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The old and the new blend, beautifully, across Ireland




ON THE MORNING of our third day in Dublin, my son, Tim, and I headed out of the city, intent on getting a glimpse of the Ireland we had come to see.

This city, like so many others, has a “beltway” to navigate—with a novel twist: tolls for using it were to be paid at service stations along radial freeways streaming out of Dublin. It worked through computer-controlled cameras that snapped images of every license on the toll road.

If we had gone to Ireland for the narrow, winding country lanes, this techno-stuff disappointed. Yet that high-tech gimmickry soon disappeared.

We would revel in many drives down narrow, winding ways in the next few days. All that’s needed to find them is to take the off-ramps into the past, down countless Irish lanes that even today are little more than paved paths for pony carts.

That easy, unstrained joining of ancient and contemporary is one of the country’s most engaging features. And the Irish themselves seem entirely at ease with this.

The north bank of Dublin’s River Liffey features the Samuel Beckett Bridge—also known as the Harp Bridge for the national symbol of Ireland.

Our immediate destination was Kilkenny, the city and county in the country’s central southwest.

Kilkenny’s popularity as a tourist destination may stem from its appearance as the quintessential small Irish medieval city. Once we managed to work around the crowds it was a wonderful place of scenic cathedrals, friendly locals and pleasant shops—crowned by that architectural and historic masterpiece, Kilkenny Castle.

The castle sits high atop a bluff overlooking the River Nore and the city’s appropriately aged commercial core.

We saved the serious sightseeing for the next morning and set off along John Street, which could be called Pub Street, in search of food and lodging. We discovered the latter at a small B&B in an alleyway. If there is an Irish pub that doesn’t serve decent food, we did not come across it.

The choices seemed innumerable. We opted for a friendly place, nearly deserted, at the north end of John Street. The young woman there could put a smile on anyone’s face.

Starved for food and news, we snagged a good deal on both. I used the computer there for stateside news, reading headlines about the Supreme Court health care ruling. The 21st century certainly has its advantages!

I found free Wi–Fi more widely available in Ireland than in most American towns I’ve been to. Got a smart phone? Don’t travel without it, but be sure to bring the right charging adapter.

The next day dawned gray and drizzling. We donned rain gear and headed for St. John’s Bridge and Kilkenny Castle. Begun in the 9th century, this enormous building, like so many others, was not built overnight. These Irish castles seem to go through a series of lives, expanding, being partially destroyed in wars, changing purposes and owners over centuries.

Not all guidebooks give you the straight scoop on these things. One reports that this stalwart stone eminence dates to the 12th century, but a guide told us where we could peer through a glass floor at a floodlighted section of a stone foundation dating to the 800s.

But for practical purposes, most of the castle as it is seen today dates to the 17th century, when it was home to the Butler family, who ruled some 90,000 acres of surrounding Ireland and essentially owned those who rented it for farmland. This, by the way, comes from some of the best informed guides I’ve ever encountered. Tim and I talked to three of these historians separately, at length.

These were historians, carefully linking eras of British history from centuries past to the present. It was fun asking them to fit the fictional story of the popular PBS series “Downton Abbey” into the narrative of this castle and others like it.

Nowhere in the Republic of Ireland are you likely to forget that the English ruled this land with an iron and often scornful hand for many generations. It took little Ireland until 1923 to win the independence that America secured a century-and-a-half earlier.

To this day, the Irish seem very fond of Americans. After all, in the great potato famine of 1847–49 and thereabouts, it is believed that a million Irish died and an equal number fled their homeland, most of them to America.

And just as Americans know from generational memories of their own Civil War, the Irish will long remember the famine and their ongoing struggle for independence.

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Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former reporter with The Free Lance–Star, is a freelance writer. Email him at