Christmas In Ireland
By Irish Fireside Subscriber Winston Chapman
When asked what one is doing for the holidays, there are the usual answers: Off to grandma’s! Headed for the beach! Looking forward to a quiet holiday at home! Finally taking that Caribbean cruise! Well, I’ve done all those at one point or another, but a few years ago I began longing for an old-world type of Christmas. You know, one with roaring fires, hearty food, warm and comfortable beds, friendly and loving faces, ancient landscapes, rich history, and the piquant smell of mulled wine and mince pies in the air. Simple and easy requests, right?
Well, I knew I’d be unlikely to find that perfect Christmas here in the United States. I’ve gone to some places that came very close, most notably Blackberry Farm in the rolling hills of east Tennessee. But I knew I’d have to look to Europe if I was going to find just the right destination. I did a lot of research, thinking, pondering, and searching, but year after year I came up empty. Then, one day, I remembered watching a television promotion for an interview with Enya, the Irish singer. The host mentioned he would be visiting and talking with her at her “castle by the sea. Boom. That was it. A castle. Christmas in an Irish castle. And so it began…
For Christmas 2006, I made reservations for my mother and myself at Ashford Castle, located near the village of Cong in County Mayo. Ashford is a grand estate on the shores of Lough Corrib, and parts of the castle are nearly 800 years old. It has a fascinating history and an amazing reputation as a luxury hotel. Mom and I consider it our home away from home, and I cannot imagine a more perfect place to spend Christmas. Before we ever arrived, I knew it was going to satisfy my yearning for that old-world holiday, and it exceeded my expectations in every way. We returned in 2007, and we’re getting ready for our third trip in just a few weeks, and you can bet I’m looking forward to that mulled wine and those mince pies!
However, despite Ashford Castle being the centerpiece of our annual pilgrimage, I’m not going to say anything else about it. Why? Because it’s the easiest part of our trip. I know it’s going to be open, I know the food and accommodations will be superb, I know how much it will cost, and I know I can make arrangements to return next year before I check out this year! It’s predictable, simple, and hassle-free. The other aspects of a Christmas trip to Ireland aren’t quite so effortless. It’s my intention to share with you my experiences with planning a trip at an unusual time of year, and it’s my hope that I can help other travelers enjoy this marvelous land during the holiday season.
First question: what’s open?
The answer is not much! Finding special places to stay during the holidays is a tough prospect and is the most challenging part of planning our trip. Many privately-owned B&B’s, hotels, inns, guesthouses, and self-catering accommodations are closed starting in October or November. Even if they’re not closed for the season, several shut their doors for the month of December or during the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Although a few places (e.g. Ashford Castle) cater to travelers at this time of year, the vast majority have “no room at the inn.” However, this doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. You’ll probably have to do a good bit of research, emailing, and calling, but you’re sure to find some unique spots. The web is obviously a great resource, and a simple search for “Ireland B&B” or “Ireland hotels” will turn up a wealth of information and potential options, but make sure you invest the time and patience it takes to look through these many, many choices. TripAdvisor.com is a good place to peruse reviews from other travelers, but remember to take the opinions of others with a grain of salt. A bad review, especially in the context of many other positive reviews, may reflect more about the writer than anything else!
If you prefer a traditional guide book, my favorite is Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay – Ireland. We’ve stayed at several of the properties he lists, many of which are very reasonably-priced, and we’ve been pleased (or even thrilled!) with every one of them. The Sawday guides are also online (www.sawdays.co.uk), and most listings include closing dates, though it’s always best to verify such information directly. I can’t stress enough the importance of patience during this process! In planning our trip for Christmas 2008, I spent weeks and weeks trying to find new and distinctive spots to rest our heads. I hit a lot of dead ends and became accustomed to frustration, but it all worked out, and we’re looking forward to a trip that will be familiar and totally different at the same time.
Next question: how much will it cost?
The answer is a lot, but maybe not as much as you’re thinking. Holiday airfares are generally high compared to other times of the year, and flights may be limited. For example, we’d prefer to fly from Atlanta (where I live) to Shannon, but there aren’t any nonstop flights between those two cities during the winter months. We could connect in another city, which might even same us some money, but that would compound the risks of lost luggage, delayed or canceled flights, and long layovers (not to mention how much harder it would be on my mom, who is in her 70’s). As of my writing this article, roundtrip nonstop coach between Atlanta and Dublin is running in the $800-$900 range. Other cities and flights could vary significantly in price, but expect to pay a premium for air travel during the holiday season. As always, keep an eye on fares, and book as soon the price falls into a range you’re comfortable with.
Accommodation in Ireland can cost a fortune or a farthing, and you have two forces working in opposition to each other. Most hotels, B&B’s, guesthouses, and inns consider December to be low season, and rooms are priced accordingly. It’s possible to get a twin or double room at a very nice property for less than 100 euro, including a full breakfast. However, as I’ve already mentioned, your choices are likely to be incredibly limited, so you may be forced to consider more expensive places out of necessity, depending on your itinerary. Look for special internet or discounted rates, and never be afraid to plead poverty to the manager or owner! Most innkeepers know that low season can mean empty rooms, so they may be more willing to make a deal with you.
Next question: what do we do in Ireland at Christmas?
This is a tough one, and I don’t have a one-line answer! First of all, no matter where in Ireland you are, don’t expect to do much of anything on Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day (Dec 26). Everything is closed, public transportation is minimal, and you’ll be lucky to find a gas station that’s open for business! However, the roads, lanes, fields, and churches will welcome you with open arms, so plan a day or two of hiking, scenic driving, or worship. There are plenty of stone circles, passage tombs, ruined abbeys, beautiful vistas, and neolithic sites to see. Your accommodation may offer activities, or the staff/innkeeper may be able to recommend some things to do in the area.
If you’re in one of the larger cities (e.g. Dublin, Cork, Galway, etc.), then expect the holiday season to be bustling. Shopping is a big deal in modern Ireland, and a trip to Grafton Street in Dublin will prove it to you. Of course, museums, libraries, historic sites, and other tourist spots may be a priority as well. We’ve found that some attractions do close in the off season, but most of these tend to be in smaller towns or out in the countryside.
Speaking of countryside, what a time of year to have your own car in Ireland! If you’ve got the mettle to brave the rural Irish roads…then you have my sympathy – just kidding! Although driving in Ireland can certainly be harrowing for Americans who are accustomed to wide roads, extra lanes, and shoulders, having a car gives you so much more freedom to explore. You’ll never feel like your stuck in one place or at the mercy of anyone or anything else, and you’re free to stop and explore the odd ruin, churchyard, pub, museum, or landscape. Most car rental companies seem to have decent rates during the holidays, but shop around before you book, and do make sure you reserve something in advance since walk-up rates might not be as good.
A few other thoughts…
Eating and drinking in Ireland probably deserves its own article, but for now I’ll advise you (yet again) to plan ahead for Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day. No matter where you are, don’t expect there to be a restaurant around the block (or within 100 km!) that’s open for business. If you have the facilities to cook for yourself, then consider it a treat to browse the remarkably fresh, unique, and high-quality items available in most Irish groceries. If you want or need to eat out, make reservations as far in advance as possible. Outside of those two days, most restaurants are open and tend to be more crowded with holiday celebrants before Christmas than after.
Ok, here’s something I wasn’t prepared for when we first visited Ireland. We arrived in Shannon around 7:00am, and it was pitch dark. Ditto at 8:00am. The sun was just beginning to creep into the sky by around 8:30am, and it didn’t really get light until well after 9:00am. Then, it starts to get dark again around 3:00 in the afternoon! Sunset comes about 5:00pm! At the time, I didn’t appreciate the fact that Ireland is on the same latitude as much of Canada, and it’s a heck of a lot closer to the Arctic Circle than Atlanta, Georgia! So, be prepared for short winter days, which might or might not be a bad thing depending on your point of view. We see it as an excuse to make a cocktail, hoist a Guinness, find a warm fire, and/or enjoy the company of fellow travelers.
One more word on the weather – the average high in Dublin in December is 47F/8C, and the average low is 38F/3C, so it’s not sunny Spain or the Mexican Riviera! Average precipitation can range significantly from 4.8” in Galway on the west coast to 3” in Dublin on the east coast, so pack rain gear, but keep in mind that Ireland is a wet country at most times of year anyway! We’ve never encountered any torrential downpours, but misting rain, fog, and showers seem to be fairly common, though there have been gorgeous sunny days as well. We’ve yet to enjoy a white Christmas, but there’s always the chance!
Whew, that all seems like a lot of information, but it really just scratches the surface! I hope you’ve found this article useful and informative, and I really hope it inspires you to consider Ireland as a place to spend the holidays. Let me make one thing clear: all the planning, stressing, emailing, and worry that I have put into these trips is so worth it! Once your plane lands and you get clear of customs (and Dublin traffic!), your cares will melt away, and you’ll begin to enjoy the holidays in a unique and genuine way. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions about our experiences, from accommodations to food to car rentals. Many thanks to Corey and Liam at Irish Fireside for allowing me to contribute to their website!
Nollaig Shona Daoibh (Happy Christmas)!