Ireland for kids? Ireland as a family vacation destination? While you are enjoying the slower pace on Irish roads, questions like "are we there yet" come from the backseats. And while you enjoy the view to the craggy Blaskets the only comment is "Booooooooring!" How to make an Irish vacation exciting for children is a major task — but it can be done. Without resorting to bribes or the often plain corny and ridiculously overpriced "amusements" on offer.
Go the whole hog - Ireland has only one real theme park, and that may be dedicated to a potato in a jacket, but the Tayto Park (within easy distance of Dublin) is the recipe for a great day out. Complete with a huge wooden roller-coaster, a zoo, activity areas that will get the adrenaline flowing, a 4-D-cinema ... and food. Recommended.
Ulster American Folk Park
This open-air museum can’t be praised enough for attractiveness - to all generations. You get to see a traditional Irish village and town, then cross the Atlantic on a sailing ship and disembark in "Americay". As an added bonus there are reenactors around - nearly every house is "inhabited" and the locals like to share stories. The Ulster American Folk Park is a magical journey back in time and space, better than any CGI or animatronics could ever provide.
On the Trail of the Pirates
You won’t find a wild-eyed, dreadlocked Jonny Depp waiting for you here, but with a little effort, you can visit some real pirates' haunts. Louisburgh near Croagh Patrick has a museum dedicated to Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen. You can find her castle on the Mayo Shore. And if you dare to cross over to Inishbofin you will see the Spanish cutthroat Don Bosco's stronghold. Or see the objects from the Girona at the Ulster Museum — evoking Spanish treasure galleons ...
Fota Wildlife Park
This is one of the large zoos of Ireland — and a place where wild things actually roam free. Not the famous cheetahs, but inquisitive lemurs and monkeys. Some of which might even choose to interact with humans that are patient and quiet enough. Just don't scare them ... the smell of lemur urine is long-lasting. Other animals that may bump into you at Fota Wildlife Park are kangaroos, the stout capibaras and some llamas. Kids love to stalk them. At least until they discover the llamas' self-defense mechanism. Bring some wet wipes.
Killarney Lakes and National Park
The rugged beauty of the Killarney National Park will evoke many fantasies and turn even bored city slickers into intrepid explorers. Which generally is safe unless you behave really stupid. You might even encounter wild deer, my personal record is coming face-to-face with a stag when turning a corner in the woods. We stared at each other for around five seconds from a distance of three feet - then he ran off, bellowing, and my heart started beating again. Take the boat tour from Ross Castle, hiring a small, open boat with a local guide, it is simply marvelous.
Going Underground has a long tradition in Ireland - but we are not talking about rebels and spies, we are talking speleology, the science of subterranean spaces. One of the best experience you can have is a visit to the Marble Arch Caves in County Fermanagh, complete with waterfalls, rapids and a boat-ride in the caves. Or try Ailwee Cave in the Burren, once home to massive bears.
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Again an open-air Museum, the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum succeeds in recreating a complete and authentic Ulster settlement - from the local store to no less than three churches. The "locals" (trained reenactors) are at hand to explain and you will be walking through unspoiled rural landscapes to outlying farmsteads and a mill. Then head over to the exhibition halls of the Transport Museum, housing everything from old bicycles to the largest locomotives ever run in Ireland, with prototype planes and a splendid Titanic exhibition thrown in.
Be Your Own Captain
This might not be for every family, but if you want to spend serious quality time together, hiring a cruiser on Ireland's inland waterways could be for you. A splendid way to enjoy the great outdoors with all creature comforts within easy reach. Let your kids try their hand at navigating, fishing, getting a boat through a lock, experiences that might lead to a life-long interest. If you can survive with minimum privacy and no television or shopping mall you will have the vacation of a lifetime.
A Good Knight In
Especially popular with non-European visitors are the old castles strewn across the Irish landscape. For a sheer statement of power and dominance visit Trim Castle (where Mel Gibson filmed his "Braveheart"). Some romantic "Plantation" castles are found near Lough Erne, forbidding tower houses dot the country from the Phoenix Park to Achill Island. And for a full entertainment schedule book yourself into one of the "medieval banquets" at Bunratty Castle (though the term "medieval" is used rather loosely here). Check for fairs and reenactments before you travel - you may find yourself in the middle of a battle occasionally.
A Gipsy for a Week
This is the ultimate in slow travel, you’ll actually be faster on foot than hiring a traditional "gypsy" caravan, drawn by a shaggy and stoic pony. In former times the Roma or Pavee (Eastern European and Irish nomads respectively) used similar vehicles day-in-day-out. These have been replaced by more modern vans and mobile homes, but "gypsy" caravans are still immensely popular, especially with German and Dutch tourists. The caravans sleep a whole family and are as basic as it gets. Colorful, true, but do not start looking for an inside toilet. A little bit of adventure travel with horses thrown in, sometimes riding ponies suitable for children (i.e. even more stoic) can be hired as an accessory.
Cast a Cold Eye and Pass By
Apart from avoiding the over-hyped Fungie (unplanned encounters with seals are much more fun, like at Howth) you would do well to avoid all "amusements" or the seasonal "attractions" in shopping malls - most are seriously overpriced and the owners should be in court for insulting the intelligence of even the most simple children. Take your kids to the beach instead, or into the mountains. Both are always fairly near and far less disappointing.