Sunday 18 August 2019

Seven Wonders of Ireland: The ultimate Irish bucket list revealed

Our readers nominated Ireland's Seven Wonders for the modern age. Today, we reveal the results.

Skellig Michael: One of Ireland's Seven Wonders
Skellig Michael: One of Ireland's Seven Wonders
The Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare
'Mouthwatering outpost': Skellig Michael
The Skelligs
Failte Ireland's Geraldine Larner with Irene hamilton of Scattery Island Tours. Photo: Eamon Ward
Giant's Causeway
Fastnet Rock
Newgrange
Slieve League
Cliffs of Moher
Scattery Island. Photo: Erik Zanke, WestClare.net
Fungie

Pól Ó Conghaile & Nicola Brady

This summer, we asked our readers to nominate their Seven Wonders of Ireland. We wanted the ultimate Irish bucket list, a compendium of things to do and see that would rival the best on earth.

And boy, did you deliver.

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The ancient Seven Wonders of the World were the original travel guide, ranging from the Great Pyramid of Giza (the only one still standing) to the Colossus of Rhodes.

In recent times, we've seen new Seven Wonders lists highlight everything from cities and industry to iconic sites like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. Today (below), we reveal Ireland's Seven Wonders, as our readers see them, right here and now.

The nominations process was wide open. Readers could suggest anything from natural wonders to festivals, adventures, meals and drinks.

Over 700 different experiences were suggested, highlighting the breathtaking diversity of this island. Here, we reveal the Top 7 of those.

Of course, this being Ireland, there were random entries too... on our nominations page, on Twitter and Facebook (#Irelands7Wonders). Think 'Stephen Cluxton', 'Father Ted's House', 'Bingo Loco in Coppers' or... 'My Mom'.

This is a distinctly Irish list, after all.

1. The Cliffs of Moher

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The Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare
 

'The calling card for Ireland's west coast...'

It seems like there's only one word to describe the Cliffs of Moher - breathtaking. Reading through your nominations for Ireland's Seven Wonders, we lost count of the number of times the term was used to describe this place. "It's hard to explain the beauty of Cliffs of Moher," readers told us. "This is the most hypnotic and wild location not only in Ireland, but the world."

And it doesn't stop there.

"Towering heights and crashing waves, ageless legends and endless flurrying birds: the Cliffs of Moher are a natural masterpiece," you added. "You can only be impressed and left in awe at their sheer size and beauty."

You voted in your droves for the Cliffs of Moher, proving that a visit to this stretch on the Clare coast is on many a bucket list - both to holidaymakers and those of us who call Ireland home. As you put it so memorably, "this is the calling card for Ireland's west coast."

Geraldine Enright is director at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience. "The Cliffs of Moher are truly a special place, with a magical vista of landscape and seascape that isn't replicated anywhere in the world," she says. "What is special is how the weather interacts with the landscape. Each day, the sky determines how the cliffs look. Sunsets are spectacular at the Cliffs of Moher, particularly on a summer's night, on a clear evening… the cliffs turn a deep red colour against the setting sun."

This year, the cliffs were named Ireland's Favourite Visitor Attraction in our Reader Travel Awards, and this week, the iconic O'Brien's Tower re-opened to visitors following a restoration that includes new staircases and lime rendering.

Of course, all this praise means high visitor numbers (a record breaking 1.58 million in 2018), particularly in peak season. But dynamic pricing designed to spread visitor flow means it is cheaper to visit early or late, and a new shuttle service has just been launched, with the aim of reducing traffic on the roads and, by extension, limiting the environmental impact of tourism. It runs eight times a day in the summer months, between Ennistymon, Lahinch, Liscannor, Doolin, Lisdoonvarna and the Cliffs of Moher (both the visitor centre and the cliff walk) so it's a handy one if you want to spend less time in the car, or get a lift back after a long walk - a day ticket costs €8.

Been there before? Maybe you need a new perspective… take a boat trip to gaze up at the cliff face from the sea, or go full rock star and take to the skies for a helicopter tour (executive-helicopters.com). - Nicola Brady

Details: Entrance to the visitor experience costs from €4pp for adults (off-peak if booked online, €8pp otherwise), while children under 16 go free; cliffsofmoher.ie.

2. Fastnet Rock

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Fastnet Rock

'Ireland's teardrop... it's got an aura'

How could you not be enchanted with a place known as Ireland's teardrop?

The last spot of Irish soil seen by many emigrants leaving for America, Fastnet Rock is a place of sadness, but also a place of wonder - with a beautiful lighthouse that is also a structural masterpiece.

"The Fastnet is an Irish icon," readers told us. "It is quite simply the most wonderful, iconic structure anywhere in Ireland." "A beautiful, awe-inspiring monument of historical and cultural significance to our unique country."

Strong words, alright.

Séamus Ó Drisceoil has been running trips to the rock with Fastnet Tours for five years now.

"It wasn't a popular tour when it started - there were very few people going," he says. "But there's been a double digit increase in people going to the Fastnet every year since we started. It's hard to explain, but the Fastnet is a place you've just got to go to. Everybody says it has an atmosphere - it's got an aura."

Fastnet Rock is Ireland's most southerly point, lying 6.5km off the southwest of Cape Clear Island. An original lighthouse was erected in the 1850s, while the current version - Ireland's tallest - entered service in 1904. The light tops out at 49m above the Atlantic, and has become an iconic landmark in sailing and Irish culture.

"The big seas would come sailing up over the entire building like the field of horses in the Grand National," former keeper Noel Crowley is quoted as saying in James Morrissey's History of Fastnet Lighthouse.

"Up, up, up and away!"

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Fastnet Lighthouse

It's not just visitors that find it fascinating.

"We have a crew who spend all year going from Baltimore to Cape Clear, and Schull to Cape Clear in the summer," Séamus Ó Drisceoil says. "And even though they've been there 100 times, they never tire of going out and going around the Fastnet. It's the most popular day's work that anyone can do around here!"

Beyond the rock, this part of West Cork is huge for humpback and minke whale watching. Depending on the day, and your luck, you might also spot porpoises, seals, dolphins and basking sharks. Séamus has even seen leatherback turtles and puffins, so keep your eyes peeled.

"The thing about going to the Fastnet is it doesn't matter what the weather conditions are like," he says. "You can imagine going there on a foggy day… the Fastnet just appears, comes at you through the fog. So even on a misty day, it's still a great experience." - Nicola Brady

Details: Tours run from Baltimore and Schull from €40pp, or €90 for family of four; fastnettour.com.

3. Slieve League

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What are the Seven Wonders of Ireland? Enter now on independent.ie/Irelands7Wonders

'I'm fighting with my mind to describe it...'

They're higher than the Cliffs of Moher. They get around a 10th of the visitors. And they're free. Those are just three reasons to visit the cliffs of Sliabh League (Sliabh Liag) in South Donegal - but if we're honest, this epic cut of coastline should be defined by what it is, rather than what it is not.

And what it is, is amazing.

"I'm a native Irish speaker, so for me to find the English to describe it, I'm fighting with my mind," says Mary Cassidy, manager at the visitor centre in Teelin. "But being up there is breathtaking. It's unique. It's one of those experiences that makes you feel... mindful."

Readers agree. The mountain is "stunningly beautiful and under-explored," you said.

"Slieve League is one of the great hidden gems of our country. Buried in the magic of rural Donegal, you almost wonder if the pay-off at the top will be worth the winding roads and sluggish walk accompanied by menacing sheep and fleeting glimpses of the ocean. Of course, Slieve League exceeds expectations... unless you have already been engulfed by the clouds."

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Slieve League

A dramatic Discovery Point on the Wild Atlantic Way, cliffs here soar to some 600m (1,972 feet), providing dazzling vistas of Donegal Bay. Views reveal themselves within steps of the upper car park at Bunglas, but it's worth walking the newly-restored 2.5km section of the cliff path, and experienced hikers can continue on an 8-10km loop (allow 3-4 hours) taking in the Pilgrim's Path and One Man's Pass. When sun passes through the clouds here, it seems to paint the very edge of the peninsula.

"I took a boat trip recently (sliabhleagueboattrips.com)," Mary says. "It's a completely different perspective. It was one of those evenings where you could see gold and silver and purple and green."

"The cliffs make me feel so small and yet part of something incredible," said one reader. "Stunning and breathtaking without being ruined by commercialism," added another. Several of you hailed a landscape that remains "rugged, wild and virtually untouched".

Recently, a €4.95m investment has brought a new visitor centre and café, where you can learn more about the area and its folkore, before continuing to explore this under-rated peninsula and beaches like Malin Beg.

The Cliffs of Where? - Pól Ó Conghaile

Details: Take the R263 to Carrick, turn left at the Sliabh Liag Lodge, continuing 5km to the cliffs. Bring proper gear for hiking. sliabhliag.com; govisitdonegal.com

4. The Giant's Causeway

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Giant's Causeway

'On a good day, there's nothing like it...'

Nothing quite prepares you for that first glimpse of the Giant's Causeway. It's the kind of place that looks like it was plonked on Earth from the heavens; an inexplicable tangle of perfect hexagonal columns all battered by the waves of the Atlantic... with folklore and legends to match.

It comes as no surprise to learn that readers love it.

One of you described it as "an absolutely amazing structure". Another said it was "a natural area of magnificent beauty", while yet another reader hailed it as "beautiful, stunning, breathtaking and one of a kind". One of the things you love the most? "We get to climb all over it and feel on our face the sea breeze and spray."

Some visitors, of course, are thrown by the "small" size of the interlocked basalt columns. But there are some 40,000 of them, and the modern, grass-roofed visitor centre does a super job of interpreting both its geological and folkloric origins. According to legend, Fionn Mac Cumhaill built the causeway as a pathway across the sea to confront a Scottish giant. Science, meanwhile, attributes the puzzle-like formation of columns to a volcanic eruption that took place some 60 million years ago.

Whatever you believe, it's a stunner.

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Giants Causeway, Co. Antrim. Photo: Getty

If you're planning a visit, it's worth thinking beyond the main section of the causeway (a 1km walk or bus ride from the visitor centre) and trekking a little further along the shore. Ask Keith Acheson, one of the Visitor Experience officers, and he'll tell you that his favourite spot is the amphitheatre, which is just at the end of the next bay.

"Out there, there's a view that comes back to the Causeway, and that's my favourite place," he says.

The Causeway has its issues. In summer months, it can get fiercely crowded, particularly if you time your visit to coincide with the many coaches stopping by as they schlep tourists along the Causeway Coast. But there are ways to skip the crowds - arrive as soon as the car park opens at 9am, or towards the end of the day (when, if you ask me, the Causeway is at its absolute best as the sun is setting in the sky, the rocks blushing with a dusky glow).

Another way to beat the crowds? Walk above them. There's a relatively new cliff walk on offer, taking you to the ruins of Dunseverick Castle before returning on a guided, 8km trek along the top of the cliffs (awayaweewalk.com; £35pp). You'll get an unparalleled view of all 13 bays, as well as the Causeway itself, which you'll reach after descending the Shepherd's Steps.

"On a good day, there's nothing like it," says Keith. "It's absolutely sensational." - Nicola Brady

Details: Visitor centre tickets cost £12.50/€14 for adults and £6.25/€7 for kids; nationaltrust.org.uk. See also discovernorthernireland.com and visitcausewaycoastandglens.com.

More: Bad influencers: Is Instagram wrecking our tourist attractions?

5. The Skelligs

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The Skelligs

'Their raw power puts Star Wars in the shade...'

Welcome to Ireland's rock stars. To a mouthwatering outpost that illustrates "as no other property can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterising much of North Africa, the Near East, and Europe," as its UNESCO World Heritage List describes Skellig Michael.

"A splinter of rock that links our ancient past, present and future," said one reader. "It is the most amazing place," added another. "It has history, geography and ecology. I met the friendliest puffins who allowed us to share their island for a couple of hours. The monastic settlement is beautiful and breathtaking... I feel very privileged that the weather co-operated to fulfill a lifelong ambition."

Its recent appearance in Star Wars, as Luke Skywalker's hideaway on Ahch-To, brought Skellig Michael a new, stratospheric level of fame. The Skelligs looked stunning on-screen, and guides have seen visitors whipping out lightsabers and Jedi cloaks for selfies ever since.

In truth, even in our century of screens, the raw power of these rocks puts Star Wars in the shade. Thirteen kilometres off the Kerry coast, 618 steps take you to a cluster of beehive huts overlooking the ocean, the mainland, and craggy shards teeming with birdlife.

Monks first journeyed to this galaxy far, far away as long ago as the sixth century, but readers still singled out a "spiritual" experience and a "direct connection to our past". Crouching into those corbelled huts, amid the roar of the wind and the screeching of seabirds, is as close as it comes to time travel on this island.

Modern exposure also brings modern threats, of course. The Skelligs evoke "Ireland's history in microcosm," as one astute comment put it, right down to our "latter-day coolness and our prices" (return boat trips cost around €100). The islands are visited by drones and diesel boats, climate change has taken a toll, and An Taisce is among those arguing for a review of visitor numbers to help preseve the UNESCO World Heritage Site. At present, as many as 16,000 people visit every year, and every footstep has an impact on wildlife and conservation.

"This is a globally iconic place that needs to be respected, cherished and held in trust for the future over any considerations of commercialism," as advocacy officer Ian Lumley said in the group's submission for a new 2019-2029 management plan. Most people would agree. Most would love to visit, too. Therein lies the dilemma.

At the end of the day, the islands' remoteness helps protect them. Even on a calm day, this is a wilderness trip. Swells on the crossing can be sickening, there are no loos or facilities on Skellig Michael, and the climb is a calf-strainer, even for fairly fit visitors. Trips usually last from around 9.30am to 3.30pm, so bring water, food, raingear and sunscreen, and have a Plan B in case of cancellations. Don't be intimidated by the difficulty, though. Once properly prepared, it adds to the thrill when you get there.

May the Force be with you. - Pól Ó Conghaile

Details: Boat trips usually run from May to September (heritageireland.ie). You can also visit the Skellig Experience (skelligexperience.com) on Valentia Island.

6. Newgrange

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Newgrange, Co Meath. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
 

'How did they do it?'

Was it a tomb? A temple? In truth, nobody knows. And probably, they never will. "The mind boggles in this space," one reader said of Newgrange. "It boggles that humans far less 'formally instructed' than us were so attuned to their universe that they built this wonder."

"How did they do it?" you wondered. Clearly, its mystery is central to this magical mound. "To this day, the UNESCO World Heritage Site holds secrets," you told us. Newgrange could have been one of the original Seven Wonders of the World (it's older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids), yet its extraordinary engineering continues to amaze. What tools were available? How were calculations made? What is being portrayed in that spiralling kerbstone art? What did they use as Hi-Vis vests?

Inside, there is graffiti from the 1800s (before Newgrange was in State care). There's a cruciform-shaped chamber where visitors are shown a simulation of the winter solstice illumination - a shaft of sunlight threading through its roof box, creeping 19m into the heart of the chamber to create a direct link with 3,200BC ("I feel connected to the past when I'm there," you said). It's a goosebump-inducing moment, but needless to say, no match for the real thing. To experience that, you need to apply by lottery (email brunaboinne@opw.ie). There's high demand, to put it mildly.

In a hi-tech world, Newgrange still commands attention. "It's simply being able to stand in a room that was created 5,000 years ago," as Clare Tuffy, manager at Brú na Bóinne, explains it.

"I mean, you can't beat it."

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Shine a little light – the inner chamber at Newgrange, Co Meath. Steve Humphreys

Today, ancient and modern work hand-in-hand at the visitor centre. This autumn, a €5m refurbishment will be unveiled. "The visitor centre is being completely upgraded," Tuffy says. "People will feel as though they are going right back into Neolithic times. It's really sensational, and fully immersive."

A new film within the "black box" room at Knowth, for instance, will give visitors a sense of what it feels like to walk down the (off-limits) passage of that tomb. New tearooms and a shop will open, and an exhibition on Neolithic art is coming to a converted farm building at Knowth. "We're getting very excited now," Tuffy says.

"To build Newgrange today would be a challenge," as one reader put it. "To reflect that it was built over 3,000 years BC brings its consequence to full realisation."

"It's a magical place." - Pól Ó Conghaile

Details: Brú na Bóinne, Co Meath. Note that there is no direct access to Newgrange and Knowth. Entry is via Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and a shuttle bus (heritageireland.ie; tickets from €4pp to €13pp).

7. Scattery Island

'The most powerful place on earth...'

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Scattery Island. Photo: Erik Zanke, WestClare.net
 

Though the monastic settlement on Scattery Island dates back to the 6th century, the island itself - set about a mile off Kilrush, Co Clare in the Shannon Estuary - feels like a relatively new addition to the Irish tourism scene. But it's certainly making waves among our readers, who declare it to be "simply beautiful", "one of the most unspoiled places in Ireland" and "the most peaceful place on earth".

You love the fact that it's an untouched window into the past, with one reader deeming it "a magical island steeped in Irish heritage and culture". Another says, "it's a unique perspective of the peacefulness that Ireland once had, a special place where time stands still, an untouched landscape where raw nature is your entertainment."

Above all, you told us, "Scattery has an untouched, raw beauty rarely seen nowadays."

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Failte Ireland's Geraldine Larner with Irene hamilton of Scattery Island Tours. Photo: Eamon Ward

The island is a half-hour ferry ride from Kilrush, and is home to the ruins of six churches and one of the highest round towers in Ireland, as well as a deserted village and artillery battery. It was named a European Destination of Excellence in 2017, a year that also saw the launch of regular boat trips with Scattery Island Tours.

"It really is a special little island," says Irene Hamilton, founder of Scattery Island Tours. "It's not as well-known, because there hadn't been a regular, daily service in the past. It's really an emerging tourist destination… it's very spiritual, very tranquil. And you take a little piece of that tranquillity with you when you leave."

We love the fact that sustainability is of huge importance - if you book a packed lunch with Scattery Island Tours, your sandwich from local café The Potter's Hand comes wrapped in paper and tied with string, and all rubbish comes back on the boat home. Irene opted to produce an audio guide that you download on to your phone, rather than making plastic devices, too. The tours are run according to the principles of 'Leave No Trace' which is a comfort to know - you can head out to Scattery knowing that your visit won't impact upon the "untouched" nature of the island that you love so much. - Nicola Brady

Details: Island tours start at €20 for adults and €10 for kids, including a one-hour guided walking tour (scatteryislandtours.com, heritageireland.ie). Ferries depart from May to September. See also loophead.ie.

More: Secret Ireland: Loop Head

10 wonders that caught our eye

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Fungie enjoying the fine weather in Dingle. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
 

This being an Irish list, we expected a few random and surprising entries. And yup, they came through. Here are ten of the best... of the rest.

1. The Munster hurling final

"Irishness at its best," you said. All-Ireland Sundays and Gaelic games got lots of mentions too.

2. Donegal Airport

This souvenir-sized strip at Carrickfinn has twice been named the world's most scenic landing. Several of you thought it was a Wonder too.

3. Erica's fairy forest, Co Cavan

"This is a fairy forest created in the memory of a little girl, Erica, who sadly lost her battle with cancer aged 5. Her parents created this magical place so other people can dream, believe and visit while keeping Erica's memory alive."

4. The Shannon Pot, Co Leitrim

"It really surprised and stirred me in a way I hadn't expected..." (via Twitter)

5. The Seven Wonders of Fore

"A beautiful landmark with seven wonders of its own, including a monastery in a bog, a mill without a race, a tree that doesn't burn and an uphill flowing river." Find them in Fore, Co Westmeath.

6. Father Ted's House

"Visit Glenquin House for afternoon tea and relive magic moments from the iconic TV show. Go on, go on..." The Burren, Co Clare.

7. Waterford Greenway

It missed the cut by just a handful of votes, confirming the 46km off-road cycling and walking trail's place among Ireland's top attractions. "It has history, a deep connection with nature, and has transformed communities!"

8. Marble Arch Caves

"A stunning series of underground caves, passageways and rock formations which took thousands of years to form," was how you described this Global Geopark in Co Fermanagh.

9. Seán's Bar, Athlone

One of several pubs nominated. It's said to be the oldest bar in the world.

10. Fungie the dolphin, Co Kerry

"He's never in a bad mood. He's what makes Dingle so special. Plus, the mystery surrounding him is a wonder. Did he come from SeaWorld like the myth goes? Or is he 100pc Irish?"

Blue Book Competition Winner

Everyone who entered a nomination for Ireland's Seven Wonders went into a draw for an Ireland's Blue Book voucher worth €500.

The winner was Jane Bowman from Galway. Congrats Jane! See irelands-blue-book.ie for more quality short break ideas in Ireland.

Read more:

Seven Wonders of Ireland: Nominate to win a €500 Blue Book voucher!

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