Ever thought about Ireland just for a weekend? Well, now you can. Especially if you live in the Boston area. On May 2, 2005, American Airlines began scheduled flights from Logan to Shannon, and in so doing opened up a gateway to a myriad of leisure possibilities in the Shannon region: Clare, Galway, Limerick, Tipperary and Offaly. Of course, you don't have to confine yourself to these counties - nothing in Ireland is ever too far away. And Boston is surprisingly close - it's just a five-and-a-half-hour trip to Shannon. Though you will probably want to stay more than a couple of days, the time-challenged can experience a full assortment of what Ireland has to offer in just a short stay. On the inaugural American Airlines flight we (a party of journalists, travel writers and various other luminaries) left Boston Monday, May 2, and landed in Shannon early Tuesday morning for a two-day stay. The first stop was Jury's Inn in Limerick City (just a half-hour drive from Shannon). Prosperity has colored the once gray-damp city of Frank McCourt, the city's most famous author. Today there is development along the dockside on both sides of O'Connell's Bridge and a glass skyscraper being built next to Jury's Hotel. However, the sculpture in front of the hotel is a gentle reminder of hard times, and families lost to emigration. "It's a heart with flowing water, to commemorate all the broken hearts left behind," explained Bairbre Drury Byrne, Jury's marketing manager. The scenario of the poor immigrant leaving never to return does not apply to today's Irish, but, prosperity aside, much of what always made Ireland a great place to visit hasn't changed. The new road system means you can travel the length and breadth of the country in a relatively short time, but take a turn onto some of the back roads and "old" Ireland in all its pastoral splendor - hedge rows and stone walls - is still there. To experience what it was like in rural Ireland of 100 years ago, we visited the Folk Park that adjoins Bunratty Castle (just a 20-minute drive from Limerick). I almost missed this part of the trip, telling myself that having grown up on a farm in Tipperary, I knew all there is to know about rural Ireland. I'm glad I went. Not least of all because of the fine lunch at Mac's pub - delicious chowder and brown bread, with the atmospheric addition of a turf fire burning. The park is really a living museum, and our wonderful guide Bridie, dressed in clothes of the early part of the last century, showed us around the one-room schoolhouse, thatched cottage and shop - all authentically furnished - while all the time delighting us with anecdotes of her childhood growing up in a small cottage with no electricity. "It was wonderful," she claimed. In the reconstructed farmhouse, we watched bread being baked on an open fire and sampled it too. The Folk Park is in the shadow of Bunratty Castle, also well worth a visit. As with the park, we had a wonderful guide to fill us in on the history. Originally a Norman castle built in the 1200s, the present structure was rebuilt by the powerful MacNamara family around 1425. By 1475 it had became the stronghold of the O'Briens, the largest clan in North Munster. Unfortunately, the reign of the O'Briens came to an end with the arrival of Oliver Cromwell, and the castle and its lands were granted to various plantation families. For many years it lay in disrepair until it was purchased in 1954 by Viscount and Lady Gort, who returned it to its former splendor. In 1960 it was opened to the public. The Great Hall, which was the original banquet hall and audience chamber of the Earls of Thomond, is adorned with French and Flemish tapestries (unfortunately, no Irish tapestries survived). The Main Guard, a vaulted hall that was once the common living area for the Earl's soldiers, is now used for medieval banquets (reservations necessary). The castle also has several "murder holes" which were used to pour boiling oil or water down on attackers - plenty of fodder for horror-film buffs - and a dungeon with stairs that stop about ten feet from the bottom; once you were thrown in the dungeon you stayed there. But for me the highlight of the tour is the beautiful oak table which came from one of the Spanish Armada ships and has pride of place in the Earl's quarters. The workmanship is just beautiful, and it's incredible to think that you can touch something, circa 1500, that once sailed the high seas in a galleon ship and is such an integral part of Irish history. The O'Brien family never returned to Bunratty after its run-in with the ruthless English conqueror, but they remained nearby in Dromoland Castle until 1962, when the 16th Baron, due to financial difficulties, was forced to sell the castle and three hundred and seventy-five acres. Dromoland Castle, just eight miles from Shannon, is now a luxury five-star hotel. A magnificent structure built in the 16th century, Dromoland blends Old World elegance with modern-day comforts. Presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (not at the same time), European royalty, and Hollywood icons such as John Travolta and Demi Moore have all spent time here. The castle is one of Ireland's favorite spots for weddings, as it offers romantic gardens and magnificent rooms. And guests can enjoy numerous activities including hunting, fishing, riding horseback, golf, and tennis. And a luxury spa is presently being built. We enjoyed a splendid dinner in the Earl of Thomond Dining Room, with entertainment by The Bunratty Singers. The next morning the splendor of Dromoland gave way to the natural beauty of the Burren, as bright and early we headed to Co. Clare. The Burren is an amazing place. It is a karst limestone region of approximately 116 square miles in the northwest corner of the county. It contains dozens of megalithic tombs, holy wells, and stone walls that are hundreds of years old. You can walk for miles without ever seeing a car. Our guide Shane Connelly, a local man, was well versed in the terrain and knowledge of rare wildflowers such as gentian and orchids and bloody cranesbill that are to be found here. Interestingly, the Burren is not a national park area, but is owned by local farmers who still graze their cattle here in winter. Suffice to say that you could spend weeks or months in this part of Ireland and never tire of the landscape. From the nearby dramatic Cliffs of Moher, to the quiet village of Ballyvaughan, where we stopped for a stupendous lunch in Monk's, there is much to draw in this region. Late afternoon saw us back to Limerick on a visit to King John's Castle. Within the 13th century structure the story of the castle itself is imaginatively told, along with 800 years of Limerick's incredible history. The castle is just a few hundred yards from the famous Treaty Stone where the story of the Wild Geese really begins. It was after the Treaty of Limerick, signed in 1691 and broken soon after, that Irish soldiers were forced to leave Ireland and join foreign armies in Europe. Dinner at Moll Darby's Restaurant, on George's Quay, was followed by a visit to Dolan's pub on Dock Road for a night of traditional Irish music. We had two fine musicians on tour with us, Mike Quinlan and Larry Reynolds, and it was a real treat to see them join in the session. Next morning my colleagues headed to Shannon for the return flight to Boston, and I headed to Dan Dooley rent-a-car, to begin my visit to the Northwest - Donegal, Mayo and Sligo. That's a story for another issue. In just two days in the Shannon region, we encountered the most spectacular scenery, a tremendous abundance of historical monuments, glorious food, warm and inviting people, and surprisingly few tourists.
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