Many countries have a national motto or creed, something ancient in Latin on a coat of arms that usually translates along the lines of ‘God at my right’ or ‘Get off my land’. The Irish national motto, Cead Mile Failte, means ‘A hundred thousand welcomes’.
-Pete Brown, Three Sheets To The Wind
San Francisco has about 800,000 people, give or take. San Jose has about a million. The thing that nobody around here seems to have grasped is that in between them is another city. It’s forty miles long, and it has a population of 1.5 million people, and it’s cunningly disguised as a couple dozen separate municipalities.
Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland has a population of just over four and a half million. The largest city is Dublin, with just over 1.3 million, followed by Cork at under a quarter million. Then Limerick and Galway, both of which are smaller than Sunnyvale. Think of the names of these places you’ve heard of. Limerick is under a hundred thousand. Killarney has maybe fifteen thousand people. Waterford, where the crystal comes from, is 54,000. The Rose of Tralee comes from a down of 24,000. The sixth largest urban area in the Republic is Drogheda, population 41,000 – the same as the listed capacity of Vanderbilt Stadium. Shannon – home of the international airport that was the gateway across the Atlantic for decades – has fewer than 10,000 souls.
Ireland is not really an urban country. These are towns and villages that grew up slowly over hundreds of years, self-contained and in many ways self-sufficient. People in Kinvara might be commuting to the big city for work, but the big city in this case is Galway, which is the size of Mountain View. And when you go to these towns and villages, they’re all walkable in a way that contemporary New Urbanist types in America would drool over. As long as we stayed somewhere close by, everything we needed – the grocery store, the pharmacist, the pub, the other pub, the restaurant, the museum, the other other pub – it was all an easy five minutes on foot, whether in Galway or Dingle or Kilkenny. I suppose I could have managed that in the town where I grew up, for a few years, but by 1995 it was pretty clear that you’d need a car to do anything at all in my hometown and forget about any kind of bus or rail transit.
And in most every town we stopped through, there was a storefront for the local TD – that is, member of the Irish parliament. You’re never far from your government, and when the annual budget comes out, they’re going to break it down in detail on the television and in the papers. Some people have suggested that there’s a Dunbar-number problem with American democracy in that you probably don’t know anyone who knows your Congresscritter, but I think it’s simpler than that. Ireland understands terrorism. Ireland understands bigotry. Ireland understands history and its consequences, because they weren’t things that happened long ago and to someone else. Ireland is in no hurry to get out of the EU, or to shut the borders – not when one Irish grandparent is enough to put you on a glide path for citizenship. In short, I think Ireland still operates at a human scale and with a sense of perspective.
There were things that reminded me of growing up in exurban Alabama – in a good way. So many doors still lock with old-school cartoon keys of a kind I only ever saw used in my grandfather’s old house. The proliferation of electric showers in stalls raised above the bathroom floor suggests buildings constructed before indoor plumbing or electricity. Long buildings curving around roads that were trod out by hooves instead of laid out in a grid. Portions in restaurants – and coffee and soda servings – suggest my childhood rather than the Golden Trough approach of the 21st century. The grocery stores were generally small to smaller. You speak to the pharmacist behind the counter about your issue and she suggests the thing you need to buy, rather than staring at a row of pills and creams and just picking out what has the gaudiest packaging or the best advertising. And the biggest sports – the ones that had banners strung across every road and homemade signs exhorting players by name at the crossroads – are amateur ones played by the local boys (and girls, incidentally) in the name of the county, not some professional organization or sham-amateur college operation.
You don’t want for modernity at all – there’s a satellite dish out every window and wifi in every pub and ubiquitous cell coverage for rates far cheaper than the American telecoms shaft you for, and everyone’s on WhatsApp – but you aren’t a prisoner of it either. There’s an agreeable pace to life, a general sense of just trying to be decent human beings to each other, that our country decided we didn’t have to bother with anymore sometime in the 90s. When I look at Silicon Valley in 2017, I want to shake the tech yuppies violently hard and shout “do you KNOW there’s other people?” Ireland does know. You hear a horn honk on a rural road, you know it’s because the driver saw someone he knows. You stand uncertainly at a bar in a strange pub in a strange town and hear “Have you been served?” Talking of our national embarrassment evoked sympathy, and in most cases a genuine curiosity about how such a thing could have happened, that only drives home what a rotten stroke of luck it was.
In short, Ireland looked me in the eye and asked me what life could have been like in Alabama had we somehow pulled our head out of our collective ass eighty years ago or so. None of the self-absorbed get-rich-quick hustle of Silly Con Valley. None of the pinched suspicion and passive-aggressive bigotry of the Confederacy. None of the desperation of grasping at some kind of imagined prior greatness because someone decided their stupid was more to be valued than other people’s smart. Just a country at peace with who is it and what it is.
It was on this trip that I realized how irked I am by the “green beer Irish” in this country. The ones who think Killarney and the Blarney Stone are the go-to destinations in Ireland. The ones whose idea of an Irish lass is Scarlett O’Hara. The ones who take the broad twentieth-century stereotypes of Irish-American as a modern representation of Irish and try to leverage it as some sort of white ethnic shibboleth. And let’s be blunt: most of these people are actually Ulster Scots, and I’m sure I’ll have things to say when I finally make that trip. Suffice to say that after two weeks, the real Ireland is far and away better than the one made up in somebody’s head from a smattering of Bing Crosby records with the acid-trip geography of how things are in Glocca Morra.
I expected the trip to be an emotional wrench, but it really wasn’t. Not even belting out the Fields of Athenry (in a pub called the Merry Ploughboy) did me in. The closest it got was two brief moments. One was when I picked up a check at dinner and couldn’t really convey what I wanted to – which was “here we are in this amazing place, and I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to be back here and have dinner with my real actual blood family, so I got this.” Seventeen years I’ve wanted to visit Ireland, and I found the lock picked and the country laid out before me through the good offices of our hosts. Thank y’all so so much for that.
And the other was when we were getting ready to walk out to the plane to fly out of Dublin back to Heathrow, and seeing “May the road rise up to meet you” painted on the wall. I live in a time and a world that, on the whole, doesn’t particularly wish me well – doesn’t wish anyone well, if we’re completely honest. For sixteen days, the Republic of Ireland did just that. There are no words for how badly I needed that, or how grateful I am, or how I hope that someday I go be back there and convey my respects in person. In the meantime, I’m going to try to bring what I experienced back with me and improve the state of my life here. Of which.