Among the romantic preconceptions visitors bring to Ireland, it is their expectations of the landscape that are most likely to be fulfilled. An uncommon geological richness and the warming effect of the Atlantic produce an astonishing diversity of terrain on this small island, which is splashed throughout with lakes and primeval bogland. In the east, the crumpled granite of the Wicklow Hills sits in utter contrast to the horse-grazing plain of the Curragh just a few kilometres away, and in Connemara on the west coast, you can walk from beach to mountain to fen, from seaweed-strewn inlet to lily-covered lough, in a matter of hours. Coupled with the unhurried nature of rural living, this scenic array encourages leisurely investigation, especially on foot or by bicycle.
With the richest store of mythological traditions in northern Europe, Ireland adds further interest to the landscape through the sacred associations of so many of its physical features – few counties do not shelter a pile of stones called “Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Bed”, where the star-crossed lovers are said to have slept together on their flight from the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill. But there’s much more than the resonance of place names to this treasure chest of myths, which still has a life of its own in the tradition of storytelling. The great body of Irish literature, though much of it concerns the dysfunction of real life, is often spiked with wild, fantastical imaginings, from Swift, Sterne and Wilde through to Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney. And unlikely stories and surreal comedy are integral elements of the craic, the talking therapy of Ireland’s pubs. Meanwhile, in the rich culture of traditional music, the two forms that are most likely to enrapture an audience – whether singing along or in silent appreciation – are ballads and sean-nós (“old-style” Irish-language singing), which recount tales of love, history and humour.
Many of Ireland’s mythical deities were reinvented by the Church after the tenth century as historical personages, which can make interpretation of the country’s abundance of historic sites more difficult, especially its enigmatic but awe-inspiring prehistoric tombs, stone circles and hill forts. There are few remnants of the Church itself from the so-called “Dark Ages”, when the monasteries of Ireland clung on as great centres of learning, but their elaborate craftsmanship is evident in surviving illuminated manuscripts. Stone began to be used for religious buildings only in the ninth century, and the country is strewn with fine churches, distinctive round-towers and high crosses from later periods. Doughty castles and tower houses are reminders of the unrest and oppression that followed the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion, while numerous stately homes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attest to the power of the Protestant Ascendancy, alongside Neoclassical institutions in the cities and Dublin’s extensive Georgian areas.
There is little vernacular architecture of note, however, thanks to centuries of subjugation as the laboratory for British colonialism. The poverty experienced by ordinary Irish people under foreign rule was not immediately righted by Independence in 1921, and for most of the twentieth century the economy continued to stagnate. The century’s final decade, however, saw a remarkable upswing in Ireland’s fortunes. The North, though still blighted by sectarianism and gangsterism, received massive British and European investment and achieved far greater stability after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. So rapid was the Republic’s economic growth during the 1990s that it was christened the Celtic Tiger and, for the first time since the Great Famine of the 1840s, immigration began to outstrip emigration. Greater prosperity necessitated an influx of migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Africa, which presented new challenges to the South’s Catholic homogeneity and the rigid duality of the North. Many Irish people returned from abroad, too, bringing fresh ideas and vibrancy to commerce and culture, after the authoritarianism that followed Independence. However, the global economic crisis of 2008 hit Ireland particularly severely, bringing widespread economic hardship and drastic reductions in public spending, especially in the South. For the visitor, this has meant welcome cuts in hotel and restaurant prices, but in general terms it’s still far from clear what social and cultural effects the crisis will have in the long run.
Cathedral and colored houses in Cobh, Ireland © Giancarlo Liguori/Shutterstock