“A lot of people come to visit Ireland and just stay here.”— our last taxi driver in Dublin (the one to took us to our ferry to Wales).
(Letter to friends begun on a ferry from Ireland to Wales, June 9, 2019; sent from London, June 15, 2019)
We’re on a ferry from Ireland to Wales, and for the first time since we left the States I have a little time to sit and write. Ireland, and our rail tour of the country, were terrific, but intense. Dublin is a vibrant, hectic city full of young people, lots of fast-moving cars driving on the wrong side of the road and zillions of pedestrians. We walked everywhere, mostly on the main thoroughfares where the stuff we wanted to see was situated. And they were crowded. Sometimes I felt like I like needed football pads just to make our way along the sidewalk.
The rail tour was wonderful, but, again, taxing. We were on the go every day for the whole six days, and the last two days we were up at 5:30 AM after returning to our hotel at 10:30 or 11:00 PM the night before. Those early mornings barely left time to brush our teeth and be out the door. But, as I’ll describe shortly, it was worth every minute.
First the bad news. As some of you might recall, just before we left Oregon I wrote a note saying I needed to take a break from the U.S. and its sickness — a little time to heal from dealing with the Right, mass shootings, you-know-who’s mug on the front page every day and so on. No such luck!
You-know-who arrived in Britain the day after we arrived in Ireland, and his mug was definitely on the front page every day. Of course he had to make nasty remarks about Megan Markle. (He once said he would only agree to have sex with combat-veteran Prince Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, if she had an AIDS test). He met with far-right Brexit politicians and told Prime Minister Theresa May that England’s national health care system (high-quality universal coverage) would be “on the table” during any bilateral negotiations for a “terrific” trade deal between England and the U.S. (Which deal, by the way he can’t negotiate without the Senate’s approval…and May’s on her way out.) As usual for his foreign visits, Trump made a total ass of himself.
The conservative British government was careful to shield him from the mass protests against his visit taking place all over the UK and Ireland, and after running his ignorant mouth he flew off to his exclusive golf course on the Emerald Isle’s west coast. His visit there cost the Irish people 11 million Euros for security along the route to and around his golf course (and the Americans untold millions for 600 security personnel, a nuclear sub and a battleship!) — a topic we heard a lot about from the disgruntled Irish who, as far as I can tell, dislike him to a man (and woman). Then he insulted the Irish PM by inviting him to meet at his golf course. (He met him at the airport.) Melanoma, meanwhile, performed her primary function as an “I don’t care” super model dressed in a different $5K outfit every day. After playing (and no doubt cheating at) a round of golf, the two winged it back to the States where Trump made up a bunch of lies about tariffs and Mexico.
But that was the only bad news — and he’s out of our faces for the moment.
Meanwhile, Ireland is wonderful, and we will definitely return — ideally for an extended stay. Our train/bus/ferry tour took us to many of the major sites, including the Blarney Stone, which your favorite author (and his wife) kissed, ensuring his future loquaciousness; Cohb, the port from which more than a million Irish emigrated, mainly to America and Australia, to escape starvation; the wilds of Connemara; Cork; Killarney; Galway; the cliffs of Mohr; the Aran Islands (where I bought the most marvelous sweater); Belfast (briefly); and the Giant’s Causeway. (On another, one-day tour, we saw the Neolithic site of Newgrange, a ‘passage tomb” a thousand years older than Stonehenge, and the hill of Tara where the High Kings of Ireland ruled for thousands of years before the English showed up.) Our local guides (one spoke only Irish, no English, until she was a almost five) filled us in on the local lore and history, and the National Rail put us up in excellent hotels, and plied us with good breakfasts and copious shopping stops in the name of assisting the Irish economy — which we did gladly and amply (within our humble means).
So, what did we learn about Ireland?
First the place is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous — greener than green itself. Second, the people are great. Polite, helpful, kind, interesting, intelligent and well educated. (Everyone in Ireland is fluent, yes fluent, in at least two languages — English and Irish (what Americans call “Gaelic”). Third, the country is prosperous. We saw prosperity everywhere we went — clean, tidy farms all over the country (think Amish country or most of Wisconsin) with more cows and sheep than you can imagine. Healthy, happy cows and sheep, that is. They are all, by law, free-range and grass-fed. Ireland, again by law, does not import American grain — it is considered a pesticide. Despite tech development, agriculture is still Ireland’s strongest industry, and they export copious amounts of beef, sheep meat and dairy products throughout the EU. (Wool is a a major export and domestic product as well, used in Ireland for the production of many of their most popular products, including the Aran Island sweaters. I bought two, and wore one almost every evening there.) Their agriculture will get them through the coming Trump/Republican recession.
The Irish police, called “Garda” do not carry guns, billy clubs or even mace (only pepper spray). Private guns and ammo are illegal in Ireland — you’ll get $5,000 Euro fine and prison time if you are caught with a single bullet. People pay attention to the Garda (and almost always obey them) because they respect them, and the respect is mutual. The Garda are trained to defuse situations, not infuse them with violence or bias. If someone is doing something he’s not supposed to — say touching a protected monument — a Garda will say something like “Excuse me, Sir, but…” or, if the “crime” is some distance away, he or she will blow a whistle. The Garda patrol mostly on foot, sometimes on bicycles, and more rarely on motorcycles or in cars. They’re great at giving directions or otherwise being helpful, and mingle, joking and yakking, readily with the people, from whom they are distinguished only by their easily identifiable, bright yellow uniforms. The people don’t fear them — they love them, or at least like them.
As to respect, my favorite fact about contemporary Ireland is its legal protection of the rights of fairies. All around the country, but especially in the “Wild West” one can find copious numbers of fairy trees. (White Hawthornes: there is a federal department with 24 tree experts who, among other things, are trained to help people distinguish between white and black Hawthornes, so they can know which trees to protect.) In a number of instances in the West, roads were planned (by engineers in Dublin) where fairy trees were planted. But the local bulldozer drivers who, by law, are employed on road construction in their area, refused to bulldoze any of the trees and disturb the fairies. The whole business went to court. You know, of course, what would happen in the U.S. But in Ireland, the courts decided for the fairies. The road had to be rerouted, as have all subsequently poorly designed roads. Traditional Irish lore takes precedence over “progress.”
So this is the land of myths and literature: Yeats, Joyce, Hyde, Shaw, Wilde, Column, Yeats, Joyce, McCourt, Johnathan Swift, Synge, Lady Gregory, Stoker (Dracula), Yeats, Joyce, many others, Yeats, Joyce. Per capita, it is arguably the richest literally culture in the world.
It is also the home of enlightened socialism and smart investment. As in every other developed nation (except the U.S.), there is universal health care and free or very cheap education through college and graduate school. Dublin’s many public museums — archeology, modern art, classic and Irish art, etc. — are free, all the time. The museums have fine gift shops and nice little cafeterias. The Irish realize that their national parks, called National Trust sites (A) should be preserved and, (B) are a great source of income. So they develop and restore the sites, making them accessible and serviceable to the millions of people who come from all over the world to see, for example, the Cliffs of Mohr and/or Blarney Castle. This brings money into the country, lots of it, while enhancing Ireland’s reputation as a place of beauty, interest and hospitality. (Meanwhile, back in America, we are trying to close down our national parks or turn them over to a handful of ranchers who think “public land” means “their land.”)
The Irish have given tax breaks and incentives to the tech industry to attract it to Dublin, which now houses the EU headquarters of Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Linkedin and many other companies great and small. This, again, was an investment and a forward looking policy started a generation ago that has made Dublin the capital of Europe’s tech industry, directly employing about 7,000 highly skilled, highly paid workers. Ireland, unlike Brexitania, flies a neutral flag (a harp, for heaven’s sake) and will remain part of the EU — the market the tech companies want access to.
Americans who visited Ireland 20 or 30 years ago spoke of its poverty and Catholicism. Smart investment has enriched the country, and at the same time, the Church’s influence has declined considerably — abortion was legalized in Ireland last year — and religious tolerance and personal freedom seem as prevalent there as they do in the States, maybe more so. (Remember, Garda, not Cops.) Smart investment has made the Irish prosperous and stable, and it’s a pleasure to see. (Don’t be fooled by the caved-in stone houses dotting the countryside. They are national heritage sights — memorials to the Famine that are protected by law — they cannot be removed or changed. Since their walls were intentionally build to let air through, they will not blow over for a long, long time.)
There is an ancient Irish myth called the Children of Lir. As the story goes, one King Lir had four children by this first wife. She died, and his second wife, their wicked stepmother, turned them into swans but their voices, souls and yearnings remained human. They told King Lir what had happened and he had a witch make the stepmother change her curse so the children could return to their human form after 900 years (and turn the stepmother into a demon, never to be seen again).
On our first day in Dublin, we found ourselves wandering into a beautiful plaza called the Garden of Remembrance — dedicated to the heroes who struggled for Ireland’s liberation from the English. At the end of a long cruciform pool with ceramic Celtic arms on its floor (beneath two feet of clear water) there are several steps and a platform with a larger-than-life sculpture of four Swans bursting skyward and four suffering humans beneath them.
I thought there might be a connection between the story of the Children of Lir — which every Irish child hears — and Ireland’s struggle for independence. As we traveled the country, I asked guides and native Irish about the meaning of the sculpture, but no one was sure. Then, at the end of our last day on the island, as we got off our tour bus returning from Northern Ireland, I asked our guide and she confirmed that the four swans represented the Children of Lir who had suffered imprisonment for 900 years, just as the Irish people had suffered for about 900 years under British rule in its various forms before finally throwing out the oppressors in 1921. Additionally, it was the four martyrs of the 1916 Good Friday Rising that finally moved the Irish to a full scale revolutionary action — including declaring their independence and forming their own government. So the Children of Lir are a symbol of Ireland’s suffering under and eventual liberation from England — after rebellions in 1778, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1916 (the Easter Rising) and 1919-21 (fought by the original Irish Republican Army) — and that symbol is expressed in a wonderful public sculpture.
The Irish live much more closely to their revolutionary heritage than we do. There are people alive who remember the rebellion, however faintly. What British colonization meant to its Irish subjects — having their language and religion outlawed, not being allowed to own land in Ireland, being starved by the hundreds of thousands while Irish-grown food was sold abroad and so on — is not lost on the current generation. They will remember as they build a future based on literature, music, tech savvy and, most importantly, kindness and hospitality. So I finish with a poem, the winner of a national contest). I found on a plaque in the Garden of Remembrance. Its words would be well heeded by my fellow Americans in this dark hour of our own history.
|“||“We Saw A Vision”|
In the darkness of despair we saw a vision.
We lit the light of hope and it was not extinguished.
In the desert of discouragement we saw a vision.
We planted the tree of valour and it blossomed.
In the winter of bondage we saw a vision.
We melted the snow of lethargy and the river of resurrection flowed from it. We sent our vision aswim like a swan on the river. The vision became a reality. Winter became summer. Bondage became freedom and this we left to you as your inheritance.
O generations of freedom remember us, the generations of the vision.