It’s the undoubted lure of the landscape, along with the easy pace and rhythms of life, which draw the majority of visitors to Ireland. Once there, few are disappointed: the green, rain-hazed loughs and wild, bluff coastlines, the inspired talent for conversation and the place of music and language at the heart of Irish culture all conspire to ensure that the reality lives up to expectations. More surprising perhaps is just how much variety this very small land packs into its countryside. The limestone terraces of the stark, eerie Burren seem separated from the fertile farmlands of Tipperary by hundreds rather than tens of miles, and the harshly beautiful west coast, with its cliffs, coves and strands, looks as if it belongs in another country altogether from the rolling plains of the central cattle-rearing counties.
It’s a place to explore slowly, roaming through agricultural landscapes scattered with farmhouses, or along the endlessly indented coastline. Spectacular seascapes unfold from rocky headlands where the crash of the sea against the cliffs and myriad islands is often the only sound. It is perfect if you want space to walk, bike or (with a bit of bravado) swim, or if you want to fish, sail or spend a week on inland waterways. In the smaller towns, too, the pleasures are unhurried: evenings over a Guinness or two in the snug of a pub, listening to the chat around a blood-orange turf fire.
In every part of the island are traces of a culture established long before the coming of Christianity while, in the depths of the so-called Dark Ages, the Christian communities of Ireland were great centres of learning. Fortifications raised by the chieftains of the Celtic clans and the Anglo-Norman barons bear witness to a period of later turbulence, while the Ascendancy of the Protestant settlers has left its mark in the form of vast mansions and estates.
But the richness of Irish culture is not just a matter of monuments. Especially in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht areas, you’ll be aware of the strength and continuity of the island’s oral and musical traditions. Myth-making is for the Irish people their oldest entertainment. The ancient classics are full of extraordinary stories – Cúchulainn the unbeatable hero in war, Medb the insatiable heroine in bed or Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn Mac Cool) chasing Diarmuid and Gráinne up and down the country – and tall tales, superstition-stirring and “mouthing off” (boasting) play as large a part in day-to-day life as they did in the era of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Europe’s oldest vernacular epic. As a guileless foreigner enquiring about anything from a beautiful lake to a pound of butter, you’re ideally placed to trigger the most colourful responses. And the speech of the country – moulded by the rhythms of the ancient tongue – fired such twentieth-century greats as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. Yet, while almost half of Ireland’s population claims to be able to speak the Irish language, fewer than ten percent use it on a daily basis and a fair proportion of these only do so during school hours.
Music has always been at the centre of Irish community life. You’ll find traditional music sessions in all the popular coastal counties (especially Antrim, Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork and Waterford) and in the cities, too (particularly Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway); some of it might be of dubious pedigree, but the Gaeltacht areas, and others, can be counted on to provide authentic renditions. Side by side with the traditional circuit is a strong rock scene that has spawned Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Corrs, alongside up-and-coming young hopefuls such as Damien Dempsey and Gemma Hayes. And ever-present are the balladeers, fathoming and feeding the old Irish dreams of courting, emigrating and striking it lucky; there’s hardly a dry eye in the house when the guitars are packed away.
The lakes and rivers of Ireland make it an angler’s dream, and the country has some of the most beautiful (and demanding) golf courses in the world, but the sports that raise the greatest enthusiasm amongst the Irish themselves are speedier and more dangerous. Horse racing in Ireland has none of the socially divisive connotations present on the other side of the Irish Sea, and the country has bred some of the world’s finest thoroughbreds. While association football is as popular as in most parts of the world now, Gaelic football, sharing elements of soccer and rugby (which itself has its hotbeds, notably in Limerick and Cork), still commands a large following. Hurling, the oldest team game played in Ireland, requires the most delicate of ball skills and the sturdiest of bones.
The essence of Ireland, however, is defined by its many profound cultural contrasts. Divided politically since 1921 – the Republic an independent state, Northern Ireland part of the UK – it has been ravaged by centuries of oppression and emigration. Drawn via the historic links of empire and economy to Britain, by political process to Brussels and by aspiration to variously Europe, Britain and the United States, Ireland’s position on the very fringes of Europe has had a defining influence in the forging of its complex identities.
The people themselves bear witness to those same divisions and contrasts. Almost the entire population of Ireland still defines itself on religious grounds. Though churchgoing may have diminished dramatically in the Republic, the strength of the Roman Catholic Church there still has a tremendous impact on political decision-making. The North remains rigidly divided between Catholics and those following a variety of Protestant denominations, a division almost entirely mirrored by the political schism between Republicans/Nationalists and Unionists/Loyalists, a legacy of partition in 1921.
During the 1990s, the Republic’s burgeoning economy, accompanied by massive British and European investment in the North, gave rise to a new plutocracy whose wealth not only manifested itself in changing cityscapes (and numerous financial scandals) but in the building of palatial mansions fit to rival the Palladian edifices of the Plantation era. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor has been exacerbated by rising property prices and the cost of urban living. The arrival of refugees and asylum seekers in the Republic has challenged perceived notions about Ireland’s homogeneity and, while many Irish people have embraced the concept of a more pluralist multiculturalism, others have seen the newcomers as a threat, and this has resulted in a spate of racist attacks over the last few years.
But a country notoriously blighted by emigration is, at last, drawing people back with the lure of work, and a generation has grown to adulthood with expectations of making a life for themselves at home. The conspicuous new wealth of many makes itself felt in every quarter of Irish life, but most especially in cities like Dublin and Galway where a proliferation of new bars, cafés and restaurants reveals a determination to enjoy life to the full. The driving cosmopolitan energy of these cities is informed, in part, by the complex array of experiences brought home by returning ex-pats, more familiar with the ways of London and New York, Melbourne and San Francisco, than with those of the Aran Islands.