Do book the first flight to Dublin(2nd edition, w/ addendum)
Prior to our visit to Dublin we re-read the history of Ireland and were thus reminded of the injustice and atrocities the English afflicted on the country: of Cromwell’s burning of a great many villages in the 1600s; and of the ensuing Penal Laws that until this century made it impossible for any Irishman to possess land or to get an education (NB the famous Protestant university Trinity College didn’t accept Catholic students until the 1970s); and of the time of the Great Famine when the Irish harvested and shipped tons of food to England only to be evicted because they couldn’t pay the rent even if they tried to live on potatoes. To this day Paddy is still ridiculed in England, in part because of his Irish dialect. But, after all, English was not the language of the original Celts, and we were looking forward to seeing if the new Ireland has been able to re-introduce the Gaelic tongue that was forbidden for centuries under threats of severe punishment. Ah, the English gentlemen…
There are a thousand pubs in Dublin, they say – despite numerous attempts we didn’t have time enough to see if it is true – and the pubs are ubiquitous, both in the overall picture and in the mind of the visitor. For the pub is the place where you meet and talk with the friendly and curious Irish who seem to have an insatiable hunger for socializing.
Not everything said over a pint is to be believed, I guess, but even if you deduct some of the humorous gossip from what is actual fact, a whole lot of things appear to be true:
- over the past 10 years Dublin (and Ireland) has been developing rapidly; today you’ll need more than £27 million (some $33 million) to qualify as one of Ireland’s 100 richest – mind you, these are Irish businessmen, not the English absentee landlords who used to own some 95% of the country a century ago
- much of this ”new” money is made in businesses working with new technology (e.g. software)
- other Irishmen try to enjoy life and focus on socializing – there must still be room for fantasy and spontaneous whims
- in a very short span of years the general standard of living has increased considerably, but the poverty of old is now inflicting a new social group: while the number of refugee immigrants in 1996 was as low as 10 a month, today the number has soared to about 1,000 refugees a month. In 1994 the number of Romanian nationals seeking asylum was 37; last year the figure was 2,226. It remains to be seen what degree of solidarity towards this new class of underdogs the Irish can muster – this is going to be one of the major social problems in the new Ireland
- the Catholic church was earlier the rallying point for the fight against the English (cultural) suppressors – now the self-reliant Irish youth turns away from both of them, looking for a new beginning
In a giant leap financed in part by the European Union, Ireland has moved up from nearly Third World standards to a modern society in which everybody who wants it can afford a mobile phone and a homepage on the Internet (the new rich are also called the dot-coms). Thereby 200 years of emigration has stopped. Now help is wanted in most industries, especially in restaurants as a result of the general new affluence and tourist boom, and multinational (software) companies flourish (investors are offered tax concessions). In the street Spanish and Italian is spoken into the mobile phones quite often, so the immigrants may not only be returning Irishmen, but also young businessmen from all over the world.
- when one comes to think of it, it’s amazing how many Irish artists and outstanding personalities of all kinds this small country has fostered – e.g. the USA have had an “Irish” president for 56 years. Maybe this is due to certain Celtic genes or just the fact that “oppression begets counter pressure”. The many beautiful museums abound with relics of the Celtic past and cultural and political history
Ireland is a young country (republic 1949) and feels that way, too – almost reborn. Due to the emigration nearly half the population is under 25 which marks life in the big cities. Whereas their parents were brought up according to strict Catholic rules, both at home and at school (of which many were run by the church), now especially the girls are emancipated and quite the equals of the boys in both education and development. But exceptions are still seen: the papers ran a story of a teenager who gave birth to her child upstairs while her mother was downstairs, and later the girl put her stillborn child in her satchel school bag and buried it in a nearby moor. Apparently, 10-20 years of recovery is not enough to change old attitudes.
The arrival of refugees puts the friendly and gregarious Irish to a test of solidarity. In the street racist comments are heard, for instance from a mother who instructed her daughter not to sit next to a black immigrant in the bus; but contrary to the situation in many other countries, we also heard other Irish put the critics in their places, for instance by telling them to be quiet or be whacked. Others equate the new Ireland with “individuality” – we don’t show solidarity any more, a 30-something woman said.
But it can be difficult to show solidarity to a beggar who scorns coins and claims bills. Thus an alleged refugee from Bosnia (but I have my doubts about her being genuine) gave me my money back (roughly a dollar), and some of my students witnessed a miracle when a "disabled" beggar suddenly rose and called it a day and walked away with the days earnings.
So, while the Irish have fought their way out of the English colonization, they have now got a new class at the bottom of the Irish society to consider. How quickly the change has taken place is exemplified in the life of a 28-year-old man who told us about his childhood in the heart of Dublin in the 70s and 80s: no electricity, no hot water or decent food – but lots of brown sugar on white bread.
It is a natural conclusion to think of the pub as the place where sorrows are drowned and forgotten, but for centuries pubs have also been the places where people meet and exchange information and do business - incidentally, the price of beer is the same in shops as in pubs – and the absence of material goods have made the Irish focus on immaterial things like music and poetry – telling stories is free – focus has been on socializing which the Irish have developed to perfection. A cheerful Irishman told us that the Irish seldom work Saturdays due to the coming weekend, and Mondays follow right after a weekend, you know – and in the middle of the week they take a break: having a laugh is what it’s all about. Now, information on subjects like this one usually depends on whom you ask…
But spontaneous singing and folk music is heard everywhere – riverdance is also for amateurs – and Bono from the rock group U2 threw an improvised concert in a pub prior to a concert the following day.
We did hear spoken and sung Gaelic on a few occasions, but more as a curiosity than a common language. Gaelic is mandatory in schools; but as English is a world language, it is only natural that the young Irish look ahead and want to be able to make themselves understood in a future global society. As a result Gaelic is close to being considered a foreign language by many of the young people we spoke to.
Our visit to a Dublin school turned out to be a great success as our hosts had prepared a guided tour in advance. Incidentally, the school was where the U2 performed publicly for the very first time (while they were still students), and we walked the planks of the small school stage with reverence.
Later we happened to witness a rehearsal for the evening's caeli, the traditional local community dance party that was to be held at the school. We learned that a talented dancer has a coach to help choreograph the steps, almost in a tailor-made, ballet-like fashion.
We didn't attend any of the teaching, but from the Irish students we learned enough to be able to compare the two systems, and as so often when abroad we once again found a reason to consider ourselves lucky to belong to the Danish system of education.
Dublin is surrounded by low mountains, and as we didn’t have time to visit the spectacular cliffs on the west coast, we went to Glendalough, a monastery dating from the 800s, magnificently set in a most beautiful and hilly terrain only one-two hours from Dublin. A world class attraction like so many others in Ireland and evidence of the solitude that is also to be found in the island.
On the other hand, this year’s pageant on St. Patrick’s Day gathered 550,000 spectators in Dublin, and the long wait was as pleasant and as full of joyful expectation as it can be experienced at sports events, with chatting left and right to other bystanders. Afterwards everybody was thirsty…
Contrary to earlier years the IRA no longer puts its mark on the pageant, nor is it a religious one. Free will is no longer primarily a political or philosophical concept, but a daily fact for many young people who are sick and tired of war, terror and suppression. On the other hand, the old IRA-songs are still heard in the pubs, but it was our impression that they were meant as joyful communal singing.
But although this year’s pageant was the most festive ever with 33 participating groups in the parade, it is difficult to see how this “carnival” with a very marked commercial touch will be able to capture the interest of the young Irish of the future. The tradition seems to be watered down to a degree which will only attract tourists – after all, you may grow a little tired of watching (let alone listening to) an endless number of marching bands from American high schools in a pageant for the Irish guardian angel St. Patrick, the symbol of the Irish Republic.
The following day we read that there had been about 3,000 calls to the police requesting their assistance to stop disturbances, and that young people threw stones at firefighters trying to put out a fire in a car that had been set on fire deliberately.
But tourist are not bothered with that kind of trouble, and the human warmth from other Irishmen is felt the more: on our way to the airport an Irish woman entered our local city bus, and during the one or two stops she was on the bus, she managed to tell us her that she was going to a home for handicapped people to visit a friend… and that her eldest son turned 21 yesterday… and that her youngest son of 17 was sleeping in today due to yesterday’s festivities…
Yes – we were very well received by the friendly people of Ireland and would love to go back on the first plane. But we also learned about conditions we have never known in Denmark, e.g. during our thought provoking visit to Kilmainham Jail from 1796 where Irish rebels were put until 1924 – a place that to many Irishmen seems to be as holy a shrine as the Sistine Chapel.
In fact, it is amazing that Ireland has been able to come back to life after so many years of suppression and neglect. Of course, Dublin was always the capital (and seat of the English viceroy and thus boasts splendid Georgian houses and government buildings and a cultural life marked by the English), but the new Ireland is well on its way ahead without forgetting about its past. Whether it will be a bilingual future with a need for and room for the traditional, original, uniquely Irish, remains to be seen…
Addendum January 2001
It seems that the Irish are going to pay the usual price for their economic boom: inflation. In the recent months prices have gone up considerably and thus tempered the development of prosperity for all. Further, the former strong belief in the philosopy of the European Union is on the decline as the Irish realize that there will soon come a time when funding from the EU will dry out, and the Irish will start paying to the European community instead of only receiving. Whether the belief in the European idea (or was it the political interest in distinguishing Ireland from the UK?) will be strong enough to survive inflation and heavier taxes remains to be seen.