Narrow roads winding past whitewashed farmhouses, small fields and tumbling stone walls are still very much a part of the Irish countryside. So are the sleepy villages, hedgerows, and pubs yet this is a modern Ireland that has seen an extraordinary economic transformation over the last decade. High-tech has come to Ireland, which is now a world leader of software exports. Young people are no longer leaving the country in droves to seek employment elsewhere. Today, the confidence in the continued success of the economy is reflected in the lively bustle of Irish towns.
The "Emerald Isle" displays an incredibly varied landscape ranging from coastlines of rugged granite mountains and sandstone cliffs to plateaus of limestone and basalt. Central Ireland is dominated by lush rolling hills, lakes, glacial valleys, and peat bogs. The bogs often present dramatic landscapes of strangely shaped trees standing amid multi-toned patterns of brown and purple. Although Ireland's sparse woodlands cover just 6% of the land, primeval forests of ancient oak, and the great Scots Pine, can still be found. Most forests, however, are recent and consist mainly of Sitka spruce.
You'll have to visit the pubs if you truly wish to understand the Irish because this national pastime is the common thread in the social fabric. When a local enters a pub, a nod of the head to the barman is all that is required to order a drink, and a finger in the air means a pint of Guinness. The pub is where folks meet to share stories, laughs, news, and gossip. A place where no two nights are the same because the chances of something unexpected happening is ever present. In general, the pub is a social affair providing release from the pressures of work. Traditional music is often playing in the background over the lilting accent of Irish voices and clinking glasses. In the countryside, the flavour of pubs is still very much traditional but in larger urban centres, themed pubs and lifestyle bars are now competing for the patronage of punters. No matter the establishment, visitors will immediately recognize that the pub culture in Ireland is very much a part of the Irish experience.
Ireland is not all about pubs mind you. Golf is huge and with no less than 400 golf courses spread throughout the country, Ireland is building a reputation as the European golf Mecca. Ireland's diverse landscape provides ideal terrain for hill walking, which happens to be among the most popular of outdoor activities in Ireland. From the well established routes of the Waymarked Way to the Wicklow Way, guided walks, special interest tours, and scenic paths are just some of the options open to walkers, novice and experienced alike. For the fishing and angling enthusiasts, Ireland offers a vast network of canals, lakes, and rivers in addition to the surrounding sea. There is always a game on somewhere should you care to take in a spectator sport such as rugby, soccer and hurling (the oldest of all the Irish sports). In addition to the mainstream sports, look for the unique Irish 'Poc Fada' competition in which players hit a Hurley ball as far as possible from the side of a mountain in a game inspired by anancient Celtic story.
Although the two states of Ireland have been shaped by the forces of history, there is much in common in their culture and identity. To discover the character of Ireland, perhaps one is best advised to look to regional distinctions for a comprehensive representation of the country. The visitor crossing from Ulster into Leinster, for instance, may well be struck by the similarities as much as by the peculiarities between the two regions.
The Province of Munster, in the southwestern corner of the island, contains Ireland's oldest kingdoms. It proposes a variety of experiences and dramatic changes in landscape. Approaching from the east, through the magnificent Comeragh Mountains of County Waterford, is an exhilarating way to enter the province. The city of Cork is a must for any traveller wishing to flavour the culture of the Irish South. The city centre remains remarkably relaxed despite the hectic pace of the 'Celtic Tiger' epitomised in the computer and pharmacological plants that lace the port areas to the south. North of the city, lush rolling fields of grazing cattle and crops, characterise a countryside, which for centuries provided the centre of Irish wealth. West and southwest of Cork City, an entirely different landscape emerges. The rugged valley of the Lee leads westwards through Macroom where the wilderness of West Cork first appears. Moving further west along an ever-more enchanting and dramatic coastline leads to breathtaking ocean inlets. This entire southern coast is a favoured area for sailing enthusiasts from Britain and France, and accordingly has some of the finest eating establishments to be found anywhere in Ireland.
Some of Ireland's most breathtaking scenery is found along the five peninsulas that jut into the Atlantic from the southwest corner of the island. The townships throughout this area are rich in archaeological sites. Despite the wild ruggedness of the southwestern peninsulas that form the coast of West Cork and Kerry, they are surprisingly accessible. Larger towns, such as Kenmare and the ever-lively Killarney, form perfect bases from which to explore this countryside. Numerous winding roads lead to quiet bays or into the rarely visited countryside.
Leaving the southwest, the route north to the Shannon estuary and Limerick is dotted with pleasant towns. The city of Limerick, with its 13th century castle fortress and old town, is a great historical stopover. It is also a town of great sporting fame, which is touted to be the true centre of rugby in Ireland.
Leinster stretches from the border of Northern Ireland to the southeast corner of the island, and inland to the great River Shannon. The image of Leinster as "developed" with modern towns, highly cultivated countryside and a well-settled coastline, does little justice to the region. In fact, there are extensive areas of wilderness to explore.
A definite highlight of a visit to Ireland is without doubt the fascinating Boyne Valley. The most famous of site is Newgrange, Europe's greatest and most striking Neolithic monument. Its inner chamber, fully illuminated by the rays of the rising sun on the two days either side of the winter solstice (21st December), reveals mystical spirals and other decorated images. Over five thousand years old, the monument retains a profound spiritual sense.
To the north is the peninsula of Cooley where graceful mountains sweep down to the Irish Sea, offering great walking opportunities along the ancient route of the mythological battles of the pre-Celtic lords of Ireland (the CA^oechulainn Way). The feeling of antiquity has a physical presence in the numerous Stone and Bronze Age remains scattered through the countryside.
South of Dublin is the luxurious countryside of Wicklow, with popular beaches along the coast, green valleys and small villages nestled in rolling inland hills. The area presents endless opportunities for rambling and relaxing. Rich valley landscapes are found in the Counties of Wexford, Carlow, and Kilkenny. The area is given a common character by its extensive Norman heritage. This is reflected in the neat stone villages and the numerous castle ruins of Celt and Norman origin. Some of Ireland's most beautiful beaches grace the southeastern coast while inland is a wealth of gorgeous villages and towns scattered among cultivated rolling countryside. The attractive town of Kilkenny invites you to explore its significant heritage and modern restaurants, bars and galleries. Soaking up the lively atmosphere of the Kilkenny region should always include a sampling of local enthusiasm for the great Irish sports of hurling and cross-country horseracing.
Travelling the Shannon River by boat is a magical experience, given the utter stillness and beauty of moving slowly across the great Lough Derg. North of County Tipperary is the countryside of Offaly, Laois and upwards into Westmeath, where many attractions can be discovered along winding rivers and canal ways or through the beautiful mountainous region of the Slieve Bloom Way. The grandeur of Leinster is formed by picturesque river valleys, astounding historical sites, attractive coastlines, and its many and varied towns and villages.
The west coast of Ireland unveils the classic image of the country, epitomised in the wild landscapes of Connemara, the miles and miles of dry-stone walls, the fierce Atlantic Ocean and the startling skies, which often accompany coastal storms and breathtaking sunsets. The ancient province of Connaught stretches from the long estuary of the Shannon in the south to beautiful Sligo Bay in the north and eastwards as far inland as the source of the Shannon. Deeply enriching this whole region revels in the ever-present influence of the language and music of Gaelic culture. The farther west one goes, the more powerful is the impact of this proud and self-assertive identity. Equally stunning is the sheer diversity of landscapes and coastal views.
County Clare occupies the region north of the Shannon estuary almost as far as Galway City. Its limestone formations lend a multi-toned light green to the landscape of the south. Everywhere, stone walls of strange flat limestone slabs criss-cross the countryside. Numerous small country houses, cottages, and villages dot the rural panorama in an apparent chaos. North and east of the Cliffs of Moher, this landscape suddenly gives way to the dramatic limestone karsts of the Burren, classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Travelling around the sweep of Galway Bay, with the remains of numerous medieval Gaelic and Norman castles dotting its shoreline, the mountainous profile of Connemara on the horizon indicates yet another dramatic change of landscape. The pale greys and greens of the Burren give way to the deeper greens and brown-red colours of Galway as the limestone base is replaced by rugged granite. Galway is a unique urban experience with its youthful population melding easily with vigorous and proud Gaelic traditions. The beautiful city centre with its winding roads, historic buildings, gushing waterways, theatres, galleries and numerous shops, pubs and restaurants, throngs with people night and day.
The stunning landscapes of Connemara begin with a startling suddenness west of Galway at Spiddal. The coastline consists literally of thousands of wildly shaped bays and inlets. Where the relentless rock and bog allow, small oases of greenery appear, and wherever they exist are clusters of scattered housing known as villages and townlands. Here the daily language is Gaelic and its lilt and stubborn style shape this unique region. The rivers and lakes of Connaught still contain an abundance of fish, such as salmon, trout, pike and perch, which attract thousands of anglers from around the world. The sea is equally abundant and provides not only a livelihood for many coastal communities but also an excuse for the visitor to take to the seas for the thrill of sea angling.
The Northern part of Ireland offers a blend of influences from several different cultures such as the Ulster Scots, the Gaelic, the Norman, and the Anglo-Norman. These ancient peoples have helped to sculpt and colour the landscape in a way quite different to the rest of the island. These influences are reflected in everything from the geometry of fields and villages to the well-preserved woodlands and abundance of spectacular mansions, castles, and gardens. Historic remains abound in the ancient Gaelic and Norman castles along the coast. The traces of early Irish Christianity can be found in Downpatrick, where Ireland's most famous apostle, St Patrick, lies buried by an imposing cathedral. South of Newcastle the coast opens up to the rugged coastal lands and wild terrain of the Mourne Mountains. These mountains are among the most popular walking areas of the north, offering spectacular views of the coast as well as the hospitality of the tiny villages scattered about the area.
The magical lake and river landscapes of the southern border counties have been recently made very accessible with the re-opening and development of the Erne waterway connecting to the Shannon. This whole area is rapidly becoming one of the finest angling and boating regions in Ireland. The pristine serenity and breathtaking beauty of this landscape is enhanced by the warm and friendly manner of the people.
What is undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of Ulster is the unremitting beauty of its spectacular coastline, from the wild reaches of Donegal in the west, along the Northern shoreline from Londonderry and down to the dramatic Antrim coast to Larne, north of Belfast. Donegal is characterised not only by the tremendous beauty of its coastline, but also by the rugged mountain wilderness, which dominates the centre of the county. Everywhere are numerous opportunities to ramble and climb over wild countryside.
Most spectacular of all, of course, is the magnificent Giant's Causeway, recognised as one of the natural wonders of the world. It consists of thousands of basalt columns (some up to 160 metres high) formed 60 million years ago as volcanic lava cooled after breaking through the surface. A testament to Mother Nature's volatility, the area exudes a kind of geological violence-definitely a strange place!
Inland from this magnificent coastland is the very different and invariably warm experience of the Glens of Antrim. High rugged mountains are broken by a series of spectacular glens, descending to the sea at Cushendall and Cushendun. Tiny clustered villages and mountain hamlets tell the story of a way of life which has existed for over two hundred years. Traces of the ancient Gaelic culture of the region reverberate in the traditional music encountered everywhere.