This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, August 6, 1995
I recently spent a week in Ireland, and I can honestly say that I have never been to any place in the world where it is so easy to partake of the local culture, by which I mean beer. Ireland also contains history, nice people, enormous quantities of scenery and a rich cultural heritage, including (more on this later) Elvis.
Geographically, Ireland is a medium-sized rural island that is slowly but steadily being consumed by sheep. It consists mostly of scenic pastures occasionally interrupted by quaint towns with names such as (these are actual Irish town names) Ardfert, Ballybunion, Coole, Culleybackey, Dingle, Dripsey, Emmoo, Feakle, Fishguard, Gweedore, Inch, Knockaderry, Lack, Leap, Lusk, Maam, Meentullynagarn, Muff, Newmarket-on-Fergus, Nutt's Corner, Oola, Pontoon, Rear Cross, Ringaskiddy, Screeb, Sneem, Spiddle, Spink, Stradbally, Tang and Tempo.
These towns are connected by a modern, state-of-the-art system of medieval roads about the width of a standard bar of hotel soap; the result is that motorists drive as fast as possible in hopes of getting to their destinations before they meet anybody coming the other way. The only thing that prevents everybody from going 120 miles per hour is the nationwide system -- probably operated by the Ministry of Traffic Safety -- of tractors being driven very slowly by old men wearing caps; you encounter these roughly every two miles, rain or shine, day or night. As an additional safety measure, the roads are also frequented by herds of cows, strolling along and mooing appreciatively at the countryside, reminding you very much of tour groups.
Never miss a local story.
A typical Irish town consists of several buildings, one of which is always a bar, called a "pub." Next to this there will typically be another pub, which is adjacent to several more pubs. Your larger towns may also have a place that sells food, but this is not critical.
Inside the pubs you will usually find Irish people, who are very friendly to strangers, especially compared to the British, who as a rule will not voluntarily speak to you until you have lived in Britain for a minimum of 850 years. The Irish, on the other hand, will quickly start a conversation with you, and cheerfully carry it on at great length, with or without your help. One evening in a busy Dublin pub I watched an elderly, well-dressed, cap-wearing gentleman as he sat in the corner and, for two solid hours, struck up a lively conversation with every single person or group who sat within 10 yards of him, including a group of German tourists, only one of whom spoke even a little English. The man spoke to them in a thick brogue on a variety of topics for several minutes while they looked at him with the bright, polite smiles of people who do not have a clue what is being said to them. When he finished, they conferred briefly in German, and then the one who spoke a little English said, quote, "Everyone is pleased that he or she is welcome."
You definitely feel welcome in Ireland. But there's more to do there than just talk to Irish people in pubs. You can also drive around the countryside, alternately remarking "Look, sheep!" and "Here's another tractor!" You can visit a bunch of old castles built by the Normans, who at one point conquered Ireland despite being called the "Normans," which is, let's face it, not an impressive-sounding name. It's kind of like being conquered by the "Freds."
Probably the best-known castle is the one in the town of Blarney, which contains the famous Blarney Stone. To get to it, you have to climb steep, narrow, tourist-infested steps to the top of the castle; there, a local man holds you as you lean out over the castle wall and kiss the Blarney Stone. Legend has it that if you do this, you will give the man a tip. Also at a castle in a town called Kilkenny I saw a local radio station doing a live remote broadcast, featuring a Frozen Food Challenge in which a local resident had to answer a multiple-choice question on the history of refrigeration. Shegot it right, and won a hamper of frozen foods.
"Brilliant!" she said.
But in my opinion the cultural highlight of the trip occurred in the town of Ennis, where a pub called Brandon's had a sign outside that said "Traditional Irish Music." This turned out to be a traditional Irish Elvis impersonator. I realize that there are literally thousands of quality Elvis impersonators, and I'm sure you've seen some excellent ones, but I am here to tell you that this one, in this unremarkable town in western Ireland, was beyond question the worst Elvis impersonator in world history. He sang along to a tape of instrumental Elvis tunes, which he played on a sound system that he never, not once in two solid hours, got adjusted right. Every time he'd start singing a song, the sound system would screech and honk with feedback; Elvis would then whirl around and spend minutes at a time unsuccessfully adjusting various knobs while he mumbled the lyrics, so that for most of the evening all you saw was Elvis' butt, accompanied by screeching and honking and vague off-key singing. Often, by the time he'd finished twiddling the knobs, Elvis had lost track of what song he was singing; he'd frown into the distance, trying various tunes until he thought he was on the right track, at which point inevitably the screeching and honking would start up, forcing Elvis to whirl back around, like a man being attacked by bees, and treat the audience to another lengthy view of his butt. The crowd, which I will frankly admit was consuming alcoholic beverages, enjoyed this performance immensely, cheering wildly at the end of each song. They like their fun, the Irish. I'm definitely going back some day. Maybe I'll rent a tractor.
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