Sunday, May 3, 2009


OK, I was only in Ireland for five days, but it was, as it has always been for me--wondrous and magical.

I like the Irish people. There were 23 in the workshop, two other leaders and three others who want to learn to lead Making a Difference. Plus the people in the incredible retreat center--2 nuns and a bunch of staff since it is a large place with acres and acres of ground overlooking the Irish Sea. I told people at my table one meal that they were 'like people from Minnesota'. Of course I had to explain that to most of them. They could be the folks Garrison Keilor talks about in 'the news from Lake Woebegon'.

The Irish, at least everyone I've met in several trips now, are self-depreciating, humble, extremely humorous, kind, generous to a fault and charming. Surely there are Irish people who aren't--besides, I deal mostly with religious folks and they might not be the norm. (I once went on a tour of Israel with a group of other Episcopal priests and layfolk and our quatro-lingual guide--she spoke English, Hebrew, Arabic and French--told me all the people we ran into thought we were from Canada! We weren't loud or rude and dressed modestly. "That's the way Canadians are to them," she told me, "Americans are something else...")

The Irish I've met--including Patrick, the elderly taxi driver who took me to the airport and has a daughter and son-in-law in Boston--would fit nicely into my stereotype of folks from the upper Midwest of this country. I'd worry about them if they were on the I-95 corridor or moved to Chicago, Atlanta or LA. They aren't edgy enough for that kind of life--that urban funk, that cynical, hardened kind of society. They are people of the glens and country-side. They, most of them, wouldn't fit into Dublin--the two folks from Dublin at the workshop were more suspicious, less expansive than the others....

My son spent a year in London after graduating from college, working in a pub in Chelsea. He told me once, "England is just like America, except it's not...." That's how I feel about Ireland. They speak the same language--sort of--and eat the same food, kinda, and have the same thoughts, except not really. I feel like a foreigner there, which of course I am, even though they look like me and seem to be like me in so many ways. Or, more exactly, I--an Anglo-Saxon Celt to the core--look like them and seem to be like them in so many ways.

The driving on a different side of the road is quaint, but not beyond learning. I know an expatriate American who lives in Ireland who had a left driver's side car for years and managed, even then, to master driving there. The accents are a bit maddening, but it makes me listen more intently and I can usually figure out what I'm being told after a while. (The Irish, by the way, like my accent. To them I speak slowly and with a rhythm they can get used to quickly. Imagine that--people who like a hill-billy, New England modified accent!) But they are, to a great extent, blood of my blood and bone of my bone. There was a young woman in the workshop who is Korean-American but has lived in Ireland for years. She hasn't picked up the Irish lilt and told me she always stood out because of her Asian look and no one could understand her. Outside of Dublin, Ireland is astonishingly 'white'. I walked around Larne--where I was, some 30 miles north of Belfast--for three hours the day after the workshop ended. I saw one black woman and a bi-racial child and one Asian. Everyone else was just like me. (By the way, I read several months ago that red hair was going to disappear from the planet, being recessive and given how mixed our DNA has become. The scientists who proposed that should visit Ireland and reconsider their prediction!)

Two odd things I've noticed in my visits to Ireland. Most cars have standard shift and every Irish driver I've ever ridden with puts the gear shift in neutral and takes their foot off the clutch whenever they stop, if even for a moment or two. Other than my wife, who is of Italian-Hungarian descent--about as removed from being Irish as anyone in the northern hemisphere--I don't know any Americans who do that. We keep the clutch to the floor and the car in gear at a stop light. I've asked several people about it and they all say that is how they are taught to drive. A cultural tradition of going into neutral and saving the clutch!

The other weird thing I've noticed is how the Irish eat. They hold the fork in their left hand and the knife in their right--holding both throughout the meal--and use the knife to put food on the 'bottom' of the fork before lifting it to their mouths in what I consider an 'upside down' position. This has always been a mystery to me. I was eating dinner with 8 Irish folks and a woman from Paris one of the nights. I noticed she ate like I did--though she was left handed. Both of us cut things with the knife in our dominant hand and the fork in the other hand and then laid down the knife and moved the fork to the hand we used most often to bring the food to our mouths with the tines of our fork pointing upwards. Now, don't think I'm a cultural elitist by any means. I just find it interesting that a whole nation of people eat holding both knife and fork and using the fork in what I find to be a reversed position.

I brought it up to my table. The French woman and I agreed we simply don't understand how to use the utensils the way the Irish do and the Irish were a bit confused--and since they are like people from Minnesota--thought they must be doing it wrong. Several people tried to mimic the way the French and the Americans use a fork and knife. "Is this how to 'eat' American?" the woman beside me asked, laying her knife on the edge of the plate, where mine was, and shifting the fork to her dominant hand. "Yes," I said, "how does it feel?" And she said, "horrid", picking up her knife in her right hand and turning the fork around in her left.

Also, the Irish 'clean their plate' while I almost always leave some food uneaten. The folks waiting on us never know if it is ok to take my plate away even though I leave the fork and knife on the plate. I've only been to Ireland a few times and always at retreat centers, but in that small research group, all this is absolute. Tiny little 75 year old nuns leave not a crumb on their plate--and me, a big, fat American never finish the meat and three vegetables and some form of potato I'm given.

Could it have something to do with the famines in the distant past in Ireland? My grandmother, who was at least half-Irish, always told us to 'clean our plates'. I never do, which makes my dog happy, but shows that I have never, not for generations, been in 'want'. I have always known where my next meal was coming from. Something in the Irish, a generation or so beyond the last famine, may still not be sure due to their upbringing and their DNA. Who knows?

More later about Ireland.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.