12 November 2012

Things Irish People Like

Butcher Shops.  Just about every town has one.  In villages like Golden, where shuttered businesses are casualties of the recession, the butcher shop is still up and running.  Sure, people shop at the supermarket and you'll see bags from Durres Stores or Supervalu in the hands of butcher shop customers, but some things you save for the people you really trust.  The local butchers.
Green.  While driving around, even on major highways, we just kept gawking at how much it all looked like the Ireland of our imagination.  A rainbow here, a double rainbow there, cows and horses in the mist and the brightest green you've ever seen absolutely everywhere.  The color occurs so often in the natural landscape of Ireland, you'd think they'd be sort of tired of it.  Nope.  It's a little like St. Patrick's Day every day.  The mailboxes are green, windowboxes, doors, houses are all different shades of it.  It's a favorite in clothing.  It's a national emblem.
Turf Fires.  At the back of every pub, there's a fire burning and if you have the luck of being welcomed into an Irish home, there's probably one going in the sitting room.  You won't smell coal or hear the cracking and snapping of wood, the flame will smolder steadily and smokelessly for hours.  Because they're burning turf.  Turf bricks look like solid chunks of earth - which is essentially what they are, but with certain scientific properties that make them efficient forms of energy.  Fossil fuel.  They smell subtle and lovely and are so much a part of Ireland that this exists (You know how you can watch the yule log on tv in America?  Well, it's a turf fire dvd - with complimentary turf incense!)  Ireland is actually the world's second largest user of turf fuel, after Finland, and around one sixth of their electricity comes from turf-burning power plants.
Guinness. This seems like a cop-out, I know, but it's still worth noting.  We figured Europe's 4th biggest beer consuming country would be more like the top 3 (Czech Republic, Germany and Austria) in that there'd be lots of local brews to try.  But microbreweries in Ireland really don't stand a chance against the loyalty to Guinness.  It's the best-selling alcoholic drink in the country.  It's the most popular beer by far and, in most places, the only Irish one on tap.  While we stuck with Smithwicks (an Irish red ale) and Bulmer's (an Irish hard apple cider), everyone around us drank Guinness.  Oddly, the other beers on tap were usually Carlsberg, Budweiser, Heineken and Coors Light.  It's like they're actively trying to make Guinness taste even better by comparison.
Vegetable Soup.  This isn't to say that Irish people like vegetable soup more than, say, steak & kidney pie or Irish breakfast.  It's that they like a very specific soup, called "vegetable soup."  In my experience, describing a soup as "vegetable" can mean any number of things.  Tomato based, cream-based, pureed, chunky, brothy.  In Ireland, vegetable soup is an orange puree, a mix of carrot, onion, potato - maybe some squash, maybe some celery or peas.  Spices may vary, but the overall taste and look is the same.  It's always delicious, always served with a slice of brown bread and some intensely good Irish butter, and always available.
Preserving Storefronts.  There must have been a time when walking down a street in Ireland was like flipping through the local phone book.  The old facades on pharmacy's, general stores, pubs and grocers spell out a family name. You didn't name your saddle shop "Horse's Friend" or anything like that.  You named it "Connolly's" if that was your name.  These storefronts are now like old family albums in many villages, towns and even cities.  No matter what's inside the space, the name is kept the same.  It may have begun life as R. A. Merry & Co. Ltd, but now it's a great gastro pub simply referred to as "Merry's."  Pat and Gertie Ormond's cafe is now a restaurant with different owners, but is still called Ormonds.  Their contribution to the town and place in local history remembered.

Honorable Mentions

Discussing Politics.  Of course, this is basically the only country we've visited where we can understand all the conversation going on around us.  But even context clues would have brought me to this conclusion.  It's rare to see more newspapers in hands than magazines, and not tabloid newspapers either.  The real factual stuff.  Pub interaction often involves an older (and drunker) man 'schooling' a younger (and soberer) man, who listens politely and very respectfully disagrees.  Specifics about EU policy, trade agreements, parliamentary salaries are all widely known and energetically discussed.  "Who are you voting for?" we were asked in the run-up to the election.  It's not a "personal" question here. (Should it be anywhere?)  It's a topic of discussion.  And boy were they informed about American politics.  Which brings me to...

The Irish-American Connection.  Sadly, we were just about the first American couple most Irish people had met without a smidgeon of Irish between us.  (Even President Obama has a distant Irish cousin. I know this and that his name is Henry Healy, because he was the talk of the pub). But, we're still American, which made us kin anyway.  "There are 70 million Irish descendants in America," one man said proudly, acknowledging that the wealth of Irish in America has made the scope of Irish culture in the world larger than its geographic size would suggest.   At a pub, a young man asked for the tv channel to be switched from soccer to US election coverage.  They take what happens in America personally.  We're family.

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