Ireland has a reputation for being a friendly country. In fact, the country’s friendliness is as iconic as Guinness, and the cliffs of Moher. It has become a marketing cliché along with spectacular landscapes, pub music session, and wild weather. But for once, the marketing is 100 per cent true. The Wild Atlantic Way really is full of friendly natives who are only delighted to have a chat, impart local knowledge, share a joke, or give you directions if you get lost.
Friendliness is generally defined as an open, warm affability; a knack for congeniality and sociability. It is worthy of comment in Ireland (particularly rural Ireland), because so many places in the world aren’t really friendly. One of the first things you’ll hear people say when they visit is how friendly everyone is. Tourists are blown away by how engaging and helpful people are.
It struck me recently, as I heard yet another visitor’s story of how friendly people are in West Cork, that what we call friendliness is actually common kindness. It is kind to start a conversation with someone who is sitting alone. It is kind to help someone who is lost, or find a garage for someone whose car has broken down. And it got me thinking about how lucky I am to live in a place where kindness is so ubiquitous that it masquerades as a charming sociability.
When I first moved out to the countryside I was intrigued by all the elderly men that seemed to hang around in farm kitchens, especially on Sundays. I thought that they must be elderly relatives. I discovered that some of them were, indeed a great-grandfather, or an uncle; but there were also some who were just neighbours who lived alone and had come over for a hot dinner. I’ve seen families foster children, when they all ready had a half a dozen of their own, and people get together to help a single mother move.
There is such an abundance of kindness that when images of refugees fleeing to Europe started taking over our media, grass root organisations sprung up to collect supplies all over the country, vans were secured to go to Calais, coffee mornings and table quizzes were held to raise funds, and over 12,000 people ‘pledged a bed’ in their homes. Whatever you may think about the refugee crisis, you can’t deny that all these thousands of people who have mobilised are driven by kindness.
Closer to home, the plight of homelessness has also moved people. A free food stall has been set up (and shut down!) on Grafton Street. Cork Penny Dinners serve over 1000 meals a week (compared to 150 a week, two years ago). People can donate food and money, but so many people want to help that there is a waiting list for volunteers. In West Cork a group has recently been formed to protest the housing crisis and help those in need. The list goes on and on.
Sometimes the world’s problems can seem insurmountable. Media reports are scary and confusing. One way to lift the sense of doom and gloom is to give rein to our common kindness. When we extend a helping hand, or a friendly wave, the world becomes a better place. It doesn’t need to be much: taking the time for a chat, checking on an elderly neighbour, giving a student a lift, or welcoming a family that has moved to the area all make a small, but important, difference. Shakespeare wrote of mercy: “It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” The same goes for kindness. If we can continue to let our common kindness point the way, we’ll all be blest.