In a new push announced last week, Fáilte Ireland is promoting a deeper kind of tourism to help culture-offering Irish locals catch the tourist's heart with a romance of place and placename. Getting a tourist to spend time in an unusual village is a problem of drawing the stranger into the magic of a new place.
Globalization has created a new kind of tourist--one who seeks-out significance in a secret spot she can claim as a personal find.
Irish is an oldly independent culture that occupies not just the shelves of a library, but also the geography of a poeticized landscape. In the minds of knowledgeable Irishmen, the environment of Ireland awakens, and can produce an artistry of story that talented talkers can share with tourists cluing-in. The obstacle is getting people to understand the value (figurative in both senses) of Gaelic place-knowledge.
It is not just a metaphor to describe Ireland as a manuscript. Ireland's geography is literally literary in place-name. Irish placenames offer that feeling of in-between-ness you get when poetry is cracked open. After Brian Friel wrote a play called Translations about this phenomenon, everyone now knows there are secrets locked in Ireland's funny names.
The place-name is the secret that unlocks Ireland. Dinnshenchas is the fancy word for the revelation of place, where Irish places are not just photographs, but also nature poetry. Fáilte Ireland would do well to promote local storytellers who can connect the Irish words of the landscape to Irish literature.
The Irish town Athlone--Áth Luan--Ford of the Loins--in the middle of Ireland, for example, has a name that resonates to the central text of the Irish canon--the ancient epic Táin. By understanding a placename's meaning, sleepy towns can draw on the Irish canon, like a launching pad at the cross road, where the bi-lingual signs point to Ireland between two worlds. Why shouldn't Athlone remind its pilgrims of its place in the epic where it is explained how the bickering of two faeries can lead to world war.
Athlone may also refer to Luan who took the form of a bird, and was allowed time to make love to his lover when everyone else is lulled into dreams with their music. Such digressions and multiple possibilities in Ireland, are analogous to getting lost on a road trip there.
When Ireland indulged its own peculiarity it produced a golden strain in modernist culture. The tourist to Ireland is like a theater-goer expecting to encounter wizardly characters. Ireland is a land where you can still meet someone who has the knack (from the Irish gnách) to plug-in to the poetry-of-placenames and share with a tourist, the way a Seneca scout might have led the conquistador on a trail to El Dorado. The place-name is the bridge between the map-bearer and the local who can make a vacation to Ireland memorable by understanding the Irish of Ireland. "We asked this guy for directions..." is the start of many stories about a magic trip to Ireland.
There are many middles in Ireland, among them Áth Luan, a place as old as the Táin, a story once spread across Ireland like Ulysses by heart among the Greeks. Uisneach is another middle, the wishnook womb of Mother Ireland. Tara is another famous Irish middle, the seat of high kingship. Dublin is yet another center of Ireland. The draw that keeps pulling a mind back to the matrix of Ireland--to her flesh in the soil--is that the island can be endlessly excavated if the people continue to remember the Irish of Ireland, the way across the bridge between Ireland and the Ireland of poetry.
The middle is where a language-based vacation to Ireland will leave you--in any of a number of places in Ireland's literature/geography. In the placenames you first read of Éire--who was a goddess, and of her niece, Ana Livia Plurabella, who drank at the dark pool of DubhLinn, a city named for the Life River's source.
To buzz with Ireland's meaning, a tourist just has to find a local druid--a good Joycean in Dublin for example--a JBKeane in Kerry--who can put where the visitor is standing into words that flow into Irish memory, or what tourists call Irish literature.