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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Saturday, 3 January 2009

When Irish Eyes are Smiling

I promised a while ago to post about our trip to Dublin at the beginning of December. What follows then is a series of thoughts and reflections covering culture politics and travel journalism.

I come from Irish roots and had always wanted to go "back to the old country", but having been, I am of the opinion now that Dublin is really just a colonial British city in Eire, and, having held this status in reality in the past, it maintains it as a kind of Disney Ireland - on the one hand, catering for the discerning British stag party reveller at the weekend (thanks to Ryanair) and the discerning culturophile (not a word but can't think of a better one) and shopper during the week, and on the other hand continuing in architectural, ecclesiastical and linguistic form to celebrate its connections and disconnections with Britain.

What I mean by that rather complicated sentence (been picking Ephesians apart for tomorrow!) is that when I got to Dublin it was immediately obvious that this is a very international city - there were 5 different languages being spoken on the bus into town from the airport, and only 2 of them got off planes. Then though you start noticing on every street corner the shops selling Irish souvenirs - Guinness merchandising, rugby tops, stupid leprechaun dolls, etc. There are lots of great shops (if you can afford the euro/pound exchange) and the same number of coffee places and pubs as you would see in any British city (except maybe more pubs).

There is plenty of Irish culture to experience though much of it post-modernly - a trip round what used to be the Jameson's distillery but is now a heritage centre, and an audio-visual history of the city, featuring some pictures and some barely working touch screens (and only half open because Santa's grotto was in the other half). Irish dancing and music were similarly available but in a context more like Disney than authentic local culture. Indeed much of the city centre in terms of pubs and restaurants has turned into a giant Irish theme pub.
Don't get me wrong though, the craic was great, because even if the city has been disneyfied the people are the same, and you can get into a profound conversation with them very quickly. We did do the Irish dancing night out and I did not partake in but was amused to observe the system in that pub where there is a Guinness tap in the middle of your table which you use to help yourself, and it runs a meter so you know how much to pay at the end of the evening. You know it's tourist Ireland though when the band plays the Londonderry air and the Green Fields of France. At least they stopped short of the Fairytale of New York.

There were some frustrations - the cost of everything for a start, (but the food and wine were very nice) and the fact that the Book of Kells was not on display when we were there bcause it was being restored (D'oh). There were also some little joys, like stumbling upon a hearing aid shop just off O'Connell Street called Bona Vox, which is where Paul Hewson got the inspiration for his stage name Bono, or bumping (literally) into a statue of Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.

Five minutes later though, the statues had become rather different - OK Oscar Wilde mostly harmless, but then you got a series of people immortalised in bronze because they were shot/hanged/tortured by the British for daring to arrange rebellion and uprising.

This was the strange ambivalence - one minute there are celebrations of the past - War Memorials, regimental flags of "The Kings Own ..." type, big busts of Jonathan Swift, the next minute it's all heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising. Maybe it'd be bad for business to remove all positive references to Britain, but I do wish the city would make up its mind. I'm with old Macca when it comes to "The Irish Question", even though my Irish forebears were Quakers, not Catholics.

Dublin has two Anglican Cathedrals, St Patrick's and Christ Church, of one of which Jonathan Swift was the Dean. We visited both; one as very dark and gloomy (OK there was a power cut but even so), the other was bright and welcoming and seemed alive as a place of worship, not just a stop on the heritage trail. One was built by Freemasons, the other not [geordie voice] which one? You decide!

Overall best things; "second homeymoon", chatting to the locals
Overall biggest downer; Guinness tastes the same everywhere.

Next time we'll go back with the camper and the kids and discover the real Ireland!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tim,
    interesting to read your comments on Dublin / Disney Dublin. My question would be what is the real Ireland and what is real Irish culture? So much of what people think of as Irish culture is really created for the tourist market and playing to a cultural stereotype; Riverdance is the classic example. It is a bit like the issue of what is genuine Celtic culture.

    Shouldn't be surprised as tourism plays such a big part in the Irish economy. There was also a great deal of Irish marketing for political purposes e.g. the U.S. where people were happy for years to donate to 'the boys' and 'the cause' with a highly idealised concept of what Ireland and Irish culture is. It should be remembered that a great deal of what is identified as traditional Irish culture was revived / developed / created by the Gaelic cultural movement during the late C19th.

    I wouldn't be too hung up on the confused identity of Dublin; like most cities it reflects its history and there are bound to be conflicting signs, images and messages given such a complex past.

    Your post reminded me of some of my impressions of Jerusalem with its emblems of a colonialist past, or should I say many colonialist pasts. I don't think you can rub these things out or pretend they didn't happen. There is also the issue of Hertzl and the Zionist movement of the late C19th and I can't help wondering how many tourists have this idea of Israel and Judaism which relates to that movement (Disney Israel?) rather than the older traditions.

    We used to holiday in Donegal (my parents are from Belfast) and I think that did give me some genuine experiences of Irish life. In the early 1980s a friend (from the South) and I drove round the coast of Ireland, spending each night at a farm for bed and breakfast and visiting local villages and pubs and again I think that was a fairly authentic experience. Have to say the Guinness did taste much better and the people were very friendly. The singing pubs off the beaten track had a great atmosphere. I think your idea of taking a camper van and heading out of the city is the answer.

    There is one thing that cannot be understated about Ireland and that is the beauty of the scenery - unless they stick an Irish theme pub in the middle of Bantry Bay!
    Happy new year. Phil.

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