WELL, I'VE JUST come back from Ireland and I can tell you now that, despite a bit of a problem here and, there's nothing to worry about.
For one thing, there was no need to send postcards and letters. In fact, there was no way to send them. The Oifig an Phoist had been on strike since early March, so there was no mail out of or into or within the Republic of Ireland.
As a woman I met in Drogheda expressed it, "It's kinda quietin", you know."
Another "quietin"" factor was the lack of phones ringing. The telephone operators were on strike, too.
(The Irish Tourist Board in New York reported that the postal and telephone strikes ended June 25, and within "a couple of weeks" both services should be back to normal.)
The roads are quietest of all, due to the petrol shortage.
And the English pound sterling is no longer welcome in a growing number of shops, even though it is now worth four pence to the pound more than Irish money. Bank tellers are complaining about after-hours computations. American money is accepted with no problem, although Irish is preferred.
But the suds are still flowing freely in the pubs; the holy wells that bless the countryside are still running with water as pure as the saints whose names they bear; Irish wit still sparkles, and the glorious pages of the 9th-century Book of Kells are still being turned, one each day, in Trinity College Library, Dublin. And if it's tea you're after, the Irish tea is the best in the world. (Their sugar packets bulge with two teaspoonfuls.)
In short, it's a grand place. And despite the recent inconveniences, there is no tourist famine in Ireland.
Bookings for escorted coach tours are up more than 2 percent above last year's total at this time, reports Eamon McKeown, executive vice president of C.I.E., the semi-governmental Irish National Transportation Co., and the largest purveyor of tourism in Ireland.
"We expect to finish the season with a 5-percent increase," he says, while admitting that the projected increase for this year had been 10 percent.
The tourists who book the escorted coach tours will have no problems with transportation or accommodations. And 80 percent of C.I.E.'s tourist business is with these tours.
It's the independent traveler in Ireland who is most affected by the strikes and shortages," McKeown says. Nonetheless, the C.I.E. fly-drive package, initiated three years ago, shows a 30-percent growth over last year's figures. There were no cancellations due to the strikes.
To alleviate the petrol crisis, the Irish Tourist Board has arranged for 20 pounds (about $40) worth of petrol vouchers for each rental car picked up at Shannon, Dublin or Cork airports and at all ferry docks. There is no charge for the vouchers, and they have no monetary value; they simply enable the holder to make at least four purchases of petrol at the government-set $10 minimum amount. The "imperial" gallon is now $2, though the small cars get very good mileage per gallon. There are 75 petrol stations guaranteed to be open a certain number of hours Monday through Friday (note: no guarantee for Saturday and Sunday) throughout the Republic of Ireland. As an incentive to station owners, each station is allowed 1,000 extra gallons for general sale for each 1,000 tourist gallons sold.
For those who fail to enjoy the adventure of gambling on lodgings each night, there are clearly marked regional tourist offices all across Ireland that provide couriers for a small fee to locate accommodations nearby for travelers. The service is especially useful in such areas as Kerry and Dingle and Donegal.
As of late June, the Irish Tourist Board had a "terrible backlog" of bookings for lodgings in the countryside, those places that could not be reached by phone. Their advice: "There's plenty of room for everyone. Go and have a grand time."
As one who has just been there, I'll drink to that. Once there, all ominous-sounding problems fade into the fine mist that drifts across the island land and makes it all the greener when the sun...see what Ireland does to you! To be honest, the gentle mist turns into a deluge sometimes. The sun does follow, but by then your hairdo can be ruined.
Herewith, a clear-eyed view of independent traveling in Ireland today - sans tour guide, sans car, sans blarney:
Totally unpredictable during the strike. By using "a private line," the manager of my hotel in Waterford was able to reach a friend in County Meath for me, well over 100 miles away. Yet when I got within three miles of my friend's home, I couldn't get a connection.
Sometimes it was possible to call into the countryside from Dublin, sometimes not. And some lines got through to Dublin numbers; others did not. There was no pattern. Just frustration. At best, the phones in Ireland are confusing. If you can learn to "poosh the button when ye hear the vice" and push another button when you don't, you're ahead of me.
Dublin hotels, even early in the tourist season, seemed to be doing the usual business with tour groups. I got a single - $25 with bath and full Irish breakfast - at the Powers Royal Hotel on Kildare Street, across from Trinity College. The rooms were huge, clean and double-windowed; there was a TV lounge on the ground floor. It was the third hotel I had called; the others were filled. All three were moderately priced ( $20- $35).
In Waterford, the Maryland House (Merry-land) offered me "a lovely double" in the main section. But that was when Thomas Powers, hacker and undertaker (acting in the former capacity), was standing beside me suitcase in hand, waiting to see if I needed him to sarch for other lodgings. When he sputtered and turned crimson, I got a lovely single.
For $12 a night I had a 22-room, early 10th-century house - thoroughly modernized - all to myself, plus breakfast. The other two houses of Maryland House were fully booked. "The guests are still coming," said Mrs. O'Toole, the owner, "but we seldom know how many to expect or when they will arrive."
The small, off-the-beaten-track hotels and bed-and-breakfast were hurting far more than the the city ones. Like the Cliff Hotel in Ardmore, superbly located, its long windows looking down on Ardmore Bay as it flows into the Atlantic. I didn't spend the night there, but enjoyed a beautifully cooked meal with only the bay for company. Cliff Hotel deserves better than just me.
After the great Irish breakfasts, it's generally all downhill. A simple meal for one person in a simple "grill" - chop, two vegetables - can easily reach $10 without drinks or dessert. There is little in between a large meal and a "ham salad" sandwich in a pub (that's one thin slice of ham with one dead piece of lettuce). As a woman traveling alone, I was reluctant to grab a sandwich, without beer, in a pub after 7 p.m., and too cheap to pay $15 in a good restaurant for a meal I didn't want.
On my first night in Dublin I was hungry by 9:p.m. and nothing in my range was open except pubs. That was when I spotted the Golden Arches. A McDonald's in Dublin! How vulgar. How American. How delicious.
The best Irish food, unquestionably, is in private homes. I did stay in one, and every meal was gourmet.
Trains are running on schedule, apparently, though no one seems to know what - or where - the schedules are. The printed summer schedules were probably holed up in some closed Oifig an Phoist.
Information offered by the clerks at information windows is often, shall we say, capricious. "The only train is at 4:45." There were six trains - none at 4:45.
Sometimes the one train for the day has left before the information window has opened, or it is leaving the station while the clark adds up a column of figures, or discusses with another clerk the terrible firein the thatched cottage last week. So I tried to verify whatever information I got with anyone who was wearing a cap with a visor. If three visored caps gave me the same answer, it was a "true fact."
Some say there was a slowdown among information clerks in sympathy with the strikers. Another view: "That's Ireland. If it's efficiency you want, go to Germany."
Many railway stations post handwritten schedules on platforms; they are usually accurate. Except on Sunday.
Be prepared for place names in Gaelic only. If your train arrives at Cill Chonnig at the time it was supposed to deposit you at Kilkenny, run to the nearest exit, screaming, "Is this Kilkenny?" A helpful soul will tell you it is, and probably open the door for you.
Intercity coaches also print their destinations in Gaelic only. This is bad for the nerves if you have to catch a coach from a stop along the street. But the drivers are good-natured, and no guided coach tour could provide the inside look at Ireland offered by a local intercity coach that stops at every crossroads and drops off the little bundles of newspapers in between. I can still see the little lady with a scarf on her head who got on at a flag stop, looked at me, and with a sunburst smile, called out, "You're a Yank, aren't you? God bless you!"
As I said, its' a grand country. CAPTION: Picture 1, Lough Inagh, Connemara, Co. Galway; Bord Failte photo.; Picture 2, River Liffey, Dublin