Food, music and history on the Emerald Isle

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By Randee Dawn

Céad míle fáilte!

In Irish Gaelic, it means “one hundred thousand welcomes,” and if you’ve got your eye on the Emerald Isle as a vacation destination, you’ll want to know it – because you’ll probably hear it a lot. It’s hard to imagine a country that welcomes its visitors with the kind of open arms that Ireland does, which makes it a delightful – and not overly tourist-heavy – place to spend a holiday.

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The only problem is that there are probably one hundred thousand possible ideas for what to do if you’re planning to visit Ireland! So in an attempt to winnow down some of the coolest new concepts for checking out the country, we pinned down Actual Irish Person Margaret Jeffares, a farmer and founder of Good Food Ireland – a kind of Good Housekeeping for the culinary farm-to-table movement that’s been sweeping the country. Here are some of her tips for navigating the green grasses and winding roads of Ireland – whenever you decide to go!

First things first: Do the Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the same way we do in the United States?

Absolutely. It’s a holiday and nobody goes to work, and it’s celebrated with parades in most villages around the country. St. Patrick’s Day is in the middle of our Lenten fasting – and for one day you can have your drink or your chocolate and the following day go back on the fast in the run-up to Easter Sunday. Historically, St. Patrick’s Day has focused around food; depending on where you lived there might be a pig reared for having to eat on the day, so it was a celebration of food.

Speaking of food, Ireland isn’t necessarily known as a culinary destination. But you’ve recently introduced food tours of Ireland so that tourists can discover more about Irish food and behind-the-scenes food preparation. How does this work?

We’re all only one or two generations removed from farming, and farming has transformed our landscape and the personality of our people. Farmers have started developing small artisan produce – dairy farmers are making ice cream, apple orchards are making cider vinegars – and we have this wealth of artisan food in our country. That’s allowed our chefs to create and shape the cuisine based on local ingredients. So now we’re creating bespoke experiences throughout Ireland for people who are visiting – you can meet the farmers or the producers, do a master class or cookery demo, sample craft beers and Irish whiskeys. We’re pulling all of that together as a one-stop shop for visitors; Good Food Ireland offers this connected experience of people first of all, then really great food.

When someone visits Ireland, what’s the one food they should make sure to eat?

It’s challenging to pick one dish, but Irish beef tastes so differently to American beef. So, I’d say our beef and lamb and seafood.

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Since we can’t eat all the time, how about other activities? Where’s a great driving destination?

The Wild Atlantic Way is a route from West Cork to the Northern tip of Ireland – like your Route 66. You go through such varied landscapes, and that’s a defined route that makes for a beautiful first time experience of Ireland. In Northern Ireland you have the Causeway Coast, which goes from Belfast to Bushmills and links up with the Way. The newest proposition is Ireland’s Ancient East, which is the area west of the midlands, which takes in Newgrange and goes all the way to Cork. The heritage and history there is incredible, and you have amazing castles. Newgrange is older than the Egyptian pyramids! It’s very much an area that’s about stories, and the stories of storytellers.

Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare
Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare

Where can you find great music?

Visitors coming to Ireland will find a spontaneity in our traditional music, that’s what makes it so different. You can go into a pub in [County] Clare and it might not be a set evening with musicians, but you could be sitting there at 8:00 and someone comes in for a drink and they have a whistle or accordion and just start playing music. The impromptu sessiuns are really special, and really make us Irish. Of course, there are always set evenings for music – in Dublin there’s a pub restaurant owned by a musician family called The Merry Ploughboys and they serve simple, rustic food. You can have that and watch the lads put on a little show.

Cliffs of Moher

Where can a tourist go without being surrounded by other tourists?

You’re never going to be crowded by tourists! There are a few key destinations in the West of Ireland where there are tourist attractions, but on your daily trip you won’t be flooded by tourists. Through the whole year you could walk on any beach in Ireland and be the only person on that beach. Everything’s full of hidden gems.

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For more information on Good Food Ireland’s culinary tours, go here.

Photo Credit: Margaret Jeffares

Randee Dawn is a contributor for InsureMyTrip and can be found at randeedawn.com and @RandeeDawn on Twitter.

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