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    Beginner's Guide to Ireland

    Beginner's Guide to Ireland

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    The taste of wild salmon and creamy Guinness at a seaside restaurant as the sun sets the bay alight, an infectious rhythm of traditional music in a village pub, ancient round towers and crosses glimpsed in the early morning light, heather covered mountain slopes and dense wooded glens, the sheer enjoyment of life in all forms ….. Whatever your fondest memory of Ireland will be, to be sure, it will be magical.

    Discover Ireland’s Breathtaking Beauty

    Ireland may be known as the land that boasts 40 shades of green, but not all natural attractions shimmer a shade of emerald. The Burren was formed around 340 million years ago at the bottom of a sea, and is an extraordinary region stretching from north Clare to south Galway. Arrestingly dramatic, the unique landscape includes miles of limestone layers cut through by meandering streams, lakes and labyrinthine caves, a phenomenally rich cultural heritage, and over 70% of Ireland’s native flora. It is also home to more than 500 ring forts and over 80 Neolithic tombs.

    Ireland enjoys over 1,448km of spectacular coastline, surrounded by the mighty Atlantic on the west and the Irish Sea on the east. As well as towering cliffs, clear fresh waters, pristine sandy beaches, and an abundance of opportunities for the watersports enthusiast, the coastline enjoys lively fishing villages with some of the best seafood in the world. Check out Kinsale in County Cork, Dingle in County Kerry, Dunmore East in County Waterford, Roundstone in County Galway, Cushendun in County Antrim and Kilcar in County Donegal.

    The bizarre lunar landscape of the Giant’s Causeway may have been caused by volcanic eruptions and cooling lava, but legend tells a different story. The Causeway (A UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a mesmerising collection of tightly packed basalt columns that run from the cliffs of the Antrim Plateau right down to the sea. Similar stones on the island of Straffa in the Scottish Hebrides led the ancients to believe that it was the work of giant Finn MacCool who made County Antrim’s Causeway as a pathway to Scotland, where a rival giant lived.

    At 344km in length, the River Shannon is the longest river in the British Isles and one of the finest in Europe. Winding through an area of outstanding natural beauty, this unspoilt waterway flows from the Shannon Pot on the slopes of the Cuilcagh Mountains in County Cavan to Loop Head in County Clare, where it meets the Atlantic. Rich in glorious scenery, filled with prolific wildlife, and dotted with pretty villages, the Shannon Erne Waterway is the longest naviagle waterway in Europe, and is a paradise for nature lovers, boating enthusiasts and those who prefer the quiet life.

    Isolated and remote, Ireland’s islands resound with mythical beauty and are excellent hideaways for those after a holiday away from it all. Many of Ireland’s islands didn’t have electricity until the 1970s and a more traditional ethos endures amongst the islanders. For a real break away from it all, try Coney Island, Tory Island, Clare Island, Rathlin and the fabled Aran Islands.

    A history dating back as far as 6000BC

    Ireland is thought to have been inhabited from around 6000BC by people of a mid-Stone Age culture. And about 4,000 years later, tribes from Southern Europe arrived and established a high Neolithic culture. The best-known Neolithic sites in Ireland are the megalithic passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth in County Meath. Both were built around 3200BC, making them older than Stonehenge in England, and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Meanwhile, you can find Iron Age pagan idols built by the Celts on Boa Island in County Fermanagh, in the form of the mysterious and very well preserved Janus.

    The Vikings first attacked Ireland in 795AD. And in 837AD, 60 Viking Dragon warships appeared at the mouth of the Liffey. Five years later, Dublin was taken, but the Vikings were attacked by the local Irish and fled. They returned 17 years later under Olaf the White and made a permanent settlement at Dyflinn (later to be Dublin). The King’s Palace stood on the present Dublin Castle site and part of the town’s defences can still be seen at the Undercroft in Dublin Castle.

    The latter half of the 19th century was a period of tragedy in Irish history. Ireland was struck by the Great Famine, caused by a potato blight that struck crops over a four-year period from 1845-49. Over a million of the population died from starvation, while other fell prey to diseases. Over two million people emigrated to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. And between 1848-1950, over six million Irish fled the land. Now the Irish diaspora is thought to contain over 80 million people scattered all over the globe. To learn more about the famine, visit the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyrone; The Famine Museum in Strokestown Estate, County Roscommon; The Cobh Heritage Centre and the Famine Commemoration Centre in Skibbereen, both in County Cork.

    Modern Ireland now enjoys more immigration than emigration. Thanks in large part to the boom of the Celtic Tiger economy in the 1990s, the Ireland of the 21st century is a vibrant, culturally rich and ethnically diverse country with an entirely youthful and optimistic outlook – over half the population is under 30, after all!

    A fantastic cultural discovery

    The Irish love traditions. So much so, in fact, that the country is full of them – from eating colcannon (a mixture of cabbage and mashed potatoes) on Hallowe’en to wearing something green on St Patrick’s Day. Two of the most enduring and internationally famed, however, are traditional music and Irish dancing. Traditional music can be heard all over the country from city centre pubs to rural festivals.

    The bodhrán, which is like a hand-held drum, is one of the most popular instruments in Irish music, along with the fiddle and the tin whistle. Irish dancing is fiercely competitive and taken very seriously with provincial, national and international championships. If you want to have a go yourself, catch a céili, where everyone joins in together.

    Northern Ireland also has its own unique Ulster-Scots culture, which is prevalent throughout the counties and is often expressed through music and dance. The Lambeg Drum, fiddle, fife and flute are just some of the melodic accompaniments to sessions of Highland Dancing, Scottish Country Dancing, Ulster-Scots Square and Country Dancing. And with Ulster-Scots cultural events springing up all over the place, you can watch from the sidelines or give it a whirl yourself.

    The Irish excel at the one-liner. From comedians to playwrights everyone’s got something to say:
    “True friends stab you in the front” Oscar Wilde, author.
    “If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks” Brendan Behan, author.
    “Do not do unto others as they should do unto you; their tastes may not be the same” George Bernard Shaw, playwright.
    “Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustains me through temporary periods of joy” W B Yeats, poet.

    The Irish like a good laugh. Joke-telling and high-brow teasing is part of daily life in Ireland, so it’s no wonder that a new generation of Irish comedians are gaining an international reputation. Watch out for names like Dylan Moran, Ed Byrne, Ardal O’Hanlon, Dara O’Briain, Tommy Tiernan and Kevin Gildea. For a pure comedy-fest, check out the Smithwicks Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny or the Bulmers Comedy Festival in Dublin.

    Irish history is rich with myths and legends. From romantic tales of warriors to ancient saints to fairy lore, the Celtic myths are at the very core of Irish culture. Some of Ireland’s most famous tales centre around the Children of Lir, who were turned into swans by their stepmother; the great warrior Cú Chulainn; and one of the greatest Celtic heroes, Finn McCool, who gained wisdom when he was young by tasting the salmon of knowledge and, as an adult, triumphed over giants.

    The pub lies at the heart of cultural, social and musical life in Ireland. Not just places to have a drink, in an Irish pub you can philosophise on the meaning of life, ruminate on global politics, listen to a poetry reading, tap your feet to a traditional session, feast on delicious food or just enjoy the quiet settling of a pint of Guinness in front of a crackling fire. Sit at the bar if you fancy chatting to the locals, or hole yourself up in one of the old snugs – private little spaces, which were historically designed just for the ladies.

    Irish pub etiquette: Pints are also known as “jars” and “scoops”, but always ask for a pint, NEVER a scoop. Instead, scoop is used conversationally as in “do you fancy a few scoops?” or “would you like another jar?” Guinness takes a few minutes longer than beer to settle, so your barman isn’t just being slow, he’s actually doing things properly. And when you get your pint, make sure to leave it to settle for a few minutes, too. It’ll taste all the better for the wait.

    Cities of Ireland

    Ireland has two capital cities. The capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin is one of Europe’s coolest capital cities. The city pulsates with energy thanks to its excellent restaurants, chic boutiques, legendary pubs, beautiful art galleries, verdant urban parks, elegant architecture, fascinating and turbulent history, plus its unique scenic location perched at the edge of the Irish Sea. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is legendary for its excellent nightlife – this is one city that knows how to have a good time. But beyond the pubs, bars and nightclubs, Belfast is also one of Europe’s most exciting city break destinations with critically acclaimed restaurants, smart boutique hotels and top shopping.

    History, heritage and gourmet food mark the three fascinating cities of the south and southeast. Affectionately known as the “People’s Republic of Cork”, Ireland’s southern gem enjoys a vastly different flavour to Dublin. Cork is a free-spirited spot with a rich cultural heritage, reflected in its position as the 2005 European Capital of Culture. And with a top gourmet reputation, excellent shops, fabulous food markets and chic bars, the city is a winner for a city break. The heritage cities of Kilkenny and Waterford are also steeped in history: With a rich medieval flavour, a world-renowned comedy festival and seriously good pubs, Kilkenny is definitely worth the trip; while the ancient Viking city of Waterford continues to wow the world with its incredible crystal, Light Opera Festival and delightful places to eat, drink and be merry.

    The wild West’s two fabulous cities are brimming with atmosphere. Galway city is not only one of the prettiest in Ireland, it’s also one of the most social. With a laid-back boho vibe, and an utterly unique atmosphere, this urban beauty in the west of Ireland wins out with its combination of wonderful pubs, fabulous scenery, excellent festivals and fabulous seafood restaurants. The Vikings also had a hand in the heritage of Ireland’s third largest city, Limerick. As well as the city’s atmospheric medieval quarter, the wonderful King John’s Castle and the Limerick Museum, Limerick is also famous for the excellent Hunt Museum, home to Ireland’s largest private collection of art and antiquities.

    Northern Ireland boasts four incredible cities outside of its capital, Belfast. You just have to take a trip to wonderful Londonderry and enjoy the unique atmosphere of the only completely walled city in the UK to understand its enduring appeal. From the award-winning Tower Museum to the excellent restaurants, lively pubs, great shops and scenic views across the River Foyle, Londonderry is simply breathtaking. Armagh is the ancient capital of Ulster and is also widely regarded as the City of St Patrick, with heritage sites reflecting over 6,500 years of the island’s history. Newry has a distinguished history, with a fine selection of both civic and religious buildings. But the real joy of this city is how easy it is to work your way from urban delights to exhilarating outdoor activities nestled on the doorstep of the city limits. And Lisburn, the newest of them all, was awarded city status in celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. A picturesque city, it has a natural beauty thanks in no small way to the meandering Lagan Valley and its elegant heritage sights.  

    Behind the myths of Saint Patrick

    First, let’s tackle the snakes. Apart from our modern-day zoos, it’s true that there are no snakes slithering around the green isle. But this has little to do with St Patrick and probably more to do with the fact that there have never been any indigenous snakes in Ireland. Driving the snakes from Ireland was most likely symbolic of putting an end to pagan practices, which disappeared from Ireland in the centuries after St Patrick introduced the seeds of Christianity.

     Why do people wear green?

    With 10 times the population of Ireland in the US claiming Irish ancestry, one in four Britons doing the same, and countless more in other countries around the world, it seems that people wishing to become ‘Irish for the day’ have opted for the green of the Irish flag to express their Irishness. In fact, in the US, if you don’t wear green on March 17, people pinch you, so it’s not uncommon to spot folks sporting hand-drawn shamrocks on their cheeks with streaks of green running through their hair. Some cities like Chicago go all out and dye the entire Chicago River green just to mark the big day!

     What about the Shamrock?

    St Patrick used this simple green herb to explain the concept of The Holy Trinity – The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit – and how they could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. His followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day.

     And here’s something you might not know…

    The Irish didn’t always look so kindly on donning the colour green. Irish folklore considered the colour unlucky as it was the favourite shade of the Good People – particularly leprechauns. Those who wore too much of the colour – especially children – could be stolen away. Some cynics may tell you there are no such things as leprechauns, but there are those who beg to differ. True believers will swear that if you take a stroll along a quiet country lane in Ireland, you can actually hear the mischievous leprechauns giggling by the side of the road.

    Take to the open road with a self-drive holiday

    Like where, for example?

    Well, take the Ring of Kerry or the Ring of Beara for starters. You really need to have a car with you to make the most of both these places – unless, of course, you’re feeling energetic enough to do them by bike! Then there’s the stunning Causeway Coastal Route , which weaves through exceptional glens and offers some of the country’s most dramatic views; the beautiful Sally Gap drive in County Wicklow and its breathtaking scenery; and the remarkable Burren drive, which takes you through the arresting limestone plateau of the wide craggy Burren, one of Ireland’s most outstanding natural attractions.

    I don’t want to be one of a crowd, where can I go?

    Well, the other wonderful benefit to travelling by car around Ireland is getting off the beaten track and discovering a deserted beach, a remote country pub, a staggering cliff face or even just enjoying the winding country roads, which cut through spectacular scenery and are frequently dotted with sheep – so take care! If you want to get away from it all, you can take to the hills or delve into a wooded glen – all at your own pace!

    What are the other benefits of renting a car in Ireland?

    As well as being good value for money (no money needs to be spent on train fares, bus fares or taxis, plus petrol in the Republic is cheaper than many countries at the moment), you can also bring everything with you: the kids, the golf clubs, the barbecue, the granny!

    When to go

    Thanks to the effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, Ireland’s climate is quite mild for its latitude, with a mean annual temperature of around 10°C. Ireland really comes into its own in the Summer, from June to August. Summer days are long, sometimes it doesn’t get dark til after 11pm. The temperature can get up to 30 degrees in July and August, with an average of 16 degrees.
    Don’t expect consistently sunny days though, Ireland receives up to 270 days of rain per year. Still you don’t visit Ireland for the weather.
    Tip – Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to November) both tend to be quite dry and a great time to visit sans crowds. October to December can be crisp and sometimes quite cold, so a good jacket is a must. 

    Getting there

    You can fly to Dublin via Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways from Melbourne and Sydney. This route offers the best connection as only one stop is required. Etihad also flies from Brisbane to Dublin via Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

    Qantas flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Dublin via either Bangkok/Hong Kong/Singapore and London Heathrow.

    Singapore Airlines fly to Dublin from Sydney via Singapore and either of: Amsterdam/Beauvais/Frankfurt/London Heathrow/Manchester, from Melbourne via Singapore and either of: Amsterdam/Beauvais/Frankfurt/London Heathrow and from Brisbane via Singapore and either of: Amsterdam/Beauvais/London Heathrow. 

    Fast facts

    Population: 4,459,547 (2008 estimate)
    Languages: English (official)
    Local Time: GMT
    Currency: Euro
    Exchange Rate: $AUD1: 0.65 EUR
    Electricity: 220 Volts at 50 Hz


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