Ireland in detail

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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 financial 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 government 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 and 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 suggested that Ireland has had an unhealthy fondness for 'taking the cure', though the acceptability of public drunkenness is a far more recent phenomenon – the older generations 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.

LGBT-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.

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, with rural Ireland lagging not too far behind their urban brethren.

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.

At an official level, Northern Ireland remains troublingly regressive as it's the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage remains illegal. Whatever LGBT-friendly legislation there is (civil partnership, removal of the ban on blood donations by gay men) has been the result of either direct rule by Westminster or court action rather than legislative reform, mostly down to the intransigence of the anti-LGBT Democratic Unionist Party. DUP attitudes, however, are severely at odds with the views of most people under 30, regardless of their political affiliations, who are as progressive in their attitudes toward LGBT issues as their counterparts on the rest of the island and the UK.

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 – though, 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, even if in 2019 one of these groups was involved in a series of protests against plans to house groups of immigrants in several Irish towns.

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 incidents 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 for 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% of the population) 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), while 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.

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 such as 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, was the first to reach a wider audience, and from it were born The Chieftains, arguably the most important traditional group of 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 3, displays both his beautiful fiddle playing and his superb understanding of loops and electronic texturing.

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.

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, though it makes for a lousy symbol. The uillean pipes, played by squeezing bellows under the elbow, provide another distinctive sound, though 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.

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) – to 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 literary scene is flourishing, thanks in part to the proliferation of smaller presses and printing houses giving authors a chance to publish, which in turn has helped engender a generation of new writers more confident in seeing the fruits of their labours reach an audience.

The #MeToo movement has also played its indirect part, with publishers keen to promote female voices that in previous eras may not have been given the opportunity to be heard. Sally Rooney is perhaps the biggest star in the new firmament. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), established her as a writer of huge talent, while her follow-up, Normal People (2018), about the difficult relationship between two friends during the economic downturn, won best novel at the Costa Book Awards, book of the year at the British Book Awards and was a New York Times bestseller.

Belfast-born Anna Burns is the first Northern Irish author to win the Booker Prize, picking up the award in 2018 for her third novel, Milkman, about an 18-year-old girl being stalked by a much older paramilitary figure. Emilie Pine burst onto the scene in 2018 with a superb collection of non-fiction essays, Notes to Self, an unflinching look at addiction, sexual assault and mental health.

Melatu Oche Okorie was born in Nigeria, but moved to Ireland in 2006, where she spent 8½ years in direct provision (the processing system for asylum seekers), experiences she recounts in the three stories of This Hostel Life (2018), which cast an important light on the migrant experience in Ireland.

Sinéad Gleeson is another important voice on the literary scene. Her 2019 memoir, Constellations: Reflections from a Life, is a stunning collection of linked essays exploring the fraught relationship between the physical body and identity. Dubliner Karl Geary left home for New York in the late '80s, but tells the story of a love affair between a teenager and an older woman in his debut novel, Montpelier Parade (2017).

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. 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. More recently Derek Mahon's (1941-) Against the Clock (2018) is as much a melancholic meditation on the passage of time as it is a light-hearted acceptance of the fact. Galway-born Elaine Feeney (1979-) is one of the country's best-known contemporary poets: 2017's Rise is her fourth collection of poems.

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.

Milkman (Anna Burns; 2018) Northern Ireland's first Booker Prize winner explores the Troubles through the eyes of an anonymous 18-year-old narrator being stalked by a much older paramilitary figure.

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.

Conversations With Friends (Sally Rooney; 2017) Rooney's debut novel is a keenly observed exploration of the complex dynamics between four privileged friends in post-crash Dublin.

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.

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 though 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. 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 Sliabh Liag, 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 for 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 forests 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, the survival of which 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, which has sticky tentacles to trap insects, and bladderwort, with its tiny explosive bladders that 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 along 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 blow-overs 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, 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 the birds, but a small number of pairs continue to thrive. 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. Twenty-three other chicks followed and, thankfully, most have survived. 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 2019 10.6% 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 from renewables 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 it ongoing fines.

On a more practical level a number of recycling programmes 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, though 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). These reserves 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 swathes also cover Donegal.

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. A 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, 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'.

Siderbar: Irish Birds

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

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 AFL football in Australia. 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.

Women & the GAA

In 2018 50,141 fans watched Dublin beat Cork in the All-Ireland Final, the first women's game to break the 50,000 barrier and the most attended women's sport final in the world that year.

Women's football – or Ladies Gaelic Football, to give it its proper name – is one of the fastest growing participation sports in Europe. There are over 1000 clubs nationwide, a remarkable achievement given the sport was only properly established in 1974 (curiously, women's football is governed by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, not the GAA, even though they play by the same rules in the same grounds), but the game's growth has accelerated apace in recent years, thanks in part to a cash injection and big promotional push by primary sponsor Lidl, the German supermarket group.

The women's version of hurling is camogie, which bar a few rule differences (and shorter games) is virtually identical to hurling. It was first established in 1903 by cultural nationalists and Irish language enthusiasts Máire Ní Chinnéide (anglicised as Mary O'Kennedy) and Cáit Ní Dhonnchadha (Kathleen Donnehy), and its name derives from camóg, the diminutive of camán, the Irish for hurley stick. Although there are more than 500 camogie clubs throughout Ireland, it's most popular in the same counties in which hurling is popular, with Cork, Dublin, Kilkenny and Tipperary at the top of the list.

The women's All-Ireland finals in both sports are held at Croke Park, with the football final on the last Sunday in September (occasionally the first Sunday in October) and the camogie final on the Sunday in between the men's hurling and football finals.

Football

There is huge support in Ireland for the 'world game', though there is generally greater enthusiasm for British teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool and the two Glasgow teams (Rangers and particularly Celtic) than for the struggling pros and part-timers who make up the League of Ireland (www.fai.ie) in the Republic and the Irish League (www.irishfa.com) in Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless the over-hyped, billion-dollar global glitz of the Premier League has led some fans to 'rediscover' the charms of local football, which in turn has seen attendances at some League of Ireland matches rise, especially those between stalwart rivals such as Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, Cork City, Dundalk and Drogheda.

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, the season for which 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, where 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. It also helps that Ireland is going through a major purple patch – in 2018 it was ranked the second-best team in the world after New Zealand.

At a provincial level Leinster and Munster are major players on the European stage, having won the European Champions Cup four times and twice respectively; Ulster is 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 any chunkily hit shot.

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 less built into the landscape than 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 who will offer a twosome because it’s just not right to play on your own. The Irish golfer is friendly, easy-going 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 – 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, which is 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.

Ring of Kerry

Windswept beaches, Atlantic waves crashing against rugged cliffs and islands, medieval ruins, soaring mountains and glinting loughs are some of the stunning distractions along the twisting 179km Ring of Kerry circle drive around the Iveragh Peninsula.

Killorglin

Even if you’re racing around the ring, don’t miss its first town (heading anticlockwise). The riverside village of Killorglin is home to a salmon smokehouse, some standout restaurants and, in August, the historic Puck Fair Festival.

Kenmare

A fitting last (or first) stop on the ring, Kenmare is a microcosm of Kerry’s greatest charms. A beautiful location on the bay (from where boat trips depart), colourful shops and gracious architecture are cornerstones of this classic Irish town.

Skellig Ring

A ring within the ring, this 18km loop off the main route offers an escape from the crowds. The wild, scenic drive links Portmagee and Waterville via a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area centred on Ballinskelligs (Baile an Sceilg).

Valentia Island

Islands are a scenic highlight on the ring. Some are accessible by boat, but picturesque Valentia Island is even easier to reach, via a short bridge. There’s also a summer car-ferry service departing just south of Caherciveen.

Caherdaniel

The ring’s scenery is at its most rugged around Caherdaniel. Highlights here include the Derrynane National Historic Park with its stately house and palmfilled gardens, horse riding, a Blue Flag beach and water sports galore.

Aran Islands Scenery

Blasted by the wind and washed over by waves, the eroded, striated slivers of rock known as the Aran Islands hold a fascination for travellers. Rocky extensions of the Burren in County Clare, they are home to descendants of unimaginably hardy folk who forged their own culture of survival.

Aran Islands

Left to nature, the Arans would be bare rocks in the Atlantic. But generations of islanders have created green – seaweed and sand gathered and spread by hand over the centuries to produce fertile fields.

Inishmaan

Escape the crowds on Inishmaan, the least visited of the Arans. You’ll see few others on walks across the dramatic countryside, where every path seems to pass the mysterious remains of past lives and end on a beach trod only by you.

Inishmór

A thousand day trippers on a summer weekend come to Inishmór to see one of Ireland’s most impressive ancient wonders. Dún Aengus has been guarding a bluff over the Atlantic for more than 3000 years.

Inisheer

An old castle, ancient churches and a magical spring are just a few of the highlights of Inisheer, the smallest of the Arans. Centuries of history are preserved in rock.

The Plassy Wreck

Star of the opening sequence of the comedy classic Father Ted, the Plassy was driven ashore on Inisheer by storms in 1960. Attracting walkers and visitors from afar, its rusting hulk is testament to the implacable march of time and the power of the turbulent Atlantic.