Volume 13, Issue 39 ~ September 29 - October 5, 2005

Bay Reflections

New Life in the Old Country
by Valerie Lester

I placed a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, a cucumber and two tomatoes, half a pound of cheese and a packet of sliced ham on the counter. Then I waited while the cashier in the village shop totted up my bill. This was my first purchase in the Republic of Ireland. I paid my bill with cheerful euros and waited for her to bag the goods. And waited, and waited as she sized me up — until I realized that the bag onus was on me. I gathered my purchases into a tottering armload and set off for the car.

We were on holiday in West Cork, the most south-westerly part of Ireland, a landscape of rugged peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic, reminiscent of Maine but with fewer conifers and milder weather. One of the strongest impressions we had on arrival and for the next two weeks was how clean the countryside is.

In one draconian measure, Ireland has debagged itself. You can still, in some places, if you ask nicely and have ready money, buy a plastic or a canvas bag, and all the profits go to charity. When we went for our first swim (in bone-chilling water) with my friend Margie, she produced two plastic bags, saying, “I’ve been saving these for you. They’re for your swimsuits. Don’t lose them.” I made sure to return them at the end of our visit.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Maryland took a leadership role and adopted such a measure? Think of the benefits: No more bags swirling around our city streets or clinging to fences in the countryside; no more bags clogging ponds, suffocating wildlife and killing fish in Chesapeake Bay.

It seems such an obvious step to take, a step that made the Irish people smile as soon as the ban came into effect. So what if it annoys people at first? It took a mere four days for me to remember to bring my own bag whenever I went shopping. I have a marvellous bright yellow nylon number that folds up to the size of a cell phone but which, when opened up, can carry a cabbage, three pounds of potatoes, two pounds of onions and a couple of rolls of toilet paper. One of the knock-on results of the bag ban is the booming trade in baskets, and Irish basket-makers are turning out beautiful examples.

In another draconian measure, the Irish government has outlawed smoking in all public places, a measure that caused an enormous amount of chuntering and grumbling in pubs, with publicans claiming that their business would fall off dramatically. Wrong. Now the air in Irish pubs is no longer blue with cigarette smoke; no more overflowing ashtrays, no more crushed stubs on the floor. You drink your Guinness and breathe freely as you join the crowd watching the hurling match on the overhead televison. (This year the finals are between Cork and Galway.)

Here’s something else that impressed us in West Cork: the people’s pride in their booming economy and their desire for good eats. They seek out the best local produce and take particular pride in artisan food: honey, bread, smoked fish, local cheeses. (Local cheeses. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be great if we could go to our local market and stock up on a variety of cheeses that included the Bowie brie, the Jessup jack, the Cheverly chèvre and the Cumberland cheddar?) Organic stores do a thriving trade. Weekly street markets carry vegetables, fresh fish and shellfish, pickles, jam and bread. And bric-à-brac, which is, of course, a form of recycling.

Ireland seems to be shouldering its sudden prosperity joyously and responsibly. Of course, one does see the occasional SUV struggling down the narrow lanes, and there’s evidence of some ostentatious new building. But for the most part, people still drive small cars and restore old buildings. Even the very rich believe in this form of recycling; Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack have restored a castle that is the talk of the village.

New life in the old country!

Valerie Lester, of Annapolis Roads, is the author of two books, Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. Her first story for Bay Weekly was the Earth Journal “Our Neighbors: The Foxes” on August 4 (Vol xiii. No. 31).

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