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Gabriel O’Malley

Romantic Ireland

Is it dead and gone, or on its way back?

By Gabriel O’Malley
December 19, 2010

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IN 1972, The New York Times ran an article chronicling the changing nature of the Irish experience in Boston. In search of all things Irish, the journalist stopped into a pub, where she found a group of Irishmen holding forth on a favorite subject: Irish-Americans. “The worst race of people you’d ever want to meet,’’ one commented after a sip of Guinness. “Ah, they ruin the Irish image. On St. Patrick’s Day they all dress in green, and as soon as it’s over they go off drinking Scotch. They don’t even know where Cork is.’’ Irish-Americans, they concluded, were obsessed with totems they considered “Irish,’’ such as shamrocks and leprechauns, that had little to do with the Ireland from which these men came.

Though I was not yet born when this conversation took place, I know it well. I recall sitting at the dinner table with my father, who emigrated from Ireland to Boston in the 1960s, and listening to him expound upon the tendency of some Irish-Americans to romanticize the Irish experience; to collapse it into caricature — jovial priests, honorable, suffering mothers, lovably loquacious fathers spending their pay in the pub while singing nationalist songs, too burdened by human frailty to aspire to anything more than noble failure, all cast against the broad backdrop of British colonization and Catholic order. Born into a land of great hatred and little room, and governed by the ghosts of martyrs, these characters abounded with preternatural pathos, creativity, warmth, and charmingly black humor.

The hollowness of the depiction drove my father mad. So, too, to the extent the caricature was grounded in truth, did some Irish-Americans’ refusal to consider the darker reality of a country, both suffocating and poor, they embraced from an ocean away. Never mind that aspects of my father could be found in the image against which he battled. He owned a bar, was literate and musical, could talk for hours on demand, and enjoyed a drink as much as the next guy. His point was still true: the Irish have never been exactly what Irish-Americans have expected them to be.

This has been especially true over the past 20 years. Few countries have changed so dramatically as Ireland during this time period. Foreign investment; low interest rates; lax regulation; excessive lending; a steady stream of eastern European immigrants to help fuel a building boom; the Catholic church, rocked by scandals, losing authority; the peace process solidifying in the north — the result was stunning. The poor, insular, heavily Catholic, emigration-wracked Ireland vanished. In its place, a peaceful, liberal, wealthy nation emerged.

A funny thing happened during this transformation. At some point, the Irish experience became so removed from that which Irish-Americans had romanticized that some began to look to the Irish less as a source of nostalgic reflection and more as a point of aspiration. Conservatives cited Ireland’s success when arguing that free trade, reduced regulation, and low taxation were the best spurs to economic growth. Liberals looked to Ireland, too. The new, decidedly more secular but still socially conscious Ireland was more progressive than the United States on certain issues concerning the environment, social welfare, and gay rights.

No matter where one stood on the political spectrum, one point became apparent: the Irish were becoming more American. SUVs began to dot Irish roads just as sheep had spread across hillsides in years gone by. Thousands of ostentatious McMansions popped up in fields that had historically housed cows, if anything at all. The Irish consumed at a rate they had never approached before; it was as if every day were Black Friday, and every store Macy’s. In fact, the Irish traveled to Macy’s in droves. By mid-decade, a new phenomenon had gripped the country: roundtrip weekend jaunts to New York City made with empty suitcases so as to maximize space for the many purchases to be made.

We know now that much of Ireland’s boom was the product of a reckless property bubble. The bust has been dramatic. In some areas, housing prices are down 50 percent from their peak; across the country, one in six homes sits empty. Unemployment, now almost 14 percent, stands at a 16-year high. Having fought for its autonomy for hundreds of years, Ireland has been forced to cede control of its finances. Last week, as required by the EU and the IMF in return for a bailout loan that could total $113 billion, the government implemented a four-year austerity plan that will result in higher taxes, billions in spending cuts, and the sacking of 25,000 government employees. With little hope for an economic recovery in the near term, the Irish are once again emigrating in search of work; 120,000 people are expected to leave in the next two years.

Ireland has changed too much in recent years to revert to its former self. Still, with its finances in shambles, it will likely step back in time as it becomes poorer, more conservative, and less stable than it has been in a generation. Which leads to this perverse conclusion: had the Irish hewed more closely to the frustratingly simple Irish-American conception of “Irishness,’’ the country would likely be better off today, financially at least. Had the church not fallen in stature, opening the door to rampant consumerism; had banks not so willingly borne risk and politicians, builders, and buyers not so eagerly imagined riches in return; had the country not so readily cast aside its culture, shaped by poverty and oppression, upon the first taste of success — had any of these things happened, a moderating force might have existed to temper Ireland’s age of excess.

Instead, paradoxically, the Irish became increasingly American. As a result, the country is headed toward a new era of austerity, conservatism, and limited autonomy — in other words, the Irish are about to become more “Irish’’ — and Irish-Americans may soon see a familiar sight across the Atlantic: a small island that inspires memories of a place gone by, where their past was born; a place of pain, hardship, and indomitable human spirit, filled with poets and paupers, that has at once grounded and inspired them in their new land, and which may only have ever existed in the reaches of the mind.

Gabriel O’Malley is a lawyer and a writer. He is also a co-owner of The Plough & Stars pub.