Saturday 31 March 2007

Best of both worlds? I'm a tourist, but I live here too!

Tum tee tum, this is fun. I'm sitting at my breakfast table in Casey's of Baltimore, staring out over the bay where small boats bob in the wet wind, a soft mist hangs tropical over tops of hills.
Choral music seeps gently through the ether, and over by the fireplace, two waitresses are kneeling, squealing and laughing with joy at the chirpy sound of the chicks nesting high in the chimney above.
Sauntering over to the simple but thoughtful buffet laid out in the dining room, I sip my orange juice, and am taken aback.
Not only is it fresh, but soft, sweet and silky.
Yea, I have drunk of many orange juices, but this baby takes the biscuit, not least because its excellence was so unexpected.
Grabbing three days of freedom, the Snapper and I head off to West Cork.
I'm excited, as this journey will close the book on a personal and very pleasurable odyssey: after walking the cliffs at Mizen Head, I will have either trod upon or driven alongside the entire west coast of Ireland.
Loving the Ennis bypass, we plunge south, and park the car in Schull. This trip is a pootling adventure, with no advance bookings, but I have already checked out a couple of Schull hotel websites, and expect to find them in flesh and stone when we arrive.
But no, we cannot find the hotels of Schull. Despite an abundance of touristy brown signposts, we walk up and down the tiny town, drive in and out of it, until eventually deciding that Schull doesn't want us.
The Snapper and I are tired, but neither of us gripes. The sun shines low and bright between black cloud downpours, and Shaaany Car zips along through rainbows.
We head to Rolf's, which has been recommended by a friend, where we are met by a rather disinterested woman, who appears to be prepping the veggies whilst working in reception, and not really wanting to show us a room, even when we ask to see one.
High above Baltimore, Rolf's represents the new face of Ireland, as given life by the likes of me and all the other blow-ins who arrived over the last 20 years.
The communal areas look so lovely, warm and friendly, it is a shock to be shown a small dark bedroom that is so cold the carpet is queuing up to get out.
And so we end up at Casey's; an altogether better result.
Completely unpretentious, Casey's manages successfully to balance three different functions.
At the roadside there is the original pub.
Behind, a restaurant that serves perfectly good grub that will satisfy the local and tourist palate alike, without surprising or intimidating anyone.
Above, there are bedrooms, offering standard modern facilities and comfy beds.
All of which conspire to make me feel relaxed, happy and yet, blown away by the orange juice.
Having waited a healthily long time for my Full Irish to arrive (I hate it when breakfast arrives in two minutes - you know it's just preheated ingredients microwaved to buggery and back) I am amazed at how good the food is.
Each rasher, banger, pudding and egg has been cooked perfectly, and offers exceptional flavour.
A sticker on Casey's front door declares the place is listed in the 2007 Michelin Guide, but my brekkie is not fancy shmancy Michelin cooking. No, this is just bloody excellent Irish home cooking.
As I eat I overhear the couple at the table behind me. They talk in German, until her son calls on her mobile. She then speaks in English, and when she involves her husband in the phone conversation, he responds in English too, revealing an Irish accent.
Don't know why, but that makes me happy too.
Saturday night, and the Snapper and I walk into town to see what's going on.
Nothing is going on.
The place is empty, and everyone we meet is heading up to Casey's, where there is music promised later.
We find the one restaurant open, an eccentric French place called Chez Youen. Truth be told, we had been trying to book a table there for a couple of days, but nobody ever answered the phone.
The waiter is a tall, far-too handsome Frenchman, who carries himself with an arrogance so Gallic it is almost a caricature.
The food is superb, but presented with disdain, as if the waiter is saying:
'You feeelthy h'Irish pezzants, you h'are not wurrzy of ziss gastronomic h'excellence! You are not hivven feet to look at ziss food, you h'ignoran' spurrd heeterz!'
It's not just us. All the customers are scared, but it is worth it. Just about.
The next day we listen to a debate on NewsTalk Radio, about the loss of 'Irish charm' in the hospitality industry.
Apparently, since the influx of Eastern European and Latin workers, Irish pubs, hotels and restaurants don't offer the same 'Irishness' to tourists.
Lets get something straight here. Whilst the Irish are masters of craic and charm when they are being served, I harbour hardly any recollections of joy felt when being served by an Irish person.
Sometimes surly, resentful and even churlish, Irish waitstaff often pale in comparison to our new arrivals.
Admittedly, it is vital that everyone working the floor can understand the menu and converse a little with the customer, but beyond that, let's just be happy that we're lucky enough to suddenly have an eager smiling workforce, wherever they are from.
After dinner it's back to Casey's, where the bar is hopping.
Don't know whether it's our body language or anoraks, but we feel and are treated like the tourists we are.
Backs are turned towards me as I order drinks at the bar, and we find ourselves sitting in a windowsill, as the locals get into the spirit of the night.
When I earlier saw the sign declaring 'Traditional Irish Pub' I felt a shiver of fear, wondering with dread what kind of clichéd wooden monstrosity the owners had pieced together for the Yanks and the Germans, but I was wrong.
This is traditional all right.
The band strikes up 'Gee It's Good To Be Back Home' and right in front of us, three huge female backs at the bar suddenly raise their hands and voices to help out with the chorus.
As they wail and pierce the air with careless melody, I wonder:
Maybe too traditional, altogether!

Friday 23 March 2007

When 'prolonged heavy showers' become rain, do they throw a party?

Past Paddy's Day, with the first parade of the year behind us, vernal equinox come and gone: It's not winter any more!
Spring and summer can be indistinguishable in Connacht. On late April afternoons, with a gentle easterly breeze holding the high pressure, I have lain back on the hills of Clare, heated by the glorious sun above, warmth beneath seeping into my spine from the limestone slab.
Mark Twain is known to have said, 'The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.'
Ditto for Galway, where we are just as likely to endure three months of rain as two weeks of heatwave.
'Why all this weather nonsense now all of a sudden?' you ask. 'Weather shhmether!' you cry, "tell us something we don't know already!'
Well, that's why I'm on it, because with the coming of spring there arrive the early enquiries from friends for summer visits, asking the inevitable question:
"What's the weather like?"
Then you have stop and think. We here simply accept whatever falls from above, but these people are coming all the way to see you, and the least you can give them is some kind of guide as to what the weather might be like.
Well, let me think: What is it like?
Smilla had her sense of snow, and the Inuits have their pantheon of words for the white stuff, but by god, we give them a good run for their money with our skies.
Kings of the meteorological euphemism, Queens of celestial subtlety, the English and Irish have created a universe of weather terms that are indecipherable to foreigners, and let's be honest, pretty much incomprehensible to ourselves.
Anyone know exactly what they mean by bright? Are we talking clouds, sunshine, or what?
And when did the word 'rain' disappear from forecasts, to be replaced with 'unsettled weather'?
It's not unsettled at all. It's days and days of rain. Just say it baby, we can handle the truth.
Unsettled, me hole.
Is it breezy or blustery? Windy or just blowy? Is it bright or clear? Does that look like a haze or a fog or a mist, or just plain good ol'-fashioned pollution?
Rain? We do rain in all sizes: soft rain, drizzly rain; damp rain; showers (but is that occasional showers, frequent showers, constant showers; heavy showers, or prolonged heavy showers?); moderate rain; constant rain; heavy rain, and top of the Rain Pops, sideways rain, locally enjoyed in the vernacular as 'lashing rain', which conspires to come at you from the horizontal.
Not good.
When a 'prolonged heavy shower' finally gets called rain, does it throw a party?
Personally, I go with the Snapper's definitions. She divides all precipitation into either 'wet-making' or 'non-wet-making', which is really all you need to know.
Temperatures in Ireland's west come aplenty: we offer mild, warm, cool, bitter, chilly, fresh, coolish, and on the odd summer's day 'shplittin' rocks!'
363 days of the year our reality is sunshine and showers. Quite a simple balance, which the media forecasters go and complicate enormously by predicting 'Rain in places, sunshine at times'.
That, I have to say, is my personal favourite, purely because they have gently overlooked the only important pieces of information: which places, at what times?
Oh yes, and any ideas just what an 'odd shower' might be?
An odd shower? Perchance, one in which the rain falls upwards?
You can keep your extremes. I'll admit to being generally happy living between 10 - 20C, or 50 - 60F in the old money.
We rarely have extreme weather here, but we have an extremely large vocabulary with which to describe it.
So yes, the Paddy's Day Parade has come and gone, and when might we see another?
Having received less Arts Council funding than they anticipated, Macnas understandably intend to focus all this year's artistic and financial attention on their Halloween parade, and every Galwegian will look forward to that with glee.
At the time of writing, several major local arts figures are trying to find funding for a Macnas parade during the Arts Festival.
Oh my, how we would miss their Arts Festival Parade.
I can barely remember the last time I went to an Arts Festival event, just as I cannot remember ever missing the Macnas Parade, if I had not already fled the crowds, the traffic jams and jammed-up pubs, filled with people wealthy enough to go to shows that I could not afford to see in my own home town.
As regular as the cuckoo, this colyoom makes the same noises every year.
If you judge the success of a festival on how many sold-out shows it has, Galway's Arts Festival is a humdinger. But if you bring into the equation the festival's relationship with the people of the city, we're stuffed.
The Macnas Parade was a big smoochy kiss on the cheek and 'Thank You!' to all us Galwegians who had suffered another festival season. We took the jams, the noise, litter and queues, and the parade made us feel special.
The Arts Festival that used to, sadly no longer does.
And sadder yet, the leadership of the Arts Festival appear somewhat entrenched, if not a tad stubborn. Yes, their shows are sold out each year. But Galway has gone from being a Festival City to becoming merely a city that has a festival.
Last year, Galway bit back in the shape of Project 06. Seminal figures from Galway's arts scene, including Macnas founder, Paraic Breathnach and Arts Festival founder Ollie Jennings, helped to put together a phenomenally successful 'festival in a festival', bringing life to the streets of Galway, and Galwegian artists, musicians, writers and performers onto the festival stage.
Indeed, what Project 06 succeeded in doing was making Galway City once more the stage for an arts festival.
To those upholding the Arts Festival status quo, I plead, on behalf of geezers like me, the Galwegian in the traffic jam and bus queue: please consider the recommendations laid out in the recent Project 06 report.
No need to tut or wince. We're not having a go at you.
We just want our arts festival back.
Project 06 was neither a fringe festival nor a rival. It was an outburst of artistic and social longing for inclusion in our own arts festival, and you have no reason to ignore that; absolutely none.

Wednesday 21 March 2007

Will Ireland survive the loss of the rural pub?

When I lived in Connemara, I used to frequent (the old) Keogh's pub in Ballyconneely.
I was green back then, and by that I don't mean pure unadulterated paddy: I mean that, as an Englishman new to an Irish village, I smiled a lot, kept my head down, myself to myself (with the notable exception of the local Chelsea posse) and pretty much did what I was told.
Soon I learned the hierarchy inherent in the place. Older people scored much respect, but if you managed to be old, cantankerous and loud, you stole the show.
"EeenglishmMAN! EeeeenglishmMAN!"
There I was, sitting at the bar, minding my own business, when a fella who fitted all the above criteria suddenly pointed his finger at me, and sat there yelling.
"EeeenglishMAN! You will be my TAXI!!! You will be my TAXI tonight! You will drive me HOME!"
Right then. So that's me driving him home then. Hmm, got that. Wonder when he's going to want to leave. Ah well. Better just wait... tum te tummm...
Over the following months, I got to know the older gentleman in question, alongside all his peers, a dark-clad club of septua- and octogenarians, who appeared to be in the pub all day every day.
To me they became the Manly Brethren of the Bar. I had no idea how they drank so much; where the money came from; when they ate, washed or saw daylight.
But I knew how himself was getting home. I was his taxi, and after an interminable wait on that first night, I quickly learned to suppress my humility and earn some respect by tapping him on the shoulder and informing him that his taxi was ready and it was now or never.
Every rural Irish pub had its Manly Brethren of the Bar, and now, as we know, they are gone, victims (depending on how you look at it) of either the smoking ban and the clampdown on drinking and driving, or of smoking and drinking and driving.
Whatever the reason, Ireland faces a real problem. A very Irish problem.
As an ancient nation and a young country, Ireland is born out of paradox, and presently faces a serious and essentially Irish dilemma:
Is it wrong to drink and drive? Yes.
Will the rural Irish pub survive in the wake of the smoking ban and the introduction of random breathalysing? No.
You really have to live in the country to fully understand the significance of the loss of a local pub. In a lonely geography, where depression and isolation stalk the cloud and rain, the rural pub has always been the sole source of social sanctuary.
Indeed, your colyoomist would have lost his sanity, gone doolally fifty times over in Co. Mayo, chewing the wall and up the ceiling, way beyond this twittery nutsoid state you endure each week, had I not been able to nip up Sweeney's, Golden's, Declan's, Lynn's, Gilvarry's, Danno's, McHale's.
Now only a few of those remain.
But even when the craic was mighty, when the bar was filled with friends and everyone was getting plastered into the bargain, I would suffer the slagging of my drinking buddies and drive home after a couple of pints.
Can't help it. Maybe it's just inbuilt if you're English. Believe me, I'm no goody-goody. There are rakes of laws I break every day, along with the rest of ye, but I just don't want to lose my licence. Or kill anyone.
Of course I knew I wasn't going to get stopped by the Gardai. The two availiable were patrolling an area the size of Texas, and they only set up checkpoints on Bank Holidays and Christmas. And even then it was always just over the bridge from my house, so I wasn't going to get nicked.
On a couple of occasions I stayed and got lathered, thinking I would risk it, only to find myself being driven to my door by the landlord of the pub.
He insisted drily that he was only investing in his future custom
I knew better. Vot a Mensch.
But what is to be done? The auld fellas and their forty pints of stout are gone from the daytime bar. People are buying beer in bulk down Lidl and Aldi, living it up in their living rooms and avoiding the taxi queue.
Out in the wilds, pubs are disappearing like melting snow, and nobody seems to be facing the problem head-on.
It seems to me there are only two routes available, and one target in mind.
There are millions of houses at the end of long bohreens, and if people are to leave their cars at home, they need to be picked up and dropped home by a network of small people carriers, MPV's and minibuses.
Either the government officially recognises the threat to rural communities, isolated households and local economies, and subsidises an extensive network of publicly-owned vehicles (somewhat unlikely, methinks), or the breweries themselves will have to supply the means with which to deliver their customers to the point of consumption, and perchance be offered excise relief as financial compensation.
Such a service could be useful to some people who should never be on the roads at all, sober or drunk. Include hundreds of suicidal cyclists who insist on being lightless and invisible at night, as well as the auld fella who drove a white Escort van all the way to the village at 4 mph.
I drove behind him going apoplectic. On the pavement in the village was an 80Something friend of mine who told me she hadn't had such a good laugh for ages.
"Whoooh-hooo-hooh! I was watching you stuck behind yer man. He's blind!"
"Bloody right!"
"No, I mean he is blind! Lost his sight altogether! Says he has driven that road all his life, knows it off by heart, so he does!"
According to the United Nations, the world's population is neatly cleft in two, between rural and urban dwellers. 3.2 billion of us live in rural areas; 3.2 billion in cities.
In Ireland it would be a cultural disaster and national disgrace if good people stayed silent while rural pubs became extinct.
Gandhi once said that the real India was 'in the villages'.
Well, the real Irish still live in the Townlands, but they are no longer in the pub.

Friday 9 March 2007

Oil those noisy human hinges with flashes of bright light!

poodlesAre there two more joyous words in the English language than 'Thank you'?
We've all been in the situation wherein you've given a child a present, and they just turn and walk away, leaving you hanging, waiting for the magic words, but in those situations it is easy to settle for blaming the parents.
Ah yes, they never bothered to teach their kids manners. What a shame, tut tut.
If children have an excuse, adults have none, and although I am only about nine months late, I'd like to say 'Thank you' to someone right now.
'Twas a hot sunny Summer morning, and I had arrived back from a shopping expedition to see two clear parking spaces near my home.
However, after unloading my bags and dropping them into the house, I drove my car around the corner to find that someone had parked their car in such a way as to take up both spaces, and I was not pleased.
Stubborn to the last, and on occasion indomitably male, I tried to squeeze my car into the space and failed, and tried again and failed again. During this process, as if I had drunk of a magic potion, I metamorphosed into my own personal Mr. Hyde, a.k.a. Grumpy Bear From Hell.
On one of my pointless reversing runs, I spotted a woman walking her dogs toward to small park just over the road.
Evidently she was the driver of the offending car. Maybe I could just go over and have a word with her.
Leaving my car obnoxiously double-parked, I walked into the park, and approached the lady in question, asking if she would mind moving her car a bit, so that two cars might park where now one occupied two spaces.
If I recall correctly, she had an English accent (but if not, please take no offense) and immediately headed back out of the park, and over the road, to do as I had asked.
Following her, I raised my arm, offering to hold her two little white poodles' leads, but she didn't see my gesture.
Leaving me feeling increasingly embarrassed, she opened the back door of her Skoda, encouraged both of her little white poodles to jump in (they were not best pleased, because they thought their walk was over almost before it had begun!), and moved her car the requisite few metres. As I climbed into my car to move it out of the centre of the road, I saw her open the back door of her car again, encourage her by now somewhat bewildered little white poodles to jump out once more, and head again towards the park.
By the time I had parked my car the lady was off away, and the only opportunity I had to thank her entailed walking over to her in the park.
After some quick reflection, I decided that should she once more see me heading towards her, she might have cause to fear what came next.
So I walked home, grateful for the polite calm way she dealt with the situation, and feeling guilty that what I thought would be a pretty easy task had turned out to be quite a time-consuming laborious effort for her.
But most of all I felt bad because I hadn't thanked her. The fact that that feeling remains now, three seasons down the road, serves only to show me how powerful is the need for thanks.
Displays of gentle heartfelt gratitude are the sunbeams of the human spirit. We are assaulted every day with an onslaught of news, images and sounds that impose upon us the notion that we, the Human Race, are a terrible beast. We wage war, murder, rape and abuse. We steal, spit, hit and maim.
Yes we do. But also, at the same time, we are a gentle, loving, caring and generous species.
Just as the desire to say thanks to that woman lingers, so too I find tiny clippings on my desk; yellowing snippets torn from newspapers, that touch a cord, twang my strings in a good way.
Two of them were actually taken from this Noble Rag. The first comes from our Lost and Found section, many moons ago. Somebody had gone to the trouble of taking out an advert to announce that they had found a pearl necklace on a Galway Street on a Saturday afternoon, reply to box number blah blah blah.
It makes me stop and think. Yes, we are a vicious mean and nasty bunch of people a lot of the time, but somebody somewhere has a love of their fellows, a love big enough to try to return a pearl necklace to a complete stranger.
In the same vein, a news story weeks ago reported how Louise Dunne from Co. Down was overwhelmed and delighted to receive in the post the wallet she had lost whilst visiting Galway to celebrate a hen night.
"There was a considerable amount of cash in my purse, as well as credit cards, cheques and a lot of personal stuff... the Garda who was dealing with it sent my purse back to me by recorded delivery totally intact. There was nothing taken from it."
Hooray for Galwegians! Yippee for humanity!
We are not all bad. Indeed, far from it. Just like yer Grannie used to say, it's the rusty hinge that makes the most noise. Speaking as one of the planet's most flaky red and decrepit of oxidised hinges, I know full well I often create an unholy racket with all my creaking, moaning and squeaking, but also I appreciate these smallest flashes of the brightest light, and take solace, comfort and hope from these well-oiled sweetly silent slivers of humanity.
As a species we are nothing but a collection of infinitely variable personalities. Regular readers will forgive me for once more reciting my Four Effs Of Humanity: Freaked-out; Fucked-up; Fallible; Fantastic. We truly are all of the above.
The sooner we reconcile all of our parts into one accepting whole, the better, for when that happens we may realise that, in the context of the Universe and our own common mortality, it is a mistake to focus too long on the struggles of 'good' and 'bad'; unimportant whether we believe our spiritual Glass of Life to be half full or half empty.
Only when we understand that the glass itself is beautiful will we rest happy in it.

Friday 2 March 2007

Maybe I'm invisible, maybe just scary, but please reply to my letters!

Up until now, I never thought I was an easy person to ignore.
After all, there's the undeniable similarity between my Taurean astrologicals and my bullish temperament. Like the bovine beast, I'm happy when left alone in a field, but unpredictable and moody when disturbed; stubborn and irascible when prodded or pushed to move in a certain direction.
Those closest to me see more of a bear figure; great for hugs and being protective, but capable of dangerous and downright terrifying behaviour when I perceive myself or my loved ones to be under threat.
Like both animals, I am capable of living a quiet unobtrusive life, but whenever I need to be seen or heard, there is no mistaking my intention.
Well, there wasn't, until recently, when I became invisible.
It all started with an act of trust.
Just after we moved into our new home, a man cleaned our windows and scraped out our gutters, pulled down some ivy and generally did a splendid job.
A couple of months later he came round to see if we wanted the windows done, but I hadn't any money, so I asked him to come back a few days later, which he duly did.
Trouble was, at that time, he couldn't use his ladders because there was a van parked in our driveway.
Feeling bad because I had asked him to come and now he couldn't work, I gave him the money up front, and he said he'd come back the following week to do the windows.
Several months later, he appeared on our doorstep, apologising, explaining that he had been unable to work due to a fall, but that he'd get right on to it now.
More weeks and months passed; winter storms came and went, and our windows got dirtier and dirtier.
First sign of Spring weather, yer man is back in our street, but doesn't call to us. I call him on the phone, and he says he's sorry. He forgot. He'll be round that weekend.
Our windows are still dirty. No, now they are filthy, and I am at a loss. Not only financially down, but wondering about levels of trust, and when I suddenly became invisible.
The other day, after finishing a piece of writing, I saved the document, but ten minutes later it reverted back to the way it was before I started it.
Thinking this was plain impossible, and potentially cataclysmic for my work, I emailed the company from whom I bought the computer and software, and received in reply an email that opened with no text on it.
I emailed back to tell them their email was invisible, and received no reply.
You know how it is when everything seems to be going wrong, and you hear yourself saying:
"I think it must be me, because it can't be everyone else!"
All very noble, but I dare say that deep in your heart you don't really believe a word of it.
You don't really think it might be you at all. Why should it be you? How could it be you, what with you being as damned fine and honest a human being as anyone might hope to be?
Trouble is, when bad patterns appear in your life, you're a fool not to spot them. When they move in, put their slippers by the fire and take a bath, it's time to question your methods.
Ever since we lived here, there has been a building site in operation right outside my bedroom window. The noise runs six days a week, and last Summer the site started around seven in the morning, and went on until late in the evening.
My nerves are shredded, my writing has disappeared, and I have been negotiating with the site owners to try and secure what I feel is not an unreasonable result:
That the site does not start until 8 am, Monday to Friday, at 10 am on Saturdays, and finishes each day by 6 pm.
I know most people are up way before 8, but we work shifts in this household.
Having tried and failed to attain these assurances, I finally wrote a long and slightly mad letter to the owner of the hotel in question. This epistle was not my finest hour, I will admit, but nevertheless I expected a reply.
Forgot I was invisible, didn't I!
Two weeks later I wrote another letter, asking whether the lack of reply meant that they had not received my letter, or that they had decided that they didn't give a damn about the hotel's neighbours.
Still no reply. How incredibly rude.
Feeling ever more invisible, several weeks later I wrote a third letter, this time more sane, assertive, insistent.
Within an hour my home and mobile phones rang, but I was in the shower. They had called at last. There was a message asking me to call back, yet they left no number.
I call back the number on my mobile, and am told that this is not the right number for who I want, and that anyway, he is not availiable.
So delighted am I to be temporarily visible, I leave a friendly message saying I will call back after my return from London, but after an exhausting and debilitating weekend with my ailing father, I decide against, as yet again I am in the rôle of hunter, and have no energy for the hunt.
Why shouldn't I expect to hear from them? Do I think the window cleaner will arrive, ready and willing for work? Will I be be sent a helpful email from the computer retailer?
I'm not used to feeling invisible, and don't understand why people are plain ignoring me.
Maybe at the moment I am just plain scary. Maybe as a result of my depression I do not exude the schmoozy charm and social confidence that would normally help me achieve my goals.
Or maybe I am just surrounded by people who genuinely do not give a damn. They can live happily with a warm glow in their hearts, and sleep soundly at night knowing that they have my money; that they are denying my sleep and the peace to work; that my troubles are simply not worthy of their attention
Or maybe I am truly simply invisible.
Can anybody out there see me?