Wry observations on Irish greed and excess are essential reading


Book of the Day:Vitali's Ireland - Time Travels in the Celtic Tiger Vitali Vitaliev Gill Macmillan pp 280; €16.99

THIS IS a book that will perplex and infuriate some but appear quite humorous to others. The author, exiled from Russia, has chosen to observe Irish life and write about it. However, he never quite resolves whether he is writing a travel book or offering insight into the country, its people and way of life. writes Conor Lenihan

Though born in Ukraine, Vitali Vitaliev has spent much of his life in Britain and Australia. Like veteran Aussie journalist and commentator Clive James, his observations can be wry, hard-hitting and very witty.

The result of Vitaliev's 15-month stay with us here in Ireland, at the heights of our economic boom, is a rather eclectic mixture of farce, travel guide and personal observation.

He chooses, as a narrative device, to quote from earlier handbooks written in the Edwardian period to set up the reader for what is to come, namely Vitali's observations on the town, countryside or tourist experience being featured.

A consistent theme running throughout the book is the greed and tackiness of our tourism industry. He cites as a prime example the decision by those who operate Powerscourt waterfall to charge a €6 entry fee for those wishing to see this beautiful natural attraction.

He also expresses concern at the extent to which public signage proliferates at scenes of natural beauty and how this in many ways takes from the obvious enjoyment of the scenery itself.

He has a potshot at the phenomenon of coin-operated candles in churches - a feature which we share with Italy and other Catholic countries.

Vitaliev's most telling criticism of Ireland is the absence of a clear commitment here to the preservation of much of what should constitute our built heritage, physical environment and stock of buildings that should be open to conservation.

He points to the large supermarket imposed in the market square in Clifden, Co Galway, and the UFO-like similar retail outlet, brightly lit and modernistic, on Inis Mór.

Vitali's rather pessimistic early conclusion in this book is that "the spiritual alternative for Ireland's declining religious zeal has yet to be found".

He brings into his range finder other targets for his ire and certainly Mná na hÉireann will not be pleased by this particular description: "They drink more than men: they shout louder in pubs, they show more aggression, in business, politics and in family life . . . "

As a TD, I can only observe that women deputies, in my humble experience, are no less, nor no more, aggressive than their male counterparts in Leinster House where there are, statistically at least, far too few of them.

Dublin, as capital city, fares not much better and is looked upon as the most architecturally messed up city that he has witnessed since his visit to Dundee in Scotland.

Dublin, Vitali believes, is far less attractive than the painstaking image that it has built up around itself.

Despite these rather negative views he concludes that the city is compact and gives one the feeling of being at the centre of things.

Temple Bar is depicted as a night-time experience not too distant from Dante's Inferno, with dark streams of urine running across pavements, fights and sexual intercourse between young adults al fresco.

Vitaliev attributes the survival of some better known superstitions in Irish life to the fact that, like Russia, there has never been a shortage of either imagination or insecurity to feed some of the delusions that inhabit our national character or psyche.

"Modern Ireland," he writes, "reminds me of a confused sunflower, not entirely sure of where to look: at its gruesome past; its materially prosperous, yet spiritually vacuous, present; or its largely uncertain future. It is unsure of whether to turn towards Britain, Europe or further afield - to the USA."

Two places emerge triumphant from this book: the city of Cork and the tiny village of Ballinagare in Co Roscommon.

Overall the author has expressed reservations and a certain perplexity about us but thankfully concludes that we maintain a self-deprecatory view of ourselves.

He concludes: "One of the most delightful qualities of present-day Ireland is the all-permeating casual humour of its everyday life." This book should be required reading for those executives who run our tourist authorities North and South - the product, not the people, needs to be improved.

Conor Lenihan is Minister for Integration