Yes! Family travel in Ireland is possible!
No land is more filled with magic than Ireland. Even if you’re past the age of believing in fairies (though I don’t think you should ever stop believing in fairies) the moment your flight touches down on Irish soil a feeling of possibility washes over you. You just don’t know what could be at the top of those castle towers or at the end of the rainbow.
While tourism guides make much of pub tours and guided bus travel, Ireland has so much to offer families. From fairy tale castles to magnificent walled gardens, wide open spaces to the bustle of international cities, breathtaking natural scenery to man made megalithic structures, Ireland opens her arms and welcomes you to explore her ancient sites, traverse her green fields and discover her treasures.
A to Z : 26 Tips for Family Travel in Ireland
A is for Airplane: Most travelers to this beautiful island arrive by air. Long flights with kids don’t have to intimidating; arrive prepared, pack smart and ship items ahead to make life simpler for you. You should always purchase a seat for your child- no matter their age. If your child is still in a car seat I highly recommend using it on the airplane; it is familiar and will help make this new experience a bit less frightening. I have an entire post filled with tips for overseas flights with small children, including packing and safety.
B is for Bed & Breakfast: We have found that the Irish B&B offers a most comfortable stay for families. The warm welcome (often accompanied by tea and biscuits) and home-like atmosphere are easy to settle in to and your hosts can give you local insight and tips that no guidebook can match. B&Bs are often a terrific value for budget minded families- and the traditional Irish breakfast served every morning will provide energy for wherever your journeys take you.
C is for Castle: It often seems like a castle lies around each bend of the Irish roads; some are glorious, serving as tourist destinations and hotels, others lie in ruins, their crumbled walls holding stories that may never be told. No matter the state it is in, a castle always evokes a sense of magic, mystery and timelessness. One of our favorite castles in Ireland is Cahir Castle in Tipperary. Often overlooked due to its close proximity to another famous castle- the Rock of Cashel- Cahir Castle is wonderfully restored. Stand under the portcullis, stroll the battlements, climb the towers… It’s all open to explore, and not quite as busy as some of the better known castles.
D is for Dublin: The capital of the Republic of Ireland is often the first stop for visitors. Dublin is a very walkable city and the public transport is excellent. It is also very crowded. If you’re in Dublin with children be sure to break your day of museums, Guinness and shopping with time in the city’s magnificent parks- St. Stephen’s Green and Phoenix Park. Be sure to look into the The Dublin Pass– it includes entrance to many of Dublin’s most famous sites. For an additional charge you can add public transit and hop on/ hop off bus tours.
E is for English: While the Irish do speak English- and with such a lyrical brogue- and most signs you read will also be in English, it is also helpful to know just a few words of Irish. Two of the most important: Sláinte (slawn-cha)- meaning to your health or cheers and craic (crack)- meaning good times or fun; as in “where’s the craic?” As you move into the west of Ireland you will notice more signs in Irish. It can be a bit tricky to read but once you have a clue as to the way the Irish alphabet works it can be quite fun to speak- and you will impress many people! To learn a few handy words I recommend a great free podcast called “One Minute Irish” with host Eoin Ó’Conchúir. Once you’re hooked on learning Irish visit Bite Size Irish Gaelic, Eoin’s Irish language site. (It’s fabulous!)
F is for Fairies: Scattered throughout Ireland are fairy rings- over 40,000 of them. It’s said that fairies live under the rings and if you cross one they will take you to live with them for 100 years. Which likely explains why so many fairy rings lie undisturbed and so many fairies still exist in Ireland. But not all Irish fairies are kind, or beautiful. We found The History of Irish Fairies to be of great insight into the fairy realm. When my daughters were quite little we played a fairy game with them by hiding a shiny coin. It helped when they were becoming bored and restless.
G is for Giant’s Causeway: These hexagonal columns in Ulster set so perfectly close together they almost look like a road disappearing into the sea. While geologists say the columns are a result of volcanic actions, the Irish have a much more poetic explanation. One legend says the giant Finn McCool built the causeway to reach Scotland to fight another giant. Upon finishing the causeway Finn was too tired to fight, so he devised a plan- when the opposing giant crossed the causeway he was told that Finn was away, but was shown Finn’s baby (Finn), sleeping peacefully. The opposing giant was so scared to face a giant that could produce such a large child that he ran back to Scotland without a fight!
H is for History: While all of Europe is filled with history in Ireland it saturates every bit of the land. You’ll hear Ireland’s history through stories and songs, see it in the megalithic tombs and cairns, climb it in the castles and abbeys and walk quietly amongst it in the High Cross filled cemeteries. History surrounds you and everyplace has a story- if you’ll only stop to listen.
I is for Irish Wolfhound: The Irish Wolfhound is the tallest of all dogs- if it stands on its back legs it is over six feet tall. Once, Irish Wolfhounds could only be owned by royalty; in the 17th century it was illegal to take them out of Ireland. Though that law no longer applies, a pure bred Irish Wolfhound can be difficult to find outside of Ireland and is absolutely magnificent to see running across a verdant field.
J is for Jaunting Cart: This two wheeled horse-powered cart may be cliché, but it is really quite fun to take a tour in one. Strike up a conversation with your driver and you’re sure to learn lots of fun tidbits about Ireland. Jaunting cart drivers usually know where to find good craic (see E is for English).
K is for Killarney: Probably the most tourist-ed area of Ireland, though for very good reason. The lakes of Killarney are famed for their beauty, as is the near by “Ring of Kerry”- whose tour buses often begin in Killarney. Enjoy a Jaunting Cart tour (see J ) to Ross Castle or Muckross House, wander through Killarney National Park, walk the ancient trading path through the Gap of Dunloe or just indulge your desire to shop- you’ll find everything from Aran knits and hand-blown glass to Bunratty Mead and Irish Cream chocolates.
L is for Left: In Ireland cars drive on the left side of the road. When crossing a street remember to look right, then left, then right again- or you may cause an accident!
M is for Moher: As in the Cliffs of Moher. These magnificent cliffs have been a tourist attractions for hundreds of years. Though you can’t walk to the edge and look straight down (you could when I visited in 2003- it was terrifying!) you can get the feel of it in the visitor’s center Atlantic Edge exhibit. Climb to the top of O’Brien’s Tower; on a clear day you can see the Aran Islands. On a very windy day you’ll see and feel the ocean mist as it rises over 700 feet. For a different perspective take a Cliffs of Moher cruise. Want to miss the bulk of tour buses? Plan your visit after 4pm.
N is for Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland is still part of the UK and, thanks to the Troubles, was not on many people’s radar as a tourist destination. Thankfully those days are past as Northern Ireland has dramatic coastlines, gorgeous walled cities and stories of its own to share. It’s Ireland, yet it’s not.
O is for OPW Heritage Cards: The Office of Public Works (or OPW) Heritage Card allows access to any fee paying OPW managed site for one year from the date purchase. With OPW sites all over Ireland and including popular sites such as the Rock of Cashel, Muckross House & Gardens, Kilkenny Castle and Sligo Abbey to name only a few, this card can save a family hundreds of dollars during a week long trip. For a family the card will pay for itself if you visit 4-5 sites.
P is for Pub: Every village in Ireland has a pub- or two, or three. While alcohol is served, the pub- short for “public house” – is like the community center. Families are welcomed and sharing stories is encouraged. Don’t expect to be waited on, place your order at the bar. And while you’re at it say hello to people, strike up a conversation, and get advice from the people who know the area best.
Q is for Quick Steps: Irish dance has become famous in the past few years. Who can resist the lightning fast feet, the incredible dresses, and the music that makes your own toes tap? While you’re traveling watch for a pub or festival that has a ceili (or ceilidh), a gathering where you can learn a bit of Irish dancing yourself.
R is for Rings: Ireland has quite a few rings, the most well known being the Ring of Kerry- also known as the Iveragh Peninsula. Heavily tourist-ed because of gorgeous views and its easy proximity to Killarney, you’ll find tour buses rumbling round this ring year-round. Nearby rings- the Ring of Beara and the Dingle Peninsula– both have beautiful views and are less busy. The Beara Peninsula is famous for it’s natural beauty and wildlife, while Dingle has spectacular views, Fungi the Dolphin, and the highest concentration of ancient monuments in Ireland. Also well known is the Claddagh ring. Created by Richard Joyce after his return to Galway from slavery to a Turkish goldsmith, the Claddagh ring has two hands, clasping a heart topped by a crown. The ring represents friendship, loyalty and love.
S is for Self Drive: In my opinion there is no better way to see Ireland than from your own rental car. You have the freedom to go as you please, stop as the kids demand, and follow any intriguing sign or road you wish. Move on from where you are or stay another day. Or change your itinerary altogether. You can’t do that on a tour bus… Tips for renting a car in Ireland
T is for Traditional Music: Traditional music is the story of Ireland. You’ll find it everywhere- from the buskers on the streets of Dublin and at the Cliffs of Moher to the sessions at the local pubs. The music of Ireland will move you; one minute you’ll be filled with sorrow and the next you’ll find yourself clapping your hands and attempting a jig. Stop and listen to the music of Ireland as often as you can.
U is for Ulster: Ireland has 32 counties lying in 4 provinces, those being Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. Ulster is now primarily Northern Ireland- if you exclude the county of Donegal.
V is for Vikings: The Vikings raided Ireland for centuries. Around 841AD they settled in what they called Dyflin, from the Irish Duiblinn. In 1014 the Vikings were defeated by High King Brian Boru but retained control of Dublin. In 1171 the city was captured by Kind Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster and Viking rule ended completely. You can get a taste of Viking Dublin at the Dublinia Experience in Dublin or the Viking Triangle in Waterford.
W is for Wells: Hundreds of holy wells dot Ireland. Many of the wells have been attributed to famous saints and are said to have healing powers. While a few wells are marked- like St. Brigid’s Well in County Clare and St. Patrick’s Well in Dublin- many are unmarked and simple in appearance. You’ll often see bits of fabric tied to trees around the well. The custom hold that as the rag rots away so will the illness you came seeking a cure for.
X is for Xtreme Activities: You’ll find plenty of activities to get your blood pumping in Ireland. Coasteering, kayaking, orienteering, and surfing are just a few of the exciting, family friendly, activities you’ll find.
Y is for Yarn: Ireland is dotted with sheep. And from those sheep comes the wool which is spun into yarn, dyed, and used to create so many wonderful items such as Aran sweaters, scarves and warm woolen hats. You can visit Ireland’s oldest working woolen mill, Avoca Handweavers in Wicklow, and see how weaving was once done in Ireland.
Z is for Zoo: The Dublin Zoo in Phoenix Park makes a wonderful family outing. The Dublin Zoo opened in 1831, you can still see parts of the zoo that date to its opening! The zoo is home to over 600 animals and is open year round. Or visit Fota Wildlife Park near Cork City to see animals in larger, more open habitats. For a hand-on experience, schedule a’Behind the Scenes Tour’ with a zoo warden!