It took an American—none other than Johnny Cash—to quantify the greenness of Ireland in song, and I can tell you first hand that he had it right. As the plane broke through the floor of clouds on its descent into Shannon Airport, I sat simply awestruck at the sight of lush rolling hills and meadows and farms below me, broken up by a patchwork of stone fences. Those Forty Shades of Green spread out beneath my aerie felt at once both wholly alien and comfortingly familiar, as if I were returning to a home I had never known. That feeling never left me during the rest of my 11-day journey.
For many Tech alumni in our tour group, Ireland was a bucket-list trip. And for me, it was much more than that; it was a return home of sorts. Both sides of my family claim deep roots on the Emerald Isle and I’ve always been in love with the country’s history, culture and folklore. In fact, I can trace my heritage back to medieval high bards—and while my last name, strawberry blonde hair and freckles aren’t that common in the U.S., I found they fit right in with the people of Éire.
After arriving in Shannon, we traveled to Ennis, a lively town in County Clare that would serve as our home base on the first leg of our journey. We lodged at the Old Ground Hotel, a former manor house that not only oozed old-world charm and luxury, but also featured a great Irish pub. That first Guinness tasted great. We spent the day in Ennis, touring the city streets and stepping in for a brief tour of the ruins of a Franciscan friary. The highlight of the day was an after-dinner performance by a band of young musicians and dancers who shared rousing, traditional Irish sounds and steps with us.
The next day we traveled by bus to Galway, the famed coastal city. Unfortunately, this was the only day the weather didn’t cooperate with us, as we endured a couple downpours on our walking tour. Some of us shopped for traditional Irish Claddagh rings, while others feasted on fresh fish and chips. The following day, excursions took us to The Burren, a region known for its unusual rock formations, and the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning seaside site better known to film fans as the Cliffs of Insanity, from The Princess Bride.
Our last day operating from Ennis, we ventured to the Aran Islands, where those iconic woolen fisherman’s sweaters are made. It was so warm that day—in fact, most of our trip went against Irish weather standards—I didn’t feel like buying one for myself, but that didn’t stop others, to be sure. We had a particularly lovely lunch at a small hillside restaurant overlooking Galway Bay, and felt fortified enough to make the trek up a steeper hill to see the ancient ruins of the Dun Aengus ring fort.
On our transfer to Killarney, where we’d stay the next two nights, we circled the Dingle Peninsula by bus and visited a museum honoring the remote, once-inhabitable Blasket Islands. We then made a quick stop in the quaint town of Dingle, where I found a pub and found out I very much like Tom Crean’s lager (you can’t drink Guinness all the time), brewed locally. We checked into The Malton, a stately, luxurious hotel, and I hosted a happy hour for my fellow travelers, courtesy of the Alumni Association. Yes, we even sang the Ramblin’ Wreck, much to the amusement of our non-Tech friends.
After a good night’s sleep, we added a local tour guide to our entourage and drove the beautiful lengths of The Ring of Kerry, which offered spectacular views of the Irish countryside and coast. On one of our stops, we took in a surprisingly spectacular demonstration of sheep herding that had most of us wanting to take home a sweet, smart border collie for our own. Several photo opportunities later, we wound up our trek by touring the Muckross House, a 19th-century Victorian mansion that reminded us of an Irish Downton Abbey, only better.
On the road between Killarney and Dublin, our last base of operations, we pulled in to see Blarney Castle and an elaborate series of lush gardens. Yes, I was one of the few who trudged up the narrow stairs of the castle and—with gymnastic, upside-down grace—kissed the Blarney Stone. I even have the $10 picture to prove it, though my wife not-so-secretly wishes that I hadn’t added the fabled “gift of gab” to my repertoire. Another stop took us to The Longueville House, where we enjoyed a refreshing, gourmet lunch and hobnobbed with the owners.
By the time we reached Dublin, most of us were pretty done in. Still, we enjoyed a bus and walking tour of the city, which included stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College—where we saw The Book of Kells and a fascinating exhibit on Irish high king Brian Boru’s 1014 battle against the Vikings. We then had the afternoon, evening and most of the next day free to tour cosmopolitan Dublin at our leisure, before tipping our Guinness glasses to each other at a farewell reception and dinner. Now those were 11 days well spent.
I must admit I had never been on a small-group tour such as this one offered by the Georgia Tech Alumni Association through AHI Travel, and I was a little concerned that being cooped up on a motor coach with relative strangers—though many of us shared that Tech bond—was going to take away from the experience.
My doubts proved to be completely unfounded. Our plucky band of seasoned GT adventurers, as well as fellow travelers from Emory, West Point, Cornell and Wilson College, got along tremendously well and the shared experience of witnessing Ireland’s marvels added greatly to our enjoyment. As one of the few solo tourists in the bunch, I was always invited to join couples and groups for dinners and drinks in our free time, and I never felt like a third wheel.
Meanwhile, AHI took the worry out of nearly everything, giving all of us the freedom to simply enjoy ourselves fully rather than have to fret about logistics. The hotels, restaurants, guest speakers, tour guides and excursions that were prearranged and recommended all turned out to be first class. Tour Director Joannie Herbst—though tiny in stature—stood tall whenever a small problem surfaced, using her years of expertise and her careful planning to make the travelers in her care happy.
One of the best aspects of this guided, small-group trip may surprise you as much as it did me. Having an exceptional bus driver like Danny Smyth made the long spells on the road between attractions immensely enjoyable. What’s more, on a tour such as this, I never expected to be able to get a glimpse of how a native Irishman sees the world. While nimbly navigating traffic, Danny spent hours telling us stories about his country, ranging from history to politics to simple tales of everyday life—and, of course, many, many jokes. If you were too tired to listen closely to him, his warm Irish accent and his words still did their job, lulling you to a happy sleep as those forty shades of green whipped by.