The Irish Way of Life

The Irish reputation for being affable is largely well-deserved, but it only hints at a more profound character, one that is more complex and contradictory than the image of the silver-tongued master of blarney might suggest. This dichotomy is best summarised by a quote usually ascribed to the poet William Butler Yeats: 'Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.'

The Irish Pulse

The Irish are famous for being warm and friendly, which is just another way of saying the Irish love a chat, whether with friends or strangers. They will entertain you with their humour, alarm you with their willingness to get stuck into a good debate and cut you down with their razor-sharp wit. Slagging – the Irish version of teasing – is an art form, which may seem caustic to unfamiliar ears, but is quickly revealed as an intrinsic element of how the Irish relate to one another. It is commonly assumed that the mettle of friendship is proven by how well you can take a joke rather than by the payment of a cheap compliment.

Yet beneath all of the garrulous sociability and self-deprecating twaddle lurks a dark secret, which is that at heart the Irish have traditionally been low on self-esteem. This is partly why they're so suspicious of easy compliments, but the last three decades have seen a paradigm shift in the Irish character.

Prosperity and its related growth in expectations have gone a long way towards transforming the Irish from a people who wallowed in false modesty like a sport to a nation eager to celebrate its achievements and successes. Inevitably, this personality shift has been largely driven by the appetites and demands of Generation Y, but there's no doubt that many older Irish, for too long muted by a fear of appearing unseemly or boastful, have wholeheartedly embraced the change.

This cultural shift survived the trauma of the crash and the austerity that followed, even if many blamed a tawdry and materialistic culture of exaggerated excess for Ireland's woes, an attitude memorably summarised by a minister who sheepishly declared on TV that 'we all partied!' But with the economy (largely) back on track, Ireland is once again hammering down on the pedal of its ambitions, watching the worst ravages of austerity quickly disappear in its rear-view mirror.

Nurse & Curse of the People

Despite a 25% drop-off in alcohol consumption over the last decade (according to a 2017 report by the World Health Organization), Ireland has a fractious relationship with alcohol. The country regularly tops the list of the world's biggest binge drinkers, and while there is an increasing awareness of, and alarm at, the devastation caused by alcohol to Irish society (especially to young people), drinking remains the country's most popular social pastime, with no sign of letting up; spend a weekend night walking around any town in the country and you'll get a firsthand feel of the influence and effect of the booze.

Some experts put Ireland's binge-drinking antics down to the dramatic rise in the country's economic fortunes, but statistics have long revealed that Ireland has had an unhealthy fondness for 'taking the cure', although the acceptability of public drunkenness is a far more recent phenomenon: the older generation are never done reminding the youngsters that they would never have been seen staggering in public.

Lifestyle

The Irish may like to grumble – about work, the weather, the government and those feckin' eejits on reality TV shows – but if pressed will tell you that they live in the best country on earth. There's loads wrong with the place, but isn't it the same way everywhere else?

Traditional Ireland – of the large family, closely linked to church and community – has largely disappeared, as the increased urbanisation of the country continues to break up the social fabric of community interdependence that was a necessary element of relative poverty. Contemporary Ireland is therefore not altogether different from any other European country, and you have to travel further to the margins of the country – the islands and the isolated rural communities – to find an older version of society.

In the North, daily concerns largely echo those south of the border and across the UK, but the province's particular history has inevitably had a huge impact on the society at large. Despite younger generations' concerted efforts to bridge the religious divide, Protestant and Catholic communities are still mostly segregated from each other: tricolours and Union Jacks are a clear sign of partisanship in some neighbourhoods, but in many others the divide is invisible to all but those in the community itself. Most Northern Irish are hyperaware of the sectarian breakdown of virtually every hamlet in the province and adjust their lives accordingly.

Gay-Friendly Ireland

A gay Taoiseach (Republic of Ireland prime minister). The first country in the world to introduce marriage equality for same-sex couples by popular vote. It's been an extraordinary road for a country that only decriminalised same-sex activity in 1993 – and then only after a long and often-lonely campaign by Joycean scholar and gay-rights activist David Norris.

The rise to power of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who only came out five months before the country voted for marriage equality in May 2015, is a powerful example of the paradigm shift that has occurred in attitudes toward the LGBT community in Ireland: the vote in favour of same-sex marriage was 62.4% – all but one constituency voted in favour.

Varadkar is very much a product of a new Ireland, where sexual orientation is considered not quite irrelevant, but not worthy of any kind of discrimination. In this new Ireland, pride celebrations – in Dublin, Cork, Galway and elsewhere – are now firmly fixed on the festival calendar.

If the shift in attitudes is more pronounced in urban Ireland, rural Ireland doesn't lag too far behind. Which isn't to say that the inhabitants of a small rural community would necessarily be comfortable with a pride march through their village or the opening of a gay bar on the main street: for many, the new attitudes have simply evolved from an older notion that people are entitled to do as they please so long as they keep it in the private sphere, and that includes same-sex marriage.

The old trope about young gay men and women needing to move to larger urban centres in order to find greater acceptance still remains true, although the same could be said of any young person looking to express themselves beyond the narrow confines of a small community.

Multiculturalism

Ireland has long been a pretty homogenous country, but the arrival of thousands of immigrants from all over the world – 17% of the population is foreign-born – has challenged the mores of racial tolerance and integration. To a large extent it has been successful, although if you scratch beneath the surface, racial tensions can be exposed.

The tanking of the economy exacerbated these tensions and the 'Irish jobs for Irish people' opinion has been expressed with greater vehemence and authority: the rise of right-wing movements across Europe and the US has emboldened Irish ultranationalists to take a more vocal and visible stance, but their numbers remain relatively insignificant for now.

Antiracism groups have reported a rise in racist incidents, particularly Islamophobia, but the bulk of these are generally verbal and nonphysical, which perhaps also explains another statistic that says that 75% of these go unreported. In spite of this, most Muslims and people of colour living in Ireland feel that the country is safe and welcoming and that racism is not the norm with the vast majority of the white Irish population.

Religion

According to the census of 2016, about 3.7 million residents in the Republic (or 78%) call themselves Roman Catholic, followed by 2.6% Church of Ireland (Protestant), 1.3% Muslim, 1.3% Orthodox, and other religions 3.9%; 9.8% declared themselves to have no religion – a 74% rise on 2011.

In the North, the breakdown is about 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic (with 7% other or no religion). Most Irish Protestants are members of the Church of Ireland, an offshoot of the Church of England, and the Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

Catholicism remains a powerful cultural identifier, but more in a secular rather than religious way, as many Irish now reject the Church's stance on a host of social issues, from contraception to divorce and homosexuality. In part this is the natural reaction of an increasingly cosmopolitan country with an ever-broadening international outlook, but the Church's failure to satisfactorily take responsibility and atone for its role in the clerical abuse scandals of decades past has breached the bond of trust between many parishioners and their parish.

TV & Radio

Of the country's four terrestrial TV channels, three are operated by the national broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE), the other is a privately owned commercial station. The Irish-language station TG4 shows movies and dramas, mostly as gaeilge (in Irish with English subtitles). The main British TV stations – BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – are also available in most Irish homes, through satellite or cable; in Northern Ireland they're the main players.

The Irish are avid radio listeners – up to 85% of the population tunes in on any given day. RTE Radio 1 (88.2FM–90FM; mostly news and discussion) is the main player, followed by two privately owned national stations (Newstalk 106FM–108FM and Today FM, found at 100FM–102FM).

The rest of the radio landscape is filled out by the 25 or so local radio stations that represent local issues and tastes and are often a great insight into the local mindset: the northwest's Highland Radio – heard in Donegal, Sligo, Tyrone and Fermanagh – is Europe's most successful local radio station, with an 84% market share. In Northern Ireland, the BBC rules supreme, with BBC Radio Ulster flying the local flag in addition to the four main BBC stations.

Sidebar: Baby Names

Top of the list for most popular baby names in Ireland – north and south – in 2016 were James and Emily.

Sidebar: Children per Family

According to the 2016 census, the average number of children per family has fallen to 1.38, the lowest in Irish history.

Sidebar: No Religion

The number of respondents on the 2016 census who declared to have no religion rose by 73.6% between 2011 and 2016 – from 269,800 to 468,400.

Sidebar: Rural Residents

In 2016, 37.3% of the population lived in rural areas.

Sidebar: Polish in Ireland

Polish people have overtaken UK nationals as the largest non-Irish group living in Ireland.

Sidebar: Male vs Female Stats

in 2016 there were 978 males per 1000 females in the Republic, the lowest it's been since 1981.

Music

Ireland's literary tradition may have the critics nodding sagely, but it's the country's ability to render music to the ear that will remain with you long after your Irish day is done. There's music for every occasion and every mood, from celebration to sorrow. The Irish do popular music as well as anyone, but it is its traditional forms that make Ireland a special place to hear live music, especially in the intimate environment of a pub session.

Traditional & Folk

Irish music (known in Ireland as traditional music, or just trad) has retained a vibrancy not found in other traditional European forms, which have lost out to the overbearing influence of pop music. Although Irish music has kept many of its traditional aspects, it has itself influenced many forms of music, most notably US country and western – a fusion of Mississippi Delta blues and Irish traditional tunes that, combined with other influences like Gospel, is at the root of rock and roll.

The music was never written down, it was passed on from one player to another and so endured and evolved – regional ‘styles’ only developed because local musicians sought to play just like the one who seemed to play better than everybody else. The blind itinerant harpist Turlough O'Carolan (1670–1738) 'wrote' more than 200 tunes – it's difficult to know how many versions their repeated learning has spawned. This characteristic of fluidity is key to an appreciation of traditional music, and explains why it is such a resilient form today.

Nevertheless, in the 1960s composer Seán Ó Riada (1931–71) tried to impose a kind of structure on the music. His ensemble group, Ceoltóirí Chualann, were the first to reach a wider audience, and from it were born The Chieftains, arguably the most important traditional group of them all. They started recording in 1963 – any one of their nearly 40 albums are worth a listen, but you won't go wrong with their 10-album eponymous series.

The other big success of the 1960s were The Dubliners. More folksy than traditional, they made a career out of bawdy drinking songs that got everybody singing along. Other popular bands include The Fureys, comprising four brothers originally from the travelling community (no, not like the Wilburies) along with guitarist Davey Arthur. And if it's rousing renditions of Irish rebel songs you're after, you can't go past The Wolfe Tones.

Since the 1970s, various bands have tried to blend traditional with more progressive genres, with mixed success. The Bothy Band were formed in 1975 and were a kind of trad supergroup: bouzouki player Dónal Lunny, uillean piper Paddy Keenan, flute and whistle player Matt Molloy (later a member of The Chieftains), fiddler Paddy Glackin and accordion player Tony MacMahon were all superb instrumentalists and their recordings are still as electrifying today as they were four decades ago.

Musicians tend to come together in collaborative projects. A contemporary group worth checking out are The Gloaming, who've taken traditional reels and given them a contemporary sound – their eponymous debut album (2011) is sensational. A key member of the group, fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, is also worth checking out in his own right; his latest album, The Gloaming 2, displays both his beautiful fiddle playing and his superb understanding of loops and electronic texturing.

And if you want to check out a group that melds rock, folk and traditional music, you won't go far wrong with The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock, who've released a couple of albums since 2008; in 2017 they released an EP called The Bullet in the Brick.

And no discussion of traditional music would be complete without a mention of Riverdance, which made Irish dancing sexy and became a worldwide phenomenon, despite the fact that most aficionados of traditional music are seriously underwhelmed by its musical worth. Good stage show, crap music.

The Nuts & Bolts of Traditional Music

Despite popular perception, the harp isn't widely used in traditional music. The bodhrán (bow-rawn) goat-skin drum is much more prevalent, although it makes for a lousy symbol. The uillean pipes, played by squeezing bellows under the elbow, provide another distinctive sound, although you're not likely to see them in a pub. The fiddle isn't unique to Ireland but it is one of the main instruments in the country's indigenous music, along with the flute, tin whistle, accordion and bouzouki (a version of the mandolin). Music fits into five main categories (jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas and slow airs), while the old style of singing unaccompanied versions of traditional ballads and airs is called sean-nós.

Popular Music

From the 1960s onward, Ireland produced its fair share of great rock musicians, including Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Celtic rockers Horslips, punk poppers The Undertones and Belfast's own Stiff Little Fingers (SLF), Ireland's answer to The Clash. And then there were Bob Geldof's Boomtown Rats, who didn't like Mondays or much else either.

But they all paled in comparison to the supernova that is U2, formed in 1976 in North Dublin and one of the world's most successful rock bands since the late 1980s. What else can we say about them that hasn't already been said? After 13 studio albums, 22 Grammy awards and upwards of 170 million album sales they have nothing to prove to anyone – and not even their minor faux pas in 2014, when Apple 'gave' copies of their latest release, Songs of Innocence, to iTunes subscribers whether they wanted it or not, has managed to dampen their popularity. Their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour (note the typographic ode to Apple), which ran until the end of 2015, was a massive success.

Of all the Irish acts that followed in U2's wake during the 1980s and early 1990s, a few managed to comfortably avoid being tarred with 'the next U2' burden. The Pogues’ mix of punk and Irish folk kept everyone going for a while, but the real story there was the empathetic songwriting of Shane MacGowan, whose genius has been overshadowed by his chronic drinking – but he still managed to pen Ireland's favourite song, 'A Fairytale of New York', sung with emotional fervour by everyone around Christmas. Sinéad O'Connor thrived by acting like a U2 antidote – whatever they were into she was not – and by having a damn fine voice; the raw emotion on The Lion and the Cobra (1987) makes it a great offering. And then there were My Bloody Valentine, the pioneers of late 1980s guitar-distorted shoegazer rock: Loveless (1991) is one of the best Irish albums of all time.

The 1990s were largely dominated by DJs, dance music and a whole new spin on an old notion, the boy band. Behind Ireland's most successful groups (Boyzone and Westlife) is the Svengali of Saccharine, impresario Louis Walsh, whose musical sensibilities seem mired in '60s showband schmaltz. Since 2004 he has been a judge on the popular X Factor talent show in Britain, but still found time to unleash a series of new groups on the music scene, including identical twins Jedward – who can't sing a note, but are liked for their wacky antics – and Hometown, a six-piece boy band from all over Ireland.

The Contemporary Scene

Alternative music has never been in ruder health in Ireland – and Dublin, as the largest city in the country, is where everyone comes to make noise. The up-and-coming bands to look out for include hip-hop artists NEOMADiC and Bad Bones (with the latter also including strong elements of electronica), singer-songwriter Farah Elle and noise-pop band Thumper, whose EP magnum opuss has been very well received.

They all hope to join the established names on the scene, including the likes of Damien Rice, who spent much of 2017 touring his album My Favourite Faded Fantasy; alt-rockers Kodaline, whose second album Coming Up For Air (2015) cemented their position as one of the best Irish bands going (they're currently recording their third album); and Bray-born blues-influenced Hozier, whose eponymous debut album in 2015 garnered a huge amount of critical acclaim but inevitably couldn’t match the global success of his 2013 single 'Take Me to Church'. Although he spends a lot of his time in New York these days, Glen Hansard (of Once fame) is still a major presence in Ireland, and occasionally goes on the road with his old band, The Frames.

Hugely successful Dublin trio The Script have parlayed their melodic brand of pop-rock onto all kinds of TV shows, from 90210 to Made in Chelsea. In 2017 they released a single called 'Another War Child', which teased fans as to the more serious content of their new album, which will follow the immensely successful No Sound Without Silence, released in 2014. They mightn't sell as many records, but Villagers (which is really just Conor O'Brien and a selection of collaborators) have earned universal acclaim for their brand of indie-folk rock – and in 2016 their latest album, Darling Arithmetic, won an Ivor Novello award.

But it's not just about musicians with grave intent: if Boyzone and Westlife were big, their success pales in comparison to that of One Direction, another product of the X Factory. We mention them here because one of their members, Niall Horan, is from Mullingar, County Westmeath, which inevitably means that when One Direction played Croke Park in 2015 it was a kind of homecoming. The band have since split, but Niall has launched a successful solo career – 2017 saw the release of his first solo single, 'This Town'.

Perhaps the most esoteric musician of all is also one of the most successful, as nobody can quite hold a candle to the phenomenon that is Enya, the best-selling solo artist in Irish history and one of the best-selling female artists in the world. The Donegal-born composer and instrumentalist was raised in Irish traditional music, but in the early 1980s she and her siblings in the group Clannad created Celtic New Age music, based around synthesizers and heavy, looping effects. Enya broke out on her own and, 75 million record sales later, she stands alone atop the New Age music pyramid – in 2015 she released Dark Sky Island, generally considered one of her best.

Sidebar: Best Irish Rock Albums

  • The Joshua Tree (U2)
  • Becoming a Jackal (Villagers)
  • Loveless (My Bloody Valentine)
  • Live & Dangerous (Thin Lizzy)
  • I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Sinéad O'Connor)

Sidebar: Best Pubs for Traditional Music

  • Hughes' Bar, Dublin
  • Crane Bar, Galway
  • De Barra's Folk Club, Clonakilty (Cork)
  • McDermott'ss, Doolin (Clare)
  • Leo's Tavern, Crolly (Donegal)

Sidebar: Hot Press

Hot Press (www.hotpress.com) is a fortnightly magazine featuring local and international music interviews and listings.

Sidebar: Traditional Playlist

  • The Quiet Glen (Tommy Peoples)
  • Paddy Keenan (Paddy Keenan)
  • The Chieftains 6: Bonaparte's Retreat (The Chieftains)
  • Old Hag You Have Killed Me (The Bothy Band)

Literary Ireland

Of all their cultural expressions, it's perhaps the way the Irish speak and write that best distinguishes them. Their love of language has contributed to Ireland's legacy of world-renowned writers and storytellers. And all this in a language imposed on them by a foreign invader. The Irish responded to this act of cultural piracy by mastering a magnificent hybrid – English in every respect but flavoured and enriched by the rhythms, pronunciation patterns and grammatical peculiarities of Irish.

The Mythic Cycle

Before there was anything like modern literature there was the Ulaid (Ulster) Cycle – Ireland's version of the Homeric epic – written down from oral tradition between the 8th and 12th centuries. The chief story is the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), about a battle between Queen Maeve of Connaught and Cúchulainn, the principal hero of Irish mythology. Cúchulainn appears in the work of Irish writers right up to the present day, from Samuel Beckett to Frank McCourt.

The Gaelic Revival

While Home Rule was being debated and shunted, something of a revolution was taking place in Irish arts, literature and identity. The poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) and his coterie of literary friends (including Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, John Millington Synge and George Russell) championed the Anglo-Irish literary revival, unearthing old Celtic tales and writing with fresh enthusiasm about a romantic Ireland of epic battles and warrior queens. For a country that had suffered centuries of invasion and deprivation, these images presented a much more attractive version of history.

Modern Literature

From the mythic cycle, zip forward 1000 years, past the genius of Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) and his Gulliver's Travels; stopping to acknowledge acclaimed dramatist Oscar Wilde (1854–1900); Dracula creator Bram Stoker (1847–1912) – some have claimed that the name of the count may have come from the Irish droch fhola (bad blood) – and the literary giant that was James Joyce (1882–1941), whose name and books elicit enormous pride in Ireland.

The majority of Joyce's literary output came when he had left Ireland for the artistic hotbed that was Paris, which was also true for another great experimenter of language and style, Samuel Beckett (1906–89). Beckett's work centres on fundamental existential questions about the human condition and the nature of self. He is probably best known for his play Waiting for Godot, but his unassailable reputation is based on a series of stark novels and plays.

Of the dozens of 20th-century Irish authors to have achieved published renown, some names to look out for include playwright and novelist Brendan Behan (1923–64), who wove tragedy, wit and a turbulent life into his best works including Borstal Boy, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage before dying young of alcoholism.

Belfast-born CS Lewis (1898–1963) died a year earlier, but he left us The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of allegorical children's stories, three of which have been made into films. Other Northern writers have, not surprisingly, featured the Troubles in their work: Bernard MacLaverty's Cal (also made into a film) and his more recent The Anatomy School are both wonderful.

Contemporary Scene

The Irish literary scene is flourishing, in quantity as well as (mostly) quality. Much like the digital revolution that has transformed the music scene, the proliferation of small presses and printing houses has given more authors than ever the chance to see the fruits of their labours in print, and the result has largely been very positive.

Good examples include Sara Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), a wonderful exploration of the friendship between a recluse and his one-eyed dog in a small, claustrophobic coastal community. First published by Tramp Press, it was picked up by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which afforded Baume a broader platform to showcase her remarkable talent. Tramp was also the first to publish Solar Bones (2016) by Mike McCormack, a tour de force tribute to small-town Ireland that consists of a 200-page single sentence narrated by a dead man. This audacious piece of work won the 2016 Goldsmith Prize but was ineligible for the Man Booker only because its original printing was exclusive to Ireland.

Chick Lit

Authors hate the label and publishers profess to disregard it, but chick lit is big business, and few have mastered it as well as the Irish. Doyenne of them all is Maeve Binchy (1940–2012), whose mastery of the style saw her outsell most of the literary greats – her last novel before she died was A Week in Winter (2012). Marian Keyes (1963–) is another author with a long line of bestsellers, including The Woman Who Stole My Life (2014). She's a terrific storyteller with a rare ability to tackle sensitive issues such as alcoholism and depression, issues that she herself has suffered from and is admirably honest about. Former agony aunt Cathy Kelly turns out novels at the rate of one a year: her latest book is Between Sisters (2017), exploring the lives of two very different sisters.

Feature: Living Poet's Society

Ireland's greatest modern bard was Derry-born Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (1939–2013), whose enormous personal warmth and wry humour flows through each of his evocative works. He was, unquestionably, the successor to Yeats and one of the most important contemporary poets of the English language. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1995 he compared the ensuing attention to someone mentioning sex in front of their mammy. Opened Ground – Poems 1966–1996 (1998) is our favourite of his books.

Dubliner Paul Durcan (1944–) is one of the most reliable chroniclers of changing Dublin. He won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 1990 for Daddy, Daddy and is a funny, engaging, tender and savage writer. Poet, playwright and Kerryman Brendan Kennelly (1936–) is an immensely popular character around town. He lectures at Trinity College and writes a unique brand of poetry that is marked by its playfulness, as well as historical and intellectual impact. Eavan Boland (1944–) is a prolific and much-admired writer, best known for her poetry, who combines Irish politics with outspoken feminism; In a Time of Violence (1994) and The Lost Land (1998) are two of her most celebrated collections.

To find out more about poetry in Ireland in general, visit the website of the excellent Poetry Ireland (www.poetryireland.ie), which showcases the work of new and established poets. For a taste of modern Irish poetry in print, try Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Fallon and Mahon. A Rage for Order, edited by Frank Ormsby, is a vibrant collection of the poetry of the North.

Feature: Top Irish Reads

Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt; 1996) The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel tells the relentlessly bleak autobiographical story of the author's poverty-stricken Limerick childhood in the Depression of the 1930s.

Amongst Women (John McGahern; 1990) McGahern's simple, economical piece centres on a west-of-Ireland family in the social aftermath of the War of Independence.

Reading in the Dark (Seamus Deane; 1996) The Guardian Fiction Prize winner recounts a young boy's struggles to unravel the truth of his own history growing up during the Troubles of Belfast.

The Sea (John Banville; 2005) The Booker Prize–winning novel is an engrossing meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory; it was made into a film in 2013.

Strumpet City (James Plunkett; 1969) Plunkett brings Dublin to life around the time of the 1913 Lockout in what is considered to be a masterpiece of 20th-century Irish literature.

The Butcher Boy (Patrick McCabe; 1992) A brilliant, gruesome, tragicomedy about an orphaned Monaghan boy's descent into madness. It was later made into a successful film by Neil Jordan.

Sidebar: Joyce's Literary Bodyguard

When James Joyce – unathletic and losing his eyesight – got into drunken fights while living in Paris in the 1920s, he would often hide behind his drinking companion, the much more physically imposing Ernest Hemingway.

Sidebar: Eoin Colfer

One of the most successful Irish authors is Eoin Colfer, creator of the Artemis Fowl series, eight fantasy novels following the adventures of Artemis Fowl II as he grows from criminal antihero to saviour of the fairies.

Sidebar: Listowel Writers' Week

Listowel Writers' Week takes place over the last weekend in May in Listowel, County Kerry, and is one of the most popular of all literary festivals – mostly because it gives readers a chance to meet their favourite writers in person.

Irish Landscapes

Irish literature, song and painting make it pretty clear that the landscape – spread across 486km north to south and only 275km from east to west – exerts a powerful sway on the people who have lived in it. This is especially true for those who have left, for whom the aul' sod is still a land worth pining for, and for many visitors the vibrant greenness of gentle hills and the fearsome violence of jagged coasts are an integral part of experiencing Ireland.

Cliffs & Stones

Massive rocky outcrops, such as The Burren in County Clare, are for the most part inhospitable to grass, and although even there the green stuff does sprout up in enough patches for sheep and goats to graze on, these vast, other-worldly landscapes are mostly grey and bleak. Nearby, the dramatic Cliffs of Moher are a sheer drop into the thundering surf below. Similarly, there is no preparing for the extraordinary hexagonal stone columns of the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim or the rugged drop of County Donegal's Slieve League, Europe's highest sea cliffs. Sand dunes buffer many of the more gentle stretches of coast. Smaller islands dot the shores of Ireland, many of them barren rock piles supporting unique ecosystems – Skellig Michael is a breathtakingly jagged example just off the Kerry coast (and featured in the recent Star Wars films).

The rural farms of the west coast have a rugged, hard-earned look to them, due mostly to the rock that lies so close to the surface. Much of this rock has been dug up to create tillable soil and converted into stone walls that divide tiny paddocks. The Aran Islands stand out for their spectacular networks of stone walls.

Mountains & Forests

The west of Ireland is a bulwark of cliffs, hills and mountains and is the country's most mountainous area. The highest mountains are in the southwest; the tallest mountain in Ireland is Carrantuohil (1040m) in County Kerry's Macgillycuddy's Reeks.

The Irish frequently lament the loss of their woodlands, much of which were cleared by the British (during the reign of Elizabeth I) to build ships for the Royal Navy – and the indoor panels and seating of Westminster. Little of the island's once-plentiful oak forests survive today, and much of what you'll see is the result of relatively recent planting. Instead, the countryside largely comprises green fields divided by hedgerows and stone walls. Use of this land is divided between cultivated fields and pasture for cattle and sheep.

Plants

Although Ireland is sparsely wooded, the range of surviving plant species is larger here than in many other European countries, thanks in part to the comparatively late arrival of agriculture.

There are remnants of the original oak forest in Killarney National Park and in southern Wicklow near Shillelagh. Far more common are pine plantations, which are growing steadily. Hedgerows, planted to divide fields and delineate land boundaries throughout Ireland, actually host many of the native plant species that once thrived in the oak forests – it's an intriguing example of nature adapting and reasserting itself. The Burren in County Clare is home to a remarkable mixture of Mediterranean, alpine and Arctic species.

The bogs of Ireland are home to a unique flora adapted to wet, acidic, nutrient-poor conditions, whose survival is threatened by the depletion of bogs for energy use. Sphagnum moss is the key bog plant and is joined by other species such as bog rosemary, bog cotton, black-beaked sedge (whose spindly stem grows up to 30cm in height) and various types of heather and lichen. Carnivorous plants also thrive, such as the sundew, whose sticky tentacles trap insects, and bladderwort, whose tiny explosive bladders trap aquatic animals in bog pools.

Mammals

Apart from the fox and badger, which tend to shy away from humans and are rarely seen, the wild mammals of Ireland are mostly of the ankle-high 'critter' category, such as rabbits, hedgehogs and shrews. Hikers often spot the Irish hare, or at least glimpse the blazing-fast blur of one running away. Red deer roam the hillsides in many of the wilder parts of the country, particularly the Wicklow Mountains and in Killarney National Park, which holds the country's largest herd.

For most visitors, the most commonly sighted mammals are those inhabiting the sea and waterways. The otter, rarely seen elsewhere in Europe, is thriving in Ireland. Seals are a common sight in rivers and along the shore, as are dolphins, which follow the warm waters of the Gulf Stream towards Ireland. Some colonise the coast of Ireland year-round, frequently swimming into the bays and inlets off the western coast.

Birdlife

Many travellers visit Ireland specifically for the birding. Ireland is a stopover for migrating birds, many of them from the Arctic, Africa and North America. Additionally, irregular winds frequently deliver exotic blowovers rarely seen in Western Europe.

In autumn the southern counties become a temporary home to the American waders (mainly sandpipers and plovers) and warblers. Migrants from Africa, such as shearwaters, petrels and auks, begin to arrive in spring in the southwestern counties.

The reasonably rare corncrake, which migrates from Africa, can be found in the western counties, in Donegal and around the Shannon Callows, and on islands such as Inishbofin in Galway. In late spring and early summer, the rugged coastlines, particularly cliff areas and islands, become a haven for breeding seabirds, mainly gannets, kittiwakes, Manx shearwaters, fulmars, cormorants and herons. Puffins, resembling penguins with their tuxedo colour scheme, nest in large colonies on coastal cliffs.

The lakes and low-lying wetlands attract large numbers of Arctic and northern European waterfowl and waders such as whooper swans, lapwings, barnacle geese, white-fronted geese and golden plovers. The important Wexford Wildfowl Reserve holds half the world's population of Greenland white-fronted geese, and little terns breed on the beach there, protected by the dunes. Also found during the winter are teals, redshanks and curlews. The main migration periods are April to May and September to October.

The magnificent peregrine falcon has been making something of a recovery and can be found nesting on cliffs in Wicklow and elsewhere. In 2001, 46 golden-eagle chicks from Scotland were released into Glenveagh National Park in Donegal in an effort to reintroduce the species. The project has been afflicted by adverse weather and, sadly, by unknowns poisoning and shooting of the birds, but as of 2013 it has managed to survive courtesy of two separate nests that have produced a handful of surviving chicks between them. More recent reintroductions include the white-tailed sea eagle, with a pair called Saoirse and Caimin successfully breeding a chick in 2014 – the first native-born sea eagle in 110 years. For more information (and live cam action), check out www.goldeneagle.ie.

Environmental Issues

Ireland does not rate among the world's biggest offenders when it comes to polluting the environment, but economic growth has led to an increase in industry and consumerism, which in turn generate more pollution and waste. While the population density is among Europe's lowest, the population is rising. The last 30 years have seen a massive expansion of suburban developments around all of Ireland's major towns and cities; the biggest by far is, inevitably, around Dublin, especially in the broadening commuter belt of Counties Meath and Kildare. The collapse of the construction bubble in 2008 put an end to much of this development, but the rows of semidetached houses still remain. As more people drive cars and fly in planes, Ireland grows more dependent on nonrenewable sources of energy. The amount of waste has risen substantially since the early 1990s.

Needless to say, concern for the environment is growing and the government has taken some measures to offset the damage that a thriving economy can cause. Since 2007 the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (www.seai.ie) has been charged with promoting and assisting the development of renewable energy resources, including solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and biomass resources. As it stands, the country is only tapping a fraction of these: in 2013, 7.8% of the country's energy requirements (heat, electricity and transport) were being met by renewables.

The European Renewables Directive set Ireland a target of sourcing 16% of all energy requirements by 2020, as well as the management of grid access for electricity for renewable sources, and adherence to sustainability criteria for biofuels and bioliquids. It has long been clear that Ireland won't meet those requirements, which has earned them ongoing fines.

On a more practical level, a number of recycling programs have been very successful, especially the 'plastax' – a €0.24 levy on all plastic bags used within the retail sector, which has seen their use reduced by a whopping 90%.

While this is a positive sign, it doesn't really put Ireland at the vanguard of the environmental movement. Polls seem to indicate the Irish are slightly less concerned about the environment than the citizens of most other European countries, and the country is a long way from meeting its Kyoto Protocol requirement for reduced emissions. The government isn't pushing the environmental agenda much beyond ratifying EU agreements, although it must be said that these have established fairly ambitious goals for reduced air pollution and tighter management of water quality.

Sustainable Tourism

The annual number of tourists in Ireland far exceeds the number of residents (by a ratio of about 1½ to one), so visitors can have a huge impact on the local environment. Tourism is frequently cited as potentially beneficial to the environment – that is, responsible visitor spending can help stimulate ecofriendly sectors of the economy. Ecotourism is not really burgeoning in a formalised way, although EcoTourism Ireland (www.ecotourismireland.ie) is charged with maintaining standards for ecotourism on the island and promotes tour companies that comply with these standards. The rising popularity of outdoor activities such as diving, surfing and fishing creates economic incentives for maintaining the cleanliness of Ireland's coasts and inland waters, but increased activity in these environments can be harmful if not managed carefully.

Ireland's comprehensive and efficient bus network makes it easy to avoid the use of a car, and the country is well suited to cycling and walking holidays. Many hotels, guesthouses and hostels tout green credentials, and organic ingredients are frequently promoted on restaurant menus. It's not difficult for visitors to minimise their environmental footprint while in Ireland.

Feature: National Nature Reserves

There are 66 state-owned and 10 privately owned National Nature Reserves (NNRs) in the Republic, represented by the National Parks & Wildlife Service (www.npws.ie), which are defined as areas of importance for their special flora, fauna or geology. Northern Ireland has more than 45 NNRs which are leased or owned by the Department of the Environment. These include the Giant's Causeway and Glenariff in Antrim, and North Strangford Lough in County Down. More information is available from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (www.ni-environment.gov.uk).

Feature: The Bog

The boglands, which once covered one-fifth of the island, are more of a whiskey hue than green – that's the brown of heather and sphagnum moss, which cover uncut bogs. Visitors will likely encounter a bog in County Kildare's Bog of Allen or while driving through the western counties – much of the Mayo coast is covered by bog, and huge swaths also cover Donegal.

Sidebar: Iron Age man

In 1821 the body of an Iron Age man was found in a bog in Galway with his cape, shoes and beard still intact.

Sidebar: Reading the Irish Landscape

Look for Reading the Irish Landscape by Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan for info on Ireland's geology, archaeology, urban growth, agriculture and afforestation.

Sidebar: Heritage Ireland

For information on parks, gardens, monuments and inland waterways, see www.heritageireland.ie.

Sidebar: Animals of Ireland

The illustrated pocket guide Animals of Ireland by Gordon D'Arcy is a handy, inexpensive introduction to Ireland's varied fauna.

Siderbar: Irish Birds

Irish Birds by David Cabot is a pocket guide describing birds and their habitats, which outlines the best places for serious birdwatching.

Sidebar: Ireland's National Parks

  • Burren
  • Connemara
  • Glenveagh
  • Killarney
  • Wicklow Mountains
  • Ballycroy

Feature: Fracking

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is banned in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. There's been great interest in the shale-rich areas of the Northwest Ireland Carboniferous Basin, roughly covering parts of counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh, with pro-fracking groups lobbying hard for the exploitation of the area's reserves of shale gas, but a 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that while many of the environmental problems related to the process could be overcome, not enough was known to ensure the protection of human health. Similarly, the north's environment minister Mark Durkan banned fracking until such time as there is 'sufficient and robust evidence on all environmental impacts of fracking.'

Sporting Ireland

For many Irish, sport is akin to religion. For some it's all about faith through good works such as jogging, cycling and organised team sports. For everybody else, observance is enough, especially from the living-room couch or the pub stool, where the mixed fortunes of their favourite teams are followed with elevated hope and vocalised despair.

Gaelic Football & Hurling

Gaelic games are at the core of Irishness; they are enmeshed in the fabric of Irish life and hold a unique place in the heart of its culture. Their resurgence towards the end of the 19th century was entwined with the whole Gaelic revival and the march towards Irish independence. The beating heart of Gaelic sports is the Gaelic Athletic Association (www.gaa.ie), set up in 1884 'for the preservation and cultivation of National pastimes'. The GAA is still responsible for fostering these amateur games. It warms our hearts to see that after all this time – and amid the onslaught of globalisation and the general commercialisation of sport – they are still far and away the most popular sports in Ireland.

Gaelic games are fast, furious and not for the faint-hearted. Challenges are fierce, and contact between players is extremely aggressive. Both sports are county-based games. The dream of every club player is to represent their county, with the hope of perhaps playing in an All-Ireland final in September at Croke Park in Dublin, the climax of a knockout championship that is played first at a provincial and then interprovincial level.

Rules of the Games

Both Gaelic football and hurling are played by two teams of 15 players whose aim is to get the ball through what resembles a rugby goal: two long vertical posts joined by a horizontal bar, below which is a soccer-style goal, protected by a goalkeeper. Goals (below the crossbar) are worth three points, whereas a ball placed over the bar between the posts is worth one point. Scores are shown thus: 1-12, meaning one goal and 12 points, giving a total of 15 points.

Gaelic football is played with a round, soccer-size ball, and players are allowed to kick it or handpass it, like Australian Rules. Hurling, which is considered by far the more beautiful game, is played with a flat stick or bat known as a hurley or camán. The small leather ball, called a slíothar, is hit or carried on the hurley; handpassing is also allowed. Both games are played over 70 action-filled minutes.

Football

There is huge support in Ireland for the 'world game', although fans are much more enthusiastic about Manchester United, Liverpool and the two Glasgow clubs (Rangers and Celtic) than the struggling pros and part-timers who make up the National League (www.fai.ie) in the Republic and the Irish League (www.irishfa.com) in Northern Ireland. It's just too difficult for domestic teams to compete with the multimillionaire glitz and glamour of the English Premiership, which has always drawn off the cream of Irish talent.

At an international level, the Republic and Northern Ireland field separate teams but both struggle to qualify for major tournaments. It's all a far cry from their respective moments of glory – the 1980s for Northern Ireland and 1988 to 2002 for the Republic.

In order to avoid competing (and losing) with the more popular English Premier League, whose season runs from mid-August to mid-May, the League of Ireland runs its season from April to November, the only European league to do so. Northern Ireland's Irish League still follows the British winter timetable.

You Say Soccer, I say Football

To distinguish it from Gaelic football, you'll often hear football referred to as 'soccer' (especially in Gaelic strongholds whereby doing so implies scorn on so-called 'garrison sports'), which will allay American confusion but only irritate the Brits. But Irish fans of Association Football (the official name of the sport) will always call it football and the other, Gaelic football or, in Dublin, ‘gah’ – which is just the pronunciation of the letters GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association).

Rugby

Although traditionally the preserve of Ireland's middle classes, rugby captures the mood of the whole island in February and March during the annual Six Nations Championships, because the Irish team is drawn from both sides of the border and is supported by both nationalists and unionists. In recognition of this, the Irish national anthem is no longer played at internationals, and is replaced by the thoroughly inoffensive Ireland's Call, a song written especially for the purpose.

At a provincial level, Leinster and Munster are major players on the European stage, having won the Heineken Cup (renamed the European Champions Cup in 2014) three times and twice respectively; Ulster are just a step behind with one win.

Golf

Scotland may be the home of golf, but Ireland is where golf goes on holiday.

With over 400 courses to choose from, there’s no shortage of choice when it comes to teeing it up. These include a host of parkland (or inland) courses; worth checking out are the wonderful, American-style resort courses built over the last couple of decades, with immaculate, lawn-like fairways, white-sand bunkers and strategically placed water features ready to swallow the chunkily hit ball.

But the essence of Irish golf is to be found on seaside links, dotted in a spectacular string of scenery along virtually the entire coastline. Here, nature provides the perfect raw material, and the very best of them are not quite built into the landscape as found within it, much like Michelangelo ‘found’ his figures hiding in the blocks of marble.

Finally, a word about the Irish golfer. Clubhouse snobs and high-handicap etiquette junkies aside, the real Irish golfer is the man or woman who puts their shoes on in the car park and can’t wait to tee it up on the first; they know all the safe spots to land the ball and see it as their duty to share local knowledge. If you land up in the club on your own and they’re doing a little putting practice before heading out, they’re the ones that will offer a twosome because it’s just not right to play on your own. The Irish golfer is friendly, easygoing and always recognises that you will never win at golf, and that today’s bad round is just for today and tomorrow will turn up something different. And they know that golf is played over 19 holes – sure what’s the point of playing unless you can laugh about it all over a drink when the round is done?

Horse Racing & Greyhound Racing

A passion for horse racing is deeply entrenched in Irish life and comes without the snobbery of its English counterpart. If you fancy a flutter on the gee-gees you can watch racing from around Ireland and England on the TV in bookmakers shops every day. No money ever seems to change hands in the betting, however, and every Irish punter will tell you they 'broke even'.

Ireland has a reputation for producing world-class horses for racing and other equestrian events such as showjumping, also very popular albeit in a much less egalitarian kind of way. Major annual races include the Irish Grand National (Fairyhouse, April), Irish Derby (the Curragh, June) and Irish Leger (the Curragh, September). For more information on events, contact Horse Racing Ireland (www.hri.ie).

Traditionally the poor-man's punt, greyhound racing ('the dogs'), has been smartened up in recent years and partly turned into a corporate outing. It offers a cheaper, more accessible and more local alternative to horse racing. There are 20-odd tracks across the country, administered by the Irish Greyhound Board (www.igb.ie).

Road Bowling

The object of this sport is to throw a cast-iron ball weighing approximately 800g along a public road (normally one with little traffic) for a designated distance, usually 1km or 2km, with speed, control and accuracy. The person who does it in the least number of throws is the winner. Participants traditionally bet during the game.

The ball is known as a bowl or bullet. A shot is a throw and a kitter-paw is a left-handed thrower. If you hear someone talking about their butt, they are referring to the throwing mark on the road. Breaking butt means someone has stepped over the mark before releasing the ball. Faugh an Bheallach is a traditional Irish battle cry and means you should get out of the way. A sop is a tuft of grass placed where the bowl should first strike the road and a score is a match.

The main centre for road bowling is Cork, which has 200 clubs, and, to a lesser extent, Armagh. Competitions take place throughout the year, attracting considerable crowds. The sport has been taken up in various countries around the world, including the US, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, and a world championship competition has been set up (see www.irishroadbowling.ie). In Ireland the sport is governed by the Irish Road Bowling Association.

Sidebar: Gaelic Sports

Most counties are good at one Gaelic sport and not the other. Kilkenny, Waterford, Clare and Tipperary are traditionally hurling counties; Kerry, Meath, Mayo and all nine Ulster counties are better at football. Cork, Galway, Offaly, Wexford and Dublin have the privilege of being good at both sports.

Sidebar: Long Bullets

Irish academic Dr Fintan Lane's book Long Bullets: A History of Road Bowling in Ireland traces the sport to the 17th century.

Sidebar: Best Places to Watch a Gaelic Match

  • Croke Park (Dublin)
  • Semple Stadium (Thurles, County Tipperary)
  • Fitzgerald Stadium (Killarney, County Kerry)
  • Inisheer (County Galway)
  • Nowlan Park (Kilkenny)

Sidebar: Championship Seasons

Every county capital has a stadium where counties play representative Gaelic football and hurling matches. The league and championship seasons run roughly from February to late September and tickets for all but the biggest matches (usually at Dublin's Croke Park) are easy to get; see www.gaa.ie for schedules.