Type: International travel to County Kilkenny, Ireland
Budget: Budget ($500-$1000)
Where did you go?
I spent St. Patrick’s Day at the Enchanted Mill Cottage in Kells, population 280. I’d come to Ireland for a month to celebrate the life of the world’s best dad and to scatter his ashes in our ancestral home. The Irish reminded me of everything I loved about my dad — emotionally intense, rugged people, genuine out of necessity, loyal to the core.
What did you do?
Picture this: at my feet, a blazing peat fire is crackling away in the cast-iron stove (a feature all Irish homes have, to my delight). The morning air is full of holiday sounds — the lazy King’s River gurgling through the mill wheel, laughter from the neighbors, the tea kettle whistling on the range, and everywhere, the melodies of dozens of songbirds. They nest in the thatched roof and dart about in front of disjointed windows in wattle-and-daub walls. There seem to be more than a dozen types of local birds, all various neutral shades, all with different voices. One of the smaller gray birds followed me on my morning walk and revealed himself as a copycat… if you sing or whistle a simple pattern to him, he will repeat it right back to you.
The priory down the lane is furiously clanging its bells, not to be outdone by the larger, modern bells farther up in the county, in Kilkenny Castle, where my hosts took me to see live traditional music.
The air has a sweet scent and seems to be more oxygenated, such that when you take a deep whiff you feel lightheaded, and with every exhale, the daffodils flutter in response. Life here is as quiet and methodical as my dad was… everything is a slow, purposeful call-and-answer. I wish we were able to take this trip together, like we said we would.
Last night my hosts introduced me to the patron saint of Ireland, Our Lady of the Hot Water Bottle. These things are the pinnacle of modern design; simply fill them to the brim with boiling water, twist on the cap, then slip them under the covers while you brush your teeth at night and get ready for the warmest, deepest sleep of your life.
I woke on fluffy white pillows to the sound of chickens clucking patiently for scraps from our holiday breakfast, which turned out to be a gourmand spread of sausages, eggs, sliced ham, roasted tomatoes, thick buttered toast with sliced strawberries, Irish coffees with Paddy’s whiskey and cream, breakfast tea, and cool, clean water from the well. Can it get any better?
All food scraps are composted and have been in this region for decades, not as a fad, but as part of what they incessantly refer to as the “Wheel of Life.” The Wheel features prominently in the Irish psyche and was mentioned in my taxi as we passed by a downtown Dublin funeral, on the train as part of a reminder to “pick up one’s rubbish,” and in schools, in reference to the self-development Irish children must undertake to preserve their heritage.
Kids do their homework in pubs, which are the center of town business, trading, gossip, and always, the latest “craic” (news, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation). In a town of first names, everyone wants to know who I am and where I’m from. I’ve learned to say “near San Francisco,” as it’s the closest place people have heard of. Three people have asked me if the pizza in New York is as good as they’ve heard, assuming that it can’t be too far from where I live.
Most directions are given as either “up” or “down” the road, without reference to which road, because in most towns, there’s only one. Roads are narrow in Kells, just wide enough for two compact cars to sneak by each other, but no matter at what speed you’re clattering by, it’s mandatory to raise one’s hand in a half-wave. My wave has to be heartier, though, because when locals recognize that I’m an anomaly, they wave with gusto and sometimes even pull over to chat or see if I need directions (the classic Irish hospitality I’d read about).
Locals also jump at the chance to “buy a round,” because Irish custom dictates that the recipient, of course, return the favor promptly and is thus “locked in a round.” Once you’re locked in a round there is little escaping the banter and stories, told in powerful accents and peppered with so much slang and cursing that it’s all I can do to keep up and glean any trajectory or story arc. The folk tales are satirically bitter, customarily ending in resentment over recent (or ancient) British oppression.
What first felt like a broken record now seems to be a reinforcement of culture and ideals. Irish people love love love repeating themselves, whether it’s directions on how to get somewhere or folk tales or even just local gossip. One guy told me how to start a fire in the peat stove, then his friend who heard that whole thing told me again, but in his preferred way, and when their lady friend joined them, she insisted they must have explained it all wrong and told me again, from the beginning.
People who’ve told me to go see the Rock of Cashel and the Cliffs of Moher have reminded me of what they said just ten minutes prior, then again an hour later. When I insist those sights are already on my itinerary (and have been since last autumn), they reiterate, “…but yeh just gotta see ’em. There’s nothin’ like ’em.” I’ve heard the same story twice about how May, scorned that Craig wouldn’t leave his wife for her, set fire to his thatched roof. There’s no local fire brigade, so firemen came from two counties over to help put it out. Soon as they left, May went straight back and set it on fire again. Conversations run late into the night.
At closing time, goodbyes take ages; there’s no simple hug and walk away or “see you later.” It’s a drawn-out, passionate affair of double-cheek kisses, handshakes (even between friends who’ve seen each other just the day before), backslaps, hurrahs, waves, and reminders of the reminders of where to go (“I’m tellin’ yeh, the Cliffs of Moher, promise me you won’t miss ’em!”). Everyone walks from the bar, either “up the lane” (north) or “over the bridge” (south), my route being the latter.
Above the carpet of black-gray clouds, a million stars wink through in patterns unfamiliar to me. I’m almost home.
What would you have done differently?
I wish I had gotten up a little earlier, stayed up a little later, and taken even more walks. I took several long walks while I was there, some out of grief and the nature of my trip, others just to enjoy the majesty of my surroundings. The harmony and tranquillity I found in County Kilkenny opened my heart and helped me heal in so many ways.
What’s your best travel advice for other offbeat travelers?
I served as my dad’s primary caretaker in the last year of his life, and the financial strain was immense. I cut corners and saved for the trip for 10 months; it isn’t lost on me that I would never have been able to afford this heritage trip if it weren’t for the small business I started as a side hobby. That being said, if you can afford to make the trip, make it worth your while! Expect to spend at least $55/day on basic needs.
To max out your savings, I highly recommend…
- Stay with locals whenever possible — whether through home sharing sites like Airbnb or established Irish B&Bs. It’s great to meet other types of people and make time to learn about the way they live. It’s also a much more authentic experience, as they’re likely to invite you to tag along on their various activities or suggest places that only the locals know.
- I got the best deal on a flight through Skyscanner. You can set up a route, and it will search all the major airlines for that itinerary and email you when the price goes down.
- I didn’t buy any souvenirs. It was partly a budget-conscious choice and partly a Girl Scout-y “take only photographs” mindset.
Things to pack, places to see, perspectives to share!
It’s tough to do County Kilkenny without a good GPS and a car, so I do recommend bringing or renting one if you’re able to. Most rental places charge around $20/day for a GPS (yikes). I bought a used one on Craigslist and found the Irish SD card online.
Read travel guides and books so you can figure out your own priorities and what types of sights you want to see! I spent a few extra days in the beautiful Southwestern region of the country and in doing so skipped a few days and a few sights in Dublin — and I’m SO glad I did.
I also suggest taking the plunge and dining in rural pubs and even hotel bars, such as that of Zuni Restaurant & Boutique Hotel! You can get a killer meal for a very reasonable cost there (in the $12 range), and all of the staff are so friendly.
The Vintage Tea Room makes a great place to stop off if you can only visit Kilkenny for a while.
Highbank Organic Farm makes incredible ciders if you are looking for gluten free options.
Most Irish restaurants surprised me with their fair prices and high quality, regional food. I went into what seemed to be “dive bars,” at times expecting the worst, and was always pleasantly surprised by delightful, fresh, local food, particularly their fish. Fish is much more affordable in Ireland than in the States.
Kilkenny Castle is full of history, and the nearby Kells Priory offers a free look at the lifestyle of Augustine monks. Although it’s among the largest and most impressive medieval monuments in Ireland, there’s no formal tour structure, no fee, and (at least when I went) very few visitors. I was surprised to have the whole place to myself, mainly because it’s akin to other sites that you have to pay to get into and wade through gaggles of tourist groups to see. Dancing there was unforgettable.
Exploring Kilkenny’s farms is a must, whether you’re able to work through a WWOOFING program, or other farm exchange program.
Read up on the Irish Travellers, since you might see some while you’re in Kilkenny. They are an independent ethnic group who sustain their own lifestyle and mores, separate from the rest of modern Ireland.
- A big backpack such as an Osprey is the ideal way to see Ireland, that way you’re not lugging around a ton of luggage. Don’t forget all the essentials, including a universal power adapter and waterproof jacket (not a hoodie). A rainproof jacket seems like obvious advice, but I’ll just reiterate it here in case anyone is thinking of coming to County Kilkenny without one. Don’t do it (too cold).
- Layers. The temperature fluctuates greatly throughout the day. Many buildings in Southeastern Ireland are older and aren’t super warm at night; they also care about the environment and the bills and tend to be austere about heat. Bring thermals that you can add and subtract throughout the day, and waffley ones you can wear to bed at night.
- Boots. You’ll be happy to hear that you can leave the heels behind! Southeastern Ireland is not a good place to flaunt your haute couture. Many of the sidewalks are made of cobblestone or other uneven materials, and you could risk hurting an ankle without sturdy shoes. Plus, you’ll look great when you’re happy and comfortable.
- Tiny gifts. Irish people are marvelous hosts and will offer things to you at every turn. There were countless times I wished I had a little piece of my hometown to share in return. Even just some small bags of Pacific Northwest coffee or chocolates would have been a graceful treat to share.