Discover affordable Ireland

Sure, a little bit o’ Heaven, fell from the sky one day,
And nestled on the ocean, in a spot so far away.
And when the angels found it, it looked so sweet and fair,
They said suppose we leave it, for it looks so peaceful there!

– A Little Bit o’ Heaven, Irish Folk Song

Most Irish, even those who’ve been in Canada for generations, have a deep, emotional attachment to the little Emerald Isle. You’ll see them on St. Patrick’s Day, donning their green accessories, singing the Four Green Fields and raising their pints — a toast to the old Green Sod.

But this “little bit o’ heaven” shouldn’t necessarily be the exclusive domain of Ireland’s sons and daughters. The lush and verdant island is a traveller’s dream, a bit of European culture set amongst stunning natural beauty. Not least among its attractions is the fact that it’s more affordable than the capitals of Europe — many of its sights are free.

The key is to stay away from the expensive cities and concentrate on the lovy landscape, the best of which lies along the south and western parts of Ireland, in the Counties of Cork, Kerry and Clare.

Travel options
Start in County Cork along the south coast, then head northwest through County Kerry and into County Clare, stopping along the way to take in the countryside attractions.
 
There are three ways of making this trip:

  • The favoured option is an organized bus tour. Besides being ideal for the solo traveller, this type of transportation is affordable and allows you to sit back and relax — everything’s planned for you. 
  •  If you desire a little more flexibility, try Ireland’s public bus service. At first glance it seems frustratingly disorganized but when you do figure it out, it’s inexpensive, comfortable and gives you a certain amount of freedom. But beware, the buses run on very loose schedules, so don’t be too surprised when your bus leaves an hour late — or worse, an hour early.
  • For complete independence, rent a car — but only if you can discipline yourself to driving on the left, down narrow roads and through confusing roundabout intersections. It’s possible to find a rental package that covers car, gas and accommodation at very reasonable rates. Best bet: book ahead.

Try Cork City as your launching point. With a population of 175,000, this 1,000-year-old, bustling city is Ireland’s second largest urban centre. The shops are busy, the cars are brand new and signs of the new European prosperity are everywhere. However Cork, with its hilly setting, narrow lanes, old buildings and rivers Lee and Shannon, still retains a feel of older Europe.

The laneways, many of which don’t allow traffic, dissect the city making walking and shopping a pleasant change from our superstores or malls. This setup also lends ambience to Cork City’s many popular summer events, including jazz, Irish music and seafood festivals. The university is worth a look, as is the old city jail, which has been transformed into a fascinating and fun museum.

Spend too much time in Cork and you’ll spend too much money. When you’ve had a good look around, head for the country and begin your road trip.

Titanic link
Your first stop along the coast should be Cobh (pronounced Cove, and also known as Queenstown) — a beautiful harbour city that has witnessed many shipping tragedies. Cobh was the Titanic’s last port of call before it embarked on its fateful voyage.

You can visit the actual gateway where the remainder of the 2,227 passengers boarded the Titanic and the nine lucky (Irish, no doubt!) passengers who got off. There’s a history-filled Titanic walking tour that ends in a cemetery filled with the Irish who died on the ship. The cemetery looks out over the port behind the magnificent Cobh Cathedral, also worth a visit.

Cobh was again the arena for another famous shipping tragedy, the Lusitania. Sunk in the First World War, 12 miles outside of Cobh Harbour, many of the survivors and dead were brought to Cobh for medical assistance or burial.

Before the Titanic and Lusitania, Cobh served as a major port for families escaping the poverty of Ireland and sailing for the New World. During the terrible famines of the 19th  century, thousands of emigrants passed through Cobh, leaving Ireland to seek out a better life in Canada, the U.S. or Australia.

The Queenstown Story museum vividly depicts the torturous conditions these brave souls endured while sailing. On display are letters from family members who survived the passage and a fascinating, though horrifying, recreation of a disease-ridden, lice-invested ship’s hold, where the destitute travelled.

Sir Walter Raleigh
From Cobh, move on to the postcard-like town of Youghal (pronounced y’all). Here, the past is wonderfully recaptured in this historic walled seaport. Visit Sir Walter Raleigh’s Myrtle Grove, the 16th century home granted him by Queen Elizabeth I. Mrytle Grove is remarkably intact for its age and is said to be the place where Raleigh infamously introduced tobacco smoking to Ireland.

Kinsale, easily one of the prettiest towns in Ireland, is a worthy place to take your next break. Walk around the beautiful town and stop for a cup of tea and an Irish pastry while gazing out on the yachts in the shimmering sea.
Kinsale is also known for its annual Gourmet Food festival which attracts food lovers from around the world.

Golf courses
If golf is your game, there’s a splendid choice of fabulous courses, whose tree-lined fairways, soft greens, deep rough and pothole bunkers are seamlessly woven into the rugged terrain. Green fees on some of these excellent courses range from $20 to $30 per round, superb value by Canadian standards.

There are, of course, the gems — the Old Head at Kinsale is world-class — but it charges world-class fees as well. Golfer Greg Norman lists it as one of his favourites.

From Kinsale, continue along the coast to Kerry County, the lakes of Killarney and the stunning scenery of Connemara. If you cut across land, there are more wonderful walking areas, with beautiful scenery, peat bogs and old churches.

Happily, your walk in any part of Ireland, won’t be ruined by blackflies, mosquitoes or blazing heat. But because it’s surrounded by the sea, you’ll get rained on — so bring an umbrella. Thankfully, though, it’s often a light, misty rain — more invigorating than aggravating. And, when you arrive at one of the many teashops or pubs that dot your route, your beverages taste that much better.

The Lonely Planet guide book doesn’t mince words in describing this area of Ireland: “It would be hard to surpass the beauty of this landscape.”  But we didn’t need a guide book to tell us this. It’s a “little bit of heaven” on earth, after all, just like the song says.