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An essential guide for the first-time traveler to Ireland
by Frank McNally

Frank McNally is a reporter/columnist for the Irish Times, where this article first appeared in 1999. It is reprinted here with his kind permission.

Pub Etiquette
The crucial thing here is the "round" system, in which each participant takes turns to "shout" an order. To the outsider, this may appear casual; you will not necessarily be told it's your round and other participants may appear only too happy to substitute for you. But make no mistake, your failure to "put your hand in your pocket" will be noticed. People will mention it the moment you leave the room. The reputation will follow you to the grave, whereafter it will attach to your offspring and possibly theirs as well. In some cases, it may become permanently enshrined in a family nickname.

Irish Time
Ireland has two time zones: (1) Greenwich Mean Time, GMT and (2) "Local" time. Local time can be anything between ten minutes and three days behind GMT, depending on the position of the earth and the whereabouts of whoever has the keys. Again, the Irish concept of time has been influenced by the thinking of 20th century physicists, who hold that it can only be measured by reference to another body and can even be affected by factors like acceleration. For instance, a policeman entering a licensed premise in rural Ireland late at night is a good example of another body from whom it can be reliably inferred that it is, in fact, closing time. When this happens, acceleration is the advised option; shockingly, the relativity argument is still not accepted as a valid defence in the Irish courts.

Visitors to Ireland in mid-March often ask: What clothes should I bring? The answer is: All of them!

Woolly Jumpers (sweaters)

Ireland produces vast quantities of woolen knitwear and, under a US/Irish trade agreement, American visitors may not leave without a minimum of two sweaters, of which one at least must be predominantly green.

Airline staff may check that you have the required documentation before you are allowed to disembark. Continental (that's Europe, not the airline) visitors are only required to have one woolly jumper, but must have a copy of "The Collected Works of Seamus Heaney" as well.

Ireland's Weather
It is often said that the Irish are a Mediterranean people who only come into their own when the sun shines on consecutive days (which it last did around the time of St Patrick). For this reason, Irish people dress for conditions in Palermo rather than Dublin; and it is not unusual in March to see young people sipping cool beer outside city pubs and cafes, enjoying the air and the soft caress of hailstones on their skin. The Irish attitude toward the weather is the ultimate triumph of optimism over experience: Every time it rains, we look up at the sky and are shocked and betrayed. Then we go out and buy a new umbrella.

Traditional Music
Many visitors to Ireland make the mistake of thinking of traditional music as mere entertainment. In some parts of Ireland this may even be an accurate impression. However, in certain fundamentalist strongholds such as Co. Clare, traditional music is founded in a strict belief system which has been handed on from generation to generation. This is overseen by bearded holy men, sometimes called "Mullahs", who ensure that the music is played in accordance with laws laid down in the 4th Century. Under this system,"bodhran players" are required to cover their faces in public. Other transgressions, such as attempting to play guitar in a traditional session, are punishable by the loss of one or both hands. A blind eye may be turned however to the misbehavior of foreigners, but it's best not to push it.

Irish Dancing
There are two main kinds of Irish dancing: (1) Riverdancewhich is now simultaneously running in every major city except Ulan Bater and which some economists believe is responsible for the Irish economic boom; and (2) Real Irish dancing, in which men do not wear frilly blouses and you still may not express yourself, except in a written note to the adjudicators.

Strangely enough, Irish people tend to wear everything except green, which is associated with too many national tragedies, including 1798, the Famine and the current Irish soccer team. It's possible that green just doesn't suit the Irish skin colour, which is generally pale blue.

Gaelic Games
St Patrick's Day brings the climax of the club championships in Gaelic games, which combine elements of the American sports of gridiron and baseball but are played with an intensity more associated with Mafia turf wars. The two main games are "football" and "hurling", the chief difference being that in football, the fights are unarmed. There is also "camogie," which is like hurling, except that in fights, the hair may be pulled as well.

Schools rugby
St Patrick's Day also brings the finals in schools rugby, a game based around the skills of wrestling, kicking, gouging, earbiting, and assaults on other vulnerable body parts. The game is much prized in Ireland's better schools, where it's seen as an ideal grounding for careers in business and the law.


In most countries, road signs are used to help motorists get from one place to another. In Ireland, it's not so simple. Sign-posting here is heavily influenced by Einstein's theories (either that or the other way round) of space/time, and works on the basis that there is no fixed reference point in the universe, or not west of Mullingar anyway. Instead, location and distance may be different for every observer and, frequently, for neighboring road-signs. Ireland is officially bilingual, a fact which is reflected in the road-signs. This allows you to get lost in both Irish and English.

Ireland remains a deeply religious country, with the two main denominations being "us" and "them". In the unlikely event you are asked which group you belong to, the correct answer is:"I'm an atheist, thank God", then change the subject.

We hope you enjoyed this all-too brief guide and that it will prove to be of some assistance if you're a first time traveler to the ould sod.
Frank McNally is a reporter/columnist for the Irish Times, where this article first appeared in 1999. It is reprinted here with his kind permission.

Images: Pub and signs from free ecards
Children in rainwear from the Webseed professional gallery
Couple in shamrock sweaters from

Even after reading this, if you're still determined to
travel to Ireland. Please click to return to our Travel Home Page.

Fri, Jul 10, 2015

The Galway Hooker

This unique vessel, with its distinctive curved lines and bright red sails, originated in the village of Claddagh. During the 19th century, hookers supported a significant fishing industry and also carried goods, livestock and fuel. Seán Rainey is remembered for building the last of the original boats, the Truelight, for Martin Oliver who was to become the last king of the Claddagh; as king, he was entitled to white sails on his boat. Since the mid seventies, many of the old sailing craft which were on the verge of extinction have been lovingly restored and new ones have been built. During the summer months they can be seen at festivals such a Cruinniú na mBád - the Gathering of the Boats - in Kinvara.

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