Ireland’s not just about Guinness, sprawling green countryside or the rock band U2. When it comes to the strange and out-of-the-ordinary, Ireland’s hard to beat.
From food to local legends to wildlife, from the official coat of arms to rocky shorelines, here’s a dozen of some of the craziest, wackiest facts about Ireland.
There are only barely more people than sheep
The island of Ireland (both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) and its associated islets combined are home to about 5.6 million sheep, according to the National Sheep Association of the U.K. The total human population of the Republic and of Northern Ireland is about 6.6 million.
If, when driving around Ireland, it might seem otherwise, you aren’t alone in your thinking. There’s a reason sheep are often seen as an unofficial symbol of Ireland.
Sheep have been residents of the island of Ireland for nearly as long as humans. Neanderthals introduced sheep to the island sometime around 5000 BC; a sheep’s tooth found in County Kerry was carbon-dated to 4350 BC.
Our woolen friends obviously like the place, as their numbers have grown ever since. Wool from Irish sheep is used in Aran wool sweaters, scarves and caps, among many other items of clothing available on ShamrockGift.com. And Irish mutton and lamb are essential ingredients in the famous Irish stew.
Finally, a panoramic photo of the Irish landscape wouldn’t be complete without at least a couple of sheep in the picture, grazing contently with a marvelous view of the sea.
Turf is not something to play football on
When you hear an Irish person talk about burning their turf, you might be a tad confused. Why would you try to set your yard on fire?
Well, in Ireland, turf means something completely different than it does in most other places. Turf is actually a term used to describe peat, which in turn is commonly used as a source of heat in many Irish homes. In rural Ireland, residents go about the process of “cutting turf,” which simply means harvesting peat bogs. After a period of drying, the harvested peat, or turf, is ready for the fire.
Peat is the accumulation, over thousands of years, of dead and dried plant matter, primarily mosses. Peat is also used as an essential ingredient in some Scotch whiskeys, which gives the spirit its signature campfire, smoky taste profile.
So don’t be alarmed the next time you hear an Irish man or woman talking about heating turf.
Ireland has the best hangover food
After a night of heavy drinking in London, nightclubbers can often be found downing a plate or bowl of curry to ward off the inevitable hangover.
Not so in Dublin. In the Irish capital, curries aren’t the best hangover cure. That title belongs to spice bags.
A mishmash of everything from deep-fried chips, chicken balls, a variety of peppers, some shredded chicken, various spices and some onions thrown in to boot, a spice bag isn’t dissimilar from a kitchen-sink meal. Oh yeah, sometimes a spice bag with come with a little side of curry sauce.
You won’t find spice bags anywhere else except in Ireland, unless maybe it’s a true Irish expat who’s opened a spice bag shop in Hong Kong. Actually, maybe there is such a thing, since the spice bag takes its primary inspiration from Asian foods.
It would be a fool’s game to award the title of Best Spice Bag in Dublin, since there are so many strong contenders. Best to try several yourself and you make the call.
There are castles everywhere
Ireland may not have the most castles per capita of any European country, or the oldest castle. But for sheer variety, Ireland’s selection of castles can’t be beat.
There are the haunted castles—Leap Castle in County Offaly is supposedly haunted by the Red Lady ghost who prowls its corridors wielding a dagger. The castle’s unworldly characteristics have been explored by a number of television programs. And Ballygally Castle in County Antrim is said to be haunted by a Lady Isobel Shaw, who knocks on doors at night and then disappears.
There’s the castle associated with the namesake of Guinness stout. Ashford Castle in County Mayo, built in the 13th century, was later acquired by Arthur Guinness, who turned it into a hunting lodge. Ashford Castle is now considered one of Europe’s top hotels.
And, of course, there’s the castle that hosts the Blarney Stone. Located in County Cork, Blarney Castle dates to 1446. The Blarney Stone rests within the walls of the castle and grants the gift of gab to anyone who kisses it (without falling through a hole in the castle and tumbling to the ground several stories below).
Ireland is one of the world’s top dairy producing nations
Anyone who’s ever spent any time perusing the dairy counter or cheese aisle at a U.S. grocery will notice how many of the best products come from Ireland… Dubliner cheese, Kerrygold butter, Wicklow blue cheese, Carrigaline farmhouse cheese: you get the idea.
The number of Irish dairies is plentiful and they make a wide variety of some of the world’s best cheese and butter. Ireland had over 1.1 million dairy cows churning out milk in 2011, according to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation.
Ireland is the only country with a musical instrument as its national symbol
Everyone knows how important music is to the Irish national identity and Celtic culture in general. But did you know that only one nation on Earth has a musical instrument as its national symbol? You guessed it, Ireland’s harp.
The harp was officially chosen as Ireland’s national symbol in 1945, although it’s been a symbol of Irish heraldry since at least the 13th century.
The harp is part of the Irish coat of arms. While the coat of arms doesn’t appear on the official flag of the Republic of Ireland, the harp and the coat of arms is used as the seal of the President and on the cover of Irish passports, not to mention scores upon scores of other official Irish documents.
While Guinness stout doesn’t hold any official position within the Irish government, it goes without saying that the harp is a major element of the stout’s famous logo.
For much of the 20th century, Guinness used a tropical bird for its mascot
Speaking of Guinness, the golden harp that’s emblazoned on all Guinness merchandise, there’s another symbol associated with Guinness that’s probably even more closely associated with the brand—the toucan.
First introduced in the 1930s and 1940s as part of hand-painted signs created by the artist John Gilroy, the toucan was simply one of several animals used to advertise the stout. These included kangaroos, turtles, seals, lions, an ostrich and who knows what other furry creatures.
But it was the toucan, of all things, that took hold as the most everlasting symbol of Guinness’ roots in Irish culture. Check out ShamrockGift.com for a wide assortment of gifts and paraphernalia bearing the famous toucan on Guinness merchandise.
There are volcanic remnants still visible today
A giant didn’t create the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. But when you see this fascinating structure in person, you may come to think that it was produced by something truly otherworldly.
An astounding collection of 40,000 basalt columns, located along the coast of Northern Ireland, Giant’s Causeway was formed 50 to 60 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. The columns are curiously shaped like hexagonal prisms, stacked alongside and atop one another as the ocean waves crash below. Some of the steps disappear under the water, stretching down to the seabed.
The rocks got their name from the legend that they were built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, to used as stepping stones across the Irish Sea to Scotland, where he was to fight a Scottish giant.
Approximately 80 islands surround Ireland, but only a quarter of them are inhabited
Of course, Ireland is an island—everyone knows that. But did you know that there are more islands to Ireland than just its namesake?
There are dozens islands included as part of the Republic of Ireland, in addition to the big island. The large majority of these are uninhabited. But the remainder do have permanent residents, combining to a total of about 9,000 people.
The most populous of Ireland’s islands is Great Island, with about 14,000 people, located in Cork Harbour. The largest by size is Achill Island, in County Mayo, which measures about 37,000 square miles.
Achill Island, like many Irish islands, is connected to the mainland by famous bridges. The Michael Davitt Bridge is a 130-year-old structure that spans the Atlantic and provides a connection to Achill.
Another Irish island is famous precisely because of its bridge. The tiny isle of Carrick-a-Rede, near Ballintoy in Northern Ireland, is connected to the mainland by Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a 66-foot-long bridge that anyone can traverse, provided they’re not fearful of the 100-foot drop below. About half a million tourists yearly come to visit.
St. Patrick wasn’t Irish and drinking used to be banned on St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day is known for many things and is intimately connected to Ireland. But you’d be surprised to learn how little of the holiday’s clichés are true.
St. Patrick himself? He wasn’t Irish. At least not by birth. The patron saint of Ireland was likely born in Scotland or Wales to Roman parents. He later moved to Ireland as a missionary.
It’s customary in the U.S. to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, else you run the risk of getting pinched. But blue is the color that historically was associated with the day, largely due to it being the color of the Irish Order of St. Patrick. No wonder you won’t find people on the streets of Dublin, or Cork, or Waterford, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day.
You may treat yourself to a pint (or several) of Guinness, or a shot (or two) of Jameson Irish Whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day. But the day was originally a religious holiday and, as such, for many years was a dry holiday, meaning Ireland’s pubs were closed. The law banning drinking on St. Patrick’s Day was only repealed in the 1970s.