Rural Ireland

by Joe Horgan (Irish Post) Sept 2004

Many, many people here have said to me that the one characteristic of rural
Ireland that has changed, that has gone, is that of neighbour calling on
neighbour. 

No one calls anymore, so they say, to talk or play cards, to sit. Now
everyone is too busy, is too tired. Has all those TV channels to watch. The
hills are full of strangers now anyway, often living in the houses of those
who never came back. That is all gone now, that invisible network that
linked people, gone and vanished, so they say.

It sounds at first hearing like a fairly trivial detail. It could also be
easy to dismiss much of this as sentimental yearning for a golden age of
community that never was and it is true that we often ignore the bleakness
of the past when we bathe in nostalgia. But so many people have said this to
me unbidden, with genuine regret, that it is hard not to give it some
credence. 

Irish rural life has changed so much so quickly that it is not surprising
that people feel some sort of, often ill-defined, sense of loss. A fabric of
life that had survived for generations, existing even through poverty and
emigration, has ironically been washed away by prosperity. 

Of course in the creation of the New Ireland this was part of the project.
That old priest ridden, farmer ridden, cow ridden country had to be
destroyed. We could not go forward at all if we had any vestige of the past
trailing behind us. So all the old links had to be cut. The old networks had
to be cut off. In instead came the concept of the suburbs and commuting and
looking out for one’s self. 

Heritage became something to be put in an interpretative centre. What
couldnít be quantified in credit or debit columns was deemed to have no
value. In many ways it is as if the values that allowed so many to emigrate
came home to roost across the country as a whole. Sometimes it is as if the
whole country emigrated in the end.

Yet people are not supposed to say this. Even those with unbroken roots in
rural Ireland are made to feel as if they cannot really complain so that
even as they say sadly how much they feel they have lost they must tell you
how much things have improved and sure now everyone has new cars and money.
And yet somehow they don’t seem very convinced. 

We all know how easy it is to mock the we were poor but happy mantras but
are people happier? Wealthier and fed more and no one wants to live in a
damp, cold cottage but happier? A recent newspaper survey suggested that
overall people were less enchanted with their lives than they were some 10
years ago so is something missing after all? Some day we are going to have
to figure out just what it was we bought when we gave up everything else and
went shopping.

I remember sometime in the late ’80s going to visit some relatives of a
friend in Dublin. They lived in a very nice house somewhere in Glasnevin
with a very nice parade of white furniture. It was the kind of place that
looked as if no one really lived in it. They were a young couple both
working and doing well and even then they had what I remember as a very
large television. Her father had just died and fittingly enough she had some
of his belongings, books and the like, stored in an outside shed.

When her husband came home, late and tired in his suit, he opened some
expensive whiskey and proceeded to inform me about the evils of
Republicanism and the great advances then being made in Dublin. I sat there
wondering where I was. I had never met Irish people like it. Smug,
self-satisfied, slightly vacuous, and cut off from anything that defined
them as Irish apart from their accents. I see now that they were like a
prototype of what was to come. A new people cut free of the shackles of the
past. Adrift in a sea of white.

The other night my brother and I went to a talk by a local author who has
written a book about the IRA leader Tom Barry. There were about a 150 people
there and it was part of a wider festival about Michael Collins. After she
had finished there were a few questions from the audience and the whole
evening was well informed, informal and humorous. 

What stood out most though was the link that still existed between those
events of 80-odd years ago and those present there that night. People knew
the individuals who had been involved, knew their families, their
homeplaces. They remembered. 

This was still an intimate Ireland that they talked about, where people knew
each other, met each other, remembered each other. Of course now our country
is one where it seems there is only a present, where the past and the old
links are to be left aside. Those grey-haired people swapping stories and
half truths about the time when the present state came into being seemed to
be reaching out of a different Ireland altogether. 

I thought for a moment of all those politicians paying yearly homage at
Bodenstown and Beal na mBlath to an Ireland they were simultaneously
demolishing.

Just as I was finishing this article a discussion came on the radio about
the Rose of Tralee contest. In general the panel said how outmoded and old
fashioned they believed it to be. Well yes it is a cheesy, outdated beauty
contest of sorts so it is hardly surprising that it has its critics. 

Yet this was not what the sophisticated voices objected most to. What really
seemed to draw their ire was that it represented the Ireland of a different
era and was a platform for all those daughters and granddaughters of émigrés
to wax lyrically about dear old Ireland. How embarrassing. The ultimate
failure of the past. You.
			 

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