Culture / Travel

Home for the Holidays: Our Top 8 Irish Escapes

Our contributing editors are a discerning bunch, never short of an opinion or two. Their favourite Irish escapes? Here’s what they wrote…

1.YOUGHAL by Tim Magee

My escape is putting away my suitcase, not taking it out. My escape is home and home is Youghal – close to Cork, Waterford, the Tannery, The Cliff House Hotel, Ballymaloe House, 20 minutes from Lismore, and bang in the centre of the food capital of the country. The ocean meets the mighty Blackwater outside my back door. If I turn right and past the lighthouse, I have five miles of Blue Flag beach. Turn left and hitch a lift with Tony Gallagher’s boat and you can unwind as you wind up the broad Blackwater and past the coffee-table book scenes of grand houses, stone ruins and on to the waters and the wild and proper wilderness. Edible treats? Fizzy and oysters in Aherne’s, the town’s best pint and toastie in Moby Dick’s by the harbour and anything from a half-Lyonnais, half-Neapolitan chef in the Capri Bay – silky homemade pasta or anything from his wood-burning pizza oven. A local returned from the States has transformed beachfront bar Clancy’s into a place that would pass muster on any New England beachfront. And the town has won the lottery with the Walter Raleigh Hotel, bought and restored by food-loving Nick and Grace Ryan who, like me, fell for the location and the sea air of this cracking seaside town.


This characterful Kerry island has a strong sense of identity. Even a brief visit will bring you in contact with 385-million-year-old tetrapod tracks, the dramatic lighthouse at Cromwell Point and details of the first transatlantic cable that came into the island 150 years ago. But apart from the scenery and deep-rooted history, there’s a great vibe to the place. Locals are laidback, the humour is bone dry and the chat stimulating. Social life is low-key. A few drinks in the local hotel, The Royal, and superb food at proprietor-run restaurants – locally sourced crab, scallops, prawns, lobsters, and superb lamb and beef. QC’s in nearby Caherciveen has a warm atmosphere and world-class seafood, while the terrace of Sandra O’Connor’s Coffee Dock is perfect for keeping one eye on Knightstown’s main street and the other on the comings and goings of the marina.


By osmosis I picked up my mother’s fierce love for the place where she was born in Donegal – a farm with fields dipping down to the stony shore of Mulroy Bay. My sister and I spent the summers of early childhood there, carting picnics up heatherclad hills for the giddy pleasure of racing back down them; chipping barnacles off rocks for Granny to boil into strange edibility; getting sunburnt, then drenched, six times a day in Donegal’s violent weather. Eventually, I began to bring my own kids there; the first time ticking them off for turning up their little city-slicker noses at the smell of cows. We picked wild flowers along bog roads and felt the smoothness of granite boulders pounded into perfect spheres by the sea at Fanad Head. Outings on ancient bikes, stone-skimming competitions and races against the wind on Ballymastocker’s two-mile sweep of golden sand built prodigious appetites. Which explains why scampi and chips at the Village Inn in Kerrykeel were received with as much rapture as if Raymond Blanc had cooked them. I still love it so much that, even if months or years pass without a visit, it remains a mental refuge. When I can’t get to sleep, I walk the full length of Rathmullan beach in my head, picking up razor shells.


The road from Headford through Cong criss-crosses county boundaries and what’s Clonbur on one sign is confusingly An Fháirce, untranslated, on another. So by the time you pull up in the village you feel a little as if you’ve fallen down the rabbit
hole rather than driven onto the isthmus between Lough Corrib and Mask. But in the morning, you have coffee looking at the rain-washed hulk of Mount Gable, with no bars on your phone and ten of the loveliest walks in Ireland within an ass’s roar. As holidays go, it’s usually pretty simple for us: sandwiches on the stony lakeshore at Ard na Gaoithe while the dogs swim for broken branches; hot whiskeys and toasties in Hamilton’s bar in Leenane, when we’re windburnt from walking the glorious, deserted length of Glasillaun beach; passing from the damp greenery of Ballykine Woods into the suddenly sunlit grounds of ruined Cong Abbey. There’s luxury around if you crave it. You could chink cocktails at Lisloughrey Lodge, or have afternoon tea at Ashford Castle. The lakes and the landscape here are beautiful in any weather. Go there if you are the type who has serious wellies and isn’t afraid to use them.


I love Fermanagh, a county of unsurpassed beauty, still relatively little known and untouristy. I was brought up in Tyrone next door but we never went west – we always headed south to Dublin and Bray for our hols as children so I only really discovered it some years ago when I went to stay with artist Rita Duffy and her architect husband John Kelly who live in a house John designed, by the edge of two lakes, bathed in silence. I blunder about the county till I come on the house. But the blundering brings great pleasure, exploring a countryside studded with tiny lakes – silver pools among deep green foliage, as well as huge ones. You can take a cruiser up Lough Erne and visit Devenish Island monastic site with its twelve ruins. Almost every corner of the little straggly country roads reveals new pleasures. I love the antiques shops in Enniskillen, and there are hotels and B&Bs aplenty. What to wear? A raincoat and wellies. But when the sun breaks though – joy!


I’ve been going to Dingle for years. My mother boarded at Coláiste Íde, the most idyllically located school in the country. In the 1990s, when I endured a few years of the special misery that only those who have suffered through an Irish seaside holiday with small children in bad weather can truly understand, we found solace of a kind in horse-riding lessons operated from the school’s stables. I’ve rediscovered Dingle in recent years. Now we go in autumn rather than summer, bringing with us no expectations as to the weather, and we don’t take the children, who now, of course, are not children anymore and probably wouldn’t come even if we asked them. I make sure to have one dinner apiece at Out of the Blue and Global Village, and pints at Foxy John’s. I’ll browse the Dingle Bookshop, walk the beach at Inch Strand and before I hit the road, I’ll stock the boot with Jerry Kennedy’s Blasket Island lamb, Ted Browne’s crabmeat, cheeses and Olivier Beaujouan’s On The Wild Side Kerry chorizo from his partner Maja Binder’s Little Cheese Shop, and a bottle each of Dingle Distillery’s vodka and fuchsia-infused gin to keep me going until my next visit.


Fordstown, Co Meath, is calm, mystical. There are a lot of fairy forts with twisted trees and mounts of lush green grass rising up from the otherwise pretty flat land. There always seems to be a haze, even when it’s sunny. I first went about five years ago, and since then I’ve visited at least once a month. I wasn’t a lover of the countryside until I arrived there, but it changed my mind completely. On my first visit, I arrived wearing the highest heels, determined to stay indoors. But slowly, I came around to the animals, the swaying wheat … It’s a place to believe in pixies. Now when I visit, I wear wellies and lots of layers: to enjoy it, you need to learn to love the outdoors; it’s all long walks, bogland, and occasional rain. In early summer, it’s about black tie and the outdoor Loughcrew Opera. Later, around August, I love visiting the sunflower fields in Oristown – it’s hard to believe such a thing exists in Ireland, just fields and fields of yellow. Then for Halloween, people gather at the Hill of Ward, the spot where the night allegedly originates.


Waterford is special to me. My husband went to school in Newtown, and brought me on a tour of his haunts when we first met. Woodstown Beach, the Comeragh Mountains, Dunmore, Dungarvan, beaches at Ardmore: it’s a delightful whirlwind of sand, ice cream, smiling faces and tans. As an escape, it’s somewhere between a post-war beach holiday meets glamour food destination, with the Cliff House and Whitehorses in Ardmore, Dunbrody House in Arthurstown, and Nude Food and The Tannery Restarant in Dungarvan. Waterford can have all the laidback glamour of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where no one dresses up and flashy cars are interdit, but really, I love it because you can be a child again. Last time we went on our own, we skinny-dipped on Curragh beach. Whether you bring children, friends, dogs, or a bottle of David Llewellyn’s Irish cider, it’s a delicious spot to escape to. 

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