Living in rural West Cork, you get pretty good at directions. Learning to give precise directions is important otherwise my visitors end up driving around and around for hours, passing Ballineen once every few goes until they are rescued by an understanding native. West Cork roads are sneaky. A road can wind along a full 360 degrees without you noticing. When you first move here, you’re continually lost — not to mention confused. In my first year in the village, no matter which point of the compass I was headed, if I got lost I would eventually end up in Lyre. That’s the way the roads go around here. In fact I might end up several times in Lyre even though each time I’d headed off in the opposite direction. The magical thing about West Cork roads is the way they can bring you back to exactly where you started from. In a spirit of adventure worthy of the great 19th century explorers, I once drove off from Timoleague in an attempt to navigate the ultimate back road home. After driving for 15 minutes I arrived right smack back in front of Charlie Madden’s pub where I’d been parked. Thankfully you do get better at it after a while. West Cork will turn you into a homing pigeon in a couple of years. It’s a survival skill. If you don’t acquire that boreen sixth sense, you could disappear altogether:
“Where’d Tina go? I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“I don’t know, last time I saw her she said she was taking the back road to Macroom!”
I’ve heard that if you’re very lost it’s the fault of the fairies. It seems that they love tricking people. You must get out of the car, turn your jacket inside out and put it back on again. Apparently the faeries find this so hilarious that they let you off. Of course, if you don’t believe in that sort of thing you could always just ask for directions. Mind you, in West Cork that can almost be as fanciful as asking the faeries.
The funny thing about asking for directions is that people in West Cork love to oblige, but they’ll always first answer with a shake of the head that indicates that they haven’t a clue where you want to go. After a few shakes, your guide will scratch the back of his neck with a look of intense concentration. Then he’ll bend down into the window and whisper in a conspiratory tone: “Well now, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” This is actually a highly philosophical statement. A conundrum such as determining how many angels can dance on a pin head is as easy as counting how many cows there are in a field compared to a statement like: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” I’m sure that many of us would like not to be where we are when we set off to go somewhere – but we’d never envisioned the possibility of it being otherwise. What it actually means is that you are, indeed, very lost. You are so lost, in fact, that you need directions to get to a place where you can start to go to where-ever you wanted to go to. However, the prospect of not starting where you are can be somewhat daunting for someone used to: “Take the first left and turn right at the traffic lights.”
The actual giving of directions can become a saga of biblical proportions. This is mainly because it is important for people to tell you which way you shouldn’t go and there are a lot more ways not to go somewhere than there are ways to get there. People giving directions in West Cork take great pains to tell you in minute detail all the roads you shouldn’t take. They carefully describe landmarks you must totally ignore. “You’ll come up to a road that goes over a bridge and turns to the right before passing the church- you know the one? Take no notice!”
When calling on the telephone for directions the motto is: be prepared. You’ll need at least two sheets of A4 paper and a good pencil as you’ll have to write down a journey worthy of Ulysees with details including interesting geological features, well placed pubs, and treacherous bends in the road. I have often found myself driving slowly up a boreen trying to make sense of cryptic scribbles: “Take left at the rusty gate (red cloth). Windey bit about a mile, Turn left at daffodils.”
I remember one of the first times I took directions on the phone. I was going to visit someone down past Skibbereen. The directions included looking out for a milk churn. They led me away from the main road down a tiny boreen that wound itself towards the sea. I read; “Turn left at the Ginger Cat.” I had written down the directions without a second thought, imagining that the Ginger Cat was a pub. The road climbed through a bleak landscape offset by the slate sea and lead sky. Up ahead I could see a tiny blue and white cottage that stuck out like a Christmas cake on the grey scenery. That must be it, I thought, scanning the building for a Murphy’s sign. Then as I came alongside the cottage, I saw a huge ginger cat sitting on the wall. Sure enough, after the cat was a little boreen to the left. I swear that cat winked as I drove by.