Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Irish eyes: not so smiling, these days

My husband and I had been talking about a trip to Northern Ireland next September.

Although we've been to Ireland a dozen or so times, most recently in 2006, we've never been to the North - largely because I've been reluctant to travel to any "I" country - Ireland, Israel, India, Iran, Iraq - where we could get our heads blown off.

But the peace initiative seemed to have been working, and The Troubles seemed to have been a thing o' the past. And we'd been reading good things about Belfast and Derry - enough to make a trip there seem worthwhile.

Then two British soldiers were killed by members of a renegade, splinter group of the IRA, a group which styles itself as the Real IRA. The soldiers were at the gates of their army base, meeting a pizza delivery man.

A few days later a police officer - a Catholic, by the way - was gunned down, with the glory claimed by another IRA splinter organization.

(The actual IRA is now a respectable political party.)

In February, a bomb was found near a primary school - reportedly destined not for the primary school, but for a British army base.

Over the weekend, there were riots in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, after police arrest several men in the murder of the soldiers

The good news is that the violence seems to have united many (though clearly not all) the citizens of Northern Ireland, with Protestants and Catholics, unionists and "one Ireland" uniters alike, joining together in large protests against the Ireland.

Still, we are putting off any plans to visit Northern Ireland until we're sure that things have calmed down.

Meanwhile, to the south, the economy of the Republic of Ireland - which has been roaring over the past decade or so - seems to have fallen off the Cliffs of Moher: unemployment is nearing 10%, the construction boom has completely fizzledimage, and the Irish banks are in complete disarray. The big joke is "What's the difference between Iceland and Ireland? One letter." But nobody's laughing.

And Ireland, which had become home to a raft of Eastern Europeans - last time we were there, most of the waiters and bartenders we spoke with were Polish or Czech - is experiencing out-migration of its EU workers. I don't know about the other migrant groups: last trip, we went through a town outside Galway with a population that was one-quarter Brazilian. And in Galway itself there were many Africans.

Nothing new about out-migration from Ireland, of course. For generations, Ireland's greatest export was its young. But the fact that Ireland had become a destination for immigrants was a matter of no small pride. (It was also a matter of some concern with respect to the decline of their culture, to a non-trivial suspicion of "outsiders" taking jobs and soaking up welfare, and all the old familiar notions associated with immigrants. Nothing new for us, but something out of the ordinary for the Irish.)

The Irish can be a pessimistic lot, so the implosion of their economy will come as no small surprise to many, as they'd never trusted it at all, at all to begin with. And for the Irish of a certain age - probably anyone over thirty-five or so - well, they were used to having a lot less. In fact, they were used to having to leave their own country if they wanted a lot  - or even a little - more than what they could find for themselves at home.

One of the most depressing scenes I ever witnessed took place on the boat from Dun Laoghaire, outside Dublin, over to Holyhead in Wales. This was the pre-Ryanair way that the Irish got over to England. The time was the early seventies, and I was on my first trip to Ireland, which was an early stop on an extended European adventure with my college roommate.

While we were waiting for the boat to leave the dock, we watched as a middle aged woman, wearing an armband identifying her has a social worker, went around interviewing all of the young people on the boat to determine if they were leaving Ireland, and why. The "why", of course, was that the economic opportunities in Manchester, Birmingham, and London were a lot better than they were in Dublin, Cork, and Galway.

The social worker didn't bother with us: we were obviously American, with our nice new backpacks and parkas. She did speak to a fellow we'd been hanging out with. He wasn't Irish - he was from New Foundland - but his parents had immigrated to Canada from Ireland, and he had more or less gone native during his time in Ireland. Rick was the one who told us what the woman doing the interviewing was after.

Fast forward a dozen years, and I remember being saddened by the job boards at Trinity College and University College Galway - all bursting with jobs somewhere else.

And then, miraculously, the Irish economy turned around: high tech, call centers, EU money, whatever. Suddenly there were Benetton shops around every corner, SUV's clogging the newly constructed highways, and suburban malls replacing the town-center shops.

Who was an American to complain about Ireland on the Move?

I remember a cab driving proudly pointing out a new mall going up outside town, and me thinking 'be careful what you wish for.'

As I said, Irish folks of a certain age are used to economic struggle, to doing without, to making do, in a way that few Americans are. Nonetheless, I'm sure that their current troubles are no more welcome as the flowers in May than our economic turmoil is to us.

Still, it's St. Patrick's Day, and we should all be doing a bit of  the old celebrating.

So Happy St. Paddy's Day to all. (As we used to say - and actually believed - growing up in Worcester: there are only two kinds of people on God's green earth: those who are Irish, and those who wish they were.)

Here's to a great day for the Irish, even if it isn't much of a year.

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St. Patrick's Day - 2008

St. Patrick's Day - 2007

4 comments:

Premium T. said...

Great post. I, for one, will be happy to see a slowdown in the strip-mall development in Ireland.

K. said...

Check with a travel agent and the Nothern Ireland Tourist Board, but my guess is that you can go to the North without fear. The violence is still way down from its peak, and even then it was consigned to paarticular neighborhoods.

Having said that, I was in Schull -- in the extreme southwest of the Republic -- one week during marching season. It was full of Catholics and Protestants from the North who wanted to get geographically as far away as they could without actually leaving the island. Of course, this was before the peace treaty and the IRA disarming.

If you haven't been to Donegal, go there. It's Ulster but still the Republic.

Anonymous said...

I was born in Boston (still live here) but my family is from Connemara. I go to Ireland at least once a year. I've travelled to 28 of the counties, and I've been to the north of Ireland many times between 1977 and 2007. I was on the Dublin-Belfast trains when they were being bombed by the paramilitaries in the 70's and I've been stuck at checkpoints in the 80's. I can tell you from personal experience that saying that you won't go to the North because of the violence is like saying you won't go to Boston because there are shootings in Roxbury. (I live in Jamaica Plain) My 16 year old daughter spent her summer up in the North lst year. She went several times into Belfast. No problems. I've been all along the Antrim Coast- stunning. You are missing out. The big rage in golfing circles now is to head up the north as the southern courses are full of Yanks and/or too expensive. If you don't hurry you'll be competing with all those tour busses full of purple haired ladies!

Maureen Rogers said...

Thanks for the note. We are actively looking at Belfast-Derry for next fall or spring. The "problem" for us is no direct flights from Boston, so we're trying to figure out the best way to get there (which is always driven by where we have frequent flyer miles!).