Ask Someone Who Recently Traveled Around Ireland

A couple weeks ago I took a 10-day trip through Ireland, with long-to-very-short stops in Dublin, Malahide, Kilkenny, Killarney, around the Ring of Kerry and the Skellig Ring, Dingle, Portmagee, Athlone, Galway, and Belfast. It was great.

Question: I have wanted to do such a trip for a while! But was chicken about driving there. How difficult did you find it? (I looked into bus schedules but it seemed … like I should get over it and just rent a car.)

The cars were hard! Probably the most unexpectedly stressful part, actually. The roads are about this wide ||, and the driving-on-the-left-side thing is not an instant natural fit for everyone [nervous laughter], and I spent a lot of the time staring at the road (on the passenger side) clutching my hands in catatonic terror. But then I loosened up [a very little bit], and it was fine! (My travel partner deserves lots and lots of credit for both never crashing and for putting up with me the whole time. “Careful.” “Careful!” “CAREFUL.” “Careful.” “CAREFUL.” “Careful.”) Way more fun, in a different way, were the trains! Especially when you bring/buy booze on them. I think — I think — if I did it again, I might just go everywhere by bus and train, although that’d sacrifice the roamy, up-and-down-the-Irish-hills, windows-open part of it. But both options are great. Unless you crash and die. It bewilders me that everyone in Ireland hasn’t already crashed and died. 

How were the TAYTO CRISPS?

Tayto crisps are THE JAM. My favorite were the prawn cocktail variety (or were those Lays?), but I had so many crisps, and all were uniformly fantastic, so I hesitate to shout out one brand over the others.

Also: “Converts into a cozy cushion shape.” New heights in children’s fashion!

So, like, if you have a type, and that type is “pasty, often drunk dude with an amazing accent who swears a lot,” is traveling around Ireland like being in a porn movie basically? ASKING FOR A FRIEND WHO ISN’T MARRIED.

Ohhh my god! Yes?

My question is what kind of food does one eat in Ireland? Also did you see any of those really pretty people that have blue eyes and dark hair?

There was a REALLY beautiful girl with shiny black hair, pale blue eyes, and peaches-and-cream skin (ugh!) who worked at the car rental place at the Dublin airport, and she was so pretty it made me angry! I’m still angry at her! And at the terrifying car she rented me. No, she was lovely, and the car was great. It was just very, very small, which ultimately was good for the micro-roads. Wait, let me talk more about the cars and roads! That’s a joke, but now that we’re here again, the roads were actually really smooth, so that was nice. More on the roads shortly, I’m sure.

And the food was pretty surprisingly great everywhere, despite its less-than-glowing reputation. Although it depends a lot on whether you like fish. There’s so much good fish! (Best I had: Out of the Blue, in Dingle. Get the John Dory.) Vegetarians might have a little trouble, though. And eating as much local Irish beef as I did fish seems tasty but maybe not as digestively pleasant, although that’s just me. As long as you don’t eat too much of anything, when you do have fish and chips, and beef-and-Guinness stew, and rustic brown bread slathered with ridiculously delicious butter and jam, and poached eggs, and black pudding, and Willy Wonka-style chocolates with hilarious names like “Pimbly Mimblies” and “Mumbly Pumblies,” and swirly soft-serve ice cream cones that look like they came out of a cartoon, and everything else, it doesn’t hurt your stomach too badly. Or do whatever!

Also do people really sing Irish music? Is that a thing?

Yes! Ahh! It’s so great. The best I saw was one evening at an ancient bar in Dingle (Dick Macks), when this guy brought out a guitar and started playing sad old songs, while the crowd (about 15 of us) either listened or quietly carried on our conversations. Then later that night, at a different bar (O’Sullivan’s Court House Pub), there was a rowdier, jiggier traditional music session, and after that, at the same bar, a teenage girl brought out a fiddle in the back beer garden and played some impromptu songs at a table with her mother and grandfather. It was really beautiful. Maybe it was a violin.

Here’s a quick and awkward video I took at Sean’s Bar, in Athlone, which is supposedly the oldest pub in Ireland (Guinness World Record certified), according to the carbon dating of stuff they found in the walls. It’s also totally charming and warm and lovely and quiet. You can only just hear the music playing quietly up front.

Did you hear any U2 while over there?

I don’t think I did! The last night, though, in Belfast, we heard someone, somewhere singing a stylized karaoke version of “Que Sera Sera” that was maybe the worst musical sound I’ve ever heard, although even that was kind of amazing.

How depressing is it over there, generally? Like, do people just seem sadder than people in America? Or are my assumptions about what the food, weather, and economy do to the national mood way off?

Hmm, I don’t know. Everyone seemed pretty good, but I was only there for 10 days, tourist-ing it up. But what’s definitely true is that everyone — truly every person I spoke with or otherwise observed — was incredibly nice. Went out of their way to be warm, helpful, open. So friendly, even when you ask stupid questions or drive embarrassingly Americanly (sorry, nice man on that bike!). If you go, talk to people! The people and the scenery are really the best parts of the whole experience, and the reason to visit. Also the beer and whiskey. (But the Jameson distillery is skippable. Kind of. Actually it’s pretty hilarious, if only for the strangely pro-America, propaganda-style video screened at the beginning.)

There was no cloud of depression, although they have a good, dark sense of humor about things.

Also they made fun of the country and its weather constantly, asking, jokingly [ish], why we even came there in the first place. But no one seemed glum. Also I loved the weather! But I love rain and darkness. There was plenty of sunshine, too. Just not for too-too many hours at a time, usually. But the weather was always in flux. SHALL I GO ON?

Where do people live? I heard there were more houses in Ireland than people, but nobody can afford to live in any of those houses after the bubble burst. So do people squat in those new, pretty houses? Do people drink lemonade on porches?

Ooh, I don’t know! People seemed to live in houses, and apartments, normally, I guess? There weren’t any abandoned houses or ghost towns or anything like that, although now that you ask, there were a lot of “TO LET” signs everywhere, although maybe those just stuck out because, to the end, I couldn’t walk past them without imagining putting an “i” in there.

And there was no lemonade-drinking that I saw. Unless lemonade is code for Guinness and porch is another word for pub. In which case, yes, there was a great deal of porch lemonade, at all times, all across the country.

OH YEAH, speaking of porches:

COMPARE AND CONTRAST: New Orleans and Dublin.

Whaaat! New Orleans is the coolest place in the world, except that it’s actually extremely hot, but in Dublin it’s chilly and perfect, but not particularly “cool” in the hip sense of the word. I wore a jacket and boots every day. (For this mid-June trip.) And there’s less variety. Charming pub after charming pub, but the vibe throughout Dublin (and most of Ireland) is pretty similar. (Although, again, this is just to someone passing through.) Whereas New Orleans is more beautifully feverish and weird. Wait, how can you even ask this question? This question is crazy! I’ll leave it in, though, because of the jacket recommendation. My traveling partner had to get a sweatshirt (to wear under his jacket) while we were on the road. Layers! And umbrellas.

What are the single best and worst things you ingested while there?

I had some really terrific salmon (cured and served with mustard and dill; baked and served with a trillion little sauces [mint, lemon, tartar, chili, horseradish, etc.]; fried and served with vinegary chips), and then just butter, every morning, on bread with jam. Oh butter. Also oysters and strawberries. Wait, yes, I take it all back — the best things I ate were Wexford strawberries bought on the side of the road. Tiny, ridiculously sweet. Perfect. Unlike any I’ve had in the U.S.

And for unappealing foods, I wasn’t totally impressed with the roasted tomatoes that appeared with most Irish breakfasts — pale, mealy, and underripe, usually (see about three feet up). Sort of confusing, actually. Also they don’t have much hummus over there, which was frustrating if ridiculous to think, and to now put into writing. But when you find it, in wooden barrels, at farmers’ markets, it’s excellent. Here is some they sell on Saturdays in Galway — the basil variety has cashews in it, too. Delicious. (Incidentally, Sheridan’s Cheesemonger and Wine Bar [upstairs] is really nice and bright, and right beside the market.)

Did even the best restaurants have hilariously bad websites?

Yes. They’re seemingly all terrible. A combination website-designer/hummus-entrepreneur could potentially go far in Ireland.

Also is it actually green, or is that a myth?

It is the most gloriously, gorgeously green place I have ever seen in my life.

Does everyone look like the Boston Celtics’ mascot?

What else would they look like?

What are the topics/questions that Irish people are sick of American people asking about? Did you, for example, ever start to say, “Lepre …” and the whole pub groan, and then you go like, “I was going to say Leprosy! You don’t know what’s in my brain.”

Haha. I’d actually go into pubs, yell “leprechaun,” and run out too quickly to see how people reacted!

Did anybody beat you over the head with a shillelagh?

No one beat me over the head with that “wooden walking stick and club or cudgel, typically made from a stout knotty stick with a large knob at the top, that is associated with Ireland and Irish folklore,” but I did almost knock myself out slipping in the shower. That’s right!!!

Did you meet any Germans?

Huh. There were four older Germans at a pub at one point, but they were weird, and I think making a big deal over a coin? One of the men, who had a twirly ended mustache, was holding it up and smiling this semi-freaky childish smile, and the rest of his party were grinning glazedly at it, too. Or maybe he was showing it to us? I don’t remember, but I think at one point I smiled and nodded at his coin, too. Wait, maybe I was drunk.

Also I was pretty sure the couple sitting next to us on the plane home to New York were German, because they were speaking in German to each other (and “ein bier,” the man said to the flight attendant, who thought he was with us, so instead of responding to him she looked at us in confusion and said “what does he want? What is ‘beelk’?” And we were like, “ahh, he’s not with us, but I’m pretty sure he wants a beer?”), but then they had American passports, so who knows. Anyway, I didn’t notice a lot of other Germans, and I’m sorry if I’m missing the point of this question!

What kind of music do they listen to in some Dublin nightclubs on Saturday nights?

It’s all a blur, but I took this video and forgot about it until going through my phone just now and fake-asking myself this question! This place was great, and I don’t remember what it was called, but it was like four floors, with indoorses and outdoorses, and endless people, but not in an unpleasant way.

Was it expensive?

Yes. New Yorkish prices kind of everywhere. AirBNB would definitely be a good way to go if you’re spending more than a couple nights anywhere (although there are some really charming hotels with lovely breakfasts — basically all of them, as far as I can tell — so ideally a trip would consist of some nights in one place and others in another), but being on the go is the most fun part. For me, at least. The country is tiny. You can zip from one side and back, and from the top to the bottom, in a day, basically. Trains are great for this.

I went to Belfast a few years ago and it was a total trash heap.

Nooo! Belfast was actually my favorite. After a week of picturesque, impossibly charming towns in “regular” Ireland — old men in brogues riding around on vintage bicycles eating ice cream cones, literally — Northern Ireland was a slightly grittier, really nice change of pace. Which is easy for a random tourist to say, I know, but I loved it. Plus the accent there is harder. Sexier. But the people are just as nice. I met a couple of Hell’s Angels, and one of them showed me pictures of his children on his iPhone, and they were adorable.

Overall: Recommended!

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