Erin go Beemer is more like it

Change: Gone are smoky pubs filled with toothless gents

today's Ireland is flashier and politically uglier.

March 17, 2002|By Tom Mudd | Tom Mudd,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DUBLIN, Ireland -Cows lowing in the field, sheep cavorting on a green-clad hill, toothless old fellas laughing over pints of the black stuff in a pub where a peat fire does smoky combat with the damp chill.

Just the sort of stuff that comes to mind when you think about Ireland around St. Patrick's Day. Well, you won't find much of it here.

Not in Dublin, anyway. And you'll find less and less of it in the rest of the country, thanks to the transformation Ireland has seen in the past 10 years.

The reality of Ireland is that of a place that missed the industrial revolution altogether but made up for it in spades during the technological revolution. The shops still sell postcards showing herds of sheep under the legend "An Irish Traffic Jam." They were funny back when two cars at a red light constituted heavy traffic.

Irish traffic jams today, though, consist of endless phalanxes of gleaming new Mercedes and BMWs, with the odd Range Rover and Jeep Cherokee thrown in. In Dublin, where traffic is almost as bad as anywhere in Europe (save Athens, which is in a league of its own), it can take an hour to do a school run, even though your kid's school is just three-quarters of a mile away.

Seven years ago, when I inquired about moving here for the first time, an Irish civil servant told me bluntly, "One in every five people in this country is unemployed, so your job prospects would be limited."

For the three years since my family and I finally did move here, the talk has not been about unemployment, but about labor shortages. Even after the downturn of last year, Ireland is humming economically. Latest estimates call for 5 percent growth this year.

But it's the image of the smoky pub full of toothless gents that survives. You realize that every summer when the tour buses full of Yanks stop at Blarney Castle and the Cliffs of Moher.

Three years spent on this island have me feeling completely ambivalent about it. I love its natural beauty. I love the deft phrase I catch in the banter at a pub. I love the wonderful surprises you sometimes get when you stop at a rural watering hole.

But there are things that I hate, too.

There's the difficulty involved in accomplishing just about anything. I tried to make a few photocopies a few weeks ago, and meant to follow that up by sending the copies off to various locations in an attempt to drum up business. It took an entire afternoon. In case you're wondering, Mail Boxes Etc. has not made an appearance here yet.

There's the slavish devotion to money and celebrity, which is probably even worse here than it is in the United States. My kid watches morning cartoons that include a section on star gossip - which is usually an update on the baby-faced boy band du jour. And the people in the Beemers and the Mercs drive as though they are a law unto themselves, probably because they are. After all, most Irish millionaires have Portugal, the Caymans or Monte Carlo as their permanent domiciles so they can avoid paying taxes here.

And there's the ugliness that now and then emerges. Not too long ago, a woman at a dinner party went from talking about apparitions of the Virgin Mary to advocating a policy of refusing entry to all would-be immigrants. She wasn't joking on either count.

That last bit is what really bothers me, because I could technically be called an immigrant and because the country I came from gave refuge to millions of Irish people who would have starved if they had stayed here.

There's an election coming up here in May, and immigration is sure to play prominently in the debate. One member of parliament, Noel O'Flynn, fired the first shot a month or so ago by tarring many asylum-seekers - those seeking political asylum, along with people who are married to Irish nationals, are essentially the only legal immigrants here - as "spongers" and "wasters."

He'll probably thunder home to victory when the election is held.

That racism, though, is probably just a growing pain. After all, Ireland is only a few decades removed from the cranky isolationism that marked the first 40 or 50 years of its existence as an independent state. During that period, the country was much like Franco's Spain, minus the cruel, militaristic strain that characterized the Generalisimo's regime.

Today's Ireland is outward-looking and increasingly multicultural. Its citizens now think nothing of hopping on a plane to spend a weekend on the continent. The accents you hear during a shopping trip can be from anywhere. You can even get a pretty fair cup of cappuccino.

All those things represent a dramatic change from most of Ireland's history since it won independence from Britain. So, too, does the country's efforts on the international stage, where it now holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council. This weekend, in fact, Dublin will be almost wholly devoid of politicians, because they always spend Paddy's Day jetting around the world.

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