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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

I used to be an Irish-American


Essay
by
John William Tuohy
 
I went to Ireland on vacation and found it to be underwhelming and overrated. Now, as I have learned, in the US, a bold and honest statement like that brings around more than a little animosity because, generally speaking, for the Americans, of whom some 50 million declare themselves to have some Irish blood, Ireland and the Irish enjoy a special place in the American mindset despite the fact that most Americans have never met an Irishman. So what I should say is that they like the popular perception of Ireland and the Irish.
I went to Ireland looking for that same perception and never found it. In fact I didn’t find much there at all. Several times during my stay in Ireland, I stopped and asked “What the hell am I doing here? All this way, all that money for what? For the same money, distance and time, I could be in London, Paris or Rome right now or I could have just stayed in West Virginia”

Ireland is basically West Virginia with a brogue. Lots of green rolling pastures with small, poorly built and badly neglected houses plopped somewhere in the middle of beautiful but empty field, shabbily dressed people who seem an inch away from poverty. Both places seem poor, worn out and defeated.

Ireland leaves the impression of being a secondary place, but, in that, or so they say, is where its charm is found, but alas, its charms, whatever they might be, escaped me. Its towns and cities are crowded, the building and roadways that are mostly old, unkempt and decaying and overall the entire island is no more charming or picturesque than any other neglected place anywhere else in the world, leaving the suspicion that Ireland only fares as well as it does because it is locked between two first world nations.

I should say right up front that in many ways I created my own misery in Ireland largely because I too, like so many of my fellow Americans, believed in the popular perception of Ireland and the Irish and when I traveled there I was expecting the popular perception to be the reality.

I was well versed in the Irish-American myth of Ireland. I’ve written several books on Irish and Irish-American history. I’ve been to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day several times as an official Irish-American mucky muck. All of my Irish ancestors arrived in America in the very late 1890s, except for a grandmother who arrived in 1922. I am three quarters Irish and one quarter Jewish but my Jewish grandfather converted to Catholicism by one of the four Irish women he married over the 95 years of his life.  I was raised Roman Catholic and attended parochial schools. I look unmistakably Irish. When I was in first grade at Our Lady of the Assumption School in Ansonia Connecticut where I grew up, I landed me a dancing role in a rendition of “Harrigan.”  I couldn’t dance or sing, I was perhaps 8 years old at the time, but the Nuns didn’t care, they casted me based on my ruddy complexion, bright blue eyes and freckles.

During my trip to Ireland, it was an astounding thing to realize every third person looks almost exactly like me. And in some places I looked more traditionally Irish than most of the Irish. Several times the locals started conversations with me assuming I was Irish. So while I look the part, and I did see a substantial number of my fellow blue eyed, reddish hair, ultra-fair-skinned cousins, they were hardly a majority of the Celtic-Irish population. But I would caution those of you who expect to visit Ireland and find a race Celtic Irish living there, then you should visit now because the days of the White Celtic Irish as the majority of Ireland is ending and ending quickly thanks to Ireland’s  membership in the European Union.  Even in the small town we were in, the furthest point northwest in the Republic of Ireland, a conservative guess is that every third person was Black or Indian or some sort of south eastern European, Greek or Turkish.  

What I noticed was that the men are…again generally speaking….handsome; in fact many of them are exceedingly handsome. However, as a man who appreciates a good looking, well-built woman, I can’t say that I saw one Irish woman that would turn my head. To me, the Irish women seemed frumpy and tired. Many of them looked…I’m trying to think of another word besides cheap…..but I can’t so I’ll leave it at this, they were too much make up. Now, I should point out that what I know about make-up is that it comes from a bottle, so when someone like me notices a haphazard make-up job, it’s got to be bad. On the other hand, perhaps the fair toned to ruddy Celtic colors just don’t wear make-up well.
Buses


We decided not to drive in Ireland, deciding that we would be no match for steering wheel on the right side, narrow roads and the breath-taking speed that the average Irish driver uses and decided instead to travel across the country using the Bus Eireann, the national bus system.



Let me stop here and give you some very solid advice; should you travel to Ireland never ever, ever, get on Bus Eireann. Walk, run, rent a car, ride a horse, mount a leprechaun, do anything but don’t get on a Bus Eireann. 



The company’s incompetence is a metaphor for Ireland. It looks promising but it doesn’t deliver because it doesn’t work. One bus we were on broke down in the middle of nowhere, stranding us for two hours before another bus arrived and then that bus broke down. Several buses we were waiting for simply didn’t show up at all. They just didn’t show up. There is no fancy explanation here; the fucking bus simply didn’t show up. I don’t know how that’s possible. I mean, where would you go with a bus that it didn’t show up?



As first time tourists we didn't know any better so we took this system across, down and around Ireland before we figured out there are a dozen other bus companies out there that we could have used.
As frustrating as Bus Eireann was for me, the Irish riders didn’t seem to take, which is really annoying when you’re trying to be annoyed by something.
The general impression I had of the passengers on the bus is that they were, generally, I stress the word generally, poor and in ill health, or so I thought.  It seemed to me that every third passenger had a cold, runny nose or the chills and it was only later that I learned from a local cop that Bus Eireann is the favored mode of transportation for the country’s growing dope addict population who use the bus for a cheap ride into Dublin or Cork where they can buy dope at lower price than they would pay in the smaller towns. Otherwise, aside from the dopers, the average bus contains the cast from "Good Fellows" scary, really.  
No surprisingly, the buses are dirty. The windows smeared. I caught pneumonia in Ireland and I place the blame squarely on the germs and squalor of the buses.



When the bus from Donegal to Letterkenny didn’t show up as scheduled….it was, needless to say, the bus I was waiting for, a herd of men appeared at the crowded bus stop offering rides to Letterkenny and all other points in their private cars. 



“How much?” I asked in my American accent. Fifty bucks was the answer.
 For an hour ride. Double the price of a bus ticket.



Of course the difference being that the bus ticket was a gamble at best and this guy looked like he might actually get us to where we were going. I paid the fifty and got into the typical small Irish car that I was to share with the driver and three other passengers, each of whom had paid twenty dollars less than I did because, I suspect, they had the good sense not to sound American. 

But the gutting of another wise harmless American tourist did nothing to lift their spirits. After a solid fifteen minutes of the traditional berating of Bus Eiermann’s incompetence the Irish passengers turned as one on the Irish driver because, they said, he had overcharged everyone, he was driving to slow, he was driving too fast, he was going the long while going the short way and dozen other complaints.    



As an American, I was excused from verbal brawl. But a brawl it was. For a full 75 minutes the words fell like bullets. Most of the time I had no idea what they were saying. The word “Fek” was used repeatedly on both sides. No one raised their voices. That seems to be against the rule of verbal brawling. I noticed that when the ride was over all of the combatants could not be more loving or caring to each other as they parted ways with each wishing the other a god day and a lovely evening. I don’t understand it. It’s an Irish thing I suspect.



 Although it is one of the cleanest places I have ever been, I can’t say I was impressed with the countryside, especially after all of the hullabaloo I’ve heard over the years about Ireland’s beauty.  Western Connecticut, the Maine Shore or Route 1 in California can certainly give anything in Ireland a run for its money.  And I saw a large part of Ireland too. I travelled several different ways across the country and although I missed the city of Cork in the south, in as far as I can tell the Irish country side consists of a green field with no trees and a few sheep and a crappy house. That’s followed by a green field with no trees and a few cows and a crappy house. In turn that’s followed by a green field, no trees and a horse with a crappy house. After seeing what is, essentially, the same sight for an hour, and with a promise of more of the same to come, I stopped looking out the bus window.



I’m a serious amateur photographer. I’m seldom without my camera, even for a simple trip to the corner store and I take in or about 300 hundred shots a week of everything and anything. With that said, I found Ireland to be a photographer’s night mare. Views are obstructed by aged, low hanging telephone lines, ugly shiny metal fences, invasive gas station logos and oversized and obnoxious real estate signs that seem to be everywhere

Galway

I don’t know why anyone would go to Galway, except to drink of course. Ireland is a drinking man’s country and Galway is its chief drinking town. On our first day in town we were crossing the town square at midday when an enormous young man, I mean an absolutely enormous young man, perhaps six feet four inches and at 300 pounds, wearing a black leather jacket and long dirty blonde hair stepped into our path. My wife instinctively takes several steps backwards. He was very drunk. It’s the middle of the day. His eyes are deep blue and glassy. His hair is long and blonde and matted. He fits my notion of what an invading Viking must have looked like. 


He stands still but he’s reeling on his heels.
“Do you know the frecken way?” he slurs at me.
It took me a minute to decipher the brogue through the slur so my answer is slow in coming. He steps up to me and I curl my hands into a fist. I’m no push over but I know that drunk or not, if this guy lands shot anywhere on my body I’m probably going down for the count. I step backwards. My lips tighten.

Suddenly the Viking less drunk ....not more sober but less drunk….friend, steps between us and tells the Viking “Leave dem da feck alone” and pulls the giant away.
Welcome to Galway.




There are, I would guess, thousands of bars thought out Ireland and I’m not certain that they ever close but I suppose they must close at some point. The pub, a quaint word for bar room, seems to be not only the center of social but the center for just about everything else which is pointless to me and my intolerant attitude towards drinking.



I don’t drink alcohol, ever, but the dichotomy is that I do come from along and undistinguished line of alcoholics. Every generation of my family, all sides, has produced at least one alcoholic, usually two.  



There were a staggering (I couldn’t let the pun pass unused) number public drunks everywhere in Ireland, swaying and reeling down the streets in at all hours of the day and night.

 With the exception of bartenders, no one is Ireland is where they are supposed to be. Restaurant hostesses aren’t at their stations, hotel desk clerks are not behind the desk and shop owners are somewhere in the back room doing something else. When they do arrive to perform their task they don’t offer an excuse for their late entrance.



The Food
The rumble in Galway aside, to my delightful surprise the food in Ireland, virtually anywhere, is always very good. In two weeks’ time, I was served only one bad meal and, actually, that was in Northern Ireland confirming my suspicion that the Scotch-Irish are an inferior people.

Restaurant prices are about the same as they are in the states but the portions are markedly smaller and the Irish always seem to manage to slip a potato somewhere on the plate. I don’t know if smaller portions have anything to do with but I found most of the Irishmen to be strapping tall and muscular and most of the women, of all ages, slim.



There are a lot of people in Ireland and a lot of tourist with money so while in the cities, even in the smaller cities, make reservations, especially during tourist season but bear in mind, it’s Ireland and reservations really don’t mean anything and there’s only a fifty-fifty chance your table will be ready when you arrive.    



Lamb shank seems to be the national dish and one the best meals of my life was served to me at Truman's Restaurant at 23-27 Molesworth Street in Dublin inside the cozy beyond belief Buswell Hotel across the street from the Dail on Kildare. We found Truman's on our first night in Dublin as we wandered the streets exploring places by night. We arrived in very late, all of Ireland generally rolls up its sidewalk at sunset, close to closing time and had the entire place all to ourselves (Thank you God for little miracles) along with our waiter, a fine dark haired young man from Eastern Europe who’s shy but attentive ways make the dining experiences perfect.

If you go, order the Braised Irish Lamb Shanks served with Garlic Mash, Mint Pesto and Lamb Jus. To die for. I looked at the lamb lovingly and it fell off the bone for me.  To make sure the meal was as good as I thought it was, I returned to Truman's a week later and ordered the same thing and yes, I was right, it was magnificent again.  



The meal was affordable fine dining in a warm and friendly atmosphere and that’s largely because most of the people who work there are South Asian. Despite what we see in film, I found most native Irish don’t make good restaurant hosts largely, I suspect because they don’t see the connection between your meal and their presentation of your meal.



There were several other things about Truman's that I liked.  The dining room is large, unusual for Ireland where, for an American everything seems small especially the tables, which, at Truman’s are actually large enough to hold the entire service.  The décor is comfortable and elegant. Opulent might be a better word. The napkins are Irish linen. The table service is top flight. Our fresh baked bread and water arrived the moment we sat down and on our second visit the waiter recalled that we drank mineral water and delivered our bottle to the table.

Our meal arrived with a substantial side of "veg". (Which, this being Ireland, contain yet another form of potatoes). The portions are generous and arrive fresh and in a timely manner, a rare event in Ireland where disappearing food servers are as common as food servers who have perfected the resentful slow walk from the kitchen. I’ve travelled extensively through central and South America where slow and poor service is an art form but the Irish could give the Latins a run…or, in this case….a slow walk for their money.



In a conversation with a friend who travels to Ireland frequently I mentioned the Irish propensity for poor service and she suggested that it might be due, in some part, to the low wages paid to restaurant workers and that tipping is frowned upon in Ireland. I think she’s wrong. I think the Irish resent being a service industry nation and everyone who visits is going to pay for it too.



It really doesn’t matter because more and more restaurant in Ireland are staffed almost exclusively by Eastern Europeans…..mostly Poles and Czechs…..who, at times, seem to outnumber the native Irish and their grasp of English ranges between awful to almost. Be forewarned, these Eastern Europeans are everywhere in the country mostly in service positions because Ireland is part of the European Union and as result Ireland’s population is becoming very diverse.



It rains daily in Ireland but in the north it rains about every other hour. It’s not a long rain or, for that matter, even an annoying rain. It comes and goes unnoticed for the most part. You get a little wet, the sun comes back out and you dry off. No big deal although I’ve actually seen it rain when the sun was out. I think the rules of science may not always apply to Ireland and I think the Irish like it that way.



Ireland is a young country and there seems to be children everywhere, which is refreshing and always good to see. I was also happy to see that dogs are generally allowed in stores and hotels and no one seems to mind and I enjoyed. You also the occasional dog wandering the streets, alone, something we used to allow here in America but don’t anymore because now we regulate virtually every aspect of life. 
Hotels












In Dublin we stayed at the Westbury Hotel on Grafton Street. A fine, first rate and expensive hotel centrally located in Dublin with a cracker-jack staff and a décor that is chic but subtle. The rooms are well appointed but small (Welcome to Ireland). The hotel, which is located on a small street off the busy main roads, offers two restaurants and both are fine dining and considering the quality of the food and the general elegance of both places, reasonably priced. Although the Wilde needs to work on that breakfast their serving…in fact, Ireland in general needs to work on breakfast as a meal. 



My Irish tale of woe really begins at the end of my time in Ireland at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the town of Letterkenny, in the far north county of Donegal. My wife and I were travelling on business and had been staying at the Radisson Blu for just under two weeks when I caught the flu and became very congested. I'm asthmatic and congestion is a problem.  My wife ran the shower for me to get up a steam, hoping a hot shower and steam would offer some relief.

 The hotel wasn't built with showers, instead a shower head is attached to a metal hose that is attached to the water main. After my wife turned the water on to run; a small rip in the metal shower hose was broke up and unknown to us, water shot out across the floor and into the hall.


We shut the water off and mopped up the spilled water with towels and called the front desk, told them the problem, asked to have the shower fixed and to have new towels brought up to the room. The clerk said he would and that was the last we heard from him. 



 Three hours later, I phoned the reception again and asked for a repairman and clean towels. The repairman arrived, fixed the shower head and left. Several minutes later a furious hotel manager named Helena O’Brien called. She made three points in rapid succession. She was charging us $200 for the damage done by the faulty hose, there were two persons in a room booked for one and she was charging for the second person with penalties and that her workman had informed her that I was ill with the flu and did I want to see a doctor?



I was taken aback by the verbal assault and the invasion of privacy and general obnoxiousness of it all. I told her, no, I didn't want to see a doctor.  She said that it was not in the best interest of the other hotel guests to allow a sick person to "Carry on" in the hotel. I told her we were leaving the hotel that day so it wasn't an issue.



My wife called the manager and tried to explain that the shower hose was broken. The manager replied that "You and your husband are telling two different stories so we'll get you both in the same room and get the story straight"




They agreed to meet at 5:00 that afternoon. I phoned the manager and told her I wanted the broken hose present as well as the workman who fixed the hose. That blew her fuse. She went off on me. She snapped that the workman had taken the hose with him and had left the property for the day and, she informed me, I was not to tell her what to do in her hotel.  I asked her to calm down. She replied in a manner that made me think she was speaking for the benefit of someone else she said "You are raising your voice at me"



 "No one has raised their voice at you" I replied "I have Strep throat, I can barely talk,"
 "In that case" she snapped "You are being aggressive towards me and I feel threatened by your mannerism" 

  My sense was this wasn't her first go at "I feel threatened" rodeo.
I told her she was being aggressive I was simply defending myself.  She hissed something and hung up. Several seconds later she called back and told me that check it was past noon and I was to leave the hotel "immediately" 
I explained that we had arranged for a late checkout and we were leaving the hotel in four hours away, that I had a temperature, the chills and a breathing problem and I needed to rest before a four hour ride to Dublin. Her reply was that I was to vacate the room or that she would arrange with the local authorities to take me out of the room.
So I left.



As a final nail in the coffin we hired a car to drive to the airport. The driver was a talkative second generation Irish-Pakistani who quickly informed us that Irish rugby players are far tougher than American professional football players who are, in his words “aren’t so tough because they wear all that padding” and Irish footballers wear no padding.
“Have you ever met an American football player?” I asked even though I knew the answer,
“No”
“Have you ever seen one in the flesh?”
“No”
“Have you ever watched a game of American football?”
“No” 
I was tired of being nice. I had with this country and these people
“Then shut up and drive the car” I said and we drove to the airport in splendid silence.



I won’t miss Saint Patrick’s Day, which, as I age, has less and less significance in my life. Now I’m not even going to don a green shirt on March 16th, because I don’t want to be part of the well-meaning farce that the day has become. 



I grew up in one of those places with a large Irish-American population and I don’t recall adults of questionable lineage getting drunk on overpriced Guinness while wearing “Kiss me! I’m Irish” Pins on their bright green cardboard hats.




When I was a boy, the American invention of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day was done, generally, in places with Irish-American communities and even at that, it was small scale stuff, mostly because the holiday falls in the Lentin season and in those days the Irish-American community was almost exclusively Catholic.



I don’t have a problem with others celebrating the holiday, in fact I’m proud that the never–say-die-screw- the-odds-we’ll –go-out-swing’n spirit Irish-American community is celebrated far and wide in my country because as a serious student of  American-Irish history I know there was a time when the Irish were despised in the United States. Anyway, I won’t miss it. I’m free of all that now.




The awareness I felt in almost everything was that I have almost (I stress the word almost) nothing at all in common with these people.  Instead of instilling a feeling of closeness with the Irish and Ireland I came away with a sense of distance from the place and the people. In fact what I took away from those misspent weeks in the old country was this; I will no longer identify myself as an Irish-American.

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