The big cities of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick and Galway offer a thriving entertainment scene. Big-name bands and singers play at venues like the 3 Arena in Dublin and the SSE Arena in Belfast, while any number of pubs and clubs host live performances by local and Irish bands.

More distinctively Irish are the traditional-music sessions that enliven many an evening in pubs the length and breadth of the country.

Traditional Music

Western Europe’s most vibrant folk music is Irish traditional music, which may have earned worldwide fame thanks to the likes of Riverdance but is best expressed in a more sedate setting, usually an old-fashioned pub. The west of Ireland is particularly musical: from Donegal down to Kerry there are centres of musical excellence, none more so than Doolin in County Clare, the unofficial capital of Irish music. It’s unlikely you’ll be asked to join in, but there’s nothing stopping your foot from tapping and your hands from clapping.

In rural areas, sessions are often advertised on a card in the pub window (or just ask at your accommodation); you can also find information on websites such as Dublin Sessions (http://dublinsessions.ie) and TradConnect (http://tradconnect.com/page/ireland-sessions-listing-pub).

Theatre

Ireland has a theatrical history almost as long as its literary one. Dublin’s first theatre was founded in Werburgh St in 1637, although it was closed only four years later by the Puritans. Another theatre, named the Smock Alley Playhouse or Theatre Royal, opened in 1661 and continued to stage plays for more than a century.

The literary revival of the late 19th century resulted in the establishment of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, now Ireland’s national theatre. Its role is to present works by former greats such as George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), JM Synge (1871–1909) and Sean O’Casey (1880–1964), as well as to promote modern Irish dramatists.

Dublin and Belfast remain the main centres for Irish theatre, but most sizable towns, such as Cork, Donegal, Derry, Limerick and Galway, have their own theatres. You can find information, news and listings of upcoming performances at www.irishtheatre.ie.

Horse Racing

Horses have played a huge role in Irish life over the centuries. The country is home to two of the world’s most famous breeding studs (notably the Irish National Stud) and to many great trainers who have produced a large number of internationally successful race horses.

Going to the races has long been a big part of the Irish entertainment scene, and a total of 26 racecourses dot the republic including Leopardstown in Dublin, Tipperary in County Tipperary and, most famous of all, the Curragh in County Kildare, plus two more in Northern Ireland.

Major annual race meetings include the Irish Grand National (Fairyhouse, Co Meath, April), the Irish Derby (the Curragh, June) and the Irish Leger (the Curragh, September). The latest news, results and fixtures lists can be found at www.goracing.ie and www.irishracing.com.

Gaelic Football & Hurling

Ireland has two native games with a large, enthusiastic following – Gaelic football and hurling.

Gaelic football is a fast and exciting spectacle and is hugely popular throughout the country. In recent years the game has been glamourised by the association of high-profile sponsors and major advertising. The ball is round like a soccer ball and the players can pass it in any direction by kicking or punching it. The goalposts are similar to rugby posts, and a goal, worth three points, is scored by putting the ball below the bar, while a single point is awarded when the ball goes over the bar.

Hurling is a ball-and-stick game something like hockey, but much faster and more physical; the players' broad wooden sticks are called hurleys. The goalposts and scoring method are the same as for Gaelic football, but the leather ball or sliotar is the size of a baseball. A player can pick up the ball on their stick and run with it for a certain distance, and they can handle the ball briefly and pass it by palming it. Women’s hurling is called camogie.

Gaelic football and hurling are played nationwide by a network of town and county clubs under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA; www.gaa.ie). The most important competitions are played at county level, and the county winners from of each of the sport’s four provinces come together in the autumn for the All-Ireland Finals, the climax of Ireland’s sporting year. The Gaelic football and hurling finals are both played in September at Dublin’s Croke Park. In fact, a match at Croke Park (if you can get your hands on tickets), with the crowd chanting and its electric atmosphere, is a highlight of any trip to the Ireland.