recouping income after Covid or the number of rich American tourists isn’t clear. Accommodation in Cork was particularly expensive – there isn’t much accommodation for a city of its size, and our visit was at the weekend.
Ireland now has a number of craft beer breweries producing a range of styles so it’s no longer a choice between Guinness, Smithwicks Bitter and tasteless fizzy lagers. We identified the places to try using www.ratebeer.com and internet searches for craft beer in Ireland. We didn’t come across any cask ale though several people have mentioned that there are a couple of options in Dublin. Prices are reasonable, particularly outside Dublin. Irish pubs remain excellent – there are quite a few traditional boozers remaining and even where pubs have been enlarged most are well designed with smaller spaces around a central bar and a layout that supports conversation. Traditional music is still common and not only in the tourist traps. On the downside it is clear that some pubs have disappeared over the Covid lockdown. Demographic and lifestyle changes have meant that, as elsewhere, mamy pubs do not open until later in the day, particularly those catering for a younger clientele – options for a lunchtime pint may be limited.
Photos. All photos are by Steve Gillon
Copyright. Text and photographs (c) Steve Gillon, 2022
We weren’t only here for the beer……honest.