Explorer’s Guide to Ireland

Republic of Ireland at a Glance

Population:4,937,786 (2020 estimate)
Population Growth Rate:1.13%
Currency:Euro
Official Language(s):Gaelic and English
Capital:Dublin (pop. 1,024,027 est)
Second Largest City:Cork (190,384)
Adult male Average Age:36.6
Adult Female Average Age:37.1
Religion:84% Roman Catholic
Government:Parliamentary Democracy
Head of State (President)Michael D. Higgins (2022)

Summary

Long before the Vikings discovered the Americas, Ireland was thought to be the last land before the end of the world.

Perched in the unruly North Atlantic sea, and full of boggy green grasslands, enchanting rivers and misty mountains, Ireland is an island rich in memory and an ancient energy.

It is a land that has barred witness to human activity for over ten thousand years. From the first Neolithic farmers who migrated from southern Europe, to the coming of the Celts, Vikings and Normans, Ireland has often been the sight of volatile and tragic collisions of people.

Ancient religious monuments, ruins, tombs and centuries old foundations lay scattered around the island serving as an ardent reminder of the past.

Come explore Ireland’s fascinating ancient and premodern history, along with some of its most stunningly beautiful sites in Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and more.

Ireland is the westernmost country and island on the European Continent. It is separated from the island of Great Britain by the Irish sea. Together with Great Britain, the two islands form the British isles, of which they share a very interlinked economic, political and demographic relationship. Perhaps more importantly, the two islands share an ancient but often troubled human history.

The island is divided between the 26 counties of the south, of which form the Independent Republic of Ireland and the 6 northern counties of Northern Ireland whom remain a province of the United Kingdom. Geographically, Ireland is known for its lush green fields, rugged coastlines and misty mountains. Its climate is fairly moderate despite being further north than the U.S. state of Maine. The eastern half of the island recieves between 800-1000mm of precipation a year and the western half can get up to 1400mm. Ice and snow contribute relatively small amounts to this measurement. Though the Mountains ranges certainly receive more snow than other parts of the island and snowy winter hikes among the Wicklow or Macgillycuddy Reeks mountains are a challenging yet stunning endeavor to partake in. 

Culturally, Ireland is renowned for it’s distinct and vibrant traditions which are celebrated around the globe thanks to an enormous Irish diaspora. There are approximately 33 million people in the United States that have Irish roots and around 125,000 American citizens who were born in Ireland according to a 2016 census. There are also enormous Irish communities in Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The infrastructure and buildings of Ireland stand amidst ruins and foundations that are thousands of years old. Along with English, The Republic of Ireland’s national language is Gaelic; an ancient Celtic language that is neither apart of the Germanic nor Romance language families. It was the Lingua Franca on the island before its repression under British colonization beginning in the thirteenth century.

The Irish free State, a state consisting of the 26 counties of southern Ireland, was established in 1922 after the Anglo-Irish Treaty which itself, was the culmination of years of war between the Irish Republican Army and British security forces.

However, Northern Ireland with a majority Loyalist Protestant population, was partitioned from the South in 1920 and thus has remained apart of Great Britain. At partition, Ulster was given its own political assembly that assembled at Stormont in the city of Belfast. Loyalist Protestants were quick to ensure their already established dominance in their new local government, that was still under the rule of London. Catholics in Northern Ireland would continue to face discrimination in all aspects of society but most notably in housing, jobs and through a Protestant dominated police force.

The year of 1922 was special in that it saw self-governance restored to Ireland for the first time in centuries. When The Free State became the Republic of Ireland in 1949, it completely severed all remaining governmental ties with the United Kingdom which had the Free State bound to a constitutional status similar to that of Canada and Australia.

Today in the 21st century, The Republic is active in supporting its indigenous Gaelic traditions through national holidays, Gaelic sports and the revival of the Gaelic tongue. Northern Ireland remains a staunchly divided society in which Nationalist Catholics and Loyalist Protestants struggle to work together and maintain a peace. Segregated school systems and neighborhoods are still a common feature of society in the six counties of Ulster.

The conflict known as The Troubles that ravaged Northern Ireland for three decades in the late twentieth century was rooted in many more previous bloody conflicts that stretch back eight hundred years and is critical to understanding the sociocultural elements of the island.

Notable Customs and Traditions

The island of Ireland is proud of its many customs and traditions that have become relatively well known around the world thanks to the enormous Irish Diaspora. Moreover the island’s affinity for music and love of words, touches a cord with people across cultures. Its no secret that Ireland has experienced much turmoil over its thousands of years of human inhabitance and this has carved a culture with an appreciation for the sentimental and romantic.

Traditional music or ‘Trad’ as it is often referred to, is a music style and genre that generally makes use of the Fiddle, piano and acoustic guitar. Listening to trad musicians jam out in a pub is a staple past time in Ireland.

Mythology plays a critical role in Irish culture and it is not hard to imagine why given the vast stretches of rugged coastline, boggy fields, mysterious geological formations and misty mountains that make up a country that lies perched in an unruly, North Atlantic sea.

Many sacred holidays and festivals in the country that appear to be entirely Christian in origin, are actually adapted from the old Celtic traditions that were dominant in Ireland before the arrival of St Patrick. St Brigid’s day for example celebrated on Feb 1, is rooted in the ancient Celtic festival called, Imbolc, a festival that marks the start of Spring. St Brigid herself, was Ireland’s first native Saint and the most celebrated female Saint. Traditionally on this day, reeds or straw are collected from the fields and crafted into a cross.

May Day on May 1st, is a holy day in the country that marks the start of the summer season. It is based on the old Celtic festival of Bealtaine. In prior eras, bonfires would be lit across the country to welcome the arrival of Summer.

The sacred day of Lughnasa on August 1st, marks the beginning of Harvest and honors the Celtic God of Lugh. Today, some in Ireland celebrate the holiday with family reunions, bonfires and dancing.

To be sure, the most widely celebrated holiday in the country is St Patricks Day. It is day completely devoted to the Patron Saint of Ireland, the man who turned the Irish away from the Celtic druids and their pagan Gods. Everyone tends to wear green, many attend mass and pretty much all indulge in drink. Though in reflecting on St Patrick’s conversion of the island, it is important to know that the Irish didn’t throw away all of their celtic traditions. Just like many old holidays, other customs and traditions were adapted and perhaps joined together, to form a unique religion and culture. Many scholars simply call this fusion, Celtic Christianity and later in the book, it will be discussed how Ireland’s Celtic Christianity was once the epicenter of learning and scholarship in all of Europe.

Sports are an enormous part of Irish cultural identity and this is evident by the Gaelic Atheltic Association which was established in 1884 in order to preserve traditional Gaelic sports and games; notably Gaelic football and Hurling.

Hurling is known to be the fastest field sport in the world and is played with an ash hurley stick and a small hurling ball called a sliotar. Two teams of fifteen compete to win the game through striking the ball over a crossbar to score a goal. The all Ireland Hurling final is a legendary event that takes place each year with each county of Ireland bringing their best team to compete.

Gaelic football is similar to regular football or soccer, except the ball is played off the ground. The rules are also similar to Hurling, but the ball is larger and there are no hurling sticks. There is also an all Ireland championship for Gaelic football that is to be sure, a celebrated tradition of Ireland.

Gaelic Football, via Skysports

Rugby is also huge in Ireland as it is in neighboring Britain and the Irish have had global success. They have won the annual Six Nations Championship, a contest between England, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy, fourteen times and are consistently ranked among the top ten teams in the world.

Literature: Ireland has probably pound for pound, produced more poets, writers, playwriters and other artists than any other nation on earth. Literature is literally in the DNA of the country and Dublin itself has been deemed a UNESCO city of Literature and is home to four Nobel Prize Laureates for literature. Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett are just a few of the prolific writers to come out of country.

Pub Culture is central to the social scene among the Irish. Heading to the local pub to catch up with friends, listen to music and just to cut loose is one of the oldest past times in the country. Guinness is pivotal to this tradition but to be clear, heading to the local pub is not about getting drunk. Its all about socializing, telling stories and coming together as a community. Guinness is a dark and heavy beer, rich in Iron and has been labeled by famous Irish novelist, James Joyce as, “The wine of Ireland.”

The Gaelic language was the tongue of the ancient Celts and the dominant language in Ireland until the conquest of the island by the Norman-English. Gaelic has been repressed for centuries and the Irish government has done a lot to try and turn the tide of it’s decline. It is now the national language of the country and taught in schools but of course the dominant language is still English. Fortuantely, there are still a few places in the country where Gaelic was able to remain the first language.

A Gaeltacht region is a term used for these areas, designated by the Irish government, where the population predominatly speaks Gaelic at home. These regions are subsectors in the 26 counties fo the Republic. Northern Ireland has no Gaeltach regions since it is not apart of the Republic and moreover, the language was expecially crushed and repressed under the boot of Ulster Protestants for centuries.

These regions are all found in the western part of the island and even though Gaelic is used in streets signs and all throughout the country, it is only in Gaeltacht regions where it is distinctively the native and dominant language. Gaelic has been in steep decline for a long time and the Irish government has taken many steps in order to preserve the language. Today, on trains and in public places, Gaelic is the first language for AI, intercoms and street signs.

There is a clear distinction between traditional Gaelic Irish culture which is largely Catholic, and Ulster Protestantism. The latter formed in Northern Ireland in the centuries after English conquest and during the Protestant reformation. Ulster Protestants are the descendants of immigrants from the lowlands of Scotland and elsewhere in England and often have strong unionist or loyalist philosophies. To be a Unionist or Loyalist, is to support the British government and desire to have Northern Ireland continue to be apart of Great Britain.

Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland have throughout the 20th century and continuing so to this day, often hold nationalist views or desires for Northern Ireland to be united with the Republic in a completely United and independent Island.

Of course, these two differing philosophies have triggered severe unrest and bloody confrontation that is most aptly understood through the Conflict known as The Troubles that began in 1960’s and lasted until 1998.

Explore

For detailed guides, click on the links below

Explorer Shots

Essentials

  1. Maps.me. On your smartphone, considering that you have one, it is absolutely vital that you download this app to help navigate. What makes this app so great is it works offline. Thus if you download the app and then download the data for Ireland, you’re golden. Alas, if you don’t purchase a SIM card, you can still use this app to help find routes either by foot, bicycle, car or subway.
  2. Hiking Shoes or Boots. Whether you choose a pair that fits above the ankle or below, it is vital you bring a good pair of durable footwear that are comfortable because you will be wearing them pretty much everyday. Backpacking and exploring, requires quite a bit of walking so it is important that what ever is on your feet, not only feels good but is able to take a beating as well.
  3. A 65 to 70 liter Backpack. There are numerous packs to choose from at your local REI or other outdoor store. Personally, I am a huge fan of Osprey and have been hauling my 65 liter pack up mountains in the Pacific Northwest, through Asia and Europe for nearly a decade now. It has without a question, proven its durability and resistance to wear and tear.
  4. A Hardshell Jacket and Backpack Rain Cover: Whichever month you choose to come to Ireland in, it goes without saying, that you are going to get wet. In the broader scheme of things, no matter where you are on the island, you are never really that far from the ocean and the Atlantic is bound to hurl its ferocity on you at some point or another. I remember being in Dublin one day during February in which the morning was pleasantly warm and sunny before the afternoon first brought some rain, then sleet and finally hail and snow. It was the most radical change in climate and temperature that I had personally ever seen. Thus, it is advisable that you rarely venture outdoors, even if you are just walking to a local café or pub, without being adequately prepared.
  5. A One to Two Person Tent: Wildcamping is a must in Ireland for those want to experience the stunning natural landscape in it’s purest form. You want to look for a freestanding, double-walled, 2-berth, 3-season tent weighting around 1.5-2.5kg. Something that would ideally fit at the bottom of your pack or on the rear rack of a bicycle. The MSR Hubba Hubba NX is a great option, as well as the Black Diamond Fitzroy Vestibule Tent. If planning on adventuring during the winter months and specifically into Connemara or the MacgillyCuddy mountains, you probably want to look for a durable four season tent, in which Black Diamond and MSR will have a good selection. The MSR Advance Pro is a quality alpine tent as well as the Black Diamond Eldorado, which might be a tad overkill but you will not be uncomfortable!
  6. Sleeping Bag and Pad: Roughing it in Ireland is like roughing it in pretty much any place, you need to have the proper gear that is comfortable and allows you to get a good nights sleep. The Therm-a Rest Neoair Uberlite is a good lightweight pad to consider and REI and Marmot have probably the greatest selection of sleeping bags on the market. In the summer months, it is defiantly possible to sleep under the stars but the potential for a drastic change in weather is always something to be on the lookout for in the North Atlantic.
  7. A Stove Top and Fuel: During your excursions, you will most likely want to cook your own food rather than hauling along an enormous supply of granola and candy bars. For this, an MSR pocket rocket is the best product you can buy. Its extremely lightweight and portable and works like a charm.
  8. Easy Energy: In my opinion, if you do not have a peanut or nut allergy, the best way to avoid ever going hungry is to haul around a jar or two of peanut butter in your pack. It’s a quick and easy source of energy and calories, and it could possibly save you a lot of money. During a long cycle trip, along with drinking plenty of water, one can pretty much live off a spoonful of peanut butter and maybe a piece of fruit for every meal of day and still feel and perform optimally.

Visa Requirements

f you have a passport, are a UK or European Union Citizen, then alas, you have nothing to prepare for when arriving in Ireland. In fact, as an EU or UK citizen, you can show up in Ireland and look for work without any red tape and filling out any paperwork. If you are a non-EU or non-UK citizen then the situation can be a bit complex. While obtaining permission to enter Ireland is much easier than many other countries across the world, Irish immigration is surprisingly tough and poses specific requirements to those arriving from outside Europe.

For Americans, we can stay in Ireland for up to 90 days, given your passport is valid for at least six more months upon entering, you possess and are able to show evidence of your return plane ticket and are able to show evidence that you can financially support yourself during your stay.

Doesn’t sound that complicated right? Actually its not as simple as it sounds or in my opinion, as it should be. Immigration at Dublin Airport in particular, are notorious for playing hardball. They will want to know every little detail and nuance of your trip and in the end, if your answers or documents aren’t clear in their eyes, they can refuse your entry or limit you to a one or two week stay, instead of the usual 90 day allowance. Thus it is vital that you arrive in Ireland, with printed documents of your bank account statement, return plane ticket, places you are staying and perhaps more than anything, the most charismatic first impression that you can muster.

It is actually a relatively unknown fact that Americans, are increasingly being refused entry in Ireland due to failing to impress the immigration officials. There was an incident a few years back when a couple lads from Texas showed up in Dublin without any proper financial documentation. They were detained by the garda and thrown in jail for a few days before being sent home. Its very well a shocking story, given the Irish people’s renowned reputation of kindness and hospitality.

Despite the strong ties between our two nations, the Irish government doesn’t seem to want that many Yanks hanging around the island for too long. The economy has been doing quite well relatively speaking in the last few decades and they don’t want or need anyone coming in and becoming a drain on the economy. The policy in Ireland promotes jobs and opportunites to Irish and EU citizens first and anybody else, including Americans, last. For example, if during your stay in Ireland, you were offered a job, your potential employer would have to sponsor your work visa application and present evidence in the application that an Irish or EU citizen were unable to fill the vacancy of the position.

Even if you are student who qualifies for the Irish working holiday Visa, Americans can still only stay for up to a year while Canadians can stay for up to two years and then apply for residency if they desire.

In the end, is this prejudice? No, as one Irishman told me at a hostel in Dublin while we were discussing the Visa process for Americans and non-EU people, “Well if we didn’t have restrictions, there would probably be 60 million of yah over here right now.”

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