Tag Archives: giant’s causeway

Myths (and truths) about Ireland

I like Ireland, though not everything about Ireland, and not as much as my wife does. She would move there tomorrow if I were to let down my resistance for an instant. I think some of that is how much she has enjoyed travel there, but traveling in a place differs very much from living there.

One suspects that a part of her perspective still buys into a little of the mythology. It occurs to me that Ireland is a very mythologized country in the United States. Maybe I can clear some of these up by stating the myth or perception as I have heard it, and clarifying the reality as I saw it.

Ireland is dangerous due to sectarian and nationalist violence. False. Even at the worst times of the Troubles, as they are known, most of Ireland was far safer than much of the United States. To get caught in the crossfire, a visitor would have needed a) tremendous bad luck and the worst imaginable timing, or b) enormous stupidity. A sensible visitor would have been, and would now be, far more concerned about an auto accident on a narrow road. Nowadays, concern about Trouble-related violence makes about as much sense as avoiding Midland, Texas for fear of Comanche raids.

All of Ulster is in Northern Ireland. False. In fact, three counties of Ulster are within the Republic. None of Leinster or Connaught’s counties are in Northern Ireland. (Munster does not border Ulster, thus sparing us that question entirely.) Thus, when you say ‘Ulster’ to refer to the North, this is imprecise.

The Republic is Catholic and the North is Protestant. Partly false. Catholics form a large majority in the Republic, but are also a strong presence in the North, which is about half Catholic and half Protestant. Of course, a percentage do not identify with either religious direction from the standpoint of practice, but may still identify with one as a cultural factor. Every religion has its own culture. Just as I know nominally Mormon people who practice almost none of the LDS faith’s strictures (yet still describe themselves as Mormon), you could find atheists and agnostics in Ireland who come by Catholic or Protestant identify through family heritage and upbringing. I would say that the Irish are less religious than Americans, but since religion is so connected to culture in Ireland, it conveys something of a misleading impression to the observing outside world.

Gaelic is a dead language. False on two counts. In the first place, ‘Gaelic’ is inspecific as a descriptor, as it could also refer to Scots. With regard to Ireland, the the suitable term is ‘Irish.’ Irish is not a dead language, though it may be fair to say it might have died out but for strenuous efforts toward its preservation. In the first place, the Republic of Ireland’s Bunreacht (constitution, in force since 1937) states that the Republic has two official languages, Irish and English, and that an Irish citizen may receive all official services in either language. What is more, the Irish version of the Bunreacht is the definitive original. You should be able to see where this goes. Gardaí (police), many government officials, and so forth must be capable of serving the public in Irish, thus must be conversational. Irish is spoken as a first language in certain areas, mainly in Connaught and Munster but also heavily in western Donegal, called Gaelteachts.

In my experience, while one may function well in English in Gaelteachts, locals will welcome a sincere effort to speak Irish. One would have to search very hard for a part of Ireland where one would need to speak Irish in order to function, but I am sure they exist. Some in Ulster also speak Scots Gaelic, which is very akin to its Irish sister language. I can tell you from experience that an American speaking Irish in the Republic is considered something of a wonder, though that American should take a little care in trotting out his or her ability. I found that many Irish felt they should be more proficient in the language, and that it embarrassed them a bit for an American to be more conversant with it than they. It’s never good manners to embarrass one’s hosts, especially hosts as patient as the Irish.

Ireland rains all the time. More true than false. Ireland is fairly rainy even in summer (though they tell me that is changing), and very much so in winter. Drainage and flooding are always issues. I doubt any part of Ireland uses, needs, or wants irrigation, in much the same way that few equatorial nations spend much effort on central home heating. However, even in winter in Ireland, there’s a fair chance of a sunny day. And a sunny day in Ireland is something to treasure and soak up.

There’s a castle everywhere you look in Ireland. Partly true. Ireland is loaded with old buildings and ruins, some of which are or were castles or forts. Some are open to the public some of the time. Some are open to some members of the public who know the right way to pose the question, which in Ireland is often not in the most direct way. In my experience, the best way to search for anything in Ireland involves a pub and some patience. In a pub, some locals get the chance to size you up and decide whether to refer you onward or not, make a phone call for you or not, give you directions or not. Once they make up their mind about you, in their own time and in a positive way, they tend to look out for you. Attempts to rush the Irish only serve to annoy them.

The Irish drink a lot. Depends on perspective. In terms of per capita consumption, the Republic stands slightly above the UK (which includes the North) and Germany, slightly below Australia, and well below much of eastern Europe. The French and South Koreans drink more than the Irish, for example. So if your perspective is American, on balance, drinking is slightly more. If it’s Ukrainian, the Irish are relatively light drinkers. I have seen a lot of people drinking in Ireland, but I have rarely seen anyone sloppy drunk, and in those cases I saw clear evidence of general disapproval.

What is true (though gradually changing): the pub is a social center. While some pubs still have the old ‘snug’ (women’s area), it’s kind of an artifact. Nowadays women and children are more than welcome, and it is unremarkable to see an entire Irish family having dinner at the pub. A non-drinker is still welcome in most pubs provided, as in most hospitality establishments, he or she at least buys something. A recovering alcoholic, if asked, might explain that s/he has taken the Pledge (a religious vow). This is an acceptable excuse for declining to have a pint with someone, as is a strict religious observation. The Irish understand that some faiths (LDS, Islam) drink no alcohol.

The Irish remember everything forever. True–both the good and the bad. There is a monument in County Cork to the Choctaw, who in response to the 1840s famines gathered up as much money as they could find and sent it to help alleviate the famine. Roadside markers show the points where Volunteers fell during the struggles for independence. Even during the Troubles, it was remembered which families had bought their land many years before, and which had appropriated it. The Irish build monuments to historians; I have seen them myself. If a fairy mound happens to be in the way of a proposed road, workers cannot be found to bulldoze it. The road will simply have to go around. Do good deeds in Ireland, and be remembered for them. Do wrong there, and be remembered as well. Cromwell has been gone for nearly four hundred years, and they haven’t even begun making an effort to forget his deeds.

Irish time is ‘-ish’ time. Mainly true. Business hours, where posted, tend to flexibility. The most pointless thing one can do in Ireland is try to pressure anyone to do anything faster; they will not comply, and it will only irritate them. If a flock of sheep is blocking the road, it will continue to do so until the shepherd gets them where he wants them. Honk and you prove yourself a fool. Wave in a friendly way and be patient, and the shepherd will be prone to get the beasts moving a little faster.

Ireland has made it easier to get to its most famous destinations. True, but at the cost of making them unappealing. The Cliffs of Moher? Newgrange? Giant’s Causeway? Blarney Castle? Killarney? All generously equipped with tour bus parking, the dreaded ‘Visitors’ Centre’ (except Killarney, all of which is a de facto Visitors’ Centre, thus it needs none) and suitable entry fees. Sweater and other traps, of course, for your shopping pleasure. The Giant’s Causeway so saddened us that we coined the verb “to causeway”: to take an otherwise appealing and beautiful place and garbage it up for money. I understand that everyone needs to make a living, that it is their island to do with as they choose, and that they don’t want or need my advice on that subject. I also understand that most of them despise this trend. Look on the bright side: there are many locations just as appealing and special that are rarely overrun by huge green tour buses labeled “Paddy Wagon” and displaying a large Disney cartoon leprechaun. I very much doubt that every worthwhile place in Ireland will become causewayed in my lifetime. I do not think the Irish will allow that.

Bless them.

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They Causewayed it

Ireland has a great many antiquities and splendid sights, many of which require very much walking. It is not their way to build large interpretive centers. However, Ireland’s economy depends heavily on the fundamental prostitution that is tourism (something we in Oregon understand well), and this means the Causewaying of the major attractions.

“To Causeway” a place is Deb’s and my term for doing to said place what has been done to the famous Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. It means the building of a large parking lot, convenient to the Visitors’ Centre/souvenir shops/pissers, with lots of reserved room for gaudy emerald green tour buses labeled “PADDYWAGON” depicting a stereotypical laughing ginger leprechaun (I am not making this up). The tour buses’ peristaltic process delivers large numbers of tourists to pay admission at the site, and to tack on a shuttle bus fee if they prefer not to take a little walk to the attraction itself. For those not riding the tour bus, never fear; one can pay for parking at the time of paying admission. I did a little mental math based on rough estimates, and the short version is that any area that had an attraction as well publicized as the Causeway would make a great deal of money, but at the price of ruining the site. Make it that easy for that many people to overrun the place, and they will; they will of course leave with much lighter wallets. If they’ve come this far, are they going to refuse to pay to finish? No; thus one may charge them just about whatever one wishes. And the Irish (in this case, the UK Irish) do just that.

And it does ruin it, because the main attraction in any Visitors’ Centre is not the interpretive part, nor even the attraction, but the gift shop. All the touristic garbage one could want can there be had. There the fundamentally prostitutive impact payload arrives: you’ve had your fun, now a tip would be nice. Don’t you need a supposedly hand-knit sweater or a stuffed leprechaun, maybe a coffee cup with a shamrock?

I think the Irish mostly hate this at heart, even those who make their livings from it. I can’t judge them harshly for the practice. I can only hate it along with them, and for my part, I’m not going to any more Causewayed destinations. If it’s famous, I will check to see if it has tour bus parking and a Visitors’ Centre. If it does, I will assume it has been destroyed for the sake of maximum revenue, and will go somewhere else.

If the Irish liked this, they would have built Visitors’ Centres for many more places. They did not. Left to themselves, our experience suggests that the Irish will create a small parking lot rather a good walk away from the attraction, post an interpretive placard (if they feel they must), post a Fógra (“warning”) advising visitors to respect antiquities and do nothing to harm their preservation, and leave it at that.

The good news about traveling around Ireland on your own is that there are a great many spaces of scenic beauty where one can’t park a tour bus, a great many antiquities on roads a tour bus cannot navigate—but your compact rental car surely can. The Cliffs of Moher are fully Causewayed, but the coastal drive north and east from them is breathtaking. The Burren region is full of un-Causewayed megalithic tombs, dolmens, ancient forts, castles, and what have you. While the cattle of tourism accept their herding from bus to attraction to bus to next stop, you can go see anything you want.

Another Causewayed place, perhaps the first place to be so handled, is Bru na Bóinne. Known in English as Newgrange, this is the home of famous megalithic tombs. It has an interpretive center, plenty of tour bus parking, all that. When the Irish speak of it, I see a bleakness in their eyes, a sense that all its charm and character has been sucked out of it along with the commercial wind that gathers up Euro, pound, and dollar notes and slurps them into the state’s coffers. Thus, I am told, with the whole town of Killarney, and certainly with Blarney Castle. There may be more.

We will strive our best to evade them. There’s too much real Ireland out there to find.