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20 Best: Spring days out


On yer bike at Strangford Lough

On yer bike at Strangford Lough

So Sligo Festival, Sligo

So Sligo Festival, Sligo

Chow down at the
Waterford Festival
of Food

Chow down at the Waterford Festival of Food

Experience spring
at the Vandeleur
Walled Gardens,
Co Clare

Experience spring at the Vandeleur Walled Gardens, Co Clare

Blaze a trail at
Tomnafinnoge Woods,
Co Wicklow

Blaze a trail at Tomnafinnoge Woods, Co Wicklow

Read on at One City,
One Book, Dublin

Read on at One City, One Book, Dublin


On yer bike at Strangford Lough

1: Só Sligo Festival, Sligo While the rest of the country dons tricolour wigs and dyes their pints green, Sligo is spending St Patrick’s Day celebrating all things gastro.

This is the festival’s second year, with food trails, cookery demos, street entertainment, farmers’ markets and foraging (for edible seaweed, among other delectables) set to turn the county into one big party. The Irish Stew World Championships is the signature event, but this year there’s a competition to find a new national dish, too.

Ready, steady, cook...

Details: March 17-20. Tel: 087 667 2170; sosligo.com.

2: On yer bike at Strangford Lough, Co Down

It hasn’t been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for nothing. Strangford Lough, spotted with islands and teeming with birds, wildflowers and marine life (occasional glimpses have even been caught of basking sharks), is a sensational sea lough, and perfect for a spot of cycling too.

Starting at Comber, a waymarked 132km (82 miles) cycle route ranges from the Ards peninsula, from where you can see Scotland on a good day, before crossing by ferry to Strangford village, the National Trust’s Castle Ward estate, the heritage town of Downpatrick and Killynether Wood.

Details: Tel: 0044 289 182 6846; discovernorthernireland.com.

3: Listen up at The Gathering, Killarney

The Gathering Traditional Music Festival does what it says on the tin, bringing together a host of concerts, céilithe, classes and workshops together under one roof at Killarney’s Gleneagle Hotel.

Top of the bill are concerts starring the likes of De Danann, Shaskeen and Paddy, Seamus and Kevin Glackin, but there are loads of free music sessions, too. Separate set dancing workshops are aimed at kids, beginners and the fleet-offoot, and there’s a singer’s masterclass where you can learn to sing a traditional song.

Where can you find a knees-up? That’ll be the céilí sessions, running from Wednesday.

Details: March 2-6. Workshops cost from €10. Tel: 064 667 1550; thegathering.ie.

4: Down and dirty on the Run-a-Muck Challenge, Co Kildare

Looking for a day out with a difference? How about joining some 1,000 lunatics for a country run cluttered with bale jumps, net scrambles, Tarzan swings, tyre tunnels, ladder bridges, wet ditches and slurping streams?

The latest Run-a-Muck challenge will cover you in dirt - and probably a few bruises to boot - but it will put a big fat smile on your face too. Taking place on farmland around Clonkeeran House, it’s open to all classes of runners, with beginners doing one lap of the 5km course, and ‘Serious Muckers’ doing two.

A basic washdown hose is available afterwards (“don’t expect frills,” the organisers warn) before a prize-giving bash at the Hamlet Hotel in Johnstown Bridge.

Details: March 5; €35 per entry. See runamuckchallenge.com.

5: Get prospecting at the National Leprechaun Hunt, Carlingford

Thought all that paddywhackery about pots of gold was a thing of the past? Think again. Carlingford’s annual leprechaun hunt dates from 1989, when local businessman PJ O’Hare ‘found’ gold coins and souvenir-sized bones alongside a tiny set of clothes on Slieve Foy.

Today, the townsfolk hide a stash of ceramic leprechauns on the mountainside every March, and a crowd of prospectors are let loose to find them. Proceeds go to the little people at Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin.

Details: March 27; €5. Tel: 042 937 3033; carlingfordleprechaun.ie,

6: Go to gaol in Nenagh, Co Tipperary

Nenagh’s 19th-century gaol gatehouse is a gloomy and forbidding affair, housing several cells where condemned prisoners were kept before being hanged outside. But the former garrison prison has its bright side too. Visitors to the gaol governor’s oddly octagonal house can trace their North Tipperary roots at a genealogy centre and browse recreations of old-world pubs, grocery shops and schoolrooms at the heritage centre.

Afterwards, escape to Mary and Peter Ward’s Country Choice café. Last time I dropped by, I met the maker of Bay Lough farmhouse Cheddar.

Details: Free. Tel: 067 33850; see tipperarynorth.ie/heritagemuseum.

7: Phil Lynott and the pharaoh in Dublin

Two of the biggest exhibitions in Dublin this spring feature a rock legend and a 19-year-old king who died more than 3,000 years ago. The Phil Lynott exhibition (€12/€10), including lyrics, letters, tour jackets, photos and even school reports from the Thin Lizzy star, marks the 25th anniversary of his death.

‘Tutankhamen: His Tomb and His Treasures’ (€16) is already up and running at the RDS, with a reconstructed tomb allowing visitors to experience the moment archaeologist Howard Carter first entered the burial chamber of Egypt’s most famous pharaoh.

Details: philiplynottexhibition. com (runs from March 4); kingtutdublin.ie.

8: Spark of life at Leitrim Sculpture Centre

The blacksmith is back. Forges fell from favour as Ireland modernised through the 20th century, but the deep tradition of Irish blacksmithing is sparking to life again thanks to the work of contemporary artists and craftspeople.

You can see the results for yourself at the first-ever collaborative exhibition from the Irish Artist Blacksmiths Association in Manorhamilton next weekend. A new wave of blacksmiths from all over the country, including Jane Murtagh, Michael Calnan and Gunvor Anhoj, are showing their forge work as part of the ongoing Year of Craft celebrations.

Details: March 4-6. Tel: 071 985 5098; craftinireland.com.

9: Go green at the St Patrick’s Festival, Dublin

We’re in a pretty dark place as a nation, so the chance to wig out and celebrate our Irishness at Dublin’s St Patrick’s Festival can’t come soon enough.

The parade (March 17, noon) and Skyfest (March 19, 6.30pm) are the anchor events, but there’s plenty else going on too — city businesses will be turning their lights green, funfairs are popping up at Merrion Square, Wolfe Tone Park and Custom House Quay, and daily walking tours will highlight the city’s links with St Patrick (€10/€8).

It won’t drive our economic snakes away, but it might just lift the nation’s spirits.

Details: March 16-20. See stpatricksfestival.ie.

10: Nature’s Detectives at Glenveagh National Park, Co Donegal

Sprawling over 16,000 acres in the Derryveagh Mountains, the grand wilderness of Glenveagh National Park is a national treasure. From the heather-roofed visitor centre to the 19th-century Glenveagh Castle and wildlife ranging from golden eagles to furtive newts and tiny tadpoles, it’s a fab day out in Donegal. Springtime events include a family fun day during National Tree Week (March 6) and a series of Nature Detective Days lined up for April, where a guided walk and picnic ends up with Sylvan sleuths making a book based on their findings.

Details: €5. Tel: 074 913 7090; glenveaghnationalpark.ie.

11: Daffodils, dresses and Donizetti in Carlow

There’s no shortage of days out in Carlow this spring. On March 12, The Opera Theatre Company presents Donizetti Pasquale at the virtuoso VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art (€20/€18). On April 16, Sorcha Kenny performs ‘My Life in Dresses’ (€15/€12), a show about her journey to uncover the stories behind dresses lingering in wardrobes all over the country.

You can join Sorcha for tea and a chat about your own wardrobe afterwards. Meanwhile, some 10,000 flowers are shaping up to enliven Carlow’s Delta Sensory Gardens during Daffodil Week (March 28-April 3; €5).

Details: Tel: 059 917 2400; visu alcarlow.ie; carlowtourism.com.

12: Kick off at the Kinsale Sevens

One weekend, 200 games of sevens rugby, 60 teams of men, women and creaky old veterans from all over Ireland and Europe. The Kinsale Sevens is quite a party (in 1993, even celebrity chef Keith Floyd convened a team including Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy).

How does it work? Teams play several matches of seven minutes per half, and tackle the bar and food marquee after the fulltime whistle.

Kinsale itself needs little introduction — heritage trails, a Museum of Wine, star-shaped forts, sizzling seafood and a yachtspeckled harbour make for plenty of moseying between the matches.

Details: April 30-May 1; €25 for a weekend ticket. See kinsalesevens.com.

13: Blaze a trail at Tomnafinnoge Woods, Co Wicklow

A good family forest is a real keeper. You know — something with buggy-friendly paths, trees to monkey about in, secret picnic spots and scrambling slopes. Tomnafinnoge Woods is just the ticket. It’s one of the largeststanding oak forests in the country, is carpeted in bluebells come springtime and contains three trails suitable for all ages.

The Tinahely Railway Trail, a 2.3km stroll along Ballycreen Brook, links up with Tomnafinnoge too. Afterwards, grab a cuppa in the nearby village of Shillelagh — it’s where blackthorn was first fashioned into the eponymous fighting sticks of Irish folklore.

Details: Tinahely, Co Wicklow. See discoverireland.ie/walking.

14: Experience spring at the Vandeleur Walled Gardens, Co Clare

The Vandeleur residence was razed by a fire in 1897, but the wonderfully restored walled gardens remain squirreled away in 420 acres of woodland outside Kilrush.

Pull up alongside the stone walls and you pass through a small museum and cafe (if you can resist the scones, that is) to arrive at the ornamental bedding displays, Victorian-style glasshouse and a small but surprisingly testy maze.

Daffodils are in full bloom at this time of year, smaller kids will get a kick out of the sand pit, hopscotch and Xs and Os, and you can check the website for details of an open day in April.

Details: €5/€2. Tel: 065 905 1760; vandeleurwalledgarden.com.

15: Horse around at the Limerick Races

Can’t wait for the Grand National in April? You don’t have to. The whole family can gallop down to Limerick in just a fortnight’s time for the March races. Six races are scheduled for the Saturday, seven for the Sunday, and admission for kids under 16 is free. Throw in face-painting, bouncy castles, balloon making, clowns, colouring competitions and special children’s menus at the on-course Supermac’s (no, seriously) and the going looks good for a family day out.

Details: March 12-13; €15/€10 per day. Tel: 061 320000; limerickraces.ie.

16: Shell out at the Dublin Bay Prawn Festival

An entire weekend dedicated to the humble prawn? And why not? Ireland’s freshest food festival hits Howth on the first Saturday and Sunday in April, with a line-up of cook-offs, shelling competitions, parades and pub crawls in honour of the great Celtic crustacean.

When you’ve had your fill of fish, other activities such as guided walks, cliff rescue demonstrations, street theatre and fireworks will keep you busy. Even if you’re not big on the shrimp, Howth’s cliff walks, buzzy West Pier and quirky attractions, such as the Hurdy Gurdy Radio Museum, make for a daytrip to savour.

Details: April 1-3; free to €10. Tel: 01 839 6955; fingaldublin.ie.

17: The Burren in bloom in Co Clare

Everyone knows the Burren does barren. But did you know it does spectacular explosions of wild flowers too? Hundreds of species, blown into these parts from all corners of the world, burst into bloom in April and May, ushering in the end of spring and a month-long celebration of the general awesomeness of this national park (the orchids are to die for).

You can take your own walks among the limestone grykes, follow a guide or attend illustrated talks at The Burren College of Art. The annual Burren Marathon takes place over the third weekend of May.

Details: burreninbloom.com

18: Music and mottes at Granard, Co Longford

Climb to the top of the old Norman motte outside Granard, Co Longford, and locals say you can see nine counties and five lakes on a good day. You’ ll also find a strange statue of St Patrick, who is said to have visited Granard, with steel wires where his hands should be. St Patrick wasn’t the only celeb linked with the Longford town — O’Carolan, the famous harpist, composed several tunes while staying as a guest in the 1720s. His influence lives on in a harp festival held every April, with senior and junior workshops and harp competitions helping to keep this most Irish of instruments alive.

Details: April 29–30. Tel: 043 668 6643; longfordtourism.ie.

19: Chow down at the Waterford Festival of Food

Irish cuisine is one good thing to emerge from our over-egged economy. ‘Le Guide du Routard’ dubs it “as good, if not better, than anywhere else in the world”. This Dungarvan-based festival is a celebration of that, with ticketed events including cookery demos by Ross Lewis, Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale, and local hero Paul Flynn of the Tannery.

‘Crude Food’ trails in Colligan Wood and the ‘Seaweed Seminar’ on Clonea Strand are both making a return, and free events include a mobile farm at King John’s Castle, a BYO picnic in the park and the chance to explore a real beehive, examine a beekeeper’s suit and taste honey at the Waterford County Museum.

Details: April 15-17. See water fordfestivaloffood.com.

20: Read on at One City, One Book, Dublin

Dublin recently became thefourth UNESCO City of Literature, opening yet another chapter in its blockbuster literary history. The recognition gives extra resonance to this year’s One City, One Book, a month long festival celebrating a specially selected book. Dubliners are being encouraged to read ‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor, with a wide range of exhibitions, walks, talks, art shows and readings. They can also invite the author to give a reading in their home, workplace, school, book club, back yard — any venue imaginable. If you’re interested, apply before March 31.

Details: April. See dublinonecity onebook.ie.