THE ULTIMATE IRISH BUCKET LIST
Oh, Ireland, you beautiful you! The Emerald Isle annually attracts thousands of visitors from all around the world with its stunning landscapes, welcoming locals, and vibrant culture. Without a doubt, it has a special allure: the greenest fields, dramatic cliffs, Guinness, music, medieval castles, to name but a few things. And how about those leprechauns with pots of gold?
Ireland has so much to offer that everyone here will find something for themselves. But what cultural experiences make Ireland special? Having carefully observed by new habitat, I drew up this list of ultimate Irish experiences (click on pictures to enlarge).
> 1. ATTEND A RUGBY MATCH
Rugby is one of the most popular sports in the country. It has been played in Ireland since at least 1854 when the first club - at Trinity College in Dublin - was founded. For the longest part of its history, the game was completely amateur, but both amateur and professional teams playing have been playing since 1999. Today, there are now 209 rugby clubs affiliated to the Irish Rugby Football Union (including those in Northern Ireland). The four major professional teams - one in each of the provinces Munster, Ulster, Connaught, and Leinster - mainly concentrate on European competitions such as the Heineken Cup and the Guinness Pro12, rather than on tournaments within Ireland.
Traditionally, rugby was considered an elitist game - an upper middle-class white sport in Ireland, the game of choice for boys in most fee-paying private schools, which were predominantly Catholic. It is still true to a certain extent, in that the tradition of playing and following rugby is strongest among those in white collar jobs. However, players from all backgrounds are involved in Irish rugby today and there has also been a growth in the interest in the ladies game. In 2003, Ireland's first primarily gay rugby team, Emerald Warriors, was established in Dublin (which is a huge deal, as homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until June 1993!).
> Captured above: Munster Rugby, one of the four provincial rugby teams in Ireland, is based in Limerick. Their main home ground is Thomond Park, where I got to see them play - and win - against Ulster. Limerick is Ireland’s rugby heartland and it feels like just about everybody follows the game there!
> 2. WATCH RUGBY IN A PUB
Rugby is a big part of the Irish contemporary culture, and to get an idea of how passionate about rugby people get in Ireland just take a look at this promotional video by Guinness:
Ireland's Call, the Irish rugby anthem created by Phil Coulter, and the Irish National Anthem are played and sung at the start of all major rugby matches. So, if you do not get a chance to attend a rugby match in Ireland, make sure to watch one in a pub. I mean, where else will you see a bunch of Irishmen being this passionate about something (just joking! except not).
> 3. LEARN A COUPLE OF PHRASES IN IRISH
Irish (also referred to as Gaelic or Irish Gaelic) is one of the two official national languages of Ireland, along with English. The two are completely different languages and unless you have some prior knowledge of the former, it is nearly impossible to understand.
Some areas of the country are Gaeltacht, which is an Irish term denoting a region where Irish is the primary language of everyday communication. Major concentrations of native Irish speakers (about 86,000 people) are located in the counties of Donegal, Galway, Mayo, and Kerry on the west coast. People living outside of those areas study the Irish language throughout their formative schooling and have an opportunity to do a summer course in one of these regions. However, most of them never reach a level of fluency. According to the 2016 census, not even half of the country's population speak the language. But as they say there, Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste - "Broken Irish is better than clever English" (apparently an Irish proverb).
Yet Irish is widely present. Most of traffic signs and street names are dubbed English and Irish. You will also encounter a few Irish words in the everyday language. For example, people refer to their police force as garda and prime minister’ as taoiseach (pronounced 'tea-shuck'). The current taoiseach is Leo Varadkar.
> 4. ENJOY A NIGHT OF TRADITIONAL MUSIC
Drop in to one of the hundreds of traditional pubs dotted around the island. Sit back, sip on a pint of the creamy black stuff. It’s time to get started: bodhráns, pipes tin whistles, and pipes. Enjoy the tunes!
Pubs and traditional music in Ireland are grand on their own, but together they create a truly magical combination. The entertainment that verges on the iconic: feet stomping, fiddles hopping, and lively banter in a friendly atmosphere. See, the pub still holds a pivotal place in Irish society. It is the place where news is shared, jokes are told, and stories are narrated. And the music? It just seems to run in their blood. The pub session has become a core of local musical traditions. This is they are passed down from father to son, from friend to friend, and where they can be experienced first hand, in its richness and fullness. And this is the craic happens.
If the Irish didn’t invent the pub, they’ve certainly mastered it to perfection.
> Captured above: In Galway, The Crane Bar is a gem of a local haunt that hosts célidh almost every day. The cosy venue upstairs is also known as 'The Listeners Club', seating 70 in an intimate ambience, whereas the room downstairs is the 'local', one of the few remaining authentic traditional Irish pubs. Concerts here range from singer-songwriters to traditional to roots music.
> 5. VISIT A CASTLE
One of the most prominent features of the Irish landscape is a good ol' medieval castle. Some sources claim there are as many as 30,000 of them across the country, although some of them are now in ruins. The history of Irish castles as we know them today started in 1169 when the Normans arrived on the island. A form of fortified country residences - tower houses - started to appear in Ireland in the following two centuries but became obsolete after the invention of cannons and guns.
Many of the original constructions were abandoned, but some of the castles have been carefully restored to their former glory and opened to general public. Some have even been transformed into hotels. The preserved castles now display treasures including furniture, artefacts, and paintings thus inviting the visitor to discover the rich heritage of the country. Whether you are just taking a tour or staying overnight, it is a great experience.
> Captured above: Ross Castle (Irish: Caisleán an Rois) located on the brim of Lough Leane in Killarney National Park Killarney, Co. Kerry. The castle was built in the 15 century by local ruling clan O'Donoghue Mór and represents a good example of an Irish Chieftain stronghold. You can also check out Bunratty Castle (Co. Clare), about which I wrote in this blog post.
> 6. LEARN ABOUT HURLING
Video copyright: Ninh Ly
Hurling is a traditional Irish sport that is more than just a game, it is the country's national passion. It is sometimes compared to lacrosse and field hockey, but there is no similarity apart from the fact that these games involve a stick and a ball. To grasp the basics of the game, have a look at the video above.
To understand the meaning of hurling in the national context, one must look beyond the mere fact that it is a sport. The sport is organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which governs Gaelic games, namely, Gaelic football and hurling for men and their counterparts - ladies football and camogie – for women, handball and rounders for both sexes. The GAA was created as a response to the elimination of Irish culture in order to revive that culture. In pursuing this goal, it strives to actively support and promote "the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of Irish culture", which includes traditional athletics. Established in 1884, the organisation developed a prominent rural network across Ireland, and many GAA members were involved in events connected with the 1916 Easter Rising. Even after the political situation in Ireland evolved, the traditional sports remained to be an act of defiance and became deeply woven into the social fabric of the Irish people.
> 7. GET A TASTE OF IRISH FOOD
There is no argument that eating local food is one of the best ways of travelling, and Ireland is no exception. Traditional Irish staple dishes, albeit rather simple, make quintessentially comfort food: stews, seafood chowder, pies, sausages and puddings, corned beef and cabbage with mash are what you want to reach for on a gloomy cold day. Not to mention some fresh homemade soda bread, potato slims and, of course, a mandatory cup of Barry's (or Lyon's) tea.
> Captured above: Pictured on the left is one of the delicious pies at The Pieman Cafe in Dublin, a prime spot for hearty savoury and sweet pies in the heart of Temple Bar. On the right is the lamb stew from The Locke in Limerick, one of the oldest pubs in town that offers great food and drinks as well as traditional Irish music nights at par.
> 8. TRY THE FULL IRISH BREKKIE
Speaking of food, treat yourself to the full Irish breakfast after a busy night of searching for the perfect pint of Guinness (see point #12). Traditionally, this meal was concocted to prepare you for a busy day out on the farm. These days, the traditional full Irish is a staple treat to savour on a lazy Sunday morning - or whenever on when you wake up. In its most complete form, it must consist of:
> Two sausages, two rashers (fried bacon), one black pudding (a type of sausage made up of pork meat, rusk, and spices plus pork blood), one white pudding (same sausage minus the blood), one fried egg, one fried tomato, fried mushrooms, one potato cake, toast and/or Irish soda bread. Beans are optional. Tea is mandatory.
Believe it or not, but all these ingredients, covered in ketchup or relish, can be brought together in a baguette or wrap, which the Irish proudly call "the breakfast roll".
> Captured above: If you happen to be in Ennis (co. Clare), Cairde is a great place to indulge yourself in this local delicacy (€8.50 for the full Irish).
> 9. FIND THE BEST FISH & CHIPS
If you have followed my journey around Ireland for a bit, you might know that I take my fish & chips pretty seriously. There is just something about this Irish classic: perhaps it is the battered and deliciously deep-fried today's catch or perhaps it is fat, slightly greasy chips with a bit of salt and vinegar. An Irish person will probably tell you it is the latter - it's called a "chipper" after all, so the chips take the main stage. Indeed, the average chippy in Ireland does not focus so much on the fish, despite being an island nation. There are usually only three or four types of fish available, the most common being plaice, cod, and haddock.
> Captured above: One of the finest fish & chips I have ever tried is served in McDonagh's, a culinary institution in Galway that’s widely regarded as possibly the best chipper in all of Ireland.
> 10. DO A WHISKEY TASTING
What is a better place to taste and learn about the Irish "water of life" (that's what the Irish name for whiskey, uisce beatha, stands for) than Ireland itself? Be sure not to mix up Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky, as there are significant differences in the production process that affect the final flavour.
In essence, Irish whiskey and Scottish whisky are both water and barley. But in Ireland, they use both raw and malted barley and don't generally use peat to dry out the grains while in Scotland, they allow the barley to sprout and then dry it out to stop germination using peat fires - the peat smoke will give the barley a stronger aroma. After that, Irish whiskey is triple distilled, that is, it is run through big copper pots using heat and evaporation three times. Scottish whisky, on the other hand, is only distilled twice, which makes the spirit stronger. Then Scottish whisky must age for two years, whereas Irish whiskey cannot be called whiskey unless it has aged for at least three years. Finally, Scottish whisky must be made in Scotland and Irish whiskey must be brewed in Ireland. However, only four Irish whiskey distilleries have sustained the whiskey production in the country for many decades. In other words, only four locations in the whole world could produce Irish whiskey, even though there are different brands being produced under the same roof. Lately, Ireland has had a craft resurgence with a total of 32 proposed or new distilleries opening up.
The difference in the Irish and Scottish brewing processes results in the Irish whiskey being smoother. That is why many Irish agree the "e" in their whiskey stands for "excellent".
> Captured above: On the left is a shot from a guided whiskey tasting tour at Jameson Distillery Bow St. in Dublin (40 min, €18 adults, €15 students). The picture on the right is from a whiskey tasting at Michael Flannery's Pub in Limerick (€15 per person). The latter boasts the largest Irish Whiskey collection in the Mid West and offers 3 samples of the finest Irish tipples while an expert takes you through a history of the spirit and its production process.
> 11. HAVE A PROPER IRISH COFFEE
Legend has it the Irish coffee as we know it today was invented by Joe Sheridan in 1942 or 1943 in Foyens, a small town on the West coast of Ireland. Back then, Foynes was the main airport for Flying Boats between the US and Europe. The unpredictable - and often horrendous - Irish weather did not make for the warmest welcome, so what was supposed to be just a refuel stopover could turn into an overnight stay for many of its passengers. In 1942, a new restaurant opened to cater to these travellers. Sheridan, a young chef and bartender, wanted to create something that would make a stay in Foyens a tad bit more pleasant so one winter night, when yet another group of cold and tired passengers arrived, he came up with a special drink. He brewed dark coffee, splashed in some Irish whiskey (now that you know what they difference between whiskey and whisky is), added a little brown sugar and freshly whipped cream on top and served it to the customers. When asked if he had used Brazilian coffee, he replied: ”No, that's Irish coffee.”
The coffee became a huge success. But Irish Coffee may never have known overseas had journalist Stanton Delaplane not brought the recipe to the US. He told about it to Jack Koeppler, a bartender at the Buena Vista Hotel in San Francisco, and the two tried to recreate the drink. Apparently, their attempts did not work out very well as the cream kept sinking. By the time Koeppler decided to travel to Ireland to learn the secret to the proper Irish coffee, Sheridan had moved to work at the Shannon Airport. When the two met, Koeppler offered Joe a position at the Buena Vista Cafe, which he accepted. In 1952, Sheridan moved to the States.
Beware that cheap whiskey, mediocre coffee and bland cream will make for a poor quality Irish Coffee. When done right, it will leave you for longing for more so try out different whiskeys to see which you like best for your Irish Coffee.
> 12. FIND THE PERFECT PINT OF GUINNESS
Guinness connoisseurs know that pouring a perfect pint of the black stuff is a craft in itself. According to the brewery, it requires a so-called two-stage 'double pour’, which should take precisely 119.5 seconds. But it is not only the pouring techniques that make this dry stout taste so much better in its homeland.
Irish pubs hugely benefit from rigorous quality control provided by Guinness itself. Rumour has it, the brewers send their representative to affiliated pubs to ensure that pipes are clean and the pints served are as top-notch as they can possibly be. The ‘surge and settle’ pouring technique, invented by mathematician-turned-brewer Michael Ash in the 1950s, is taught at The Guinness Academy in Dublin, so local bartenders have enough supervision to master the skill.
Whether pubs across Ireland have to be extra attentive to their Guinness or not, a taste survey carried out in 2011 has shown that the majority of respondents strongly preferred the taste of a pint of Guinness poured in Ireland. The experiment, initiated by the Institute of Food Technologists, took place across 33 cities in 14 countries.
Careful with your Guinness tasting though - there are 740 pubs just in Dublin alone!
> Captured above: While this is a highly controversial topic that guarantees you a long night of heated discussions, there seems to be an agreement that the pints of the black stuff served at the Stag's Head, Mulligan's, and O'Donoghue's are some of the best you can find in Dublin (these guys second it).
> 13. APPRECIATE THE HUMOUR
The Irish are known for having a quite dark, even misanthropic, dry sense of humour, which often expresses itself in self-deprecation and laughter at yourself. This sarcasm is an acquired taste (and not necessarily everyone's cup of tea), so the Irish humour is often lost on foreigners.
If there is one thing you need to watch in order to get your head around this humour, it is the one TV sitcom that remains a cult comedy today and that the Irish cherish very dearly, Father Ted. The series revolves around the parish life of a group of three Irish priests in County Clare in the 1980s. It is safe to assume that without the understanding of cultural references, their context and Irish society in general, the show won't make much sense. But I highly recommend giving it a go anyway.
Dylan Moran is another excellent example of Irish comedy. His sense of humour could not be more Irish if he tried, especially in the brilliant comedy series Black Books. The main character Bernard Black, portrayed by Moran, is a highly dysfunctional, wine-stained bookshop owner full of lyrical sarcasm and pessimistic drunken rambles. If you have not seen it before, you are in for a treat (I am very jealous).
> 14. BEFRIEND A SHEEP (OR TWO)
The sheep to the Irish landscape is like the pint of Guinness to the Irish pub - they come together. It is almost impossible to go a couple of minutes without coming across these friendly animals anywhere you travel. According to the 2016 national livestock census, there are some 3.92 million sheep in Ireland. Not too bad for a country of 4.76 million people!
Do not go to a sheep farm though, but rather observe these adorable fur balls in their natural habitat, in the ever-so-green valleys. You will notice that most animals have patches of colour painted on the wool, which is done to help farmers identify their flock. Although pastures are usually enclosed by stone walls or wire fences, they are also shared by multiple shepherds so the paint allows claiming your ownership over sheep if they happen to roam away.
> Captured above: Sheep can be found virtually anywhere across the country, but these cute little chaps (only a couple of days old!) were spotted in April co. Kerry. As it was lambing season, there were literally thousands of these fellas running around.
> 15. EXPERIENCE ST. PATRICK'S DAY
St. Patrick's Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Pádraig, "the Day of the Festival of Patrick") is celebrated on March 17th. In 1903, it became an official public holiday in Ireland and the very first St. Patrick's parade took place in Waterford. The first official, state-sponsored parade in Dublin was held in 1931. However, bars and pubs were not allowed to be open on this day until the 1970s due to the law. Even after the provision was lifted, the festivities looked much more subdued that they do today.
According to popular belief, it was Americans who turned St. Patrick's into somewhat of an international drinking fest. While rowdy celebrations aren’t difficult to find in Dublin on this particular day, most of the participants are tourists or underage teenagers who tend to gravitate to the Temple Bar area. Dubliners, on the other hand, prefer to flee the city for the day or throw a house party. However, if you happen to be in Cork, Galway or Limerick, you will find a more traditional way of celebrating this day and Irish culture (beware that most hotels and hostels will be booked out as early as 8 weeks in advance).
> Captured above: Having celebrated St. Patrick's Day all over the world in the past few years, this March I finally made it to Dublin! While I do not think I will do it ever again, it was fun to watch the parade and observe the green crowd.
Have you been to Ireland and done some of the things on this list? Share in the comments below!
Stay tuned for another ultimate Irish bucket list of places to visit.
Happy travels x