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.)