Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The five best things about Ireland

Literacy. I have a long bus commute from the country to Dublin every day, and every sleepy morning I am refreshed to see so many people of all classes on the bus, many reading books. One person the other day was reading Bill Bryson, one person Noam Chomsky, a few reading romance novels, but to each their own – they are reading.

Absence of fundamentalism. Ireland remains a religious country: all public schools are Catholic schools, and abortion is illegal. But religion has a distinctly different flavour here. Some people are pious Catholics, some pious Protestants or minority religions, many are not religious, but everyone seems to casually accept the presence of the churches as part of the community. Religion is not Amway here; there are no sales pitches, no opposition to teaching children science, and no one knocks on your door to convert you.

The voting system. In the USA there are two very similar parties that leave most voters dissatisfied. Presidential votes are filtered through the ridiculous Electoral College system, but even if Americans chose their president via popular vote, candidates would still campaign in a few swing states, and as much as 90 percent of the population does not count.

Ireland’s system allows for multiple choices – there are two major parties, four minor parties and many independent candidates. First, Irish voters rank their top choices for office, and if no candidates has enough first-choice votes, people’s second choices are taken into account. Secondly, more than one candidate wins in each area – if a county sends three representatives to the government, it sends the candidates who received the first-, second- and third-most votes out of, say, six choices.

There is one statistic that says it all: in Ireland, most people vote, believing that their vote makes a difference. In the USA, most people don’t vote, responding in polls that their vote makes no difference.

The news. In my native United States, the nightly news is a bizarre ritual that counts down the day’s brutal crimes and sensational tabloid fodder, followed by celebrity marriages and sports. Political news can be delivered in different flavours – comically dull or in-your-face screaming – but always within the same narrow range defined by the two similar parties. There is very little news of the other 94 percent of the world – just the occasional scene of violence, a message that “fighting broke out,” and a general or think-tank expert telling us what we should think.

Irish news is far from ideal, but its domestic news often focuses on basic stuff that American news never talks about: How the sewers are working, or how the farmers’ crops are doing this year. Political commentary often offers several opinions: the two major parties, the Greens, their version of Libertarians, and people affected by the issue. Much of the news focuses on the rest of the world, and when there is a newsworthy event in a Third-World country, commentators here are likely to talk to the actual Third-Worlders themselves. News programmes here also get by just fine without any CGI-graphics or Wagnerian Super-Bowl soundtrack.

The presence of the past. Ruins are everywhere here, from medieval churches to Roman-era towers to ancient monoliths. Older ways of life are still practiced here in some circles, and while most people’s lives are not very different than Americans, I pass thatched houses, cob walls and horse-drawn carriages almost every day.

I could name many smaller advantages. The price of something is what you pay – sales tax is included in the listed price. ATM fees are illegal here – you take 20 euros out of the machine, you are charged 20 euros and no more. Fields are separated not by chain-link fences but by natural hedgerows that yield many wild foods and maintain themselves.

There are, of course, many disadvantages to living in Ireland: the constant chill and drizzle, the eighteen-hour winter nights, the ubiquitous smoking, the high tolerance for alcoholism, the casual approval of gambling, the inveterate littering, and the lack of public concern for petty teenaged crime.

If there is one thing I could take from America and import, though, it would be this: A sense that someone else’s problems are also yours. Americans are more likely to smile at you from behind the counter, give you directions, and talk to strangers. Here people mind their own business – a bit more than I wish they would.


Cecelia said...

was in Ireland in the late 70's - cycling, got a killer flat. Irish gent coming down the road - cart pulled by horse - horse knew the way - so the gent - older man - dressed in a woolen cap, vest and knickers - was reading. He stops - loads my bicycle and is going to take me to the farm we are staying on. I see that he is reading a book by Chinua Achebe. Irish farmer - quaint as can be - reading an African Nobel Prize winner. Yeah - the Irish are a literate people.

Robin said...

I love your insights into Ireland and the differences. That is one thing I've always loved about travel or being in other places, you can not only see the things done differently (who knew there were so many different ways to build a toilet or a light switch?) but appreciate some of the things that other cultures have that your own does not, and also come to appreciate the things in your own culture that may be missing elsewhere.

On literacy, one thing I absolutely love about the city I live in is that it's one of the most literate in America. My fellow Eugeneans check out more books per capita than anywhere else in the USA and for a town of 100,000 people, our library handles over 10,000 items going in and out per day!

Denise Sallee said...

Brian - I, too, am an American living in Ireland - North Leitrim, the Wild and Woolly West! I have to say that your last comment - about the shopkeepers' lack of friendliness has never been my experience in any part of Ireland. I am always dealt with in an open and friendly manner. I have always felt welcomed here. I think that is why I moved here - it felt home the very first trip!