10 Best: Free days out
January is all about penny pinching, but there are lots of ways to have fun without spending a cent. Pól Ó Conghaile picks his favourite free attractions across the country
Kings of the castle
Adults pay €6 to tour Kilkenny Castle (above), but access to the 50 acres of woods, pleasure grounds and ornamental gardens surrounding it doesn't cost a cent.
Older visitors will appreciate the prim rose gardens congregating around a fountain; kids can make a beeline for the colourful and chunkily constructed playground, and everyone will get mileage from the sprawling parkland and meandering paths that are such a surprise find.
If you've got time to kill in Kilkenny, Woodstock Gardens in Inistioge are also free -- the Monkey Puzzle Avenue here is the largest in Europe.
Details: kilkennycastle.ie; woodstock.ie.
Get on yer bike
If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise -- Coillte has developed a brace of cycling trails specifically with kids and families in mind. The Forest Friendly Family Cycling Trail in Portumna, Co Galway, does exactly what it says on the tin -- its 1.4km combo of forest road and boardwalk is accessible even to kids using stabilisers.
The 3.6km Glenisca Family Cycling Trail at Curragh Chase in Co Limerick will suit slightly older kids. Expect loose stones and a scattering of dips as it rambles through mature woods featuring 100-year-old yew trees.
Foster an animal attraction
One of the highlights of this year's Temple Bar Tradfest (January 26-30) isn't musical at all. It's the fact that, for the first time, Dublin's only working urban farm will move from Dundrum into the very heart of the city. Regular visitors to Airfield will be familiar with its resident goats, sheep, hens and calves, but this is a once-off opportunity to meet them on the aptly named Cow's Lane (you can also try making butter or milking the replica cow, Bó).
Two other free animal attractions include Field of Dreams, Limerick's animal sanctuary at Kilfinane, and the Donkey Sanctuary in Mallow, Co Cork, with more than 100 rescued donkeys.
Details: See templebartrad.com; limerickanimalwelfare.ie; thedonkey sanctuary.ie.
Take a hike
Nothing beats a good, squelchy, frost-splattered winter walk, and there's no shortage of free, family-friendly trails around the country. Try Raven Point Nature Reserve in Curracloe, Co Wexford. Or what about Barna Woods, a stone's throw from Galway on the R336 coastal road? A short, invigorating climb up Knocknarea in Sligo leads to Queen Maeve's cairn, and Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora is Offaly's top hidden gem.
One of the best one-size-fits-all destinations is the nature park at the Glen of Aherlow, where 50 acres of pure woodland are as enjoyable for toddlers as serious trampers.
Find your family tree
Remember the People's Millennium Forests? Just over a decade ago, 1.2 million native trees were planted in 16 Irish forests -- one for each household in the State.
The €6.3 million initiative has been forgotten by many, but the trees are largely still standing. You can find out where yours was planted by typing the county or postal district where you lived in 2000 into the website millenniumforests.com.
The forests, including Shelton in Co Wicklow and Derrygill in Co Galway, are free to visit -- and while individual trees are untraceable, you should be able to locate the plot in which yours was planted.
Take your own Titanic tour
The rest of the world may be waiting until 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, but Belfast has an anniversary festival lined up for May. Why? Because the ship was launched in the city, after 26 months of construction, in May of 1911 — almost a year before her ill-fated maiden voyage.
In the meantime, guided tours of Belfast’s Titanic sites cost up to £30 (¤36), but the highlights are easy to pick out for yourself, including the ship’s physical footprint at Titanic Dock, the Titanic Memorial at City Hall (also free to visit) and the old Harland & Wolff drawing rooms off Queen’s Road.
Details: titanicsdock.com; gotobelfast.com.
Celebrate Chinese New Year
2011 is the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, and Dublin is mounting a hopping great carnival to celebrate. Taking place on Wolfe Tone Square, the carnival kicks off a two-week long Chinese New Year Festival with a cracking mix of costumes, music, food and craft stalls, street theatre and dragon and lion dances.
People born in the Year of the Rabbit (1963, 1975, 1987, 1999 and this year) are held to be calm and loving, but also ambitious and discerning -- fitting for a festival that goes on to celebrate Sino-Irish relations with art workshops, a lecture series and the Electric Shadow Film Festival at the IFI.
Details: February 4-5 (carnival); dublincity.ie.
Pop the Cork
Cork gets more cosmopolitan by the year, but you can do plenty in the city without having to reach for the wallet. Take the grounds of UCC -- they're good for a gander and home to both the Honan Chapel, where you'll find a collection of Harry Clarke stained-glass windows, and the award-winning Lewis Glucksman Gallery. Admission is free.
On the first Friday of every month, Cosmos at the Castle, the interactive astronomy exhibit at Blackrock Castle Observatory, is free to the public. A short drive away, Fota Arboretum and Gardens are surprisingly child-friendly -- full of the kind of winding walkways and gnarly old trees that can turn any afternoon into an adventure.
Details: ucc.ie; glucksman.org; bco.ie; fotahouse.com.
Park yourself in the city
Think city parks, and collections of follies, ornamental ponds and stuffy old 'Don't Walk on the Grass' signs come to mind. But it doesn't have to be that way.
The People's Park in Waterford, once a marshland, is today home to a flash skatepark and playgrounds for younger and older kids (there's a nice café in the corner, too).
There's a similar set-up in Galway's Millennium Children's Park, and Limerick's People's Park has the added benefit of fronting on to the genteel Georgian terrace of Pery Square.
Everyone knows about the Phoenix Park in Dublin, but those venturing south of the capital towards Cabinteely Park will find one of the best playgrounds on planet Earth.
Details: waterfordcity.ie; galwaycity.ie; limerickcity.ie; dlrcoco.ie.
Visit the little museum that could
Sir Alfred Chester Beatty spent millions assembling his collection of icons, prints, manuscripts and objects d'art, but you can visit it for free. The earliest-known copies of the Book of Revelation and dragon robes worn by Asian emperors are among the artefacts housed in the grounds of Dublin Castle, and afterwards you can eat dishes from the featured countries at the very affordable Silk Road Café.
Other free visits in Dublin include IMMA and the Natural History Museum, and the Dublin Cultúr Bus offers a free shuttle service between cultural institutions on Sundays from 12pm to 5pm.
Details: Tel: 01-407 0750; cbi.ie; visitdublin.com.