Castle Ellen, Athenry, Co. Galway

I’ve realized I’ve posted about several places I’d stayed or visited in Ireland, and neglected to mention one really special location.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get to stay for a couple of weeks at Castle Ellen in Athenry, County Galway.  This 200-year-old domicile is undeniably impressive, and is situated on some absolutely beautiful grounds.  There’s a gorgeous tree-lined avenue, and a large walled garden where I used to play hide-and-seek with Sydney, the resident terrier, when I was on a break from my writing.

The owner, Michael Keaney, is very gracious and has taken on the massive project of restoring Castle Ellen.  Michael opens the property to visitors in the summer, and I’d highly recommend a visit.  You can find out more here.

You can also learn something about Castle Ellen’s history – and see Michael and Castle Ellen on film – in this very interesting program from TG4, Ireland’s Irish-language TV station.  (Don’t worry!  It’s subtitled.)

Dysart O’Dea Castle, Clare Archeology Centre

Watch Kristen flee the Vikings!
(A round tower used by monks to
escape from Viking raids.)

Dysart O’Dea Castle, part of the Clare Archeology Centre, may be a little ways off the beaten path, but it’s very much worth a visit.  While there are castles every which way in Ireland, most of them are closed to the public, since Americans seem so prone to suing people.  Dysart O’Dea Castle, however, is not only open to the public but contains a modest but fascinating museum of local artifacts, as well as a charming film of the history of the place.  The ground floor contains a small gift shop along with a gracious tea room.  When we visited last summer, we had tea and scones – in a castle!  As Americans, that’s quite out of the ordinary.  The tea service was very modestly priced, as was the entrance fee to the rest of the castle/museum.

Beautiful knotwork on a Celtic Cross
gravestone a short walk from the castle.

If that’s not enough, the grounds are packed with history.  The Dysert O’Dea Archeology Trail, despite being only about two miles long, “contains 25 original field monuments [dating] from 1000bc to 1850ad and include two Romanesque churches, the famous 12th century illuminated doorway and high cross of Dysert O’Dea, two 15th century tower houses, 1st millennium stone and earthen forts, holy wells, fulachta fiadh, proselytising schools, landlords houses, medieval roads and many more.”  We did a chunk of this walk, as you can see from the photographs.  The landscape was beautiful, and the monuments absolutely breathtaking.  I’d go back in a heartbeat, and I really can’t recommend this place highly enough for anyone who has any interest in history or architecture.  Check out Dysert O’Dea, and you’ll find history has flown from the textbook pages and is walking along with you.

Part of an archway in a Romanesque church a short walk from the castle.

Tea on the Burren

One gorgeous day in Doolin, with an unexpected couple of hours to spare, we decided to have tea, at the mouth of a prehistoric souterrain in the burren.  You know you’re really lucky when you have the opportunity to sit out under a clear blue sky, surrounded by stone and wildflowers and ocean, and sip on a cup of tie guan yin while contemplating the stories that might live in that stone.  You know you’re a bit of a dork when you have a travel tea kit all set, just in case.

In previous years, I always had a horrible time finding this spot. This summer, I started to get better at seeing the individual features of the burren, and so, tucked away out of the wind, this became a favorite place to visit.

Bloody Cranesbill, a relative of geraniums, was growing over the entrance to the souterrain.

 The way it was described to me, this man-made underground passage would have been used for storing food (since it stays at a cool, consistent temperature), and possibly for hiding in. I was told that fourteen people had once fit in there during a downpour.  It must have been a tight fit!

A Hart’s Tongue Fern growing just inside the entrance, protected from the wind.

Blending into the Landscape

The first fort I visited on my last trip to Inis Mor was Dun Eochla, an almost cozy sort of hilltop fort that is isolated enough that you might not see another visitor during your stay there.

If you look closely along the left side of the photo below (a view from the Dun’s walls), you’ll see another round, apparently stone structure. It’s actually a concrete water reservoir that has been camouflaged with local stones so as to blend into the landscape. Genius!


The other day I walked out of the restaurant a few minutes before it opened to fetch my forgotten water bottle from the car. The clouds were all fish scales and mare’s tails across the sky, back lit and painted by the setting sun. I wished I could lie down on the grass and just stare up until darkness fell. I even contemplated, on a whim, putting the keys in the ignition to see if I drove off.

But instead I walked back inside. As I took a last glance up at the sky I noticed the pink, sunset light coloring the building’s usual hue. It reminded me of this shot, taken at sunset at Dun Aengus on Inis Mor last June. So glad I was there!

Teaglach Éinne (Saint Enda’s Church)

The cemetery on Inis Mor is practically on the beach, because this sand is the only place deep enough the bury the dead. Near the back of the cemetery, hidden from the road, are the stone ruins of a medieval church, half-buried in the sand.

When I first walked in the door, I saw a búllan stone, a sort of one-piece stone basin, filled with coins and rainwater. There were lots of five cent pieces, but also larger denominations, and even some of the old pre-euro Irish coins. I had a twenty cent and a two cent coin. I deposited the latter and continued walking round the church, examining the carvings – spirals, knots, even a knight – around the alter.

Seeing this art, I felt stingy for having chosen the smaller coin. I argued with myself about whether it mattered, and even contemplated going back to the búllan with my twenty cent coin. But it seemed an odd, half-hearted gesture.

Then I turned back toward the door and realized that there were two búllans! A second lay tucked just inside the door. I left my second coin there, with a smile, and dubbed the place the Church of Second Chances.

The Rainbow Hostel in Doolin

When in Doolin, I have almost always stayed at the Rainbow Hostel, just a couple of doors up from McDermott’s Pub. In addition to having an ideal location, it’s a really comfortable, friendly place that seems to attract great conversationalists and just plain cool people. I’ve never had a lonely evening there.

The first picture shows the front of the Rainbow Hostel itself, while the second is the view from the common room window: the ruins of an old church on a hill and the accompanying cemetery. The church is within walking distance from the hostel, and locals keep the site in good condition: clean and mown, etc.

A Rest in Doolin

After that whirlwind trip, I spent about a week in Doolin, County Clare. I always do a lot of walking while I’m there. That way you’re all tired out and feel you deserve a drink at the pub in the evening! And the sessions in Doolin are not to be missed.

Here are a couple of photos from one of those walks. I believe the second was a church; and perhaps the first was an associated residence. Either way, they are settling into the landscape almost seamlessly now.

The Black Fort

We had several hours on Inis Mor, and so hiked out to Dun Duchathair, the Black Fort. It’s neither as obviously spectacular nor as popular as Dun Aengus, so it’s a good place to avoid the crowds.

This prehistoric, semi-circular cliff fort has a harrowing entrance along the cliff edge. It also contains the remains of several stone buildings. They still make for good shelter from the wind for a nap or picnic, and so we settled down in one and enjoyed a lunch of brown bread and smoked mackerel.