Updated February 2023 — Everyone knows that Ireland has stunning scenery, friendly people, and an unmatched rugged landscape, but there’s more to Ireland than first meets the eye. Finding the best authentic experiences is one way to unearth what Ireland is all about.
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For me, the interesting thing about Ireland is that it caters to everyone, including tourists who want to see big city attractions but others who are eager to delve into the real Ireland to discover the age-old traditions that are still in use today.
Finding the best authentic experiences in Ireland might take a little digging in guidebooks and other sources.
If you’d rather ditch the homework that’s needed to uncover some of these hidden gems, no worries.
Just read on to discover some of my picks.
Cutting Turf in the West of Ireland
“Cutting the turf” is a practice that has been done in Ireland for generations.
It was and still is prevalent in the west of the country and in parts of the Midlands and should be on your list when finding the best authentic experiences in Ireland.
Turf, which comes from Ireland’s rich bogland, can be found in a unique landscape and one that contains different plants and animals that survive best in this harsh, wet, and nutrient-poor environment.
Some of them include the plants known as black bog rush, sundews, and sphagnum moss. The bog spider, dragonflies, and otters make their home here also.
It is also the fuel that most Irish people used to heat their homes and cook their food for years.
Between 1814 and 1907, turf cutting was at its most popular, with about 800,000 acres of turf cut away. During World War II, when no coal was being imported into Ireland from England, turf was an invaluable fuel to Irish families.
While many Irish farmers use a machine to cut turf, some still do it by hand. In the past, the turf was cut using a two-sided spade known as a slean (pronounced “schlawn”).
Whole families were often involved in the activity, which involved turning the turf to dry it after the cutting, a somewhat lengthy process given the nature of the Irish weather.
The turf was then placed upright in stacks for further drying before it was brought home by a donkey and cart.
“Footing the turf” was considered a back-breaking job and no doubt children in many Irish households were unhappy about being asked to participate.
In Carracastle, Co. Mayo, heritage farmer Eddie Joe Dooney of Ireland West Farmstay gives visitors a chance to participate in turf-cutting themselves.
Eddie Joe explains the difference between the living bog and the working bog and their intrinsic connection with rural Ireland while pointing out the unique plant life that exists in these environments.
He also includes a guided tour of his local village Carracastle, which is halfway between Charlestown and Roscommon, and a 15-minute drive from Ireland West Airport.
If you’d like to experience what life was like in an authentic Irish home, Eddie Joe invites guests to stay in his renovated 19th-century cottage, which has been in the family since before Ireland’s Great Famine.
Other tours offered by Ireland West Farmstay feature authentic Irish experiences such as blacksmithing, a traditional farm tour, a sheepdog herding demonstration, in addition to a cheese tasting at a local cheese factory.
Go to Ireland West Farmstay for more information on that and other experiential tours.
You can also participate in a turf-cutting experience at Lullymore Heritage Park in Co. Kildare when you sign up for its Peatland Biodiversity Trail excursion.
Enjoy an Authentic Seaweed Bath
After a day of turf-cutting, you’ll no doubt want to relax.
What better way to do it than in a hot seaweed bath?
Seaweed baths have been synonymous with Irish seaside towns for more than 100 years.
During the late 1800s/early 1900s, there were approximately 300 of them dotted around the Irish coast.
One that comes to mind is in Enniscrone, Co. Sligo, a pretty seaside resort that boasts a 3-mile-long beach (close to 5 kilometers).
Before Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths opened in 1912, there was an older bathhouse along the shore nearby that was built in 1850 by the Orme family, who owned extensive property in the local area.
The Edwardian building that you see today has been modernized a bit, but you’ll still see reminders of a bygone age as you step into the large porcelain bathtub with its solid brass faucets (taps) and then bravely sit in the old-fashioned wooden sauna boxes, only to be shocked by the coldness of the water when you pull the chain above.
All-in-all, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and healthy too.
Seaweed is known for being high in vitamins and minerals, properties that soften the skin, improve circulation, and provide relief from arthritis, among other ailments.
This is a uniquely Irish treat, so be sure to book a seaweed bath when you’re next in Ireland.
Other seaweed baths in Ireland, while more modern than Kilcullens, include Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill, also in Co. Sligo; Collins Seaweed Baths in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry; Connemara Seaweed Baths in Co. Galway; Bundoran Seaweed Baths in Co. Donegal; and Sólás na Mara Seaweed Baths in Co. Waterford.
Forage for Seaweed on the Wild Atlantic Way
Try your hand at seaweed foraging with Denis Quinn of Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours. This Ireland on a Budget Tourism Ambassador offers walking tours giving participants the opportunity to hunt for seaweed along the shore.
The 3-hour tour takes in the local geology, flora, and fauna of the region.
Get Up Close to Ireland's Once Extinct Brown Bear and Other Animals
Imagine you’re in ancient Ireland with its dense woodlands, where brown bears, grey wolves, Eurasian Lynx, and Wildcats roamed freely.
That’s exactly the kind of natural environment that has been created by Killian McLaughlin, locally known as the “Bearman of Buncrana.”
It’s an authentic experience that will allow you to journey through the past and give you an insight into Ireland’s lost wildlife.
Archaeologists know that the brown bear existed in Ireland from the many bear bones that have been found in caves there. DNA evidence suggests that these bears may be the ancestor of the modern Polar Bear.
There are many wild birds at Wild Ireland, too. They include swans, geese, ducks and even an otter.
Red foxes, crane, wild boar, deer, capercaillie (a member of the grouse family), snowy owls, wildcats, and barn owls are also among the menagerie of wild animals in this great authentic Irish attraction.
A visit to Wild Ireland is ideal for both young and old, but I’m sure if you have kids in tow, they’ll absolutely love it, especially the fairy trail around the rainforest as well as a play park that is also on the property.
Netflix UK and Ireland have picked up a 2020 documentary called “The Bearman of Buncrana,” which was originally shown on Ireland's national television station, RTE.
It will begin airing March 1st on Netflix. No word yet on when it will be available for viewing on Netflix here in the U.S.
Learn to Bake Irish Soda Bread
Irish soda bread is known the world over, especially on St. Patrick’s Day.
But the trouble with much of the soda bread you’ll find abroad (at least here in the U.S.) is that it contains raisins, and that’s really not what the authentic Irish soda bread is like.
If you’re curious about how to make Irish soda bread, you’ll find a great teacher in Kate Wright, the owner of Kate’s Place café and cookery school in Oranmore, Co. Galway.
The café is known for its delicious fare, including its gluten-free desserts and a wide range of savory dishes.
Try Your Hand at Hurling, the Ancient Sport of Ireland
Fancy learning how to play hurling, one of the world’s oldest sports?
This very fast and exciting game is mentioned in some of Ireland’s oldest texts, where the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn is said to have played hurling, as well as Fionn Mac Cumhail of the Fianna.
If you’re in Kilkenny, one of Ireland’s great hurling counties, be sure to sign up for a two-hour hurling class with The Kilkenny Way: Ultimate Hurling Experience.
In Ireland, Kilkenny is regarded as the home of the hurling champions The Kilkenny Cats. The team has won a total of 34 All Ireland Senior hurling titles.
The first stop on the tour is the Legend’s Bar Hurling Museum, Kilkenny’s only bar dedicated to the game and to the Kilkenny hurling team.
Next, you will visit Nowlan Park, the GAA stadium in Kilkenny, where you’ll learn all the ins and outs of the game.
After the lesson is over, it’s time to head to the bar to watch a game while you dine on lamb stew and a beer.
Walk in the Stone Passage at Newgrange
Finding the best authentic experiences in Ireland means visiting Newgrange, considered one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites.
There are approximately 90 other archaeological sites in the area, including two other passage tombs known as Knowth and Dowth.
Experts believe that the Late Stone Age passage tomb was constructed about 5,000 ago, predating the Egyptian pyramids.
Once you get inside the passage tomb, you’ll agree that it is a phenomenal experience and one of the best authentic experiences in Ireland.
The inner chamber, where human bones and objects of religious significance were found, is a small room with a vaulted ceiling. It has remained intact since its completion in 3,200 B.C.
Even before you enter the chamber, you’ll be fascinated by the 4-foot-high kerbstones positioned outside the entrance.
They are covered with beautiful spiral designs called triskeles, which were also common in Greek culture.
Researchers believe the stones used to build this magnificent monument came from as far away as the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland and Wicklow to the south of Newgrange.
Experience Weaving at the Foxford Woollen Mills
There is a long history of spinning and weaving in Ireland.
A piece of fabric found in a Co. Antrim bog dating to about 700 BC is on display at the National Museum of Ireland.
The earliest forms of wool spinning go back 6,000 years ago to the Neolithic period, and fabric and weaving tools were also found in the Viking and medieval settlements of Dublin.
For centuries weaving took place on a local level, meaning that one person in a household would weave clothing for his or her family.
However, in towns and cities, urban craftsmen did the work on a larger scale that was bound for both the domestic and international markets.
During the Great Famine, the local handweaver almost disappeared from Irish life, but managed to survive in the West of Ireland, most notably in Donegal, Mayo, and Galway in the form of tweed hand weaving.
In one small Co. Mayo village, the work of a nun and the land reform activist Michael Davitt helped create the popular Foxford Woollen Mills.
On a mill tour, you’ll see exactly how all the wonderful blankets, caps, scarves, and more are made at the Foxford Woollen Mills.
Other woolen mills across Ireland, some offering demonstrations, include the Aran Woollen Mills in Westport, Co. Mayo; Blarney Woollen Mills in Co. Cork; the Cushendale Woollen Mills in Co. Kilkenny; Glendalough Woollen Mills in Co. Wicklow, and the Kerry Woollen Mills in Killarney, Co. Kerry.
Butter Making, an Old Irish Tradition
Butter and milk were the staples for much of the Irish diet for centuries, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1600s when an actual butter industry emerged in Ireland.
Today, Irish butter is a bestseller all across the world. Its most popular brand is Kerrygold, which is produced from grass-fed cows.
It, like other brands of Irish butter, produces a richer butter that is yellow with natural beta carotene.
Before the age of automation, most families produced butter in their homes with the help of a churn.
You’ll find this and other implements in The Butter Museum located in Cork City, which was at one time the largest butter market in the world.
In fact, trade from Cork to the West Indies and North America was extremely important for the British, whose army made very good use of that during the American Revolution.
It is well known that casks full of butter and other food supplies made their way across the Atlantic to America to feed the British Army in their fight against the Americans.
The many displays in this excellent museum detail the history of dairy farming in Ireland and how butter was made, including information on the early practice of preserving butter in bogs.
You’ll also get to use the churning equipment, which makes for a fun, one-of-a-kind experience.
Be sure to put this on your list of the best authentic experiences in Ireland, especially if you’re visiting Cork for a couple of days.
Are you interested in finding the best authentic experiences in Ireland when you visit this year? If so, let me know in the comments section below.
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