Ulster are playing Leinster at Ravenhill on a Friday night. A friend said he might like to go, but would there be time to get there after finishing school in Dublin on a Friday afternoon? If we set off promptly, it might be feasible.
It is not so many years ago that such a trip would not have been considered. Journeys in Ireland might have been filled with variety, with unexpected moments, with a sense of having travelled somewhere, but they also took a long time.
A journey from Ulster to Cork or Kerry might have involved an overnight stop. To average forty miles per hour on rural roads was an achievement. To have attempted at driving at speeds much greater in much of rural Ireland would have been to invite the loss of the sump of one’s car when hitting a pothole or a ramp (as happened to a fellow college student one Sunday night forty years ago when driving from Belfast to Dublin).
The journey wasn’t just about the roads driven, it was about the towns in which one stopped.
There were nineteenth century streets half a mile wide where the cars would be triple parked and still there would be space for through traffic. There were cafeterias where tea would be served in aluminium teapots and the menu was concerned with what you had served with your potatoes. There were shops where rosary beads and holy pictures might occupy window space with veterinary medicines and fancy goods. There were churches to which the removal of the deceased on the eve of the funeral would bring crowds of hundreds to shuffle behind the coffin and to queue to grasp the hands of the bereaved. There were drab school uniforms stifling the youth they enclosed. There were women with steps of stairs offspring and flat capped men in jackets and dark flannels. There were pub signs outside alternate premises, at least one of which would double as the undertaker’s premises.
Perhaps somewhere out there such towns may still be found. Perhaps the Ireland through which we used to make slow progress still endures in the less accessible parts of Connacht or Munster, or in some spots deep in the Midlands, but the economic boom that transformed most towns also created motorways that bypassed them, making for journeys that are now swift, but also boring.
Ireland has shrunk, but with it there is a sense of loss. Perhaps the land of teapots and potatoes was far from idyllic; but it possessed a quality of community life that has been lost in our transience and rootlessness.