It's extraordinary . . . unless you happen to be in Ireland

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The Independent Online
IF YOU go to Ireland for a short break, as I just have, it helps to get used to being in Ireland among the Irish. There is no quick way of doing this - actually, I'm not sure there is a slow way of doing it - but you can at least give yourself an ethnic deconditioning and refurbishing on the excellent Cork-

Swansea ferry service.

This is because the MV Superferry is owned by a Greek company and there are reminders of Greece all over the place - notices in Greek, a nice little restaurant called the Acropolis and so on - yet for some reason the personnel is almost entirely Polish. The end result of this United Nations merry-go-round is that when you arrive in Cork, the Irish way of life seems quite simple by comparison.

For us it all started at dinner on the boat, when our spare seat was occupied by a man called Bill who lived in Cork.

'I've just come back from a tyre fair in Germany,' he told us. 'The tyre business is big in Germany.'

'Wheeling and dealing,' I said wittily, but nobody heard.

'Hold on,' said somebody. 'If you're coming back from Germany, what are you doing taking the boat from Swansea?'

'Well,' said Bill, 'I got the train from Germany to Ostend. Then I got one of those jetfoil things to Ramsgate, then I got the train to London, and crossed over London to Paddington . . .'

'A rather strange way to come.' What we meant was, a rather Irish way to come.

'Not if you hate flying as much as I do.'

That's one definition of Irishness. A sort of off-centre logic which makes sense when you look into it. A country cannot be blamed for seeing things from its own point of view. We arrived the day after John Smith died, and the headlines said: 'Ireland loses a Friend'. Hands up all those of you who knew that John Smith was friendly to Ireland . . .

And so we set foot in the country which has won the Eurovision Song Contest three times in a row, though we never heard a single person singing or whistling any of the three songs. But all attention is off the Eurovision thing now and on to the World Cup. You can't go far without seeing pictures of the only team to qualify from these islands. Almost every shop window and garage front displays a poster of these mighty 11 men in green shirts, plus sub, plus the mighty Jackie Charlton. In a country as full of religious imagery as Ireland, it's hard not to see these pictures as a modern equivalent of a team photo of the Messiah and the 12 disciples. (I am in good company. It is on record that, when Jackie Charlton met the Pope, the Pope said: 'Ah] The Boss]'.)

Not that the old religion has been displaced. There are still Catholic shrines all over the place, at odd corners of country lanes, in shops and even in bars. One day we drove up the scenic Healey Pass to get to Kenmare, a half-hour climb behind a slow-moving bus belonging to Barry's of Bantry which simply would not be overtaken, and at the top of the pass there was a wonderful white statue of Christ with hand outstretched as if to bless us - or, perhaps, as if to hail a bus driver, for Barry's man drew in obediently there and let us go by. A small miracle.

Later that day we were back in Glengariff, sitting outside Bernard Harrington's bar in the sunshine, helping some Murphy's go down, when I heard the noise of a football match inside. It was the FA Cup Final on TV. I wandered in to check on the score. Among the watchers at the bar was an elegant Englishman in summer jacket and suave tie. I asked him how it was going.

'Still no score,' he said, glancing at me briefly.

The more I looked at his face, the more familiar it was. I racked my memory. 'I know you, don't I?' I said, somewhat unoriginally.

'Yes, Miles,' he said.

From nowhere the name came. Patrick Skene Catling, the writer. I had known him mildly when I lived in London. The last time I had seen him was 12 or more years ago, at midnight, outside the Chelsea Arts Club, when we were both chasing the same taxi. He had graciously let me have it, as I had a double bass to carry and he didn't.

'How extraordinary,' I said.

'Not at all,' he said. 'Have a drink.'

He had been living in Ireland ever since. Nothing seemed extraordinary to him now.