They say the Americans have a long-held love for the automobile. A big saloon car and an open road are classic icons of the United States. How would describe our relationship with the car in this country? I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘love’. I think the Irish person and their car is more like the couple who have finally reached the end of their tether and are barely putting up with each other; we’re just going through the motions for the sake of it. Traffic is a problem in Ireland, regardless of what city or town you live in. Driver habits aren’t improving. The comedian George Carlin said: ‘Anyone driving faster than you is a maniac; anyone driving slower than you is an idiot’.
Even if you think you’re a perfect driver and everyone else is a clown, spending time in a car is more functional than fun. Worse still is the car journey with others. A recent study highlighted this time of year as being the most likely during which car arguments and rows break out. The combination of traffic congestion and bad weather increase stress levels in drivers, and naturally enough the obligatory backseat (or passenger seat) driver only serves to make a bad situation worse.
I shall be honest and admit that asking for directions is the leading contributor to spousal conflict in our family car. I had a discussion about this topic with a female colleague during the week. ‘Men don’t ask for directions; why is that? Are you worried about losing credibility or something?’ she wondered. ‘Of course not,’ I lied, and started waffling on about trusting one’s innate GPS navigation. Yet the Irishman’s inability to admit defeat as he drives past the same landmark for the third time in a row, confused and lost, is not to protect our pride or ego.
There are two main reasons why it’s not worth asking for directions in Ireland. The first is that, no matter who you stop and where you stop them, they will always give you at least 50% more information than you need:
‘Hello I’m looking for Desmond’s auto parts?’
‘Oh yeah, what you need to do is go on up there about a mile, over the bridge and take a left by Murtagh’s field. Now, his field was badly flooded there recently but he says he’s getting a dig out from the council. You might see him out in the tractor actually; it’s a blue tractor he bought off some lad up the north. The VRT was much cheaper than he thought; in fact he says he’s going back up there to look at a trailer next weekend. Have you ever been up the north yourself?’
And on he or she goes, giving you their life story, while you sit in the car visibly ageing, scowling and trying not to let it show that you’ve by now had several rows with your wife about directions. Life is too short for this kind of carry on. I appreciate that people are just being friendly and well-meaning, but not on my time pal.
The second reason is how the person you stop will recruit a passer-by to help with the task. There you are on the main street of a small village, lost as usual, and you stop a man who looks like he might know the locality. ‘You’re looking for who?’ he bellows in through your car window, ‘Niall Reilly? Niall Reilly, well now,’ he says, as he steps back from the car and yells across the street at a man walking a dog. ‘Michael!’ he hollers, ‘Michael! Do you know of a Niall Reilly? A Niall Reilly! This man says he’s got a trampoline for sale!’ Next thing Michael saunters over, with the dog, and a long chat ensues about the mythical Niall Reilly, whether he exists, and if he’s related to the Reilly’s from the car breaker’s yard past the church. All the while the dog is jumping up on the car door, drooling and licking your hand. In fairness, what else would you be doing on a Saturday afternoon with a seething spouse and two bickering children in a car other than having a discussion in Ballygobackwards with two strangers concerning the whereabouts of Niall Reilly?
Do you see now how far simpler and less stressful it is to wander around aimlessly with the blind optimism that eventually you’ll stumble across your destination? The issue of stopping for directions cannot be dismissed by lazy gender stereotypes. Yes, we are proud of our ability to (eventually) find the place we’re looking for; we just don’t need a real-life John B. Keane play to accompany the search. So does anyone know where I’d find a Niall Reilly? He has a trampoline for sale.