We’re often asked on our free tours of Dublin, “what’s good to do outside of the city?” and it’s usually followed up with “should we go to the cliffs of Mo-hair?”. Of course, we’re always full of suggestions and recommendations on how to get out and experience real Ireland beyond the capital city, but we thought we’d invite a ‘non-tour-guide’ Dublin local to suggest a few not-so-touristy things to do and see around Ireland. Up stepped Damian, local Dub, diligent waiter, and seeker-out of Ireland’s unconventional attractions.
I meet a lot of tourists in work. Not being a very good waiter, usually having cocked up at least a thing or two on their order, I try to make up for it by imparting a little local knowledge that might help them make the most of their few days in Ireland, once their pilgrimage to the Guinness factory in Dublin has been completed.
Many of them have already decided on a route: straight across west to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher; or up north to Belfast and the Titanic museum. These are very good options, with lots to see and do. However, as they have everywhere else, these tourist trails have come to be set in stone, carved into the landscape by the endless journeys of countless tour buses.
I’ve found from my own travels that this set menu approach to tourism can have a way of narrowing what’s on offer, rather than opening up the country for exploration. So, when I get asked about things to do outside Dublin, especially if they are looking for an off-the-beaten path vibe, I tend to suggest the kind of things I’d like to do here!
Diving off the coast of Ireland
My first port of call, believe it or not, is diving. Yes, I mean underwater with scuba tanks. I bet you weren’t expecting me to say that! And why would you? Our waters have a chilly reputation for being able to shrink a man’s testicles to 30% of their original volume after just two minutes of exposure; this is not a fact I can back up with any science, only experience.
I spent a year living in Fiji, where I did a lot of diving in the warm, tropical waters of the Pacific. Perhaps like you, I would have never considered diving in Ireland even a remote possibility – so don’t just take my word for it, this is what Jacques Cousteau had to say on the subject:
‘Some of the best diving in the world is at the northern side of the Dingle peninsula, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Brandon Mountains in a landscape of exceptional beauty.’
This coming from a man who probably spent more days underwater than your average Dingle man spends evenings in a pub. Just as you would trust the latter to point you in the direction of a cracking pint of stout, so Jacques Cousteau’s vast experience of the watery underworld should be enough to allay our fears of hypothermia, and instil us with the courage to boldly go where relatively few scuba enthusiasts have gone before.
The stretch of coast from Cork up to Donegal offers many dive spots with excellent visibility and lots to see once under the waves. Diamond Rocks, Kilkee, county Clare, and Fanore, also in county Clare, are two sites that have been voted in the top ten best dive sites in Europe. Expect to see dolphins, seals and a host of other marine life. At Diamond Rocks, they say quartz shines like sunken treasure in the sunlight.
Ireland also has no shortage of shipwrecks. From Spaniards on their way to unsuccessfully invade England in 1588, to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-boat, the coastline here harbours many ghost stories.
At Baltimore, in county Cork, there lies the sunken wreck of the Kowloon Bridge, a Bridge-class ore-bulk-oil combination carrier which was smashed up in a storm in 1986. At 294 metres, it is the largest diveable wreck in Europe and one of the largest in the world… although it is smashed into three pieces.
Since it checked into Davy Jones’, the Kowloon Bridge has turned into a rich reef supporting many plant and animal species which live on top of the ship’s cargo of iron ore now decorating the sea floor.
As well as giant wrecks, we also have sea-giants swimming around our shores. At different times of year, Irish coasts play host to a number of majestic ocean beasts. If your timing is right, you can expect to see humpback, minke and fin whales, basking sharks, dolphins, seals, Atlantic sunfish, among others.
Again, the best places for these watery activities is the south-west coast from Cork, up the west coast to Donegal. Less commonly seen, though also still out there, are killer whales and long-finned pilot whales. Carrigaholt, on the Loop Head Peninsula in Clare, is a special area of conservation that is home to Europe’s largest group of bottlenose dolphins.
This summer, amazing drone footage emerged from Keem Bay, on Achill Island, in the west of Ireland – an aquamarine tropical paradise, minus the tropical temperatures! – of a seven metre basking shark.
This alone was enough to arouse the David Attenborough inside me; but then a pod of dolphins swam in and, for a few magical moments, swam right up to the shark, rubbing off it. They might have been playing in the sunshine, greeting an old friend, or asking how the surf was.
I didn’t know this kind of spectacular blue planet was right on my doorstep. Conveniently, basking sharks often appear on the surface, close to shore, where cold and warm waters meet, pushing up plankton from the deep. This means that with a bit of luck and an elevated seaside spot, there is the opportunity to merge the Irish summer tradition of getting pissed in the sunshine with some world class basking shark spotting. Think of it like safari for the mildly inebriated.
Here is a quick breakdown of what is swimming in our waters and when:
March – May: Risso’s dolphins
March – November: Minke whales
April – June: Basking sharks
July – August: Atlantic sunfish
August – December: Common dolphins
September – December: Fin whales
November – January: Humpback whales
Stargazing in Ireland
Leaving the deep, we will now head for the skies… actually, for the stars! This may seem counter-intuitive in a country with so much cloud cover that it casts a long shadow over our nation’s literature, as well as forcing people into pubs year-round and driving up national sales of fake tan.
However unbelievable, the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve - in, well, Kerry, obviously – is one of only four gold-tier sky reserves in the world and the only one in the northern hemisphere.
It was awarded this status in 2014 by the International Dark-Sky Association in recognition of its lack of air and light pollution, which result in stunning views of the cosmos. On a clear night, with just the naked eye, you will be able to explore the beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas. With a telescope – well, the sky’s the limit!
Experience Ancient Ireland - Newgrange & Dun Aonghasa
Back on planet earth, the Irish landscape is rich in history. Many visitors here have heard of Newgrange, a five-thousand-year-old Neolithic passage tomb that is also the oldest astronomically aligned structure in the world.
It offers an ideal day trip from Dublin for those with an Indiana Jones streak in them – and who doesn’t?! The neighboring passage tomb of Knowth, and its four hundred carved stones, represent the largest collection of Neolithic rock art in Western Europe.
But there are many other lesser known, but equally spectacular, sites to discover. My pick of the bunch has to be the truly jaw-dropping late Bronze- / early Iron- Age fort of Dun Aonghasa. Located right on the edge of a one hundred metre cliff, on the island of Inismor - the larger of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway - the site is a unique and dramatic destination for those interested in ancient history.
Something a little different – The Ploughing Championships
If immersing yourself in vibrant local culture is what you seek, and you secretly get turned on by tractors, and you’ll be in the country from the 17-19 September, then, esteemed reader, get your wellies on and head to the Ploughing Championships in Ballintrane, Fenagh, Co. Carlow.
Every year, two hundred and fifty thousand people – a sizeable chunk of the entire population – gather to pay homage to the ancient art of ploughing fields. This is a glorious festival of all things agricultural. Don’t expect to see Ed Sheeran playing here, but do expect to imbibe pints by the billion and collapse in the muck! There could not be a more Irish experience.
That completes this waiter’s guide to Ireland. There’s loads for you to explore around this little country but I’ll leave you with two final hot tips, one for your time in Dublin and one for if you venture down to beautiful Cork in the South-West:
If you’ve already checked out the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, why not try the Rascals craft brewery and pizza restaurant in Inchicore??
Hidden gem restaurant: The Black Pig Wine Bar, in Kinsale, County Cork. If wine is what you’re after, this little gastronomic oasis has one hundred by the glass and over two hundred by the bottle on its award-winning wine list!