I recently spent 3 fabulous weeks in Ireland with some good friends – new and old. (If you are just here to see some sweet pictures from my latest trip, then scroll down to the gallery part). It was probably my 7th trip there in the decade that has passed since my first impromptu immigration to Ireland. This near-mythical island fascinates me with its resilient culture, at home and abroad. Between 9 and 10 million people have emigrated from Ireland since the 1700’s, and today the Irish People and their descendants count more than 80 million humans. This post is an introduction into the migration-happy Ireland that i have come to know and love.
Fáilte go hÉirinn – Welcome to Ireland!
Early Irish Impressions
When I was 20 years old, I was living in England’s “San Francisco” – the lively seaside town of Brighton – where young back packers and middle-aged party-addicts spontaneously get stuck until they run out of money or mental health.
I ran out of both after about a year of odd-jobs and shoestring-debauchery – but what a year it was! This was my first bit of proper impromptu migration, traveling alone and with nothing but opportunity and adventure ahead of me. Here I made friends from around the world, and one such friend was the Irishman Joe (Great Mystery rest his soul).
Joe was my first impression of the uniquely witty and warm soul of the Irish people. He could sum up any given situation with a hilarious one-liner, drink everybody under the table and charm off the pants of whoever was still standing. I was later to find out that (although Joe was particularly talented) these were all perfectly normal Irish personality traits.
Strangers Are Welcome
Three years onward and I was back in Denmark, facing another gloomy winter, when Joe rang me with a job opportunity at a hotel just south of Dublin. 2 weeks later I was the newest Night Porter in the idyllic Glen O’ the Downs, sharing a staff house with workers from places like Ukraine and India.
The Celtic Tiger (Ireland’s economic boom) was roaring at its loudest and I found myself to be one out of literally hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. Most were from Eastern Europe, with a reputed quarter million Polish among us.
We came to earn a few bucks while learning English and at the same time enjoying the hospitality of the Irish. If you didn’t drink in your home country, you sure did by the time you had been introduced to their public living rooms – the pubs. They have a kind of informal reverence for The Pub, like a mirror institution for The Church, put in the world to even out the score between Heaven and Hell.
Leave The Tree Or Die Trying
Yet, there really are some deep and serious furrows in the ancient Irish face, plowed with brutality by the Church and the English. I quickly learned not to joke too hard about their colonial history for example, but it seems that ridiculing the church and its priests is akin to a national sport. Joking is, anyway, a favorite pastime in Ireland.
Perhaps most foreigners don’t realize it, but Ireland was only recently still an oppressed nation and a battlefield. The official recognition and declaration of the Republic of Ireland didn’t actually happen until 1949.
The fact that every Irish family tree has many overseas branches and can regularly present lost limbs, bears testament to the persecution and subsequent emigration that was largely caused by the English occupation. During the horrendous Potato Famine in the 1840’s about a million Irish died and another million simply left the country.
The U.S. obviously received lots of Irish immigrants (more than 5 million!) and they famously dominated the American police force. In Canada, the Irish settlers generally favored the East and became the redheaded, funny-speaking ‘Newfies’ of Newfoundland. The Irish also made up a substantial portion of the convicts that the English transported to the ‘fatal shore’ of Sydney, Australia in 1788.
To this day, both Australia and New Zealand have strong Irish cultural influences, but also less obvious countries like Argentina, Bermuda and Mexico have significant populations of Irish descendants. And did you know that there were Irish slaves in the Caribbean, prior to the arrival of African Slaves?
Turning Tide For Travelers
Inspired by Joe, ever the wanderer, I did a fair bit of hitch-hiking during my trips to Ireland and, as always, it gave me a first hand experience of the everyday living in the country. At first, I was always picked up by locals, but over my next many visits, more and more foreigners were picking me up instead.
There seemed to be a growing sense of paranoia and suspicion as more and more strangers moved into otherwise homogeneous Irish neighborhoods. A few times I even heard foreigners complain about all the “feckin” foreigners that kept coming!
Then the so-called Global Financial Crisis was orchestrated around 2008, and the Irish economy took a massive hit. Multinational companies quickly left the shit-pile they had helped create and regular folks who had been duped into taking out ridiculous loans were now slaves to their banks, who in turn received massive injections of government funds, as a ‘thank you’ for their greedy and ruthless ways. Go figure.
The sinking ship left a maelstrom of unemployment and, of course, emigration. My Irish friends told me of abandoned cars in airport parking lots, ghost-like construction sites and families struggling to make ends meet.
The first to leave were – you guessed it – the foreign workers. Then came the Irish youth who again filled the footsteps of their ancestors and went overseas to try their luck. From my time in Australia & New Zealand, I can tell you that a whole lot of Irish went Down Under as their economy bottomed up. The waves of migration are, once again, carrying the Irish out into the world. Better start pulling that pint.
A Tiger In The Mirror
But what happened back in Ireland? From my point of view it appeared that, as much as they were facing a national crisis, they were also facing themselves. For a few heady years, many of them had lunged at financial opportunity in a ‘me-first’ state of mind.
The reports I had received from my Irish mates had given me the impression that Ireland was forgetting its eye-level solidarity, born out of centuries of ‘in it together’ against the English. Everywhere you looked there were flashy cars and designer shopping bags. Cocaine was fast becoming the drug of choice and legislation was all about liability.
In short; Lady Eire was yuppie’d up, but now that the party was over, there were all kinds of financial and moral hangovers to be had. The New Rich became yesterday’s fools and regular Irish households suffered massive blows to their budgets too. Yet, my friends told me that, despite the high unemployment rates and general austerity, people were coming together now. The media reflected a growing public discontent with the authorities and communities got tighter.
Especially the banks and their gold-fingered executives are at the receiving end of the people’s wrath but also the government that had bailed out the banks are being targeted. It seems a different kind of tiger has been woken up – one that might soon bite the hand of those who (used to) feed it!
NB: Presently, the Irish government is facing a very determined and indignant Irish public in their attempt to privatize the public water supply and install water-meters in all houses. At this point, the police are escorting the water board’s technicians but thousands of regular people still won’t let them near their water pipes. For this, they are being arrested and fined. But beyond being angry, many of them have little choice as they won’t be able to afford their potential water bills – said to be several hundred Euro a year, with potential (read: very likely) annual increases.
Time For A Holiday!
This was all going on when I was recently in Ireland, but I must admit that I had my mind elsewhere. As you can see from the pictures in the gallery below, I was quite the holiday-maker, and very happily so for once. My great friend and traveling companion, Sarah, and I had the great fortune of having a house to ourselves and also going on a road trip almost all around the country. I hope you enjoy these snapshots from our Irish vacation 🙂