In a land where famine is not forgotten, the people have an altogether powerful love of food, writes Moira O'Brien-Malone.
When you have a name like mine people expect you to know something about Ireland. Marked as a daughter of the diaspora I had been to Dublin before, a city I had grown up hearing about.
Most of what I know about Dublin I learned from my father, who was born there but like so many before him emigrated in search of adventure, a better life, or maybe both.
But the Dublin he left in 1950 and the one I have just visited are vastly different places. My father's Dublin is still there in the Georgian houses and well-placed squares, in Grafton Street, Phoenix Park and St Stephen's Green. But now it is a thriving, vibrant European capital, home to 1.3 million people, or about a third of Ireland's population and bursting with cool bars, galleries, museums and boutiques.
Our guide, Ronan Ganter, tells us that if someone asked him to put a pin on a map to mark the centre of Dublin he would put it in the impressive cobbled courtyard of Trinity College, the university founded by Queen Elizabeth in 1592 and now home to the Book of Kells, an intricately illustrated manuscript that dates from 800AD.
But not me: my pin would come down in Merrion Square, one of a handful of gracious Georgian squares at the heart of the city. The writers Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and George Russell all lived along the square at some point, and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was born near here, too, in one of the terraces that now make up the Merrion Hotel.
I didn't know my Irish grandparents for they died before I was born, but they too, were connected with this square. My grandfather, an engineer, worked in one of the houses still fronting on to it and my grandmother grew up in nearby Mount Street. Maybe they sat on one of the square's benches and watched the world go by.
And go by it does. Ireland has one of the youngest workforces in Europe, with about 40 per cent of the population aged under 27 and about the same percentage completing university education. Where previous generations have had to leave the country to find work, now the Irish stay home, finding jobs in a variety of industries, including IT, hospitality and tourism. Today, Ireland imports workers.
But after too little time in Dublin, it is time to begin our tour through the southern counties, a trip that would highlight another aspect of this new Ireland: luxurious hotels and sophisticated spas with the latest in new-age treatments and a lot of fine food.
First we head to the Mount Juliet Estate near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, 120 kilometres south-east of Dublin, a place that epitomises both how much Ireland has changed and how much it has stayed the same.
Built in the 1750s beside the River Nore and named after the wife of the first Earl of Carrick, the 600-hectare walled estate was home to the Carricks until 1914. Magnificently restored, Mount Juliet House offers a picture of how the wealthy lived in Ireland for generations among fine antiques, in graciously proportioned drawing rooms and beneath crystal chandeliers, going hunting, shooting, fishing and riding. It is much the same today, but now lesser mortals can enjoy the good life too, for this mansion is now also a Conrad hotel.
The grounds offer a world-class, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course (home to the World Golf Championships in 2002 and 2004), and a spa where, among other treatments, you can float in a relaxing pool with three tonnes of salt, be detoxified in an algae wrap or experience the benefits of hot-stone therapy. It's hard to guess what the earls would have made of all this.
It is as we travel that I begin to contemplate the Irish relationship with food. Portions in Ireland come in only one size, huge, and meals in restaurants often have five courses.
That joy of eating translates into some very fine food indeed. At Dunbrody House in Wexford, Kevin Dundon, a master chef familiar to Australians with pay TV through the program Great Food Live, says the country is blessed to have some of Europe's best fresh ingredients.
Dundon, with his wife Catherine, runs the 1830s ancestral home of the Chichester family as a country house hotel, restaurant, cooking school and spa.
Darina Allen also has a passion for fresh ingredients. As we take a brisk walk around her four-hectare kitchen garden at Shanagarry in County Cork where she runs the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School, she stresses the importance of starting with the right ingredients. If you don't, she says, "you have to be a magician to make it taste good".
On the move again, we call in at Cobh, the port from which most of country's 2 million emigrants left after the famine of 1845-51. If it wasn't for emigration, Australia would not have developed in the way it has.
We drive on to Kenmare and the countryside changes. So far we have seen many of the "40 shades of green" for which Ireland is famous. Now, the country opens up, with steep inclines, rocky outcrops and a yellowing of the landscape that hints of home.
The Park Hotel in Kenmare is a grand old manor house: it's motto is "gracious elegance since 1897". The view from my room is spectacular, overlooking five hectares of gardens and an inlet of Kenmare Bay. But the real highlight here is the hotel's Samas spa (pronounced saw-vas). Guests are allotted a three-hour treatment time, in which they progress through the thermal, relaxation and treatment rooms. You may never want to leave.
But leave we did, for I was anxious to get to Garinish Island in Bantry Bay, to visit the sub-tropical gardens at Ilnacullin. Warmed by the Gulf Stream and sheltered in Glengariff Harbour, my father had told me of plants that grew here that grew in no other part of Ireland. Still, I was surprised to see bottlebrush, tea tree and wattle among the hundreds of other plants that adorn these 15 beautiful hectares.
Later, we head into the nearby seaside town of Clonakilty to hear some traditional music at De Barras, a smallish, stylishly down-at-heel pub where a group of seven or eight musicians play guitars, banjos, a bodhran (a drum-like instrument, but don't let the locals hear you say so!) and uilleann pipes to bring to life songs of love and loss, war and emigration. People stop talking, listen quietly and soak in the music.
Happily, some things about Ireland never change.
Cork city is the 2005 European Capital of Culture. For details of events, contact Tourism Ireland.
Cathay Pacific flies daily from Melbourne to Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Shannon in conjunction with Aer Lingus. Regular fares start from $1984 plus taxes but, for travel in certain periods, there are often special offers. Check with your travel agent or call 131 747.
Cathay Pacific Holidays also has a range of fly-drive packages available, details on 1300 137 808 or travel agents.
Moira O'Brien-Malone travelled to Ireland as a guest of Tourism Ireland and Cathay Pacific