Our travel to and from Cork was made easy and affordable by Ireland's nationwide coach bus service, Bus Eireann.
It should be noted right away that we are not spokespeople for B.E., nor is this a B.E. promotion. Just some honest thoughts and observations about traveling Ireland by coach.
What's The Big Deal?
What does all that have to do with buses? Everything, really. Given such a large land mass and low population WITH the American standard of multiple-car homes, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Midwestern U.S. has very few public transportation options. Larger cities have buses and commuter trains, of course. Some cross-county bus services go through the Midwest, but usually following the Interstate Highways, of which Iowa has two (I don't count I-29 here, sorry again Sioux City and Council Bluffs!), forming a rough cross-shape through the center of the state.
...So if you are living in the corners of the state and need to travel, better gas up your truck and get on the road.
We don't have that option in Ireland, of course, but not to worry. Ireland is smaller and more densely populated (relatively speaking) than the Midwest, AND public transportation is more culturally acceptable in Europe generally, so an overland bus service does make financial sense. I am amazed with the ease and affordability of these services. Someday I may be jaded and complain about the full buses or the cost, but for now, it's all fresh and new.
...On Bus Eireann
When buying a ticket, one can reserve online, buy a ticket at the station, or hop on a bus and buy one from the driver. When we booked our tickets to Cork, we noticed that it was easiest and cheapest to buy an advance ticket for a date rather than a specific departure time. We bought a return ticket departing on December 24, and we could use that ticket on any bus going from Dublin to Cork on that day. Because Cork is a larger city, there are many express buses between Dublin and Cork everyday, so we had our pick. All we had to do was get to the station. We decided to take the first (bus departing at 08:00) to maximize our time in Cork. We caught the first Dublin Bus up to Busáras and got to the station before 07:30.
Aside- I like bus and train stations. Maybe for slightly different reasons than the narrator of Love Actually describing airports, with all that lovey-dovey mushy gibberish. I like to see the mix of people of all colors and classes waiting to depart. This form of public transportation is cheap enough for people of lower income to use, but convenient and comfortable enough for suited-and-skirted business travelers. People watching, for me, helps alleviate the general misery of a long wait on uncomfortable wooden benches.
So, it's 07:30 on Christmas Eve and the station is busy with holiday travelers. The longest line, of course, is the bus to Cork. Because the tickets aren't reserved for a specific bus, most people had the same idea we had- catch the first one and maximize Cork time. If this bus had been full, we'd have had to wait to catch the 10:00 bus- not a huge deal, but we were excited to get there, and the ride would be about four hours... Not to worry! We (and all the passengers who arrived after us behind us in line) were able to board the almost full bus, and we were off!
Being an express bus, there were only a few stops, and those mostly in the second half of the journey. We admired the view of the countryside- even from the motorway it was beautiful. Everyone here recommends traveling off the motorways to see some of the more picturesque small towns and country scenery. I guess that is something Iowa and Ireland have in common- crappy sightseeing on the big highways...
Anyway, two of the stops we made were in Cashel and Cahir, both towns on our "to see in Ireland" list because of their ancient fortresses. The Rock of Cashel is well known as a church attended by St. Patrick, and Cahir Castle is a well-preserved stone-walled hulk. Both of these monuments are right in the center of town, so we got a nice view of each as the bus made its way through the very cute town squares.
The return ticket system is also very convenient. When purchasing a ticket, one selects the first departure date only. Once the driver punches the departure, the ticket is good for thirty days for a return trip. Any bus, any day. When we were leaving Cork, we could take any of the buses departing on that date. It was the day after Christmas, called St. Stephen's Day here, and it's also a public holiday. As such, buses were running a more limited schedule, so the express Dublin bus was running every four hours instead of every two. No problem- we waited at the station (observing the ever-interesting human bus station mix) and caught our bus home. Extra classy note that I must document here- on the return bus someone a few rows in front of us had a bottle of cheap red wine stoppered with a wadded-up paper towel. Every time he took a pull from it, we got that nice whiff of grocery-store-special wine. Some might have found it annoying, but it was all I could do to keep from laughing and asking him to pass it back.
It really is great to have access to such an efficient and convenient public transport system. Car-less as we are, we feel like the whole country (and Northern Ireland, the other country on this small island) is open and easily accessible to us- and we plan to take full advantage of that while we're here.