Poets and Pilgrims: A Literary Walking Tour of Ireland

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15640A, International


  • Explore Dublin on Bloomsday during the annual James Joyce festival
  • Sail to the remote Aran Islands, a favored locale in John Millington Synge’s plays
  • Travel through the heartland of Irish mythology and home of W.B. Yeats


  • Private van for all land transportation
  • All ferry rides, admissions, and private guide
  • Comfortable lodging and delicious cuisine -- both traditional and modern


DatesJun 14–25, 2015
StaffKathie Fowler

Trip Overview

The Trip

For almost 9,000 years, hunters & gatherers, early farmers, Celtic tribes, Vikings, Normans, and English and Scottish planters have consecutively occupied Ireland. From the earliest mythological storytellers to today’s modern writers, from early Gaelic to Latin and modern English, the range of forms and variety of themes has been enormous.

What is it that makes the Irish such prolific and successful writers?  Certainly a sense of place is high on the list. The wild, ancient, often bloody landscape is so woven into the fabric of Irish literature that it is commonly one of the main characters. Our “pilgrimage” will be across these landscapes as we hike its woods, sail to its remote islands, and climb its ancient mountains.

The literary period we cover is the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It was during this era, after 800 years of British rule, that a generation of writers was determined to revive Ireland’s native language and folklore, highlight the country’s ancient rural culture, and rekindle national pride. It became known as the Irish Literary Renaissance.

There are many writers who could be featured on this trip, but we are limiting ourselves to four so we can explore the actual locations of their works while adhering to a 12-day itinerary. As a result, we will not only familiarize ourselves with James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses, the controversial plays of John Millington Synge, the lyrical poems of both William Butler Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, but we will walk the landscapes -- both rural and urban -- where these men lived and wrote.

Our reading list is not demanding. This is a holiday, not a university seminar. Even if you have not read widely or deeply in Irish literature, this journey will have meaning as we explore Ireland through the eyes of four of its master storytellers while exchanging ideas, getting to know one another, and perhaps enjoying an evening of traditional Irish music. Facilitating our dialogue and accompanying us throughout the trip will be Joe McDermott, who is retired from a 31-year career as a high school English and History teacher in Dublin and Westport, County Mayo. Our first two days will be spent exploring the Dublin environs, and the rest of our travels will be to charming villages and remote rural areas that are off the beaten path. Both urban and rural environments will allow us to immerse ourselves in Irish culture, past and present. 


Day 1: Our adventure begins just outside Dublin in a beautiful 19th-century hotel located on the shores of Dublin Bay. We will gather for dinner and an orientation meeting, and you will meet Joe McDermott, our guide for the next 10 days. Overnight Sutton. D.

Day 2: Today we take the train to Sandycove, home of the James Joyce museum and the “Gentlemen’s 40-Foot Bathing Pool,” memorialized in the opening chapter of Ulysses. Here you have the option of jumping into the Atlantic for your morning “constitutional,” as Bloom describes in Ulysses and as Dubliners have been doing for generations. Afterward we will tour the museum, located in the Martello Tower, site of the opening scene of Ulysses. A trip into Dublin for the afternoon and dinner back at our hotel will complete our busy first day. Overnight Sutton. B, D.

Day 3: Today is Bloomsday, where the city devotes itself to all things Joycean. Fans from around the world congregate in Dublin on this date to participate in readings, walks, performances in period costume, and -- inevitably -- visits to the pub. We will begin the day with breakfast at the James Joyce Center, where we will be entertained by live performances of Joyce’s works. We will then take a walking tour through parts of the city, tracing some of Leopold Bloom’s adventures over the 24-hour period during which Ulysses is set. Overnight Sutton. B, D.

Days 4-5: We drive west across Ireland to Galway, where we catch the ferry for the Aran Islands. Situated in Galway Bay and facing the North Atlantic at the very edge of Europe, this will be our most remote locale. The Arans consist of three islands: Inis Mor (Big Island), Inis Meain (Middle Island), and Inis Oirr (East Island). Gaelic is its first language.

The crossing to Inis Mor on the ferry takes about 40 minutes. (If you are prone to seasickness, you might want to bring appropriate medication.) Once on Inis Mor, we check into our B&B, have lunch, and walk to early Christian ruins and a local labyrinth. We will also explore the World Heritage site of Dun Aengus, a 2,000-year old Iron Age fort  -- considered the most impressive of its kind in Europe -- whose foundations drop 300 feet straight down to the sea. B, D.

The next day, weather permitting, we will take a ferry to Inis Meain and explore the island where Synge lived and wrote. Much of the local dialect from Inis Meain was incorporated into his great opus, “Playboy of the Western World.” We will walk the rugged shores described in “Riders to the Sea,” where Maurya held vigil, waiting for her sons’ ship to emerge out of the storm. Perhaps we will try a small reading from the play -- anyone care to audition for a part? B, D.

Days 6-8: We take the ferry from Inis Mor to the mainland, where our private van awaits. Our destination is Sligo, in the heart of Yeats Country, and we arrive at our B&B in the late afternoon. Overnight Sligo. B, D.

There is much to do and see in the Sligo area, including a climb of Knocknarea (“Hill of Royalty”), the 1,000-foot mountain that dominates the local landscape. Knocknarea is believed to house a Neolithic passage tomb dating back 10,000 years. Queen Maeve, a warrior queen of ancient Celtic mythology, is reputably entombed here in an erect position, in full battle regalia, facing northward toward her Ulster enemies. At the top of the mountain Joe, our guide, will read from Yeats’ Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland, where “The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knock-narea/And thrown the thunder of the stones for all that Maeve can say.”

We also pay our respects to Yeat’s grave in the churchyard of St. Columba’s Parish Church in Drumcliffe. A stop at the adjacent gift shop and lunchroom will round out our visit here.

Our final activity in the Sligo area will take us to Loch Gill, where we will walk in Hazel Wood and gaze upon the “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” memorialized in Yeats’ lyrical poem about inner peace and contentment with simple things. After our walk we will tour a 17th-century castle on the shores of Loch Gill, and, weather permitting, we will take a boat ride on the lake for a close-up view of Innisfree.

Days 9-10: On to Iniskeen in County Monaghan, home of Patrick Kavanagh, one of Ireland’s most inspirational and beloved 20th-century poets. A loyal and long-serving staff runs the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, and here we will be given a tour of key landmarks in the village that highlight Kavanagh’s life and works. Overnight in Carickmacross (famous for its lacemaking). B, D.

Day 11: On our way back to Dublin, we will stop in the Boyne Valley at Newgrange and tour the megalithic passage tombs, which are considered older than the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge. Newgrange is a World Heritage site and a highlight of many visitors' trips to Ireland. In the evening we will gather for a farewell dinner, during which we celebrate the completion of our Irish pilgrimage and say goodbye to new-found friends. Overnight Dublin. B, D.

Day 12: A final breakfast together before we depart for home.



Getting There

Our trip begins and ends in Dublin. Pre-trip bulletins will give detailed instructions on how to get to our lodging upon arrival. Please do not make airline reservations until you have been officially accepted on the trip.

Accommodations and Food

Our lodging will be in small comfortable hotels, B&Bs, and family-run country inns. Rooms are shared. Please contact the leader about single supplements, which are not available everywhere. All breakfasts and dinners are included in the trip price. Depending on the restaurant, Irish cuisine can be very sophisticated or delightfully traditional, and we will sample both. Good restaurants and pubs abound and most all can accommodate vegetarians. The price of lunches is not included in the trip.

Trip Difficulty

This is an active sightseeing trip designed for anyone who is in good health and enjoys walking and easy hiking. Our most strenuous day will be the hike to Knocknarea, a 1,000-foot climb on a well-marked, but rocky, path. Rain, however, is inevitable in Ireland and serves to not only make our environment green, but also to make any walk more challenging. For everyone’s enjoyment of the trip, it is important to be in good physical condition and to remain flexible if weather should cause our itinerary to be altered.

Equipment and Clothing

The leader will send a detailed packing list to each participant.


There are many guidebooks available on Ireland. Three outstanding series are by Lonely Planet, Michelin, and Eyewitness Travel Guides. A visit to the travel section of your local bookstore should provide interesting browsing -- and probably more information than you want.

Our core reading list (available on Amazon, unless otherwise indicated) is as follows:

James Joyce

  • Ulysses (Novel)

Note:  Although many consider Ulysses the greatest novel ever written, it is not easy. (Even Joyce’s wife Nora reputedly asked, “Why don’t you write books people can read?”) You might want to buy Ulysses Cliff Notes or Ulysses Annotated, by Don Gifford and just do the best you can. Joe, our guide, will be invaluable in helping us understand this challenging work.

  • The Dubliners (Short stories), any edition

It is highly recommended that you rent the “The Dead,” one of Joyce’s short stories from The Dubliners, which John Huston made into a movie. This was Huston’s last film and is considered a masterpiece. It was recently released in DVD format.

John Millington Synge

  • The Playboy of the Western World (Drama)
  • Riders to the Sea (Drama)

Both plays are combined in Dover Thrift Editions, paperback, 1993.

Or just buy The Complete Plays of John M. Synge (Mass market paperback).

William Butler Yeats

  • Yeats Poetry, Drama and Prose, Norton Critical Editions, paperback. Includes the one-act play"The Hawk’s Well.”

Patrick Kavanagh

  • Collected Poems (any edition)
  • Tarry Flynn (Novel), Penguin Modern Classics, paperback
  • The Green Fool (Novel), Penguin Modern Classics, paperback


After Ireland joined the European Union, its economy thrived. Beginning in the 1990s, Ireland was transformed from one of Europe’s poorest countries into one of its wealthiest. This economic boom, known as the “Celtic Tiger,” raised educational standards, reduced unemployment, improved physical infractructures, and attracted investment by multi-national corporations such as Google, Abbott Laboratories and Bell Labs. However, the worldwide economic downturn hit Ireland especially hard. A visit to Dublin reveals half-finished, abandoned construction projects and a skyline full of cranes sitting idle.

Another serious concern is increased reliance on foreign oil. A current plan by Shell Oil to build a gas refinery and high-pressure pipeline on the west coast of Ireland in an area of outstanding beauty is being met with militant grassroots resistance.

However, our objective is not to point an accusing finger but, as we travel through this beautiful country, to discuss conservation issues as we observe them. There should be plenty of opportunity: traffic congestion in Dublin, tourism on the Aran Islands, the fragility of Knocknarea, and the restoration of Lissadell, just to name a few.



An outdoor enthusiast all of her adult life, Kathie Fowler has traveled extensively in the Himalayas, both privately and with the Sierra Club, and has also led trips in California's Sierra Nevada, Costa Rica, Italy, and India. In 2007, she assisted on her first trip to Ireland and fell in love with the country. As an English major in college and ardent fan of Irish literature, it was soon apparent after meeting Joe McDermott (the Sierra Club's resident Irish guide and English teacher of 31 years) that they were destined to create and lead a literary tour of Ireland together. The first such trip, in 2009, was a great success, and subsequent trips have been equally popular. As past Director of Communications (retired) for a winery in California's Napa Valley, Kathie was actively involved in consensus building between environmentalists and winegrowers, and leading groups through the vineyards to demonstrate good environmental practices through biodynamic and other innovative farming methods. When not working or traveling, Kathie breeds and shows Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

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