Read an Excerpt
A to Z of the Irish
You have just arrived at Dublin airport from Sydney or Sacramento, Salisbury or Siena. Now you need transport downtown. Follow the signs in the airport marked `Donkey Carts' and you will come to a spacious field thronged with hand-made wooden carts, each with a small donkey in harness. For the price of a glass of whiskey, a driver in a green smock will jog you down the leafy lanes which wind their way to the city centre, singing a Gaelic love song and swigging from a bottle of poteen, an illegal, mind-numbing alcohol distilled from potatoes. From the mud cabins by the roadside, simple-hearted peasants will strew shamrock at your feet, shouting `Long life to your Honour!' Lithe young damsels in green mini-skirts will beckon you alluringly with one hand while strumming a harp with the other. When you enter the ancient gate of the city, a band of kilted pipers playing `Danny Boy' will be on hand to offer you a hearty Irish welcome. You will be ceremonially lowered under a gallon-sized vat of Guinness, which custom ordains that you should empty in three minutes flat. If you fail to down the stuff in time, you will fall victim to an ancient Irish curse and your credit cards will be turned into toads.
Forget that last paragraph. It was a pack of lies. There are no donkeys at Dublin airport. In fact there are precious few donkeys left in Ireland at all. There are no simple peasants either partly because there are no peasants anyway, partly because peasants are about as simple as the Theory of Relativity. The second great disappointment of yourvisit is just about to hit you: Ireland is just as modern as wherever it is you came from. Well, more or less. Unless you're an Eskimo, of course.
(The first great disappointment, by the way, is that it's raining. As it will be tomorrow. And the next day ...) The Irish drive cars, play the stock market and wear trousers rather than kilts. The country has computers, Big Macs, Japanese cuisine, bad American movies on TV, quite a few millionaires, generous tax breaks for foreign investors, a thriving film industry known as Paddywood, and more lawyers than leprechauns. The cow is no longer the unit of exchange, as it was in early medieval Ireland. If you're American, and came here to escape all that, don't forget that some of it is because of YOU. You want the Irish to be different, and they want to be like you. The first thing you'll need if you come to live in Dublin is not a charm to ward off the fairies but a burglar alarm to ward off the felons. Drug-related crime is rampant in deprived areas of the city. Social decay blights both the cities and the countryside on a large scale.
So the bad news for romantic tourists is that Ireland is up-to-date. As someone once said, Ireland has lost the leprechaun but found the pot of gold. Actually, though, that's not the whole truth either. In fact the whole truth about Ireland is as elusive a commodity as Irish coal. It is a modern nation, but it modernised only recently, and at the moment is behaving rather like a lavatory attendant who has just won the lottery. Many features of the country remain fairly traditional. Homosexuality, for instance, was only made legal in 1993, and abortion, except when the mother's life is at risk, is still against the law.
Some aspects of Dublin are still more like Cairo than Cambridge. You will find cars parked on the sidewalks and the streets ankle-deep in litter. You'll even find one or two mosques. As in Cairo, unemployed men hang around to help you park your car in return for a tip. Orange traffic lights in Dublin mean Go, whereas red ones mean Stop if you feel in the mood and fancy a breather. The city has horses and carts, five-year-old beggars, gaudy religious icons and statues of national freedom fighters. Spitting in the street is a national pastime. People ride bicycles at breakneck speed down crowded pavements.
Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, has declined from its eighteenth-century grandeur into a dingy collection of fast-food joints. One critic called its architectural style `neon-classical'. The street contains statues of the Irish politicians Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, and used to have one to Lord Nelson too, before the IRA blew it up in the 1960s. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats remarked that the street therefore commemorated three of history's best-known adulterers. You won't find a Casbah in the city, but you will find Temple Bar, a bohemian quarter of art galleries, boutiques and veggie cafés where the Gilded Youth of the city come out at night to stare at each other. There were 26 stag (bachelor) parties there each weekend before they were banned, and 36,000 people troop through the place every day.
Americans in particular tend to find Ireland unhygienic, inefficient, alarmingly laid-back about smoking and ill-provided with showers. You can drink on the streets, drop your empty can at your feet, and lie down for a quick snooze on the sidewalk, without anybody much objecting. Despite all that, the place looks a lot more like Boston than Baghdad.
So was your journey really necessary? If it was the exotic you were after, shouldn't you have headed for Papua New Guinea instead? Pause, however, before you climb back on the plane. Why not check in your myths at the airport and enjoy your vacation all the more? Dublin may be the shabbiest capital in Europe, as one critic has called it, with a lot of run-down, drug-infested housing estates. But it's also a vibrant, talkative, sociable, effervescent city, with the odd touch of carnival about it. And the Irish Tourist Board isn't even paying me to say so. The Irish may be in the grip of the success ethic these days, but they still take more time out for friendship and generally messing around than most other nations.
The point is that the Irish were never really an industrialised nation, and so have never been deeply affected by the disciplines which all that brings with it. They are leaping from being a largely rural nation to being a high-tech one, skipping the industrial stage in between. They still don't make a religion of work as some countries do, or get up at six o'clock in the morning to run eight miles, swallow a gallon of grapefruit juice and take three showers in a row. The very idea would horrify most of them. They are less flashy than the States and less frigid than England.
The rest of this book will be devoted to examining some familiar images of Ireland, to find out how much truth there is in them. Two general points before we start. First, by `Ireland', we mean the Republic of Ireland; Northern Ireland is a very different place, and would need a book to itself. Second, some people think it vaguely racist to speak of `the Irish' or `the Ukranians', as though they were all the same. There are indeed very different kinds of Irish people, as this book hopes to show. But people who share the same conditions of life for a long time also tend to develop certain cultural habits in common. It's as wrong-headed to overlook this as it is to imagine that one Irish person is just a clone of another. I once saw a TV documentary about Peru in which an army officer barked at his men: `Men, never forget that you are Peruvians'. This is funny, at least to us non-Peruvians, since `being Peruvian' doesn't signify much at all. (Maybe it doesn't for the Peruvians either). It would be rather like saying: `Never forget that you come from East Cheam' or `Always remember that you are from South Bend, Indiana'. The Irish, on the other hand, have one of the most vivid public images in the world, though a remarkably self-contradictory one. They are seen as childlike and devious, genial and aggressive, witty and thick-headed, quick and slow, eloquent and blundering, laid-back and hot-tempered, dreamy and earthy, lying and loyal. So either they're schizoid, or they defy the laws of logic.
We begin, of course, with ALCOHOL the AARDVARK of the Irish people.
Everyone knows that the Irish are among the booziest nations on earth. In fact, this may be a myth. On one reckoning, the Irish have the lowest per capita consumption of alcohol, or `gargle' as they sometimes call it, of any of the European Union countries except Greece and Italy. Between 20% and 30% of Irish men and women are teetotal. It may not look that way on a Saturday night in the centre of Dublin, but it's true. Nations like Ireland with a tradition of heavy drinking also tend to produce temperance movements, just as nations which suffer from obesity also produce health freaks. The Irish understand about drink, but they also understand about abstinence, and are rather less likely to get upset if you refuse a drink than they might in Frankfurt or Florence. Anyway, the image of the Irish as heavy drinkers was often based on Irish immigrants abroad rather than those at home. And immigrants have sorrows they need to drown.
Even so, the abstinence tradition may account in part for the surprisingly low per capita consumption. A lot of the Irish don't drink at all, while the rest of them selflessly make up for this national deficiency by downing the stuff in generous quantities. It's also true that drinking at home isn't an Irish custom. In 1994, the Irish spent a total of £2.46 billion on alcohol, which works out at an average of close to £1,000 for each adult member of the population. And if you exclude the teetotallers and the children from your calculations, Ireland shoots back to the top of the European alcoholic league table.
A lot of Irish pubs run at a loss. It's true that by 1914 Guinness's brewery was the largest in the world, and by far the biggest employer in the country. A lot of the Irish worked hard in order to render the rest of the country legless. The brewery still exports nearly a million pints of stout a day. But today some of the Irish are drinking less, not least because of the fearful price of the stuff. Heavy drinking remains an Irish custom I have an Irish friend who regards drinking ten pints of stout a day as purely routine but it's by no means a universal pastime. This is partly because a lot of Irish drunkenness was a mark of the low self-esteem of a colonised nation. There wasn't much else to do, and it was an escape from the poverty and hopelessness around you. Next to emigration, it was the quickest way out.
There was a brisk black market trade in poteen, which the British banned in 1831. The word `poteen' indicates not so much a particular kind of alcohol, as any spirit distilled illegally. It could be made from potatoes, grain, sugar or even treacle. It's still furtively distilled in Ireland, though if you're caught you can be fined up to £1,000. The sin of brewing poteen had traditionally to be confessed to a bishop, a priest being too lowly a mortal to deal with such a moral enormity. There is, however, a commercial brand of the stuff these days, though forbidden hooch tastes sweeter. To test whether poteen is drinkable, the best plan is to set it on fire. If it burns with a purple tinted flame, it might just possibly not be poisonous; if it shows a red flame, it probably is. If it explodes and burns all your hair off, don't worry: drinking the stuff has far worse effects.
Now that the nation is more on its feet, however, it's less often on its back. Though reports of the Irish in ancient times mention their liking for strong drink, as well as their fighting spirit, impulsive nature and love of fantasy. And though the more materially successful of the Irish may have cut their alcohol intake, drink remains a refuge for the swollen army of the poor. Wine remains fairly unpopular, at a mere five bottles per head a year, while stout is still an alcoholic front runner. `Stout' actually means `strong', and is short for the phrase `stout porter', which was the most popular drink in nineteenth-century Britain. Porter was a darker coloured beer, so-called because it was said to be popular with London market porters.
The worst pubs in Ireland, like the best ones, aren't just for drinking in. The pubs to avoid are those which have really turned themselves into fast-food joints, with piped music, fruit machines, and huge TV screens to kill off the conversation. The best pubs are those in which drinking is part of socialising, arguing, live music sessions or just taking some time off to reflect, rather like the old-style Parisian café. Most Irish pubs welcome children, as most English ones don't. The Irish are genuinely fond of children, unlike those nations which dote on kids, but not other people's. The English go all weak at the knees if you wheel a badger down the street, but not a baby. The Irish, by contrast, were telling opinion pollsters a few years ago that they believed that four or five children make an ideal family unit, which is way out of line with the rest of Europe. It's also way out of line with their current practice.
Irish and English pubs are alike in that if you just want to nurse your drink undisturbed, people will leave you alone. If you don't, then they'll talk you into the ground. It isn't really acceptable to refuse the offer of a drink in Ireland, though you don't have to choose alcohol any more. You must return the favour and buy drinks for those who have treated you. The hospitable Irish frown on anyone who doesn't pull their social weight. Irish people may refuse food or drink when you first invite them, but this is usually just politeness, and you must ask them again. Some think that this comes from the days when there wasn't really enough food to be shared. The Irish law of hospitality ordained that, even so, when a stranger visited your cabin, you had to share your scanty supply of food with him, and if necessary give him shelter for the night. Even today, the Irish might say `I've had my dinner' when invited to sit down to the family meal, though it may not be exactly true.
When the closing time ordained by Irish law arrives in a pub, the barman may shout `Come on now, the Gardai (police) are outside', or `Don't you know your homes are being burgled?' Nobody will move, knowing these to be Irish fictions.
In Ireland as elsewhere, drinking alcohol is strictly confined to certain times and occasions. You drink when you're sad, but also when you're happy; when you're bored, but also when something pleasant happens; when you're alone to cheer yourself up, but also in company. Drinking is okay when on holiday, but also at work to relieve the pressures. It's best to confine it to meal times, but also good to drink between meals when you're feeling at a loose end. By restricting your drinking in this way, you will be in no danger of overdoing it. The Irish tend not to say `he was drunk', but `drink had been taken'. This is a pleasant way of implying that you were drunk but you didn't do it yourself.