Myth and Hot Eire

Here's to Ireland, its myths and legends. And what better time than our national day to reconsider a few home truths and chase out any lingering mythconceptions. After all, Saint Patrick didn't even come from Ireland, but from Bretagne romaine.

As a kid the rainy parade depressed me, though I loved clutching the shamrock and trying to count three petals, yet seeing thousands.

Some illusions and myths are but harmless tall truths, born of a time when a collective inferiority complex inhabited our small, windswept island. What if the Phoenix Park is the largest (enclosed) public park in Western Europe, or Griffith Avenue the longest (tree-lined) avenue?

But others can place a damp hand on progress. Bursting these dangerous mythconceptions is part of our coming of age and forging a new identity. Irish myths are elusively buried in the ravaged stony soil and soaked in the mist. They were fed to us in our porridge and boiled spuds, through schoolbooks, and the plumes from glowing fags and chat over swilling glasses of pure still.

I remember, aged 16, trying to persuade an American lady visiting Galway that the best, most balanced newspaper in the world was the Irish Times. She nodded politely. Sounds as good as the Chipley Bugle, she probably thought.

Ireland has come a long way since the 1970s, when incomes were half those of Britain or France. Now incomes per head are in the top three or four in the OECD, up from 14th in 1998. And the population is rising anew, thanks to immigration. A Celtic big bang, indeed. This year Ireland confidently sits at the head of the European table, flushed at the cheeks with a model economy and social pact. No illusions there.

But has the Celtic Tiger aired the musty pubs and blown away the myths? Here are a few shadows where danger still lurks.

Ireland is beautiful. It surely is, though I, like many, hark from an unspectacular yet happy Dublin suburb. My room looked over a large cemetery, whose tinny bell rang from a tiny chapel in the haunting woods every day at 4. No valleys or ponies for us. Slopping around the muddy playing fields was bliss, though. The local bus was always late, so I cycled in and out of town along a trafficky windy bay. Hence the waves in my hair.

Les anglais et les irlandais, c'est pareil. When Parisian cab drivers tell me that the English and Irish are the same, I politely ask if they are Belgian. Still, they have a point. The shiny new Jervis Street Centre is full of English shops. And Guinness is effectively a London firm. Not many French shops in Dublin either, though they own our whiskey. Hardly any symbols of Celtic expression. At least there's Bewley's.

We all speak Gaeilge. I don't. I'm from Dublin, where Gaelic was never spoken. Anyway, I prefer French. But wait, there's new Ireland. From Paris, I listen to Radio na Gaeltachta, not for the language, but An Taobh Tuathail, the best contemporary music show on the Internet. Music is Ireland's modern literature. Even U2's "Bad" pulsates bodhrán-like energy.

The thick Irish. The Celtic Tiger didn't leap from the blue. Investment in education built it. We Irish are learned, by most international standards. However, spending on R&D comes to just 1% of GDP, half the ratio in France and a third of Finland's. Hardly smart preparation for tomorrow.

Irish joke. The Irish are not quite the biggest beer drinkers in the world, yet lead the field in alcohol consumption. Before, strong scalding tea was the table wine of choice. Today whole pots of shiraz are poured out at dinner. Then off for a pint. Liver-disease has struck, like a Celtic panther. Moreover, Ireland is the third biggest European market for cognac, and ninth in the world. I read that on a French export document dated 17 March 2003. Sláinte.

The Irish are everywhere. There may be pubs and paddies in every town, but not as many as legend claims. There were over a million Irish-born foreigners in the US in the 1920s, but only 150,000 today. Some 400,000 Irish people lived in Britain in 2002, some 100,000 fewer than a decade ago.

The best parade. Everyone says New York, perhaps they are right. The Dublin effort in the 1970s was a sad, rain-sodden, procession of purple knocking knees and slippery floats. It may have improved, though I wonder if it matches the virtual parade by Irish designers, Stone Twins, who, like Design Factory, Creativeinc., and others, are busy recasting Ireland's global identity for that new confident age. Even Saint Patrick might raise a (small) glass to that.


©RJ Doyle 2004 and ©Irish Eyes 2004

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