Enjoy Traditional Irish Music in County Clare
Located in the west of the country and running out to the coast, County Clare boasts some of Ireland's most spectacular landscapes, including the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland's most famous natural attraction. Surfers flock from across the globe, too, for the monster waves of Lahinch, which—on those rare occasions when the sun is out—is also an ideal beach for lazing the day away.
But beyond the postcard-perfect landscapes, locals will tell you that what County Clare is really known for is its music. The area is regarded as the home of traditional Irish music, and seemingly endless festivals throughout the year reinforce this notion. The traditional music festivals here launch in February and don't let up until the end of October.
If you'd like to partake, head to Doolin. Stroll the streets of this colorful coastal village during festival time and enjoy the party, or simply stop by O'Connor's, McGann's or McDermott's Pub any night of the week and let the distinctive sounds of guitars, fiddles, accordions, flutes, and bagpipes carry you away.
Eat Your Way Through County Cork
There are places on this list that represent the traditional culture of Ireland and all the history and conviviality for which that culture is known. Then there's County Cork. Pay a visit to the southwestern end of Ireland and you'll find lovely pastoral farmland, wide and inviting beaches like Barleycove and Inchydoney, and locals who do things a little bit differently.
Corkonians go their own way. This is a region more famous for Murphey's Irish Stout than Guinness; spiced beef instead of corned beef. A culinary tour of the city of Cork, which stops at the famous English Market, reveals this unique culture one bite at a time: sample straight-from-the-ocean seafood, artisanal cheeses, the aforementioned spiced beef, and, an assortment of spirits like whiskey and local wine.
Branch out to the harbor town of Kinsale, known for its 17th-century defensive forts and generally credited as the epicenter of a mid-1990s culinary revolution that saw Ireland reinvent itself from a nation solely serving austere plates of meat and potatoes. It's here on Kinsale's "Eat Street" that restaurants began celebrating local purveyors. Braised pork belly, oysters, award-winning local cheeses and wooden boards piled high with delectable charcuterie—needless to say, you should bring your appetite.
Embark on a Literary Tour
Yes, this is indeed a thing in Ireland. There's an abundance of these tours for the simple reason that the country has produced a great many towering literary figures over the course its history. Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde—they and innumerable others have shaped the nation’s literary history over the years. The cool thing about taking a literary tour is that you can go as big or small as you want. You could make it a multi-day affair and crisscross the nation, visiting towns, cities, and landmarks closely associated with your favorite scribblers.
There’s the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandy Cove, Dublin, which is the setting for the first chapter of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. There’s also the postcard-perfect town of Sligo, in Northern Ireland, whose bucolic country cottages, medieval castles, and riverfront promenades inspired the poet William Butler Yeats. There are other options, too. You could visit the city of Limerick, the birthplace of Kate O'Brien, who challenged gender norms in her writing, and the setting of Frank McCourt’s modern masterpiece Angela’s Ashes, or head to the colorful port city of Galway, home to famous playwright and novelist Walter Macken.
If time is short, consider taking a literary “pub crawl” of Dublin. These interactive tours, which last about three hours, are hosted by professional actors and move from one historic pub to another. The actors regale audiences along the way with quotes and mini-performances based on the famous text of the authors who frequented such watering holes. But the tour isn’t restricted merely to pubs—it also pays a visit to Trinity College, the alma mater of Oscar Wilde and others. It’s a great brisk excursion that mixes equal parts culture and Guinness.
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Learn the Ancient Sport of Falconry
Falconry, the act of using trained birds of prey for hunting, has a long historical legacy across the globe. Artifacts related to falconry have been found in Asia and the Middle East that date back five thousand years, and the Quran specifically references the “nobility” of falconry. This extends to Ireland as well, as there’s evidence it took place in the country all the way back in 7,000 BCE. The first written mention of falconry in Ireland occurred in the 12th century and referenced the King of Tara’s two hunting hawks.
Today you can visit the beautiful Killarney region of southwest Ireland and learn this ancient practice at a falconry center. Not to worry, as these guided “walks with hawks” are not hunting excursions but rather opportunities to interact first hand with birds of prey and view their aerial acrobatics in free flight. Professional falconers lead the walks, which are suitable for all ages, and the experience is enhanced by the beauty of Killarney and the iconic MacGillycuddy Reeks mountain range which serve as a backdrop.
Take a Whiskey Tour of Ireland
As Irish author James Joyce once famously said, “Ireland sober is Ireland stiff.” And if you want to get to the heart of this convivial culture, you’ll dive right in and sample its most notable potable, Irish whiskey. The country famously produces a wide variety, so it makes sense to hit the road and discover the different counties and their offerings one sip at a time.
You can start in Dublin with a visit to the Bow Street Jameson Distillery. This is the very site where, in 1780, John Jameson launched his namesake whiskey that is globally renowned today. You can take a tour of this distillery or head to the colorful village of Midleton in southeast County Cork. This is where Jameson actually produces all their whiskey today, and the distillery here offers four different tours including guided visits with tastings of their original whiskey, as well as tasting tours of premium whiskeys.
You can then travel to the center of Ireland and visit the Tullamore D.E.W distillery, which is located in between Dublin and Galway. Founded in 1829, Tullamore D.E.W. is famous for being the first distillery to create a blended whiskey. Keep heading west and you’ll hit County Kerry and its famous rolling green hills and rugged coastline. Here you'll also find the Dingle Distillery, a relatively new option (it was created in 2012) that sells fine small-batch whiskeys—they produce just two casks per day.
Finally, you can cross the nation and enjoy a bit of “northern whiskey” in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This is where the Bushmills distillery located, which is the oldest distillery in the country as they started production way back in 1608.
Uncover Belfast's Troubled Past
Over the past two decades, Northern Ireland's capital city of Belfast has shed its reputation as a city mired in conflict and violence and adopted a more pleasant label: tourist destination. Yes, tourism has been steadily growing as visitors to Ireland are happily finding that Belfast is open for business. It's an attractive place, too, at once a modern metropolis yet with all the historic buildings and unique landmarks that define the most fashionable of European cities. There's even rich maritime history here in the form of the Belfast shipyards, which produced that most ill-fated of ocean-liners, the RMS Titanic.
But you can't get to the heart of Belfast's culture without acknowledging its past history of internecine strife. Easily the best way to glean such insight is on a black taxi tour of the city. These are the traditional black cabs that roamed the streets of Ireland for generations, with one big difference: the cabbies have eschewed the daily grind of shuttling fares back and forth in favor of offering historic tours of Belfast. The drivers grew up in what they colloquially refer to as "the troubles," and they offer a unique perspective as they drive passengers around the city, visiting the iconic political murals as well as Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. What stands out the most on the tour are the "peace walls"—barriers that represent what for so long was a bitter, violent struggle between Republicans and Free-Staters. It's telling that although the IRA laid down their weapons in 1998, those walls still exist today.
Weave Baskets in Connemara
Who would have thought that basketweaving was the way to the heart of Irish culture? A global tradition that dates back 10,000 years or more, early hunter-gatherer societies used baskets as the principal method to transport things like food, tools, and raw materials. This was the case centuries ago in ancient Ireland, too.
Today, basketmakers go beyond the traditional woods and grasses once used in their construction and have incorporated more exotic components, like willow bark, bramble, dock leaves, heather, and even bicycle tire rubber. The endeavor has become so popular, in fact, that about 20 years ago a dedicated group of practitioners formed the Irish Basket Makers Association.
Yes, Irish basketweaving is a decidedly creative pursuit, and you can enjoy it as well. Come to the culturally distinct and downright beautiful region of Connemara in western Ireland and you can take a class. This district west of Galway City is known for its distinct, colorful little villages, and here you'll find one such coastal enclave. In Spiddal, you can take craft workshops and make your own willow baskets amid the natural beauty of Connemara.