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Top ten mistakes to avoid when traveling to Ireland

The life of Ireland is in the pub
The life of Ireland is in the pub
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Just read a list of mistakes not to make on your trip to Ireland. Most of them were stupid, so I thought I'd create my own.

When I was in college, we read a book called The Ugly American. There are reasons why Americans are not universally loved in other countries. My high school Spanish teacher once told us he was glad he could speak Spanish without an American accent so he wouldn't be associated with the other Americans he encountered in Spain. We Americans have many endearing qualities. We also do stupid obnoxious things when traveling. Forewarned is forearmed, so here are ten things you should never do when traveling, especially to Ireland.

1. Don't come unprepared.
Good guidebooks are essential. Rick Steves offers my favorites. You can also use those from Fodor, Frommer. Michelin, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Let's Go, DK Eyewitness Backroads Ireland, and more. Check them out in your local library and decide which one(s) you like best, then purchase one or two favorites. If your guidebook covers much more than places you plan to visit, tear out the relevant sections and leave the rest at home.

While you're at it, check some internet forums for up-to-date, often locally sourced information. Many people are intimidated when they do a web search and find out how much information is out there, so limit yourself to a few good sites. I like TripAdvisor, but there are others out there too. Local councils and visitor's bureaus often have excellent information, so search for those with the local place names you want to visit.

Do your research before you come, check and verify it with as many sources as possible, and carry the information you need as you travel for constant reference. That way, you'll be ready for anything, expected or not.

2. Travel as a local as much as possible, rather than as a tourist.
I call this traveling through the "back door." Where I grew up, in the hinterlands of eastern Colorado, only strangers knocked or rang at the front door. Friends come through the back door. That's so true in Ireland. A big tour company will show you great scenery through the window of the coach, as you follow all the other coaches to attractions and shopping areas that give the driver a commission on sales. Get away from those, find the locals, and learn how they live and what they value. Your trip will be so much better. The next suggestion is an excellent way to make this happen.

3. Don't neglect the pubs.
The two most important social centers in Ireland are the pub and the church, in that order. While the church is essential to Irish culture, the pub is where it is really experienced. That's confusing and contradictory to Americans, who often don't know the difference between a pub and a bar. A pub may HAVE a bar, but it's far more a place to socialize, meet people (not in the "pick up" sense of many American bars) and truly experience the life of a local. For this reason, I don't ask which pub someone recommends, I ask which one they go to after work. I have an entire article with more details on this. Check it out here.

4. Don't travel in the peak season.
OK, so this one may not be avoidable, depending on when you have your time off. But if you can, visit Ireland during what is called the "shoulder" season. High season in Ireland is the summer, from June through August. Mid-September through October, and April through mid-May are times when far fewer people travel, so you'll avoid crowds, find the locals less stressed, and even save money on airfares. You can travel the low season (winter) if you want, but the weather is not as friendly and many attractions are closed. Not bad if you spend much of your time in pubs (see above) and stay away from the tourist traps. This can be especially good if you like walking in the rain, but bring a good woolly jumper and a plastic mack. More info here, and here.

5. Don't miss Northern Ireland.
Americans have heard the stories of The Troubles, and violence in Northern Ireland. But first, those times are largely behind us, and second, the violence was only between those who had grown up with the enmity between them; they never mess with tourists. Seriously, there was once a time when bombs went off and people were gunned down, but such things are a seriously rare occurrence these days, and they only target known enemies, never tourists. There's no such thing as 100%, but I've never heard of Americans or other tourists being involved in such incidents these days.

On the other hand, Northern Ireland has some of the most outstanding scenery anywhere in the world, you can visit such places as the shipyards where the Titanic was built, and the pubs are as friendly as any you'll find in the Republic, as long as you don't try to talk politics. The Irish in the North are proud of their British heritage (well, most of them), but they're still Irish to the core, and proud of that as well. And as an American, you can travel both sides of the controversy, from the walls of Derry, to the Shankhill road and bogside, to the Orange lodge and Church of Ireland facilities. Travel is a way to open your eyes to realities you've never known or experienced at home and the North of Ireland is an outstanding place for that. Ask questions and keep your mouth shut, you'll learn more. Plus, you've never experienced the glory of a real Irish breakfast or full English breakfast until you've had an Ulster Fry.

6. Don't miss out on the music.
Irish traditional music (or TRAD, as aficionados call it) reaches the soul more thoroughly and effectively than almost any other type of music, whether you're Irish or not. I have played, sung, listened to, and experienced TRAD music in many different venues, and I never cease to marvel at the emotional impact it has on those who experience it. I have played and sung with Germans, Scandanavians, Europeans, Americans, and those of many different backgrounds; all of whom have chosen this style of music because of the way it attracts. It's astounding.

As you follow this advice, and I really hope you do, read points 2 and 3 again. There are many places where they play only for the tourists. They can be interesting, but the real music of the people happens mostly in pubs and homes. Find a small local pub, not just a tourist trap like Temple Bar in Dublin. (Though Trinity College students actually lead an interesting TRAD music pub crawl out of the Oliver St. John Gogarty Pub. It's a good compromise if you have limited time.)

For the real experience, find small town or out of the way pubs, where the locals gather just to enjoy the music and each other's company. For instance, instead of the Temple Bar when you're in Dublin, visit nearby Howth. Check out Doolin and Ennis, rather than the more touristy Galway. As with the pubs, ask locals where they gather, where they like the music, rather than where they recommend to tourists.

7. Don't limit yourself to the bigger towns.
As above, remember that bigger places, such as Dublin, see a lot more tourists, so they become jaded and offer what they think you might like, more than something you really should experience. Find time to get out into the country side, the small communities that are the heart of Ireland. Stay in a local B&B (instead of a hotel) and ask the landlady some probing questions about her favorite ways to spend some quality time. I know of a couple who own a B&B in Dingle who also do archaeological tours of the peninsula. That kind of discovery can make an already enjoyable trip into the experience of a lifetime.

In the UK and Ireland, every neighborhood in the big cities has its own local pub, where neighbors and friends gather regularly. That's even more true of smaller towns, where the controversies of the day may be forgotten for the moment over a few pints. That's when you start to experience the music and the stories that make the Irish people famous.

8. Learn about the history of the country.
The Irish are said to have a long memory. The famine of 1845 is a recent event. This past April we commemorated the anniversary of Brian Boru rising to become High King of Ireland in 1014 AD. The ONE THOUSANDTH ANNIVERSARY. I mentioned archaeological tours above. There are passage tombs a Bru Na Boinne that are older than the oldest pyramids of Egypt. The story of Ireland goes back ten thousand years or more. Don't miss that when you go.

When we took the loop road around the Dingle penninsula, we saw clochan (stone huts) that are still tight against the rain hundreds of years after they were built, and the Gallarus Oratory, built along similar lines and just as solid as it ever has been. We saw standing stones so old that nobody knows why they were set up, and pillar incised with Ogham, one of the oldest forms of writing known to man.

I have a friend who says that every stone next to every road and field in Ireland has a story. You'll find that the locals know those stories and will be glad to tell them to you, especially if you buy them a pint. Speaking of which, don't forget that in Ireland, the custom is that you buy a round for you and your friends, and they return the favor, unlike America, where everyone is responsible for his own drink. So if someone buys you a pint, don't neglect to return the favor.

9. Don't miss out on local sporting events.
Hurling is the national sport of Ireland, and its cousin GAA football is played in every county and townland you're likely to visit. You may not be able to find an event in Croke Park, but you'll certainly see somebody playing one of those sports, or perhaps soccer, rugby or Australian rules football in any local community. I spent some of the most enjoyable hours in Kilronan (the only town in the Aran Islands) with some locals, watching a football (soccer) match between Dublin and Westmeath. It's a great way to really get to know people.

10. Don't try out your Irish accent.
There are many other possible mistakes you could make on your trip, but I saved this until last because so many Americans just don't understand how stupid it sounds when you great them with "Top O' The Morning" or some other cliché you learned from the Lucky Charms leprechaun. If an Irish man or woman came to America and talked like a cowboy from a 1930's western movie, you would look on them the same way as the Irish look on an American who comes to Ireland and says, "Sure and begorrah, 'tis a grand country you have here."