Tuesday, 17 March 2009
I walked my usual route through Dublin to the bus stop today, and the usually sparse streets were thick with tourists, along with merchants hawking green plastic items and a man in a giant leprechaun suit -- something you don't see on Dublin streets except today and tomorrow.
As an Irish-American now living in the old country, I have seen the Irish from both sides now. I fondly remember my family in St. Louis -- I played with and babysat my cousins and second cousins, walked to their houses after school, heard the same stories my grandparents had heard from their own grandparents, and when I became a teenager, dated a girl my second cousin set me up with.
Being Irish (-American) Catholic and feeling a bond with the people left behind in the homeland was woven into this life. We marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade every year, where my family -- as one of the great Irish families of St. Louis -- had their own section. The huddle of friendly people with a common jargon, living in the world but separate from it, was part of the tectonic geography of my world, the architecture of my childhood.
Now, as I sit in my office and tell clients around the world that I'm calling from Dublin, I sometimes hear an audible gasp on the other end of the phone, and businessmen and secretaries alike excitedly tell me where their family came from. The native Irish find this a little embarassing -- me, I know what they mean.
The image of Ireland as a mystical Brigadoon of thatch roofs and village pubs holds a unique grip on the hearts of many Americans, and while there is some fantasy in this, the affection is not necessarily bad. I find this sense of a common heritage has kept many Irish-American families together, gives middle-aged Teamsters a rare outlet to talk about the mystical, and offers a healthy and familiar model of village community that we may need in the years ahead.
Of course, Ireland is also a modern Western nation, a leader in the software industry, with gangs, drug problems, McMansions, traffic jams and wacky morning-zoo DJs, and this sometimes disappoints tourists on pilgrimage. Postcards of a rustic road blocked by sheep, with the caption "An Irish traffic jam," are sold at every corner shop even as a real traffic jam sits outside. The Irish even have a word for this -- "Oirish," which is to Irish as "Americana" is to American. The recent government handling of the bank crisis is Irish. The Quiet Man was Oirish.
St. Patrick’s Day, for example, is not the blow-out extravaganza you might think here – it is a national holiday and my village’s only annual parade, but the Dublin event is largely for tourists. The Irish have mixed feelings about Americans’ annual hodgepodge of leprechaun stereotypes, just as we might feel if Albanians honoured our country with an annual procession of cowboy hats, machine guns and surfboards.
But traditional Ireland is not a complete myth, either – in our area there are thatch cottages, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned pubs, Travellers and local age-old festivals set to Irish folk music. Riverdancing and riding are not most people's daily routine – it is more common to drive your car to the supermarket and listen to Beyonce – but they are familiar, and exist side-by-side with the new.
Our area has a thousand-year-old ruin near the Aldi, nearby Kildare has a Roman-era tower near the Starbucks, and horses clop down the cobblestone streets outside my office where I talk to clients in Japan and Singapore – and as an outsider, I am one of the few who finds this wondrous.
The mistake, I think, is in thinking these things are contradictory. When I talk to audiences about preparing for the Long Emergency – paring down spending, growing food and restoring simpler and more sustainable ways of life – some people take this to mean a complete Amish withdrawal from the world, just as they can think of the future only in terms of Futureworld or of the Zombie Apocalypse. They find it somehow hypocritical or inauthentic when someone both herds and blogs, or strings broadband through cob walls, feeds chickens but gets a CAT scan. Perhaps they can picture traditional life only as tourist displays, or as fragile backwaters that wilt when touched by the world. But an older and simpler life can go hand-in-hand with modern knowledge, and I hope we can embrace the best of both worlds in the years ahead.
Top photo: St. Patrick's Day hats courtesy of Public Domain Clip Art. Bottom photo: The Donadea Woods in County Kildare.