What to Learn Before Your Trip to Ireland
Portmagee, Ireland. Photo by Tripscholars
Wondering what to learn before your trip to Ireland and why it is worth investing the time?
Imagine that you wake up in an historic thatched building and enjoy a steaming full Irish breakfast while visiting with the proprietor as she shares her best tips on your planned hike for the day. Then you drive through innumerable shades of luscious green with fuchsias cascading over stone walls lining narrow roads and hike out to stone age ruins. You finally cap the evening off in a bustling pub, pint in hand, with a front row view of talented musicians while you visit with friendly people from down the road and around the world. This is just one day on a trip to Ireland and each of them proves to be equally fascinating! What could be better?
Now imagine waking up in that same building, but it is in the actual town your ancestors emigrated from. Imagine reading the geological record of the breathtaking rocky cliffs under your feet as you hike and understanding the mix of flora (from both the Arctic and the Mediterranean!) growing onto your path. Imagine looking out from the stone age ruins and seeing, in your mind’s eye, the ebbing and flowing populations of earlier generations because you have studied the rich history of this island. And once you’re in the pub, imagine knowing not only the lyrics, but the historical significance of the songs themselves as you sing along. And imagine the craic you share over pints while you chat about local teams, politics, and maybe even try a bit of Gaelic.
A trip to Ireland is a dream destination for many travelers, and with some extra time, your trip to the Erin Isle can be sublime. I’ll be sharing what to learn before your trip to Ireland so that you can have the trip of your lifetime!
Press play and keep reading to find out what to learn before your trip to Ireland!
Why Plan a Trip to Ireland
One of my early memories is sitting with my dad and his weather-worn book of Irish songs and poetry, learning about the rich heritage and the tragic stories of Irish history. Through later years, I learned more about our connection to the Carroll side of the family.
Now, my husband, who is also of Irish descent, and I go to see Irish (or Irish-inspired) musicians as often as we can, enjoy Irish literature, and have dreamed of our own trip for years. As our 25th Anniversary was approaching, it wasn’t hard to decide how to celebrate. A trip to Ireland, of course!
Much like us, your reasons for traveling will be personal to you and your traveling companions. If you are traveling with kids, enjoy this collection of things for families to do in Ireland and be sure to read our article, Joyful and Educational Trip Planning for Families. Whatever inspires your journey, learning more about Irish culture will deeply enhance your trip. Read on to discover what to learn before your own trip to Ireland so that you, too, can have the trip of your lifetime!
What to Read Before Your Trip to Ireland
Bookworms love Ireland, and it is fascinating to interweave a love of literature and writing into your trip. Like many travelers, we spent a lot of the year reading and rereading some of the Irish greats.
Read Irish Classics
James Joyce is celebrated throughout Ireland and the world. While reading Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, my dad shared with me that when he first read it, it felt as if it was a beautifully written version of his own biography. This made the book even more powerful to me and inspired some good conversations. The audiobook Dubliners brought welcome companions for car rides in the months before our trip. And we got through some of Ulysses, but never finished! We’ve planned to eventually read it aloud, as Joyce intended.
Celebrating Joyce in this way made our visit even more moving. It was powerful to walk through the streets of Dublin and have his characters present in my mind’s eye. We stopped for lunch at Davy Byrne’s, a pub mentioned in Ulysses. We also had a stirring visit to the James Joyce Tower and Museum where he stayed in 1904. Visitors can also stop in Sweeny’s Pharmacy for readings and visit his sculpture off O’Connell St.
Other classics that we read that year included Samuel Becket, Jonathan Swift, and Oscar Wilde. This was obviously only the tip of a massive amount of talent and any visitor would benefit from reading their own favorites! Check out the Tripfiction website, which allows you to look up books by location; or visit this article for a jumping off point.
Read Books Inspired by Ireland
J.R.R. Tolkien was one of many non-Irish authors who spent time in, and was influenced by, the country. As Tolkien fans, we had read about the influence that the otherworldly landscape of the Burren may have had on him. We enjoyed lunch at Gregan’s Castle, where he stayed as an external examiner at NUI, Galway.
After lunch at the castle, we stopped at the Roadside Tavern in Lisdonvarna. Here we visited quite a while with Peter Curtain, the owner, who hosts the Burren Tolkien Society. While drinking his Shire-influenced beer, he gave us tips to find the unmarked Poll na Gollum, the cave some think inspired Tolkien’s description of Gollum’s own cave deep within the Misty Mountains. It was worth investing time before our trip to find these gems and go on our own Tolkien–inspired mini quest!
You can get even more ideas about incorporating literature into your trip to Ireland from our article, Planning a Literary Trip.
Celebrate the Book of Kells
One of the highlights of your visit to Dublin will be seeing the Book of Kells (BOK) in person. It is a stunning illuminated manuscript and one of Ireland’s national treasures. Scholars think it was made by an exceedingly small group of monks around 800 CE. It is now thought that only four scribes and three artists created some of the best of all Western calligraphy and illumination. The exhibit is fascinating, and the conclusion of the tour in the Long Room of the Library at Trinity College will make book lovers swoon!
The BOK has been separated into two volumes and each day they are open to view under a glass case. You can stay in the room with the BOK as long as you like, so wait for a surge of visitors to pass through and you’ll have the room to yourself!
Since you are only going to see four pages of the BOK on any given visit, it is worth your time to learn more about it before you go. The role of Irish monks, along with Muslim scholars, in preserving classical thought during the Dark Ages is fascinating. Their commitment is even more striking as you visit monasteries throughout the country and realize the dark, cold, and wet conditions under which they copied manuscripts and preserved learning.
I recommend getting a paper copy of the BOK to peruse from home before you go. The details in the artwork are breathtaking. You may want a magnifying glass to go with it!
Another option is to view it in the library’s free digital collection. If you visit the website from a computer rather than a smaller screen, you can get incredibly detailed images and magnify each section that intrigues you.
And, if you are especially curious, I highly recommend the free online class, The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece. It is remarkably well done for a free class and has many activities, lectures, readings, and online conversations related to the BOK. If it is not being offered, ask to be notified when it becomes available again.
Learn Some Gaelic
Like many travelers, I try to include language learning in my preparations. Not only is it a wonderful way to meet people and engage in conversation, it is also an intriguing window into the culture and history of your destination.
Having spent a little time with several languages, I think learning Irish Gaelic is difficult! However, school children throughout Ireland must study it, and there are still many native speakers in the Gaeltacht regions of the country. Throughout Ireland, yet strikingly absent in Northern Ireland, all the road signs are written in both English and Irish Gaelic.
Your time invested in learning Gaelic before your trip will serve you well. I mostly used Duolingo and because I was making so many mistakes, I splurged on the pro version. I couldn’t get far each day without it!
My efforts were worth it. We stayed at a lovely B&B in St. Finian’s Bay on the Ring of Kerry with the O’Connors. Jack was a Gaelic teacher, and, in the morning, we joined them for coffee at their picnic table, looking out over the Atlantic and Skellig Michael in the distance. Through much laughter, he gave me a little tutoring and helped me make some modest improvements with my pronunciation.
In latter conversations with people in pubs, it was fun to learn about their own Gaelic studies (or that of their kids) and receive more guidance. And finally, when we were on the Aran island of Inishmore, it was delightful to be able to greet and thank people in their native language. I wish you better luck than I had learning Gaelic, but I’m sure your efforts will be well worth it!
Raise a Pint
Visiting pubs throughout your trip to Ireland will be a joy! Regardless of what is in your glass, you will find enjoyable conversation and tasty food. Sometimes you’ll find quiet local conversation and sometimes great merrymaking.
To learn more about Ireland’s legendary hospitality, watch the lovely laid-back documentary, The Irish Pub. It explores the history of pubs through interviews with engaging publicans and their patrons from around the country.
We were able to enjoy a couple of pints at home while watching the documentary and then anticipate our visits as we planned the trip. When we finally visited pubs on our trip, we had a much better visit because of learning about them beforehand.
In the film, you will discover some gems like J. Curran’s Pub, where we were privileged to enjoy a couple of memorable nights in Dingle. Like most historic pubs, it was originally both a market and a bar. It has been in the family since 1871 they have resisted modernization. While visiting with James Curran, who can make anyone feel welcome, you can also pick up hardware and other essentials. Include it in your visit for a little living history and some great craic!
If you can, enjoy your drink at the bar for easy conversation. Even though Guinness is dark and tasty, the ABV is only 4.2%. If you add in dinner and plenty of water, you have a fair chance of being up early for each new day’s adventures– especially since most pubs close by midnight!
Enjoy the Music
Certainly one of the greatest gems of your visit to the Emerald Isle will be the live music. Whether you are marveling at the skills of musicians as you watch a traditional session up close, singing along with your favorite tunes, watching a dancing performance, or dancing with locals at a Ceilidh dance or with tourists in a pub— the music is amazing!
And if you dive in deep, you’ll discover the impact of music and storytelling though music throughout the history of Ireland. You’ll learn about why the English banned harp players and how the instrument became a symbol of Ireland. Then, when you visit Brian Boru’s Harp in its high place of honor in Trinity Library or see the Guinness Harp on pint glasses throughout your trip, you will know the powerful story behind it.
Invest some time beforehand, and your musical experience in Ireland will be even more extraordinary. Living the Tradition is a documentary about Irish airs. The Instruments and History of Irish Music is filmed in the US and is an informative mix of a lecture and the playing of songs. The Boys and Girl from County Clare is a fictional movie that takes you into the life of Ceilidh dancers.
An effortless way to learn some of the folk music standards that you’ll be hearing in pubs is to search for the Dubliners or the Chieftains on your favorite streaming platform. Consider using Bandcamp, where artists make a direct commission. Both bands have been ambassadors of Irish music and are two of Ireland’s (and the world’s) most loved traditional folk music bands.
From here you will start to find your own favorites and can craft a personal playlist. Sharing my personal favorites would have filled this entire article, so instead I am recommending this as a jumping–off point. You will quickly discover many talented bands, musicians, and singers from multiple genres covering the classics.
Because these traditional songs are standards, you can enjoy them from home, and then be able to sing along in pubs on your trip. As with any travel, follow the lead of locals to know whether to join in or listen. If you live near an Irish pub right now, find out if they offer live music. You may be able to enjoy a session before your trip!
If you are a musician yourself, you can find standards to practice from home. I use Guitar Tabs and have added many of them into my playlist. Watching talented musicians do justice to pieces I have stumbled through hundreds of times is one of the great thrills of watching live music!
O’Flaherty’s Bar, Dingle. Clip by Tripscholars
Movie and T.V. Night
With its stunning beauty, rich history, deep story telling tradition, and enchanting music, it is no wonder so many shows and films are set and filmed in Ireland. When you are planning a trip to Ireland, plan to spend many nights of quality entertainment beforehand.
Shows to Watch Before Your Trip to Ireland
There are several enjoyable television shows set in Ireland. Father Ted is a comedy classic, and although it only ran for three seasons, it is still immensely popular. Derry Girls is a fun, yet honest look at teenage life in Northern Ireland during the troubles.
Although the storylines were not set in Ireland, two of television’s most popular shows were filmed there. Game of Thrones was filmed in Northern Ireland, and Vikings was filmed primarily in County Wicklow. The stunning scenery will increase your anticipation of your upcoming trip and, because of their beauty, add a few more places onto your itinerary.
Movies to Watch Before Your Trip to Ireland
When looking for films set in Ireland, you have many to choose from. Waking Ned Divine will have you laughing aloud. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a moving account of the Irish Civil War. Once is a beautiful, musical story set in Dublin that you’ll long remember. And The Secret of Kells is an animated delight for the whole family.
As with TV shows, there are also many famous movies filmed in Ireland but set in other locations. Luke Skywalker’s monastic retreat in The Force Awakens was filmed on Skellig Michael and nearby on the Ring of Kerry. Ireland is graced with stunning cliffs, you might recognize the Cliffs of Moher in The Princess Bride and Harry Potter.
Plan Your Own Trip to Ireland
Irish culture is overflowing with opportunities for curious travelers to learn and find inspiration long before they visit. Whether you are planning a trip in a few months or many years into the future, there are valuable activities you can begin enjoying now to prepare.
In our upcoming article about what to learn before your trip to Ireland, we will share resources to learn about the history of Ireland. We will explore the ancient geologic past, fascinating archeological finds, the written history of Ireland, and how to find out if your ancestors were part of that history.
What are your favorite resources you have used before your trip to Ireland? Have you enjoyed any of the resources shared here? Please tell us about them in the comments so that other curious travelers can learn from you. If you are dreaming of a trip there I’d love to hear about it!
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