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Ireland, where breathtaking vistas are expected but nice weather is always a surprise. Photo by C.H.Gray
Irish Surprises: 13 Things You Probably Don't Know about 21st Century Eire

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!).

There is hope. You can still find Kilkenny and Harp in some tourist pubs and there is even a small microbrew movement starting (Galway Hooker pale ale, and the nice lager Carrig, for example). Besides the massification of the options, there is also the issue of the potency of the brew: 3.2! So, as the beer gets better and better in much of the world, it is getting worse, and is always quite weak, in Ireland.

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).

Cafe in Dublin. Photo by C.H. Gray
2. The coffee is first rate and everywhere.  

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.

The amazing English Market in Cork. Photo by J. White.
But just as important is that they have learned the dangers of overcooking and frying everything. And one can clearly see the impact of outside influences, especially Spanish and Italian cooking. In all the cities one can find interesting fusion restaurants and even in the little towns a great lamb stew or a nicely done piece of meat, succulent potatoes, and al dente vegetables are usually possible.
Irish breakfast at the Ruby Duck, Photo by J. White.
There are even a fair number of places that manage to make the massive Irish Breakfast of ham, sausage, black (blood) and white (marrow) puddings, fried tomatoes, eggs, and mushrooms/potatoes wonderful (such as The Ruby Duck, Temple Bar, Dublin). Yes, atrocities can still be found. Don’t hope for Mexican food, for example. It is common to put large amounts of peas into the guacamole (!!!), perhaps because they are the same shade of green? But overall, Irish eating has entered the 21st century.  

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.

Double lines mean no parking. Dublin. Photo by C.H.Gray
No, the thing about the Irish is that they don’t seem to understand the idea of parking in parking spaces or that 80 kilometers an hour is not an appropriate speed for tiny lanes through hilly hedge country where sheep and Irish wander. Even 50 km an hour is crazy when the tolerances of driving can be measured in inches, as in most of the cities and towns and villages and countryside. People park wherever they want, as if every small village in Eire were Manhattan. And as if double yellow lines don't mean never park here. But there is little reason to fear ever getting a ticket, let alone booted.
So, if a bad parking job by a little white panel truck turns a one-and-a-half lane road (supposedly two lane and two-way) into a one-way two direction 50 km an hour nightmare in downtown Cork at rush hour, the visitor is lucky to just knock the back off of their mirror...and not sorry at all to have totally destroyed the little white truck's mirror.

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.

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.”

Add, jazz, dork, hunch, geezer, dude, and hundreds more. You dig? (Yes, dig as well.)

 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.

Dublin City Festival to raise money for music teaching. Photo by C.H. Gray
Universities run on ancient rules where the final exams (made by one group of professors) may not match what was taught (by another group) and people have to fund raise to keep the teaching of music alive in K-12 schools. But at the same time, both the government and the universities are undergoing reforms, and the same schools with procedures from the Middle Ages are pioneering such fields as digital humanities.

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.

Anti-austerity poster in Dublin, June 2012. Photo by C.H. Gray
The Catholic Church still has a tremendous and reactionary influence, although a series of child abuse revelations have finally weakened their claim to moral superiority. There is also widespread corruption that extends to the highest level of politics, is rampant in the Guardia (police) who are infamous for their corruption and bullying, and is grounded in powerful regional gangs. Culturally, this conservatism is fostered by a fatalism rooted in a thousand years of English oppression that was only made possible by the Catholic Church's selfishness and the betrayal of countless nobles, gombeen men, and informers.  

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.

Irish famine house, County Mayo. Photo by J. White.
Few places are as alive to their history as Ireland. Perhaps it is a legacy of the famine. Over 150 years later, the houses of the starved and exiled are everywhere; the pain of the departed (dead or immigrated) is still felt. Even nonbelievers will warn you against napping near a famine grave, as you might starve to death in your sleep. And everyone (everyone!) has relatives living abroad.

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.

Ancient tree from a Mayo bog. Photo by C.H. Gray
If you travel around Ireland you soon come to realize that it is a not a very big island because you always quickly come to the ocean. The very land is wet deep down, and the peat from the dried bogs is still a primary source of heating fuel. They have even invented large and complicated machines for cutting turf.

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."

The coast of County Mayo. Photo by J. White.
The coastline is some of the most beautiful in the world. The major cities are all on the ocean (Dublin, Galway, Cork, Belfast) and were founded by Vikings. The interior towns (such as Athone) are usually on rivers. It was hard to get around the soggy landscape before there were hard roads built.

10. The Irish love Irish music.

Trad music at a tourist bar, Dublin. Photo by J. White.
Trad (traditional) music is not just for the visitors. Even in tourist bars you often find Irish stopping in for a pint and a listen. Outside the tourist towns and pubs local people still gather to play together and for their neighbors. The past proliferation of Irish bands playing other styles of music, such as world (AfroCelt), rock (U2), folk (Van Morrison, O'Conner), and punk (the Pogues), continues to this day. The place is more drunk on words and song than alcoholic spirits.

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.

Count the greens. Ireland in 2012. Photo by C. Grayson
There are also sweeping vistas, tough little mountains, ruined castles nestled in small woods guarded by swift little rivers and quiet lakes. Wild Connemara. Long soft beaches, giant sheer cliffs, strange rock formations, and snug harbors surround the little island. Little, that is, in absolute size but gigantic in complexity. Ancient sites preserved amidst farmers fields.

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.

Irish-American author hangs with his distant cousin, Oscar Wilde. Galway. Photo by Z. Grayson.
And it should be no surprise considering their love of language, that pound for pound Ireland has produced more great writers than any other part of the English (and English-Irish) speaking world. Even many of the greatest writers in the UK have been Irish (Shaw!). Dublin has a day dedicated to James Joyce and the work of Yeats and Wilde pops up in museums, bathroom walls, and conversation regularly.

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.  

Cuchulinn. Painting by Joshua Gray.
Harsh as this warrior's experience was, it was not shallow. From the same period Cuchulinn originated from (500 BCE), comes an amazing poem--Amergin. Already, in a savage paternalistic war culture, the magic of language was being used to understand the human condition, and change it.

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.

The 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.