Sunday, 13 January 2013

British Tourism Part Three - Ireland

We all know the Republic of Ireland isn’t part of the United Kingdom – only Northern Ireland is still part of ‘the Kingdom’ as the kids call it. However, the whole body of land is still part of the British Isles which is why I’m counting Northern Ireland and the Republic as a single item on the list. No, you can’t stop me. Like it or not, enemies or friends, we’ll always be neighbours. Part One was Wales and Part Two was Scotland, and now we reach Part Three: Eire! Hibernia! Ogygia! The isle of Mists, the isle of Emeralds: Ireland.

Needless to say, the first person who cracks a leprechaun joke is going to be the least popular concussion patient in any of the Dublin hospitals.

sexy leprechaun irish tourism
No! I said NO!

You’ll need a passport to travel between the Kingdom and the Republic, but apparently the border guards will accept a driving license if you’re a local who’s driving or taking the ferry. After the click, amongst the giants, druids and stout* I’ll surprise you with some dolphins.

*stout is a type of beer

Brief History

I did one of these for Wales and Scotland too, and I’m never one to shy away from a challenge. The trouble (ha) is that the history between the Republic and the Kingdom is still sort of fraught. I mean, less so these days, but still…

Much like Wales and Scotland, Gaelic and Celtic culture were dominant until Ireland went Christ-crazy, excelling more than most other countries in the study of theology and Latin. There is an excellent animated film called ‘The Secret of Kells’ which illustrates/illuminates the medieval monastic culture. It’s really beautiful and has won nearly a dozen high-profile awards, despite being a commercial flop. So you should all go and buy a copy after watching this two minute trailer:

Like so many countries, Ireland was conquered by the English. In Ireland this happened around the 1100’s, which technically makes it the Normans and not the English in general. But the Irish are nothing if not charming; cultural drift and integration resulted in a slightly-less-unfair system within a mere, uh… three hundred years…

Then the English (Tudors this time) cracked down on Ireland, thwarted only briefly by the Spanish who came to defend their fellow Catholics. Now, there was a lot of religious division back in those days. Britain wavered between Protestant and Catholic, with both sides massacring the other when it was their turn. There were burnings, hangings and all sorts of other brutal persecutions up and down the centuries. The rest of the Isles have stopped taking it personally, but the long legacy of vengeance, counter-vengenace and ill feeling can still be felt in Ireland to this day. There are certain words you should definitely not say. 

irish tourism buddy christ
 “Remember when I said love thy neighbour? DID NONE OF THAT SINK IN?!”

English rulers marched their armies across Ireland fairly regularly back in those days whether they were monarchs or not (looking at you, Oliver bloody Cromwell). The Irish charm won through quite a lot, and the army had to fight deserters as well. But they weren’t the only things marching across Ireland – you might have heard of the Great Potato Famine which sounds so twee and twinkly-eyed, but is also known in Irish as either ‘the great hunger’ or ‘the bad life’. Over a million people died and a million more left Ireland. This was when two of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Famine and Pestilence, also marched across Ireland. It was so devastating that the Irish Famine is used as punctuation by historians.

irish tourism happy potato
 *cough* I tried as hard as I could *cough* I'm sorry *cough* I'm only little! *cough*

Potato crops were failing across Europe as a result of widespread but highly specific plague. The majority of Irish people had been forced over decades to be dependent on the potato crop. That is an obvious single point of failure. Because the English rulers handled the situation so, so badly, this is widely cited as a turning point in passion for Irish independence. The combination of anti-Irish racism and financial elitism in London resulted in Ireland being horribly ruined, reducing the population from 8 million in the 1840s to just over 4 million by 1911.

Then everything gets more recent and therefore more complicated. There were periods of peace and cooperation, of course, even amongst Protestants and Catholics to work towards an independent Ireland. There were attempted rebellions, counter-rebellion organisations, and bitter acts of violence everywhere. My own family still has stories from this time. It was basically a subdued, clandestine civil war apart from the riots and uprisings. World War One didn’t help. But in the 1920s Ireland became functionally independent (apart from the county of Ulster, which is now Northern Ireland).

irish tourism devil's own
Hollywood rarely helps with anything

Eventually the Republic calmed down, and struggled through the remaining decades of the 20th century along with the rest of the world. Violence still occurs in the Kingdom, even up to the present day. There is still the occasional riot in Belfast, usually on New Year’s Eve or St Patrick’s Day, but these are rarer as the years go on. Peaceful sentiments exude from the majority of the populace, religious institutions and government bodies. Ireland itself has joined the EU, with the adoption of the Euro as standard currency.

irish tourism rugby six nations
They also have big sports teams, and you can’t argue with that
As far as I’m concerned – and I’m wary of offering my personal opinion on such a storied and intense history – it seems like in these days of tolerance and internationally cooperative/interdependent economics, it’s silly to keep the Irish lands separated by such an arbitrary, redundant and inconvenient border. But things have been settling down for over fifteen years now, so maybe just let sleeping dogs lie.

Ghosts & Monsters

The spirits of Ireland are, of course, mostly the fey folk. There are a lot of ‘fairy circles’ around – but fairy circles are just random shapes in the grass. Circles of tall grass are just circles of tall grass.

irish tourism fairy circle
 This is exactly as boring as it looks

There are package holidays that can take you on a tour of the sites of myths and legends of ancient Ireland, but they don’t happen very often. They cover things like the fairies, banshees, giants, dragons and various heroes.

The Hidden Dublin Walks company offer a half dozen ghost tours, including the Drimnagh Castle & Malahide Castle special tours and some extra-special ghost hunts with the Paranormal Society of Ireland which are filmed professionally for a free DVD of the experience at the end. There is also the Gravedigger Ghost Tour, which includes a free ‘ghoulish drink’ at the Gravediggers Pub afterwards and therefor sounds pretty fantastic.

Food & Drink

Yep, it’s time for Guinness, which is one of the most successful beers in the world. This is especially remarkable considering it’s a dry stout and therefor… an acquired taste. It’s like gravy in a pint glass. But when you need to drink your lunch, then you know what to get. It’s also got some of the most artsy, intense adverts out of any beer company:

Although Guinness is brewed the world over, the world-famous Guinness Storehouse is in Dublin. Passing up a chance to visit is basically treason. A ticket is only fourteen euros and there’s a panoramic view from the glass-walled bar at the top.

irish tourism guinness storehouse
 It’s like Willy Wonka’s factory!

There’s also the Jameson Distillery which has a virtual tour as well as an actual IRL tour followed by a complementary glass of Jameson. I think a lot of these tours have the right idea, giving away free drinks at the end. I wish every other activity ended the same way.

 No exceptions

The Porterhouse is also worth a mention. They’re a much, much younger brand who has made their name with international beers just as much as with Irish stout – and I have spent many happy hours in the one in Covent Garden, exploring the world one beer at a time.

Countryside & Historical Sites

There’s a lot of landscape around Ireland, and a lot of history buried beneath it. For instance, there’s one of the oldest man-made structures in the world, older than the pyramids and older than Stonehenge: the Newgrange mound. It’s a mixture of temple and burial site, and is part of a chain of such structures all across the region. There is no direct access by road, only by shuttle bus from the visitor centre south of the river – apart from on the days surrounding the Winter Solstice, when there is a lottery to decide who can go in to see the dramatic beam of sunlight illuminating the chamber at dawn.

irish tourism newgrange dawn druid winter solstice
This is like a druid-gasm

Slowly growing less famous, the Giant’s Causeway is an example of either really weird geology or really strong giants. Bear with me: about 50 million years ago an ancient volcano threw up a huge amount of basalt. As it cooled and cracked it formed vertical pillars in squares, hexagons and other regular shapes. This obviously seems very unlikely. The alternative explanation offered by Irish myth is that the Giant’s Causeway was built as a bridge to Scotland by the awesomely-named giant, Finn MacCool. It was then torn down by a bigger giant named Benandonner, who was tricked into being terrified of Finn. There’s also a place in Scotland with rocks just like this, which backs up the giant story.

Now look at the rocks and decide which one you believe:

irish tourism giant's causeway
 Yep, it was giants

There was some controversy about the newly rebuilt visitor centre including a Creationist/Young Earth theory in the exhibits, but that’s been dealt with suitably – demoted back to Not What Happened, and also much less interesting than the giant myth.

Over in Blarney Castle near Cork there’s another significant Irish stone: the Blarney Stone. If you didn’t know, this is a stone that gives you the gift of the gab (aka eloquent humour and witty charm) once you kiss it. People from all over the world have kissed the stone. There is one downside though: the only way to get to it is by turning upside down and hanging over a hole.

 There are literally thousands of images like this

Maybe back in the 1500s, rather than everyone being blessed with the charm of the Irish, the only people who survived this process were those already charming enough to talk someone into holding on tight enough instead of just letting the idiot drop.

Surfing & The Surprising Dolphin

There’s a lot of surfing around Ireland – the Guinness advert turns out to be more factual than we thought! Alright it might be a bit cold but what are you, a reptile or a mammal? That’s warm blood in your veins, kid, and it’s there specifically so we can do things like this:

That’s a promotional video for Bundoran Surf Co. Bundoran is described as ‘the surfing paradise of Ireland’ with huge varieties of surf within 30 kilometers. There’s also Lahinch, which is apparently not surfing paradise but is the best known surfing town in Ireland. I sense some competition here. Let’s see if there’s a difference in Lahinch:

Nope, looks just the same: surprisingly huge waves that look like they would smash your face apart. With three quarters of Ireland’s coast facing the naked North Atlantic Ocean, you'd expect nothing less.

You can also expect some interesting sea life. I challenge you not to smile when, finally, we get to the most famous dolphin in Ireland. He lives in Dingle, which is honestly the real name of the town. The dolphin of Dingle!

Since 1983 a wild bottlenose dolphin male has been living in the mouth of the harbour, giving rise to a modest tourist industry. He’s stubbornly never accepted any food from anyone, but performs just the same - leaping and twirling out of the water. He’s been known to give fish as a gift to some divers. He’s curious and friendly, so his name was eventually decided to be Fungi – as in ‘that dolphin is a really fun guy’.

irish tourism dolphin dingle fungi
 The pun doesn’t translate into dolphin

The theory is that Fungi settled in Dingle harbour when his mate died and was washed ashore nearby – dolphins mate for life and are fiercely loyal. So he lives there now and doesn’t migrate, unlike any other bottlenose dolphin ever and unlike the many other dolphin schools that swim through sometimes. He has baffled biologists, oceanographers and other experts.

He had a brief flirty relationship with a young female who was passing through a few years ago. But he remained and she left, driven off by the attention or called to swim onwards by her dolphin nature – and for me, that little detail has made his story a million times sadder. But don’t be too heartbroken. He’s proud, healthy, highly active, happy and incredibly popular. I’m pretty sure the dolphin has a better life than you or I.

irish tourism dolphin dingle fungi statue
 Do YOU have your own statue?

There are daily boat trips and you can hire a wetswuit from Bronsan’s Bed & Breakfast for fifty euros. If you’re anywhere in Ireland, for whatever other reason, you’d be a fool to pass up the chance. Bottlenose dolphins can live for up to forty years but either way he won’t be around forever.


In 2013, Ireland is throwing a huge party – and if there’s one thing that the Irish are known for, it’s their parties. This is a massive attempt to charm everyone who says they have Irish descent, which is apparently over 70 million people. Let’s see how Irish they are once they get there.

irish tourism fireworks dublin
 You don’t need ALL the fireworks, you just need the right ones

It’s called The Gathering, and it sounds like something out of Highlander. It also sounds like something that salmon do when they swim upstream to their birthing pool, only to lay seed and die. But there’s a lot to be said for this tactic. No other nation in the world could attempt it.

In Ireland there is always a festival around the corner, even more so in 2013. There are simply too many of them to cover here. Counties, clans and families are competing for the title of ‘biggest reconnection’ and such things, gathering their scattered relations from across the globe. If there’s any Irish in you then it’s worth a quick Google – you never know who you might find.

Anyone who's anyone has at least one Irish cousin


James Cle said...

Great Post dear! I enjoyed it a lot, my sister also went to this fantastic place on the earth, she was mentioning about Chester Beatty Library, winner of the European Museum of the year 2002, this is an art museum and library containing rare books, Dublin tourism won’t let anybody be disappointed, I think.

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