XFor more years than I can care to remember, I found myself on Friday afternoons walking out past Tirellan, finding my slot, dropping my bag down on the path, pushing out my chest, flicking the hair out of my eyes (sighs ), and sticking out my thumb. In those days, it was the nearest we got to the Kerouac idea — taking your chances with the generosity of strangers and engrossing yourself in a conversation that, like the free ride, could take you anywhere.
When you think about it, it was a brazen form of begging, but for generation after generation, it was our only way of getting round in the days before all families had cars, never mind students having one. But there was nothing humiliating about it, there was no shame in asking someone to share the unused space of their vehicle which was going in the direction you wanted to go. In a way it was a meitheal sort of thing, a kind of Amish ritual in which those who had not, asked those who had, for a favour.
Hitching first became popular in the US during The Great Depression when in truth there was indeed no shame in asking for help, for putting out your hand and hoping that someone would grab it in your hour of need. Ireland with its compact size is ideal for thumbing — author Tony Hawks famously brought a fridge with him while he hitched his way around our fair isle.
But a decade ago, that all disappeared. Thumbers on the roads around Galway were lesser spotted than those lesser-spotted butterflies and yellow-bellied hedgehogs the environmentalists trot out when a new motorway is to be built.
The pavements on our exit roads from the city emptied, as the hordes of students disappeared into the bosoms of their own cars. At the same time, the carparks at GMIT and NUIG were overflowing, with 'mommy and doddy's cor' being used by junior for the week. The only thumber you would see would be of the extreme types — Europeans lost in the ways of Celtic Tiger Ireland or mad eejits out on day release with heads on them like an explosion in a mattress factory.
So where did the thumbers go? Did Irish teenagers suddenly get afraid of being kidnapped by mad drivers. Did they all get access to their own cars? Did bus fares plummet below 1980 prices? In 1986, the bus fare home to Mayo was about five old pounds. Now you can get to Dublin for less than that, with a loo and Wi-Fi on board so you can pee and post without having to look out the window or bid the time of day to the people you meet.
But last week, I noticed they were back. Not many, just a handful here and there but many more than I had seen in a decade. And they weren’t the mad European types seeking to get lost in Connemara. No, these were Irish thumbers with their hands out and big happy heads on them showing that they were no longer ashamed to say ‘hey, I haven’t got a car but you have and it’s practically empty and going my way.”
And this is a good thing. Are the few Irish teenagers who are not in Perth or Vancouver suddenly recovering the humilty that we were all forced to endure? Will conversation skills honed while talking to strangers in their cars be sharpened? I’d love to get back out there with my thumb and see where the adventure takes me. Who needs the car when you can have innovation and conversation. Welcome back hitchers.