The Joys of Ireland

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The Joys of Ireland
Ireland's scenery, and especially its coastline, is the country's must-see sight, rather than a single iconic structure like the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum. The very experience of being in Ireland is compelling and seductive. You won't want to leave.
By Ryan Ver Berkmoes, AFAR Contributor
Photo by Morgan Paar
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    Must-See Dublin
    Begin your Dublin visit by standing on O'Connell Bridge, watching the languid waters of River Liffey pass below. Look north to the General Post Office Building, a pivotal site in the Irish fight for independence in the early 20th century. To the south are the modest, yet elegant streets radiating out from St. Stephen's Green. This isn't a grand European city; rather, Dublin feels like a vast village where your wanderings are rewarded. While tourists flock to The Guinness Storehouse, a theme park of stout, you'll find time at a trad pub like Grafton Street's Kehoe's to be at least as rewarding.
    Photo by Morgan Paar
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    Pubs: Ireland's Living Rooms
    Unless you let the Guinness get the better of you, your most memorable times in Ireland may well be in the pubs. From city neighborhoods to the tiniest of villages, you'll find a plethora of charming, idiosyncratic public houses. A gathering spot for locals (they fill with entire families for Sunday lunch), Ireland's public houses are where you'll make new friends, laugh at preposterous tales, thrill to impromptu music, and warm your bones beside an open fire after a long hike. Classics like Galway's Naughton's have timeless wooden interiors enjoyed by countless generations of customers. As locals will tell you, the best thing about a pub is getting a pint and then seeing what happens next.
    Photo courtesy of Holger Leue/Tourism Ireland
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    A Song in Every Heart
    Sinead O'Connor and U2 are just recent examples of tuneful talents; others stretch back centuries. It may sound like a cliché, but there truly seems to be a song in every heart here. Get a few locals together in a pub and don't be surprised if they start singing. Storytelling ballads are beloved by all, including visitors, who are often urged to sing along. In most seasons, you'll find impromptu performances of folk music, called trad sessions, nightly at pubs in even the tiniest of towns, such as Ennistymon and Doolin in music-filled County Clare. Feel free to pull out your harmonica and join in.
    Photo courtesy of Geray Sweeney/Tourism Ireland
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    Ancient Monuments to a Timeless God
    St. Patrick arrived in Ireland in the fifth century to spread Christianity, and he found a fertile land for his faith. Within a few decades, grand monasteries were built across the island and Irish monks were spreading their beliefs across Europe. Viking pillaging in the ninth century ended this golden age, but you can find its legacies in the iconic and ancient Celtic crosses that still stand in churchyards big and small. Vast, moody sites like Clonmacnoise, Jerpoint, and Glendalough attest to the riches of the early church and the power of the faith that saw such huge structures carved out of tough granite by hand. Wander amidst the lichen-covered artifacts and imagine the history held within them.
    Photo by Murissa Shalapata
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    Ireland's Dramatic Past
    The Irish were creating splendid art as far back as the Bronze Age; you can see some of the intricate work at Dublin's National Museum. Don't miss the resplendent gold Tara Brooch from 700 AD. Beyond the capital, Ireland is dotted with engaging museums. The Irish Agricultural Museum near Wexford documents the potato famine of the 1800s, which caused entire villages to be abandoned due to death and emigration. Village life itself—from hardship to rarer moments of frolic—is detailed at County Mayo's National Museum of
 Country Life. You can also visit the cottage of Patrick Pearse, a hero of the fight for independence from the British, in an achingly beautiful part of the Connemara Peninsula. The home is now a small museum.
    Photo by Ken Welsh/age fotostock
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    Ireland by the Book
    The Irish love a good story, whatever the form. Legions of students flock to Dublin's Trinity College every year to study Ireland's rich and famous literary heritage, some hoping to find inspiration to join the pantheon. You can learn more about the greats at Dublin Writers Museum. The raw mountains and lonely moors of County Sligo inspired Yeats, whose poetry seems as fresh now as 100 years ago, even as it recalls proud tales of Ireland's Celtic heritage. James Joyce is revered; faded, smoke-smudged portraits of the author of Ulysses are a pub wall staple. Vanishing elsewhere, bookshops are a part of local fabric in most towns and you can lose hours browsing musty shelves for vintage treasures.
    Photo by Nick Rowlands
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    Shop Local for Ireland's Best Wares
    Every Irish town and city has street markets; many have more than one. Expect to see the huge range of produce grown in the lush, fertile fields and the rich bounty drawn from the nearby sea. Market goods aren't limited to luscious seasonal strawberries or ultra-fresh oysters, however. Ireland is a nation of craft food producers, and many offer their scrumptious goods year-round. Cheeses from County Kilkenny, scones from Galway, and rich soda bread from countless hearths are just some of the items you'll find on offer. Look for locally caught and smoked salmon and you're on your way to assembling a brilliant picnic. And don't miss the island's famous sweaters, made from yarn spun from the wool of the many sheep you see in the fields.
    Photo courtesy of Holger Leue/Tourism Ireland
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    Natural and Manmade Wonders at Killarney
    Eons ago, glaciers rammed their way through the mountains that surround the lakeside town of Killarney. The resulting breach, the Gap of Dunloe, is an unmissable walk through a primordial terrain of smashed rocks and surging streams. Killarney has a regal charm and every possible diversion and service for visitors. It's surrounded by a namesake national park where you can go boating on mist-shrouded lakes and choose from myriad walks. Other sights include the beautifully restored 17th-century Ross Castle, medieval Muckross Abbey, Crag Cave, and much more.
    Photo courtesy of Jonathan Hession/Tourism Ireland
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    Beguiling Galway
    This university town sitting on its namesake bay always has visitors staying longer than they planned. Narrow streets meander in a skewed manner, unchanged for centuries, and are lined with cute little shops, beguiling cafés, bookshops aplenty, and, some would argue, the country's best selection of pubs. Good food is central to Galway's soul, whether it's the seasonal fare drawn from the region at the splendid café above McCambridge's, or the beloved fish and chips at McDonagh's. At night you're spoiled for music, from a band aspiring to be the next U2 on stage at Monroe's to a top-notch trad session at Tig Cóilí. When adventure calls, the beauty of Connemara Peninsula is less than an hour away.
    Photo courtesy of Chris Hill/Tourism Ireland
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    Prehistoric Mysteries and Monuments
    Ireland's ancient, myth-shrouded Celtic people left legacies that astound and confound. Dun Aonghasa, a ring fort on the island of Inishmore, sits high on a sheer cliff 200 feet above the Atlantic. The labor required to build this edifice is nearly inconceivable. Northeast in County Sligo, the ancient burial tombs of Carrowmore confirm that Ireland's early people had brains as well as brawn. Archaeologists continue to make discoveries that show how the site was created with a sophisticated knowledge of geography and astronomy. Many visitors flock here for perceived mystical powers. In County Clare, the moonlike rocky vistas of the Burren are punctuated with ancient tombs and structures, such as Poulnabrone, made from huge slabs of stone.
    Photo by Ryan Ver Berkmoes