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This is arguably the single biggest faux pas you can make when talking to an Irish person. Although 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties officially became a republic almost 70 years ago – and had been designated an independent state for nearly 30 years before that – the whole country is still sometimes mistakenly described as being part of the United Kingdom, an error that its citizens find highly offensive. (Only the six counties of Northern Ireland continue to be united with the UK.) As well as avoiding this gaffe, tourists should refrain from using the term ‘the British Isles’ in the Republic of Ireland – the country’s government doesn’t recognise it as valid. Instead, you should say ‘Britain and Ireland’.
In a related point, many guides about visiting Ireland suggest that people avoid speaking about the hot-button topics of politics and religion altogether. But in the south of the country, if you get into a good conversation with a local and you want to ask about either of these subjects, most people will be happy to discuss them as long as you’re sensitive and respectful. In Northern Ireland, where the shadow of the Troubles still lingers, and the issue is much more divisive and raw, it’s best to ask a dedicated tour guide any questions you may have about the conflict.
Ireland was the first country in the world to bring in a ban on smoking in workplaces, a law introduced in the mid-2000s, which means there is absolutely no lighting up in restaurants, bars, clubs, public buildings, taxis and any other location considered an enclosed workplace. Not only would smoking in one of these places be bad form, but it could also earn you an on-the-spot fine of up to €3,000. From January 2016 onwards, smoking in cars with children present was also outlawed.
Irish isn’t used day-to-day in Ireland outside of a few rural Gaeltacht communities, and there are many people who, despite having studied the language throughout their school years, can’t hold a conversation as Gaeilge (in Irish). However, it’s still the national and first official language of the country, and considered a hugely important part of its cultural heritage. If you decide to use some Irish on your trip, it won’t be held against you if you butcher the pronunciation, but it will be a welcome surprise if you don’t – as in Barrack Obama’s ‘is féidir linn’ (yes we can) speech in Dublin in 2011. Also worth noting: the language is referred to by locals as ‘Irish’ and not ‘Gaelic’.
As in Britain and some of its other former dominions, Irish people tend to drink in ‘rounds’ if they are out in a group, and the custom has its own set of rules. For those who are unfamiliar, it means one person goes to the bar and buys a drink for everyone in the group. When this round is almost finished, the next person buys another round, and it proceeds in the same order for the evening. It’s common sense, but it’s imperative that each person in the group purchase a round for the entire group or it’s considered rude. An additional note on drinking in Ireland: it’s not customary to tip the person behind the bar.
People within the country widely grumble about Ireland’s notoriously wet and changeable weather, but this is one of those situations, like with family, where the Irish can complain about it, but outsiders shouldn’t. Like most countries, the Irish, in general, have a strong sense of national pride. Moaning to a local about any aspect of the culture probably won’t go down well, even if they do it first.
The leprechaun might seem like a whimsical and harmless figure, but the modern-day image of the bearded fairy has more negative connotations than positive, mostly drawn from offensive 19th-century stereotypes of the Irish people. A relatively recent invention, the leprechaun also has nothing to do with pre-Christian Irish mythology and has become little more than a gimmick to sell souvenirs. Tourists who wear leprechaun hats and visit the inexplicably still-operational National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin won’t be bothered, but they will be suspected of having little appreciation of authentic Irish culture.
Again, this isn’t the end of the world, but many Irish people find it deeply irritating when St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s national festival, is shortened to ‘St. Patty’s Day’. The correct diminutive form of the name Patrick is Paddy, and so the right shortened form of the name of the celebration is ‘Paddy’s Day’.
The Irish are famous for being quick to apologise, and most will usually say sorry if they bump into you, get in your way or accidentally bother you in some other manner. But the word ‘sorry’ is also sometimes used in the place of ‘excuse me’ in order to get a person’s attention. In this case, their tone will make it sound like a question.
If you’re offended by casual swearing, Ireland might not be the best holiday spot for you. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the Irish swear a lot in day-to-day conversations, even when they aren’t particularly angry. The occasionally controversial Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan describes this phenomenon as being a result of the Irish having been forced to adopt the English language against their will, saying ‘The English language doesn’t suit my soul…(It’s) like a brick wall between me and you and “fuck” is my chisel.’
Tourists coming to Ireland often have a bucket list of world-famous sights they want to see, with the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry and Galway city close to the top. While those places are undoubtedly appealing, many people end up missing equally incredible but less well-known (and less crowded) spots as a result. Irish people will appreciate those who know about some of the more underrated sites, such as Donegal’s Slieve League Cliffs, the Beara Peninsula and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in County Antrim.
While Irish pubs are great places to sample traditional dishes such as Irish stew, don’t limit yourself to eating in bars. Ireland’s foodie scene has a lot more going for it than some people realise – the country produces some of the best meat and dairy products in the world, and it’s worth splashing out on at least one high-end meal to see why Irish cuisine shouldn’t be underestimated. Check out this list of Ireland’s finest restaurants for ideas.
If you decide to tour Ireland by car, you should know that driving in rural areas is its own moral minefield. Irish country roads can be extremely narrow – in certain cases so much so that one driver might have to pull into a gateway or ditch to allow someone coming towards them to pass by safely. It’s also common for drivers in rural areas to salute each other with one index finger as a greeting, sometimes even if they don’t know each other, and Irish motorists will often turn on their hazard lights and wave in the rearview mirror to say thanks if you pull in to allow them to overtake you.