‘Eoin Butler has been driving for as long as he can remember, but has failed the test more times than he can count.’
GROWING UP IN rural Ireland, I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know how to drive. As a child, I would race my father’s car up and down the driveway, sneak it over the cattle grid, and peek out on to the road beyond. In my mid-teens, I traversed the back roads of east Mayo to collect my grandmother for her dinner every Sunday.
At 17, I applied for my first provisional driver’s licence. To put that event in an historic context, on one of my earliest (official) jaunts, my friends and I were questioned by gardaí hunting for the IRA killers of Jerry McCabe. We’d just been swimming in Errit Lake, near Gorthaganny. The lads were wearing wet Bermuda shorts. I was driving in my bare feet. I’m not sure what the IRA’s modus operandi was in those days, but I imagine this would have represented a significant departure.
My first car was a 1983 Opel Corsa. It had a manual choke and, on a straight road, could do 0-60mph in about 45 minutes.Once, someone daubed the words “Eoin’s shaggin’ wagon” in enormous letters in dust on the passenger side. I was mortified when I found out. But, in retrospect, that graffiti flattered me in a lot of ways. It wasn’t even my car. It was my mother’s. I was only allowed it on weekends.
I took the driving test for the first time in Roscommon in 1998.They failed me for taking the wrong lane into a roundabout. Not to make excuses or anything, but there were no roundabouts in east Mayo in 1998.
Roscommon had about a million of them. Look at a map if you don’t believe me. It’s like a deranged town planner stole a price-gun loaded with roundabout symbols and went on a shooting spree.
That summer, I got a job working as an air-conditioning repairman in Ocean City, Maryland. On my first day, I was required to present a driver’s licence. I handed them a provisional driver’s licence. They didn’t ask. I didn’t tell. It was amazing. I had my own pick-up truck. I listened to country music radio. I had a walkie-talkie and said things like “10-four”, “What’s your 20?” and “Yee-haw!”.
I knew zilch about air conditioning, of course. But this was a tourist town. People mostly just needed their air filters changed. For anything more complicated, I had the walkie-talkie. My co-workers were amazed to learn that I could “drive stick”, but needed instructions to use an automatic. To them, that was like a Michelin-starred chef having trouble making beans on toast.
I gained a lot of valuable life experience that summer. Unfortunately, none of it was roundabout-related. In September, I failed the test in Roscommon for a second time. By now, my mother was grumbling about the cost of insuring me in her car. When my second provisional licence expired in 2000, I let it lapse.
Five years later, I was in Dublin working for a magazine called Mongrel. Even at the height of the economic boom, free magazines that specialised in interviews with bands no one had heard of tended not to make a lot of money. So, as part of my job, I agreed to hand-deliver 30,000 copies of Mongrel around the country every month. The publisher bought me a 2001 Renault Megane and I was back on the road. Yee-haw!
Driving around the country was a blast. I loved everything about it. On sunny days, I would speed past office blocks, factories and building sites – anywhere people were cooped up doing proper jobs – and feel exhilarated, like a child playing truant from school.
It was the capital I wasn’t so crazy about. Over half of the magazine’s print run was distributed in Dublin. It was a city I thought I knew. But from behind the wheel of a creaking minivan, Dublin swiftly became a baffling maze of one-way streets, terrifying multi-lane junctions and extremely high strung motorists. The latter rankled the most. In Mayo, you’d practically have to ram a school bus off a bridge to get honked at. In Dublin, I got beeped at once for hiccupping. The strange thing was, I was parked at the time.
The Dublin run was difficult. There were hundreds of outlets to hit. I was working alone and under severe time pressure. Bending the rules was just part of the job. To this end, I shamelessly exploited my rural roots at every opportunity. The Mayo colours hung proudly from my rear view mirror and, in close quarters with the law, I invariably ratcheted my accent up from a two to an eight or nine.
Once, I was caught taking an illegal left turn at the bottom of Dawson Street. The officer couldn’t have been nicer. He told me that, strictly speaking, what I’d done was illegal. He said that, if someone had seen me, I’d probably have gotten in trouble. He was from Galway himself. Was I going to the game Sunday, he asked? Two weeks later, one of my Dublin friends, caught performing the same manoeuvre, was asked if he’d ever been to prison. He got away with a fine and a penalty point.
In 2007, my provisional was due to expire again. I heard that Tyrellstown in Co Dublin had the highest pass rates of any test centre in Ireland. So I made the appointment. When I arrived, the tester asked to see my licence. I’d left it out in the car. She exhaled impatiently.
Already I suspected this one was going south.
“It’s out of date,” she huffed, when I returned. She turned the licence around on the table top for me to see. I couldn’t believe it. My provisional licence was literally one day out of date. I sat there beaming frantically, while my brain formulated a response. Finally, I leaned forward: “Is there any way,” I asked, sotto voce, “that this could be overlooked?” There wasn’t.
Next, I tried my luck in Churchtown. My presentation was tighter this time. I was clean shaven, wore a suit and took my sister’s car. (It had a baby seat in the back.) I looked every inch the company man, I thought. Hell, I’d have given myself the licence at this stage.
Unfortunately, I’d neglected to put L-plates on my sister’s car. Once again, I was kicked to the kerb without leaving the car-park.
My most recent exchange of views with the Road Safety Authority occurred at Raheny test centre on February 10th. My licence was kosher and I breezed through the Rules of the Road pop quiz. When we lifted the bonnet, I admitted I didn’t know where the brake fluid went. But as I told the examiner, if there’s a problem with the brakes, I doubt I’ll be taking matters into my own hands. Recession or no recession.
Things were going okay until the guy decided he wanted to see my tail-lights. I was sitting in the car with the engine on. This was already my personal best for this century. I looked in the rear-view mirror. The examiner was shaking his head. Darkness descended. Exit music came up.
Today I’m sitting the driving test for the sixth time. More in hope than expectation. If I fail then, when my current provisional licence expires, there will be qualified drivers on the road who weren’t born when I got my first. If I pass, then I’ll probably jump in a lake or something. Either way, as my family are fond of telling me, it’s the taking part that counts.
P.S. I got it!!!