Six great Irish love stories, six great romantic getaways

Irish romance: Tristan and Isolde in a 1902 painting by Edmund Leighton
From Dublin to Cork to Wicklow, follow in some famous footsteps and visit the sites of Ireland’s greatest love stories.

As befits the country that is the final resting place of St Valentine himself – his relics lie in Whitefriar Street Church, not far from St Stephen’s Green in Dublin – there’s no shortage of great Irish love stories around which to build a great romantic break.

Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O’Shea

Katharine, not Kitty. That, apparently, was a euphemism for prostitute, used only by enemies of Ireland’s “uncrowned king”.

The couple had an epically messy affair which saw O’Shea’s first husband challenge Parnell to a duel, before taking the even more drastic (at the time) path of naming him in his divorce, thus splitting his Irish Parliamentary Party and finishing off a man who was only getting into his stride.

The long-time lovers finally married in 1891 in the register office in Brighton, but, after the strain of the furore and his political demise, he died in Katharine’s arms just four months later, aged 45.

Parnell: the Parnell family seat sits in leafy Avondale, near Rathdrum, now a Coillte arboretum. Photograph: Getty images
Parnell: the Parnell family seat is near Rathdrum, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Getty

Although the tragic couple’s entire relationship took place in the UK you can channel at least some of their passion with a romantic stroll around the Parnell family seat, in leafy Avondale, near Rathdrum – now a Coillte arboretum.

You could stay just up the road at the Brook Lodge Hotel at Macreddin, where a midweek spring break including two nights’ B&B, dinner and packed lunch starts at about €210 per person. The deal also includes discounted entry to Wicklow Gaol – appropriate given that the first of the couple’s three children was born while Parnell was imprisoned in Kilmainham.

Diarmuid and Grainne

Irish mythology is replete with May to December tales, where young women (it’s always women) are betrothed to some old fellow but in love with a young buck.

A classic of the genre is Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne; the hunt for the beautiful princess Grainne and her illicit beau Diarmuid. Unfortunately for them, the one doing the pursuing was the legendary Fionn MacCumhailll, a man who had already lost two wives, one of whom had turned into a deer.

Regardless Grainne falls in love with Diarmuid, they run, Fionn finds them, seems to forgive them but bides his time and takes his revenge years later – using the old “letting the magic healing waters fall through his fingers” trick instead of saving Diarmuid after an accident with a wild boar. Grainne, of course, dies on the spot, her heart broken.

Diarmuid and Grainne: To emulate the couple head for Sligo, the pair’s final resting place. Stay in the Glasshouse Hotel in Sligo town.
Diarmuid and Grainne: To emulate the couple head for Sligo, the pair’s final resting place, where hotels include the Glasshouse Hotel

It’s a fantastical tale involving invisibility cloaks, sleeping potions and birthmarks – Diarmuid had a magical “love spot” under his eye that made all women fall in love with him. (Enrique Iglesias used to have one too.)

To emulate the couple head for Sligo, the pair’s final resting place. You could stay in the Glasshouse Hotel in Sligo town, with B&B from €95 a night. Head out to the Dartry Mountains, where you can catch a glimpse of Diarmuid and Grainne’s famous cave up high. It lies on private land so can’t be accessed but you can at least look up and use your imagination.

Deirdre and Naoise

Here again we have a fugitive couple and, because it includes both Deirdre of the Sorrows and the Tragic Tale of the Sons of Uisneach, you can rest assured it doesn’t end well. Naoise, you might remember from school, is the one with hair the colour of a raven, cheeks as red as calf’s blood and skin the colour of snow. A goth in other words.

The third part of this love triangle is Conchobar MacNessa, king of Ulster, which is why Naoise and Deirdre high-tail it to Scotland. She warns him not to return but will he listen? Cut to the Red Branch Knights’ legendary crib at Emhain Mhacha, a battle, and two dead lovers.

Deirdre and Naoise: the sheiling for the couple in the mountains overlooking Loch Etive
Deirdre and Naoise: the sheiling for the couple in the mountains overlooking Loch Etive
Castle Leslie: just 20 minutes away from the Fews Mountains where Deirdre and Naoise went a-courting
Castle Leslie: 20 minutes from the Fews Mountains, where Deirdre and Naoise courted

It’s another great tale of derring-do and you guys can soak it up together with a visit to the Emhain Mhacha/Navan Fort visitor centre in Armagh. Look out for the nearby townland of Creeveroe while you pass: its name is derived from Craobh Rua, both the Red Branch Knights and a great trad band.

Find yourselves a luxury love nest somewhere near the Fews Mountains on the border between Monaghan and Armagh, where our hero and heroine went a-courting, with two surely mortified brothers in tow. You could have a Red Branch night of your own at Castle Leslie, just 20 minutes away, with B&B from €130 for a double.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Of course you can celebrate Bloomsday on June 16th by dressing up in a boater and following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom on his perambulations around Dublin in 1904. But you’ll get a lot more action if you follow in the footsteps of Jimmy and Nora on their first, fateful date.

The two actually met a few days prior in a “meet cute” too schmaltzy even for Hollywood – they literally bumped into each other on the corner of Dawson and Nassau Streets.

If it was not love at first sight it was at least a very strong dose of lust. Their first proper date – on the 16th – involved a walk out to Ringsend which seems to have involved something that if you tried yourselves would get the pair of you arrested. Much better to just hold hands, and look up if you’re walking out via Leinster Street. At the Dublin Dental University Hospital you can still see the signage for Finns Hotel, where Nora worked as a chambermaid. Just three months later the pair headed off to Zurich and, in his case at least, forever looked back.

Joyce: with Nora Barnacle after their office wedding register. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Joyce: with Nora Barnacle after their register-office wedding. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty

You could book yourself into the Davenport Hotel around the corner from Lincoln Place, home to Sweny’s chemist, and spend the night reading the couple’s wonderful love letters. Though maybe not too loud: for billets-doux they’re pretty salty. Doubles from €199 a night.

Tristan and Isolde

Linked to Arthurian legend, these guys make Romeo and Juliet look like rank amateurs and are even more interesting because they feature the daughter of the wonderfully named King Anguish of Ireland.

Legend has it that Cornish knight Tristan is sent by his Uncle Mark – who, despite having a name straight out of EastEnders is actually the king of Cornwall – to fetch Ireland’s Isolde of the Healing Hands to be his bride. However, on the way back over on the ferry the pair drink a magic potion and fall in love. Let’s just say it leaves old Mark feeling less than avuncular.

Tristan and Isolde in a 1902 painting by Edmund Leighton

The royal marriage goes ahead as planned but the two young lovers are fated to keep seeking each other out and so, to ward off suspicion, Tristan marries another Isolde, just so he can say her name.

Anyway, when King Mark eventually pierces Tristan with a poisoned lance only the real Isolde can heal him but the replacement Isolde tricks him and says she’s not coming. Our hero dies of a poisoned and/or broken heart and, right on cue, Isolde arrives and follows suit.

It’s all wonderfully dramatic but there is bathos too in that the best place to celebrate it all is actually Chapelizod – Chapel Iseult – in Dublin, her reputed burial place. Alternatively you could stay in the city centre and seek out the remains of Isolde’s Tower, which was discovered in Exchange Street Lower in 1993, and is now incorporated into an apartment block of the same name. You’ll find Airbnbs in the area from €38 a night.

Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan

There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that Kitty here is anything other than a pet name, so on that basis we can proceed to the tragic love story of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan. This legendary pairing first met in 1918 when Collins, the independence-treaty negotiator, stayed at Kiernan’s family’s hotel, the Greville Arms in Granard, Co Longford.

Also staying was Harry Boland, who ended up on the anti-treaty side, but who also fancied his chances with Kitty. A love triangle conducted via hundreds of letters ensued, with the Big Fellow winning out in the end.

Of course the Civil War intervened and, while the pair got engaged in Greystones, in Co Wicklow, Collins was ambushed at Béal na mBláth, in Co Cork, and died before they could marry. Boland had been killed two weeks previously. In the end Kitty married someone else entirely – Felix Cronin – and named one of their two sons Michael Collins Cronin.

Druids Glen: after doing the Michael Collins drive stay in the five star Druids Glen in Delgany.
Druids Glen: hotels near the Michael Collins drive include the five-star Druids Glen

According to the Glasnevin Trust, which maintains Glasnevin Cemetery, Kitty “requested that she be buried as close as possible to her great love, Michael Collins”. She is buried in the graveyard “not far from where Collins lies, and was joined there 16 years later by her husband Felix”.

If you’ve seen the movie, stay in Wicklow and take the Michael Collins drive, where most of its location scenes were shot. You could stay in the five-star Druids Glen in Delgany, with dinner-and-B&B February specials from €99 per person sharing, and be glad you’ve someone to share it with.