I can recommend a few days in Ireland to reset your clock: geographically, politically, economically and culturally. For those hazy about geography, Ireland is on the northwest edge of Europe. Clouds traversing the ocean from America absorb Atlantic moisture, dumping it at first landfall; hence Ireland’s rainy climate and its reputation as The Emerald Isle. I’m here for two weeks holiday, flying Dulles to Dublin with the son I live near in Virginia. He’s bound for England on business.
Arriving at Dublin’s beautiful modern airport (built just before the financial collapse of 2008) one appreciates how the 1990’s engendered a sense of boom and prosperity. Wholly committed to Europe, embracing the Euro (while Britain did not), they received generous loans and grants from the then prosperous European Community which were invested to good effect in infrastructure. It used to take five hours to drive from Limerick to Dublin on country roads; now it takes two. The motorway beckons proudly from Dublin in the east to Cork on the south west coast, a city of many delights with its vibrant port and markets, sea food, smart restaurants, elegant hotels and history. The route crosses swathes of beautiful countryside: small hedged grassy emerald fields and farms, herds of healthy looking cattle on lush grass. Milk from Irish cows, full cream, fresh and delicious, lifts excellent espresso coffee to latte fit to rival any I’ve tasted across the European Continent, Australia, South America or the United States.
Reset your time clock first. Ireland is five hours ahead of east coast US and life is at a more tranquil pace. At once vibrant commercially (dubbed during the 90’s ”the IT capital of Europe”) and an agricultural economy, the Irish have a capacity to change gear, relaxing after work. Perhaps because the density of population is low, perhaps having an innate sense of balance when it comes to work and play, it seems to this English observer as if generations raised in sweet air, good humour and naturally laid back in temperament, are aware we pass this way but once and while we’re here, sure it’s good to be alive.
Old fashioned towns with new by-passes, small cottages and thousands of modern bungalows, mostly painted cream, nestle in tidy gardens. Green turf, spring flowers, fresh air and huge white clouds billow across blue sky. Sporadic sunshine illuminates, clouding over and re-emerging with benevolence. Spring is late after an exceptionally cold, wet winter. Daffodils still bloom, tulips finally emerge and it’s already officially the first day of summer. Leaves on the trees are a few weeks later than those in my Virginia garden following our similarly cold season.
In its exuberance Ireland over reached itself, particularly in speculation on house building; this enthusiasm contributed strongly to the economic crash. Today thousands of developments stand empty as house prices have dropped 50% and unemployment has disabled buyers. You can’t rent ‘em, you can’t sell ‘em; it will take years to recuperate. Prices across the board are noticeably more realistic from a decade ago when elegant Dublin restaurants with their excellent menus charged prices that took my breath away. Most of those lively young people with Irish roots who returned in the boom times to a strong economy, have moved reluctantly abroad again to better opportunities. There’s little doubt that given a chance to earn their living in a buoyant economy, most would rather do so in this country. East Europeans are arriving in Ireland where the grass is greener.
Gas costs over $6 a gallon (sold here by the litre). Shops with inviting wares delight visitors. No Kohl’s or Wal-Mart here. Individual businesses and original products entice the happy shopper. I snap a butcher’s window on my iPad, a green grocer’s, a fresh fish stall with mouth-watering displays.
Culinary standards are high in Ireland, making it an essential stop on any gourmet’s world tour. We enjoy family lunch on Sunday in the Abbey Hotel’s carvery, roast beef as you like it. The pubs are often scruffy and casual, full of character, but the draft beer and Guinness are superb; the company’s friendly, the atmosphere convivial. On a Wednesday night at ten o’clock the band turns up and sits around a table in the bar: an apparently staid old woman playing the fiddle, a middle aged guy with a lap drum and percussion bones (cow ribs a-clatter, played like spoons), another old feller on a guitar and the clarinet played by the priest who says Mass on Sundays. They play vibrant jigs and haunting Irish melodies. Everybody knows everybody else apart from one American tourist happily perched on a stool by the bar, enjoying the scene, and myself. An old guy on another stool keeps staring at me. Perhaps he is puzzled by a new face among so many familiar ones. For a brief moment I recall what it felt like to be looked at like that and I glow, then recall my age (which I don’t feel in Ireland, it’s not an ageist society) and I say to Kate, “These days when a man winks at me I know he suffers from a nervous tick.” Laughter comes easily in that setting.
Live Irish music happens everywhere, not least in Kate’s family of ten brothers and two sisters. Only one sister lives abroad. The O’Connors are all musical, sing in harmony, play the keyboard, guitars, flutes, penny whistles and the piano. There are more than forty cousins and gatherings occur at every opportunity: an occasion for craic over wine and endless pots of tea. Mostly teachers, with a diplomat, a few businessmen and two nurses, they are an industrious, harmonious, attractive family who have taken my son Patrick to their hearts.
This year in Ireland the government promotes “ The Gathering”, a movement encouraging everyone with Irish roots to come on vacation to boost tourism. Kate’s maternal family expects fourteen Americans to join over a hundred relations in August with others from UK. My far-flung family gathers anywhere, whenever possible, so we slip happily into the spirit of this initiative. Kate caters serenely and competently for her family of six plus six visitors over a long weekend. Dight Family members have flown in from UK, the Isle of Man and Virginia to spend a few happy days reconnecting. Our spirits are high. We tuck into Kate’s stew of Beef and Pickled Walnuts in Guinness, Fish Chowder, Hake with parsley sauce and roasted vegetables, rib-eye steaks with mushroom sauce, a savoury buffet for twelve and spectacular desserts. Patrick makes a chocolate baked Alaska, and a Swiss roll filled with cream. “Where did you learn to make that?” I ask him and to my surprise he answers, “You taught me when I was a kid, it was my speciality.” My sons cooked enthusiastically from the age of two, grew up just knowing how to do it. Our social life invariably gathers around a table. I emailed a picture of myself with the three sons present, to a friend in Virginia, who responded, “How did a small woman like you manage to produce such large sons?” (The tallest is 6’ 4”.) I replied, “It must have been something they ate.” \
Beside the motorway are billboards announcing “Visit Moneygall, the Ancestral Home of President Obama.” I think it was his great grandfather who left this village for America. A distant cousin of Barack’s wrote to remind him of the connection. In anticipation of his visit the local council put in a new road and gave grants to its 300 inhabitants to paint their houses. On YouTube I watched Barack and Michelle emerging from a modest motorcade, shaking hands freely with the locals lined deeply on both sides, before entering the pub packed by invitation only with his local associates. (See President Obama visits Moneygall on Youtube.com). He drank draft Guinness, lingering twice as long as scheduled, enjoying the welcome that comes naturally to the Irish. What the locals treasure is the memory that he shook hands with every person in the packed bar. Patrick drove me through Moneygall. Flags still fly in the street. I snapped the painted houses and the pub. The President’s visit elevated the village to special status, bringing a measure of prosperity to the town as others come to take a look.
People who work hard during the day relax the minute they stop, changing gear to be with their children, meet friends in the pub or follow their sport of choice. Their eyes sparkle telling a joke, asking about life in America, or enthusing about Ireland’s disproportionate contribution to the All Nations rugby team. My granddaughter practises hurling against the garden wall after school, while the boys kick a ball. I watch my son emerge from his office (he works from home) after an intense day as IT director of a manufacturing company, go straight to the garden to kick ball with his sons, play a board game with them, supervise homework, or hear about their day with total engagement.
His oldest brother Peter (50), here from UK for a long weekend, cooks prosciutto palmiers with his niece. They potter happily in the kitchen while we chat. Pete peels the potatoes for dinner. While we are in Dublin for the day on business, Peter paints an old glasshouse wall in the garden, due to be demolished, with a life-sized apple tree on green background. He does this surreptitiously and his wife Angela times the reactions of family members when they come home from school and work, to see how soon they notice. I come second with 4.5 minutes. The whole weekend, celebrated with visitors, leaves us all filled with laughter.
Patrick went horse riding with his daughter when she was younger. Now he’s coaching Emer (15) and two of her young brothers in fencing. Ten years ago he was the Irish Fencing Champion and I have a silver trophy brooch to prove it. After a break of ten years to concentrate on his young family, Patrick is back with enthusiasm shared by Emer, tall and shapely in her fencing outfit. On Sunday they go to University College Dublin, to watch Patrick fencing for Ireland in the Four Nations Veterans’ Tournament (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales). In his class (foil) Ireland is beating Scotland by one point in the final minute, but Scotland scores at the very last moment and takes first place. Ireland wins this exciting tournament overall. It was grand so.
Politically, several hot potatoes currently toss from one government hand to another. Top of the agenda is the economy. In Europe two respected professors of economics drew up a model suggesting austerity as the means of steadying economies, reducing national debts by cutting expenditure wherever possible. This model was embraced by politicians and economists with resultant slowdown on a scale not yet experienced in the States. An undergraduate tried to reproduce their model and found it impossible. He asked the professors for more details: they sent him their calculations. Within an hour he spotted an error in the model, overturning the argument for austerity. Now there’s hot debate in several European countries. Austerity has produced dismal consequences. The proposal to spend one’s way out of recession gathers momentum, echoing J.M. Keynes’ conclusion in the 1930’s. This directly reflects the debate in America about sequestration versus funding schemes to raise employment levels, lifting the country to a new plane in terms of infrastructure (new train systems, better roads and bridges and environmental reform). In theory this will reduce unemployment and when better times arrive as the global economy recovers, a country will be better poised to flourish. Politicians advocating the reduction of debt for their grandchildren’s sake, need also to consider their offspring’s environmental inheritance. Alas, it seems politically expedient to embrace one and ignore the other.
It’s easier to appreciate the economic trials of European countries from Ireland than in America. While Americans and the British wince about 7.9% unemployed, in Ireland it is 14%. In France unemployment is at an all time high with gloomy expectations until 2015. Youth unemployment in France is now at a record 25.7%. Over 50’s are hardest hit.
In Spain the unemployment rate is unprecedented at 27%. Amongst youths it is 57%. One can only speculate about the effect on society of so many jobless young people failing to launch their lives successfully. In Greece and Cyprus conditions are even worse.
Meanwhile the German economy grows faster than expected, having suffered less than other countries by better management of the banks and the economy. Now there’s resentment in France against Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing her of selfish policies. Germany loaned money to many countries and is not thanked for it. The European Union has brought peace to Europe for sixty years, which one fears might now be threatened by unrest.
Ireland’s other hot topic is the Abortion debate being addressed here for the first time. In a country where formerly no birth control methods were available, Irish women have long taken the boat to the UK to resolve these dilemmas. There have been unnecessary deaths of mothers due to abortion restrictions. Now the European Commission has urged the Irish government to establish legal parameters. The topic is discussed at length on the radio and in the press. Unfortunately the standard of discussion on radio, emotive and extreme, leaves much to be desired. Discussion in The Irish Times quality newspaper is more measured. The Catholic Church holds its traditional line. Both sides of the debate are aired with vehemence and prejudice. It’s proposed that a woman with suicidal ideation be granted an abortion if she can find three doctors to support it unanimously (at first they proposed six). Women who undergo “illegal” abortions will be subject to prosecution. What would be a suitable sentence for that offense, I wonder?
Despite being aware of these troubling issues, I’m here for a holiday. Kate spoils me like a queen. She puts a lively gin and tonic beside my chair each evening with ice and lemon. A registered nurse who gave it up to be full time mother of four, she cares for us all with generosity and her sweet nature. This is R&R writ large.
I enjoy simply being with those I love, chatting and pottering, recharging our emotional batteries before the next separation. I feel rich to mother this extended but close family, albeit strung around the globe in England, Ireland, Virginia, Arizona and Australia. I email pictures from my iPad for absent sons and their families to enjoy the Gathering vicariously. It’s rare for three sons and me to be together and we share it.
I feel so at home in my Irish family. God willing, I’ll be back again next year.