10 Things that Surprised Me About Ireland
Ireland is a country full of surprises. What follows are ten things I learned about Ireland during my visit that surprised me most.
1. Abortion is illegal.
Abortion is illegal in Ireland. The only exception to this national law is in cases that save the life of the mother. No exceptions. Severe birth defects, rape, incest — all of these deplorable circumstances require the mother to bear the child. I don’t know why I was shocked by this. After all, this is an overwhelmingly Catholic nation (although the church’s influence is clearly in decline — more on that to come). My presumption was that virtually all of Europe was intransigent when it comes down to a woman’s right to control their own bodies and make choices for themselves. It’s hard to believe this is one issue where the United States is actually ahead of places like Ireland, which continue to impose severely restrictive abortion laws.
Now, a few consequences of these restrictions. One does tend to see comparatively more public facilities around the country to care for those with the most deformities. Since many more children are born with defects, it becomes incumbent upon the state to care for them. Another consequence of the Republic of Ireland’s abortion restrictions in the booming medical market across the Irish Sea over in England, which is accessible via a few hours ferry ride. Thousands of Irish women travel to England each year to terminate pregnancies (England’s abortion laws are similar to the U.S.). Finally, Northern Ireland allows for abortion, provided certain medical criteria are met.
The bottom line is — Ireland is very much a 1950s nation on the controversial topic of a woman’s right to chose.
2. Churches are on the decline — both in terms of attendance and influence.
The evidence on this point is overwhelming. No nation in the world has become more secular in its manner of thinking over the previous generation than Ireland. All surveys show about a 25 percent decline in church attendance, just within the past ten years. For the Catholic Church, the implications of this are disastrous. It’s also quite liberating for secularists.
All over the country, churches are closing down and consolidating. A week-long drive through many small towns revealed many churches boarded up and for sale. Those I talked to pointed to the priest sex scandals and the church’s undeniable cover-up of ghastly crimes within Ireland as the primary reason for increasing secularism.
Church attendance now reveals a largely generational divide. Old people still tend to participate in religious rituals. Young people do not.
3. Virtually all Irish look to the long and bloody conflict called “The Troubles” with regret.
Speaking of religion’s decline, one of the very worst manifestations of so-called “faith” was the bloody period between 1968-1998 which is referred to now by many simply as “The Troubles.” Most of the extended conflict — which included everything from outright discrimination and segregation of populations based on religion to violent acts of terror reminiscent of what we commonly see in the Middle East — took place in and around Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, Irish nationalists waged bombings, random acts of terror, and political assassinations in England (and the Republic), as well. This only made British Army and RUC (Northern Ireland’s police forces) more abusive in their practices.
I happened to be in Dublin city on the 99th anniversary of what’s known as “The Uprising,” when The Republic of Ireland was formed by revolutionaries/patriots after prevailing in an Eastertime conflict with the British Army along O’Connell Street. The fervor of nationalism remains a powerful force in most of Ireland judging by the massive parades and reenactments of that bloody day in 1916 which is analogous perhaps to the way July 4th is celebrated in the U.S.
Fortunately, the most extreme elements of Irish self-determination been tempered somewhat by the decline of the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein, which were primarily responsible for the acts of terror (however legitimate, their grievances may have been). One presumes the pride of being Irish has little to do with the evils done during the period of The Troubles, which killed thousands and made much of the nation into an occupied war zone.
4. Irish food is both remarkably good and fresh.
One doesn’t think of Irish food as particularly appealing. What comes to mind? Irish stew — which was all but impossible to find anywhere around Ireland, except in the kitschiest tourist joints. Lamb — which is widely available and delicious. Potatoes — yes, they’re served with every meal, it seems. Fried. Boiled. Mashed. The national symbol of Ireland should be a potato.
Perhaps my perception is jaded. After all, it should be noted that I ate out in mostly nicer restaurants. I didn’t indulge in pub food or the deep-fried maze of concoctions sold in takeout places. Still, it’s rare to go an entire vacation and look back and say that every meal I enjoyed was either very well or excellent. Even more pleasing, all were surprisingly affordable. Marieta and I dined out dozens of times. We each enjoyed three-course meals (starter, main course, dessert), plus an alcoholic beverage. With tax and tip, we never once paid more than $100 (about 85 euros) for the two of us. Most of our dinners landed in the $60-70 price range, all-inclusive — and given how good they were, this was a bit of a shock.
By the way — a hint for those who visit. Try and eat between 5 and 7 pm in the local places. Most of the nicer restaurants have what’s called a “Price Fix” menu, consisting of either 2 or 3 courses, along with a beverage. This way, you can try some unusual recipes which are not normally available outside the region. Most restaurants where we dined took pride in using local produce (meal and vegetables grown nearby).
The downside: I gained 6 pounds in 12 days.
5. Ireland (and Dublin in particular) is astonishingly affordable, especially compared to other capitals in Europe.
My travels to Europe over the past ten years have been to London (three times), Amsterdam (twice), Paris (once), Nice/Cannes (twice), and parts of Germany and Belgium. Trouble is — Europe is expensive. Hotels, meals, travel costs — they all add up quickly and force economization for those, like me, on a budget.
Of course, the dollar is strong now against the euro, which gives American travelers some advantages. Nothing in Ireland was particularly outrageous when it came to price, except gasoline. But that’s to be expected. Gas has cost about $6.50 a gallon in most parts of Europe for quite a while, now.
Dublin’s hotels can be reserved for around $130 a night. Try finding something priced like that in London. Outside the capital, prices were even cheaper, in the $65-85 range for a serviceable and clean hotel room, comparable to something like an older version of a Holiday Inn in America. Food, as I’ve discussed already, is a bargain. A pint of beer is about 4.50 euros. A shot of whiskey is about 5 euros.
6. Irish stereotyping is largely inaccurate.
Speaking of drinking and pubs, Ireland is well-known for producing a hearty race of people who can handle their booze. For the most part, this seemed to be entirely true. I didn’t once observe anyone in the entire country intoxicated or the least bit out of line, due to alcohol consumption. I’m sure it happens. Just that I never saw it — either during my many nights in Dublin or the pubs in the smaller towns. A typical Saturday night on the Las Vegas Strip, comparatively speaking, produces a lot more assholes and drunken foolishness.
My point is — the Irish are often portrayed as drunks. They are stereotypically known for violent behavior after consuming too much beer or whisky. While drinking is an inherent part of this robust culture — pubs are everywhere, and are usually very busy — it seems most people can handle themselves quite well.
As for the stereotype that the Irish talk funny, well — this is true. As one venture outside the larger cities and towns, the quirky accents become harder to understand. A few times, we got lost and had to ask for directions. It was tough sometimes to figure out if the locals were speaking Gaelic or English. I wish I could say they were drunk. But they weren’t.
7. Rural Ireland is surprisingly urbanized.
We ventured off into some really out-of-the-way places, avoiding the highways and toll roads in favor of smaller, less-traveled streets which connect town centers. After all, this is the only way to see the real Ireland. Fortunately, Ireland’s geography is conveniently laid out for drivers to make a circle. One can drive across the country (east-west) within about 3 hours. Driving north to south takes about 5 to 6 hours. Of course, this would be without any stops. The idea isn’t to rush but to savor the scenery and enjoy the experience.
[Side Note: Irish drivers are the best I’ve seen, anywhere in the world, except for Uruguay. I did not see one traffic accident the entire time, despite some narrow roads and dangerous situations. I also didn’t see a single speed trap or cop car trying to jack up its local revenue with a speed trap]
Not once did we ever feel we were really too far from civilization. Aside from national parks, protected areas, and some cliffs near the oceans, Ireland is well-developed everywhere you go. You’re always within just a few miles of a pub, restaurant, gas station, hotel/bed, and breakfast, or a place to make a bet. This brings up surprising fact Number 8…
8. Legalized gambling is widely available everywhere.
I wish we could send all critics of legalized gambling over to Ireland on a fact-finding mission, where they would see hundreds of betting shops scattered around the country, all taking bets on races and sporting events. Even the smallest towns in the most out-of-the-way places usually have a betting shop somewhere, which books action. Given that sports betting is widely practiced, poker tournaments can be held inside regular hotel ballrooms (note the 2015 Irish Poker Open was held at a Doubletree Hotel, not a casino), online poker is legal, and there’s a national lottery (one of the first in existence — recall the Irish National Lottery, which predated American state lotteries), that would seem to create an epidemic of problem gamblers, bankruptcies, underage gambling, divorces, and other “social ills” manufactured by critics. Well, none of this is reality or course. The critics are wrong. Yet, they continue to lie.
Surely, Ireland has its extreme cases and those who abuse the freedom to gamble. However, it’s nothing like many places within the U.S., which still have some very backward perceptions about gambling, especially when it comes to sports betting. Ireland proves, once and for all, that granting a population full access to what’s often referred to as a “vice,” is actually more socially responsible both to the principle of individual rights and the notion that the best way to monitor potentially harmful activities (for the very small percentage who become problem gamblers) is to legalize and regulate such behavior.
When it comes to debating this topic in America, we proponents should point to Ireland (and England) as case studies where lots of legalized open gambling doesn’t produce the social costs the critics often lie about. Facts don’t lie. Politicians and scaremongers do.
9. The Irish are crazy about sports.
Perhaps it’s because they can gamble on the outcome of games, but Ireland sure loves its sports. Soccer, rugby, Gaelic football, snooker, and sports I’ve never heard of nor seen — a sporting event of some kind always seems to be on television and people are talking about the games. Dublin, a city of about a million people (comparatively small so far as capitals go), has two giant sports stadiums, which are both nicer and newer than any modern NFL stadium. Moreover, there are smaller stadiums and grounds for sporting events. Even the smallest towns usually have a field and seating, along with lights.
Moreover, the Irish do tend to be more physically active than many Americans. I noticed runners and cyclists just about everywhere. Spectator sports and fitness do tend to be a national pastime.
10. The symbolism of the colors in the Irish flag.
When one looks at the Irish flag, it’s a pretty simple configuration, really. A balanced tricolor of green, orange, and white stripes is all that’s seen on the national symbol of the country. It would be easy to dismiss these colors and miss what they truly mean, were it not for an Irishman named Patrick Thornton (Paddy Power Poker) who took the time to explain it all to me.
Orange is the color associated with Protestantism, stemming from the Principality of Orange, which existed in the south of France during the 1600s, and later William of Orange (a.k.a. William III) who ruled England, who actually was from the House of Orange in the Netherlands. Sounds complicated, but that’s the story of Ireland — which was settled by everyone from Vikings to Spanish Moors to modern-day immigrants from Eastern Europe, becoming a rich microcosm of distinct influences, ultimately signature stamping themselves as one, which is Irish.
Green not only is closely associated with the picturesque countryside (by air, this country is a sea of green), it’s the official color of Irish republicanism, the national front which unites mostly Catholic Ireland. St. Patricks’ Day is the most obvious manifestation of green being Irish that we Americans know.
Finally, the white stripe in between is meant to symbolize the peace between the two — Protestants and Catholics. Sadly, this has not been a reality for much of Ireland during its often turbulent history. Fortunately, that appears to be changing now as increasing numbers of people on each side of the divide some to realize more of their similarities and shared ideals, rather than differences.
Oh and finally, one more…
11. “Paddy” really means Patrick.
I can’t believe that I didn’t know this fact. “Paddy” is a common name for lots of things in Ireland. I never connected it to Patrick, for some odd reason. There’s Paddy whiskey. There’s Paddy Power, the famous Irish bookmaker. There’s St. Paddy’s Day. Then, there’s the Paddy wagon, which is the term for the truck which rounds up lawbreakers [my Irish friends were split down the middle as to whether “Paddy wagon” refers to the Irish police, or the occupants, presumably mostly Irish.]
A few more facts about Ireland you might not have known:
— Of the 620,000 battle deaths during the American Civil War, about 200,000 were Irish immigrants. Some new arrivals were conscripted into the Union Army the moment they landed on the docks in America.
— The Republic of Ireland only has about 4.5 million people. In fact, there are far more Irish descendants living in America (about 70 million) than in Ireland.
— The United States was the first nation to recognize the Republic of Ireland’s existence, in 1922.
— John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather immigrated to America during the famine of the 1850s. The Kennedy Family maintains a large estate just north of the southern coastal city of Waterford, which is open to the public.
— At one time, Ireland could boast it had the best entertainers in the world. Rock superstars U2 hail from Dublin. One of the world’s best actors, Daniel Day-Lewis is Irish. So is Liam Neeson. Then, there’s the legendary Van Morrison, who grew up in Northern Ireland. Not bad for such a small country, to have so much influence on modern pop culture
Note: Once again, I wish to thank Padraig Parkinson, and Paddy Power Poker, for all of their kindness and generosity.
TAG: Travel tips on visiting the Republic of Ireland