Tuesday, August 7, 2007

MTV Ireland: Guidebook Review

Posted to Amazon US today. Thanks to Miss Templeton's colleagues at Wiley for the pristine copy. I learned a lot from it, not all of it useful to a monogamous, straight, introverted, non-dancing, bookish, middle-aged fellow like myself, but no knowledge is lost knowledge to me!

I recall that the "Let's Go" guidebooks for young travelers were started by Ivy Leaguers on summer break. They mix a commendable exposure to culture with practical tips on decent, affordable digs and eats. Their ethos speaks to a generation who combined a budget with a brain. By comparison, the title of MTV perched above all else proves the power of branding for the current demographic. They may not have come out of the Ivy League, however, and from the contents I've perused appear more likely to party all night down the pub, cruise for a genial hook-up, and crash the next day at the recommended hostel.

If you are wanting guidance on pick-up spots, internet cafe rates, gay-friendly hangouts, shopping sprees, or surfing or kayaking, this book, on the other hand, appeals to the young visitor more eager to chat up new friends for a night or a fortnight rather than take in another cathedral's nave or a dull display of a famous writer's scanty memorabilia. It does give helpful advice on ice-breakers for meeting folks in Belfast, how to turn down firmly but gracefully a persistent come-on from the next barstool, or how to tap with a coin your freshly poured pint of Guinness to know when it's best to hoist the glass. Nuggets of such information, often as blue-printed sidebars, make up for the rather mundane layout and lack of pictures. The book opens easily, the type is readable, and stars, "best," and "free" mark particular entries. Specific (a good touch for foreigners) credit card info, URLs, and phone numbers are included.

Unlike many competing guidebooks such as Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, there's no colorful illustrations to leaven the pages of text. Unlike the Moon Handbook (reviewed by me on Amazon), the maps are few and poor in detail. Unlike the Footprint guidebook (also reviewed by me), there is a paucity of attention given cultural or historical contexts. Surprisingly, however, the editing even for Dublin, for example, compresses too much. Only three bookstores are recommended for all of Dublin, while the well-chosen stock (with a generous emphasis on gay topics) at Books Upstairs receives no mention, contrasted with the rather fustier (but still it's often overlooked, and so deserves a mention too) Greene's. The county map at the back endflap is useless, indicating only the borders and 32 county seats. The space could have been used for a decent, if again minimal, highway and major cities and market towns map on this crucial portion of any useful guidebook.

The tone tends towards the glib, no surprise if you watch MTV. This is not a Frommer's (which however spun-off this via a John Wiley distribution with this guide!) for the mature and more affluent tourist, or a Fodor's with its calm recitation of the finer places to lounge and dine. The choices for both horizontal and reclining activities here tend to be ranked as Cheap, Doable, and Splurge, but all for a far more vibrant hipster crowd. Sleeping, Eating, and Partying (Bars/Lounges, Pubs, Clubs, Gay Scene, Live Music, Comedy Clubs, Performance Venues: subheadings in Cork City!), replace the more terse lists of a few pubs or cafes most competitors provide.

Basics, Getting There & Getting Around, Sightseeing, and Road Trips from hub cities are featured. This follows a sensible design that I recommend given the reality of how most visitors get to know a corner of the country for a few days. What to do lists if you have a day are also helpful. Maps however, may need to be supplemented by those in other guidebooks, or free maps from tourist offices. I do like, perhaps since the snarky attitude comes as a refreshing if soon annoying antidote to my usual preference in both armchair and actual use of Irish guidebooks, the honesty. The lack of pretense, after all, remains a certifiably native trait.

This would not be "the" guidebook stowed in my luggage, although I'd skim it before my journey. But if you happen to be under 35 or so, or accompanied by younger folks on your visit, I'd give your target demographic pair of eyes a look at this guidebook with an nod towards packing it along. In the rural areas, many counties only earn a handful of sites or towns for detailed mention. This book covers the major cities better but skimps on the market towns and scenic but perhaps half-moribund (for the ravers' tastes) hamlets. It does cover the Aran Islands, yes, but it tells of the boredom that readers with a short attention span may find along with the beauty. Granted, you can tell the younguns to read the appendix, "History 101" that does give a few quick pages to necessary background for even the least scholarly member of your travelling road show to comprehend during the flight over.

I know this is meant for an audience that no previous guidebook has catered fully to, and more power to it if it draws its readers into a more sustained immersion in the craic and the warmth that even tawdry consumerism cannot totally eradicate. As well as taking the piss out of one and all. (A sentence not in the Amazon review!) We hope. Its persistent lack of depth regarding the Irish heritage (one page total for books, films, and music recommended, and many of these poorly chosen!) can be countered by a Blue Guide at the other archaeological extreme, or the New Age-Celt pilgrim might choose Cary Meehan's Guide to Sacred Ireland (also reviewed by me). Let's Go combines brains with frugality. Footprint & Moon are both commendable one-writer introductions that convey a single sensibility well while exhausting the island; Lonely Planet & Rough Guide stick to the path once less-travelled if no longer off the beaten track, and Fodor's & Frommer's do carry a gravitas that balances the tipsiness in MTV's p-o-v.

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