Ireland When The Tiger First Got There

Unable to travel anywhere for the moment, the best I can do is go back into the past.  I've been thinking about Ireland, and the place I'd like to go is 2006 or so after the Celtic Tiger had started to roar, but before the place had become so Americanized.  

In 2006, my brother's ex-wife (from Cork) invited me to her marriage to someone else.  She did this because I had been instrumental in helping her get an annulment, having laid out my brother's history of post marital love affairs and other shenanigans to a laughing ecclesiastical judge in Chicago.  In the eyes of her clan, in doing this service I had "changed sides" and become one of her family.

Because I was being a sissy about terrorism, I booked a flight on Aer Lingus rather than American Airlines. I had fond memories of the Irish carrier. In the old days, all the stewardesses were close to retirement, I suspect because the US run was very desirable. They ran the plane like a Catholic grammar school, waving their fingers at people who didn't keep their seatbelts on and keeping a firm hand on the drunks. So I would get some extra excitement by secretly drinking the bottle of Bailey's I'd bought at the duty free, since this was formally forbidden.

Now, however, Ireland has joined the capitalist world. The seats seemed like they were three inches wide. The stewardesses were young and acted just like Americans. Even worse, the surrounding passengers had no sense of humor. I got stuck in one of the middle row seats. When I was trying to situate myself, I somehow lost my pillow. A few minutes later, a woman sat next to me. After sitting there about 20 minutes, she said "Oh, what' this?". She started reaching around under her ample bottom and I now knew what had happened to my plastic wrapped pillow. So I shouted "Oh my God, where's my baby?!" I did this as a sort of ice breaker, but all I got was a glare, which lasted the next eight hours.

On the other side of me, my pal was passed out in a narcotic haze all the way to Dublin. (And we didn't stop at Shannon, another tradition gone. Shannon Airport used to have the best Russian icon shop in Europe, because Aeroflot was required to stop there on its US trips in order to feed the hamsters and rewind the rubber band.)

Dublin Airport proved to be a disappointment. After flying through customs, I found myself in a line with a bunch of business types waiting for a taxi. It was like standing in a queue at the airport in Minneapolis. Where was the old tacky Ireland that I used to know and love? The last time I went through Irish customs, I was on my way to my nephew's baptism. I was carrying one of those electric baby swings (at my brother's request). The bored Irish customs guys made me take it out. Not because they thought I was smuggling but because they had never seen one before.

"And you mean dat you don't have to push it or anyting like dat?"

"No. It's entirely automatic"

"And how much do you tink a ting like dat would cost?"

And we stood there for five or ten minutes, the whole customs staff and I, watching the empty swing just swing there while whole plane loads of people just walked through the area unnoticed.

But no more. Ireland is all too like America now, from the new shining buildings and Gap stores to the fact that every clerk, wait staff, and service job that I saw was filled by someone from another country, working at Euro levels of efficiency. Where was the sloppy, more human Ireland that I used to know and love?

The cab driver ripped us off by taking us the long way to the train station through Phoenix Park. Just a couple of euros, though, so we let him since we would otherwise not have seen it. We caught the efficient new train and fairly blasted into Cork.

Walking from the train station to the hotel, we got lost, something I love to do in foreign cities. Then we got to the hotel, which was located in a slum and built from a converted charity hospital. NOW we were in the Ireland I used to know.

They put our tired selves on the fifth floor. And of course the elevator didn't work. I don't think my friend had climbed a set of stairs since the late 80's, so he was coughing heavily by the time we made it to the top. We were immediately met by a woman who was carrying a baby under one arm. "Can I help you?" she asked. "Help me? Can I help you?" I responded, since she was holding the baby. This woman turned out to be our maid. And she was Irish. We said no thanks and went to our room.

A joyous yellow light flooded through the window. I couldn't wait to see the view. It turned out that the yellow light was a reflection from the yellow wall that was built, for some odd reason, three feet beyond the window. The roof outside was littered with beer cans. The bathroom was adequate, except that there was a strong sewage smell coming from it that was ripe enough to make your eyes water. (We found that we could control this by just running the shower constantly.) I went to the phone to call my sister in law. My niece picked up the line and it became apparent that she couldn't hear me. But it didn't matter, because the phone suddenly fell apart in may hand.

So I went down, rotted phone in hand, to demand another one. The clerk looked much put out. But in a few minutes, the janitor came by and replaced my broken phone with another broken phone. The problem with this one was that the cords and cables were broken and would fall out if you did something odd, like pick up the receiver. The third phone we got had the same problem. But my intelligence was evolving and I found that I could make a call if I kneeled down on the floor and picked the receiver up no more than six inches. I admired the way that the Irish had designed a phone that would allow you to both make a phone call and say your prayers at the same time.

I called my sister in law and she invited me to come out that evening. Good, I thought. I can take a nap first.

So I hung up the phone and threw myself on the bed. Two minutes later I was jolted awake by the sound of a church bell pealing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. It turned out that an additional unadvertised feature of the room was the cathedral next door that for one euro allowed tourists to play the carillon. This massive bell system was just on the other side of our cheery yellow wall.

Sunset and time to go. My friend did not want to meet the relatives. He wanted to buy a few sixes of stout and watch Gaelic television. (Strange, since he doesn't know Gaelic.) So I got a taxi and headed out.

The guidebooks say that Ireland is an English speaking country and technically this is probably true. But not entirely. The Cork accent at its best has a lilt at the end which makes every sentence sound like a question.

Woman: "So how do you do? My name is Sinead?"

Me: "Are you sure?"

But sometimes I couldn't understand a word they said. Due to unagidon's Law of Maximum Perversity, these gaps would come well into conversations where I had hitherto understood everything clearly.

Woman: "So, was the airplane ride comfortable?"

Me: "More or less, especially after my legs fell asleep.

Woman: "And are you enjoying Ireland?"

Me: "Yes, indeed!"

Woman: "And the farklinghanngen ructor impligginhis marangaloaby."

How do I respond? I couldn't suddenly say that I didn't know what she was saying. At first I would ask them to repeat themselves, but I usually couldn't understand them the second time either. Three times seemed rude. So I took the coward's way out and winged it.

Me: "Really? That's very interesting."

It usually worked, although sometimes what they turned out to be saying was "My father has lung cancer" or "My sister was hit by a truck last week."

So many rocks in the road when one travels.

I wasn't expecting, though, that they also wouldn't understand what I was saying. After all, I really spoke real English, in contrast to them. And I from America; the Setter of Standards for the Known Universe.

So I got in to the cab.

Driver: "Mallkeiie n'callumonsi gbrooakie?"

Taking a wild guess, I told him that I wanted to go to 18 Bagglebrook, Donneybrook, Douglas.

But he looked very confused.

Driver: Never heard of dat. Are you sure?

Me: Yes. My sister-in-law lives there. Been there dozens of times. (This last was a lie, of course, but I needed to assert my moral authority.)

Driver: I dunno. Klickka mangoodla ieo fhoemm. I'm going to have to call the dispatcher.

(Calls dispatcher).

Driver: Sheila, do you know where 38 Honeybear Lane is in Donneybrook?

Me: No, not Honeybear Lane, 18. Bagglebrook. B-A-G-G…

Sheila (over the radio): Bagglebrook? For fecks sake, Liam, are you drinking again or what? Don't even know where the feck Bagglebrook is, and you living here all your life?

Driver: Just getting my bearings, is all.

I somehow knew I was going to have to pay for this. He drove me through the city, then dropped me off at a house that had a big number 18 on it.

Driver: Here it is.

I over tipped him to make amends. He looked at my money, nodded and drove off.

So here I was. In front of my sister in law's house, getting ready to meet my niece and nephew after over a decade. I was changing the nephew's diapers when I last saw him. What would the kids look like now?

I was nervous when I walked up the steps and knocked at the door. How much like my brother would they look?

A young man in his tee-shirt and chewing on a chicken leg answered. I said, "Hi, it's your uncle unagidon from America!"

"Jaysus Holy Mother of God!" he said.

It turned out to be the wrong address. This mistake was compounded by the fact that many goofy Americans will go to Ireland and start knocking on doors looking for their ancestors. We quickly straightened things out, but all he could tell me about Bagglebrook was that "it's back up that way somewhere."

I walked back up that way somewhere, but now I was totally lost in a massive Irish housing project. What to do? Then I had an inspiration. There was a group of children playing soccer on field and eyeing me very suspiciously as all good children do everywhere. I'll bet they would know where everything is. I approached a nine year old and asked him if he knew where 18 Bagglebrook was. He looked back at me with his little Irish cherub face and said:

"18 Bagglebrook? For feck's sake you'd be looking for Maud O’Leary’s house then. It's right over there, by the that fecking red car. And I'd say she's home and she's got company. Probably the fecking brother in law."

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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