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‘Obama’s from here’

Ireland is not just famous for its whiskey and liqueurs, but also for American tourists in search of their roots. Chetan Chauhan tells more...

india Updated: Sep 05, 2008 21:57 IST
Chetan Chauhan

‘Ireland is grande,” claimed John, a young Irish man at a buzzing late-night pub in the southern city of Cork. The bearded gent hastily added that ‘grande’ for the Irish meant ‘the big heart of the Irish people’ — not the size of the country. There was an instant approval from most of the folks in the packed pub, including visitors from Germany and Italy.

John’s explanation of ‘grande’ can make one understand why most of the main business streets in Ireland have that word attached to them. ‘Grande’ means a lot for the island nation that attracts 9 million tourists — that’s double Ireland’s population — every year, and results in creating over 200,000 jobs and foreign exchange worth 10 billion euros.

For us, a group of Indian journalists visiting the country, this ‘grandeness’, which the Irish government officials keep on talking about, became a little difficult to digest. On our way back one late night from a pub in Cork, we lost our way. We sought help from some young men drinking beer at a riverside. As soon as I asked the way to Kingsley Hotel where we were staying, the group pounced on us. One offered to call a taxi, saying the hotel was a few miles away. Another was quick to retort that the hotel was nearby. As all of them tried to educate us about directions, we realised that seeking help from the inebriated is always a bad idea.

We did finally spot a taxi. Jumping into it, we asked the driver to rush from the spot — bringing all the ‘grandeness’ associated with it to a halt.

The Irish are more than willing — and able — to help. A gentleman at Cork Airport offered to pay for our breakfast when he saw us searching for coins in our pockets. Thanking him, we explained that we wanted to get rid of our euro coins as we were heading to Northern Ireland (where the pound sterling is the currency).

Common history

Like India and Pakistan, history is a unifying factor for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The country was divided when the Catholic-dominated southern Ireland declared independence from British rule in 1937. The Protestant-influenced Northern Ireland continues its troubled association with ‘mainland’ Britain. But even today, the Irish, irrespective of which side of the border they live on, proudly recall their wars against British invaders and their fight for survival during the great famine of 1845 when millions left the country in search of food to America.

Centuries later, the tumultuous sea journey across the Atlantic has given Ireland a proud figure — 17 of America’s Presidents are of Irish origin. The Irish believe the tally will go up further with the victory of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. “Even the next President of America, Barack Obama, is of Irish origin,” proclaimed a tourist guide in the city of Londonderry in Northern Ireland — much to the dismay of American tourists. Seeing their disbelief, the guide claimed to have evidence of Obama’s Irish origin. “His great-great-grandfather was an Irishman,” he said gleefully.

The Americans were still not convinced. Like the rest of us, they believed Obama was from Kenya. Identifying Obama’s origin was easy for Irish people. His surname made it clear, as our coach driver-cum-guide Andrew explained. “Surnames starting with O or Mc are people of Irish origin. Very few know that ‘O’ in the surname means ‘grandson of’, while ‘Mc’ stands for ‘son of’.” (So does that also make the other presidential hopeful John McCain Irish too?)

Unlike Obama, thousands of Americans come to trace their roots in the beautiful countryside here. The places are full of old castles (many converted into top-grade heritage hotels) and monasteries. This influx, officials say, hugely boosts the tourist economy. For Americans, the murals and graffiti — dividing Catholic and Protestant colonies in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, and the centuries-old Protestant- dominated walled city of Londonderry — provide a glimpse into the tumultuous history of Ireland.

Whiskey and cream

In a land where conflict sells, the Irish men take great pride in their locally made whiskey and coffee liqueurs. To demonstrate, Andrews explained that the extra ‘e’ in the spelling of whiskey stands for ‘excellence’. He also tells me that their whiskey is better than ‘Scotch’. At the Jameson distillery at Middleton, I tasted Irish, American and Scotch whiskeys. It became quite clear that the extra ‘e’ has a real meaning — this was a smoother, sweeter whiskey than those distilled in Scotland. The Republic of Ireland boasts of the Jameson brand of whiskey. Northern Ireland has to its credit the world’s oldest whiskey distillery, Bushmills. Despite my thumbs-up to their whiskey, Andrews rues that Scotch sells more than the Irish whiskey the world over.

That is, however, not the case for Irish Cream aka Bailey’s. If you visit Ireland, don’t miss the chance to sample homemade Irish Cream, even though many restaurants do not have it on their menus. But what they did have for a carnivore like me was a real treat: unique dishes of lamb and goat meat cooked in different sauces. Meat-centric as the dishes are, surprisingly, I’ve never tasted them in India.