Still in the Clover

If you were walking down O’Connell Street in Dublin, Ireland, during the last few days of uncharacteristically sunny weather (the kind of weather that sends postcard photographers scattering to take pictures of landmarks before the clouds close in again), you might have seen an extraordinary figure plying the pavements. Handsome in a certain way, like Flipper the talking dolphin, this man stands out from the crowds. Men sense an authority, a kind of intensity that comes only to those that have stared down death a thousand times on myriad exotic shores. Women see a tough face, hardened despite the rolls of fat by years of sheer endurance into a visage at once masterful and tender. Flashing eyes like chips of moss set beneath stormy, almost eel-like brows. A couple of perfect teeth behind the mobile lips that suggest smoldering carnality, often aloud. What makes him so irresistible? Is it the rakish angle at which he wears his hair? The erect carriage, like a Neanderthal attempting to pass for human? There is something noble about this man. All sense it. He is an ancient presence in their ancient land, or at least a presence advancing well into middle age. And were you the one he turned to for directions to a destination the name of which he has gotten completely wrong, you would have heard the gravel voice, all whiskey and cigars but with occasional breaks into a falsetto lisp, so well known in the pits of Calcutta, Rangoon, and such dark destinations. Had you responded to that voice, you would have been telling this author where to go. You wouldn’t have been the first.

It’s been sunny the last few days in the Emerald Isle. Life here is rushing towards a future that nobody, thirty years ago, imagined would ever come. Bono from U2, James Joyce, and maybe a peat speculator or two would make the Big Time, and everybody else would just keep muddling along as they had been doing the last fifteen centuries. Then the Celtic Tiger awoke, and in a bizarre mixed metaphor this animal not associated during any epoch with Northern Europe ran around shaking hands with the established industrial powers, skipping the steam & iron phase of economic powerhood and cutting straight ton the Information Age. The first blush of the tiger has passed, as Thomas Friedman might say, but it has earned its stripes. The sleepy, half-empty Dublin of a decade ago, butt of parochial jape, has become a wide-awake urb with a throbbing pulse.

Typically, this phenomenon has mostly taken the form of real estate speculation. Property prices here are similar to those of Cincinatti and other middle-American cities, unendurably inflated but somehow one imagines one could scrape together the mortgage. Dublin’s not yet London or New York, and god willing it won’t be. One reason it is still within the bounds of insanity here is because there were fields and cottages right outside town until only a few years ago, so an explosive program of suburb-building has advanced largely unopposed. Tens of thousands of mingy micromansions have sprung up in teeming rows, anchored by Tesco and other European megabrand shopping centers: exactly the sort of growth that made cities like Denver, CO, and Phoenix, AZ, the thriving metropolises they aren’t today. That’s what worries an old-timer like myself.

Ireland is ruined. You can ask any Irish person and they will tell you this, in the most optimistic and cheerful manner possible. The Olde Oireland that was good enough for Richard Harris in The Field has been overtaken by a new land, one driven by profits and the punch-clock. So how bad is it?

Don’t be silly. Ireland remains the kind of place where a quick trip on the spacious train takes one ten minutes from the heart of Dublin into rolling green pastures, tile-roofed villages, and enough sheep to put the clouds in a million Watteau landscapes. Guinness may be owned by Heineken, but it’s still Guinness. Wireless Internet and the works of Joyce do not compete for space here. There are cobblestone alleys among the tarmacadam ways. Old brown-bread Ireland is still here under the rich frosting of modern times. Why does any of it matter, anyway, besides that I’m writing this to avoid participation in the hotel-room-packing process on the way to my fiancee’s cousin Fionnuala’s home in Kilkee? That’s the main thing. Here’s the gist of my drift, then: Ireland has survived the mighty global economic boom that is now ending. The Ireland that made it through the Viking raids, the English, and a thousand years of iron Catholic domination has made it through the glittering greed-time mostly intact. Intact enough. One senses that the grass would return to overtake the parking lots of the new airport-convenient business parks in only a few years. The endless suburbs that now make all of Eastern Ireland into a kind of leprechaun version of Los Angeles will soon enough be old themselves, and softened by weather and a little healthy deferred maintenance into the kind of villages they were thrown up to imitate.

I do not presume to curse the place, damn Ireland to eternal rustication, nor demand it return to some Neolithic past where Lucky Charms and fairies and shamrocks gambol in the green pastures for my personal amusement. Ireland, like many recent economic engines to emerge from the EU, is entitled to its piece of the modern age, and it will hang on to much of it, regardless of how bad things get in the net few years for this flat-world global economy everyone’s on about. This is a chance to upgrade the infrastructure, bury some fiber optic cable and double-glaze the chillier cottages. But if things go south to the degree that the grimmer and usually correct economists suggest, not just in Ireland but around the world, it is good to be somewhere that is comfortable with a little backwater status. The Irish seem almost to yearn for those days.

My next peregrination takes me to the West Coast of Ireland, so much like California that people actually call it “The Reykjavik of Ireland”. There I’ll be in the deep countryside, elf-ridden and cow-blown, and it will be time to make the comparison between Dublin at the end of its boom years and the rural parts where the boom is merely an echo off the hills, like the refrain of Danny Boy I keep hearing echo off the back of my skull after the third Guinness of the morning.

BEN TRIPP, author of Square in the Nuts, is a hack in many mediums. He may be reached at credel@earthlink.net.

Creative commons copyright 2007 by BEN TRIPP