“Slow down Daddy!” yelled my three-year old from the backseat of our rented Volkswagen. Although he swears he was driving under the speed limit, I am pretty sure my husband achieved airborne status as we flew over the potholes, screeched around the extremely narrow corners and dodged the hundreds sunbathing sheep that littered the roadways. Perhaps I am exaggerating slightly, but anyone who has ever attempted to drive in Ireland would have to agree; it is not for the faint of heart. While the driving itself can be daunting, the reward of majestic landscapes, life changing views and encounters with charismatic country folk make rural Ireland the ultimate family road trip destination.
When my family, which at the time included two children under four and a six-month pregnant momma, decided to travel to Ireland, we knew we wanted to experience everything the Emerald Isle has to offer. We also wanted to find a home base where we could rest our tiny human beings. A family member suggested that we consider renting a house in rural Ireland, recommending County Cork in the southwest corner of the country. After a few crazy days in Dublin overcoming jetlag, our family rented a car and braved the Irish highways to embark on our rural adventure!
The Irish love to retreat to the country in the summer months of July and August as they flock to the coastal areas. As a result, there are an abundance of properties available to rent in any price range, from small apartments to full houses on large parcels of land. We were traveling in the off-season and had no trouble finding a place to accommodate our family. We found our house on Imagine Ireland which allows travellers to search properties anywhere in the country and to filter on a number of categories, including family-friendly, proximity to beaches and playgrounds and local conveniences such as restaurants, shops and pubs.
Our selected destination was an old farmhouse on an operational farm, located about five kilometres outside of the town of Glengarriff. Located on a hilltop, we had an amazing view of the town and fishing harbour. Our lovely host had baked a fresh loaf of Irish soda bread for our arrival and ensured the fridge was stocked with essentials including milk, butter and fresh farm eggs. Our children could not wait to see the animals and were invited to help out with the evening chores. A definite highlight of the trip was seeing the delight and amazement in our city-slicker children’s faces as they fed the donkeys and hand-picked eggs from the chicken coop. When we cooked those same eggs for the next morning’s breakfast, my son beamed with pride and constantly reminded us that these were his eggs!
Glengarriff is located approximately one hour away from one of Ireland’s most famous attractions, Killarney National Park. Comprised of Ireland’s largest remaining woodland, along with numerous lakes and wetland areas, Killarney Park is a much visited destination for nature lovers. Recognizing that our children would not last long on a forest hike, we opted to explore the town site of Killarney. After a quick history lesson at Ross Castle, we hired a jaunting car (horse-drawn carriage) to take us on a 45 minute tour of the park. While much of the commentary was lost on our toddlers, they were mesmerized by the horse and were delighted to spot a herd of deer in the distance.
A hidden gem in the County Cork area is the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. Located between two Bays (Bantry and Dunmanus), Sheep’s Head has over eighty kilometres of hiking paths, leading to phenomenal views from the lighthouse situated at the peak. Cheating slightly, our family drove to the top of the cliff and went for a shortened walk along the summit. Fortunately we arrived at sheep herding time, and enjoyed the show of farmers waving flags and shouting in Gaelic as they attempted to move the flock between pastures.
Dursey Island was another family favourite. Accessible only via cable car, our children loved crossing the channel on this somewhat dated aerial mode of transportation. With no buildings or permanent residents (other than a large herd of sheep), Dursey Island is an extremely peaceful place, boasting phenomenal views of the ocean and surrounding cliffs. Our fellow cable car passengers included an Irish farmer and his sheepdog, which amazed our son and lead to a plethora of questions regarding the logistics of getting the sheep on the island (apparently they used to be transported on the cable car, however are now taken via boat). Despite their thick accents, our son and his new best friend had a lively debate over how the sheep managed to balance on the edge of the cliffs and the likelihood of one falling into the ocean.
Perhaps Ireland’s most famous castle, Blarney Castle is situated between Dublin and Cork, making for a nice stop on a road trip. Blarney Castle itself has seen better days, however the grounds surrounding the monument, along with Blarney House are definitely worth exploring. Our children loved climbing the trees and playing hide-and-seek in the numerous shrubs and bushes. Another highlight was the poison garden, entered at one’s own risk and under strict supervision, which felt straight out of Harry Potter with its abundance of dangerous and mysterious plant species. Of course no visit to Blarney Castle would be complete without the kissing of the Blarney Stone. Surprisingly this is not as straightforward as it sounds as one has to be held by an attendant while lying down, holding onto bars, leaning backwards and puckering up. The process was extremely cumbersome, especially while pregnant, however worthwhile, ensuring the lifelong gift of eloquent speech!
Spending a week driving around a small corner of Ireland definitely made a lasting impression on our family. My children were able to feel like honorary farm kids and got to experience first hand farm-to-fork eating. I will never forget the amazing scenery we saw on our drive and can truly appreciate the Emerald moniker bestowed upon this beautiful country. And my husband still brags about his time behind the wheel and vows to return with the goal of actually achieving the posted speed limit!