A trip to Dublin offers me an opportunity to visualise another self. I have had two distinct chances to move to Ireland: the first was when I was a callow intern in the Information Technology industry back in the mid 1990s. Thanks to Ireland’s burgeoning high tech economy, it seemed like a prudent place to go: the opportunity disappeared nearly at the last minute. The second time was in 2002; there was a stock images firm based in County Kerry, and it was entirely possible I could have worked for them as a Webmaster. I recall the cramped Ryanair flight from Stansted, the basic airport, a long taxi ride which cost a fistful of Euros, and the near-empty guest house in which I stayed. The landlady who tended it had short dark hair, introduced me to the glory of Irish cooked breakfasts and told me that I was “very welcome”. I believed her. One night, I went down to a pub in the centre of Tralee; as I entered, I noticed that many awards hung on its old oak panelled walls which stated that it served a top class pint of Guinness. I sat at the bar, the locals somewhat curious as to what I, a foreigner, would make of the glass of pitch black liquid with a creamy head. I brought it to my lips, sipped, and the rich and flavoursome nectar flowed over my tongue. Yes. I sat quietly, no one but the aged barkeep engaged me in conversation; it was fine, given the quality of that pint compared to it’s British counterparts, I wanted to focus my attention on what I was drinking. After I finished it, I quietly said “Thank you”; the barkeep nodded.
Afterwards, I walked back to the guest house. The sky was full of stars; there was no light pollution so even the most dim of them could be seen. As I got further away from Tralee, the few sounds of traffic dispersed: instead I heard distant waves crashing against the shore.
Someone else became their Webmaster; perhaps given what has happened to the Irish economy since that time this was a fortunate turn of events. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like had I moved. I suppose I would have found a way to insert myself into the rhythms of life there, gotten to grips with the various systems, and perhaps even eventually learned Gaelic. I’d read the Irish Times, listen to RTE Lyric FM and gone to the Gaelic Football matches.
Arriving at the age of forty is a chance to look back as well as forwards; thus my other half made an inspired choice by bringing me to Dublin for my birthday. The moment I was able to look out at Leinster’s green landscape, pick up a local newspaper, hear the almost musical cadences in the way people speak, I could almost catch sight of my other self and consider what might have been. Upon reflection, I suppose had I moved, it would have been all right, despite the current poor state of the economy. After all, St. Stephen’s Green looks just as alluring as it did the first time I came to Dublin; the seagulls, swans and pigeons in the pond still compete for visitors’ pieces of bread. Grafton Street was full of shoppers, not all of them tourists, blinking in the July sun. Brown Thomas was as resplendent as ever; the Luxury Hall had Prada iPad cases for sale. Bewley’s was still packed full of people ordering coffee and brown scones with jam. Compared to Barcelona, which I’d visited earlier this year, Dublin looked propserous: indeed, Ireland is doing better than Spain. Last week, Ireland successfully returned to the international bond markets and sold €500 million of its debt. Furthermore, Ireland’s economy is expected to grow this year despite a tough first quarter, which is in marked contrast to Spain, Portugal, Greece and even the UK. Dine at “The Winding Stair” which overlooks the River Liffey: the floors are bare and the tables are not covered in fine tablecloths, nevertheless, the chalkboard suggests exquisite wines to accompany sumptuous dinners. Such variety and sophistication gives Dublin a truly European feel; it may be more cosmopolitan than even London. It can’t just be the tourists; wealth is somehow still being generated, and Europe is still seen as the future.
But look a bit more deeply. There are many signs along Fitzwilliam Street indicating offices to rent: too many, in fact, given the pristine beauty of the 18th century buildings there. Look in the window of a residential estate agent: white stickers cover the original prices of many homes, a sign of a boom turned to desperate bust. The homeless of Dublin sleep in doorways and sit on footbridges, trying to cadge change from passers-by. South of the Liffey, I saw a destitute man wander alongside the now impotent Central Bank of Ireland’s overblown seventies-style concrete offices and adjust his ill-fitting navy blue tracksuit bottoms before running a dirty hand through his thinning brown hair. It would have been altogether poetic had he raised his fist and shaken it accusingly at the edifice.
Furthermore, at least some of the young are completely alienated. A number of lanes intersect Grafton Street: in the bright sunshine, carts selling silver jewellry predominate these alleys. I saw one young man, tall and thin, with blue eyes and blonde hair and wearing a bright green baseball cap, talking to some tourists from Spain as he wrapped up their purchases. The Spanish seemed curious, why hadn’t the Irish rebelled in the same way as their afflicted counterparts in Greece? There had been a referendum on the “Austerity Treaty”, it had passed, and that was all. Why there were no mass movements like the Spanish indignados?
The young man shrugged. “We’re too apathetic,” he said, “We just say, ‘Oh well’ and get on with it, even if everything is going down the toilet.”
He then explained his plans; he said he intends to leave the country as soon as possible. “It’s a tradition in Ireland: we bugger off the moment it gets tough.” He also pointed out, “Ireland’s greatest export is its people.”
This had benefits, he said. “Nearly everywhere there are Irish, and where they are, there will be an Irish pub. Even in the most remote desert there’s an Irishman pulling a pint.”
At that moment, I understood why Dublin has produced no less than 4 Nobel Prize winners for literature: the young man had summoned up a lucid and sentimental vision of his countrymen without even trying. I believe there is a PhD thesis waiting to be written which explores the Celtic imagination and its influence on English literature. However, what the young man said was also deeply depressing: it was clear he was bright, entreprenurial and ambitious. Ireland couldn’t sustain or contain his hopes: he was resigned to going elsewhere to achieving his goals. Meanwhile, it was difficult not to notice that many of the waiters, waitresses, hotel clerks and other customer service personnel I encountered in Dublin were of Eastern European origin. Was this because of wage differentials? Or had Irish expectations been allowed to rise so high that an adjustment downwards would be asking too much? It’s difficult to say; nevertheless, there is something odd about being shown Irish rugby shirts by a young woman whose accent is from much further east than Donnybrook, and simultaneously being aware that the nation’s best talent is fleeing out the back door.
And yet, it should be all right. Go to the Guinness Storehouse: it is an impressive, high-tech and slickly marketed attraction which caps off its exhibitions by offering a free pint to vistors at the “Gravity Bar”. The pint is as good as the one I sipped years ago in Tralee; but now my surroundings weren’t quaint or old-fashioned, rather, I had a 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin. This structure is not the product of a nation that is going to go quietly.
Also, the Irish know whom to charm and how to flatter: one night, at one of Dublin’s better restaurants, I saw an Irish-German Friendship Society dinner taking place at a set of tables opposite to mine. The Germans spoke with genuine warmth about their hosts. No doubt if asked, they would reach into their wallets and save the Irish if necessary, and indeed, they would influence those who could open their wallets wider.
The situation is aided by the fact that the Irish government seems to be one of the better ones in Europe. It’s not perfect by any means, but there is an air of competence which emanates from the Fine Gael / Labour coalition which is lacking from its counterpart across the Irish Sea. The Irish Taoiseach also seems content to keep a much lower profile than his British counterpart; this has arguably allowed him to be more successful.
What may make Irish prosperity certain, however, is their collective mindset. The taxi driver who took my other half and I back to the airport told us that “We had a big party. It’s over now. We’re now tightening our belts so that good times can come back.” Given this attitude, it’s no wonder what the markets have allowed Ireland back in while they shut the likes of Spain out. Call it fatalism or realism, Ireland knows how to endure: it looks problems squarely in the eye, it takes them on, and those who have to leave, will leave, but the door will remain open for their return.
I was happy to go back to Yorkshire, but at the same time, I cannot help but think that my other self on an alternative timeline would have been just as cheerful to remain; who knows, there may be another time in which the chance to be that person presents itself again. If so, I’d embrace it without hesitation.