Life Ireland

Thursday 18 September 2014

The best things in life are free

Short on cash this summer? There's plenty to do here without a penny

Eoin Butler

Published 07/07/2013 | 05:00

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Salthill is just one of Ireland's 74 Blue Flag beaches for swimmers
Altamount House's attractive gardens
Altamont House & Gardens

So, you want to holiday in Ireland but you're reluctant to part with any of your hard earned cash? Well, first of all, what the hell is wrong with you? The tourist industry is practically on its knees here – are you really too stingy to shell out a few quid?

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Having said that, there are legitimate reasons why a person might be forced to scrimp this summer. So I'm here to share a little secret with you: there's a tonne of fun things you can do in this country without spending a penny.

Go for a walk or cycle in one of Coillte's 150 forest parks

Here's just the stuff I'm allowed to write about in a family newspaper.

PARK IT

When Greta Garbo vonted to be alone, she visited Glenveagh Castle in Co Donegal, where she stayed as a guest of the castle's millionaire owner Henry Plumer McIlhenny. In the 1950s and 1960s, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable also availed of the American art collector's hospitality.

Thankfully, since McIlhenny donated the entire 40,000-acre estate to the Irish State in 1975, Hollywood superstar status is no longer a perquisite for enjoying the sights in this most barren and beautiful corner of Ireland.

Today Glenveagh is one of six national parks dotted around the country. So wherever you are, you're probably not too far away from one. You can visit the monastic ruins at Glendalough in Wicklow National Park, walk on the limestone moonscape of the Burren National Park in Co Clare, or sample the scenic heathland of Connemara National Park in Co Galway.

The magnificent Glenveagh National Park.

Did you know that Ireland's only remaining herd of native red deer are resident at Killarney National Park in Co Kerry? Or that the last intact active blanket bog system in western Europe can be found at Ballycroy National Park in Co Mayo?

Most fortunately of all, in this instance, access to these places is absolutely free. Well, until our next austerity budget, at the very least.

HIKE UP A HILL

Healthy, outdoorsy and cheap as chips, hill walking is another day out that won't cost you an arm and a leg. Well, barring some sort of terrible accident. All you need is a good map, a sturdy pair of boots and a phone number for the nearest rescue service. They're very nice, honest.

For an easygoing hike, a lap of the Hill of Howth in Co Dublin affords some spectacular sea views – including, as I recall, one magical lagoon that could have come straight off a 1970s prog-rock album cover. Or if you're looking for more of a challenge, Brandon Hill near Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, won't disappoint.

While you're in the area, a pint in Doyle's unique and quaint pub/grocery/hardware/ fishing tackle shop on Main Street is highly recommended. Just the one, like. I mean, it would be rude not to.

CATCH SOME WAVES

With 74 Blue Flag beaches, Ireland's coastline is among the most scenic in the world. For swimmers, the pristine sea waters at Templetown, Port and Clogherhead (all Co Louth) or Salthill and Silverstrand (Galway city) are all highly recommended.

Meanwhile, surfers can catch a wave at Bundoran in Co Donegal, Strandhill in Co Sligo or Lahinch in Co Clare. And thanks to recent advances in wetsuit technology, losing your extremities to frostbite is no longer an occupational hazard.

SMELL THE ROSES

Of course, if the thought of jumping into the Atlantic Ocean fills you with trepidation, why not conveniently 'forget' your togs and go for a wander in one of Ireland's public gardens instead? Granted, it's somewhat less of a white knuckle ride, but, hey, most at least have no cover charge.

Altamount Gardens in Tullow, Co Carlow, is one of the most romantic in Ireland, blooming with roses at the height of the summer. Or, if you're in the capital, the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin boasts 20,000 living plants and some spectacular greenhouses.

If you visit the latter, The Crockery Shop just opposite the main entrance has some fantastically ornate vintage cash registers that are well worth a look.

MUSE IN A MUSEUM

Another cost-free way to while away one of these lazy summer days is to visit a museum. Ireland's National Museum has four locations, each with free admission. The National History Museum on Dublin's Merrion Street has geological exhibits from a collection of two million scientific specimens.

Around the corner on Kildare Street, countless ancient treasures dating as far back as 7,000BC – including the priceless Tara Brooch – are available to view at the Archaeology Museum. The National Museum for Decorative Arts and History in Collins Barracks charts Ireland's economic, political and military history.

Meanwhile, if you grew up in rural Ireland, the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park in Castlebar recreates the experience of visiting your grandparents' house as a child – albeit with considerably less chance of leaving with a crisp pound note pressed into your hand.

HAVE AN ART ATTACK

The National Gallery of Ireland in Merrion Square, Dublin, boasts a collection of more than 13,000 works of art. This includes a National Portrait Collection and a room dedicated to the work of the country's pre-eminent 20th-century painter Jack B Yeats.

When Dublin was the second city of the British Empire, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was a refuge for old soldiers wounded in battle far overseas. Today it houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art. This summer's main exhibition, titled 'I knOw yoU', showcases the work of young European artists.

Cork's Crawford Art Gallery in Emmet Place and Limerick's City Gallery of Art in Pery Square both house important collections of Irish art from the 18th to 20th centuries. Again, all are absolutely free.

ENJOY A FREE FESTIVAL

Good music and bad food were, for years, the staples of any self-respecting Irish summer festival. Thankfully, that's all changed in recent years.

Free tastings from some of Ireland's top chefs are on the menu at the Achill Seafood Festival in Co Mayo (July 19-21), while Co Louth's Carlingford's Oyster Festival (August 10-12) offers food and street entertainment in one of Ireland's most picturesque villages.

ENJOY THE MAGIC OF THE ISLANDS

Admittedly, you'll have to negotiate a price with a local ferryman to get there. But once that's out of the way, Ireland's offshore island's are there to be explored and enjoyed on foot or by bike for little or nothing.

The Aran Islands and Inishbofin off Galway, Achill in Mayo, Heir in Cork, Arranmore and Tory in the wild Atlantic off Donegal are all steeped in history and ripe for adventuring.

GO DOWN TO THE WOODS

Coillte have 150 forest parks and recreational sites around the country in which you can walk, cycle, fish, picnic, canoe and visit megalithic sites.

There are forest loop walks in Carlow, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Limerick, Monaghan, Offaly, Tipperary and Wicklow. Just this past Easter, this writer walked the Foxford loop in Co Mayo.

There are, of course, fences to be hopped, picnic tables and sangwiches to be munched, as well as a bunch of kicked-over signposts in some areas with the worst 3G coverage on this island.

But, of course, that's half the fun of it.

For more, see discoverireland.ie

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