My grandmother used to say “If Ireland was so great, we all wouldn’t have had to come over here.” Actually, Nanny had never even stepped toe in Ireland, but her parents were immigrants who had been more than happy to show the country their backs. Like most everyone else in the old sod back in the day, my great grandparents had been poor and, as Catholics, particularly oppressed.
When follow-on generations started doing the roots thing and began making trips “back”, Nanny thought we were all gone daft.
When I first went to Ireland in the early seventies, it was beautiful and welcoming, but also still poor and depressing (if no longer oppressing). And when I say that Ireland was poor and depressing, I’m not just talking no ice for your Coke, overcooked peas, and waxy toilet paper poor and depressing. There was ample evidence of poverty wherever you looked. When my college roommate and I took the boat back to England, there was social worker interviewing all the Irish young people emigrating, with little hope of getting any of them to stay.
Why stay, where there were precious few jobs to be had?
By the mid-eighties, that tide was, of course, turning. On one trip over, I was “greeted” at Shannon by all sorts of Digital and Wang signs, proudly touting their facilities in Ireland. (As I was working for Wang at the time, I didn’t really feel like I was on vacation until I got away from the airport and all those Wang blue logos.) And now, of course, you can read all about the growing affluence of the country – by some measures, the strongest economy in the EC.
Although I’m sure that there are plenty of people who’ve been left behind by Celtic Tiger success, the changes I’ve seen over the years are dramatic and impressive. Yes, they include the availability of ice, great restaurants with nary an overcooked pea in sight, and toilet paper that absorbs rather than crackles. But they also include a general sense of prosperity and confidence that was lacking when I first went to Ireland. In those days, I barely met any young people who wasn’t planning on leaving.
Ireland’s greatest export is no longer its youth; no more American Wakes for all those sons and daughters. It's a great turnaround story.
Tomorrow, I’m heading to Ireland on vacation – on what will be somewhere between my twelfth and fifteenth trip.
There is much about the new Ireland to love, not the least of which is the positive attitude of the people. (Being Irish, of course, a lot of them still don’t exactly trust their prosperity, but I’m no stranger to that particular attitude.) And I’m not one of those “it was so much more fun to visit when the entire country was poor and thatched.” But as their economy continues to grow, I hope that they’re taking a lesson from Amerikay about sprawl and shopping malls and an automobile-based economy. I hope they can keep their small towns intact, and that all those little hand-knit sweater shops aren’t replaced by Benneton’s. I heard that Bewley’s coffee shops were no more, and that’s a loss. If I want to go to Starbucks, I just have to walk around the corner. I’ll admit I usually make one stop into the Shop Street McDonald’s in Galway for an order of fries, but I hope they keep their Super Mac’s and other home-grown fast food chain-lets, too.
And I hope that their pub culture, with Guinness, chat, laughter, and music stays alive – and not just for the tourists. I love the craic agus ceol in the pubs. A few years back, my husband and I were in a pub. There was some big rugby match on, and the pub had brought in a TV for the occasion. Everyone over the age of thirty ignored the TV; everyone under the age of thirty was glued to it. Get that TV out of here, I wanted to scream. Go back before it’s too late.