Numbering roads

Sep 14th, 2012 | By | Category: Pop thinking

The Saw Doctors provided appropriate accompaniment to waking disorientated. The shortening days bring darker mornings and it was difficult to guess the time; the clock said 6.50 and the music on the radio declared that the serious talking of the ‘Morning Ireland’ programme had not yet begun.

The sound of ‘N17’ filled the room. ‘N17’ must be the only song in Irish history that is named after the number of a road. The emigrant wishes for the familiarity of things at home:

And I wish I was on that N 17
(Stone walls and the grass is green)
Yes I wish I was on that N 17
(Stone walls and the grass is green)
Travelling with just my thoughts and dreams.

The N17 is the road from Galway to Sligo, a road across Connacht. A friend lives in the N17 at Tuam, not once has she ever referred to it by its number – it is always the Galway road.

Going to live in Northern Ireland in 1983 and referring to roads by their A and B numbers used to bring odd looks from people. No-one seemed to talk about the road between Moira and Lurgan as the A3; no-one seemed aware that one could drive from Newry to Derry on a single road – the A2 that ran around the coast of Northern Ireland.

Nor has the tendency to ignore numbers much changed in the years since then. The recent expenditure by the Department of the Environment on new road signs in Co Laois could well have been channelled to more useful purposes. No-one talks about the R445. If you asked people, few would even realize which road was the R445. Stopped driving along the road and asked what they thought its number might be, they would say tell you it was the N7.

So what’s the deal with the N17? Perhaps it’s about global appeal, an Irish counterpart to Route 66; no-one might know where it goes, but it has more universal resonance than saying, ‘I wish I was on that Tuam road’. Perhaps it’s about humour, choosing the most unlikely place about which to sing a song. But isn’t it really about finding the special in the ordinary, finding that the ordinary things that are taken for granted are the things most missed in times of exile? It is the common and the mundane and the unremarkable that form everyday life for most of us, when everyday is suddenly spent elsewhere, it is those things that might once have seemed workaday and monotonous that we miss.

‘I wish I was on that N17’. Having driven the Galway-Sligo road, it is a good place to remember.


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