Ireland: The Can’t-Sees and the Must-Sees

In the beginning of July, Mac and I traveled to Ireland. Our plan was to spend three weeks exploring the green country by foot, bike and rental car. Even though Ireland isn’t all that big, we wanted to experience its diversity, from urban Dublin to touristy Dingle to quiet Connemara.

We had several must-sees on our Ireland travel list but were also both hoping for something more—something unseen. For Mac, it was about connecting with his Irish roots. I was after a glimpse of the true Irish spirit.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the beginning, it was enough just to soak in the sights and sounds of Dublin. Bright colors made the buildings pop against a perfect and decidedly un-Irish cerulean blue sky. There were friendly pubs and street musicians on every corner. We couldn’t walk 10 feet without the sound of clinking glasses and rowdy ballads. Of course, it helped that we stayed in a bar, as we did for much of our time in Ireland (a lot of the bars rent out rooms), where at a moment’s notice we could have both. 


One of our favorite souvenirs from our travels has been a foreign music collection. With all of the live music around us in Dublin, it didn’t take long for us to start curating an awesome Irish playlist (Spoiler alert: we’ve included it for you at the end of the post).

It was in Dublin that we began our love affair with Irish food—heavy pot pies, steaming meat and potatoes, and enough food at every meal to feed an army. Initially, we thought Irish breakfasts were the best. They’re so big—ham, bacon, eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding, white pudding, toast—that they keep you full all day. After a few days, though, we had to cry uncle. We simply couldn’t eat that much food for breakfast. Dinner? Well, that was another story.

We were definitely starting to put on weight. But our expanding waistlines might also have had something to do with all of the beer we were drinking.

We started our education in Guinness by touring the brewery in Dublin. We learned how to pour the perfect pint and looked at old Guinness ads. Mac felt right at home.
We loved the liveliness of Dublin but soon set off in search of a more traditional Irish way of life. It didn’t take but 20 minutes in our trusty rental car, an underpowered little white thing soon nicknamed “Sheep,” for sprawling city blocks to be replaced with rolling hills and farms. Everything was a different shade of green. Until evening, that is, when everything was given a golden dusting by the setting sun.


We couldn’t get enough of the fields and the colors, which was great because the roads were so narrow and rudimentary at times (and Mac was trying to drive a stick shift on the opposite side of the road) that it took us quite a while to get anywhere. He was fond of saying it was like driving by Braille. At the first sign of an oncoming car, Mac would move over until branches were slapping the driver’s side. That meant we were over as far as we could go, which wasn’t always enough. At one point, we were forced to the side of the road by a large truck and popped a tire.

Rental car escapades aside, we loved our drive through the rocky Irish southern and western coasts, with their massive boulders, technicolor sheep and charming ruins—oh, and their legit rainbows.

We broke up the driving by hiking near the Ring of Kerry and Cliffs of Moher and biking around the Dingle Peninsula. The scenery was perfect: rugged, inhospitable, beckoning. Contemplating the landscape was almost a spiritual experience; it was so easy to picture the ghosts of Druids and warlords past that surely haunt each imposing cliff, each mysterious pile of rubble.

Of course, we had to make time for a few castle visits. We got to stay the night in Ballynahinch Castle—one of our favorite nights of the whole trip. We felt like we’d traveled back in time to the days of drawing rooms, horseback jaunts around the estate and falconry. The rain had kicked in by this point, so we spent a lot of our time drinking by the fire and watching the moisture streak the windows. It was magical.

This and our other favorite stops exposed us to the more traditional Irish life that we were searching for. One day, we explored a living history exhibit from an 18th-century Irish farm. The bucolic photo hides what happened next: the neighboring cow suddenly sprayed diarrhea all over the barn and almost hit several tourists. The farmer milking the cow got a real kick out of it. I think it was the highlight of his whole afternoon.

Another day, we visited a modern sheep farm and watched a demonstration of sheep dogs doing what they do best—rounding up sheep. The added bonus was watching a sheep actually get sheared. The animal may look dead in the picture but rest assured that it’s not. If you hold sheep firmly enough, they just go limp.


Our stops on our round-Ireland road trip were exposing us to a lot of Irish people and culture, just like we’d hoped. And Mac, especially, was loving it. We were surrounded by people named Mackenzie (though here it’s usually a last name) and men in paddy caps—and Sundays were almost exclusively reserved for sitting in the bar all day. It was his heaven.

Through our interactions with the Irish, I got what I was looking for, that glimpse of the Irish spirit: the gift of gab, the ability to drink unlimited pints of Guinness, the encyclopedic knowledge of every Irish folk song ever written, and the eagerness to hunt down strangers and talk to them. But the funny thing was, I didn’t only see it in the Irish-born Irish; I also recognized it in Mac.

As someone who lives in Seattle and is quite familiar with the “Seattle freeze,” I wondered why the Irish were so nice to strangers. In the pub one night, someone explained. Many Irish left their island during the Potato Famine, bound for the United States and other countries. And lots of foreigners now come to Ireland searching for their roots. So in the Irish mindset, the stranger they meet might just be family. What a lovely way to think about things. It’s like one of my favorite quotes: “A stranger is a friend waiting to happen.”

For our last week in Ireland, we didn’t want the distraction of driving. We just wanted to soak in the lifestyle we’d learned to love, to have the chance to be locals instead of tourists. So we rented a house in a tiny village in Connemara and tried our darndest to be Irish. We watched Gaelic football semi-finals at the pub, ambled in the fields after a good rain and stayed cozy with round-the-clock peat fires. Mac even made me a temporary writing desk out of other furniture, so I could put down on paper just some of what had inspired me in Ireland—the food, the landscape, the people. I even started a new book project on the logistics of long-term travel


If I close my eyes, I can go there now. Especially if I start playing the Irish songs we fell in love with on our trip (below). Try it for yourself; the songs are easy to disappear into. Or better yet, go there. Just make sure you don’t miss the can’t-sees for the must-sees.

Our Awesome Irish Playlist:

  1. Whiskey in the Jar
  2. The Streets of New York
  3. Molly Malone (Version One)
  4. Molly Malone (Version Two)
  5. The Fields of Athenry
  6. Caledonia (Scottish)
  7. Wagon Wheel
  8. Wild Rover
  9. The Town I Loved So Well
  10. Summer in Dublin
  11. Country Roads
  12. Ordinary Man
  13. Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears
  14. Danny Boy
  15. Dirty Old Town
  16. The Rattlin’ Bog

Word to the wise: You can find all of these songs in a typical setlist in a traditional Irish pub (yep, even the ones we like to think of as American songs). Or you can just click on the links above and hear them via YouTube.


  1. Amazing!!!

  2. Magical!!! My heart is still pounding from the sheer beauty of “your” Eire. Of all the places you’ve been, I’d choose Ireland to visit. Thank you and Mack for sharing your journey.

  3. P.S. The music is wonderful!!! What a treat. Again, Thank you!!!

  4. Wow! Wow! I did not want your story telling to end ~ you have a gift! We were swept away in the photos and the narrative…cant wait for the next post ~ Bob has started Irish pub music for us tonight – TGIF

    • Glad you guys enjoyed the post and the music :-) We’ll try to do another playlist soon. Hugs from both of us!

  5. SOOOO amazing! Thanks so much for sharing the sights, sounds and the
    magic of Ireland! :)

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