Well, this is a bit overdue, but I have felt the need to sum up my three and a half years in Ireland. When I decided, a bit on the spur of the moment, to take up a position in Ireland, leaving my home in the UK, I believed that, apart from the new experiences, it would make me appreciate the UK more or educate me that there are other places in the world worth living in. I was helped/encouraged to make the move by someone who then decided I was not quite what they had expected (no, it wasn’t an affair) so there were personal problems that I will not mention again.
They warned me that I would no longer be living in Britain and I have to say that, surprisingly, there were some culture shocks! My accommodation was not ready when I arrived and I had to live for four months in the Tara Vie hotel. I was told that breakfast was not served till 8 and as I had to start work then it meant no breakfast. Not to worry, I was told, just come back at 10! When I said this wasn’t on I was told to just go and make my own in the kitchen. Rules and regulations ran through my mind and I thought this was a non starter. But I was in Ireland! And I soon learned that things are different there. In fact, the relaxed attitude to most things came as a shock and a frustration when I wanted things done or delivered. Don’t forget I had just left the post as Editor of Garden Answers and was used to immutable deadlines.
I regretted not being able to cook and it was awkward living out of carrier bags but I have to say that my self-imposed diet of the Tara Vie’s world famous chicken goujons and salad and a pint of the black stuff every night resulted in me being healthier than I have ever been. I have told them that they ought to open as a health spa!
Suddenly I had the opportunity to explore a whole new country and, knowing that I had a finite time, it spurred me on to see as much as I could. So although I had weekend duties, I managed to see most counties, apart from the extreme north west.
Many years before, on one of my first, working, visits to Ireland, I was almost personally accused of causing the potato famine. Not being fully briefed on the subject I was a bit taken aback – and I was glad to discover at Johnstown Castle, where they have an exhibition on the subject, that it started in Belgium. Phew. But it was interesting to discover the Irish view of the UK and things calmed down once I (finally) persuaded everyone that I was not actually a spy for Cromwell.
Apart from the beauty of the country, what really hits home is the friendliness of the Irish. That is not to say that they are necessarily the most accepting. I was shocked at the forthright manner in which they talk about things. And although at first I could not believe what I heard on the radio, I came to admire the frankness of everything. I became a devotee of Newstalk radio and especially George Hook. It is too little to say that his show is a breath of fresh air – he is a tour de force (or an self-opinionated old fool) and why anyone comes on to try to express a different view is beyond me.
Religion has always been a problem for me and I was not altogether surprised that it is a big issue in Ireland. Everyone knows what religion everyone is and even a surname can give the game away. For someone like me who doesn’t give a toss about it I was bemused. And more so when I discovered that protestants are alleged by some to make the best tray bakes and yet a ‘protestant’ cake is likely to be dull and made with margarine rather than butter because protestants are mean!
Butter, and potatoes, are big. The Irish do like their spuds and I discovered, a season too late, that they like them floury! And no one could believe that I sometimes threw out butter because it was out of date. The fact that butter is sold in 454g packs rather than the more usual, mean, 227g packs in the UK speaks for itself!
I met some real characters. Like the man who I commented on that he had amazing blue eyes that looked like a doll’s – only to be told that they were glass.
During my time the economy picked up a bit. At first it was all doom and gloom after the financial crash, but things have recovered and the Irish certainly know how to have a good time. They are a sociable lot! There are as many coffee shops as in the UK but what is notably different is that most are independents and Costa and Starbucks that seem to own half the urban property in the UK are quite rare in Ireland. Not a bad thing really.
I felt a bit awkward being in Ireland in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising. I never had any problems but the guilt of what has happened in the past between our two countries lay heavily on my shoulders. We have a strange history really and although the Republic is certainly happy being that way the people of the country have long travelled to the UK for work. In fact I do not think I met anyone who hadn’t got a relative working either in the UK or Australia. After what has just happened to the UK I think this perfectly illustrates the importance of movement of people. I think Ireland looks west rather than east and I had the feeling that places were more American than British despite the physical proximity. And, of course, Ireland is in Europe but I don’t think they take the rules too seriously, the biggest problem that the UK has had with the EU – we follow rules and get upset.
It seems a shame to me that the nation tried to eliminate some of the relics of the British after independence, such as destroying property. I suppose it is inevitable, and with the Brexit vote we see that nothing has changed about wanting freedom, but the Irish then gave themselves to the Church and things did not necessarily get much better. The fact that I heard, first hand from people who suffered when being educated by the Christian Brotherhood, the topic coming up in general conversation, astounded me. I am not saying that such things happen now – I don’t know – but that it happened in the late 20th century while I was at school, amazes me.
On the other hand, I met priests while I was in Ireland that surprised me by their modern attitudes and reassured me that the Church could do some good.
Although it drove me mad at times, perhaps the relaxed attitude is really for the best. It did bother me that, at times, it seems that use of indicators on cars was voluntary, and that you had to have a mobile phone in your hand if you were driving (something I couldn’t get used to). But then I smiled when the owner of a ride-on mower drove it to the petrol station to fill it up, stopping in the middle of the street to chat to a garde – only in Ireland.
There are beautiful places all over the country and although most visitors ‘do’ Dublin and then head west, there are amazing things everywhere. I didn’t go to Dublin as often as I should have – staying beyond the pale. Just like as in the UK there is some regional differences and in the south there is some resentment of ‘Dubs’ just as the north of the UK thinks that London gets all the money – it is the way of things I suppose.
Ireland is now famous for its food and I was lucky enough to visit Ballymaloe a few times, working. I will miss the soda bread and, although I tried, I never quite made it as well as I would have liked. I think I was trying too hard!
Before I arrived, most of my knowledge of Ireland was based on Mrs Brown’s Boys and Father Ted, with a few hints from Black Books. Of course I knew they were sitcoms but I soon discovered they were actually documentaries and I think I actually lived through every episode of Father Ted, except for the plague of rabbits.
Of course I was in Ireland to garden and it was an enlightening experience. Though subtley different, because I was in the sunny southeast, the climate is milder and more equable and plants from the Southern Hemisphere thrive. Some of the grand gardens do owe their existence to the British but not all. The largely acid soils and the majesty of the landscape colour the garden styles so it more closely resembles that of the western edges of the UK’s gardens than here in the east.
I had the privilege to meet some grand gardeners, particularly Helen Dillon, who I also worked with – she is an inspiration and a wonderful person. The first time I met her she was putting out blueberries on the bird table and I thought ‘That’s style’!
More often than not, if I went to Dublin, it was either to the airport or to the Botanics. I never thought I would ever see those grand glasshouses let alone be able to visit so easily – that was a treat.
And I remember the first time I went to Glendalough and thought I had discovered some unknown monument! I could not understand why there was a hotel next to it. Of course it was a wet day in January. I soon realised that this is one of the must-see sights for any tourist when I rode up at the weekends in summer!
I have already mentioned the friendliness of the Irish. I was living in fairly rural Ireland but I was always slightly taken aback at how people would just break into conversation. Some people said that this was nosiness, not friendliness. But I found it endearing. People seemed non-judgemental, at least on the surface – remember that this was the country that voted for gay marriage and yet was ruled by the church not so many decades ago.
But I did soon discover to hold my tongue – when I remembered, because this is a small country and people still have lots of kids and you can be sure that if you talk about someone, the person you are talking to will be their friend or cousin!
Ireland is a matriarchal society and the women are strong, despite what the men may think.
For a while I joined a book club, I bought an accordian and had a few lessons (I regret not keeping up with that but look forward to practising now I have neighbours!) and did Tai Chi for a couple of years that was very enjoyable. So I did delve into culture a bit.
And I did my bit for the Whiskey industry.
It was so nice that people are so enthusiastic about gardening and so willing to learn. I gave talks to some lovely groups around the country and frequently at Springmount garden centre.
It was fitting that one of the highlights of my time and one of the last things I did was assisting with the gold-medal winning stand at Bloom for Springmount Garden Centre. It was all a bit of a risk but we did it.
I have so many happy memories of my time in Ireland and what made it so special was the beauty of the place and the friendliness of the people.
When I had to say goodbye to everyone I was surprised at how emotional it was. At times I had felt, inside, like a square peg in a round hole, but this was as much to do with my national guilt as anything else. It was only at the end that I realised that I had more friends now than at any other time.
It was a wrench to say goodbye and leave such a beautiful country and such a warm and welcoming people. As someone said at my leaving drink (in the Tara Vie of course) ‘I had touched everyone’.
I would like to make clear that this is a lie!
I know what was meant though 🙂
And you all touched me. So to everyone who I worked with or knew socially, thank you. You made my time in Ireland very special.