Ireland has long been known as a land of myth and legend, but there are some misconceptions you should be aware of before you travel to the Emerald Isle – or you may be in for a surprise!
1. People in Ireland wear green clothes and wolly sweaters
Irish natives don't wear green, unless they are doing it in a fun way on St. Patrick's Day, or at a national sporting event. Even on these occasions, Irish people only wear lots of green as a parody of the national stereotype.
Some visitors to Ireland, particularly North American visitors, will wear lots of green clothing when they arrive in Ireland. There’s probably no better way to scream “I’m a tourist” in Ireland, than to wear green clothes head-to-toe on a fashionable street like Grafton street.
No, wait, there is a better way to scream "I'm a tourist" in Ireland -- you could wear an aran sweater. Okay, you may want to pack a chunky, beautifully hand-crafted, creamy woollens sweater or two into your suitcase as gifts, just don't wear them around the streets. Unless you want to be mistaken for someone's grandma.
2. Irish people believe in leprechauns
In places like the US, the words “Ireland” and “leprechaun” are synonymous. In Ireland, however, leprechauns are nowhere to be seen. At least, not in the flesh.
The only place you will find leprechauns are in gift shops aimed at tourists. Irish people find the association with leprechauns frivolous, even offensive. There's a term for this frivolity. It's called Paddywhackery, and many are at pains to move away from this image of the fighting, drinking, Irish (see below).
Some are beginning to embrace the leprechaun, if only in a tongue-in-cheek way. The National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin opened to appease the demand of tourists who come seeking little green men.
3. Irish people love drinking and fighting
"Drunkenness, fighting, destruction of property: Are these really the qualities we associate with the Irish?" -- Kent Brockman (Reporting on St. Patrick's Day Parade), The Simpsons
There is no denying that Ireland's culture has long had a close association with alcohol, with the local pub at the centre of social events. In recent times,"binge drinking" has increased among Ireland's youth, but this problem is shared with our neighbour, the United Kingdom and other northern European countries. Binge drinking has many causes, but chief among them are the low cost and high availability of alcoholic beverages -- for example, in supermarkets, where previously alcohol was only sold in pubs.
More recently, there are have been signs that Irish culture at large is trying to reform its drinking culture, in the way it changed it drastically reduced smoking in previous decades. As a society, Ireland has recently been agonising about its association with alcohol, and many are opting for alternative forms of recreation, expressed through movements such as the Sober Ireland organisation. Pubs throughout the country are suffering declining revenues, and are having to re-invent themselves as eateries. Politicians are contemplating legislation to introduce curbs on both the advertising and sale of alcohol.
As for fighting, most Irish people abhor it, just as anywhere else! Ireland does have a great record in boxing, particularly in the Olympics -- it is a sport where Ireland punches above its weight (sorry!) -- so this may add to the stereotype. Another area where Ireland still gains a reputation for fighting is among its travelers community. This unique, distinct ethnic group has its own culture, and challenging someone to a fight is part of Traveller culture (though certainly not every Traveller is interested in fighting).
Irish traveller calls on his opponent for a fight - WARNING: contains swearing
4. Irish people are typically poor, rural peasants
On the contrary, Irish has a majority urban population and its people are among the wealthiest in the EU.
Despite the economic crash that came after the Celtic Tiger, the cost of living in Ireland, as with other northern European countries, is quite high. Take a look at some restaurant menus and prices before coming, to get an idea of what you’ll need to budget. Here is a website that contains menus from around the country: http://www.menupages.ie/
Much of Ireland's economic success is due to a sustained successful political strategy to win foreign direct investment. Ireland has become the European base of choice for many of the leading US technology companies, such as Intel, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Ebay.
5. Northern Ireland is a dangerous place to visit
The troubles in Northern Ireland – the low-level guerrilla war between (mainly) the IRA and the British government – are over. A power-sharing local government has been established in Northern Ireland, with mandatory representation from both sides -- Protestant/Unionist and Catholic/Nationalist -- of the community.
While there is still hurt and distrust between the two communities, there seems to be a general consensus that no-one wants to return to the bad old days.
Relationships between the Irish Government, the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are strong and cordial. Travel between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is unrestricted. There are no border checkpoints.
Leprechaun. Image by Thomas Hawk.