Ireland is a European country that is known for its time-honored traditions, sweeping rugged landscapes, and jubilant, easy-going locals. Its culture is distinct and easily detected, encapsulated in almost every aspect of daily life. From cheerful, traditional music, to the fine nuances of the Gaelic language and the prospering pub culture that has become the cornerstone of Irish tourism—it is a country that is truly in a class of its own.
Ireland’s unequivocal charm and beauty is the primary reason why more than 10 million tourists visited the country in 2017.
Let’s take a closer look at Ireland’s most-celebrated defining features.
The Gaelic Language
Gaelic, or as the locals say ‘the Irish language,’ is an integral part of Irish culture. No one knows the age of the Gaelic language. Gaelic is a Celtic language, as is Scottish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic (Manx), Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. The Gaelic languages come from Old Irish and the other three Celtic languages come from British. There were other Celtic languages spoken on the European Mainland, but they died out around 1,500 years ago. The Celtic languages are believed to have come from Common Celtic, which came from Indo-European itself.
The oldest remains of Ancient Gaelic that we have are inscriptions on Ogham stones from the 5th and 6th centuries. Old Gaelic was first written in the Roman alphabet before the beginning of the 7th century which makes Irish the oldest written vernacular language north of the Alps.
With English rule over Ireland strengthening throughout the middle-ages and into the 19th century, the Irish language declined and the Great Famine of 1845-48 dealt a mortal blow to it as an everyday language for most Irish citizens.
Today, Gaelic is a compulsory subject at school right up to the end of high school. As of 2016, studies showed that while 39.8 percent of Ireland’s citizens could speak Gaelic, only about 0.17% are fluent; and, while it remains the official language of the country according to the Constitution of Ireland, over 99% of Irish citizens use English in their daily lives.
Gaelic has found its way into the English language and some examples are banshee, esker, galore, and whiskey.
Irish traditional music can be heard throughout the Emerald Isle. From live pub performances to local radio stations to jam-packed outdoor music festivals—music is a fundamental aspect of Ireland’s culture.
Flutes and fiddles are two of the defining instruments of Irish music, while accordions are used for harmonic support. Ireland also has its own traditional drum, the Bodhrán (pronounced bow as in bow-wow and raun as in Raunchy),which has a large face (traditionally ranging from 25 to 65 cm in diameter, or 10–26 inches) that is covered with goatskin. The drum is played using a double-ended wooden baton called a “tipper” with one hand behind the drum skin applying variable pressure, thus producing a very wide variety of sounds from very deep to very high.
Folk tales are another prominent aspect of culture in Ireland. When most outsiders think of Irish mythology, they think of Leprechauns and pots of gold. But these images barely scratch the surface of the age-old stories that have shaped Ireland over time.
Below are some other prominent mythical figures in Irish culture:
Also known by the Gaelic term Asos sí, which translates to “people of the mounds,” historians have traced tales of fairies as far back as the late 14th century, but believe these fables existed long before they were documented. Many believed the fairy realm was located in a place called Tir-na-Og (“the land of the young”) and that those who lived there avoided death and remained forever youthful.
- The Children of Lir
The Children of Lir is one of the most widespread parables in all of Ireland. It is centered around Lir, a King and ruler of the sea (according to Irish beliefs), who had four children. His first born was Fionnghuala, a girl, and was followed by Aodh, a boy. The third pregnancy was twins, and his wife, Aoibh, died due to complications during birth—but his two sons, Fiachra and Conn, survived. After falling into a depression without his wife, Lir’s father-in-law sent his second daughter, Aoife (Aoibh’s sister), to marry Lir. Having no children of her own, however, she became jealous of how much attention the little ones received and decided to cast a spell on them, turning them into swans and forcing them to spend 300 years on Lake Darvra, 300 years on the sea of Moyle, and 300 years at Inis Glora. The children were returned to their human form by St. Patrick 900 years later, but they were old and decrepit with age. Seeing their agony, St. Patrick baptized them, immortalizing them in Christ and ensuring their souls would be taken to heaven.
- The Pooka
Sometimes spelled puca, phooka, or púka, this mythological creature is a popular character in Irish folklore. Pookas are believed to be temperamental, bringing either good or bad luck depending on the day. They are also said to be shapeshifters, meaning they can take the form of animals or humans if they wish. Pookas only appear at night and seem to enjoy getting into mischief. The stories say that a Pooka may offer you a ride on its back, or it may bring you terrible misfortune—and you never know which it will be. Some believe that you can appease the Pooka by offering it a small portion of your harvest in the fall, or by gifting the Pooka a small fee or trinket. Lastly, according to Irish traditions, a Pooka never says goodbye and will always leave you wondering if the encounter was real or imagined.
Published works are an important part of any society, but they are especially influential in regards to Irish culture and traditions.
Novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which has been hailed as one of the most important pieces of modernist literature, and Bram Stoker’s infamous Dracula, have shaped not just the culture of Ireland, but culture across the globe.
Other notable writers such as Irish dramaturg Oscar Wilde, and poet W.B. Yeats, have made literature what it is today. Yeats is considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century, Playright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is said to have hugely influenced modern drama while Wilde remains one of the most frequently quoted figures in literary history.
Guinness and Pub Culture
Guinness is considered by many to be the piece de resistance of Irish culture. In fact, approximately 1.7 million visitors toured the Guinness Brewery in 2017—making it one of the most frequented attractions Dublin has to offer, and one of the most popular breweries in the world.
But the best testament to the adulation Guinness receives is sales, which are astronomical, with more than 10 million glasses of the Irish beer being imbibed every day world-wide.
Guinness drinkers are exceptionally committed to the brand. True fans know that a “perfect pour” is achieved by holding a pint glass at a 45° angle and that the process should take 119 seconds from start to finish.
Did you know that in the past, people living in Ireland were given a free pint of Guinness after donating blood? While it was one of the more popular Irish customs, the government phased out this practice in 2010. So, if you’re ever playing pub trivia (a popular pastime in Ireland) and receive the question “What favored Irish tradition ended in 2010?”—now you’ll know!
The term craic can be linked to the Middle English word crak, which means “loud conversation” or “bragging talk.” While use of the word largely died out in Britain, in Ireland, the term craic is widely used when referring to local news, gossip, fun, or partying. It’s frequently used in the expression “What’s the craic?”, which is similar to “What’s the news?” or “What’s happening?”.
Those interested in Irish culture facts are often intrigued by this term. It has taken on a life of its own in Ireland and has come to be synonymous with a good quality of life. Those who enjoy a good bit of craic have lively conversations and social nights out on a regular basis, surrounding themselves with quality company and making memories to last a lifetime.
Without craic, well, the Irish simply wouldn’t be the happy-go-lucky, merrymaking individuals the world has come to know and love.
Dance is a very important part of Irish culture. The jig—a traditional dance that is typically performed to fiddle music and follows a 6/8 beat, is characterized by hop-like movements and repetitive steps.
Set-dancing is very informal and always performed by groups of people. It is easy to learn the basic steps, and you have to be surprisingly fit to last a whole evening of dancing. Set-dancing has undergone a huge increase in popularity in recent years.
At a more professional level, Irish modern step dance is popular. Dancers keep their backs straight as an arrow, mostly moving the feet, without letting their heels touch the floor. This type of dance was commercialized by the widely-known production Riverdance. Some sources suggest Tap Dancing evolved from Irish dancing by emigrants in the USA.
The culinary dishes of Ireland are unpretentious, hearty, and extremely satisfying. Most meals are created using readily-available local ingredients, including root vegetables (cabbage, carrots, potatoes, etc.), farmhouse cheeses, seafood, lamb, beef, and baked bread.
Beloved dishes include warm, wholesome stews, savory pies, and rich, velvety chowders.
The national dish is Irish stew—a thick, substantial medley made with vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, etc.), usually lamb, and simple seasonings (parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper).
For added depth, many Irish chefs add a cup of Guinness to the broth.