Old Ireland or New Belgium?

(DISCLAIMER: The following piece is not nostalgia driven white washing of the downsides of Irish life decades ago. If your first instinct is to rehash awful periods from the past and suck all the crack from the room then please find somewhere else, I’m more interested in Barney Smyth the greengrocer than Father Brendan Smyth, nor am I suggesting that everything was better and that we should disavow modern healthcare and instead traipse around the Sperrin mountains in the dead of night looking for a seventh son of a seventh son to attend a heart attack victim)

“Yey can’t ate scenery!”. Such was the terse summary by my uncle on the topic of living somewhere nice but not ‘developed’. Well, it turns out that he effectively could, having later fled to a nice part of the Irish midlands and maintained a family and a business there.

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Clifden, Co. Galway – Inedible

Perhaps it was a cliché of the day (early 90’s) as a way of justifying the cost of progress. I do wonder though if the cultural bean-counters have been summoned to determine what the cost actually is?

I of course have my barstool calibre opinions on the matter but today* was a bit of a game changer regarding the cost of ‘Big Line Go Up’ ideology in the form of a book that was kindly donated to me (with literally a Landrover full of other books) by a fellow Slugger moderator (who shall fig-leafedly remain anonymous).

The book in question is a 1991 Ireland edition of an ‘Insight Guides’.

I appreciate that it is now over 30 years ago but the sheer scale of the change staggers me, though partly this is because I do remember seeing some of these things (though in hindsight it is apparent that they were on their way out at that point).

Also, being a guide book, it will no doubt be cherry-picked in terms of photos and vistas and would of course favour those scenes which fit the image. They still do this today but I for one am embarrassed by the sheer fraud of it nowadays; we seemingly have more petrol stations than thatched houses (well, certainly thatched pubs), more supermarkets than quaint traditional family stores, more roundabouts than crossroads ceilidhs, more late night taxi ranks than religious processions (northern Protestant marches excepted, sorry chaps) and quite frankly any painting featuring Mt. Errigal with thatched cottages in the foreground could by rights fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act such is the unlikelihood of such a scene in modern Ireland, yet we will not offer this more honest vision to outsiders.

If Paris syndrome is a real thing then surely Erin Syndrome must be a possibility someday too?

Paris syndrome (Frenchsyndrome de ParisJapanese: パリ症候群, romanizedPari shōkōgun) is a sense of extreme disappointment exhibited by some individuals when visiting Paris, who feel that the city was not what they had expected. The condition is commonly viewed as a severe form of culture shock.”


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Paris Also Paris

Or perhaps ‘Belgium Syndrome’ might be a better name, for I notice a lot of similarities between our path and Belgium’s.

Belgium’s main ‘Dutch’ province, Flanders, is entangled with Dutch history, you can no more separate Vlanderen from Dutch history than you can Donegal from Ulster history. Yet the differences once you cross the Dutch border soon become clear;

A wealth of ugly architecture (outside of a few protected hubs like Ghent or Brugge or some of the other quaint towns), liberal placement of supermarkets and retail parks as per Kevin Sharkey’s “Aldi at every roundabout” tirade (e.g. just knock down a mid terrace building and plant a Lidl/Aldi/petrol station there and have everyone swarm there and neglect the town centre shops), car dependency, poorly planned industrial estates along arterial routes, a complete rejection of the state church despite the very strong history of Catholicism (think on this the next time you drink an Abbey beer) and spookily empty dormitory villages (as opposed to Dutch villages which always seem to have people milling around or children playing in the back roads or canals)

Both the Netherlands and Belgium have high GDP and population density and good infrastructure.

Where I see forlorn monasteries and neglected Marian shrines in Belgium I see healthy congregations in South Holland’s Bible Belt.

Where I see empty, lifeless dormitory towns in rural Flanders I see lovely little lively villages all over the various Dutch provinces.

Where I see car stuffed squares or car park embankments in Belgium I see pedestrianized living areas in Holland.

I’ve yet to meet a farmer in Belgium, yet up north ‘over the rivers’ I see them all the time and see the fruits of their labours (literally) all over the place.

So clearly, it’s NOT ALL about Big Line Go Up economics, so, what are the influencing factors? Local taxes? Planning laws? Transport systems? Retaining of religious heritages? Family sizes? What?

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Ireland still has beautiful villages, fine pubs, humour filled people, characters, traditions etc. but could we have saved more? (For fear of sounding like Oskar Schindler). How many have been needlessly shed in the pursuit of (effectively) unnecessary commutes, job titles that only make sense on LinkedIn or gardenless, viewless living spaces that are nowhere near the shops?

Now, this is where I invite all Sluggerites to chip in;

I am incapable of judging the magnitude of the changes accurately because a lot of them I would not have experienced and I am honestly more familiar with Alberta, Canada than I am with Limerick* or Killarney or anywhere that far south(?) (I was in Cork city a couple of years ago though…).

So, as we look at the (presumably highly select) pages of the book please chip in with your experiences of them then and how they fare now, and why the change (if any) and I do mean anything;

Names of individual fields, bonfires (at home or crossroads), lowering window blinds for passing funeral corteges, shillings in apple pies, driving round and round Portstewart on a Sunday afternoon, sitting on benches staring at passing drivers, having a whiskey with one’s pint, winter swims, eating seaweed, making butter, sitting on top of a trailer load of hay, bring in a field for no reason, using bailer twine as a belt, picnic-in-a-hay-field, knowing the pecking order for seating in a funeral, an afternoon pint, gospel signs and Marian shrines, pilgrimages, cutting turf, calling someone who has the cure whenever you or your animals are ill, horseshoes on fairy trees, standing outside the bedroom of a newlywed couple’s bedroom and ‘keeping the stroke’ with a fiddle (joking, that’s a Shetland tradition…weird island Celto-Nordic folk…)

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OBSERVATION: A Dearth of girth

One thing that jumped out at me in the crowd shots was how few overweight people there (seemingly) were; is this deliberate editing or a sign of poverty or a hint of the influence of junk food stuffed petrol stations and cheap supermarket food?

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Lack Of Litter

OBSERVATION: Roots Given the Boot?

Page 80 is dedicated to Irish roots and ancestry. Most of us will have encountered an American recounting their Irish DNA percentage as per some ancestry website. As someone who for most of his life has frequently been referred to as ‘not proper Irish’ (on account of only having official ancestry on the island for 3 centuries) I am not a stranger to the snobbery of the idea. But, in the new Ireland, is the external/traditional view of what constitutes Irish heritage and roots now abruptly defunct?

Market Pitches and Potato Peddlers

I’m a fan of markets. I loved going to the Barrowlands in Glasgow and occasionally the nearby Paddy’s Market (quite sketchy though). And indeed Nutts Corner.

Once upon a time markets weren’t middle class affairs, they were just what ‘ordinary folk’ did. Buying fruit off of a street trader was still possible in Glasgow in the late 90’s and in Belfast you could buy stuff on the streets too (usually cigarette lighters…).

Another staple was a trailer parked by the side of the road where a farmer (or relation) would sell sacks of spuds.

When I last lived in Dublin in 2015 I went to a gym on Moore street and noticed a significant number of locals selling produce (including tobacco, some of the lads from the gym would be at this in between training sessions). I do not know if this is still the case. If not, is Dublin better off for it?

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To be honest, while growing up in Northern Ireland my idea of nuns was that they were akin to some sort of ethereal force that was in the background keeping the native youth in check, I don’t recall ever coming across them despite the numerous convent schools. Yet, this book highlights the importance of nuns and indeed Catholicism to most Irish people in the ‘90’s, up to the point of the great Paternus Tedius heresy of the mid 90’s;

Communion, priests blessing this and that, confirmations, children everywhere, Marian shrines galore….

I’m cultural Prod of (lame) agnostic leanings, but even I lament the passing of such social focus.

And now that I’ve been a bit more exposed to the south I’ve seen the number of Catholic church built institutions such as schools and hospitals. The dark side of these institutions is much publicised but the salting of their earth seems to me to be overkill. Is society really better off with the closing of Catholic hospitals, monasteries and nunneries?

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Also, in the north people are trying to remove our street preachers.

I see them as a contrast to the south where there are few (if any) Christian street preachers left. Pg 97 shows a preacher in 90’s Dublin, right beside where a couple of people where recently filmed feverishly chanting “allahuakbar!” I can’t help but feel that the unpopular Belfast preachers are maintaining an old Irish tradition while Dublin embraces the changes that I observe in many western European cities (and interestingly the Belfast street preachers now have a female African contingent, the politically correct opponents of street preachers are seemingly stumped as how to deal with this).

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Another example of Belfast being ‘Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis’?

OBSERVATION: Bungalow Blight and McMansion Menace

In the Netherlands there are very strict planning laws (contrasting with Belgium, to wit there is a popular coffee table book of a mocking nature called something along the lines of ‘Belgian Houses’, basically the Dutch laugh at how the Belgians knock down their heritage and replace it with architectural tombstones “here once lived a Flemish farmhouse, now replaced by a modern soulless husk of a building”.)

These laws mean that one can (and does) cycle down country back roads unable to tell which thatched farmhouse is 20 years old or 200 years old.

The same arguments apply ; “it’s old, cold, unstable, will cost a fortune…” yet still they refurbish them and refit them and they look magnificent and are a pleasure to reside in (our company staff house is a thatched farmhouse with underfloor heating, a truly welcoming place after a 15 hour day)

Imagine how Ireland would look if the planning same criteria applied?

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Halls, Hymns and Harmony

In your youth how many times a week would you have been in a hall? A church/parish hall, a gospel hall, a scout hall, an Orange/Hibernian hall, a community hall?

And in these halls how often would you have sung? Or played an instrument? Or danced? (personally I would have been in halls 2-4 times a week in my teens depending on the time of the year)

And what about now, for yourself or your children or your grandchildren? (Bingo halls not included…)

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Men Who HALL

OBSERVATION: More Courses For Less Horses

It surprised me to learn that the name ‘steeplechase’ is of Irish origin, something to do with 2 horse mounted Anglo-Irish riders in Co. Cork in 1752 (see pg 271)

I was never a horsey person (only time I ever attempted it was in Scotland, once). Yet, I saw the beasts and testaments to them everywhere (I literally used to see a gymkhana in front of our house every year).

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A Horsey Person

But, clearly these animals were until recently a part of our heritage across the board, from gypsies, to Anglo aristocrats, to Dublin estates to rural gymkhanas not to mention our numerous racing courses, much more a part of everyday life than most western European countries.

(I was surprised to learn that the oldest racecourse in Ireland is in Downpatrick, Co Down)

How long before this culture becomes the exclusive property of the rich? What’s your history with horse culture? Do you bet? Have you been given lifts by pony trap drivers?

Travellers – How Far Have They Travelled?

On a closely related note, traveller folk were/are quite associated with horses. The pictures in this book are either highly select, like a Masai village for tourists or this traditional culture of travelling folk was happening elsewhere on the island, I certainly don’t recall this in the 80’s or 90’s

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Bar Stool Rant: Stolen Valour?

During my travels and stations abroad I of course ended up in Irish circles and would quickly notice the pattern of talking about the Old Sod as if it were a magically different western country (which it would’ve been 15 years prior, though probably not magical…)

They reminded me of Dylan Moran’s Bernard Black from ‘Black Books’.

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When I was a teenager (90’s) practically everyone I knew could play an instrument and/or sing several traditional ‘folk’ songs (ironically, this is easier if you’re a working class Prod; fifes are easy to play and the introductory songs aren’t taxing)

Is this still the case? Can most teenagers still sing ‘Irish’ songs (which is what most loyalist melodies are, but we’ll save that for another day)?

Or are most Irish young fellas doing a gap year in Australia who boast of such heritage resting on the musical laurels of their predecessors?

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Observe this maestro: he’s playing in a centre of sorts to an impressed but not animated crowd. How far back must we go to find a musician like him (though perhaps not as talented) in a local pub firing up a crowd?

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My (strict Protestant) grandfather apparently used to play celidh music before and after every village hall meeting way back then, folk music and dance was just something that people ‘did’ back then, now it’s an event or indeed a novelty. Surely for culture to survive we all have to make it part of our daily lives, not treat it like ‘the good china’ for visitors?

Can/could you play any instruments? Can you remember many traditional songs/tunes? (Yes, The Sash counts). And your children/Juniors?

Villages: Survivors vs Gravestones

What are your favourite villages and why?

What are the nicest parts of these villages and why? For example, the main street? Or the newly built estate that houses people who seldom drift into the village?

I now accept that I’m old as I can remember hamlets having churches, pubs, post offices and always one single farm-with-business-in-the-main-house-out-front (usually a pub or undertakers)

As I referenced Kevin Sharkey mentioned Aldis at the roundabout. He mentioned this as he believes (like I do) that they contribute to the decimation of the main street of towns and villages. So, are they really worth it?

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Uneconomic Relic of the Past That Stands in the Way of PROGRESS!


What do you recall, miss or think is a shame to have passed away or fallen out of favour?

*I started this piece ages ago.

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