Ireland Today

'Dear, dirty Dublin,' James Joyce infamously maligned the capital of his native country, Ireland and, while it's still dear in many ways, his city and his country have come a very long way.  More than a quarter century ago, inspired by Alex Haley's Roots, I decided to take my family back to this land of our own roots and finally meet the aunts, uncles and cousins I had never seen and visit the places and tourist sites I had only heard about. 

It was then still a sleepy, little country with its picturesque and quaint villages and counties.   With its thousand shades of green, due to its many fine, soft rains, with its countless pristine lakes, streams and rivers, with its tumble—down ancient castles, its peat bogs, its tiny roads where people drive on the wrong side of the road, its Blarney Stone, Ring of Kerry, Galway Bay, Cliffs of Moher, Aran Islands, it was a beautiful, simple place then.   And, Mr. Joyce, Dublin was bustling—but far from dirty.   But the Ireland of 1978 could not hide the reality that it was a benighted land. 

The Battle of the Boyne in 1690 had been a watershed and since that British victory on that July day, the fate of Ireland was sealed for centuries.  Great Britain and its agents, notably the soul—less Oliver Cromwell, systematically starved, persecuted and slaughtered the Irish.  The Penal Laws—aptly named—followed and brought more misery to the Irish people.  Then came the  Great Potato Famine, the Hunger, (1845—1850), which, combined with forced emigration decimated the population.   Three million people either died or left and Ireland wouldn't recover for a century and a half. Not until it became the Celtic Tiger, the New Emerald Isle, with a new and well—earned sense of pride.

We visited Ireland again in 2000 and 2003.   My wise and aging uncle, one of the few relatives left by then, profoundly  said in 2000, 'We've traded our soul for prosperity.'   And, indeed, a phenomenal prosperity had swept the country by then, accompanied by a sea change in Irish mores, culture, politics and outlook.  They say some things never change and outside Dublin much of the old charm of Ireland was alive and well.  

But, it was a different life and well—ness.  New cars and new housing and vastly improved infrastructure are visible everywhere.   And the Irish take delight in the fact that thousands of Britons were now crossing the Irish Sea to seek employment in Ireland, reversing the flow of humanity of the previous hundred years.  And it's not just Brits who are flocking to the Old Sod.   By the time of my most recent visit in 2006, Iranians, Nigerians, Iraqis, Cambodians, VietNamese, Chinese, people of virtually every  nationality were re—locating to Ireland seeking jobs and a better life—and  citizenship.   A puckish cousin had asked me on one of my visits, 'Now, could you tell me what an American looks like?'   I answered that we look like what an Irishman will look like—— in a few generations.

In July, 2006, Ireland was pronounced the second richest country in the world, after Japan, in terms of real estate values.  Properties which were valued at thousands of Irish pounds ten years earlier were now valued at hundreds of thousands of Euros with many in Dublin reaching a million Euros! Newspapers were declaring that in order to maintain a comfortable standard of living in Dublin a couple would need to earn upwards of 150,000 Euros annually.  As in the United States, people anticipated that the housing bubble would soon burst and when it did the thriving economy would crash and burn.  However, they hope, that would be some time in the indefinite future.

Meanwhile, despite all the good news, there's still a dark side to life in Ireland today.  The once—vaunted health system (acclaimed when the now—defunct Irish Sweepstakes financed hospitals) was now in serious trouble.  A number of people shared anecdotes about how friends and relatives had gone to emergency rooms and were kept on gurneys for more than twenty—four hours before they even saw a doctor.   In 2005, only five of fifty—four hospitals were rated by the government as hygienically 'good,' a figure that most were able to improve in 2006, but the hospitals were still woefully behind most international standards.   New hospitals are being built by the cash—flush government, but some were opening without beds!   Staffing was another problem and, though the doctors, nurses, and aides that I met seemed competent and pleasant, the facilities were clearly short—handed and their staffs had to be supplemented by foreigners, some with minimal English language skills.

Were health care the only negative in the Celtic Tiger's new culture, it would be sad enough.  There's also the baby boom.  Walk the streets of Ireland and you'll see more babies than you can shake a shamrock at!  This in and of itself would be a positive development—if not for the fact record numbers of young Irish men and women are choosing not to marry before they conceive a child.   Very—Catholic Ireland outlaws abortion, for now, but young hormones being what they are sexual intercourse is still a very popular indoor sport and Irish youths are foregoing church and ring in favor of what used to be called, indelicately, 'shacking up,' and little lads and lassies are being born seemingly en masse.   More nails in Ireland's soul. 

The other boom, the economic one, is not without its drawbacks, either.  It has bred governmental corruption and malfeasance and a growing inflation, recently rising to 3.9% and expected to continue its climb.  Like the housing bubble and the baby bubble, when — not if — it really soars, bursts out,  the impact of inflation could rival the societal upheaval in Eire that the Troubles — the recent fratricidal civil war in Northern Ireland — wreaked in those six counties.

Irish myth says that the island will sink beneath the waves before the end of the world.  I don't envision that in the near future but more changes are certainly in store for this diminutive but grand isle.  It just seems to have achieved too much in too short a time period to continue such prosperity.  At the same time it seems oblivious of the negative effects of sudden riches. 

I read impressive stories such as the government sending 30 million Euros in foreign aid to Uganda.   I also read stories of immigrants being given priority in public housing over native Irish, a largesse that didn't sit well with the natives.  I read stories of child molestors like a notorious Mr. A having sentences reduced on technicalities and released into the general population.  I read stories of a young man strangling his mother when she denied him a fag [cigarette], who was not prosecuted because he had an alleged mental disability.   I passed the remark to a cab driver that Ireland is starting to look and sound like a mini—version of the United States!   I also said to him that Ireland seems to be becoming as stupid as we are.   He agreed on both counts.

But, come what may, Ireland will always be Ireland, the little island with the disproportionate influence on the world and especially on the United States.   As my uncle said, it has traded its soul, and that may be.   I expect though that some day it will re—negotiate the terms of that trade and once again become that fabled Land of Saints and Scholars.

One can always hope.
 
Gene Lalor lives on Long Island and blogs at Citizen Journal.

'Dear, dirty Dublin,' James Joyce infamously maligned the capital of his native country, Ireland and, while it's still dear in many ways, his city and his country have come a very long way.  More than a quarter century ago, inspired by Alex Haley's Roots, I decided to take my family back to this land of our own roots and finally meet the aunts, uncles and cousins I had never seen and visit the places and tourist sites I had only heard about. 

It was then still a sleepy, little country with its picturesque and quaint villages and counties.   With its thousand shades of green, due to its many fine, soft rains, with its countless pristine lakes, streams and rivers, with its tumble—down ancient castles, its peat bogs, its tiny roads where people drive on the wrong side of the road, its Blarney Stone, Ring of Kerry, Galway Bay, Cliffs of Moher, Aran Islands, it was a beautiful, simple place then.   And, Mr. Joyce, Dublin was bustling—but far from dirty.   But the Ireland of 1978 could not hide the reality that it was a benighted land. 

The Battle of the Boyne in 1690 had been a watershed and since that British victory on that July day, the fate of Ireland was sealed for centuries.  Great Britain and its agents, notably the soul—less Oliver Cromwell, systematically starved, persecuted and slaughtered the Irish.  The Penal Laws—aptly named—followed and brought more misery to the Irish people.  Then came the  Great Potato Famine, the Hunger, (1845—1850), which, combined with forced emigration decimated the population.   Three million people either died or left and Ireland wouldn't recover for a century and a half. Not until it became the Celtic Tiger, the New Emerald Isle, with a new and well—earned sense of pride.

We visited Ireland again in 2000 and 2003.   My wise and aging uncle, one of the few relatives left by then, profoundly  said in 2000, 'We've traded our soul for prosperity.'   And, indeed, a phenomenal prosperity had swept the country by then, accompanied by a sea change in Irish mores, culture, politics and outlook.  They say some things never change and outside Dublin much of the old charm of Ireland was alive and well.  

But, it was a different life and well—ness.  New cars and new housing and vastly improved infrastructure are visible everywhere.   And the Irish take delight in the fact that thousands of Britons were now crossing the Irish Sea to seek employment in Ireland, reversing the flow of humanity of the previous hundred years.  And it's not just Brits who are flocking to the Old Sod.   By the time of my most recent visit in 2006, Iranians, Nigerians, Iraqis, Cambodians, VietNamese, Chinese, people of virtually every  nationality were re—locating to Ireland seeking jobs and a better life—and  citizenship.   A puckish cousin had asked me on one of my visits, 'Now, could you tell me what an American looks like?'   I answered that we look like what an Irishman will look like—— in a few generations.

In July, 2006, Ireland was pronounced the second richest country in the world, after Japan, in terms of real estate values.  Properties which were valued at thousands of Irish pounds ten years earlier were now valued at hundreds of thousands of Euros with many in Dublin reaching a million Euros! Newspapers were declaring that in order to maintain a comfortable standard of living in Dublin a couple would need to earn upwards of 150,000 Euros annually.  As in the United States, people anticipated that the housing bubble would soon burst and when it did the thriving economy would crash and burn.  However, they hope, that would be some time in the indefinite future.

Meanwhile, despite all the good news, there's still a dark side to life in Ireland today.  The once—vaunted health system (acclaimed when the now—defunct Irish Sweepstakes financed hospitals) was now in serious trouble.  A number of people shared anecdotes about how friends and relatives had gone to emergency rooms and were kept on gurneys for more than twenty—four hours before they even saw a doctor.   In 2005, only five of fifty—four hospitals were rated by the government as hygienically 'good,' a figure that most were able to improve in 2006, but the hospitals were still woefully behind most international standards.   New hospitals are being built by the cash—flush government, but some were opening without beds!   Staffing was another problem and, though the doctors, nurses, and aides that I met seemed competent and pleasant, the facilities were clearly short—handed and their staffs had to be supplemented by foreigners, some with minimal English language skills.

Were health care the only negative in the Celtic Tiger's new culture, it would be sad enough.  There's also the baby boom.  Walk the streets of Ireland and you'll see more babies than you can shake a shamrock at!  This in and of itself would be a positive development—if not for the fact record numbers of young Irish men and women are choosing not to marry before they conceive a child.   Very—Catholic Ireland outlaws abortion, for now, but young hormones being what they are sexual intercourse is still a very popular indoor sport and Irish youths are foregoing church and ring in favor of what used to be called, indelicately, 'shacking up,' and little lads and lassies are being born seemingly en masse.   More nails in Ireland's soul. 

The other boom, the economic one, is not without its drawbacks, either.  It has bred governmental corruption and malfeasance and a growing inflation, recently rising to 3.9% and expected to continue its climb.  Like the housing bubble and the baby bubble, when — not if — it really soars, bursts out,  the impact of inflation could rival the societal upheaval in Eire that the Troubles — the recent fratricidal civil war in Northern Ireland — wreaked in those six counties.

Irish myth says that the island will sink beneath the waves before the end of the world.  I don't envision that in the near future but more changes are certainly in store for this diminutive but grand isle.  It just seems to have achieved too much in too short a time period to continue such prosperity.  At the same time it seems oblivious of the negative effects of sudden riches. 

I read impressive stories such as the government sending 30 million Euros in foreign aid to Uganda.   I also read stories of immigrants being given priority in public housing over native Irish, a largesse that didn't sit well with the natives.  I read stories of child molestors like a notorious Mr. A having sentences reduced on technicalities and released into the general population.  I read stories of a young man strangling his mother when she denied him a fag [cigarette], who was not prosecuted because he had an alleged mental disability.   I passed the remark to a cab driver that Ireland is starting to look and sound like a mini—version of the United States!   I also said to him that Ireland seems to be becoming as stupid as we are.   He agreed on both counts.

But, come what may, Ireland will always be Ireland, the little island with the disproportionate influence on the world and especially on the United States.   As my uncle said, it has traded its soul, and that may be.   I expect though that some day it will re—negotiate the terms of that trade and once again become that fabled Land of Saints and Scholars.

One can always hope.
 
Gene Lalor lives on Long Island and blogs at Citizen Journal.