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Winter trip to Ireland can be rewarding

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I realize that visiting Ireland in the winter is not on many people's 'to do' list, but the other night as I was watching an American television show filmed here last winter I was reminded of just how beautiful Ireland looks in the winter.

I was watching the latest installment of the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are on Ireland's national television station, RTE. The episode featured Rosie O'Donnell's search for her Irish roots (in America it can be seen here).

Of course Ireland was always going to look great. The folks at NBC were determined to get fantastic aerial shots of Dublin and the snow-covered Kildare country-side. Yet, those pictures weren't made up either - Ireland really does look great in the winter. And it provides insights into history that are less obvious in summer.

One of my favorite memories of traveling around Ireland is being in the wilds of Connemara one January in the mid-90s. I got talking to a local man, who pointed out vertical ridges clearly visible in the snow on a nearby hill. "Those are the lazy beds. People grew potatoes there before the famine, but not since."

I didn't question it because as I was looking at it I couldn't imagine anyone other than the desperate trying to cultivate such land. I would never have seen those ridges without the snow to highlight them.

The snow highlights the positive in Ireland's landscape. Although most people here preferred complaining about the mess last winter's snow made of the roads (and Dublin airport), I think most Irish people would admit that the snow really looked special on our treeless hills, patchwork fields and old churches and graveyards.

Ireland doesn't just look great in winter either. It smells good too – at least in rural areas. In rural areas people mostly burn turf, not wood, in their fireplaces. I always like the smell of a wood fire in the winter. Turf gives off its own distinctive, appealing smell.

The smell isn't just pleasant. It's part of a memory, the smell my ancestors would have known. In fact, one of the best things about being in Ireland in the winter is the chance to experience the dark, damp, cold, bleak conditions that are part of any Irish-American family's ancestral past. I always think that anyone who only sees Ireland in bright sunshine might well leave these shores wondering why anyone ever left. A few days in Mayo in January will give you part of that answer.

You don't have to suffer long, however, once you've endured a sufficiency of the damp cold, enter the nearest pub and the heat from the blazing turf fire will revive you.

A few caveats, however. It does tend to rain in the winter in Ireland. Of course, it tends to rain in the summer too, but the longer days mean you have a better chance of a few hours of dry, bright weather each day. Last winter's heavy snow was exceptional, usually it only lasts on high ground.

When it does snow on the roads, it quickly makes driving treacherous. Few cars have snow tires and fewer drivers have any snow sense. (I was wondering how Rosie O'Donnell managed driving on rural Kildare's icy, snowy roads, but we didn't see any of that. She probably had a local driver when off camera.}

Regardless, it's worthwhile. If you've seen Ireland in the summer in glorious sunshine (or even in sunshine and showers), come prepared for cold, damp weather and get in touch with the other aspect of Ireland that your ancestors knew well. I doubt you'd be disappointed.

{Photo thanks to Sligo Heritage.}

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