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.
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.
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.
Like the egg trick: you hold your breath while thin ribbons of smoke swirl up and mysteriously pull the egg slowly down the narrow glass neck until it drops to the bottom of the bottle with a little bounce, whole and oblong and unharmed.
I was feeling quite pleased with myself for having remembered to clean the old blue Audi station wagon — wiping tiny ice cream hand prints off the backseat and lip-shaped kisses off the windows — when I unlocked the doors and got in. But Mr. M. did not follow. Instead, he stood in front of the car and asked me to turn on the headlamps. Then he circled the car, checking to see that the signal and brake lights were functioning properly (they were). By the time he climbed in, adjusted the front passenger seat and pulled on his seatbelt, I had the distinct impression that he thought I was already wasting his time.
“Right so,” he said, looking up and down the street, “wait fer this car ta pass then pull out and head ‘round that bend.”
“Okay,” I said, and when the red Rover Mini passed, I went. Mr. M. watched to make sure I checked my mirrors and signaled before pulling out into traffic (I did). He clicked his pen and made a note on his test sheet. It was too quiet in the car. I wished I’d left the radio on.
“Aren’t we lucky with the weather?” I asked into the silence.
“I’ll tell ye when ta turn,” he said, ignoring me, “otherwise stay straight.”
Skibbereen was busy. Near the center of town, uniformed schoolboys dashed across the street in straggling groups of twos and threes, anxious to buy packets of crisps and gummy sweets. Or possibly, it occurred to me, to pocket cigarettes that are sold for 50 pence each from a cup near the register. I stopped and watched them cross. Then put the car back in gear and drove on. Mr. M. clicked his pen and made a note.
The pink cement bungalows on Gortnaclohy Drive gave way to expansive rolling green vistas as we headed away from town. The road wound up through checkered fields, some bright green with new growth, and others dark brown where they had recently been plowed. Although the sky was blue, thin grey clouds scudded overhead and, after a few minutes, a passing rain shower drenched us. But my wipers, making a rhythmic thunk-thunk, were in good working order and I drove on. At a gated farm entrance I demonstrated my excellent three-point-turning skills and we headed back towards town.
I’d been living in Ireland for several years before I realized that the large white stickers with a big red letter L on them, which adorn the front and rear of so many Irish cars, meant the driver was still a “learner.” This realization made Irish drivers both easier to understand, and much more frightening. Cars routinely hurtled along country roads so narrow that when two cars are headed in opposite directions there comes a point at which both must slow, almost to a stop, and judge how best to inch past the other without causing damage. The situation is often only resolved when one driver — praying aloud to Jaysus, Mary and Saint Joseph! that their tires won’t get mired in the muddy muck of a farmer’s field — pulls off the road to let the other pass.
When encountering — God forbid! — a coach bus on a country lane, passing is a form of miracle-making. Like watching the egg trick: you light matches three at a time, and drop them into a bottle. With a quiet thrill, you watch as they flame up while a naked hard-boiled egg balances on the bottle’s open mouth. Then you hold your breath while thin ribbons of smoke swirl up and mysteriously pull the egg slowly down the narrow glass neck, squishing it out of proportion until it drops to the bottom of the bottle with a little bounce, whole and oblong and unharmed.
That same magic plays out, time and time again, whenever busses meet cars on country lanes all over Ireland. But Irish country roads are not meant for cars — they are best for horses, and cattle, and farm equipment traveling at the speed of a brisk walk. They are, however, ridiculously quaint, which may, or may not, have been at least partly responsible for what happened next.
The rain had stopped. But trees, shifting in the breeze, made their own little showers as we drove under. When the clouds cleared, a brilliant rainbow appeared in the distance. Arching gracefully over the whole of Skibbereen. I smiled and, lifting my hand from the wheel, pointed it out. Mr. M. was not amused. He looked down, clicked his pen and marked his sheet again.
I’ll admit I was annoyed with myself for having neglected to keep both hands on the wheel at all times, but I was not deterred, my driving had always been excellent and I was certain I would pass. Up ahead, sheep grazed in a rocky pasture. The thing about sheep is that upon closer inspection they tend to be a disappointing dirty grey rather than the frothy white I always expect them to be. These sheep, in what I considered to be a further insult, were daubed with blue paint so farmers would know whose sheep were whose. As I was considering the logic of this method, I spotted the ewes and their babies: two (or was it three?) delicate, pink-eared lambkins, balancing precariously on awkward new legs. The first ones I’d seen this spring and they were clean and white and adorable! Watching them I wished the boys were here so they could see them too. Then I began wondering what lamb dishes Francis was planning for the Spring Menu. Last year there had been an Irish lamb stew: tender chunks of meat simmered in a rich brown lamb stock with thick cut vegetables and sprigs of fresh rosemary. He’d also served a marinated rack of lamb that stood tall on the plate surrounded by sea salt roasted potatoes and a red raspberry port wine jus.
There was a sharp hissing sound. I switched off the car and leapt out.
The car jolted. The sheep scattered. I braked. Distracted by the lambs, I’d let the car drift to the edge of the road where there was no hard shoulder, just a twelve inch deep ditch into which my tires slid and fit perfectly. Although my side of the car was still on the road, Mr. M.’s, unfortunately, was not. There was a sharp hissing sound. I switched off the car and leapt out. In the passenger seat, looking dazed, but resigned, Mr. M. — still wearing his seat belt — stared out at me from the strange angle of his seat. The position of the car in the ditch, and the steep slope beside it, made opening the passenger-side door impossible. He sighed; saying nothing, he clipped his pen into the pocket of his shirt, placed his paperwork on the driver’s seat, unlocked his seat belt, and climbed out into the road beside me. I was ashamed and hovered around him like a mother hen, checking to see if he was okay and apologizing. The hissing sound persisted. Making it clear that he’d expected nothing less from an American woman driving on Irish roads, Mr. M. assured me that he was fine. Then he pointed to the tires in the ditch.
“You’ve a puncture there.” He said. “Two by the looks of it.”
I walked around the car to get a better look. The tires were sunk too deep in the muddy ditch to drive out and both were seeping air, which explained the hissing sound. Mr. M., who I think liked me better now that I’d proven him right, picked up his paperwork and asked if there was someone he could call for me when he got back to his office. I gave him the number for roadside assistance off the back of my insurance card. Then, looking me in the eye for the first time, he shook my hand, said goodbye, and set off walking back to Skibbereen. The rainbow still glowed in the sky over the town and I watched him walking towards it until he disappeared around a bend. Then it was just me, the hissing car, and the sheep.
Over Skibbereen the rainbow’s perfect form began dissolving: its colors seeping out into the sky, like watercolors running on a page.
It was quiet standing there, alone on the road, in the middle of spring fields speckled with wild yellow daffodils. I took a deep breath; the air was cool and fresh after the rain. Cautiously the sheep came back. Coming nearer to nibble the sweet grass that fringed the pasture and quite possibly, I thought, to get a better look at me. The ewes and their lambs, however, kept a wary distance.
Over Skibbereen the rainbow’s perfect form began dissolving: its colors seeping out into the sky, like watercolors running on a page. Gaps appeared as it disintegrated until the pale blue horizon became itself again, as though nothing had ever happened. But it had: I’d taken and failed my Irish driving test.
The hissing sound grew softer. I plucked a few long blades of grass and pushed them through the wire fencing toward the sheep. When one reached for it I let go, pulling my hand back too quickly and scraping it on the wire. Sitting down on the slope I press my injured hand to my lips and find myself wondering if I might well have taken a wrong turn somewhere between Boston and Dublin and West Cork. The sun felt warm on my shoulders. It shone on the spring grass in the meadow making it brighter, a translucent green. Perhaps I would never learn how to navigate unruly Irish roads. But the sound of the sheep munching was oddly comforting.
Header photo from Irish Fireside.