Thursday 23 May 2019

Small Wonders: 25 best small attractions to visit in Ireland

Been to the big galleries and museums? Here's our list of Ireland's best small attractions for your next day out...

Denis O’Connor at the Old Irish Ways Museum in Cuillaghmore, Co Limerick. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Denis O’Connor at the Old Irish Ways Museum in Cuillaghmore, Co Limerick. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Hook lighthouse
Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Foynes Flying Boat Museum: Home to the world's only replica B314 flying boat (produced from 1938-1941).
Little Museum of Dublin
Newbridge Silverware's Museum of Style Icons. Photo: Fáílte Ireland
Doolin Cave's nature walk. Photo: Fáílte Ireland
Arigna Mines, Co. Roscommon
Tin church
Dan O'Hara's Homestead in Connemara. Photo: Derek Cullen / Fáilte Ireland
HMS Caroline
Cork Rose Aoife Murphy
Brigit's Garden
Burren Nature Sanctuary
Pól gets stuck into some sweet treats with Tony Lineham at Shandon Sweets (the Exchange Toffee Works. Photo: Derek Cullen / Fáilte Ireland
Blackrock Castle
Glucksman
Costello Chapel, Carrick on Shannon

Pól Ó Conghaile & Nicola Brady

So you've done the big hits. You've seen the national museums and galleries, ticked off Titanic Belfast and Dublin Zoo. What next?

Why, get exploring Ireland's surprisingly large bank of small visitor attractions, that's what.

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When we tweeted for tips in compiling this list, we were stunned at the response - at the sheer volume of little gems out there that rarely get national exposure.

From cool caves to county museums, farm tours to railway rides, hidden perfumeries to a replica WWI trench, our round-up barely scratches the surface... but it's given us the makings of some brilliant days out.

1. Walk through A WW1 trench

 

Where: Cavan County Museum

What: Did you know you can walk through a replica WWI trench in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan? The experience has been recreated in painstaking detail, using 6,000 sandbags and following manuals used at the Battle of the Somme. Stroll into a casualty clearing station, climb up a 'firing step' and feel just how forbidding 'No Man's Land' really was - this moody maze is the surprisingly immersive highlight of one of Ireland's best county museums. - PÓC

How: €6/4pp; cavanmuseum.ie.

If you like that: Monaghan County Museum currently has the remains of a WWII Spitfire on show, alongside an original set of chilling Nazi invasion plans for Ireland, titled 'Operation Green' (monaghan.ie/museum).

2. Travel back in time

 

Where: Fintown Railway, Co Donegal

What: There was a time when train journeys didn't mean cramped commutes and soggy sandwiches. Deep in the mountains of Donegal, you'll find the county's only operational railway set among the striking highlands around Lough Finn - the three-mile journey is a corker. It's just the start of Ireland's novel train rides, too - the Stradbally Woodland Railway has steam train journeys on bank holiday weekends in Co Laois, and the Waterford and Suir Valley Railway runs regularly from Kilmeaden. - NB

How: fintownrailway.com (tickets cost €8/5pp); stradballyrailway.webs.com; wsvrailway.ie.

If you like that: Enniskillen's Headhunters Railway Museum (headhuntersmuseum.com) pairs the odd but fitting combo of a barbershop and teensy railway museum.

3. Mosey in a mini-museum

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U2 Exhibition, Little Museum of Dublin
 

Where: Little Museum of Dublin

What: James Joyce's death mask. Bullets given to Ben Dunne by his kidnappers. A Harry Clarke stained glass work rescued from a skip. An old Renard's membership card. The Little Museum of Dublin packs a big punch, sucking you in with a series of intimate tales, storytelling guides, and larger exhibitions ranging from U2: Made in Dublin to former mayor Alfie Byrne's personal archive. It's a case study in how to create, and fill, a niche. - PÓC

How: €10/8pp; littlemuseum.ie.

If you like that: See more small takes on city heritage at Cork Butter Museum (thebuttermuseum.com), Waterford Treasures (waterfordtreasures.com) or Kilkenny's Medieval Mile Museum (medievalmilemuseum.ie).

4. Sweet HMS Caroline

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HMS Caroline

Where: Titanic Quarter, Belfast

What: C-class light cruiser HMS Caroline is the last surviving ship from the Battle of Jutland. Step aboard in Belfast, and you can explore the captain's quarters, marines' mess, engine rooms, sick bay and galley, among other spaces. A short film on the 1916 battle is engrossing, if a bit loud and boomy for younger kids, and you can also get hands-on with semaphores and try your hand at code-cracking. - PÓC

How: £10.75/4.25pp; nmrn.org.uk.

If you like that: The SS Nomadic, tender for the Titanic and the world's last remaining White Star Line ship (nomadicbelfast.com), is close to Titanic Belfast. Or visit the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross (dunbrody.com).

5. Visit a lighthouse

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Hook Lighthouse. Photo: Tourism Ireland
 

Where: Hook Lighthouse, Co Wexford

What: The world's oldest operational lighthouse dates back 800 years, and the location is gorgeous - right on the rocky tip of the Hook Peninsula. Tours run every half hour, and there are special events throughout the year - tomorrow, a sunset tour (€45pp) would allow you see the sun dip from its watchroom while tucking into local seafood and Prosecco, for example. Other lighthouses worth a look are at Fanad in Donegal and Ballycotton in East Cork. - NB

How: €10/€6pp (kids under 5 go free); hookheritage.ie

If you like that: Play lighthouse keeper with an overnight stay in a tower or keeper's cottage (irishlandmark.com).

6. Take them to (a tin) church

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Tin church

Where: Laragh, Co Monaghan

What: Spotted a charming church on honeymoon? Most people would leave with a photo and a memory. Not James Mckean, the Monaghan mill owner said to have built this replica for his wife after returning from their Swiss honeymoon in 1891. St Peter's Tin Church is a surreal nod to the Alps sitting on a rock in the village of Laragh, between Carrickmacross and Castleblayney. Restored by Laragh Heritage Group, it's now open to visitors and used as a kooky event and concert venue. Bring a picnic. - PÓC

How: free; monaghantourism.com

If you like that: Walk from Cahir Castle to the cute Swiss Cottage (heritageireland.ie), a 19th-century cottage orné.

7. Back to nature in the Burren

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Burren Nature Sanctuary
 

Where: Burren Nature Sanctuary

What: An organic farm dedicated to nature and wildlife, this visit showcases all of the Burren's wild, rugged beauty in one handy spot. A mosaic of five Burren habitats will lead you through the unique biodiversity of the area, where you'll come across beautiful butterflies, orchids and, um, Frisky, the feral Burren goat. There are indoor and outdoor play areas and an award-winning café - their hazelnut, cheddar and spinach scone is a dreamboat, served with Wild Atlantic seaweed salad. Yum. - NB

How: €8/€11pp; burrennaturesanctuary.ie.

If you like that: Have a Willy Wonka moment at Hazel Mountain Chocolate (hazelmountainchocolate.com), or a whiff of the Burren Perfumery (burrenperfumery.com).

8. Old ways are the best

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Denis O’Connor at the Old Irish Ways Museum in Cuillaghmore, Co Limerick. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
 

Where: Museum of Old Irish Ways, Co Limerick

What: "Is it a labour of love?" I asked retired farmer Denis O'Connor, who built this museum from scratch in his back yard near Bruff. "A disease," he laughed. "There was nothing here 10 years ago." Well, there is now. Exhibits range from old phones, railway signals, schoolroom paraphernalia and grocery packages lovingly assembled in nostalgic sets, to a "bar without beer". - PÓC

How: Call ahead; facebook.com/oldirishways

If you like that: Nostalgia fans can visit Athone's Derryglad Folk Museum (derrygladfolkmuseum.com), Co Leitrim's Glenview Folk Museum (glenviewmuseum.ie) or Ye Olde Hurdy Gurdy Museum - a vintage radio collection housed in a Martello tower in Howth, Co Dublin.

9. Head underground

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Arigna Mines, Co. Roscommon
 

Where: Arigna Mining Experience, Co Roscommon

What: It's crazy to think that, up until 1990, mining was still going on in Arigna. Not only that, it was a viable career for hundreds of years ("There was money in Arigna when there was no money elsewhere," it was said). Tours are led by ex-miners, which gives a fascinating perspective and palpable sense of reality to the experience. Could you have made it as a miner? - NB

How: €10pp for tours; arignaminingexperience.ie.

If you like that: Connemara's Glengowla Mines (glengowlamines.ie) can be visited on a working farm... you can book in for farm walks and sheep-herding demos, too.

10. Drop into No.14

 

Where: 14 Henrietta Street, Dublin

Why: A Georgian townhouse. A tenement housing up to 100 people. An army barracks. No.14 Henrietta Street has been a lot of things over its 300 years, and Dublin City Council's €4.5m restoration sees all of them explored and interpreted in a disarmingly intimate tour. "A museum of memory," is how one consulting curator described it. From 'Raddle Red' paint to children's street songs and a replica 20th century flat, the small moments add up to a richly engaging social history of Dublin. - PÓC

How: Tours from €9/6pp; 14henriettastreet.ie.

If you like that: Walk through the centuries at Rothe House in Kilkenny (rothehouse.com) or the surprisingly evocative Emo Court (heritageireland.ie) in Co Laois.

11. Cave into Clare

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Doolin Cave's nature walk. Photo: Fáílte Ireland
 

Where: Doolin Cave, Co Clare

What: If you can resist the urge to do 100 Father Noel Furlong impersonations ("You're in for it now, Tony") then you'll make it out of Doolin Cave in one piece. You'll also finally learn the difference between stalactites and stalagmites - this cave is home to the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. Hard to believe that once, thousands of years ago, it started with a single drop of water. When you're out, don't miss the farmland nature trail (above) - that's where you'll find a pair of adorable pygmy goats. - NB

How: €15/8pp; doolincave.ie.

If you like that: Try Mitchelstown Cave (mitchelstowncave.com) in Tipperary, or Kerry's Crag Cave (cragcave.com).

12. Get to the Glucksman

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Glucksman

Where: The Glucksman Gallery, UCC

What: Contemporary art exhibitions are just the start. Childrens' art clubs run over the school holidays (10am-1pm), there are free family art workshops led by professional artists on Sundays (3-4pm), and its shop is a great place to find a unique creative gift - from pop-out animals to high-end Irish craft and design. Plus, the timber-clad building is a doozy by O'Donnell + Tuomey architects. - PÓC

How: Tues-Sun; free; glucksman.org.

If you like that: UCC Visitors' Centre provides campus tours. In Cork City, visit Nano Nagle Place (nanonagleplace.ie) with its Garden Room Café and Good Day Deli.

13. Horses for courses

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Fethard Horse Country Experience
 

Where: Fethard Horse Country Experience

What: If you like horses, you'll love this. An interactive exhibition takes you through the story of the horse and its role in our culture, as well as the history of the area around Fethard, Co Tipperary. During summer, you can pay a little extra and tour the nearby Coolmore Stud, the famous thoroughbred racehorse breeding operation. - NB

How: €7.50/3.50pp (free for kids under 6); fhcexperience.ie

If you like that: Animal lovers adore Eagles Flying in Ballymote, Co Sligo - get up close and personal with beautiful birds of prey (as well as a 4m python). eaglesflying.com.

More: Inside Ireland's new high-spec horse country museum

14. Book a library visit

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Marsh's Library, Dublin. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
 

Where: Marsh's Library, Dublin

What: You could easily picture Hermione Granger or Indiana Jones rummaging here (right). The atmosphere of Ireland's first public library enfolds you - from rich oak bookcases to lettered gables and quirks like several bulletholes sustained during 1916, or special 'cages' where readers were once locked while perusing rare volumes. There's a table on which you can try quills and a typewriter, and that's not even starting on its resident ghost... - PÓC

How: €5/3pp; marshlibrary.ie

If you like that: Armagh's Robinson Library (armaghrobinsonlibrary.co.uk) is a portal into the 18th century, with light spilling in from elegant Georgian windows.

15. Gardening leave

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Brigit's Garden

Where: Brigit's Garden, Co Galway

What: There are 11 acres to explore at Brigit's Garden, with the beautiful Celtic Gardens at the heart of it all, set among the native woodland and wildflower meadows. There's also a fairy fort, nature trail, thatched roundhouse and crannóg, as well as the largest sundial in Ireland. This year, they'll be adding an interactive science trail for visiting families, encouraging a playful interaction with science and nature. It's due to open in September. - NB

How: €8/5; brigitsgarden.ie

If you like that: Get lost in Wicklow's Greenan Maze (then say hello to the farm animals; greenanmaze.com), or the tropical gardens on Garinish Island, Glengarriff (garnishisland.com).

16. Heaney's HomePlace

 

Where: Bellaghy, Co Derry

Why: Bellaghy may not be well-known, but in his formative years, it was the centre of Seamus Heaney's universe. A fitting location then, for this lovely celebration of the poet and his work - through galleries, exhibitions, testimonies and artefacts (including his original school desk). HomePlace also has a performance space - The Helicon. As we publish, writers Lisa McGee (of Derry Girls fame) and Lucy Caldwell are booked for May 30. - PÓC

How: £7/4.50pp for exhibitions; seamusheaneyhome.com

If you like that: The FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge is a brilliant stop between Dublin and Belfast, with art, a sculpture garden and Quail's café (femcwilliam.com).

17. See the stars in Cork

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Blackrock Castle

Where: Blackrock Castle, Cork

Why: Do you have kids who go nuts for anything intergalactic? Well, they'll love Cork's Blackrock Castle. You'll learn all about the universe in Cosmos at the Castle, where you can discover the night sky in the Planetarium and even send an email into outer space. Tickets also include a tour of the castle, an interactive experience that brings you right into the belly of the 16th century fort, where you'll learn about smugglers and pirates. - NB

How: €6/3pp (kids under 5 go free); bco.ie.

If you like that: The domed planetarium at Schull College (schull.ie) or the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium are great for budding young scientists (armagh.ac.uk).

18. Travel in style

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Newbridge Silverware's Museum of Style Icons. Photo: Fáílte Ireland
 

Where: Newbridge Silverware, Co Kildare

Why: It all began with a little black dress. Audrey Hepburn's little black dress, worn in the movie Charade (1963), to be precise. This collection of celebrity clothing and personal effects has blossomed since, with items from Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles and Princess Diana's 'Revenge Dress' just the start of its unlikely treasures. A factory tour showcases how the company's silverware is made, too. - PÓC

How: €12 (factory tour); visitnewbridgesilverware.com

If you like that: Criostal na Rinne is a hand-cut crystal workshop in in Co Waterford (criostal.com), or see glass being blown at Kilkenny's Jerpoint Glass (jerpointglass.com).

19. Buccaneers at Belleek

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Belleek Castle, Co. Mayo
 

Where: Belleek Castle, Ballina, Co Mayo

Why: Yes, it's a hotel. But that doesn't even begin to describe the Tardis-like offering at Belleek Castle, a Blue Book bolthole set by the Ballina Woods. A tour will take you though the manor house, from quirky Spanish Armada Bar and 'Tween Deck' to the Marshall Doran Collection, where exhibits range from Grace O'Malley's four-poster bed to the last wolf shot in Connaught. Jack Fenn's Courtyard Café is Georgina Campbell's 2019 café of the year. - PÓC

How: €10/7.50pp; belleekcastle.com.

If you like that: Ballina's Jackie Clarke Collection hosts everything from letters by Michael Collins to a surviving copy of the 1916 Proclamation (clarkecollection.ie).

More:

20. Fly away to Foynes

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Foynes Flying Boat Museum: Home to the world's only replica B314 flying boat (produced from 1938-1941).
 

Where: Flying Boat Museum, Co Limerick

Why: For a brief period in the 1930s and '40s, Foynes was a transatlantic aviation hub, with B314 Flying Boats ferrying passengers including JFK, Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemmingway via the Shannon estuary. Today's museum brings the era to life through details both small (model planes, label pins and uniforms) and big (you can actually board a replica B314 complete with its own 'honeymoon suite'). Other attractions include a flight simulator, and a remarkable collection of Maureen O'Hara memoribilia, including her vanity flight case and Oscar. The Irish coffee was reputedly invented here too, so... sláinte! - PÓC

How: €12/6pp; flyingboatmuseum.com

If you like that: Cross the vertigo-inducing arched bridge to explore the keepers' quarters and Marconi room at West Cork's Mizen Head Signal Station (mizenhead.ie).

21. Play king of the castle

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Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
 

Where: Enniscorthy, Co Wexford

Why: Dating from the 13th century, Enniscorthy Castle has housed many a character, from soldiers to prisoners, knights and rebels. Down in the spooky dungeon, you'll find rare medieval art, while views from the top take in Vinegar Hill battlefield among the surrounding countryside. The castle also contains an exhibition dedicated to the 1950s and Brooklyn (2015), the movie adaptation of Colm Tóibín's novel, much of which was filmed locally. - NB

How: €6/3pp; enniscorthycastle.ie

If you like that: Travel back in time at Dalkey Castle (dalkeycastle.com), where costumed actors add theatrical flair to tours, or Athenry Castle in Co Galway (heritageireland.ie).

More: Top 25 movie and TV locations to visit in Ireland - From Father Ted to Game of Thrones

22. Bog standards

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Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
 

Where: Kenagh, Co Longford

Why: Longford may be getting the biggest ever investment in Irish tourism in the shape of a €233m Center Parcs set to open this summer, but the county is full of small pleasures - not least the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre. This small stop interprets an 18m stretch of Iron Age bog road dating from 148BC, but it's much more than that - turning into a detective-style dip into the secrets of Irish bogs, and their fascinating flora and fauna. - PÓC

How: free; heritageireland.ie

If you like that: Clara Bog is a brilliant example of an intact raised bog, with a visitor centre telling a story some 10,000 years in the making (clarabognaturereserve.ie), while Lough Boora has a larger discovery park (loughboora.com).

23. Dan O'Hara's Homestead

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Dan O'Hara's Homestead in Connemara. Photo: Derek Cullen / Fáilte Ireland

Where: Clifden, Connemara

Why: Named after a man evicted from his cottage in the 1840s, and who ended up selling matches in New York after losing his wife and children en route to the US ("the broken-hearted farmer Dan O'Hara", as the ballad goes), this homestead and farm has evolved into one of the West's most popular folk and heritage attractions. Learn about Connemara throug the ages, see a reconstructed crannóg and ring fort, and take a tractor-pulled ride to the original cottage, complete with glowing turf fire. - PÓC

How: €8.50/4.25pp; connemaraheritage.com

If you like that: Stop into Pádraig Pearse's cottage (Ionad Cultúrtha an Phiarsaigh; heritageireland.ie) in Ros Muc, or further afield, take a tour of the eccentric Doagh Famine Village in Co Donegal (doaghfaminevillage.com).

24. A chapel for two

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Costello Chapel, Carrick on Shannon
 

Where: Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim

Why: Well, we did say small... Squeezed between neighbouring buildings on Bridge Street, Costello Memorial Chapel is a souvenir-sized memorial built by local merchant Edward Costello for his wife, Mary, in 1877. Walk into "the Irish Taj Mahal" today and you'll not only marvel at its scale (you could fit around six, at a squish), together with details like the marble altar and stained glass, but the coffins of the couple beneath glass panels under your feet. - PÓC

How: free; leitrimtourism.com

If you like that: Set in a former draft net station built to monitor fish stock and poachers on the Corrib in Galway, the Fisheries Watchtower (fisheriesireland.ie) is surely a contender for Ireland's smallest museum.

25. Sweet teeth

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Pól gets stuck into some sweet treats with Tony Lineham at Shandon Sweets (the Exchange Toffee Works. Photo: Derek Cullen / Fáilte Ireland
 

Where: Various locations

Why: After all that culture and travel, you'll need a sugar fix. Skip the generic 'retro' shops for real old-school treats at Shandon Sweets in Cork (shandonsweets.com), Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory in Belfast (auntsandras.com) or O'Mahony's siopa beag, near the Victorian railway tunnel on the Waterford Greenway at Durrow. Chocolate lovers can stop into Benoit Lorge's little factory in Bonane, outside Kenmare (lorge.ie) - children's and family chocolate-making workshops are available from €17pp. - PÓC

NB: All prices, hours and visiting details correct at time of publication, but subject to availability/change.

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