Thursday, 4 February 2010

The best way to explore Ireland

Ireland's small size tempts visitors to try to see the entire country in a single trip. The distances look short on a map and the miles seem quite modest, but don't be deceived. 'Trying to get from Killarney to Galway between lunch and dinner means not only rushing through Counties Limerick and Clare, but also missing the entire point of Ireland. The best way to explore Ireland is by hire car, which can be pre-booked at Shannon, Dublin, Cork, Knock or Galway Airport.

True, even at this speed, it is impossible to miss the rainbow of greens, the rainbows themselves, and the otherwise gorgeous skies and scenery. But the whole point of Ireland is her people ancient or living, silent or talkative - their histories and connections.

Everything in Ireland seems built to human scale. Every nook and cranny has its own name, usually linking it with real or imagined former inhabitants. Scenery, however grand, never intimidates visitors, and otherwise forbidding mountains have names that are musical and wonderfully personal - Ben Lettery, Ben Bulben, and Errigal. Cities and towns are more hospitable to pedestrians than to drivers, and can be walked thoroughly with little strain. Even cosmopolitan Dublin feels cozy for a city.

Car rental in Ireland

Car rental in Ireland can be pre-booked from the airport at Shannon, Galway, Knock, Cork or Dublin, and getting around by hire car definitely has its advantages.

The Irish concept of time is unique and elastic; it often feels imprecise to Americans. In every transaction, there is always time for a chat. Anything after noon can be evening; revels of all types start late and go long into the night - making a night of it means the whole night. Take your time in Ireland and pretty Soon you'll think you have far more of it. Here is just a sampling of the unique experiences that make a visit to Ireland pure magic:

The Abbey Theatre in Dublin

When the Abbey, Dublin's most famous theatre, offers productions of plays by early Irish playwrights like Synge, O'Casey, or cofounder W. B. Yeats himself, these classics open the Irish heart and mind to a visitor.

The Abbey is not the sole keeper of the keys to the kingdom, however. Check local theatres around the country like the Druid Theatre and An Taibdhearc in Galway, the Hawks Well in Sligo, and the Guildhall in Derry for renditions of Irish drama from Wilde and Synge to Brian Friel and Tom Murphy. The level of talent - both professional and amateur is exemplary, the theaters intimate, and the sound of Irish voices absolutely magical.

Irish pubs

It is not uncommon for Irish vacationers travelling, say, from Dublin to Clifden, a nonstop drive of about 5 hours, to shorten the road with a few stops at favourite pubs along the way.

They pause as much for spiritual as for liquid refreshment, to take the local conversational temperature as it varies from County Meath to County Roscommon to County Galway. Behind the wheel, all is speed, dash, and more than a little daring. Be assured, however, Irish travellers know how to take their time, pausing to savour a chat more than the scenery.

For American visitors, the English language in the mouth of an Irish man, woman, or child sounds like a marvellous new tongue. Few words are rarely used when more will do; colour rather than precision is the rule. A pub stop for directions may not clarify the way, but it will illuminate the country.

Things to do in Ireland

You may park next to a petrol pump, squeeze past bundles of peat and bags offeed and fertilizer, and be distracted by shelves of groceries, but be assured there is a bar in there somewhere. Country pubs are rural Ireland's answer to the minimall, invented before the question was even asked, and usually crammed into a space too small to swing a cat. Locals arrive by foot or on bikes, buy milk, bread, and bacon, and have a sociable sip before heading back down their own boreen (a tiny, unpaved lane).

A wonderfllly workable Irish solution to after-hours shopping is the family-owned pub attached to a grocery store. No matter that the shop is dark and long closed, nor that it appears to be a separate entity. A polite inquiry to the barman (and the patience to wait while he attends to the more important business of dispensing pints) will yield the milk or bread or other necessity. If he's very busy, he might just open the door to the shop, tell you to get what you want, and pay at the bar on the way out.

Galway Bay oysters

Let there be oysters under the sea or in this case, Galway Bay and there will be no question of there being love. Smallish and tasting like a sweet smack of the sea, these exquisitely fresh oysters deserve frequent sampling, and are best washed down with a tall jar of Guinness stout. When September heralds their months once again, the folks in Galway celebrate with an Oyster Festival: 2 days of partying that leave visitors feeling they have been celebrating for a month. Happily, another Irish delectable, smoked salmon, is available year-round.

Aficionados ask for wild rather than farmed salmon, but when it's well smoked, it is often hard to tell the difference. Enamoured visitors have been known to eat smoked salmon scrambled into their breakfast eggs, on slabs of brown bread and butter at lunch, and then again as a starter before dinner all in the same day. Interrupt the seaborne goodies with liberal doses of native cheeses, most of them handmade, all creamy rich and fresh air infused.

Known as farmhouse cheeses, they are made in small batches, usually on the same farm as the goats and cows that produced the raw ingredients. In good restaurants and small grocery stores, look for names like Cashel Blue from County Tipperary, Ireland's answer to Stilton; Lough Caum, a creamy goat cheese from County Clare; or Milleens, a soft cow's milk cheese from County Cork. When in doubt, be sure to try anything made nearby.

County Mayo Ireland

A Georgian house, seen in a country setting, emphasizes all the restrained grace of the genre: the solemn, unadorned (but pleasing) geometry of the facade concealing some architectural delight within. At Newport House, a hospitable country-house hotel in the little village of Newport, County Mayo, one delight is an elegant lantern a kind of domed skylight which admits a lovely light down to the sweeping staircase beneath. During the 1800s, it was as likely to illuminate tweeds and guns and waders as ball gowns.

Speaking of waders, the fishing here has an air of the Georgian era as well. Large sections of the Newport River belong exclusively to the manor, a bit of droit du seigneur in the late 20th century. Stroll along its rippling banks, casting for salmon or sea trout, and feel that it is yours alone.

Weather in Ireland

It's not exactly raining, but the wipers are on; you don't need an umbrella, but your feet are getting wet. The Irish have many onomatopoeic expressions for precipitation it may be showering, lashing, belting, or even pissing but none so apt as soft. A soft day magically lights up the landscape, for the wet veil over the sun casts a special glow. You may not see the distant mountains standing atop the garden steps of Powerscourt, but the flower borders bloom incandescently and the shadowy ruin of the house comes alive again.

Soft days fur the trees and rock walls with mosses, stud the hedgerows with tiny ferns, and transfonn a country lane into a glade full of magical life. A soft day makes travelers slow down, look about for a rainbow, and understand the genesis of Irish tweed.

The Irish craik

The Irish craik is well known throughout the world as meaning a `great time` and there is nowhere better to enjoy the craik than in Dublin. Hire a car from Dublin Airport, Galway Airport, Shannon Airport, Cork Airport or Sligo Airport and make the most of the Irish countryside and cities.

Irish tweeds

Irish tweeds perfectly capture the hazy blues and myriad greens, the luminous grays, the dashes of bright fuchsia, and the golden flicker of gorse and lichen on the rocks. Anything made from this sturdy, appealing fabric stands up well however soft the weather, and keeps the wearer dry and cozy (but not burdened). County Donegal is practically a synonym for tweed, and while all manner of tweed items are sold throughout the country, a special cachet lingers over a jacket or skirt purchased on its home ground. Companies like Magee's and John Molloy still employ home weavers throughout the county, and include the craftsman's name in the garment label.

Other counties have their own claims to tweed fame: Millar's in Clifden, County Galway, weaves tweed blankets as distinctive as the Connemara landscape; Avoca Weavers, whose home is in County Wick low, captures the soft rainbow colors of Ireland's garden; nontraditional weavers like Helena Ruuth in Dublin combine silks and linens in a misty Irish palette. Best get one of each.

Irish music and dance

Ireland's music, ladenwith the country's heartbreaking history, ironically inspires the most extraordinarily cheerful evenings.Each part of Ireland has its song, from The Rose of Alandale to The Fields of Athenry; from Dublin in the Rare Old Times to The Mountains of Mourne to The West's Awake. Pubs like the King's Head in Galway City, the Corner Stone in Lahinch, County Clare, O'Connor's in Doolin, County Clare, or Mannion's in Clifden, County Galway, post signs announcing Traditional Music Tonight.

Informal playing, however called a session is common at these and countless other pubs. Impromptu songfests are the Irish version of a digestif at private parties, as well as at country hotels like the Rock Glen, near Clifden, County Galway.

Every Irish man, woman, and child has a party piece; and everyone participates, entertaining each other with a gusto that feels like television was never invented. Sessions go late into the night, kept afloat with lashings of spirits and pints.

Resist the impulse to retire at a sensible hour, be sure to take a turn buying a round of drinks, and don't worry about being in good voice. Participation counts much more than talent, and the hospitable Irish will likely break into New York, New York or I Left My Heart in San Francisco in reciprocal delight at your contribution.

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