Earlier this year, I journeyed to Ireland to both work at an internship and to visit the town my family left from to go to America. Ireland, and the city of Dublin in particular, is now one of my favorite places in the entire world. And now I want to pass on what I learned traveling throughout the country.
I have to give a disclaimer before you Lovelies read on: I only lived in Ireland for three and a half months, and I worked a 9-5 “job” while I was there. I didn’t travel throughout the entire country of Ireland. There’s no way my knowledge is complete (see tip #10!). But here’s what I got, and I hope it’s helpful to you!
1. Forget about finding leprechauns.
Yeeeeah… I now see this cereal as totally racist.
It’s hard to let go of Irish stereotypes, partly because Irish-Americans have a completely different culture than native Irish people. Ireland is a thoroughly modern country, just as famous for its literature and technology as it is for Guinness and Jameson. And sure, people will still leave up trees that naturally grow in a circle so as to not tick off the fairies that obviously use it as a door to the other world. But overall, Irish people aren’t very superstitious. As cheesy as it sounds, if you come to the island with an open mind, you’ll be just fine.
2. But don’t forget about the pubs!
Admittedly, I’m not a big drinker. And I definitely didn’t go to the pubs very much. But you definitely need to go to a pub at least twice in Ireland, just to get a feel for the overall vibe. There are cheesy tourist bars, and hole-in-the-wall pubs where you might see people engaging in a spontaneous trad session. It’s truly nothing like the bar culture in America.
A few words on the Irish drinking culture: Yes, it is a part of life. Yes, there is occasional wicked drunkenness. But the good side of Ireland’s pub culture, the part with lovely food, good company and wonderful conversation, is worth every visit to the pub. Just don’t order cocktails over there — being more of a straight-sipping culture, mixed drinks will really run you up!
3. Pay attention to traffic.
Dubliners are the most attentive pedestrians I’ve ever seen — they seem to have an innate sense of the flow of everything around them. But even in Ireland’s small towns, the idea of paying attention to the flow of people and things around you permeates everything. Perhaps it’s part of the general Irish culture of being considerate toward other people, I have no idea. But if you want to avoid looking like a complete tourist, watch what other people are doing around you whenever you’re walking around somewhere. You’ll be much less obnoxious, and will probably get a feel for the local pace of things.
4. Go shopping!
Ireland’s economy is not doing so well right now, which is why I had absolutely had no guilt about buying a lot of clothes when I was over there. Thankfully, Ireland has a lot of places to buy local fashion. The mack daddy being the department store Penney’s. This store is famous within Ireland for being the store to take tourists to, because everything is so cute and very cheap.
But I’m about to revel two places that you absolutely have to hit up if you’re in the Dublin area: Dublin Flea and the Closet Clear-Out. Ireland in general has fabulous street and flea markets (I’m looking at you, Cork City!), but these are two are particularly funky and fun.
5. Prepare for the weather.
I went to Ireland during the winter, and holy frick it was cold at times. It wasn’t a snowy kind of cold, more like a damp and rainy cold. But the overall fashion sense there is practicality — you buy a few basic coats, but a bunch of different accessories. There are lots and lots of scarves around when I was there, to say the least. And of course, there’s nothing like a good Irish sweater…
But even if you’re going to Ireland during the summer, it’s smart to bring at least one wrap with you. Indoor heating can get pretty expensive in Ireland, so a lot of people just bundle up indoors whenever it gets cold. You never know when a summer breeze will hit.
6. Try aaaaaaall the food.
Oh my goodness, Irish food… It’s not all potatoes and bread! Ireland is actually in the middle of a vegetarian food revolution, with lots of restaurants offering up vegetarian options. And thanks to a lot of recent immigration in Ireland (a lot of students come over to Ireland to learn English), there are tons of restaurants with different global cuisines. You’ll be able to find curry, black pudding, or even an American-style cheeseburger if you look hard enough!
Like the clothing culture in Ireland, there’s a surprising amount of locally-produced food that you can purchase easily. Ireland’s certainly famous for its cheese and bread, but did you ever hear of Irish chocolate? It’s so delicious, maybe because of all the cows down in County Tipperary…
7. Watch Irish TV and movies before going over.
Yes, this is weird advice. But the entertainment culture of Ireland is so fascinating, partly because it’s such a small island. But a lot of movies have been filmed in Ireland, definitely more than you think. And there’s also an effort to preserve Irish films by the Irish Film Institute, which is a fabulous attraction in itself.
But there’s one TV show that you absolutely MUST watch before visiting Ireland, and that’s Father Ted. This is a crazy show about a bunch of Catholic priests living in a tiny island with tiny towns out in the middle of nowhere. It sounds completely offensive, but it’s so silly that viewers (to my knowledge) usually don’t feel offended. But it’s important to watch this show for one simple reason: Everyone in Ireland knows Father Ted. Everyone. It’s like Sesame Street times five — everyone who grew up in Ireland has seen this show. The Irish slang “feck” (used as a family-friendly version of the f-word) entered the language because of this show. If you want to understand the Irish way of speaking and get a quick glimpse of their culture before traveling, watching this show is definitely necessary!
8. Don’t be afraid of the non-happy attractions.
If Ireland was a person, it’d probably be the scrawny girl who got beaten up as a kid but then worked her butt off through high school and college and eventually became a cultured world traveler (and the Homecoming Queen). She’s loved by pretty much everyone, but all the sh*t she went through as a kid directly informs her identity to this day. She doesn’t ever forget.
Ireland’s only recently achieved peace as a country. Sectarian violence, fighting off invaders, economic troubles, high emigration rate and pure starvation are all parts of its history. To the Irish people, the Great Famine is the equivalent of 9/11 to Americans. It’s a source of enormous, gut-wrenching sadness that continues to this day. But in spite of a lot of national tragedy, the Irish have created amazing works of remembrance that are definitely worth seeing. For instance, the portrait I’m standing in front of is in Kilmainham Gaol, a prison famous for holding everyone from Easter Rising rebels to Famine victims who committed crimes to get a roof over their head. The beautiful statues down below are the Famine Statues of Dublin, breathtaking statues that commemorate both victims of the Famine and Irish emigrants who left seeking a better life.
I guess what I’m saying is: Ireland’s a wonderful country partially because it’s risen above a harsh past. It’s taken its lumps and came out as one of the most universally beloved countries in the world. If you’re tough enough to see memorials of the grittier parts of Ireland’s history, you’ll walk away with a much deeper appreciation for the country. And it may just make you fall in love with the place.
9. Work the trains and buses as much as possible.
A huge advantage of Ireland being a relatively small island is that you can take the train and bus basically everywhere. You’d be silly to take a plane from Dublin to Belfast, Lovelies. There’s a lovely culture of transportation, something often overlooked in Ireland. There are whole newspapers dedicated to people traveling daily to work on the train. And if you want to start a conversation with someone in Ireland, just mention the speed of the train this morning.
Traveling is easy in Ireland just a matter of managing the hookups and changeovers. And frankly, the stations can be feckin’ confusing. My advice? Do the best thing a traveler can do if they’re confused about something in Ireland: Ask a native Irish person for help. It’s not a stereotype that Irish people are kind and helpful — it’s totally true!
10. Take all travel advice with a grain of salt.
Ireland’s a tricky country, because so much of its economy depends on tourism. Plus the fact that its economy has been really horrible over the last few years…you do the math. There’s an enormous industry behind traveling in Ireland, and there are travel tips everywhere. You have to be skeptical about any advice about “where to go” or “what to do” in Ireland. It’s probably the biggest challenge of traveling in Ireland — learning to forge your own path despite all the advice thrown your way.
Here’s my own personal story: When I was preparing to go to Ireland, and even after I arrived, a lot of people told me to go to the West of Ireland. The farmland country, removed from all civilization and full of tiny towns that are charming beyond reason. Over and over, I was told that it was a must-see part of Ireland.
But honestly… I’m a city person. I wasn’t super-excited to go to a place that billed itself as being apart from all aspects of civilization. So I didn’t go out into the West (by way of a day tour — so cheesy but totally worth it!) until pretty late into my trip. And people were right — it was very lovely and beautiful. But I enjoyed it more because I was there on my own terms, not because I had followed someone’s advice.
In general, a lot of the cheesy tourist things in Ireland are actually pretty legit. You just have to decide for yourself what’s going to be worth your time, and then hold true to your own impulse. The Giant’s Causeway is promoted to no end, but I can testify that it actually is quite breathtakingly beautiful. And as for the Blarney stone…
Yup. Worth it.
To send you all off proper, here’s a performance of a traditional Irish folk song that I kept hearing in the pubs in Ireland. It’s performed by an Irish-American band, but I still find it quite lovely. And as they say in Ireland before a good drink, sláinte!
It’s Gaelic for “to your health.”