Sunday, July 30, 2000

Irish charm is nation's freedom from malls and chains

        I remember going to Anchorage in 1985 and eating at a Denny's restaurant that claimed to be the northernmost Denny's in the world. No doubt, Denny's empire has spread further north. No one should be deprived of a Denny's who truly wants one, no matter his geographical circumstance.

        I was disappointed. Nothing against Denny's. Eric Davis, my favorite baseball player and one of my favorite human beings, survived in the minor leagues on Grand Slam breakfasts. But I didn't go to Alaska to see what I've seen a million times here.

        Which brings me to Ireland. I just got back from there. They do things differently in Ireland. They drive on the left side of the road, from the right side of the car. In rural areas, they maneuver on roads just big enough for sheep, and if you don't think the sheep still rule the roads in rural Ireland, you haven't been there.

        One day we drove the Connor Pass, a sliver of road that goes across the spine of ancient hills on the Dingle Peninsula. This is the green, jagged, misty Ireland of the movies Far and Away and Ryan's Daughter. It's heaven with umbrellas. But driving it is like parallel parking a 747.

        In Ireland, everyone has a cell phone. No one has ice for drinks. Iced tea is a new concept. They bring a pot of hot tea on a tray, with a glass and a few, righteous cubes. On the Irish airline Aer Lingus, flight attendants cool soft drinks with one cube, fishing it with tongs from a bag, the way a surgeon might remove a spleen.

        Every door in Dublin is painted a different color. You never see two blue doors together, or two red or green or yellow. Whole blocks of century-old townhouses are all the same gray stone, but each has its own hue of door. It's as if they get together every few years, to convene the Neighborhood Council on Door Painting.

        “Paddy, ya have the green this time. O'Fallon, ya got the red.”

        Their concept of old is a little different from ours. Here, you go to Philadelphia to see the 18th century Liberty Bell. There, you go to 13th century castles where guides show you “murder holes.” I loved the murder holes.

        A hole in the floor from the second or third floor was directly above the main entrance to the castle. When invaders came calling, you poured boiling oil on them or dropped bowling ball-sized rocks on their heads. I could think of some practical modern uses for the murder hole.

        But here's what I appreciated about Ireland: Once you left Dublin, you could drive for days and never see a Burger King, a Gap or a supermarket. If there are malls in Ireland, they keep them hidden, like prisoners, perhaps directly under gigantic murder holes.

        Every town has pubs and shops catering to specific needs. Every town has a definable center, a recognizable soul. There are no suburbs, only golf courses.

        Some people use their vacations to live large. I use mine to live small. I don't want to be reminded of what I'm reminded of the other 50 weeks of the year.

        In Ireland, painted murals on exterior pub walls urge “Guinness For Strength” without a trace of irony. You can't “super-size” your beer. You just get a pint. It's fine.

        The worst thing about vacation is coming back. Sometimes, coming back is so bad, it's almost not worth taking the vacation. Almost.

        Paul Daugherty is an Enquirer sports columnist. Look for his lifestyle column in People on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.