Two of a Kind

The Irish spirit shines through any attempt at Northern European organization. It’s the Celtic way, and the first line of evidence is the use of time.

Here’s an example: at a large meeting last week convened by a government institution, the planned coffee break at 11:15 materialized at 12:30. Obviously this derailed lunch, which shifted from 13:00 to 14:00. I felt as if I’d landed in Andalucia.

But when the day ended, everyone agreed the meeting was excellent, and much had been achieved—and it had, just not in a very organized way.

This approach to time management occurs in a polychronic society—Ireland and Portugal are good examples. Here, time is a concurrent concept—various things happen at once, time is segmented into fluid sections, and the focus is on behaviors, not schedules.

The flip side of this is monochronicity, typical of Germany or the United States. Here, tasks are performed in sequence, and everyone takes their turn talking.

If you’ve ever watched a debate in Southern Europe, you’ll know everyone speaks at the same time, with great enthusiasm, and the moderator’s job is essentially damage control.

As a consequence, people from the north consider southerners garrulous, and interpret frequent interruptions as blatant rudeness. Southerners, on the other hand, find folk from the north shy and uncommunicative—they are rude by their silence.

Ireland stands out from the pack due to its northern location and southern demeanor. My radio was on as I drove northwest from Dublin—light traffic, sunny skies, and the usual craic.

The host meandered into a discussion on roundabouts, that great (or is that Great?) British invention—or so I thought, given how besotted the English are about traffic circles. It turns out the roundabout was an American invention—the celebrated Columbus Circle in Manhattan, built in 1905, was the first example of this road feature.

It took a while to perfect the art, since the circles were originally two-way, more dangerous than driving in Cairo. Someone finally understood one-way flow was the thing, but gave right of way to entering traffic, which led to congestion and accidents. In 1966, Britain enacted into law the rule that traffic already in the circle prevails, and the rest is history: twenty-six thousand UK roundabouts and counting.

Of course, while this is all happening, the radio host keeps interrupting with gleeful text messages from listeners—the best one from a guy who described a circle in Galway that is so poorly designed you need to reverse when you’re in it, just to get round.

Weather a little cooler, but still warm enough to keep the window down. The road goes from two lanes to one, and then into the peculiar Irish system called traffic calming—used to drive me crazy twenty years ago after thirty-five miles behind a tractor.

The fine art of overtaking is still a fixture in Ireland—it’s the ultimate driving skill, timing your vehicle, other drivers, road conditions, and visibility against that tractor-trailer bearing down on you.

But Irish gentleness prevails, and cars and trucks move over onto the shoulder as soon as they realize you’re in a rush.

North and south: the vexed question of diet.

North and south are separated by the vexed question of diet; an Irish meal is meat and veg, and two kinds of potatoes. The next day in Portugal, it’s squid and salad.

When the road widened again, two cars in front of me stuck to the outside lane. After a time, one pulled in, but the other wouldn’t shift. Right. As I passed on the inside, twinkling blue lights flashed from the radiator grill.

Shit. But this is Ireland—I slowed down, the lights turned off, and on he sped. Pat, wouldja tell that fellow in the rental to calm down a little.

As I neared my destination the talk radio guy interviewed a sommelier. But this is Ireland—the guy was a water sommelier, a German fellow selling water in an LA restaurant to discerning patrons. Or perhaps not, since the they pay twenty or thirty dollars a pop.

Once again, the text messages flowed, even sillier than before. Well, if you’re into it, the sommelier’s on the net—the interviewer can’t tell the difference between palate and palette, which adds to the craic.

In the evening, I went to Lissadell House—only the Irish could organize a feast of oysters and wine at an outside venue at the end of October, and expect it not to rain—when I brought this up, the reply was typical—”Well, you know, it’s just as likely to rain in August.”

It’s an ancient place with a beautiful quadrangle, where Leonard Cohen played in 2010. “Must have seen a fair bit of rape and pillage, back in the day.” That got the Irish going, and pretty soon we were in a profound discussion about the distinction between plunder and pillage.

You can’t mention Lissadell without talking about Countess Markievicz, one of the heroines of Irish independence—née Constance Booth, born in London and raised in Lissadell, with the wild Atlantic as a backdrop.

The countess traded privilege for a life devoted to poverty relief, and liberating Ireland from British rule. Always an idealist, as a young girl she wrote in her diary:

Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for.

And so it did. She fought the British, served several jail terms in England, and was elected to Westminster by the Fianna Fáil, the party she founded with Eamon de Valera.

Constance died in a public ward in 1927, aged fifty-nine, after a lifetime devoted to the poor and destitute of Ireland—three hundred thousand people lined the streets at her funeral.

For me, it had been a long day, but not for the Irish—tough oyster farmers from Dungarvan and Donegal, who sang and drank until four in the morning.

They would ply you with beer, and then with a glint in their eye: “Something small?” And out came the whisky. There’s no craic like Irish craic, the nation seems to be born with a sense of fun.

“How come when you guys went to America you didn’t take your sense of humor?”

They laughed and replied in kind. After so many small somethings, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was, but it may have contained the word Trump.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.




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