Many people know something about Ireland. We've read some books, seen a parade, had a few beers. We might have Irish blood or even have visited the 'ol sod a few times. But Ireland is more mysterious than it might first seem. It is deceptively familiar. In my visits there over the last few decades I've come to realize that the more I know about Ireland, the more she surprises me. It doesn't help that for all its ancient history it is also a very changeable place. Here are 13 surprises I had from my most recent visit.
1. The beer is "shite" (pronounced "shiite").
No, not the Guinness. It is good as ever and still widely available (take the brewery tour in Dublin!), and its fellow porter, Murphy’s can be found and is not half bad. But if you want an Irish ale, Smithwick is now usually the only choice. As for lager? Harp is as rare as leprechauns. In most pubs it is Carlsberg, Heiniken, and (“saints preserve us!”) Budweiser and Coors (which the locals actually drink!).
Oh, and don't bother being too nice to the bar tenders expecting big shots of the wonderful Irish spirits. Every shot is measured by a machine. Be nice for the sake of being nice. Same for the serving staff when eating out. Because tipping is weak, to put it mildly, the service is often quite bad. The Garnish House B & B in Cork, famous for its breakfasts, is a notable exception, as is the Ruby Duck. The charming village of Adair is efficient and friendly, but then it is officially a "tidy town."
One piece of good drinking news, there is a lot of good inexpensive wine, praise to the EU (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal).
Yes, you can still get a nice cupa’ tea, but coffee seems to be the drink of choice and even in little towns people know how to make a nice filtered coffee, espresso, or French press. And it isn’t Starbucks or some other international chains all the time either, independent coffee house are as thick on the ground as 3-leaf clovers and even the little Irish chains, such as Insomnia (which started in Galway), are much more common than the international giants.
3. The food can be very good.
In fact, Ireland is becoming something of a foodie paradise. It starts with the ingredients. Almost everyone uses excellent Irish meat, grains, and vegetables in their cooking.
4. They are weird about cars.
It isn’t just driving on the wrong side of the road thing. Brits, Aussies, and others have that little quirk. And it isn’t that almost every car is a manual with 6 gears. That’s fine for real drivers. Most of the ubiquitous roundabouts even make sense, once one gets used to them, but some of the bigger ones now have traffic lights at the entrances and even in the middle, and that is a bit besides the point.
Back knocked off of the mirror of my rental car. Photo by J. White.
5. Irish-English is Not English, it is better.
Years ago, when I first went to Ireland, I went into a little store soon after the all night flight from the States. "Beautiful morning," I remarked to the little old lady behind the counter. "Fuk'in brill!" she replied pleasantly. Not only did this jolt me out of my jet lag, it was the first of many delightful verbal encounters I have had there. It is no accident that the Irish are quite proud of their craic. Pronounced "crack", it is often defined as "enjoyable conversation" or some such, but it really is much more than that. It is the music of everyday intercourse, which while conducted in what sounds like English, is actually a language all its own.
While only a minority of Irish speak Gaelic fluently, many speak some and many gaelic words are in common use, such as Taoiseach (Prime Minister), and signs and songs in Irish are everywhere and seem to be more common every year.
American, as it turns out, is pretty much English-Irish, as Daniel Cassidy's brilliant
How the Irish Invented Slang proves. As he told a New York Times reporter,
“Snazzy” comes from “snasach,” which means polished, glossy or elegant. The word “scram” comes from “scaraim,” meaning “I get away.” The word “swell” comes from “sóúil,” meaning luxurious, rich and prosperous, and “sucker” comes from “sách úr,” or, loosely, fat cat.Add, jazz, dork, hunch, geezer, dude, and hundreds more. You dig? (Yes, dig as well.)
There is “Say uncle!” (“anacal” means mercy), “razzmatazz,” and “malarkey,” and even expressions like “gee whiz” and “holy cow” and “holy mackerel” are Anglicized versions of Irish expressions, he said. So are “doozy,” “hokum,” “humdinger,” “jerk,” “punk,” “swanky,” “grifter,” “bailiwick,” “sap,” “mug,” “wallop,” “helter-skelter,” “shack,” “shanty,” “slob,” “slacker” and “knack.”
6. The Emerald Isle has a very weird infrastructure.
The place is schizophrenic about technology. It is a Celtic Tiger with IBM and HP factories and yet in student apartments in Cork the internet and cell phone service is down half the time. Ireland has fantastic doctors and nurses who even in top teaching hospitals have to treat patients stashed on gurneys in the hallways. People wait weeks for an MRI and many drugs that are over-the-counter in the US need a prescription in Ireland. But when my mother broke her wrist in Althone, not only did the hospital find a nice family near-by for my father to stay with, but when my mom left the hospital they had a little party (with a shot of Irish Whisky "for the road").
The government acts like a fusty nanny who is bossy to regular people but spends wild nights with thuggish real estate barons. The uneven development is a sign of this. Nice freeways and tiny little roads, ugly housing blocs, beautiful museums and half-constructed suburbs. While tourism is a major industry well supported in some ways by restored castles and the like, the Cork house of the Reverend Boole, one of the most important fathers of computing and the inventor of a major part of contemporary mathematics, may well be lost to posterity because of a lack of funding to save it.
7. The Irish are more conservative than you think.
As the "first colony" of the British Empire the Irish have a special sympathy for the oppressed. And most supported the long campaign to force the UK out of Northern Ireland, until the recent peace was established. Demographics will soon do the rest. Reunification with the six counties is just a matter of time, and lots of Catholic babies.
But it is a very conservative country for all that. In a referendum in June of 2012 "stability" (austerity and more bank bailouts) won a popular vote over economic justice. So unlike Iceland, which threw out its government, failed its biggest bank, rewrote its Constitution, and even jailed bankers, Ireland still wallows in recession. Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Italy have massive protests, the Irish vote down economic justice.
The people are very empathetic to the suffering, even rebellion, of others who history has dealt a bad hand. But most of the Irish are not rebellious themselves, although there are wonderful anarchist, environmentalist, and feminist groups. Perhaps much of the revolutionary spirit died in the dozens of rebellions or was shipped abroad in transports to Georgia and Van Diemen's Land or harried into exile around the world.
8. Irish history is not in the past.
The Post Office in Dublin still has bullet holes from the Easter Rising and all of the main streets downtown are named after its heroes, most executed by the British. The Irish have built amazing new museums at Céide Fields and Newgrange and there are dozens of other wonderful historical sights, from famine ships to isolated standing stones.
9. It is a wet little island.
Of course, it seems on most days at least some rain falls, which for the Irish means there is "a bit of mist" (light rain) or it is a "fine soft day" (rain) or "we're having a spot of rain" (a downpour). Unless there is a hurricane, then it is just "a fine day, if a bit wet."
10. The Irish love Irish music.
11. Ireland is more beautiful than you can remember, or imagine.
Of course, it starts with the greens. More different greens than you can count. The greens of the fields, the forests, the waters. But along with the greens are all the browns thinkable, and a rich array of blues, and flowers, wild and nurtured, sprinkled in crannies everywhere, in smears of purple, yellow, white and red.
12. The Irish love writers.
While in the States everywhere you turn someone is writing about the decline of reading, in Ireland the morning TV shows spend much of their time talking about what is in the morning's newspapers. Bookstores are still common and statues of writers ornament the parks of various towns.
I particularly like Roddy Doyle, Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry and Nuala O'Faolain. And I have to mention, even though it is written by an Irish-American, The Year of the French (the 1798 Rising) and its two sequels, the best historical novels I've ever read.
13. The Irish are really very Irish.
One of the great warrior heroes of Ireland is Cuchulinn. His most famous battle was over stolen cattle. He died standing up, tied to an ancient stone. It was only when a raven came to eat his eyes that his enemies knew he was dead. His statue stands guard to this day in the Dublin Post Office. A symbol of the stubborn persistence that has kept Irish culture alive through the horrors of its history.
AmerginThe Irish character has been shaped by its history, but just as much by the stories the Irish tell about themselves. The Irish have been fostered by their soggly little isle, but just as much by the words they use to describe it. The place is unique. It can’t be explained actually (even by the Irish), for the language isn't so much for explaining life as for living it. You've got to hear it, see it, touch it, drink of it. Go.
I am the wind, which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am the beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am the wild boar in valor,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of knowledge,
I am the point of the lance of battle,
I am the God who created the fire in the head.