5th Dec

Christmas: 10 of Ireland’s Very Best Santas…

best santas, santa, ireland, christmas, belevedere house

Belvedere House, Co. Westmeath

After crossing Lough Ennell by boat and proceeding to his grotto at Belvedere House, Westmeath’s colourful Santa is now taking visitors. Colourful, we say, because he wears green – both as a nod to Santa’s traditional garb in the Victorian era, and a symbol of his eco-credentials (instead of toys, Green Santa gives children seed shakers or helps them pot up native fir or holly trees to take home). But that’s not all. To reach him, visitors must pass through a wardrobe leading to Narnia…

Details: 044 934-9060; belvedere-house.ie.

Arnott’s, Dublin

Santa comes and goes at other department stores, but at Arnott’s he’s an institution. Arriving by carriage, sitting in his first-floor grotto, the long lines of excited children – and even more excited parents – queuing up to greet him are a city tradition. The man behind one of Ireland’s best Santas? Bernard Hughes, who makes a point of wearing his own beard, specially-made suit and polar boots. Arnott’s is the “West End” of the Santa business, he says. Long may it – and Mr Hughes – continue.

Details: 01 805-0400; arnotts.ie. Free (no gift).

Arigna Mines, Co. Roscommon

The Arigna Mining Experience is located in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a world-class attraction using bona fide miners as guides. Given the rocky authenticity of the surroundings, you may think Santa is the Real McCoy too. Sitting in a log cabin in the mine, the septuagenarian gift-giver has 12 grandchildren of his own, so he knows a thing or two about little ones. So does Eileen O’Toole, a veteran of Sesame Street, and the creative force behind Arigna’s music and storytelling.

Details: 071 964-6466; arignaminingexperience.ie.

Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, Co. Clare

It has been hung with holly and festooned with fairy lights. All that’s required now is for visitors to the village street at Bunratty Castle & Folk Park to drop by and see Santa in his grotto. While you’re there, say hello to Mrs. Claus in her kitchen as she prepares for Santa’s trip, listen to colourful stories about Christmases past, and chat to the characters wandering the streets (watch out for some bloke called Scrooge). Shops selling Christmas fare could throw up the odd stocking-filler, too.

Details: 061 360788; shannonheritage.com.

Aillwee Cave, Co. Clare & Crag Cave, Co. Kerry

There’s been some strange banging and clattering at Aillwee Cave recently. The noise, we’re told, is caused by elves installing Santa’s Kingdom amongst the stalactites and stalagmites. Party packs, adult gifts, face-painting, road trains, Santa’s Post Office, funfair rides and a Christmas market complete the atmosphere at a wonderland voted best in Ireland on several occasions by the late Gerry Ryan. Another showcave transforming itself this Christmas is Crag Cave in Castleisland. Book in advance for both.

Details: aillweecave.com; cragcave.com.

Waterford & Suir Valley Railway, Co. Waterford

With its old ‘Kilmeaden’ station sign, railway carriage cafe and a train you’d like to wrap up and take home in your pocket, the Waterford and Suir Valley Railway is a real family gem. The fun continues over Christmas, when the train transforms into the Santa Express, taking visitors along the old Waterford to Dungarvan line to visit Santa in his cottage. It’s a chilly choo-choo at this time of year, so make sure to bring hats, gloves and scarves – and remember to book in advance.

Details: 051 384058; wsvrailway.ie.

Blackrock Castle, Cork

Some Santas pride themselves on their sleighs. Others swan into town on horse-drawn carriages. We’re pretty sure that Blackrock Castle is the only place Santa will be arriving at by comet, however. As well as visiting the visit the Christmas cosmonaut and his helpers, you transmit your messages to the North Pole from the observatory, and take away a special astro gift bag. Afterwards, kick back with a glass of mulled wine or a mug of herbal tea by the castle fireplace. Did someone say atmosphere?

Details: 021 435-7917; bco.ie.

Duckett’s Grove, Co. Carlow

Duckett’s Grove is one of the weirdest old ruins in Ireland. Its walled gardens have been restored, however, making the grounds the perfect place to host craft fairs and days out. On December 12th, the theme is Christmas, with a seasonal market, free stories, workshops, face-painting and Christmas cookery demos on the cards. There’s a free Santa’s grotto and a live nativity scene too, not to mention a Sumo wrestling programme (also free). We told you it was weird…

Details: 059 913-0411; duckettsgrove.eu; free (no gift).

Wicklow Gaol, Co. Wicklow

Wicklow’s historic gaol has taken many prisoners in its time. But Santa? After arriving on a hand-crafted wooden sleigh, the big man was taken captive and will be held throughout the festive season. Santa sits at the end of an enchanted forest stuffed with snow-covered trees, polar bears and Christmas lights, and visitors can also meet the donkeys and snow-white sheep who have come down from the Wicklow hills to tend the Christmas Crib. Just don’t stray into the old whipping room…

Details: 0404 61599; wicklowshistoricgaol.com.

Kia Ora Farm, Co. Wexford

Santa is appearing at several mini-farms this Christmas. Kia Ora is one of the best, stringing up the Christmas lights, breaking out the mulled wine and finding alternative roles for its animals in a live Stable of Bethlehem and an illuminated crib. There’s a cosy cafe where mum and dad can grab muffins and mulled wine, and if it’s too chill for the playground (not to mention the tractor and digging area), you can explore the indoor aviary, milk the cow or meet the furry creatures in the barn.

Details: 053 942-1166; kiaoraminifarm.com.

NB: To avoid disappointment, Santa should be booked in advance where possible.