Struggles Bring Changes for Modern Ireland
The Tampa Tribune, Sunday, September 23, 2007
Author: MARK HOLAN
It’s not my grandparents’ Ireland anymore.
My mother’s parents were each born in north County Kerry in the late 1890s and sailed to America three years before the 1916 Easter Rising and independence from England several years later.
I was granted Irish citizenship through my grandparents in 1997. Since then, my visits to relatives in this verdant homeland have coincided with successful peace talks in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland’s booming economy, known as the Celtic Tiger.
Such positive developments have often come with unwelcome side effects.
It’s easy to follow Ireland’s modernization on the Internet, but there’s nothing like reading the national newspapers and talking things over with the locals. Among the top news stories this summer:
Britain ended Operation Banner, the military deployment it began in Northern Ireland in 1969 as minority Catholics demonstrated for civil rights in the Protestant-dominated province of Ulster, which remains part of the United Kingdom.
A decade of paramilitary ceasefires and tough political negotiations appear to have ended the so-called “troubles.” Today, a firebrand Protestant minister and former IRA man have entered a power-sharing government independent of London.
The peace dividend means more investment in Northern Ireland from the United States and the European Union, including the Republic of Ireland, which includes 26 of the island’s 32 counties.
Even positive changes can create new problems.
Pilots, crew and other business interests near Shannon Airport, near Limerick in the west of Ireland, are protesting attempts by Aer Lingus to drop service to London’s Heathrow Airport and replace the slots with flights between Belfast and Heathrow.
While perhaps difficult for most Americans to grasp, the idea of the shamrock-logo of Ireland-based Aer Lingus landing at Belfast was once considered taboo.
Once known as “Dingy Dublin,” Ireland’s capital this summer was named one of Europe’s “coolest cities” by the German magazine, Der Spiegel. The magazine said Dublin has transformed itself from “dirty old town” to “European metropole of freshly scrubbed red-brick buildings and modern architecture.”
The pedestrian promenades on each side of the River Liffey are packed day and night with a vibrant mix of local workers and international tourists. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio may need the luck of the Irish to duplicate the scene along the Hillsborough River.
Not all of Ireland’s youth aspire to trendy downtown lifestyles, at least not one that involves working in shiny new office buildings.
Many high school graduates are opting for trade apprenticeships instead of college courses, the Irish Independent reported. Once qualified in a trade, the workers can earn about 1300 Euro ($1,800) a week, more than double the prevailing starting wage for office and professional staff.
Like my cousins, many Irish are still farmers.
But increased attention to the environmental impact of fertilizers and waste runoff has officials considering hiking pollution penalties to 500,000 Euro ($683,000) from 3,000 Euro ($4,100), plus a year in jail instead of a month.
Farm runoff is blamed for tap water contamination in the Galway area this year, sickening about 240 people as nearly 100,000 residents were forced to boil water from March through August as a new treatment system was installed.
With its economic success and modern lifestyle, Ireland also has witnessed increases in drug and alcohol abuse, crime, teen suicide and other social conflicts, such as non-Irish immigrants pouring into the country.
The famous Irish welcome was sorely tested at the Rose of Tralee Festival in August as hooligans tossed eggs and smoke bombs at the contestants’ parade floats, and a bomb scare also forced 3,000 spectators to evacuate a nearby racecourse.
Responding to criticism of church sexual abuse scandals and claims that prosperous Irish people no longer require their traditional Catholic faith, Archbishop Sean Brady drew headlines as he complained “the land of saints and scholars has become better know as the land of stocks and shares.”
The result, Brady said in an Irish Times op-ed column, is “an increasing culture of insecurity and fear. What often appears on the outside to be a culture of confidence and certainty in Ireland is in reality a façade. More and more people in Ireland are becoming stressed out trying to bring a security to their lives that only trust in God can give.”
Not everyone agrees with Brady’s assessment or longs for a return to Ireland’s past of crushing poverty. The stories of contemporary Ireland are not the misty images of the old sod perpetuated by tour operators and St. Patrick’s Day hype but the challenges and struggles of a 21st century democracy.