The Cliffs of Moher and the Savage Clan

Sunday, May 29, 2011 | County Clare, Ireland (map)

Sister Margaret and I posed at the top of the cliffs. (Photo: M. Graham)
En route to Galway, we made a detour past the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's most famous natural sites. We saw the 200-meter high cliffs, famed for their ruggedly scenic views, but unfortunately did not spot the puffin colonies that are rumored to inhabit their base. By the time we left, a heavy fog was rolling in off the sea, rendering the cliffs' jagged dropoff yet more sinister.

At the gift shop in the cliffs' subterranean visitor center, I happened upon a map showing the traditional homelands associated with various Irish surnames. The Coloes were elusive, but all alone on a spur off the island's far northeast shore were the Savage clan, the other half of my mother's Irish ancestors. If I had been smart and looked that up in advance we might have arranged to pay them a visit!

The Dingle Peninsula: Irish Postcard Country

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | Dingle, Ireland (map)

A perfect Irish coast at Slea Head, Dingle Peninsula
After our hair-raising run-ins the day before along just one small stretch of the Ring of Kerry (known in online travel forums as "The Ring of Tour Buses"), my mom and sister and I weren't eager to experience a whole day of the same. So at the recommendation of our B&B's owner, we instead opted to drive around the Dingle Peninsula, just up the coast. There we visited the wide, mirrored expanse of Inch Beach, ate fish and chips beside the port in Dingle town, and made the scenic drive to Slea Head, the peninsula's most extreme point.

The Dingle proved to be about as Irish as I could have imagined. Of course, the scenery looked like the postcard images sold in tourist shops back in Dublin, with jagged cliffs plunging down to the sea, greener hills than any we had yet seen, more sheep than people, and very moody weather.

But more telling still was the language. In fact, the prevalence of Gaelic—or "Irish", as the Irish call

Gap of Dunloe, Ring of Kerry: Ireland's Fun Though the Driving's Scary

Monday, May 23, 2011 | Killarney, Ireland (map)

Maggie made new friends on our hike through the Dunloe Gap.
The town of Killarney is the gateway to one of Ireland's most famous tourist destinations: the Ring of Kerry, a 179km loop around the Kerry Peninsula, which juts off the island's southwestern coast into the Atlantic and is known for its stunning scenery.

My mom, sister, and I spent our first afternoon in the area hiking the Dunloe Gap, a scenic pass in the peninsula's central mountain range. From a small parking lot, visitors either set out on foot or by rented horse carriage along the narrow lane that winds 3.5 miles across the valley floor to the gap's narrowest point. We opted to test our luck with the weather by walking.

Along the route, we passed reed-filled ponds and meandering streams, moss-covered trees, wildflowers and delicate ferns, and plenty of animals. There were ducks and herons, grazing horses, local sheepdogs, and of course quite a few sheep, whose owners apparently spraypaint blue and red

Kill Village Ahead

Sunday, May 22, 2011 | Kinsale, Ireland (map)

It was undoubtedly Maggie's favorite Irish road sign of our entire trip.
"Kill" or "kil" is an old Gaelic word for "church," we learned on day two of our Irish roadtrip, after Maggie dutifully Googled it on her Blackberry from the back seat. (You can do that on trips in this part of the world, which is a novelty for me.) So this explained how every other Irish village we passed along our drive from Waterford began with some variation of this prefix. But it did not entirely explain why one village along our route was named simply "Kill".

On the day's drive from Waterford to Cork, we made a detour to Bunmahon Beach. Ireland's ever-present rains dampened the sea views a bit, and it was still raining later that afternoon when we passed through Cork and wound our way down to a B&B overlooking the coastal town of Kinsale.

The Irish Roadtrip Begins: Kilkenny Castle

Saturday, May 21, 2011 | Kilkenny, Ireland (map)

Kilkenny Castle was in far better shape than any of the castles I have visited in the Middle East.
Within minutes of arriving in Dublin, I had stepped into oncoming traffic and had to leap back to the curb to avoid being squished. Given that I was supposed to drive us around on the left side of the road for the next week, this troubling early sign was on all our minds on our third day in Ireland, when my mom and sister and I picked up our rental car. As my mother gripped her seat, white knuckled, and made gasping sounds of certain impending death, I pulled the car onto the road and began to adjust to the disorienting sensation of lefthand driving. After managing to avoid plowing into any cars in the first few blocks, I made it to the highway and began to feel more comfortable. We were on our way.

At Kilkenny, a few hours south of Dublin, we stopped to visit the town castle and its stables and gardens. Though the castle was clearly of the same origin and similar construction as many of the

The Dublin Tourist Circuit

Thursday, May 19, 2011 | Dublin, Ireland (map)

The Temple Bar district makes a fun hangout for bachelor/bachelorette parties, tourists, and locals alike.
For as long as I can remember, in the back of my mind I have been able to hear my mother's voice reciting "Before I die, I have to see Ireland." The land of her great-grandparents loomed large in her mind as much for the ancestral connections as for the cool weather, rolling green hills, and friendly, English-speaking locals.

As my mother's Christmas gift last year, my sister Maggie and I agreed to shoulder the bulk of the costs for a 10-day tour of Ireland. Maggie found a solid travel provider that organized self-driving tours along a variety of routes—we picked the dates and a loop across the country and they made all the arrangements.

* * *

Our plans were interrupted right off the bat at the Dublin Airport, where my mom and sister announced an unscheduled stop to watch "the royal wedding." European and American tourists were