Perhaps its the view of life on earth being a stepping stone to somewhere better that has let its often harrowing past rest so quietly in its monuments. The past and present and life and death, sit comfortably alongside each other in the general direction of brown tourist signs (as often as not down an unmarked onetrack road) and on the shelves of gift shops.
Ireland’s traditions and strong held beliefs, however, are not only reserved for Saints and rosaries.
Counties are more than just counties, they are defined homelands with diverse accents. I had attuned my ear to soft, slightly singsong Mayo accent. Even the heavy drawl of a Dublin accent didn’t throw me. But I struggled when my middle English ear caught the back draft of an accent not unlike the sound of pony galloping full pelt across a peat bog.
“Ah. That would be Kerry,” I was informed.
Even car number plates cannot resist the opportunity to define county pedigree. Lesson one on rolling off the ferry the first time round was learning county codes buried in the registration numbers: D for Dublin, G for Galway, MO for County Mayo etc.
Gaelic football, on the other hand, is the religion that upholds county boundaries. Households with the colours of their allegiance flapping in the front garden, as everyday as installing garden gnomes and as frequent as hanging laundry.
Gaelic football, I should explain, is a cross between rugby and soccer with few rules. And judging by the radio commentator’s laissez faire attitude to torn shirts and oozing injuries, a blood sport.
This time round we arrivefd righf in the middle of the Gaelic football national finals. County Mayo (the favoured underdogs) were playing Dublin (Ireland’s equivalent of Manchester United) for the first time since beyond the living memory of many supporters.
Mass support for Mayo meant green and red flags were absolutely everywhere, no matter how remote. Every business sporting banners geeing the Mayo boys on. And, after happening on a red and green goose, even painted on the livestock. For the duration, it seemed that the Mayo football shirt became a uniform for everyone, young and old. Mothers pushed red and green clad tots in pushchairs. Red and green supporter’s shirts pooled in front of pubs nursing pint glasses waiting the kick off. The excuse to have a knees up kept the festivities going long after daylight waned, even though Mayo lost by one point.
If Ireland’s history is the dark swirling body of a glass of Guinness, then Gaelic football is the frothy head. Which kind of leads us nicely to the phenomenon of Irish pubs.
Irish pubs are pretty much as they have been for decades if not centuries, and almost exactly as advertised. My belief that the archetypal Irish pub squeezed in between a Tapas Bar and a Weatherspoon’s in most tourist reliant cities were akin to a film set (all stereotypes and no substance) was proved wrong. The formula for an Irish pub; cosy, uncarpeted, dimly lit to the point of peering into dark corners, with dark wooden panelling, partitioned booths, low tables, quirky knick knacks and décor and a pool table tucked away at the back, is repeated in almost every establishment. Travelling from village to village, they would seem to number around one pub for every ten to twenty houses.
Occasionally we came across one that still doubled up as the local grocery store. Sadly the introduction of supermarkets and corner shops would seem to have all but put an end to this intriguing dual function.
Frog hopping from one pub to another to stop off for a club orange and for my other half to rediscover red lemonade, we found ourselves often among only a smattering of day time patrons. On one of my first experiences of Irish pubs, in a hamlet in Galway, our only co patron was an old guy in a flat cap with his head bent over the racing news and his hand cradling a glass of the dark stuff.
I was not surprised then to discover that Irish landlords are struggling to continue trading, even without competition from the franchise pub-cum-restaurants that dominate the pub landscape in the UK. With Irelands double whammy of their own debt ridden economy riding on the back of global economic downturn, it’s a minor miracle so many pubs are still open.