What is Ireland?
Larry Stranahan of Spokane, Washington, reflects on a first visit to Ireland, and looks for the real culture left in the wake of the "Celtic Tiger."
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I opened the door to a packed Dublin Pub and slid sideways into a momentary opening at the bar. “Smi-icks", I cried. A red haired bonnie lass assured me a pint was forthcoming.
Smithwicks is an amber ale, the most popular in Ireland. Its smoothness made it understandably so. Eagerly, I swigged the nectar, slaking the thirst of an inaugural day of sightseeing - castles and churches, sheep and rocks - everywhere rocks. In my first day of travels, I found Ireland to be a harsh land with a passionate people; a people who, honed by a history of foreign rule, savor song and conversation and relish the simple pleasures of life.
The Old Pipes
I looked around to spy a young minstrel, unpacking his uilleann (Irish Bagpipe) and readying to play for the Pub crowd. A lanky fair skinned black haired lad, he warmed up with a pint of Guinness as he charmed the ladies while fitting the reed to his instrument. He was joined by two young women; one a blond violinist and the other a saucy flautist. The group played Irish ballads for two hours with panache and heart rendering passion. I was especially moved by their rendition of “The Fields of Athenry" as the locals all hoisted their glasses and joined in the chorus.
Afterwards, I sat in deep reflection. Was this an authentic Irish experience? What exactly was the image of Ireland I sought? Was it the legacy of invasion and foreign rule - a perpetual fight for independence? Or, the indigenous spiritual conflict, illustrated by the Nation’s green, orange and white flag – the white an attempt to unite the Catholic and Protestant factions as one? Was it the birthplace of the Titanic, or the hardship of the potato famine (by the way, I never saw a potato in my travels - that wasn’t on my plate)? Was it the craftsmanship of Waterford crystal or the delicacy of Belleek china?
Shamrock & A Kiss?
Was I searching for emerald fields covered with sheep or a St Patrick’s Day type raucous celebration? Was I hoping to find a shamrock or kiss the Blarney stone? Did I expect to hear “Danny Boy" or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" crooning from every street corner and pub? Or was Craic (the Irish art of conversation) a goal of my trip? I pondered……… What is this wonderful place – this Ireland? Perhaps my initial perceptions were no more an authentic representation of Ireland than the 49er gold rush or the wild-west gunfights are of the present day United States.
Ultimately, after 9 days, what I found was all I had wondered – and more. Ireland is a modern dynamic growing country. New construction is rampant. The “Celtic Tiger" economy has boosted housing costs to an average of $350,000 with salaries to match. Tourists immediately notice the prices (the 2nd highest cost of living in Europe) and the national focus on tourism. With virtually no natural resources except for its people, the wealth of Ireland lies in its history. The Irish covet those willing to pay to experience their land and many there are. Since 1850 it is estimated half of all those born in Ireland have immigrated and many of those with Irish roots are now returning to experience their heritage. The young native Irish, both men and women (Ireland has a woman President) often work in high tech firms like Intel or Microsoft. Replete with laptops and cell phones they would blend in anywhere in the Western world - except for their brogue!
Smoking, Junk & Teeth
Three enigmas however, did catch my eye. First, many people (many of them young adults) smoke, but not indoors (due to a recent new law). They can be seen standing in doorways during work breaks, at lunch and in the evenings puffing on a cigarette. Second, recycling containers are varied and plentiful yet the streams and roadsides are strewn with debris. (No evidence of Adopt a Stream or Ecology Youth Corps programs there!) And third, all the people have medical care but few have dental care. Many older people suffer noticeably from tooth decay – sharing rugged smiles through gaps in jagged teeth.
So, what is this place; this place called Ireland? My search for an answer came to an end far too soon. In my short stay
I found the people friendly, the scenery magnificent and the history fascinating. However, in the final analysis, what most deeply touched my soul were the Irish ballads; the tales of Ireland told musically, uniting the present with the past, manifesting the spirit of the Irish people. As one of those Americans with Irish ancestry, I will be eternally bonded to the Irish, their history and their culture, by their music; their beautiful, heart rendering, passionate music. It is the story of their country told in song which will always beckon me back.
Plus, I will always be ready to return for another Smi-icks!
About Larry Stranahan
I am a veteran high school Biology teacher in Spokane, Washington
who travels as often as possible and writes stories regularly.
I recently traveled to Ireland for the first time.
In the early 1800 there were three Stranahan brothers
who immigrated to the United States from Ireland from whom I am descended. I intend to return again to more thoroughly investigate my Irish roots.