Any expedition into the Irish countryside brings home the fact that across the water things are much wilder and more elemental than in the sanitized pastures of the mainland.

It is not just that the poorest farm land looks hairier than any in England, or that the lanes, when they wind into the mountains, grow grass along the wheel tracks as well as in the centre. Nor is it only that gamekeepers are still allowed to use alphachloralose poison - long banned here - for the control of vermin. More than these simple differences, wildness flourishes in the minds of country folk, and expresses itself in ways no English people could possibly think up.

One quirk is in the attitude to money. Farmers, scared of income tax, and not wishing the Revenue Commissioners to find out how much they are worth, keep six-figure amounts of cash at home, often stuffed into their mattresses. (Some also fear that if a bank is robbed, it may be their money that the villains take). At markets, buyers and sellers carry vast rolls of pounds 20 notes, and exchange cash rather cheques.

In recent months a series of robberies has put the wind up isolated households in the south and west. Four or five well-to-do old farmers have been murdered, apparently by tinkers, and the most sinister feature of the killings is the fact that somebody is evidently passing information about which houses contain worthwhile targets.

Tinkers, however, are not always to blame. When one farmer, aged 69, was found dead down a well, inside a plastic fertiliser sack, inquiries revealed that the culprit was his 70-year-old brother.

Reaching the far south of Co Tipperary the other day, we found the local crack was all of murder. The night before, armed raiders had burst into the house of Dan Fanning, a big-time cattle dealer, shot him in the leg and left him to bleed to death.

At first people assumed that this was merely the latest in the run of violent farm robberies. But then a report that a car with a Dublin number plate had been seen in the area suggested different criminals and different motives: the gardai now say they are pursuing "a definite line of inquiry", which generally means that they think they know who did it.

Yet the wildness or eccentricity of which I speak does not always express itself in such dark guises. Consider the former master of a hunt who asked that after his death his body should be fed to the hounds. Whether or not it is true (as people say) that the hounds refused to eat him, certainly, when the undertakers went to carry his corpse out of the castle, it got away from them on the steep stairs and swept the whole party to the bottom.

Consider old Paddy, a yokel feeling his way home dead-drunk from the pub every night along a country road. One day, during an oil crisis, a neighbouring farmer who grew vegetables under glass heard that an old coaster had been broken up in Waterford, and that a tank containing two or three thousand gallons of fuel oil was going cheap. Here, he realised, was the supply that he desperately needed to keep his greenhouses heated.

Driving down in a flat-backed truck, he had the tank swung aboard by crane, lashed it in position, and set off for base, grossly overloaded. By the time he was approaching home, around midnight, Paddy, too, was on his way, staggering home (as my companion put it) by braille. Suddenly he felt the need to answer a call of nature, so he dropped his trouses and squatted where he was, in the middle of the tarmac.

The truck lurched round a corner. Seeing an apparition right in front of him, the driver clapped on his brakes. With a fiendish screech of tyres the lorry skidded off the road, ploughed through the hedge and came to rest in a boggy field, where it shunted its precious cargo and immediately began to sink.

Shaking with reaction, the farmer ran back onto the road, expecting to find a body. All that greeted him was a steaming pile, evidence of Paddy's success, and a clatter of boots, receding into the distance as if the devil were after them.