I have occasion to be traveling around Ireland lately on a media tour for Forest, the smoker's friend, and I have a few social observations to make.
Firstly, there's the hire car. My own 1999 Fiesta isn't up to such a trip so I had to hire something. I went for a family saloon of the Opel variety and it's fine, if you like that sort of thing. But today's cars are big, very big and that's the first thing to get used to. Then there is the 747-like dashboard, there for your comfort and safety apparently. But the net effect of that comforting dashboard of blinking lights and digital readouts can be as confusing as it is distracting. The area below my road eye-line keeps wanting to tell me things I couldn't care less about. These shagging messages are accompanied by different bleeps and bongs depending on the message. Then there is the Sat-Nav.
A female American voice treats me like a moron as she repeats everything over the radio speaker system, interrupting what I'm listening to each time. This morning as I left the midlands and keyed in an address east of there, the Yankee biddy decided to take me west instead. Deep in middle Ireland on bog roads I didn't know, I had no choice but to follow her instructions, though I knew something was wrong. I added an hour and a half to an otherwise straightforward journey by listening to her. In fact, to get back on track, I switched her off, stopped at a petrol station and asked a bloke. I remember how to do that you see.
But the combination of the flickering noisy dashboard and the annoying prattling Sat-Nav had me looking down more often than straight ahead. Both eyes on the road at all times is the secret of safe driving, either slow or fast. Things change quickly and constantly ahead as you make progress and being alerted that the temperature has risen a degree or that five kilometers ahead you must keep going on the same road is just plain dangerous. The other stupid annoyance is speed traps. The steering and pedals in this big car are light and speedometer is a digital readout. One moment it tells me I'm doing fifty-three and the next it is one hundred and sixteen KPH. Knowing you can get done for one or two above the 100KPH limit makes you constantly check the readout, taking eyes off the road again each time. OK, the roads are better, I concede that, but true driving ability is one hell of a lot worse. People seem to be slavishly obedient to laws but lack critical decision making ability when the unexpected happens. And courtesy is all but gone.
And then there is the accommodation. I began this trip with a drive from Cork to Galway followed by an overnight in one of Galway's Maldron Hotels. It was great because it was so laid-back, relaxed and Galway-like. The room was grand and the Wi-Fi quick and although they didn't cater for smokers, for me the close walking distance proximity of my first call the next day made up for it. Then it was onto Limerick and the Oak Hotel in Shannon overnight. There's a cynicism in the Limerick air and an admirable disregard for correctness. It's my birth city which may explain a lot. Limerick over it was on to the Kingdom of Kerry and the whole natural beauty of that county. The Imperial Hotel on Main Street Tralee even generously offered a smoking bedroom and in the bar later I got into an intriguing conversation with a local historian. Then it was onto Cork for a break and then Waterford. Waterford has its own air somehow and the people I met there had a deep suspicion of strangers. It was outwardly friendly while they seemed to wait for something I couldn't put my finger on. Like a deep seated expectation of some slight about to happen.
The weekend break included a Sunday drive to the Midlands and the Bridge House in Tullamore. The lovely hotel was crawling with Dubs and positively rocking on a Sunday night. The media representatives I've met everywhere were professional, capable and flexible and my overall impression of radio in Ireland is that local radio is more in touch with its audience than the National broadcasters. And continental europeans are everywhere in catering. Polish, Czech, Estonian and Latvian accents surrounded me at each venue, including here in Dublin tonight. They have all developed tinges of the local accents to add to their broken english. I found myself driving between venues trying to take off an Eastern European heard the previous evening with an Irish dialect. Well, I was doing that when the dash and sat-nav weren't annoying the shit out of me.
I drove the length and breath of the land for a living once and I must say, things have changed. Even in the arsehole of nowhere today, everyone is wedded to a smartphone that dictates their lives. Getting from A to B is hard work despite the better roads but slower journey times. That experience of Irish accommodation that was the best in the world once is, in my opinion, losing its unique qualities in favour of sameness and plausible deniability. They are all striving for some imaginary best practice and in the process, losing the spontaneous easiness that differentiated an Irish hotel from all others. Bits of it are still there but it's few and far between. The country hasn't lost its spirit completely and yet more and more, you could be anywhere in Europe. I mourn that.
I used to love the local identities with their madnesses and nonsensical behaviors and particularly the unique local wit and original take on life. It is just not as interesting, educational or as much fun traveling Ireland today. Once upon a time it used to be magical!