Ireland: Introduction

  • © eiszapferl,

    © eiszapferl,


In Ireland, many a small chat begins with a standard subject: the weather. The remark ‘Isn’t it a nice day today?’ is not only the perfect excuse for a conversation for the locals, who are always up for a chat, but also shows their resilience in weather matters. If even a gloomy, cloudy morning is hailed as a great day, you won’t be surprised to see school kids on the Emerald Isle meeting the occasionally grim cold of the winter months with nothing more than knee socks and skirts.

The changeable weather, runs the pragmatic wisdom, has a lot of good to it, and after all, it doesn’t rain in the pub, does it now? An impressive vocabulary is available to differentiate between the size of the raindrops and the associated blowing wind. The weather forecast has dozens of names for rain. ‘Fine scattered drizzle’, which even has its own expression in the Irish language, bears much of the responsibility for the fact that Ireland is so beautifully green.

Lying in the sea off the northwest coast of Europe like a moss-covered rock, its wind-buffeted coasts, barren high plateaus and lush vegetation form a unique natural landscape. Anyone driving or cycling across the island along occasionally rutted and narrow roads will notice that the forty shades of green immortalised in song are anything but a cliché. The fast change of rain and sun also ensures a steady supply of rainbows. 

The Celtic Tiger takes a nosedive

Changeable is also the right word for the economic situation of the past few years. While Ireland was considered the poorhouse of Europe up to joining the EU in 1973, from the mid-1990s onwards the country experienced an economic boom, earning it the epithet of Celtic Tiger and making it one of the wealthiest countries in the EU. Since 2008 things have been going downhill again, and fast.

In early 2011, Ireland needed a EU cash injection of billions. The global economic crisis particularly affected Ireland, bringing with it the collapse of the local construction industry as well as a drastic decline in exports. Unemployment and emigration are on the rise, and increasing sectors of the population are threatened by poverty.

The public mood reached an absolute low point when various investigative commissions revealed that for decades, Roman-Catholic priests, sheltered by bishops, had mistreated and sexually abused children and adolescents. Tens of thousands of cases have become known – a shock for the still overwhelmingly Catholic population. 

Another source of conflict lies in Northern Ireland, the Troubles, which have their historic roots in the 17th-century ‘Plantations’ of mainly Scottish Protestants in Ulster loyal to Britain, and which still threaten to erupt. The bloody unrest and civil war following the partition of the island (1921), and the later IRA (Irish Republican Army) bombing campaign spread to London and the British mainland.

It took the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, aiming to give autonomy to Northern Ireland and freeing prisoners in exchange for IRA disarmament, to get a peaceful solution underway. In 2005, the IRA leadership decided to end the armed struggle. This doesn’t cover splinter groups like the Real IRA however, responsible for the 1998 Omagh atrocity where 30 people died. Peace in Northern Ireland remains a delicate flower.

A therapy to combat depressing news stories since time immemorial is to chat in the pub. As in the UK, here the construction worker props up the counter next to a bank employee in his ironed designer shirt. The Irish also enjoy socialising over sports, and particularly enjoy golf. Most golf courses boast lush green vegetation, and not a few also a dream location with views of the raging sea and dramatic cliffs. 

Young and old meet at the racetrack

A passion transcending generations and social class is betting. A high number of Dubliners name greyhound races as their favourite pastime. The evening events of the dog racetrack of Shelbourne Park attract a throng of young and old, men in corduroy suits and flat cap, youngsters in baggy tracksuit bottoms and dolled-up women accompanied by their female friends.

Only a few decades ago, horse races and betting were considered the domain of the wealthier section of society, while dog races were associated with the working class. There is another tradition that has survived: the favourite pastime of many rural women remains bingo.

What makes Ireland so endearing, alongside the open and outgoing people, is the country’s natural beauty. The island boasts countless prehistoric and medieval cultural treasures: mystic places imbued with power where stones associated with druidic practices reach for the sky, alongside ancient tomb chambers and ruined nameless castles from Norman times. Amongst the extraordinary prehistoric survivals is Dun Aengus, a stone fort on the Aran Islands, as well as a burial chamber in Newgrange in Co. Meath that is around 5000 years old.

Every year on 21 December a magical lightshow is revealed when the rays of the sun enter the passage through a cunningly constructed opening. Early Christianity left its traces in high crosses, round towers and monastic complexes. Thus, an important monastic settlement formed around the year 1000 AD in Glendalough (Co. Wicklow), while the Gallarus Oratory on the  Dingle Peninsula dates to the 8th century. 

At the most beautiful spots of the country, British nobility once built their mansion houses on country estates, which over the course of time appeared to fuse with the landscape around. Typical are the entrance portals surrounded by climbing ivy and vines, their tall lattice windows, quarrystone mews and turreted gatehouses, as well as their Victorian-style conservatories.

Many of the big houses, castles, manor houses and fortified houses today open their gates to a paying public, or serve as restaurants or hotels. The interior is usually original: fireplaces as tall as a man, woodpanelled libraries, gently curving staircases, as well as rooms furnished with antiques. 

In the spring, pastures take on a luminous deep green

A trip to Ireland is also an encounter with a different concept of time. ‘When God made time, he made enough of it’, would sum up the approach of a lot of Irish people. All it means is: take it easy. For instance the boat service to one of the small islands can sometimes only run again the following day, or when those drops start to fall and the planned excursion is literally rained off.

Ireland is particularly beautiful in the spring, when huge rhododendrons, extensive fuchsia groves and deep-green pastures gleam in the sun. Bird colonies nest along the steep coastline, the magic of the light defying description. The western coast attracts most visitors. One of the main attractions in the south is the Ring of Kerry, a breathtaking road following the sea, without a doubt one of Ireland’s most beautiful routes.

The cliffs and mountains of granite and quartz lend the western coast (Co. Clare and Galway) a rough edge. The east has dune-fringed beaches and high plateaus covered in heather, while the northwest is Gaeltacht country – meaning those regions where Irish is still spoken on a regular basis. Wherever you meet the barren beauty of the upland bogs and unspoilt mountainsides, you will hear Failte go Eireann – Welcome to Ireland.

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