From its wild Atlantic west coast to the undulating hills of the southeast, the Ireland of the picture postcards really does exist. In a landscape strewn with geological flourishes, ancient ruins and sandy beaches it’s hard to pick highlights. The following are merely a few suggestions of Irish sights that really will take your breath away.
Cliffs of Moher, County Clare
It would be hard to compile a list of picturesque Irish locations without including the Cliffs of Moher, the most Instagrammed vista in the country. Each year over a million visitors come to see the dramatic eight-kilometre stretch of vertical headlands soaring 214m over the wild Atlantic Ocean. The stunning scenery has been the backdrop for numerous movies including Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Leap Year, and The Princess Bride.
Most tourists stick to the main walkways, but if you venture 10 minutes along the trail towards the Hag’s Head you will be rewarded with unrivalled views. Or you can take a cruise from the nearby village of Doolin - best done later in the day when the golden afternoon light is on the cliffs. Doolin is no more than a handful of buildings but is known as a centre for traditional Irish music, thanks to its three pubs which host sessions throughout the year. If you want to avoid the madding crowds ticking the Cliffs of Moher off their must-see list, head just a little further south to Clare’s ‘other’ cliffs. The Kilkee Cliffs are every bit as jaw-dropping and feature basalt towers that have been worn away from the coast, one inexplicably with a house perched on top of it.
Dingle, County Kerry
“Quaint without even trying”, is how Lonely Planet describes Dingle, one of Ireland’s largest Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) towns and certainly up there among its most charming. The small fishing port sits on the Dingle Peninsula, a land of opal blue waters, green hills and golden sands that National Geographic once called “the most beautiful place on earth”. The town’s hilly streets are chock full of eclectic shops and cosy pubs, some such as Foxy John’s which double as stores so you can enjoy a pint and a singalong at the same time as buying hardware and outdoor clothing. Dingle’s most famous resident is Fungie, a sociable bottlenose dolphin which swam into Dingle Bay in 1984 and never left. Boats depart Dingle Pier daily for one-hour dolphin-spotting trips - it’s free if Fungie doesn’t show, but he usually does.
Skellig Michael, County Kerry
The jagged island of Skellig Michael jutting high out of the pounding Atlantic is a Unesco World Heritage site, and most recently famous as a film set for two of the Star Wars franchises - The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Like St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, it is named after the Archangel Michael. Even landing on this dramatic pyramid-shaped rock would have been a challenge, yet persecuted early Christian monks made it their haven from the sixth century until around the 12th or 13th century.
Their beehive-shaped stone huts, gardens and cisterns for collecting water are perched on a saddle some 150m above sea level and reached by 600 steep steps cut into the rock face. The island is a bird watcher’s paradise - terns, fulmars and cormorants abound, and puffins come ashore in spring to lay their eggs. Because of its fragility there is a strict limit on the number of people who can land each day, so book your visit to Skellig Michael early.
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Rising from the soft hues of the Tipperary fields like a magical extension of the landscape itself, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites. It is reputedly the scene of the conversion to Christianity of Aenghus, the King of Munster, by St Patrick in the 5th century. ‘Cashel’ is an anglicised version of the Irish word for fortress, and numerous buildings would have occupied the Rock over the years. Today ancient fortifications encircle a complete round tower, a 13th century Gothic cathedral and an impressive 12th century Romanesque chapel. The site on its prominent green hill above the town of Cashel is a five-minute stroll from the centre along pretty paths.
Glendalough, County Wicklow
If rugged romance is what draws you to Ireland you will find it in spades at the monastic ruins of Glendalough. Founded by St Kevin in the sixth century in a remote glacial valley, it grew to become one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical cities. It was sacked by the Vikings at least four times between 775 and 1071, and finally fell to English forces from Dublin in 1398. Now its moss-spotted monastic ruins, tranquil lakes and native deer are as naturally spectacular as they are spiritually calming. A visit to Glendalough is as much a trip through ancient history as a refreshing hike in the hills.