Over the years I’ve been to enough Irish pubs, listen to a lot of Irish music and drank more Irish beer than I would like to admit to know there was something vaguely special about Ireland and its culture. But only by being there for the first time, earlier this year, could I really grasp the mystic of this island nation.
After a weekend on lively Dublin and a road trip through the country’s evergreen valleys and coastal mountains, picturesque fishermen villages, historical towns, traditional pubs and impressive cliffs, Ireland got under my skin.
I was in love and now I knew exactly why: a magical mix of breathtaking landscapes, unique traditions, relaxed way of life and charismatic people had its effect on me. I wanted to stay forever. Or at least return as soon as possible – which I will do already in October!
In the meantime, I put together 10 interesting facts about Ireland you probably don’t know about, to help you plan your first trip (yes, there will be more!) to Guinness’ country.
#1 Ireland has its own language, and no, it’s not English
Usually, when I get to a new destination, I just want to get out of the airport as soon as possible and start exploring. But as I landed in Dublin something immediately caught my attention: from the airport’s name to all the information signs on it, as well as spread around the country, an unfamiliar language shows itself before English.
That’s Irish Gaelic, the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland.
Irish Gaelic was the historical language of Irish people until it was forbidden by the British Empire in the 17th century.
Nowadays active speakers represent only 5 to 10 per cent of the population of Ireland, and are located mainly in the Gaeltacht regions – primarily Irish-speaking districts located on the west side of the country, where English power and influence were not so strong.
And every year, parents all over Ireland pay to send their children to Irish summer vacations in the Gaeltacht, where kids live with local Irish-speaking families in order to learn about their own culture and to speak their own native language.
#2 The most popular sports in Ireland are played by amateurs
Almost anywhere on earth the best sportsmen and women are celebrities who are paid a lot of cash to represent their clubs. Well, not in Ireland.
Gaelic Football is the most popular sport in Ireland in terms of attendance, followed directly by Hurling. These two Gaelic games are native Irish sports proudly played, at a club, county and province level, out of passion only. They are promoted by the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland’s largest sporting organization and one of the biggest amateur sporting associations in the world.
Attracting crowds of more than 80,000 people, the main national competitions are the All-Ireland finals in Football and Hurling, held annually at Croke Park, the largest sport stadium in Ireland, located in Dublin.
#3 Dublin was originally established as a Viking settlement
Wandering through the streets of Dublin, two things impress me in particular: the rust brick stone buildings and the colorful facades of the many pubs, shops, bookstores and cafés. Combined, they give the city a distinctive and playful look, even on a gray rainy day like this cold Sunday of January.
But under the pretty surface lies also a fascinating history. For example, did you know that Dublin was established as a Viking settlement in the 10th century? And that it remained under Viking influence for almost three centuries?
Today the capital of Ireland celebrates its Viking history with the Clontfard Viking Festival, held every year in April, and a handful of touristic attractions, from Viking Splash Tours to the reenacted Viking village of Dublinia, where you can learn everything about its olden times, and even be a Viking for a day.
#4 Trinity College is actually the only college of the University of Dublin
I love visiting college campuses. It always makes me travel back in time to some of the best years of my life. I also like to imagine all the knowledge produced and the new discoveries made behind those walls. Yes, you’re right; I’m a bit of a nerd. And, as so, I took my time exploring Trinity College, located right in the center of Dublin.
The original plan for the University of Dublin was to create a collegiate university following the models of Oxford and Cambridge. But only one college was ever established, the Trinity College, founded in 1592.
Among the many famous graduates of Ireland’s oldest university are the likes of Oscar Wild, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker.
#5 The Book of Kells is Ireland’s national treasure
Created by Irish monks around 800 A.D., the Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament. This sacred masterpiece is simply considered “Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript”.
It’s also the main attraction of the Trinity College Library, in Dublin. The Book of Kells Exhibition is open 7 days a week, but make sure to buy your ticket online to have instant access and avoid the big queues.
Unfortunately, due to lack of time, I ended up not seeing Ireland’s national treasure this time, but it’s certainly on my must-see list for my next visit in October.
#6 The Irish shamrock is an international trademark of Ireland
After a day full of sightseeing, followed by dinner, a couple of Guinness and live-music at Temple Bar, Dublin’s most famous nightlife area, I feel ready to get back to my hotel and finally get some rest.
But the young woman doing face painting on the corner of the bar has another idea for me. She asks if she can paint my face. I politely say no, explaining that I’m leaving. She insists: “Please. They have to see that I’m working or will send me away.” So I end up with a green shamrock and a Guinness painted on my face, and for the next half an hour, until I finally go to bed, I feel a bit Irish myself.
The green shamrock (not to be confused with the four-leafed clover, unless you want to upset the Irish!) is recognized worldwide as the most iconic symbol of Ireland. It is usually associated with Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron, who is said to have used it to explain the Christian Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish people.
What you probably don’t know is that in the early 1980s the government of Ireland actually registered the shamrock as an international trademark, after a legal battle with Germany.
So now, Irish companies, like Aer Lingus, can proudly and legally use the green shamrock as their symbol.
#7 The Cliffs of Moher are older than Ireland itself
Formed about 320 million years ago, the impressive Cliffs of Moher were born before the island of Ireland itself, during a time called the Upper Carboniferous.
And they were definitely the highlight of my first trip to Ireland.
Rising to 214 meters at the highest point, and stretching over eight kilometers, on the western seaboard of county Clare, the Cliffs of Moher integrate, along with Burren, a UNESCO Global Geopark.
Ireland’s most visited natural attraction has had also more movie appearances than some Hollywood artists. Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince, Princess Bride, The Mackintosh Man, and Ryan’s Daughter are among the many movies filmed in the stunning scenery of the Cliffs of Moher.
#8 Irish drink an average of 80 liters of beer per person per year
Ireland ranked sixth on bier consumption per capita in 2015, when compared to the rest of the European countries.
Well, to be honest, they produce one of the best beers in the world – Guinness is one of the most appreciated beers worldwide, brewed in almost 50 countries and available in over 120.
So who can really blame them?
#9 The Irish town with most pubs per person has 1 pub for every 26 people
The holder of this remarkable record is Liscannor, in county Clare, with 5 pubs for only 129 people.
Truth be told, it is impossible to wander around Ireland without stumbling upon a pub, or public house, on every corner. Even in the smallest towns, I counted at least two or three pubs.
But there’s a simple explanation for this phenomenon: Irish people don’t like to drink at home; they prefer to socialize at the pub, while eating, listening to traditional music or watching a Gaelic game on TV. The pub is also where people meet, after a day of work, the local football match or even the Sunday mass.
#10 A pint of Guinness tastes much better in Ireland
Back in 2011, former US President Barack Obama visited Ireland and, after enjoying a pint at Ollie Hayes pub, in Moneygall, announced to the world that Guinness tastes better in Ireland. “You guys are keeping all the best stuff here”, were his exact words.
Well, after an extensive empirical research, I too can tell you for a fact that there’s no better place to enjoy a stout than in Ireland.
But don’t just take my word, or Obama’s, on it. Try it for yourself and let me know what you think.
Ireland can’t possibly be reduced to a list of 10 interesting facts about the country. Nor I intended to do that. Ireland beauty and ethos has to be experienced firsthand. And, even then, you’ll always be a little sorry you were not born Irish.
Or, as the Irish say: If you’re lucky enough to be Irish… you’re lucky enough!
Have you ever been to Ireland? Do you have any curiosity or interesting fact to add to this list? Let me know in the comments section below.
If you like it, Pin it!