Tuesday 26 September 2006


In much of Britain, the word "Irish" is commonly used to mean "wrong, odd, strange, skewiff, weird, shoddy, incompetent". If a shed has been built in such a way that it may fall down at any moment, it's a bit Irish. If a car has one wheel slightly larger than the others, it's a bit Irish. If a shop has some weird convoluted refund process that makes no sense whatsoever but doesn't annoy you too much, it's a bit Irish (not to be confused with "Swedish", which is far more annoying and caused by vindictiveness rather than incompetence). Some people might say that it's unfair that this ridiculous prejudice that the Irish are all stupid or permanently drunk or both has entrenched itself in our language. Those people, I put it to you, have never tried to drive through Ireland.

Twice in the last couple of weeks, I've had to drive to Dublin. And I'd like to make a suggestion to the Irish authorities. Have you ever considered using road-signs as indicators of where places are?

We're all familiar with the "Services" sign on a motorway. It doesn't even need to say "Services" these days, having helpful little icons of petrol pumps, knives & forks, toilets, beds, brothels, etc. It's the same across Europe: you approach a motorway exit, there's a sign with a picture of a petrol pump on it, and that means that, if you exit the motorway at this point, you will find a petrol station. And the reason you'll find it, mundanely, is because it's there. Unless you're in Ireland, in which case, replace the word "mundanely" with "astoundingly". Because it'll never happen.

Driving down an Irish motorway, you see a sign with pictures of a petrol pump and knife & fork on it, and an arrow pointing off the next exit. Being both low on petrol and peckish, you drive off that exit and immediately find yourself at a roundabout with one sign to Ballymiddle, another to Ballyonowhere, another road with no sign at all, and no indication of anything petrol-related. A sign says that Ballymiddle is three kilometres away; Ballyonowhere is, presumably, also some distance away, but who could say what that distance might be? You drive around for a bit, and find some trees and a cottage and maybe even wild blackberries — perhaps they're what the knife & fork were referring to. Then you give up and go back to the motorway, heading for the next "Services" sign and the same pallaver all over again, only this time you also find a horse. Eventually, your petrol runs out and you are forced to abandon your car, find the nearest pub, throw away your shoes, and drink Guinness for twenty years.

For, you see, when the Irish put a picture of a petrol pump on a sign, what they mean is "There's a petrol station somewhere round here, possibly in one of the villages within a five-mile radius; possibly on the way to one of them; maybe behind that hill. It might even be open. And have petrol. Sure, you know the place, anyway, so you do. You know, Mick's Petrol Station. You know, Mick with the leg." As far as they're concerned, being told to leave the motorway is all the direction you need; after that, you can find the petrol using your sense of smell and by asking sheep for help.

I actually managed to find one of these petrol stations on the way back to Belfast. I was dead pleased with my achievement until I discovered that it was in fact a devious new twist on the theme: you can find the place (just), but you can never leave. Every time I followed the signs back to the motorway, they brought me back to the petrol station. It took me (I kid you not) fifteen minutes before I eventually figured out the knack: to get back on the motorway to Belfast, on no account follow signs that say "Motorway" or "Belfast" — in fact, going in the opposite direction to that indicated by such signs is a good idea. But of course.

Petrol is cheaper in the Republic, so I know people who drive down South to fill their cars up. How?

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