What remains of Northern Ireland’s ancient Dunluce Castle is perched dramatically over the Atlantic near the town of Bushmills.

Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage site where thousands of massive black basalt columns rise from the sea.

When Northeast Ohio snags a nonstop international flight, we’ve learned to jump on it. So when we read Aer Lingus was offering nonstops to Dublin starting in May, we decided it would be the ideal location to celebrate a milestone anniversary last September. We toured the Emerald Isle in 1988 and saw many of its highlights: the Ring of Kerry & Dingle Peninsula, Bunratty Castle and my favorite spot, the seven churches of St. Kevin’s in Glendalough. That tour ended in Dublin, but we only had a day and a half there. Northern Ireland was off-limits due to sectarian violence dubbed “the Troubles.” We’ve wanted to linger in Dublin and see Belfast ever since.
Because vacation is a state of mind, ours started when we met Aer Lingus’s congenial gate crew. They recognized my husband’s mobility issue and moved us to rows with more leg room. Fortunately, we were able to check-in early to our fabulous digs at The Wilder Townhouse near St. Stephens Green. The Wilder is a 42-room boutique hotel on a quiet residential street convenient to Temple Bar and the Grand Canal. Its stunning brick facade evokes the Victorian era and the level of hospitality is off the charts. During our six-night stay, we were impressed with the friendly staff, the scrumptious hot breakfasts (think eggs benedict with salmon) and thoughtful amenities such as complimentary cocktails in their cozy gin & tea room. The hotel has garnered several top-notch imprimaturs: Ireland’s Blue Book, Small Luxury Hotels and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, “the travel club for hotel lovers.”
Dublin has changed dramatically since 1988. It has an international work force, high-tech and pharmaceutical companies and offers a range of ethnic cuisines largely absent before the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom. We savored some memorable meals, including elevated Irish cuisine (think fresh seafood and lamb), at 101 Talbot before catching a play at the famed Abbey Theater, Ireland’s national theater started by William Butler Yeats; and at The Richmond near our hotel. It’s a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant. When I asked The Richmond’s amiable owner what that means he explained, “It’s like a star without the expense.” Our meals were definitely star-worthy.
Some highlight excursions were the excellent tour of Kilmainham Gaol. It’s the penitentiary where ordinary Dubliners who participated in the 1916 Easter Monday Uprising were imprisoned. Kilmainham’s courtyard was the site of many Uprising executions, notably James Connolly’s. Connolly was badly injured and had only a day or two to live. Yet he was taken to Kilmainham, tied to a chair and shot. Most Dubliners didn’t support the Uprising. Many had horses, donkey carts and other items stolen to form the barricades. But when news of the secret trials and Connolly’s execution went public, it enraged Irish citizens and laid the groundwork for the War of Independence (1919-1921.) Caveat: Book your tour of Kilmainham a month ahead. Online tickets open up 28 days in advance then sell out quickly.
Rare sunny days beckon residents and visitors to pastoral St. Stephen’s Green, where they may read plaques about how the Green was one of the Uprising garrisons and how a European noblewoman, Countess Markievicz, was second in command. Markievicz was sentenced to die at Kilmainham but was spared when England’s King George V ordered General Maxwell to halt the executions after the backlash caused by Connolly’s. Across the street from the Green is MoLI: Museum of Literature Ireland. Ireland boasts a remarkable variety of novelists, playwrights and poets. Visitors can learn about Swift, Yeats, Joyce and other Irish writers, plus see the famous Copy No. 1 of “Ulysses.” Some literary critics consider it the novel that shaped 20th century literature.
Our most memorable excursion was to Northern Ireland. It included a black taxi tour of West Belfast, Dunluce Castle and Giant’s Causeway. “Don’t take pictures of your [taxi] driver or post anything on social media,” our bus driver instructed as we arrived on the Falls Road, where Belfast’s Catholics live. While The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement (1998), there are still resentments. As we drove along the Shankhill Road, where Belfast’s Protestants live, we listened to tales of how both sides viewed each other and viewed the British soldiers deployed there for more than 30 years. It was tragic hearing how hate was taught from generation to generation, yet hopeful knowing the peace has held for 25 years. Today, this lively city is home to Titanic Belfast, the dynamic museum near the shipyards where the doomed ship was built and to Titanic Studios. The popular series “Game of Thrones” was filmed at 25 locations around Northern Ireland including Titanic Studios.
Next we headed north to Dunluce Castle. What remains of this picturesque 16th century castle is dramatically situated on a bluff above the Atlantic. It’s where the McQuillan and MacDonnell clans once roamed. Our last stop was Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s most popular destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s described as a “spectacular site of global geological significance made up of 40,000 massive black basalt columns sticking out of the sea.” The Causeway inspired legends of giants striding over the water to Scotland. The sun came out just long enough to cloak the Causeway cliffs in green velvet.
Ireland’s biggest export through the 20th century was its people. So visitors of Irish descent may want to spend time at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum. Its 20 galleries interpret the creation of the Irish diaspora and celebrate its world-wide success. Guests can plug in where and when their ancestors left Ireland and find out how many others with their surname left that year.
A week in Dublin was a dream trip for us. We really felt at home there.
As long as there’s an easy, nonstop flight we’ll return before another 35 years slip by.
See www.visitireland.com and click on Dublin for information about top attractions; www.thewilder.ie for booking The Wilder Townhouse
www.wildrovertours.com and www.paddywagontours.com for booking day trips.