Ireland is tiny, packing as much landmass as the state of Indiana. Its trim national population is smaller than Turkmenistan’s. By the numbers it sorta makes sense. In person that all falls away.
Leading up to this 10 day trip, the plan was to road trip the western coastline south to north. I spent a lot of time scouting ahead on the internet, hoping to plot an ideal tour from the Killarney National Park and Kerry Peninsula, to the Dingle Peninsula, on to Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher, and then Letterfrack, midway up the west coast.
Some say the internet has blown out traveling’s natural element of surprise and discovery. But despite being inundated by photos and maps online, the moment we hit the trail in Killarney National Park, it became clear that this landscape remains immune to any digital attempts to capture and convey its diverse and boggling beauty.
We’d been given cryptic instructions by our Airbnb hosts—an extremely friendly and charming retired couple—to a “short walk” with a 360 degree prospect, just inside the park’s boundaries. After parking in the foothills, we wandered for a while, confused and unsure if we’d find the actual climb.
Down in the valley bottom, the lush biota was in full spring mode, the massive leaves, vines and mosses a mashup between the Pacific Northwest and somewhere tropical, like Hawaii. Ireland is way up in the northern latitudes (at the end of May, when we visited, the sun didn’t fully set until past 11:00 pm), but its position in the Gulf Stream often brings moderate and moist weather, fostering plant growth you’d otherwise expect to see nearer the equator.
"It became clear that this landscape remains immune to any digital attempts to capture and convey its diverse and boggling beauty."
Sticking to the main trail, we kept walking, eventually popping out of the valley and into a stark landscape of exposed Red Sandstone rock. Everywhere we looked was a sweeping geology with echoes of the American west coast and an eerie lunar or even Martian quality. Further still, a faded wooden sign pointed right to our destination—Mount Torc—and the “walk” became a legitimate workout. The trail cut back and forth across and increasingly steep fall line, and was built out of old railroad ties wrapped in wire mesh, their number too many to count.
With each push higher, the view continued to open up, all of it as intensely alien as the first time I drove from my native Vermont out west. To the south, Upper Lake nestled into green rolling hills. To the east, the rock-strewn breadth of Sandstone, etched in an offering to time and the elements. After a final push, a blast of wind announced our arrival to the summit. We crouched low, taking in the wrap-around view. My mind was blown, simply. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Walks” were hikes, it turned out.
That first tour set the tone for the rest of the trip. “Walks” were hikes, it turned out. And around every sharp bend in the road (of which there enough to keep any driver used to piloting the right side of the lane exceedingly alert), a new perspective would yield yet another form of landscape. The countryside unwound before us, a perpetual and dizzyingly diverse combination of bare rock, green abundance and ocean. We had only scribed a small percentage of the coastline, let alone the terrain inland.
Ireland is small. No one comes here for superlatives, unless you count the incredible Cliffs of Moher, which tower over 700 feet above the Atlantic. What we came for was the rugged and natural majesty of Ireland’s interface between land and sea.
Later in the trip, we found ourselves walking a well-worn foot trail south of the town of Dingle. Winding through pasture land along the shoreline, the trail climbed and then hooked around deep canyons bracketing isolated pebble beaches. Further on, the trail took us along the top of a far-ranging sea cliff, offering up towering views of the North Atlantic, reaching off raw and green to the east. Then and there, it became crystal clear to me how this place inspired pagan mythology, and the hard-driven rebellion of Irish clans against English rule.
Whether you’re in for a pint, in for the songs, out for a “walk” or just want to vibe the views, Ireland’s small size is more than made up for by its density. If you go, give yourself plenty of time to soak it up.