THE IRELAND in which I grew up — in the 1950s — was a very different country from the Ireland of today. It really was a quiet backwater in those times, a society in which the changes wrought by the Second World War had scarcely begun to touch.
It was, relatively, a poor country — scores of thousands of young people emigrated each year, and the job columns of Irish papers were filled with requests from English employers seeking Irish workers. It was also a society of strict morality: crime rates were among the lowest in the world (bicycle thieving was, by all accounts, the main police headache) and subversive or nefarious foreign literature of all kinds was banned.
It had all the advantages and all the disadvantages, too, of a tranquil, monolithic, wellordered society. It was safe. It was a nice place in which children could grow up. Family life was warm and supportive. Real pleasures were had from simple things — hiking, dancing at ceilis, Sunday drives in the mountains, hospitality, teas. And Dublin, an elegant city, had a certain glamour.
But it was a narrow society in many respects, too, and overseas visitors were shocked to see urchins selling newspapers in bare feet, children begging, obvious signs of poverty.
Ireland today has changed out of all recognition — again, both for the good and the bad. In the
1980s, it is a country which the twentieth century has invaded with a virulent suddenness: people in the West of Ireland have, in some cases, moved technologically from the 1850s to the 1980s in the space of a few years — from homes with no electricity and no running water to the era of computers, space satellites, television and video, with all the culture shock such changes involve.
Open discussions about abortion and contraception are flourishing in a milieu which until recently was not very different from that of Thomas Hardy's novels.
These immense, sudden changes have opened Ireland up dramatically — stimulated new ideas. fresh talk and all the cross-currents that must exist in a free and democratic society.
Half of the Irish are under 25 (one of the attractive spin-offs of not having a birth-controlorientated society is that you continue to have lots of young people) and there is a feeling of stimulus, of challenge, of debate and liveliness in the social atmosphere of Ireland today.
But there is the dark side of modernity, too; a frightening increase in crime; a materialism only equalled by philistinism; far less law and order; an unattractive cynicism; and, for me, the wholesale destruction of the city of Dublin, which, from being a place of charm and elegance has become like any other example of inner city deprivation.
The restaurants, the pubs, the places of meeting and entertainment are dying on their feet in the centre of Dublin because nobody wants to go there after dark. There is just too much crime and ugliness, and the decaying buildings with their old posters flapping about the garbage are altogether too depressing.
Real estate killings have been made by property speculators, and Dublin suburbia, indistinguishable from suburbia in Glasgow, Bristol, or Des Moines, rules the day, and the night. Of Dublin city my husband said, sadly if wittily: "A terrible Birmingham is born".
And yet, and yet, I still seek Ireland out for repose, for repair from the big bad world, and still find there, in the very air itself, a stillness, a peace and a tranquility that is no where else found. In the West of Ireland, in the south, on country roads all over the land, it is still possible to be the only person on the ostensible face of the earth, surrounded by a perfect pause in nature that heals the very soul.
Although so much of the character of Ireland is now so obviously modern, something has been retained, something has been held back, something of Ireland remains, thankfully, in a timeless antiquity, a groove in eternity, a drawer in history, something stays mystically and scenically at the source of all things.
That is where my own Ireland lies — somewhere magical and beguiling and out of all time and worrisome day-to-day news, and standing on the beach at Claddaduff or on a country road in Clare, one can catch at that Ireland in the air: forever, unchanging, divine.