Ireland trip blends history, literature & nature

“Ireland Trip Blends History, Literature and Nature,” Ithaca JournalSept 19, 2016, 1D-2D.

Dublin, Belfast and Irish countryside prove to be memorable vacation

During a period in the 1980s, when I was working on a book on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and, later, an edition of Joyce’s “The Dead,” I visited Dublin twice, but I had never been to other parts of Ireland. This was the first trip to Ireland for my wife, Marcia Jacobson.

Because Irish literature is one of the fields in which I teach and write, going to Ireland is special for me. I wanted to be there June 16, the day when “Ulysses” takes place; this day is now known as Bloomsday because a character named Leopold Bloom is the protagonist of “Ulysses.”

We began with seven days and six nights in the cities — four nights in Dublin and two in Belfast — before picking up our rental car in Galway and exploring the countryside. The trip was a history lesson that built on my studying not only Irish literature but also Irish history and culture.

It was a pleasure for us to be in Ireland in June during through the longest days of the year and to experience 18 to 19 hours of daylight. We were lucky to have mild, sunny days because rain and overcast days are common there. The day temperatures were mostly in the 60s.

Ireland uses the euro, currently weak against the dollar, which means good value. Since Belfast is part of United Kingdom, it uses the British pound, strong against the dollar, which means you may pay a little more than expected for some items.

Ireland is an easy country to visit. Irish people tend to be very cooperative, friendly, helpful and for the most part understanding of Americans’ driving.

Trains proved an efficient and pleasant way to travel in Ireland. For about $36 each, we bought round-trip train tickets between Dublin and Belfast. Because I wanted to minimize city driving, we also took the train to Galway. While we moved between cities and towns by car and rail, what remains in my memory are wonderful walks in both city and country


Steeped in history, Dublin has a population of about half a million and another million in greater Dublin. The River Liffey runs through Dublin into the Irish Sea and sites can be divided according to which side of the river they are on. Because Dublin’s major sites are close to one another, walking is easy.

Bloomsday Celebration: June 16

During our days in Dublin, we visited many of the venues that Joyce references in “Ulysses.” On our first night, June 14, we had a pub dinner at Davy Byrne’s which Bloom favors as a “moral pub” and the one he chooses for lunch in “Ulysses” because he likes the atmosphere and clientele.

We began June 16 at Trinity College with a visit to the elaborate display of the illuminated manuscript featuring the Four Gospels known as the Book of Kells, which influenced the graphic aspect of “Ulysses.” The informative presentation of this Irish treasure was far different from when I saw it on my first visits to Dublin. Then one simply walked past an open page of the Book of Kells, with no charge and few visitors. We then wandered around Trinity College, stopping at the fine zoological museum.

IrelandAnne Enright reading on Bloomsday, Dublin​

In the afternoon, we stopped at Davy Byrne’s for the Bloomsday celebration before proceeding to a “Ulysses” reading in Meeting Square in the Temple Bar area, an area with pubs and small shops. The Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright gave a wonderful reading of the “Calypso” episode of “Ulysses.” Several people were dressed in costume, notably one man who was a perfectly attired James Joyce with a monocle and several couples dressed as Bloom and his wife, Molly.

South of the Liffey

The Fitzwilliam Hotel, across from St. Stephen’s Green, and near lively Grafton Street, provided a splendid starting point for exploring most of the major sites. St. Stephen’s Green is a well cared-for park. During two walks there, we saw swans and a blue heron as well as memorial statues of Irish literary and historical luminaries.

IrelandMimes on Grafton Street, Dublin​

In addition to Trinity College, among the important sites south of the Liffey are the National Library of Ireland (Kildare Street). The library has two permanent literary exhibits, an elaborate one on Yeats with recorded readings of some of his poems, along with a small but fine one on Joyce. The library also offers an historical exhibit on Ireland’s role in World War I when Ireland was still part of the British empire; this exhibit will be on display until 2018.

On the same street is the National Museum of Ireland, which has three locations in Dublin and one in County Mayo. The branch on Kildare Street calls itself Archeology but includes some history. The other Dublin branches are Decorative Arts and History at Collins Barracks and Natural History at Merrion Street. The County Mayo location at Castlebar features Irish Country Life.

The National Gallery of Ireland (Merrion Square) is under renovation but is displaying some of the collection’s treasures, including its paintings by Vermeer and Caravaggio.

One should not miss the Chester Beatty Library (within the Dublin Castle compound, Dame Street), which has an elegant and beautifully displayed collection of rare manuscripts, decorative arts and other treasures from various cultures, including European, Islamic and East Asian.

Also on the south side of the Liffey are two splendid Church of Ireland cathedrals located close to one another. (St. Mary’s, on the north side of the Liffey, serves as the Catholic Cathedral.) St. Patrick’s Cathedral is Ireland’s largest church (St. Patrick’s Close). Jonathan Swift is buried there; he was not only the author of “Gulliver’s Travels” but also the dean of the church. Equally if not more impressive is Christ Church Cathedral (Christchurch Place), which dates from the 11th century.

North of the Liffey

With statues of Irish luminaries, O’Connell Street is something of a history lesson. Perhaps the major historical site on O’Connell Street is the Irish Post Office (the headquarters of the 1916 Easter rebellion). The now-absent Nelson Pillar (similar to the one Trafalgar Square) that stood in front of the post office was blown up by Sinn Fein in 1966 because it represented the presence British imperialism in Ireland. Now the Spire of Dublin (sometimes called the Monument of Light), 398 feet high, has replaced the pillar.

Other major sites north of the Liffey are the Hugh Lane Gallery (officially the Dublin City Gallery; Charelmont House, Parnell Square), which has a fine collection of European and Irish art. Anyone interested in Irish culture should consider visiting the James Joyce Centre (35 N. Great George’s St.) which features an informative introduction to Joyce’s life and works.

We saw a performance of Sean O’Casey’s “The Shadow of a Gunman” at the historic Abbey Theatre, the Irish National Theatre, which is just north of the Liffey. Set in Dublin in the early 1920s, “The Shadow of a Gunman” makes clear how the Irish past anticipated the political violence in Northern Ireland between British Loyalists and the IRA. The production was a bit over-stylized for a play that O’Casey intended to be harshly realistic, but was nevertheless compelling theater.

IrelandPolitical Poster, Protestant neighborhood, Belfast​


With a population of more than 330,0000 and almost double that if the urban zone included, Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and is part of United Kingdom, due to partition when the Irish Free State was established in 1922. (In 1937, the Irish Free State became the Republic of Ireland.)

Northern Ireland, known as Ulster, has been the site of violent sectarian “Troubles” that began in the 1960s between Catholics wanting union with Ireland and Protestants wanting to remain part of Britain. In the last 17 years, following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the killing has mostly abated under a unity government.

The way to experience the history of Northern Island is to take the Black Taxi Tour, which is a generic name for the tour of sites in mostly working-class Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. The total cost for a 90-minute tour for up to three people is 30 pounds (about $47).

IrelandPolitical Poster, Catholic neighborhood, Belfast​ ​

These neighborhoods are divided by gates that close every night. In both Catholic (Falls) and Protestant (Shankill) neighborhoods, one still sees strong indications of conflict. British flags fly in the latter, and murals of sectarian heroes can be found on each side. On July 12, Protestants have huge barn fires to celebrate William of Orange’s victory in the 1690 Battle of Boyne.

Because of its history of violence, Belfast attracts comparatively few tourists, although this is changing. We were centrally located at another Fitzwilliam Hotel, and after arrival we walked to the Botanical Gardens (Stranmillis Road in Queen’s Quarter). Don’t miss the Palm House Conservatory and Ulster Museum, both within the Botanical Gardens. The museum has excellent art and historical exhibits. On the same walk, we stopped at Queens University.

IrelandGates separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, Belfast

Another must is City Hall (Donegall Square), a huge, elegant 19th century building that once was the site of White Linen Hall, an important part in the international Linen Exchange. The Titanic was built in Belfast, and the Titanic exhibit in an area adjacent to the harbor (1 Olympic Way) is an important attraction. At the elegant Grand Opera House (2-4 Great Victoria St.), we saw Richard Harris’ “The Business of Murder,” an old-fashioned murder-mystery starring Robert Gwilyn.

Beyond Dublin: Irish Countryside

IrelandGrounds of Ballynahinch Castle​

After picking up our rental car in Galway, we drove through beautiful scenery to Ballynahinch Castle which sits on a gorgeous property in the scenic Connemara district of western Ireland. We had a wonderful room overlooking the Owenmore River, a site of salmon fishing, which runs into a small lake.

We enjoyed visits to the coastal village of Roundstone — from which you can see the three Aran Islands, another tourist destination — and Clifden, Connemara’s largest town, where my wife bought a handmade Irish wool sweater. On the same drive, one should not miss Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden ( between Clifden and Westport).

Our next visit was to Bunratty (County Clare, between Limerick and Ennis,), where the main site is the nicely renovated 15th century Bunratty Castle, featuring period furniture. Your admission ticket includes the accompanying Folk Park, reconstruction of an Irish village as it may have looked in the 19th century.

IrelandCliffs of Moher

A highlight of the automobile part of out trip was a visit to the stunning Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s greatest natural site, 702 feet at their highest and extending 5 miles along the Atlantic Coast. While there is a sightseeing tower with a slight extra charge, the best way to see the cliffs is by walking on a trail parallel to them. This walk not only presents diverse views of the rocky landscape but also splendid views of the ocean.

Another unique if less visited site is the stony Burren area (also in County Clare), which I found desolate. Burren means “hard rock” in Irish, and the land is composed primarily of the same porous limestone that created the Cliffs of Moher. The area has unique flora and fauna. We walked in the environs of what remains of Kilfenora Cathedral.

IrelandThe Burren​

Needless, to say, having the car for less than a week limited how much we could see. After Bunratty, which we used as base to see the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren, we made our way northeast, stopping at the Johnston Hotel in Enfield, County Meath, where we enjoyed a very nice rustic walk along the local canal. The following day, we drove for about an hour to the Dublin airport and dropped off the car.

If You Go

Con Jager of Authentic Ireland ( organized our trip and did everything I asked. Our USAirways round trip flight from Ithaca and through Philadelphia to Dublin cost more than $1,200.

Be advised to take extra car insurance, because all the Americans I spoke to had a few scratches on their car. Driving on the left side is a challenge that you get used to in a day or so; more difficult are the narrow one-lane roads for traffic going both ways. To make way for oncoming traffic, especially buses and trucks, you need to take your car into the bushes.


Dublin: The Fitzwilliam Hotel, well-located off St Stephen Square, is hospitable with excellent service, especially at the concierge desk, but by international standards it is more a mid- to high four-star than a real five-star. While we had a nice room, we faced other rooms and the view was quite disappointing. But the hotel is noisy if you face St. Stephen’s Green. The gym is really a converted room with minimal amenities.

Belfast: The well-located, Fitzwilliam Hotel, sister to the Dublin Fitzwilliam Hotel, has beautiful rooms. It is probably a little more chic that its sister hotel in Dublin.

Beyond major cities: Ballynahinch Castle, which I discussed above, is a not to be missed.

IrelandBunratty Castle

Nothing in the first eight nights prepared us for the disappointing Bunratty Castle Hotel. According to our booking agent, it was supposed to be a four-star property but was a generic three-star hotel in a kind of mall-like tourist area. While the hotel has a spa, small pool and gym, our room lacked the usual bathroom amenities. The courteous if impersonal hotel staff did put us in their best room but the hotel did not have a concierge. The ownership seemed interested in tour groups whose guests don’t return but who spend money at the spa and restaurants.

The Johnston House Hotel and Spa is a fine property with a good restaurant and is a nice final stop if you are departing from Dublin airport.


Irish food is not as imaginative as French and Italian food with their rich culinary traditions. But we had some fine meals and some splendid individual courses. The beef was for the most part excellent, especially at Johnston House Hotel and Spa and Ballynahinch Castle, where I also had wonderful oysters and seafood chowder. Salmon, especially smoked salmon as an appetizer, is delicious. Dark bread with treacle can be quite wonderful. We barely drink alcohol, but we did enjoy red ale with dinner on occasion.

The Irish often overcook fish, and many restaurants feature mild and barely seasoned white fish —cod, turbot, bass — that lack strong flavor. Desserts are often overly sweet, and more serviceable than elegant; the best dessert choice can be an assortment of cheeses. A “full Irish breakfast” means eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes, toast, as well as puddings made from sausage. I soon passed on the puddings, and by the end of the trip much of the rest.

At several places, the portions were larger than anticipated and, for those with modest appetites, splitting entrees can be a good idea.

Dublin: While a much better restaurant, Thornton’s, is located within the Fitzwilliam Hotel, Citron, the hotel’s own restaurant is no better than serviceable. Service was shamefully slow one night — indeed, virtually non-existent — but better the next night. The first courses are the most interesting, entrees simple but respectable and the desserts adequate, with the lemon cake the best.

I am not a great fan of pub food, but Davy Byrne’s (21 Duke St.) serves decent fish and chips and offers a lively, fun atmosphere.

The Joy of Cha (10 Essex Street East, Temple Bar) has great homemade scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream as well as specialty teas.

The Winding Stair (40 Lower Ormond) has a good reputation, but I found our meal respectable without being distinguished. Main courses on the pre-theater menu tend to meat and potatoes, and the wiener schnitzel (an enormous portion) was dry even for that dish.

Belfast: Dinner at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, dinner was excellent. The chef seasons the food with panache, and turned the bland sea bass into a lively dish by setting it on a medley of tomatoes and fennel.

James Street South (James Street) serves an excellent pre-theater meal; we both had delicious roast lamb (hogget, which is sheep between one and two years old), and split a delicious pistachio soufflé.

Be advised that there is an extra charge in Belfast for bread, perhaps 3.5 pounds and if you ask for more to supplement what may be a skimpy portion, you will be charged another 3.5 pounds.

Beyond major cities: 

Our dinner in the Ballynahinch Castle Hotel’s elegant main restaurant was fabulous, with main courses a medley of fish and delicious steak. The oysters were world class. In the pub, we had a decent dinner the next night; while the seafood chowder was a treat, the chicken was overcooked and a potato accompaniment should not have left the kitchen.

Gallaghers of Bunratty has a strong reputation as a place which serves great seafood. Their tasty seafood chowder is what I would call a fish stew. The medley of turbot, John Dory and halibut was decent but unexceptional; like all the white fish I had in Ireland, except the sea bass at the Belfast Fitzwilliam, the medley was a bit overcooked.

Next door, J.P. Clarkes is an upscale pub under the same ownership where I enjoyed an enormous pot of steamed mussels. I am not sure they were as sweet as Belgian or Newfoundland mussels and they came without side dishes, but working my way through the mussel pile was fun, and the creamy broth was quite savory.


Author of numerous travel articles and 16 books, Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. Read more travel articles at He can be reached at and followed on twitter at or on Facebook at