Irish wildlife is not known for being particularly excited or diverse. There are less than thirty native mammals so the chances of encountering a wild animal in Ireland is truly limited. It is safe to assume that Ireland's animals may not be that spectacular as an attraction.
You may be right because after having seen you 154th cow, 37th horse, and 1,025,391st sheep (all within half an hour's drive from Dublin Airport), the novelty of Irish animal life wears off slightly. Even those pesky border collies guarding farm entrances and trying to snap at your tires get a little bit predictable after a while.
But then there are indeed attractions where you can meet and greet (at least with a friendly wave from the distance, in some cases) animals which range from the most mundane livestock to the exotic predator. In some rare cases, both types of animals are within spitting distance of each other (which, in the case of llamas, should also serve as a warning to you).
Most of these Irish animal attractions are especially popular with kids, and they are scattered around the country, thus providing a safety net of things to do for stressed parents during their family travels.
While you may only get a very sanitized a glimpse of nature, and may indeed have misgivings about keeping animals in enclosures, many attractions are also focused on important conservation (or wildlife rehabilitation) work.
Let's take a look at the best animal attractions of Ireland.
Belfast Zoo - Up the Hill and Far Away
The Zoological Gardens in Belfast are well out of the way of the city center. You will find them perched up on the slopes of Cavehill on the outskirts of the city which means they are not really within walking distance of the city center. And though buses go here from the center, the easiest access is by private car (or taxicab).
To take in the whole zoo means having to walk quite a bit because the enclosures are nearly stacked atop each other on the steep slope of Cavehill. The uphill route is manageable, but still a challenge for those not fleet of foot.
As long as you follow the signposted route, you should be OK (though recent improvements, splitting the once continuous loop into "themed sections", have made it a bit more of a mental challenge to follow the set path).
Thankfully there is a picnic spot at the top to get your breath back and there is also a restaurant where you can recover at the end.
As for the animals, you will encounter almost all the usual suspects here. Belfast has two bear enclosures, several species of big cats, elephants, and loads of apes and monkeys. Sea-lions are always popular, as are the small prairie dogs that have dug into the hill and emerge in some unlikely places.
Added bonus - a great view over Belfast Lough on a clear day.
Dublin Zoo - the Busiest Corner of Phoenix Park
Having been very much extended, revamped, and comprehensively modernized in recent years, Dublin Zoo attracts thousands of animal lovers on a good day and is almost always full to capacity on summer weekends with the even moderately fair weather. Located in the south-eastern corner of Phoenix Park, this is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Ireland.
Sprawling over several hectares and including some lakes, the zoo is easily explored even if you are mobility impaired - though the distances involved may tire out young kids if you want to take everything in. There are several themed areas and a variety of possible routes through the zoo, best check your main interests against the map.
Restaurants, snack bars, and some mobile ice cream vendors will keep you well fed and energized to keep exploring the animal enclosures.
With the exception of bears (the Red Pandas do not really count, though they are undoubtedly cute) you will find the usual mix of animals, with big cats and big game taking pride of place. The latter can be seen roaming "freely" on the "African Plains" (albeit sometimes with added Irish weather). The gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutan are always fascinating. And the still fairly new (and cleverly designed) elephant enclosure is a very worthy highlight. Personally, I also like the wolves.
Kids will also love the City Farm, where you may be able to interact with domestic and farm animals in true petting zoo style.
Eagles Flying - at the Irish Raptor Research Centre
The Irish Raptor Research Centre in County Sligo is accredited as an EU Zoo and open to visitors, but its main focus is on research and conservation of these special birds. The Irish animal center is a bit of a drive off the beaten track, and it offers two slots daily for visitors - only during the summer season.
The main attraction would be, as the name says, eagles flying. Staff will showcase birds such as eagles, owls, and hawks, but also buzzards, in flying displays for visitors. These are not choreographed shows as such, but a glimpse of natural behavior so they tend to change from one visit to the next. It is well worth a stop if you are in the area, and worth a longer trip if birds of prey are your area of interest.
Facilities at the center are sparse: a small shop and a petting zoo are the only additions to the main attraction.
Fota Wildlife Park - Long Walks with Surprise Encounters
Situated on Fota Island just outside Cork City, Fota Wildlife Park is a sprawling woodland and home to several endangered species.
Best known for its freely roaming pack of lemurs amongst kids (not to mention the odd monkey, capybara, llama, or even kangaroo you might encounter outside the enclosures), it is internationally renowned as a center for cheetah breeding. You will be happy to hear that these are not roaming the grounds. Even Usain Bolt would have a good workout, if that were indeed the case.
You may travel here by train (though the station is a bit of a walk away) or by car.
With lots of picnic areas and a decent restaurant, the animal park is good for a full day outing and large enough not to appear too crowded even on busy days (though there are some bottlenecks).
In addition to the animals already mentioned above, the Irish wildlife center is also home to giraffes, red pandas, a whole host of different species of wetland birds, and much more - all in all, a very interesting and diverse mix. Spontaneous encounters are possible at all times, so it is better to keep a hold of small kids.
Tayto Park - the Pleasure Ground of the Potato Khan
Situated near Ashbourne and within the Dublin commuter belt, Tayto Park is only really accessible by car and has proven very popular during its first few years of existence. It now ranks among the ten most popular attractions in Ireland, and could lay claim to being Ireland's only "theme park".
The nucleus of the whole venture was a herd of American buffalo owned by Largo Foods, makers of the Tayto brand of potato crisps (and some buffalo flavored snacks). This was developed into a small theme park with extensive wildlife areas to explore.
What makes Tayto Park unique is its inclusion of animals that you won't see at other zoos in Ireland. From ocelot to mountain lion, from raccoons to Buffalo, it very much has a North American theme (continued through a questionably accurate portrayal of a teepee village and some interesting totem poles).
Kids can go really wild on all sorts of activities but be warned that you may have to pay extra for some of them.
There is a fine restaurant is at the center of the park, but if all fails there is always Tayto Crisps.
Unplanned Animal Encounters in Ireland - Some Words of Warning!
While all the attractions named before can be considered safe, the same can not always be said of animal encounters in the wild, or along the side of the road, or on the beach. Ireland does indeed have some dangerous animals, so you might want to read up on those.