Like a tiny jewel, the Emerald Isle, is lost against the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean that pounds its western shores. Extending only about 400 km north to south and 250 km east to west, Ireland is small. The total population of the Republic is around 3.5 million, giving the country the lowest population density in Europe. The end result is that it is very easy to underestimate and mess up holiday planning for Ireland. I know that from hard experience - I only got it right on my third visit.
The fatal error is to think in Australian terms and calculate that one could see Ireland in a weekend and experience it all in a week. If you are only interested in sights, that's probably true. However, more than anywhere else in the world, your strongest memories of Ireland will be of the Irish people themselves and their lilting voices. And you'll only get to know them and hear their stories by staying in one place - any place - for a few days.
Much of Ireland is already familar to us. The Blarney stone, Kilkenny, Tralee, Limerick, Galway Bay, and Tipperary are all part of our heritage. The potato famine of last century and large emigrations ensured that much of the "New World" was populated by people of Irish stock. Where other cities have restaurant guides, Dublin has brochures on tracing your ancestors and there are many shops doing a thriving trade in family crests.
The lyricism and beauty of everyday Irish English is a constant reminder of the Irish love affair with words. The joy of coming across a headline in an Irish newspaper like the legendary "Pope dies for the second time in a month" or the sign that long stood on the banks of the Shannon River warning that "When this notice is under water it is unsafe to cross the river at this point" reveals a distinct Irish genius.
The Irish contribution to literature is out of all proportion to its population and the country has produced three writers who received the Nobel Prize for Literature: George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats.
It's easy for an explorer of Irish literature to, as Yeats put it: "murmur name upon name" - each of world renown. Jonathan Swift, the author of "Gulliver's Travels" was for many years was Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral and Bram Stoker who created "Dracula" was also from Dublin. Oscar Wilde's father was a prominent Dublin surgeon. Then there are the others who left: Shaw, Beckett, RB Sheridan ("The School for Scandal") and the noted statesman/philosopher Edmund Burke. Statues of Burke and another graduate, Oliver Goldsmith ("She Stoops to Conquer") flank the entrance to Trinity College.
The heart of Irish culture has always been Dublin. James Joyce claimed that if Dublin were to be destroyed, it could be rebuilt out of his tour de force "Ulysses" published in 1922. Every year on 16th June, people gather in Dublin to retrace the fictional path of the book's main character, Leopold Bloom, on that single day in 1904.
Even today, it's hard to find a Dublin pub that don't have an association with Joyce or Brendan Behan. As one Dubliner told me "the way they talk, you'd think Behan and Joyce had just left five minutes ago - and that was arm in arm". In fact, Joyce died in 1941 and Behan in 1964 at the age of 41.
On one visit to Ireland I was fortunate to meet Paddy Moloney, the leader of the traditional band the Chieftains, just before their concert with James Galway. (After the show I ran into Billy Joel in the bar of my hotel - Dublin is that sort of town.) Knowing of the Chieftains' rapidly growing popularity, I asked Paddy Maloney what was the largest audience they had played before. The answer was a mass gathering of more than a million. But, with characteristic modesty, he added "that was when we appeared with the Pope when he came to Dublin. But it was really the Pope's gig - we were just the opening act."
Paddy Moloney states with pride that he's "an out and out Dubliner, born on the north side, only 200 yards away from where Brian Boru, the high king of Ireland, was supposedly killed in the battle of Clontarf in 1014. Still, we beat the hell out of the Danes in the fight. That's possibly the only battle we ever won."
He admits that "a visitor's first view of Dublin is unlikely to impress. It's certainly not New York or London - or even Sydney. Dublin has a buzz to it that is much more than the mere bustle of its people. You can smell the history here and the bullet scars from the 1916 rebellion against the British are still visible on the GPO and the Four Courts."
"Like Australians, the rest of the world thinks of the Irish as merely good times. But a lot of genius has come out of Ireland over the years and that's not achieved without effort. We just don't publicise it. Rather, like Australians, we pride ourselves on our laid-back image."
True to the stereotype, Moloney declares that "when I'm showing people around Dublin I give them a choice of viewing the city's great collection of ancient Irish silver or a tour of the royal pubs of the city. So far, they have all opted for the pubs, thank god."
Dublin is a pleasant, compact city. One can walk from the top of O'Connell Street to St Stephen's Green in only half an hour. That's a complete traverse of the city centre so, weather permitting, travelling on foot is the best way to absorb the atmosphere.
The little things about Dublin can provide the strongest memories - like the smell of hops along the Liffey from the Guinness brewery. Although a lot of the tradition was destroyed in the fifties and sixties, many parts of the city have a strong Georgian appearance. The recent cinema hit, The Commitments, captured the spirit of the city but the crew must have gone out of its way to photograph only the least appealing parts of town.
The Abbey Theatre remains the national theatre. It was at the original Abbey Theatre in 1907 during the first night of John Millington Synge's masterpiece "The Playboy of the Western World" that there was a near riot when the word "shift" (as in petticoat) was used. The new Abbey Theatre is remarkably plain but plays by contemporary playwrights such as Brian Friel continue to astound.
Inside the Long Room in the Trinity College library is Ireland's most famous book, the Book of Kells. The exquisite artwork or "illuminations" make this one of the great treasures of European civilisation. The 680 page book (now bound in four separate volumes) is tiny and the viewer shares a sense of wonder that it has survived in perfect condition since it was painted in the 9th century. Even in 1007 AD it was being described as "the chief relic of the western world".
The traditional grand hotel of Dublin is the Shellbourne, right on St Stephen's Green. It has been refurbished while retaining features such as its chandeliers and high ceilings. It's the place to stay if you want the best address in Dublin.
If you are tired of Old World Ireland, the Hotel Conrad, opposite the National Concert Hall, near stylish St Stephen's Green is the place to be. It's neat, clean and everything works perfectly and it also has the great merit of being somewhere James Joyce couldn't have visited - a pleasant change after seeing Dublin in Joyce's shadow.
Jury's Hotel is slightly outside the city centre but makes up for this as a first class business hotel - including a towers wing with separate check-in and parking. This is a big new hotel that functions like a cosy pub - but has all the facilities of a grand establishment. The Kish Restaurant at Jury's is the best place in town to savour Atlantic salmon on its home turf, so to speak.
Deciding where to go outside Dublin can be a difficult process: the choices are wide ranging. In general, the rural landscape lacks the manicured perfection of England but it has a wild grandeur (and infinite shades of green) that are even more appealing.
The most scenic short excursion from Dublin is to Glendalough, about 45 minutes from the centre of the city. This is a tiny wooded valley with two small lakes dominated by the eleventh century round tower of the ruins of the monastery founded by St Kevin in 545 AD. In the eighth century when Dublin and London were villages of mud huts, Glendalough was the most important settlement in Europe and children from all over Europe were sent here to be educated.
In the south east corner of Ireland is the quaint village of Killmore Quay where whitewashed, thatched cottages look charmingly anachronistic. Inland, the Rock of Cashel is a spectacular sight - and it's not a long way from Tipperary. On the south western shore countless American visitors set out on the scenic tour around the Iveragh Peninsula known as the Ring of Kerry. Slightly to the north, Tralee is the gateway to the wild and rugged Dingle Peninsula. In the north you'll find the wild Connemara where English remains a second language. In County Donegal to the far north I simultaneously discovered some long lost relatives and the joys of draught Guinness.
One should not overlook Northern Ireland. Belfast and Derry are definitely battle scarred but the Giant's Causeway is Ireland's World Heritage site. It's a bizarre crazy pavement of hexagonal basaltic columns stretching towards the Hebrides. Irish legend credits it to the work of a warrior giant, Finn McCool, who built it to bring his bride home. Finn's exploits, and indeed his name, may appear more convincing after a visit to nearby Bushmill's, the world's oldest distillery of whiskey. The single malt Irish whiskey, in particular, is much smoother than its Scotch whisky equivalent.
A special delight of touring Ireland is its country houses. These range from vast estates that have become luxury guest houses to tiny village bed and breakfasts or rustic farm houses. I recommend two in particular.
If your interest is equestrian, head due west from Dublin towards the numerous racecourses around Naas and Kildare, about an hour from the city. This is the heartland of the Irish bloodstock industry. Rathsallagh House, a quaint old country house on 500 acres of parkland near Dunlavin in County Wicklow, is the perfect place to stay. It has already welcomed many of the Australian horse set. Its credentials in equestrian circles are secure: Tracey Piggott (daughter of the legendary Lester) owns the gate lodge.
Under the hospitable guidance of Kay and Joe O'Flynn, Rathsallagh House has received several awards for the best country house, best country garden and best Irish breakfast over the past few years. It has only 12 rooms, all with en suites and individually decorated, plus an indoor pool and a tennis court within a walled garden. Here you really do become part of the family, whether dining in the elegant dining room or chatting in the kitchen. Bed and breakfast costs from £46 per person. Telephone: (045) 53112 or fax (045) 53343.
Further afield, to the south lies the grand manor of Mount Juliet at Thomastown, County Kilkenny. This towering edifice overlooking its own salmon stream was only opened to the public in 1989. It is a gourmet retreat attracting great praise from the critics. When I visited here, I had to slow down on the long driveway across the 560 hectare estate to avoid running down several suicidal pheasants then I was accompanied down the grand hallway by a giant Irish wolfhound.
This is accommodation in style. There are 23 rooms and nine suites all with en-suites and all impeccably furnished with antiques, paintings and crystal. There are two restaurants and two bars, a snooker room and drawing room. Stables, tennis courts, a Jack Nicklaus designed 18-hole golf course, and excellent fishing opportunities await outdoors. Inevitably, there is a croquet lawn. With the cost of bed and breakfast starting from £67 per person it isn't cheap, but it's a unique chance to experience Irish country estate living.
And Ireland is a country of special experiences. Some years ago, I was driving down a narrow country road in County Donegal when the start of a mountain section was marked by a "Slow" sign. I braked and came around the corner to find another sign saying "Slower".
The Irish really do have a way of thinking that makes every day in Ireland a revelation.
Travel Fact File
In September 1992, an Irish Homecoming Festival will attract people of Irish origins from around the world. Genealogical congresses and lectures, special assistance in tracing your ancestors, clan rallies, sporting events and festivals will take place around the island over the whole month. A 16-page program is available from the Irish Tourist Board.
Aer Lingus, Ireland's national airline, doesn't fly to Australia. However, it does have close links with Qantas (which doesn't fly to Ireland) so the recommended way of travelling to Ireland is to fly Qantas to London and to connect with an Aer Lingus flight from there. The extra flight is available free of charge to anyone who flies Qantas to London, irrespective of the type of ticket.
The return Qantas excursion fares to Dublin are from $2299 in low season to $2599 in high season. Qantas Jetabout has holidays in Ireland from $680 per person for a week including car hire (with unlimited mileage) and accommodation.
Ireland is the only city in the world where I've heard a radio weather forecast state "today will be fine and clear with occasional patches of sunshine." This is the first landmass encountered by the weather formed in the Atlantic so it is frequently raining and never very hot. On the other hand, the surrounding sea ensures that there is very little snow, even in the depths of winter. In meteorological terms, its climate is described as mild and moist with prevailing south-westerly winds.
These winds can whip the cloud masses over Dublin at an astonishing rate, providing the city with several seasons in a single day - or even over a single hour. Dublin could well be the city for which the expression "if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes" was coined.
The Irish Pound (or Punt) has a value slightly below the Pound Sterling. The strange squiggles on the back of the one pound note are a reproduction of ancient Irish script from the Book of Dun Cow.
Australians and New Zealanders don't need visas for holidays in Ireland.
Ireland has a "cashback" duty free system for visitors. When you make large purchases, most shops can provide you with a Cashback voucher representing anywhere between 11 and 17 per cent off the purchase price, depending on the article. If you are flying out of the country, you can present the forms at the airport and receive the refund as UK pounds or US dollars. The general service charge is £2.50 per voucher so small value vouchers are largely worthless. If you are leaving Ireland by ferry, you can lodge your Cashback forms at the terminal and the refund cheque will be mailed to you.
Ireland is a good shopping destination. If you have nerves of steel (or irrational faith in airport baggage handlers) there is Waterford crystal, or cheaper options such as as Tipperary crystal. A more unusual purchase is the range of Belleek fine parian china. This is extremely delicate and features the traditional domed honey pot that most Australians have only seen in English children's books.
Tweed is much easier to carry than either crystal or china so its attraction is strong. Knitwear, especially Aran designs, is good value. Cashmere sports jackets are relatively cheap but cashmere sweaters are more expensive than in London. Another obvious purchase is Irish linen damask table clothes and napkins.
For more information about Dublin or Ireland, contact the Irish Tourist Board, 5th Level, 36 Carrington St, Sydney, NSW 2000, Tel. (02) 299 6177, fax: (02) 299 6323.
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd