A magical, bittersweet, vacation in County Kilkenny, Ireland

Updated Oct 12 2015
All photos by
All photos by Joni Whitworth of Mint + Mirth!

Traveler: Joni
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.

fire and guinness

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.

irish scenery

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.

kilkenny tradfest

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.

the sites of Ireland

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?

IRISH breakfast

Irish coffees

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 in the street

kytelers inn

shirleys pub

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.

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Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.45.13 PM

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).

irish scenery 2

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.

inside an irish pub

irish pub

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.

u are alive

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.

Zuni Restaurant.
Zuni Restaurant.

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.

yummy food

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.

irish dancing

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.

irish animals

Packing:

  • 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.

  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal trip with us. I'm sure you did your dad proud.

    All the information here is so helpful, even for someone like me who is closer to the destination; I haven't been to Ireland in a very long time and never to Kilkenny and this makes me want to go!

  2. Wow, thank you so much for the fantastic write-up and detail! I'm travel shy, but this makes me feel like I could make the trip.

  3. As an Irish person I'm delighted to read of your wonderful experience here. Considering the poignant reason for your trip I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed your visit.
    When you're in Ireland all the time it's easy to forget how unusual and quirky it is. However on my return from another culture (I travel with my job) I always see the beauty… Your story has reminded me of that beauty as I sit here in my garden in Ireland.
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. This was my favorite travel post I've ever read on OBH. You're writing is fantastic! Thank you for sharing your story. 🙂

  5. Loved what I could read of the article. I also have family history in Ireland so I was especially excited to see the name of this post then…..Ads Ads everywhere.

    I have a huge question. I've been reading Offbeat home for years and I've never been blasted with so many ads imbedded in an article as this one. What's up? I actually stopped reading part way through because it was so distracting. I actually went back to articles I had already read to see if the ads were imbedded there too but they were not.

    As a migraine/seizure sufferer ads like this make a post like this unreadable. If this is going to be an ongoing thing within the article itself not on the side of the page you'll Lise me as a reader and supporter of Offbeat. I would be sad to leave because I planned a Wedding and alt lifestyles are ok here.

    • I so agree. SO. MANY. ADS. I don't mind ads in general, I get that they help support this site, but when reading about miscarriages and funerals, having ads cover up the pictures and be incredibly distracting just makes me want to leave and not read the rest of the beautiful posts. I couldn't see half the pictures and then more ads would pop up halfway through! Anyway, again, i support having ads, but this is crazy.

    • Hey guys! Thanks so much for bringing this up. In the interest of keeping the site online, we've made the decision to allow surveys and more invasive banner advertising to appear on Offbeat Home & Life.

      We know ads can be bothersome, but we're doing our best to ensure the site's long-term sustainability, and this kind of advertising is the only way we're able to stay online.

      While you always have the option of installing a browser-based ad-blocker like AdBlock, you can also consider helping us move toward a more reader-supported business model: http://offbeathome.com/supporters

      The cold hard truth is this: without these more invasive ads, the site cannot stay online. This is the reality of many online publications, and we are no different.

      • I totally understand the need for ads. However, as I said and this was totally disregarded in the reply. The movement in these ads that cannot be blocked from a moble device (no ad blockers that are effective exist) can cause seizure activity. Seriously that movement really does make my head hurt and the last thing I'd need is an actual seizure. I don't want a higher dosage of anti seizure medication because of a bad gif.

        Is there truly a reason the ads have to be inside of the actual text and photos of the article and not on the sides of the page? There is no reason the ads need to be bopping around that's for sure.

        I can't be the only reader here who really wanted to read this article thoroughly but couldn't and is also now considering leaving the site(s) entirely if something to alter the way this is distributed isn't done.

        Need ads, of course. Like that, not if you want to keep readers. Plus no one is going to click on a single one of those on purpose. Do a poll and ask. I'm sure some of us would be happy to click on a side ad to help increase revenue once and a while if you can get rid of the flashing neon signs in the middle of the articles that were so lovingly put together.

  6. Thank you so much! Ireland is a place we'd like to visit someday, and your experience is exactly what we aim for wherever we travel- authentic, small, off the beaten path, really diving into the heart of the place. I did wonder if that was even possible in Ireland- and I'm happy to see it very much is.

  7. This was great to read, thank you for sharing your experience! I've been to Ireland, but I stayed in the more urban areas and really really want to go back and see more of the countryside. I do agree with you, the Irish have been the friendliest and most fun of all the other places I've traveled.

  8. Beautiful pictures! I went to Dublin a few years back- my Nan was Irish and she came from a village not too far from the city. As you might expect though it's quite touristy in places. It was also very expensive but we had a great time just wandering around and taking in the sights.

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