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The many faces of Ireland

September 28, 2007|By CATHERINE VAN GILDER

"Wake up, we're here," nudged my husband, Bill, jolting me out of a peaceful slumber.

I peeked out the tiny window, at first not realizing I was in an Aer Lingus jet high above the Atlantic. There, in the black expanse below, twinkled the island I'd been longing to see.

"A land of leprechauns, legends, and castles," I excitedly told Sophie and Grace, my 7- and 10-year-old daughters. They call it Erin in the old language. We know it as Ireland.

After landing in Dublin, the five of us, including Bill's mother, Mary, began our three-week adventure in a silver Volkswagen, just as the sun was beginning to rise. Our bodies were still on American time, so our first mission was to find a bed and breakfast. Grabbing the tour book I suggested the nearby town of Kildare, twice winner of the "Tidy Town" award. A quick stop for strong coffee and brown bread with jam gave us the necessary fuel to ward off the impending jet lag, and allow Bill time to de-stress after driving on the opposite side of the road for the first time.

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Ned and Liz Fitzpatrick's bed and breakfast, Castleview, proved to be the right medicine for our tired bones. After a reviving nap and a look around their dairy farm, Liz regaled us with a legend from the neighboring castle - long ago a thief had dug up a recently buried woman's remains to steal a valuable ring. She was found quite alive and lived for many years!

We were bemused to be surrounded by images of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable at our first dinner out, at The Silken Thomas. The dcor might have been old Hollywood, but the food was very European, and we enjoyed our first fish and chips meal. We were so anxious to eat more Irish fare that our mouths were watering all night just thinking of Liz's "Full Irish Breakfast" planned the next morning - eggs, bacon, ham, white and black pudding, baked beans, grilled tomato, scones, fresh cream and butter, marmalade and cups of French-pressed coffee.

Our stomachs pleasantly full, we spent a whirlwind morning visiting the famed Japanese Gardens and National Stud Farm near Dublin. The girls were absolutely giddy exploring the paths and tunnels in the 100-year-old gardens, while we watched some of Ireland's finest thoroughbreds command the fields in majestic splendor. The Irish are absolutely passionate about horse racing.

After riding the train into Dublin to spend the remainder of the day, we made a beeline to the Guinness Factory. Touring all seven floors, we learned about beer making in a fun and interactive way. A complimentary pint of Guinness was waiting for us on the top floor, as well as a 360-degree view of the city.

A short bus ride later, we reached Trinity College just before closing. There, the major attractions are the Old Library and the Book of Kells, Ireland's most ornately decorated medieval manuscript. Even today, the color is still vivid and rich. The spectacular Old Library above houses 200,000 antiquarian texts and Ireland's oldest surviving harp. You can't help but gasp at its grandeur and amazing architecture.

Next day, a four-hour drive to the west coast brought us to our first cottage rental in Athenry. Following the road signs, labeled in both English and Gaelic, we passed many tumbledown ruins and forgotten Celtic graveyards, even a bog farm where peat moss is cultivated. Flocks of sheep in the green pastures, lace-curtained cottages, enviable flower gardens - everywhere you look it's postcard-perfect.

We settled into Irish living after unpacking and filling up with groceries. The people in Athenry were friendly - one gentleman serenaded us with an Irish tune about Pennsylvania once he heard we were from there. A 13th century monastery ruin was located right in our backyard, and many of the town's ancient reminders of busy, medieval life were still standing.

Irish pubs are an experience all their own, and delightfully smoke-free. "Crack," the Irish expression for lively conversation, is washed down with their beloved Guinness. There is usually a game of hurling or soccer on the television, and fans can get quite animated. Many pubs offer nightly music sessions. During our musical experience we were amiably surprised to hear some American favorites such as "Country Roads" and "The Gambler."

Everything from Irish-made tweeds and woolens to exquisite linen and lace can be found along the Latin Quarter in the seaside, university city of Galway. My daughter wanted a Claddagh ring for herself, after I explained that the ancient symbol - two hands encircling a crown-covered heart - is the only remaining insignia of a coastal fishing community that has since disappeared.

Another amazing day included a quick stop at Dunguaire Castle, exploring The Burren by car, and a picnic on the Cliffs of Moher. The Burren, a geological wonder, is a vast landscape of limestone where few plants grow. Just beyond it lie the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher. The 650-foot cliffs can be cloaked by fog one minute and bathed in sunshine the next.

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