If you haven’t yet heard that Ireland is the land of shamrocks, shillelaghs, and 40 shades of green, you should probably purchase a television, a copy of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, or a guide to Western culture since 1855. Surprisingly prominent in the international imagination for an island of six million people, Ireland is a place that the rest of the world feels it understands very well, and the Irish themselves find much more complex. Their native country was originally chopped up into several dozen regional kingships, and today it’s still split between two different countries, two different religions, and 11 different Wikipedia disambiguations. (Eight-seven percent of native Irish find that last division to be the most contentious.)
OK, we made that last statistic up. It’s still no wonder, though, that Ireland and “Irishness” can be difficult to categorize. Its two capitals—Belfast in the North, and Dublin in the Republic—are at once the least and most “Irish” cities on the island. Belfast, home to the island’s largest Orangemen parade and some its strongest pro-British sympathies, is Ireland’s second-largest city and the one-time centerpiece of the iconic, tragic Troubles. Dublin, capital of the Republic and site of the Easter Rising, is increasingly urban and international, making it feel more like modern London than magical Glocca Morra. However, these cities’ entanglement with issues of national identity, history, and globalization is a lot more Irish than that Claddagh ring your friend paid €50 for. Like pouring a perfect stout, dancing with Michael Flatley, or spelling a one-syllable word in Gaelic, visiting Ireland should be a wonderfully complicated experience—otherwise you’re not doing it right.