by Sheila Connolly
The distance between Boston and Dublin, Ireland, is 3,000 miles. I just flew almost that to go to a party.
Well, in my insanity defense, it was a party held at the newly remodeled pub that I write about, in the very small West Cork village of Leap, and the owners invited me. So I went.
I stayed in a tiny rental apartment in Skibbereen, just outside of the town. It’s a town that I love, so much so that I included it in one of my book titles (and yes, they have my books for sale in Skibbereen!). I spent most of my time revisiting places I have seen before, sort of like my own mini-pilgrimage route, starting with the Drombeg Stone Circle, which is one of my favorite places in the world.
Spending time in a place you already know is an interesting experience. I love to travel, and I love to see new places, but it’s kind of nice knowing where you are—which roads are the most convenient, where to park, where to buy food and even clothes (would you believe I’ve now bought not one but two raincoats in Ireland? I assume they know how to make them right there.). But because the setting is familiar, I had time to look at details in a different way. Here’s what struck me this time around:
Size: Things in rural Ireland are small. Appliances are minuscule (the dishwasher in my rental was no more than two feet square—I never even opened it. The dish drainer had more space.) Sidewalks are narrow, which is a good thing because the roads are narrow too, and you really have to pay attention to your driving. I swear it would be possible to knock down a small child with your sideview mirror (I didn’t). Luckily cars are also small. Houses are small—a normal room might be ten feet square. A bedroom holds a bed, a night table, an armoire (they’re not big on closets over there), and maybe a dresser. You don’t spend a lot of time in a bedroom.
People: After a few days I realized I was seeing many more people on the street than I do at home (which is a town with a population of more than 22,000 people, with a real town center). Not just that, there is a true age range, from young mothers pushing a stroller and leading a couple of little kids, to octogenarians. People work locally, rather than commuting to somewhere else. When I commented on this to one shopkeeper, he said about the older people, “they might not be as young as they look—they’re still working, you see.” And since the sidewalks are narrow and you often have to step aside, you exchange greetings with a lot of people.
Color: A century ago most Irish towns would have been drab. The standard architecture is stucco over stone, two stories, most often with a slate roof. This is a building style that hasn’t changed for a century or two (at least for those people who could afford houses rather than one-room hovels). A picture of the main street taken a few decades ago would have been monochrome. I can’t put a date to when that changed, but now any town you pass through is a riot of color, both body color and trim. For all I know there’s a national mandate to make your town “pretty.” And on a lesser note, the Irish really love high-gloss paint (for their trim, not the stucco).
Speed: Life is slower there. No one seems to be in much of a hurry (except maybe tourist drivers, who either drive impatiently or creep along at half the speed limit—and doesn’t 100km/hr sound faster that 65mph?). You tell someone your cell reception is patchy, and they’ll say, “Welcome to West Cork.”
Being in Ireland is kind of like being in a time warp. Sure, there is recycling, and “industrial estates” (where manufacturing is concentrated, mainly on the outskirts of older towns), and everyone has wireless and mobile phones and cable television. Lots of people think little about taking off for the Continent for a quick vacation, because it’s not expensive to fly from there. The country is inching its way into the modern world: last year they instituted a property tax for the first time, and they eliminated free health care for anyone 70 and up.
But some things have changed little for centuries. Drive a couple of miles out into the country, and you’ll see views that have never changed (well, except for a few batches of windmills generating energy).
So all this is why I write about the place. It’s both familiar and strange to many readers, and I do want to get it right, to make it real to them. Even though sometimes when I’m there I’m still left shaking my head.