Who needs Italy? Ireland has pizza and `celebrity blow-ins'

For once I was well ahead of a deadline - but can claim no credit. We screeched down our street at the last possible minute if we were to catch the ferry for Ireland, every inch of the car panic-packed tight, the children shoe-horned in, the dogs piled on top of them. Then something made us look at our tickets. The sailing, we discovered, was the next day.

Our delayed destination was west Cork: my wife comes from there, and we have been going back annually to rescue her accent for 24 years. Now it has become fashionable, a sort of Tuscany with rain. It was while Tony Blair was staying with David Puttnam - one of the more respected celebrity "blow-ins", as they are known locally - that Margaret Jay, another long- standing visitor, suggested he used the flat at No 11, rather than 10 Downing Street.

There's now a French pizza house on the site of "Tim the lady's" bar, so called because it was kept so neat that women would venture into it long before it was proper to go elsewhere. And you can eat kangaroo (raised in Limerick) at a pub in a village called Leap.

We made up some time when a new road swept us west so fast that we got to our usual stopping point for coffee in time for breakfast. We were rather pleased, but, in truth, Ireland's relatively unrestrained road building programme - up to 85 per cent funded by the EU - is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand it has long needed better infrastructure: even An Taisce, Ireland's main environmental group, says the programme is "not all bad by any means". The trouble is that the road engineers have been given their heads in some inappropriate places. You used to approach west Cork's beautiful Ballydehob along a winding lane, a colourful cluster of houses rising welcomingly to meet you. Now you charge at it on a highway cut into a hillside - so as to save a minute or two in a place allergic to hurry.

Last week even the official think-tank, the Economic and Social Research Institute, concluded that far bigger roads were being built in the countryside than would ever be justified by traffic. So far this year new car sales have risen by 40 per cent on the 1996 figure, itself a record. Multi-storey car parks are springing up all over Dublin and last year, for the first time, the city's air exceeded EU limits for nitrogen dioxide pollution.

The Irish Times recently dented a few bumpers by describing Ireland as "in the adolescent phase of car ownership" - as opposed to the adulthood of Germany or the Netherlands where transport is better planned. It was too polite to describe Britain's immaturity, but perhaps John Prescott's vague plans, announced last week, might help it grow up a bit.

Of course it rained. Four days of precipitous storms descended after the Irish Met Office blithely forecast "fine, warm weather", bringing an abject official apology, for farmers had planned harvests accordingly, losing millions of pounds.

But even accurate forecasting would not have helped farmers along the Shannon who have been saving the rare corncrake by postponing harvesting, for a payment of pounds 32 an acre, until the nesting birds have left their fields. The rains came first, flooding the crops and drowning the chicks.

More floods hit Clonmel, bringing grief to all except an enterprising landlord who organised goldfish racing along the floor of his bar. It was the town's third serious inundation in just over two years, since the new development narrowed the river Suir by 18ft and filled in marshland that once absorbed high flows. A local repetition of the short-sightedness that has aggravated floods from the Mississippi to central Europe.

Talking of liquid, we heard a story about my wife's great uncle Jasper, a west Cork lawyer reputed never to lose - so long as it was before lunch. He was not alone, once admitting in court that his client had been "as drunk as a judge".

"Shouldn't that be `as drunk as a lord' " came an unsteady query from the Bench. "Yes", replied Jasper, "I believe it should - my lord."

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