The Republic of Ireland (Ireland) is undoubtedly much less visited by Asian tourists, including Singaporeans, compared with the popularity of England and Scotland. This is partly because it has been under publicised as a tourist destination by the Irish tourism bodies and also because many potential tourists are not aware of its varied scenic beauty and other inherent attractions besides being an ancient civilisation with disparate historic monuments and landmarks. As I have always been fascinated by history in my entire adult life, I am naturally greatly interested in Ireland’s tortuous history, its centuries-old ceaseless struggle to free itself from the oppressive colonial domination of the English rule and the tremendous hardships it had to endure over a long-span of time before finally achieving its full independence after the Second World War.
My wife and I had been wanting to make a trip to Ireland for sometime now, but had postponed going there for one reason or another. However, an opportunity arose during our last trip to England some time ago, and we landed in the Irish capital of Dublin on transit from London. From the airport, we rented a car and in less than 30 minutes we were at our hotel, near Trinity College, in the heart of the city.We had one week to explore this country and to savour its ancient monuments, medieval abbeys, castles, quaint villages and its lusciously green landscape interspersed with meandering rivers and rugged sea coasts. Ireland is most aptly and deservedly called “The Emerald Isle”.
The Irish are of the ancient Celtic race and their ancestral language is Gaelic. The country was colonised by the English from the 12th Century onwards. After a continuous struggle to free themselves from the tyrannical English rule, at the cost of much suffering and loss of lives, they finally achieved its independence after World War II. However, for political and religious reasons, Northern Ireland, which constitutes only one-sixth of Ireland, opted to remain as an integral part of Great Britain for their own future well-being. To this day, the Irish people have still not forgiven General Oliver Cromwell, the ruthless English Republican period dictator in the 17th century, for the cruelties he inflicted on his Irish subjects.
Converted to Roman Catholicism by St Patrick in 431 AD, Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country and 88% of its population have embraced this faith staunchly. Historically, prior to regaining its independence, it had close to 20,000 of its men and women in holy Catholic orders. It was then very common and considered a blessing for families to have sons or daughters who were nuns or priests as a very worthy calling. Many served as life long missionaries both within and outside of the country, particularly in the various colonies and dominions of the then extensive British Empire. This is no longer the case from the 1980s onwards as Ireland became more affluent and materialistic after joining the European Community (EU) and began to prosper over the ensuing years.
Due to historical reasons, English has, long ago, replaced the native Gaelic Language as the common language of the people, as only a very tiny percentage of the population, largely older folks in the rural areas, now still speak it as their own mother tongue. On the other hand, in the Capital itself if an Irishman or woman were to attempt to converse in Gaelic to a shopkeeper or pub tender, the other party would most likely be astonished and wondering what their compatriot was trying to prove or accomplish! Be that as it may, there is now a nascent movement for Gaelic revival as more younger Irish people are becoming more conscious of the need to be more familiar with their own traditions and cultural heritage with the emergence of nationalism and pride in their own native identity.
Ireland has had a long history of migration to the United States and the other English-speaking countries because of abject poverty and widespread famine there following the disastrous failure of the potato production, which was the staple food for the vast majority of its populace, in the 1830s to 1840s. These migrants, perforce, had to leave Ireland in order to seek a better life in America. They were pitilessly exploited, despised by the largely Protestant Anglo-Saxon elite class and were employed mainly to undertake hazardous or menial jobs for a pittance which others would avoid at all cost. However, the Irish economic fortunes started to improve significantly after it joined the then European Common Market in 1973 and its economy began to expand steadily as foreign investments poured in and, over time, the national economy was being transformed from the traditional mainly agricultural one to that of a high-tech and knowledge-based economy. However, its booming economy ended abruptly with the onset of the World financial crisis in 2008 when the economic bubbles finally burst due to this severe impact and the country’s own poor management of its fiscal policies and banking practices. The EU jointly with the International Monetary Fund had to offer it financial aids but the country is still not fully out of its economic woes even today. Nonetheless, Ireland now has a standard of living and per capital GDP which compares favourably with the most affluent European nations. The rapid growth of the Irish economy of the past decades has been likened to the rise of the Asian “Tiger Economies” of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore over the corresponding period.
The Irish friendliness, hospitality and gregariousness is legendary: if a tourist asks for directions, chances are he will be personally escorted to the destination itself. In pubs, foreigners are often offered drinks spontaneously on the implied understanding that one would return the favour. The Irish gaiety and capacity for enjoying life to the full is quite self-evident and almost everyone, both young and old and man and woman, enjoys drinking a pint or more of the Guinness brew, the unofficial national beverage, on a night out at one of their favourite pubs. Consequently drunkenness in public places is quite commonplace and will not raise an eye brow and street fighting due to excessive drinking frequently happens too.
Greater Dublin (population about 1.8 million out of the nation’s total population of about 4.5 million) is an elegant city with a good dose of Georgian architecture and handsome old public buildings. It is refreshingly free of the ubiquitous highrises which have become a familiar sight in many cities elsewhere. I was fascinated by its historic houses and cobbled streets which are evocative of a more gracious bygone era. The city is best covered on foot. Most of the historic places of interest are conveniently located within a comfortable walking distance from the River Liffey, which dissects both sides of the city centre. Trinity College, founded by the English Crown in 1591, was intended to be the Oxbridge of Ireland and its premier university. Many tourists would patiently stand in line in order to view the important Book of Kells, an 8th or 9th Century version of the New Testament, written on parchment. For a quick insight into the nation’s history, our visit to the National Museum was both informative and instructive. Our next stop was Merrion Square, home of many of Ireland’s most illustrious sons including some of its most distinguished writers and playwrights such as W.B.Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The Irish creative genius was fittingly recognised by the award of the Nobel Price to Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Beckett. The 13th Century Dublin Castle was the seat of the British colonial government until 1922 when the country achieved partial independence. Its state apartments now serve as the guest house for visiting foreign heads of state. It is open to the public with interesting and informative guided tours. One cannot leave Dublin without taking a stroll in the historic St. Stephens’ Green, the lung of the city with its spacious park and lake. It is the starting point for many public celebrations, including the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The chief delight and quintessence of Ireland is the extraordinary beauty of its varied countryside. However, due to our time constraint, we decided to see only the South-East coast and the inland counties of Killarney, Limerick, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Kildare. Our first stop was Ferns, near New Ross, where we visited the 12th Century Augustinian Abbey, reputed to be the smallest cathedral in Europe. It is so tiny that it can seat less than 100 people. Nearby, in the village of Dunganstown, was the birth place of the great-grandfather of the late US president, John F Kennedy. There is a memorial park in his honour and it is much visited by American tourists.
The city of Waterford’s main draw is its hand-made crystal ware which is renowned the world over and can be purchased from the factory showroom or in the shops there. It is also exported to many parts of the world including Singapore and other Asian countries.
For the fanciers of fine food, the seaside town of Kinsale, with its dozens of Continental and Irish eateries, will delight their palates. They are reckoned to be among the best in the country.
From Kinsale, it was on to Killarney where the top attraction is the Ring of Kerry, a 180 km long spectacularly scenic drive, which is not for the inexperienced or fainted-hearted drivers. The road is winding and extremely narrow in parts, but the breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean, the serenity of the lakes below and the ever-changing moods of the distant mountains made it a highlight of our holiday in Ireland.
The inland counties of Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny provide a marked contrast to the rugged charm of the Kerry coast and is extremely rich in Irish historical heritage. One of the most celebrated landmarks in Limerick is the 15th Century Bunratty Castle, which has been skilfully renovated with much of its original contents and ancient flavour well preserved.
One of the holies of holy is the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. Upon this 200-foot high limestone rock, the Irish kings from the 4th to 12th Centuries had built their palaces and held court there. Partially intact, its most precious relics include the St.Patrick’s Cross, named after Ireland’s patron saint who preached there, and these are located within the roofless cathedral with its intricate stone carvings and the 12th Century Round Tower to remind the visitors of its original splendour.
We had deliberately reserved the medieval city of Kilkenny closer to the end of our Irish adventure in order to have more time to soak up its antiquity and history. Walking in the old part of town was like going back several hundred years in time. The 14th Century Kilkenny Castle, one of the most magnificent in Ireland, dominates the city skyline.
Our last stop was in county Kildare. Apart from seeing the ruins of several early monasteries in the village of Castledermat, we also visited the National Stud at Tully where the Irish thoroughbreds, well-known for their racing abilities, are raised and exported to many countries.
Driving in Ireland was quite pleasurable as its main trunk roads with a reasonable speed limit are not congested. They drive on the left, and the other traffic rules are about the same as in Singapore following the British system. The roads are generally good but can be quite narrow in the country and one must also look out for designated cattle crossings. Irish drivers are not as disciplined as their British or American counterparts, but they are a shade or two more considerate than the average driver in Singapore and in most of Asia. However, as driving test is not compulsory in some towns, this is sometimes reflected in their tardy driving habits. Driving and parking in the major cities is made more difficult due to congestion and lack of adequate parking facilities. This is compounded by the one-way street system in operation there. Furthermore, foreign drivers can be easily confused or disoriented by bilingual road signs, especially in long distance travels.
The tourism attractions of Ireland are grossly under-marketed in Singapore compared with in the European countries. It can easily be combined with a tour of Britain. I am sanguine that, given effective promotion and media and word of mouth publicity, more Singaporeans will take to it like we did. For Singaporeans planning to visit this country, the best time to do so is between May and July when it is in its most luscious green, the flowers are in full bloom and the temperature is comfortable, not to mention the longer daylight hours for touring. A car is indispensable. As there are numerous sights and interesting places to be experienced and digested, these cannot be covered in a single trip. A minimum of one week’s stay will enable one to see a part of the country of one’s choice in a relaxed way and to get to know these warm and open-hearted people better.
Lam Pin Foo