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Can Someone Please Explain VAT?

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I am traveling to Ireland in two weeks and have never really concerned my self with the VAT before on my travels to Paris and Italy. However, people at a gathering last week were up in arms over the VAT taxes and tried to explain how to get a refund at the airport. They said I had to show what I purchased with the receipts to get the tax back and that this could really add up.

Anybody have a simple explanation for what I should and should not do for the VAT tax in Ireland? And incidentally, I do not usually spend huge amounts on items to bring home but will probably purchase a sweater or such while there.

Thank you so much for any help you might give! :)

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