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Ed Kemmick CITY LIGHTS

An Irishman's favorite adjective is "wee," and no wonder. Ireland is the opposite of Texas, where everything is big.

My wife Lisa and I recently spent two weeks exploring Ireland, which is only about 320 miles from top to bottom, marveling at its wee roads, its wee cars, its wee shops and its wee little bathroom sinks the size of a hamster's hot tub.

But not everything there is small. Most of the people we encountered for any length of time were animated by a large joy. This was true even of those who had been touched by tragedy, whose lives were tinged with a kind of sighing fatalism that seems to come naturally to the Irish.

The joy they take in living is evident in their constant use of two other adjectives, "lovely" and "grand." They use these words to describe everything from their tea to the wee lambs capering all over the countryside at this time of year. They even use them to describe the incessant rains, in the joking sense of "Grand weather, isn't it?" or in a statement full of hope, as in, "It's bound to be lovely again soon, eh?"

And it isn't enough simply to read the words. You'd need to hear them to understand what they mean in Ireland. Spoken by the Irish, "lovely" never sounded so grand, nor "grand" so lovely.

The art of speaking It's like that with most words. The Irish don't so much pronounce a word as make a free-standing poem out of it, by elongating it or, if at all possible, by adding another syllable to it. "Gate," for example, is transformed into "ghee-it," and "bacon" becomes "bee-a-cun."

A similar thing happens with place names, which, as an American, you will invariably mispronounce. Donegal, the county where we visited Lisa's distant relations and spent the most time, is pronounced "Donny-gall," or even "Dunny-gull," with a slight, lovely lilt to each syllable. I tried to pronounce it like an Irishman, but of course it was hopeless.

The kind nature of the Irish also was evident in the sympathy they felt for our having to endure so much rain. We had only two days on which there was none: on our first full day, to tease us, and on our last full day, to taunt us. During one densely overcast period, we would stop what we were doing to admire a patch of blue sky the way people would gawk at a rainbow anywhere else.

But we really didn't mind. It would have been like complaining about the lack of clothing stores in Eden. Clear or cloudy, damp or dry, Ireland is spectacularly beautiful. I loved the mountains and the green countryside and the cliffs and the fields with their stone fences, but best of all were the Irish towns.

A tiny hamlet might consist of only a dozen buildings, but those dozen buildings will line a steep, winding road, and they will be painted in 25 different colors, each of them pleasing to the eye.

Eyes on the road For all the beauty, you don't want to be sightseeing if you're behind the wheel of a car in Ireland. It didn't take long for us to get used to driving on the left side of the road and operating the gearshift with our left hands, mainly because you either do so or die. But we never got comfortable sitting on the passenger side.

The poor passenger, perched on the left, inches away from the hedges or stone fences bracketing most roads, is forever convinced that a collision lurks around every hairpin turn, spaced about 400 feet apart. Either of us could coolly thread our little Fiat Punto rental car through a narrow gap without the least show of concern, but whoever was sitting in the passenger seat was constantly shouting, cringing and turning pale.

That's part of the charm of Ireland. On the paved-over donkey tracks that pass for roads in most of Ireland, it's like being 16 again with a freshly minted driver's license in your wallet. For the first time in years, you are intensely aware of the act of driving, forced into a permanent state of high alert. You don't use cruise control in Ireland.

I'm back in Billings now and should probably get my nose to the grindstone like a proper hard-working American, but I can't stop thinking of Ireland. I haven't even mentioned the pubs or the music or the way the Irish dote immoderately on their children, a sure sign of a healthy people.

Would it be too much if I wrote about our rambles again next week in this space? Just a wee bit more?

It'll be lovely, I promise.

Ed Kemmick can be reached, he regrets to say, at 657-1293 or ekemmick@billingsgazette.com

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