Reid Bramblett answers your questions about Ireland
It's one of America's favorite destinations--foreign enough to be exciting, familiar enough that the native tongue is English--a place where the craic (conversation) flows as freely as the Guinness. Like many Yanks--more than 44 million to be precise--Ireland is the land of my forefathers (and one foremother), and I always relish a trip back to the Emerald Isle.
The "Beyond the Blarney" article in the April issue of our magazine merely scratches the surface of the wonderful experiences and amazing sights from my two-week jaunt to Ireland, where ancient sights and rhythms are struggling to find a balance with the modern prosperity boom.
Ireland's still a land of family-run B&Bs that feel like nothing so much as staying in the back bedroom of a favorite Irish auntie, and of hearty Irish breakfasts featuring multiple pork products and enough cholesterol to kill a mountain goat. The twisting coastal roads are strung halfway between a drop dead cliff plunging hundreds of feet into the crashing Atlantic and a drop-dead vista of bright green fields embroidered with endless stone walls and dotted with sheep.
Despite the changes wrought by the modern world and the decade-long economic boom called the Celtic Tiger--not to mention the new early closing on Thursdays and smoking ban--village life still centers around the local pub. Cozy tables snuggle around a turf fire filling the room with the sweet perfume of peat, enticing you to sidle past the craggy locals planted at the bar jawing in Gaelic and gulping their Guinness, give a nod to the local musicians jamming Celtic-style in a corner, and ask the publican to pull you a perfect pint.
Reid will be answered your questions Tuesday, April 13, 2005 at noon EST.
Reid Bramblett holds the somewhat dubious distinction of having authored both The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Europe and Europe for Dummies. His love affair with Europe began at age 11 when his family moved to Rome and proceeded to spend much of the next two years exploring Europe in a hippie-orange VW campervan. Reid experienced a budget continent of campgrounds and picnics with the locals, though mostly he remembers having to sleep in the VW's moldy pop-top. After a brief stint as an editorial assistant at a travel publisher, began writing European guidebooks for Frommer's, Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness, Idiot's, and For Dummies. He joined the Budget Travel editorial staff in 2002. He champions such underdog Irish causes as real ales, traditional Celtic music, Irish cheeses, hurling (that's a Gaelic sport, not what happens after too many whiskeys), pub grub, and tramping around bogs and wind-bitten downs in search of ancient tombs.
Reid Bramblett: Mille Failte! Welcome to the Ireland chat. Let the questions begin!
Washington, DC: My two friends and I are hopping to Dublin from London for 4 days. That doesn't leave us much time to explore the country. We don't know whether to rent a car and coordinate our own itinerary or to book a 3-day Southern Ireland tour with one of the commercial tour operators. What are your thoughts on the tour operators? (we were looking at Paddywagontours.com, tirangogtours.com, and shamrockertours.com). Thanks!
Reid Bramblett: Actually, I know nothing of those tour operators because Ireland is one place where tours are utterly unnecessary. For one thing, everyone speaks English there, and without a language barrier, getting around gets so very much easier. Sure, you've got to get used to the whole driving on the left thing, but trust me: you adjust pretty quickly.
In fact, I'd argue that tours seriously get in the way of having a real Irish holiday, because a big part of visiting Ireland is getting to know the people. That's easy if you wander into a pub or check into a B&B and strike up a conversation (the Irish are big talkers; they love the "craic"--gaelic for "conversation"). That's darn hard if you've got 40 other yammering Americans surrounding you and are staying at chain hotels.
On a guided trip, you're regimented into a schedule--and Ireland's pace of life chafes at schedules--visiting a litany of sometimes sublime, sometimes silly sights to be checked off a list. You also spend an inordinate amount of time waiting in line to do things like kiss the Blarney Stone and shopping at sweater mills. (Of course you want a thick Irish sweater, but it's better to browse for one at small village shops or even buy direct from farmers' wives who plant hand-painted signs reading simply "Sweaters. Around back." in their front lawn).
Also, just picture that solo trip: bombing around the country roads in search of just the sights that interest you, skipping stuff that doesn't measure up to snuff, and lingering when you discover a place worth exploring or a person worth jawing with for an hour.
After a night spent snuggled into the warmth of a family-run B&B that feels like nothing so much as staying in the back bedroom of a favorite Irish auntie, you tuck into a hearty Irish breakfast featuring multiple pork products and enough cholesterol to kill a mountain goat--platters piled with strips of thick back bacon, soft sticky sausages, a fried egg, fried rounds black pudding (blood sausage) and white pudding (don't ask), half a tomato (they serve half a tomato with everything), brown bread and toast with butter and (usually) homemade jams and preserves including bitter orange, a patty of fried mashed potatoes, cereal, fruit, yogurt, and possibly hot, buttery porridge, all of it accompanied, as always, by a pot of piping hot Irish Breakfast tea.
After all that, you're usually ready for a nap, but instead you set out to test your driving skills by slaloming along a twisting coastal road strung halfway between a drop dead cliff plunging hundreds of feet into the crashing Atlantic and a drop-dead vista of bright green fields embroidered with endless stone walls and dotted with sheep.
Spend the morning wandering the romantically roofless ruins of a 12th century abbey before stopping at a farm to pick out that thick, wooly sweater--which you'll wear while sloughing across a bog and up a wind-swept hillside to crawl around a 5,000-year-old passage tomb.
You get back to your car, knock the mud off your shoes, drive into the nearest village, and duck into a pub where cozy tables snuggle around a turf fire filling the room with the sweet perfume of peat, sidle past the craggy locals planted at the bar jawing in Gaelic and gulping their Guinness, give a nod to the local musicians jamming Celtic-style in a corner, and ask the publican to pull you a perfect pint.
On a bus tour, you'll probably get just the breakfast. Then a sweater mill.
San Diego, CA: Hi, For the first-timer to go to Ireland, would a fly/drive vacation be a good way to go? We have a four-year-old and thought having our own pace might be good. But with a tour group you might learn a bit more. Thank you.
Reid Bramblett: Well, hopefully my last answer will help your decision. As for learning, you can handle that on your own. Get a couple of good guidebooks packed with background information and you'll be able to teach yourselves tons about everything from ancient myths and legends to James Joyce, pub culture to traditional Celtic music, the history of The Troubles between Catholics and Protestants and the monastic traditions that produced and preserved those beautiful illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells.
For such background, I'd recommend the Companion Guide to Ireland, Michelin NEOS guide, and the Rough Guide.
Shawnee, KS: Reid, I am planning a trip to Ireland with my husband in September '04. We want to see as much of South and Western Ireland as possible--so much to see and only 13 days to do it!--and don't know if it is better to rent a cottage and do day trips from one location, or go B&B the whole trip and eliminate the back tracking (driving) that day trips entail. Your opinion?
Reid Bramblett: Definitely with 13 days you should do the string of B&Bs--not a new one each night, necessarily. That gets old pretty quickly, and you feel you're hurtling through a vacation rather than slowing down to enjoy it. Try to spend 2-3 nights at each, time enough to really explore each area, and also to get to know your B&B hosts--have tea with them, take dinner if it's offered, strike up conversations. With two weeks, you can still cover a lot of ground, especially since you're being smart and limiting it to the west and south.
Atlanta, GA: The best place I found over in Ireland for "proper" fish and chips was a place called "Leo Burdicks," which was about a 15-minute walk from Temple Bar. Is it still there, and are there any others like it, either in Dublin or in the country, that compare to it? Thank you.
Reid Bramblett: Of course it's still there! Leo Burdock's fish n' chips is practically a National Heritage Site! I don't think they could tear it down without enticing rioting in the streets. Folks looking to follow in our Atlanta's friends greasy footsteps will find this hallowed temple to fried fish and potatoes just down the block from Christchurch Cathedral at 2 Werburgh Street. Bring an appetite, and be prepared (especially in the evening) to wait in line--or rather, as this is Ireland, "to queue up."
Jackson, MS: I'm traveling to Ireland in July. What is the best source for booking B&Bs?
Reid Bramblett: Town and Country (.townandcountry.ie/) is one of the largest and most reputable B&B networks, and the one that most of those air-car-B&B packagers use. It covers both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Irish Farm Holidaysirishfarmholidays.com/) limits itself to B&Bs on working farms-a lovely way to get to see the real Ireland, and usually a key to the best homemade breakfasts; for Northern Ireland check out the Northern Ireland Farm and Country Holidays Association (wwscha.com).
Hidden Ireland Guihiddenireland.com/) collects together hotels and B&Bs that have some peculiar character to them or are of historic or architectural interest
Irish Cottages and Holiday Ho(irishcottageholidays.com/) is your key to your own home in Ireland-albeit temporarily. If you want a self-catering (ie: you do your own washing and cooking) cottage or vacation home for a week or a month, check here first. Or for the North, contact the Northern Ireland Self-Catering Holidays Association (agat nischa.com/)
Ireland ls (irelandhotels.com/) covers hotels in the Republic; the Northern Ireland Hotels Fetion (nihf.co.uk/) the same in the North.
Premier Guouses (premierguesthouses.com/) is just what it sounds like; stylish, with loads of personality, often pricey.
Ireland'se Book (elandsbluebook.com/) covers fairly exclusive country houses, castles, and such, but a few are affordable.
Houston, TX: We're planning a two-week trip to Ireland next year, but I'm concerned about the weather. What month (or months) are the LEAST rainy? Thank you.
Reid Bramblett: Tough call. As you may have heard, it rains a lot all across the British Isles--though in their defense, it's usually a consistent, on and off drizzle or fine mist, not downpours, and you can actually function pretty well. Technically, March through July are driest, though May (and, in some areas, March) sees a spike in rainfall--a fact I can attest to only too well (I was there for two weeks in late May last year and there were only two days it didn't rain).
Columbia, MO: What's your opinion on the package deals that offer airfare, car rental, and nights at B&Bs? We're considering that option for our first trip to Ireland (three weeks, sometime in September) as a way to hopefully keep the costs down while having some flexibility.
Reid Bramblett: My opinion is of the highest possible. That's the way I do Ireland, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Picture this: you can buy your transatlantic airfare, get six days with a rental car, and lodging vouchers good for six nights at a network of more than 450 farmhouse B&Bs all across Ireland, all for as little as $499 per person with two traveling together.
Of course, that's for low-season (winter) travel-t--e price changes with each month, but the highest you'll be looking at is June-Aug, when it gets into the $900 per person range-a--d for flights from the East Coast. But you can grab the Mo Express shuttle to Lambert Airport-I--used to live in Columbia, too :-)-a--d the price shouldn't be but $100 to $200 more.
That package price covers flights in and out of Shannon Airport, gateway to the pleasures of Ireland's Western coast. To use Dublin as your arrival or departure airport, tack on another $30. For the guarantee of a private bathroom and to expand the database of B&Bs available to you to a full 2,000, add in another $36. Automatic transmission on the rental car will cost ya yet another $36. The final optional upgrade I'll mention-pr--cey, but tempting-is--to spend one night in one of several bona fide Irish castles rather than a B&B.
The price leader on this sort of thing is Ireland.com (ireland.com/travel), though once you get down to the nitty gritty or adding extra days, or opting for townhouses and such, you can often get a cheaper price from CIE Tours (cietours.com/2004vacations/go_as_you_please_ireland.htm).
West Lafayette, IN: How is the Irish pub culture handling the recent ban on smoking inside?
Reid Bramblett: Actually, that ban went into effect just two weeks ago, so I haven't had a chance to visit since it started! (Incidentally, this is part of a larger quality-of-life campaign by the Irish government in regards to pub culture; a few months ago, they instituted early pub closing hours on Thursday nights to try and reduce public drunkenness--and Friday morning hangovers that leads so many to call in sick at work.)
I can, however, speak to how New York City handled a similar ban that's been in place for around a year now. (This is an a-political answer; just a description of what I've seen.) Lots more people are clustered around the front doors of bars, sucking on a cigarette before dashing back inside (like at an office building, only replace the paperwork with bottles of MGD---mmmm). But the bars still seem to be pretty packed, most folks still seem to be managing to have a good time, and the pick-up lines haven't changed a bit (well, we did lose "Can I give you a light?" as an ice-breaker). And hey, who knew: bars actually had ceilings hidden up there beyond the thick swirl of smoke!
Sun City, AZ: My mother's family came from Ireland (Isle of Man, to be exact). I have always wanted to go and "look up" the family. Do the Irish mind Americans snooping for the family tree?
Reid Bramblett: Far from it! They love finding out if you've any Irish heritage--and with 44 million Americans tracing at least one branch of the family tree back to the Emerald Isle (that's eight times as many people as live in Ireland today!) they often luck out. I've had many an Irish person ask, within the first 30 second of conversation, "Now you look like ye've got some Irish in you. Do ya?" (I do, and they're always keen to discuss it.) I even stayed at a B&B in County Leitrim once when traveling there with my parents, and when our hostess discovered my mom had local Irish roots, she went straight to her home library, beckoning us to follow. She started pulling down giant old leather-bound books and she and my Mom got to work trying to track down great-Grandma Katherine Marie Burke.
My advice is to start doing some research before you leave. There are lots of professionals to help you track down the tendrils of the family tree, but its best to do as much legwork as you can in advance to make sure they don't bark up the wrong one (har!). Make sure whomever you pick is accredited by one of the three main agencies:
Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (AGPI). They do research in national archives and record repositories.
Association of Ulster Genealogists and Record Agents (AUGRA). Same thing as APGI, only for Northern Ireland.
Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF). These folks go to the source to research in county archives or other specific areas.
For the prep work on your own, here are some resources for you (though note that, for most physical records, you'll eventually have to make a pilgrimage to Dublin's National Library and/or National Archives in person):
Irish Geneaology (genealogy.ie/) is one of the foremost and respectable commercial ventures, but doesn't cheat the DIY researcher either because it maintains the best-indexed and most sensibly-arranged set of links to all sort of other resources, public records offices, and local libraries. It also has the easiest direct link to a downloadable version of the Tourism Board's terribly useful booklet on "Tracing your Ancestors in Ireland". This is probably the first thing you should read-it tells you what you need to know to start, and gives you the best leads to begin piecing that info together with public records and archives-but I can't seem to find on the Tourism Board's own Web site (tourismireland.com/).
The National Library (nli.ie/) ie best starting point for your search once you know the ground rules (gleaned from that free booklet mentioned above), and is totally free. It also lists contacts for the best private genealogical researchers for each county or area, in case you want to plump for a true expert to help or do the research on your behalf.
Office of the Registrar General (ireland.ie/is the central repository for records in the Republic on births, deaths, and marriages. For Northern Ireland, contact the UK Public Record Office (progov.uk/)The National Archivenationalarchives.ie/) is a close runner-up to the library for most useful spot for delving into the minutia of Ireland's past. Its records are rife with birth/marriage/death certificates, census data, and other info to help your search, and it also provides on-site experts to help your research along-though you have to go to Dublin for all this. For Northern Ireland, the spanking new (as of April 2003) National Archives can be found on-lit www.nationalarchivov.uk.
Irish Ro(irishroots.net/)another of the more reputable paid research services, and also has a goodly set of links to local county and parish records.
T (tiara.ie) stands The Irish Ancestral Research Association, and is an interesting Massachusetts-based organization devoted to the art of Irish ancestor hunting. It has loads of links, but perhaps the most useful aspect of it are the results of the its surveys of folks just like you and I who have used various resources, services, and professional researchers out there and then commented on those experiences, giving a user's view of which were more or less helpful than others and how the research went overall. , giving a user's view of which were more or less helpful than others and how the research went overall. www.tiara.ie/" target='_blank'>www.tiara.ie) stands for The Irish Ancestral Research Association, and is an interesting Massachusetts-based organization devoted to the art of Irish ancestor hunting. It has loads of links, but perhaps the most useful aspect of it are the results of the its surveys of folks just like you and I who have used various resources, services, and professional researchers out there and then commented on those experiences, giving a user's view of which were more or less helpful than others and how the research went overall.
Lansdale, PA: We are interested in a walking tour. I envision a challenging backroad course that is dotted with small towns for the evening retreat. We are looking to spend 5 days walking and 2 nights in Dublin. Can you recommend which area is the most scenic for our trek? Thank you.
Reid Bramblett: Gosh, which area ISN'T scenic enough? You could practically throw a dart at a map of Ireland, start walking from that point, and have a brilliantly beautiful five-day stroll.
That said, you should know that some of the most popular and scenic areas have been every so slightly spoilt over the past decade by an explosion of holiday homes built by an Irish population suddenly flush with windfall from the Celtic Tiger economic boom of the 1990s.
In parts of Counties Kerry and Clare-t--o of Western Ireland's most storied and beautiful regions-f--rmerly empty country roads are now lined every 1,000 feet by brand-new, blockish four-room cottages with enormous picture windows plopped down onto a cement slab. (I think the trend would bother me less if the cottages weren't all so freakishly identical save for color; and once all that ground raw from construction starts getting lush and green and be-flowered again, the eyesore quotient will go down some.) Many stretches of was once farmland now looks like exceedingly well-space housing developments (hmm, kind of like Lansdale for that matter-t--e Lansdale farm where I was born is now a housing development, the farm down the road became the Montgomeryville Mall).
OK, all that sounded dire. It's really not that bad, just a slightly disturbing trend that came as a shock to me after my last trip. The bit about throwing the dart really does still hold true. Since my most recent trip was to Western and Northern Ireland, I'll stick to evaluating some of those for walking purposes. Here are some of the prime regions:
St. Louis, MO: If you could only visit three of the four places listed below, which would you choose? Dingle, Aran Islands, Rock of Cashel, or Dublin?
Reid Bramblett: You might think I'm touched, but I'd actually leave off Dublin. Wonderful little city, some keen sights, great pub culture, and if you're a Joyce fan, it's got to be on the list. But Ireland is so much more about the countryside, the small towns and villages, the ancient sights, and the friendly pubs. Besides, this way your trip is limited to the West Coast (the Dingle and the Aran Islands) and south-central Ireland (Rock of Cashel).
Incidentally, the Rock will only eat up about 1-2 hours of your time. It's just a solitary sight-- dramatic one, don't get me wrong: an impressive fortress perched atop a rocky little hill, surrounded by thickets of Celtic Crosses and sporting commanding views in every direction--but still just a one-trick pony stop. Dingle, on the other hand, requires at least two days; the Aran Islands at least that (preferably 2-3 days, especially if you want to get off Inishmor and hit the smaller ones as well).
Ivanhoe, VA: Are there tours there for horse lovers?
Reid Bramblett: Plenty! Ireland's just the right size and set-up for horseback treks: not too big, and with lots of villages and country inns to make planning an itinerary easy. My favorite outfit for some time in the saddle on the British Isles is Equestrian Vacations (.equestrianvacations.com/) which offers a dozen different Ireland rides, from inn-to-inn pony treks to trail rides to more serious training trips and even hunting rides.
Lawton, OK: We are planning a trip to Dublin the last part of May. What is the weather like at that time of year? We hope to take in the music festival you talked about in your article. Do we need to get tickets ahead of time? Will we have trouble finding lodging because of the festival?
Reid Bramblett: Rainy. (Sorry.) But still darn worth it. The festival, for those of you who haven't yet read the article, is called the Fleadh Nua (.fleadhnua.com/)--which just means "new festival." It's held in Ennis, the seat of County Clare (the place with the Burren and the undulating Cliffs of Moher), a wonderfully medieval-looking town with tons of pubs and a strong musical tradition. You can buy a single pass that's get you into everything. Do book a room ahead of time (like right now!) as local B&Bs will sell out.
Unlike other Irish music festivals---hich tend to be largely stage performances---his one is charmingly participatory. You can learn to dance the ceili (sort of a primordial version of square dancing, but with more complicated steps); watch school groups compete for set dances and such; learn to play a traditional instrument whether it be the bodhran drum, the tin whistle, or the fiddle; and listen to Eddie Lenihan weave legends and tales into gripping yarns and stories.
Oh, sure, there are still tons of performances by the best Irish musicians and singers, and the best part is it's not just on the stages. Every evening, the pubs and hotel lobbies turn into informal concert stages for these greats of Irish music to get together and jam into the wee hours, the Guinness and whiskey flowing freely, and music mingling in the rafters.
Reid Bramblett: Whew! My fingers are tired. Sorry I couldn't get to all your great questions, but hopefully these answers can help you plan your own trip to the Emerald Isle.
I will leave you with a traditional Irish toast especially keyed to travelers, one which --as with most pragmatic Irish toasts --doubles as a prayer... just in case you find yourself in the pub on a Sunday:
May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.