If you live in the UK, Ireland offers a rich history, stunning scenery and vibrant cities on your doorstep, plus a rollicking nightlife that, while you may or may not be able to enjoy with kids in tow, adds to a great atmosphere. The Guinness is great and the people are even better – laid-back and friendly, their hospitality is famous and extends to kids.
Largely rural and very diverse in its landscape, this emerald isle is straight out of a glossy brochure, with cliché-inducing scenery: mountains, lakes, rolling countryside, mile-upon-mile of sandy beaches and adrenaline-inducing sheer cliff faces. With this comes an almost bewildering choice of outdoor excursions and activities: pottering on the beach, horse-riding, sailing, abseiling and seal-watching are just some of the possibilities for family holidays.
The countless castle ruins are great places for your kids to absorb history and let off steam; there are also many still standing, and more often than not they have child-friendly cafés and play areas. If you’re culturally inclined, there are rich pickings to be had here – for such a small island, there are plenty of music, food and literary festivals through the year (probably one every week in summer), all extremely child friendly. And Dublin, Cork and Galway are all cosmopolitan and vibrant centres with plenty of family activities.
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Explore central Ireland and the east coast. If you’re staying in Dublin, you’ll find it a great base for touring the surrounding area. Small but perfectly formed, Malahide Castle has a tragic history (14 family members died on the same day) that will appeal to many kids’ darker side, as well as a playground, toy railway museum, fantastic grounds and toy museum. Newbridge House and Farm should be next on your list, with its incubators with fluffy chicks, animal feeding, and state-of-the-art playground.
The National Sea Life Centre in Bray gives kids the chance to see marine life without getting wet. Afterwards head to Glenroe Open Farm in Killicoole, with the usual cute and cuddlies, a magical secret garden in the woods and the old thatched Farmhouse Museum.
For those with a keen sense of history, the Newgrange site and the historic hill of Tara are well worth visiting. For something with a bit more gore, take kids to Wicklow’s Historic Gaol, which brings out the harsh conditions of the gaol with life-size models (some a wee bit scary).
To lift the spirits and blow away the cobwebs, head to Brittas Bay, a Blue Flag beach popular with locals (it gets packed in summer). For beach entertainment that’s a tad different, if you can be around Dublin at the end of Aug/early Sept, check out the the only annual horse-race meeting on a beach (Laytown).
Don’t miss Powerscourt House and Gardens in the Wicklow Mountains. The waterfall (Ireland’s highest) has taken on almost mythical proportions, with hundreds of visitors coming to gawp and picnic in the grounds, while the ‘house’ is a fine example of what money can buy.
If you’ve energy to burn, Sugarloaf Mountain in Wicklow is walkable with kids, with the lovely Avoca café nearby (with a garden where the kids can run free), and there's an adventure park at Clara Lara, and historical/lakeside walks at Glendalough, where you can feed the kids tales of Rapunzel as they walk around one of Ireland’s round towers or, if you like to tell it as it is, fill them with more stories of pillaging and hasty retreats.
Discover the south-east. Aspiring historians will enjoy a trip to the Dunbrody Famine Ship in Co. Wexford, but be warned that the journey the emigrants took for a better life is replicated right down to the smells. At the Nore View Fold and Heritage Museum in Co. Kilkenny, drag your kids screaming around a now-vanished world as you show them what a real kitchen looked like in the old days and explain that iPhones didn’t exist. You might also visit Cashel Folk Village, a reconstruction of various traditional thatched village shops together with a penal chapel, in a confined area within the town of Cashel, near the famous Rock Of Cashel.
For theme-park thrills, try Pirates Cove Adventure Park or Tramore Amusement and Leisure Centre. Coolwood Wildlife Park in Killarney gives kids the chance to get up-close and personal with exotic animals, while The Copper Coast Mini Farm in Waterford boasts a huge sandpit. For genuine sand, head for Ballyheigue, Derrynane Roney Point Beach (famous for its family of seals) and Dunmore East Beach.
Venture to the south-west and and Shannon region for dramatic coastlines and beautiful lakes. This is where the term ‘Emerald Isle’ really comes into play, with breathtaking walks, exhilarating watersports and popular festivals to delight all the family, plus beaches, beaches, beaches. Make sure you’re in Killorglin in mid August to enjoy Puck Fair, three days of family fun with the King Of the Fair, a goat, stuck at the top of some poles for the duration.
Cork has the beautiful Beara Peninsula, where your kids will love a trip in Ireland’s only cable-car, the world famous Blarney Stone and Cobh’s Titanic Heritage Centre. Kids will enjoy an organised boat trip out to see Dingle’s most famous resident, Fungi the dolphin, still going strong.
In the Shannon region in Clare, you will find famous attractions such as the stony Burren National Park, Allwee caves, Bunratty Folk Park and Cliffs of Moher, plus plenty of Blue Flag beaches.
Be awed, literally, by west Ireland. For outdoorsy families, this is perfect, with mile upon mile of incredible vistas, white sandy beaches that go on for ever, and some of the best horse-riding you’ll ever come across. If that isn’t enough to get the adrenaline pumping, Donegal Adventure Centre and Surf School will.
Unwind for a few days on the traffic- and themepark-free Aran Islands.
Galway has a charm all its own while managing to be cosmopolitan and arty at the same time (Galway's Arts Festival in July is world renowned).
There’s nothing scary in the Irish diet so your kids shouldn’t be too hard to bribe to sit down and enjoy a meal – traditional Irish fare tends to be hearty stews, packed with meat, potatoes and locally grown veg.
Irish breakfasts – a thing to behold and easily rivalling English ones (the soda bread is delicious) – are a must.
In the cities you’ll find the usual child-friendly chains, including Wagamama, Milano and Pizza Express. Naturally, there’s a great array of seafood on offer; if you come in September, don’t miss the Oyster Festival in Galway.
Ireland has been spared the UK’s gastropub epidemic and its pubs are a great place to soak up the atmosphere along with the black stuff.By Rachelle Keyes
Don’t forget to pack your raincoats in any season, but do expect to see sunshine too, possibly on the same day. The climate of Ireland is mild as it’s on the receiving end of the Gulf Stream. Typically, summers have warm, sunny weather and a sky dotted with fluffy clouds. In July and August, conditions can become very humid and thunder and lightning can occur. The average July temperature is around 15ºC, although temperatures in excess of 30ºC are not unheard of.
Ferries are a popular way of getting to Ireland as you can take your own car and travel around at your leisure. Dublin, Cork and Rosslare all have ferry ports, served from Liverpool, Wales, Scotland, and France.
Your can hop on a plane to Ireland, north or south, from all main and most regional airports – Dublin and Cork, but also Galway or Knock for the unspoiled west of Ireland.
Plenty of bargain flights and ferry crossings to Ireland keep costs down on family holidays, and the country has a wealth of enticing but cost-effective self-catering cottages and other properties for those with an eye on their overall budget.
If you’re tightening the purse-strings, think about a self-catering cottage – see our partner Cottages4You or The Landmark Trust (irishlandmark.com) with its quirky historical buildings such as lighthouse-keeper's cottages and even small castles.
Many of Ireland’s atmospheric castle hotels offer family accommodation. Ashford Castle in Co. Mayo and Dromoland Castle in Clare are stunning castles steeped in history that offer kids something different – they can play at being Lord of the Manor and try their hand at falconry before settling down to dream of defeating he who must not be named while you eat your dinner. See our feature on a Family Falconry Break at Ashford Castle.
In Navan, Co. Meath, Bellinter House is a stunning Georgian boutique hotel with babysitting on offer.
Or try a campsite such as Fáilte Ireland’s Best Family-Friendly Site winner, Nore Valley Park Farm (norevalleypark.com) in Co. Kilkenny, where kids can join in with feeding the animals or have a go on the trailer rides or go karts. Another great family site is River Valley Holiday Park (rivervalleypark.com) in Co. Wicklow, close to Brittas Bay with its fantastic beach.
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