'Lonely Planet' relishes return to lowly values


The guidebook gives a thumbs-up to Ireland’s gift for self-deprecation. Let’s wallow in the mire, writes DONALD CLARKE

THE PEOPLE at Lonely Planethave just published the latest edition of their guide to Ireland. You know how these things usually go. The decent burghers of, say, Navan will become red-faced at the suggestion that their town is a swampy, banjo-picking backwater. Officials will pretend to fits of the vapours upon reading that the Blarney Stone might be nothing more than a cheesy tourist trap. Some hotel that serves beetles with its porridge contacts the lawyers.

To be fair, the latest edition has painted a relatively sunny picture of the nation. My mother, educated in Armagh, is, admittedly, still recovering from acute apoplexy after reading that the ecclesiastical city has “a dreary, rundown feel to it”. But the book’s authors have found things to recommend about Dublin, Galway and Derry. And Cork? Well, if the Lonelyfolk are to be believed, that southern locale comes across as a class of Celtic Shangri-la. Whatever floats your boat, boy.

What interests me most, however, is the book’s assessment of the Irish character. We are, apparently, “fatalistic and pessimistic to the core”. We are skilled at the “peculiar art of self-deprecation”. The writers sense that, temperamentally attuned to failure, we were – unlike those rioting Greeks – always likely to accept austerity with a minimum of hysteria.

It looks as if our brief period of vulgar prosperity hasn’t changed us all that much. One thinks of that medieval metaphor for the human experience concerning a bird flying eternally through bleak, cold darkness. The story imagines the creature gliding through a window into a castle where a busy banquet is taking place. For a few wonderful moments, the bird experiences light, noise, gaiety and unlimited free broadband (I may have misremembered the last bit). Then it is chased out and continues its endless flight. The party is life. The featureless journey is everything else.

That wonderfully bleak allegory does not, however, quite capture the Irish adventure. It would be terribly, terribly wrong to start stirring up nostalgia for the more wretched aspects of Ireland in the years before the boom. This is a much more inclusive, considerably less closed-off country. Yes, we’re all headed for the workhouse. But nobody is banning films or prohibiting shops from selling condoms.

All that noted, it’s hard not to miss venerable old Crap Ireland that taught us to think in the manner recorded by Lonely Planet. Unlike the poor bird, we rather enjoyed railing against the comic shoddiness of our surroundings.

Everybody over the age of 30 will have some notion of what I’m talking about. Telly was crap. Music was crap. Food was crap. Transport was crap. Most of those documentaries that drag out footage of poor wee people waving goodbye to their parents as they climb on planes tend to ignore one aspect of the emigration experience. These lucky people were going to countries without showbands, pub grub or Quicksilver.

To give some sense of how wretched Ireland could be, we should, perhaps, consider that last, baffling phenomenon.

Quicksilverwas a rudimentary, near-Soviet game show hosted by a softly spoken entertainer named Bunny Carr. (“Are you all right there, Maire? You’re not nervous now?”) Running from 1965 until 1981, the quiz asked ordinary people to answer absurdly easy questions in order to win insultingly insignificant prizes. It was a massive hit. Look out for Quicksilveron celebrations of RTÉ’s 50 years of television.

In recent years, writers such as the admirable Pat McCabe have worked hard at romanticising the showband years. One finds oneself coming across like an older East German annoyed at ironic reinventions of the communist years. “This is not a joke,” you want to shout. “There was a time when cod country-and-western versions of Abba tunes really did register in the Irish charts.” It was hellish.

And, darling, the restaurants! I remember, when dining in a midlands hotel with my parents, being served spaghetti Bolognese with potatoes and vegetables. In Crap Ireland, food couldn’t be considered food unless it sat alongside overcooked cabbage and watery tubers.

All right. Lest the remaining members of The Radiators from Space or the creators of Hall’s Pictorial Weeklywrite in, we should acknowledge that not everything was crap in Precambrian Ireland. But an overpowering stench of uselessness did hang around the place.

We expected trains to break down. We expected coffee to taste like diesel oil. We expected pop music to be performed by decrepit wedding singers wearing sideburns the size and shape of Scandinavia.

The Lonely Planetassessment of the prevailing Irish temperament seems fairly accurate. We’ve seen Crap Ireland in action and, should it return, we will continue to laugh bitterly through our tears. None of which is to suggest we yearn to see potatoes beside pasta any time soon. Stop the lights!

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