Ireland in Pictures

Although Ireland has a reputation of wild and untouched landscapes, in the true sense of the word it is anything but wild. The first settlers arrived during or shortly after the end of the last glaciations period some 10.000 years ago. Back then Ireland was covered in dense forests, today there are only a few pockets of these native forests left. The forests fell victim to a combination of human and natural destruction. Once the hunter gatherers had turned farmers they started clearing the land, while at the same time the climate became warmer and damper, which supported the formation of vast blanket and raised bogs. These bogs grew at such a fast pace many forests were literally swallowed whole. Massive tree trunks embedded in peat are a common sight in many places.

Eventually the forests had disappeared and were replaced by the fields and hedgerows we see today. The vast bogs became a major source of fuel for the country: In absence of wood or coal turf was used for heating, cooking and creating energy on a large scale.

Ireland also has some of the densest accumulations of historical buildings anywhere in Europe: Ancient burial chambers, stone circles and standing stones, forts, medieval churches and abbeys, tower houses and castles are all an integral part of the Irish landscape and offer rather unique photographic opportunities. 

Dunluce Castle, County Antrim seems to have been purpose built for photographers, albeit hundreds of years before the invention of the camera...

Canon EOS 1Ds MK3; 24mm TS-E 2; f22; 13 seconds; ISO 100; 2 stop ND grad hard; 1 stop ND grad soft; tripod

Topographically Ireland is shaped like a soup bowl. The major mountain ranges are along the coastal fringes while the midland area is a rather flat landscape with only soft rolling hills here and there. As a result the most dramatic scenery can be found close to the coast: Sheer cliffs, wide beaches, towering mountains and ancient forests. The midlands are a jigsaw of rivers, lakes, bogs and a cultivated landscape of fields and hedgerows.

I have been traveling around Ireland for a decade now and I still discover new and exciting places. The following selection is based on personal taste and is meant as a starting point for your own explorations. Some readers familiar with Ireland will certainly miss places but trying to mention all the beauty spots would fill a whole book. 

Cork and Kerry: The peninsulas and the National Park

The southwestern corner of Ireland alone can keep the photographer busy for years. The main features of the area are the 5 peninsulas (Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle) and the Killarney National Park.

For me the Beara and Dingle Peninsula are the most attractive, both feature a versatile coastline and a dramatic mountain landscape inland. The Killarney National Park is home to Ireland’s last remaining oak forests and native red deer. The forests grow around several lakes on the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains and should be on every visitor’s list. Especially in autumn when colors have turned from dull green to vibrant yellow and brown and mist and fog hangs in the hills it is an amazing place. For me Tomies Wood, the Ross Peninsula and the Gap of Dunloe are the most inspirational places.

The Monastery on Skellig Michael, in County Kerry.

Canon EOS 5D MK2; 45mm TS-E; f22; 40 seconds; ISO 50; 1 stop ND grad hard; 3 stop ND; tripod

One place everybody should visit at least once in his/her life is a small rock off the Kerry coast: Skellig Michael. Cliffs almost rise vertically from the ocean. Ancient stone steps lead to the top of the island to a monastery. Even if you suffer from vertigo like myself this is worth the fear and effort. 

West Clare

West Clare is another name for the Loop Head peninsula, which still is one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets. The northern coast offers some of the country’s most dramatic cliff sceneries and can be reached from Kilkee via the signposted coast road. The southern coast is guarded by the estuary of the river Shannon that is home to a resident group of over 100 bottlenose dolphins. Dolphin Watch trips leave from Kilrush and Carrigaholt and close encounters are almost certain and good close up shots are possible with a standard 70-200mm zoom. 

One of the 'Shannon Dolphins' posing for the photographer. 

Canon EOS 5D MK2; 70-200/2.8 + 1.4x @ 150mm; f10; 1/250 second; ISO 200 

The Burren

The Burren is the most unirish landscape you can imagine. It’s a limestone karst landscape and has been described as a moonscape and stone desert. It’s an utterly fascinating landscape; flat limestone pavements are dotted with erratics and rise to form terrace like hills. Nestled in between are fertile valleys.

Spring Gentian is also known as The Pride of the Burren.

Canon EOS 1Ds MK3; 90mm TS-E; f25; 1/4 second; ISO 400; tripod

The Burren is also famous for a very unusual flora: It’s a mix of Mediterranean, alpine and arctic flowers. Spring Gentians grow side by side with orchids, mountain avens and other species and transform the grey landscape into a colorful rock garden from April to September. 

A sunrise in the eastern Burren.

Canon EOS 5D MK3; 24mm TS-E 2; f14; 0.3 second; ISO 400; tripod; HDR merged from 3 exposures

Connemara

Conemara occupies the western part of County Galway and is one of Ireland’s most famous landscapes. The major mountain ranges of the granite 12 Bens (sometimes called 12 Pins) and Maamturk Mountains rise in the center of the area and are surrounded by vast blanket bogs and an intricate coastline. The Inagh Valley and the area around Ballyconneely offer a good first taste of this unique landscape.

Connemara on a good day: Mountains, beach and light.

Canon EOS 1Ds MK3; 24mm TS-E 2; f22; 5 seconds; ISO 50; 2x 3 stop ND; polarizer; tripod

North East: Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal

Altough it isn’t very fair putting these 4 counties into one section the north eastern counties of Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal represent what wild Ireland is all about. Desolate bogscapes, majestic mountains and a coastline of wide sandy beaches and sheer cliffs. 

Ben Bulben is the landmark of County Sligo.

Canon EOS 1Ds MK3; 17-40/4 @ 35mm; f22; 0.5 second; ISO 100; 2 stop ND grad; tripod

The Inishowen Peninsula and the neighboring Fanad Head, Slieve League (both Co. Donegal), Achill Island (Co. Mayo) and Ben Bulben (County Sligo) are as iconic as it gets. But slightly less iconic also can make good images: Aranmore Island off the Donegal coast, Downpatrick Head with its sea stack (Co. Mayo), the road to Lough Easky through the Ox Mountains (Co. Sligo) and the Doolough Pass, an eerie mountain road between the Mweelra Mountains and Sheeffry Hills are my suggestions for worthy places to visit. 

Fanad Head with its lighthouse on a autumn evening.

Canon EOS 1Ds MK3; 24mm TS-E 2; f22; 30 seconds; ISO 100;
3 stop ND grad; tripod

Click here to go to page 3 of our article 'ireland: A Photographers' Guide'