But you do-on't go there!

"Now you go down the road..." His Irish-blue eyes were intent on an imaginary plan in his mind. "And you see a little cottage. On your left. And beyond that there's a school. With a red roof, and there's a grah-nd big house on the hill behind it. The road curves a bit, and then there's a church on the left." He considered the mental map for a moment, before an authoritative nod of approval. "But you don't go there."

Wha-a-a-t? Or rather in our best tourist-asking-directions manner: "So where do we go, then?"

"Sure, you take the road just before the cottage. To the right. And up the hill is a church, but you....". He didn't need to finish, for didn't we already know the punch-line?

You don't go there.

Asking directions, like many other things in Ireland, is never simple. It had started on the Aer Lingus flight into Cork. We had the address of our first night's accommodation, or rather the name of the town, and instructions to pick up a car at the airport and drive to the hotel. Simple. Or rather it would have been in any place other than this charmed green land where what should be a straightforward journey can turn into an amazing maze. The problem was simple. The town we wanted did not appear on any of the rudimentary maps we had.

"Excuse me," I asked the flight attendant as we crossed the Irish coastline. "Where is Ballylickey?" 

"Ballylickey?" she said, and you would have thought she'd shouted Hijack! for all the heads that swivelled in our direction. Suddenly we had a dozen eager faces all helpfully inclined, all fascinated to see what a person who has no idea of the whereabouts of Ballylickey looks like.

For that is the undoing of the Irish. That and the innocence of the tourists who ask them directions. The locals somehow cannot conceive that you have no idea how to get to Rosscommon or Ballyspittle, or Shanagarry or Nadd. On the other hand they have a touching desire to see you right, to cheer you on your way. And if confusing you by their directions is part of the deal, well so be it. You've had a grand chat all the same!

It seems the Irish see many things differently to others. It's not at all that they want to mislead you, it's more the other way. They bog you down in detail. If you don't watch it, you will hear the life-history, or at least the latest news of several of the places you will pass. And most direction-giving Irish are not averse to a small conversational detour, even if it means backtracking and adding what became our watchwords: "Don't go there".

It's important you understand this before you take their road signs too literally, too. Be prepared for a dozen spellings for each place you visit, and as many distances on the maps and signposts. There is a generosity in this land that spills over into not letting the facts interfere with things too much.

One day we were headed to Mallow, a town in Cork towards the centre of Ireland. The roads in that area were economical with mileage markers and we were beginning to think that we had become seriously lost. Finally at an intersection we spotted the familiar clutch of black on white signs: Mallow 12, it stated certainly. Fine, we thought, not too long now. Three or four kilometres farther, another intersection. Another sign – Mallow 12. Several more kilometres, following the signs, of course. Mallow 17. Uh-oh! Too baffled by now to do more than keep following obediently we drove on, in the direction of the pointer. This time a bridge, a T-junction and another sign Mallow 12 1/4.

Now you could explain some of this by realising that Ireland is right in the middle of the business of changing from miles to kilometres. But 12 1/4??? My theory is that when it came time to put up the signs, the boys got together over a couple of Guinnesses.

"Now Liam, How far do you think it is from here to Mallow?"

"Well me daddy always said it was a fair step, so I reckon about twelve mile."

"And Colum? From your corner to Mallow, what would it be?"

"Easily nine. Call it twelve though, to be sure."

"Well from my place," volunteers Padraic, "it was always eight mile, but I figure now were kilometric it would be somewhere near seventeen of them."

"And I'm just a bit farther along," says Nial, "I wouldn't say it was more than twelve-and-a-quarter."

We never found a map in Ireland either that corresponded to the signs we saw around us. Nor the spellings. Like the town that had one spelling for its name as we entered, another on the map, and a different one ainted on the Post Office. Yet after a while you realised that it doesn't matter anyway. After a few days in Ireland you start to take on the same mindset.

At the beginning I found myself avoiding asking directions. That was after a few times when we'd found ourselves inextricably lost up a one-lane track with blackberries tight-packed at each car door.

"Let's just use the map and work it out for ourselves," I pleaded.

That was before I realised the maps were written by the same people that I had been accosting on the roadsides – or at least their close relatives.

"Just ask someone," we had been told before we left home. "If you can't find a place, just ask someone. And if they don't know, there will surely be someone a little further on who will." Or will make it up, if they don't, we silently added.

You start to wonder after all if the whole business is an elaborate 'Meet-the-Irish' campaign. Lose your way, roll down the window, ask a cherry-cheeked local for directions, spend half an hour in happy (albeit sometimes confusing) conversation, wave goodbye, get lost, return to square one, meet the same (or a similar) equally helpful local, and so it goes. But get lucky and you might find yourself downing a pint in some cosy pub, or tasting home-made cheese and bread over a kitchen table with your new friends, for here, In Ireland, you will also find the most hospitable people on the planet.

You see, the Irish, after all, have got it right. A road is as long as it is. A place-name sounds the same however it's spelt, and anyway does it really make any difference?

Next time I go to Ireland, I'm leaving my maps behind. And my sense of direction. And my spelling fetish.

Right now I'm telling everyone I meet: Ireland? But you MUST go there!

 - Sally Hammond


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