You raise a pint to the uplifting sound of traditional music and listen as your pub-mate recounts how he tried to conquer the croagh just across the lough. He and his bird made it halfway up and it started bucketing brutal. Now he’s bushed and happy to sit here and blather with his Black Stuff and colcannon.
If you know everyday Irish slang, you know that you’ve been listening to “trad”itional Irish music and your friend and his girlfriend made it only halfway up that mountain that’s on the other side of the lake before it started pouring rain. Exhausted, he’s content to chatter endlessly, drink his Guinness, and eat his mashed potatoes and cabbage.
Colorful language comprises just a fraction of the fun that makes up Irish culture. When you journey to the Emerald Isle in a Discovery Tours small group, you’re sure to uncover more. And rest assured, it’ll be craic! (That’s pronounced “crack” and it means—we promise—you’ll have a great time!)
A Song in Their Hearts
When the Irish dance the night away, they’re summoning a tradition that stretches back generations. In many cities, it’s a nightly ritual to gather at rustic, relaxed pubs to catch up with neighbors over a pint or two. “Pub” is short for the old term for a watering hole, Public House, and the purpose of these original gathering spots was more to socialize than to drink. Today, if the band’s in the house to play some trad music, or traditional Irish music, there’s no telling when last call will be.
Trad music’s main instruments are harps, timpans (small stringed instruments played with a bow), fifes, buinnes (oboe or flute) and other winds, bagpipes, and fiddles. These ensembles and the folk music they play have survived into Ireland’s modern culture with more confidence than the traditional music of other European countries. For this, scholars thank Ireland’s remote location in relation to the European continent. Because it is situated so far west, it never became a battleground in the two world wars, so the oral traditions on which music thrives carried through the 20th century uninterrupted.
Irish dance has a similarly interesting background. The dance form that most Americans know today was popularized by Riverdance performances. This type of step-dancing has been influenced by the traveling performers of the 18th and 19th centuries. They showed up at fairgrounds or competitions and had to jockey for position in a crowded space, leaving them little room to perform. Some would hop onto a tabletop just to be seen. So it was by necessity that their dance style was so contained, with arms rigid at their sides. A more sedate dance is the ceili in which up to eight couples form a square and dance in formation, much like the square dancing of American culture.
A Rich Literary Tradition
For such a small country, Ireland’s literary influence on the world has been huge. It is proudly home to four Nobel Prize Laureates: William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. The first three were all born in Dublin, which earns that city bragging rights as the birthplace of the most literary laureates in the world. To some, this disproportionate literary surge makes sense; after all, Irish literature is the third oldest in history so it’s had a lot of time to achieve perfection!
Of course, many others also contributed to the Irish literary canon, and to the cultural pantheon of the world. Who has not heard of Dracula, whose legend was first penned by Bram Stoker? What child has not delighted to the stories of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s creation? And what lover of wit and social satire has not loved the plays of Oscar Wilde? All these beloved authors were Irish, despite that they lived much of their lives in London.
But perhaps Ireland’s most famous book is one of its very first. In the library of Trinity College in Dublin, four bound volumes are kept in a protected case. Together, these books comprise the four Gospels of the New Testament. The Book of Kells, as it is named (after the Abbey in which it was kept for centuries) is thought to have been created in 800 A.D. Each of its pages is elaborately and intricately illuminated with calligraphy, illustration, and geographic designs painted with ink that was imported to the “author” monks from exotic lands. It is one of Ireland’s most prized possessions.
Irish Cuisine: Beyond the Potato
The food of Ireland hasn’t traditionally been thought of as exciting or innovative. But that is changing as modern-day culinary awareness bolsters menus all around the world.
On the most basic level, Irish cuisine springs from the farm culture that has long defined the country. For centuries, it was a meat and vegetable culture until the potato arrived in the 16th century. No one could know then that this modest root vegetable would have dramatic effects on the Irish, their culture, and their politics. In fact, it’s fair to say that never before or since the Irish Potato Famine has a food altered the course of history so dramatically, instigating a mass exodus, changing the country’s birth rate and demographics for generations, and inciting political upheavals that would leave scars for decades.
Today, more than 150 years after the famine, the potato is plentiful. It appears in Irish stew, boxty (a kind of potato pancake), coddle (a stew of leftovers, which almost always includes potatoes), and colcannon (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage).
A new Irish cuisine has taken hold in the last 30 years or so. Led largely by the graduating chefs from the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork (which was founded by a local celebrity chef who embraces the slow food movement), new gastronomies—from pizza to curries to West African flavors—have been shaking things up in Irish kitchens. Salmon, trout, shellfish, fresh vegetables, and an array of cheeses now being produced throughout Ireland are raising the culinary bar in restaurants from Dublin to Galway. Perhaps this shift is an echo from Giuseppe Cervi, an Italian immigrant who brought a new dish to Ireland in the 1880s: fish and chips. His creation is now, of course, synonymous with Ireland and its British neighbors.
From language and song to literature and cuisine, it’s easy to lose yourself in the lovely and lilting culture of Ireland. Reserve our Irish Culture trip today, and you’ll soon be greeted with a hearty “Failte!”—the warm Irish welcome.