“You’ve a magic umbrella.”
The lyrical, melodic tone of the Irishman’s exclamation brought smiles of delight on both our faces.
Indeed, we did have a magic umbrella.
From the moment we landed on the emerald isle of Ireland, the rain had stopped and the sun shone down on us for the entire week. The day we left Ireland also happened to be the day the rain returned.
And we had our magic umbrella to thank for this “best weather in decades,” according to our windmill tour guide.
You see, it all started with the online purchase of a super pretty umbrella. Just for Ireland. I mean, it’s Ireland, right? There will be lots of pictures of me holding an umbrella.
That’s what I figured, at least.
After lugging the blue-and-purple-stained-glass-dragonfly umbrella from Michigan to Chicago to Shannon Airport throughout Ireland and then departing Dublin, we didn’t use it once.
In 10 days. In Ireland. No rain. Not a drop. i.e. The magic umbrella.
Not that we’re complaining. When the rain clouds lifted, they revealed an artful tapestry of a thousand shades of green, gorgeous wildflowers everywhere (and I mean, everywhere), meandering two-track lanes through farms, past castles and around loughs.
The beauty of the surroundings were complemented by the soul of the Irish people. They’re genuine. They’re real. They’re lyrical.
Magical. That’s the word for Ireland.
Preparing for this trip involved months of reading reviews, scouring tour books, and talking with people who’ve been there before (and a few people who live there now). I’ll divide this Ireland entry into several articles to keep from writing a book myself, but here are things everyone must know before traveling to Ireland.
Top 5 to-do and to-know Ireland list:
1.) Explore at your pace
Don’t sign up for a guided tour of the island. We saw countless buses lumbering along main roads, stopping for a brief “click and get” break before loading everyone back into the coach and motoring on.
You’re in Ireland. You’re going to want to stop at the myriad of castles, castle ruins, estates, abbeys, monastic sites and others that you’ll see seemingly around every corner.
Here’s how: Get a rental car. Not a wide car. Narrow is great. An automatic. Then buy the super coverage with tire-and-everything-else protection. Believe us, this is one time in the history of the universe you WILL use this super coverage. Driving on the left isn’t easy, especially on narrow roads enclosed by high hedges or stone walls, and you WILL mess up your rental in one way or another. We took our rental car back with a bad alignment (was it eight or nine curbs we hit?), scratches from front to back (it looked like a weeping willow tree … all soft …), a crushed passenger mirror, a missing front bumper and lord only knows what else.
But it’s worth it. Just go slow. And pray. (Note: If you’re not normally religious, driving in Ireland is a great place to find Jesus or the Mother Mary.)
2.) Eat and drink at pubs and inns.
Ask them what their specialty is. Get it.
Drink the tea. Lots and lots of tea, with milk and sugar. But don’t ask for iced tea. They don’t make it. For a cold, refreshing drink, ask for a black currant cordial or orange dilute. The bartender or server may look at you funny because it’s essentially the healthy equivalent of Kool-Aid, but it’s amazing. And usually quite cheap (50 cents, sometimes free.)
Of course no trip to Ireland can occur without a pint (or two) of Guinness, which is really 100 times better than it is in the States. Freshness is a huge factor in Guinness. If it’s still too much for you, have the bartender add some black currant to it before they pour it into the glass. Yum.
Tipping is optional in Ireland, and a 10 percent tip will get you far. A 20 percent tip is, “Marvelous!”
Talk to the bartender if you’re at the bar. They’re glad to share local information, will talk history and introduce you to the characters and traditions of their communities. We heard about a 400-year-plus festival in which they crown a puck, a type of mountain goat, king for the week. For serious, look it up! It’s a thing.
Another thing—stop at a petro station/grocery store to pick up some bottled waters and snacks for the road (we highly recommend the mini pies in tins.) You may find yourself in the countryside without a lot of options.
3.) Stay clear of the flock.
This doesn’t mean flocks of sheep (which, really, are quintessential Ireland).
If it’s a top-rated tourist destination, a lot of times all that means is that this is where the tour buses stop. That means it’s typically on a larger road and is easily accessible. It also means it will be packed to the gills with folks who will crowd around you. You’ll feel harried, hurried and rather icky by the time you extricate yourself from the lines and hordes of (yes, we admit we’re tourists, too, but …) tourists.
Some of the very best castles, monastic sites, ruins and cliffs are not those where there is bus parking. At the best spots, you may be one of a few (or the only) cars in the lot or parked along the roadside. Your photos will be better. Your experience will be better. You’ll feel better.
And, believe us, you’ll see even better castles and ruins. More authentic. More quirky. With skeleton keys and all. Case in point: Kilmacdaugh Monastery, a monastic site in Gort, County Clare, had two other cars (and a lot of cows) in the lot, had a cottage across the street where you could get the skeleton keys for each of the buildings to explore at will, and was far superior and photogenic than Glendalough in County Wicklow, which overflowed with buses, cars, and congested crowds of people. People. Everywhere. And inside the buildings? Think again. No way. Did I mention you had to pay for parking in Glendalough (and fight for the chance to do so), whereas the cost of Kilmacdaugh? Free.
4.) Plan in extra time.
A LOT of extra time. Everything is s-l-o-w-e-r in Ireland. Sixty miles will take you two hours or more. Local folk will talk with you … for a long time. You’ll end up spending hours at a site where you thought you’d only pop in and out of the car for a quick pic. There’s a time warp in Ireland … and it’s a great way to re-set your internal clock.
If you do want to get somewhere in any sort of hurry, stick with the M or N roads. M roads are the equivalent to the freeways in America. The N roads are the equivalent of narrower state roads in America. R roads are like backroads in America, except with no or little berm (you’ll be enclosed on both sides with either formidable hedgerows or stone walls.) L roads are local roads—often two-track, one-lane-at-best roads. The L and R roads are the most scenic of roads.
Get lost on the L and R roads (only after you’ve gotten the hang of driving on the left). Explore. But do plan to have a detailed print map with you should you get too lost. Don’t count on a cell signal … or on the locals, who are incredibly helpful yet unhelpful with directions (Turn right at the half slate/half thatched cottage then a right and then a left and then a right at the big tree and continue yonder a while and you can’t miss it. Umm … yeah …)
Go slow and enjoy the sights and sounds of Ireland. Take a blanket with you should you want to take a nap under a towering Oak. Talk to the locals you encounter. Stop and take photos. Cross fields (watch out for Beware of Bull signs, though) to check out OPW historic sites and ruins … all by yourselves.
This is the soul of Ireland.
5.) Consider an extra week … or two.
Once you get to Ireland, you’re not going to want to leave.
If you’ve purchased an OPW Heritage card (highly recommend) and have paid for the roundtrip flight, you’re set. Take advantage of every site on the OPW list and every minute.
With bed and breakfasts as cheap as E20 per night per person and food as cheap or cheaper than you’d find at home, why not spend another week or two?
Everything about the island is enchanting and authentic. While it’s a relatively small island, to really explore it, you’ll need double or triple the time you’re planning for just a segment of the island. You’ll feel safe and won’t feel hustled or fleeced. You’ll love the people and the countryside. The kindness. The music.
We ran into one couple that came to Ireland every year for the past 10 years and stayed two or three weeks at a time. They still didn’t feel like they’d gotten to know the island as well as they’d like.
There’s a draw to this country … a certain magic.