by KM Churchill
I HAD BEEN A FULLY LICENSED DRIVER IN THE UNITED STATES FOR SIXTEEN YEARS WHEN I TOOK THE IRISH DRIVING TEST AND FAILED.
Irish people will tell you, proudly, that so many people fail because the test is difficult. The road test can go on for nearly an hour and minor infractions are meticulously recorded. Only about 55% of drivers pass and your chances significantly improve if you’re a man. But I didn’t fail because the test was hard — there was no written exam — nor because I was out of practice — I was well used to driving a stick shift on the opposite side of the road. I failed because of two sheep and a rainbow. But mainly — and I think my driving tester would agree — it was because of the sheep.
Irish roads are notorious for being narrow, winding and rutted. Often they are little more than paved tracks with deep ditches running alongside. Before I’d married Francis, my Irish chef husband, and moved with him and our two children to the wilds of West Cork to open a restaurant, I’d lived in Dublin. There, the roads begin their journey westward as wide noisy boulevards along which cars move easily, giving wide berth to green double-decker buses and horse-drawn Traveller’s carts. Once outside the city they become respectable roads, meandering through quaint villages and dipping under trees that make ephemeral green tunnels. These roads then head westward riding the crests of gently rolling hills and skirting soggy peat bogs.
By the time they reach the west coast, they’ve abandoned all semblances of civility.
In the Midlands these roads circle cold, quiet lochs, where mystical islands once inhabited by kings and queens and saints appear and disappear in the mist. They cross stone castle bridges over the sluggish River Shannon. Then, farther on, the roads become more intimate, and wild hedgerows and thorny thickets close in. Grass sprouts down their middle. They begin snaking around hairpin turns and rocky outcrops, the rain making them slick and slippery.
By the time these roads reach the west coast, they’ve abandoned all semblances of civility, narrowing to tracks only a hair wider than a car. They careen along mountain precipices, running along the edges of the land, taunting the grey Atlantic that spits white foam back at them. Waves, licking up the cliffs, draw back to reveal sharp, black rocks rising up from the seabed; great black teeth reaching up to snatch at unsuspecting tourists and wayward Jackeens.
Like the egg trick: when you held your breath while thin ribbons of smoke swirled up and mysteriously pulled the egg slowly down the narrow glass neck until it dropped to the bottom of the bottle with a little bounce, whole and egg shaped and unharmed.
It was a pleasant April afternoon when I took the grassy, single lane track that runs through farmland and pastures to Skibbereen for my driving test. I’d mailed my application in the dead of winter and was thrilled when, three months later, notification of my scheduled test date arrived in the post. Having a full Irish license would lower our car insurance and, as our new restaurant was coming out of its first slow winter season, Francis and I were looking at all means of controlling our expenses.
My driving tester, Mr. M., was a short, brusque man with blue-grey eyes and an air of weariness about him. His curly brown hair had been combed into submission but rogue ringlets fell onto his broad forehead and sprung up from behind his large ears. When he reached up to brush them away I could see that his dress shirt was stained yellow under the arms with years of perspiration. When we were introduced, he seemed immediately irritated by my American accent and, although he shook my hand, he did not look at me. With his head bowed he took his clipboard and followed me out to my car.