Brag about Irish scenery, whiskey, or music. Wrap up Ireland in culture, prose, or poetry. Colour it in 40 shades of green or 50 shades of rain. For me what sells the place is the banter.
I’m back in Ireland. Again. This time in Killarney, Co. Kerry, attending my first TBEX – an international convention of travel bloggers. The main sponsors – Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland – along with the host town of Killarney, are pulling out all the stops when it comes to showcasing the local offer to delegates. Pre- and post-conference side trips include Dingle, the Ring of Kerry, Muckross Abbey, Ross Castle and other local destinations all carefully chosen to give the punters a taste of what some might say is the real Ireland. Posters around the town warn everyone that we’re here – just in case.
The opening event out at the Killarney Racecourse offered an impressive sampling of local food and drinks (courtesy of Taste Kerry), the requisite show of Irish dancing, and a fascinating insight into horse racing given by Sandra Hughes (daughter of the late Dessie Hughes, a legend in his time – I won a few quid on Hardy Eustace in his day) – but more on all that later. What I’m revelling in today is the banter.
We got back into town about 9.30 last night to find a lot of the shops still open. Time works on a different clock in this part of the world. Most of the tourists spend their days out touring the countryside, only coming back into town in the evening, so local merchants have adjusted accordingly.
A young fellah was hoovering inside Shades of Erin – one of the cornucopia of craft shops in town. He assured us he was still open for business and invited us in for a browse. I complimented him on his hoovering and asked if he’d come round and do my house when he was done.
‘Ah sure I will – but don’t tell the mother. I don’t do it at home.’
I was after a Grandfather shirt for himself – one of those heavy brushed-cotton collarless jobs. But he had none in stock.
‘But here, listen. Would you not fancy a poncho? I’ve been sick looking at them for months but today I brought down the price to €60 and they’ve flown out the door. Mad, isn’t it.’
I wasn’t into ponchos or jumpers or any of the woolens, but he was determined.
‘Yer woman next door might have one – c’mere and we’ll check.’
He led us to a couple of shops a few doors down – Country Crafts. He told the young one inside what we were looking for and left us to it.
‘I only have the one’, she said, pulling out a tent-like shirt in a nice pale blue. ‘It’s all I have left.’ It was massive – an XXXL. Way too big for himself. But she could see I was biting.
‘You’d be quare shnug in this for the winter. ‘Tis lovely and warm. Sure try it on and see.’
I did. The shoulders were down near my elbows and the tail of it covered my knees. But it was, as she promised, quare shnug.
‘They say I’d sell sand to the Arabs’, she said with a smile.
‘Not this particular Arab’, says I.
‘Ah go on’, she said. ‘Tis lovely on ya. I’ll knock another fiver off it. You know you want it…’ And there began the banter. Back and forth. On politics, on tourists, on travel.
I was born in Ireland. I grew up in Ireland. I know Ireland. I’m not one to fall for the tourist twattle. But I love the banter. I wasn’t buying the shirt as much as I was buying the experience. I should have spotted the family resemblance. Danny Cronin and his sister Monica are great brand ambassadors for Killarney and for Ireland. And were Monica running the country, we’d be in good hands.
So with me bagged and sated, she sent us off down to Quills to sort himself out.
I felt my way through the woolens, picked up a present for a friend’s baby, and fixed on a shirt for himself. We went up to the counter to pay. Three women stood waiting to serve us. It was coming up to closing time on a Tuesday night and what business they’d had, had been done. I asked them about the Merino wool, having heard that Ireland was now importing wool from Australia and then knitting it up. But apparently, we’re also mixing it with Irish wool, to keep it Irish. The traditional Arans with the oiled wool were on sale – they’re not moving as well as they used to, crowded out by the new range of softer wools and pastel colours. There was the usual litany of where are ye from and what are ye doing in town, but far from being rote, they were sincere in their ask. They wanted to know.
I miss that. I miss getting someone’s life story on the way into town on the bus. I miss the running commentary on the weather or the random remarks from equally random strangers on what I’m wearing or how I’m looking. I miss the engagement, the questions, the innate curiosity that feeds into our stories and embellishes our blather. I miss the banter.
Walking down main street on our way home close to 11 o’clock, we passed Eric Gudmunsen getting traction with the tourists with his Trump song. He had them completely engaged. Further on, the lovely Teresa was offering a taste of some caramel ice-cream.
‘Can I interest ye in some ice-cream? Handmade in Dingle. All natural. Lovely stuff.’
I took a spoon to be polite and that was me done. I got the low down on it all, checked out the full offer, had a few more samples and promised I’d be back. And I will. They have a Dingle Gin ice-cream that has a kick in it and a lovely sea-salt one that I could have for breakfast. But apart from the creaminess and the taste and the inventiveness of the flavours, they have Teresa. Wearing her Jackie Healy-Rae cap instead of a hairnet, this pint-sized ice-cream enthusiast is a great ambassador for the Murphy brand.
So yes, Ireland has the scenery, the whiskey, the music. It has the culture, the prose, and the poetry. It has its 40 shades of green and its 50 shades of rain. But what makes it special are the people and their willingness to engage. What makes Ireland Ireland is the banter.