By Michael Smith.
Avoca: I hate it. The dead river which has run marinated in copper for a century, the town which spawned the devil’s tv series, Ballykissangel, and now Avoca – the “store”, the café, the nursery, “the shopping and leisure destination”.
In recent months I have discovered the joys of dedicated walking in the Wicklow Mountains. That’s organised trips, not the type where you decant from the car at a random gate and head overland between the barbed wire and slatted sheds before being stopped in your tracks round the first bend by a plastic ranch and a belching four by four. It’s walks where you study a map – or a Google Map, wear gear and get remote. For this grimy city dweller, Wicklow’s become the best thing about detestable Dublin. One thing you notice if you bump into anyone else on these treks is that they’re not Irish. That’s because all the Irish are in Avoca.
Or should I say Avocas. Because Avoca now IS Wicklow. Its stores are everywhere, not just Avoca Village itself but Powerscourt, Mount Usher and Kilmacanogue which is the one that detained me recently. And it has begotten emulators: Brooklodge/Macreddin Village and Fisher’s of Newtownmountkennedy are every bit as soul-crunching; the Ritz Carlton much worse still. Moreover, like a virus of good cheer Avoca itself has colonised Suffolk St in Dublin, Malahide Castle, Letterfrack and even Belfast.
It shunts me to distraction that there is nothing to do in Ireland at weekends if you tire of Man City on Sky down the boozer. Dublin is the most scandalous. I’m not looking for mardi gras: a general market sprawling with artesan food and craftwork, books, antiques, bric a brac, mad clothing and African masks, all challenged by street artists, cascading down Smithfield, in Dublin’s North Inner City, would be enough – drawing people from all over the country with its indigenous, organic vibrancy. But the city architect killed that idea years ago with a revamp of Dublin’s defunct market square that was driven by architecture – an attempt to eradicate the historic, the gritty and the horizontal – rather than a new attractive USE, such as A MARKET.
Every other city of a million people has a market. The model can be Camden Lock in London, the souk in Rabat, the Chatuchak in Bankok, Union Square in New York or the St Ouen flea market in Paris. Even the English Market, in Cork. Just make it big not like the piddling overdone organic market in Temple Bar. Every other. Not us.
So the weekend comes and no one has anywhere to go in the city. Grimly simulating cheer through the hangover the natives concentrate on avoiding hassle, exertion, the rain. But they can’t admit it to the kids, to the prickly partner who stayed home last night, or even of course to themselves. So when somebody says “let’s go somewhere”, a reflex rejoinder is “I know – let’s spend the afternoon in Wicklow”. And then the reality comes to mind, and torpor, and no shoes, and the comfort fetish suffuses the perspiring obescent corpus. Somewhere in the process going for a walk in Wicklow gets replaced by going to Avoca. The opposite.
Forged out of the billet-like remains of the old handweavers’ mill there, Avoca Kilmacanogue is the shed of the garden of Ireland. It is a prefab Dundrum Town Centre plonked in Wicklow and sprinkled with faux rustications and Victorian ‘fern rooms’. This is as much the countryside as Dundrum is the Town. Or indeed Kildare Village is a Village. Or Powerscourt any more a country house. They are all SUBURBIA, with all its characteristic mediocre anonymity for people who find cities, villages and the country too spontaneous. Avoca’s blurb proclaims the Kilmacanogue outlet is “set in the grounds of the old Jameson (of whiskey fame) estate, surrounded by ancient trees and rolling gardens”. Well it was before they crammed in a parking lot big enough to fill paradise. I visited at a weekend and I can’t believe anyone goes there during the week. I visualise dozens of earth-moving machines working Monday to Friday shifting trees and knolls to create a couple of spaces here, a bus reservation there; and of course shifting remedial diesel all Friday to prepare it so the ladies and occasional gentlemen who lunch on a Saturday will think the latest addition of asphalt has been there since the time of old John Jameson.
Back to the brochure again: “the Avoca store”, it states, “at Kilmacanogue is simply Ireland’s best retail & food experience. (It’s pronounced Kill-ma-cano-guh by the way)”.
The fare is twee and predictable, as you’d expect from a corporation that gives pronunciation guides, though well enough executed that there’s always someone on hand to coo or champ at the fare (you have to call it fare), much of which is produced in Ireland, to exalt the ethics of the place even if the good is undone in the end by its consumption by motorway-addicts. “From knits to glassware, ceramics to jewellery, toys, books, homewares, aromatics – much of which is exclusive to Avoca – we can go on…”. To me it all looks like jam and blankets. I can go on…this is the place the people who exchange scented candles at Christmas actually bump into each other. It is laid out with all the personality of an airport duty free or a Christmas shop. It’s pushchair central too, evenly dispelling the perfumes of one-year-olds. The families who flock to Avoca love the ubiquitous queuing. It gives them a chance to savour the texture and weight of their trays. They like standing in line for the same reasons they will like sitting in traffic on the journey home. And the prices are pure Brown Thomas: €2.99 for a yoghurt, I noticed before I persuaded myself just to eat and stop thinking.
But it’s an icon for people who seek one. A writer in Dubliner magazine described eating in Avoca as having been a right of passage for bourgeois Dublin teenage girls, like her – as fecund as McDonald’s is for toddlers. For men it is much less, maybe like your first trip to Applegreen. But yes when I paid my visit the females in the company loved it. I tried to spread some rigorous misery but they were just enjoying “the best cakes”. I had my most misogynistic thought all afternoon when I though I counted eight female toilet cubicles to just three men’s: but fury can play tricks on the brain. Safe, sterile, anodyne, pallid, sexless and fake – with a veneer of artesan localism. A box in a car-park just as surely as Tallaght’s Square or Athlone’s Golden Island, the advertising gives the game away: “Located at the gateway to the Garden of Ireland, County Wicklow, on the N11/M11 linking Dublin to Wexford and the South East, even if we say so ourselves, it’s a pretty extraordinary shopping & leisure destination”. Destination and gateway, all bases covered. Kilmacanogue is, in fact, Wicklow’s Red Cow Roundabout; Avoca its Red Cow Inn.
‘Sweet vale of Avoca! How calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best’.
Moore’s shade and bosom fled both and Don McLean’s ‘American pie’ or Neil Diamond’s simpler even more moronic ‘America’ now do it better:
‘They’re coming to America
Today, today, today, today, today’.
For here, commuters and commutresses, is the Zeitgeist and this is America.