Taking Mom on a vacation to Ireland. It was a simple idea that quickly got complicated as we realized that it meant three generations coming from two countries (most of us from the US, and my brother and his son from Germany), all staying under one roof. Different needs, different interests, but one goal - spend time together in Ireland.
Mom was born on a farm in Ballyglass, Swinford, Co. Mayo. She moved to London then Chicago, where she and my dad raised a family. We'd been to Ireland from time to time, but it had been years since she'd stepped on Irish soil. As she got older, retired from teaching, and watched her grandkids go from toddlers to teenagers, she worried she'd never see home again.
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So we hatched a plan. My brothers and their families, myself and my mom would meet in Ireland for a two-week trip. It went so well we reunited two years later for another Irish vacation. We did some things right the first time - and we got better on the second trip.
Here's what we learned about how to plan the perfect family trip to Ireland
1. Keep it simple
Our first trip to Ireland there was a lot on the list of must-do activities, and with seven people that meant two cars, lots of coordination, and a fair amount of time on the road. We crossed from Dublin to Mayo, to Galway, then down to Clare. It was great, and we did see a lot, but it turned out to be a bit hectic for a large group. By the second trip we decided on a rental house with shorter day trips. Ireland seems small enough to most Americans to do in one big gulp, but if you pick an area and just explore there, you'll be happier and more in line with the pace of Irish life (especially rural life).
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2. Embrace the road
Unless your trip is only in cities, a car is really necessary in Ireland. It allows you to explore small villages and make impromptu trips into town. We considered a larger vehicle that could fit the bunch but rejected it, and I'm glad we did. Two cars gave us more flexibility when the group wanted to split up, plus many Irish roads and parking spaces are too small for a van or SUV. If you're renting, book early, especially if (like me) you'll need automatic transmission. Driving on "the other side of the road" isn't difficult after the first day, and it's lots of fun.
3. Make sure everyone has a say
My sister-in-law and I are planners, in part out of natural inclination and in part because people tend to leave it to us to organize. But it's stressful to divine what a large group will all want to do, especially with an age range from 13 to my mom. She would kill me if I say exactly how old she is, but her children are middle-aged so you do the math. For our rental house on our second trip, we asked everyone to put in their requests. Mom wanted to be able to sit and watch the water. My brothers wanted to be walking distance to restaurants and pubs. My nephews wanted to have a place away from the adults. And my sister-in-law and I wanted to make sure we didn't spend the holiday cleaning up after everyone. That meant looking for a house by the water but close to town, big enough where we wouldn't trip over each other and small enough that it wouldn't be a headache.
Easy? Yes, surprisingly. Mom took charge of finding a place that checked all the boxes. She spent days searching Irish holidays rentals, along with a fair amount of back and forth emailing before we found what we wanted. And bonus, our house even came with fresh eggs courtesy of the chickens out back. Know what you must have and what you can live without, and be prepared to start looking early especially for a summer vacation. The best and most affordable homes are snapped up months in advance.
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4. Plan a few group events and let the rest just happen
It's important to have a few things that bring the group together because that's why you came. We visited Ennistymon, Co. Clare where my now deceased dad spent much of his youth. It was touching to walk the streets that he once walked. My sister-in-law organized a horseback riding lesson on the beach. None of us are experienced riders and we bonded over our triumphs of staying on the horses (and later, over our sore behinds). My brother and sister-in-law renewed their wedding vows, officiated by my cousin in the church where he was the parish priest. But we also just relaxed and did our own thing. It meant there was time for my German nephew to play pool with his American cousin, my mom, sister-in-law and me to go souvenir shopping at Kylemore Abbey, and my brothers to have a beer and walk the beach. Having a few things planned ensures some amazing memories, but having only a few things planned means the vacation doesn't turn into an exhausting to-do list.
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5. If you're going "home" to Ireland - find home
We're lucky in that regard. My cousin still owns the farm where my mom and her six siblings were raised. The house she grew up in still stands, though unused. We walked the fields, and looked at the flowers and she told stories about her childhood to her kids and grandkids, nephews and grand niece and nephews. We also had a family reunion on my dad's side - with cousins, second cousins and third-cousins once removed (it was fun trying to untangle the family tree). But even if there are no relatives you can identify, Ireland is a place that will welcome you as a returning member of the family. We delighted finding "O'Donohue" pubs, gas stations, restaurants and the like. Related or not, those links to our name turned into an fun game through our visits. Before you go, an internet search can shake any family tree loose. You might find the towns where your ancestors lived, you might even find a cousin or two, and that makes the trip through Ireland feel like home.
Seeing Ireland, our cousins, and the beautiful scenery, would have made for a memorable trip had we each done it separately. But going as a family, and seeing Ireland through my mom's eyes, hearing her stories in the places they happened, was magical. It gave us all, even a pair of teenage boys, a new appreciation for our shared history.
After the first trip, Mom said that it was her last. Two years later, after our second family visit, she said that was her last. But if you happen to be in Ireland next summer, you might look for two cars packed with people driving down the road in the west of Ireland. She's thinking this time we'll rent a house in Clare.
Clare O'Donohue is the author of Beyond the Pale, a spy novel/ mystery set in Ireland. www.clareodonohue.com
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