I have just returned from a fabulous 7-day road trip through the southwest of Ireland, and I’m so excited to share it with you! My Ireland travel articles (at least fifteen) will chronologically follow our route.
Let’s start from the beginning. Two months ago, I had zero plans for February vacation, but knew we had to get away from the insane Boston snow somehow. One day, a friend suggested I try a free app called Skyscanner (click here to play with it!) that calculates the cheapest places in the world to fly to from your home city. All you have to do is type in the word “Everywhere” as the destination. Using this handy-dandy tool, I discovered a ridiculously cheap direct flight from Boston to Shannon, Ireland, on Aer Lingus and booked it that day.
I had never before visited Ireland, which is crazy given the deep Irish connections that exist in the city of my heart, Boston. My students and colleagues with Irish roots gave me excellent advice on what to see when they learned I’d be going to Ireland, but as my jotted notes grew denser, I realized I needed more structured guidance for our itinerary.
Enter Tourism Ireland. As the official tourist portal for the Emerald Isle, Tourism Ireland has an information-packed website, including detailed travel itineraries an indecisive gal like me can easily follow. Their staff is speedy on Twitter and other online communications, and with their help, we settled on a road trip loop covering the following route: Shannon Airport, Bunratty, Galway, Clifden, Westport, Cong, Limerick, then back to Shannon Airport a week later.
Tucked into each day of the itinerary were 2-5 phenomenal tourist attractions. (Don’t worry — the Cliffs of Moher were one of them!) The biggest stroke of genius in the itinerary Tourism Ireland suggested, however, was about what to do that first day.
Why was that first day so crucial? Well, we arrived in Ireland at 6am after a six-hour Red Eye flight… with a baby. We were exhausted, and also very nervous to drive on the left side of the road, but we didn’t want to waste a precious vacation day just resting in the hotel. Further, Jet Lag experts insist that to reset your body clock, it’s essential to stay awake that first day except for a short nap, and to go to bed only after sundown.
Here was Tourism Ireland’s brilliant solution to what to do on that first day: Stay in Bunratty (which is 10 minutes of easy driving from Shannon Airport, and stocked with a range of accommodations), and spend the day leisurely touring Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. This is the elusive “easy win” of tourism: a low-key, manageably small attraction to tour that yields immense returns in enjoyment, education, and photos. I highly recommend you follow this plan for your first day if you fly into Shannon.
Let us now zoom in, away from the overview of our Ireland trip, and in on Bunratty Castle and Folk Park itself. Its website sums up its importance well: “Welcome to Bunratty Castle, the most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland. Built in 1425, it was restored in 1954 to its former medieval splendor.”
There are several things that amaze me about this blurb. First, 1425?! Ireland, you sure have some lengthy history! Second, reading the list of who occupied Bunratty Castle, it is a mind-whooshing series of conquerers and owners, from earls to a man named Thomas Amory who bought the building in 1720 for a mere $346! Third, how convenient is it that you can tour the most complete medieval fortress in Ireland just ten minutes after landing in the airport?
Finally, it is so inspiring that workers (organized by the 7th Viscount Gort) were able to restore the castle to the point that thousands of tourists can still climb all over it. They even throw medieval banquet dinners inside it regularly! Paired with the story of the restoration of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, this is a strong reminder that restoration may be initially costly, but pays off mightily in tourist dollars and national pride.
Touring Bunratty Castle is an excellent family activity because its vertiginous staircases are like jungle gyms for kids, while classy adults can do emotional gymnastics by ogling the 15th and 16th century decorations, history, and architecture.
I also loved that Bunratty didn’t feel like a stuffy, hands-off museum. Rather, it was a full-body experience to tour the castle and park, and our baby didn’t feel out of place or frowned upon as he toddled around the 600-year-old floors.
All right, that’s the castle, but what’s this “Folk Park” referenced in the title of the place? In fact, it is an experiential “museum” of 19th century village buildings, including actual places to eat and drink!
It is delightful to stroll through the Folk Park, peeking into each house and getting a real feel for what life was like two hundred years ago, and the wide range of living styles.
Ask anyone who has been to the Bunratty Folk Park and they will ask, breathless, “Did you get the scones?” Yes indeed, in the “Farmhouse,” there are real live people making real live scones for tourists to eat! I admit that I went back repeatedly for samples, and that the baby, too, ate multiple fluffy and flavorful helpings.
This brings us to the staff of Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. It must take so much work to maintain such a big attraction, but it all looks spiffy and neat. Further, I had a particularly good experience with one of employees staffing the fancy gift shop.
Because our flight was pushed up a day early due to yet another Boston blizzard, we suddenly had a free day on our itinerary. I mentioned this to one of the employees in the gift shop, and she generously drew up a route for us to drive in order to see three notable towns that we would have otherwise missed. This hospitality and kindness was something we experienced over and over among the people of Ireland, and I found it truly moving!
Our whole visit to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park took less than two hours, but was the perfect mix of relaxed, fun, and fascinating for a first day in Ireland. Oh, and did I mention that there are all sorts of yummy restaurants within short walking distance from the castle? We stuffed our faces well on that Bunratty day. Who wouldn’t want to hop off a plane directly into a castle and food combination?
So what about you? Does Bunratty seem like a place you would like to visit? If you’ve been there before, what was your experience like? Do share!
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We were assisted by Tourism Ireland on our trip, but all opinions and cannon babies are my own.* So far, this article has been read by ... fans. Share it around! *