“My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” the former US President said during his 2011 visit to Ireland – his maternal roots having been traced back to the sleepy Irish town of Moneygall. For a relatively small country, Ireland has contributed greatly to the world, be it in politics, music, or cinema – with legends such as Bono, the late Sinéad O’Connor, Liam Neeson, Saoirse Ronan, and Cillian Murphy all calling it home. Irish-British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who spends time at his home near the town of Annamoe, nostalgically describes Ireland as, “A place for the renewal of hope.” It’s a sentiment often echoed by those who visit it. Ireland is a powerful archetype of nature, culture, and civilization coming together to produce something innately unique and inimitable. An island country resting on the western most fringes of Europe, Ireland – or the Emerald Isle as it’s fondly known for its astonishing greenery outlined by the winding Atlantic coastline – is one of the most formidable places on Earth. From 200m high sea cliffs and sixth-century monasteries to Celtic castles turned ultra-luxe boutique hotels, it offers a distinctive experience that resonates with the most discerning travelers.
The rugged coastline and impossibly beautiful landscapes have inspired writers, artists, and poets for centuries. The Gaelic language and rich Celtic history have given way to a cultural heritage deep-rooted in legends and folklore – one that continues to influence its present times. But perhaps the most enduring charm of Ireland lies in its people. It lies in their warm candor and authenticity that lends generously to the Celtic phrase “Céad míle fáilte,” meaning “A hundred thousand welcomes.” Naturally, you might never want to leave.
Dublin: A Literary Legacy
Dublin’s history dates back over a thousand years, and its streets are living testaments to the tales of yore. A Unesco city of literature, Dublin is home to writers such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Iris Murdoch, and more recently Sally Rooney. The capital pays quiet homage to their legacy through a rich cultural tapestry of art, music, and theater. The National Gallery of Ireland houses an impressive collection of European and Irish artworks, while the Abbey Theatre stages performances that range from classic dramas to experimental musicals. Irish folk music spills out into the streets at Temple Bar, a family-owned pub from 1840 that has now earned itself a place on the city’s cultural mantelpiece.
Walking down the cobblestones of Irish Street, explore Trinity College, founded in 1592 and home to the illustrious Book of Kells, an ancient, illuminated manuscript from the Bible written by monks in the ninth century. And just upstairs lies the Old Library, its magnificent Long Room filled with 200 000 of the institution’s oldest books, preserved in antique oak bookcases – a wonderful way to spend a rainy afternoon indoors.
Powerscourt Estate, of Weaves and Legends
An hour’s drive south of the capital takes you to a 13th century castle that seems like it’s straight out of a fairytale. Enveloped by an immaculately manicured 47-acre garden known as Powerscourt Estate, it is famous for blooming 10,000 lilies in the spring and is a dramatic sight to behold. In 2014, National Geographic rated it third on its list of the world’s top 10 gardens. Adding a layer of intrigue to the estate’s rich medieval history is the infamous feud between two families, the Wingfields and the O’Tooles, ultimately leading to the death of many members of their clans near a pond facing the castle, now known as the Killing Hollow. That, and a fire that gutted most of the castle in 1974, lend an almost otherworldly, esoteric quality to the experience of visiting Powerscourt today. The estate has served as a backdrop to many feature films over the years, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), and Ella Enchanted (2004).
The property is also home to the Avoca Handweavers shop that offers an opportunity to take home some authentic Irish textiles. These fabrics have found their way into global fashion trends through the legacy of Aran sweaters – handmade jerseys from heavy, unbleached local wool, with patterns denoting something meaningful to the Irish way of living (Taylor Swift wore one while promoting her 2020 album Folklore). More recently, Irish designers such as Simone Rocha have also shown collections that are deeply inspired by their traditions. Rocha’s FW23 showcase is a celebration of the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasadh and speaks to the practical Irish aesthetic of being “playful but never frivolous.” Rocha, who grew up on the outskirts of Dublin, believes that the fashion emerging from Ireland is deeply rooted in the “importance of family and this real respect for all the generations before you,” alluding to a moral verity that seems to permeate every aspect of Irish culture.
Galway & Glenlo Abbey
Wild and bohemian, Galway is the vibrant, beating heart of Ireland’s contemporary culture. Its streets are a riot of color, with bustling storefronts, buskers, and street art galore. Quay Street and Shop Street are lively thoroughfares lined with shops, boutiques, and cafes. It’s the perfect place to savor a steaming cup of Irish coffee while people-watching. On the shores of Lough Corrib near Galway, through cast- iron gates and up a meandering driveway, the 18th century Irish mansion turned boutique hotel Glenlo Abbey is a hidden gem (rooms from €349, Glenloabbeyhotel.ie). Built in the French Gothic style, the hotel is a delicious time capsule, taking you back in time with its baroque furniture and crystal chandeliers. But what makes the experience of staying here transcend the ordinary is Pullman Restaurant. This is a culinary journey on rails. A dinner here will have you step aboard two restored carriages from the legendary Orient Express and make you feel like you are part of 1920s French aristocracy, making your way from Paris to Istanbul in a gilded vintage dream. The menu features dishes like fresh Atlantic scallops from Galway Bay, artisanal cheeses from nearby dairy farms, and Irish classics such as Connemara lamb seared in black garlic cream.
A medieval fortress dating back to 1180, Kilkea Castle looks like something straight out of a Game of Thrones scene. Each of its 140 bedrooms is decorated with period-appropriate furnishings, giving you a taste of Irish nobility. The views from your window may include gardens, the lazily meandering River Greese, or the lush countryside. This family-owned estate offers a spa, an 18-hole golf course, and a gourmet restaurant called Hermione, nonchalantly named after the castle’s resident ghost, and offering fine dining Irish flair.
Originally published in Vogue Arabia Living Fall/Winter 2023