15 things you didn't know about Ireland
Ireland's spectacular coastline, castle-topped hills, rich literary history, and legendary hospitality make the destination a perennial favorite for American travelers. (That, and the fact that nearly 40 million U.S. citizens claim some Irish ancestry.)
Think you know a wee bit about this popular spot? Find out just how much with this quiz. If you score 10 to 15 right, you'll be right at home in the Land of Saints and Scholars. Get between 5 and 9 right, and you’ve earned yourself a pint of Guinness. Score any lower, and you might need to hole up in one of Ireland's historic hotels and start studying.
Which of the following are travelers to Ireland recommended to kiss?
- The statute of Molly Malone on Dublin’s Grafton Street
- The Blarney Stone
- A redheaded lass or laddie
- Anyone wearing a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” T-shirt
If you guessed "The Blarney Stone" you're right — the stone is believed to bestow the powers of persuasive speech on those who touch their lips to it.
It wouldn't be surprising if you had said Molly Malone, though. The bronze statue is the regular recipient of friendly pats and rubs from tourists and passersby in Dublin, who stop to admire the low-cut dress and ample cleavage of fictional 17th-century fishmonger Molly Malone—the subject of Dublin's unofficial anthem of the same name. But cozying up to this statue doesn’t provide any residual benefits, other than a cheeky photo op. And you're guaranteed even less if you try to put the moves on an unsuspecting redhead—with or without a novelty T-shirt.
Kissing the Blarney Stone, on the other hand, has long been reputed to give believers the gift of eloquence. Queen Elizabeth I was said to have coined the term "blarney" (or clever, flattering talk) in the early 17th century, after the slyly persuasive Cormac Teige McCarthy talked his way out of surrendering his Blarney Castle to English control. In fact, folks have been puckering up to the stone, which is embedded into tower battlements, since at least the 1700s (blarneycastle.ie, admission $16).
To get the full effect, some flexibility (and fearlessness) is required: You must lie on your back on a castle ledge 90 feet above the ground (ask a friend to sit on your feet for stability), lean out over a gap (from whence the castle's defenders used to pour boiling oil on invaders), and kiss the stone while hanging upside down and backwards. (Feeling nervous? Iron handrails were added in recent years as a concession to safety.)
The Irish often say Sláinte when toasting one another–what does this Gaelic word mean?
- Bottoms up
- The devil
- Dry weather
Sláinte, pronounced schlan' –cheh, means "health" in Gaelic, so this is a toast to your drinking companions’ well-being. It's a salute that's been echoing off the walls of Sean’s Bar (seansbar.ie) in Athlone, the oldest pub in Ireland—and all of Europe—since 900 A.D., when the bar was established at an ancient crossing point on the Shannon River. A section of one of the pub's original wattle-and-daub walls is preserved under glass, and the sawdust-covered floor and open turf fireplace reinforce the old-timey feel. To see the medieval artifacts unearthed from the foundation during one of the pub's renovations, however—including coins minted on-site for use in the bar—you'll have to visit the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin (museum.ie, admission free).
And to learn more Gaelic phrases to impress your friends, plan a trip to Glencolmcille, in County Donegal, where the Oideas Gael cultural center offers weekend or weeklong language classes, as well as instruction in tin whistle playing, set dancing, archeology and hill walking (oideasgael.ie, weekend language classes from $130).
What famous book, displayed in the Trinity College Library in Dublin, sees the most annual visitors?
- First edition of “The Tower” by William Butler Yeats
- "The Book of Kells"
- "The Odyssey" by Homer
- "The Qur'an" from 1,001 A.D.
"The Book of Kells," an illuminated Gospel manuscript on vellum created around 800 A.D., attracts more than half a million visitors each year. It’s considered a masterpiece of calligraphy and ornamental illustration — look for the stylized birds and animals hidden in the book's Celtic knot designs — and is one of Ireland’s most cherished treasures. The book is housed in the Old Library building on the Trinity College campus, along with the even-older illuminated Book of Durrow and other manuscripts (tcd.ie, admission $12). Save time to explore the library's Long Room, upstairs; the elegant, barreled-ceiling space is home to 200,000 of the library's oldest books, as well as academic artifacts and marble busts of renowned Western philosophers and writers.
For insights into Ireland's more recent literary heritage, visitors to the Dublin Writers Museum can peek at first-edition printings from native sons Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce, along with personal correspondence (a letter from Yeats to Frank O'Connor) and memorabilia (Beckett's telephone). The museum is located in a converted 18th-century house on Parnell Square (writersmuseum.com, admission $10).
What Irish event draws the largest crowds each year?
- The Galway Races
- The Volvo Ocean Race
- St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin
- Electric Picnic music and arts festival
Answer: St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin. Ireland celebrates its patron saint annually in March (this year's festival is March 16-19), and Dublin’s March 17 parade pulls a crowd of over half a million people—in addition to a worldwide television audience. During the four-day festival, visitors can enjoy céilí (traditional folk-music-and-dance sessions), walking tours, boat races, street performances, a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, and the (perfectly timed) Irish Craft Beer Festival. The committed can also make a side trip to Downpatrick in Northern Ireland, to visit St. Patrick's resting place at Down Cathedral.
While the St. Patrick's Festival may be the hottest ticket in Ireland, it's certainly not the only noteworthy event on the calendar. The Galway Races, held this year from July 30 to August 5, are the most prestigious and popular horse racing events in the country and attract over 150,000 spectators each year. The Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world yachting competition held every three years, will celebrate its grand finale in Galway this year, with a festival from June 30 to July 8; attendance at the Galway stop during the previous race was over 600,000—and Galway wasn't even an end point. And in Stradbally, about an hour southwest of Dublin, the Electric Picnic music and arts festival (sometimes dubbed "Ireland's Glastonbury") is a rock-and-roll-and-arts festival that routinely sells out. This year's event takes place August 31 to September 2, and the lineup includes such heavy-hitters as the Cure, The Roots, Grizzly Bear, and Hot Chip.
What liquor was invented in Ireland?
While Scotch is a tipple made only in Scotland, Cognac can only come from France, and true tequila must hail from Mexico, whiskey is a gift Ireland chose to share with the world. (Scotch whisky and American bourbon both evolved from Irish whiskey, which is generally triple-distilled, while Scotch is twice-distilled and bourbon is distilled once.)
Invented by Irish monks in about the 12th century (using perfume distillation equipment from the Middle East), whiskey quickly attained near-holy status. (The monks called it Uisce Beatha, meaning water of life.) The oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world is the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, licensed in 1608. Whiskey aficionados can tour the facilities at the historic distillery (bushmills.com, tours $11), as well as at several competitors' spots: Midleton Distillery in County Cork (where Jameson was originally made), Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath, Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin; and Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre in County Offaly. There's also an Ireland Whiskey Trail with free downloadable maps to the best pubs, bars, and shops for sampling the spirit island-wide. Prime among them is the Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin, which carries the most comprehensive selection of the 50+ Irish whiskies on the market today, along with rare bottlings from long-dead distilleries.
What’s the symbol featured on the Guinness label that was later adopted as a symbol of the Irish government?
- Sea lion
The Guinness harp, based on a medieval Gaelic instrument that may have been made for Irish king Brian Boru, was first used as a symbol for the stout in 1862. About half a century later, when the Republic of Ireland was established, the government chose that symbol, too, to be its national emblem. Lest you get them confused, just remember: The Guinness harp has its straight edge on the left, while the government's version has its straight edge on the right. As for the instrument that inspired it all, the so-called Brian Boru's Harp—you can see it on display in the Long Room of Dublin's Trinity College Library.
Other symbols associated with the Guinness brand — the sea lion, the toucan, and a host of other animals — were popular features in the brewery's ads and signage for decades, and there's an exhibition dedicated to them at the Guinness Storehouse at St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. The Storehouse is Dublin's most popular (paid) attraction, with more than 1 million tickets sold per year. While there, visitors can see how Ireland's favorite beer is made, learn how to pour a perfect pint, and take in the best views of Dublin from the circular, glass-walled Gravity Bar atop the building's seven-story atrium (guinness-storehouse.com, admission $19, includes one free pint).
What type of sports facility does Ireland have more of than any other country in the world?
- Horse racing tracks
- Links golf courses
- Rally racing circuits
- Fishing lodges
Ireland is a world-class golf destination, with an impressive 58 links courses — singlehandedly accounting for a third of all the natural links courses on the planet. It's common for these facilities to have high winds, few trees, and dramatic sand dunes (some as high as 200 feet) — all of which require a certain skill set to play well. (Most also have amazing coastal views, which only adds to the challenge.) One of the best, and most beautiful, is Royal Portrush Golf Club established in 1888 in County Antrim; it's routinely ranked among the world's top 20 courses and will host this year's Irish Open, June 28-July 1. Beyond the links courses, there are hundreds more parkland and heathland golf courses in Ireland, many over a century old, as well as new courses, such as the Jack Nicklaus-designed Mount Juliet Golf Course near Kilkenny, that incorporate the latest course-design philosophies.
What famous Irish musical group is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year?
- The Smiths
- The Commitments
- The Chieftains
In 1962, Paddy Moloney grabbed his uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) and four friends and formed The Chieftains, who went on to become the first musical group to popularize traditional Irish music around the world. They’ve won six Grammy Awards, one Academy Award, and the honorary title of Ireland's Musical Ambassadors; been nominated for 18 Grammys; released 41 albums; written a handful of film scores and tracks; and collaborated with music greats from Van Morrison to Elvis Costello to Luciano Pavarotti. To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Chieftains released an album and DVD, “Voice of Ages,” featuring collaborations with such thoroughly 21st-century musicians as Grammy winners Bon Iver and the Civil Wars, and Grammy nominees the Decemberists). Their 2012 U.S. concert tour culminates with a show on St. Patrick's Day at New York’s Carnegie Hall, with indie rockers Low Anthem opening.
In what city is James Joyce’s classic novel "Ulysses" set?
The ponderous, 600-plus-page "Ulysses" chronicles a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom — June 16, 1904, to be specific — as he makes his meandering way through the city and its environs. The novel is widely considered an important piece of Modernist literature, piling on stream-of-consciousness passages, parodies and puns, plus parallels to Homer’s Odyssey. It was banned in the U.S. in 1921 on obscenity charges, but is now firmly entrenched in best-books lists far and wide and holds the no. 1 spot on Modern Library's list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Each year on June 16, Joyce fans come out in droves for Bloomsday, dressing in period clothes and recreating the novel's pilgrimage through Dublin, pace by pace. (Others merely drop in on readings, concerts, afternoon teas, pub crawls and other events around the city.) The rest of the year, travelers can check out Dublin's James Joyce Centre, which houses reproductions of Joyce family portraits and the original door from No. 7 Eccles Street, Bloom's address in the book, or sign up for one of the Centre's three distinct Joyce-themed walking tours (jamesjoyce.ie, admission $6.50, tours $13).
What contributed to Ireland’s nickname “The Emerald Isle?”
- Emerald mines
- The green outfits leprechauns wear
- Abundant rainfall
- Green beer
Rainy days typically aren't a selling point for travelers, but Ireland's above-average rainfall is what makes its postcard-perfect landscape so lush and green year-round. The west coast typically gets rain 225 days annually, while the east and southeast coasts see about 150 days of precipitation. The wettest months of the year are December and January, and the driest month is April, although June is typically dry in the south as well. Ireland’s southeast enjoys the most sunshine. But don’t worry, the weather here changes rapidly, and rain typically alternates with patches of sun throughout the day. (And besides, it's always dry inside the pub.)
If you guessed leprechauns as the source of the nickname, consider this: While leprechauns do exist in Irish folklore, they were typically depicted wearing red up until the early 20th century. As for emeralds — you won't find their mines here. Instead, the "national gemstone" of Ireland is Connemara marble, an ancient (and yes, green-hued) stone that's found mostly on the island's west coast. And finally, a 1914 newspaper article attributes the invention of green beer to a New York City coroner's physician who added blue dye to beer for a St. Patrick's Day dinner at a social club — can't blame Ireland for that one.
What was the last port of call for the Titanic before its fateful voyage?
- Cobh, County Cork
The RMS Titanic launched from Belfast harbor on April 8, 1912, for her first — and only — voyage, stopping at Southampton, England, and then at Cherbourg, France, to pick up more passengers. The last port of call before the steamship set out into the Atlantic Ocean was at Cobh (then known as Queenstown) in County Cork, where another 123 travelers came aboard.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the boat’s sinking on April 15, there are special events in both Belfast and Cobh. The Titanic Belfast Festival March 31-April 22 features approximately 120 events, including Titanic site walking tours, boat tours, an MTV-sponsored concert (lineup TBD), the unveiling of the Titanic Memorial Garden, and a remembrance service with a performance by the Belfast Youth Orchestra. March 31 will see the opening of the Titanic Belfast museum near Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built between 1909 and 1911. The 150,000-square-foot museum, whose four angular, aluminum-clad wings were designed to evoke the hulls of ships, tells the stories of the ship's builders and passengers and the ship's sinking and eventual discovery on the sea floor (titanicbelfast.com, admission $21). The museum is the centerpiece of a larger, ongoing urban restoration project of the city's harbor.
In Cobh, Titanic 100 events will take place April 9-15 and include a genealogy workshop, an open-air maritime fair with food and market stalls, a lecture series, and Titanic-themed concerts; starting in April and continuing through the summer, local foodie spot Gilbert's Restaurant & Townhouse will also offer a special dinner service replicating the Titanic's own first-class dinner menu (gilbertsincobh.com, $59 per person).
Which sea cliffs are the most visited in Ireland?
- Croaghaun Cliffs, County Mayo
- Slieve League, County Donegal
- Cliffs of Moher, County Clare
- Benwee Head Cliffs, County Mayo
The striking, 702-foot Cliffs of Moher in County Clare attract about a million visitors each year, thanks to their stunning views of dramatic rock precipices, sea caves, pinnacles, and the Aran Islands 30 miles offshore. They are not, however, the highest cliffs in Ireland: That honor goes to the 2,178-foot Croaghaun Cliffs on rugged Achill Island, which is connected to the mainland by a 328-foot bridge. But if the island is easy enough to get to, the cliffs themselves aren't—you can only catch a glimpse of them by climbing to the top of 2,260-foot Croaghaun mountain or by hiring a boat. Travelers looking to split the difference should head to Slieve League in County Donegal; there, visitors can take in the 1,952-foot cliffs from a new viewing platform or hike the trails that skirt the cliff's edge. (Parking and access to the trails are free.)
Which of the following is NOT part of the famous Powerscourt Gardens in County Wicklow?
- A watch tower
- A pet cemetery
- A Japanese garden
- A steam-powered carousel
Answer: 4. Historically, no castle estate in Ireland would have been complete without a lavish garden covering at least part of its grounds. And thanks in part to Ireland's mild climate and ample rainfall, many of these fantastic floral displays still thrive today. The formal gardens at the grand, 18th-century Powerscourt House are some of the most spectacular — and the most accessible, just 20 minutes from Dublin by car (powerscourt.ie, admission $11). The original 1730s layout included a walled kitchen garden (for growing herbs and vegetables), a fish pond, and several walking trails; a century later, the sixth Viscount Powerscourt ordered an update, incorporating Italian-Renaissance features (ornate statuary, broad terraces) and a bounty of new trees. In later years, the viscount's descendents added Japanese gardens (with a pagoda and bridges), a crenellated stone tower with views of a wooded valley, a rose garden, and the massive fountain in Triton Lake, watched over by a pair of life-size stone Winged Horses — but no carousel of carved wooden animals. Instead, they established a pet cemetery — the largest in Ireland — as the final resting place for the Powerscourt family's dogs, cats, ponies and one Jersey cow.
What U2 song commemorates a tragic event in 1972 during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland?
- "New Year’s Day"
- "Where the Streets Have No Name"
- "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
- "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For"
“The Troubles” in Northern Ireland were tense in the late 1960s and early '70s, coming to a head on Jan. 30, 1972, the day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” In the Bogside area of Derry, British Army soldiers shot 28 unarmed civil-rights protesters and bystanders; 14 of them died. The incident was memorialized by Irish band, U2, in their 1983 protest song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and the band Black Sabbath were also inspired to write songs after the event.
The conflict between the Catholics and Protestants is now a part of the history of this previously segregated part of the country. The razor wire strung around the ancient walls surrounding the old city of Derry is now gone, and there are guided walking tours of the walls and the twelve large-scale murals (some the size of a three-story house) painted by the Bogside Artists to commemorate victims and themes of peace. Learn more at the Museum of Free Derry, the National Civil Rights Archive (museumoffreederry.org, admission $5).
Which movie was filmed mostly in Ireland?
- "The Quiet Man"
- "Michael Collins"
- All of the above
Answer: 4. Ireland's wide-open spaces, rugged coastline, frozen-in-time villages, and castles (in varying states of ruin) make it a favorite destination for location scouts and moviemakers. 1952's "The Quiet Man" shot scenes at Ashford Castle in Cong (now a five-star resort), at Thoor Ballylee (onetime home of W.B. Yeats), and at various spots in Galway and Mayo Counties. More recently, the Liam Neeson flick "Michael Collins" included a host of Dublin locations (City Hall, Grafton Street, Ha'penny Bridge, Trinity College, Kilmainham Jail) as backdrops. But Academy Award Best Picture winner "Braveheart" may take the cake: Not only were all of the 1995 movie's battle scenes filmed in Ireland, producer Mel Gibson also used nearly 1,600 members of the Irish Army Reserve as extras — and had the same extras portray both armies at different times to cut costs.
Many other popular movies have been filmed in whole or in part in Ireland: "Far and Away," "Saving Private Ryan," "The Princess Bride," "Barry Lyndon," "The Commitments," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," "In the Name of the Father," "The Crying Game," "Dancing at Lughnasa," "The Field," "My Left Foot," "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" and "Ryan’s Daughter."
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