I was privy to an interesting conversation not long ago. The theme of it was a probing question as follows, "Are you a citizen of Old Dark Ireland or the New Modern Liberal Ireland?"
In the absence of clear definitions as to what either choice meant or implied, I had to listen carefully to the assumptions made in both cases. Dark old Ireland emerged as a priest-ridden country of wide-spread personal guilt for no good reason, rare stolen moments of pleasure, ignorance and fear to a back-drop of all-encompassing gray landscape. From what I could tell, there was a general consensus that this began with 1916 and ended around the turn of the century after the year 2000. If correct, then my first 44 years on this earth were spent in "Dark Old Ireland." It was generally agreed then that these were the dark times.
RTE ran a fantastic series called "Reeling in the years," featuring footage from every month of the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's. The early years were in black & white while colour began to trickle in during the later years. It was a visual documentary of this dark old Ireland set to the hit music of the times. To the sounds of 'Slade' we saw stone-throwing teenagers on the streets of Northern Ireland and a scene like that could then switch to fishermen on the Blasket islands. Every house had a coal or peat fire and smoke was everywhere. Main roads were almost empty of vehicles. Pubs were numerous and none of them offered food. The Irish Free State was still in its infancy and emigration, particularly to the UK, was rampant. There was very little employment available in dark old Ireland and with all of the resultant free time, there was little to do either. Going to the local sparse shop to buy butter or sugar could be the highlight of the day back then. "Reeling in the years," showed it all in its stark reality.
By comparison, modern liberal Ireland was a bright new world of full employment locally, an industrial revolution made up of adopted IT and the Pharmaceutical Industries. People had real money for the first time and emigration to the UK because tourist visits to that country. The expensive stranglehold of Aer Lingus on the skies in and out of here was broken by Ryanair and continental travel became a very affordable option even for the family of the tradesman. New modern homes sprang up with new modern motor cars in the driveways. The free education scheme of the previous generations spawned an educated middle-class with ambitions in that area for their own offspring. The pessimism of old gave way to a wave of optimism where everything was suddenly possible. If you could dream it, you could make it happen with hard work and application. Modern liberal Ireland became like a collective brain transplant across the Nation.
Listening in, I could relate to all of it as I had lived through it. And yet something nagged at me. The assumptions were too pat and somewhere in the analysis, something was missing. Unfortunately, I was on my way home before it hit me. It was the word liberal. Liberal comes from the latin "liber" or free man. It is defined as, "Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one's own; open to new ideas, favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms." The definition goes on to say, "In a political context, favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform: a liberal democratic state." The one that really stood out for me was, "Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one's own." Is this the case in so-called liberal Ireland?
Eight years ago, in 2008, when my son turned sixteen I was able to explain to him that I was a much more free young guy at sixteen than he now was at that age. Parents aside, there were really no other people telling me what to do or say and as others tended to mind their own business in those days, you were not told how to behave unless you went over the top. It was the sense of few restrictions that I remember most. Common sense ruled and as long as you had a modicum of that, you sailed along uninterrupted. My son't life then and even now has a long list of forbidden activities, each one supervised by busybodies. From interfering bouncers in nightclubs to nanny-style lecturers or teachers making them walk on the left side of the school corridors, there appears to be a raft of nosy adults tut-tutting him all the time. The short sharp clip around the ear has been replaced by a lengthy humiliating process called "disciplinary process." What a load on bollox!
And that's just the kids in liberal Ireland! We adults must step outside for a smoke, go home from the pub at 11.00pm and obey bad laws, as per my last article. On the roads now there are so many new laws that if stopped by the blue uniform, you are almost bound to be breaking one of them. God be with the days when a Garda actually held a meaningful conversation with you and you treated each other with mutual respect. I have a sense that in modern liberal Ireland, those in positions of authority are selling fear, life is more pressurized and stressful and people are touchy and quick to take offense. Bad old dark Ireland was populated by piss-takers and if you were stupid enough to show that you took offense, you would have been inundated with things to that would really offend you. So you gave as good as you got, laughed with everyone else and just got on with life. On rare occasions I remember that fists would fly but the idea that one of the protagonists might pull a knife was never something anyone considered possible. I went through my teens and twenties without ever needing A&E treatment after a late night on the town. That is not the case today.
It was a gentler time as far as I'm concerned. We worked as hard as they do today but for forty hours, not sixty. We socialised in the pub and by socialize, I mean we talked to each other, not to inanimate mobile phones. We swapped information, compared experiences, exchanged ideas and told stories and jokes. When you were in company you gave it your full and undivided attention, rarely wondering what was happening elsewhere at that moment. Today, people are insular and appear in fear of their lives that they are missing things everywhere else. They nervously flick through their phones, offer only soundbites or one-liners on any topic of conversation, (probably learned on the iPhone), and shoot furtive glances about without ever relaxing and laughing. There was a line in a poem I learned in my day that ran, "The wonder in every little thing when we looked at it as children." As young teens and twenty-somethings, everything was new and we were excited about tasting and trying everything life had to offer. Kids today portray a jaded palate for life's experience because they already know it all. While that irks me, my strongest emotion is pity for them. In the mad gallop to be adults they miss the fun and madness of irresponsibility and discovery, (first-hand).
There were many disadvantages of Old Dark Ireland but I would argue that in its way, it was more modern in the training we got for life and certainly far more liberal.