Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Going native

My neighbour's car -- he keeps them spotless in his barn, next to the cows.

Between our house and the nearby village lies three kilometres of canal, mostly on one single-lane country road. I don’t mean one lane each way; I mean one lane, with no shoulders and sharply bounded on either side. On one side a steep drop sends your car straight into the 300-year-old canal, and crosses along the canal attest to the memory of neighbours who plunged in over the years.

On the other side the road is walled in by a dense hedgerow, enclosing the cows and sheep that graze the bog-lands. Between them the road is only slightly wider than one car, so when one car meets another coming toward it, someone has to back off into the nearest driveway.

Locals know the etiquette – the westward-travelling car pulls over, usually flashing their lights at night, and then the cars pass each other. It seems a cumbersome way to drive to town, with people having to get out of each other’s way occasionally, but it also means that the road takes up no more space than it needs to. It’s no wider than an American supermarket aisle, and when I return to my country and see American roads – at least two lanes across, with a lane-sized shoulder on each side – they look like vast rivers of asphalt taking up valuable growing space.


I jog along this road when I can, and it gives me a chance to stop and see neighbours. This morning I met a local farmer – we’ll call him Liam – who raises cows down the road.

“How you keeping, Liam?” I said in the local way, stopping on the road and facing him across the hedgerow. After living here a short time I picked up the local turns of phrase, and they are so natural now that when I visit my family back in the USA I get strange looks.  

“Keeping well,” he said, “but the days have been soft.” He means that it’s rained a lot, which is true – we live in the Bog of Allen, and after a week of rain the cows are covered in mud and the fields have become archipelagos of grass in the middle of rippling puddles.

“It’s desperate, hasn’t it?” I agreed. “I’m just jogging during the pause in the rain, but those clouds might send me home again. What brings you out here?”

“I have a calf that keeps escaping,” he said. “I border my fields with hedgerows, dikes and barbed wire, and he gets out anyway.” By “dike,” by the way, locals don’t mean a wall to keep out water, but rather the opposite – a culvert or ditch for water to drain away, and to stop animals from crossing.

“He comes into this field – the neighbour’s field, where he shouldn’t be – and leaves no tracks in the mud,” Liam said, shaking his head. “He must be tunnelling somewhere.”

 “I heard a farmer say that he had barbed wire and a dike, and his sheep still got out,” I told him. “But there was a point where the ground dipped a bit, and the sheep snuck under the barbed wire, and rolled their bodies across the dike …”

“So they don’t leave any tracks,” Liam finished. “Clever.”

“They’re not rocket scientists, sheep, but even they can surprise you,” I said.

“They can be smarter than we realise,” Liam said. “Just about the things that are important to them.”

Locals have been grazing sheep on the Curragh commons supposedly since Roman times.


Donna OShaughnessy said...

Oh how I love your blog, makes me homesick for my second home every time I read it. I too was shocked by the narrow roads the first 10 times I traveled there and then suddenly, on my 11th trip, the roads seemed normal and the roundabouts made sense and I found myself backing up and turning around for the tourists, which I refuse to call myself now. The year I got a speeding ticket in Ireland the Garda said, "So you think you're one of us now? Then I'll tell you what I tell all of dem, slow your arse down!" It was my proudest moment. Your neighbor's car is lovely by the way.

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you! My neighbour has a whole collection of those, and brings them out occasionally.

When we first moved here I saw the local police station, and was first surprised to see that it was a tiny shack, and second that it was "open 10 am to noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays."

It's a shock to me to go back to the USA now, and to notice how much of the landscape is just roads and things along the road; how heavily policed it is; and how little people walk or bicycle places. Still, every place has its problems, as does this one.

Mary said...

Big highways are convenient, for sure, but by saving us time I think they also rob us of so much of what makes us human. We plow through the world, the landscape, and our lives in this big rush, to what? A cubicle, a heart attack, a pervading loneliness?

I always avoid the big highways and interstates because I feel trapped on them. And I'd say many others feel trapped as well, but we've been brainwashed into thinking that efficiency and getting to our destination faster is the most important thing. There are no real ways to "save time," despite what we tell ourselves. There are only different ways of "spending" it.

On my last few trips to Ireland, driving to and from airports, I noticed that when I took the big highways, I got to my destination faster, partly because I was less inclined to stop at places and sights that peaked my interest. But on the smaller, country roads, I was inclined to feel more relaxed and, therefore, willing to stop at those places that may be on no map but seem worth looking at nonetheless. Big highways make me feel like I'm in a rush, even when I'm not!