Travel has been the inspiration for Valerie Biel’s Circle of Nine series of young adult historical supsense. You can find out more about her on her website, www.valeriebiel.com, or by clicking on the Blackbirds page here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.
Travel tends to be the source of inspiration for many of the stories I write. For instance, the initial idea for my Circle of Nine series came from a visit to a stone circle in County Donegal, Ireland named Beltany, which became the subtitle to the first novel in that series. I’m often inspired by other more random and day-to-day things, too. (After all you can’t be traveling all the time, right?) But nothing seems to give me that push to write a story the way traveling does.
As an avid traveler, you can imagine that the lack of travel during the height of the pandemic felt very strange. I looked back recently on my 2019 year in review and noted that I was away at writing-related events or vacationing for 50+ days that year. In 2020, we managed 14 before the world shut down. 2021 fared a bit better but still we put off a long-awaited, twice-postponed return trip to Ireland until this year.
My husband and I disagree whether this was either our 9th or 10th trip to Ireland. (Neither of us had the desire to do a deep search to win the battle over the number, but it is beneficial when your accountant allows you to write off your book research trips.) We do agree that we’ve spent time or at least driven through all 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland and the six in Northern Ireland. This trip itinerary was designed to fill in places we hadn’t been (or at least hadn’t spent enough time in) that also lined up with book research I needed to do. We had a lot of fun seeing new sites, meeting new people, and largely unplugging from technology.
After arriving in Dublin, we drove straight across the country to Sligo . . . my husband honed his left-side driving skills immediately when our GPS inexplicably avoided the major highway. LOL The highlights of Sligo were the Glencar waterfall, the Carrowmore Megalithic Complex (the largest and oldest collection of neolithic dolmens and stone circles in Ireland.) Book research! We also visited and climbed Knocknarea where you can find the cairn with Queen Maeve’s tomb. (Also book research!) This was a fairly strenuous hike as the summit of this ‘hill’ is 1000+ feet above sea level.
We then crossed into County Mayo on our way to Achill Island. We’d never driven this way before and were so pleased we had decided to take one of the smaller roads. Gorgeous landscape and very little traffic as we wound our way through peat bogs. Achill Island is accessed by a bridge, so it’s easy to get there. It’s home to the tallest sea cliffs in Ireland, beautiful beaches, small fishing villages, and the westernmost pub in Europe. We had a lovely day exploring the coastline before continuing to Cong.
Cong was more of a stopping off point as we made our way south toward Killarney, but we made the most it, enjoying the ruins of the Cong Abbey and the amazing meal at Pat Cohen’s pub. (Cong was the location of the filming of The Quiet Man movie starring Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne.)
We stayed in Killarney in the past, but we hadn’t fully explored the adjacent Killarney National Park. Now, Killarney is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a bit touristy but we appreciate the wonderful hotels, restaurants, and shops. I highly recommend a visit to Muckross House & Farm inside the National Park as well as the Dunloe Gap for gorgeous scenery—which we saw via a jaunting horse cart. There are many hiking, biking, boating, and kayaking options here.
The highlight of our trip was definitely our visit to Skellig Michael. As a UNESCO world heritage site, the quantity of visitors is strictly limited, and only certain boats are licensed to land there, weather permitting. And the term ‘land’ is not exactly correct – they sort of pull up as close as possible and as the waves toss the boat about, you make a jump onto wet concrete steps and grab for the chain mounted to the wall to hold yourself steady. This is a monastic settlement first built in the 6th century. (You might remember the scenes from Star Wars with Luke Skywalker/Mark Hammill that were filmed here.) There are 600 stone steps up to the monastic buildings, which were made of dry stacked stone—even without mortar they still stand today. The hike up is crazy hard – so many – many stairs. But the hike down is terrifying because you can’t help but focus on the drop offs so close to where you’re stepping. I stopped a bunch of times just to calm my nerves. This island and Little Skellig are home to large colonies of sea birds, including my favorite—puffins!
I’m so glad we finally got to go back—now I need to get moving on drafting the next book in my series. Perhaps, I’ll need a return trip to Ireland, just to make sure I get those details right.