Between the two of us, my wife and I have visited nearly every corner of Ireland. It’s where we first met, when our separate travels brought us briefly together as bunkmates in a Doolin hostel. We returned many times in the years afterward, and even lived in Galway for a summer — where we survived on music and Guinness and watched an already rowdy college town all but explode with energy during the arts festival and the Galway Races.
But now we’re returning to Ireland with a very different ambition: finding fairies. We’re bringing our daughter for the first time.
Flying across the Atlantic with a 5-year-old can be challenging, but it takes just over five hours from Boston to reach Shannon Airport on Ireland’s west coast; it’s a shorter flight than our trip to California the year prior. And on a flight to Ireland, yours is rarely the only crying baby or squirmy preschooler, which takes some of the pressure off.
Around sunrise, our plane plunges through thick cloud cover to reveal that lush, emerald green landscape. It really is the most surreally vibrant green I’ve ever seen. We’re all dazed from an abbreviated night, but Shannon Airport is easy to navigate, even while sleepwalking. It feels the size of your local supermarket, and there are no miserable shuttles or trams to deal with: It’s all of a hundred paces to our rental car.
Our first vacation rental is in Doolin; we want to show the kid the magical little town where mom and dad met. We arrive at our three-bedroom house with sweeping views of the Atlantic, and our host, like some kind of breakfast angel, has left us tea, milk, bread, jam, and butter. After settling in with a “cuppa,” we allow a few hours to nap, then groggily force ourselves awake in early afternoon.
Entering tourist mode, we head to the Cliffs of Moher just down the road, looking to impress the kid. Standing atop a sheer, 700-foot drop into the churning Atlantic has the desired effect, and quickly jostles us from our jet-lagged stupor. We meander along the cliffs, spotting the adorable orange-billed puffins that have returned for the season after a winter at sea. When raindrops start to fall, we check out the visitor center; built into the hillside like a cave, it offers a cafe plus some cool nature exhibits for kids.
In our younger, childfree days, we would walk along the windswept, cliff-top coastal path that leads from Doolin to the cliffs, but we’re not going to attempt that three-mile journey with the little one. We do get a few miles of walking in, though: Our rental house is steps from the Burren Way, a 76-mile trail through the area’s limestone moonscape. We set off on a fairy hunt, leaving gifts of wildflowers outside tiny alcoves in the stone walls. Magically, the flowers are gone when we return later, but there’s no sign of whoever claimed the bouquet — just fields, cows, and ocean as far as the eye can see.
I should add: It’s late June and we’re in windbreakers and pants. By the first of July, I’ll be wearing a wool sweater when the sun goes down. Some might complain, but I find Ireland has perfect weather for outdoor adventures. And while you may be expecting the famous Irish rain, it’s rare to get a ferocious downpour like we have in New England; you can still do most stuff outside in the overcast Irish mist. April through July is the driest, sunniest time of year, though — and the sun stays out past 10 p.m., so you’ve got plenty of opportunity to make hay.
For dinner each night, we alternate between Doolin’s three longstanding and outstanding pubs: McDermott’s and McGann’s in the upper village, and Gus O’Connor’s in the lower. (A fourth pub sprang up in the middle about 10 years ago, and it’s . . . fine. But it lacks the history and charm of the others.) Doolin is famous for traditional Irish music — maybe too famous, as there are more tour buses than the last time we visited — and each night we linger after dinner for our fill of lively trad tunes. Our daughter is no stranger to an Irish sessiun, having attended a few around Boston on low-key weekend afternoons. But she’s enthralled by the energy of these spirited prime-time performances, and enjoys that she can yell indoors at the end of a song. In between games of Uno, she plays with a local boy at the next table; we befriend some fellow tourists who, it turns out, live just a few miles away outside Boston.
The next day, we take the new fast ferry out to Inis Oirr (Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran Islands. As if out of a Disney movie, a dolphin named Sandy follows our boat, splashing alongside the ship the whole half-hour journey. We hire bikes — including a tandem for me and the kid — and explore the narrow roads, nearly empty but for horse-and-buggy tours. We poke around an enormous, rusted-out shipwreck, then eat a picnic lunch at O’Brien’s Castle with a view over Galway Bay.
That evening, we tag along on a tour of Ballinalacken Castle, a 15th-century ruin near our rental. Our daughter is decidedly excited to learn about the “murder hole” — a gap near the top where one could throw hot oil, rocks, or burning logs down at attackers trying to scale the castle wall.
With a steady rain coming down the next day, we visit Doolin Cave and its “Great Stalactite.” At 23 feet long, this hanging hunk of limestone truly is impressive — the longest in Europe, formed drip by drip over thousands of years. Donning helmets, we venture deep underground to view it. At one point, the tour guide turns off the only lights, and we’re all blankly blinking in the darkest darkness we’ve ever experienced.
It’s not quite a three-hour drive to our next stop, just outside Kilkenny. Our car has a standard transmission with the gear shift on the left, and while I get the hang of it, we also need to merge left at roundabouts and drive on the left side of harrowingly narrow roads. Helpfully, our daughter learns to holler, “Stay left!” at random intervals. (I’m being totally serious, you’ll want reminders.)
When we arrive at our 18th-century thatched cottage in Kells, it’s like stepping into a storybook; although if you’re taller than 5 feet 10 inches, you might lose track of the plot as you conk your head on doorways. The backyard is a lushly landscaped Garden of Eden: small paths wind through blooming flowers up to a rope swing and a chicken coop. Fresh eggs are part of the deal, and our daughter adores checking on the chickens each day.
Without having to get back into the car, we stroll along the lazy Kings River to Kells Priory, the spectacular ruins of a 12th-century monastery. If you think this stuff is boring for a kid, you’re forgetting how much fun it is to run around like Robin Hood through wide open fields of medieval stone towers and let yourself get creeped out in ancient cemeteries. Throw in dozens of happily roaming sheep, this free outing entertains our daughter for hours.
The next day we drive into town to visit a more preserved 12th-century monument. Kilkenny Castle is gorgeous, restored to 1830s vintage, but the castle grounds — including an endless lawn, a big playground, and the ambling, leafy (and strangely magical-feeling) Canal Walk — are just as impressive.
At the other end of Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile is St. Canice’s Cathedral, a striking church built in the 13th century. We figure we’ll just pop in, but it’s breathtaking inside, and the self-guided tour makes it easy to learn loads of local lore. (Not for the first time, I’m cursing Oliver Cromwell.) We all sit in St. Kieran’s Chair, a stone throne where bishops have been ordained for centuries. There’s even a kid’s area, and our daughter ends up playing happily at a big table full of blocks where you can build a replica of the cathedral.
Our last stop is Ennis, a perfectly pint-sized city in County Clare that’s conveniently near Shannon Airport for our upcoming flight home. On our way west, we stop at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, a living reconstruction of a 19th-century Irish village. There’s also a tranquil fairy trail, adorned with string lights and wee fairy houses in the woods — but we catch no sight of the little sprites, even as our daughter tries to summon them with a made-up fairy language. The castle itself, meanwhile, is outfitted in 15th- and 16th-century decor and enlivened by period actors; the kid is most tantalized by the dank, creepy dungeon. Book far in advance if you want to stay for a full medieval banquet and performance inside the castle — it fills up fast, as we learn with some disappointment.
In Ennis, our Airbnb is above Meere’s butcher shop, whose owner, Noel, treats us like long lost friends. Granted, nearly everyone in Ireland treats us as old friends, but Noel has us all in fits of giggles each time we run into him. Like laughter, music seems to follow you around in Ireland. And Ennis, a trad hotspot, is no exception, with buskers serenading the streets and nightly performances in the pubs. Our best sessiun of the trip comes at Knox’s Pub: We’re seated so near, our daughter’s rubbing elbows with the musicians, and a step dancer joins in as well.
It’s in the Ennis Friary churchyard that, after a week of searching, our daughter is certain she catches a glimpse of tiny fairies flitting about the stone wall (or baby moths, who’s to know). Her ecstatic face is priceless. We then use the city’s sculpture trail as a scavenger hunt for her, and later walk to Tim Smythe Park to find one of the coolest playgrounds she’s ever seen, with a two-story play tower, a huge rope net climbing structure, and a long zipline. (The playground at Bunratty also has an amazing zipline.) I’m glad she gets to enjoy, on a 5-year-old’s level, one of the simplest pleasures of travel: seeing a foreign take on something familiar.
Of course, there’s plenty more to do in Ireland with little ones; wary of burning her out, we barely make a dent. There’s the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford, an outdoor museum spanning millennia of Irish history. In Dublin, don’t miss sprawling Phoenix Park, one of the largest in Europe, which is home to a herd of wild deer as well as the Dublin Zoo. And there are too many fairy hideouts and tiny treasures to mention — like Tramore, a little seaside town with beaches and an old-school amusement park, or the rugged coastal beauty (and “Star Wars” backdrops) found all along the Wild Atlantic Way that stretches from Donegal to West Cork.
The bottom line is this: It’s no Orlando (and thank God for that), but Ireland doesn’t need the Disney touch to feel like a magical playground for your own little leprechauns.
Jon Gorey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.