“This was the year in which Ireland woke up in the wrong bed with a crashing hangover…If 2002 was a head-banging cocktail of champagne promises and acid betrayal, 2003 was the sober, paranoid, stomach-plunging, pocket-pinching postscript.”
–Kathy Sheridan, _The Irish Times_
“I’m tired of the media telling me I never had it so good…tired of the culture of “me”…tired of Boston and Berlin…tired of computers and email and mobile phones and TV programmes where tall, thin people tell me what I should wear and what I should eat and where I should go on holidays.”
–Letter to _The Irish Times_
I am uncomfortable in Ireland. I pick on the place, finding irritations everywhere. The weather. The grabbiness. The foul drinking habits. Joe Bleedin’ Duffy on the radio. And my peevishness is backed up: in all Europe, Ireland has the highest cost of living, the highest spending on alcohol, and the shortest life expectancy. Street violence and gangland murders make the news every day. My friends talk about crippling mortgages and out-of-reach childcare. Volunteerism is way down. We have discovered the thrill of racism.
I have been feeding on this stuff for two weeks now, reading the articles and eliciting the complaints with the private glee of a returned Cassandra. Gone to the feckin’ dogs, the whole bloody place, is all I want to hear, because I am unable to cope with an Ireland that is thriving. My begrudgery, of course, has little to do with Ireland, and everything to do with me. I am back in my parents’ home, unemployed, broke, kicked out of North America, and waiting out an interminable divorce. So naturally, I’ve been blaming Ireland.
The country has changed vastly in the decade I’ve been gone, and I experience a strange reversal of the tall-poppy syndrome. This time it’s the returned Yank who says, who do they think they are with their mobile phones and their three-car garages? Vulgar, I sniff, like a hometown spinster looking at a Long Island engagement ring. We need to “retrieve our misplaced hearts, rescusitate our Mammon-ised Irish souls”, says the _Irish Times_. But the truth is more complicated than the grumpy newspaper articles admit. They forget, or will not allow, that Ireland is also a far kinder place than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
I learned this since I came back. No one has set the parish priest on me for my fallen woman ways, nor gloated at a high-flyer temporarily crashed. They could not be kinder, my Limerick family, friends, and neighbours, who welcome me with openhearted support and love. They are sorry my marriage failed, and they say this clearly and kindly, not in the whispers that are the Janus face of gossip. They are glad, I think, that the bold Ranger Tim makes me happy.
Contrast this with the experience of Paul Durcan, poet, described in his passionate defence of our Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who is separated, and his (now former) partner, Celia Larkin.
“I was once married myself and to a wonderful woman and we have two smashing daughers. Alas, bad luck hit us and we had to separate. It could happen to the Angel Gabriel. It could happen to you.
That was the worst time of my life–which won’t come as any surprise to Bertie or Miriam Ahern or to any of you who have had the misfortune to see your marriage go on the rocks.
These days I live alone in a cave in the Dublin docklands. But my wife, I am glad to say, has a partner. They have been together now for at least twelve years.
Myself, I would have given anything to have got married again or to have had a permanent partner but no such luck has come my way. In this intolerant country it’s not easy for a separated man or a separated woman to meet a new partner and harder still to meet a new spouse.
When I cry to God–as I do, being human–I ask forgiveness for my _un-natural_ situation. It is totally _un-natural_ and therefore, wrong for a man or woman to have to live alone and to be isolated from all intimacy.
Also, being separated, I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of badmouthing, malice, exclusion. Some of my own family treat me as a criminal or as a second-class citizen because I am separated. I have committed the crime of separation and, therefore, I am morally reprehensible and I am not entitled to first-class rights or normal courtesies.”
Paul Durcan is a generation older than me. I had left college by the time divorce was legalised, and knew only two couples who had separated. Contraception was legalised just a few years before, when AIDS forced the country to accept condoms, and Gay Byrne, our high priest, unrolled one to gasps on the _Late Late Show_. That Ireland, the country in which Paul Durcan’s marriage broke up, demanded an awful, bitter silence as the price of being left in peace. It was an abuser’s paradise then, so secretive that even children blamed themselves and kept quiet. Fifteen years ago, if an aspect of your life didn’t fit the pattern for a happily-married breeding pair, the code was simple: shut up or leave.
But we hide less now. Over kitchen tables, generations of stories spill in homemade truth and reconciliation ceremonies. One friend describes how when she was five years old her mother instructed her to pretend to granny she was four, to cover up her hidden, unplanned birth–only to discover, thirty years later, that her grandmother, too, had hidden a child, now in his sixties. Another college acquaintance, we discover, had to work as a prostitute to support her child. I know a family imprisoned for twenty years by the bizarre rituals of the mother’s untreated mental illness. Can you imagine the loneliness and grief these people bore? Yet another woman, reunited with the lovely daughter she gave up at four days old, had never in thirty years told a single person of her baby’s existence. How could she, in a country where Eileen Flynn was publicly fired from her teaching job as late as 1982 for brazening out an unmarried pregnancy? At the time there were whole religious charities dedicated to covering up pregnancies and their infant consequences.
These days more than half of Irish babies are born outside what is revealingly called wedlock, and the Taoiseach brought his radiant, unmarried partner to the White House. And out pour low-key tales of alcoholism, depression, hidden babies, closeted loves, hidden abortions, sexual abuse, prostitution, bullying, lonely separations, and violence in the home. Outed are our priests, who preached a hard, unforgiving line against these sinners while maintaining their own secret families on parish funds, or worse.
So many lives finally make sense by the light of these confessions, which are heard and passed on with genuine sympathy, as far as I can tell. “The poor woman/fella, and isn’t she/he great to get on with things,” is the general reaction to slip-ups and misfortunes, not the delighted, judgmental crowing of another time. In this great national unburdening, the only ones received with the coldness once shown to every fallen soul are the bishops and priests whose hypocrisy is now public. There is bitterness towards these men who demanded impossible moral standards they didn’t keep to themselves; a sense that they forced us to live in unnecessary darkness.
We have lost some of our charitable instincts in this grasping, brash country. The compensation is an openness and tolerance I haven’t seen before. The place drives me mad, but it humbles me, too.