Countless words have been used to try to capture the spirit and the essence of Ireland. Indeed, this island to the northwest of continental Europe has inspired and produced some of the most renowned poets and writers of the past century. Yet, Ireland’s dramatic scenery, warm and generous people, and near-perfect blend of the cosmopolitan and the traditional are best experienced in person.
In this interview with Mr. Harper, he shares insights about the enduring attraction of Ireland from his travels throughout the isle, including a recent trip to Ireland’s wild, rugged and more isolated northwest, which he also discussed in the July Hideaway Report.
What do you think first-time visitors to Ireland find most surprising, or least like the stereotype of Ireland?
Mr. Harper: While there are certainly ample opportunities to see the Ireland of the tourist posters, covered in verdant fields dotted with charming whitewashed cottages and well-populated pubs where you’ll always find someone ready to chat with, Ireland is firmly rooted in the 21st century. It has one of the best-educated populations in Europe, which has been a strong draw for businesses, especially in the technology, pharmaceuticals and finance industries. The road system is excellent, and you will find restaurants and hotels that, while full of character and traditional charm, are up to the minute in cuisine, comfort and service.
What makes Ireland stand out from other Western European countries?
Mr. Harper: Despite the modern motorways, blanket cell phone coverage, unfortunate housing developments and holiday homes seemingly everywhere, Ireland remains one of the most beautiful countries I know of. And once you get off the major roadways, you will quickly find the soft green fields with grazing sheep, horses and cattle, the pin-neat little towns and people who are always ready to extend warm hospitality, all the more so to Americans, to whom they feel a deep bond, as so many have relatives living here.
What are some quintessentially Irish things a visitor must do, see, experience or even taste?
Mr. Harper: Not necessarily in this order…In Dublin: Walk through St. Stephen’s Green and head down Grafton Street, the main shopping thoroughfare; stroll around Merrion Square to admire the beautiful Georgian townhouses and see their splendid doors painted in a multitude of colors; stop in one night at O’Donoghue’s (just off St. Stephen’s Green) for a night of chat, laughter and authentic Irish music; eat at one of the city’s fine restaurants such as Chapter One, L’Ecrivain or, for a hearty lunch, The Winding Stair, for excellent contemporary cuisine. In the countryside: Drive down a narrow country lane; stay at a fine country house hotel; abandon caloric concerns and have a full Irish breakfast, from the lean bacon to the wellseasoned sausages, to the farm-fresh eggs—and insist on having an ample side of wholesome Irish brown bread, with plenty of good Irish butter; visit a local pub and have a “jar” of Guinness and join in the local conversation; visit the sea coast, anywhere.
Is there an ideal time of year to visit Ireland?
Mr. Harper: Late spring into mid-June—just before the school holidays—and from mid-September to early November would be the times I’d recommend most highly.
Although the island of Ireland (including both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Indiana, how would you describe the differences and diversity among the regions?
Mr. Harper: There is a rich variety of landscapes throughout the island. The east and center tend to be gentle areas with soft hills, while the west can be dramatically rugged, especially in the north.
In traveling between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which are contiguous, did you notice any changes?
Mr. Harper: Although “The Troubles,” the sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, seem to be moving toward a permanent resolution, it is not a discussion that you should enter into. Sensibilities are still too raw. That said, you will find that the border is completely open and you will hardly notice any change between the two countries. The difference you will notice is in the road signage—the Republic uses its own, while Northern Ireland uses the British system, so one moment you will find yourself on, say, the N27 and then find that it has become the A32. Also you must be very careful with speed limits as they are posted in kilometers per hour in the Republic and miles per hour in Northern Ireland. (And when you rent a car, make sure you are insured for driving in both countries.)
It’s been said (and sung, by Johnny Cash) that the Irish landscape consists of 40 shades of green. Other than the Emerald Island’s many hues, which natural assets attract— and even surprise—visitors?
Mr. Harper: Especially after this latest trip, which took us to the rugged north of the country, where the seascapes of Donegal absolutely captivated me, I would say Ireland’s coast has always impressed me. From the gentle bays of the southwest in little towns such as Schull or the stunning Cliffs of Moher near Galway, Ireland’s meeting with the sea always provides a visual treat. I also highly recommend the distinctive area called The Burren near Galway, which is marked by ancient structures called dolmen and an array of geological and botanical features that should not really be found in this part of the world.
Not far from the capital cities, travelers can find themselves surrounded by the Irish countryside in towns and villages such as Mountrath and Glaslough near Dublin or Upperlands near Belfast. How do you suggest visitors balance their time between the city and the country?
Mr. Harper: One of the advantages of traveling in Ireland today is that when you have to drive significant distances, there are— in most places—major roads that will get you a good part of the way efficiently. But there are always lesser roads available to take you on beautiful drives through the countryside. I was happy with the balance we struck on this trip, opting whenever possible for the most developed roads when going from destination to destination, but then seeking out lovely byways, for example on the Rosguill Peninsula near Rathmullan in Donegal. In terms of city time, I would always visit Cork in the “I was happy with the balance we struck on this trip, opting whenever possible for the most developed roads when going from destination to destination, but then seeking out lovely byways.” southwest, Galway farther north, and I would consider no trip to Ireland complete without a few days in Dublin.
Northwest Ireland doesn’t receive the number of visitors that southern Ireland does. How does this rugged region, including County Silgo, County Donegal, the town of Rathmullan and the Fanad Peninsula, reward those travelers who do visit?
Mr. Harper: The landscapes in this region are stunning, and it would be unusual to drive for any length of time without wanting to stop your car and soak up the beauty around you. These areas are also part of, or very close to, what is known as the Gaeltacht, regions where the predominant language is Irish. You can stop into a pub here and hear the Irish speak in their own language, which is quite an experience. Don’t worry, they will speak in English when you do. And these are areas where Irish music is still very much alive. I would hope you might have the experience we did of heading into a pub one Sunday afternoon and being treated to a performance of brilliant fiddling.
What are five words you’d use to describe northwest Ireland that might not apply to the rest of the country?
Mr. Harper: As I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, I’m afraid I can’t be restricted to five words. The Irish themselves consider this the most remote part of their country, and it is to here that they come to get back in touch with a more elemental way of life, where they can hear Irish being spoken with frequency (and fluency), listen to some old tunes and gaze out to sea.
Ireland has produced many world-renowned poets and writers. What is it about Ireland that inspires such creativity?
Mr. Harper: My personal opinion is that this arises from two factors. First, the Irish are an ancient people with very strong ties to their land. Second, not to put too fine a point on this, when the Irish speak English, they are not using their native language, and I believe this has imbued them with an ability to use English in ways unavailable to a native English speaker. For a parallel example, I think of Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, but who wrote brilliantly in English.
In recent years, Ireland has experienced great economic highs as well as deep economic lows. How would you describe the mood in Ireland today, given the country’s current economic problems? Has this affected travelers?
Mr. Harper: This was a topic of conversation that invariably arose during our stay. I have to say that I found the Irish stoically accepting of their plight, which with 14 percent unemployment, a collapsed real estate bubble and failed banks, is serious indeed. The prevailing attitude seemed to be, “We behaved irresponsibly, we let this happen and we’ll work our way out of it.” I have no doubt they will surmount these terrible setbacks. As a foreign traveler, I did not feel that the economy impacted me in any way.
What do you enjoy most about Ireland? What is it about Ireland that makes you want to return for another visit?
Mr. Harper: Having been many times, I have to say that it is a combination of the physical beauty of the country in all its variety and the charm of the people. I have been in taxi rides in Dublin and have had delightful conversations with the drivers who speak with an erudition that would put most of us to shame. In the past few years, the caliber of the food has also become a real attraction for me. The sophistication of the cooking I’ve experienced and the high quality of the ingredients put Ireland in the first rank internationally.