Keep the kids happy and your hands off your wallet with Pól Ó Conghaile’s pick of the best free family attractions in Ireland.
Beachcombing at Dunmore East, Co Waterford
Waterford's Copper Coast has long been tipped in these pages as an excursion for all kinds of daytrippers, not least for its pretty necklace of beaches. There are some half-dozen sheltered coves within striking distance of Dunmore East and, while it may be too early yet for a dip, spring is an ideal time to break out the wellies for a spot of beachcombing.
Rathmoylan, Woodstown and Saleen are recommendations for kids, though swimming is not advised at the latter.
Details: Tel: 051 383 133; www.waterford-dunmore.com.
Slish Wood, Co Sligo
Sitting snug against Lough Gill, Slish Wood is one of Sligo's bestkept secrets (well, to outsiders at least). The central attraction here is a lovely lake shore and hillside walk, with tracks all the way suited to all ages. Local families love the spot, and kids may enjoy spotting mute swan, duck and heron busying themselves out on the lake. Badger, fox and fallow deer are common, and some of the oak trees scattered about are up to 250-yearsold. Bring lunch — there are picnic tables too.
Details: Tel: 071 916 1201; www.coillte outdoors.ie.
Children’s workshops at the Phoenix Park, Co Dublin
Visitors to the Phoenix Park often think in terms of parts (Dublin Zoo, Farmleigh House, etc) rather than the whole (Europe's largest enclosed urban park). These children's workshops will help set that straight, however. Held on Sundays at the Visitor Centre, they include ‘Discover eco-art’ (February 22), ‘Spring in the Walled Garden’ (March 1) and ‘Trees — what would we do without them?’ (March 8).
Details: Tel: 01-677 0095; advance booking essential. .
Pick a playground
Anyone new to this parenting lark can't fail to have noticed the dramatic improvement in Irish playground facilities. This writer recalls overgrown sandpits and rusty swings, while his two-year-old daughter frolics among climbing ropes, ziplines and sand-diggers. Prime examples are at Shanganagh, Co Wicklow, Newbridge Demesne in North Dublin and Cabinteely Park in south Co Dublin. In a sign of the times, the latter was designed through consultation with local school children.
An Creagán Visitor Centre, Co Tyrone
Hidden in the Sperrin Foothills, An Creagán Visitor Centre is one of Omagh's standout attractions. Visitors can mosey around an interpretative centre giving context to the archaeology, folklore and surrounding boglands, before departing on a 3.5km walk (1km of which is wheelchair accessible). There's also a storybook trail based on The Creggan White Hare (“a children's version of an old folk song,” as manager John Donaghy explains), and if you feel like spending money, check out the circus skills, salsa, digital photography and creative writing workshops.
Details: Tel: 0044 288 076 1112; www.an-creagan.com.
Emo Court, Co Laois
A neo-classical country villa designed by James Gandon and taken into State ownership in 1994, Emo Court makes a good day out for its surrounding gardens and parkland. Dating from the 1700s, these contain formal lawns, a lake and several woodland walks. If it's a more serious stretch you're after, carry on down the N7 towards the Slieve Blooms (www.slievebloom.ie). Fionn Mac- Cumhail is said to have spent the early years of his life here, putting it up to contemporary kids.
Details: Tel: 057 862 6573; www.heritageireland.ie. Gardens and parks are free
Gougane Barra Forest Park, Co Cork
Ever wondered why people say ‘touch wood'? Coillte says the Celts touched trees because they believed the action warded off evil spirits. So, with National Tree Week running from March 1-7, why not sample the 20 species on offer at the relaunched Gougane Barra Forest Park? With upgraded tracks and trails for walkers, cyclists and motorists, as well as picnic sites, all should be catered for.
Details: Tel: 026 20277; www.coillte outdoors.ie.
The Gathering Festival, Killarney, Co Kerry
Clare grabs most of the plaudits when it comes to traditional music events, but Kerry's Gathering Festival (until February 22) is mounting a stronger challenge than ever in this, its 10th year. Held at the Gleneagle Hotel and described by one reviewer as like “the Willie Clancy Summer School under one roof ”, the fiveday event includes concerts, céilís, classes, instrument workshops and a full education programme.
Details: 087 234 8824 (music); 064 71550 (accommodation); www.thegathering.ie. Events are charged, but most music sessions are free.
Lifelong Learning Festival, Co Cork
Family treasure hunts, rowing on the River Lee, free puppet shows and the secrets to painting on silk; these are just some of the events that have made previous years at Cork's Lifelong Learning Festival (March 30-April 5) such a success. The only festival of its kind in Ireland, highlighting the variety of learning opportunities available in Cork City across all age groups, interests and abilities, its motto is, ‘Investigate, Participate, Celebrate'. The results are on show in more than 200 free events across the city.
Details: Tel: 021 492 4596; www. corkcity.ie/learningfestival
Glen of Aherlow, Co Tipperary
A breathtaking valley slicing 16 miles through the Tipperary countryside, the Glen of Aherlow sits between Galtee Mountains and Slievenamuck Ridge. The Galtees are awash with corries and streams, and the forests around the area abound with walkers and cyclists. For families, Helen Morrissey of the local tourist office recommends the woodland trails. “It's a rural area that hasn't lost its rural appeal,” she says. “And the natural resources are married with a nice, warm welcome.”
Details: Tel: 062-56331; www.aherlow.com.
Historic Walls of Derry, Co Derry
Derry's famous icons are the only complete series of city walls in Ireland, and a walk around them is a very literal introduction to the city's history, heritage and vibrant cultural scene. The Walls, built from 1613 to 1618 as defences for English and Scottish settlers, today function as a sort of promenade — a 1.5km circuit of the old town. Afterwards, families can descend on the city for a bite, or maybe even a spot of shopping at the Foyleside Centre or reconstructed Craft Village. Details: Tel: 0044 287 126 7284; www.derryvisitor.com.
Wicklow Film Trails, Co Wicklow
Jane Seymour once called it “the Hollywood of Europe”, and while that may have been a little too generous, Wicklow certainly has the best movie heritage of any Irish county. Versatile scenery was key in attracting productions such as Braveheart, Becoming Jane and The Count of Monte Cristo here, and there's no better time to enjoy the Garden County than spring. Wicklow Film Commission outlines three location- spotting drives (from 42 to 50 miles in length), which can be downloaded in PDF form from its website.
Details: Tel: 0404-20257; www. wicklowfilmcommission.com.
Walk Killarney, Co Kerry
The ‘Paddy's Peaks' Walking Festival takes place, as the name suggests, over St Patrick's weekend, with fully guided walks through the Killarney Valley and Kerry's mountains. Most expeditions cost €20, but if you book early, the Torc Mountain Summit on March 17 is free. A guided jaunt departing at 9am, it kicks off at Torc Waterfall car park and follows a moderate to easy ascent. Children participating should be aged 12-plus. Views from the top stretch from Upper Lake to the Paps, and the organisers promise to have you back in Killarney for the Paddy's Day festivities.
Details: Tel: 1850 566 466; www.killarney.ie. Book at least 24 hours in advance
Blackrock Castle Observatory, Co Cork
Blackrock Castle is much more than a landmark on the Lee. Aiming to get kids excited by science, it houses an awardwinning observatory and a superbly creative programme of events. Cosmos at the Castle, an interactive exhibition highlighting discoveries of extreme life forms on Earth and their implications for life in outer space, is free, as are the First Quarter Moon Viewing sessions. There are also open nights on the first Friday of every month, featuring astro-activities for all ages, including star parties.
Details: Tel: 021 435 7917; www.bco.ie.
Cycling in Connemara, Co Galway
“Our quiet minor roads are perfect for cycling, and with many loops available you won't have to see the same scenery twice,” say the folk at Connemara Tourist Office. “Such a pity, but you can always go back again.” As Ireland's cities choke with congestion, the idea of cycling in this wild National Park certainly seems tempting. Younger families have no shortage of gentle trails; mudlovers can hit the recentlyopened Derroura Mountain Bike Trail, and more routes are planned to loop out of Clifden.
Details: Tel: 095 60900; www.coillteoutdoors.ie.
ev+a family day, Co Limerick
ev+a is Limerick's flagship exhibition of contemporary art, presenting the work of Irish and international artists in a surprising range of venues around the city. Kids are at the forefront of Limerick City Gallery's participation, with family days adapted to fit the exhibitions being mounted. These have ranged from citywide treasure hunts to parent and child creativity sessions. The ev+a event is on March 21. Details: Tel: 061-310633; www. limerickcitygallery.ie. Advance booking is essential.
Delamont Country Park, Co Down
Set on Strangford Lough at Killyleagh, Delamont is a quiet, rural park suitable for all ages. Kids will enjoy a real-life Thomas the Tank Engine skirting the meadow (the longest miniature railway in Ireland); and adults the 10m Strangford Stone (Ireland's tallest megalith). Waymarked walks, boat trips, woodland and outdoor adventure playgrounds complete the mix. ‘Under the tunnel, round the track, you'll love it so much you'll always be back,’ is the chirpy motto.
Details: Tel: 0044 284 482 8333; www.delamontcountrypark.com.
National Gallery Family Programme, Dublin
If you haven't been to the National Gallery in a while, go now. Its family programme runs at 3pm on Saturdays, and there's a ‘New mothers tour’ (for parents and carers of both infants and children) on March 18. Kids' packs contain drawing materials, discovery trails and activity sheets, and there are special audio guides for children, too. Best of all, it's free.
Details: Tel: 01 661 5133; www.nationalgallery.ie.
Coole Park, Co Galway
In celebration of National Tree Week, Lady Gregory's old estate has two events up its sleeve. On March 7, Niall McCoitir is guiding a walk through the grounds, and on March 8, there's storytelling with Niall De Búrca (ages four-plus) followed by nature activities with Dolores Keegan. Dolores plans to co-ordinate some fun nature activities and games with kids. Afterwards, you can enjoy a 1.75km family trail, a deer pen and the Autograph Tree (it features WB Yeats and JM Synge's initials).
Details: Tel: 091-631 804; www.coolepark.ie. Advance booking essential
Proleek Dolmen, Co Louth
If you're looking for something historic to do this spring, the mega(lithic) Proleek Dolmen could just tick the box. A portal tomb situated in the grounds of Ballymascanlon Hotel, this is one of the finest examples of its kind in Ireland. While you're here, try throwing a pebble onto the capstone so that it stays there; legend says success will grant you a wish. Afterwards, take a spin to nearby Carlingford or, if yours are a ghoulish bunch, Oliver Plunkett's head enshrined at St Peter's in Dundalk.
Details: Tel: 042 933 5484.