My wife wants to bring Always Ireland: An Insider’s Tour of the Emerald Isle, on our March trip to you-know-where, our first return since the COVID pandemic. “No way,” I say. “That book is too beautiful, and too heavy, to carry in our luggage.”
So we let author and County Wicklow native Justin “Jack” Kavanagh have the last word. He describes the new 336-page hardcover from National Geographic as an “inspirational travel book,” a next-generation guide for an age when nearly all of us carry smartphones that put all the practical details at our fingertips.
“This is more of a dreamer’s guide to Ireland,” Kavanagh told me during a Feb. 1 zoom from Philadelphia, where he divides his time with his native country. “This is the kind of book that sits on your coffee table for maybe six months before you want to go. You can just dip in and out of it.”
The book offers more than 200 half- to two-page vignettes of Ireland’s natural, cultural, and historical attractions. And the island’s dearest treasure—its people—are highlighted in a feature called “Irish Voices,” which introduces readers to historian Diarmaid Ferriter; harp maker Kevin Harrington; singer-songwriter Christy Moore; wild animal conservationist David O’Connor; and nomadic Irish Traveler Helen Riley, among many others.
The “Great Irish Drives” and “In the Know” sidebars offer more conventional suggestions on route planning and where to sleep and eat. “Irish Gardens” and “Taste of Ireland” highlight flora and food (and drink!), respectively.
The book is sectioned into the five “newly reimagined regions” of contemporary Irish tourism: the Ancient East; Munster & the South; the Wild Atlantic Way; Ulster & Northern Ireland; and Offshore Ireland. While it’s still grand to know your grandparents’ or great grandparents’ county and townland of origin, that’s not how modern visitors want to see Ireland, Kavanagh says.
And because Always Ireland is produced by National Geographic, the 300 photos are gorgeous and perfectly illustrate his smooth and informative prose. Kavanagh is an authoritative voice from an iconic source. He has worked as a writer and editor for National Geographic International Editions, overseeing earlier guide books about Ireland, Cuba, Japan, New York City, and other destinations. He says there is a growing recognition these conventional publications are being “fast-tracked to obsoletion” by technology.
Always Italy, the first book of this new approach, was released in March 2020, just as the world shuttered and shuddered from COVID. These books lean slightly toward the first-time visitor, says Kavanagh, who also leads Nat Geo’s “Ireland: Tales and Traditions” tours.
Because he has split his life between America and Ireland, Kavanagh says he aims to provide readers and travelers with both insider and outsider perspectives, with “what is expected and what is unexpected.” He learned a few things himself in researching the book.
I couldn’t resist asking Jack two obvious questions: his favorite spot in Ireland, and what attraction does he most regret the island has lost over its many centuries of history?
“Glendalough,” came his first answer. And why not? He grew up just a bicycle ride away from the sixth century monastery founded by St. Kevin. “To me it’s the center of the world,” he says. “It’s a spiritual home, a place of rest. There’s some ancient energy there.”
To the second question, the music devotee answered the centuries of Irish compositions that were lost or never came to be, because the patronage system of the Gaelic chieftains ended with Anglo-Irish rule. The penal laws meant Irish music went underground, so while we are left with various tunes by itinerant musicians such as the legendary blind harpist Turlough O’Carolan, we’ll never know what might have been if Ireland’s earls had not been put to flight. But while much of that pre-eighteenth century music is silenced forever, there’s still plenty of traditional Irish music to hear played in pubs and other venues, as celebrated in the book.
Whether you pack Always Ireland or not, (it’s also available as an e-book) the real key to visiting Kavanagh’s homeland is the willingness to leave behind hurried, regimented schedules and open your soul to the possibilities of interacting with the people and places on its lovely pages … and those that are not.
“Ireland is not an A to B to C to D kind of place,” he says. “The magic is when you go around the corner and find something unexpected; not where you are going to stay tonight and what you are going to eat. That’s what you get in Ireland that you don’t get in a lot of places in the world.”
That was true when visitors carried pocket guidebooks and folding maps; it remains so for those who carry smartphones.
A guest post by Kavanagh will publish here a little later. MH