Landscape and people are what bring most visitors to Ireland - the Republic and the North. And once there, few are disappointed by the reality of the stock Irish images: the green, rain-hazed loughs and wild, bluff coastlines, the inspired talent for talk and conversation, the easy pace and rhythms of life. What is perhaps more of a surprise is how much variety this very small land packs into its countryside. The limestone terraces of the stark, eerie Burren seem separated from the fertile farmlands of Tipperary by hundreds rather than tens of miles, and the primitive beauty of the west coast, with its cliffs, coves and strands, seems to belong in another country altogether from the rolling plains of the central cattle-rearing counties.
It's a place to explore slowly, roaming through agricultural landscapes scattered with farmhouses, or along the endlessly indented coastline. Spectacular seascapes unfold from rocky headlands, and the crash of the sea against the cliffs and myriad islands is often the only sound. It is perfect if you want space to walk, bike or (with a bit of bravado) swim; if you want to fish, sail, or spend a week on inland waterways. In town, too, the pleasures are unhurried: evenings over a Guinness or two in the snug of a pub, listening to the chat around a blood-orange turf fire.
But there is another Ireland growing at a phenomenal pace alongside all of this. The extraordinary economic boom enjoyed by the Republic since the early 1990s has brought growth on an unprecedented scale. A country notoriously blighted by emigration is, at last, drawing people home with the lure of work. The conspicuous new wealth of many makes itself felt in every quarter of Irish life, but most especially in cities like Dublin and Galway where a proliferation of new bars, cafés and restaurants reveals a generation determined to enjoy life to the full. The cosmopolitan flavour of these cities is informed, in part, by the complex array of experiences brought home by returning ex-pats, more familiar with the ways of Melbourne and San Francisco, London and New York, than with those of the Aran Islands. The boom has its downsides - notably, spiralling property prices and the tensions brought about by increased immigration - but as a visitor you'll probably be most struck by the tremendous energy and palpable sense of confidence in the future, most especially in the young.
To act as a backdrop, there's a wealth of history. In every part of the island are traces of a culture established long before the coming of Christianity: sites such as Newgrange in County Meath or the clifftop fortress of Dún Aengus on Inishmore (the biggest of the Aran Islands) are among the most stupendous Neolithic remains in Europe, while in some areas of Sligo almost every hill is capped by an ancient cairn. In the depths of the so-called Dark Ages the Christian communities of Ireland were great centres of learning, and the ruins of Clonmacnois in County Offaly, the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary and a score of other monasteries are evocative of a time when Ireland won its reputation as a land of saints and scholars. Fortifications raised by the chieftains of the Celtic clans and the Anglo-Norman barons bear witness to a period of later turbulence, while the Ascendancy of the Protestant settlers has left its mark in the form of vast mansions and estates.
But the richness of Irish culture is not a matter of monuments. Especially in the Irish-speaking
areas, you'll be aware of the strength and continuity of the island's oral and musical traditions. Myth-making is for the Irish people their most ancient and fascinating entertainment. The ancient classics are full of extraordinary stories - Cúchulainn the unbeatable hero in war, Medb the insatiable heroine in bed, or Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn Mac Cool) chasing Diarmuid and Gráinne up and down the country - and tall tales, superstition-stirring and "mouthing off" (boasting) play as large a part in day-to-day life as they did in the era of the Táin Bó Cuailngè, Europe's oldest vernacular epic. As a guileless foreigner enquiring about anything from a beautiful lake to a pound of butter, you're ideally placed to trigger the most colourful responses. And the speech of the country - moulded by the rhythms of the ancient tongue - has fired such twentieth-century greats as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett.
Music has always been at the centre of Irish community life. You'll find traditional music sessions all around the touristed coasts and in the cities, too - some of it might be of dubious pedigree, but the
areas, and others, can be counted on to provide authentic renditions. Side by side with the traditional circuit is a strong rock scene, that has spawned Van Morrison, U2, Sinéad O'Connor and more recently The Divine Comedy and Jack Lukeman. And ever-present are the balladeers, fathoming and feeding the old Irish dreams of courting, emigrating and striking it lucky; there's hardly a dry eye in the house when the guitars are packed away.
The lakes and rivers of Ireland make it an angler's dream, but the sports that raise the greatest enthusiasm amongst the Irish themselves are speedier and more dangerous. Horse racing in Ireland has none of the socially divisive connotations present on the other side of the Irish Sea, and the country has bred some of the world's finest thoroughbreds. While association football is as popular as in most parts of the world now, Gaelic football, sharing elements of soccer and rugby (which itself has its hotbeds, notably in Limerick), still commands a large following. Hurling, the oldest team game played in Ireland, requires the most delicate of ball skills and the sturdiest of bones.
No introduction can cope fully with the complexities of Ireland's politics, especially the dramatic changes in Northern Ireland in recent years. However, throughout the guide we have addressed the issues wherever they arise and included pieces that give a general overview of the current situation. Suffice it to say that, just about everywhere hospitality is as warm as the brochures say, on both sides of the border