You couldn't make it up
From hilarious gaffes and the busiest priests to planet Enya and the best place to meet a man, a new book of Irish trivia is hard to put down. Brian Boyd reports
Next week you can find out why there are now officially 29 counties in the Republic of Ireland, which part of England has not a single Irish resident, why Enya has a minor planet named after her, who thought miniskirts would prompt an angry God to dispatch hurricanes and tornadoes to Ireland, where you stand the best chance of meeting a Methodist and which are Graham Norton's favourite websites. You'll also learn that three in every 10 TDs since 1922 have been called some variation of Paddy, Mick, Seán or Seamus and that when the Pope held his youth Mass in Galway, in 1979, each diocese was asked to send to the procession "a baker in white overalls and a lame person with a stick or crutches".
All of this and so much more strangely compelling information is contained within the pages of That's Ireland: A Miscellany, which is published on Monday. Once you start, you can't stop. There's a list of Ireland-based Nazi Party members, the area of the country with the most women and the eight Oireachtas objections to the adoption of summer time in 1923 - including that "it would be a bad law because farmers ignore official time except when they have to catch a train". It also reveals that Kilbeggan, in Co Westmeath, had exactly 1,000 people at the last census and that items looted during the Easter Rising included toffee and golf clubs.
The book, an Irish version of Schott's Original Miscellany, is the work of Dublin writers Damian Corless and Michael Nugent. "It is a variation on Schott's book, which was an inspired idea but I think a bit dull," says Corless. "The great thing about doing a similar-style book on Ireland is that the country, for all its faults, is a hysterically funny place: funny ha-ha, funny peculiar and funny in that if-you-don't-laugh-you'd-have-to-cry sort of way.
"History is the love of my life, and as a rule I don't read fiction on the sound basis that the truth is invariably stranger than fiction - that is something which I think this book establishes beyond doubt. You couldn't make up the stuff we found."
Nugent says: "We tried to distil all of the information to its absolute essence, with no padding. I also did the layout, so there was a lot of work choosing exact phrasings to suit the layout and vice versa . . . A lot of it is official statistics with a twist put on them: for example, dividing the number of Catholics in each diocese by the number of active priests to get the busiest and least busy priests in Ireland. Dublin has the busiest, with 2,201 Catholics per priest, while Kilmore has the least busy, with 604.
"Another one like that is the best places in Ireland to find a man (the Fingal area of Dublin, 70.3 per cent of population) or a woman (the district of Gillabbey C, in Cork city, 64.5 per cent of population). Stuff like that."
They made extensive use of the National Library of Ireland, the Newspaper Library and the National Archives of Ireland. "The research was time-consuming, but it was never a chore," says Corless. "And I have to admit that all my giggling didn't endear me to the other readers in the National Library.
"It would often happen that you'd be searching for one thing in the National Library or the National Archives and something completely unexpected and bizarre would catch your eye. That's, for example, how I came across the list of the representatives to be sent by each diocese for the papal mass in Galway.
"Some of the stuff we came across, like the fan letters sent by some farmers to the girl group Sheeba [see above\] just wouldn't be believed if you wrote them in a comedy script."
A mix of history, geography, politics, religion and both high and low culture, the book is not, Corless stresses, a mere collection of trivia.
"It's not just a pile of hackneyed factoids, it's history: good history and fresh history. The selection of material might seem arbitrary, and it was in so far as we had an anything-goes policy, but we'd both be on very similar wavelengths as to what's unique and funny and cruel and scandalous about the country we live in.
"The overarching arrogance and absurdity of Ireland's political class was not going to go unremarked upon, though at the same time we took great care not to editorialise."
As for items left out, Nugent says: "The main one I can think of is a list of Catholic priests with the most children, but we did leave in the anagram of Father Michael Cleary which is 'family, ha, alert crèche'.
We also found that Charles Haughey can be turned into an anagram, which is 'hush, hear legacy'.
"A few of my favourites would be the consumer pricewatch we have which compares the cost of memorabilia in the Sinn Féin, DUP and Orange Order shops.
"For example, a turf model of the Easter Proclamation costs 40 times as much as a flexible bowler-hatted-man fridge magnet."
Both admit to dropping items because of our stringent libel laws, not wanting an injunction that could take the book off the shelves over the next few weeks.
As it is, they've come up with an indispensable alternative encyclopaedia of Ireland: it's as if David Lynch had edited Ireland's Own. It's the sort of book that, were it not all fact, would be dismissed as Paddywhackery. Read it and weep.
That's Ireland: A Miscellany by Michael Nugent and Damian Corless is published on Monday by Blackwater Press, €15
I Spy: secret assements of the US embassy, 1960-1870's
Garret FitzGerald: "Would be a brilliant leader in any country."
Charles Haughey: "Capable, high-powered and ambitious . . ."
Michael O'Leary (Labour): "His unmarried state does not reflect on his inclinations or opportunities. One of Ireland's most eligible bachelors."
Eamon de Valera: "Lives largely in past. Drinks brandy straight. Likes all food, especially steak, but not fond of ham. Allergic to eggs."
Qualifications to enter the Miss Ireland beauty contest
Must be aged 18-25 and at least five feet seven in stockinged feet.
Must be of good character and possess charm, poise, personality and beauty of face and figure.
Must never have given birth to a child.
Must never have been through a marriage ceremony, valid or invalid, whether civil, religious or tribal.
"With hindsight, we all have 50-50 vision."
"We shouldn't upset the apple tart."
"We're not going to hang anyone on the guillotine."
"The cynics may point to the past, but we live in the future."
"The grass roots, or the rank and file, are now made from fibre optics."
"Charles J. Haughey wanted to transform Temple Bar into Ireland's West Bank."
"I could certainly drink a fair few
pints of Bass and be capable of driving."
"I don't think it helps people to start throwing white elephants and red herrings at each other."
"At present, I have my hand in a
whole lot of dykes, trying to
keep them in and keep people together."
Down our way
Where do the most and least people live?
Dublin region ... 1,110,600
Dublin city ... 495,101
Cork city and county ... 448,181
Cork county ... 324,843
South Dublin ... 239,887
Galway ... 208,826
Fingal ... 196,223
Dún Laoghaire ... 191,389
Limerick ... 175,529
Kildare ... 163,995
Arigna, Manorhamilton ... 15
Ballynaneashagh, Waterford ... 17
Lackagh, Nenagh ... 20
Sheskin, Belmullet ... 25
Whiddy, Bantry ... 29
Tircahan, Bawnboy ... 32
Ballaghassaan, Edenderry ... 34
Loughatorick, Loughrea ... 34
Teebane, Enniskillen ... 34
Newgrove, Granard ... 37
Population figures taken from Census 2002
Just a minute
Larry Gogan: "Complete the phrase. A little learning is . . . "
Contestant: "A lot!"
Larry Gogan: "Complete the phrase. "Wine, women and . . . "
Larry Gogan: "What type of person would wear a tutu?"
Contestant: "A bishop!"
Larry Gogan: "What 's' is a native of Liverpool?"
Frequency with which numbers have been drawn, 1994-2003
Drawn 10-20 per cent more often than average
Numbers 14, 32, 11, 16, 18, 4, 9
Drawn 5-10 per cent more often
Numbers 1, 21, 24, 10
Drawn 0-5 per cent more often than average
Numbers 31, 22, 7, 20, 2, 42
The fame game
Fan mail sent to Sheeba, the 1980s all-girl pop group
"Do you remember me? I was the one in the front wearing the black anorak. I chatted to you after the show and you said you'd meet me out front, but you never did."
"I've been a great fan of yours for many years, though not of your singing. I read that you like tall, skinny men. I'm a tall and skinny man."
"I was a young lad when I was growing up" ... - David O'Leary
"I'd rather play in front of a full stadium than an empty crowd" ... - John Giles
"I was feeling as sick as the proverbial donkey" ... - Mick McCarthy
"All strikers go through what they call a 'glut', where they don't score goals" ... - Mark Lawrenson
How slow is Dublin traffic?
Minutes taken to transport a five kilogram package five kilometres
Singapore ... 9
London ... 13
New York ... 17
Moscow ... 23
Cairo ... 29
Frankfurt ... 53
Dublin ... 57
Calcutta* ... 270
*mostly on foot or by public transport
Unsuccessful millennium applications
A Liberty-type statue of Jesus or Mary on Howth Head.
A national Garda talent contest with regional heats.
A national Garda pilgrimage to Lourdes.
An artistic exhibition of used underwear on the Ha'penny Bridge.
ALL INFORMATION TAKEN FROM THAT'S IRELAND: A MISCELLANY