Once upon a time, I spent a year living on the western coast of Ireland. From my American frame of reference, it took a bit of adjustment to become accustom to the Gaeltacht of Connemara’s shores. My acclimation to the culture came in curious increments comprised of chance encounters in unexpected places, but they gave me valuable insight into what I know now to be the social mores of the friendliest lot on earth.
Although I worked in Galway, I lived thirteen miles up the road, in the village of Inverin, which is two miles up the road from the village of Spiddal, an area famous for its Irish traditional music. At night, Spiddal can seem like a ghost town, but that’s only because most of its activity lies behind closed doors. There are precious few buildings lining the coastal main street, but what little is there stands closely together. Most prominently is a boutique hotel in the middle of Spiddal, and across the street is a popular music venue called the Cruiscan Lan, which means “little jug of whisky” in the Irish language. It was at the Cruiscan on a Thursday night in October that a chance encounter gave me my first glimpse into the charm and character of the rural Irish people.
My friend Leigh and I were not long inside the Cruiscan before the two salt-of-the-earth men at the bar started “chatting me up,” as they say in Ireland. They’d been unabashedly watching us from the moment we walked through the door. They were “on the piss,” as it’s called when someone intentionally sets out to get rip-roaring drunk just for the sport of it, and suddenly one of the men reached out and grabbed my arm as Leigh and I passed by. It’s funny how things hit you at different times in different places. In most cases, an unwarranted gesture like that would be scary or offensive, but because it was rural Ireland, I only saw the humor. They may have been on the piss, but they were harmless, I knew it intuitively.
“What brings a lovely thing like you here this night?” one of them asked—the one who was holding my arm.
“We’re just passing through,” I said, turning to face him.
“Are you long here?” he asked, emphasizing the word long.
Am I long where? I thought. Am I long at the Cruiscan? Am I long in Spiddal? Am I long in Ireland? This is no doubt a translation issue, I thought. Anyway, does he mean have I been here long, or do I intend to stay here long?
There are many idioms flying around Connemara that have their origin in the Irish language. I’m pretty sure “Are you long here?” is one of them, and I couldn’t help but think when translated into English, something is missing. My mind was racing. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked this question in Ireland, it seemed to be part and parcel to an Irish introduction, something commonly asked after the extension of “Nice to meet you.” Rather than risking embarrassment by asking what the question meant, I was in the habit of bluffing my way through the answer, hoping to appear as if I understood.
“I live here,” I returned, “I live in Inverin.” I had the feeling if you see someone once in Spiddal, you’re going to see them repeatedly, so I might as well tell the truth.
“What is it that brings you to Inverin?” he asked, finally releasing my arm.
“I’m working for the Galway Music Centre,” I said, “and I’m working on a book. I’m a writer and a poet.”
“Ah, aren’t we all,” he laughed, then he winked at me and raised his pint.
It was then I realized the Irish have a natural way of wielding the perfect retort. It’s more than a gift for the snappy come-back, it’s the art of banter in its highest form. My suspicion is the Irish employ it as a way of revealing themselves, as a way of communicating that they don’t take themselves too seriously, that life is a party, and you’re welcome to a seat by the fire. What I like best about Irish banter is when such a line is delivered, they expect you to match their eye-twinkling wit. It’s a cultural way of inclusion, a way of saying you’re welcome in their midst, which is exactly why they have the reputation of being the friendliest lot on earth.
Author's Note: This piece appeared in the May/June issue of Celtic Life International.