Banna Strand, County Kerry, from Ballyheigue
What You Should Know About Taking a Holiday in Ireland
Located on the outer reaches of north-western Europe, Ireland is possibly one of the least convenient holiday destinations, but that doesn't seem to influence its popularity. 2013, the year of The Gathering, saw 6.8 million visitors to the Republic - more than the actual population of the country - and 1.7 million heading to Northern Ireland. How does Ireland remain so popular?
Location and weather
It can't be the weather, which is reassuringly unpredictable, even in summer and very changeable - it can and often does change from bright sunshine to the heavens opening and then right back to bright sunshine within just 15 minutes. Ireland's location plays a major part in this - located in the North Atlantic and right on the edge of Europe, it is right in the middle of the Gulf Stream. This current of warm water is what prevents Ireland from having very cold winters like those in Newfoundland, which is almost the same distance from the Arctic. And Ireland's location keeps the summers mild in comparison with mainland Europe, and of course gives us lovely long evenings, with sunsets after 10 pm in June.
Because the weather is so changeable, you could in theory use both your bikini and rain jacket when in Ireland; however people from warm countries with dry climates should dress in layers and WEAR A LIGHT SCARF around their necks, and keep their feet warm at all times in good sturdy waterproof shoes. Why? Simply because it helps them enjoy their holiday in Ireland more if they don't come down with a cold, which happens a lot to those who are not sufficiently prepared. Summer in Ireland is a completely different planet to summer in Texas.
What makes it different to other countries in Europe?
There aren't many major cities or urban areas to lure punters in ... or maybe this is its strength. Most other countries in Europe have greater populations and are very built up, so vast tracts of countryside which previously would have been used for agriculture are now suburbs. This is not really the case in Ireland. Yes, there are suburbs, particularly around Dublin city, but you can still see countryside beyond them - depending on weather conditions, of course. Ireland is still very rural, which is possibly why there are so many visitors from more industrialised European countries like Germany and France. And thanks to the frequent rain, those forty shades are no myth!
Where to go
The cities in the Republic of Ireland are Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Kilkenny and Waterford can also be included, despite their sizes - both have royal charters from mediaeval times designating them as cities. Each city has its particular atmosphere: Dublin, having been under English rule for much longer than any other part of the island, has a slightly different feel, and inhabitants are known as 'Jackeens' - in reference to the British flag the Union Jack; while to Dubliners everyone from outside of the capital is a 'culchie'. Cork, which is derived from the Irish word for 'marsh' or 'swamp', considers itself the true capital of the country, and the local accent is wonderfully musical. Natives of County Cork fondly refer to their country as 'The people's Republic of Cork' - they are only half-joking. Galway has the nickname of the Town of the Tribes, and Irish is one of many languages spoken there today. Limerick is considered to be a rough place, but as it's my nearest city I can safely say that it's a hotbed of the arts and seriously underestimated by Dublin-based media. Waterford is a city founded by Viking invaders, while Kilkenny, named after the cathedral of Saint Canice in its centre, was capital of Ireland during mediaeval times, and still exudes a strong feel of the Middle Ages.
Outside of the cities are the counties. It's worth remembering that in Ireland it's always County Whatever, and not Whatever County - indeed, referring to Cork County sounds VERY strange to Irish people! Cork happens to be the largest county in the Republic of Ireland, and as it happens on the island as a whole, and often fondly referred to by its natives as the People's Republic of Cork. Neighbouring Kerry is known to its inhabitants as 'The Kingdom'. Each county has its own GAA team (Gaelic Athletic Association), dialect, expressions, and culinary delights, and of course landscape. Some parts of the west and south still use the Irish language, or Gaeilge, as their lingua franca - but don't worry, everyone speaks English.
If it's your first time, and you are not comfortable with the idea of driving on the 'wrong' side of the road, then check out the public transport. The train service will get you to the most popular towns and the cities, and all trains run from Dublin. There is also a service to book your tickets online, with the exception of the Limerick to Galway service. The website you need for trains, tickets and train timetables is www.irishrail.ie. For smaller destinations, there is the state bus service: www.buseireann.ie. I also recommend using Google to find private coaches and even tour operators, as there seem to be many new ones in recent years. Read all reviews before booking!
If you are driving: Ireland's roads are ... well, interesting is probably the best way to put it. We don't really go for automatic cars in Ireland, and whatever ones are available with car hire companies are few and far between, so if you can use a stick shift, so much the better. There are some motorways that connect the cities and some of the larger towns, but that's it. You can get from Dublin to Cork or Galway or any of the other cities much more quickly now, but you can't drive 100 miles in 100 minutes on the lesser roads. Most two-lane N roads have a speed limit of 100 km, which is just over 60 mph, but given that you'll be sharing those roads with farm traffic, lorries, other drivers, and are obliged to slow down for particular stretches, don't plan on 'doing' the Ring of Kerry in the morning and moseying up to the Cliffs of Moher for the afternoon. Roads designated as R have a speed limit of 80 km per hour (50 mph), and rather terrifyingly, roads designated as L are the same. If you are not used to narrow roads, I suggest avoiding the L roads where possible. It is possible for two cars to pass each other out on these roads, but you have to slow down and pull in close to the ditch, or into a gateway. But then again, if it's adventure you're after, those L roads might be just the ticket .... and indeed for some, the L might stand for 'lost' rather than 'local'. But in a good way. Your GPS can always bring you back to the nearest town, and getting lost is a great way to connect with locals by asking directions.
Going off the beaten track
But back to the land: it's rich and fertile, with relics from antiquity everywhere you look - if you know what to look for. If you're really VERY keen on finding ancient sites, it's also an idea to acquire an Ordinance Survey map of the region you're travelling in, as many ringforts, for example, are marked. Dolmens and standing stones are also marked on maps.
However, it's a very bad idea to just go marching into fields. Practically all land in Ireland is privately owned, so if you really want to go check out that dolmen or ringfort, go to the house nearest to the field, knock on the door and ask politely if they know the landowner because you want to ask permission to enter the field. Most farmers are perfectly happy to allow this, and will even walk you there provided they are not too busy, and there are also some practical considerations to asking first: once you enter a someone's private property, you yourself are legally liable for whatever happens to you, not the owner, not even if it's a farmer. Following this, if a landowner is not aware that there are people out in the field, he may put animals to graze in that field. For city dwellers who don't know the difference between a cow and a bull, this could be very dangerous as bulls are very territorial. For your own safety, ask first.
Likewise, the field might recently have had grazing animals in there, so watch where you step.
Sadly, many modern agri-businessmen have ignored history and bulldozed ringforts and other ancient structures to increase productivity of their fields. All we can do is boo and hiss at such gombeens, and let karma take its course.
Some tips about exploring rural Ireland
Remember to drive on the LEFT.
If you are driving country roads in Ireland during the months of May and June, be vigilant - that is silage season, when farmers harvest grass for their silos to feed cattle during the winter, and there is a LOT of farm traffic on these roads. The same applies to late July and August, when grains and hay or harvested.
When you reach a village or town and decide to stop, be sure to check if you need to pay for parking (disc parking applies in many places), and like anywhere else, don't leave valuables visible in the car. Even rural Ireland has some petty crime, and it would be unrealistic of me to claim that car break-ins never happen.
Where to stay
Bed & Breakfast (B&B) is very popular in Ireland, and initially was in family homes, so you could get local information from the woman of the house. In recent decades these became a bit more sophisticated (and expensive) with ensuite bathrooms in almost every establishment, but it's still by far the most popular type of accommodation available in Ireland. Naturally there are Bord Fáilte approved businesses, but there is also an organisation called The Family Homes of Ireland that some might like to try out, the website is www.familyhomes.ie.
Of course you could simply book one of the big chains through TripAdvisor, Trivago and similar websites, or you could go even more 'budget' and try your luck with www.hostelworld.com, which includes campsites and hostels, as well as other kinds of accommodation. Personal recommendations are often the best, and if you have a friend who has travelled to Ireland and stayed at a nice place, e-mail that establishment to ask if there are rooms available. Even if they don't have any rooms for you, they can and often do recommend someone local. Otherwise, read all reviews before booking anything.
If you have not booked your accommodation in advance, you might be okay just winging it outside of the main tourist season - as long as there are no festivals or events on locally. However, if you are coming during July/August - book ahead. And double-check by e-mail that everyone is clear on the dates: In Ireland and other European countries, the first day of July is written 1/7, not 7/1.
The Secret - it's no secret ...
It's the people and the land. The forty shades of green are very real, and the result of the moist climate - plenty of rain to keep the grass growing. Even outside of the more rugged and popular tourist areas around Killarney, Dingle, the Burren and Connemara, the landscape is pleasingly photogenic. Locals are helpful and welcoming, the food is of very good quality, and, to use that Hiberno-English phrase that has traveled even as far as China, the craic is mighty.
I should explain 'craic'. This word is taken from the Irish language, and simply means 'fun'. Good times. Usually in the company of friends, with music, chat, and possibly a few alcoholic beverages. The word means something perfectly innocent, despite its unfortunate similarity to ... well, moving on.
If you are driving or walking someplace where there aren't many tourists, don't be surprised if locals greet you. Or wave at your from their cars. Or do the 'one finger' salute (- actually not as rude as it sounds, quite the contrary). Irish people like to talk -the famous 'gift of the gab' - and are generally quite good at starting up a conversation with total strangers with the weather as a constant topic, understandably. They will be curious about you, but not wish to pry. It is said of conversation with Irish people that they are so good at talking that they can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to it. And another thing about Irish people in rural areas - no matter where you are from, they will ask if you know someone from their area. I brought an Argentine lady from Buenos Aires, a city of 4 million inhabitants, a Rambling House in the hills of West County Limerick, and one of the first questions she was asked by a local lady was "my brother is a priest there in Buenos Aires, do you know him?"
My advice to those wishing to visit Ireland and asking for reassurance about the weather: don't be silly. Well, okay, that's perhaps a little direct, but the weather in Ireland is what it is, a daily surprise. And anyway, you're going for the landscape, the music, the people, and possibly for personal connections with relatives. Ireland is not a country to go and lie out on the beach - you'd be frozen in minutes. The warmth is inside the people you meet, the song that's sung, the poetry recited, the history reimagined. In Ireland, summer is a state of mind.
Dungaire Castle, County Galway.