Today, Ireland is not what most Americans think it is

The Argument

As St. Patrick's Day approaches, Irish-Americans should take a book-nourished look at the old country's new realities.

March 04, 2001|By Colum McCann | Colum McCann,Special to the Sun

Contemporary Ireland has undergone a seismic shift in substance and character over the last 20 years. Major highways crisscross the landscape. Satellite dishes mushroom the roofs, few of which are still thatched. The Irish middle class no longer add the half-pence to the pence -- they prefer adding the folios to the portfolios. The Church has been dealt a series of body blows (divorce, low attendance, sex scandals) that will require either death or a magnificent new spirituality to cure it. The political system has recently been riddled by high-profile financial scandals.

Among the more curious emblems of progress that I have seen in recent years was a bellied farmer sitting on his diesel-driven combine harvester, chatting animatedly on his wafer-thin cell phone.

There is nothing essentially wrong with any of this, of course. The new wealth, the rigorous exploration, the internationalism that Ireland is experiencing is long overdue. The ghosts of colonialism and the self-imposed spiritual rack have disappeared and a vibrant economy and confidence has emerged.

However, it's difficult to take a trip down memory lane when the property developers have worn down the grass verge and the traffic jams are mowing down the hedges.

Perhaps, after many years of Americans dealing with the notion of being ugly tourists, there is potentially a new species on the block -- the ugly Irishman. I confess here and now to being part of both ugly elements -- having been brought up in Ireland, I am member of the international bastard brigade, with no real fatherland or motherland. While in Ireland I long for New York and while in New York I often pine for "home." This classic emigrant schizophrenia happens to be both my curse and my joy.

Terry Eagleton, in his hilarious thorn of a book "The Truth About the Irish" (St Martin's Press, 181 pages, $19.95) says Ireland "is a modern nation but was modernized only recently, and at the moment is behaving rather like a lavatory attendant who has just won the lottery."

I would argue that part of this lavatory behavior could be a diseased self-consciousness that is becoming more apparent in recent years. The new Ireland is quite brazen. It advertises itself. It creates a new language for itself ("The Celtic Tiger" is the rather absurd nickname given to the country). Among young people there often is a deep sense of encroaching arrogance in relation to Irishness -- as if by virtue of being born within certain boundaries there is a cachet of cool.

Much of this brashness is embodied in the political shenanigans that have gone on in recent years -- the bribes, second-hand politics, the moral bankruptcy. But the brashness also filters down among the artists, the musicians, the man in the street. It is strangely ironic that America (despite its "cultural imperialism") is increasingly seen as socially and morally naive in modern Ireland. It is a great sport in Irish pubs to indulge in Yank-bashing -- not necessarily the Yank in search of his roots, but the Yank who doesn't have speed dial, the Yank who doesn't smoke Cuban cigars, the Yank who elects dubious political figures. Of course it's always nice to have an enemy. If we didn't have one we'd have to take a long hard look in the mirror.

If there is any one group that is still believed to cart the metaphorical pig to the kitchen it is the Irish-Americans, who, in Ireland, come in for a fair amount of undeserved ridicule. Part of this may be brought on by a coy sentimentality that sometimes drips through members of the community (the lepra-corny ones), but the ridicule also comes from a native Irish population somewhat insecure in its own vaulting newness. Come listen to my fridge, it can sing an aria. My new air conditioner hums like a violin. Excuse my tardiness, but my BMW is at the psychoanalyst.

I exaggerate, of course. Ireland is a beautiful country. The stars are deeper than their darknesses. Take a peek at the recent "Ireland: An Island Revealed" (Norton, 160 pages, $49.95), which is a braver attempt than most photo books to capture the beauty of an island in flux. Also, a rich intellectual and cultural history is finding acknowledgment and triumph in the wider world.

For lively and judicious overviews, readers should look at the "The Oxford Companion to Irish History" (Oxford, 620 pages, $19.95) and "The Encyclopedia of Ireland" by Ciaran Brady (Oxford, 416 pages, $39.95), which manages to succeed despite the blatantly "oirish" cover shot of a farmer guiding sheep down the road.

There is nothing intrinsically dangerous about change. Sometimes a nation must reinvent itself to ensure that its heart is still thumping. The result is a new and deeper knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

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