The best place to holiday in Ireland
Cork city: Bigger, hillier, sunnier
My family moved from Douglas, in Cork city, to Co Kildare when I was six, and the rift made it a mythical place filled with entertaining cousins and indulgent adults. Cork was sunnier. Cork was bigger. Cork was hillier. The people there were taller, smilier and better dressed. The children had a healthy glow. All the chippers had mushy peas. The mushy peas were better than the mushy peas within the Pale.
This wasn’t just my childhood imagination. It was true. Just ask my Cork friends. One shakes his head with resignation every time he has to brave the capital. “I got kicked out of a pub for being from Cork,” he told me sadly after a night proudly drinking Murphy’s. (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reason he was kicked out of the pub, but I feel the pain of a Corkonian outside Cork.) “Dublin just isn’t the same,” he said, before getting the train to Cork.
In childhood I regularly went back to visit relatives in the suburbs of Ballincollig or Glanmire or Mayfield, and occasionally we’d take the gorgeous drive to the former family homestead in Coolmountain, near Dunmanway.
“They’re growing drugs,” said an elderly relative darkly of the New Age hippies living there. “Sure they are,” said everyone, rolling their eyes. In retrospect, they were clearly growing drugs. But it was a lovely place to do so.
In my 20s I frequented the city with a touring band. By this stage my regional identity was a bit confused. When asked where I was from, I’d hesitate. “I used to be from Cork,” I once said from the stage in Nancy Spain’s. “You’re always from Cork, boy!” said my disappointed uncle from the audience.
Nowadays, when I go to Cork it’s because I like Cork. I love tramping around the hills and steps of north Cork, looking across the city. I like wandering through the 18th-century English Market, picking up food. (So does Queen Elizabeth, I hear.)
I like the way the Lee splits into two channels that make a confusing island of the city’s centre. I like Cork Film Festival. I like the capybaras of Fota Wildlife Park. I like how a city filled with art, food, opera and jazz is just a drive from some of the most beautiful landscape in the world.
And, more recently, I like to remember that I’m always from Cork.
Sligo-Leitrim: Freedom and ham
Old habits die hard. I haven’t lived in Sligo for 25 years, but I still talk about going home when we pack for the holidays and long weekends. For a few weeks every summer, our base is Dromahair, a village on the Sligo-Leitrim border, 20km from Sligo town. When the car joins the N4, there is a slight relaxation of the shoulder muscles. By the time we reach Carrick-on-Shannon, the phones have fallen silent and heads are lolling on the back seats.
The house has no landline or internet connection, so there’s no point even thinking about working. Instead, you get a little thrill listening to AA Roadwatch’s daily catalogue of traffic jams as the tractor in front forces you to slow down and admire the sight of Lough Gill.
The Xbox never comes on holidays, and the six of us become tourists in our own country. We take picnics to Lough Key Forest Park, which has playgrounds, interactive challenges, a tree-canopy walk and a zip wire.
It’s mandatory to pay at least one visit each to Rosses Point and Strandhill, followed by ice cream, even when it’s lashing rain. When that rain appears, we take refuge in the Funny Bones play centre, in Collooney, or head for Waterworld in Bundoran, which claims to have the fastest water slide in Ireland.
Afterwards it’s obligatory to have fish and chips in Madden’s Bridge Bar. The seafood chowder comes highly recommended at Hargadons in Sligo town. After a lazy lunch, we emerge blinking into the sunlight of O’Connell Street and go around the corner to Kate’s Kitchen to stock up on local produce and treats.
We go to Eagles Flying, in Ballymote, to watch birds of prey swooping past us, occasionally brushing our hair with their wings. We venture deep into the Arigna mines to experience what life was like for the men who worked in the coal mines until they closed, in 1990.
And in the evenings we look enviously at the many local people who arrive home from work shortly after 5pm and head for the beach with the children. It’s a quality of life some of us can only dream about.
But you may have noticed a few references to rain. It rains. A lot. On one memorable holiday it rained every day until we packed up to leave.
But what do the children like about Leitrim? “There’s more freedom, and I love the ham in McGoldricks’ shop,” says the 11-year-old, who spends hours digging holes in a pile of sand behind the house.
“People are nicer in the shops and restaurants, especially if you break something,” says the eight-year-old, who has been known to knock over a glass or two in Dromahair’s Riverbank restaurant.
“They have cool playgrounds everywhere,” says the seven-year-old, who has to climb every obstacle he sees. “Maaha nquey,” says the two-year-old, who hasn’t mastered talking yet. But if she had, she would remark on the pleasure of running into the sea at Rosses Point, fully clothed.None of them mentions rain.