Irish warning

I did almost drive off a cliff in Ireland last May. Obviously, it was not my finest moment—or maybe it was, in a weird way, since I did not actually plunge into the Atlantic, as this sign so simply and clearly depicts.

Had there been such a sign, I wouldn't have gone down the narrow lane that suddenly . . . just ended right in front of me as I came around a hedge and skidded to a halt. Yes, the front wheels of my little rented stick shift car were probably on the edge of the cliff. A surge of adrenaline left my heart banging against my ribs.

I recall that the first thing I did was to just catch my breath. I looked at the scenery—truly marvelous, the wild water breaking on the rocks, the sprawling green fields stretching up behind me. Behind me, where I wanted to be. Back there, away from the ocean.

So I opened my window. It just seemed like the right thing to do, just in case I did manage to plummet into the sea. Then I put the car in reverse and said a little prayer to the God of the Clutch, and I gunned the engine.

It was a small engine. I'm certain it had less horsepower than my motorcycle, maybe less than my lawnmower. So I was not entirely suprised it had barely enough power to draw me backwards up the steep slope just a few inches before stalling, at which point the car lurched forward toward oblivion as I frantically braked.

I did this several times, and I could swear each time I got closer to the edge.

On my fourth try, I managed to keep the engine engaged, straining in reverse against the road's slope in a crazy tug of war. I seemed to be suspended for a long time, not sure which force would win—gravity or the internal combustion engine. Just when I was about to give up, put the car in park, and go for help, I felt the front end of the car rise every so slightly, proof that the wheels had very likely been part way over the edge. Moments later I was slowly backing up. I kept backing up until I was around the curve and safely out of danger.

Then I got out and did a little bit of freaking out, a strange little Irish-American jig that involved some cursing and odd gesticulations. Then I was OK again.

A couple weeks later, after galavanting all over the west coast of Ireland and having put this episode squarely out of my mind, I came upon this sign posted near Clew Bay, not far from Westport. Oh, how I laughed. I laughed and laughed.

I mean, look at it. There's no driver in the car, no one screaming for his bloody life, frantically trying to squeeze out the window. The car is a goner. It's already over the cliff. This is very Irish, I think. It's half warning, half droll statement of fact: You, yes, you, the stupid guy approaching this cliff, here's what your sorry ass will look like if you don't stop now.

An American sign would show a car approaching the cliff. A French sign might have a car, poised at the cliff, with a large red slash through it. But in Ireland, that sense of inevitable tragedy that has done so much for their literary tradition and music has kicked in, and we see the symbolic enactment of self-destruction that awaits the foolish, the ignorant, and the arrogant.

The Cliffs of Moher are remarkable, and a sign there tells you that approximately one person gets swept off them to certain death each year. The precipices of Achill Island are reputed to be the tallest seacliffs in all of Europe, and you're dead for sure if you fly off the edge. The 700 stairs up Skellig Michael take you along soaring, narrow ridges with a near-straight drop to the ocean, which fate must certainly have befallen the odd monk or two at the hands of marauding Viking raiders on one of their visits to the ancient monastery atop its crags.

I stood at all of them and can attest to spectacular views from the top of each.