Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

Ireland’s ‘mysterious’ northwest corner

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment
County Donegal covers over 4,000-square kilometers, making it one of Ireland’s largest – and most under-populated - areas, with a population of just over 160,000.

County Donegal covers over 4,000-square kilometers, making it one of Ireland’s largest – and most under-populated – areas, with a population of just over 160,000.

Done the famous tourist route along the west coast of Ireland? And the city break in Dublin? Liked it? Curious to see an ‘undiscovered’ part of the ‘Emerald Isle’? Well, if it is rugged wilderness, deep (and melancholic) history and Irish traditions you are after, head for County Donegal – Ireland’s often ‘forgotten’ county.

Click here to read the full article published in The Sunday Times, November 10, 2013.

For more tips on Donegal and accommodation, click here.


Ireland: from rags to riches and back again

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment
Johnie Fox’s – a famous Dublin landmark pub.

For centuries, Ireland has been a country with a population that embraces change, opportunities and challenges. From its tough times in the 1980s, to the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, Alannah Eames writes that now is as good a time as any to visit the ‘Emerald Isle’.

Click here to read the full article online or download the pdf.

Ireland: from boom to bust

Johnie Fox's - a famous Dublin landmark pub.

Johnie Fox's - a famous Dublin landmark pub.

Dublin Jameson Distillery Visitor bar Thomas and Alannah

Inside the Jameson Distillery visitor bar in Dublin.

Glendalough original monastic stone settlement 2

The other side of Irish culture - the monastic settlement at Glendalough.

 This is an article I wrote about The Celtic Tiger, aka Ireland, upon my return in December 2006 after being abroad for 10 years. Maybe an interesting read considering the Celtic Tiger has gone down the drain in the past two years.

The Celtic Tiger is still roaring yet Ireland’s newly found prosperity has also given the country a new mentality. The Irish of today are a far cry away from the stereotypical red-haired, happy-go-lucky, rural people who are fondly known for living on a diet of potatoes and Guinness and for using their local pub as a second home. In their place, are hardened, driven people who think nothing of blowing EUR 200 on a good night out on the town and are snapping up property investments overseas like it were a Monopoly game.

By Alannah Eames

Coming back to Ireland, or should I say Dublin, after living abroad for ten years came as somewhat of a culture shock. Maybe it hit me all the harder because I lived in one of the most efficient societies – Sweden where everything is tightly regulated by the government, work comes secondary to your private life and everything works like it is supposed to – for almost five years. Sure some things in Ireland have not changed at all – the fields are still green, you still need to carry your umbrella everywhere with you, the Guinness is still (I am told) better than that found anywhere else in the world, the buses still run according to their own schedule (which never quite seems to match that which is found in the official timetables!).

Yet other things have changed dramatically – not to mention the fact that the country which won the Eurovision three times in a row in the past, succeeded in taking the last position in the 2007 Eurovision. Is this also part of the new Irish attitude that they don’t need to try so hard anymore? Walking through the streets of Dublin on a typically busy weekday, you hear Eastern European and Polish accents more often than you hear native Dubliners. One taxi driver told me, in a horrified tone of voice, “Can you believe that even one of the local daily papers has a Polish language section”. Women dressed in burqas stroll through the small pedestrian shopping streets while young Chinese children speak English with a local Dublin twang. Growing up in Dublin twenty years ago, you were hard pressed to find a dark skinned African on the streets and kids were often heard to exclaim “Mum, what’s wrong with that guy’s skin!”

From rags to riches
On the surface, Dublin may come across as the hip, trendy city which gets featured on all the top tourist documentaries and in the guidebooks, has been labeled one of the greatest cities in the world while the Irish still cash in on their reputation as being one of the “friendliest” people in the world. On my short trips back to Dublin during the past ten years (once a year to be exact), I was also impressed by a seemingly booming economy, the number of flashy cars, the new motorways, the people’s energy and drive, the new choice of international restaurants and the multicultural vibrancy.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Lurking deep under the surface is a country which is struggling to deal with a new modern identity and a huge “Nouveau Riche” population. Once one of the poorest countries in Europe, where legislation and culture were dictated by the Roman Catholic Church, the Ireland of today has milked the EU cash machine to its advantage – turning potholed one-lane roads into motorways; traditionally dull supermarkets into sophisticated retail stores stocking exotic imports and top-notch local brands; and importing cheap foreign labor by the shiploads. Not to mention some of the local habits where fake nails costing around EUR 50 per month, trips to the hairdresser for blonde highlights every few weeks and driving a top-class Mercedes with bank loans exceeding EUR 500,000 seems to be the norm for the average Dubliner in the 25-40 year-old age group.

From emigrants to imigrants
But are times changing? With the entry of less wealthy states in to the European Union, and the growing prosperity of the Irish economy, the roles have reversed and it is now the turn of the Irish to repay part of its dues to Brussels and to integrate foreign workers to fuel its labor-hungry market. As in Dubai, a city that hires cheap, migrant workers by the ton to help produce its million and one skyscrapers, so too does Ireland. Polish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Thais, Filipinos have flocked to Ireland to earn a few euros to send back home to their impoverished families. Just look at the flight arrival and departures board at Dublin Airport and see how many daily flights there are to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States as Ryanair and Aer Lingus scramble to add new flights to even more exotic former East Bloc destinations.

As Germany has, in the past, attracted Turkish, and quite a few Irish workers, now it’s the turn of Ireland to open its job market to foreign workers. I have to admit that it still a new experience for me to walk into several well established Irish bars in Dublin and be served Guinness or Bulmers cider by an all-Asian bar staff. What would be less amusing to know is how much money the owner is saving by hiring an Asian, as opposed to an Irish barman? In the case of Irish people hiring foreign workers, one can only assume that price comes into the equation somewhere along the line.

But don’t get me wrong, Ireland is not alone in using underpaid foreign workers to keep its economy running and give the Irish even more money in their pockets to invest in overseas properties in the likes of Spain, Dubai and even ski resorts in Bulgaria. Demand drives demand. Workers from less developed countries want to work abroad to earn some euros and the Irish want to save costs, put more money in their own pocket and therefore, for many onlookers and for many of the people involved, it can be seen as some sort of “win win” situation for both parties!

If you’re not Irish, you’re not one of the gang
It probably is a “win win” situation for both parties. But what really bugs me is the attitude of many Irish people towards foreigners. There are over one million Irish-born people estimated to be living overseas and there is said to be around 70 million people worldwide who can claim Irish descent. The country from which millions of people emigrated during the past centuries – whether it was in search of food during the Great Famine or in search of work overseas during the economic stagnation of the 20th century, – the Irish have always been reasonably well received in the countries they have migrated to – even if they do grumble half-heartedly from time to time about missing home and how things abroad are not the way they are back home or how boring the people in their newly adopted country are.

Yet it saddens me greatly to see how a significant percentage of Irish people (not all, but enough to leave an impression) treat foreign workers from less developed countries or from different cultures. Just look in the papers and see how many stories you can read each day about Lithuanian men stabbed to death, Polish girls raped, African men being beaten up. But most Irish people will just shrug their shoulders and blame the rising crimes on the foreigners – its almost always foreign family feuds or foreign gangs involved. (Just as they will be equally quick to blame poor service levels on the foreign workers, when some of the lousiest service levels experienced in Dublin have actually involved Irish staff.)

In the past two months alone, I have encountered two racist situations, which considering I spend less than fifty percent of my time in Dublin, is quite substantial. The first one which greatly shocked me occurred in Dublin’s main bus station. Like everyone else, I was standing in line waiting to buy a ticket and there were four people behind me in the queue. One of these was a young African guy – well dressed, around 30 and queuing just like everyone else. Behind him was a gray-haired Irish man in maybe his late forties, early fifties. When the Irish guy tried to push his way in front of the African man to skip the queue, the African guy politely said “Sorry sir there is a queue and I am also waiting”. In response, he got attacked verbally. “Who the f’**k are you to tell me what to do? You’re not Irish. Where were you born?” “I was born here,” replies the African man. “No, you’re f*****g not Irish,” replies the older man who looked like he would hit the African man within a few seconds. My blood was boiling.

A second incident. On the public bus service from Cork to Dublin, a Swedish friend of mine was surprised when a young, Irish guy sauntered up to the bus driver and demanded he pull over so he could go to the toilet/because he missed his stop. When the bus driver, who coincidentally was not Irish, refused to stop – in all honesty, buses stop at designated stops, none of which are for toilet breaks, nappy changing, to grab a takeaway from a local chippers, or whatever other necessities might arise en route, what would happen if all 50 passengers on board wanted to stop at different stages for one thing or another – he was verbally attacked by the passenger. Again, much of the abuse focused on the fact that the driver wasn’t Irish.

Racism exists everywhere under the surface and rears its ugly head in many shapes and forms, but in Ireland, I have been shocked by the manner in which it has been aired – cursing, loud voices, full of hatred and spite and worse of all, openly, in front of a full audience. No shame, whatsoever. Yet, on the other hand, as in many other western European countries, you will occasionally spot the more adventurous types who enjoy the appeal of an exotic partner – it’s not uncommon to spot a 100% Irish-home grown man with an attractive Polish or Lithuanian girl on his arm or a 100% Irish-bred female with an African-born import!

Attitude says it all
Blatancy, sharp tongues and the “I don’t give a sh** attitude” are several other Irish traits which the Irish themselves tend to classify as having a great sense of humor and making a person witty, entertaining and confident. But used in the wrong way or directed at people who don’t understand the culture i.e. those who are a little more on the sensitive side, it can come across as offensive and upsetting.

For years, Irish people have been renowned for their friendliness, openness, hospitality and warmth and for sure, this still does exist here and there, most notably outside of the capital city. But, I am sure for every nice friendly person you meet in Ireland, you will meet at least one of these “I don’t give a sh** about you” type of people.

Like many others, I’ve met my fair share of these people during the past six months – taxi companies in Dublin are probably one of the best examples. One experience in particular springs to mind – I ordered a taxi to take me to the airport at 08.00, 15 minutes later there was still no sign of my driver so I called the company, just to be told “Relax. It’s only 08.00 now”. Thinking I had made a mistake with the time, I checked three other clocks and told the guy quite firmly that it was definitely 8.15. I heard a click and the guy had hung up on me. This does not represent every single taxi driver in the country, as I have also met a few nice ones, but my point is don’t be surprised to experience treatment like this in Dublin. Business is booming in the city so why bother giving service and quality, if people will use you anyway? Dublin is crammed to its full capacity and you should count yourself lucky if you even find a taxi driver available and willing to take you anywhere, just don’t expect anything more than that. And should you make the gross mistake of complaining about the service, don’t be surprised if they either charge you double the fee, don’t bother showing up at all or even go so far as to dump you out on the side of a road somewhere.

Rough around the edges?
There is no official explanation as to why Dublin people have become so tough, raw around the edges and street smart but an obvious reason is that it is a capital city where people commute long distances for work, work long hours and are struggling to pay their bank loans which finances an over-the-top lifestyle which they really can’t afford, but will never admit it.

Dublin has grown tremendously (in population and size) the past few years and the infrastructure has not kept up with this pace. As a result, the public transport system is notoriously poor – buses clog up the cities and the only real solution to transport yourself from A to B is by having your own car.

Hospitals, schools, public health care, all are stretched to their limits. Some of the stories about the healthcare send shivers down my spine. A friend of mine’s brother was beaten up a few weeks ago on a Saturday night in Dublin’s city center. Luckily, some kind passers-by brought him to the hospital. However, maybe being beaten up was the least of his worries. Once in the hospital, he had to sit on a chair in the corridor for almost 24 hours before being admitted for a brain scan and being seen by a doctor, despite having suffered visible head injuries and despite paying a hefty monthly private health insurance fee.

Another example – cell phone coverage. This is something that many people living in developed countries take for granted so you would never expect that a new housing development in a densely populated suburb of a European capital city would not have any network coverage. When I rang the real estate developers and the estate brokers to complain that I could not use my cell phone anywhere in the 3-bedroomed terraced house in the suburbs I had just forked out EUR 500,000 on, I was informed by both the property development company and the estate broker: “I don’t believe what I am hearing. How can you possibly think that a property developer has anything to do with mobile phone coverage. You need to talk to the telecom operators,” in a tone of voice which implied that I was the one who had just landed from Mars.

When you talk to the telecom operators, they tell you it is not their problem either. So, after going around in a circle, the only solution is to give up and revert to standing on the street or in the garden to try to get some kind of connection. But, do they tell you this when you are camping overnight in your car – a routine procedure for many new developments in Dublin (my next door neighbors actually slept in their car for almost 10 days to purchase one of these “prime” investments with no cell phone coverage which were supposedly sold out until suddenly after moving in, we discovered that there were 6 houses still unsold) … no, for sure they will take your deposit and after that, there is no going back!

Stories such as these, should be more representative of an incident in some central African republic or a remote village in Siberia, but no, they are events which crop up regularly in Dublin, the capital of the Celtic Tiger.

A welcome and farewell to remember
Trying to enter or leave the country via Dublin Airport is also a recipe for high blood pressure, for even the calmest individuals. When you arrive, the chances are you will end up walking for 10 to 15 minutes without any trolley for hand luggage and most likely, the conveyor belt for walking on will be broken. Then you need to wait, along with two or three other flights, at the luggage conveyor belt where you desperately watch your suitcase sailing by as you battle with 200 hundred other people to get close enough to pick it off the belt. Once outside, if you arrive late at night, it is another arm wrestling competition to get a coveted seat on the Aircoach shuttle service to the city or southern suburbs … the only other option to escape from the airport, unless you are fortunate enough to have kicked a friend or relative out of the bed to pick you up .. is to join the kilometer-long taxi queue. Unfortunately, leaving the country is not any easier. If you are unfortunate enough to be flying with the national airlines, be prepared to stand in line for up to one hour to check in your suitcase, even if you are already waving a printed boarding pass from your online check-in and expected to simply drop your case at the Baggage Drop desk. Then, it is another one-kilometer queue at the security check and finally a good 10-15 minute walk to many of the gates, not that anyone mentions this at check-in. If you are one of the lucky ones who has managed to catch your flight (despite being at the airport two hours prior to departure), when the plane lifts off the ground, you can finally take a deep breath and enjoy the beautiful emerald landscape beneath you and the scenic coastline.

Silence is golden
Irish people don’t take criticism lightly. They enjoy making fun of others and can take a bit of a teasing, but criticism is something different. For example, a friend of mine is a local policeman, or Garda, as they are known. After being served strange tasting Budweiser on draft three or four times in the same bar, he decided it was time to ask the barman why the beer tasted strange: “Is there something wrong with your Budweiser, it doesn’t taste so good” To which he received the response, “What’s wrong with it, nobody else has complained”.

And that is where part of the problem lies, Irish people just don’t seem to complain. They either pay the price and grumble later behind the person’s back or they just think “Oh well it was only a five-euro drink and I had a good night, so what’s five euros.” If you dare to give any feedback or pass less than positive comments, you can be sure you will be made fun of, have a smart comment thrown back at you or the person in question simply will not care less.

Service with a smile?
Service levels and the attitude of many customer service representatives is, what I would term, “interesting”. Trying to register my company in Ireland, I spent an hour with an accountant based in Celbridge who was recommended to me by a close friend. After filling in the forms, I spent the next 3 months chasing him only to end up calling the Tax Authorities myself to find out that he had done absolutely nothing with my tax registration. Apparently, there was not enough money to be made from my business to make me worth his time or even the price of a phone call or a two-second email to inform me that he was not going to take me on as a client. And, I have since discovered that poor service is not unheard of, even if you have money to spend.

From one of the country’s leading mortgage companies who, due to problems with their direct debit service, did not withdraw five months of mortgage repayments from my sister’s bank account and then proceeded to give her a black credit mark for not making the payments (despite her many efforts to contact them and being left on hold and hung up on many times), to the fruitless exercise of trying to buy a new laptop cable, which after waiting for almost a week led me to find a replacement cable in a small town in Germany for less than half the price quoted in Dublin, the service and attitude of many so-called service providers in Ireland sends shivers down many a person’s spine.

Yet, the average person who has never visited Ireland, or who has spent maybe just a few brief days there as a tourist, someone who left the country years ago or the person who has read all the promotional travel books, still believes that the Irish hospitality, warmth and friendliness is legendary and unrivalled. Unfortunately, this is not the general rule today even though you will come across these Irish “stereotypes” every so often.

What the Irish do best – drinking!
Drinking is something that has been part of Irish blood and culture long before Guinness was even invented! For centuries, small farmers in remote villages were brewing poitín (poteen), until it was outlawed in 1760. With an alcohol content level of 90%, this legendary “Irish whisky” was guaranteed to get you tipsy quickly and to leave you with a hell of a hangover the next day! In the 21st century, the Irish still live up to their drinking reputation as much as ever. It never ceases to amaze that if you go out in Dublin on a Monday night or a Saturday night, there will still be people in the bars (even though competition is rampant as there are bars on almost every corner) and a lively atmosphere. You don’t find that in many other cities!

One thing that visitors often find amusing is the fully stocked cosmetic shelf with everything from perfumes to hairspray and mouth wash found in nightclub toilets. The men don’t lose out either – even the men’s toilets are fully equipped with everything needed to ensure he stays looking good during a heavy drinking session! Yet, one of the nicest things about being in an Irish pub is the crowds they attract – ok, I’m not talking here about some of the hip, trendy places in the cities with nightclubs, which cater largely for the young crowds, but take your average local Irish bar – you’ll see everything from teenagers just over the drinking age limit, to middle-aged couples to old men in their Sixties who have been regulars at the bar for years and even have their own favorite seat. In how many countries in the world do older people get dolled up, meet their friends and socialize regularly in a bar, in extreme cases every night?

Keeping up appearances
One big change I have noticed from ten years ago is how Irish people now take care of their appearance, I am largely referring to Dublin here but the same goes for the more affluent crowds outside of the Pale (the historical name for the greater Dublin area). It is not uncommon for girls to start getting ready to go out for the “big going out night” (Saturday) at 4.00 in the afternoon – the outfit gets chosen with great care, the nails get painted, the hair gets blow-dryed, the make up gets painted on in layers as does the perfume and then it’s all out for a big night – the single ones determinedly on the hunt for a good catch and the attached ones out for some attention and a laugh.

 Traditionally, Irish men have been the kind of guys who would sleep in the same shirt for two days and maybe go to the barber once a year, the most important thing was how much you could drink before falling over. However, the average Irish guy in Dublin today, is much more refined. A flashy car is important, as is a big wallet and they indulge in fashionable clothes, taking care of their skin and hair – I even came across one 27-year-old guy who gets his hair professionally straightened once a month and who can outnumber even me with my collection of bathroom toiletries!

Male grooming is a growing phenomenon in many developed countries but in the more macho type societies, such as what Ireland was once, it is amusing to see how the men have changed over the years. Saying that, you’ll still meet the farmer type in a local bar who is on the hunt for a wife and who considers having a big John Deere tractor, 100 sheep and his own farmhouse as major wife catching material!

It’s only money
But this is a far cry from the “Spend, spend, spend” money throwing mission that goes on in Dublin. Having lived in Sweden for almost five years, where a krona is a krona and they try to save SEK 20 (EUR 2.20) on a bus ticket by squeezing their oversized kid into a buggy (if you are a mother with a kid in a buggy, you are exempt from paying for a bus ticket), coming back to a place where nobody seems to bat an eyelid at paying EUR 55 for an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet – you know the type where they have a conveyor belt and you sit and pick the pieces you want from it – but I was told by my sister that really this was good value because “sushi restaurants are still an exotic type of dining experience in Dublin and besides, you get a drink like a beer or a glass of wine included!”. I looked at her flabbergasted that anybody could possibly think that was a good deal and informed her that you could have the same deal in several other major European cities for half the price. But, Irish people are willing to pay these prices so the businesses are not doing anything wrong- they are simply pricing according to what the market will pay.

Irish people, or I should say Dubliners in particular, are on a mega spending mission and live each day like it is their last. “F**k it’s only money, you might die tomorrow!” is the general philosophy. It is only visitors, foreigners and the occasional blow-in like me, who dares to mention the price word. But it is not just the prices which are the issue in Ireland, it is more a question of what you get for your money. And, to be honest, what you pay in Dublin and what you get for your money, often doesn’t really match.

I have been surprised sometimes – there is a great Thai restaurant in the Sandyford Industrial Estate – tucked away on a quiet side street which has great food at a reasonable price, a nice atmosphere and super-friendly service. So there are some decent places around but as with any other city, it’s a matter of finding them. So, yes on one hand, Ireland is still the emerald island with luscious green scenery, charming country villages, lively nightlife and social people with a lust for life, which many people who have never been there imagine, and dream of. But like with every other place, be aware that there are two sides to every coin. Few people report on the other face of Ireland, and Dublin in particular. For every romantic travel epic about Dublin and Ireland you will read, there is also a person out there who has had a bad experience and left with an entirely different impression. Irish people are, on the whole, staunchly patriotic, and are either immune or conditioned to their environment. Or maybe they are simply happy with the situation because it blends in with their own attitudes and philosophy.

Be aware that yes, Dublin is a vibrant, young and dynamic city but also one which is struggling to come to terms with its status as a modern European city. Ireland is still a country in transition and its biggest challenges are to overcome a serious infrastructure problem and culturally, how to deal with its new-found wealth. The economy has boomed and it has been a rat race to build houses, offices and other buildings as quickly as possible, yet with very little thought going into supplying these developments with basic services such as cellphone network coverage, main roads, public transport service and shops. Likewise, be prepared to experience poor service levels with overpriced products and services, rude taxi drivers, people who will look down on you because you are “not Irish” or because you maybe dress or act a little differently, and a city which can be rough around the edges. As long as you don’t have over-the top romantic notions of what to expect from Ireland, and Dublin, you won’t be disappointed!

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