“I am always going to fly on Saturdays from now on,” spits my sixty-something neighbour from Maccabim – taking a breather from “my son with the start-up” – on our EasyJet flight from Luton. “It is just so much nicer without the ‘penguins’.”
He uses the word, as so many secular Ashkenazi Israelis do, to describe the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) who so get under their skin. And following a delightfully good-willed twelve days in Ireland – where the only Hebrew I heard was “Nishma metzuyan, nishma Orange” (sounds excellent, sounds like Orange) – I know that I am back in the bosom (and not the ones I like) of our very own sectarians.
I had flown in and out of Kerry Airport (so tiny that, on arrival, I walked straight through baggage reclaim [i.e., without my bag] without realizing what it was) on the Emerald Isle’s west coast, and driven over 1300 (hooting-free) miles in a whistle-stop, largely coastal, tour (clockwise) of the land of my father.
“Will you have a pint?” the landlord enquires of the guy sitting next to me, on my very first evening, in the pub in Dingle. “Oh I think I’ll chance one,” comes the Normlike reply. And Ireland and I don’t look back.
Thumbs up from Fergal (Lynch's Bar, Miltown Malbay)
The Irish are simple (not a pejorative in my book), guileless, cheerful, uncomplaining, content. And we Israelis – Jews even – could learn a lot from them. They are also extremely personable and welcoming (in a way that the English most definitely are not: a similar tour, by an openly Semitic stranger, of towns and pubs across Blighty would likely end in a local infirmary). And my father often recalled how spectators would shout “Take the ball from the Jew boy,” when his brother was playing top flight football in Ireland, without it ever coming across as even remotely threatening.
There is also a wonderful, unique naivety about the Irish, which – while I can understand my father’s weariness of the Irish joke, portraying its subjects as something less than bright – I would always take over cynicism (except, of course, my own). The following are a selection of Oirishisms encountered during my 12-day stay . . .
- First up, the old dear in Listowel (County Clare), who, upon hearing my accent, draws closer to whisper (in spite of there being no one within 50 yards) “We had to leave Birmingham. Too many blacks.” Though she doesn’t appear to see any irony in gushing, not thirty seconds later, “Oooh, it was lovely having Obama here!”
- Then there is the driver, in Sligo, who, responding to my request for directions to Donegal, says “Follow me till I go through the last set of lights.” (“Oh yes” is all he can reply, with a sheepish grin, when I enquire how I am to know which are to be his last.)
- There is the HSBC staff member in Derry/Londonderry (depending on your denomination), who – in the process of trying to get me to open a new type of account (though not, it would seem, wanting me to hang around for long enough to hear of its benefits) – informs me, in response to my query about the Troubles, and without a hint of mischief, that “The Real IRA are mainly targeting banks these days.”
- And the estate agent in Dingle (I spend my last day there, too) who tells me “There are two tiers of stamp duty in Ireland: up to one million Euros, one percent; and, over one million Euros, one percent.” (“You’d better see a solicitor,” he replies, flustered, when I point out that this is really only one tier.)
The most interesting and memorable (and, on its coastline, scenic) leg of my trip is in the north. There is no need for a border between Counties Donegal and Derry, or even a sign welcoming you to Northern Ireland (there is neither), because one immediately knows, from one street to the next – because of the traffic lights, the road signs, and the architecture – that one is back in the UK. And I can’t wait to get my teeth into the conflict that permeated my childhood and youth . . .
I am not the slightest bit concerned about getting into difficulties: to Loyalists/Unionists, I will be an Israeli (if not a Jew), and to Republicans, the cousin of a high-profile IRA lawyer. And, reminding myself of the intrepid reporter that I once was (cf. tepid solicitor I now am), I throw myself in headlong: walking up Sandy Row on my first morning in Belfast, and playing Louis Theroux dumb, I ask a vendor of Marching Season accessories and regalia whether Catholics visit the street: “You know what they say,” came the gleeful reply, “Sandy Row, where the Fenians don’t go!”
Next is the Catholic Falls Road, where I am immediately ‘greeted’ by the sight of a Palestinian flag (right) flying proudly from its mast; and, a mere few hundred yards further, the Protestant Shankill Road, which flies Israeli flags in counter provocation (though, judging from the folk I speak to on both sides, neither has a clue about the conflict here). I hear shocking tales on both streets, which – as a result of the Good Friday Agreement – are walked daily by cold-blooded killers.
Indeed, never have I been as comforted by the sight of a rabbi as I am, that evening, at Shabbos dinner. And Rabbi Brackman’s ‘extremism’ – ‘making’ me repeat my (I thought convincingly drawn out) Shemoneh Esrei after I confess, under questioning, to having forgotten it was Rosh Chodesh – appears rather less so following the madness of earlier in the day. Nonetheless, I resist the inevitable invitation to shul the following morning, having already booked a Republican walking tour of the Falls Road and its environs. It is not a close call.
“I spent 16 years in jail for the attempted murder of an RUC officer,” commences Peadar Whelan, our guide. And, when I enquire (Theroux-style again) whether he had, indeed, tried to kill the man, it becomes clear that Peadar’s convictions have not mellowed with time: “He was an RUC man” is all he replies, with a hint of a glare (which, in my first encounter with a man who has attempted murder, I choose to interpret as a contact lens issue rather than a sign of menace). I don’t push it.
Over a Guinness (right) at the end of the tour, in the Felons Club – established “to foster and maintain among Irish Republicans friendships formed during imprisonment or internment as a result of their service to the Irish Republican cause” (see the memorial to the 1981 hunger strikers in the background, with Bobby Sands at its head) – I attempt to enlighten Peadar as to the Israeli side of our own troubles . . . though, with a man who professes to seeing “no difference” between Bin Laden and Bush-and-Blair (not to mention Bibi), that is always going to be a toughie.
I move on to Dublin, its Dolphins Barn cemetery (the Isaacson Bushey), Jewish Museum, and – most anticipated of all – to 97 South Circular Road, the childhood home of my father. And, having had the chutzpah to cold call (and on a Sunday morning), Ollie and Tim could not be more welcoming: they allow me to photograph the entire house, and even show an interest in my inherited stories of Dublin’s “little Jerusalem”.
Unfortunately, however, I have the wrong house: on visiting my father’s brother in London, later in the week, he informs me that the family home had, rather, been on the other side of the road (the houses having been renumbered over the years). Sincerest apologies, Ollie and Tim . . . though my offer of B&C (bed and canine) in Tel Aviv still holds good (and see June’s Mensch[es] of the Month!)
I spend my last days in Ireland enjoying the green land and its folk (and earmark Kinsale, County Cork, as the place that I may, one day, choose as my retreat in Civilisation). And, on my last evening, I peruse the young audience at the Dingle Tuesday Evening Cinema Club, and marvel how – rather than noisily sighing and tzutzing (as a Tel Aviv audience undoubtedly would) – they, without so much as a snigger or a smirk, respect the nonagenarian chairman’s ridiculous verbatim reading of a lengthy newspaper review of the upcoming “fil-em”.
“Whatever happened to our simplicity?” I wonder. We must have had some. Once.
Sophistication is not, in itself, a necessary good. And my short stay in Ireland makes me think about all the ‘sophisticates’ with whom I have surrounded myself in Tel Aviv . . . and wish I hadn’t.
“Shyness is nice,” once wrote the greatest living Manc.
So, too, is simple.
Atop the Healy Pass, on the County Cork/Kerry border