North to Galway ...
Driving to and from Galway, the Gort exit of the M18 is the gateway to Coole Park (www.coolepark.ie) where a magnificent series of woodland and lakeside walks cater for every age and every energy level. Most walks take in the red deer enclosure, the walled garden and the ‘autograph’ tree, the latter inscribed with the signatures of a number of 20th century literati, including Sean O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw.
Of course Galway itself is one of Ireland’s gems, wonderful pubs, restaurants and festivals and colourful streets teeming with people from every corner of the globe. Sometimes it’s hard to find a quiet corner, to do something different ... that’s where Katie’s Claddagh Cottage (www. claddaghdesigns.ie) comes in.
Off the beaten track, but only a short walk from the centre, Katie’s Claddagh Cottage is rightly called a ‘hidden gem’. Located in a nondescript street of private houses and set back from the road next to some low-rise apartments, the cottage-cum-arts-centre is almost literally hidden. But don’t be fooled for this unique, restored thatched cottage not only depicts traditional life in one of Ireland’s oldest fishing villages but also sheds light on the origins of the Claddagh ring. And you can have a cup of tea and a scone.
Also on the edge of town is Galway’s best fish restaurant, the aptly-named Hooked (www.hookedonhenryst.com). I once took a Romanian friend there, a hard-to-please, fish aficionado, and have never seen him smile so much ... he agreed unreservedly with the slogan painted on the wall, ‘one taste and you’re hooked’.
South to Limerick ...
If you are of a certain age and were ever addicted to BBC broadcaster Terry Wogan, then Limerick’s the place for you for it was here that young Terry honed his razor-sharp wit. He and another Limerick lad, actor Richard Harris, went to the same school and, having made their marks elsewhere, both are remembered with statues at either end of Bedford Row.
A few hundred metres inland from the Shannon is the Milk Market (www.milkmarketlimerick.ie), a Limerick institution since the mid-19th century. From food-to-go to fruit and veg, from bread to jams and cheese to wine, it’s all under the one roof. And if you feel the need for a guide then try a food tour (www.teachtlinntours.com) and sample the wares as you go.
Adherents to the Robin Hood myth will recall how King Richard was the ‘goodie’ and his brother, John, the unscrupulous ‘baddie’. Both were sons of Henry II whose claim to fame was the annexation of Ireland in the late 12th century. One of the legacies of these events is Limerick’s magnificent Shannon-side castle, King John’s Castle (www.kingjohnscastle.com/king-johns-castle/), now an outstanding and creative example of how to help people experience, understand and interpret the medieval world.
However, no mention is made of this important detail … in one of the many, cinematic adaptations of Robin Hood-ism, John’s brother, Richard the Lionheart, was portrayed by Limerick lad, Richard the Harris.
And if you haven’t over-indulged at the Milk Market, then pop into Flannerys (www.facebook.com/FlannerysBarShannonStreet/). Flannerys is a homely and warm pit-stop, a traditional Irish pub with excellent bar food ... the sort of place where you’ll be offered a piping-hot mince pie, gratis of course, on the run-up to Christmas.
East to Tipperary ...
Killaloe lies at the lower neck of the second largest lake in the Republic of Ireland, Lough Derg. (The largest is Lake Corrib in County Galway.)
The town is split in two by the mighty river Shannon and, as it happens, the border between counties Clare and Tipperary runs right down the middle of the river and Lough Derg. Approaching from Ennis you are in County Clare, cross the bridge and you are in Tipperary.
Killaloe River Cruises (www.killaloerivercruises.com) operates from the east bank, the Tipperary side, and offers daily one-hour cruises on the Shannon and Lough Derg. The tour cruises north along the river and the lough offering not only stunning views but also a tranquil journey through heritage and history.
Back on dry land, you might wonder why the name Brian Boru seems popular locally ... the answer is a mixture of fact and well-worn tales for Brian was the Killaloe lad who went on to become the last great High King of Ireland.
Killaloe has many great pubs and restaurants but if you want something different then a short drive south brings you to Birdhill and a special experience at Matt the Thresher Inn (www.mattthethresherinn.com), a great place to eat and drink though, not being a well-kept secret, booking is advisable.
And if you need to walk off your indulgences, then an even shorter drive further south, at the Shannon meeting of counties Tipperary, Clare and Limerick, is the small town of O’Briensbridge which boasts several riverside walks to suit all ages and abilities (www.discoverireland.ie/clare/o-briensbridge-old-barge-loop).
West to Inisheer (Inis Oirr) ...
Inisheer is the nearest (and smallest) of the Aran Islands, just a 15-minute ferry-hop from Doolin harbour on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Every ferry is welcomed by a choice for its passengers ... to walk, to cycle or take a ride. Depending on how long you intend to stay, and assuming you have checked the times of ferries back to the mainland, either one, or a mixture of all three, gives you enough time to explore the island and still find time to grab a bite to eat.
The Pony and trap is the lazy way but then you do get your own personal guide in the form of its jarvey (driver) and his local knowledge. Cyclists get a map of the key places to visit while a walk round the island’s coastline (about 11km) takes around three hours but you miss out on some of the ‘inland’ highlights but get to see the island on the other side.
Whatever your choice, all three take in one special landmark—the most special for those brought up with the ‘Craggy' Island shipwreck from the title sequence of Father Ted—the rusting hull of the Plassey. The non-existent ‘Craggy’ Island is, of course, Inisheer.
Up until 1960 the Plassey was a nondescript Limerick-based freighter but in March that year a hurricane tossed it onto the Finnis Rock. Another storm a few weeks later washed the Plassey off the rock and drove it ashore where it reddened with rust to become perhaps Inisheer’s most photographed landmark.
Sadly none of the pubs and eateries from Father Ted are on Inisheer. Nevertheless, within a short walk of the pier, there are several places to eat and drink and, if Guinness to die for is important to you, then you might want to pop into the Inisheer Hotel where the food is also top notch.