The Complete Guide To: Irish Festivals

Music, dancing, carnival queens, oysters and inviting pubs. And it's all set in a beautiful landscape dotted with ancient remains and mystical megaliths, says Harriet O'Brien


IN SEARCH OF IRISH GOLD

During this hot, dry summer even the Emerald Isle has turned a light shade of gold. Which is not to say that there haven't been moments of descending mist and rain on the wet and green island. However, in terms of "Irish gold", it's not so much colour we're seeking as ambience, quality and intrinsic Irishness across the entire island during the festival season. Wherever you go during August and September you'll find there are celebrations taking place nearby, from street performances and theatre to traditional music, jazz and food fairs.

SO I'LL HEAD TO THE HEARTLAND...

Then you'll be making for the medieval city of Kilkenny. Kilkenny is said to be the creative centre of the island, a bustling, cheerful place that in the mid-1600s almost became the capital of Ireland. Set on a wide sweep of the pretty river Nore, it has an imposing castle dating from the 12th century but with a Victorian interior (open daily 9.30am-7pm/10am-6.30pm in September; admission by guided tour only €5/£3.60), a wonderful 13th-century cathedral complete with much earlier round tower built for Viking-spotting (St Canice's Cathedral open Mon-Sat 9am-6pm/10am-5pm in Sept and Sun 2pm-6pm/ 2pm-5pm in Sept; admission €4/£2.85 to both church and tower); a glorious Tudor merchant's house (Rothe House open Mon-Sat 10.30am-5pm and Sun 3-5pm; admission €3/£2.15) and a host of other ancient buildings including an old alms house recently refurbished to accommodate the tourist office (Shee Alms House, Rose Inn Street; 00 353 56 775 1500; www.kilkennytourism.ie).

There's a wide choice of places to stay in Kilkenny, but if you want a slightly eccentric treat in the best of Irish traditions, book into Butler House (16 Patrick Street; 00 353 56 772 2828; www.butler.ie; doubles from €80/£57 with breakfast). This Georgian building with a huge, semi-secret garden, was once the dower house of Kilkenny Castle and is now run as a guesthouse by the Kilkenny Civic Trust. The rooms are enormous, the Seventies décor mildly bizarre and the atmosphere wonderfully laid back.

AND THE EASTERN OUTLOOK?

The landscape of the sunny south-eastern region around Kilkenny lacks the visual drama you'll find over in the west, but as if in mitigation there's a wealth of absorbing sites. Follow the Nore Valley about 15 or so kilometres due south of the city and you'll reach one of Ireland's finest and most interesting ruins. Jerpoint Abbey (open daily 9.30am-6.30pm; admission €2.90/ £1.90) was founded as a Cistercian monastery in the 12th century and dissolved during the Reformation, although local people are still buried here. For a good flavour of Ireland's haunting past there are two must-see sites a little further south.

The Irish National Heritage Park (open daily 9.30am-6.30pm; admission €7.50/ £5.35) at Ferrycarrig just outside Wexford contains a collection of recreated settlements from 7,000BC to the arrival of the Normans in the 12th century. You stroll through the open-air museum looking into reed-topped homesteads, farms, an early monastery and more. Over in New Ross, the port town on the river Barrow, SS Dunbrody (open daily 9am-5pm; guided tours only, €7/£5) is a painstaking reconstruction of a three-masted famine ship that transported waves of starving Irish to America in the 19th century.

On board, actors recounting the experiences of the emigrants add to the poignancy of a visit here. Yet on arrival, many, of course, thrived and created their own new culture, which is now periodically fed back to Ireland. A Bluegrass festival of American immigrant music which had its roots in Irish traditions takes place from 24-27 August in the picturesque village of Dunmore East on the coast near Waterford Harbour. This year's gathering somewhat unusually features a string band from France as well as US and Irish participants. Over in Waterford there's a more formal musical celebration in September with the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera (18 September-1 October; www.waterfordfestival.com).

WHAT ABOUT OUTDOOR DRAMA?

For spectacular scenery County Kerry in the south-west takes some beating. It's a land of moor and mountain, lakes and jagged coastlines - and at this time of year lots of tourists. The famous Ring of Kerry driving route around the lovely Iveragh Peninsula tends to get fairly congested, but a far better option is the Kerry Way long-distance footpath that follows a similar - and greener - trail. The entire route is 215km long and presents some tough going in remote areas: for more information as well as details of accommodation from which your luggage can be transported see www.kerryway.net.

Smaller and arguably more magical is the adjacent Dingle Peninsula, a mountainous finger of land studded with ancient monastic remains and exuding a mystical atmosphere. The pleasant little town of Dingle makes a good base for exploring the area. Here classic accommodation, full of old-world charm, is offered at Dingle Benners Hotel (00 353 66 915 1638; www.dinglebenners.com/ www.manorhousehotels.com; from €90/£64 per person including breakfast).

The northern gateway to the Dingle Peninsula is Tralee, a bustling place that uninspiringly bills itself as Ireland's biggest town. In August, though, Tralee comes into its own with the Rose of Tralee festival (this year running until Tuesday; www.roseoftralee.ie). With street parades, open-air performers, band recitals and more, this is in essence a celebration of William Mulchinock's 19th-century love song "The Rose of Tralee", and during the festival young women from all over the world compete to become carnival queen.

WHERE CAN I STAY IN STARK BEAUTY?

The Burren, that large limestone plateau facing the west coast in County Clare, is the antithesis of green (or even golden) Kerry. The harsh, haunting landscape has historically supported few people, but an intriguing sprinkling of megalithic tombs and Celtic crosses bears testimony to those who have been inspired (or defeated) by the austere yet magnificent stretch of land. Set in a seaside village on the edge of this stark area is one of the island's most delightful places to stay: Mount Vernon (00 353 6570 78126; www.hidden-ireland.com; B&B from €90/£64.30 per person), overlooking Galway Bay, is a Georgian house that once belonged to the artist Sir Hugh Lane. During the early 1900s his aunt entertained notable luminaries here including Yeats, Shaw and Synge, and the house is filled with antiques* *and paintings that capture something of the mood of Ireland's cultural renaissance. With only three guest rooms, Mount Vernon has very much a house-party atmosphere - and you can opt to have home-cooked dinner here, based on fresh organic produce.

AAH THE FOOD FACTOR...

Just north of County Clare, around the fringes of Galway Bay, lies some of the prettiest scenery of County Galway. This is also oyster country, although you'll have to wait a few weeks before you can eat any of these locally bred bivalves. Since 1954, the small village of Clarenbridge has kicked off the oyster season with a festival, which now attracts visitors from all over the world. This year's celebrations run from 8-10 September and highlights will include a traditional market, a hurling league (that fast and furious Irish branch of hockey), and an Irish music night ( www.clarenbridge.com). Later in the month the lively city of Galway, folk capital of western Ireland, holds a bigger and more famous oyster festival (28 September-1 October). Bands, street performances, musical pub trails and a parade of flags are some of the activities, but the central feature of the festival is a hotly contested oyster-opening competition ( www.galwayoysterfest.com).

FOR POETIC APPEAL?

Today, County Sligo tends to be somewhat underrated by tourists. But that certainly wasn't the case for William Butler Yeats. The Irish poet and dramatist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 was born in Dublin but spent many of his early years in County Sligo. In later life the rich scenery of mountains and lakes was reflected in many of his works, most notably "Lake Isle of Innisfree" - this small island being situated on Lough Gill to the east of Sligo town. Yeats is buried in the grounds of the Protestant church at Drumcliff, a seaside village that lies in the shadow of the spectacular Benbulben mountain.

One of Ireland's most gracious country manor hotels is set in 500 acres of farmland near Riverstown in the heart of Yeats country. Coopershill House (00 353 7191 65108; www.coopershill.com; doubles from €222/£160 including breakfast) is a member of Ireland's Blue Book, an association of historic and charming owner-managed country hotels and restaurants. The Georgian house has eight guest rooms furnished with antiques, with a happy addition of Irish quirkiness: there are peacocks in the garden, while indoors, an African grey parrot strolls around the ground floor.

AND THE WILD WEST?

The 320km coastline of County Donegal is a near-fantastical sequence of peninsulas, bays and promontories. Arguably the most sensational stretch is between Donegal town and the far-flung village of Glencolumbkille [or Glencolumbcille] where St Columba founded a monastery in the 6th century and adapted the area's pre-Christian standing stones, some of which still remain. The village was all but abandoned after the potato famine of the 1840s, yet during the 1950s it was revived by a local vicar. With its fuchsia-filled lanes and painted houses, today it is a lively place with a centre for Gaelic culture ( www.oideas-gael.com).

Inland, Letterkenny is County Donegal's largest town. Fairly newly redeveloped, it underwhelms at first sight. But at the end of August it is well worth visiting for what locals claim is the world's largest celebration of Irish culture, Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, (this year taking place from 25-27 August; www.comhaltas.com/fleadh/eireann.htm). Thousands of dancers and musicians - singers, harpists, flute players and more - gather to compete in concerts open to the general public, while afterwards impromptu sessions often take place until the early hours of the morning ( www.fleadh2006.com).

OR NORTHERN EXPOSURE?

More tourists still need to be persuaded to visit Northern Ireland in significant numbers. But perhaps that's all to the good, with the region's most glorious stretches of landscape remaining unspoilt. With much justification, the most popular areas are the nine green Glens of Antrim and the weird landscape of the Giant's Causeway, great cliffs towering over its hexagonal columns of basalt rock. These north-eastern regions offer a winning combination of elemental beauty and much myth and legend.

The old port town of Ballycastle acts as a gateway to both areas - and also hosts Ireland's oldest festival. Oul'Lammas Fair takes place this year from 28-29 August. It dates back to at least the 17th century, a celebration of harvest time that has an unbroken history of more than 300 years. Serious business is conducted over livestock sales and horse trading while market stalls sell crafts and local specialities such as dulse (dried seaweed) and a honeycomb toffee known as yellowman.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Tourism Ireland covers the length and breadth of the island, north as well as south: 0800 0397000; www.discoverireland.com.

BELFAST: NO MEAN CITY

Belfast is very much regaining a sense of pride, and the opening of the stunning Merchant Hotel, pictured right, (028-9023 4888; www.themerchanthotel.com; doubles from £220 per night including breakfast) in the Cathedral Quarter earlier this year has wowed the city as well as visitors. Once the headquarters of the Ulster Bank, the building now offers sumptuous accommodation, with antiques, huge bathtubs, and great swathes of curtains. In September, an intrinsic flavour of the city is provided at Belfast's oldest library, the Linen Hall at 17 Donegall Square North (open Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm and Sat 9.30am-1pm; www.linenhall.com; admission free but donations welcome). From 1-30 September it hosts No Mean City, a celebration of literary Belfast from the earliest printing presses to the works of today's authors such as Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley.

September also sees Dublin in best theatrical form. The city's Fringe Festival starts on 9 September and offers three weeks of music, drama and dance ( www.fringefest.com), while the Dublin Theatre Festival runs from 28 September-14 October ( www.dublintheatrefestival.com).

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