I recently met a man from Galway, living in Dublin, who had never set foot inside County Cork. As a Dub my instinctive reaction was to marvel at how pure he was. He instantly became a Brendan Behan-style cultural icon and I am lobbying to have Toners pub named after him.
It’s quite a feat to reach your thirties without having visited Ireland’s largest county (forget partition, Ireland’s greatest geographical scandal is how big they let Cork become). I conducted an unscientific survey on Facebook to see how many people had spent at least a day in every county in Ireland. Of twenty responses, seven had never been to Fermanagh. Offaly came next, followed by Roscommon. There were a smattering of Tyrones, Longfords, Carlows and, surprisingly, Kerry. These are well travelled people – the sort who could tell you the best place to get noodles in Koh Pah-ngan, but who have somehow gone through life without having experienced Ballinamallard. One friend admitted that she had been to the West Bank before she was ever west of the Shannon.
An irony of the world getting smaller is that we tend to explore places far away more readily than we do those on our doorstep. My great-grandmother never set foot outside of Mayo. The more time I spend in Mayo, the more I wonder whether this was a consumer decision rather than the consequence of abject poverty we always presumed.
We don’t know the towns and villages of Ireland as well as we once did. I blame a lot of this on motorways. Motorways are the Spotify of national infrastructure: fast, convenient and tearing away at the soul of society. Pre-motorway generations listed all the towns and villages that stood between Dublin and Galway as if they were saying the rosary. Like Native Americans tracking buffalo, they would look at what way the shadow was hanging over the church in Ballydangan and know whether they would be home by sun-down.
Back then, Moate was the centre of the universe. Regardless of where in Ireland you wanted to go – Cork, Derry, your local shop – you had to go through Moate. The village was a conga line of cars. People leant out their windows and traded stories of exotic far off destinations they would reach if only they could clear the traffic. By the time they reached the top of the queue to leave Moate, most of the weekend was gone and they had to turn around and go home. But they didn’t mind because, deep down, Moate was where they wanted to be.
That encyclopedic knowledge of midlands geography has been lost. Today, nobody can remember where Kinnegad is. Somebody wrote it down in a book but nobody can remember what they are either. It is left to old men to sing about it in pubs. Kinnegad: our Atlantis.
We have thirteen motorways in Ireland. Two of them – the M4 and M6 – are basically the same road but we call them different names so as the Germans think we spent that cheque well. Motorways are supposed to be numbered sequentially but for some reason there is no M5 or M10. After the M11 it all gets a bit random, with an M17, M18, M20 and then, out of nowhere, an M50. This suggests the engineers who build these roads aren’t good with numbers, which is probably one of the things you would want them to be good at.
It was announced last week the new Cork to Limerick motorway will open in nine years’ time. It’s good news, I suppose, but I enjoyed the old route. I’d stop in Blarney and ridicule its superstitions, and again in Charleville to marvel at its cheese. I can’t help but stare at the motorway plans and, like Mrs Doyle faced with the Teamaster, say through gritted teeth, “maybe I like Buttevant”.
Regional roads mightn’t be much use if you want to conduct trade or actually go somewhere, but they open up parts of the country you may otherwise never see. For the record, I’ve only ever passed through Fermanagh. I intend to rectify this. See you soon, Ballinamallard.
Originally published in The Times Ireland Edition May 3rd, 2018.