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Right Hand Drive

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As I grew up in Indiana surrounded by cornfields, I am fascinated by having boats as basic transportation. However, if you grow up on an island, ferries can be more normal than a car! While many islands close to land have bridges, ferries are still the norm in Ireland and many places where bridges aren't practical or economical. The Aran Island ferries are for people and their bicycles, but some ferries in other places take cars, trucks, and even trains! The Aran Island ferries run multiple trips per day with more trips in the high season, and each ferry can take 175-350 people. In the summer, there is a special route from Galway that passes the famous Cliffs of Moher.

Aran Islands

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The three Aran Islands are Inis Mór (Big Island, population 1,000); Inis Meáin (Middle Island, population 200); and Inis Oírr (East Island, population 300.) They are off the west coast of Ireland at the mouth of Galway Bay. They were first called “the Islands of Saints and Scholars." They are important for their Celtic and Christian cultural history, linguistic tradition (Irish Gaelic is still regularly spoken by the islands’ inhabitants), and geological formations. The islands are made of limestone and originally didn’t have a fertile topsoil. The island inhabitants built one with seaweed and sand from the shorelines. Many important spiritual ruins and sacred sites exist on the islands, which still draw pilgrims and tourists today. 'ittle Bear visits Inis Mór Island, the largest of the islands, and also the most visited.  You can read more here.

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Irish Gaelic

Irish, Irish Gaelic, or Gaelic, is one of two official languages, and is one of the oldest surviving languages in Europe. Written records date back to the sixth and seventh centuries, and spoken records date back to 500 BCE. Within Ireland, the language may be called Gaelic or Irish, but outside of Ireland, “Gaelic” alone generally means Scottish Gaelic. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are in the same linguistic family. English is the other official language of Ireland and most commonly spoken since the late 1800s, as the English ruled Ireland. Since the end of English rule, interest and knowledge in Irish is growing, and it is a required part of the national school curriculum. Slightly more than 40 percent of the Irish population over three years old are able to speak Irish, but only 1,8 percent use Irish on a daily basis outside of school. Irish is primarily spoken in the south, west, and northwest counties. It is an official language of the Irish government and European Union. Here are some words and phrases.

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Celtic Cross

The Celtic cross is a version of a Christian cross that is found in Ireland, as well as parts of Great Britain and France. It originated in the Middle Ages, and differs from the more well-known cross as it has a ring around the intersection of the arms and stem of the cross. One legend says that Saint Patrick designed the symbol as a combination of the Christian cross and the ancient Celtic symbol for the sun, which represented life. The Celtic cross often appears as a high carved stone monument on the Irish mainland and on the islands that Irish missionaries visited in the eighth to twelfth centuries. Now, it is a symbol of faith that is shared by different spiritual groups. The Aran Islands have quite a few and if you look closely, you can f ind one that 'ittle Bear passes!  You can read more about them here.

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Blarney Stone (Cloch na Blarnan)

The Blarney Stone is one of the world’s most famous stones. Legend has it that if you kiss it, you can talk smoothly and cleverly. As described by an Irish politician, John O'Connor Power, “Blarney is something more than mere flattery. It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit. Those who mix with Irish folk have many examples of it in their everyday experience.” The stone is made of limestone and is set in the tower of the Blarney Castle. People travel from all over the world to kiss this famous stone. It isn’t easy, though. You need to climb to the top of the tower, then bend over and hang down the side. Thankfully, there are now safety precautions to keep visitors safe. 

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The color green is often associated with Ireland, which is also known as the Emerald Isle. Many think it is because of the luscious green fields. However, its association is relatively new and not based on the landscape: Green was used during the fight for independence from England and came to be associated with the Catholic nationalists. Green became a symbol of identity, together with the shamrock and Irish flag, for Irish American immigrants. In fact, the Chicago River is dyed green on March 17 to celebrate Irish heritage.

Stone Walls

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An enduring feature of the Irish countryside are the stone walls that are everywhere and always charming. This type of wall had the advantage of being a way to mark land divisions, as well as easily clear the fields. The type of stone varies with location, and while styles may be regional, they are also individual. Fences in the south and west are usually dry stone, meaning that there is no mortar to hold the stones together. Landowners create smaller f ields on rockier ground, and larger ones on smoother ground. Walls are generally built with the largest stones on the bottom, and smaller ones toward the top. Because there is no mortar, the fences constantly need maintenance. Some walls are built by farmers, and they have more gaps and are less stable. Others are built by skilled stonemasons. These don't have gaps. They are very stable and usually higher.

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Full Irish Breakfast

This is a traditional breakfast designed to fill up the farmers for a long day of work. A Full Irish is made up of homemade and local items, fried up in a pan with Irish butter. Because it includes local items, it will differ depending where you are in the country. Some common items that are usually in most “Full Irish” include: bacon, sausage, baked beans, egg, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, and leftover potatoes. If that isn’t enough, it also comes with toast, marmalade, and tea (not coffee) to drink.

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Sheep are important animals, as well as an unofficial symbol of Ireland. They have been important for more than 5,000 years and the 2015 Census said there are more sheep than people. As you travel around Ireland, you will find many sheep dotting the countryside. Be careful, as they are often out in the roads! Wool from the sheep has always provided warmth, and sheep are very economical animals to keep as they graze on the ever-present green grass. You can read more about the famous Irish wool sweaters, but did you know that sheep wool is also used as insulation in houses? 

Wool Sweaters

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Irish wool is known around the world for its high quality. It is rich in natural oils and lanolin, which makes it not only warm but slightly waterproof. There are many famous patterns, one of which is the Aran Islands fisherman sweater. The stitches and patterns have traditional and cultural meaning to create an intricate and beautiful knitted item. The Honeycomb stitch represents a hardworking bee and the rewards of hard labor. The Diamond stitch is shaped like a fishing net and stands for wealth and success. The Trellis stitch is inspired by the stone walls of Ireland and symbolizes the importance of home and hearth. While many sweaters are now made by machine, and not necessarily in Ireland, it is still possible to find handmade sweaters of Irish wool that will last a lifetime! Whether you visit Ireland, or shop from your home, you can find a beautiful, warm sweater from Ireland to keep you cozy.

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Dún Aonghasa

This prehistoric fort is the best known of several found on Ireland’s Aran Islands. Although the exact date of its construction is unknown, it is thought that most of the structure was built during the Bronze and Iron Age. The first structure is from 1100 BCE and is built of rubble against large upright stones to make an enclosed area. It is on a high cliff, over 100 meters (328 feet) above the sea. Part of it has collapsed into the sea, but it was originally oval shaped.

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We couldn’t tell a story of Ireland without a leprechaun (and if you look closely in the book, you can find one hiding!) A leprechaun is a small imaginary being that comes from Irish folklore. They are usually short bearded men dressed in a coat and hat, and are often up to something mischievous. In many of the stories, they are shoemakers and enjoy playing practical jokes. More recent stories might depict them with a rainbow and the pot of gold at the end of it. Although we often think of a leprechaun wearing green, this wasn't the norm until the 20th century. 

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A feis is a traditional Gaelic arts and culture festival and can also be an Irish dance competition. Art, dance, and music are important in Irish culture, stemming back to ancient Ireland where the local festivals featuring song, dance, music, theater, and sport were highlights of life and important gatherings. In modern Ireland, the feis has undergone a revival for Irish culture enthusiasts both in Ireland and around the world. A feis has dance as a focus and each school has an elaborate costume for their students. Girls wear elaborate dresses with long sleeves and a short skirt and have their hair curled. Boys usually wear a dress shirt, tie and dress trousers or a kilt. The most important feis is the Oireachtas competitions which are held around the world, culminating in the world championships Easter week each year in a different city. 

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The shamrock plant is a national symbol of Ireland. The three leaves stand for the Christian Holy Trinity. There are several species of shamrocks, but we think of the ones with three leaves most often.

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