Mention the word “Ireland,” and visions of green grass, potatoes, four-leaf clovers, lively jigs, leprechauns, and Michael Flatley with his Riverdance troupe spring to mind.
When our original trip to Ireland was canceled in 2020, my husband and I put our anticipation on hold until the world could safely reopen. In the meantime, we studied travel websites, dutifully got our vaccinations and boosters, and dreamed about shamrocks, bangers and mash, and the Emerald Isle. As soon as we learned that Ireland was once again allowing visitors from the United States, we rebooked our flights, made our reservations, and allowed our excitement to build.
Even though we often prefer to travel on our own, we made our plans through a reputable travel company this time because of all the guidelines and uncertainties. That proved to be a wise decision. I am quite sure we saw more than we would have if we had made the trip by ourselves, and I am certain my husband would have had nervous palpitations trying to drive on the left side of the road while navigating with signs in both English and Gaelic.
Ireland, its people, scenery, and food lived up to all our expectations. We loved the country and would relish the opportunity to return. But I have to say that along with each of our expectations came a few surprises, most of them incredibly good.
1. Irish Cuisine
We knew there would be potatoes, and we found them in some form for every meal – even potato pancakes at breakfast. The full Irish breakfast served in most hotels lives up to the use of the word “full.” Eggs, bacon, soda bread, sausage, fruit, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, and croissants or scones appeared alongside pork and beans and the dubious-sounding black and white pudding. Black pudding is a sausage made from blood, meat, fillers such as oatmeal, and fat. White pudding is the same as black pudding but without the blood.
My culinary surprise regarding the black pudding was its spicy, quite palatable flavor. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed hot tea and fresh scones. I am an iced sweet tea drinker, but in Ireland, it is easy to see why hot tea is so popular.
Pro Tip: Expect to show your proof of vaccination to be admitted inside restaurants. Many even ask for your phone number for future contact tracing.
I knew I would see miles of rolling pastures in various shades of rich green, and I did. Since Ireland is surrounded by water, I also found rugged cliffs that added to the wild nature of the landscape.
I was surprised by the abundance of flowers, made possible by the plentiful rain, and the thatched roof houses seeming to belong to another era. Pops of floral color appeared everywhere, but the thatched roofs were much scarcer.
Movies such as P.S. I Love You featuring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler, mostly filmed in Ireland, had me prepared to see hundreds and hundreds of sheep, and those beautiful, black-faced creatures were everywhere.
Two things surprised me. Many of those sheep had a bright color painted on them. That, I learned, was to distinguish which sheep belonged to which farmer since they tended to wander from pasture to pasture. I was also amazed at the skill of well-trained sheepdogs. With a mere five commands from the herder, they could completely control a flock of sheep.
Much of the music I heard in Ireland was exactly as I had imagined it would sound. The songs are lively, lyrical, and filled with Celtic instruments and Riverdance-style 6/8 rhythms. I knew that Scotland was famous for its bagpipes, but I did not realize that Ireland has its own version. Theirs are called Uilleann pipes. The sound is not as loud as Scottish pipes, but milder and mellower. Instead of blowing into a mouthpiece to make the melodies, the player uses his elbows to force air into the pipes. It is lovely and haunting at the same time.
My biggest musical surprise, though, was the fact that Irish people LOVE Johnny Cash. I learned that Cash visited Ireland in 1959 when he was at the height of his fame. He loved Ireland so much he went back home and wrote a song about it called “40 Shades of Green.” The song mentions the names of several Irish villages and the distinctive colors that beautifully capture the Irish countryside. We heard it performed in numerous settings during our visit.
I suppose I had pictured in my mind that Irish pubs were like the saloons and bars in old Western movies with lots of ale and pints of Guinness being consumed in a noisy, tipsy atmosphere. What I found were pubs serving as community gathering spots filled with laughter, music, food, and drinks enjoyed after an exhausting day or week of work. The Guinness did indeed flow, but for those who do not drink alcohol, the Irish have a refreshing soft drink called red lemonade which is readily available in pubs.
Pro Tip: My favorite pub was Malzard’s Pub in the heart of Stoneyford Village in County Kilkenny. Fred Malzard owns it now, and it has been in his family for five generations. Fred goes a step further with his visitors by offering a demonstration of the national sport of hurling. This game involves a stick, a ball, goalposts, and a lot of running. Competition between counties is fierce and creates a tremendous amount of community pride.
6. Waterford: The Crystal And The Town
Touring the House of Waterford Crystal showroom was on my must-do list, and the pieces on display were stunning. I was surprised to see a replica of the trophy for the National Football Championship. The tour guide explained that a duplicate was made every year in case of an accident. The crystal football adorning the top of the trophy weighs almost 8 pounds and takes 3 months to complete.
As much as I enjoyed shopping in the showroom, I enjoyed a walking tour of the town of Waterford even more. A local historian with a delightful sense of humor and vast knowledge led our group past historic buildings, monuments, stores, and street art, and I highly recommend taking such a tour.
7. Hotel Rooms
The guest rooms in the seven different hotels where we stayed were more spacious than I expected. There was plenty of hot water, and the beds were comfortable. A major surprise was finding no air conditioning or individual temperature controls in the rooms. That meant sleeping with the windows open most nights. I would suggest being prepared for that by bringing both cold weather and warm weather pajamas and a lightweight blanket since all the beds had heavy duvet covers.
We packed what we thought were the proper adaptors and converters for our electronics. Recharging cellphones was no problem, but our small noise machine burned up in just a couple of minutes. I ordered a curling iron for my hair specifically for UK and Irish outlets and had no problem. Do your research to be properly prepared.
8. Ancient Castles And Gardens
The castles and gardens exceeded my expectations. We took close looks at Blarney Castle, Kilkenny Castle, and Bunratty Castle. All were stunning. The Blarney Castle Shop and the adjoining Stable Yard Café were exceptionally nice, but the ordeal necessary to kiss the Blarney Stone was a surprise. Visitors must climb narrow steps to the tower, then they find the stone attached to a wall. To kiss it, a person must lean backward holding onto an iron railing. It is not for the faint of heart.
My favorite gardens and overall setting were at Kylemore Abbey and its Victorian walled gardens in County Galway. This is a photographer’s dream location.
Pro Tip: I was shocked by the presence of biting gnats on the day we visited Kylemore Abbey, so I strongly recommend that you pack insect repellant. I was assured that the gnats are a seasonal problem rather than a constant one. The gnats were also present at the Cliffs of Moher. I really wish I had known to have some repellant in my bag.
9. Irish Sense Of Humor
If ever a nation of people had reasons to be grumpy, the Irish could certainly make a lengthy list. Wars, rebellions, power grabs, and a devastating potato famine make up much of their history. Yet the people have the most charming sense of humor I have encountered in an exceedingly long time. They are quick-witted and jovial. It was evident that they missed their tourists in 2020 and 2021 and were extremely grateful to have us back. We experienced “the craic,” Ireland’s word for jolly, informal fun, in all its forms.
It is inconvenient to be required to have a negative COVID test before being allowed to fly home from Ireland, and the possibility of being quarantined is unnerving. However, I am so happy I had the privilege of experiencing this amazing country, culture, and people, and I would be thrilled to return.
Pro Tip: Trafalgar Tours was exceptionally well-organized. The tour guide and motorcoach driver were both Irish, plus a wellness director was with us every step of the way, wiping down surfaces, passing out hand sanitizer, reminding us to wear our masks, and arranging the Covid tests before departure.