Ireland for Dummies

First, go buy a copy of "McCarthy's Bar" by the late BBC correspondant Pete McCarthy. It's required reading for all newcomers. It's also hilarious.

If you like it, you'll probably also enjoy British comedian Tony Hawks' book, "Around Ireland with a Fridge". Both books deal, in a humorous manner, with the culture shock both writers experienced in Ireland.

Of course, if you don't like either one, you've just saved yourself a lot of expense; don't come to Ireland.

In compiling this mess, I have relied on many excellent books in addition to those mentioned above, plus my own travels and experiences, plus the words of local informants not theretofore lifted by the Gardaí. While every reasonable care has been taken, I regret that I cannot be held responsible for any accuracy or correct details that may occur in the text.

GEOGRAPHY

Neatly poised between America and whatever Russia calls itself nowadays, Ireland is well-placed to occupy a central position in the modern world. While relations may have, at times, seemed distant and even frosty, Ireland has always sought, in foreign affairs, to keep close and cordial relationships with her closest neighbors on each side - Britain and the United States to the east and west, South Georgia and the North Pole in the other directions.

First-time visitors to Ireland are often disconcerted to find that the country does not consist entirely of bog. "Where's the bog?" they cry at every stop of the coach tour. Bog covers only one-seventh of the country, parts of which, like the Burren, are notably un-squelchy.

Ireland is well and truly spattered with lakes. It also has plenty of rivers, most of which usually turn out to be the Shannon. This mighty river sets off on its 214-mile journey from a small pot in Co. Cavan.

Mountains in Ireland tend to be stacked around the edge of the country. Most bear the Irish name for mountain, which is slieve. Hill-walkers can enjoy long-slieve and short-slieve routes, as well as parts which are entirely slieveless. Northern Ireland is mostly hilly, except for the Lakes of Fermanagh, which are surprisingly flat.

Generally likened to a saucer in shape, Ireland is raised at the edges and flat in the center, with an awful lot of water slopping about in the middle. A better comparison would be with a lettuce leaf: green and crumpled, frayed at the edges and 90% water. Not forgetting the odd nasty clinging to its underside or lurking in the fields.

DIVISIONS

As everyone knows, Ireland is divided. In the first place, there is the division between north and south. Thus, South Down is up in Northern Ireland, whereas North Ring is down in the South. Malin Head, the northernmost point in Ireland, is in Donegal, a county in Southern Ireland, aka The Rep. of Ireland. The border between North and South (also known as Ulster and Éire, The Province and The Free State or, simply, Them and Us) is 303 miles long on its northern side and 280 along the south.

After the north-south divide comes the division into provinces and counties. Ulster, for example, has nine counties - three in The Republic and six in the North. The seventh usually turns out to be Lough Neagh.

ISLANDS

The Irish word for Island is Inis, which is pronounced 'Inish', since the Irish usually pronounce s's like sh's. But, to be even more obtuse, even this definition of Inis isn't always quite accurate. I live on the Inishowen Peninsula - literally translated, "The Isle of Owen Peninsula". The way to tell them apart is to try to walk off to Dublin from one or the other; if you're successful, it was a peninsula.

Inishowen was originally an island, until a land bridge formed aeons ago between Derry and Bridgend. When Niall of the Nine Hostages wanted a place to hold St. Patrick, he sent his lads over Lough Foyle by boat to scout the area we now call Inishowen and by the time they'd got there, they were too tired (or lazy) to walk all the way around it and discover it wasn't an island any longer. If they'd gone but a trifle farther, they'd have discovered the delights of Derry and we should, perhaps, be thankful - they'd have never made it back to work after a Sunday afternoon at Sandino's.

Oh, yes, the islands. Set like a precious jewel in a cluster of smaller gems, the Great Emerald of Ireland is encircled by a multitude of lesser isles, from Great Blasket in the west to Great Britain in the east. The most famous isles are the Arans, thanks to the film Man of Aran, shown to all visitors three times a day. Patiently constructed by generations of hardy islanders from alternating layers of sand and seaweed, the Aran Islands face the constant onslaught of pounding seas and perilous visitors.

Caution: Do not confuse Clare Island (not near Clare) with Clear Island (not there, either) or Aran Island (also known as Aranmore or Arranmore, but not Arran, which is in Scotland) with the Aran Islands, also off Ireland. These are called Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer (or Inishere) - not to be confused with Inishbofin (either of them), Inishturk, Inishark, Inishkea (North or South) or even Inishmurray. Not to mention Inishbiggle.

SOME FAVOURITE COUNTIES

To be sure, I've not seen half of this island. Nor, I suspect, has anyone. For a place about one-seventh the size of Colorado, Ireland has more astounding diversity in its geography (and weather) than many continents. (Antarctica, in particular.) I have recently moved so far north in Donegal that I'm completely north of all of Northern Ireland - next stop, North Pole. There's information about Inishowen elsewhere on this site, so let's start with where you'll probably get off the plane or boat (the most common methods of arrival) if you visit Ireland - down in Leinster. We'll start with....

COUNTY DUBLIN

County Dublin has an interesting coastline, dotted with Martello Towers. These were built to keep Napoleon from invading Ireland. They were most successful. The best-known resident of a Martello Tower was James Joyce, who lived in one for a week. (Not to be confused with Brendan Behan who only painted one. Or was that a lighthouse? Or an outhouse? Nevermind...) Dublin is famous for all the great writers who left the city. James Joyce is Dublin's favourite son - his works were banned by the city long after his death. Nowadays, they are readily obtainable: newcomers to Joyce should ask for the English translations of his work.

DUBLIN'S FAIR CITY

Dublin, sometimes spelt "Dublinn" or even "Dubh Linn", which means "Blackpool", was founded on Guinness by the Vikings. A favourite with all ages today is the Irish Life Viking Adventure, which, with its recreation of authentic Viking sounds and smells (bludgeoning and extra pillage by arrangement) leaves a lasting impression on visitors.

The city began on 1st January, 988. For reasons known only to Dubliners, it celebrated its millennium in 1991, when Dublin was hailed as a city of culture, but by now, it has reverted to its old Philistine ways (except around Dublin 4 and the bars in the Shelbourne hotel).

Getting around Dublin is quite straightforward, once you've mastered its parellel ring roads and simple-to-follow system of traffic lights. When it comes to public transport, the visitor is spoilt for choice, from open-top bus to gentle gondola, skimming the surface of Dublin's Grand Canal. Taxis are plentiful and not hard to spot, though visitors from abroad frequently make the mistake of hailing the Gardaí, instead. Don't be discouraged to find most buses headed for the busy district of Baile átha Cliath - there's sure to be one for Dublin along in a minute.

Whether you choose to stretch out in St. Stephen's Green, or simply sit and relax by the limpid waters of the Liffey (her tributaries are the Dodder and the Poddle), Dublin's centre is a place of gentle calm. Here, it is the easiest thing in the world to pass half the day on a traffic island, watching the rest of the world go by. The more active may prefer to walk the streets, in the footsteps of Dublin's most famous resident, Molly Malone ("The Tart With the Cart").

COUNTY OFFALY

I lived in Offaly for several years and it would be trivial to make the pun that it's Offaly nice there, so I won't, but it is. Our current Taoiseach is from Clara, near Tullamore and is affectionately (?) referred-to by the press as "BIFFO". (Big Ignorant F***** From Offaly).

Offaly, like all its neighbors in the Midlands, is distinguished by its fine bogs, small towns, ancient ruins and vague claim to the exact centre of the island. Clonmacnoise, west of Tullamore along the Shannon, is not so much an historic site as a veritable pile-up, with the crashed remains of eight churches and one cathedral scattered about for a start.

Birr Castle lays claim to what was, for years, the world's largest telescope. It's 72-inch mirror allowed the telescope's builder, Lord Ross, to discover and name the Whirlpool Galaxy and the Crab Nebula, possibly after Lady Ross's mother. On alternate Thursdays, the telescope's barrel is open to skateboarders.

Downstream lies Banagher, where Trollope wrote his early novels while working as a post office clerk. This can't have been much fun for those queued up on the other side of the counter.

COUNTY CLARE

Located in the province of Munster, County Clare has something for everyone. Doolin for music-lovers, Ennistymon for its shopfronts and the Cliffs of Moher to frighten the bejaysus out of anyone scared of heights. Out to sea are the Aran islands, first discovered in 1898 by J. M. Synge. A little way inland is the spa town of Lisdoonvarna, popular for its radioactive waters and well-known match factory. Best of all is the Burren, with its lunar landscape and strange species lurking in the rocky crevices. Try stepping on a crack in the limestone pavement and see for yourself.

COUNTY TIPPERARY

Tipperary is varied and large and, as most people like to point out, a long way to go, even though it's right down the road from just about anywhere in Ireland. They probably made this observation after having driven the Irish roads, boreens and bogways. The town of Tipperary is not the county town of County Tipperary, which is Clonmel (almost outside the county) instead. Tipperary's natural wonders and chief historical attractions include the Rock of Cashel, the Glen of Aherlow, the Galtee Mountains, the Golden Vale and the Ronald Reagan Pub in Ballyporeen.

COUNTY MAYO

Located in the province of Connaght, the coastline of Mayo is a place of awesome beauty for visitors and sheer hell for mapmakers. Place-names are a particular hazard: try Killary's "Cooneenashkirroogohifrinn", for starters. (Don't be afraid to ask for extra-long envelopes held in stock by local stationers.) Clew Bay is dotted with innumerable small islands - 365 altogether, plus one which appears every fourth year. Beyond Clew lie Achill and Clare, former island strongholds of the 16th-century pirate queen, Grace O'Malley ("The Granule"). TERRA MARIQUE POTENS reads the motto on her memorial tablet ("A mighty terror to both her husbands").

PEAT BOGS

Most of Ireland's central boglands are infertile, defying all bids at agriculture. Instead, the peat is dug out and sold to English garden centres as an essential growing medium.

Elsewhere, in the blanket bogs of Ireland's periphery, peat is still extracted to satisfy the energy needs of a growing population. All over Ireland, throughout the year, turf fires fitfully smoulder, filling the valleys with their sweet aroma. The unique property of turf is that it is the only substance known to man which can create smoke without giving off heat.

Peat-fired power stations have long been a reality in Ireland, though hopes for finding more imaginative applications for Ireland's black gold (turf-powered cars, for example, or peat-burning pocket calculators) have, so far, come to nought.

Cutting turf is basically a simple process. Take flatcher to scraw, then cut by slane, removing turves by trundle, slide-car or slipe. Cutters work in steady rythm, picking their way cautiously around the many remains of Bronze Age bodies concealed in the peat. Ireland today has many Folk Museums and Rural Life Exhibitions which enable the visitor to study at leisure exhaustive displays of old spades.

Following centuries of tradition, the cut turves are put into plastic bags and set in optimistic piles by the roadside to dry. Or not. Here they are periodically checked and counted by the proper authorities (you will have, no doubt, seen the busy offices of Turf Accountants in most Irish towns) and then removed by tourists.

CLIMATE

Ireland enjoys an equable climate, which means there's not much difference between the seasons. Summer is when the rain warms up a bit. The Ancients, who knew a thing or two, reckoned there were only two seasons in Ireland: summer (which began - and often ended - on May Day) and winter (the rest of the time). The Romans, looking for new places to invade for their summer holidays, named it Hibernia (Latin for Winter) and stayed away. All of which is most unfair to the Irish climate. Weather systems track in at great speed from the North Atlantic, leaving ever-decreasing gaps between showers.

The Irish generally deny the existance of rain, but they do own up to the occasional "soft day" or "touch of mist". Most times, the mist comes bucketing down. The bogs of Mayo, for instance, annually receive more than 50 inches of rain, which is bad news for anyone 4 feet tall or under. When visiting, it's wise to wear sensible shoes such as galoshes, wellies or flippers.

HISTORY

History is still going on in Ireland and is, therefore, best avoided by all who know what's good for them. Ignore this and you will find that Irish History consists mainly of miseries and woes inflicted upon the residents by previous (and even current) visitors. In amongst the grim succession of invasion, massacre and famine, the Irish did manage three brief periods of relative happiness, known as Golden Ages.

Ireland's first residents were the Giant Elk and some mammoth reindeer. When they moved out, in came the builders of the megaliths. Overnight, the country was transformed - holes dug, paths blocked, slabs erected and the whole place turned into a building site. Bronze Age folk were obsessive Home Improvers, constantly shoving up new ancient monuments, many of which clearly never got finished. Not so, Newgrange, built to catch the brief rays of the sun, which came out for just a few minutes on only one day of the year. This was the Dawn of History.

Next came the Celts who also had a golden age. This lasted for ages. The Celts were a hardy race who didn't mind the weather. People at this time dressed mainly in brooches, belts, torques and interesting gold ornaments. However, old habits die hard and soon the Celts found themselves drawn irresistably into the business of sticking up stones. Many of these stones bear inscriptions in Ogham, an early form of bar-coding which, then as now, nobody could read.

For most of its ancient past, Ireland was steeped in mists and legends. These persisted until the sun came up on the Dawn of History, thus ending the Dark Ages. This was followed by the onset of north-easterly Gaels.

Mists and legends pose a problem for modern historians trying to separate fact from fiction. There is plenty of evidence, both geological and archaeological, to prove the existance of the giant Fionn Mac Cumhail (pronounced Finn McCool, as a general rumhail). The deeds of legendary heroes like the men of the Fianna, Big Jack Charlton and The Mighty Cuchumber, are recorded in tales from the Ulster, Fenian and Raleigh Cycles, all of which have stood the test of time. Tír na nóg (The Land of Youth) was a magical place to the west of Ireland, where the flowers always bloomed and the women never aged; nowadays, we call it California. However, question marks still hang over the Children of Lir, who were changed into swans for 900 years. Let alone Niall of the Nine Noses.

To settle these squabbles, Ireland embarked on a series of changes which altered the course of history. Things got written down in books and Christianity was introduced. So began The Era of Saints and Scholars.

At first there were only a few books - in fact, only the one book at Kells - which led to several nasty battles among the saints. Eventually, the saints decided to paddle off to better places. The world was overrun with adventurous monks. Columba got to Iona, Brendan chose Florida and pucky St. Gall crossed the Alps in his coracle to bring the good news to the Swiss. With so many people out of the country, those left at home in Ireland soon succumbed to attacks by the Vikings, sweeping down from the North. So ended Ireland's second Golden Age.

Rudely interrupting the course of Irish history, the Vikings brought with them a number of nasty personal habits, such as rapine, pillage and the eating of runes. So unpleasant were the newcomers that the native population took to building tall towers in which to conceal themselves at the first sign of an approaching Norseman. Grabbing their valuables, the locals could stay hidden in their towers, undetected by the offensive marauder, until all danger passed. Even by Dark Age standards, Vikings must have been fairly dim.

The Vikings were finally wiped out by Brian Boru at Clontarf in the suburbs of Dublin. Next off the boat came the Normans, who were not much better. There followed several centuries of gloom and despondency, broken only by the building of Bunratty and Knappogue Castles near Shannon Airport in the fifteenth century. Both castles still ring to the sounds of non-stop jollity and feasting that have gone on there ever since.

Ireland, meanwhile, rumbled on with internal dissensions, not helped by the appearance of The Pale. Then came the Planters, from which Ulster's been reeling ever since. Things changed only with the outbreak of the 18th century, which was the Third Golden Age in Ireland.....unless you happened to be Catholic or Irish.

This was the time of The Ascendancy, when Dublin's streets and squares were opened up and houses given doorways. The Ascendancy came to an abrupt end in the reign of George the Third (or George the Turd, as he is known by the Irish) with a nasty attack of the troubles. Thereafter, Irish history distinctly took a downturn, with famine, destitution and civil war, each too awful to dwell on.

THE IRISH PROBLEM

In 1160, the hopeless Dermot of Leinster sought help from the English in tackling a little local difficulty which, 850-odd-years on, seems only slightly nearer a solution. This is what is known as The Irish Problem, believed abroad to be rooted in the innate obstinacy and contrariness of the Irish people, with their long-standing refusal to accept absorption into a foreign power. (Ireland joined the European Community in 1973.)

Until recently, Northern Ireland continued to face up to certain local civil rights difficulties. These were known as The Troubles.

Ever since Lloyd George first suggested putting a partition across the country, the two Irelands have gone separate ways in political administration. Northern Ireland has tried most forms of government and was, until 2007, run by a secretary who flew to and fro. You could usually discern the latest form of government through local newspapers. At ground level, politicians come thick and fast. Most represent groupings, licit or illicit, which share a limited range of initials (DUP, UUP, SOUP, RUC, RAC, IVF, UVF, VHF, UDA, IRA, PIRA, INLA, RNLI, BUPA, SDLP, NILP, etc.) In terms of political alignment, true blues tend to be orange and greens tend to be red.

CAUTION: In The North, care should be taken not to confuse Republicans (who parade in the streets with flags and drums) with Loyalists (who parade in the streets with flags and drums). National feelings run high on both sides of the border. For most Irish people in the south and elsewhere, celebrations are focused on March 17th, St. Patrick's Day - a chance to drown the shamrock and honour the memory of the Bristol-born saint. Unionists and Loyalists in the north, meanwhile, concentrate their attentions upon July 12th, anniversary of the Dutch king William of Orange's victory at the Battle of the Boyne over troops who were mostly French. This took place on what was then July 1st, 1690.

Ireland has sad music and happy wars. If you don't believe it, listen to all the rebel songs at any trad sesiun. On Easter Monday, 1916, a small band of patriots took over the General Post Office in Dublin, proclaiming an Irish Republic, independent of Great Britain. After six years of fighting, first against the English, then against each other over acceptance of a treaty that left six counties under British rule, the 32 counties became The Irish Free State and the six counties that are now Northern Ireland became even more so. Severing its last links with Britain in 1949, Éire, or the Republic of Ireland, has developed its own system of government, headed by the Teashop. MPs are called TDs and meet in the Dáil Éireann. There are four main political parties: Fianna Fáil ("soldiers of destiny"), Fine Gael ("wee Gaels"), Sinn Féin ("wee Oursels") and, until recently, The Progressive Democrats, also known as Mary Harney.

 

RELIGION

Ireland has lots of religion. According to the old cliché, when two complete strangers meet in Northern Ireland, the first thing one asks the other is a roundabout question to establish that person's denomination. Utter nonsense, of course - they would already know that.

In the Republic of Ireland, Catholicism is still the predominant force - that and horse-racing. Pilgrims come from far and wide to visit places associated with miracles, such as the airport at Knock. Visitors unversed in such matters should approach the whole subject with tact and discretion. Those that don't get put on the coach to Lough Derg.

LANGUAGE

Irish, a language descended from the same common roots as Gaelic, is still preserved in special conversation areas known as Gaeltachts (Gaeltachtaí), where people can say what they like about the tourists. As a language, Irish is generally considered to be too difficult, even for the Irish. Irish is officially the first language of the Republic, though most people have English, which is the second language, as their first language.

LITERATURE

Ireland has no shortage of philosophers and original tinkers. ("Oi tink, derefore Oi am" - Murphy's Law.) Jonathan Swift was an Irishman and so was the great Burke.

Ireland is a country with strong literary traditions - every town has its bookmaker. Lots of great writers have come out of Ireland: Goldsmith, Moore, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, G.B. Shaw........in fact, very few chose to stay here.

Poets and playwrights are specialties of Ireland, with R. B. Sheridan, G. B. Shaw, W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge and Sean O'Casey heading the list of men of letters. Nor should we forget such important female figures on the literary scene as Lady Augusta Gregory, Florence Court, Joyce O'Casey, Edna O'Brien......

It was Synge who outraged polite society by introducing Playboy to his Dublin audience. It went down a riot at the Abbey Theatre. The word "shift" (as in "scene-shifts") caused such commotion that they had to send for Yeats to quell the troubles. These were the kind of petty pretensions which drove Oscar Wilde.

Yeats himself is Ireland's greatest literary figure. Not only was he a poet and a playwright; he also managed to stay in Ireland for most of his life. Everyone knows the poem Innisfree, where the "Nine bean rows thingy whatsit...in the bee-loud glade". Lovers of Yeats can follow his trail around Sligo - a leisurely tour for beginners and those who might not manage the Brendan Behan Trail around Dublin.

VISUAL ARTS

Celtic influences are strong in Irish art - endless patterns of intertwining loops and circles, ever-changing shapes in an infinite variety of forms. These are skills shared by the practitioners of other artforms, such as the seanachaí (traditional story-teller) and the giver of road directions. However, the tendancy to twirl has been something of a handicap to modern artists, with Ireland scoring few successes in the worlds of Cubism or Post-Modern Minimalism. Ireland has one great painter, the multi-talented Yeats, who painted under the name of Jack. Or sometimes John.

FILMS

Shooting in Ireland seems to appeal to film and television producers everywhere. The Quiet Man was filmed in Cong, Co. Mayo and Ryan's Daughter was shot on the Dingle peninsula in authentic surroundings, now dismantled. Stunning locations, perfect light and cheap local labour have attracted to Ireland many Hollywood producers out for pathos and a possible oscar.

TELEVISION

The Irish facility with words is an invaluable asset in broadcasting, especially useful in times of cockup and technical breakdown. While commercial radio has recently become a reality in Ireland, such enterprise is, by and large, a local phenomenon, with limited-range stations located in the larger population areas. Broadcasting across the island is mainly the province of Radio Telefis Éireann or RTÉ, which stands for Reception Terrible Everywhere.

MUSIC AND DANCE

Ireland has a thriving tradition of do-it-yourself entertainment, which dates back to long before the days of television, radio or even Gay Byrne. Music in Ireland is a bit like breathing: something quite natural, something which happens all the time, something which other people tend to do down the back of your neck.

All over Ireland, feet tap and buildings shake to the sound of traditional music on ancient instruments - fiddle and pipe, whistle and spoons, rocking chair and cardigan. Add in the haunting wail of the uillean pipes and the comforting beat of the bodhrán (made from a circular piece of goat stretched over beechwood) and you have all the ingredients for a memorable evening. Especially if you've paid for the room above.

Wherever you go in Ireland, look out for musical "sesiuns". These are completely impromptu and generally advertised in local newspapers. (But do remember, they're only practicing.) Watch out, too, for signs of Fleadh or Feis, the festivals of music and song, drink and dance that take place all summer in whichever place you're trying to drive through.

Traditional Irish dancing (especially hard-shoe step-dancing as exported to the rest of the world through Riverdance) is a dangerous sport involving breathtaking manoeuvres of the lower limbs. The correct step-dancing posture has been described as "a poker up yer arse and ankles of lettuce". Competition can be cut-throat among the performers of jigs and reels, step- and set-dancing, but an atmosphere of friendly antagonism usually prevails.

Traditional Irish music has a big following, thanks to bands like Clannad, The Chieftains, The Clancy Brothers, The Fureys.....not forgetting The Dubliners, written about by Joyce.

Despite frequent successes in the Eurovision Song Contest, Ireland has a fine reputation for musical achievement. Not for nothing is the rock-bank U2 generally reckoned, in Ireland at least, the greatest in the world.

SPORT

Historic divisions have tended to split Irish sport into two main categories. First, there are the Gaelic Games - hurling, Gaelic football, camogie, road bowls and other bloodsports. Gaelic games have few rules (no tickling being the main one). Camogie is a form of hurling for women, played with shorter sticks and slightly smaller bruises. Teams from all over Ireland take part in the Gaelic League (founded in the last century by Douglas Hurd).

In the second category come all remaining sports. Bridging the gap are boxing and rugby, two activities which do unite all elements of Ireland, enabling people from opposite sides of the fence to get together and beat the living daylights out of each other.

Golf is played all over Ireland, apart from the many lakes which are paradise for coarse fishermen and hell for golfers.

Ireland has produced world champions in a number of sports, from cycling to golf, hurling to snooker. Those who do scale the dizzy heights can expect to receive warm applause for their efforts, some even being offered premiership, royalty or just canonization.

DRIVING IN IRELAND

Aside from the obvious fact that Irish cars have right-hand drive, there are the less-obvious navigational hazards one is apt to encounter whilst travsering everything from countryside boreens and bogways to the major dual cabbageways. The general speed limit was, until recently, 60 mph on two-lane roads and 70 mph on motorways. To further confuse things, these were recently changed into kilometres-per-hour, while cars' speedometers weren't. These sensible limits, which no one observes, apply also to donkeys and horse-drawn vehicles; they are aimed, principally, at giving motorists time to read the signposts.

Travel in The Republic can be confusing, as almost every place has two names (one Irish, one English) and almost every name occurs in two different places. Often more. If in doubt, don't ask a local.

Example: Upon moving to Kinnagoe Bay (aka Glennagivnea) I ran into thick fog at the top of Crockaulin (Cook's Hill) on the way home three nights in a row. Since Crockaulin was less than two miles out of An Caslain Nua (Greencastle) village, I asked a local if fog lights for my car would be a prudent investment. He said, "No, it doesn't get foggy around here very often at all". After navigating through peasoup, tapping my way along with a white cane out my window at five mph for the tenth night in a row, I mentioned creeping across Crockaulin again and asked why he'd said there wasn't much fog around here. The reply: "Oh, there's not, but up on Cook's Hill, now, that's a different story!"

In Pete McCarthy's book, he describes asking road directions from a woman, only to be told she would be useless because she didn't live around those parts. When queried as to where she did live, she replied, "About a mile up that road".

Irish signposts come in two different varities: the older cast-iron white-with-black signs give distances in miles (except where they don't); the newer green-with-white signs give them in kilometres. The Irish mile is 2240 yards, which is 480 yards more than the English mile which is 1.60934 kilometres. Since distances and speed limits are given in kilometres and cars' speedometers and odometers are invariably in miles, motorists either have to be good at mathematics or carry pocket calculators for time / speed / distance problems, all of which leads to a great deal of distraction and the occasional agricultural or aquatic excursion.

Irish signposts serve one main function: ensuring that newcomers are headed off down long-forgotten tracks whose layout clearly owes something to the Book of Kells. All are loosely-attached to whatever form of pole they're on, facilitating easy rotation and re-direction by surreptitious youths. In the event of invasion, far from removing all direction signs, the Irish Army has secret orders to move swiftly about the countryside, checking that signposts are clearly visible and all in order.

FOOD

Often written off as staid and uninteresting, Irish cuisine is well up to springing a surprise or two upon the unwary, as those who order the Full Irish Breakfast soon discover. Ulster bacon is known for its high quality, while a heavy portion of drisheen (black blood pudding) will soon get you going in the morning.

Ireland is in the throes of a gastro-renaissance. Food and drink festivals take place most weeks in Ireland and any food writer in danger of going short in between can always make the pilgrimage to Ballymaloe.

Cheeses go back a long way in Ireland, with local preferences clearly favouring the firmer varities. (Queen Maeve was actually killed by a cheese, fired by her nephew with his sling. If only she'd packed the Brie...) With a wide range of new traditional cheeses now being produced, best-known native cheeses are still Irish Cheddar and Irish Gorgonzola.

Pacific oysters, salmon well-poached (or lawfully obtained), Lough Neagh eel, Dublin Bay prawn or Norwegian Blue lobster, brown trout, cockles and mussels...seafood and fish are available in such abundance that in Ireland, salmon and oysters have come to be regarded as poor man's fare, to be palmed off abroad.

The subject of vegetables is something of a haute potato in Irish culinary circles. Greens feature in all walks of life in Ireland, except on the dinner table. The humble potato has traditionally outshone all other vegetables in the dish. Changes are beginning to take place with the arrival of nouvelle cuisine ("novel kitchen"), showing just what interesting things can be done with one stick of celery and two small peas.

The Irish still eat 141 kilos (22 stone or 5½ sacks) of spuds per person per year.

The glory of Irish cookery is its home baking. Barm brach, soda bread, shortbread, Guinness cake, tipsy cake, wheaten farls....small wonder that the Northern Irish have a reputation for solidarity. The Ulsterman's stomach is close to his heart, and who could blame him?

What exiled Ulster folk miss most of all is the province's legendary baking. A certain amount slips out, smuggled in suitcases (bun-running), to the natural concern of the authorities. Such is the yearning abroad for Veda Bread that the security forces have had to step up their vigilance at airports and even consider the introduction of sniffer-ducks at Aldergrove.

To end on a happier note, a sample menu from the heart of Ireland:

Starters

Stuffed Avoca

Sperrins

or Potato

Main Course

Flan O'Brien

Belmullet or Belturbet

Kilcock (in season)

or Potato

Sweet Trolley

Apple Crumlin

Great Sugar Loaf

Oven-fresh Macroons or

sticky chunk of fresh Bunclody

or Potato

AND DRINK

Ireland's national drink is Guinness. The precious black liquid rises from a natural borehole in a secret location near Dublin, from whence it is piped across the country. The capital is named after this natural wonder (Dubhlinn means "dark pool"). Other sacred wells (Murphy's and Beamish) exist in the region of Cork, their precise whereabouts guarded by The Church.

Drawing a pint of Guinness is a special skill, aquired only through years of training, night-school and rigorous examinations. Only the elite are called to the bar.

The properly pulled stout has a head that a mouse could run across. The pint must then be allowed to sit in silence, entirely unmolested, to gather its strength for two-and-three-quarter minutes. (Don't embarrass those around you by speaking during this critical stage.) To ensure that standards are always maintained, plain-clothes inspectors do the rounds of Ireland's pubs, measuring the head on a pint and testing its consistency. It's fun to spot a senior, mouse-carrying inspector: watch out for the tell-tale wriggle in his trouser-pocket and a certain edginess in the presence of cats.

Ireland's other drink is scotch, known as Irish because they invented it. Irish whiskey is known for its pronounced flavour and peculiar spelling. Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are really two quite different drinks, miles apart in origin and character. One has an "e" in it and the other doesn't. A friendly rivalry exists between the two schools of whisk(e)y-drinking.

THE WAY OF LIFE

Ireand is a stone-age culture with Internet options. Travel and increased mobility have meant that Ireland today is populated by a veritable mixture of types, unimaginable in former times. O'Malleys have married O'Driscolls, McGrottys mated up with McGurks and Flanagans gone off with the Shanahans. It's something of a rarity nowadays to see a proper Irishman, with his red hair, short temper and telltale shillelagh. Or harp, if female.

However, all is not lost. Old ways and traditions survive beneath the slick veneer of modern living. Time (2½ days behind Greenwich Mean Time) still goes slowly. Life is relaxed and leisurely. Ancient traditions are kept up in colourful country rituals, like dancing at Lughnasa, hunting the wren on St. Stephen's Day and burning down half the street in July.

IRISH ATTITUDES

Friendly by nature, the Irish welcome foreigners with open arms and massive hangovers. They prefer conviviality and good cheer to sitting things out in sober isolation. On Scottish islands, it has been noted, settlement takes place on the public-urinal system, each newcomer politely moving into the spot most distant from everyone else. Cottages are scattered far and wide. On Irish islands, by contrast, homesteads cluster in chummy huddles of tight togetherness.

Talking in Ireland is the national passtime. Sudden disappearance of the hind legs is a source of constant worry to Irish donkeys. Expert talkers delight in leading the listener down torturous tracks and off into flights of pure fancy. But this is where I'll stop talking, except to tell you that if you'd like to know more, then come visit Ireland and PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED.

If you come, you won't want to leave. Save yourself the hassle and just give up, settle back and enjoy the craic!

Sláinte!

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