Welcome to Ireland, 2010




This time every year I think of those of you planning a trip to my country for the first time, and try to offer a few helpful hints.

Much of my advice does not change from year to year, notably advising that you stay as close to the west coast as possible for as long as possible, slow down your clock, and don't try to "do" all of Ireland in four days, three hours and 16 minutes.

That is not going to change this year either, but there are a few new elements relating to the times that are in it and I hope some of you may find these of assistance.

I think you will quickly discover that, despite the recession, the fundamental mood of the nation is still bright, still resilient, still somewhat eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

It is a characteristic of a society which has known more than its fair share of hardships down through its history, and that is still largely intact.

Ironically, through the Celtic Tiger era, there was a subconscious view through much of our society that things were too good to last, and in a way the inevitable crash was anticipated.

At grassroots level the impact was not quite so savage as the political speak would have you think. That's a Catholic thing maybe, the view that we live in what the old prayer termed "the valley of tears," and let’s do out best to forget about it and have a bit of craic in the meantime.

Anyway, thanks be to God, the national face is still smiling, and there is a lot of laughter. You might not easily accept that, but it is true.

I was at the Cuckoo Fleadh in the fishing town of Kinvara for a few hours at the beginning of May. The bars were packed, the music was better than it has ever been, the weather was brilliant, everybody was in the best of form.

Yes, the crowds were just a shade smaller than in the halcyon years, but you would need to have attended in those years to know that. But if you were visiting Kinvara for your first Cuckoo Fleadh you would have been blown away.

And, in a sign of the times, in a little town which was very spartan in the old days, I had a splendid Italian meal in a wine bar which has emerged from one of the old pubs where the Aran Islanders used drink in when they came to the pier in their hookers.

Come to think of it, there is a plaque on the wall of that pub showing it was the birthplace of Francis Fahy, the songsmith who wrote down the opening lines, "Tis far away I am today/from scenes I roved a boy" which launched the immortal ballad "Galway Bay" into the world.

Getting back to your needs. Everybody surfs the net nowadays before going on holiday, and that is crucial. The tourism industry, especially our overstock of hotels, is competing fiercely this year for a (smaller) pool of visitors.

Some of the offers available are mind-blowing. There are rooms available in packages for as low as 40, where one would have been paying three times that price a few years ago.

Typically the midweek packages, including dinners, are great value and are available around all the major tourist hotspots. I suspect that the hard-pressed hotels have lowered their rates more than many B&B establishments (though these have trimmed their sails also).

With proper planning it may well be cheaper to stay in hotels rather than B&Bs in some regions. Check it out.

Dining out used to be costly here. Many visitors complained to me over the years about the cost of going out to dinner in a reasonably good restaurant or hotel. Prices have fallen sharply on this front too.

Many restaurants in the prime areas are now offering early bird specials in the early evening, up to about 7 p.m. commonly, and four-course dinners are up to 30% cheaper during this period.

My best advice still, though, is to shift your eating pattern for the duration of the vacation, and avail of the late lunches, often from carverys, widely available and far better value than dinners. What is the real difference between a late lunch and an early dinner anyway?

In this case it could be as high as 20 a mouth! Bear that in mind.

On the road there are a few new dimensions to be noted. Our infrastructure has improved hugely over the past decade, and there are a lot of motorways nowadays and shorter traveling times between the big towns and cities.

A savage winter, however, played puck with the surfaces of the lesser roads off the motorways and these, so very often, are the roads that lead to the places that matter. You can still encounter potholes that would halt an army tank in its tracks, and you must be wary of those.

Another significant piece of fallout from the Celtic Tiger years was the sharp reduction in the number of rural filling stations. (They were often sold as sites for housing developments). Make sure you always have a full tank, lest you finish up stranded in the heart of Connemara.

Cell phones in mountainous terrain like this still might not be able to get out an SOS. Keep the tank full.

Crucially, then, you must keep the vehicle well fueled but, as the driver, ensure AT ALL TIMES that you are totally alcohol free.

There was a lax attitude in relation to driving with a few pints aboard up until three years ago. The police needed to suspect, and have grounds to suspect that you were drunk driving before they could legally deploy the dreaded breathalyzer.

That is no longer the case. We have random testing now, at any time, in any place between Malin Head and Mizen Head. And the police are extremely active.

The horror stories in relation to lost licenses are legion. The worst of them deal with cases of men and women who took taxis home from pubs at the end of the evening, and then were breathalyzed the following morning or afternoon and still were over the limit.

On this front take no chances at all or your holiday could be ruined.
There are more and better music sessions around now than ever before. They still typically start around the 9 p.m. mark and finish whenever. (Some pubs still operate later than is legal and I say TG for that!)

Upon entering a pub for the first time early in the evening you may notice that one corner table is unoccupied. Be careful before you grab it, because often that is the musicians' table and it is rarely marked as such.

It is traditional to pay for drinks as they are served rather than to run a tab. Collect your change from the bar immediately and do not leave it lying there in the open as you often do back home. Tips for the barmen are a matter of discretion -- not mandatory.

My strong advice, if you are enjoying yourself, is not to leave the craic early, just when it is getting going properly, but to stay until closing time. You are on holiday after all. New visitors tend to leave too early and miss the fillet of the night.

You can now get coffee everywhere that is as good as at home, not the instant stuff. Still, try at least one pot of good Irish tea.

And one final tip for the novice. Younger American men, when talking to us, very often courteously and respectfully call us “sir.” (Is that a hangover from military service?)

On balance, and this is nitpicking, drop the sir for mister or even friend. We spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears in Ireland in getting rid of "Sir," if ye know what I mean.

We don 't like the sound of it still. Also, it is the first word that the young policeman utters when you roll down the window and he presents you with the dreaded balloon!

Cead Mile Failte!

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