Thefts are a bad sign for tourists

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An outbreak of roadside kleptomania has left unknown numbers of tourists wandering the Irish countryside with nowhere to go.

The current vogue for Irish pubs across Europe, the United States and now even as far away as Peking, has seen attractive old iron road signs - pointing towards quaint and obscure destinations - become prized decorative artefacts in Irish bars from California to northern Italy.

But the disappearing placenames have created major headaches for local authorities. Some officials suspect that the growth of hundreds of new Irish pubs is the prime cause of the disappearance of single-name "finger signs" at a cost of pounds 60 each. A spokesman for the Department of the Environment in Dublin confirmed they had been receiving complaints from fraught overseas visitors baffled by the country's lack of a sense of direction, so to speak.

Prime targets for the light-fingered dealers providing signs for pub interiors are counties such as Cork, Galway, Kerry and Donegal, where endless quiet cross-roads mean no shortage of unusual names from Ballydehob to Ballinferriter and Glencolumbkille\Gleann Cholm Cille.

Kerry is perhaps the most targeted area. According to road supervisor Gearoid MacGearailt the problem has been apparent for the past five or six years.

"They're looking particularly especially for the old-fashioned cast-iron ones. If they're up you're in trouble," he said.