One thing that strikes any American visitor to Ireland is the cleanliness of the place. Not only are the streets clean and trash picked up, but the air is clear and free of smog, even in Dublin which is a bustling city of over a million people. The parks are beautifully maintained, as if they are golf courses. More importantly, throughout the country there are signs reminding people to recycle and to think in terms of renewable energy. Because the roads are narrow and the gas prices high, people drive small, energy efficient cars. We saw several brands of cars (such as a Nissan Micra) that aren’t even sold in the United States, and we didn’t see one gas-guzzling SUV. During the entire tip I only saw one public restroom that had paper towels to dry your hands; everywhere else there were blowers to dry one’s hands. Instead of environmental responsibility being an individual choice, as it is in the U.S., in Ireland environmental concern is a cultural mandate. I could not help but recognize how arrogant and wasteful the U.S. attitude toward ecological concerns are compared to the Irish.
Closely aligned to their environmental concerns is the sense of connection to the rest of the world. Ireland is a member in the European Union and so our money was in the form of Euros. On the news reports there was this clear awareness that Ireland was part of a larger global community, not only with Europe, but throughout the world. In the city of Dublin banners adorn the light poles that announce that Dublin is a “fair trade city,” thus linking Dublin’s economy to the farmers and producers in developing countries. Almost all the coffee shops we entered sold fair trade coffee and many of the markets had fair trade fruits and vegetables. In this country we often talk about being part of a global community, but we do so only on our terms. If we don’t agree with what the rest of the world desires, be it in military matters, foreign policy, or business, we think we are big enough to simply go it alone. As we are finding out in Iraq, that is a dangerously flawed policy. The Irish, by contrast, have what appears to be a healthy sense of interdependence.
During our time there, the country was involved in the all-Ireland finals for Gaelic Football and for Hurling. For those who haven’t been introduced to these two sports, they are fast moving, high scoring, and exciting to watch, and Irish people get as excited about their sports, as Americans do theirs. I would love to see Hurling (which is sort of combination lacrosse, soccer, and football) come to the United States. One night I sat in a pub talking to older Irish men, and was surprised to learn that virtually all sports in Ireland are amateur. So when 50,000+ folks packed into Dublin’s Croke stadium to see the Hurling Semifinals, they were watching guys who had to go back to work on Monday just like them. I found it refreshing to realize that the Irish players and spectators participate for the love of sport, and the business of sport is a minor concern. While I am sure there is manipulation and corruption at some level, they have not so distorted sport that a few big, fast, brawny guys get rewarded with salaries and accolades that are way out of line with their overall social value, while spectators are endlessly gouged.
Finally, I was struck by the sense of history among the Irish. We visited ruins that went back as far as 7000 B.C., toured castles of the 12 century and saw prisons that held the revolutionaries from the rebellions of the early 1900’s. Now in part this was due to the fact that these sites are featured in the tourism guides, and I was told by some Irish folks that like elsewhere visitors are often more aware of their history than the Irish are. I know that is true for Philadelphia; many local residents have never visited the historic district. Even so, because so many ancient buildings still stand and are still in use, history is just embedded into the way people live. The Irish language is now being taught in school, after almost being eradicated by the English in the 18th and 19th century. Like other countries going through an economic boon, Ireland has experienced an influx of immigrants, particularly from Poland, Russia and Asia, yet even with that there is a sense of rootedness that was interesting. Not only did I get the sense that the Irish are connected to the rest of the world, but they are connected to their ancestors and their past. They have a greater sense of where they have come from.
My buddies at the pub assured me that Ireland has its share of problems. Apparently, the prime minister is involved is in some sort of scandal, and there was evidence of debates over land use and the huge subsidies that are paid to Irish farmers. So by no means do I mean to paint Ireland as a utopia. However, whenever one goes to another country or culture, he/she has the opportunity to see their own culture in a fresh light. That is what happened to me. There is so much more I could say, and you are welcome to look at some pictures we took. But I was struck by what we as American could learn from the Irish; I came away very much touched by their refreshing approach to life in the world today.