Ireland: Travel Tips from a Local
Ten years ago, I landed on the green shores of Ireland for the first time. It had been a lifelong dream, and like many Americans, I had distant relatives who had fled the famine plagued the country over a century earlier to settle in the US. Exploring that heritage was important to me, but in the end, what really connected with me was the easy-going culture of the people, and the rugged, majestic landscapes.
Fast forward to today, and I’m married, living in Dublin. That’s all a story for another time, but what I’ve learned about the culture and the country itself over the last decade is worth sharing for first-time visitors.
The Irish pub is really important in Ireland, for better or for worse. While there’s certainly an existing reputation of the drunken Irish, that’s really more a stereotype of the past. Honestly, you’re far more likely to see tourists falling out of pubs unable to walk than you are Irish people. A pub is a place you visit regularly, maybe a few nights a week on the way home from work. You see the same people, you have the “chats”, and after one or two rounds, you head home. There are definitely parties to be had and birthdays to be celebrated that are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part that’s pub life. Pubs are important places to connect with others, and they are valued institutions in Irish culture.
The barmen and bar women in traditional pubs are often the owners or career bartenders. In cities, they’re sometimes dressed up very professionally. You wouldn’t normally tip in pubs, but you can leave a little after ordering a big round if you feel the need. They sometimes won’t take it and will leave it on the counter, so don’t be offended if that’s the case. If someone buys you a pint, return the favor, but be sure you do it when they’re ready for another, or just let the barman know and pay for it in advance.
Guinness is the popular choice in most of the Republic, but if you’re in Cork or Kerry, order Murphy’s instead. A good rule of thumb is to have a look at what people are drinking when you walk in the pub, and order in line with that. Irish people are very particular about their Guinness, and all pours are not created equal in this regard. If you walk into a busy pub and no one else is drinking it, order something else. Ask a local where to find a good pint, and they’ll suggest a place. Take their word for it.
If you’ve ever spent time in the Pacific Northwest of the US, you know it’s a constant game of layers. Ireland is the exact same. If the sun is out now, it probably won’t be in 20 minutes. If it’s dry now, it probably won’t stay that way. And this scenario will repeat itself all day long. Bring layers, bring a rain jacket, bring a scarf. If you plan for all of the possibilities, you’ll be less annoyed by them. Yes, it rains, but not all the time, and usually not for too long. I like to refer to Irish weather as being a bit moody. You’ll see her sideways rain and ferocious wind, and then you’ll be rewarded with her spectacular sunlit green hills.
Just about every travel blog will tell you to eat the traditional dishes of “coddle” and “Irish stew”. That’s like telling visitors to America to try a hot dog or some french fries. Sure, they’re “traditional”, but they don’t really reflect current culture. In the past, these were dishes made mostly by the poor, using ingredients that could be easily and cheaply obtained. These days, no one here sits down for Sunday dinner with a bowl of Irish stew or coddle. There’s a lot more interesting traditional food to explore.
Seafood would be the big one, namely Irish smoked salmon, flaky white fish like cod or hake, and prawns. The offcuts go into creamy chowder with potatoes, celery, carrots, and herbs. Over 80% of Irish beef is grass-fed, and most Irish grown food generally has a high-quality standard. It’s also about sea vegetables, as the culinary use of seaweed is quickly gaining in popularity. You can join a seaweed foraging tour and learn how it’s used. The foodie capital of the country is the region of West Cork, where the shocking number of farmers markets, Michelin starred restaurants and high-quality pub food will have you crying tears of joy. If you’re in a rural area, the true Irish experience is sitting in a cozy old pub with the fire going, a hot bowl of chowder with a few slices of brown bread and Irish butter, followed by a pint of Guinness or a hot whiskey.
Whether you’re a first-timer to the emerald isle or you’ve already experienced the beauty and you’re ready for more, get in touch! We’re ready to dip away with you.
Erin Skahank, a writer for Dipaways, is a travel-obsessed food writer based in Dublin. You can find more of her musings and recommendations on her website The Rouxx.