Guinness, Golf and Good-times -- Ireland has it all

November 16, 2009
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.
Doonbeg Links reveals Greg Norman's passion for the game with this truly inspirational layout.
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Few would disagree that Ireland holds a very special appeal to virtually all of us that is quite magical and unique to the Emerald Isle. No other country on the planet possesses the same allure, yet clearly defining what the special something is that makes this island so universally beguiling, is not so easy to explain - maybe that's why it is so magical.

Perhaps it's not one single thing, but a perfectly blended combination of many different attributes, with the thoroughly enjoyable Irish themselves being an important part of the potion. The genuine, warm Irish welcome is legendary, as are their fun-loving ways, their sense of humor and the gift of the gab they all seem to possess. Every visitor grasps the opportunity to spend a few evenings in a pub or two over a glass (or more) of Guinness, chatting with the friendly locals and listening to their colorfully embellished stories. These pub evenings will be an important part of the Irish experience and fondly remembered for many years to come.

The physical beauty of Ireland also plays its part in the appeal; from the dramatically rugged coastline and idyllic pastoral landscapes to the lakes and mountains. There are charming small fishing villages, bustling country market towns and handsome historic cities, it's an ever-changing feast for the eyes and all of the senses. Ireland seems to possess so much of everything including a wonderfully colorful history and rich cultural heritage.

For golfers the Emerald Isle is nothing less and a very special treat for any with a love of golf excellence. The Island of Ireland was made for golf, something the Irish discovered back in the mid-19th century, when they put their entrepreneurial spirit to work and began to fashion the first of what was to become one of the world's most impressive collections of courses. One and a half centuries later the country shines brilliantly as the proud possessor of well over 400 layouts, including almost a third of the world's true links courses.

It's virtually impossible to travel anywhere in the country without stumbling across golf courses; sometimes isolated, more often occurring in clusters. They will be found in profusion in and around the centers of population and are no less common in areas where population levels are far less substantial. From world-renowned links layouts, to championship parkland courses, to hidden gems with unfamiliar names, golf is everywhere and practically every small town and village has a golf course or two nearby while the cities are all surrounded by an abundance of golf choices.

Golf is a national pastime and only one reason among many why Ireland is high atop the list of most visited destinations by seasoned golf travelers and a must among those who have yet to experience the delights of golf Across the Pond. Confronted with such a banquet of golfing choices, any first time visitor can be easily confused as to where to begin.

There may be no part of the country that demonstrates Ireland's love affair with golf more passionately than the southwest. Stepping off a trans-Atlantic flight at Shannon International Airport is to be immediately transposed into the heart and soul of Irish golf.

This is home to such fabled links courses as Ballybunion, Lahinch, Waterville, Tralee and Greg Norman's more recent masterpiece at Doonbeg. It's within easy striking distance of the spectacularly located Old Head Golf Links and a host of lesser known championship layouts - Ring of Kerry, Adare Manor, Dingle, Dooks and the trio of lakeside jewels at Killarney among them. But don't overlook the myriad of other courses in the region with names totally unfamiliar. In this land of golf there is no such thing as a bad course and a little adventurous spirit will quickly uncover a true hidden gem or two, providing an Irish golf experience like no other and fond memories enough to last a lifetime.

As impressive as the wealth of quality golf boasted by this southwesterly corner of Ireland may be, it's only the beginning of all the region has to offer. Get away from the golf courses for even a short while and there are a myriad of other diversions, among them, some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery to be found on an island filled with handsome good looks.

The sheer beauty of the Lakes of Killarney, contained within Killarney National Park, is legendary and a day spent exploring the Ring of Kerry will be no less captivating. Starting and ending in the lively market town of Killarney, a popular base for golfers, the Ring Of Kerry is 120 miles of scenic road that casually meanders its way around the Iveragh Peninsula, revealing along the way a glimpse of the Ireland of yesteryear. Spectacular mountain and coastal scenery, dotted with slate roofed fishing villages, charming small towns, centuries old monasteries and stately homes; this will be a day away from golf that shouldn't be resisted.

Lahinch and Doonbeg are two top ranked links courses located conveniently close together along the County Clare shoreline. Playing these beauties gives the opportunity to experience the nearby Cliffs of Moher. Rising 650 feet straight up from the sea below and extending some 5 miles along the coast, the views are breathtaking. Drive a few miles inland and the vast limestone plateau, known as The Burren will tempt any nature lover. The unique botanical environment of this otherwise desolate landscape, encourages wild flowers uncommon to this part of the world and during the summer months offers an unbelievable display of color.

If you are playing Old Head, a stunningly handsome cliff-top layout, located not too far from the city of Cork, allow enough time to explore the charming nearby town of Kinsale. This historic small harbor community has evolved into an art colony and center of gastronomy and its annual Gourmet Festival attracts food-lovers from around the globe. Excellent restaurants, pubs and wine bars abound, so take advantage of the situation and enjoy.

It's only 12 miles from Kinsale to the medieval city of Cork and true to its name; this is a city that pops. Corkonians are a lively, cultured group and dare I say, perhaps the friendliest in a country filled with the most welcoming of people, always eager to show off their attractive city to visitors. It's another town where you will never go hungry, with an astonishing array of excellent restaurants - more per capita than in Dublin, in fact Corkonians seem to believe their city is, or at least should be, Ireland's capital.

Evening hours should be spent exploring the endless inventory of pubs in this city that never sleeps. This is where you will hear some of the very best traditional Irish music in the country. Two drinking establishments fabled for their Irish musical entertainment are, An Bodhran, and The Lobby Bar, both feature top traditional bands and soloists.

Cork is very compact and a good walking town, easy to navigate on foot and there's plenty to see and do both in town as well as the surrounding area. Don't miss St. Finbarr's Cathedral, an exuberant, triple spired structure, dedicated to the founder and patron Saint of the city. The Butter Exchange, first opened in 1770 was at one time the single largest exporter of butter in Europe, bringing huge prosperity to Cork. Today it's a craft center where visitors can watch artists such as crystal cutters, woodcarvers and weavers at work.

The Crawford Art Gallery, Cork's major art gallery, dates from 1724 and contains some superb examples of Irish 19th and 20th century paintings, including works by the famed Irish artist, Jack Yeats. St. Ann's Shandon is a well-known Cork landmark worth visiting and for a small fee; visitors can climb the church tower and ring the famous Shandon bells.

There will be few who have not heard of the Blarney Stone and Blarney Castle is situated only a short drive outside town. Kiss the Blarney Stone and you will be blessed with a magical new eloquence or as the locals call it, the gift of the gab. Be sure to stop by the neighboring village of Blarney with its attractive village green and the inevitable pubs, eager to offer a little liquid refreshment.

No one with even a small drop of Irish blood in their veins will want to miss the chance to visit Cobh (pronounced Cove) located 15 miles from Cork city center. This is the port, then named Queenstown, where so many Irish fled the potato famine, sailing from here to America under terrible conditions to start life anew. The Queenstown story, depicted in Cobh's Victorian railroad station tells their tale in shocking detail, giving every visitor a newfound respect for those early Irish immigrants.

There is much to see and do in this part of Ireland, both on the course and off, but for the golfers, the southwest with its wealth of excellent courses is certainly a paradise found. For more ideas on how best to include the southwest in your Irish golf trip, click here.

©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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