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Ireland is a hugely popular tourist destination for a reason: the Atlantic island that’s home to just six million (both sides of the border) has had an astonishing global cultural impact, has a deep history and is notably culturally distinct from even long-controlling neighbour Britain. To truly appreciate it, as we often say in travel, you really have to go. But if you can’t, here are a few of the key things you might learn about – and from – the Emerald Isle.
Pubs are community hubs, and they serve heaps of Guinness and get more than a bit rowdy late on a Friday or Saturday night. But they’re also lunchtime restaurants, places where business meetings take place, and sporting heartlands. Almost everyone has a ‘local’, and it’s not your local until you know a serious chunk of the people every time you walk in.
Sure, we know what the time actually is, obviously, but do we follow it? In a social setting, certainly not. ‘Irish time’ is a concept that’s barely even acknowledged by the Irish, but will ring an instant bell with anyone else who has ever organised social events here. It’s simply an accepted part of life that in any social environment, almost nobody will be on time. Aim for between 15 minutes and half an hour late if you’re meeting a local, especially in groups.
Yes, the country is traditionally extremely Catholic, though various scandals and anger around the church’s response to those scandals have curtailed professed faith substantially in recent years. Many experts suggest that the 80–90% ‘Catholic’ box-ticking that’s typical on the census actually owes as much to ‘Catholic’ being aligned with Irish identity (i.e. ‘not Protestant’) as actually being a practising Catholic.
With almost a third of the population living in Dublin or its immediate surrounds, it can feel like Dublin versus the rest of the country. Dubliners insist that the rural population are ‘culchies’ with no understanding of urban living, electing ‘gombeen’ (local issue only) politicians keen on things such as anti-loneliness drink driving. Rural dwellers counter that city folk are soulless elites obsessed with gentrification, and more akin to Brits than true to their Irish roots. It can get vicious.
Yes, even in the 21st century. Ireland is still utterly hooked on the GAA. It’s hard to describe the passion behind the grass roots of hurling and Gaelic football, both of which are monstrous in scale, especially come the finals in September. Aside from the church, nothing comes close in terms of community impact in Ireland, and the latter stages of inter-county contests are the country’s main talking point for days afterwards. The players are astonishing athletes who finish their games and simply go back to the day job.
The stereotypes are true, though it does depend a little on the scenario – rush hour Dublin is not the place! Irish people go out of their way to talk to each other on the street, will welcome strangers into their homes off the cuff, and put a much higher value on social relationships than most other places we’ve been. In social scenarios, you’re doing well if someone makes a joke at your expense: the Irish often mock those they like.
The celebration is drawn from the Celtic Festival of Samhain, traditionally held on October 31st, which dates back to the Middle Ages. It merged with the festival of All Saints (November 1st) over the years to form Halloween. The festival is celebrated wildly in Ireland, with huge fancy-dress house parties and city-centre parades.
For example, a politician recently raised an issue with ‘fairy forts’ and their impact on road planning across the country in Ireland’s Parliament. As well as the forts, there are still countless fairy trees around Ireland’s shores, and you’ll find lots of superstitious ticks in the language. Not leprechauns, however (they’re not generally taken seriously), and definitely not ‘top of the morning to you’. Nobody says that.
Families can tell you stories, passed down through generations, of what their relatives were doing during the 1916 Rising, or how life used to be on the family farm 200 years ago. In many cases, they can trace the journeys of their ancestors, recalling the impact of the famine. Connections to communities are deep; don’t be surprised to be lovingly referred to as a ‘blow in’ (a friendly ‘outsider’ jibe) if you turn up in a small town. A sense of history really permeates personal politics too.
… And you’ll probably come to love some and find others barely comprehensible. Even those who have lived in Ireland for a while sometimes have difficulty with certain ones. The city of Dublin also has several extremely distinct accents, which (in a very simplified way) connect with the side of the River Liffey that they’re from. Pretty much none of these accents, by the way, sound much like the Irish accents in Hollywood movies.
This one is especially true if you’re not local. There are some exceptions – roads from Dublin heading to Cork, Galway, Sligo and Belfast are all more than decent – but once you’re anywhere rural, you’d have to drive like a lunatic to match the expected arrival times. For drivers new to the country, the idea of arriving on those winding roads at anything like the pace of locals should, quite rightly, carry an inherent fear factor. Take it easy, and reach your destination in one piece.
There are pubs here that date back to the 12th century, for example. Guinness thinks 9,000 years is a reasonable time scale for a factory lease. Newgrange is approximately 5,200 years old, meaning it substantially predates the Pyramids, and the Hill of Tara is only a couple of hundred years more recent. Plenty of traditional houses, in fact, have stood for generations, especially rurally. You’ll have no trouble finding sites older than most countries.
A few examples: the national day is not, and will never be, ‘St Patty’s Day’ (the D’s in Paddy come from the Irish spelling of Patrick, Padraig, and is only considered derogatory when used insultingly to sum up the nationality). We don’t drink ‘Irish car bombs’ (think about why this might be a bit of a sensitive point); in fact, we probably don’t drink as much as you think (less than much of western Europe, in part because it’s expensive). In some ways, we’re extremely modern. We think green beer is ridiculous (if you see it, it’s for tourists). We don’t – and never did – eat corned beef and cabbage. Sure, Ireland has a lot of really unique culture. It’s just that most of the time, we’re another modern, successful country with a GDP per capita that’s up there with some of the best in the world. So yes, this stuff can get a bit patronising.