Skip to content

Give Ireland Back To The Irish

December 19, 2006
tags: ,

We’re bloody well welcome to it. . . .
I found this today. I have no idea who wrote it. She (or he) probably met a gruesome end courtesy of the Irish Tourist Board.
I fear the imminent arrival of a Tourist Ninja Hit Squad .
… they’re right about Roscommon though…


The odd thing about Northern Ireland is that underneath all the sectarian and intra-sectarian violence, it could be quite a nice place to live. Everything in Antrim is neat and tidy, the roads are of good quality, there is a decent public transport system, and, ‘punishment beatings’ aside, the crime rate is very low. Compared to the shambolic state of things in the south, Antrim seems almost civilised. 
Antrim, however, is also the home of Irish alfresco painting. The welcoming murals of the Falls Road and the Garvaghy estate are famed the world over for their stark iconography, and the sad fact is that it’s hard to spend any time in Antrim without running into these artistic treasures. I once spent a very pleasant week in Jordanstown, just outside Belfast, but often, too often, I would round the crest of a hill only to find myself in a nightmare housing estate where even the kerbstones were painted in sectarian colours. The wealthier parts of the county can be equally depressing. My worst memory of the trip is of the grim Presbyterian facades of Carrickfergus, where the streets were empty apart from the constant patrols of armed police. Carrickfergus is one place where the tension in Antrim bursts through the surface, but the tension is always there.

Mention Armagh and the words ‘bandit country’ inevitably come to mind. For it is in Armagh’s rolling hills that Ireland’s last heroes are to be found, living the romantic life of the outlaw, hopping from one safe house to another with their AK 47s, smuggling cheap diesel over the border, extracting protection money from all and sundry. All this is widely known; the only mystery is why someone like Guy Ritchie hasn’t noticed the plight of these charming rogues. Why settle for an endless procession of urban ganster flicks when we could have something entirely new – the rural gangster flick? I eagerly await the opening of Lock, Stock and Two Barrels of Texaco Red.

On the long train journeys to Waterford City, I used to amuse myself by thinking up potential tourist slogans for Carlow. ‘Carlow – Gateway to Athy’ was one. ‘Carlow – It’s Not as Bad as Roscrea’ was another. But much like the town itself, that kind of thing gets boring very quickly. So then I used to amuse myself by trying to guess which passengers on the train would get off at Carlow. I hesitate to use the word ‘inbred’, but there is a certain shifty, lumpen, behind-the-times look that characterises the people of that town. More often than not, I guessed right. 
Carlow town is basically an ugly hole with nothing going for it apart from the fourth-rate third-level institution known as CIT (or CLIT to those in the know). Carlow Institute of Technology provides remedial education and two years of subsidised drinking to some of the worst students in the country. Really, I could have turned up to the Leaving Cert drunk, blindfolded and with both of my arms in a cast and still have passed the entry requirements for this place. Attending CLIT is merely a matter of being bothered to go, something which its students admittedly find difficult most of the time. Because of this rabble, Carlow has acquired a reputation for throbbing, happening nightlife – an obvious thing to say really, since two thousand bored students will naturally fill whatever crevices Carlow provides for nocturnal entertainment. If you dumped them in a field in Wicklow, you’d get some ‘nightlife’ there, too. 
That’s Carlow town. Carlow county, such as it is, is like a spare, unnecessary bit of Kilkenny that fell off while no-one noticed.

One can’t think of Cavan without thinking of the words of Percy French 
”The Garden of Eden has vanished, they say, 
But I know the lie of it still: 
Just turn to the left at the bridge of Finea 
And stop when halfway to Cootehill.” 
and noting how ironic they were. Cavan bears about as much resemblence to the Garden of Eden as US-occupied Baghdad does to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Nevertheless, there’s something endearing about Cavan’s hokey little towns and nondescript scenery that makes it impossible to hate the place. Ballyjamesduff and Cootehill may be a bit backward, a bit half-arsed, but at the same time there’s a touch of self-parody about them. It seems to me that at least some Cavan residents get the joke, and you can’t say that about too many places in Ireland. Also, the Cavan accent is one of the cutest in the country, and in that sense, it could be called the Cork of the north. 
I certainly wouldn’t want to live there, though.
Clare has some of the most extensive cave systems in Ireland, which is appropriate for a county full of troglodytes. God, I hate the place. Everyone I have ever known from Clare thinks they’re privileged to have grown up there and that the rest of Ireland must be jealous of them, when the truth is that Clare is an ugly wind-blasted rock sticking into the Atlantic, where the barren soil could only nurture such horrors as Eamon de Valera and Willie O’Dea. There isn’t a tree, a blade of grass or a ray of charity in the place, and it rains something like 364 days a year. The meanness of the landscape is reflected in the meanness of the population. More than any other part of Ireland, this is the land of cute hoors, penny-savers and squinting windows. Clare is the rock from which de Valera stamped his miserable guilt-stricken personality all over the rest of the country. 
I have endured a couple of dreadful holidays in Clare. One was a weekend in a holiday home near Tulla, beside a lake. It rained constantly and the house was damp and full of mildew. We tried boating on the lake, only to discover that the boat was leaking, so we went back, only to discover that the house was leaking. We sampled some of the ‘local entertainment’ in a tiny pub in Tulla, the kind of ‘local entertainment’ where the locals stare at you for five minutes after you walk in, and then a guy gets out a tin whistle and produces an ever-growing puddle of spit on the floor, his music accompanied by the usual cries of “Whoooo!” and “Yee-ha!” and “Get me the f*** out of here!”. The weekend was meant to be a week, but we left early. The other holiday was a school trip to the Irish-language ‘slóga’ event being held in Ennis one year. I shudder at the memory of the meals there: the horrible chips flash-fried in decade-old cooking oil, and caterers so mean that they watered down the ketchup. 
Clare combines the nastiness of Carlow, the misery of Roscommon, and the awful Disney Oirishness of Kerry. There are any number of tourist scams designed to suck the cash out of gullible Irish-Americans. Perhaps the most hyped of these is Bunratty Castle, where people pay a fortune to partake in a totally inauthentic ‘banquet’ experience, with medieval Irish babes prancing around and reciting canned lines as the tourists munch their barbeque beef. 
I have heard some people in the south say that they wished Northern Ireland would drift off into the ocean so that they wouldn’t ever have to hear about it again. And I can see their point. Personally, though, I’d be much happier if Clare just fell into the Atlantic.
Few things on Earth are funnier than a Cork accent: the sound of that incredulous falsetto purr is invariably enough to make me collapse with laughter. I therefore can’t visit Cork itself for fear that my sides would burst open at the hilarious sounds all around me. Cork accents are safest when heard in isolation. 
Despite my long-held admiration for the Cork warble, though, it took an outsider to reveal to me its essential nature. I once tried a Cork accent for a colleague at work, and his immediate reaction was “but… that just sounds gay.” And how right he was! The Cork accent is so outrageously camp, so flamboyant, so mincing, so… Graham Norton; let’s face it, it’s totally gay. I feel a great opportunity has been missed here. Why should Cork content itself with being Ireland’s second city, when it could be the Soho of the Southwest, the San Francisco of Europe, even the Gay Capital of the World? It’s time to put Cork on the pink map!

In any listing of the Irish counties, it is regrettably impossible to avoid this place and the boring nomenclature feud that goes with it. People get so heated over the issue. I once saw my geography teacher explode when someone innocently said ‘Londonderry’ in class (“Don’t reveal your politics!” he screamed, suddenly revealing his politics); and then once I got a library book which had the ‘London’ crossed out with such ferocity that the resulting hole went through the next few pages. These outbursts, however, are mild compared to the actual physical violence that takes place in Derry itself. I get the feeling that even if all the other issues in the ‘Peace Process’ were resolved, people would still come to blows over what to call Ireland’s northernmost county. 
It would probably annoy my nationalist friends to be told that the whole subdivision of Ireland into counties was an English idea in the first place. Like a colonial Jehovah, 16th-century England wanted to model Ireland in its own image, and so split the place up into shires and ridings. The striking thing is how the Irish have taken this colonial legacy to heart. While most English people haven’t a clue which county they live in, Irish people are fiercely proud of their counties and are often prepared to kill for them (or at least, play hurling). And while English counties are constantly being chopped and changed and now bear no relation to the originals, Irish county borders are set in stone. The Kilkenny banners start flying as soon as you go north of Waterford city, leaving you in no doubt as to which county you’re in. And were any portion of Wexford to be incorporated into, say, Carlow, even I would join the legions of pikemen that would assemble to claim back our rightful lands.
We were shocked when my American uncle said he planned to drive to Donegal that night. “But — that’s nearly three hundred miles away!” we said. “You’ll never make it there in one night!” 
He smiled at us like the doting uncle he was. “But Ireland is just a little island,” he said. “For you it’s one end of the country to another, but for me it’s just halfway across the state. You don’t realise how normal a 300 mile drive is for me. I’ll get there in four hours.” 
But he didn’t realise that what might be possible in four hours on Interstate 69 is at minimum a two-day expedition on the network of glorified gravel tracks that link Donegal and Wexford. For a start, the roads don’t go straight but ramble all over the place, doubling the distance of the journey. And then there is all the time wasted dealing with maps, misleading signposts, wrong turnings, potholes and crazed locals. Furthermore, in any road trip of this magnitude in Ireland it’s a given that you’ll spend at least two hours on a single-lane country road stuck behind a tractor moving at 2 mph. Getting to Donegal is a major logistical problem. It’s in the far northwest of Ireland, but for all its accessibility from Wexford it might as well be in the Far East. 
Fortunately, I’ve heard it’s crap when you get there.
I passed through Down once on the train to Belfast (and once again on the way back), and I must say that the green-cloaked Mountains of Mourne deserve their reputation for beauty. It strikes me that Northern Ireland has some of the best and most typically ‘Irish’ scenery in the whole island, but nevertheless tourists ignore it in droves and instead go to Galway and Clare. Mind you, the cross-border shenanigans and psychotic politics on evidence in Down don’t do much to help its cause.
Dublin is a small town grown big, and now swollen dangerously, like a diseased liver. It simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle its million-plus population. The centre is tiny and crammed with people, the roads into the centre are crammed with traffic, and the surrounding suburbs – which stretch on for miles – are lifeless and in some cases inhumanly horrible. Tallaght and Ballyfermot, with their endless rows of crummy housing estates, unrelieved by commercial or cultural activity, are particularly disastrous examples of suburban planning; but they’re hardly alone. The ring of inner city around the centre is a mass of decrepitude, and the megamalls erected on the outskirts of the city – like the Liffey Valley and Blanchardstown Centres – have sucked away what little life remained in the suburbs, and created miniature traffic nightmares of their own. 
I could go on, but this is not the place to complain about Dublin’s lack of adequate transport, parks and public services, about its increasing problems with litter and crime, or about the massive social inequalities thrown up by the ‘Celtic Tiger’. All that would require a treatment of more expanse and depth. Here, I will just say that the Irish Times columnist who wrote about the city’s streets being “steeped in literature” was exactly two syllables away from the truth. 
But in spite of all this, Dublin is the only Irish county I could bear to live in for longer than a weekend. Ask me why I left the country.
Fermanagh is the only county in Northern Ireland that doesn’t border Lough Neagh, but makes up for it with two lakes of its own, Upper and Lower Lough Erne. And that’s just about all I or indeed anyone else knows about the place. This is easily the most neglected county in Ulster, the North’s honorary member of the midlands. Most of Fermanagh is deserted; the only urban centre of note is Enniskillen, which is a bit like Ennis, but with more killen.
For a southerner like myself, there’s something exciting about going west of Athlone and seeing the first stone walls appear – though most of the excitement comes from leaving Athlone, it must be said. And while stone-walled fields might be a novelty for a few seconds, when you realise that there is nothing but stone-walled fields for the next hundred miles, it gets more than a bit depressing. Not that anything grows inside these fields, either – they’re just rocks enclosed by more rocks. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ may well be satire. 
Dotted among the fields are a number of incredibly sh*tty and depressing small towns – Tuam, Loughrea, Portumna, Ballinasloe – which pass by like fleeting visions of Hell. And finally there’s Galway city itself, the single most overrated place in the entire country. Much guff has been spoken about Galway being a regional ‘city of culture’, when the truth is that it’s just another small town with a bit of fresh paint. What’s in Galway? A few godawful 90s Irish Pubs, a concrete dock, and a few thousand insufferable culchies, the kind of people who make relentless compilation tapes of Phil Lynott’s Whiskey in the Jar. In short, it’s just like any other West of Ireland sh*thole. 
I’ve heard a number of misguided Dubliners romanticise about life in Galway. They’re welcome to give it a try, but I’m convinced that one winter in the mid-Atlantic with nineteen inbred gobsh*tes for company would drive them all back to Foxrock as soon as the roads became navigable. Galway is an intellectual, cultural, horticultural and genetic wasteland. No-one should live there. When Cromwell told the Irish landowners they could go “to hell or to Connacht”, it’s easy to see why so many opted for the former. For Galway truly is a fate worse than death.
Most of the publicity photos of Ireland you see – the lone thatched cottages in the hills, the green mountains rising from the shore – are photos of Kerry. As far as the Tourist Board is concerned, Kerry is the public face of Ireland. But ironically, Kerry is not a typical Irish county at all. Isolated from the rest of the country in the far southwest, cut off from civilisation for centuries, a separate, parallel culture has developed in Kerry, with its own bizarre rituals and traditions, and its own indecipherable accent. It’s like a nation unto itself. (If only it actually were.) 
The peculiar quirks of Kerry culture are often mistaken in the rest of the country for extreme stupidity. While people around the world tell jokes about stupid Irishmen, people in Ireland tell exactly the same jokes about stupid Kerrymen. Throughout Ireland, Kerry is basically a joke, but this is based on a misunderstanding of its unique culture. Kerry people are not dim-witted, they’re just different. Jackie Healy-Rae is not a flat-capped, grass-chewing simpleton, he’s just… Kerry. 
A little-known attribute of the Kerry people is their great admiration for learning. Elsewhere in Ireland, learning is openly shunned; but show a whiff of erudition in Kerry and the natives will venerate you. Simply by moving to Dingle, any literate person could set themselves up as local poet-philosopher. This is arguably because literacy is such a rare and prized phenomenon in Kerry, but whatever the case, respect for knowledge is not to be sneered at. 
While Kerry may not be the centre of Irishness, it’s certainly the centre of Oirishness, and no entry about Kerry could be complete without mention of the Disneyland Dingle effect. Kerry is Ireland’s leading peddler of Hibernohokum, with towns like Killorglin and Tralee given over almost entirely to dreadful Irish-Americana. Be warned: the crazy little men in green who swindle passing tourists out of their money are not leprechauns, but locals.
Drive west of Dublin, turn off the motorway onto the smaller country roads, and things quickly start to get bogged down. Literally bogged down, as you’re now in Kildare. From here until the rocks start appearing a hundred miles further west, the country is just one big bog. And God, isn’t it awful. 
I’ve often wondered which part of Ireland is worse – the Midlands or the West. And really, the answer is simple – the West. But that said, Mayo and Galway at least have a bit of coastline and scenery going for them, while the Midlands have nothing. Nothing at all. From Naas to Athlone, from Athy to Carrick-on-Shannon, it’s one long stretch of suicidal tedium. 
As if in consolation, Kildare is being steadily dismantled and turned into peat briquettes, providing fuel for homes across the country. Many’s the time I’ve gazed at the hearth, glad in the knowledge that I’m burning another bit of Kildare. Supplies of peat, however, are limited, and soon all will be used up – scratch one more national resource. What will become of Kildare then? I would suggest that we move on to burning the non-peat parts of the county, but two more likely futures present themselves. 
One is that Dublin’s increasing weight problem will see it spread further into Kildare: already, much of north Kildare is a dormitory for Dublin workers, with towns like Newbridge almost becoming Dublin suburbs. Another is that golf course disease will spread across the county, its unappealing natural countryside being turned into even less appealing fake countryside for rich gits. Either way, it doesn’t look good.
Even though the 007 branch of my family originally hails from Kilkenny, I’ve never been able to warm to the place. Sure, Kilkenny City is nice as Irish towns go, oddly well-scrubbed and with a genuine tourist attraction in Kilkenny Castle. But the rest of the county is deeply rural in the most unpleasant senses of the word. Even the names of Kilkenny villages – Graiguemanagh, Ballyragget, Mullinavat – send out uncomfortable redneck vibes. I’ve passed through Mullinavat a few times – its most notable feature is a large barn-like pub called ‘The Vat’, which looks like it actually might be filled to the brim with beef dripping. 
Perhaps because of its extreme ruralness, Kilkenny is one of the few counties where the GAA sport of hurling really caught on. Hurling (aka ‘hick stick’) is a kind of psychotic version of hockey, supposedly based on an ancient Celtic game but most likely invented in 1885 as a deliberate alternative to hockey, cricket, rounders and other ‘foreign sports’. Early GAA clubs rapidly turned into de facto IRA training grounds, though the similarity in size and shape of a hurling stick to a carbine rifle was probably just a happy coincidence. 
For other Xtreme sports, one only has to drive on Kilkenny roads. In a country of bad roads, the roads in Kilkenny stand out as particularly bad. Any drive in Kilkenny is a white-knuckle ride, but the network of steep hills, hairpin bends, blind corners and potholes around Thomastown requires stunt driving of the highest quality. There doesn’t seem to be a stretch of straight road in the entire county – most Kilkenny roads are, in fact, fractal.
The province of Leinster has more counties than any other, but unfortunately they’re mostly the really dull ones. And they don’t come much duller than Laois. The words “I’m from Laois” have been known to kill conversations across the country, to such an extent that the more discerning Laois residents like to pretend they’re from somewhere else. Be wary of people claiming to come from ‘South Offaly’ or ‘East Tipperary’. 
Incidentally, Laois was also once known as Queen’s County… but I’ve been down that road already with Cork.
Ireland is one of the least densely-populated countries in Europe, and this factoid is often used by the Irish Tourist Board to convince visitors that they’ll find large stretches of unspoilt countryside. But this is misleading: the truth is that nowhere in Ireland are you more than 500 metres from a bungalow. The entire country is one big dissipated suburb. 
Ireland’s low population density is largely thanks to places like Leitrim. Here, too, you are never more than 500 metres from a bungalow, but the difference is that most of the bungalows are empty, their inhabitants having fled long ago to pursue a better life. Which is basically a life anywhere but Leitrim.

Limerick City is one of the few places in Ireland which lives up to its reputation. Where others only promise, “Stab City” actually delivers. Every day, Limerick-based atrocities fill a dependable quota of the Irish news headlines. Indeed, not too long ago it seemed impossible to read the papers without seeing news of a deeply embarrassing family blood-fued causing devastation all over Limerick city. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that simple violent barbarism still exists in the midst of the Celtic Tiger. 
Limerick is also the ancestral home of professional Irish-Americans the McCourt brothers, whose books I Grew up in Grinding Poverty – but Look at me Now and Begorrah, Haven’t I Done Well for Myself have captivated a generation of upper-class Manhattanites. These charming books have demonstated that despite their long years courting the rich and famous in New York, the McCourt brothers’ hearts – but not their cash – still reside in Limerick. And who could wish more on this lovable, larger-than-life duo than a return to the city of their youth, preferably in a box. 
In recent years, the economy of Limerick has been partially revitalised by the presence of Shannon Airport, the westernmost in Europe, which was built to cash in on the limited fuel capacity of certain transatlantic airliners and US military aircraft. An embarrassing amount of national pride is invested in what is basically the aviation equivalent of a truck-stop, particularly in the fact that the world’s first duty-free shop was opened there in 1947. This innovation has allowed consumers worldwide to stock up on booze and cigarettes in uniquely Hibernian quantities.
Anyone who remembers their schooldays will know that children can be cruel creatures, victimising any of their peers who are a bit different, who stand out from the crowd. But it’s often forgotten that children will equally victimise those who don’t stand out from the crowd: the ones with no obvious interests, no obvious abilities, nothing to distinguish them from the dead earth. And this is Longford’s role in the classroom of Irish counties: a small, inoffensive place despised for its mediocrity. Few would shed a tear if it sank back into the bog. 
Longford’s sole tourist attraction is the perennial ‘tidy town’ winner Ardagh, whose meticulous greyness looks to me like some kind of Protestant nightmare. It might be tidy, but it ain’t pretty.

Louth is the smallest county in Ireland, but still it manages to pack in two of the most awful towns on the face of the Earth. I refer, of course, to Dundalk and Drogheda. I had the misfortune of living in the latter for a year, and still haven’t quite recovered from the experience. In Drogheda, there is always a cloud overhead; if not from water vapour in the atmosphere, from the cement factory at the edge of town. This casts a perpetual gloom about the place, as if Drogheda didn’t already have enough problems. 
A leaflet pushed through our door informed us that 50% of the adults in Drogheda had only a primary school education, and it shows: in the hopeless feeling on the streets, in the mass unemployment, and in the complete lack of bookshops. Nothing is being done about this; if anything, the problems of Drogheda are being compounded by its tranformation into a Dublin dormitory town. Many Drogheda ‘residents’ now barely visit Drogheda at all, leaving empty shells of houses, and unattended kids, behind them as they head off to work in Dublin at six in the morning. (On the way they’ll probably pass that Flora factory that looks like it was smeared in margarine sometime in the 70s.) 
Dundalk, or ‘El Paso’ as it’s commonly known, is if anything worse, combining the desperation of Drogheda with the dread of living in a town full of IRA fanatics.
“Mayo, God help us” as Cromwell probably said. 
The Penal Laws of the 18th century ensured that most of Ireland descended into something worse than barbarism, and parts of the country still haven’t recovered. Mayo is a case in point. The most popular pastimes in Mayo — indeed, the only pastimes — are kicking the sh*t out of things and alcoholism. To be fair, the climate is so bad here that one can almost sympathise. Mayo has the dubious distinction of having the wettest weather in Ireland, and therefore in Europe. Indeed, there are large areas of tropical rainforest which get less precipitation than Mayo. 
Mayo is the home of the archetypal Irishman known as the culchie (which takes its name from the local pronunciation of Kiltimagh, a no-horse town if ever there was one). These are the kind of big-limbed, thick-skulled pint-downers who think the phrase “arrah will ye whisht” is both 
1. endearing 
2. a term of endearment. 
Mercifully, I did once spend a very nice weekend in Westport without running into any of these people, but I was lucky. 
For more on Mayo see Galway.
At the end of the last Ice Age, the glaciers melted all over Europe, revealing the St. Gothard Pass in Switzerland, the fjords of Norway, and — Meath. But while in some places the glaciers carved out spectacular scenery, in Meath they just dumped a load of crap, with the result that the county is covered in maddening little hills called drumlins. You can never see very far in Meath. 
Meath contains some of the richest farmland in the country: the grass is so green here, it’s blue. The land is being cultivated to death by a number of ruthless farmers, whose nitrate-powered exploits ensure that everything is overgrown and sopping wet. Almost every available scrap of land is covered in fields, and everything that isn’t a big field (and here I’m thinking of Navan and Trim) should be. 
Incredibly, the Boyne Valley — which is mostly in Meath — likes to see itself as something of a tourist Mecca, even though it has nothing to offer apart from the Hill of Tara (a big field), Monasterboice (a few rocks in a big field) and the Boyne battlefield (which is, well, a big field). The one genuine attraction is Newgrange, the neolithic passage tomb, but even that is ruined by the regular application of decidedly non-neolithic whitewash. And it’s in a big field.
Monaghan is an evil version of Cavan.

Birr Castle in Offaly houses what was once the largest telescope in Europe, so that on the rare occasions when the clouds parted overheard, local astronomers could look up and see spectacular vistas of the heavens. Unsurprisingly, it rapidly fell into disuse. Building the world’s largest telescope in Offaly is about as sensible as building the world’s largest ski resort in the Sahara. 
Otherwise, Offaly is a thoroughly dreary and unremarkable part of the midlands. Sometimes, I really wish Ireland was doughnut-shaped.

The desolate landscape of Roscommon is dotted with abandoned cottages and grim, ageing towns. From the famine to the Celtic Tiger, Roscommon has borne the brunt of Ireland’s misfortunes. It’s hard to drive through without being gripped by a deep sadness; but then again, it’s harder still to stop. Nobody ever visits Roscommon; people only leave, and they leave in droves.
All I know about Sligo is that it was the birthplace of W. B. Yeats. (Which, sad to say, is also more or less all I know about W. B. Yeats.) But don’t go there expecting the heavens’ embroidered cloths to appear before you, because Sligo, which occupies the no-man’s-land between Mayo and Donegal, is bound to be as unforgiving and miserable as its neighbours.
“It’s a long way to Tipperary,” goes the song. “Not long enough,” comes the inevitable reply from people who have actually been to the place. Tipperary is the epitome of middle-of-the-road, middle-income, middle-brow, middle-Ireland. It’s depressingly generic. When English people try to do impressions of Irish accents, they usually settle somewhere around Tipperary — which is not to say that Tipperary has a strong image, because it doesn’t. It’s the blandest place in Ireland. Despite being roughly in the southeast, it’s midlands through and through. 
The landscape in Tipperary is about as generic as it comes. The much-hyped “Golden Vale” is just a bunch of fields, like Meath. The Rock of Cashel is just a rock, as if that was a novelty in Ireland. And as for the towns – well, who could forget a trip to Clonmel or Roscrea? Actually, no, who could remember a trip to Clonmel or Roscrea? I do, unfortunately, remember Thurles, the unforgivable birthplace of the GAA, and the location of some godawful concerts in the 90s. Would that I didn’t.
Uniquely among Irish counties, ‘Tyrone’ has become a popular US forename. Somehow, I can’t see Westmeath catching on in the same way. I don’t know much about the county itself, but for all Irish counties you can employ this simple rule of thumb: if it doesn’t have a coastline, stay away.
I’ve long held the opinion that there isn’t much real difference between Britain and Ireland. They’re both rainy, football-playing, xenophobic, English-speaking countries with bad food and worse public services, where the favourite national pastime is to go to pubs and drink p*ss-weak beer in unfeasibly large quantities. In fact, the only significant difference between the two islands is in the character of their villages. In Britain, rightly or wrongly, villages are seen as a quiet, calming retreat from the hell of city life. In Ireland, on the other hand, village life itself is seen as hell. People don’t go to villages at weekends, they run away from them. Anyone who remains in an Irish village suffers the same fate as fallen Vestals in ancient Rome: burial alive. 
Oddly enough, the few exceptions to this rule are to be found in Waterford: Dunmore East, Passage East and Lismore are three of the nicest Irish villages you are likely to find. Or at least, they are for a few minutes. But whatever you gain from visiting them, you will immediately lose in visiting Waterford City, the biggest eyesore in the southeast. Waterford’s mile of grimy quayside is one of the least appetising urban vistas you will find, at least until you get to New Ross. 
Growing up, I always resented the fact that Waterford was the only large city close to me. I wanted a real metropolis, but all I got was this town of barely 40,000 people, which was to all appearances even less developed than Wexford. Waterford must be the most poorly-developed city of its size in the country. Even Limerick has a Supermacs, for God’s sake. (1) The southeast of Ireland is crying out for a half-decent city, and Waterford really isn’t up to the job. 
Every day, the girl on AA traffic roadwatch warns drivers that the bridge in Waterford is congested, and every day she wastes her breath. There’s only one bridge into Waterford, and it’s always congested. There’s simply no way around it. Another bridge across the river Suir is in the process of being built, and indeed has been in the process of being built for my entire lifetime. Waterford residents could be forgiven for being skeptical about the delay, because, let’s face it, we’re not exactly talking about the Golden Gate here. But while no-one has ever seen any evidence of serious bridge construction, they can rest assured that a top team of engineers is working on the bridge right now, and that the finished product will have a state-of-the-art “emperors-new-clothes” support system. It will have to be seen to be believed. 
And in the meantime, the people of Waterford can take heart from the fact that the single traffic-jammed bridge makes the city seem a lot busier than it really is.
Westmeath is the last Irish county anyone remembers, even the residents. “Westmeath” isn’t even a proper name — it just describes where the place is in relation to another county. It’s as if our Elizabethan county-namers couldn’t think of what to call this leftover blob of bog. To be fair, though, they did pick a better name than “Eastroscommon”. 
The county is only notable for containing Athlone, the town which is bang in the centre of Ireland. If Ireland was a dartboard, Athlone would be the bullseye; but unfortunately Ireland is much more like a horse’s arse. And you don’t need to know much about equine anatomy to tell what Athlone is.
Ah, finally I get to my alma mater, my homeland, place of my childhood, the Purple and Gold, the Boys of Wexford, the Boker, Nicky Rackard, Boolavogue, Kelly the Boy from Killane, Father Murphy, the Yellowbellies, 1798, Shelmalier, the ‘Model County’, County Wexford. What a dump. 
I spent a weekend in Wexford town a couple of years ago, coming back after several years’ absence, and to my surprise it all seemed rather quaint. The town which I hated living in as a teenager, which had seemed like the most stultifying place on Earth, now looked harmless and unthreatening and even quite pretty, with its narrow streets and old shopfronts. For a few moments I even understood how Irish-American tourists can look at a dingy two-storey shebeen in some no-hope town in the west of Ireland and think it beautiful. Thankfully, those moments didn’t last long. A whole weekend in Wexford was enough to make me recover my senses. 
Wexford is an entirely typical Irish regional town. There’s a handful of small-town bigshots who own and control most of it, carrying themselves like feudal lords, while the rest of the population consists entirely of begrudgers and arse-lickers. Any official transaction which takes place — like obtaining planning permission, for example — is accompanied by astonishing levels and pettiness and small-town calculation. There are always axes to grind here, dues to pay there, points to score here, boots to shine there. Being stuck in a small town gives people the meanest of ambitions. Everyone is so desperate to carve out their patch that involving yourself in any community activity is like diving into a bowl of piranhas. 
But in spite of all this, the overwhelming impression I got from Wexford (once my nostalgia had disappeared) was one of sadness. And by that I don’t mean everyone was going around with a glum look on their face. Indeed, on my last morning in Wexford, as I sat in a pub on the quay and watched people come in, everyone was superficially happy. The morning sun was shining, people were smiling, everyone seemed to be getting on just fine. But at the same time, there was something forced about their smiles, the impression that they were just putting a brave face on things. There was clearly something missing in the town, something missing in their lives. What was it? And then it dawned on me. In my whole weekend in Wexford, I hadn’t seen one young person. I mean, I saw children, and people in their late thirties and above, but I didn’t see any young adults. It was as if the Pied Piper of Twenty-somethings had stolen the youth of Wexford. 
This pied piper goes by several alternate names. “Waterford IT” is one, “Carlow IT” is another, but “complete lack of any job prospects or anything even remotely interesting to do” is perhaps the most common. Economically, educuationally and culturally, Wexford has been left behind. People have to leave the county to get third level education, and once they have gone there is nothing to lure them back. There are no jobs available. The only cultural event is the Wexford Opera Festival, during which a number of Dublin 4 types come down for a few days to yawn at some hyper-obscure operas, and then drive back as fast as their BMWs will take them. 
I told a sneaky lie above: I said I hated living in Wexford town, when of course I have never actually lived in Wexford town. I lived five miles outside, on Forth Mountain, and it’s this, not the town, that I regard as home. In fact, the rest of county Wexford doesn’t mean much to me. I’ve never liked Gorey or north Wexford, and I like New Ross and the west of the county even less. The south coast is pretty but I could take or leave it; as as for Rosslare, I’ll just leave it, thanks. The part of Wexford that means something to me is the three-mile radius around our old house: our old back garden, the fields I used to wander in, the forests full of bluebells, the heath on top of the mountain, the old quarry, Barntown Castle and Ferrycarraig, the clear mountain streams, the overgrown mountain roads. That’s my homeland. 
And now, it only exists in my head. The last time I went back, the mountain was covered in bungalows.
It’s as simple as this: Wicklow has the best scenery in Ireland. You can take Galway, Clare, Mayo, Donegal, Kerry, Cork and all those other half-saved places they send tourists to, and I’ll take Wicklow, thanks very much. The west of Ireland might have some appeal if you’re into rocks and desolation and that sort of thing. Me, I like trees. 
And there was no tree-scape finer than the Glen of the Downs in north Wicklow. Passing by on the way to Dublin, my jaw would always drop — literally drop — at the beauty of the broadleaf foliage spilling down from the glacial valley all around me. The trees, some of the last remnants of the deciduous forests which once covered the whole island, cascaded perfectly from seemingly impossible heights. To see the Glen was to perceive something timeless, something infinite — I never failed to be moved. You might think I’m exaggerating, but if so, you’ve never seen the Glen of the Downs. 
You’ll notice my use of the past tense in the last paragraph: this is because the Glen was bulldozed a few years ago to build a motorway. Now while I’m all for improving the state of Ireland’s infrastructure, the destruction of the Glen of the Downs really sickened me. Why build a motorway there, when there are plenty of north Wicklow golf courses they could have ploughed through? The government raised the defence of “but we’re planting more trees”, but ultimately, it didn’t matter that they destroyed some trees. What mattered was that they destroyed something beautiful. And the knowledge that this was done in the typical Irish fashion — with backhanders, pay-offs and bribes aplenty — makes the taste all the more bitter. 
Anyway, Wicklow. Great scenery, but avoid the towns. Especially Arklow.
(1) Since I wrote the above, it has been brought to my attention that Waterford does indeed have a Supermacs; in fact, it has two Supermacs, putting it just behind Ballinasloe in the all-Ireland Supermacs league table. Clearly the city has come on in leaps and bounds.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: