A month-by-month round up of the best places to eat, drink and be merry in Ireland (including some of the Emerald Isle's best-kept secrets)
Away from the shamrock-laden clichés, Ireland is bursting with wildlife wonders, sweeping coastlines, an emerald heartland and, of course, the odd snug, Guinness-filled pub. Here’s my local-boy’s pick of the best sights, parties and pubs that Ireland has to offer each year.
When in Dublin there’s a good chance you’ll be sent up the Wicklow Hills to Johnnie Fox’s pub, but it’s usually full of tourists. What most people don’t know is that a mere 8km away you’ll find some of the most beautiful countryside on the island. The views from Glencree valley, sweeping down to the sea, are spectacular.
Glencree is particularly gorgeous in January because of the light dusting of snow on the hilltops and the clear blue winter skies. There are plenty of deer around at this time of year – and I mean plenty. You’re almost guaranteed to spot them dashing through the hedgerows.
My favourite stop is the German Cemetery and the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. The former is a strange, slightly creepy but intoxicating place.
I don’t know why German soldiers were buried there, but it seems fitting that it is across the road from where members of various warring groups – Israelis and Palestinians, Republicans and Loyalists – have come together to discuss peaceful ends to their troubles.Get there: A host of airlines fly direct to Dublin including Aer Arann, easyJet and BA. Sail to Dublin from Holyhead with Irish Ferries or from Liverpool with Norfolkline Ferries. St Kevins Bus departs Dublin for Glendalough twice daily.
Daily commuters say the DART – the train that runs through Dublin, serving suburban towns to north and south – is hell on earth: packed and rarely on time. But hop aboard on a Sunday morning and head south to Dalkey, Killiney or Greystones and it’s a completely different story.
The train whizzes along the coastline with fantastic views en route. Jump out at Dalkey for some seafood in the Queen’s, or a pint in Bono’s favourite boozer, Finnegans. Killiney Bay (often compared to the Bay of Naples) is a romantic destination for Valentine’s, and a good starting point for incredible walks. It’s hard to believe you’re just 20 minutes from the city centre when strolling around. Stops on the DART get busy during summer, so February is a grand time to go: great light and cosy pubs and restaurants.
Greystones is a bit further down the coast and an excellent place for kids to hang out. It has a safe sandy beach and a lovely coastal walk. It also has one of my favourite restaurants in the world – the Three Qs. Try the African vegetable and coconut soup – Holy God, it is to die for!
Get there: DART services run every 10-20 minutes.
March in Ireland; There’s only one day that stands out – 17 March. The tourist board might tell you the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin’s centre is the highlight. I’m telling you it’s not. In recent years it seems to be the meeting point for young toerags to drink cans of cheap lager and cause trouble.
If you want an authentic experience, head to the small towns and villages – they nearly all have parades. Wexford, in the south-east, is one of my favourites. Small, colloquial, clichéd and cheesy – but on St Patrick’s Day that’s just what you want.
Waterford, just west of Wexford, is another good place to head. When you’ve had enough green cheer, hole up in Waterford Castle. Rooms aren’t cheap but, after a day of Guinness and leprechauns, the luxury is well worth it.
Get there: Aer Arann flies daily to Waterford from Luton, thrice weekly from Manchester. Wexford is a one-hour ride away with Bus Éireann. Irish Ferries link nearby Rosslare with Pembroke.
Ireland’s summer is broken into sections: we get the first glimpse of sun in April, a bit in August and then October is glorious. For me, April was always the time to hit the River Shannon – Ireland’s longest river – on a boat trip with mates.
I always started at Portumna; there are loads of superb places to explore from there. My favourite has always been Banagher, primarily because of one of its pubs – JJ Houghs. There is live music and the locals get up and sing; that’s when the giggling starts, as most of the singing is fairly awful. The highlight is Mrs Houghs’ rendition of Boney M’s ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’. Vomit-inducing laughter guaranteed.
Get there: BA and Aer Arann both fly to Galway from various UK airports. From Galway take the No 427 bus to Portumna.
There are two things the Irish do very well: drinking and laughing. And Kilkenny celebrates both of them every year at the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival. It’s the biggest comedy festival in Ireland and one of the most popular in the world. For one weekend, the great, the good and the bad (but funny) gather in one of the wildest cities. Langton’s pub is my favourite, although I can never remember why – perhaps that’s why!
Get there: Daily trains leave from Dublin and take around two hours.
No, it’s not what you’re thinking! Hookers are traditional Irish boats that used to ferry turf and the like up and down the coast. Every year they gather at Portaferry and race along the banks of Strangford Lough in County Down.
The village is home to a brilliant but little-known B&B called the Narrows and an even better pub called Fiddler’s Green, where locals play live music every night. Together with amazing oysters from nearby Dundrum Bay and Guinness from Dublin, it’s pure Irish perfection.
Now here’s a secret that even most Irish people don’t know: Ireland is a haven for whalewatchers. Forget the long-haul slog to see these wonderful mammals, because to date 24 species of the world’s whales and dolphins have been recorded in Irish waters, with the unpolluted west Cork seas one of the richest areas for whalewatching in the country.
July is a particularly good time to see these beauties only a few kilometres from the coast; it’s a summer feeding area for minke, fin and humpback. Glandore was always our favourite family stop-off. We didn’t see many orca, but we did spot the odd British prime minister – it was a favourite haunt of Jim Callaghan.
Get there: Swansea Cork Ferries sail from Swansea six times a week in July and August; crossing takes around ten hours. A variety of airlines fly direct to Cork.
The Connemara Pony Show takes place every August in Clifden, the capital of the region. The Connemara pony is an unfortunate-looking beast – big body, small head – but is much loved around the world. The show has been running since the 1920s and involves a week of jumping competitions and horse exhibitions throughout the area before the final in Clifden. I used to go as a child, and we made a return visit recently not expecting it to match up to our childhood memories – but it did.
The area is beautiful, with beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean. It can get busy during the summer so I’ll let you into my best-kept secret: stay at the Dolphin Beach House on the Lower Sky Road, 8km outside Clifden. It’s the best I’ve slept in, and the breakfast is scrumptious.
Get there: From Galway, take the Michael Nee Coach service, running three times daily June-September.
I’ve often thought how brave the first person to try an oyster must have been (unless they’d had six pints of Guinness beforehand). It’s a thought you can ponder quite successfully at the Galway International Oyster Festival where both are seriously celebrated. Said to be Ireland’s longest-running festival, it remains as popular as ever, providing one last hurrah for revellers after the summer.
A four-day festival, the emphasis rests on fun, food and, of course, Guinness. The main attraction, however, is the oysters, carefully selected from the beds of Galway Bay and served in all their glory in the festival marquee.
Get there: Various airlines fly direct from the UK to Galway.
Now, I know opera is not everybody’s thing. In fact, I’m not sure it’s really my thing. But there is something about the atmosphere and the setting of the Wexford Festival Opera that makes it manageable.
The town is the typical cutesy-narrow-cobbled-street place Ireland does so well. Add to it some Puccini belting out of snug pubs and Verdi being sung à la football chants on street corners and it becomes very special indeed. The Centenary Stores is the biggest and wildest pub in town. It’s a serious craic and never seems to close.
Get there: Fly to Waterford and take the bus to Wexford, or catch the ferry.
Swimming in the Atlantic in mid-November? Sounds hideous, doesn’t it? Well, thousands of surfers disagree; in fact, the west coast has become one of Europe’s surfing hotspots. The beaches of Mayo and Donegal are where the action happens: the waves are huge and consistent, which my surfer mates tell me is the key to a good trip.
The huge Aill na Serracht wave is the main attraction and led this area to host a round of the World Surfing Championships. The villages are now filled with surfers from across the globe.
Get there: Buses regularly leave from Galway to County Mayo. Donegal is limited in its transport; Aer Arann has daily flights from Dublin and Gatwick; buses also leave from Dublin.
Dublin pubs are at their best around Christmas. But don’t join the tourist masses at Temple Bar – no locals go there. In the spirit of the festive season, I’ll let you in on some of my favourites: O’Donoghue’s (Merrion Row) – it doesn’t look hip or modern, but it’s one of the best in town; Mulligans (Poolbeg Street); Kehoe’s (South Anne Street); and the Oval (Middle Abbey Street).
They’re all old Dublin pubs and far better than any of the mega-pubs. We’re talking good solid Dublin boozers! Sláinte!
Get there: Many airlines fly from regional airports to Dublin.