I have learned an awful lot about Ireland in the last two years, especially considering the state of woeful ignorance I was in before I arrived. However, there are still some things about this place I still do not, and probably never will, fully understand.
- Separate Hot and Cold Water Taps: this plumbing arrangement is perfect for those times when, while washing your hands, you want to inflict third-degree burns on one of them and frostbite on the other. In other words, NEVER. Who thought this would be a good idea? And now that we’ve all learned through painful practical experience that it is in fact NOT a good idea, why are sinks still set up this way? Speaking of plumbing perplexities, this brings us to:
- The Immersion Heater: There’s this strange contraption in my house, as in all houses in Ireland, called the immersion. I am given to understand that it works in some kind of symbiotic relationship with the boiler system that heats the rooms, and that I can use it to augment my hot water supply in times of need without wasting too much extra energy. Great. But the precise settings and lead time needed to do this effectively vary with the temperature of the house, the phases of the moon, Ireland’s current standings in the Six Nations, and possibly some other variables I have not yet discovered. I do take some comfort from the fact that Irish people also seem not to have fully figured this one out.
- Brown Sauce: Any order of chips (not crisps) at a pub or not-too-fancy restaurant will inevitably come with a red packet of ketchup and a mysterious brown packet that says, simply, “brown sauce.” What is this brown sauce? It is, self-evidently, a sauce that is brown, but where does it come from? What is it made of? There are never any ingredients listed. The packet does not encourage any inquiry into the origins or composition of its contents. You’re just supposed to dump the stuff on your chips and eat it without asking any nosy questions you may not really want to know the answers to.
- Country Speed Limits: When navigating precariously down a steep, winding, intermittently-paved country lane that is just wide enough to barely squeeze one car through and yet is still somehow a two-way street, it is not uncommon to see a sign sternly warning that you must not exceed 80 kilometres per hour (50mph). No one in their right mind would be taking that tenuous track at even half that speed, so it hardly seems worth the effort of putting up signs. And yet, there they are.
- Catholicism: Having been raised mainstream Protestant, there’s a lot I don’t know about the theology and practice of Catholicism, and my occasional casual encounters with it often leave me baffled. I was recently introduced to St. Medard when a coworker buried a statue of him in order to prevent rain on her daughter’s wedding day. (It didn’t work.) My Irish grandmother once told me that it’s St. Joseph you’re supposed to bury, upside down, but that’s to help sell a house. Attending a performance of John B. Keane’s Moll occasioned some frantic intermission googling to figure out what on earth a “mass card” is and why the priests’ housekeeper in the play was selling them on commission. (It’s a request for a priest to say mass for a particular person, and selling them is apparently now frowned upon.) Catholicism is so ingrained in Irish culture that I keep bumping into references to it that make me say, “wait, what?”
- Ah Sure It’ll Be Grand: In my experience, the Irish have a deep-rooted pessimistic streak, always expecting something to go wrong. Good times never last and bad times never end. If it’s not raining today then it’ll rain tomorrow, and if it is raining it’ll keep on raining, you know yourself. (Of course, given how often it rains in Ireland, this is usually true.) They are also some of the most optimistic people I have ever met. This contradiction is perfectly embodied in “ah sure it’ll be grand”, the ultimate Irish saying, which you can find emblazoned on mugs, Tshirts, and a zillion other things available for purchase on every street in Dublin city center. Sometimes baseless but almost never disputed, it means, in short, that while the situation may be going arseways somehow it’ll all work out all right in the end, so it will. As a full-on dedicated pessismist I don’t know that I’ll ever quite get the hang of this.