Family Fun in Ireland

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Family Fun in Ireland
Even Ireland's pubs welcome children (at least until 7:00 p.m.), and no matter your age, there are great attractions inside and out across the country. Beaches, castles, beautiful drives, and fun festivals await.
By Ryan Ver Berkmoes, AFAR Contributor
Photo courtesy of Duby Tal/Tourism Ireland
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    The Journey before the Destination
    Ireland is laced with little lanes that wander the countryside and hug the filigreed coasts. Some roads aren't even two lanes wide, and the occasional stop for a tractor or a flock of sheep only adds to the charm. Don't drive fast and miss something worth seeing. You feel you're at the end of the world in County Donegal, where Atlantic winds scour the ancient rocks. In County Mayo's Achill Island, the winding Atlantic Drive takes you back in time as you leave civilization behind and pass centuries-old stone towers once used to spot marauding Vikings.
    Photo courtesy of Duby Tal/Tourism Ireland
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    Raise the Drawbridge and Boil the Oil
    Spaniards, English, and Vikings were among the marauders who bedeviled the Irish over the centuries. Ancient kings built castles for defense while the invaders built castles to protect their booty. Today, you can find these popular stone behemoths across the country. None is more revered than the Rock of Cashel, a stone edifice on a hilltop in County Tipperary that seems designed by castle central casting. You can spend hours wandering its towers and ramparts and strolling the lamb-lined pathways below. Just south, Cahir looks like the model for something you'd build on the beach, and is an early example of the English trying to protect their claims.
    Photo by Ryan Ver Berkmoes
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    Beaches That Don't Demand a Swimsuit
    The Caribbean it's not, but Ireland is ringed with sensational white-sand beaches that seem to stretch on to infinity. In County Wexford, Curracloe Beach stood in for Normandy's Omaha Beach in the opening scenes of the movie, Saving Private Ryan. Across the island, County Mayo's Bunlahinch Beach is so long that its extents are lost in the mists. You can easily stroll for miles and never see another soul while you comb for treasures at the waterline. Kilkee in County Clare makes up for in charm what it may lack in temperature. Excellent cafés, pubs, and guesthouses are set back from a perfect crescent of sand that invites contemplation.
    Photo courtesy of Holger Leue/Tourism Ireland
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    Beauty and Drama on the Coasts
    Ireland doesn't meet the Atlantic meekly, but takes head on the breakers, storms, and everything else nature throws its way. As a result, the coast is endlessly fascinating. One of the nation's top attractions, the Cliffs of Moher, has sheer rock faces that plunge vertically down to the ocean. This pulse-pounding vista consists of five miles of serrated edges and can be enjoyed from on top of the cliffs or by tour boat from the roiling waters at their base. Elsewhere, there's more seaside drama, including the jagged coast of the Ring of Kerry, where Celtic tombs on deserted moors are the backdrop for crashing surf. For the ultimate Atlantic coast adventure, drive the 1,500-mile Wild Atlantic Way from the Inishowen Peninsula to Kinsale.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland
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    The Enchanting Dingle Peninsula
    Ireland's stunning coasts, amazing drives, and enchanting villages are epitomized on Dingle Peninsula. Jutting out into the Atlantic like a crooked finger, Dingle's ancient and troubled past can be seen in the remains of historic farmhouses dotting the rocky hillsides that sweep up from the ocean. Tiny, jewel-like beaches alternate with rugged rocky outcrops where the surf never stops pounding. The namesake village of Dingle is renowned for its fresh seafood, while its traditional pubs such as John Benny's have atmosphere as thick as their famous chowders. Offshore, one local denizen delights people of all ages: Fungie, a playful dolphin, rarely fails to frolic with nearby tour boats.
    Photo by Joseph Smith
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    Festivals for the Entire Family
    Ireland loves its festivals, from holy to lyrical and tasty to traditional. St Patrick's Day is celebrated nationwide, with Dublin's revelries lasting five days. Even the tiniest town will have a parade featuring charming floats and kids in costume. Enjoy The Cat Laughs comedy festival in Kilkenny in June, then ignore the impenetrable plot and celebrate Joyce's Ulysses on Bloomsday, every June 16. It shouldn't be a surprise that music inspires countless celebrations, including the unmissable Willie Clancy Summer School in County Clare, with its dozens of trad sessions featuring Ireland's best folk musicians. Bivalves get the royal treatment (on the half shell) at Galway's International Oyster and Seafood Festival, held each fall.
    Photo by Kevin O’Hara/age fototstock
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    See Ireland by Bicycle
    Ireland's narrow roads are perilous for even experienced riders but the country does have some splendid rides for cyclists of all ages and skill levels. In County Mayo, the Great Western Greenway follows an abandoned rail line for 26 miles along the Atlantic coast from charming Westport to the rugged reaches of Achill Island. Completely separated from traffic, with easy grades, the bikeway passes through cute villages and gives access to ancient castles and monasteries. All sorts of bikes are available to rent, including bicycles built for two, and you can arrange a pickup for a one-way adventure. Elsewhere, coastal islands like the Aran Islands are ideal for cyclists, with few cars, plenty of sights, and easy rides.
    Photo courtesy of Arthur Ward/Tourism Ireland
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    Farm Fun on the Emerald Isle
    Irish butter is renowned worldwide and its farmstead cheeses are much prized. Besides the cows grazing contentedly on the trademark grasses, Ireland's farms are famous for their horses and ponies. (It wasn't that long ago that you'd still see them hauling carts and working the fields.) Pigs, lambs, and sheep are ubiquitous, and there are plenty of potato patches. Throw in a thatched farmhouse and a sheep dog and you've got a fascinating attraction, especially for city folk. Muckross Farms near Killarney are popular, as is Newbridge House, which is near Dublin and has a huge playground. The interior counties such as Carlow, Kildare, and Kilkenny are rich with backroad farms selling produce.
    Photo courtesy of Holger Leue/Tourism Ireland
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    Riding the Rails
    Ireland's modern, fast trains are often ignored by visitors, which is a shame as they are a good way for families to enjoy the countryside. Best of all, some of the most popular places outside of Dublin, such as Sligo, Westport, Galway, Limerick, and Cork, are easily reached. Family fares can make a day trip cheap and you can always rent a car locally to explore little lanes and tiny villages. And while today's Irish trains link major towns, in decades past they served much more of the nation. Many of these old lines are now aimed at tourists and make for a fun and scenic day out. You can ride across the moors from Tralee in County Kerry or near Kilrush in County Clare.
    Photo by Ryan Ver Berkmoes
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    Almost Everyone is Irish
    Almost 37 million Americans have Irish ancestry, a number that dwarfs Ireland's current population of 4.5 million. The country's diaspora can be found in every corner of the world and although huge numbers emigrated during the potato famine (when entire villages were abandoned), the truth is that the Irish have never hesitated to leave their island looking for opportunities elsewhere. Thus, heritage travel—tracing your roots to the old sod—is a top tourist pursuit. Whether your name is Kennedy or Sullivan, O'Neill or O'Brien, you'll find genealogy centers at museums and libraries nationwide.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland