After spending over two weeks travelling around the country, here are some of my impressions of Ireland as a first-timer. More detailed posts on specific locations will follow over the coming weeks.

I’ve divided my impressions of Ireland into six categories: people and language, weather, natural and urban landscapes, food and drink, transportation, and annoyances.

People and language

The people of Ireland are just as friendly as their reputation makes them out to be. This is especially true in the smaller towns and villages, while not as pronounced in Dublin.

Irishman in a bar (impressions of Ireland)

My Irish guide on a Context Travel food (and drink!) tour

I knew that the Irish language was spoken in Ireland, but I hadn’t realized that it had equal status with English. All road signs, panels, and captions have English and Irish side by side. Announcements on the train are even made in Irish first and English second.

Everybody has to study both English and Irish in school. However, even though everybody I talked to spoke English, their knowledge of Irish seemed to vary. I asked a waitress in a pub what an Irish sign hanging over the stairs meant, and she was unable to tell me. Yet her coworker was able to.

Information panel showing both English and Irish text (Dublin Castle) (impressions of Ireland)

Information panel with English and Irish text at Dublin Castle

Not surprisingly, I’ve also seen more redheads here than anywhere else before. However, Ireland now has a sizeable population of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, especially in Dublin. I also heard quite a bit of Spanish.

The Irish have always been storytellers, and many famous writers and literature prize winners hail from Ireland — James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, and Oscar Wilde to name a few. Given how ancient some sites are, it’s sometimes difficult to separate stories from history.

The other way Irish people like to communicate is through music. From street musicians, to traditional music sessions in pubs, to stage shows, you’re bound to hear some catchy tunes during your time in Ireland. Watch some Irish dancing if you can.

Busking musicians in Galway (impressions of Ireland)

Busking musicians in Galway

Weather

“You don’t travel to Ireland for the weather,” a bartender told me while I was complaining, as usual, about the local climate. The weather here can be summed up in one word: unpredictable. Or rather, it’s predictable in its unpredictability. Carry a rain jacket and an umbrella at all times.

You can get cold air, warmer air, drizzle, heavy rain, wind, and bursts of sunshine all within the space of half an hour. The only thing I never saw was a perfectly blue sky. The sky was always streaked with clouds, even at the sunniest times, which is why those Irish landscapes you may have seen in photos or paintings always look so atmospheric.

Natural and urban landscapes

Other than the cloudy skies, rolling green fields are a trademark of Ireland. Vibrant emerald green fields. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such green grass before.

You’re never far from water in Ireland, whether rivers, lakes, or the ocean itself. Wherever you are in this island country, you can drive to the sea within 90 minutes or less!

More dramatically, scalloped vertical cliffs line the West coast. The Dingle Peninsula and the Cliffs of Moher are two popular places where you can see these.

Cliffs of Moher on a rainy day (impressions of Ireland)

Cliffs of Moher on a rainy and blustery day

Stones are a regular feature in Ireland. Fences made of piled rocks delineate fields and properties. The ruins of stone castles, abbeys, and monasteries, some of them over 1000 years old, rise from fields and even from the middle of villages. A region called The Burren, south of Galway, consists of 250 square kilometres of karst landscape (where large limestone slabs cover the ground). There are even some Neolithic sites here that predate the Pyramids of Egypt!

As for the towns and cities, they all seem to favour painting their houses, shops, and pubs in bright or pastel colours, probably to fend off the frequent gloomy weather.

Colourful main street in Galway (impressions of Ireland)

Colourful main street in Galway

Food and drink

A food tour guide in Dublin told me that Irish food has really come into its own over the last 10 years.

It didn’t take me long to realize that there is more to contemporary Irish cooking than fish & chips, and cottage pie — although you can easily find those if you want. During my 16 days, I had Irish stew (made from lamb), chicken breast in a mushroom/tarragon sauce, linguine with vegetables in a saffron and basil cream sauce, seafood chowder, and more.

Being an island, seafood features prominently on Irish menus. The meat is also of very high quality since the cows and sheep feed on that luscious grass almost year-round. You see farm animals grazing outdoors everywhere you go.

Typical Irish landscape (impressions of Ireland)

Typical Irish landscape with grazing sheep

Of course Ireland is known for its beer, as well as liquors such as Irish whiskey and gin. I’m not a Guinness lover, but I found plenty of other lighter and interesting beers to try. I tasted some whiskey too, and even learned how to make an Irish coffee!

Just like the French Canadians, the Irish have a major sweet tooth. I was surprised at the number of chocolate and candy shops I came across, especially in County Kerry. There is no lack of pastries and decent coffee shops either.

Fish stall at the English Market in Cork (impressions of Ireland)

Fish stall at the English Market in Cork

Transportation

Travelling around Ireland is not difficult. If you don’t mind driving on the left, you can rent a car and go down every road that strikes your fancy.

But you don’t have to. Trains link the main cities, and several bus companies operate across the country, serving even smaller towns. The two main bus companies are City Links and Bus Eireann.

Most roads in Ireland have only two lanes (one in each direction). Multi-lane highways are only found around large cities like Dublin and Cork. However, it doesn’t take more than a few hours to go from one place to the other.

Annoyances

Other than the unpredictable weather that makes it difficult to plan excursions and outdoor activities, there aren’t many annoyances to deal with while travelling in Ireland. I had a couple of incidents related to public transportation, and I’ll write about these in an upcoming post.

Other than that, there were a few minor irritants. In cities, the traffic lights are maddeningly slow to change to the pedestrian signal, even after you press the button located at almost every crossing. Most people don’t bother waiting and just jaywalk!

(impressions of Ireland)

Pedestrians finally get a green light to cross the street by the Millenium Spire in Dublin

Plumbing is another issue. All the sinks I saw had separate faucets for hot and cold water, instead of a single faucet that lets you control the water temperature. And toilet tanks take a long time to refill, so flushing properly may require a few tries.

Like in most places that do not suffer harsh winters, Irish dwellings provide no real climate control. Space heating is intermittent at best, so don’t be surprised to wake up to a freezing room. I had the same issue in the Canary Islands last winter.

I hope this post gave you a good idea of what to expect on a trip to Ireland. More will follow about my best (and worse) experiences in the country, including plenty of tips and advice.

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