It is a long-established consolation of life in Ireland that if only we had the weather this would, officially, be the best country in the world. Then, every so often, a blue-chip wave of Californian sunshine comes riding through the veils of cloud and mist and torrential rain and soft days and mournful winds we sportingly call a "climate" to give Ireland a brief taste of just what that golden fantasy would be like.
Pure Bedlam, it turns out. There is a common misconception that the Irish do not know how to handle a burst of hot days. In fact, as Carly Simon noted, nobody does it better. To begin with, Ireland is transformed within hours. The countryside colours are a John Hinde postcard brought to life, the sky a blue dream and the coastline becomes a kind of heaven on earth.
It turns out nothing marshals the collective Irish spirit of enterprise like confirmation from Met Éireann that "a sunny spell" is on the way. It's always an emotional moment for the nation: after months of bringing news of how this low spell or that cyclone will bring about scattered showers turning to heavy rain, the stars of Met Éireann are kind of chuffed to announce the gift of sunshine. Nobody cares about the details – they might as well just play Good Vibrations on vinyl and be done with it.
As soon as we see the good old Met Éireann map of Ireland plastered in those sunshine motifs, all bets and shirts are off. A giddiness descends. Here, now, comes the fabled summer of the 1970s you’ve heard so much about. Within hours the hardware stores are ransacked, the off-licence shelves resemble a Soviet supermarket in the worst years and you can’t get a grill-able sausage or an ice cube for love nor money.
Coconut and cider
Pale men of an age to know better find themselves turning childhood arabesques off rusting diving boards while far below young surfers sit on boards waiting to catch the mini-tunsami created after they hit the water.
The entire country reeks of coconut and cider.
The Irish sun bathe with impunity and produce stunning departures from the accepted skintones of the human race. “You got an amazing colour,” comes the doubtful compliment – and “amazing” is usually the only word to describe the hues on show.
There’s an art to this lark. The seasoned Irish know that the only way to treat the arrival of sunshine is to cram a full summer’s worth of barbecuing, beach-going, pint-drinking and sun-worshipping into the 72-hour spell that it usually lasts for.
This week Galway's famous promenade has been a Salta Ponza: azure skies, Arubian waters and two-hour lines for the 99 stalls. Could this really be the place where Theresa Mannion braved a monsoon to implore the motorists of Ireland not to make unnecessary journeys? Could this really be the car park where each January the evening news shows abandoned SUVS bobbing around like bath toys?
Seven days of this breathless heat may be enough to qualify 2021 as a “great” summer. The dogs are loopy. Nobody can sleep. Even the Irish bees look shagged out.
Still, there is a national vow not to complain, even as the mercury hits 30 and rising. There are five million people in Ireland and, according to the last census, 26 air conditioners, three of which were banjaxed. The nation is just not equipped for sun or snow. It’s a country equipped only for rain – and it’s not even equipped for that.
But through the sunscreen and sunstroke and afternoon pints, you get a chance to stand back and look at Ireland’s seascape and countryside and marvel. The potential is vast and in its infancy.
Take just one town. The pandemic has brought a return to 1970s and 1980s tourist patterns, with Irish people hitting the coastal towns in huge numbers and pavlova making a comeback on all the dessert menus.
Last year, Bundoran in Co Donegal reported its busiest summer since the 1980s. Back then visitors were mainly Northern Irish. That tradition has been maintained but the town is also attracting visitors from parts of Ireland who normally wouldn't think about travelling so far north.
Over the past few decades, Bundoran has naturally reinvented itself as an outdoors haven. It was largely down to local enterprise and imagination: surfers who turned what began as a personal obsession into sustainable local businesses. Surf weekends are becoming all-season attractions. A wealth of terrific independent cafes and restaurants have popped up.
Whether by design or happy accident Bundoran now offers two distinct holiday experiences: the traditional seaside arcade and nightlife weekend crowds co-exist with people who go there for dreamier pursuits: the walks, the unrivalled coastline and the sea; a weekend of Atlantic spirituality and fancy gin.
Bundoran has two outdoor pools cut into the coastline, the Thrupenny Pool and the Nun’s Pool; a throwback to the town’s first incarnation as a seaside resort. They’ve been battered a bit by time but both are back in high fashion. It wouldn’t take all that much official funding to transform them into truly fabulous attractions. It wouldn’t take much to create similar pools all along the coastline of the country.
Ireland has learned to love its climate. Irish people are taking to the waters in greater numbers than ever before – and in all seasons. Hiking has become a weekend pursuit. Pleasure cycling has never been more popular. The returns on an extended greenway cycle path through the west of Ireland could be unimaginable.
The Government announcement in April of €19 million for water-based activities and facilities around the country was a belated acknowledgement of a movement that started decades ago.
It remains to be seen what the pandemic and the work-from-home revolution means for rural depopulation and the west of Ireland. But it is obvious that making Ireland’s coast – its walks and waters and cycle ways – the future of tourism has the potential to vitalise towns that have never got a proper look-in from the Irish State.
It is clear that Irish people have embraced the outdoors in a permanent way. The rush outside is inevitable during these rare visits of tropical weather but the sea and the popularity of outdoor exercise has become an all-season pursuit for many of us and it can become a future model for tourism. Any government with vision will act on that.
But right now it is one of those indolent weekends when Ireland is baking and nobody feels like doing much of anything. The heat won’t break and there’s background sound of championship games on the radio and there’s thunder in the west. The beaches are bananas. It’s the summer week that today’s children will mythologise and bang on to their own grandkids on some wet Irish July many decades from now.
Maybe by then Ireland will have a proper outdoors eco-structure for swimming and biking and hiking so that the splendours of the land can be enjoyed in all kinds of weather.