Europe

Irish fantasy: From Dublin to the green beyond

It’s ancient. It’s modern. It can be awfully wet, but the pubs are super warm. Local travel writer PÓL Ó CONGHAILE and painter NICHOLAS HELY HUTCHINSON take us on a whirlwind tour of Ireland

It takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint. The ritual is described in detail at Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse, but that’s not where I’m watching it.

I’ve left the office early for a front row seat at John Kavanagh, a pub in the capital’s Glasnevin district. It’s Friday afternoon, the bartenders aren’t yet busy, and I lean on the 19th century bar, watching first surge move towards final settle. Known as ‘The Gravediggers’, due to its history as a watering hole for workers at Glasnevin Cemetery next door, the pub has its hip side, and a contemporary tapas menu in the lounge. It’s the perfect place to watch old and new Ireland merge, just like that pint.

Ireland drinking
Patrick Donald

Big sights; small moments. Ireland’s magic is a balance of both. To discover Cathay Pacific’s newest destination, you’ll need a week to explore – for wandering around Dublin, and then hiring a car to uncover its most sublime spots.

Most Irish itineraries start in the capital, Dublin. Visitors here dash between the Guinness Storehouse to taste Ireland’s most famous export and the Old Library of Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, a lustrous ninth century manuscript. To get under Dublin’s skin, however, you need to slip into sneakier spaces – to talk to locals and see where the conversations take you. Ireland’s capital is rebounding after years in recession, dotted with ritzy new office blocks and restaurants. But stolen moments like those at The Gravediggers are its dopamine hits.

From Dublin, it’s a 2.5-hour drive on the M9 motorway to Waterford, one of the country’s oldest cities, founded by Vikings around 914 AD. You can learn about that in several museums in Waterford’s ‘Viking Triangle’ heritage district, but I’d recommend making a beeline for a bike hire shop.

Ireland view
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

Why? The new Waterford Greenway (visitwaterfordgreenway.com) – a 46-kilometre cycling and pedestrian laneway that traces an old railway line through rolling farmland and riverbanks to the coastal town of Dungarvan – is an addictive addition to the county. I love the Ballyvoyle Viaduct, and panoramic views of the Copper Coast – a Unesco Geopark named for its 19th century mines. But I also love how the owners of O’Mahony’s, a sweet shop and pub in the town of Durrow, greet me like family.

From Waterford, follow the N25 road southwest towards Cork. You could overnight here before joining the Wild Atlantic Way – a 2,500-kilometre touring route that runs from the foodie village of Kinsale on the southern coast to Ireland’s most northerly point at Malin Head, in County Donegal. It’s a new route, but has encouraged locals like me to explore the west coast.

Dangling on the end of the dramatic cliffs, I discover Ireland’s only cable car. Forget ski gondolas or fancy carriages, the Dursey Island Cable Car (durseyisland.ie) is a lifeline for a small clutch of farmers and locals at the end of the breathtaking Beara peninsula. Most visitors to this part of the country stick to the town of Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, a gorgeous circular driving route. Drop off the beaten track though, and you could find yourself at the ends of the Earth, waiting for this tiny gondola to ferry you over the mutinous Dursey Sound. Ireland is stuffed with Instagrammable moments. Another is on the cover: Mizen Head, a wiggly drive down to the extreme southwest.

Ireland trip
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

My latest trip west took me to County Limerick. In the city of Limerick, I stayed at the five-star Adare Manor (adaremanor.com). If you’re going to splurge, this is the place to do it. The gothic revival-style mansion has recently finished a meticulous refurbishment – though thankfully with a keen eye towards preserving its heritage details, including a fireplace designed by architect Augustus Pugin and golf greens slick as snooker tables. Take lunch in The Drawing Room, book dinner at the just-opened Carriage House, or enjoy a tasting in a secret wine cellar designed by London’s David Collins Studio. If you can’t stay, book ahead for afternoon tea beneath the soaring, vaulted ceilings of The Gallery – a tradition stemming from the Earl of Dunraven’s day.

From Limerick, head northwest into County Clare, where the Burren National Park (burrennationalpark.ie) reveals its rocky, karstic moonscape. Wildflowers appear in May and vanish again by the end of September, but treats like the Burren Perfumery (burrenperfumery.com), Hazel Mountain Chocolate (hazelmountainchocolate.com) or the Wild Honey Inn (wildhoneyinn.com) – the first pub in Ireland to earn a Michelin star – are less fleeting. One point to aim for, with the little Linnalla farmhouse ice-cream shop (linnallaicecream.ie) as a bonus, is the silvery seascape of the Flaggy Shore.

Ireland building
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

Famously, the area features in Seamus Heaney’s poem Postscript:

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Ah yes, the weather. Don’t come to Ireland for sun. Bring sunscreen, but also light raingear, sturdy shoes and layers you can pull on when needed. I brought all of these things on a foraging trip near Ballina, in County Mayo, with Denis Quinn of Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours. After scouring the shoreline for mussels, clams and cockles, he pulled a stove from his car, chucked in the lot, added half a lemon and a glug of white wine, and we ate it there and then. Delicious.

Ireland trip
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

From north Mayo, if time allows, your circuit should take you northeast – veering into Northern Ireland via Sligo and south Donegal. A trip back to Dublin via the Causeway Coast is doable, with stops at the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede rope-bridge and several Game of Thrones locations.

My favourite is the Dark Hedges near Ballymoney, a brooding avenue of beech trees that briefly starred in the show as the King’s Road. The Stuart family planted the trees in the 18th century, and they’ve twisted and turned over the centuries to become a fascinating, frightening spectacle today. At dawn or dusk, the branches seem to unfurl like fingers.

From the Dark Hedges, it makes sense to break for Belfast to enjoy an overnight stay – maybe a visit to the Titanic Belfast exhibition (‘she was fine when she left here,’ as locals are fond of saying), or a local foodie tour – taking in the city’s mix of cracking delis, up-and-coming dining and craft gin – before completing the circle back to Dublin. You’ll wonder where the time went.

See more of Nicholas Hely Hutchinson’s artworks at Dublin’s Oriel Gallery in September. nicholashelyhutchinson.com

Ireland horse riding
Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

Dublin’s tribes

Dublin doesn’t really do neighbourhoods. You won’t find a Soho here, and anyone asking for directions to ‘downtown’ will draw looks of confusion as everything is central and easily walkable.

You’ll surely have heard of Temple Bar, a strip of restaurants, pubs and shops on the south bank of the River Liffey that’s Grand Central Station for tourists, but most locals give it a wide berth on weekends.

Instead, for nightlife, follow the students and hipsters towards Aungier Street and Wexford Street, where casual food joints (Dublin Pizza Company, Aungier Danger doughnut shop, Spanish restaurant Las Tapas de Lola) line up beside craft beer bars like Against the Grain and live music venue Whelan’s.

Nearby, The Liberties (also known as Dublin 8) is the city’s up-and-coming district, where street vendors selling from prams meet a young, urban set flitting between antique shops, hip cafes and transformative new arrivals like the Teeling Whiskey Distillery.

Grand Canal Dock is where U2 have their recording studio and the techies hang out (during the day, at least) – the European HQs of Facebook, Airbnb and Google are all nearby – and the food scene is improving all the time.

Finally, if your carriage turns into a pumpkin, head to Harcourt Street – a Georgian strip that flips into nightlife central after dark, thanks to cheesy clubs like Krystle and Copper Face Jacks (don’t say we didn’t warn you).

Cathay Pacific launches a four-times-weekly route to Dublin from Hong Kong on 2 June

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