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Exploring the Hidden Gems of Ireland with Private Driver Guide Martin Dooney



Private driver guide top class locations to visit in ireland
Martin's Little Gems

Introducing Private Driver Guide Martin Dooney...

Martin Dooney is a private driver guide with Little Gem Private Tours of Ireland. He hails from Mayo and now Donegal is his home. Martin is an outstanding driver guide and consistently delivers 5* luxury tours in Ireland. Take a look at some of his tips and suggestions for your travels in Ireland below...


Favourite hidden gem to tour in Ireland?


Passage tombs in the west of Ireland
Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo
Carrowkeel Passage Tombs

Location, scenery and seclusion are what make the Carrowkeel Passage Tombs my number one hidden gem in Ireland. Nestled at the top of the Bricklieve Mountains, anyone who ventures up here can enjoy epic views of counties Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Mayo. Like the other passage tombs in Ireland such as the mighty Newgrange in County Meath, these tombs are between 5,000 and 5,500 years old. The striking difference however, is the fact that you can wander into these cruciform shaped tombs by yourself and dwell on the timeline without the crowds of people you’ll see elsewhere.


When I last took the short hike to reach these tombs on an unseasonably warm Spring Equinox afternoon, I got the sense that I'd worked to earn the experience. As I munched on sandwiches and sipped tea from my flask at the top, I thought about the task of hauling the huge boulders up this mountain. The rugged beauty of that landscape made it easier to imagine what life may have been like for the Neolithic people who once lived there.


You can explore Carrowkeel on our 15 Day All Ireland Explorer Private Tour




 


Favourite main natural attraction in Ireland?


Family on a guided tour of caves in Northern Ireland Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
Marble Arch Caves in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
Marble Arch Caves, Co. Fermanagh

When I first heard about the most active river cave in Ireland, I figured it was just a catchy slogan like the highest bar in Belfast or the most westerly waterfall in Waterford. It took a trip with my family one summer to discover just how otherworldly this site really is. As the guide rowed us down the subterranean river on a small boat into the labyrinth caves, I couldn't help but feel a little bit like Indiana Jones on some dramatic adventure.


Set in the picturesque foothills of Cuilcagh Mountain, this experience is the perfect example of what to expect in Ireland when you venture off the beaten path just a little. The dimly lit caves were brought to life by the fascinating stories of their discovery, told by a local guide who was passionate and extremely proud of her area.


You can explore Marble Arch Caves on our 7 Day North by West Explorer


 

Favourite activity in Ireland?

Prison museum in Dublin city with historic significance and a movie location
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

Kilmainhaim Gaol, Co. Dublin

What I most love about this late 18th century prison is the feeling you get there that inmates were just released yesterday. Everything is so well preserved that the echoes of pivotal moments in Ireland’s quest for freedom almost resound throughout the thick oppressive walls.


I visited this place while on school tour at just 12 years old. That day, I was a lot more concerned with picking up the new Sonic the Hedgehog game later that day, but the sense of the building’s importance stayed with me. When I moved back to Dublin in my late teens, I found myself living right in the heart of Dublin’s Liberties area. I began learning about the executions of senior Irish politicians and activists there during significant dates in the calendar of Ireland’s struggle from the 1798 Rebellion to the 1916 Easter Rising and even the Civil War of 1922-23.


With the dungeon-style cells, domineering stone walls and repressive caged staircase in the foyer, it’s no wonder Kilmainham Gaol has been the set location of choice for many movies over the years. From “The Italian Job” in 1969 to “In the Name of the Father” in 1993 and even “Paddington” in 2017, it’s easy to see that it is not just I who am impressed with this attraction. This jail offers visitors an extensive insight into some of the most thought-provoking, sometimes unsettling and always inspiring themes of modern Irish history.


You can take Kilmainhan in our or full package upgrades


 

 Favourite place for a pint?

Private tour stop at traditional pub in the Burren
McGanns Pub – Doolin, Co. Clare
The bridge between McGann’s Pub and McDermott’s Pub in Doolin.

With both bars across the road from each other and on opposite ends of a little bridge in the countryside on the outskirts of the quiet Doolin village, one would expect to enjoy a quiet pint in front of an open fire and an early night. This may well be the case on some nights.


On others however, punters will show up with a bodhrán drum, mandolin, fiddle or flute under their arms and before you know it, you’re treated to a full blown trad session. Don’t be surprised if by the end of the night, as the music moves through the keys and picks up the pace, you find yourself dancing with strangers outside the front door of one of these establishments under the moonlight with a similar scene taking place across the road.


You can visit McCanns and McDermotts on our 7 Day South by West Explorer


 

Favourite seafood restaurant?

Best seafood restaurant in the west of Ireland
Linnane's Lobster Bar – New Quay, Co. Clare
Linnane's Lobster Bar, Co. Clare

As someone who’s not all that into seafood, I’m answering this question based on feedback I’ve received from guests I’ve taken around and the atmosphere of the restaurants I’ve taken them to. With both of these aspects in mind, my decision couldn’t be easier. Linnane’s Lobster Bar is somewhere I’ll always encourage guests to visit when passing through County Clare.


Hidden away right on the water’s edge in the middle of the Burren countryside this unassuming eatery run by Eileen and Vincent Graham offers guests hearty seafood meals in an authentic venue with spectacular views of Galway Bay. The premises can be found on the harbour right beside the fishing boats and snack seeking seals. The quaint hamlet where it’s located and lively atmosphere inside the establishment would lead one to believe that a brig full of pirates would disembark and spill into the restaurant at any moment. For its seclusion, authenticity, rave reviews of the cuisine and friendly hosts, I’d give this place five stars every time.


You can visit Linnane's on our 7 Day South by West Explorer


 

Favourite castle?

Couple sit on a bench by waterside at castle fortress
Glenveigh Castle, Co. Donegal
Glenveigh Castle, Co. Donegal

Although relatively contemporary by Irish castle standards (built in around 1870), Glenveigh Castle stands out in my mind as a must-see experience for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as it’s in the centre of one of Ireland’s five national parks, visitors are treated to some of Ireland’s only remaining deciduous temperate rainforest. There you can enjoy the break-taking valley scenery, dip your feet in the lake down by the charming boat house or capture photographs of the many colours the ever-changing sky splatters onto the boggy landscape. It is a place of deep contrast.


I remember first visiting and walking the two kilometres through the rugged bogland. I was mesmerized by the exotic plants which greeted me inside the walled garden of the castle itself. On that occasion, I didn’t get to do the guided tour of the castle interior. However, one year later, I found myself back there and my appreciation of this castellated mansion went to a much deeper level.


The story behind the final owner was so shrouded in conspiracy and mystery that one could not help but project a sense of foreboding to false doors, secret entrances and frivolous follies. Whilst being led around the building and listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feel caught between pity and admiration for Philadelphia born Mr Henry McIlhenny. The mystery surrounding his disappearance and the impact it was having within the context of a rising societal movement across the pond seems to put this isolated building onto the world stage. The tour guides here present both the castle, and its history in a deeply compelling manner, this locks a visit here in your memory forever.


Enjoy Glenveigh National Park on our 15 Day All Ireland Explorer Private Tour


 

Favourite Restaurant?

Restaurant with historic connection in Kilkenny City
Painting of Petronella's Restaurant, Kilkenny City
Petronella’s Restaurant, Kilkenny

Although incredible restaurants throng the streets of Kilkenny City, none have caught my eye quite like the elegant eatery tucked away down the medieval Butter Slip lane. Back in 2012, I stumbled across this premises whilst researching one of the darkest and most thrilling stories in Irish history. The name caught my eye and I couldn’t pass it by.


Petronella’s is named after Petronella de Meath, the first person in Europe known to be burned alive on the charge of witchcraft in 1324AD. As one of the townspeople, she frequently walked the Butter Slip on her way to work for Dame Alice Kyteler, the woman originally accused of dabbling in the dark arts. When she fled, leaving behind four dead husbands and a bishop consumed with prosecution, her housekeeper, poor Petronella, was burned instead.


The story in its entirety is one which enthrals and captivates those who hear it. Should you venture into the restaurant, you’ll be treated to it from the friendly and entertaining staff there. You’ll also be spoiled for choice with the most mouth-watering and eclectic of cuisine. Its fusion menu offers both traditional Irish and international recipes which suit all dietary requirements. A meal here is simply not to be missed.   


Uncover more about Ireland's food culture on our bolg - Ireland for Foodies


 

Favourite town or village to spend the night?

Kenmare town with the mountainous surroundings
Kenmare, Co. Kerry
Kenmare, County Kerry

At this point now, I have been fortunate enough to spend time in a hotel, a tent, a B&B and a campervan in this delightful settlement. Located on the eastern corner of the world-renowned Ring of Kerry, and north of the breath-taking Caha Pass, Kenmare has a buzz of life to it that stands in stark contrast to its tranquil surroundings.


The town centre is made up of an hourglass of streets. The first larger triangle of bustling streets is filled with busy pubs with live music played regularly, traditional Irish craft stores, phenomenal ice-cream parlours and fantastic restaurants. The second surrounds Fairgreen Public Park, a peaceful green sanctuary right in the middle of town. This humble facility regularly hosts intimate outdoor concerts which can be enjoyed by anyone. This town really has something for everyone. Yet, at any point on the streets, you can cast your eye to the horizon and see a multitude of colours glistening off the mountains in the distance. The call of nature beckons to be explored. A short walk from the town, you’ll find a dainty harbour with a few small fishing boats straddled to it and seals a plenty curious to know you.


Spectacular sunsets always stay with me and I saw one of the most amazing I’ve ever seen from this harbour. With all of the attributes Kenmare has to offer, what stands out most for me however, are the conversations I’ve had with strangers there, be it with locals at the bar, tourists on the streets, fishermen on the harbour or farmers in their fields. As the ancient proverb goes “The heart that truly loves never forgets”. I have truly fallen in love with and will never ever forget this picturesque, vibrant and downright fun town.  


Discover Kenmare on our 12 Day Private Tour


 

Favourite road trip?

Road along the irish Wild Atlantic Way from Galway to Mayo
Louisburgh, Co. Mayo
Connemara (Louisburgh, County Mayo, to Clifden, County Galway)

Although I grew up in County Mayo, the flattened east side of the county is separated by worlds from the majestic mountains of the west. Stretching from Croagh Patrick, the right-of-passage pilgrimage peak, to Mweelrea, the highest mountain in the province of Connacht, and all the way down to the Twelve Pens mountain range in Galway, Connemara is a region which commands its visitor’s full attention.


The section of road I have found to have become synonymous with adventure, full immersion in nature and unadulterated awe begins on the R335 just south of the picturesque town of Louisburgh. As the distant peaks expand before you, Doolough Valley funnels the eye through the northern gates of Connemara. The valley itself, home to some of the most horrific atrocities of the famine of the mid-19th century, hosts a respectful sculpture dedicated to those poor and hungry who’ve lost their lives there.


Meandering parallel to the rapids of the Bundoragha River (a favourite destination for teens nationwide to master rock climbing, kayaking and the Irish language) you eventually arrive at the 16km long Killary Fjord, said to be the only fjord in Ireland. As you turn east and travel along the waterfront, you eventually come to Aasleagh Falls, the set for the most dramatic scene in the acclaimed 1990 Jim Sheridan movie, The Field, starring Richard Harris.


Once you cross the fjord, turn right onto the N59 and enter County Galway, a stop in Gaynor’s Bar in Leenaun village is a cultural treat with its cosy turf fire and timeless charm. As you make your way around the fjord and head South West, you’ll witness the well-worn bogland where for centuries; locals have cut turf for their winter’s fuel. Now almost completely banned in Ireland, the scars on the landscape will soon be all that remains of this ancient practice.


After a short drive along the oak speckled Kylemore Lough, the abbey suddenly appears through the trees, a hive of activity in an otherwise frozen topography. It is here that the Benedictine Sisters from Belgium fled during World War 1. They set up a school and assisted the locals in what was an impoverished time.


Once a castle, this breath-taking building is matched in majesty only by its own reflection in the clear Pollacapall Lough waters. You can enjoy tours of the abbey itself, the working walled garden and the stunning neo-Gothic church. Here, serene harp playing can be heard several times a day. Onwards you go to Letterfrack, and one of Ireland’s five national parks.


At Connemara National Park there are walking trails to suit all levels, from the lush pastureland at the base to the rocky and windswept peak. The panoramic views and sound of the hollow wind awaken the senses. The smell of the salty ocean competes with the scent of the boggy purple heather. One cannot help but feel lifted from this experience.


As the road twists and turns to the town of Clifden, visitors here are struck by the vibrancy, colour and charm of Connemara’s capital. Art galleries, boutique gift stores and lively pubs are in abundance here and a good night out at the popular Lowry’s Music and Whiskey bar is the tonic for many an ailment. Clifden’s charm and character make it a fitting stop for such an adventurous road trip.


Bonus drive: Should you find yourself with an hour or so to spare, take a drive a little further south along the R341 to find the crash site of the Vickers-Vimy biplane, the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Since the pilots Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown were British and crash landed in the middle of rebellion country in the midst of the War of Independence, they were no doubt fortunate to make it back to civilization and into the history books.


The memorial statue found entrenched in the flat bogland is coincidentally placed right beside one of Marconi’s very first wireless stations which allowed people around the world to communicate in real time. For such a barren landscape, there sure was a lot going on there. Should you decide to take this trip, I highly recommend staying close to one end the night before, or even better, spending a night in one of the friendly towns and villages along the way.


Drive Connemara on our 8 Day Wild Atlantic Way Adventure


 

Most intriguing Irish historical character?

King Brian Boru Irish historic figure featured on Irish coins
Image of King Brian Boru

(Image Credit: Dublin Mint Office)


Brian Boru

Did you ever think about the history of your country and imagine what it would be like today, had a single event unfolded differently long ago? As a guide, I find myself retelling so many Irish historical moments and asking myself this question.


Had the great Gaelic chieftain, considered by many as the high king of Ireland around the turn of the first millennium, not defeated the Vikings in Dublin, Ireland, I imagine it would look extremely different today. Our architecture may be more Scandinavian in its design. We may have far fewer redheads and many more blondes. We may even be speaking some variant of Old Norse had they went on to repel the Norman invasion in the next century.


It would be interesting, but I’m sure glad it didn’t work out like that. I’m certain that these thoughts never crossed Brian’s mind as he left the battlefield having ended Viking dominance on the island. He may however, have questioned the serendipity of the many events which led the youngest of twelve brothers to inherit the crown. His life story is one that never fails to blow my mind and provoke existential thought. As you travel right around Ireland, you feel his legacy; in the many castles you enter, at the battle sites you pass and on the faces of any O’Brien you meet.


Visit The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin to learn more about Brian Boru


 

A must read book about Ireland...

The Siege of Kinsale when England batttled the Irish and Spanish in 1601 depicted in literature
Hell or Some Worse Place, Kinsale 1601, Des Ekin (O'Brien Press)

(Image Credit: O'Brien Press)


“Hell or Some Worse Place: Kinsale 1601” by Des Ekin

If ever there were a story which deserved adaptation to the silver screen it is the tale of the Siege of Kinsale, it would be top of my list. This is owed in part to the complexity of the events, the big name historical characters of Ireland, Britain and Spain, and the implications this battle had on the structure of power in Europe both politically and religiously.


The manner in which this awesome incursion is portrayed by author Des Ekin amplifies the significance the clash of the two European titans had on our present day. He continually cuts back from the dark days of the siege to the religiopolitical events leading to its occurrence. While reading this account, I was right there alongside the Spanish soldiers within the town walls.


Ekin’s descriptive style allowed me to conjure up in my mind the inhospitable and almost apocalyptic conditions these troops were living in. His harsh but exhilarating account of the doomed plight of the Gaelic reinforcements such as the armies of the O’Donnells, O’Neills and O’Sullivans brought home the sharp reality that this battle was a major contributing factor in the final subjugation of the entire island by the British. 


As I regularly roam the colourful streets of Kinsale today with the many vibrant craft shops and boutique restaurants, this book has elevated ordinary looking old stone buildings to relics of pivotal moments in Irish and European history in my mind.


Discover more books we recommend on our blog - Books about Ireland from the Little Gem Library


Stroll through the colourful streets of Kinsale, where the siege of 1601 too place.
Kinsale Town


 


Discover Ireland off the beaten path and away from the crowds with your own private driver in ireland. Our guests can customise tours to discover all corners of Ireland while taking in the main attractions and hidden gems in the comfort of private transport with the best driver guides in Ireland.


When you contact our team you will be assigned your personal tour planner who will customise a tour specifically for you and your group including a variety of luxury and boutique accommodations to craft a unique tour itinerary in Ireland. 


Learn more about our private tour guides here...






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