Ireland is a very "green" place, as the cliche goes, but it's so much more. The gentle climate, bucolic pastures, beautiful cities, and complex history are all things worth discovering. In Ireland you'll quickly find that the past is unusually well preserved and celebrated. If you like castles, megalithic mounds, stone houses, and wool sweaters, Ireland might be your kind of place.
Until recently, I could think of very few major attractions worth seeing in Ireland. After a bit of research, I found that Ireland not only has a huge number of castles, it also has some world-class prehistoric monuments. While England has its Stonehenge, Ireland has Newgrange. More than 5,000 years old, it's not only older than Stonehenge, but also the Great Pyramids of Egypt. And like the Great Pyramids, it aligns with the stars. On only one day a year, the Winter Solstice, a shaft of sunlight will beam through the entranceway down a 90-foot tunnel, striking a wall inside the main chamber at the core of the 249-foot-diameter mound. This fully intact inner chamber makes it unique among the world's megalithic structures. Although plenty of bones and stone carvings have been excavated in and around the site, very little is known about the people of this time period. Newgrange is just one of many mysterious megalithic structures found throughout Ireland.
Unfortunately, Newgrange was booked up the day I planned to visit. No problem, as the Boyne Valley offered several other megalithic sites. I chose nearby Knowth, which is a series of giant mounds, all well preserved and decorated with intricate, abstract stone carvings. Knowth also has a chamber which visitors can enter, though it was not located in the heart of the mound or as well preserved as Newgrange's. Still, Knowth was one of the most enchanting and haunting experiences I've ever had. The mounds area afforded a commanding view of the countryside, which was rolling pastures and farms in all directions. No billboards or highways, just a well-preserved purity and ancientness, as is common throughout much of Ireland.
Weather was typical for Ireland in mid July. Temperatures rarely rose above the mid 60s, with more clouds than sun. Perfect "sweater weather," in other words. The rain was usually light and brief, creating a charming mist and occasional rainbow. (I did not have time to check for a pot of treasure at the end of the rainbow!)
I found the Irish climate a bit peculiar. With the occasional birch or palm tree here and there, it's as if Ireland can't decide whether to be a northern or southern climate. Ireland is almost as far north as southern Alaska, yet the warm ocean currents flowing north produce a moderate climate. Wildflowers are abundant, bursting with exotic red, orange, purple, and yellow. In fact, wild vegetation can sometimes appears more like a cultivated garden than countryside. Noxious weeds are noticeably scarce.
Forestland is another scarce commodity. When Irish people visit the states, they are immediately taken by the abundance of trees. Repetitive flatland was also not part of the Irish landscape. It's not for nothing that some great films have been shot in Ireland, including Braveheart and at least one Harry Potter movie. The mild climate, rolling hills, and regal castles make an excellent backdrop for epic tales of another time and place.
I'm not one to buy a lot of souvenirs but in this case I made and exception and purchased a wool sweater in the coastal town of Dingle in County Kerry, in southwest Ireland. One of Kerry's major attractions is its Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile driving tour that covers some of the most scenic parts in all Ireland. Other attractions include the Kerry Woolen mills, over 300 years old, and Skellig Michael, a Gaelic monastery founded sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries.
It’s been said you cannot walk 100 yards in Ireland without stumbling onto an ancient relic. Hill fortifications, or hillforts, are one example: rings of earth and stone that once protected a small village. Ranging from 150 feet to hundreds of feet in diameter, many of these hillforts were left undisturbed on the hillsides, with stone walls and huts intact, surrounded by sheep pasture as they have for millennia.
Sometime following the the megalithic period came the Druid period. Druids did not believe in written records, so their early origins are unclear. Druids were a professional class of priests, judges, storytellers, doctors and trusted advisers to chieftains. Ancient Roman writers such as Tacitus, Pliny, Cicero and Caesar all left a record of the Druids, but these accounts are no doubt biased and incomplete. Druids were suppressed by all the invading forces, including Romans, Vikings, and later Christians, yet the Druid influence could never be extinguished. It remains embedded in Irish culture. Today scholars continue to find evidence that Druids were extremely sophisticated, particularly in their legal framework, which, interestingly, bestowed property rights to women when most of the more "civilized" cultures of Europe did not.
The mystique and magic of Ireland cast a spell on me, to be sure. There is something special about a land that values its heritage of fairies and Druids, a place where wildflowers crowd out the weeds, a place where it rarely freezes or swelters. The Emerald Isle and should be high on every traveler’s list. Unfortunately, some people mistake the lack of blockbuster attractions as a reason not to visit. Hopefully that will change as more people discover what Ireland has to offer.