Thursday, March 5, 2015

Irish Timekeeping and the Long Goodbye

It usually goes like this: I have a business appointment. We fixed it a week ago: I'm scheduled to meet a Suit in reception at a Killarney Hotel to discuss a possible contract. We agree on the time: 10 o'clock. In the morning, I confirm, just to make certain we're on the same page. I do that because in Ireland you can never be certain of such obvious certainties. And to be sure to be sure: The day before the meeting I phone her. Just to make sure she'll show up and that the time in my diary is correct. She is certain: Yes, that's right. Tomorrow. 10AM. The hotel reception.


The next morning I get up at the crack of dawn. I shower. I brush my teeth. I get dressed. I leave at 0730 to make sure I have enough time. In Killarney, I search for parking eventually deciding on the train station, fighting the commuters for a parking space that are as scarce as hen's teeth. 

I look at the clock: 9:50. I rush through the rain and the front door  and into the hotel reception area, shaking water from my coat like a breed of annoyed water fowl. And finally, I relax. And wait. 

And wait. And look at my watch. And wait some more. And finally at 10:45, the Suit walks in looking fresh and completely nonplussed about keeping me waiting. The rain has stopped. I notice: she's as dry as a bone while I, on the other hand, could do with a full hour on Spin Cycle at the nearest laundromat. 

We have our meeting. Not once does she mention the fact that she'd kept me waiting for forty-five minutes. Or offer an explanation. Or otherwise acknowledge the fact that for those long minutes, I'd felt like an utter prick as I sat soaking in the Reception area being glowered at by a hotel manager who obviously had nothing better to do with his day. And I can't stand it.

The following statement is an humongous generalization but I'll make it anyway: The Irish are lousy timekeepers.

Tell a person you'll meet them at 9 and they'll be there at 9:30. Decide to beat them to the punch by arriving at 9:30 and they won't show up 'til 10. And despite their tardiness, most will never ever acknowledge your annoyance by offering a simple apology. Or an explanation. Even if they had to make one up. Even if they had to say, "I'm sorry I'm late. My dog went after the postman who ended up climbing a tree and I had to phone the fire brigade to get it all sorted. Then I had to persuade the postman not to sue and then gave him a cup of tea and showed him cute pictures of my daughter's First Communion in order to further distract him. So you see, my tardiness was unavoidable."  At least if they'd lie I could find some sort of comfort in it.

If you move here, if you visit here, if you decide to find employment here, be warned: many Irish treat time as some sort of continually moving, constantly changing shadow that can be formed and reformed to match their own purposes or sense of convenience. Time is not a given. Rather, it is a variable that is often treated with utter disdain.

Which is not to say that you should be late. On the contrary! Should you be tardy for a meeting and if you have my brand of luck, you'll find that for the first time in a Millennia, the object of your meeting will - of course - be on time. And you, you poor fool, will be late. Which will put you on the back foot. Off balance, you'll probably never recover. And they? The Irish? They will take your lateness as an insult even though, had the roles been reversed, they would have kept you waiting possibly until hell froze over. 

So take it from me, even though the Irishman or Irishwoman will invariably be late, don't count on it. They'll make it their business to be on time at the very moment you need them to be late - and they'll do that just to play the mick with you. 

I'm not sure what it is about the Irish that makes timekeeping such a challenge to many of them. I know they understand how to tell time. Most Irish have graduated from college or university. Many have advanced degrees. I'm certain that timekeeping - and reading a clock - was part of the curriculum. So it's not that. Nor is it any attempt at consciously making a slight toward you. It's just - well, time for many just isn't as important here as it is elsewhere. It's a cultural thing. But as an American, and despite living here for as long as I have, I still can't get my head around it. Perhaps it's because back when I was a kid, being late was considered a crime. Tardiness could be met by loud yelling followed by hours of grumbling and the back of my father's hand. I learned early on not to be late. But in Ireland that simple lesson was turned on its head.

But if being late isn't bad enough, then there is the Irish Long Goodbye. Which is another example of timekeeping that I simply have never been able to handle.

The Irish Long Goodbye works like this: suppose you are sitting at home. It is, say, 7 PM. You've decided to go out to meet friends in an hour. But then: a knock at the front door. An acquaintance has just invited himself over for a cup of tea. Despite the pending appointment you're delighted to see him and as you boil the kettle up explain that you're meeting people in a few minute's time and make it clear: Time is an Issue on this occasion.

So you drink the tea. At 7:45 you look at your watch. You need to get ready. And explain that to your acquaintance. The acquaintance is, of course, in mid-flight on a discussion of the local priest, the publican, and the young woman down the road. While it's interesting perhaps, you still have to go. But the acquaintance keeps talking and helps themselves to another cup of tea. 

At 7:55, they say Goodbye. For the first time. The acquaintance gets up from the couch which has become a fortress. They've been hiding behind the parapets of pillows, a defensive structure that has effectively protected their dialogue. However, they'll at last stand, gabbing now about the upcoming Cheltenham Races and  who's favorite for the day. They'll put on their coat but not button it. The conversation has turned to the new village footpaths that the council is pouring and the fact that the construction means that no one can drive through the village without endangering dogs, tourists, and old people. 

You glance at your watch. It is now 8:10. You're late and you still have not changed. But still, the eternal Goodbye continues. You look again at your watch, harder this time. The acquaintance realizes that you may be under pressure. Finally, they acknowledge that it's time to be going and head toward the door.

But it's not done yet, this Goodbye of theirs. They stand at the door, back to it, making it impossible for you to get to it. To open it. To usher them out. Now they're talking about their grandmother who is in hospital and how she's 95 and on life support but is still as mentally sharp as a carving knife. And it's a wonder that she's lived this long but with God's help she'll see out her Century.

And just as you're thinking of using Grandma's sharp carving knife to cut your own throat, the acquaintance will finally, finally open the door. They'll step out into the night. Then they'll turn. And if luck has it, they'll keep you there for another ten minutes talking this time of the weather and the fact that the rain has stayed off and isn't it a lovely night for a walk and perhaps that's what they'll do now.

You at this point have blood in your eyes. Your BP is somewhere in the stratosphere. You know that your friends are parked in the pub, on their third pint, disappointed that you have not shown up. And finally, your acquaintance will look at his watch. "Bless the Lord, look at the time! You've kept me here long enough. Now I'd best dash before you start talking even more foolishness."

And at last they walk off, swallowed by the night. And you know that you've been victim to the Irish Long Goodbye. And of course, it's all your fault. 

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  1. My dad, though not Irish, was a champion of the long goodbye. Never could he open the door and step out and go. He would have to spend 15 minutes on minutia even if he had been sitting in your house for 5 hours. I wonder, though, does this Irish fluid timekeeping apply to their jobs as well? How can business be conducted if everyone swans in late?

  2. Interesting to read this. I recently flew to Ireland for a possible romance and the woman was 2 hours late to meet me at the Air coach. When I was going home a couple of days later she couldn't get me to the same bus on time so I missed it, which meant I got to the airport 30 minutes before take off. No excuses or understanding. Quite extreme behaviour.