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Ireland

High-Falutin', or "The English Patient" level: As the austere and pluvious mountain ranges of the western and southern shores drop precipitously into the peat bogs, the crannogs, the limestone lowlands and verdant pastures irrigated by the skimble-skamble meanderings of the River Shannon, the wanderer in this land must needs be struck by the overriding zeitgeist, if you will, of Ireland: dichotomy. Nigh-paradoxical in every facet - from the countryside, both inhospitable and fertile; to the politics of north and south, colony and nation; to the religions of St. Patrick and the Orangemen - Ireland is a study in contrasts. The literary history of this most north-westerly of European nations is rich, indeed, boasting the Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw, his successor William Butler Yeats, and the self-contradictory Oscar Wilde, the comedic playwright with a tragic life; yet Ireland was also the wellspring of that seminal fountainhead of pulp fiction, Bram Stoker. As narrated in Thomas Cahill's historical study, "How the Irish Saved Civilization," the Irish monks spiritually descended from St. Patrick became the storehouse of the knowledge and the poetry of Greco-Roman civilization before the dawn of the Middle Ages, thus preserving the roots of all Western culture; and yet the Celtic spirit of druidism and pagan worship is nowhere stronger than in Eirinn. >From the capital city of Dublin, whose Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, served as president of the European Union, to Belfast in the north, land of the Irish Republican Army and the last bastion (welcome or no) of the British Empire, Ireland's two sides, the smoke and the mirrors of this enchanted isle, show the shining divinity of progress and hope, as well as the underlying profanity of melancholy, of endless strife. Perhaps the best - nay, the only - way to summarize Ireland is in the eternal words of Mr. Shaw: "Some see things as they are, and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not." Ireland is home to both.

Mid-Falutin', or "Gladiator" level: Top o' the mornin' to ye, and welcome to the Emerald Isle! This wonderful country, home to nearly 4,000,000 people, combines the charm of Pierce Brosnan with the stoic strength of Liam Neeson, and the rugged good looks of both. Rolling green hills along the coastlines give way to lowlands that boast some of the most fertile agricultural land in Europe, though the importance of farming and animal husbandry in the Irish economy has been declining. Ireland is becoming a nation of city-dwellers, with more than one-quarter of the nation's population residing in the greater Dublin area; along with this modernization and centralization has come progress, as Ireland's economy has become one of the fastest growing in the world. The country, a leading member of the European Union, has become a technological wonderland, home to the European headquarters of such modern-day computer giants as Microsoft and Dell. Ireland is now the second-leading exporter of computer software, behind only the U.S. The true beauty of Ireland, however, lies in its land and its culture. Pieces of that culture, and the influence it has had on the world, can be seen in Guinness beer, one of the world's most popular potables, and in the stunning success of Riverdance, the Broadway sensation based on traditional Irish dancing. Ireland's rich musical culture has led to the success of such notable bands as U2 and the Cranberries, as well as the more traditional sounds of such artists as Sinead O'Connor and the Pogues. Sadly, the history of Ireland has also made the IRA a household name, owing to 800 years of struggle against English rule and civil and religious strife; but one can only hope that, as St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland's shores, the progress that Ireland continues to make will drive out the cruelty and bloodshed, and leave this jewel of Europe as a shining glory for us all to admire. Erin go bragh!

Low-Falutin', or "Dude, Where's My Car?" level: Ireland ROCKS! Any place that has a whole holiday dedicated to gettin' wasted and pinching people that don't remember to wear green has got to be a kick-butt country. And leprechauns are cool, though I like the Lucky Charms kind better than that psycho midget from the movie. I've never been to Ireland myself, but I have been to Boston, and that town is, what, like half Irish at least, you know what I'm sayin'? Without Ireland, there'd be no Boston Celtics, no Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, and no House of Pain - Everlast is alright, but you can't beat "Jump Around." Ireland is also where potatoes come from, I think, and probably McDonald's - that's an Irish name, right? With the "Mc" thing? Anyways, Ireland's just cool, though you probably wouldn't want to go to Belfast, and does anybody get that whole kissing the Blarney Stone thing? Oh, and if you're looking to get drunk on St. Patty's day, go to one of those Irish pubs they have everywhere, but don't get O'Doul's. You can drink that all day and still be sober, which is weird since most Irish beer will totally knock you on your shillelagh. Ireland! WOO!

Finally, an Irish blessing, and a curse. The blessing: "May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live." The curse: "May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of Damnation that the Lord himself can't find you with a telescope."

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