"Listen to this, guys," I said over bagels and guidebooks one morning at the kitchen table. My three children eyed me sleepily, while my wife looked on with amusement. "It says here that you can actually view the Book of Kells! Think about it: the Book of Kells is twelve hundred years old!"
We were all going to Ireland, and I was trying to get the kids fired up. Their silence was not encouraging.
"Okay, so how about this: 'The Dublin suburb of Donnybrook was famous for its fair, founded by King John in 1204, but too much noise and fighting led to its suppression in 1855.' Hey, sounds like we'd fit right in!"
"Anyone want to hear about the Siege of Derry?Hmm?Okay, guess not."
Our trip to Ireland was probably inevitable. We named our children Caitlin (now 12), Gillian (10), and Rory (8). Kathleen, my wife, is one in a long line of Murphys from County Cork. My maternal forebears were Presbyterian Scots—who, according to Kathy, stopped off in Eire just long enough to oppress her family for a generation or two before moving on to America.
Not to say that we bleed green (or, in my case, orange). You won't hear any brogues at our family gatherings. We've even been known to let a St. Paddy's Day pass without a teary-eyed toast to the Emerald Isle. Still, we've always been proud of the connection, and long ago resolved to pay a visit to the ould sod.
By "we," of course, I mean Kathy and me. Though the kids greeted with joyful shouts the announcement that we'd be going to Ireland, I worried that, given the choice, they would have chosen Disney World over Dublin. I wanted this trip to be extraordinary for all of us, so I vowed to make the kids a key part of the planning committee.
First, we'd have to get them excited about what Ireland held in store. Obviously, snippets from guidebooks would not do the job. Irish music—as played by me on the mandolin—was no more successful; Caitlin simply retired to her room and turned up Britney on the CD player. Picture books raised the kids' interest slightly, but not enough to raise my hopes.
Then I brought home a half-dozen videos from the local library. The next weekend, instead of our traditional Sunday family movie, we watched tapes about Ireland, armed not only with bowls of popcorn but with pads and pens. The reaction was heartening. Every time the word ghost was mentioned (usually in describing some ruined castle), Rory would shout out, "Let's go there!"
"Write it down," I'd say.
Gillian was intrigued by the Blarney Stone.
"Write it down."
Caitlin wanted to see the 700-foot-high Cliffs of Moher.
"Write it down."
By the time we'd watched nearly four hours of video travelogues, we'd taken enough notes to form the basis of a 12-day driving tour. More important, all three children had invested something of themselves in our plans.
After marking a map with the sights from our lists, we broke up our trip into four stages. We flew into Dublin and spent three nights there, then headed west, staying three nights each in the cities of Galway and Cork while exploring the countryside around them. Finally, we returned for two more nights in Dublin before flying home.
Dublin has enough to keep a family busy for a week. There is culture and history and amusement at every turn—from the historical re-creations of Dublinia (a hands-on museum dedicated to medieval Dublin) to the more scholarly Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College.
Galway city proved an ideal gateway to Ireland's "wild west." From there we toured the rugged peninsula of Connemara (where The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, was filmed), and ventured out to see the Cliffs of Moher and Bunratty Castle, to the south in County Clare.
Likewise, our base in Cork was central enough for day trips as near as Blarney and Kinsale and as far as Killarney National Park in County Kerry, to the west. We even tracked down the Murphy family farm, a prosperous spread on a rise above the river Lee, and met the current owner, a not-so-distant relative of Kathy's.
Ireland on $83.33 a Day, Including Airfare doesn't have the pizzazz you might hope for in the title of a best-selling travel guide—but that's about what we ended up spending, per person, based on the amount we could afford for a 12-day tour: $5,000. Here's how we broke it down. (Prices in this section reflect the author's expendituresi n February 2002, and are subject to change.)
Airfare Budgeted: $1,500. Spent: $1,500. This was our biggest single expense, and if Kathy hadn't found the fare she did ($300 per round-trip ticket from New York to Dublin on Aer Lingus), we couldn't have made our overall budget. We got this deal because we flew in mid-February, the depths of the off-season. In mid-July, the same flight would have cost nearly $900 each. Of course, the off-season has disadvantages: some attractions may be closed, and the weather is often at its worst. Yet not one of the sights we hoped to visit was closed, and we enjoyed mainly sunny days with temperatures averaging 60 degrees.
Lodging Budgeted: $1,400. Spent: $1,250. We'd hoped to find hotel rooms that would fit all of us (we're a cuddly bunch and don't mind crowding a bit to cut our hotel bill in half). Looking at Irish hotel Web sites and consulting an Irish travel agent, we were able to find such rooms for between $100 and $150 a night. In Dublin, we stayed at Bewleys Hotel in suburban Ballsbridge in a large "family" room at only $82 a night. The location—two miles from the Ha'penny Bridge on the river Liffey—meant we had to take a bus or train to and from central Dublin (though we did walk it several times). We would have preferred a more centrally situated hotel, but none had a large room available when we booked.
At Ashford Manor, a guesthouse in Galway, we took two rooms because the $72 rate was less than expected. The modern, semi-attached house (not in any sense a "manor") sits in a row of well-maintained but unremarkable B&B's and guesthouses on busy College Road, just five minutes' walk from the heart of town.
Our guesthouse in Cork city, the Victorian-style Garnish House, was more expensive, so we jammed into one room. Close to University College Cork on the Western Road, the hotel served the most lavish and delicious breakfasts we had in Ireland.
Meals Budgeted: $1,200. Spent: $1,215. I'm the only die-hard carnivore in my family; everyone else could survive on eggs, cheese, veggies, pasta, and fruit. In fact, they'd prefer to. That enabled us to plan a modest meal budget of $100 a day for the whole family. Moreover, our guesthouses in Galway and Cork, like most in Ireland, provided a full breakfast each morning. Lunch was usually sandwiches or pizza at a café, or pub grub; it was rare for the bill to be more than $30. And for dinner, even in Dublin, we always found a clean, popular restaurant that would feed us for less than $70—often much less. One night we dined at an Indian restaurant on Dame Street near Dublin's city hall; another night we had salad and pasta at a red-sauce trattoria. Once, when no one felt like sprucing up, we bought sandwiches and sodas at a take-away and had dinner in our room.
Transportation Budgeted: $700. Spent: $600. We had no need of a rental car in Dublin, but driving was the most practical way to get around the rest of the country. From the Dan Dooley agency I got a weekly rate of $370 for a station wagon with automatic transmission. I could have cut my costs nearly in half had I rented (a) a smaller car with (b) manual transmission, but (a) my family won't fit in a small car and (b) I would have had a nervous breakdown trying to shift gears with my left hand while driving on the left side of the road.
Fuel, at $3 to $4 per gallon, cost us about $20 a day. Add in the cost of bus transfers to and from Dublin Airport, fares on Dublin's DART trains, and the occasional taxi, and we still came in $100 under budget.
Miscellaneous Budgeted: $200. Spent: $450. This is where we dramatically overshot our target, thanks mainly to my purchase of a $125 Connemara wool sweater that, when folded, is about as big as a sofa cushion. We rarely had to tip, except for the chambermaids. Admissions to attractions, my random visits to pubs, the universally high cost of tourist T-shirts, a handmade bodhran (Irish goatskin drum) from Malachy Kearns in Connemara—these and other expenses pushed us well over the budget in this category.
It wasn't easy to manage this trip on $5,000. (Okay, $5,015!) But it's often the case that the less you spend on vacation, the closer you come to the daily life of the place you're visiting. Eating where the locals eat, staying where Irish families might stay on holiday, going in the low season—all this allowed us not only to travel affordably but also to give the children a more intimate view of the Irish than they might otherwise have had.
there's a fine line between planning and obsessing, between organization and rigidity. There were times when we risked crossing that line, as when I insisted on all of us touring the Guinness Storehouse as planned, even though I was the only one who actually wanted to do it. On the other hand, on our way back to Dublin we made an unplanned detour through the narrow stone streets of Kilkenny, which turned out to be one of the most appealing towns in Ireland. We even met a stray dog that briefly adopted us on the grounds of Kilkenny Castle.
But in the end, good planning, tempered by a little flexibility, was a smart move. And getting the kids to help plan the trip was the best thing we've ever done. Maybe next time we'll let them do all the planning. That's what I'd really call a vacation.
In this article, only half the things my dad writes about us kids are true. For instance, I did go to my room and play music on my CD player (it was Pink, not Britney, Dad!), but that's because I hate the banjo-mandolin-thingamabob he plays, not Irish music. And Disney World over Dublin?When Dad asked which we'd rather go to, we all screamed, "Are you insane?Dublin! Duuuh."
Also, it's just not true that we didn't care about the trip until we watched the videos. Future archaeologists, like myself, are not totally indifferent (as my dad implies) about ancient castles and ruins in one of their favorite countries of all time.
If Dad has any more articles in T+L Family, don't believe them until you ask Gillian, Rory, or me.
—caitlin fox orwoll
Blarney Castle County Cork; 353-21/438-5252; www.blarneycastle.ie. The grounds are magnificent, the castle is a glorious ruin, and the nearby village green is one of the most charming in Ireland. But the main reason to visit is to kiss the famous Blarney Stone—which requires you to climb to the top of the castle walls, lie on your back, drop your head uncomfortably into an opening in the parapet floor, and buss the stone wall while two burly lads grip your shoulders to keep you from tumbling downward. After several failed efforts, Caitlin finally mustered her courage and accomplished the feat.
Book of Kells Trinity College Old Library, Dublin; 353-1/608-2320; www.tcd.ie/Library/kells.htm. A ninth-century illuminated manuscript of the Gospels, whose intricate illustrations are so vibrantly colorful that it's hard to believe they were created 12 centuries ago. Also check out the Long Room of the college library, an awe-inspiring space with grand wooden bookcases, ancient volumes, and busts of the Western world's great philosophers and writers—not to mention Ireland's oldest harp. Gillian, though, felt this was a plodding sort of attraction. "It was too slow," she said, "and I don't like slow things. But I did like the Celtic writing."
Bunratty Castle & Folk Park County Clare; 353-61/360-788; www.shannonheartland.ie/attractions/bunratty.html. A daylong excursion. The castle, built in 1425, is just the thing for kids who want to walk through a ghostly medieval fortress. The adjacent 19th-century village has period houses and commercial buildings brought in from all over Ireland, including cottages saved from destruction during the building of nearby Shannon Airport. "Some of the houses even had fires burning in the fireplaces," Caitlin recalled after our return, "as if people were still living there."
Cliffs of Moher County Clare; www.shannonheritage.com/cliffsofmoher. Towering 700 feet at their highest point above the wind-whipped Atlantic, the cliffs are perhaps the country's most dramatic natural sight, running for five miles along the coast. On clear days the view is enchanting; you can even see the Aran Islands to the northwest. On stormy days, when gales blow and rain lashes the craggy rock, the experience is simply magnificent. Hang on to the young ones, though: the wind seemed strong enough to blow Rory out to sea.
Dublinia Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin; 353-1/679-4611; www.dublinia.ie. A hands-on museum dedicated to Dublin in the Middle Ages. The scale model of 16th-century Dublin is in itself worth the price of admission. Your ticket also includes a self-guided tour of adjacent Christ Church Cathedral. Kids should look for the mummified remains of a cat and a rat that were discovered during a restoration project in the crypts; they are now on display in a side chapel.
Kilmainham Gaol Kilmainham, Dublin; 353-1/453-5984. Between 1796 and 1924, this hulking prison housed all manner of outlaws, from petty criminals to the nation's most revered heroes. Youngsters can step inside one of the frighteningly primitive cells ("Ugly," was Rory's terse reaction)—where, according to our guide, children as young as eight were incarcerated; many were sentenced for stealing food during the Great Famine. No other historical site in Ireland better illustrates the motives of those who fought for the nation's liberty.
Kylemore Abbey Connemara, County Galway; 353-95/41146; www.kylemoreabbey.com. This opulent Gothic-style mansion beside a serene lake surrounded by mountains was built as a pleasure dome by a wealthy Victorian industrialist. Now a Benedictine abbey and boarding school partially open to the public, Kylemore has a diminutive cathedral and a six-acre walled garden on the edge of Connemara National Park.
Muckross House & Gardens Killarney National Park, Killarney, County Kerry; 353-64/31440; www.muckross-house.ie. Queen Victoria once spent the night in this lavish yet homey 19th-century manor, a testament to the lifestyle of the monied classes at a time when most people in Ireland were either rich or poor. When Kathy remarked that things are better nowadays, Gillian replied, "Not if you were rich back then." The national park, with its lakes spilling from one to the next, is Irish landscape at its lushest.