Ireland - land of many welcomes

AS day breaks the storms blow in again from the south-west. From the radio, left on overnight, come the strains of a sonata; heard faintly against the noise of the wind, it sounds like an Aeolian harp, the notes carried as if from a great and mysterious distance.

Later in the day the tourists walk stiffly but resolutely on the beach as the waves roll in from the Atlantic. Behind them the mist clings to the slopes of an elemental landscape of bog and crag.

 

A sense of the supernatural is strong. Rocks glimpsed obscurely in the haze take on eerie shapes; anthropomorphic belief comes naturally here. Our modern God is everywhere too. The churches are full on Sundays and round some corner you may come upon a shrine, devoutly tended. Paul Durcan wrote:

Being the sensible, superstitious old lady that she was,

My aunt Sarah knew that, while to know God was good,

To get the Ear of his Mother was a more practical step.

Into this ancient landscape the modern world is inexorably intruding. New houses sprout all over the countryside, cheerfully painted in white, their bungaloid facades broken by the ubiquitous Spanish arches much favoured by local taste and reminiscent, surely, of happy Mediterranean holidays.

Our neighbour here has finally got in the electricity. Thomas, we suppose, lives like many others on the farmers' dole, a modest state payment that sustains rural life where it must surely otherwise die. He can keep the odds and ends he may earn on top, but his tastes are simple and his needs few.

His cottage is plain but clean. He does not smoke and rarely drinks. He gets around on a bicycle and, though well past middle age, is still as supple as a young man. In the dark of winter he sits before his turf fire. Until a few months ago he went to bed early. Now he watches television.

He is a kindly man. Last night he brought us a gift of fresh herring and this morning he let us have some turf. He no longer has to cut it in the old way, laboriously with a slane. Instead a machine comes and cuts it for a small fee. Its arrival in the district is announced in church and in a day it devours more of the bog than a man could manage in a fortnight.

As in Scotland, modern ways are not aways welcomed and there is a constant tension between the conservation and development interests. Thomas has no sentimentality about having the machine cut his turf. Why should he? But the conservationists bemoan its capacity to destroy the bog created so slowly, from moss and forest, in ancient times. A frequent visitor from England writes a play which an amateur group performs in a local hall. In the drama, St Patrick descends from heaven to save the bog from the machine.

To a Scot it is again a familiar scenario. Conservationists tend to be outsiders and the locals often think them officious. But sometimes they unite. A vigorous campaign, locally inspired, has stopped the spread of fish farming. Permission for fish farms is no longer easily obtained. Sea lice in farmed salmon and trout have been blamed for a disastrous decline in stocks of wild fish. According to the local paper, the numbers are now recovering thanks to the earlier slaughter of farm fish and the use of a new chemical.

In its own way tourism, another staple of the local economy, is also a pollutant, though in Ireland it has on the whole been well managed. John Herdman has memorably denounced its impact on Scottish life and character, and Ireland has not entirely escaped its trivialising influence. There is an Irish ''kailyard'' every bit as sentimentally shallow as the Scottish equivalent.

The ''old'' thatched cottage which you sometimes see being built here is likely to owe more to a judicious investment by a businessman than to a genuine respect for the old ways. The locals remember the thatch, with its holes and its vermin, with rueful nostalgia.

In a lively market town east of Galway, a court has been hearing a case involving the secretary of the local gun club. He was accused of assaulting the man acting as guide for a French shooting party. Anti-French notices had been put up in the town during the night and the secretary had told the party to ''eff off back to France''.

In disposing of the case the judge seemed less concerned about the assault, during which one man had pointed a loaded shotgun at the other, than by the effect the case might have on tourism. It might, he said, damage Ireland's reputation as the land of a hundred thousand welcomes. He fined the accused #10.

The judge's fears seem groundless. The French are here in considerable numbers and as far as we can tell are made as welcome as everybody else. But his point was right. Like it or not, countries like Scotland and Ireland have little choice but to make the most of tourism.