“Irish Americans are often disappointed when they come here,” remarked the Scottish chatelaine of our pretty B&B on the Dingle Peninsula, as she served us our breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. “They expect to see thatched cottages with leprechauns popping out from shamrocks.”
“Played by Barry Fitzgerald or Arthur Shields?”
“Yes, and girls who look just like Maureen O’Hara in the movie . . . “
“The Quiet Man?”
“Yes, The Quiet Man. Ireland’s not like that, now. It’s quite a pushing and modern place.”
In any American discussion of Ireland, the talk turns inevitably to films and books, though it has been said that the Irish struggled hundreds of years to gain their independence, and when they got it, they were a peasant people who had no use for any literature that was not Christian and uplifting. Yeats told the Dublin audience that rabbled the cast of O’Casey’s The Plow and the Stars that the Irish people had disgraced themselves again, but in rereading O’Casey (a childhood favorite of mine), I tend to side with the mob. We saw no thatched roofs on the Dingle Peninsula, but we counted over ten on the back roads we took, driving in two days from Tralee (where we saw, just to the north, the Ardfert Cathedral with its delicate pattern of white and dark stone giving the impression of dice) over to Trim (whose half-ruined castle stood in for York in Braveheart).
The peninsula is a very beautiful place—imagine Nova Scotia littered with early Christian monuments—but like so many once-remote and wild places, it is being ruined. The omnipresent bungalows line the roads as regularly as trash cans on pick-up day in Rockford, and the town of Dingle itself is becoming a tourist center which might just as well be located next to Big Sur, on Martha’s Vineyard, or in Door County, Wisconsin. We were on Dingle in early November, when most of the B&B’s and tourist pubs were closed up for the season. Ashe’s pub and restaurant in Camp had subsided into a local hangout, and the high winds (gusting to over 60 m.p.h.) blew the turf-fire smoke down the chimney and filled the room. The girl apologized, but my jacket still smells of the peat bog—the best souvenir (apart from a few hop flowers from James Guinness’s hop garden) I took back from Ireland.
We are having breakfast on the seventh, just after Mr. Gore called Mr. Bush to tell him he had changed his mind. Our charming chatelaine, a self-described socialist, is naturally rooting for Al Gore. In Ireland, they apparently have been led to believe that Democrats are intelligent and educated people, but Republicans are ignorant rednecks. Would that it were so. If I had spent ten years watching the news on Irish One, the BBC, and Sky News and reading the Dublin press, I might have reached the same conclusion. There is, in fact, very little real difference in the point of view of journalists in Dublin, London, and New York. They share the same clichés, the same prejudices, the same blind spots. They are, as it were, Michael Kinsley writ large (though, to be honest, one does not have to use a large point size to beat Mr. Kinsley). Globalism is good, localism bad; the European Union may have its faults, but it is the best thing going; Clinton may have committed a criminal act in bombing Yugoslavia, but Mr. Bush’s “isolationism” is terrifying; Mr. Bush is the candidate of big oil, and if Mr. Gore and his father took large sums from Occidental Petroleum, that is simply what all politicians do, and if Gore’s position in Occi stock influenced the Clinton decision to prop up the military regime in Colombia, that decision is made in America’s strategic interests, etc., etc.
I don’t know how to say “etc.” in Gaelic, but if I did, I would be one up on the Irish. As my Dublin cabdriver remarked, when I asked about his obvious problem in finding the Irish word for Halloween, “Sure we study it in school, but once you’re out, it’s shag-all for the Irish.” (Perhaps I have seen too many movie previews, but I interpreted “shag” as a euphemism for the commonest word in the modern Dublin vocabulary.)
The big scandal in Dublin, trumping even former Prime Minister Charles Haughy’s corruption scandal, was l’affaire Synon, inspired by a column written by Mary Ellen Synon in the Sunday Independent, lampooning the “Paralympics.” Here in America, when Joe Bob Briggs lost his job for writing an offensively funny piece, “We Are the Weird,” the story was given a few inches in the entertainment section. Miss Synon’s entirely rational argument was front page news for several days and filled the op-ed pages and letters columns for weeks. Denounced by all right-thinking people—political leftists, liberal Catholics, her reptilian colleagues in the press—Miss Synon was treated to the ultimate indignity of having to read her editor’s public apology. Even Bertie Aherne, the Taoiseach (pronounced “tea-shock”—just say “teashop,” one journalist told me, and they’ll know what you mean), weighed in.
I know Ireland is a small country, but even a village of 500 people should have something more important to worry about than the heartrending spectacle of paraplegic gymnasts. Miss Synon was simply expressing, albeit in racy prose, her old-fashioned commitment to competitive excellence.
Miss Synon, who is a Chronicles reader (is that one source of her problems?), was wonderfully helpful to us throughout our stay in Dublin. We dined on classic Dublin fare in an Italian restaurant (with charming Indian waitresses). Before my fritto misto and bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, I did have an unusual primo—a Kilkalty black pudding washed down by a glass of Jameson’s.
The Dublin press, which speaks with virtually one voice on crippled gymnasts, is strangely divided on the E.U. Are they less than enthusiastic about all the benefits tiny Ireland is deriving from being one of the smallest states of Oceania? Far from it. But unlike their colleagues in New York and Washington, Irish journalists are reporting on the downside of globalism. Just in recent months, the E.U. has tried to clamp clown on religions instruction in Ireland’s schools, and the Irish are getting testy about losing control over their own fishing grounds: According to E.U. rides written by the major fishing nations, Irish fishermen are entitled to just seven percent offish taken in their own waters. Even the Irish potato is under siege, as the country is flooded with foreign tubers. One E.U. supporter told me rather ruefully that he had driven back from Tipperary with a sack of local potatoes—”real Irish spuds.”
For all the apparent abuses, few Irish intellectuals are willing to take up the cudgels for a “Little Ireland” policy. One sterling exception is Gerard Casey, a University College philosophy professor with an American Ph.D. Best known for his outspoken defense of Christian moral positions on abortion and divorce. Dr. Casey has also questioned the blessings of the E.U. Over lunch, he points out that Irish loyalty to Europe was understandable in the days when the union was showering the little island with development loans and investments, but now that they are being forced to pay up, they are even more loyal. Where the Irish used to describe someone, in moral terms, as a “good Catholic” or a “good Protestant,” they now express their approval by saying, “He’s a good European.”
Ireland’s new status as a province is especially evident on television. Looking for Irish news one afternoon, I found a short 5:00 program on the national Channel One, but it was in Gaelic, a language that is less known in Ireland than Spanish is in the United States. An hour later, there was an English-language program, and the lead story was the flooding in England. I might as well have been watching the BBC or Sky.
Roughly a fourth of the Republic’s small population lives in or around Dublin, and as one journalist tells me, it is more like an extended village than a metropolis. By any standard, though, Dublin is a great international city, livelier than Chicago and more amusing than London. For all the Italian restaurants and American clubs, it remains Irish enough to seem foreign. Still, we were looking forward to our drive down to Kilkenny and Cashel and then over to Kerry—to “the real Ireland,” as someone said.
Kilkenny and Cashel, among the top tourist destinations in Ireland, were not disappointing, though the experience of visiting them would be vastly improved if the people in charge of Irish antiquities could be persuaded to fire their tour guides and burn their videotapes. At Kilkenny Castle, the little girl giving the guided tour explained that Irish women in the bad old days never went outside, and they slept sitting up in their short beds because—I am not making this up—they had a superstitious fear of assuming the posture of a corpse in its grave. She is telling this little fable of the sophisticated Anglo-Irish Butlers in the skeptical age of Victoria.
My father did not like to think of himself as Irish, and from what I can calculate, he was three-fourths Scottish, though his grandfather, James Fleming, had come from Castleisland in County Kerry. I had always imagined Castleisland as a quiet little town—something like Castletown in The Quiet Man—surrounded by green, rolling hills leading, in a short walk, to the sea. The rolling hills are there, though the 20-mile walk would be long even by Irish standards, and although it was winter, they were green enough, even in the dreary cold rain, to make it seem like spring in Kerry.
Our Scottish chatelaine told us that she used to find Castleisland something of a joke. The farmers would double park their trucks in the broad main street, making it a daunting task for any outsider to pass through the eye of the needle. In the blowing rain, we poked around in two churchyards but turned up no evidence of any Fleming ever having passed this way, though there is a Dr. Fleming in the telephone book and, so I had discovered on the internet, a caravan park. Our chatelaine suggests tactfully that the Flemings were substantial, propertied people, but if they were, they probably lost everything in a card game, as one of my father’s maternal ancestors was said to have lost his holdings in a major utilities company in Chicago or as another refused to contest a large inheritance conned out of his father by a shifty Salvation Army officer who befriended him in his later years, saying, “I wouldn’t take a penny of the old b—–d’s money.”
Monks and friars take vows of poverty; my family takes to poverty more easily than to religion. Shaking his head when he found out I was going to church, the old man said that no one in our family’s history had ever displayed a spiritual side (though his own family was devout). I protested: You always told me there were bishops, even cardinals in the family.”
“Of course there were, but I never said they were religious.”
My father left the Irish-American Church in his teens and only returned to it in old age. I hear the same resentments today from educated Irishmen that I heard all the years I was growing up; but like it or not, Ireland can only be understood in Christian terms and only survived as a nation because of the Church. Yes, many of the greatest Irish rebels were Protestants or skeptics; and yes, the bishops said that hell wasn’t hot enough for Charles Stewart Parnell, when his adultery was discovered; and yes, they even discouraged the teaching of Irish as a possible obstacle to maintaining the Faith.
To find “the real Ireland,” you do not have to go all the way to places like the Dingle Peninsula, where the high crosses and church ruins stick out of the greensward like the earth’s bones. Even in Dublin, Catholics have still managed to hold the line against infanticide.
Small nations in Europe have put their confidence in the European Union, hoping to find an equal place at the table, not only with France and the United Kingdom, but also—as a particle of a great empire—with the United States. Even the Scots and the Lombards turn to Ireland as the great success story. Perhaps they are all right; perhaps they will be able to eat their Kilkalty pudding and have it, too, though wrapped in a Styrofoam take-away carton. If you are one of the 50 million people admitting to Irish ancestry, buy your ticket now, before the Irish all turn into good Europeans.