Getting there

Getting there

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Safety Dance, Irish Style

Touring Ireland's historic sites is magnificent, of course. They have done a remarkable job of preserving these sites - not "restoring" them, which often means just getting them prettied up for tourists - but rather keeping them in a manner which suits their environment and context.

There are some spectacular examples, such as Blarney Castle in Blarney and King John's Castle in Limerick. One of the other things that strike you about these sites is that they would never be open in North America in their current condition. Why, you ask? It's not just because of our North American predilection for Disney-fying everything we can get our hands on. It's because of our abject fear of litigation.

You see, these sites are likely some of the most dangerous tourist sites I've ever seen. As I said to my husband I'd never bring anyone over 75 or under 5 to these sites unless I was quite willing to say a permanent farewell to them. The stairs in the castles are treacherous spiral affairs of uneven stone, often damp, and with a tiny handrail to attempt to secure yourself. The parapets are open affairs where a small child could easily slip through or climb over. It's only recently that they closed access to the most frightening parts of the Cliffs of Moher, where you could lay on your stomach and stare straight down the cliff face and into the ocean. Apparently they recently added an extra safety bar to the part of Blarney Castle where you kiss the stone (4 stories up, incidentally, while leaning backwards over the outside of the castle wall and being held by an elderly man who you are forced to trust quite literally with your life to accomplish this feat). I don't know if this was spurred by legal fears or perhaps by incidents I'd rather not know about (there is a sign at the Cliffs of Moher dedicated to those who lost their lives there, but I was assured those who have did so intentionally, not accidentally).

I found all this absolutely refreshing. It seemed so well-suited to the easy-going Irish nature to not worry about these issues. The attitude seemed to be that those who shouldn't attempt several flights of uneven, damp, twisted stairs wouldn't, and if they did, well, it's a shame but what can one do? Such a charming perspective, and so different from our neurotic North American style.

I believe it was about day 5 in Ireland when I was again moaning about having to use the hotel-supplied hair dryer outside the bathroom that the light bulb went on. You see, in Ireland you can't use a blow dryer in a hotel bathroom. In every hotel we stayed in they would supply a dryer, but the bathrooms had outlets that quite specifically would not allow one to use a blow dryer. It was definitely quirky, and at our last hotel I asked about it. The concierge looked at me with some concern and said "Well, we don't want anyone to electrocute themselves, do we?". I was bemused. In North American hotels if you wish to electrocute yourself in the bathroom with a blow dryer we will not only provide the outlets but hand you the blow dryer, too. I almost asked the concierge exactly how many people in Ireland electrocute themselves this way every year, but thought better of it as I knew it would come off as North American condescension and not the genuine curiousity I meant (I'm still looking for those statistics, actually).

That's when it occurred to me that the Irish are not really all that different from us North Americans, it's just that they keep their fears in different boxes. We fear the litigation that could follow a child slipping several stories down the side of a castle, and they fear daft tourists electrocuting themselves. It's a bit funny, really, as they think tourists are able to exercise good judgement when visiting potentially dangerous historic sites and know how to keep themselves out of trouble, but they draw the line at allowing them to use those notoriously dodgy electrocuting blow dryers in bathrooms.

To me these quirks just make Ireland and the Irish even more charming. They aren't a perfect people, and they are indeed easy-going, but have the same little neuroses you find in every culture. In North America we fear, well, almost everything. Apparently in Ireland their fear just happens to be tourists armed with blow dryers.

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