A book on Ireland and the Irish that is conscientious, earnest, and, unlike its subject, a little dull. Ardagh (Germany and the Germans, 1987), a part of the great Irish diaspora, spent a good deal of time in Ireland between 1991 and 1993, traveling everywhere and meeting many prominent Irish men and women, some of whose comments form the most vivid parts of the book. In many ways Ireland, Ardagh suggests, is an even more curious place than its sometimes fey reputation would indicate. It is not only one of the poorest countries in Europe, but one of the most over-taxed and over-centralized, with the highest unemployment of any industrialized country. Its greatest talents have almost always gone abroad (Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, and their contemporaries). While its life ""is still lived with a particular gregarious intensity that seems more Mediterranean than northern,"" it is, says Ardagh, a more inhibited and controlled society than almost any other contemporary European country. And only now is it beginning to undergo a degree of emancipation, leading to the immortal words of one member of Parliament that ""there was no sex in Ireland until the BBC came."" Ardagh is best on the north, which he had expected to find, paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes, ""nasty, British and short,"" but where he instead found the people to be ""marvelous, second to none."" ""The Northern Irish may not be comprehensible,"" he quotes one source as saying, ""but they are very addictive,"" and his view even of the militant Protestant leader Reverend Ian Paisley -- ""an astute, gifted man of some stature, charismatic in his way"" -- is fair and thoughtful. A solid effort; though left to his own devices and deprived of the sometimes stimulating company he kept, Ardagh himself is rather pedestrian.