Why We Went Home
In the past decade, Ireland was on the Pig’s Back. For the previous century and a half there had been a constant flow of emigration. Then with the new millennium came the Celtic Tiger economy. From all over the world people flocked to the small island for work and a better quality of life and the emigrants returned. Ironically, while it was awash with money, the quality of life diminished because the nation lost its soul. Now Ireland is one of the Pigs of Europe, along with Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, a poor country in big trouble, with abandoned buildings, high unemployment, decreased wages and lost pensions.
Again, there is mass emigration. The modern exodus is eased with convenient air travel and new technology, but still it is heart breaking. The Irish Times newspaper has a regular ‘Generation Emigration’ series for which, recently, emigrants home for Christmas were asked to post their thoughts about the Ireland they found on their return. This is what “Eamon McL” wrote:
“Depressing, cold, dark, miserable, expensive, wet, nanny state, taxed to death, deprived of hope, no inspiration or leadership present, second rate education system, rampant begrudgery, repressed sexuality, cute hoorism, snobbery, dishonesty, victim complexes, woe is me’ism, sheep mentality, gossiping, delusional (sure aren’t the Irish great – the world loves us?) self indulgent, alcoholic, bad breath, upstart jobsworths everywhere…”
We went back to Ireland in early December for the filming of the “Other Voices” music television series in Dingle, County Kerry – an annual pilgrimage. In Dublin en route, we overnighted in Bewley’s Hotel in Ballsbridge, where we’ve stayed before, during the Celtic Tiger era. Albeit convenient it used to be expensive for what it offered, a bit conveyor-beltish, and though the building itself is old and pleasing, the rooms felt as thought their change-over was rushed. The staff – then newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe – used to cautious Eastern European ways, were cold and almost mute as they had so little English, and were so terrified by the casual, vociferous Irish.
This time round, the hotel was relaxed, comfortable, affordable and friendly. The staff had settled in and settled down and were welcoming and smiling. Our room looked out over the parade ground of the Royal Dublin Society, where for generations horses have paced and raced and laced ladies graced the ring. Breakfast was generous – hot, (the ‘fullirish’) fresh and part of a package which included parking – in the huge downstairs dining room which used to be O’Connell’s restaurant. Because we always enjoyed the food and ambiance of O’Connells, we had gone to its new location (the old Madigan’s pub in Donnybrook) the night before for a meal.
One does not suffer future-shock in O’Connells. Its décor is similar to that of the former Bewleys brasserie, but the ghosts of the old pub were still visible; the intelligentsia, the politicos, the sharks, the creative and the good talkers, the cunning and the ambitious, the self-important of Dublin. It was to there the staff of RTE (the national television broadcaster down the road in Montrose) would decamp and encamp. The guilty (such as I) can still summon the aura, the miasma, of time and opportunities and talents and emotions wasted, stolen, scattered on the froth of pints, the dregs of whiskeys.
The restaurant is still called ‘O’Connells’ after its owner Tom (brother of the more famous Darina.) The international staff, Eastern and Southern European, is efficient, friendly and talkative (now with a noticeable Dublin accent) and by dint of an influx of Italians, even charming and flirtatious. The food, as usual, is excellent, fresh, varied and affordable. The restaurant was very buzzy and busy, but the clientele relaxed, with older women dining together, families of three generations and office parties. The up-tight business people dining alone, the couples anxious to make an impression, were not as much in evidence as they used to be. Himself, disappointed with the amount of pumpkin in his starter, mentioned it en passant to a wait person. Within minutes, the maitre d, Tom O’Connell arrived to discuss the dish, take notes and make assurances that he’d tweak the ingredients to fulfill the menu description.
Parking in Dublin is still outrageously expensive – almost on a par with Sydney in Australia, where last year we paid $30 an hour – so after breakfast we left the car at the hotel, walked out the gate and immediately got a bus into town, hopping a bus back out later on to collect the car and baggage safely stowed therein.
We met friends, ate lunch and shopped. Himself had a business meeting and was amazed by the undercurrent of enterprise, of innovation, of ideas and opportunities being harnessed through endeavour, expertise, dogged hard-work and the tolerance and common-sense borne of experience, running quietly beneath the doom and gloom.
The sojourn in Dublin was so enjoyable we decided to spend Christmas in Ireland. It was as though the country we had fled partially a decade ago and from which we’d sold-up within the past five years had found itself again…..a bit frayed at the edges, but kinder, easier on itself and others, more honest and even contented despite the economic hardships. We had left as when our mothers died the focus of family shifted, and because we didn’t like the brash new Celtic Tiger Ireland. The country had lost the run of itself, becoming intolerant, judgmental, status-focused and money-obsessed, with false values, false expectations and false demands.
Somewhat by virtue of global warming and its location on the West coast of Europe where it acts as the weather filter for mainland Europe, Ireland can still be depressing, cold, dark and wet. Its citizens are indeed being taxed to death for the sins of the Tigers, and the sadness of the unemployed, the two thirds of all young mortgage holders who are now in negative equity, is palpable. But Ireland is finding itself again, even finding its warmth, sense of humour and creative talents and can, and will, emerge from the ruins, the abandonment, the way it was led astray, because the nation is stronger than those guilty of its ruination (mainly political) who force-fed a golden goose and then promised and pre-sold far too many golden eggs, which never hatched.