The Emerald Isle's forests, parks and undulating countryside turn a kaleidoscope of gold, ruby and topaz hues come fall. Autumn is one of the most atmospheric seasons to visit Ireland: outdoor activities and incredible birdlife abound, local festivals and sporting events pack the calendar, and toe-tapping traditional music sessions in cosy pubs take place around crackling turf fires.
Ireland's exceptional museums also make wonderful refuges from the elements. Best of all, as the leaves start to fall, so do accommodation prices. After the summer holiday rush, crowds at key sights thin out, restaurants are easier to book at short notice, and roads are quieter, making driving and cycling more enjoyable.
Rich traditional festivals in the fall months include early September's three-day Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival (capeclearstorytelling.com), with storytelling, workshops and walks on Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island off the coast of County Cork.
Wildly innovative performances take place during the two-week Dublin Fringe Festival (fringefest.com), which is the precursor for the renowned 18-day Dublin Theatre Festival (dublintheatrefestival.com). Belfast Festival at Queen's (belfastinternationalartsfestival.com) is held in and around Queen's University throughout the second half of October.
Music festivals strike up all over the island in autumn. Opera fans gather in Wexford Town, County Wexford for lesser-known works staged during the Wexford Opera Festival (wexfordopera.com). The Republic of Ireland's second-largest city, lively Cork, becomes even livelier during the country's best-known jazz fest, the Cork Jazz Festival (guinnessjazzfestival.com). Folk, roots and indie singer-songwriters perform during Sligo Town's six-day festival Sligo Live (sligolive.ie). For fabulous Irish trad music (concerts, pub sessions, workshops, album launches and more), don't miss County Galway's three-day Tuam Trad Festival (tuamtradfestival.com).
Sport also seizes the spotlight: crowds of over 80,000 cram Dublin's Croke Park on the second and fourth Sundays of September for the finals of the hurling and Gaelic football championships respectively.
And then there's Halloween. Popularised in North American culture by settlers from these parts, All Hallows' Eve (aka All Saints' Eve) has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, marking the end of summer and harvest, when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to deter spirits as the dead returned to earth before the winter 'new year'. Ireland's biggest street party takes place in the Northern Ireland city of Derry/Londonderry, with fireworks, a haunted house, Freaky Fun Fair and outlandish costumes (derrycity.gov.uk/halloween).
During today's harvest, apples are picked, potatoes dug up and fishing fleets haul in prized catches. Get a taste at covered markets including Cork's ornate Victorian English Market and Belfast's St George's Market and colourful outdoor markets such as Dublin's Temple Bar Food Market; learn to create dishes using autumnal ingredients at exceptional cookery schools, among them County Cork's Ballymaloe Cookery School, the Tannery in Dungarvan, County Waterford, and Belfast's Mourne Seafood Cookery School (mourneseafoodcookeryschool.com); or celebrate the bounty at food festivals across the island.
In late August/early September, some 8000 oysters from Dundrum Bay star at the three-day Hillsborough Oyster Festival (hillsboroughoysterfestival.com), County Down. Oysters are the centrepiece of several other festivals, particularly two in County Galway: the three-day Clarenbridge Oyster Festival (clarenbridge.com) in mid-September, and the rollicking Galway International Oyster Festival (galwayoysterfest.com), over the last weekend in September.
Cookery competitions, demonstrations and banquets are just some of the highlights of Skibbereen's 10-day Taste of West Cork Food Festival (atasteofwestcork.com), showcasing local producers in mid-September. The three-day Waterford Harvest Food Festival in Waterford City, County Waterford includes food markets and open-air picnics. But perhaps the biggest autumn event on foodies' calendars is the four-decades-strong Kinsale Gourmet Festival (kinsalerestaurants.com) over three days in early October, when this County Cork seaside town shows why it's Ireland's unofficial gourmet capital.
Glorious walking trails wend through the variegated fall landscape, from short walks to long-distance routes, and the weather can be surprisingly blue-skied, crisp and dry (that said, always bring raingear and wear sturdy shoes in case the going gets muddy).
Standout walking destinations at this time of year include County Kerry's lake-filled Killarney National Park; the lush woodland and gentle hills of County Tipperary's Glen of Aherlow; the picturesque Barrow Towpath, in counties Carlow and Kilkenny, from Borris to Graiguenamanagh and on to St Mullins; wooded trails around the ancient monastic site at Glendalough, County Wicklow; and in Northern Ireland, County Down's majestic Mourne Mountains, especially at Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks.
Discover Ireland (discoverireland.ie/walking) has downloadable maps and guides to hundreds of walks in the Republic of Ireland, as does Walk Northern Ireland (walkni.com) in the North. The forestry service Coillte Outdoors (coillteoutdoors.ie) covers its properties' forest trails.
In Ireland, golf isn't a 'good walk spoiled', but a fantastic opportunity to play some of the world's most revered courses, especially in autumn when demand for tee times drops. Spectacular locations include Lahinch Golf Club (lahinchgolf.com), 10km southeast of the Cliffs of Moher, and Royal County Down Golf Club (royalcountydown.org) beneath the Mourne Mountains. Ireland's clubs all welcome non-members though you'll need a handicap from your home country to access the most prestigious. Comprehensive golfing information is available at the Golfing Union of Ireland (golfnet.ie).
September and October are prime times to ride Ireland's waves, when the swells are generally highest and the water warmest (though you'll still want a thick wetsuit!). Hotspots along the surf-pounded Atlantic coastline include Easkey and Strandhill in County Sligo, Bundoran in County Donegal, and the beaches around Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Surf schools for all levels are listed with the Irish Surfing Association (irishsurfing.ie).
Surfer hitting the waves at a beach near Portrush. Photo by Carl Bruemmer / Getty Images
Ireland's location on Europe's western edge makes it an ideal stopover point for birds migrating from North America and the Arctic. Tens of thousands of overwintering brent geese arrive at Castle Espie (wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/castle-espie) on Strangford Lough, County Down, in October. Also from October, the southern counties become a temporary home to American waders (mainly sandpipers and plovers) and warblers. The Wexford Wildfowl Reserve is the winter home to 35% of the world's population of Greenland White-fronted Geese (some 10,000 in total); the last week of October is Goose Week, with nature walks and other events.
Need to Know
While fall is quieter than summer, it's still advisable to book accommodation ahead, and essential if you're coinciding your trip with festivals. Many attractions, accommodation and restaurants reduce their hours and some close altogether for winter, so confirm ahead, especially later in the season.