8 reasons to visit Ireland NOW

IRELAND’S BEEN ON your must-see list for a while, right? Well, you need to put down your coffee and get to planning your trip ASAP. 2017 is proving to be one of the best years to hit the Emerald Isle — here’s why.

1. It’s never been easier to get here…

Blasket Islands Ireland

Blasket Island, County Kerry. Photo: Chris Hill

Yes, the Atlantic Ocean is big, but today’s jets make the crossing from the East Coast of the US to Ireland in as little as six hours — roughly the same flight time as a nonstop between New York and Los Angeles. Translation: For a lot of us, Ireland is practically in our backyards.

But it’s not just the relatively short flight time that makes the trip so appealing. Recently, budget carriers have joined the ranks of Aer Lingus and the major American airlines in offering flights from the US to Ireland. These include WOW Air, the Icelandic carrier, and, as of early 2017, Norwegian Air. The low-cost competition is naturally pushing ticket prices down across the board, meaning there’s arguably never been a better time to book a flight.

2. …and your money has never gone further.

Kensale Ireland shopping

Kenmare, County Kerry. Photo: Tourism Ireland

Money isn’t everything, but let’s face it: Most travelers are concerned with how much is still jingling in their pockets at the end of a trip. With the dollar currently stronger than at any point in the last decade (and not looking set to change any time soon), now is the perfect time to book a trip. In the end, this means you can have that dream Ireland vacation guilt-free and still have a few happy dollars left in your pocket when you get home. And it’ll be that much easier to spring for that extra pint, that hotel suite, or that tour you’d normally skip. Speaking of tours…

3. Game of Thrones, anyone?

Dark Hedges Ireland

Dark Hedges, County Antrim. Photo: Valerie Hinojosa

There’s this TV show called Game of Thrones that people say is a big deal…

A huge amount of the filming takes place in Northern Ireland, and as the show’s popularity has grown, so has the number of GoT experiences you can be a part of. Try your skills with a bow and arrow, don royal attire, feast like a king, or hang out with a pack of dire wolves. GoT tours leave daily from both Dublin and Belfast, and there’s tons to see. Tollymore Forest Park in County Down served as the “Haunted Forest,” while the Dark Hedges, an avenue of beech trees in Antrim, was featured as “Kingsroad,” where Arya’s escape from King’s Landing played out.

But if you’ve got someone in your group who prefers a galaxy far, far away, keep them happy by hitting up some of Ireland’s Star Wars locations. Both Episodes VII and VIII were partially shot here, and most locations can be found along the scenic Wild Atlantic Way.

4. Your genealogy depends on it (probably).

Glasnevin Cemetery Dublin Ireland

Glasnevin Cemetery, County Dublin. Photo: Brian Morrison

One of Ireland’s biggest exports has always been her people. Centuries of emigration to North America, Australia, England, and other regions have left an Irish diaspora scattered across the planet, trailing pubs, good music, and great stories in their wake. With DNA testing all the rage and so many people tracing their history back to this majestic island, it’s no wonder thousands come back every year, searching for a link to their family’s past.

Whether you already knew you were Irish through and through, or you’re convinced you have Irish heritage, there’s never been a better time to pursue genealogical research in Ireland. Online resources like Irish Genealogy will get you started, but once you’re here you can stop in to find out more at the National Archives.

Once you know the village and people you’re looking for, make sure to hit up the locals. If you have the right details, they might be able to help you learn more about your ancestors — who knows, maybe you have some distant cousins still in the area?

5. Word about Ireland’s awesome national parks is spreading.

Lough Tay County Wicklow Ireland

Lough Tay, County Wicklow. Photo: Brian Morrison

Running mostly along the western edge of the island, Ireland’s six national parks are where it’s at. After the winter months, the parks explode with wildflowers and all kinds of wildlife. There’s nothing quite like it.

Killarney National Park in County Kerry and the Wicklow Mountains outside Dublin are probably the best known, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones you should see. Ballycroy National Park in County Mayo was just awarded gold-tier status as an International Dark Sky Park (translation: ALL THE STARS), and Glenveagh National Park, in County Donegal, has one of Ireland’s most picturesque castles. And don’t forget — there’s no hour-long lines waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, and no one back home has likely had this experience. If you go now, of course.

6. Ireland’s festival culture is off the hook…

Halloween Festival Derry

Banks of the Foyle Festival, City of Derry-Londonderry. Photo: Gardiner Mitchell

Ireland’s festival season heats up in spring, and it goes all year long. Among the dozens and dozens of celebrations taking place across the island this year, highlights include:

  • Sea Sessions Surf Music Festival, June 23-25: Big-name international acts descend on the small beach town of Bundoran, on Ireland’s northwestern coast, where incredible live music mixes with some of the island’s best surf.
  • Galway International Arts Festival, July 17-30: For a full two weeks at the height of summer, this friendly west-coast city floods with high-octane art exhibits, street parades, live music, and fireworks displays. It’s a wild, wild time.
  • Hillsborough International Oyster Festival, September 6-10: Never heard of the World Oyster Eating Championship? Now you have — and this is where to see it! Delicious oysters are the backdrop for this five-day spread of fun and slightly wacky events, including a soapbox derby through town.
  • Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, October 27-30: This is Ireland’s largest jazz festival, where the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie have played.
  • Banks of the Foyle Halloween Festival, October 27-31: The “best Halloween festival in the world.” The food, the music, the scares, the costumes — Halloween is an ancient Irish festival, so it’s fitting that the Walled City of Derry puts on the biggest and best carnival there is.

And, okay, we know not everyone is going to make it to Ireland in 2017. If you’re planning for next year, make sure to put Dublin’s New Year’s and St. Patrick’s festivals on your list.

7. …and its foodie movement has hit its stride.

Ox Restaurant Ireland

Photo: Elaine Hill for OX

The cuisine evolution Ireland has seen in the last couple of years is nearly unparalleled — hence the French and Italians you might see visiting for the cheese alone. A good example is Gubbeen House, famous for their award-winning semi-soft cheeses. Gubbeen is located in County Cork and is all family owned and operated, as is much of Ireland’s bubbling foodie movement. To get a taste, stop at Mannings Deli in nearby Ballylickey — they provide tasting plates of local food, Gubbeen included.

Next up: Burren Smokehouse, located in County Clare. It’s about 15 minutes from the Cliffs of Moher, and it’s where you should get your hands on some organic Irish salmon. Stop at the visitor center to see how the smoking is done, peruse the fresh samples, and best of luck not sending home a gift hamper.

After the cheese, the salmon, and the inevitable tastings at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin or Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, a true meal experience is needed — that’s where Ox Belfast comes in. You’ll be eating lunch or dinner overlooking the River Lagan, and it’ll definitely be one of the freshest meals you’ve ever tasted (and sustainably sourced, too). Afterwards, head up to the mezzanine level with a glass of wine as recommended by the chef, and settle into a more secluded spot to let the day’s adventures soak in.

8. You’ll be glad you came, whatever the season.

The Rock of Cashel Ireland

The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary. Photo: Brian Morrison

Ireland has a temperate climate — never too hot, never too cold. In spring and fall, you’ll be skipping the crowds and enjoying the longer daylight hours. By late March into summer, you’re already looking at 12+ hours of sunlight — in early June, that number climbs to 17. That’s bonus time to check out one more castle ruin, one more mountain view, or one more village market.

Late fall and winter in Ireland are also worth a visit, as it’s not frigid like you might be thinking. Ireland is cold in the way the American Pacific Northwest is cold — more chilly than anything — not cold in the way Finland is cold. What’s more, a winter visit brings its own charms — think cozy pub sessions, turf fires, and enchanting castle stays.

In other words, whenever you decide to come, you can always find a good excuse…as if you needed one.

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Experiences to have in Ireland

Photo: focal_leat

Ireland is an easy place to visit, with a famously friendly population. With the countryside of technicolor greens, cold Guinness and live music in homey pubs, the stark stone cottages of the Aran Islands, a slab of warm soda bread with tea on a rainy day. Each year, Ireland hosts millions of travelers: hikers, historians, bibliophiles and beer-ophiles, looking for a bit of the famous Irish craic. Here are a some guaranteed experiences you’ll have on a trip to Ireland and a few spots we recommend you visit.

1. Rich cultural history

 Trinity College DublinDublin, IrelandYou don’t want to miss this. The stunning architecture of Trinity College. It is a perfect place to stroll around after a pint of Guinness. Also don’t miss the Book of Kells in the library. #free #history #ireland #architecture

Ireland may be small, but culturally speaking, it is a giant. From literature to music, Ireland has produced some of the greats. Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, Sinead O’Connor, U2, Brendan Gleeson, Francis Bacon, Neil Jordan…I could go on, but gloating doesn’t become us.

 Ireland’s School of FalconryGalway, IrelandFlying the Falcons at Ashford Castle with my brother and sister is something that We’ll all remember for a very long time. Definitely the highlight from our time in Ireland. #falconry #ireland

The ruins of Dunluce Castle

At Dunluce Castle outside Portrush in Northern Ireland, there are megalithic stone formations just next to the road, castles crumbling into fields or perched on cliffs, and random walls and forts and towers scattered around the country. Photo by Kate Siobhan Mulligan.

2. Beautiful countryside

 Connemara National ParkGalway, IrelandIf Western Ireland is calling you, do not pass up the Twelve Bens, the mountain range located in the Connemara region. There are numerous hikes that take you into the range, but the Diamond Hill trail is a great introduction with spectacular views.
The 7km loop will gradually take you through bog land before gaining elevation, gifting you with views out to the coast line. At the summit, you can delight in a sweeping 360• panorama. It’s gorgeous and moderate, a perfect start to your trekking adventures!
#hiking #ireland #galway #connemara #diamondhill #mountains #europe #explore

Ireland is tiny, so you’d think we would see more of it, but until recently the roads were too crappy to traverse the island that much. The Cliffs of Moher carve a zig-zag out of the Clare coast, The Burren is a vast limestone wonderland filled with bogs housing our ancestors and preserving them perfectly, if a bit leathery. The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (although technically in Northern Ireland, not the Republic). And I can guarantee you you’ve never seen so many rainbows in your life. That’s because of all the leprechauns. Seriously. (Or the rain, but whatever…)

Giant’s Causeway

Giant’s Causeway, located in Northern Ireland. This geological formation is worth the trip. The hexagonal basalt columns are larger than your feet, of all different heights and shades of grey. Photo by Kate Siobhan Mulligan.

The Cliffs of Moher

The iconic Cliffs of Moher are about an hour south of Galway, in County Clare. Stay for sunset. Photo by Kate Siobhan Mulligan.

3. The Irish language

 Powerscourt House & GardensWicklow, Ireland#green #horses

Ahhhh, Gaeilge. It may not be evolving, but it’s still there, on ATMs, at bus stops, and in some parts, it’s still thriving. Seeing as every Irish person has to take it for their Leaving Cert, it enables even the least fluent of us to have a solid linguistic back-up when travelling. We can bitch and moan about people in our immediate vicinity without them having a clue what we’re saying. Granted, slurs don’t get much more vulgar than “Póg mo thóin” (Kiss my ass), but regardless, it’s something we’ve got that no one else does. So there.

4. Friendly people

 Old Jameson DistilleryDublin, IrelandDoes one really need a reason to pop in for a tour and a drink? It doesn’t disappoint

We’re friendly as fuck. The fact that we don’t even hate the English anymore is proof that we can make amends with pretty much anyone. Anyone visiting our fair nation will come back with tales of invitations to dine with the natives, breaking bread, swigging whiskey, and singing songs until the wee hours. The weather may be shit, but we make up for it with our good vibes and open door policy.

The people in those pubs

Ray Blackwell, the manager of De Barras in Clonakilty. De Barras was recently voted (again) as one of the best pubs in all of Ireland. Photo by Kate Siobhan Mulligan

5. Neutrality

 Cliffs of MoherClare, IrelandThe incredible Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of #Ireland

Ireland’s political neutrality has safeguarded us from war and diplomatic red-flagging. The Irish are natural fence sitters, choosing to keep the peace rather than rock the boat, which leads larger land masses to welcome us with open arms, saying “Come! Tend our bars, heal our sick, pick our apples! We know you mean no harm!”. They say the our army is the fittest in the world, training around the clock for a battle that will never be fought.

6. The rain

 O’Brien’s TowerClare, IrelandBeautiful tower at the Cliffs of Moher

The rain in Ireland is practically perpetual. We don’t even really have seasons anymore, you can just tell what time of year it is by the quantity and temperature of the drizzle or downpour. However, the rain bestows on us a particular hardiness, an all-weather resistance that those from more tropical nations lack. Nothing can phase us. No yoga class shall go unattended, no party un-partied, no barbeque un-grilled, and no school missed. We are Irish, and we brave the weather without raincoats or umbrellas, baring our chests and legs to the elements in defiance of Mother Nature’s constant test.

Ballydonegan

A small town on the Beara Peninsula. Photo by Scott Sporleder.

7. Security

 Glenveagh CastleCounty Donegal, IrelandCastle out on a lake in the middle of nowhere. Rent a bike in the parking lot and go for a cruise up the lake. Lots of different trees and plants and a beautiful garden at the castle. #castle #bike #lake

The Emerald Isle is very safe. Since the recession things, like phones have become a hot commodity for thieves, and say goodbye to your bike if you leave it in town overnight, but apart from that, it’s fairly chill in terms of danger. There’s no large-scale drug racket like in Mexico, no sprawling slums like in Brazil, no man-eating bears like in Canada, and no spirit-crushing dictators like in North Korea. The most perilous thing you’ll encounter at night is a drunk stumbling home after a night’s drinking, and he’s too busy worrying about the holy show he made of himself to bother with you.

Irish immigrants

MARY JANE KELLY WAS BORN in Limerick around 1863 and died in London’s East End in 1888. Everything in between is vague. What little we know about her comes from police interviews with the people who knew her — she’d told men she lived with that she was born in Limerick, then she moved to Wales, then she became a prostitute in London’s ritzier West End, then she briefly lived in France with a man, then she ended up in Victorian London’s much scarier East End.

On November 8th, she went out for the night, got drunk, and eventually retired to her tiny room in Miller’s Court, on “the worst street in London.” This final night of her life has been dissected a million different ways by professionals and amateurs. What we know is this: at 10:45 in the morning on November 9th, Kelly’s landlord knocked on her door to collect rent. She didn’t answer, so he went in, and found her body, literally ripped apart.

Mary Jane Kelly was the final and most gruesome victim of the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Her mutilated corpse became the subject of the first-ever crime scene photograph. She became far more famous in her brutal death than she possibly could have in life.

Irish refugees

My Irish ancestors came to the US in spurts — the first of them came during the potato famine in the 1840s, when the choice was to either catch a boat to America or starve. The rest of them trickled in over the next 60 years. Almost all of them ended up in New York and New Jersey. My grandfather was born poor in Newark. His father died of a heart attack when he was only 14, and then shortly afterwards, his older brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

My Grandpa was a rags-to-riches story. He worked his way up from janitor to an executive at General Electric. He met my grandmother and took her on dates to the Jersey Shore. When his work transferred him to Cincinnati, Ohio, he settled there, where his daughter, my mom, met my dad.

Heritage was not an emphasis in my family. We were told we were Americans, and since both of my grandfathers were self-made men, our history was that of the American dream. Our story started when our ancestors set foot on America’s shores. But this wasn’t a history that was particularly deep — the stories only went back a couple of generations, and they were all tales of success and triumph. I was an awkward, lazy, and angry teenager — I couldn’t relate to tales of hard work and success. These people who’d conquered life did not feel like ancestors of mine.

There were moments when my grandfather would seem to show a deeper nostalgia, and it was when he was singing. He had a beautiful bass voice, and on St. Patrick’s Day, he would drink Guinness and sing “Galway Bay” and jokey Irish folk songs. His voice was slow, soft, and melancholy. He had jowls, and they would flap comfortingly when he shook his head with each note. The sound came from some place deeper and sadder. I was hooked on this grandfather — he was so much more human than the one who’d conquered poverty and had risen above.

Living on the Ripper’s turf

In 2011, I moved to London to go to grad school. When selecting housing, I more or less flipped a coin, and ended up in Lilian Knowles Student Housing in London’s East End. I knew a bit about the East End from one of my favorite books, Alan Moore’s From Hell, a comic book about the Jack the Ripper murders, and I was delighted to see that I was smack dab in the middle of Jack’s territory. I’d read about pubs like the Ten Bells, and the church right around the corner had featured heavily in the book.

My kitchen at Lilian Knowles was situated directly over the street, and every day, tour groups would walk by while I was cooking my dinner. The guides would always be wearing heavy top hats and holding lanterns. They’d park outside my window and start talking:

“THIS, my friends, was once ‘the most dangerous street in London.’ Right here we have what used to be known as ‘The Providence Row Night Refuge,’ which was once a place for the destitute women and children of Whitechapel to stay. Mary Jane Kelly herself lived here briefly while working for the nuns. The Refuge served the community until 1999, when it was converted to housing for a different class of poor people: students.”

This was a laugh line. The tourists would inevitably look up at me, in my shabby clothes, as they laughed.

Lilian Knowles

Lilian Knowles, formerly the Providence Row Night Refuge. My kitchen was the window directly under the “Women” sign. Photo by Jim Linwood

“If you turn around,” the guide would continue, “you will see a fenced off alley way. This, my dear friends, is no longer open to tourists. This alley leads to what was once Miller’s Court, where Mary Jane Kelly would meet her grisly end.”

I was shocked the first time I heard this. That? That was a boring alley next to a car park. I walked over later and craned my neck, trying to see some old remnant of Miller’s Court, but there wasn’t much to look at. So I moved on.

Mary Jane Kelly and me.

While I was living in London, I decided to do some family research. A few years before, my grandfather told me that he’d never found out where his brother was buried. So I went online and found it almost immediately: he was buried in Luxembourg. By the time I’d made it to London, I knew my grandpa wasn’t going to ever get to the tomb of his brother, so I caught a train to Luxembourg and visited it myself.

At my uncle’s tomb.

When I got home, I showed some pictures to my grandfather, who started telling me more about his family — how his brother had been a troublemaker, had gotten into trouble with the law, and the judge had told him the choice was enlisting in the Army or going to jail.

After that, loops started closing, and I couldn’t stop learning about my family. I didn’t even have to look — it fell right into my lap. First, at my housing in London, in the place where Mary Jane Kelly once lived, I met and fell in love with a girl from New Jersey. She’d grown up blocks away from the place where my grandparents went on their first date on the Jersey Shore.

We eventually moved back and got married. My wife, who works in politics, got focused on healthcare in New Jersey. My grandmother told me that my great-great aunt Rose had been one of the first female doctors in the state of New Jersey, and had worked on Ellis Island. She told me that her family had long been active in the state’s Democratic party, and that there was the odd political radical in my lineage. I opened an Ancestry account and started piecing together my old family tree. I talked to my Grandpa, shortly before he died, and he named as many relatives as he could remember. I tried to take the history back centuries, but it was not particularly easy, as Irish people tended to name their kids the same five things. I gave up the hope that I’d discover that I was the great-great-great-great grandson of George Washington, but I was miffed to discover that I wasn’t related to anyone famous at all.

With one possible exception — Grandpa had been related, a couple generations back, to a family by the name of Kelly. Every third person in Ireland, at the time, seemed to be named Kelly, so tracing them was next to impossible, but as far as I could tell, the Kelly’s had left Ireland in the late 1860’s, early 1870’s for either Britain or the US. The ones that came to the US would end up as my direct descendants. The ones that went to the UK — who knows where they ended up? But they did have a daughter, born in 1862, who went off Ancestry’s record books in the 1870’s. Her name was Mary J. Kelly.

The violence that brought us to America

The Irish people I’ve met don’t recognize the American version of St. Patty’s Day. They’ve called me out for even calling it St. Patty’s Day. And it’s fair — There are 33 million Irish-Americans. There are only 6 million people on the island of Ireland. Most American Irish are so disconnected from their homeland that they know little more about their culture than Catholicism and Guinness.

Most of the fourth or fifth generation immigrants I know have their own American rags-to-riches stories. But as I reached into the past, I found that our immigrant stories were far uglier, far more complex, and far more human than the Gilded Age glitziness I’d been shown in my childhood. The Irish were driven here by poverty and violence, and often met the same even once they’d reached our shores. They starved in Irish famines and fought in American wars.

Mary Jane Kelly is probably not a direct relative of mine. My genealogy skills just aren’t that good, and there were a lot of Mary Kelly’s in 1860’s Ireland. But thousands of my ancestors were just like her. They struggled just as hard, they lived and died in oblivion. Not everyone gets tied to the world’s most famous serial killer. It’s about the last way, I think, any of us would want to achieve immortality.

Most of my family history will be forever hidden. But when my grandpa sang, I could still hear Ireland in his voice. It was older than he was, and in it, there was darkness. It felt like a place I’d been. It felt like home.