We spent three weeks in Ireland travelling around by car and visited the cities and towns of Dublin, Galway, Killarney, Cork, Kilkenny and Wicklow. When we spend more than a little bit of time in a country we like to reflect on what we loved and loathed about it. Here are a few of our favourite things as well as tips for fellow travellers.
1. Friendly People
We've always thought that Irish people are about the friendliest and most jovial people in the world. So we were delighted to find that this is as true in their home country as outside it. Even the residents of the large capital city of Dublin are a pleasure to chat with and always seem to have time to welcome strangers.
Tip: Don't be afraid to strike up a conversation with an Irishman. Meeting the locals is a great way to find out about things to see and do around the country.
2. Pub Culture
Ireland isn't really known for it's fantastic weather and this often means you're stuck indoors. It's a good thing that it's perfectly acceptable to spend an entire day in one of the country's many pubs. Every town has several and in the larger cities you'd struggle to walk more than a couple of blocks without finding one. This is a great place to find locals who are generally keen to chat about their hometown or the goings on of the day over a pint (or two). Most pubs also offer food, which broadens the variety of the patrons who frequent them.
Tip: Keep an eye out for Ireland's nice selection of craft beers beyond the usual Smithwick's and Guinness. John's described a few in his post about Irish craft beer.
3. Live Music
The Irish are a talented bunch. Some of the world's best writers and musicians have hailed from the Emerald Isle and it doesn't cost anything to discover some of this talent when you're out and about in Ireland. Buskers are common, even in parks and at sites like Blarney Castle. In the evenings many pubs have live Irish music and singalongs, with the merriment spilling out into the streets during festivals.
Tip: Get to the pub early if you want to find a seat for the live music as they can get crowded in the evenings. Most performers start between 8.30 and 9.30pm.
Talented Irish artists are no doubt inspired by the generations of stories that form the country's history. From invasions to famine to wars over territory and religion, the country's tumultuous backstory provides plenty of interest for visitors. Everywhere we looked were relics of the past: castles, stone forts, ruins and ancient cemeteries. Driving through the countryside it is easy to feel as though you're lost in time and let your imagination take you on a journey to the past.
Tip: Reading up on the history of an area before you visit will add to your enjoyment and understanding.
...and Four Things We Didn't
Despite the presence of the same aggressive anti-smoking campaigns that are common in the rest of the world, it seems the message that cigarettes are bad for you has not penetrated here. It seems like almost everyone smokes and this can be quite overwhelming at times. Smokers love to congregate right in front of the doors of pubs and restaurants, as if it's too difficult to walk a few steps to the left or right (or perhaps a protest against the fact that no one can actually light up indoors anymore.) Especially disturbing is the number of people smoking as they pushed prams down the sidewalk or with young children at their side. While this is a problem elsewhere in the world it was especially noticeable in Ireland.
Tip: Take a deep breath before you walk out the front door of the pub and don't sit near the front door if wafting smoke smells really bother you.
2. Lack of Food Diversity
One can only eat so many steak and Guinness pies, and fish and chip dinners. With the exceptions of Dublin and Cork, Ireland could certainly benefit from some variety in their diets. Each larger town and city seemed to have at least one or two curry houses, Chinese and Italian restaurants, but otherwise it was difficult to find much in the way of global cuisine. Perhaps this is a business opportunity for the legions of Polish immigrants?
Tip: While it might make you feel like your grandparents, catching the early bird special at restaurants around Ireland is the way to get a good deal on a two-course meal. Establishments usually offer these before 7pm.
While driving on the same side of the road as in Australia was welcoming for John, he still found plenty to keep him on his toes. SIgnage was deceptively lacking at crucial junctions, not to mention the couple of wrong turns taken due to signs being turned around (presumably by local larrikins). The roads were skinny enough in the country, but we also found plenty of 'one and a half' lane roads where two cars would not fit comfortably. If a coach or truck was coming in the opposite direction, we'd have to grind to a halt and cross our fingers that no scraping noises were heard. Fog, tractors and farm animals were other wild cards played by the Celtic road gods.
Tip: Arm yourself with a good map or a GPS and always keep an eye out for stray sheep and goats, which are usually painted bright pink for some reason.
4. Historic Site Charges
Whether we visited a simple circular fort or an elaborate castle, six euros was pretty much the cost of admission for most historical sites around Ireland. Sure these relics need to be maintained and the admission fees help with this. Not all sites should, however, be priced equally and the costs certainly add up. Bargains do exist: Blarney Castle is a fair €10 and the fascinating Poulnabrone Tomb and St. Kevin's Monastery in Glandalough is free (as is the entire national park).
Tip: Save money by purchasing a Heritage Card, which provides free admission to all State managed OPW Heritage Sites for a year. These provide excellent value and discount rates are offered for students, seniors and families, perfect for budget travel in Ireland.
What are your top tips for travel around Ireland?