Irish Culture: 9 Things That Make Our Little Island Tick

irish culture
Photo left via Tourism Ireland. Rigth: Slawomir Fajer (Shutterstock)

Howaya! In this guide, we’re going to tell you a good chunk of what you need to know about Irish culture.

Now, hopefully, you’re not one of the many people that believe that Irish culture solely revolves around the pub and Guinness, because that couldn’t be further than the truth.

Our little island boasts a rich culture and a variety of traditions that many people visiting Ireland tend to miss.

In the guide below, you’ll get a solid insight into Irish culture along with some of the many things that Ireland is known for (and some of the things that it should be known for, but isn’t!)

Irish Culture

Many articles on the culture of Ireland irritate me… greatly. They list off the potato and Guinness and further intensify the belief that Irish culture is nothing more than the many stereotypes that Irish people have been burdened with for years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a BIG FAN of Guinness and a finely roasted potato, but there’s just so much more to Ireland than a pint and a spud.

Irish culture revolves around music, literature, art, language, storytelling, sport and food and it has been influenced by everyone from the Anglo-Normans, who invaded during the 12th century to those that colonised Ireland during the 16th/17th centuries.

1. Storytelling

The practice of storytelling has played a key part in Irish culture for many a year. If we rewind back a couple of thousand of years to the time of the Celts, historical events weren’t recorded in writing.

Stories and legends were passed between people and through generations via the spoken word, usually in poem and song. This practice led to the creation of the worlds of Irish mythology and Irish folklore.

Over the years, Ireland has been home to thousands of incredible storytellers, from Peig Sayers and Anna Nic an Luain to Eamon a Burc and Seamus Heaney.

2. Literature

book of kells tour dublin
Photo © The Irish Road Trip

Literature is part of the foundation of the culture of Ireland and our little island has given birth to some of the greatest writers and poets of our time.

One of the most notable early Irish writers was Jonathan Swift. Swift penned the now-iconic novel Gulliver’s Travels. Another celebrated author from around that time was the brilliant novelist Maria Edgeworth, who offered an insight into life in rural Ireland.

The eccentric Oscar Wilde, known for his wit and quirky ways, penned the brilliant play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ along with the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.

The literary giant WB Yeates was Ireland’s first Nobel Laureate, bringing home the crown in 1923.

James Joyce is often regarded as one of the most important writers to have ever lived. Elizabeth Bowen, the mighty Samuel Beckett, Mary Lavin, Seamus Heaney… the list goes on.

3. Art

celtic cros symbol
Photo left: Bjoern Alberts (Shutterstock) Right: via Tourism Ireland

Many guides to Irish culture and Irish traditions exclude art, which is a shame, especially when you consider some of, in particular, the ancient art that Ireland boasts in abundance.

Art was introduced to Ireland long ago, around 3200 BC. The first evidence of art in Ireland can be found at Newgrange in Meath, where stone carvings from the Neolithic period can be seen.

The ancient Celtic Cross is another example of art in Irish culture that was brought to Ireland by the Celts. Then, when Christianity came to Ireland, monasteries were built and it was from here that a style of art known as ‘Insular’ was birthed.

Fast forward hundred of years and a number of cultural institutions were founded, like the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy. In more recent years, a number of galleries have opened around Ireland to celebrate both ancient and modern art in Irish culture.

4. Irish Dancing

Irish dancing is another form of art that features heavily in Irish culture, although its popularity has fallen in more recent years.

There’s not a whole lot known about Irish dancing before the 17th century. It’s thought that this could be due to written records of life in Ireland being destroyed by the Vikings.

The first time Irish dancing was documented was when the Mayor of Waterford visited the town of Baltimore in Cork in 1413, where attendees were noted to have ‘took to the floor’.

It’s likely that Irish dancing grew in popularity due to its close link with traditional Irish music. The popularity of Irish dancing, the Irish stepdance, in particular, grew thanks to the highly celebrated stage show ‘Riverdance’.

5. Traditional Music

best Irish songs
Photo by Stephen Power via Failte Ireland

Music is arguably one of the biggest parts of Irish culture with the tradition of Irish folk music played on Irish instruments known and loved the world over.

If you’ve read our guide to the best Irish songs, you’ll know that Ireland has been home to many a talented musician over the years.

Traditional Irish music has been around for a long time. In fact, like storytelling, it’s widely believed that it was first brought to Ireland by the Celts thousands of years ago.

Today, many different types of Irish music exist, from old Irish rebel songs to more modern pop from the likes of U2 and rock from the brilliant The Cranberries, there’s no shortage of Irish tunes that you can kick back to.

6. The Irish Language

Our native language is another backbone of Irish culture. ‘Irish’ is part of the Celtic family of languages and was once spoken by people across Ireland.

Although English is now the dominant language in Ireland, Gaeilge (AKA ‘Irish’) has been the main language of Ireland for much of our recorded history.

Gaeilge is still the first language for people in Gaeltacht regions – rural parts of Ireland where Irish is spoken and English is a second language.

These regions can be primarily be found in parts of Donegal, Galway, Kerry and Cork. Interestingly enough, written Irish was first seen in the 4th century AD. It was found in Ogham inscriptions that were found on stone throughout Ireland. 

7. Sport

croke park stadium
Photo via crokepark.ie

Sport plays a massive part in Irish culture and traditions. Ireland’s Gaelic games attract millions of viewers each year. The games consist of Gaelic Football, Hurling and Camogie.

If you’ve never watched any of these, take a couple of minutes to watch the video above from a Hurling match. Hurling is one of the fastest sports in the world and it has been around for thousands of years.

Hurling is played with sticks known as ‘Hurls’ and a little ball known as a ‘Sliotar’ (pronounced ‘Slit-her’). Two teams of 15 battle it out on a big pitch and attempt to get the Sliotar into the opposition’s goal or over their bar.

8. Food and drink

When many people hear food and drink in an Irish context, they tend to think of Guinness and the potato. Now, both have played their part in Irish culture, but they’re just the tip of a very tasty iceberg.

Ireland has a long history of farming expertise (more on this in our guide to Irish traditions) and evidence of this can be found in the ancient Céide Fields in Mayo (they’re older than the Pyramids of Egypt).

Traditional Irish food includes everything from the Irish stew and Coddle (often made up with sausages, rashers, potatoes, onion and herbs.) to boxty (a potato pancake) and colcannon (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage).

These days, Ireland’s food scene is richer than ever, with business across the island, small and large, producing a wide range of tasty produce.

The Guinness brand has been present in Ireland since Arthur Guinness scribbled his signature on a 9,000-year lease at St. James’s Gate in 1759.

The much-loved Irish coffee was invented recently enough, in 1943, in Limerick by a chef by the name of Joe Sheridan. The oldest brewery in Ireland (Smithwicks) can be found in Kilkenny while the oldest working distillery can be found in Bushmills in Antrim.

9. Pub Culture

best pubs in Dublin

Yes, drinking is part of Irish culture, surprise surprise! Traditionally, the pub culture Ireland was home to was much more than friends visiting a pub to get drunk.

Pubs were places where people gathered to meet neighbours and relax, similar to the cafe culture that’s found in many counties. 

This is still the case in some communities – I was in a pub in Ballyferriter several years ago and there was only myself, the barman, and 3 aul lads, each of whom were sat far apart.

The barman explained that each man lived alone and that each came in every single night and drank one pint over several hours. “It’s the only human contact they get each day”.

Ireland’s pub culture varies massively by pub. Some are loud, rowdy places, while others are traditional shrines that feel homely and that host live music sessions. See our guide to the best pubs in Ireland for more.

Irish Traditions

If you’re in search of what traditions Ireland follows – actually, let me correct that – if you’re in search of Irish traditions followed in Ireland, you need to take the vast majority of things that you read in online blogs with a pinch of salt.

There are a lot of ‘Irish traditions’ listed online that really aren’t traditions that we follow in Ireland. They might be Irish traditions in America that are followed by Irish Americans, but they aren’t traditions here.

In our guide to Irish traditions, you’ll find plenty of relatively normal traditions, like the celebration of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint, to some slightly strange ones.

Howaya! Thanks for visiting the Irish road trip! This site exists to inspire and guide you on an Irish adventure that’ll give birth to a lifetime of memories (sounds very arsey altogether, I know!) You'll find everything from things to do in Ireland to where to stay in Ireland (unique and unusual places) if you have a nosey around!

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