Life in Ireland is complex. We are a unique people, with unique traditions, characteristics, culture and foibles. In this list, I explore the critical aspects of life in Ireland that everyone should know, whether they’re just thinking about moving here or have even recently arrived. This is the A to Z of life in Ireland.
AMHRÁN NA BHFIANN
The Soldier’s Song. We are incredibly proud of and loyal to our national anthem – just ask anyone who’s ever had a rugby-adjacent argument about Ireland’s Call. At the drop of a hat, we proudly sing the few lines we actually know, while blagging the rest.
To some extent, we’ve bastardised a national anthem as iconic as Le Marseillaise or The Star Spangled Banner. Amhrán na bhFiann tells the tale of Ireland’s fight against a foreign, imperialist enemy. The song started life as the unofficial anthem for the war against Britain and was sung at the GPO during the Easter Rising and by the incarcerated prisoners of war. Nowadays, however, we break it out for every disco, table quiz and inconsequential family get-together.
Step outside Dublin and you’ll be encouraged to warm your cockles beside a crackling, turf fire. The Irish countryside is awash with bogland, steeped in rich history and lore. For centuries, families and friends have toiled on the boglands of Ireland, cutting turf (peat) out of the ground, heaping it, drying it against the elements, and hauling it home as fuel to heat their houses. The practice continues to this very day.
Castles were my original “C” choice because we have some of the oldest and most well maintained in the world (Kilbrittain, Kilkenny, Malahide, Bunratty), but it had to be craic.
Craic – pronounced crack – is the very fabric of Irish society. It is the all-encompassing word we break out in any and all situations. It’s how we say hello: what’s the craic? It’s how we ask how you’ve been: any craic? It’s how we describe a good time: great craic! Craic can be news, gossip, fun, entertainment, conversation, music, dancing, drinking – even a fight.
If you’re coming here, chances are, Dublin will be your default destination. There is no way I could adequately describe Ireland’s capital in a few short sentences, so the briefest of bullet-point overviews will have to suffice.
– Guinness Storehouse
– Book of Kells & Trinity College
– Phoenix Park
– Dublin Zoo
– Food & fine dining
– Temple Bar
– Croke Park
– Stephen’s Green
The Electric Picnic is Ireland’s premier music and arts festival. Held every summer on the grounds of Stradbally Hall, County Laois, the Electric Picnic has attracted such world-famous acts as The Chemical Brothers, Blur, Outkast, Fatboy Slim, Arctic Monkeys, Robert Plant, The Killers, and Basement Jaxx to name but a handful.
Revelers camp on-site for the weekend, enjoying the music, food, art and festivities associated with one of the most enjoyable festivals anywhere in the world.
Gaelic football has been a bedrock of life in Ireland long before the foundation of GAA and continues to be a defining part of Irish society and culture. Not to be confused with soccer, football is the most popular sport played in Ireland.
Each county has a team – as do the likes of London and New York – and every year they battle for supremacy of both their respective provinces and the entire country. The culmination of the season takes place in front of 82,000 fans every September in Dublin’s Croke Park. But at its core football in Ireland is about community; every town, village and school has a team, and the support it garners is unparalleled.
Located in the west of Ireland, Galway is the artistic epicentre of the country, the food capital, the home of festivals and any other descriptive superlative you can think of. There is nowhere better to visit in Ireland. Outside the city, there is also the rugged paradise of Connemara, with scenery and wildlife abound.
Galway is much smaller than Dublin, Belfast or even Cork, so it feels less like a city and more like a community. If you’re looking to move here, there is nowhere in Ireland I would recommend more.
HURLING (AND CAMOGIE)
Hurling is the little brother of Gaelic football (although probably centuries older). The sport is far less popular and not nearly as widely played as football, mainly because football is easier to play and less dangerous. Because of this, hurling is far more beloved and awe-inspiring than its big bro.
The skills, determination, and sheer bravery required to play the world’s fastest field sport are unimaginable to those who’ve never seen the game played at an elite level. So-called “hurling people” support and indeed love their sport with a passion and vitriol that football – and indeed most sports – can only dream.
We can be pretty self-deprecating; no one insults Ireland quite like the Irish. But at the same time, if we feel our country is being insulted by an outside entity, we become as loyal as a guard dog and twice as protective.
We Irish love emigrating as much as anyone, and often gather 5 or 6 to an apartment when we do. Find any lodgings in Toronto, New York, Sydney or San Francisco occupied by a group of Irish backpackers who were strangers only a month prior and I absolutely guarantee you’ll see a tricolour displayed proudly and prominently.
Then there’s St Patrick’s Day (always Paddy’s Day, never Patty’s Day – never!) when the world gathers together to wear green and get wasted in honour of their desire to be a little bit Irish.
This is kind of a cheat, because I really want to talk about whiskey in general, but “W” wasn’t available and I was stuck for “J” so here we are. Ireland produces world-class whiskey far beyond Jameson, including Tullamore Dew, Bushmills, Powers and many more – but Jameson is the jewel in the crown.
France and Italy can argue about who makes the best wine; Germany and Belgium can argue about beer; but when it comes to whiskey, Scotland and Japan will forever lag behind Ireland.
Affectionately known as The Kingdom, Kerry is home to some of Ireland’s most awesome natural beauty, such as the Ring of Kerry, Valentia Island, the Gap of Dunloe, Killarney National Park, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks – Ireland’s highest mountain range, and the Skelligs – made world famous by Star Wars. Kerry towns Dingle, Killarney, Kenmare, and Tralee are among the most beautiful in Ireland.
Kerry’s most famous export? Kerrygold – the best butter on the planet and the bedrock of Ireland’s biggest company, the billion-dollar international conglomerate, Kerry Group.
I’m not exactly sure where the misnomer of the stupid Irishman comes from, perhaps it was a clever trick we played on the world? Because the truth of the matter is, from the top graduates of Trinity to the eternally uneducated, we are a nation of cunning linguists; each with a sharp wit and hilarious turn-of-phrase.
We speak English, yes, but we also fall back on our native tongue (some more than others). Our English is unique to our island, with slang, accents, and the ability to speak while inhaling – we can insult you to your face without you ever knowing, all the while wearing a charming smile that convinces you we’re your best friend in the world.
Despite our collectively colossal vocabulary, we tend to have an unbridled love for swearing. With a cornucopia of endless phrases at our disposal, we tend to amplify our emotions with a cacophony of four-letter exclamation marks. We even make up our own, for feck’s sake.
Ireland has music at it’s core; it is burrowed deep inside our collective heart and soul. From traditional Irish bands such as The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers, to rock royalty like U2 and Thin Lizzy, to pop icons like Westlife and Hozier, Ireland is steeped in musical greatness.
To see Tommy Makem performing The Cobbler acapela or Luke Kelly singing the rapidly-passed Rocky Road to Dublin while playing the banjo and not missing a lyric is to witness perfection.
Life in Ireland is not complete without an impromptu trad session – but don’t worry, you won’t have to travel far to find one; live music is as common in Irish pubs as Guinness and whiskey.
Located in the Boyne Valley of County Meath, Newgrange is a 5,200 year old passage tomb. Built by Stone Age farmers, the World – Heritage Site is one of humanity’s oldest and greatest feats of engineering, hundreds of years older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The tomb is perfectly aligned with the rising sun, to illuminate the inner chamber on mornings around the Winter Solstice – the most important holiday in ancient Ireland.
Unlike Bono, most Irish people will claim to love, admire and adore the works of Oscar Wilde, despite most having never read any of his work. But Wilde truly does represent Ireland, with his sharp wit, his rebellious attitude and his eminently quotable back catalogue. Indeed, “We Are All In The Gutter But Some Of Us Are Looking At The Stars” – Oscar Wilde.
“Are ya goin for pints?” is as common a greeting as hello, how’s-a-goin? or what’s the craic?. It’s really meant as a rhetorical question as no one ever expects the answer to be anything but affirmative. If the answer is in fact no, the typical response is often “are you on antibiotics?”
One’s choice of pint is often dependent on location. While Ireland is famous for Guinness, it is not the only world-class stout produced here. Two Cork breweries, Beamish and Murphy’s, both make stout that rivals their Dublin-based competitor, but neither are widely popular outside Munster.
As well as stout, Ireland is also the standard-bearer for Ale. Kilkenny brewery, Smithwick’s, is king of the hill, but many new brands have emerged in recent years.
QUEEN OF IRELAND
Ireland has a long and troubled history with Queens – Queen Victoria, both Elizabeths, and even our own Queens, such as Medb and Grace O’Malley.
Then Panti Bliss arrived on the scene. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to pass, by popular vote, the legislation to give equal marriage status to all couples; Panti Bliss was at the forefront of the cause. Then again in 2018, when Ireland went to the polls concerning the easing of abortion laws, Panti was again found, throwing her weight behind the Yes campaign.
Drag Queen, Panti Bliss, became the uncrowned Queen of Ireland, thanks, in large part, to her helping to drag Ireland kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Religion is the ultimate black spot on Ireland; a stain on the country’s soul; a blotch which can never be erased from history. Where to begin?
There’s the mother and baby homes scandal; there’s the generations of systemic abuse and child rape; the iron grip the Catholic church has on the Irish education system; the conservative ideology that has made Ireland one of the least progressive countries in the western world; and of course, the Catholic-Protestant divide that has brough endless violence, death and suffering to this island.
Our bread is better than yours – even you, France.
Brown soda is the perfect accompaniment to any soup, delicious with cream cheese and smoked salmon, and my personal favourite, fried as part of a full Irish breakfast. White soda is best enjoyed with a generous helping Kerrygold butter of or jam.
While hot beverage preferences are probably hovering somewhere around 50/50 tea and coffee, coffee just isn’t part of our culture – our identity.
No matter the situation, tea is always the solution. Death in the family? Cuppa tea. Relationship break-up? Cuppa tea. Miss out on your dream job? Cuppa tea. It isn’t exclusively negative either. Catching up with friends? Cuppa tea. Just found out you’re pregnant? You guessed it – cuppa tea.
Are we a nation of begrudgers? Or is Bono just exorbitantly insufferable? U2 are by far Ireland’s most famous and successful musical export and we’re not nearly as proud of them as we should be. If U2 were from any other country, they would be celebrated as heroes – in Ireland they are brushed under the carpet with all the embarrassment of an STD.
U2’s place on this list is less about their standing in the eyes of the nation and more about understanding the Irish psyche.
Ireland has become a bastion for food over the past twenty years. Our access to incredibly fresh produce is unrivaled; our abundance of Michelin starred restaurants, high end hotels and fine dining establishments is truly remarkable for our diminutive size; and love for local is a shining example to much of the world.
While our beef and lamb are heralded far and wide, we compete with Japan for beef supremacy and New Zealand and Wales run us close when it comes to lamb. But our sleeper hit is Venison. We are the uncrowned kings of deer meat. Life in Ireland is not complete without the occasional venison steak, sausage or pithivier.
I could’ve used “C” for cloudy, “D” for dull, “R” for rain or “M” for miserable, but I’ve decided to group Ireland’s weather all under one umbrella – how appropriate. I know people who describe Ireland as one of their favourite places in the world – apart from the weather. Life in Ireland would be paradise if we had an even marginally better climate.
Yes, we’re lucky that we do not suffer from deadly weather disasters, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, or hurricanes; nor do we suffer from temperature extremes; but does it ever stop raining? Does the sun ever shine?
I love summer in Ireland – it’s my favourite day of the year.
“Oh, Ireland isn’t a racist country” is the lie we often tell ourselves. In truth, we’re far worse; not only are we prejudiced against those of different races, we are prejudiced against those of our own race, who happen to be from different countries – England, Poland, Lithuania and Romania immediately spring to mind. Furthermore, if you disagree and think life in Ireland is some kind of racism-free bastion, I have one word for you: travellers.
Yes these are horribly sweeping statements – but so is the self-congratulatory notion that racism is not a problem in Ireland. The country may be one of the most welcoming anywhere in the world – but there is absolutely room for improvement.
Once upon a time, the “Y” in this list would’ve been represented by Yeats. I might’ve quoted one of William Butler’s better known lines, such as “There are no strangers here; only friends who haven’t met yet” or “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens”.
However, over the last decade or so, Ireland has uncovered a new beacon of literary and linguistic light – The Rubberbandits! Of all the gems of wisdom, comedy and satire bestowed upon us by Blindboy Boatclub and Mr Chrome, none have been quite as long-lasting or so readily penetrated common parlance as the glorious “Yurt”.
What does it mean? Collins English Dictionary – yes, it’s actually in Collins English Dictionary – defines the word as “used to express acknowledgment, affirmation, consent, agreement, or approval”. The definition is hardly as poetic as when the word is spoken with a beautiful Limerick twang.
Add “yurt” to your vocabulary today!
Zip codes, known here as “Eir Codes”, are relatively new in Ireland. While Dublin has had postcodes for decades, the rest of Ireland didn’t get theirs until 2015! And although it has been more than five years, you’ll do well to find anyone who knows their eircode – I still have to google mine every single time.