Connemara Waves - All Along the Wild Atlantic Way June 04 2015

I’ve finished another large fused glass wall panel. Entitled ‘Waves of Connemara’, this panel - at 600 x 900mm (24” x 36” approx) - represents the largest single piece of glass our biggest kiln can accommodate. It is the third in a series under this name, each different but having in common the notion that both the ocean and the rolling landscape possess a sense of being in constant wave-like motion.
Finishing the piece made me think about another form of waving – encountered routinely in Connemara – the simple greeting between fellow travellers on our roads. There appears to be an unwritten, local rule of the road requiring each traveller to acknowledge the presence of the other - just as we do when passing in the street.


In bygone days, while out walking or cycling, a rural roadside encounter between friends, neighbours - or even strangers - could add minutes or maybe hours to a journey. You'd stop and prop up a gate and pass the time of day, exchange family news or neighbourhood gossip - especially if invited in for a “cup o’ the tae” (sic). There'd be opinions exchanged about the weather past or predicted. The farming chat would surely revolve 
with the seasons and centre on yields and prices. Later, appetites for chat satiated, a swift slán abhaile (safe home) would see the traveller on his way again.

The process took time, when time seemed in much less short supply. In all cases, the encounter would comprise a greeting, some informational content and be completed by a parting of the ways. There'd be a definable beginning, a substantial middle and a satisfactory end - both parties in full knowledge of exactly which was which and neither having any desire to short-circuit the process.

You would think that in these days of fast cars, smart phones and the internet, the rural roadside chat was extinct. Of course, by all the older measures, it is - but today's equivalent is very much alive and kicking in Connemara!

As a relative newcomer to the region (eighteen brief years hardly seems to qualify me to say even that) I've always been struck by the willingness of people here to wave at one another from passing vehicles.

Do this in the towns and cities of my country of origin and you'd be thought ready for the men in white coats. But here, we're all at it, aren't we? Passing each other in the car, we all have our own way of saying, "How'r'ye?", "How'sitgoan?", "How'r'things?", "How's-she-cutt'n?" (the latter an old saying referring in a rural context to the performance of the slane – a manual peat-turf cutting spade) or - or just plain, "Hi"!

Whether we actually know the other driver or not, round here we do that little thing that shows we're friendly. The thing that says that we live in a remote rural area, where everyone realises that it might be necessary to make a car journey just to encounter another human soul. The little sign - sometimes so tiny that it's easily missed by the uninitiated - that says we're part of a community. Each in our own little way, we wave.


As a matter of fact, our driver's wave is as personal to us as our choice of underwear. Each is as unique to us as our signature. It can be a fulsome, whole hand-in-the-air salute or just the merest twitch of the index finger on the steering wheel. In between, the fascinating variations seem limitless. Examples include the index/middle-finger-double; the whole four-fingers-together-raised-off-the-wheel thing; not to mention the outstretched-hand-accompanied-by-slight-reaching-forward-of-the-head - or even the frantic-floppy-hand-rapid-waving performance (reserved for emergency use when spotting close friends or relatives at speed).

In the fleeting moment of being waved at, and of returning the wave, we say "Hello, neighbour, it's good to see you!" It can cause both 'waver' and 'wavee' to experience a brief, 80mph combined-speed handshake. In a fast-moving world, for a mere split second, we're both there, on the field gate, havin' the craic, just like in bygone times.

The thing is, when someone waves at us from the driving seat we know that they have - because we always see the wave. We see it because we're actively looking for it! When a vehicle approaches we subconsciously scour its outlines for recognition. First the vehicle and seconds later its occupant(s). Quick-as-a-flash, our brains perform that miracle of instantaneous random-access-memory that decodes the shorthand visual clues available.

Dark blue car, weekday, 8.45am, Ballyconneely Road towards Clifden...
Probably a Toyota...
Two people in the front seats...
Yes, I can see it's an '07 G registration now (I'm not sure of the numbers)... 
A man and a woman (John and, err, what's his wife's name? Sue? - no, Siobhan!)... Yes, it's definitely John and Siobhan on their way to work...
Aren't they a bit late?...

These and a million other puzzle clues are deciphered in the seconds the combined closing speed of 80mph take to elapse.
Before we realise, we've done it. We've waved. The single digit twitch or the full hand-off-the-wheel monty. The thing is, it's out there before we have time to realise we've done it. In the moments before the vehicle containing the ostensible John and Siobhan passes us, our brains have sucked in and assessed further compressed packets of data.

OK, now. Was that actually them...?
Yes, hair length and colour was right...
He was wearing that old brown coat he usually wears...
She was in black, her favourite colour...
How did they seem...?
Well they were smiling anyway...
But she said she'd given up smoking...!

In this scenario, we think we've recognised someone we know. Often the decision of whether to wave through recognition is rendered irrelevant by the other party initiating a waving event before ourselves.

The decision to wave is more complex if we don't have such feelings of recognition. In these circumstances, other factors - some quite dark - come into play.

Of course, just as with encounters of old, there is a certain etiquette to be observed. The rules of the rural road dictate that a wave must be returned at all costs. You'd no more ignore a driver's wave than rebuff a proffered hand. Here, it's just unthinkable.

And then there are the consequences of increased local traffic due to publicity of the Wild Atlantic Way, officially launched last year. Such attention is this bold government initiative attracting that media presenter Christine Bleakley fronted a glossy six-part series about it on British TV very recently. The message the world is getting is that the west of Ireland is officially open for business! Anecdotal evidence is there to show that Connemara roads are busier – with the resultant influx of ‘151s’ (new cars registered in the early part of 2015 favoured by hire car companies).

 


This 2500km touring route, the longest in the world, stretches from Co. Cork in the south all the way up to the northern-most tip of Co. Donegal – and passes right through Connemara at its mid-point. This, near the end of the Dublin-Galway motorway, represents an ideal place for visitors to begin their explorations, north or south. In addition, our proximity to Shannon Airport means that a hire-car sortie north on the Wild Atlantic Way will surely take in Connemara.

All the new WAW signs - their weird wiggly white lines on blue backgrounds - are to be found everywhere round here. The centre of Clifden, which is where Connemara Blue is located, has its fair share. These signs are invaluable assets, helping the tourers (or wigglers, as we’ve decided to call them - see our previous blog post here) negotiate the tortuous route to the north or south in their ‘151s’.

 

The issue here is, do we ignore a ‘151’ hire car on the Wild Atlantic Way, or do we welcome them and their occupants to our neighbourhood by treating them as one of our own? As Connemara residents, we are all keen to make the wigglers feel part of our fast-diminishing rural way of life. This is partly what our visitors have come here to be part of. They’ve experienced the light-speed pace of city life and are here to sample our alternative, as presented in the tourist advertising and TV profiling.

In time, no doubt there will be much navel-gazing and in-depth cost analysis to assess the social and cash-value of the Wild Atlantic Way to the parts of Ireland blessed by it. The feeling is that it will have a significant impact on tourism in the west. To a degree this is already borne out by the experience of the later months of last year. We noticed a distinct awareness of the WAW amongst our customers, even if this was not the prime motive for their visit in the first place. Having found it by accident last year, many vowed to return in future to explore it more thoroughly, determined to make it the centrepiece of a later holiday, rather than just a happily coincidental part of one. This trend has continued into the early months of this year.


In the literal sense, this piece, Waves of Connemara, represents our ocean waves, the flowing nature of our landscape, and its magical ever-changing light.  It was designed  in such a way as to make the ambient light seem to dance across its surface.  In this way it also invokes memories of the never-ending waves of Irish welcome.
 
Let’s wave to the wigglers!