As a friend and I drove along a curvy stretch of the Atlantic Drive on Achill Island in Co. Mayo this spring, I spotted a sign on the side of the road that said: Aire Ailtreacha Arda.
Interesting, I thought, since it had no accompanying image and I don't speak Irish. Maybe it means sheep in the road (and there are plenty), or winding road (plenty of those, too) or, well, who really knows?
When I returned to the house I rent, I asked the owners what it meant. They didn't have a clue.
So, several days later while on a road trip, I asked a waitress in a restaurant in Ardmore, Co. Waterford. She looked at the words and took the paper into the kitchen to see if anyone there could translate. No one knew what the words meant, although several people did guess that "arda" meant high.
That's how it became a little game. Every time we stopped for lunch, at a shop, a B&B or wherever, I would take out my notebook and show someone there the words that had been printed on that sign. I only asked native Irish, most of whom were young enough so they should have remembered at least some Irish they had learned in school. But, no one knew what the words meant.
Finally, we were in Wardenstown, Killucan, Co. Westmeath, and my friend called a neighbor's daughter, Emma Lynam, 20, and asked if she could translate the sign. He thought that she had left secondary school recently enough to remember some of her Irish. Emma said two of the words meant "danger" and "high." Her Dad added that the third word was "cliffs."
So, there you go. We finally had it: "Danger, high cliffs."
With all due respect to those in the Gaeltacht -- where Irish is the spoken language and road signs are often only in Irish -- it seems totally ludicrous, as well as a health and safety issue, not to have some other means of indicating that there is a real danger on those roads on Achill. If indeed there are high cliffs at the edge of the road, surely those who live there already know it, so the signs are obviously not for their benefit. One must assume that the signs are to warn tourists, since Achill Island is an extremely popular tourist destination. But, honestly, how many tourists read or speak Irish and can translate those words when even the dozen or so native Irish we asked were unable to do so?
In other spots around Ireland, we've seen signs with images of sheep, a cow, a car falling off a pier into the water, and a zigzag arrow, indicating a winding road ahead. Those messages are clear and delivered instantly to the passing motorist who doesn't have the time or language prowess to translate words on a sign.
Wouldn't Achill Island's tourists be far better served if the local tourist agency added an image to the signs to indicate what the words mean?
This spring, The Irish Times ran the results of Failte Ireland's 2008 visitor attitude survey and, included among disadvantages of vacationing in Ireland, were bad roads and bad signposting.
It would help tremendously if cartographers would include the Irish word on road maps but too often that doesn't happen, especially with car rental company maps, which were probably printed years ago and by the zillions. And, so the non-Irish speaking tourist is often baffled and wanders aimlessly trying to get to where he or she is going.
The Failte Ireland survey was conducted among 5,700 overseas vacationers between May and October, 2008, 98 percent of whom said they would recommend an Irish vacation to their friends and family. Foreign visitors singled out friendly people and Ireland's stunning scenery as primary reasons to visit the country.
Here are some of our favorites if you are visiting Ireland this summer:
* Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry: Heaton's Guesthouse is upscale, comfortable and friendly; dinner at The Global Village is highly recommended for outstanding seafood; The Blasket Centre (signposted as Ionad an Bhlascaoid) is a fascinating place to see wonderful photographs and learn more about the Blaskets ,which were inhabited until 1953. Be sure to drive the Conor Pass, too - it's a thrilling ride with gorgeous scenery -- and visit the many other areas of historic interest on the peninsula.
* Doolin: We love Riverfield House B&B right there on the main road, dinners at the Doolin Café, which reopened this spring, and at Cullinan's Seafood Restaurant. Be sure to stop at the family-run Clare Jam Shop for fresh, homemade jams, marmalades, jellies, and chutneys - these make a great gift to bring home, as I have often done. Of course Doolin is famed for its music and there's plenty to enjoy at McGann's, McDermott's, and O'Connor's pubs most nights of summer as well as at other locations.
* Lisdoonvarna: If you're in Doolin, hop up the road to Lisdoonvarna to the Burren Smokehouse and take home some of their marvelous smoked salmon, which is just perfect on a piece of McCambridge's Irish stoneground whole wheat brown bread (both are sometimes available at Shannon Airport's duty free shop.)
* Irish gardens: there are many gardens around the country open to the public during the summer and they are well worth visiting. You can find out more by visiting the local tourist offices (marked with a big green shamrock.) There are gardens organized by county: Carlow (carlowtourism.com), Blackwater Valley, Ireland West, Limerick, Connemara and Donegal, South Tipperary Garden Trails; Southeast and Wicklow (visitwicklow.ie) Garden Festivals and Cork Open Gardens.
* From August 5 to 9, the place to be is at the 136th Fáilte Ireland Dublin Horse Show at the RDS complex in Dublin. Highlights include the Meydan FEI Nations' Cup for the Aga Khan Challenge Trophy, the Land Rover Puissance featuring the famous "Wall," the Longines International Grand Prix, and more than 100 national showing and show jumping classes.
* The Kilkenny Arts Festival 2009, from Aug. 7-16, is a 10-day festival featuring visual art, classical music, jazz, traditional Irish music, literature, film, architecture, craft, and children's events.
* The All-Ireland Dog Show will be held in Roundstone, Co. Galway, on Monday, August 3. If you are in the area, the annual Connemara Pony Show, Thursday, August 20, is a lot of fun to attend. And, you while you're there, be sure to drive all around Connemara and enjoy the beauty of the magnificent countryside.
* The summer session of the Galway Races (galwayraces.com) will be held in the city from Monday, July 27, to Sunday, August 2. The Clarenbridge (clarenbridge.com) and Galway (galwayoysterfest.com) oyster festivals are held in September.
* On August 29 and 30, Dun Laoghaire will host The Festival of World Cultures with a family friendly, global carnival of music, arts, crafts, food and culture. For more, see the website: festivalofworldcultures.com
* Spraoi Festival in Waterford is July 31 through August 2. See spraoi.com for details.
For more information about Ireland, visit your favorite travel agent or the Aer Lingus' website (aerlingus.com) for direct flights and great ground deals. Flights and deals are also offered by US Airways (usairways.com) and other airlines, but usually involve layovers in various cities and can add several hours to your trip but also reduce cost. Also check out seasonal happenings at Tourism Ireland's website (discoverireland.com) and enjoy your trip whenever you go.