Every year, 10 million tourists flock here to experience the craic, ceol and warm welcome. But does a visit live up to expectations? From Dublin to Killarney, the Blarney Stone and Glendalough, four writers find out what it’s like to be a tourist in their home towns
Kirsty Blake Knox checks out the nightlife on offer for tourists in the capital
Five minutes in Temple Bar on a Friday night and I have already spotted a man in an oversized leprechaun suit and a hen party from England. The bride-to-be is wearing an utterly fantastic rhinestone-and-pearl-encrusted military-style cap, and salutes as she walks by. Temple Bar is not a destination many locals would head to on a night out — mainly because you have to remortgage your house to get a round in. In fact, the prices seem to be becoming a bit of a deterrent for hen parties. “If it were just a little bit cheaper,” 31-year-old Chelsea Chapman from Birmingham says, “I think more people would come.”
One member of the bridal party has already spent €120 and it’s only 7pm. But Chelsea insists despite the high costs, she loves Temple Bar. “The atmosphere is brilliant, it’s amazing,” she says. “Ask her if she feels the same way in the morning,” her friend jokes.
Another woman, Chloe Greene from Devon, is returning to Ireland for the ‘accent and partying’. “I just love it here,” she says, running down Merchants Arch.
I approach the aforementioned leprechaun standing outside a pub. His name is Freddie and “I am 500 years old”, he proudly states. Freddie is the only on-duty leprechaun today, but he predicts there will be plenty more leprechauns on the ground for St Patrick’s weekend. Gesturing at the costume, he momentarily breaks character and acknowledges that, while “it’s probably a little politically incorrect, it’s what the punters want”.
This evening, I am heading across the quays to the Arlington Hotel where Celtic Nights, aka ‘The Best Irish Show in Dublin’, has been running for 21 seasons. I have walked past this hotel and signs for this show countless times but never really registered it as it is so geared toward tourists. Inside is a banquet-style set-up with large wooden tables, and Jameson and Powers whiskey bottles jammed with melted candles. An usher shows us to our seats and outlines how proceedings will run. You order your three-course meal (mains are lamb stew, beef and Guinness hotpot or bacon and cabbage), and by the time your starter has arrived, the band Shamróg will be on stage performing.
She points to a board on the table with an Irish toast written out phonetically (“Gu neye-ree an bow-her kun boo-la lat og-us gu my on geww i go-nee air du rim”) and advises we drink some whiskey after saying it aloud.
We are the only Irish people here. There is a huge variety of nationalities — Italians, Portuguese, Japanese, Austrian, French, Scottish, Mexican, Brazilian, Californian, Dutch and Norwegian. Two women from New Jersey are at our table. They flew into Dublin that morning for a three-day whistle-stop trip. So far, they have visited Dublin Castle, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church, Dublinia, the Guinness brewery, Temple Bar and now the show. “I don’t think we’ve slept in 32 hours,” 26-year-old Britney Yarosz says smiling. For Britney and her travel companion, Kara Carson, the country is living up to their expectations — although they weren’t anticipating Dublin city to be quite so built-up and busy. The next day, they are travelling to the Cliffs of Moher.
You do feel a pang of guilt when you hear all the things a tourist manages to fit into one weekend. But Kara says this works both ways. “We live in Jersey and hardly ever go into Manhattan,” she shrugs.
The lights go down and the show kicks off just as our food arrives. I wonder why more concerts don’t offer a dine-in option. Eating mashed potato and gravy while listening to live music is a winning combination. Shamróg perform favourites like Whiskey in the Jar, Mary Mack, and Finnegan’s Wake and in between tell the audience about themselves or shared factoids about the instruments they are playing. We learn the main difference between the Scottish bagpipes and the uilleann pipes. “You can drink when playing the uilleann pipes and you don’t have to wear a skirt.” They are incredibly talented musicians and it’s impossible not to start singing along and shouting out random lyrics.
In between the music, four Irish dancers come up on stage and perform slip jigs, broom dances and reels. At one point, they ask for volunteers in the audience. My plus-one, my father, starts waving his hands and pointing at various strangers sitting at our table, claiming they would love to take part. And so, poor Britney is pulled up and made to dance in front of everyone. The lead guitarist of Shamróg has also requested a bride from Glasgow called Erin to take part. It’s only when she is on stage, he realises she is heavily pregnant and probably doesn’t want to be jumping up and down. But both Erin and Britney are good sports and throw themselves into the festivities to much applause.
The professional dancers are world champions. One of them, Brian Shinners, spent 12 years touring the world with Riverdance, so the performances are outstanding. Of course, there are some moments where you become acutely aware of being the only Irish audience members — like when the band starts playing Galway Girl and an English woman at the table next to us exclaims “Oh! This is that Ed Sheeran song!” But overall, it’s an incredibly enjoyable night and a well-oiled machine; the food comes out quickly, bills are settled before the final number, the dances and songs hit all the marks, and you’re sent on your merry way.
Everyone at our table appeared to have a ball. “It was the best thing we have seen so far,” Kara says. “Especially the broom dance.”
Living in a city or near a popular tourist destination, you can get quite blinkered. It’s easy to dismiss attractions as ‘fiddle-de-dee’ the minute you see someone in the queue wearing a tricolour feather boa or a Kelly-green top hat. As a result, you can end up denying yourself a really good time. Also, touristy attractions are inevitably based around culturally significant places. Sure, you’ll see ‘L’ plates and willy straws in Temple Bar, but it’s also home to great bookshops, theatres, galleries and museums.
Overlooking tourist experiences isn’t unique to Ireland. After the pandemic, The New York Times reported that low numbers of overseas visitors meant more Manhattanites were visiting tourist hotspots than ever before. “Catastrophe aside, what an opportunity! To have the whole of the American Museum of Natural History almost entirely to yourself!” the article said. The author acknowledged that while the space was nice, the madness the tourists brought was “what makes New York New York”.
These sites, shows and attractions are popular for good reasons. And, on occasion, it’s good to dip in and see what the fuss is all about. You might just be pleasantly surprised.
Alex Meehan hops on a tour bus to Glendalough
It’s just after 8am on a cloudy Friday morning and I’m standing beside the Molly Malone statue on Suffolk Street in Dublin waiting to be picked up by a tour bus. It’s a chilly day, and as I warm my hands with my take-away coffee, I look around to see who else is here to be picked up. There’s a small group of older women gathered together, some younger people who could be students, and a handful of couples. Basically though, it’s not hard to tell my fellow travellers from the stressed-looking commuters power-walking past with their heads down and earphones in.
I’m here to spend a day finding out what it’s like to be a tourist in my own town. When people visit Ireland, what is their experience like? Do they think it offers good value? Could we do anything to improve it? To find out, I join a commercial tour, and it becomes pretty obvious that this tour isn’t aimed at me — or any Irish person — when the bus heaves into view. It’s painted shamrock green, has grinning leprechauns on the front and the word ‘Paddywagon’ is emblazoned along the side in red and gold. It’s cheesy, but Paddywagon is a strong brand in the touring business, and the punters love it.
That’s what my tour guide for the day, Alex Griffith, tells me when I talk to him. He’s been a driver and a tour guide for Paddywagon for nearly eight years and is as passionate an advocate for Ireland as a tourist destination as you’ll find. “I’ve heard people say out loud, ‘I don’t understand why anyone comes here on holidays’, but that’s because they’re not taking the time to actually look at what’s here. We have these incredible destinations that are genuinely worth travelling for, but often those of us who actually live here don’t bother,” he says. “And you don’t really need good weather to get a lot out of them. A lot of our truly stunning attractions — the Cliffs of Moher, The Giant’s Causeway — are just as good in February and March as they are in July and August, but it’s cheaper to get here and there are smaller crowds than in the height of summer,” he says.
“In fact, sometimes bad weather gives these places a sense of drama that tourists love. Sure, you might need to put a jacket on, but that’s not a big deal. In summer, when lots of Irish people book holidays abroad to get to the sun, you also have to remember that lots of people from hot countries like Italy and Spain are heading here to escape the heat.”
Our destination today is Glendalough, a firm tourist favourite, but somewhere I’m ashamed to say I haven’t visited in many years, despite living barely 20 minutes from the site in Wicklow. It’s a bit of a drive from the city, but as the tour gets underway, Alex is in his element, talking up the location and giving a 20-minute potted version of Irish history. As the bus makes its way out of the city and into the Wicklow countryside, he starts listing off all the movies that have been shot in the area. He talks about John Boorman’s Excalibur, Cecelia Ahern’s PS I Love You, The Tudors, Vikings and, of course, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
When we get to Glendalough, Alex walks us into the monastic city and orientates us, tells people where to get the best ‘Instagram moment’ — on the edge of the larger of the two lakes apparently — and we have around two hours until the tour heads back to Dublin. It’s a stunning place — if you haven’t been, it’s well worth a visit to the round tower, the lakes and just to soak up the drama of the steep, wooded valley leading down to the ancient monastery.
Mother and daughter team Frederica and Nila Goettsch are from the Netherlands and decided to take a five-day break together to see Dublin and enjoy the local culture. To my surprise, they say they haven’t found Ireland to be particularly expensive to visit, not compared to other places they’ve been. “Dublin is a really nice city, it’s very calm, there’s lots to see and there are good shops to visit. It’s small enough to be able to walk around and, no, we haven’t found it particularly expensive,” says Frederica, a 17-year-old student. “The people are nice and we’ve been on a couple of tours. We also visited Trinity College, and now I’m thinking maybe of trying to come here to study history.”
Australian Richard Goldberger is running on fumes when we talk at the foot of St Kevin’s Cross. He arrived off a flight from the US this morning and is only in Ireland for four days. “This is my first time here and I’ve only been here a few hours but, so far, I really like what I’ve seen. Glendalough is a very dramatic place and is exactly what I am looking for — I wanted to get out of the city and be in nature for at least some time,” he says. “So far, the people have been really friendly, and I’ve got good vibes from what I’ve seen. I’m meeting a friend and we’re going to Athlone tonight, driving to Armagh tomorrow to watch a Gaelic football game, going to Belfast on Sunday, and then back to Dublin to fly home on Monday.”
UK couple Jimmy Ward and Emma Hartley are from Leeds and have come to Ireland for the weekend. “We got a cheap flight and Dublin seemed like somewhere cool we’ve never visited. We’re looking to do the obvious things — we want to drink Guinness in a classic pub and try to find some traditional music in a pub,” says Ward. “But at the same time, we’d like to try to find some authenticity as well.” This prompts a spirited conversation as Alex, photographer Mark Condren and I all start debating where to find the best pint of Guinness in Dublin and where to find a real music session. It’s decided that you can’t go wrong with The Gravediggers in Glasnevin for a pint and The Cobblestone in Smithfield for a session.
“When people come to Dublin, they seek out the classic tourist stuff, and that’s okay, but when you live here, you know that ‘the real thing’ isn’t usually found in those places. Tours like this are about trying to get a bit under the surface, particularly when you don’t have much time,” says Alex.
Soon, it’s time to get back on the bus and head back to the city. Alex once again keeps us entertained for the trip, teaching the obligatory cúpla focail to the bus passengers and doing his best to make sure everyone leaves with a positive experience.
It’s been an interesting few hours, and the lesson I take from it is how easy it is to overlook the treasure on your own doorstep. There’s a lot to do in Ireland, and sometimes you don’t have to travel to have an excellent experience.
Édaein O’Connell takes a jaunt through Killarney and is blown away by its beauty on a gloomy day
By the time I reach Killarney town centre and see the horse throw her head in the air, I can’t feel my hands. The breeze is biting, and when the rain comes down, its coldness is pinching. By all accounts, it’s not the best day to be out and about on an excursion in Killarney. As I approach my mode of transport, jarvey Michael Sweetman apologises for the weather. “No harm,” I tell him. “Sure, this is Ireland in its truest form.” He immediately laughs, a warm and true sound, before introducing his horse, April, who will help transport me around Killarney National Park.
The jaunting cars are one of the centrepieces of the popular tourist town. No matter the weather, you will spot them journeying along the roads. Yet, I couldn’t remember if they were covered or not, which is why I brought along an umbrella the size of a small child. Thankfully, the jarveys are always one step ahead. The cars are totally shielded from the elements, and there are blankets fresh from the Kerry Woollen Mills to warm the body. Michael comes from a long line of jarveys. Born and bred in Killarney, it’s in the blood. “My grandfather was in the business and so were my uncles,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for myself for over 20 years. I love it. Jaunting cars are a part of the town’s history.”
Michael is passionate, open and, most of all, knowledgeable. He tells me things I never knew about the town and about my own county. From the exact height of the cathedral spire to the heroics of Monsignor Hugh O’ Flaherty, he delivers historical facts as easily as a mother recites nursery rhymes. Then, in the same breath, he speaks of the flora and fauna that grow and inhabit the land that surrounds the great lakes. He’s quick-witted too, but what else would you expect from a cute Kerry man? “If you go to Killarney and don’t go on the jaunting cars, it’s like going to Rome and not seeing the Pope,” he declares.
Business is going steady for Michael and the other jarveys in the town. No matter the season or weather, people are always willing and ready to go for a jaunt. “We had the first CIE tour of the season this morning,” he says. “After St Patrick’s Day, the season really starts. It’s always great to see the tourists back. The Irish are great, too. We get a lot of business from all the events and concerts that go on in the Gleneagle Hotel. The All-Ireland Irish Dancing Championships were here in February, and all the families wanted to go out on trips with us. It’s a nice way to relax and see the town and the National Park. But Killarney as a whole is great — it helps us. It’s a beast when it comes to tourism.”
In comparison to other towns in the Kingdom, Killarney is a different world. Main Street is forever bustling. Stags and hen parties frequent the bars every weekend. Outdoor enthusiasts have mountains and trails galore. And an American accent can always be heard praising the glory of Guinness. Tourism comes easily to the town. It’s like breathing. No matter how many times I visit, I am blown away by the beauty. Even on a gloomy day, Killarney shines.
The most popular jaunting car tour brings you from the town centre out to Ross Castle, the last place in Munster to hold out against Oliver Cromwell. Michael relays all this to me as we travel along the winding trails. I get sweeping views of the lakes and uninhabited islands, and even sneak a peek at the many deers whom Michael says “know the park deeply from top to bottom”. All the while, April is a calm and cool traveller. Only four years old, she already knows exactly where to turn and where to go. The love is clear between the pair. “She’s a great girl,” Michael says. “I bred her myself. These types of horses for jaunting are hard to find now. She takes no notice of people or the cars. The only thing that gets her are umbrellas.”
While most Irish visitors loathe the rain, Americans adore it. The precipitation obviously adds to the country’s magnetism. As one of the most dominant tourist groupings to come to the town, Michael and the other jarveys know exactly how to turn on the Irish charm. At one point on the tour, we pass an old lime kiln, a small stone structure used to make quicklime powder by breaking down limestone rock with heat. “I tell the Americans it’s a leprechaun’s house,” he says. “They lap it up. They get out with their phones and take pictures of it. Some of them even wave in at it. It’s brilliant. I have great fun with them. The groups are fantastic, but I love seeing the couples and the families, too. Then you can have a really good chat and share stories. It’s more intimate.”
In my opinion, the jaunting cars of Killarney highlight the very best parts of Irish tourism. As a local, you often look to such offerings as a gimmick created specifically for outsiders, but in actuality, they are for all of us. Because what do Irish people love most? Laughter and entertainment and taking pride in our history and culture. The thought that this is being provided to people from all over the world is a sweet one. Our rugged landscapes and dazzling coastlines will draw a person in, but to sustain them, we need people like Michael. Their dedication and desire to continue day in and day out helps to keep Ireland’s tourism industry alive and kicking. We should appreciate them more.
Before long, we are back in the town centre. By this stage, the rain is cascading down. People are taking shelter in shop doors. It’s time for me to leave for home and bid farewell to Michael and April. There’s a long season ahead for them with laughter to be had, history to be imparted and leprechaun lies to be told to Americans. They will get by just fine.
We wave goodbye. “Make sure now to go across to Lir Cafe for a cup of tea, warm up those bones,” Michael tells me.
Funny, I’d forgotten all about the cold.
JJ O’Donoghue plays along with a local legend and soaks up the stunning surrounds in Cork
Quite possibly the best spot in the world to conduct an interview on unsuspecting tourists is high up on the ramparts of the 600-year-old Blarney Castle. For up there lies the famous Blarney Stone, which bestows the gift of eloquence on all those who bend out backwards over the castle to plant their lips on the cold, limestone slab that’s been kissed so often its surface is as smooth as butter.
“I don’t know about eloquence, but I certainly felt joy,” New Yorker Emily Beets tells me, fresh from kissing the stone. Emily is here with her sister, Kelsey, and both of them are on the final day of their Ireland adventure, in which they took in Dublin, “all of Co Clare”, Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, Killarney and Cork. It’s the sisters’ first time in Ireland. The pair are well-travelled, having been to Asia and Europe on previous trips, but Ireland had long been on their bucket list of countries to visit. “Everyone here has been so kind and welcoming,” Kelsey says. “It’s definitely been one of my favourite places so far.”
With international travel well and truly back, the sisters decided to visit Ireland in the off-season and beat the crowds. Blarney Castle is not too crowded when I visit in early March — but wait times can run to 90 minutes during the summer, when the bulk of the castle’s 450,000 annual visitors descend on the small town to climb the narrow, winding steps to the top of the castle where the stone awaits.
Eavesdropping on conversations, it’s clear that most of the visitors have come from across the Atlantic. Right after Emily kisses the Blarney Stone — and it’s been disinfected — it’s my turn. I’m not sure what I felt having kissed the stone, other than I had played along with a legend that has as many origin stories as there are days of the week.
However, there’s more to Blarney Castle than kissing the stone, which is a good thing, given that it’s a fleeting experience and, well, it’s a load of… Blarney.
Away from the castle, but still in the beautiful tree-studded grounds which run to 75 acres, Sean from South Carolina is having a lesson in codology in the Rock Garden. He’s walking backwards down a flight of stone-carved stairs with his eyes shut while his wife, Tonya, looks on. I guide him verbally on his last two steps. “Thanks,” he shouts over the sound of water pouring out of a moss-covered boulder, and takes off up the stairs, keeping his eyes firmly shut. Sean has just completed the ‘Wishing Steps’. Legend has it that the Blarney Witch has taken so much firewood from the estate that, in return, she must grant wishes to those who complete the Wishing Steps. “What did you wish for?” I ask Sean, who’s wearing a Guinness beanie. Smiling, he rubs his thumb and forefinger together, making the universal sign for money.
Sean and Tonya’s party of four have been in Ireland for two weeks and have been tearing around the country, enjoying every minute of it, they tell me. As with the Beets sisters, the couple had long wanted to visit Ireland. Like millions of Americans, there is an Irish connection through Sean’s side. At no point in our good-humoured conversation does Sean utter that famous phrase we love to hate — “I’m Irish too” — but he does tell me his mother’s maiden name is McCaleese, “a slightly different spelling to the president,” he points out.
The previous day, the party of four completed the Ring of Kerry, which Sean admits was pretty nerve-racking. “I told them, ‘This is like driving a golf cart on cart paths,’” he says. He didn’t see much of the ring, but his companions loved it.
Like many of the American tourists I talk to in Blarney, the green and rugged landscape of Ireland is a huge draw. Likewise, the food, the music, and the reception are a big pull. It also helps, as many of the visitors point out, that from the East Coast of the US, Ireland is only a five-hour flight away.
At a dogwood tree, Leah Davis from Seattle has her phone out ready to take some pictures. Leah’s in a party of six on a two-week tour of the country and has left the group to wander the grounds and get some “me time” before they head on up to Galway via the Wild Atlantic Way. Family history was a major reason for the trip.
“We thought we were English for many years,” she says, explaining that her family had traced their origins back to Cornwall. “My whole family got their DNA tests done, and no, we have very little English and are very much Irish. It was a good shock,” says Leah, and also a good excuse to make a trip to Ireland.
Everyone who goes on holidays does so with some expectations, and that image of Ireland, of being able to drop into a pub and hear trad music or strike up a conversation definitely looms large. And, by and large, it holds true.
In Cobh, Leah and her group of six dropped into the Anchor Bar. “It was so small, and it was very clear we were tourists,” she says, but nonetheless, they were made to feel right at home. “Everyone’s been so nice, especially with giving us recommendations.”
I try to pick holes, find areas that didn’t live up to their expectations. American visitors agree it’s expensive here, but they were prepared for that, and the States isn’t cheap either. Even the food scores highly, with Sean saying he’s here for the Irish breakfasts. Kelsey says she is ready for more salads and vegetables but, in the next breath, tells me she’s been (happily) living on Hunky Dorys crisps.
As I’m leaving Blarney Castle, a small group of excited Americans have just passed in through the turnstiles. The castle firmly in sight, one of them pauses, announcing to the group: “Can you believe we’re finally all here, together, in Ireland?” If you could bottle her happiness in that moment, you’d be on to a winner.