Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ireland, Week 1: Sodden and Begorrah

The Lucky Charms commercials lie.

In those thirty-second spots, Lucky the Leprechaun proclaims the wonders of his cereal while dancing across Irish fields of green beneath Irish skies of blue. Lucky Charms are indeed wondrous (they cause childhood obesity which, in my book, ranks near childhood smallpox), and fields in Ireland are indeed green. The Irish sky, however, is never blue for any prolonged period of time. In fact, its general state could be described as typhoon. The few moments of sun (in our two-week trip, it rained on all but one of the days) lull you into a false sense of security so that when you're the greatest possible distance from umbrellas or shelter, Ireland might hurricane upon you. (The Irish themselves have a sixth sense about when it's going to rain; they'll vanish right before it pours and appear immediately thereafter, umbrellaless, coatless, yet somehow dry.) The non-Irish, on the other hand, will find themselves forever sodden.

My fellow soddenmites for this journey were Alpana and Mariana, alumnae of Redhot & Blue (we were in the group before it was good), and Mariana's boyfriend, Bob, who, though he grew up in Southern California, has redeeming features. My three travel mates are all PhDs-in-training (Bob and Mariana in psychology, Alpana in a real science), whereas I lack any form of graduate education aside from BMI's non-degree program in songwriting/TV and VCR repair. Advanced schooling, however, would be required for the many complex tasks awaiting us, not least of which was driving.

The road system in Ireland is further proof that the British mess up anything they touch (see also: India, musical theatre). Everything is backwards. You drive on the left side of the road; dotted white lines indicate the center divide, whereas solid yellow lines separate the lane from the shoulder. Dominating both the asphalt and road signs are random zigzag shapes which, like the later works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, serve no discernible purpose. Fortunately, I wasn't required/permitted to drive, as my companions knew well my automotive abilities. (As a teenager, I failed my permit test once and driver's test twice. I only passed the latter when the kid before me kicked in the windows of the Redwood City DMV, compared to which, my incompetence seemed positively innocuous.)

Alpana and Bob were our designated drivers and, despite Alpana's best efforts, did not kill us. (For the record, the burning smell was the parking brake.) Any mishaps—frequent introductions to the curb, losing a hubcap as the result of said introductions, turning into oncoming traffic in downtown Dublin—were mere hiccups amongst our automotive glories.

After two days in Galway, a town most notable for a sewage treatment plant named Mutton Island and the umlaut in our hostel's name (Sleepzöne), we drove to Limerick, the city to blame for all poems concerning men from Nantucket. Limerick, like New Haven, is a "city on the rise," meaning if you go outdoors after 11 pm you will be shot. If you go outdoors before 11 pm, you will find no buildings unboarded but for those selling alcohol (or boards).

In the Limerick area, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. After years of folk music at the hands/bow of my friend Natalie, I distrust anything with "folk" in the title. Bunratty's Folk Park did not make me reconsider this policy. There, you wander through reconstructions of Irish rustic life which encompass everything from bakers making apple pie (available in the café) to dinosaurs promoting Ice Age 3 (available in hell). By interacting with people in rustic costume, you can better understand how the old-time Irish lived. Apparently, they lived in gift shops.

The faux eighteenth-century buildings of Bunratty attempt to reconcile their primitive purpose with modern-day commercialism. The Victualler sells candy bars, the Printing Press tabloids, and the Tailor's Shoppe hawks t-shirts with slogans like "The Leprechauns Made Me Do It" or "I Only Drink on Days Beginning with ‘T': Thaturday, Thunday," et thetera. Some buildings retain an aspect of authenticity, such as the schoolhouse which displays the cudgels teachers used to bludgeon children.

After two days, we left Limerick without experiencing significant tragedy (aside from Irish television, which consists of MTV's "Room Raiders" dubbed into Irish) and travelled to Cobh. Pronounced "cove," Cobh is the world's go-to city for maritime tragedy. When the Titanic sank, the survivors were shipped to Cobh. Ditto for the Lusitania. During the Great Potato Famine, waves of Irish emigrants left via the city's docks. Given its lachrymose history, Cobh finds itself in a delicate position. How can it respect its legacy while exploiting it for financial gain? Cobh's answer is simple: forget respect. Memorials for the Titanic and Lusitania are afterthoughts to the grandiose bars of the same name. The Famine goes unmentioned unless you buy admission to a museum which will mention it for you.

After Cobh, we travelled along the River Lee to County Cork. (The Irish invert their county and river names. Being a resident of County Manhattan on the River Hudson, I find this odd.) Entertainment in Cork, as with most cities in Ireland, consists of two things: alcohol and being rained on. (To be fair, we also saw advertisements for a "100% Irish" version of Annie which seemed only slightly less desirable than being burned alive.) Eschewing sobriety, we visited the Abbey Pub. Their taps flow with beer distilled by Franciscan monks, whose vow of abstinence does not extend to intoxicants.

Cork is not bereft of tourist attractions, however. For the sum of five euro, would-be carilloners can ring the bells of St. Anne's Church as long and as loudly as they please. The staff provides industrial-strength ear protection to the ringers. The church's neighbors, however, receive no such courtesy. It is a testament to Irish congeniality that these unfortunates have not yet laid siege to the bell tower. At our hands alone, they endured "Doe a Deer," "Every Time We Say Goodbye," and "Part of Your World," all classic songs, none improved by being played on bells the size of livestock.

Come to think of it, the Irish seem largely imperturbable, a fact related to the ubiquity of alcohol. Back in Galway, we met a friendly, insober Irishman named Tommy. (Well, the other three met him; at that point it was approaching dinnertime, and when I'm hungry, the most social I get is not killing people.) Tommy bought us round after round of beer and summarized Irish culture for us. In short, the Irish like everything except Germans, the British, and Hewlett-Packard printers. Similarly, they're willing to laugh about anything except the Potato Famine or being confused with the Scottish.

I learned this, as with most things, the hard way.

Continued >>

 Downtown Dublin has a giant needle. There's no rotating restaurant on top, though, so Seattle wins.

1 comment:

  1. for anyone in the same position, try taking a practice permit test over and over before the real thing...thats by far the easiest way to study.