From the moment you arrive in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), you’re aware that something called ‘Expo 2020’ is taking place there.

From the side of planes to special metro stops, billboards and banners, it’s everywhere you look.

But what exactly is Expo and what does Ireland have to do with it? Irish Country Living recently got a chance to visit as part of a trade mission led by the Department of Agriculture and facilitated by Bord Bia. Here’s what we found out.

What is Expo 2020 Dubai?

In a nutshell, Expo 2020 is an exposition of world cultures and innovation. However, there’s a little more to it than that sentence.

As the name might suggest, it was supposed to take place in Dubai in 2020, but you know the craic with that one, COVID-19.

Country flags at Expo 2020.

Expo takes place (usually) every five years. The last one was held in 2015 in Milan, Italy.

Physically, Expo is akin to a town. The vastness of it is astounding. You definitely need a map and a good pair of runners to get around it, and it would take days to get around it in full.

There is a plethora of restaurants and even an Irish bar there! As I said, it’s like a town.

All this infrastructure was purpose built for Expo 2020, which started at the beginning of October last year and runs until the end of March.

The Ireland Pavilion at Expo 2020.

It’s made up primarily of pavilions; 192 countries have pavilions there, as well as pavilions for international organisations and Expo partners. There are also sustainability, mobility and opportunity districts.

The history of Expo

The history of World Expo goes back 170 years. The first was held in Crystal Palace, London to showcase the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. It has since been held all over the world.

Exposition Universelle de 1867 in Paris was the first to feature national pavilions.

Some iconic world architecture came about through Expos, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Space Needle in Seattle.

Food innovations first seen at Expo include Heinz ketchup in 1876 in Philadelphia and ice-cream cones in Louisiana in 1904.

The first telephone was demonstrated in Philadelphia also by Alexander Graham Bell.

Ireland at Expo

The Ireland Pavilion at Expo is led by a team from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Everyone working there is Irish, with the aim of giving it an authentic Irish feel.

The architecture of the pavilion has taken inspiration from both Arabic and Irish culture. The panels cladding the building are based on 5,000 year old rock art in Knowth in the Boyne Valley.

You enter the pavilion into a round room, here the seating is inspired by the Giant’s Causeway. In this room a 360° video is played showing the sights and sounds of Ireland. From here you can enter into the main courtyard or visit the design and craft exhibition. The tour of the design and craft exhibition, We Are The Makers, is very interesting. It profiles 20 objects from Ireland – the story of each could take up a page of this publication alone. These include a bamboo hurley, an Ed Sheeran guitar, the Collison brother’s Young Scientist trophy, art and more.

The courtyard at the Ireland Pavilion.

The Expo Players perform in the courtyard. These are a group of Irish musicians and singers affiliated with the National Concert Hall who play every day, on rotation, at the Ireland Pavilion. They play trad and songs by Irish artists.

The music element is probably the most impressive part of the Ireland Pavilion, as the musicians also talk the audience through the songs and instruments. While we visited one musician dismantled and explained the uilleann pipes.

Ireland at large

Ireland has made its presence known at Expo outside of its pavilion also. Perhaps the most notable example being Riverdance’s performances on the Expo main stage, which was a major hit.

Riverdance did 23 performances throughout the month of November with 60,000 people attending a Riverdance event at Expo.

Riverdance at Expo 2020.

This week Expo will also have an Irish theme in celebration of St Patrick’s Day, with a host of events, including a gala concert on St Patrick’s Day night.


Some of the offerings from the country pavilions are absolutely outstanding. People queue literally for hours to see them. However, they also highlight inequality in the world.

We visited Oman, which was a dynamic and interactive experience across two floors, including an overview of the country’s relationship with frankincense, the smell of which filled the pavilion.

The We Are The Makers exhibition at the Ireland Pavilion.

We also visited Tanzania, which gave an overview of the country on simple charts and boards. The man in this pavilion was very friendly and personable. But the contrast was stark.

The We Are The Makers exhibition at the Ireland Pavilion.

This country did not have the money to spend on Expo, where others had plenty. There is irony in this, because it’s probably the countries with less money whose cultures we could do with knowing more about. CL

After Expo 2020?

After Expo 2020 there will be a lot of infrastructure left behind, which will be donated to the UAE. The plan is to transition it into District 2020, which will be an “integrated mixed-use community”.

The Ireland Pavilion at Expo 2020.

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