News Comment

Monday 22 September 2014

Motorways are a metaphor for life now - safer and faster, but bereft of magic

Barbara Scully

Published 05/08/2014 | 02:30

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Rock of Cashel

Himself loves motorways. It could be because he's English or maybe it's just a man thing, but he thinks that motorways are always the obvious way to go. He loves any excuse to have a "run around the M50". I don't care what way he goes when he is working, but when we are travelling together there can be tetchy exchanges, such as "oh are we going the long way today?" Heading to Dublin Airport, especially in the early hours of the morning is always cause for a row because I think that driving through the sleeping city is a beautiful way to begin our journey. There is no magic on the M50. Although I will concede that I would have great difficulty finding Ikea or even the TV3 studios if it weren't for Dublin's mega ring road.

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Last week I drove to Sneem, in Co Kerry, right out on the Inveragh Peninsula. It's quite the drive from Dublin. Himself assured me that we would "fly down as far as Cork with motorway the whole way." Sounded good. Two and a half hours if we made no stops, he reckoned. The next bit of the journey across Cork and into Kerry would probably take nearly as long.

As the Naas Road delivered us onto the flat plains of Kildare I had that old familiar feeling of relaxing into the drive and looking forward to once again marvelling at what a gorgeous country we live in. The lush green countryside interspersed with Weetabix-like fields of golden hay bales lifted my spirits as we tore our way south on the M8.

Maybe himself is right. Motorways must be a safer way to travel. I remember back to the old days in the '80s and '90s when any journey outside of Dublin consisted of almost constant overtaking. Waiting for a stretch of road you reckoned was long and straight enough to enable you to get beyond the vehicle in front. None of that stress nowadays as we ate up the miles.

Although there are other hazards specific to motorways largely due to the remarkable number of drivers who don't seem to fully 'get' the art of driving on a motorway.

My particular favourite is the motorist who refuses to budge when you are zooming down the merge lane and rapidly running out of road. He has two clear lanes to his right, but he is staying put in the inside lane and you can just go... well, perhaps up an embankment or into a field. He is just marginally more stupid than the more common 'change lane first, indicate after' motorway menace.

But happily in Ireland our provincial motorways are remarkably traffic free, so these hazards are confined mainly to motorways around cities, such as the M50. And thank the Lord that we don't have to suffer the uniquely British motorway hazard of thousands of caravans, in a slow-moving convoy on the inside lane. This is particularly a feature of motorways in the West Country, and particularly at this time of year. The Brits just love their caravan and camping holidays. But I guess that's another column altogether.

About an hour and a half into the journey I realised I really hadn't a clue where we were. Miles and miles of countryside had flashed by, but without any villages or towns to punctuate the journey, I had somewhat lost my bearings. Judging by the time, I reckoned that we should soon be coming to my old halfway point of Cashel.

In the old days, the road to Cork would take a sweeping long bend towards Cashel and, as you rounded the corner, the magnificent complex would appear majestically out your driver's side window. It was a stunning sight and it never failed to make me gasp. But the M8 has not only done away with the villages and towns, but it has done away with this stunning view of the Rock of Cashel.

On I drove - doing nothing, merely keeping my tired eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

I realised then that I missed the truck drivers. Remember when it was they who decided when it was safe for you to overtake? They would move into the hard shoulder to allow you pass. Then they would flash headlights when it was safe for you to pull in front of them. And you would hit the hazards in thanks.

That interaction, that sense of a road community is now gone. On the road to Cork I was an anonymous nobody.

I missed dropping gears and slowing down on arrival at a town or village and the mild exhilaration of hitting the accelerator again as I rejoined the open road on the other side.

All these things are no more. It was a lonely and boring journey which we broke with just a quick stop to pick up coffee at the motorway services at junction eight; another soulless element of motorway driving, although I have yet to visit the Obama Plaza in Moneygall, Co Offaly, which may possess a certain charm!

On we sped and in jig time hit the outskirts of Cork and the Dunkettle Roundabout - a name which often permeates my dreams as I wake to the reports of AA Roadwatch on Morning Ireland. Are motorways a metaphor for the way we live our lives now? Safer and faster, but bereft of magic.

However, another hour or so and the magic of the Kingdom was all around. We were soon in Healy-Rae country and I was happily negotiating the windy, narrow roads towards Sneem. The rather groovy, wavy signage proclaimed that we were driving The Wild Atlantic Way. The only other regular road signage declared the speed limit to be 100km per hour, just like large parts of the M50. That would be a wild way to drive along the narrow roads fringing the Atlantic to be sure.

That is exactly the kind of magic you just don't get on a motorway, where the speed limit is altogether more sensible, although way more boring.

Irish Independent

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