Ireland’s new spirit of gentle maturity

You can see the legacy of the Celtic Tiger years, in good roads and boarded-up shops, but something different is now abroad

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

After a healthy Irish lunch I drove blithely off through the streets of Roscrea, I think it was, to find that everywhere I went the populace was cheerfully waving at me, smiling, gesticulating or blowing horns. When I stopped to ask them why, I found that I had left on the roof of my car a wallet containing my entire worldly wealth, cash, credit cards and all. So paradoxically enjoyable was all this, so irresistibly amused and sympathetic were the bystanders, that I came to think of the event as a sort of leitmotif of my visit to Ireland.

For whatever else has happened to the Republic, through it all the populace has remained fun, quick, laughing and kind to foolish visitors. I was pottering around for a couple of weeks trying to sense the present feel of the country, and in most other ways found it impossible to escape the layered changes in the nature of Irishness that have occurred during my half-century of bemused acquaintance with the place. Only the charm of the Irish has defied time!

Not so long ago there lingered relics of the Republic’s very beginnings, the days of the Easter Rising and the terrible beauty, and I often used to come across burnt-out houses of the old Ascendancy, and sometimes living survivors too. I have met no Anglo-Irish gentry this time, but when the other day I was scoffing oysters on a waterfront in County Galway I looked up and lo, silhouetted on the skyline was the gaunt vestigial ruin of Tyrone House, burnt in 1920 along with its attendant chapel, about which John Betjeman once wrote

One extinguished family waits
A Church of England resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates….

Otherwise that lost and enviable ruling caste offered me no memorials, but so varied have been the fortunes of Ireland since its extinction that I could read the Republic’s more recent history in the very landscapes that I passed. Do you remember the days of the Celtic Tiger, back in the 1990s, when the Irish economy boomed and every other Irishman seemed to be suddenly rich? Well, half the roads I have been driving along are memorials to those heady times — the grand autostradas that span the island now, the astonishing tunnel that takes traffic bang under Dublin to its port — not to mention the clumped high-rise skyline of the capital itself, and the almost crazy proliferation of white bungalows and villas that altered half the countryside in a vast demonstration of New Richness.

But of course the tiger soon lost his claws, and Ireland, like all the rest of us, subsided into recession. The mementos and effects of the 2000s are everywhere still. In every last town there are boarded-up shops, and those perky little country establishments with the bright signs and the proud names are hard to find these days — especially the house-pubs that used to enliven so many country corners. Half the moral meaning of Irishness momentarily faded then, too, as some of the very bishops of the church were found to be less than saintly; even now the myriad churches often look drably neglected, and the priests and nuns who used to seem essential to the Irish scenario have disappeared from the stage.

But never mind, the economy is evidently on an even keel now, and if there is an altogether new feel to the times in Ireland today, it seems to me a sensation of maturity. Out of the mad glut and the sorry aftermath a proper nation has emerged, finding modern meanings and purposes, and a more balanced identity. Dublin may no longer be the dear wrinkled city that Mr Bloom knew, but it is now unmistakeably recognisable as an historic European capital. Except for occasional kerfuffles concerning the incubus Northern Ireland, and rather too much of celebrity culture and reality TV, it seems to me the Irish have found serenity in their nationhood, and their respected place, too, in the community of the world.

Even mass tourism, that blight of all our times, finds its match in the Irish character. One of the most blighting tourism traps I know inhabits the mock castle of Kylmore Abbey, beside a lake in Connemara. It was built in 1871 as a plutocrat’s mansion, and later became a Benedictine convent with a distinguished girls’ school. The school closed in 2010, and the conventual purposes of the place apparently shrivelled rather. The site remains perfectly lovely, but has become one of the great tourist destinations of western Ireland — perpetually jam-packed at holiday times, with massed car-parks and swarming shops and restaurants and shuttle buses and ice creams and selfies and tickets and all the rest of it — you know what I mean.

When I turned up there aghast, nevertheless, I discovered something more properly representative, I think, of the Ireland of our time. The Benedictines of Kylmore have clearly revived, and have built in the middle of it all an enchanting small modern chapel. When I looked in one morning (no tickets necessary) a service was in progress, gentle amid the passing hubbub — half a dozen nuns in their habits, and a presiding priest in his. Out of the swarming pleasure-crowds people dropped in, like me, in their twos and threes and families, sometimes just standing quietly there, more often kneeling to pray for a moment before retuning to the hubbub and the sundaes. I was bewitched. Forget the sinning bishops, I told myself, and thank the Irish heart!

One must not gush, but I must report that I thanked it again when on almost my last day on the island I backed my car into a pile of miscellaneous building materials in the car park of my hotel. Awful grinding, scraping and knocking noises ensued, but when I extricated myself from the muddle the assembled work force, watching my debacle, not merely gave me a laughing thumbs up, but actually clapped me Irishly on my way.

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  • Business Cat

    “I extricated myself from the muddle the assembled work force, watching my debacle, not merely gave me a laughing thumbs up, but actually clapped me Irishly on my way.”

    So the eastern european hotel staff mocked you for your inept driving…

    Born and bred irish man & I’ve never done anything “Irishly”….
    I assume the author things this means, just like anyone else, but with a flat cap & a ‘begorrah’?

    • James Xenophon

      English people seem incapable of reporting on Ireland in anything other than a patronizing way. Would the response to the wallet incident have been any different in a Scottish village or an English one?

      • Tony Dark

        Good point, still a lot of post colonial hangups about Ireland in the mainstream Brit media. It will get even worse this coming year as 1916 is commemorated.

        • James Xenophon

          The abiding impression of the Irish I get from this is of a bunch of grinning simpletons. There are two sides to that post-colonial attitude – painting the place as primitive, terrorist-sympathising and priest-ridden, and painting is a rural idyll full of simple-minded peasants. It’s the Irish version of the animalistic savage and the grinning picaninny. English people will just have to accept that Ireland has done quite well since it left the UK – in fact much better than it would have done had it stayed there. But apparently an ancient country with an ancient culture has suddenly become “mature” like Mommy Britain because it’s had a housing bubble!

          • martivickers

            Joe O’Connor, the more talented brother of Sinéad, and a long time resident of both London and Dublin put it best : “There are some among the English who have never quite been able to forgive the Irish for the terrible sin of not wanting to be like them.” I would add only that Ireland continues to be bedevilled by a small internal revisionist coterie who have the same problem.

            ‘Tis a pity, since there has rarely been two countries and neighbours so well designed, in amicable fashion, to keep each other on the straight and narrow.

          • greencoat

            True enough. There will always be a certain kind of Englishman – no matter how downtrodden himself – who likes to pat ‘Paddy’ on the head.

          • Tony Dark

            To be fair I think you are over-estimating the condescension in the piece; the condescension is a kind of reflex in feature writers of a certain age and background, and is certainly not confined to their discussions of Ireland.

        • whs1954

          The commemorations of the Rising will see far more foaming Anglophobia in Ireland than it will Hibernophobia in Britain.

          What many the peoples of ex-British colonies generally fail to see is, once given their independence, the people of Britain forgot about them entirely; it was not out of malice or greed on the part of the plain people of England that they were colonised. Once ‘the Free State’ left the Union, the British ignored them entirely and have done for nearly 100 years.

          • Maurice Snackbar

            A celebration of one of the worst thing to ever happen in Ireland.

  • Nobjocki

    Ireland is a shithole.
    Its cities,particularly Dublin,are blighted by crime and a vicious heroin problem.
    The countryside,with virtually no funds for policing,is awash with crime and the people who live there feel helpless under the onslaught of Traveller-led crime gangs.
    There is virtually no recognisable Irishness any more as the country prefers English culture,sport and television.
    And anyone with half a brain and a modicum of ambition was forced to leave the country years ago after the latest economic catastrophe at the hands of a corrupt political Establishment.
    Ireland is at the beck and call of its Troika bail-out masters and one hundred years after ridding the country of the British it now nuzzles comfortably and without protest at the teat of Frau Merkel.

    • Tony Dark

      Why don’t you tell us what you really think, stop beating around the bush.

    • oldoddjobs

      Dublin is not “blighted by crime”.

      • Maurice Snackbar

        Yes it is.

        • oldoddjobs

          Without defining what we mean, we’ll be here all day. I’m sitting in Cabinteely right now, couldn’t tell you the last time a crime was committed around here. You pick your area, and your definition of “blighted”, we might agree.

  • bobl

    Gentle maturity! For years we yearned for independence but as soon as we got it we gave it away to the EU. Now we have swallowed their smug, sanctimonious PC mantras hook, line and sinker. As a result we now bend the knee to every tinker, gangster, druggie and gimmegrant. I’m not at all sure I like this new maturity.

    • Tony Dark

      In the modern world sovereignty is always limited, unless of course you are the USA or China, especially in the era of globalisation. The EU as a whole, including the UK, bends the knee to Obama. When is the last time you saw the UK seriously go against American foreign policy, for example? And one reason for the recent flooding in dear old blighty is we follow EU rules on river dredging. Time for you to get real -very few nations, including the UK, are truly independent any more.

      • bobl

        Yes, depressing as it surely is, you have a point. But I don’t have to like it.

        • Tony Dark

          Nobody should like it, but to fight against it you first of all have to what is going on: limited sovereignty is not exclusive to Ireland, indeed it is so commonplace as to be more or less the norm.

      • James

        How about when the UK became the first founding partner, of major western powers, in the AIB?

        PS: Just because all nations cede some minor form of sovereignty, in the interests of cooperation and progress (like at the UN), there is absolutely no reason for the UK or any other nation to go diving head first into its own demise as a nation state.

    • Conor O Neill

      Its not as clean cut as you suggest. You neglect to point out the fact that membership of the EU also was the main driving force of Irish prosperity, that the many companies based in Ireland are there because of EU and Common Market membership. The Celtic Tiger had a lot to do with EU structural funds and the formation of the Single European Act and Common Market. All those fancy roads the writer talks about were begun by structural funds. Probably the greatest thing to happen in Ireland in 2015 was the Marriage Equality referendum passing. The path to that process has a lot to do with the ECJ ruling in 1988 that said that the criminalization of homosexual acts in Irish law was against the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, EU membership helped in the Northern Irish Peace process, encouraging cross-border economic integration and thus changing political preferences on both sides of the border to a more conducive look at political cooperation.

      There is a degree of loss of sovereignty with membership of the EU but it is a global issue. The concept of national sovereignty is being remoulded and eroded by events such as globalisation etc. Some competences should be brought back to national governments but overall being part of the EU has been immensely beneficial for Ireland, more so than many other countries in the EU. My country has a strong future but the main roadblocks to that are not to be found in EU institutions but in the political establishment domestically. Their bad economic policies in the first decade of the 21st century led the path to boom and bust and the loss of fiscal sovereignty with our bailout. The threats to Irish sovereignty are mostly to be found within the country and not in EU institutions.

      • Jacobi

        You only emphasise the points made by bobl.

        A “Celtic”, whatever that is, tiger economy based on hand-outs Ireland has swopped UK for another benefactor, and at a cost. At least before you believed in something, and were allowed to. Now it seems the Irish believe only in what they are required to be nice about, the UCHR, and what you have have to, the EU, for the hand outs to continue.

        I once had some respect for Ireland!

        • James Xenophon

          You should probably read a history book if you think the UK was any sort of benefactor to Ireland. The UK treated Ireland and its population with contempt.

          EU structural funds were marginal in the economic success of Ireland. If they were so important then how come Wales is still an impoverished backwater when it got similar subsidies? You could say the same about other areas of the UK and Europe that received huge EU structural fund payments.

          Ireland’s economic success came from two places primarily. Firstly, the Industrial Development Authority was highly successful in attracting foreign investment in Ireland by multinationals. Secondly, low taxation encouraged companies to set up in Ireland and to invest there. In essence, Ireland tried to turn itself into the Singapore of Europe, and succeeded to some extent. It had little to with the EU, other than the obvious benefits of being in the common market, and diddly squat to do with the UK. In fact, if Ireland were still in the UK it would probably be an economic basket case like Wales and Northern Ireland.

          • Jacobi

            I have read many history books and absorbed them.
            The Ireland makes indifferent cheese and no doubt has a good USA/IOrish tourist industry. process of aIreland

          • James Xenophon

            Well tourists always find poverty characterful. I’ll gladly give up character for having a higher standard of living. Ireland has been a net contributor to the EU every year since its foundation, and has recently subsidized British, German and French banks to the tune of billions.

          • Jacobi

            Oh and I forgot you still have a droll sense of humour. Quite helpful in y7our circumstances.

  • Tony Dark

    Not a bad piece at all. True to the spirit of the place.

  • Peter Hulse

    After reading the introduction to the description of Kylmore Abbey, I feel Jan Morris should be introduced to the useful, but surprisingly rare, word “ochlothanasia” (the process whe4reby a beautiful place is spoiled by looking at it).

  • Migru Ghee

    Been there, done that. No wonder the religious foundations of Western civilisation are collapsing when even House of Horrors newcomer Christopher Lee, may he rest in peace, quoted Sanskrit in the Sixties. With regards to education of the masses I feel like we are taking a few steps back rather than forward..

    • oldoddjobs

      Are you still doing that unfunny “I’m a 9 year old, me” thing?

      • Migru Ghee

        You trident deniers don’t scare me.

  • How wish I could contact Ms. Morris to let her know how much I appreciate her works

  • Paddy S

    Modern Ireland (and I am Irish) is a pagan nihilistic crime infested wasteland. It has so many problems right now I don’t know where to begin. But I must say the above article is nonsense.

    • Maurice Snackbar

      As a fellow Irishman I must agree.
      Ireland has no soul now.

      I’m no fan of the Catholic Church but when Ireland stepped out from under it’s thumb there was nothing to replace it and the country found itself without morality.

      • James Xenophon

        If you thought the industrialized rape of minors was moral, then I just don’t know what to say to you.

        • Maurice Snackbar

          When did I ever say such a thing?
          Did you even read my earlier post?

          • James Xenophon

            Yes. You’re an apologist for child rape. You disgust me.