COURIER-MAIL: United in spirit [A trip to Ireland]

The world's most intensive pub tour, a literary paradise, a land of history and of beauty. For Michael Ware, Ireland is all this and more

"HAVE you kissed the Blarney Stone yet?" she asked.

Hazel was talking about the famous tourist rite at Blarney Castle, in the south of Ireland. The stone is famed for bestowing the "gift of the gab" on its pilgrims. Thousands kiss it every year.

I told her, no, I hadn't. We had only arrived in Ireland that morning.

"Good," she smiled. "Because drunks go up there at night and piss on it, you know."

I'm not sure she was right, after all, she'd just finished pointing out the faerie fort in the middle of the field where the "wee people" lived, but her advice was so deliciously Irish. Warm, irreverent, genuine, frank.

There's any number of ways to see Hazel's homeland. You can tackle it like a roving antiquities scholar: probing, grilling and quizzing for every snippet of history, visiting every monument, ambling through every ruin. For sure, you'll be there forever.

Or you can roam and simply discover, let Ireland lead you, follow its people and its places, never in a hurry.

Besides, you can't rush anyone who measures bad weather by the winter of '47, like Dennis Maguire, a fly fishing guide on Loch Melvin, Northern Ireland. "I caught three here just the other day," Dennis said pointing to a stretch of water. "But I couldn't stay long, I was late for a funeral."

Or a radio sportscaster who, lauding Cork's surprise win in last year's All Ireland Hurling Final dubbed the Clash of the Ash, screamed like a thick-accented Norman May: "Cork has done the double: 1999 and 1890".

The island is divided in two: Northern Ireland, brimming with outdoor adventure, taking in six of the counties of Ulster and actually British soil; and the Republic of Ireland, vibrant and alive, rich in music and entertainment, comprising the bulk of the island. Together they represent the Celtic tiger -- two of the most dynamic and expanding economies in Europe, driven largely by new technologies.

Tourism, however, remains a wellspring for the Republic, with a well-oiled industry catering for every need, niche and nuance. For the North, tourism's only tentatively making its return with the relative peace.

While it's impossible to completely escape the spectre of the Troubles, the decades of conflict between Irish nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries and the British, it's not all-pervasive for the visitor.

Where sandbagged bunkers and roadblocks once ruled the border crossings, gun barrels trained on every car, now there's nothing but open road. Passing from one side to the other is no more arduous than crossing the Tweed.

In the Republic, stumbling on the Sinn Fein bookstore on Parnell Square, north of the River Liffey in Dublin, is as close as anyone would get to the conflict.

I wasn't sure that I'd found it, but the people inside knew I was there without even knocking.

"What the (expletive) do you want?" a voice said as I turned to leave, having taken a photograph. "Is this the bookstore?" I asked.

"Oh. Aye," a fat man said stepping back to let me in. A fatter man was sitting behind a panel of tiny TV screens, monitoring the building. "It's in there," the fat man motioned. "You from Australia then?"

IN THE North the Troubles are more palpable: divided neighbourhoods, war-like murals, Union Jacks and Irish tri-colours on lampposts marking sectarian territories, fortified army posts atop tenement blocks, helicopters buzzing like dragonflies. But to find the old oppressiveness -- like troops in the street -- you really have to look. Foot patrols are now only in Derry and a few places, such as Crossmaglen.

In fact a tourist industry is growing out of the conflict. For a fee a guide, black taxi or special bus will drive you down The Falls Road and up the Shankhill, stopping for snaps along the way. "On your right is an IRA pub. Further up here is Gerry Adams's office, and look quickly folks, that's Milltown Cemetery, an IRA graveyard."

Belfast has just come out of a period where a new restaurant was opening in the city centre every two months. And major hotels are being constructed with vigour, five in the past year alone, including a Sheraton and a Hilton.

Still growing, and a little disjointed, is Belfast's Golden Mile, a strip of shops, pubs and restaurants in the heart of the city. It doesn't yet rival Dublin's Temple Bar district, an area so full of pubs you could drink and explore for days, but it's on its way. Look for the Crown Liqueur Saloon where delicious Guinness pies and Irish stew are served in private drinking booths. Simply wander and try for yourself.

THERE'S been some inadvertent upsides to the conflict, such as pedestrian shopping malls, some of the first in Europe, a by-product of security measures against car bombs, as well as extremely low levels of street crime (what mugger wants to run into a squad of patrolling Paratroopers?). And there's always the funny side, like the T-shirt: "I am a bomb technician. If you see me running try to keep up".

So don't be put off Belfast. I found more disruption in London -- delays on the Tube because of suspicious packages, and try finding a rubbish bin on a London street -- than anywhere in the North.

Throughout Ireland life begins and ends in the pub. A recently-widowed grandmother drinking in a low-ceilinged pub in Irvinestown, Northern Ireland, proof of that. "I'm trying to find all my old boyfriends," she winked, sipping from a pint of Guinness. The family throng gathered around her bobbing their heads as one to say it was true.

In Belfast there's Bittles Bar, writer James Joyce memorabilia dripping from the walls. There I found half a dozen men playing poker, a smoky haze above their heads. Among the group was one wizened man with a green felt hat. At the bar he uttered his name: "Alex. Alex Higgins." An Irish institution and former world snooker champion. Drink in hand, he blended back into the pack of cardplayers.

Also try McHugh's bar and restaurant, although it can get busy. They say when a council inspector visited last year there were so many patrons he couldn't find his way out. The Monday night I was there wasn't too bad. They have a selection of Australian wines, and spicy chicken wings to die for.

When in Dublin simply amble from one doorway to the next. Or for the socially cautious, join a pub tour, there's plenty on offer and they're advertised in all hotels. Guinness, of course, is the staple. "There's eatin' and drinkin' in it," I was told. "Come on, your dinner's poured." The home of this wonderment, the Dublin brewery, a high altar of Irish life, is an extremely popular attraction.

There are more pubs in Ireland, a fervently Catholic country, than churches, there are more golf courses than days of the year and, with four Nobel Laureates for literature, they rejoice in their storytelling. In fact, the dead Joyce is a living industry, with tours, museums, re-enactments, memorabilia and exhibitions aplenty, particularly in Dublin.

Music is the other thread that binds Ireland, with a rich blend of folk and rock permeating daily existence. From Robinson's or Fibber McGee's in Belfast, to Dublin's Temple Bar district, or the tiniest of one-street, back-of-nowhere villages where behind every fifth door is a pub, the sounds and tastes of the drinking houses lends a richness to Irish life.

A celebration of all this is the Dingle Music Festival, held in mid-September in the seaside town on the horn of the indescribably beautiful Dingle Peninsula. The entire town comes alive with bands and musicians. Restaurants, like the Beginish, overflow with patrons and fine food, and the pubs reel all night to the endless melodies.

The fast track approach is to visit the Hot Press Irish Hall of Fame in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. Even for non-music buffs (like me) it's an event. It's also a good alternative to the regular suspects: the Writers Museum, Trinity College and the Book of Kells (which isn't a book, wasn't written in Kell, you have to shove past the busloads of Americans to see, but is awe-inspiring), the Abbey Theatre, the Joyce Centre, the Joyce Museum, Dublin Castle, Shaw's birthplace or the Viking Adventure centre.

WHILE you're in Dublin poke your head in to the exclusive La Stampa restaurant and you'll see one of the finest dining rooms you could imagine. A few doors down Dawson Street is the Cafe en Seine, a Parisian feel with real Irish warmth. Again, a stunning place just to sit and enjoy.

Beyond Dublin your best bet is to simply hire a car and go. The roads are narrow but picturesque, and the navigationally-damaged are sure to survive. Why? Because you're never far from anywhere.

On my travels I saw the limestone Crag Caves near Tralee, which were only unearthed in 1983 under a farm (farmer's wife Margaret Geaney: "You have seven children and when they grow up you ask what now? Then you find a cave."), the incomparable Cliffs of Moher, the barren moonscape of the Burren district, and the much-adored Aran Islands.

Accommodation throughout Ireland covers the full range. From backpackers to B&Bs to boutique hotels (see the minimalist-styled Morrison in Dublin) and luxury beyond your wildest dreams (the Merrion on Dublin's Merrion Square and, outside Limerick, in the village of Adare, the sprawling Adare Manor -- unforgettable for its grandeur but the pricing is like heart surgery). In Belfast, I stayed near Queen's College at Maddison's boutique hotel, which has the Dannii Minogue guestbook seal of approval: "Oct '98 -- Thanks. Excellent."

But the greatest of all is the humble, remote and extremely basic Seacrest House on the Aran Island of Inishmoor. Forever it will hold a special place in my heart. Stricken with food poisoning, in a near-death state and ready to throw myself into the sea, Geraldine Faherty took me in until it was time for my return flight and bus to Galway. I was violently ill in one of her small rooms and for the refuge she gave me, and the towels I defiled, all she would accept was my green-gilled thanks -- no matter how hard I pressed Irish punt into her hand.

Now that's Ireland. Bloody good craic.

* The writer's trip was organised by the Irish Tourist Board and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. He flew with Cathay Pacific.