The LA Times article, In Ireland, Optimism is in the Air, written by Andrew McCarthy suggests that the economic crash has brought the Irish to their knees, and in their humiliation they’ve cast off their arrogant, materialistic attitudes and are returning to the days when they were hospitable and offered a warm welcome. The article also states that misery suits the Irish. The opening paragraph ends with this sentence …
And no one, I mean no one, does misery like the Irish.
Andrew McCarthy is one of America’s most gifted travel writers. I love his stuff … usually. But having just returned from this year’s tour of Ireland I find his commentary trite, and his article an impotent attempt to put a happy face on Ireland’s collapsed economy. The article glazes over the economic plight of the Irish, presenting it as something “they’re used to” … and … “as beneficial for us tourists because the Irish aren’t so full of themselves like they used to be.” It’s condescending tone wore me out toward the end.
The quotes and travel experience for this article come mostly from Dublin which is where Andrew begins and ends his journey, and has most of his conversations. He also visits Galway and the Burren. And he mentions Cong … to say that it’s postcard-ish, and it’s near Ashford Castle. Dublin does not equal Ireland any more than Baltimore equals Marion Station (look that one up). Though patrons may be pouring out of the pubs and packing the restaurants in the larger cities, the small town pubs and businesses are still struggling. These small towns are the gems of Ireland – the real Ireland – where hospitality was never forced to take a back seat to the Euro, and publicans are less likely to pontificate.
Actually, I retract that statement. I’ve never met a publican who didn’t pontificate.
Most of the Irish people I know didn’t buy several cars or purchase houses they couldn’t afford. Most of them (as Andrew quotes the Dublin publican saying) never trusted the bubble, and knew it wouldn’t last. But people who made sensible decisions are still suffering under the broken economy. Andrew’s smarmy article insults the majority of the Irish people who weren’t careless spendthrifts rushing to max out the line of credit.
Early in the article Andrew writes how he remembers the Ireland of 25 years ago. My memories concur. B&B’s accommodations were often a family home. Guests ate breakfast at the family dining room table and sat in the living room with their host family in the evening. Housing guests and providing breakfast was extra income during the tourist season for many Irish families. But this quote from the LA Times article …
Yet the very direness of the situation swung doors wide to me that might never have opened had the people’s necessity not dictated. I paid strangers just a few pounds to sleep in their spare rooms. I ate breakfast at the family table and in the evening watched the Rose of Tralee beauty contest on a black-and-white television beside a mother and father with a vested interest.
To me this reads that the “direness of the situation” forced these people to welcome him. Perhaps Andrew is letting his humor flow here, but this isn’t funny. It discredits the people who took pride in being hospitable, who genuinely gave their guests a warm welcome, even though their humble homes didn’t rival hotels for luxury and privacy. Many were entrepreneurs hoping to grow their business as opposed to being hosts that were shoving tourists into spare rooms to just to make a buck. And that nostalgic picture of old Andrew paints wouldn’t fly with today’s tourists.
To be fair, Andrew is correct that the quick onslaught of wealth shifted Irish cultural behaviors – on the surface anyway. The flow of money allowed the Irish to have more things of convenience. They upgraded their lifestyles. Who wouldn’t? As an American writer, I’d be hesitant to throw any jabs across the sea about being materialistic. I think the shift in culture, however was way more complex than arrogance brought on by materialism. Much of the shift was caused by the demands of the local and visiting patrons who didn’t want to ingest the smoke in bars or have to walk down the hall to the bathroom in a B&B. Many private B&B owners told me that when the economy was surging, they couldn’t compete without having bathrooms en suite and a separate dining room / lounge area for guests.
Visitor demands were met when B&B owners acquired the means to make improvements. Now these poor owners that reinvested in upgrades to their B&Bs are being criticized for not providing the “old hospitality.” I’ve never experienced an inhospitable B&B owner and I have met scores of them. Though B&B accommodations have become more upscale and private, the Irish hosts have continued to welcome me warmly. It’s in their nature.
Andrew seems to paint the whole nation with one wide “arrogant – now humbled” brush. And though one of Andrew’s great gifts is his wit, the sentence “Farmers put down their beloved Guinness and picked up Pinot Grigio” is not funny, and its sarcasm bites right into the Irish spirit. First of all, don’t berate Guinness. Secondly, it’s just stupid to categorize farmers as social climbing trend chasers that gave up beer for fine wine.
I will yield that Andrew’s insight on the Irish loving their misery was spot on – but he only scrapes the surface.
The Irish know how to shape misery into art that speaks to every human heart. The suffering becomes palpable in their songs, music, poetry, and stories. Yes, the oppression of 700 years, the injustice of the Great Hunger, the coffin ships, lost loved ones who were forced to emigrate, the Troubles – these are the stuff of Ireland’s artistic legacy. But misery isn’t their complete identity. They are a nation of warriors, navigators, equestrians, sailors, healers, writers, musicians, druids and saints. But perhaps the anguish in our own hearts draws us to the Irish gift for interpreting suffering. It’s easy to feel the connection. It plays on our inherent compassion to comfort those who have suffered that unbearable loss.
The Irish embrace of misery goes well beyond pub conversation and an arrogant people’s comeuppance since the crash. I’m not as well traveled as Andrew McCarthy, and as a writer, I’m probably not worthy to stand in his shadow, but I wish he’d done better by Ireland in this article because so many people read his work.
My vision of Ireland is so different from Andrew McCarthy’s, but I admit I’m not visiting just for the pub craic, the shopping, or to rub elbows at Ashford Castle. It’s what lies just below the visible surface that draws me to choose Ireland year after year. I am drawn to the enchanted land that spawned a nation of storytellers and free spirited people – people who have perfected the art of finding meaning in myth and connecting to the elemental forces in their landscape.
Swirling in that mix of landscape and people is everything I love about Ireland – simple conversation, the sacred hills, the Trad sessions in the pubs, the fairy trees, the seaside cliffs, the Irish dancing, the cairns, the holy wells, the poetry, the makeshift shrines, the spiritual devotion, the curraghs and clippers, the standing stones, the music – all the music, the passage tombs, the monastic ruins, the tea and brown bread, the endless stone walls, the holy mountains, the Connemara ponies.
But most of all I love the stories. Every Irish person I’ve ever known can tell a story. And there’s a story for every stone, every lake, every hill, every mountain. How can you not fall in love with a country with this kind of magic? And how can something so boring as a cultural shift in attitude toward wealth overshadow the intrinsic value of a country that makes us want to believe, to remember, to climb, to walk, to sing?
If the good and bad things Andrew McCarthy mentioned about Ireland were pebbles in a dish, the things I love would be like water poured over them. They encase everything. They hold it all together. The temporary stuff of boom and bust can be plucked out at any time and a new pebble tossed in. But the inherent draw of the land and legacy of the Irish people remains constant. It defines Ireland’s charism. It reason enough to visit Ireland.