Over the past three decades, Ireland has transformed itself with quiet determination. Gone - or certainly on its way out - is the image of a conservative, introspective, rural set of nations. The infamous unrest and violence, between the Republic (Éire) and Northern Ireland (as part of the United Kingdom), have faded away. An outward-looking Ireland has stepped forward, energised by cities no longer weighed down by the Troubles.
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Of course, it's not called the Emerald Isle for nothing; among the romantic preconceptions visitors bring to Ireland, it is their expectations of the landscape that are most likely to be fulfilled. Travel to Ireland and you'll discover an uncommon geological richness and the warming effect of the Atlantic produce an astonishing diversity of terrain on this small island, which is splashed throughout with lakes and primeval bogland.
In the east, the crumpled granite of the Wicklow Hills sits in utter contrast to the horse-grazing plain of the Curragh just a few kilometres away, and in Connemara on the west coast, you can walk from beach to mountain to fen, from seaweed-strewn inlet to lily-covered lough, in a matter of hours. Coupled with the unhurried nature of rural living, this scenic array encourages leisurely investigation, especially on foot or by bicycle.
With the richest store of mythological traditions in northern Europe, the island of Ireland adds further interest to the landscape through the sacred associations of so many of its physical features – few counties do not shelter a pile of stones called “Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Bed”, where the star-crossed lovers are said to have slept together on their flight from the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill. But there’s much more than the resonance of place names to this treasure chest of myths, which still has a life of its own in the tradition of storytelling. The great body of Irish literature, though much of it concerns the dysfunction of real life, is often spiked with wild, fantastical imaginings, from Swift, Sterne and Wilde through to Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney. And unlikely stories and surreal comedy are integral elements of the craic, the talking therapy of Ireland’s pubs. Meanwhile, in the rich culture of traditional music, the two forms that are most likely to enrapture an audience – whether singing along or in silent appreciation – are ballads and sean-nós (“old-style” Irish-language singing), which recount tales of love, history and humour.
Many of Ireland’s mythical deities were reinvented by the Church after the tenth century as historical personages, which can make interpretation of the country’s abundance of historic sites more difficult, especially its enigmatic but awe-inspiring prehistoric tombs, stone circles and hill forts. There are few remnants of the Church itself from the so-called “Dark Ages”, when the monasteries of Ireland clung on as great centres of learning, but their elaborate craftsmanship is evident in surviving illuminated manuscripts. Stone began to be used for religious buildings only in the ninth century, and the country is strewn with fine churches, distinctive round-towers and high crosses from later periods. Doughty castles and tower houses are reminders of the unrest and oppression that followed the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion, while numerous stately homes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attest to the power of the Protestant Ascendancy, alongside Neoclassical institutions in the cities and Dublin’s extensive Georgian areas.
There is little vernacular architecture of note, however, thanks to centuries of subjugation as the laboratory for British colonialism. The poverty experienced by ordinary Irish people under foreign rule was not immediately righted by Independence in 1921, and for most of the twentieth century the economy continued to stagnate. The century’s final decade, however, saw a remarkable upswing in Ireland’s fortunes.
The North, though still blighted by sectarianism and gangsterism, received massive British and European investment and achieved far greater stability after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. So rapid was the Republic’s economic growth during the 1990s that it was christened the Celtic Tiger and, for the first time since the Great Famine of the 1840s, immigration began to outstrip emigration. Greater prosperity necessitated an influx of migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Africa, which presented new challenges to the South’s Catholic homogeneity and the rigid duality of the North. Many Irish people returned from abroad, too, bringing fresh ideas and vibrancy to commerce and culture, after the authoritarianism that followed Independence. However, the global economic crisis of 2008 hit Ireland particularly severely, bringing widespread economic hardship and drastic reductions in public spending, especially in the South. For the visitor, this has meant welcome cuts in hotel and restaurant prices, but in general terms it’s still far from clear what social and cultural effects the crisis will have in the long run.
Facts about Ireland
- Ireland’s landmass has a total area of 84,412 square kilometres, with its coastline stretching for 3152km. Its longest river is the Shannon (358km), largest lake Lough Neagh (387 square kilometres) and its highest point is Carrauntoohil in Kerry (1038m).
- Since 1921 the country has been divided into what is now called the Republic of Ireland, consisting of 26 counties, and Northern Ireland, subject to devolved British rule, which comprises six counties.
- The Republic of Ireland’s population is roughly 4.4 million, with 1.7 million residing in the Greater Dublin area, while Northern Ireland’s population is approximately 1.8 million, with some 650,000 occupying the Greater Belfast area.
- The UK’s 2001 Census reported that 44% of Northern Ireland’s population is from a Catholic background and 53% from a Protestant background, while the Republic’s 2006 Census revealed that 88% of its population is Catholic.
- Irish is the national language of the Republic, according to the constitution, with English recognized as a second official language. However, only around 15% of the population has a good competence in Irish.
Where to go in Ireland
Dublin is the Republic’s main entry-point, a confident capital whose raw, modern energy is complemented by rich cultural traditions, and which boasts outstanding medieval monuments and the richly varied exhibits of the National Gallery and National Museum. South of the city, the desolate Wicklow Mountains offer a breathtaking contrast to city life.
If you arrive on the west coast at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland’s most spectacular landscapes lie within easy reach. Clare’s coastline itself rises to a head at the vertiginous Cliffs of Moher, while inland lies The Burren, a barren limestone plateau at odds with the lush greenery characteristic of much of Ireland. To Clare’s south, Limerick’s Hunt Museum houses one of Ireland’s most diverse and fascinating collections.
County Kerry, south of Limerick, features dazzling scenery, an intoxicating brew of invigorating seascapes, looming mountains and sparkling lakes. Though the craggy coastline traversed by the Ring of Kerry is a major tourist attraction, it’s still relatively easy to find seclusion. In County Galway, to Clare’s north, lies enthralling Connemara, untamed bogland set between sprawling beaches and a muddle of quartz-gleaming mountains; in contrast, university cities such as Galway and Limerick provide year-round festivals and buzzing nightlife. Further north, Donegal offers a dramatic mix of rugged peninsulas and mountains, glistening beaches and magical lakes.
Dotted around the west coast are numerous islands, providing a glimpse of the harsh way of life endured by remote Irish-speaking communities. The Arans are the most famous – windswept expanses of limestone supporting extraordinary prehistoric sites – but the savagely beautiful landscape of the Blasket Islands, off Kerry’s coast, is equally worthy of exploration.
On Ireland’s southern coast, Cork’s shoreline is punctuated by secluded estuaries, rolling headlands and historic harbours, while Cork city itself is the region’s hub, with a vibrant cultural scene and nightlife. To Cork’s east, Waterford city houses the wondrous Viking and medieval collections of Waterford Treasures, while, in Ireland’s southeastern corner, Wexford’s seashore features broad estuaries teeming with bird life and expansive dune-backed beaches.
Inland the Republic’s scenery is less enchanting, its Midland counties characterized by fertile if somewhat drab agricultural land, as well as broad expanses of peat bog, home to endangered species of rare plants. However, there is gentle appeal in Ireland’s great watercourse, the Shannon, with its succession of vast loughs, and the quaint river valleys of the southeast.
Numerous historic and archeological sites provide fine alternative attractions. The prehistoric tomb at Meath’s Newgrange and the fortress of Dun Aengus on Inishmore are utterly mesmerizing; County Cork features many stone circles; and there’s a multitude of tombs and ring forts across the west coast counties. Stunning early Christian monuments abound, too, including those located on Skellig Michael and the Rock of Cashel and atmospheric sites at Clonmacnois, Glendalough and Monasterboice. Of more recent origin, the Anglo-Irish nobility’s planned estates, developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries around impressive Neoclassical mansions, are visible across Ireland.
Much of Northern Ireland’s countryside is intensely beautiful and unspoilt, though most of the major attractions lie around its fringes. To the north are the green Glens of Antrim and a coastline as scenic as anywhere in Ireland, with, as its centrepiece, the bizarre basalt geometry of the Giant’s Causeway. In the southeast, Down offers the contrasting beauties of serene Strangford Lough and the brooding presence of the Mourne Mountains, while, to the west, Fermanagh has the peerless lake scenery of Lough Erne, a fabulous place for watersports, fishing and exploring island monastic remains. Evidence of the plantation is also provided by planned towns and various grand mansions, often set in sprawling, landscaped grounds.
To get to grips with the North’s history, a visit to its cities is essential: Belfast, with its grand public buildings, was built on the profits of Victorian industry; Derry has grown around the well-preserved walls of its medieval antecedent; and the cathedral town of Armagh is where St Patrick established Christianity in Ireland. Further insights are provided by tremendous museums, including Derry’s Tower Museum and Down’s Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
Outdoor activities in Ireland
Hurling and Gaelic football are among the fastest and most physical sports in the world, and well worth catching on your travels, whether on TV or, preferably, live. Rugby and soccer are also widely followed, while going to the races is a great day out, with less of the snobbery sometimes found in Britain. Golf (see Outdoor activities) is also hugely popular north and south of the border.
Hurling and Gaelic football
Both Gaelic football and hurling, Ireland’s two main indigenous sports, are played at a rollicking pace on huge pitches, 140m long and 80m wide, between teams of fifteen; goalposts are H-shaped, with three points awarded for a goal, when the ball goes under the crossbar into the net, and a point when it goes over the crossbar. Over two thousand clubs in villages and parishes all over Ireland vie for the privilege of reaching the club finals, held on St Patrick’s Day at 80,000-seater Croke Park in Dublin, one of the largest stadiums in Europe (see Croke Park and the GAA Museum), while the more popular and prestigious intercounty seasons begin with provincial games in the early summer, reaching their climax in the All-Ireland County Finals in September, also at Croke Park. Details of all fixtures for hurling and Gaelic football can be obtained from the Gaelic Athletic Association (wwww.gaa.ie), while there’s always something of interest on wwww.anfearrua.ie, an independent fans’ forum.
Hurling is played with a leather slíothar, similar in size to a hockey ball, and a hurley (or camán), a broad stick made of ash that is curved outwards at the end. The slíothar is belted prodigious distances, caught and carried on the flattened end of the player’s hurley. It’s a highly skilled game of constant movement and aggression that does not permit a defensive, reactive style of play. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the most successful counties, while Clare, Galway, Offaly and Wexford have emerged in the modern era. No county from the North has ever won an All-Ireland Final, though the sport is very popular in the Glens of Antrim and parts of the Ards Peninsula in County Down. Camogie, the women’s version of hurling, is becoming increasingly popular, and is also well worth watching. Dublin has won the most camogie All-Irelands, though the most successful teams in the modern era have been Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Gaelic football has similarities with both rugby and association football, but its closest relation is Australian Rules Football; indeed every autumn, Australia play Ireland in a hurly-burly series of “international rules” matches that are known for their frequent brawling. The round Gaelic ball, which is slightly smaller than a soccer ball, can be both kicked and caught. However, running with the ball is only permitted if a player keeps control by tapping it from foot to hand or by bouncing it, and throwing is not allowed – the ball must be “hand-passed”, volleyball-style. Whereas hurling’s strongholds are in the southern counties of the island, footballing prowess is more widely spread – Kerry is the most successful county, followed by Dublin, then Galway, but there are plenty of strong teams in Ulster at the moment, notably Tyrone.
Rugby union and soccer
Rugby union and soccer are very popular in Ireland and tickets for international matches, especially for rugby, can be hard to come by. The Republic’s home soccer matches (wwww.fai.ie) and Ireland’s rugby matches (wwww.irishrugby.ie) are played at Dublin’s recently rebuilt Aviva Stadium (formerly Lansdowne Road). Northern Ireland’s soccer matches (wwww.irishfa.com) are played at Windsor Park, Belfast. For the international rugby team, which is a joint Republic–Northern Ireland side, the main event of the year is the Six Nations Championship, a series of international games played in February and March against England, France, Wales, Scotland and Italy. You’re more likely to get tickets, however, for matches featuring the four provinces, Munster (which includes Irish rugby’s natural heartland, Limerick), Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, in the Europe-wide Heineken Cup or Amlin Cup or in the Magners League.
Soccer is played semi-professionally in both the North and the Republic, organized into the Carling Premiership and the Airtricity League respectively. Both international teams field most of their players from the English leagues; Manchester United and Liverpool are the most popular clubs among Irish fans. Glasgow Celtic are also popular both north and south, Rangers in the North, with support following Catholic and Protestant divisions, respectively.
Going to the races is a hugely popular and enjoyable day out in Ireland. A good place to get a sense of the Irish passion for horses is the National Stud in Kildare, while for details of all meetings, go to Horse Racing Ireland’s websitewwww.goracing.ie. The Irish Grand National is run at Fairyhouse in County Meath on Easter Monday Easter Monday, followed in April by the five-day Irish National Hunt Festival at Punchestown in County Kildare; at the Curragh, the classic flat-race course in Kildare, the Irish 1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas are held in May, the Irish Derby in late June or early July, the Irish Oaks in July and the Irish St Leger in September. Dublin’s race course is Leopardstown, while notable local meetings are held at Galway, Killarney, Listowel, Sligo and Downpatrick. One local oddity worth mentioning is the meeting at Laytown in County Meath, the last remaining beach racing under Jockey Club rules, held once a year when the tides are at their lowest.
Outdoor activities in Ireland
Ireland is a great place for getting out and about. Cycling is one of the best ways to appreciate the quiet pleasures of the Irish countryside, while walkers can take advantage of generally free access across much of the countryside and a number of waymarked trails. With over 120 sailing and yacht clubs, plenty of lakes, rivers and sheltered coastline to explore and some great beaches for surfers, there are many opportunities for watersports enthusiasts, too. The North is covered bywwww.outdoorni.com, a comprehensive guide to outdoor activities and adventure sports.
Signposted cycling trails in the Republic include the Beara Way and the Sheep’s Head Cycling Route in Cork, and the Kerry Way. Trails in the North, however, are better documented and promoted: for detailed information on the many routes here, the best places to start are wwww.cycleni.com and wwww.sustrans.org.uk. They include the Kingfisher Trail (wwww.greenbox.ie or wwww.cycletoursireland.com), which also stretches into Leitrim and Cavan. Other cross-border routes include the recently signposted, 326-kilometre North West Trail, mainly on quiet country roads through Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo.
Walking and mountain climbing
There are dozens of waymarked walking trails in the Republic, ranging from routes through or around mountain ranges, such as the Wicklow Way, the Táin Trail, the Slieve Bloom Way and the Western Way, to walks around entire peninsulas, like the Sheep’s Head Way, the Beara Way, the Kerry Way and the Dingle Way. The Ulster Way in the North, the oldest and longest waymarked walking trail in Ireland, has recently been redeveloped as a 625-mile circuit of the whole province, taking in the Giant’s Causeway, the Sperrins and the Mournes; it’s now divided into link sections, which can be skipped by taking public transport, and quality sections, and further development is planned. For information on these trails in the Republic, go to wwww.walkireland.ie, which also has details of day walks and of the many walking festivals around the country. In the North, wwww.walkni.com has comprehensive information on all aspects of walking. Some councils and local tourist offices have produced helpful map guides for the main routes too, but you should always get hold of the relevant Ordnance Survey map and carry a compass.
Other walking highlights include the ascents of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo and of Carrauntoohil, for more experienced walkers, in County Kerry, the easily accessible Bray–Greystones walks in County Wicklow and just about anywhere in Connemara, notably the excellent, new Diamond Hill trail in the national park; not to mention walks in the Wicklow and Killarney national parks.
Mountaineering Ireland, an organization that covers hill-walking and rambling, as well as climbing, maintains a compendious website (wwww.mountaineering.ie). Other useful walking websites include wwww.simonstewart.ie and wmountainviews.ie, while wwww.climbing.ie is devoted to rock climbing. Guided walking tour operators are available on wwww.discoverireland.ie and wwww.discovernorthernireland.com.
If you need help in a real emergency on the mountains, call t999 or t112 and ask for mountain rescue (wwww.mountainrescue.ie).
Birdwatching, horse-riding and golf
With a wide variety of migrating flocks, including a large number of rare species, visiting its shores, Ireland is a great place for birdwatching; Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, Cape Clear and Castle Espie are especially fruitful hunting grounds. The best general contacts are wwww.irishbirding.com, Birdwatch Ireland in the Republic (wwww.birdwatchireland.ie) and, in the North, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (wwww.rspb.org.uk).
Horseriding, whether over the hills or along the beaches, is also a popular pastime, for both novices and experienced riders, who also have the option of multi-day trails rides. The Association of Irish Riding Establishments (wwww.aire.ie) maintains standards among riding centres in the Republic and the North and publishes details on its website.
Golf, which was probably first brought to Ireland by the Ulster Scots, attracts huge numbers of visitors every year; the Golfing Union of Ireland, based in Kildare (wwww.gui.ie), provides details of over four hundred clubs, north and south, with online booking.
Fishing and watersports
There are plenty of opportunities for sea angling and dozens of rivers and lakes for fly- and game-fishing. For information, the best places to start are the tourist-board websites, wwww.discoverireland.ie and wwww.discovernorthernireland.com. Great Fishing Houses of Ireland (wwww.irelandflyfishing.com) covers twenty or so specialist hotels and B&Bs.
Ireland’s many sailing clubs include the Royal Cork Yacht Club, established in Cobh in 1720, which is thought to be the oldest in the world. Dozens of regattas, such as Calves Week in Schull, and traditional boat festivals, such as the Wooden Boat Festival in Baltimore and Cruinniú na mBád in Kinvarra, are held every year. The most popular areas for sailing are the relatively sheltered waters of the east coast, especially in Dublin Bay; Cork Harbour and west Cork; Lough Swilly on the north coast of Donegal; Strangford Lough in County Down; and some of the larger lakes, such as Lough Derg in County Clare. For further information contact the Irish Sailing Association (wwww.sailing.ie).
Canoeing and kayaking
Inland waterways and sheltered coasts – notably in west Cork, Dingle and Waterford – also offer canoeing and kayaking opportunities, ranging from day-trips and touring to rough- and white-water racing. The Irish Canoe Union’s website covers courses and clubs in the South (wwww.canoe.ie), while the North has a more comprehensive website, wwww.canoeni.com, that includes canoe trails for multi-day touring. See also wwww.irishseakayakingassociation.org.
Surfing, windsurfing and kite-surfing
There are some superb beaches for surfing (wwww.isasurf.ie) and its spin-offs, windsurfing (wwww.windsurfing.ie for the Irish Windsurfing Association, with a list of providers; wwww.windsurfingireland.net for likely locations) and kite-surfing (wwww.kitesurf.ie for the Irish Kite-surfing Association, with a list of schools; wwww.kitesurfing.ie for likely locations). For kite- and windsurfing, some of the best spots are: Rosslare, County Wexford; Tramore, County Waterford; Castlegregory, Kerry; Rusheen Bay, County Galway; Keel Strand, Achill and Elly Bay, Belmullet, in Mayo; Lough Allen, Leitrim; and Rossnowlagh, County Donegal. Surfers head for: Garrettstown and Inchydoney, County Cork; Inch and Brandon Bay, Kerry; Lahinch, Clare; Easkey and Strandhill, County Sligo; Bundoran and Rossnowlagh, County Donegal; Portrush, Antrim; and Tramore, County Waterford.
Right in the path of the warm North Atlantic Drift current, Ireland offers some of the best scuba diving in Europe, notably off the rocky west coast. Information is available from the Irish Underwater Council (wwww.cft.ie) and wwww.ukdiving.co.uk.
Cathedral and colored houses in Cobh, Ireland © Giancarlo Liguori/Shutterstock