Whither the homespun Irish welcome?
An Ireland vacation won't meet storybook expectations, but an open mind will go far.
If you're considering a visit to Ireland this summer, you've probably been tempted by the prospect of finding some legendary "Irish hospitality."
You may see yourself stepping off the plane at Shannon Airport, retrieving your luggage, picking up your rental car, and driving straight into the countryside. Before you collapse from jet lag, you happen upon a family-run bed-and-breakfast situated amid rolling green hills and radiating a magical rural tranquility. The woman of the house appears to be expecting you. She welcomes you warmly at the door and asks in a genuine way about your visit. There is an aroma of fresh scones and tea drifting from the kitchen.
Soon, you're on a first-name basis, and it's almost as if the house is your own – you're given a key to the front door and told to come and go as you please.
It's an enticing scene, I know, but a vanishing one as well.
For starters, Ireland is becoming urbanized at an incredible pace, with all the leveling effects of such a process. Already nearly one-third of the Republic's population of 4 million resides in the greater Dublin area, which, practically speaking, encompasses large parts of several adjoining counties. And a further half million are expected to swell this expanding commuter belt by 2020.
As a result, reaching some genuine Irish countryside in your rental car will take longer than you imagined. Or indeed you may end up bypassing the rural experience altogether. Many of Ireland's smaller towns now have roads that run around them, so that you can zoom from, say, Galway to Cork, without having to slow down (and perhaps stop) in the less celebrated communities along the way.
But should you decide to follow your dream and find that enchanted countryside B&B, you'll find yourself in a select minority. According to figures published by the Central Statistics Office here, a vast majority of visitors from the US and Canada are spending their accommodation dollars on alternative digs. For instance, of the 8.7 million Irish "bed nights" registered by North American tourists in 2005, only 1.5 million (or 17 percent) were attributed to the B&B sector.
There are a few possible reasons for that slight percentage. First, B&Bs are not the inexpensive option they once were. (In my backpacking days I often secured a night's lodging, including breakfast and a friendly chat, for under $20. Today's budget traveler would be looking at $50, minimum, given the dollar's weak standing against the euro.)
Plus, independent B&Bs now face stiff competition from the many new three- and four-star hotels that have sprung up around the country, owing to the generous tax breaks for such investment. These faceless franchise hotels feature pools, gyms, and saunas, as well as wireless Internet access, and regularly advertise cut-rate getaway deals.
But perhaps more seriously, from the perspective of a struggling B&B operator, the old-time Irish welcome is perceived to be on the wane – if one believes the anecdotal evidence presented on the radio phone-in shows here. There has always been a certain craftiness behind the carefree Irish demeanor, but it appears that fewer people are interested in keeping up appearances, most notably in the B&B industry. Not when the paying overnight customer is now taking his business elsewhere. And not when the rewards for running a good B&B don't come close to providing adequate recompense for the time and effort required.
So where does this leave your dream of an idyllic Irish vacation? Well, as I like to say, 20 years ago, Ireland was a better place to visit; today, it's a better place to live. In other words, if you come here for a visit, don't expect to find yourself transported back to some kind of mystical land of yore. The children aren't all red-haired and freckle-faced, no one lives in a thatched cottage anymore, and the pace of life, you'll discover, is remarkably similar to the one you left behind.
But if you get off the beaten track and explore some of the roads and byways that have yet to feel the hard brush of modernity, you'll be pleasantly surprised. And isn't that what travel is all about? Leaving your expectations at home and taking what the world has to offer.
Surely, that type of approach is deserving of a welcome anywhere.
• Steve Coronella is a freelance writer.