When was the last time you hitchhiked your way across the USA (or anywhere, for that matter)? When was the last time (if ever) you picked up a hitchhiker? It’s a way of getting around that’s been fading away for a long, long time and Today with Claire Byrne reporter Brian O’Connell decided to pose the question, has the pandemic finally killed off hitchhiking in Ireland? When asked by the host if he would still hitchhike, Brian said he wouldn’t, but he had seen people, on occasion, pre-Covid hitchhiking. And, when he was younger, Brian said he sued to hitchhike all the time:
“I grew up a couple of miles outside of Ennis and we would have hitched into town on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon, so that was really normal. And then when it came to going to college in Cork, like, most Fridays I would’ve hitched home, because you would’ve spent the bus money, I mean, that was the reality – socialising was more important.”
As a former hitchhiker, Brian would stop to pick someone up, but that’s not something he’s done for more than a year, because Covid. But what were the reasons – aside from Rutger Hauer – that hitchhiking has been in decline for so long?
“I think people had become a lot more safety-conscious. There was a time in the 90s, for example, I would’ve often got a lift from truck drivers heading for Shannon, but because of insurance issues then over the years, truck drivers wouldn’t stop anymore, so that was one group of people who wouldn’t pick you up. You can’t hitch on motorways, for example. The public road transport infrastructure is much better now.”
As Brian maintains that hitchhiking grants you freedom, Claire, horrified, imagines her children, when they’re old enough, deciding to go off hitchhiking around Europe, and Brian is forced to agree that he, too, would be appalled at the thought. The freedom argument is probably best left to someone who’s literally written the book on hitchhiking in Ireland: author, campaigner and podcaster Ruairí McKiernan spoke to Brian about his experiences of hitchhiking around the country. And, just like Brian, when Ruairí was of a school-going age, he too used to hitchhike regularly:
“Hitchhiking was a normal part of life for me. You know, you’d be hitchhiking to matches and training and maybe home from school as well. I’d hitchhike regularly home from school. Talk about hitchhiking now as some kind of strange experience, but it was a very, very normal, regular part of life.”
Ruairí has written a book about his hitchhiking experiences – Hitching for Hope – but he concedes that making your way around by sticking out your thumb is something that’s more or less out of place in the 21st century:
“It does speak to a past era as well, and it probably will never return to its glory days.”
And Ruairí is well aware that he romanticises hitchhiking – choosing to remember the good times, rather than the times he had to stand for hours in the rain waiting to get a lift. That’s probably the same for anyone thinking back to the glory days of any activity, really, though, isn’t it?
You can hear Brian’s full report for the Today programme – including the reminiscences of a folk legend and a selection of people’s thoughts on hitchhiking – by going here.
Hitching for Hope by Ruairí McKiernan is published by Chelsea Green Publishing.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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