From practicing pitching your tent at home to beating the weather by swimming in the rain, there are ways to avoid the grim camping trips of our youth, Conor Pope learns from those in the know
The scars of Irish camping holidays in the 1970s run deep. Every summer the Pope children would be squeezed into a car, jam-packed with our belongings — without so much as a single seat belt between us — and driven by two chain-smoking parents to a place with an unpromising sounding name, such as Boyle or Kilmuckridge.
Once there, we would watch miserably as a tent went up in the driving rain. Then there would be two weeks spent under cold canvas, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain at night and driving by day along the gloomy roads of Roscommon and Sligo and Waterford and Wexford, looking for something fun to do.
Eventually, the tent would come down and the car would be packed up to a soundtrack of grumbling and promises of “never again”. After one particularly brutal summer in tents, “never again” came true and the camping holidays stopped.
But not everyone has had such a miserable experience camping in Ireland, and listening to some of the advocates — and there are many — it is clear that the holidays were not the problem, the Popes were. We put too much faith in the weather gods and when they let us down — and we just knew they would — everything kind of fell apart. The smoking and the endless car journeys were a problem too, to be honest.
Galway publican Malachy Duggan offers a vision of an alternate reality which is dangerously close to joyous. He and his wife, Carrie Budd, have been happy campers for donkey’s years and not only has it become a passion for him, it also inspired him to write an award-winning camping cookbook.
“We would have done a lot of our courting on campsites,” Duggan says. “When I met her, she was really into the outdoor life, hillwalking, hiking and camping, and when she asked me if I loved them too, I said ‘of course I do’. Then I started doing it and I actually started loving it.”
The couple had a child and upgraded their tents to a camper van seven years ago. They bought the early 1990s Volkswagen from a friend and started travelling the highways and byways of Ireland in it.
“The facilities at the campsites around Ireland are, generally speaking, amazing,” he says, brimful of hardy enthusiasm. “It rains a good bit, I suppose, but as that saying goes there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.
“And the trick is to go swimming or kayaking when it is raining, that way it doesn’t matter a bit if you get wet. If you waited for the weather you’d never do anything. And it is so changeable that you might head out of Galway and it would be lashing but by the time you hit Leenane the sun might be splitting the rocks. The trick is not to make the weather the focus.”
He also swears by the awning on his camper van and the pop-up gazebo that gives them extra space. “I know that when people think of camping in Ireland they think of that Father Ted episode but you actually have far more space camping than you do when you are staying in a hotel.”
Apart from the weather and the awnings, he has other tips too.
Top of the list is to find the heated outdoor swimming pools across the country, of which, he says, there are surprisingly large number. “I thought there were none but there are loads. In Roscrea there is a 32m swimming pool that is great craic when it is raining and there is a gorgeous one in Drumshanbo — these are things we would never have found had we not been camping.”
Then there is the price. In recent months the cost-of-living crisis has impacted almost every area of our lives, with holidays no exception. Hotel and self-catering prices have gone through the roof, while availability has gone through the floor.
It is a very different story when camping, Duggan says.
“There is a site we go to every year called Mountshannon on Lough Derg,” he says. “We always go for at least a week and potter around for the other weeks. At the end of June the pitch was €28 a night and we extended our stay into July, which is high season. They came to us to say the price had gone up to €30 a night. They were almost apologetic telling us the news. You would not get a hotel in Ireland for a night for what a week’s camping costs.”
He is looking forward to having more choices this year than last year. Because the pandemic kept many people at home, spaces at campsites were at a premium. “You couldn’t get a space in some sites but then by September there were all these €2,500 tents on DoneDeal after some people had bought them and decided ‘never again’.”
Not only do the family camp, they have also written a cookbook called Camping Soul Food: Recipes & Playlists by the Buggans Family. “Buggans” meshes Duggan’s and Budd’s surnames together.
“We would have always written little notes to ourselves saying ‘do this or don’t do that’ just to make life easier for the next trip. When we started we were cooking pasta and pesto and burgers and sandwiches. Then Carrie was like ‘we have to get something healthy’. Every recipe can be cooked on a single heat source without refrigeration. Then, when the world stopped turning, we decided to write a book. We wrote it for our daughter, Easkey, to make something positive out of the craziest year. It is mad to think that last week we were in Sweden at the World Cookbook Awards. Egg on toast got us to the world book awards.”
When asked for more tips for novice campers he doesn’t skip a beat.
“If you get a new tent, put it up and down in your garden a few times before you take it on the road because a campsite is no place for a domestic and no matter how experienced you are, struggling to put a tent up will cause a fight on a campsite.”
He also suggests that people should bear in mind that they are not Bear Grylls. “This is Ireland, and you are going to pass a Centra, so you don’t have to leave the house with everything. It is better to buy in local shops when you are travelling.”
He camps in sites and in the wild, although he is just a bit dismissive of the term “wild camping”.
“It is just camping really. And the only thing to remember is to leave no trace, just leave it as you found it.”
While Duggan is a hardened camper, Sarah Power is, she is quick to admit, “relatively new” to the experience. But, even though she is a newbie, she is quite the enthusiast and has four trips booked around Ireland for the months ahead.
“Nearly every trip I go on has rain,” she says. “We plan accordingly [and] do loads of sea activities with wetsuits where the kids really don’t care. Surfing and any water sports are a huge hit.”
She says they travel with “buckets of microfibre towels, clothes, socks, socks, socks and rain gear. We go out in all weather. We don’t let it stop us. We dry clothes in driers either on site or at a Tesco if we can’t get them dry at the camp site. We keep ourselves toasty with hot-water bottles, giant hoodies and mugs of tea.”
She says the “pay-off is worth it. De-stressed kids and adults, no screen time during the day, seeing our beautiful country and being outdoors. We go with the flow and once or twice we have ended up swimming at half ten at night as it was warm and dry and sure why not?!”
Five campsites worth a mention
Rock Farm, Slane, Co Meath
This is a pretty glampy campsite in the Mountcharles family’s garden. There are swanky yurts with wood-burning stoves and elevated beds and shepherd’s huts and bell tents for those who wish to rough it, relatively speaking. Availability is limited for the summer months but if you can find a free yurt that sleeps four, two nights costs just under €200.
Pure Camping, Kilkee, Co Clare
This Loop Head site is a short stroll form the sea and comes with bell tents and eco-cabins or a “wild camping” option in the site’s native woodland. Pitches start at €14 per adult per night, while starting prices for unfurnished bell tents is €35 per night.
Lough Key Caravan and Camping Park, Boyle, Co Roscommon
This has been a jewel in the Irish camping crown for the guts of half a century and has come a long way since the 1970s when this writer first experienced its joys. There are all manner of things to keep kids and adults amused and when it comes to bargain-basement holidays, 12 quid a night is hard to top. Tent pitches start at €12 per night, climbing to €40 for an eight-man tent. Camper van and caravan pitches are from €22 per night. Showers cost €2, while electricity is €3 a night.
Mannix Point Camping Park, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry
This spectacular campsite comes with 500m of wild Atlantic coastline and the mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula. The facilities are good and you might happen upon a trad session if you are lucky. Pitches for two adults cost between €26 and €30 while prices for two adults and two children are between €30 and €34. A shower will cost a euro while the electricity is €4 a day.
Hidden Valley Camping Resort, Rathdrum, Co Wicklow
This is a real gem and one which is very well-named as so few people know about it. The ones who do are the lucky ones. It has pods and lodges as well as pitches for tents and caravans with the cost of a pitch starting at just €12 a night. There are also all manner of brilliant activities including an inflatable water park, which is the best way to beat a rainy day.
086 7272 872, hiddenvalley.ie