A hitchhiker’s guide to humanity

An Irishman’s Diary in which Frank McNally recalls lifts given and received


Driving back from the Monaghan-Cavan football match in Clones earlier this summer, I saw a strange thing by the side of the road. Two strange things, actually: both hitch-hikers. Maybe hitch-hikers are not so unusual where you live, but in my experience they’ve become as rare as corncrakes. So without even thinking, I stopped and gave them a lift.

They were a young couple, it turned out. He was local. She was from the other side of the world – Thailand. They had met in London, where both worked. For him, this was a short visit home.

As is generally the case with hitch-hikers, they made pleasant company, happy to pay their fare in conversation. We talked about London, and Thailand, and the rising graph of Monaghan GAA. We discussed too our ancient tribal grudge with Cavan, including the question of whether the game just played would lead to an upsurge in tension along cross-community interfaces.

And I would have liked to explore another fascinating question – what on earth an Ulster football match looks like to a person from south-east Asia? But I never did hear my foreign guest’s insights into this weird cultural clash.

The effects of the long shifts she worked (as a nurse, I think), the warm weather, and a couple of post-match beers all took their toll. Or maybe it was just the Ulster football. In any case, after a few minutes, she fell asleep in the back seat.

It feels odd (unless you’re a taxi driver) having a stranger in your car. But a sleeping stranger is even odder. It’s like driving with a baby for the first time. You’re suddenly in a position of great trust. Not to the extent that you want to put a “sleeping hitch-hiker on board” sign in your back window. But it does make you consciously more careful.

Anyway, I was glad afterwards to have done a favour for a returning emigrant and an overseas visitor, simultaneously. I told myself this counted as double points on the life-long balance sheet of lifts given and received, although I fear the debits – mostly from the 1980s, before I had a car – still outnumber the credits, for which there are far fewer opportunities now.

I gather hitch-hiking is making some sort of comeback in downturn Ireland. At least that’s the claim of a website (hitchwiki.org) I found when googling the topic. I also found the interesting blog of Ruairi McKiernan (community.ie), a Cavan man and community organiser who embarked on a month-long hitching tour of Ireland this summer to find out what people were thinking.

In fact, hitch-hiking seems to be alive and well all across Europe. Only last month in Pamplona, I met a young Canadian who planned to be in London two days later. He had very little money, he claimed, but he was confident of getting there on time, thanks to the kindness of strangers. Of course, he wouldn’t be standing anywhere with his thumb out. His strategy was to go to motorway cafes and approach drivers in person.

I never did that during my hitch-hiking years – there weren’t many motorway cafes in Ireland then. Nor did I ever as much as write a sign with my destination on it. Partly, this was because the distances involved didn’t justify such calculation. But it was also philosophical thing.

If you weren’t in a hurry, it was more interesting to get multiple, short lifts, than one long one. You met more people. You found yourself standing in places where you would never otherwise have stopped. And the experience of conversing with several different drivers was usually more educational than a single lift.

There were exceptions. Once, for example, I got a lift all the way home from Dublin with an affable but quiet-spoken man who, it emerged, was in the music business. In response to questions, he admitted having played with a who’s who of Irish music, from Christy Moore to Van Morrison. Yet I had no idea who he was.

Finally, getting out of his car and thanking him, I had to ask. He turned out to be Arty McGlynn, the brilliant but self-effacing guitarist with a stellar array of groups including Planxty, De Danann, and Patrick Street. He was himself on the way home, I think, to Tyrone.

And I mention him now in part because his native county has been in the dock of public opinion lately, accused, among other things, of injuring the beautiful innocence of Monaghan football. Much of the criticism is no doubt justified. But I have met many Tyrone people down the years, especially while hitching. And in the philosophical spirit of which I spoke, I have no hesitation saying that, outside GAA pitches, they’re usually quite nice.


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