The Admirable Tuosist Life Style
By David P Stang
For foreigners and urban blow-ins the way of the men and women of Tuosist, an important parish in County Kerry, Ireland, may take a long time to comprehend. At least for me it took many years. Some of the facets of the Tuosist life style in contrast to big city life are fairly obvious while others are far more subtle and difficult to detect.
Beginning with the self-evident, Tuosist weather predictably changes fifty times a day, except for the constancy of rain in some form – from a drizzle to a downpour. Sunshine is rare as an oasis in the desert.
Also not difficult to detect when you are driving through Tuosist are the vistas of forests, farms, bungalows, lovely flower gardens, a handful of B&Bs, the Kenmare Bay, rugged mountains, lush valleys, beautiful landscapes, lakes, rivers, bogs, wildflowers like fuchsia and montbretia growing abundantly everywhere, an assortment of archeological ruins, a rake of sometimes intimidating boreens and uncrowded main roads except when a farmer is using the road to move his sheep or cattle and when he’s tractor hauling at five miles an hour a tank of slurry or a load of hay.
While in most very big cities around the world working and living in tall buildings the people are packed in against one another more tightly than sardines in a tin, like about 20,000 people per square mile. In Tuosist it’s less than one person per square mile. What does that tell you when it comes to breathing room?
It is not difficult to understand that when so many big city people are jammed so tightly together they are likely to be, hostile and nasty. And how does that manifest? Let’s take, for example, how they go about returning a defective product to the store where they bought it. These impatient urban folks would angrily stare at the store clerk, shout, scream, stomp their feet, give out for at least five minutes and maybe threaten a lawsuit. Your clerk would coldly tell your man that he didn’t buy his defective product at this store so he can go contact the manufacturer and try to get satisfaction from him.
Your Tuosist man or woman would take the yoke back to the store, talk about the weather, then the latest Kerry football victory or defeat, ask the clerk how he and his missus have been keeping, ask if any of his relations from America are visiting this summer and then apologize for having to trouble the clerk about a defective product the manufacturer should have inspected, but apparently didn’t.
Comparative driving courtesies are another case in point. You may have become familiar with how some of your big city cousins in America have acquired some horrible driving habits which feature their focus between the accelerator, brake and horn – mostly the horn. The urban driver blows his horn if anyone tries to cut in front of him, or steal his right-of-way.
By comparison, your Tuosist man out of instinctive courtesy will yield his right-of-way without ever thinking about it and do everything he can to accommodate other drivers on the road both because of his big heart and perhaps possibly out of concern that to do otherwise and act discourteously could adversely affect his reputation in the community. The Tuosist women are even more courteous, agreeable and pleasant unless they never learned how to drive properly.
Your cousins in America living in big cities are surrounded by tall buildings, traffic jams, police, ambulance and fire engine sirens blaring nearly twenty-four hours a day. The stress level never lets up. Big city people can become quite neurotic.
Now your Tuosist man in his serene environment with birds singing and gentle breezes blowing through the trees would usually enjoy perfect peace of mind except when being driven cuckoo by the nearly constant bad weather. But those scattered sunny spells can work wonders for reducing your Tuosist man’s depression. And a day of uninterrupted sunshine can make his heart sing. Irrespective of the weather he’s usually happy wherever he is. Grateful for friends and family. Proud to be a part of his community. Kindly towards his neighbors. Pleasant to everyone he greets at Mass or a GAA match. And usually, at the very least, polite to strangers, even big city cousins or strangers from abroad. The same is true for Tuosist wome
While driving into town your Tuosist man salutes his friends and neighbors when he notices their car approaching him. As well he notices unusual places where he sees his friend’s or neighbor’s car parked and from time to time may become somewhat suspicious about what the neighbor might be doing and whose home he might be visiting and what might be going on between the neighbor and the person he is visiting. But regardless of whatever suspicions your Tuosist man may be harboring, he will salute back whenever saluted.
Let me share a personal story about that particular duty. I should say first, as a general rule, Americans in big cities don’t salute anybody unless they are in military service. Therefore you can understand why it is not my habit to salute anyone while driving my car. Accordingly, I never pay any attention to who is driving in a car coming toward me or passing me as when in Washington DC where I usually live when not in Kerry there is only about one in a million chance the person driving toward me would be somebody I know.
But about ten years ago here in Tuosist a sweet woman whose name I will protect walked up to me in the Supervalu (when it used to be on Main Street) and said, “Mr. Stang, I apologize for insulting you or doing you some harm, although I don’t know what it was I did or didn’t do that insulted you.” I answered, “You did me no harm. Not that I know of anyway. What makes you think you owe me an apology?” The woman said, “Last week on the way home from town I passed you as you were headed into town and I saluted you, but you paid me no mind and looked the other way. So you must have been cross at me for something.”
Then I told her how Americans in big cities never notice who’s driving other cars on the street or care who it is they might see while riding around in their car. I told the woman that my respect and fondness for her remained entirely undiminished and with that she smiled and apparently felt immediate relief.
So I started to ask myself what can I do to prevent this kind of traumatic incident from recurring in the future? I decided I was not going to memorize what kind of car my Tuosist friends and neighbors were driving or pay any attention to who was passing me by while I was driving my own car. That would be like asking a leopard to change its spots. But I’d show at least a modicum of good faith. Ever since that incident with the sweet woman who thought I was cross at her when I’m driving I keep my right index finger pointed up off the steering wheel so in effect I’m saluting every driver who passes me but without having to worry about who is saluting me and who is not.
What else, you might ask, could account for the differences between Tuosist men and women and foreign big city visitors?
Until the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania the mainland of the United States has never been invaded or attacked. But the Irish have endured invasions and attacks by the Iron Age Celts, pirates, raiders and bandits from Roman Britain, the Vikings, the Normans, the Tudors and their English successors. The worst of all these foreigners were the Tudor and English conquerors and occupiers who tried to strip the Irish language, the Irish culture, and the Irish soul from living consciousness and memory of the Irish people. To survive these ruthless occupiers and rulers the Irish, out of necessity, learned how to keep a civil tongue, reveal or disclose little, become suspicious about who is a loyal friend and who is a turncoat, avoid directly challenging the authorities they disliked and distrusted, persuade themselves that things could be worse and that better times would be coming for sure and that laughter, wit and humor did them a lot more good than giving out or lapsing into depression. Thus, they are always gracious and rarely overbearing.
But your condescending American tourist sometimes will lord it over those he thinks beneath him. So, for example, he’ll bark his food order rudely to a waitress who might be serving him in one of the many lovely restaurants in Kenmare without ever noticing the insulted look on her face. If he has any sense at all whenever he commands her to bring his meal quickly because he has an upcoming appointment, he should begin to suspect that he may be left waiting a long time for his dinner to arrive.
The people of Tuosist and other Irish people are much more subtle about how they drop hints in asking for a favor. Hardly ever do they bark orders or go at it directly. About ten years ago a neighbor woman called by our house, chatted with my wife Sarah for two hours, then left to walk back to her home. Sarah asked me why that neighbor came for a visit when she had never done so previously. I asked Sarah to tell me everything the woman had said. Sarah said, “About halfway through the conversation she mentioned she was making a cake and was short half a cup of sugar.” I told my wife our neighbor had wanted to borrow a half cup of sugar. “But why didn’t she ask for it?” Sarah said. I answered that she did ask for it, but in the usual subtle, indirect and round about Irish way that foreign visitors can seldom understand.
And the Tuosist man and woman have not lost their habit of performing social niceties. They act neighborly and converse with friends and neighbors irrespective of whether or not that conversation will gain them a bob or two. When you hear two Tuosist people talking to one another, more often than not, the tone is usually quite cheerful and friendly. This is particularly true of Tuosist women. Their tone of voice often seems so sweet, warm and motherly.
Tuosist people know that failure to act and behave graciously will soon earn them a community-wide reputation as a snob or self-superior. I had to learn the hard way that the American big city sledgehammer approach is not particularly welcome in these parts. The summer I returned to Ireland after buying a home in Tuosist and opening a bank account in 1985 I walked into the bank and was immediately recognized and greeted by the manager. In big city Yank fashion I answered his greeting by blurting, “Hi. How you doing? Would you please cash this $300 check for me? I’d like it in twenty Punt denominations, please.”
The manager looked at me like I had just announced that I had acquired a terminal case of highly contagious Beriberi. I wondered why he had that shocked look on his face. It finally came to me. If I were acting graciously and sensitively I would have known that I should have taken an entirely different approach. Instead, I should have responded by asking the bank manager how he’d been keeping, how were his wife and children, made a few comments about the weather, told him I was so happy to be back in Kerry, explained my major comings and goings in America before flying back home to Ireland and then finally apologetically asked him what queue I should be standing in in order to transact some banking business.
After this painful and embarrassing lesson I got into the habit of entering into fifteen to twenty conversations with each of the Kenmare and Tuosist people I knew when encountering them upon arriving home in Ireland before ever thinking about continuing down the pavement in pursuit of my list of messages.
Unlike the anonymity of a big city environment, your Tuosist man and woman dwell in a fishbowl. In Tuosist nearly everybody knows each other’s business. The emphasis in part is on trying to maintain a good reputation in the community. But in doing so you also really care about the well-being of your friends and neighbors and you rarely fixate on how to exploit them in moneymaking shenanigans. So, out of habit you put on your best face. Never (or only as a last resort) do you give out. You try to be cheerful and optimistic and put a positive spin on what the future is likely to bring despite the bad weather and struggling economy. You do your best to protect the little privacy you have and seldom say an unkind word about anyone and only no more than perhaps once in a life time are you likely to say something nasty directly to their face. You seldom gripe, moan, groan or complain, about anything. After all, who wants to listen to a whinger? You maintain a cheerful outlook because in the long run you know that complaining will do no good.
And it’s wise never to be greedy or even show the first signs of being greedy. So when offered a bite to eat or tea or coffee or even a sup when you visit a friend or neighbor you usually answer. “That’s kind of you, but I’m just after standing up from the table.”
A teacher friend of mine from these parts when he was visiting America a few years ago attending a summertime teacher’s conference that lasted the better part of ten days he was initially asked by his host if he’d like a beer. Your man answered, “No thanks.” The poor man returned to Ireland without having tasted a single beer because his host took him literally and seriously and therefore thought he was a teetotaler and the host didn’t want to tempt him with another the offer of a beer.
But Father Tom Looney knew better. One day when I was up on a ladder painting my house he drove in to borrow a book. As I climbed down the ladder I asked him if he’d like to come in for tea and a biscuit or two. Tom answered, “You’re an American, so I’ll say ‘yes’.”
Conversation for you men and women of Tuosist is serious, sacred and almost sacramental in and of itself, as otherwise humorous as it is usually likely to be. Your way of conversing with one another is different from the direct, brash and blunt speaking style of American English where the big city Yanks with their giant egos are trying to impress you with their smarts, wealth and their ideas. They phrase what they are saying so unpoetically because they are usually disconnected from their feelings and from the person they are talking to.
There are few foreigners that are sensitive enough to recognize it, but if by some miracle they could tune in to what a Tuosist man or woman is expounding they’d recognize what great entertainment they were being treated to and how what they were hearing was so full of action, expression and emphasis, if not an imaginative touch of hyperbole. This way of speaking is how you people of Tuosist connect to one another. Conversing is connecting, but not intruding. This is a subtle, but crucial, distinction when you conversationally connect to one another you becom engaged at the soul level. This engagement is of a gentle, ungrasping kind. The listener is not smothered or browbeaten. Not only are the words usually well and diplomatically chosen, but the tone is enchanting. It tends to induce a pleasant response. You can usually infer from the tone that the mood of the conversation is quite genial and friendly.
When you are speaking is not just a string of ill-conceived, disorganized, soulless words that come out of your mouth. In Tuosist the objective of a conversation is to get the point across by intimation. It is better to disclose too little than too much.
Many of you are such good listeners that you can repeat months after the conversation, nearly word for word what you had earlier been told. When a Tuosist man or woman is speaking he or she is not only carefully crafting each word, but at the same time is probably tuning into you with such sensitivity and intensity as to be able to gauge whether you’re listening, whether you care, whether you believe or doubt what is being said. This is doing two jobs at once: articulating, while simultaneously detecting the quality of your receptivity.
One additional important thing you are doing while conversing is to anticipate your likely reaction in order to plan various options for how you will respond. Sometimes this process starts before the other person can open his mouth. There is a balancing act going on here that entails some give and some take. But also an instinct for gently preserving face for all concerned. For most of you, participating in a conversation is as intricate and intimate as holding a newborn baby.
Competing head-to-head with a Tuosist man or woman’s love for conversation, however, is an addiction to craic. Craic is the lifeblood of the Irish soul. Craic means something that satisfies your deep enjoyment of having fun. But good crack can seldom be had all day every day so your Tuosist man needs also to be serious once in a while like when seeking to evaluate the character of another man – say one he’s barely met. An urban self-important sophisticate would seek to obtain information on the person’s wealth, power and status. Your Tuosist man would know or find out all he could about that man’s father, grandfather, brothers, uncles and perhaps an odd cousin or two. To a Tuosist man the bloodline over the generations usually has a consistency to it.
Finally, what can be said about the identity and values of your Tuosist man or woman? Unlike your name dropping, big time urban operator, you place a higher value on neighborliness, good conversation, subtlety, heart to heart connection, side-splitting wit and a great love of good craic.
That’s why I’d rather spend my summers with you in the pleasantly cool weather and beautiful landscapes than roast my tail off in the blistering Washington 40C heat paying $500 a month air conditioning bills and wasting time with all those self-important big city folks who don’t know Jack about what quality of life is all about.
Judy White said:
Loved this, and it definitely checks out not only for the Ireland but for a number of other countries we’ve visited. Sometimes I feel like such a slow learner, when I go in a shop and immediately ask for something rather than pass the time of day for a while first. The Amish where we live in Ohio use conversation very much this way too. And I loved the irony of the last paragraph. So Irish!