Agriculture still seems to be a fair percentage of the backbone of Irish rural society. Almost everywhere we passed in the rural areas has had small fields of sheep or cows. They’re often butted right up against the road, and although they are shy, the animals seem to be very used to cars.
The pace of life is indeed fairly slower than in the city. The main industries in the rural areas, especially in the islands, are agriculture and tourism. Cattle and herding are the trade important portions of the local agriculture- all beef in Ireland comes from the local cows, and most of the wool products (namely the famous Aran sweaters and other knits) all come from either purely Irish sheep wool or from a blend of Irish sheep and alpaca wool (the alpaca wool for added softness).
On Inis Oirr we caught a horse and trap ride around the main attractions of the island. Our driver spoke fluent English and was extremely knowledgeable about the island as a whole, and was more than happy to share information about the isolated life out there. They speak Gaelic in the home and learn English as a subject in school. Anyone on the island that uses English with any smidgin of regularity works in a service for the tourists, or as the English teacher in the school. The wool industry elsewhere has modernized, with sweaters and blankets being machine knit in the traditional Aran patterns- all of which tell a story, or a part of a story at least- whereas on the island the trap driver pointed us to a lady up the road that still sold hand knits. One of the sweaters she was selling had gorgeous, perfect knit cables and trellis patterns done right into the regular fabric.
Rather than being a massive provider for the country, rural life is more geared to bringing in tourists than it is towards being rural. Tours go out from the cities on a regular, often weekly basis out to the towns on the coast. Bundoran is one of, if not the surf capital of Ireland, but the town is little more than one long main street and a water park. Most of the places on the street were pubs though, with a sprinkling of nightclubs and more serious bars in between. Maureen and I went into a local cafe where everyone knew each other and ended up having our dinners bought for us after talking with everyone and indulging the curiosity of the older local people about where we were studying and how we were getting on in Ireland. Even the local life in the rural areas is outgoing and extremely friendly, and where Ireland gets its reputation for being such a friendly place. In that way it is also a cornerstone of the Irish identity, along with the wool goods, the fresh local food (especially the rich dairy), and the easy going pace of life.