Despite Dublin’s busy streets, Dublin still has a country-town atmosphere, and the visitor has a definite sense of being just a little behind the times. Part of the reason for this ambiance is that Dublin is a very small capital city. There are only a million or so people living in the whole Greater Dublin region. One is always close to open countryside. Indeed, from any part of Dublin, one can see the mountains that bound the city to the south. But there are plenty of other day-to-day reminders of the bucolic hinterland.
Children from blighted inner-city estates keep horses as pets and graze them beneath the tower blocks. In the vast Phoenix Park, right in the center of town, elegant fallow deer graze, oblivious to commuters’ cars and the official motorcades to and from the President’s residence, the American ambassador’s residence, and the Papal Nunciature. Grubby caravans inhabited by feckless, coarse-looking tinkers, who claim to be descended from the Irishmen expelled from Drogheda by Cromwell, crop up in even the most genteel suburbs. In these same suburbs, there are strange isolated fields where there should be houses, and dolmens in otherwise well-ordered back gardens. Haggard women sell sprays of heather in the streets. People still speak in local accents. The street names are written in Irish as well as English. There are virtually no obvious immigrants (who may well be deterred by a vague idea that Ireland is in a state of constant civil war), and the Catholic churches can still muster up large congregations.
It is likewise impossible to escape noticing relics of Ireland’s painful, glorious past. Behind one of Dublin’s two Protestant Cathedrals, artists have limned bronze outlines on the pavement of the Viking artifacts found on that spot and in that position, just as they were dropped or lost by Dublin’s founders. In St. Michan’s church, where Edmund Burke was baptized, one can even touch the strangely well-preserved corpses of medieval Dubliners. There are plenty of signs of Queen Anne and the Georges, when Dublin was the second city of the Empire. Swift was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and is buried there near Stella. His annotated copy of Clarendon’s History of the Scotch Rebellion (“Thoroughly un-Scotifyed” is one of his approving comments) is still to be seen in the library founded by an enlightened Archbishop in 1701. Dublin is full of magnificent Georgian terraces, and there are wonderful individual buildings, like Sir William Chambers’ Casino at Marino, a small but faultless delight in the grounds of a school surrounded by housing estates. There are many memorials to national heroes, the largest of which is Glasnevin Cemetery, where Daniel O’Connell, C.S. Parnell, and others are interred. The cemetery is full of Celtic crosses and even a fake round tower, the dead heroes deliberately linked to powerful icons of “ould Ireland,” and thus themselves forming a part of the nativist’s landscape. Both concepts, of country and countryside, are consciously united in the paintings of the 1930’s artist Sean Keating, with clear-eyed Aran Islands fishermen and strong-sinewed crofters staring into the Celtic sunrise.
Everywhere one goes in the countryside, one sees the roofless medieval churches, round towers, and carved Celtic crosses that are so characteristic of Ireland. The dramatically situated monastic city of Glendalough, the Romanesque doorway at remote Clonfert, the worn pilgrim’s causeway at Clonmacnoise, the surreal Apostles on the High Cross at Moone, the lavabo at Mellifont, the delicate carvings in the arcades at Jerpoint, the Butler tomb in Kilkenny Cathedral, Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel with its centaur ornamentation â€”wherever one goes there are constant reminders of the days when Irish scholars kept alight a small flame of learning in a Europe sunk in post-Roman darkness. So important was the Irish contribution to the cause of Europe that a recent book is entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization. The title is only mildly hyperbolic. There are still plenty of signs of the pre-Christians, whose secret sites and symbols were often suddenly transmuted into Christian shrines and emblems, like the eerie, obviously pagan Janus figure that has stood since time immemorial in a dank churchyard on an island in Lough Erne, the similarities in symbolism serving to unite the pre- and post-Christian Irish experiences in an incremental, organic whole.
With all of this evidence of former glories, with the survival of rural virtues, and with Northern Ireland exerting its disquieting influence, it is not surprising that the Irish still think of themselves as a nation (although they are overly fond of their lucrative servitude to the European Union). But nationalism is largely a left-wing cause in Ireland. It is all too easy for nationalists to see commonalties between themselves and Third World liberation movements, and to view the Irish situation “in context,” as part of a global struggle against colonialism, imperialism, “the Establishment,” patriarchy, “homophobia,” racism, and so forth. In fact, Ireland is generally short of right-of-center institutions. Except for one business-oriented Sunday newspaper, there are no right-of-center newspapers save for the Irish Catholic, with a circulation of around 28,000. There is no sizable right-of-center political party, except for the Progressive Democrats, with about five percent of the vote and several TDs (the Republic has a proportional representation system), whose conservatism is mostly about the free market. The reason that there is no conservative party, according to David Quinn, editor of the Irish Catholic, is that the Church has historically filled this role. However, Gerard Casey, lecturer in psychology at University College, Dublin, believes that there is scope for a genuinely conservative party, and his Christian Solidarity Party is preparing itself for the next local elections.
Dublin is a little like London in the 1960’s, with young, well-educated people everywhere, and a general feeling of liberation and prosperity. The adverse effects of the decline of Ireland’s puritanical form of Catholicism have not yet begun to show themselves, and the national feeling will long delay and for longer ameliorate social decay. It is certainly the case that most Irish people are innately conservative, not to mention individualistic and essentially metaphysical. Generally ill-equipped for the amoral, antiseptic, nonjudgmental, highly regulated society that many would like to see come to pass, the Irish do not naturally incline to the liberal model of society. But nor did the British, and unless new publications and institutions arise to codify and direct this sound instinct and reinforce the nationalist sentiment which is Ireland’s single biggest social asset, it is possible that in 30 years or so Dubliners might find themselves living in a miniature version of London.
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