As an Irish American who’s been living in Ireland these past seven years, I feel that I might make my greatest contribution to The Gathering by offering a few pointers both to my compatriots who are hosting the big G, and my other compatriots, who are (hopefully) flocking to it.
Tips for the Americans
1. Rock out with the rosary beads. At home, if you say “Just pray it doesn’t rain on sports day” in a government-funded classroom, you risk a lawsuit.
Here, secularization runs along the lines of allowing the children of atheists to skip First Holy Communion class. So if you’re one of those Americans who’ll be damned to see the phrase “under God” stripped from the Pledge of Allegiance, make the most of seeing the Virgin Mary absolutely everywhere.
2. Don’t wait for the “if”. When, for instance, an Irish person says to you “I would be Kevin’s brother” or “I would have graduated with Sinéad,” don’t wait, as I used to, for the end of the sentence, i.e., “if my father had married his mother” or “if we had been in the same class.” There isn’t one. The Irish mean I AM Kevin’s brother, or I DID GRADUATE with Sinéad. They just can’t risk trapping themselves in the declarative.
3. When your carb count goes through the roof, blame the British. Presumably because they were starved of potatoes during the infamous mid-1800s famine, the Irish feel an uncontrollable urge to feast on them now. You’ll be offered two or three iterations of spud at every meal: fried, mashed, hashed, browned, boiled, roasted. Searching for a uniquely Irish dining experience? Go to a Chinese restaurant and order your kung pao chicken with a side of chips (fries).
4. Especially if you are coming from a major U.S. metropolitan area, you will find yourself sensing something strange about Ireland, but not knowing what it is. Here’s what it is: Everyone is white and nothing is in Spanish. OK, that’s an exaggeration: nearly twenty per cent of today’s Irish population was born elsewhere. But the number one immigrant group consists of the Polish, perhaps the only people on earth with less tan and more Mary-mother-of-God mojo than the Irish.
5. Notwithstanding item 5, the Irish are much more worldly than you have been led to believe by The Quiet Man. They have smart phones, zumba, civil unions, chorizo, an “Occupy” movement – the whole 21st century deal. If you see a farmer humming “Danny Boy” while hand-tilling his soil a wee stone’s throw from his thatched cottage, he’s filming a commercial.
6. Just because long-lost cousin Barry lives on an estate, in a residence called Hibernian Manor, does not mean that he’s got a giant, Hollywood-star-like spread. In Ireland, “estates” are not mansions surrounded by acres of manicured greenery, but simply housing developments, and many houses are named rather than numbered. So the Manor might just be a condo.
7. As in all languages, the points of greatest confusion involve identical-sounding words that mean very different things. “Holidays” are not just feast days such as Christmas, but vacations. A “tea shock” is not a sudden burst from a breakfast beverage; it is a prime minister (Taoiseach). Most disconcertingly if you should hear a six-year-old girl talking about her school supplies, a “rubber” is an eraser.
8. If you ask an Irish person for directions and they refer to making a turn before or after you come to “a field”, do not leave it at that. You will end up driving dark roads to infinity wondering whether, after you’ve run out of very expensive gas and rolled to a halt somewhere in County Idunno, a farmer or a raven will be the first to find your corpse. To your eye, Ireland itself will be a field. Get some specifics.
9. Beware the mild remark. To gauge its real meaning, quintuple the potency at least. “He wouldn’t be my best friend” translates to “I plan to kill the bastard.” “The weather forecast wouldn’t be great now” means that there is a tornado brewing. If you suggest, say, knocking on Annie O’Reilly’s door to see if she’s the same Annie O’Reilly that Dad’s brother’s cousin was always going on about, and an Irish person suggests that that ‘mightn’t be the best idea”, they probably fear that Annie will come at you with a meat cleaver. On a happier note, “Not too bad” can be taken to mean “absolutely fantastic!”
10. The original language here is referred to as Irish, not Gaelic, and you should make no attempt to pronounce anything in it. The words look familiar but the associated sounds are anything but. The name Caoimhe is pronounced “Queeva”. “Neeve” is spelled “Niamh.” “Laois” is pronounced “Leash”. However, everyone speaks English. Your Irish kin may view this as the bitter fruit of British oppression, but for you, it’s a godsend.
11. The Irish-language name for “men” is “fir” and for women is “mna.” This can get tricky when it’s time to use the restroom, which, in nationalistic establishments, can be labeled “M” for women. Best to go at your hotel.
12. To the Irish, time is just a suggestion. If you are invited to dinner at eight, the worst thing you can do is show up before eight-thirty. But not to worry: if you’re driving yourself, you’ll be lost until midnight.
13. Do not decide what to wear by looking out the window and seeing what the people walking around outside are wearing. To the Irish, 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a light drizzle is beach weather. You are an American. You need sleeves, socks and real shoes, 365 days a year.
14. If you see a rainbow streaming through the clouds but miss the chance to photograph it, don’t despair. This is a very moist ancestral homeland you’ve got here. Chances are, by week’s end, you’ll see eleven more.
For the Irish:
1. Americans think the Irish love America unconditionally. They don’t realize that, taken on an issue-by-issue basis, the Irish attitude toward U.S. policy is basically that of the hated French. Americans do not know that some of you have been very upset over “extraordinary rendition” flights through Shannon, or because the U.S. refuses to legalize undocumented Irish immigrants ahead of the Mexicans. Why tell them now?
2. To Americans, “toilet” refers only to the ceramic bowl-based fixture with the flush, and not to the room in which it is located. For some reason, they view this word as distasteful and try to use it only technically, as when telling someone to put the seat down. If you say that you were “in the toilet,” an uncomfortable image will pop into their heads of you swirling around indefinitely. So when you wish to make polite reference to the room in which one heeds the call of nature, save yourself a world of worry and say “restroom.”
3. If an American asks you whether he or she should find it easy enough to drive in Ireland, say “NO, YOU WILL FIND IT WAY TOO HARD.” You are Irish. You are used to driving on the left side. You naturally ace narrow country roads with two-way traffic and double-side parking. You understand roundabouts, pelican crossings and those yellow grids that appear now and then. Americans have no idea about any of this, but even the nicest ones pretty much think that having trounced Hitler, they can’t go too wrong with anything. TELL THEM TO HIRE A DRIVER. You won’t just be pumping additional euros into the local economy. You’ll be saving lives.
4. If an American asks you to do something for him that you do not wish to do, and you say “no trouble!”, he will think that it is, in fact, no trouble. He will have no hint that you are being equal parts insulted and inconvenienced and will be using him as the basis of a clueless-Yank anecdote forevermore. (You, on the other hand, will become the basis of a friendly-Irishman anecdote forevermore, so the “clueless” tag is not far off.) Speak up or suffer!
5. If you want to talk politics with the Yanks, tread carefully. Not all Americans love the Clintons or the Kennedys. Whatever you do, don’t diss George W. Bush and the feckin’ idjits who voted him in twice. Given Bush’s numbers among U.S. Catholics, some of those f.i.’s could be in your taxi right now.
6. Americans will moan about the high price of petrol which they call “gas” and for which they are scandalized to pay a fraction of what the Irish pay for it. The lower price is, in part, because the U.S. government subsidizes oil production. Happily, the more likely an American is to hate seeing himself as subsidized, the more likely that American is to do some sniffing at “socialist Europe” along the way. Here’s your chance to sniff right back.
7. If you see an American’s eyes popping out of his head, it’s not a violent allergic reaction or possession by the devil. He’s just calculated the price of something in dollars. You can’t do anything about the euro or the cost-of-living index, but surely you can give the poor fella a free refill.
9. If you can knit, embroider, jar, solder, weld, throw or blow anything that can be labeled “made in Ireland,” set up a stand and go for it. No offense to anyone in receivership, but no one comes “home” to Ireland so as to buy stuff made in Slovenia.
10. Americans tip. Even if they are aware that they needn’t leave fifteen or twenty per cent of the bill, many will feel cheap if they don’t. Don’t take offense. Take the money!
11. Just because Americans are among the most obese people on the planet does not mean that they aren’t also the most diet-conscious. If hosting for any meal, prepare a checklist: wheat, meat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, fat, flour, acid, carbs, carbonates – to determine who’s free of what this week.
12. Further to item 11, Americans feel that it is unwise to drink without eating. They will be shocked to find themselves in a pub with sixty kinds of booze going all night and not a crumb to be had after 8. Nibbling, they reckon, will keep them from getting too drunk. Meanwhile, nibbling on salty stuff will make them drink more. Publicans, put some peanuts out. It’s a win/win.
13. Americans love to find their roots. They don’t have to be real. If your name is Murphy and their name is Murphy, it will not bother them that ninety per cent of Ireland is also named Murphy: you’re family. Why not just go with The Gathering, clap them on the back, and let them feel glad they’ve found you?