Saturday, March 4, 2017

Saturday morning, Mount Merrion


It’s a beautiful sunny morning in Dublin, but it won’t last. Banks of dark, low clouds are spilling over the mountains to the west. I pulled on my trainers (as running shoes are known here) and trotted up to the Deerpark on Mount Merrion. It was once the private park of some English lord, but was sold off in the early 20th century when his descendants ran out of money – a common story in Ireland and the UK. Houses were built on some of the estate, but fortunately the town council acquired much of the land and preserved it as community green space. There are no deer anymore, but there are woodlots and playing fields perfect for getting a bit of exercise. Which I need after two weeks spent mostly traveling.

Only a few morning dog walkers and joggers crossed my path in the park, some in only shorts and t-shirts, others dressed for winter – it’s like that in Dublin, you never know precisely how many layers to wear. After forty-five minutes of lazyish wind sprints and stretches in the sun, I trotted down Deerpark Road to a row of small shops I’d noticed on a previous pass by. In particular, I wanted to visit a traditional Irish butcher shop (also known as a ‘victuallers’), John O’Reilly’s, operated by Mr. O’Reilly at the same location since 1972. The man himself was working at the front counter when I walked in.

O'Reilly's, traditional victualler

The shop displays its meat specials in a cooler in the front window. On entering, there’s a long counter to the left and a shorter one to the back right, behind shelves of fresh vegetables. Two younger butchers were working near the back. I was the only customer at the time.

You can’t walk into a shop like O’Reilly’s and simply ask for a pound of sausages, pay and leave. I mean, I suppose you could, but it wouldn’t be very Irish. After initial hellos, we discussed what a grand morning it was. The Irish use the word ‘grand’ a lot, but it has various intimations depending on the way it is spoken and the context. At the upper end of the spectrum, if you’re having a good time or are really excited about something, you’ll blurt out “it’s grand” the way a North American kid might say “it was awesome!” after seeing the latest Lego movie. At the other end of the spectrum, grand can be a minimalist complement, suggesting that something is only slightly better than nothing at all. An example of something that was actually said to me not long after I moved here illustrates: “The bus is grand, but the train is better”, which translates roughly to, “Only a fool would go there any other way than by train”.

Our conversation then shifted to an analysis of how the weather had been since January (very dry and mild by Dublin standards), how February had been wetter but still ok (though not truly grand), and Mr. O’Reilly’s recitation of the common view that you’ll get all types of weather in March in Dublin. Next came the question that is inevitably asked of anyone without an Irish accent who appears anywhere outside the usual tourist haunts, “Are you here long?” My answer – that I’m here for six months – never fails to generate further conversation, which in this case revolved around where in the neighbourhood I’m living, about which it was agreed is a grand location because there are several good pubs within walking distance. I enquired as to which he would recommend for a good pint; Gleeson’s was his prompt answer, although he noted that he provides Gleeson’s with all its meat, so it was in his interest to recommend them. Just the same, the question of where to get a good pint is one every Irish person will answer faithfully, and indeed, what Mr. O’Reilly said is true, Gleeson’s is a fine, comfortable pub that pours a good pint, as I’d previously discovered on my own.

This then brought us to a discussion of what meat I’d like to purchase. The choice of three fresh chicken leg quarters at 75 cents apiece was easy, but I needed some advice on lamb for stew. Mr. O’Reilly asked how many people would be eating, and wrapped up the appropriate amount of freshly chopped lamb shoulder. I then made the mistake of asking if he sold meat pies (I have relatives in Scotland, and there you place orders for meat pies with the local butcher). Mr. O’Reilly looked mildly indignant, answering, “I’m a proper butcher, I don’t manufacture food.” He then smiled, and said, “the most I manufacture is a burger”. After settling the bill and a exchanging a few more pleasantries I left the shop, getting the distinct feeling I was being more abrupt in my departure than most customers. I am North American in my sensibilities, after all, and am likely quicker than an Irish person to assume that my staying is keeping someone else from using their time more wisely. In Irish terms, our craic could have been better but for me.

At the newsagent’s shop next door, the discussion between the proprietor, a customer, and myself concerned which Saturday morning Irish newspaper I should buy. I won’t go into a verbatim account, but the feeling was that the slightly cheaper Independent is a good populist paper suitable for weekdays, but the Irish Times makes for much better weekend reading. Although I suspect like everywhere else, circulation of newspapers in Ireland is likely on the decline, the Irish strike me as being much more voracious readers than North Americans, if the number of newsagents and bookshops is any indication. And certainly, Irish people are far more up to date on current affairs than are most average North Americans. Then again, maybe it’s because they have to be; they live on a small island and the world is changing rapidly around them, what with Brexit, yesterday’s Northern Ireland elections, and the impending visit of the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) to meet the US President on St Patrick’s Day.

If you’re still reading and beginning to wonder what this posting is about, it is this: the morning events I’ve just described are precisely why I wanted to be here.  A walk in the park and a quick stop to buy a bit of food and a morning paper are nondescript actions that can be done anywhere, from Waterloo to Wexford to Walla Walla. The difference is that, by doing them here, in a different place with a different culture, I'm reminded of how much experience, learning, and genuine pleasure can be derived from doing simple, day-to-day things and interacting with everyday people in a pleasant and peaceful community.