Ireland as a land has millennia of history, some of which we learned during our two-and-a-half-hour walking tour around Dublin and a trip to the Book of Kells museum today. But Ireland as an independent nation has only been around since 1922, less than a hundred years. Those contradictory aspects have instilled something of a complex among the cultural representatives we’ve met so far in Dublin—from tour guides to wait staff—who are still clearly wrestling with the dual heritage. The result, at least what we’ve seen in our two days of travels around this city, is a deep understanding of history tempered by a brutal honesty about what it means for the modern population.
To hear those people talk of their homeland is to hear the pride of hard-fought independence from England, coupled with disappointment that Northern Ireland is not part of their nation. It’s recognition, as well, of the positive things the English brought to this ancient isle, in terms of culture and technology. But it’s also acknowledgment of the hatreds that were imported that led to centuries of violence and atrocities like the famine of the 1840s.
What struck Dona and me most is the willingness of today’s Irish to confront it all. In their less than one hundred years of nation-hood, the Irish have gone from a country in which just about everyone went to mass at least once a week, to one in which the churches lay vacant and often for sale. Perhaps less than five percent of the population attends mass regularly. One monumental structure we visited had gone, in the last twenty years, from holy shrine to nightclub to restaurant and back to nightclub again. Yet this is a country that did not legalize divorce until 1996, and did not recognize homosexuality until 1993. It banned movies as tame as Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” until the 1990s, and books like Catch 22 for decades, and allowed the Magdalene Laundries, a system of church sponsored, prison-like asylums for poor single women, to exist until 1997. Even today the city is plastered with posters for a May referendum that could, if passed, end the total ban on abortion that still exists. They are still working it all out.
The rate of change is phenomenal. I suspect it has something to do with the government’s commitment to free, comprehensive, and equal education through level 3 (that’s universities, institutes of technology, and colleges of education) for all children in Ireland, which teaches the population not so much what to think, but how. Granted, it’s a lot easier to guarantee that in a country of about 15 million people, but it’s a worthy commitment.
That the Irish have such a long, and short history also helps explain something I noted yesterday, that among their heroes are many writers and artists. In fact our tour this morning stopped by statues and public displays honoring quite a few of them. I’d be hard-pressed to name similar landmarks back in the states. And I’ve yet to see a statue revering a great general or warrior, either before independence or since. Even the people who brought about the final freedom are still considered heroes by some and traitors by others. It all brought to mind a line I heard in an Australian mystery series, which seems apropos in thinking about who we choose to honor in our English-descendent countries. In the show, one character notes his disdain for another’s financial backing of a young athlete. In response, the second says, “We’re still a young country. For the next few hundred years all our heroes will either be sportsmen or clowns.” Make of that what you will.
Tonight’s dining destination was recommended by a friend. Peruke and Periwig is a bar downstairs, but a funky and eclectic restaurant above. We were one of only two parties dining this evening, which eventually led us to a great conversation with our server afterwards about other fine restaurants in the city. We had made a reservation for a place for Thursday, since we’re heading to a play, but once he heard the name he implored us to abandon what turned out to be a tourist trap (how could we have known?) and try instead one of his recommendations for real Irish fare. We’ll let you know how that, and the play, work out.