Poor, Banished Children? Not in Today’s Ireland

DUBLIN-Just over a decade ago, an American tourist in Ireland could expect to be treated in the manner of a ward boss making his rounds through Hell’s Kitchen 100 years ago. Bedraggled supplicants with sad tales and grim expressions would inquire about the availability of jobs in New York or Boston and the best methods of dealing with the heartless bureaucrats who administered the rules of immigration.

Now, however, an American is more likely to be asked about the quality of cellular phone service in the States or the price of real estate in Manhattan, strictly for comparison’s sake. There are more cell-phone users strolling along a tiny, 18th-century lane here than there are in most of Manhattan’s finer eating establishments on a Saturday night. Even the most mundane apartments now carry the dreaded “luxury” label in order to facilitate the separation of client from disposable income. The other day, a developer put 14 new homes priced at a million punts (about $1.4 million) on the market; four hours later, all 14 were sold for asking price to couples in their 30’s.

From Angela’s ashes has risen if not quite an economic giant at least a confident and affluent society that has been changed utterly by a genuine peace dividend, by wise political investments in education and infrastructure and by financial assistance from the European Union. Immigrants who fled the country’s economic catastrophes of the 1980’s are returning-a stunning reversal of this small nation’s traditional role as an exporter of people. Even more remarkably, Ireland has become a place for other immigrants and exiles, as is obvious from the presence of Africans and other distinctly non-Celtic peoples who lately have taken up residence.

While poverty and injustice have hardly been banished, Ireland’s canon of misery and deprivation now reads like so much ancient history. A government official told me that there’s a six-month waiting list for a new Mercedes, and a three-month wait for a BMW. Some impatient conspicuous consumers have chosen the sport-utility-vehicle method of ostentatious display, this in a nation where gasoline costs about $4 a gallon. The fumes of freshly printed money clearly have damaged a few Irish brains.

This new, young, confident and avowedly secular face of Ireland is not yet available at your local pop culture outlet. For the time being, the stories you see, on Broadway or at the multiplex, or read will continue to be of vanishing Ireland, repressed, miserable, impoverished and rural. The new Ireland is invisible, perhaps because it challenges so many stereotypes.

The requirements of scholarship and research have brought me here, and in the course of 12-hour days in various libraries, I have held in my hands some of the artifacts of old Ireland. But the dogged pursuit of truth surely cannot be confined to library reading rooms, and so I have had little choice but to schedule nightly appointments with new Ireland, whose members at least have enough respect for tradition that they meet in places their elders would recognize in an instant.

Two young Irish writers named Eamon Delaney and John Kelly-their work no doubt will be coming to a superstore near you some time soon-served as my guides to a Dublin that can best be labeled for what it is no longer: It is post-Roddy Doyle, the wonderful chronicler of poor North Dublin; it is post-Catholic, the Church having lost its credibility in a series of sex scandals; and it is post-nationalist, for the new Irish have embraced the idea of Europeanism after less than a century of independence from Britain.

After engaging in what the Irish-American writer Jack Holland defines as the true spirit of literary criticism (Writer A to Writer B: “Oh, I love your work!” Writer B to Writer A: “And I love yours, too!”), I pointed out to my companions a caption from the day’s newspapers that summed up, in a sentence, all that had changed since my first visit here in 1985. The picture showed a middle-aged woman greeting an older woman in what was clearly some formal ceremony: The middle-aged woman was identified, matter-of-factly, as the Prime Minister’s partner, Celia Larkin. The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, consorts with a woman who is not his wife. His marriage is over, although he is not formally divorced. Which means, of course, that technically he still is married.

Now, if this carrying-on were taking place in France, America’s liberals would be rhapsodizing (as they did when François Mitterrand was making a public show of his virility) about the country’s sophistication and maturity. Whatever the merits of such a judgment, the fact remains that the Irish tolerate what America, and perhaps even Britain, would not. Mr. Delaney and Mr. Kelly pointed out that an even more telling photograph appeared some time ago, showing one of Ireland’s highest-ranking Catholic clergymen shaking hands with the Prime Minister and his partner.

This is a changed country. And maybe somebody will notice, one of these days.