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Ireland: Your Winter Destination

Cashel in January

Cashel in January - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Despite an aggressive economy, one of the fastest growing in the industrialized world--at least until a year ago--Ireland to many visitors seems pleasantly old-fashioned. We would not want to dispel that myth, even though Ireland seems to be racing toward the future with an emigration reversal and a greatly diminished unemployment. Ireland is really what the traveler chooses to make of it, and pleasantly rural vistas and a slow pace of life may still be found just outside the cities. Top draws are its spectacular scenery and warm, friendly people, neither attraction being dependent on a break in the fickle weather.

If you prefer fewer people and want to feel like you're the only tourist in town, a winter holiday fills the bill. The downside is that it's cool to cold, daylight hours are short at this time of year, and many attractions may not be open as they shut down or begin "winter hours" at the end of September. (Winter hours generally means they are open only on weekends.) Still, there are many places to visit that are open all year, and all the outdoor attractions, castles, cathedrals, high crosses, dolmens and stone circles are open to view anytime. Plus many hotels and self-catering cottages offer reduced winter rates, so combining that with your low-cost airfare can mean serious savings for the intrepid traveler.

I spent one December-January in County Waterford and found the weather far better than expected, the countryside verdantly green, the shopping superb, and the pubs warm and inviting. It was an excellent time to visit the castles at Cahir and Kilkenny, Ormonde House in Carrick-on-Suir, and the wondrous Rock of Cashel. The starkness of leafless trees against a winter sky painted a picture you'll long cherish. A pleasant surprise is that the grass stays green all year.

Packing for your winter holiday won't be much different than planning a spring visit: comfortable shoes for walking, jeans and slacks, a warm wool cardigan or pullover bought when you get there, an all-weather jacket, an umbrella, and layered clothing. Turtleneck tops to mix and match and wear under a cableknit pullover work well. A silk camisole under all is great for warding off the damp. Casual dress is acceptable everywhere in Ireland. Men may desire a jacket or blazer for dining in fancy hotels or restaurants, but ties are not generally required. Women may wear either slacks or skirts.

As expected, heating costs will be higher in winter. Most self-catering places charge extra for heat. Sometimes a meter is read upon arrival and departure, while other places may have a coin-operated system. Budget for an additional 10 to 15 pounds per week.

Christmas in Ireland often features festivals and outdoor entertainment. Horse races and hunting trips are plentiful, and the pubs with their warming open fires, lively craic and music are always welcome. In fact, winter visitors find their Irish hosts and acquaintances, having extra time on their hands, take added interest in their guests.

For visitor information prior to departure, contact the Irish Tourist Board in New York (800-223-6470) or in London (0171 493-3201). For visitor information for Northern Ireland, there's a Northern Ireland Tourist Board office in New York (800-326-0036) and in London (0171 355-5040). Available for the asking are maps and many different brochures advertising escorted tours, sights not to be missed, heritage centers, castle accommodations and more. One useful book to consider is the Bed and Breakfast Guide. A similar Hotels Guide is also available by request. The Tourist Board staff are knowledgeable and very helpful in answering all sorts of questions relating to Irish travel, transportation within the country, accommodations, festivals and more.

Once you arrive in Ireland, a visit to the local Tourist Board offices (Bord Failte) will display a number of useful booklets, heritage cards and other items at nominal cost.

Ireland's close proximity to the Gulf Stream assures that temperatures stay in the moderate range. Winter is mild except in the high mountain ranges, and snow may fall in areas but does not linger. The average temperature for Dec., Jan. and Feb. is 46 degrees F. (7C). While not bitter cold, the damp makes it seem colder. Warm sweaters, a good insulated jacket and layered clothing is recommended. Because rainfall averages nearly three inches per month from August through January, dropping only slightly during other months (heavier in the West), bringing rain gear is always advised. Listed below is a table with average temperatures for each month of the year for Dublin. Add approximately two degrees for Cork, and subtract two to four degrees for winter months in Belfast.

Jan 47F May 59F Sep 63F
  34F   43F   49F
Feb 47F Jun 65F Oct 58F
  36F   49F   43F
Mar 50F Jul 68F Nov 50F
  38F   52F   40F
Apr 56F Aug 67F Dec 47F
  40F   52F   38F

Swans at Cahir

Swans at Cahir Castle, photo by author

Things to see and do:

Often, a guided coach tour is the preferred choice for spring and summer travel, but in winter nothing beats having your own transportation to get to those out of the way places not covered by local transport.

Some venues are open from March or April until the end of October, but many remain open, some having limited hours, being open only on weekdays or weekends. Many outdoor sights such as Wexford's John Fitzgerald Kennedy Arboretum are open year round. Listed below are some off-season opening and closing schedules.

The Lower Shannon

  • Ailwee Cave - open daily
  • Bunrattty Castle - open 9:30am - 4:45pm daily
  • Bunratty Folk Park - open 9:30am - 5:30 pm daily
  • Cahir Castle - open daily
  • Hunt Museum, Limerick - open Mon. - Sat.
  • Rock of Cashel Visitors Centre - open 9:30am - 4:30pm daily, closed 12/24 - 12/28

A suggested tour: Begin at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, then tour Limerick, a bustling city centrally located in the Lower Shannon region whose skyline is dominated by mighty King John's Castle. Visit the Hunt Museum, once the old Custom House. Northwest in County Clare lies the Burren, a vast limestone plateau eroded by wind and rain into pavement slabs surrounded by deep fissures called grykes. An array of mountain plants grow out of these crevasses in spring and summer. The Visitors Centre will be closed in winter, however, there is much to see, including the famous Poulnabrone dolmen in the heart of the limestone plateau. From here it's a short hop to the magnificent Cliffs of Moher, spectacular any time of year.

The Southeast

  • Powerscourt - open daily 9:30am until dusk
  • Glendalough - ruins open daily, Visitor's Centre open daily except between 12/23 and 12/31
  • Avondale House - closed 12/23 - 12/28, otherwise house and grounds open daily
  • Kilkenny Castle - closed 10 day during Christmas, other wise open Tues. - Sun.
  • Rothe House, Kilkenny - open weekends, Sundays after 12:00 noon
  • St. Canice's and Black Abbey, Kilkenny - open daily
  • Waterford Crystal Factory - open Mon. - Fri. between Nov. and Mar.

Kilkenny is a delight any time of year, but it is especially nice in the winter. A walking tour takes you past such interesting places as the Shee Alms House, Rothe House, Kilkenny Castle and its wonderful Design Centre across the road. (Be sure to have lunch in their superb cafeteria.) St. Canice's Cathedral is open daily, and the grounds and round tower are most interesting.

In Wicklow, Powerscourt, with its walled garden, waterfall, Italian Garden and pebbled mosaic, is open daily. An interesting tour of the area would include Powerscourt, then Glendalough by way of the Old Military Road.

Cork and Kerry

  • Ardfert Cathedral, Co. Kerry - open daily
  • Blarney Castle - open daily, closed 12/25 & 12/26
  • Cobh Heritage Centre - open daily
  • Cork City Gaol - open daily
  • Crawford Art Gallery - open Mon. - Sat.
  • Jameson Heritage Centre - open daily
  • Muckross House - open daily but closed 12/25 - 1/1
  • St. Anne's (Shandon) - open daily, closed 12/25
  • St. Finbarr's Cathedral - open daily

Suggested sights to see in Counties Cork and Kerry include a tour of the Dingle Peninsula where may be found many excellent places to eat and lodge. Muckross House, a lovely 19th century manor, overlooks the lakes of Killarney. Visitors can enjoy seeing its elegant rooms and the museum of Kerry life.

Many pretty villages await the traveler on the Ring of Kerry as well as interesting mountainous terrain over Moll's Gap. Kenmare is an excellent base for seeing Beara, Southwestern Ireland's third and less traveled peninsula.

Cork sights include Gougane Barra, Drombeg Stone Circle, near Glandore, Timoleague Abbey, and the tidy harbor town of Kinsale, known as the gourmet capital of Ireland. Purchase a Tourist Trail map at the tourist office at Emmet Place and treat yourself to a walking tour of this special town. Just outside Clonakilty is the birthplace of Irish Patriot Michael Collins. In the town itself is the West Cork Regional Museum with displays of Collins memorabilia and other items from the town's historical past.

Cork City offers many interesting places to see including Shandon, where for a few pence you may ring the steeple bell, the Crawford Gallery, Cork Gaol, Blackrock Castle, St. Finbarr's Cathedral, and the Butter Exchange. Make The Co-op at Sullivan's Quay your stop for lunch and you'll be pleasantly surprised. No visit to Cork would be complete without a stop at the Cobh Heritage Centre, home of the Queenstown Story. This, for many Irish emigrants, was the last sighting of their homeland. It was also a port of call for many luxury liners and was the last stop for the Titanic on its ill-fated voyage.

Whichever season you choose, you'll find splendid landscapes, cosy pubs and friendly people to welcome you.

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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blackwater near dromana gate

The Blackwater near Dromana Gate - photo by author

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