Ireland is enchanting. Eye-poppingly, Instagrammably, careful-you-don’t-crash-into-the-scenery so – and summer is when the Emerald Isle shines brightest.
After long hours of winter greyness, daylight stretches towards 10pm. Parents are out playing with kids after work. Sea temperatures rise, road trips come together on a whim and restaurant and cafe terraces spring to life. Forest parks fill up, and everybody is hankering after ice cream and cold beer.
Admittedly, it is peak season. Tourists cram the streets of Dublin, Galway and Killarney. But with a little planning – and a willingness to get off the beaten track – it’s easy to savour your moment in the sun, without fighting for elbow room. From quirky festivals to simple pleasures, here’s how to maximise your Irish summer fun.
Best of the Beaches
For a swim
You’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, but did you know Steven Spielberg’s sizzling D-Day landing scenes were shot in Ireland? You can swim in the same (albeit slightly more sedate) waters at Curracloe in County Wexford. Nearby, there’s a gorgeous swimming cove bracketed with seafood bars at Dunmore East, County Waterford, while those who like their beaches with a blast of the elements should plot a detour to Keem Bay on Achill Island, or Malin Beg on Donegal’s Slieve League peninsula. You’ll come away with salt on your lips… and a spectacular memory to savour.
For a scenic stroll
There’s nothing like a bracing beach walk, and Ireland has no shortage of those; its gnarly coastline is longer than Florida’s. Wander through Game of Thrones country at Whiterocks, near Portrush in County Antrim, or stash the car and strike out on a 30-minute walk through the grassy dunes towards Trá Mór (from the Irish, ‘big beach’) near Horn Head, County Donegal. As you walk, the sound of traffic recedes; no roads come within two or three kilometres of these stunning sands (NB: swimming is unsafe, however).
For a picnic
Pick up the makings of a memorable Irish meal in Dingle. Start with freshly baked bread from Bacús, and nab a selection of local specialities from The Little Cheese Shop next door. Take your bounty aboard the ferry to the Blasket Islands, where a short walk brings you through the husks of abandoned stone cottages to Trá Bán (‘white beach’), a strand you’ll likely share with sunbathing seals.
Winter brings the monster waves, but summer sees Ireland’s surf schools come into their own, with lessons for all abilities offered right around the coastline. Give this cool water paradise a whirl at surf hubs like Lahinch in County Clare or Strandhill in County Sligo, or get off-radar with a trek to more remote surf lessons with Narosa in Dunfanaghy, County Donegal.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is gaining popularity in Ireland, and beyond the coast. It’s surprisingly easy – try it with a guided tour along the Shannon Blueway in County Leitrim or the lake at Lough Derg. Another accessible option is a starlight kayaking adventure in West Cork, which makes an exhilarating adventure, from the skies above to the bioluminescent plankton below.
A new wave of greenways is cropping up in Ireland, with two of the best examples being the 42-kilometre Great Western Greenway between Achill Island and Westport in County Mayo, and the 46-kilometre Waterford Greenway connecting Ireland’s oldest city with Dungarvan in the southwest. Bikes can be rented in the area, with collections available at set points if you fancy a shorter spin.
Ireland’s islands pop off the page in summer, breathing life into bucolic landscapes. Book a breadmaking class on Heir Island, stay in a lighthouse keeper’s cottage on Clare Island, or drive across the causeway to Connemara’s Omey Island. Just make sure to leave before the tide comes in…
Bundoran’s Sea Sessions (21-23 June 2019) see a host of international acts descend on the seaside resort, with headliners this year including Norwegian singer Sigrid and British band Clean Bandit. Or change your tune entirely at County Clare’s Willie Clancy Week (6-14 July 2019). ‘Willie Week’ is Ireland’s largest traditional music summer school, commemorating the Irish uilleann piper.
Galway is chocabloc with festivals in summer, with its International Arts Festival (15-28 July 2019), Galway Races (from 29 July 2019) and an awesome oyster and seafood festival (27-29 September 2019) three of the best. The arts festival pits old and new together; in music, the line-up includes both Burt Bacharach and Irish rockers Bell X1. The horse races see hordes of elaborately dressed punters descending on the famous Ballybrit Racetrack, while the brackish oysters pair perfectly with a pint of velvety smooth Guinness.
There’s more to festivals than big events, of course. For a more intimate vibe, catch a boat to the Cape Clear Storytelling Festival, held on an Irish-speaking island off West Cork (30 August-1 September 2019). And for something plain mad, don’t miss Puck Fair (10-12 August), the Kerry tradition that sees a wild goat captured and proclaimed king of Killorglin for three days – the perfect excuse for a street party.
Al fresco food and drink
Irish food has improved with leaps and bounds in recent years, blowing stereotypes of beer and potatoes quickly out of the water (though not to worry, booze and spuds are still readily available). Taste the best of the weather with cocktails and outdoor eats at one of the country’s open-air hotspots: Layla’s, a swanky rooftop bar overlooking Dublin’s Ranelagh, or Cork’s Montenotte Hotel, with a bistro and balcony above the River Lee.
For a more casual meal, chow down on super-fresh fish at Harry’s Shack after getting sand between your toes at Portstewart, County Derry. Vegetarian bowls and restorative teas and coffees outside the Happy Pear are rewards for those who walk the 6.5-kilometre cliff path from Bray to Greystones in County Wicklow. Be sure to get there before 10.30am or brace yourself for queues stretching halfway up the village.
There’s even an emerging Irish ice-cream scene. Murphy’s in Dingle specialises in creative flavours like the Dingle Gin or caramelised brown bread. For something more classic, like a scoop of rich homemade vanilla, stop by Molly Gallivan’s cottage near Kenmare, County Kerry.
Parks and gardens
In County Galway, Brigit’s Garden charms with its fairy-tale-like thatched houses, sundial and Celtic gardens set among woodlands and wildflower meadows. In Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, check out Dún na Sí heritage park for a dose of living history, including a blacksmith’s forge and famine hedge school. And in Ireland’s Ancient East, risk a serious case of real estate envy with tours of County Kildare’s Castletown House – right on Dublin’s doorstep – and the Italianate gardens at Powerscourt, County Wicklow with a café, gift shop and beautiful old house to match. Inland, families will appreciate Lough Key Forest Park, where adventures range from aerial adventure courses to exploring old servants’ tunnels.
PS: A rain check
Ireland stays gorgeously green thanks to nature’s great sprinkler system – so no matter the season, the first item in your suitcase should be a light raincoat. If the drizzle turns to a deluge, duck into a museum or gallery – or get creative. Trinity College’s Science Gallery, Cork City Gaol and County Clare’s Aillwee Cave are three Plan Bs to have up your sleeve.