Here, in no particular order, is a list of things I love about Ireland:
Marks & Spencers foodhall. Happy place of happy places.
Call centres. Can you imagine living in a world where, when you have to phone customer support, your call is answered by a real person? A real, local person in the same country as you so they know what you’re talking about and you can understand what they’re saying? Unless they’re from Limerick, in which case it’s hopeless, but that’s not really their fault. A person who listens to your problem, is friendly and helpful and – here’s the real kicker – fixes it? A person who has a conversation with you instead of reading from a script? Every. Single. Time.
Living the dream, amigos. Living the dream.
Anyhoozle. Back to the list:
New uses for words like ‘notions’.
Living by the sea, so close that there’s a lovely big view of the harbour from the bus stop by our house. And the harbour is busy and beautiful and always interesting. One time Josh and some of the kids were down in the village looking for haircuts and a Viking boat pulled up and a whole lot of Vikings got out and started doing Viking stuff among all the people taking their afternoon strolls at the waterfront. Vikings. How cool is that?
Everybody growing flowers everywhere, all year round. Yes, I mean everywhere:
Schools in castles.
Hotels in castles.
Old folks’ homes in castles.
Seeing castles for sale in the real estate agent’s window alongside the semi-detached three-bedrooms in Ballybrack.
The names: Ballybrack. Sallynoggin. The Casino at Marino. Stepaside. Galloping Green. Youghal. Dolphin’s Barn (why? Why would a dolphin need a barn? Why would you need a barn for your dolphin?). Strawberry Beds (that’s a suburb, not a part of my garden). Bog of the Ring. Puddenhill. Yellow Furze. Newtown Monasterboice. You get the picture.
Summer days not going over 29°C.
Free school lunches.
School uniforms that cost under €5.
Double decker buses.
The Full Irish. This is technically a breakfast but is served all day and, I’m here to tell you, there is no hour that it’s not just the ticket. I wish I hadn’t thought of that because now I’m hungry.
My younger children talking in Irish slang without realising it.
Me talking in Irish slang and Josh not knowing what the rest of us are on about.
Wandering past shops, houses, pubs and the like that have been there since the middle ages.
Having a fox in our garden. His name is Kevin.
Cheap flights to other countries.
Soda bread, toasted with butter. Yes ma’am.
Finding Saint medals in the bottom of the washing machine.
The Universal Child Benefit. Brilliant idea.
Grafton Street, pedestrianised centre of Dublin’s CBD and never a dull moment.
Hearing the bells from our local parish church, Our Lady of Victories, from anywhere in the house or neighbourhood. The call to Mass every weekday morning at 8:45, the Angelus every day at noon and 6 p.m., the dead bells any old time.
The River Liffey and all its ornate bridges. And the way the statue of Anna Livia, spirit of the River Liffey (or, as she’s known colloquially, the Floozy in the Jacuzzi) had to be moved further out of the town centre because people kept bubbling her up with dishwashing liquid and it got a bit OTT.
I could go on all day but you’re probably wondering if there’s a point to all this.
Of all the things I love about Ireland, and there are a lot, one of the very best is the way there’s always a story. There’s always a thousand stories; a thousand years’ worth in fact.
In the local bookshop I flicked through a book called something like ‘Dun Laoghaire: the last 200 years’. Dun Laoghaire is the local town, where the harbour is. The book went through dozens – probably hundreds – of local street names and told the stories of how they came about. Then the histories of all the parks and a whole lot of old buildings: shops, churches, homes. And they are fascinating stories. It’s not just, well, the new street needed a name so they picked Mary after the mayor’s wife. No. These are stories of shipwrecks and battles and scandals and rebels and famines and priests and kings. You could make a hundred thrilling movies from this one little book about this one little suburb. And there’s a whole country steeped in this rich, thick soup of history.
You could stroll around the central city every day for a year reading plaques on walls and information in kiosks and not have made a dent in the story it has to tell. If you visit Dublin Castle in the middle of town you can see, among other things, part of the town wall made by the Vikings a thousand years ago just sitting there in between the working government offices, the room in which Bram Stoker wrote for twelve years, and the state apartments where John F. Kennedy, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Nelson Mandela and Princess Grace, among others, were entertained and fed their soda bread and colcannon soup. The kids and I went on a guided tour a while back and the stories, the little quirky tidbits, the human interest would fill a library.
Speaking of libraries, during Heritage Week last summer (otherwise known by the kids as ‘The week everything was free so we were forced to do Every Single Thing and we wished Mum would get run over so it would stop’) we went to Marsh’s Library. It’s only a tiny space but it contains, and this isn’t an exhaustive list: books with bullets in them from stray shots that came in the windows during the Easter Rising, a book with a 500-year-old squashed spider in it, the skull of Jonathon Swift’s girlfriend, metal cages in which readers were locked to avoid book theft, and the ghost of the founder, the wonderfully-named Narcissus Marsh, who spends his nights searching for a letter left by his niece the night she eloped with a sea captain. Here’s a story for you: this one time in 1888 someone opened a cupboard and discovered not the spare teabags or whatever they were looking for but a coffin containing a 3,500-year-old Egyptian mummy. Nobody had the least idea where it had come from or how it got there, and nobody does yet, and presumably nobody ever will. It was given to Trinity College but they lost its head so perhaps they should have left it in the teabag cupboard.
Anyway, you get the picture. You spend half an hour in a small building and come away with an imagination filled with 300 years’ worth of all sorts of shenanigans.
The story I had in mind when I started all this isn’t from the medieval town or the glorious rebellion. It concerns something much more important: Gaelic football.
A year ago at about this time the bus drivers were striking. Last year we had bus strikes, train strikes, teacher strikes, nurse strikes and Garda (Police) strikes. The country’s a mess. The strikes had gone on for months without resolution and things were getting desperate here because Noah was invited to a birthday party at the local pool and it’s a very long walk.
Luckily for Noah the party was on the same day as the All-Ireland Gaelic Football final at Croke Park in Dublin. Now, twice a week or so for months the strikes had inconvenienced 500,000 commuters a day. Businesses in the central city, reliant on tourist trade, were struggling and complaining. People in commuter suburbs were missing work, school, college. The bus company was losing millions of euro but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, resolve their issues. The struggle was real.
Then everyone realised that the All-Ireland final was only a few days away, on a scheduled strike day, and a new level of desperation was reached. The involved parties set up camp, negotiated for something like 36 hours straight, came to terms and, just hours before kick-off, the strikes were called off. You can upset half a million students and office workers, you can push small businesses into the red, you can drive your own company to the edge of bankruptcy but you can’t, you can’t mess with the holy grail of the All-Ireland Gaelic Football final. That would be going beyond the beyonds entirely.
So Noah went to his party, 82,000 happy fans took buses to the football and, a week later when we held Cassia’s birthday party here, I heard the story behind the depth of feeling around the final. Because this is Ireland and there’s always a story.
But first some party photos. Why not.
When Dave from next door came to collect his children at the end of the party he sat down for a cuppa and to help us polish off the cake, and we got talking about the match. Dublin played Mayo in the final and Dave’s family supports Mayo because his wife’s from there, not that that’s relevant here.
The match that was important enough to call off the bus strikes for was the replay of the final. The original final was a draw: Mayo 0-15, Dublin 2-9. Yes, in Irish counting, that is a draw. The replay was tense with the teams neck-and-neck all the way. Dublin pulled ahead in injury time. Mayo had a free kick and the chance to level the score and go into extra time but the poor man missed and Dublin won by a single point. Mayo fans everywhere were devastated.
Because, said Dave, this has happened before in recent years. Mayo get to the final, they play hard, they keep the score level, sometimes even ahead. They are drawn at the final whistle, they’re drawn after injury time, and they lose by a single point in extra time. Again and again. They last played Dublin in the final in 2013 and they scored the first points, they were ahead at half time, Dublin were playing dirty but Mayo held on until the final whistle when they lost by one goal. They’ve beaten the eventual winners in previous matches so they’re good enough but they always lose at the last, tantalising minute. They have made it to the final 8 times since 1951 and have never won.
Well, says I, it almost sounds like they’re cursed, doesn’t it?
Funny you should say that, he says. Back in 1951 Mayo won the All-Ireland final. Apparently as the team bus was driving home with the trophy, the Sam Macguire, they went past a widder woman (good curse stories always have a widder woman in them) and didn’t stop to give her a ride, and she cursed them and said that Mayo would never again win the All-Ireland until every member of the 1951 team was dead. Make of it what you will but there are two members still alive and they’ve never won since.
Wow, I said. I bet those two don’t subscribe to any new magazines in the lead-up to the final. I bet they keep their doors locked and don’t eat anything without feeding some to the dog first. Imagine being the only thing standing between an entire county and their first victory in 60 years! Then we joked a bit about hospitality to widder women and how they’re probably all harassed by football fans trying to give them rides and take them out to dinner and put them up in fancy hotels whether they want to or not.
Later on I Googled the Mayo curse, and the official story is slightly different. It has the bus with the team all drunk and rowdy passing a funeral procession without showing due respect and being cursed by the priest (and probably any widder women hanging around as well). I suspect there are as many versions as there are football fans.
This year there was no bus strike (it’s the turn of the train drivers and pilots at the moment) but once again Mayo faced Dublin in the All-Ireland Gaelic Football final at Croke Park. Tension was running high. They were so close last year, so close. Everyone in the country apart from Dublin was cheering Mayo on. The two veterans of the disrespectful ’51 team are still alive (and have probably hired security).
Once again Mayo led at half-time and often had points over Dublin. As the 70 minutes of match time ended the teams were drawn. In the 7-minute injury time Mayo were awarded a free kick which hit the post and rebounded, leaving Dublin to score one last time and win by, again, a single point.
Now, along with most of the rest of Ireland, I would have liked to see Mayo win. They try so hard. They want it so much. Every time they lose it’s in such a frustrating manner, poor lads. But another part of me doesn’t want to see it happen until after Paddy and Padraig, the last two 1951’ers, have gone. Because everybody loves a good story.