by Jasper Hutson
In the days following my arrival in Ireland from America, I’ve learned a few things; driving on the left side of the road is terrifying, food tastes better when you’re on holiday, and I don’t love the rain as much as I thought I did.
But mostly, I’ve learned that the image of Ireland that Americans conjure does not exist, and may never have. Things have changed since the filming of The Quiet Man, but that might not have been real even then.
There are two conflicting portraits of Ireland that are painted by the Hollywood-influenced consciousness; the peaceful and idyllic country full of simple villages, and the war-torn ‘old country’. My entire vision of the country was colored by these contradictory portrayals. While it was not surprising to find that one of these versions was wrong, actually it was expected, but I found that both were completely wrong.
On the first matter, the country has modernized considerably. In the words of Irish author John McGahern: “Ireland is a peculiar society, in the sense that it was a nineteenth century society to about 1970 and then it almost bypassed the twentieth century.” So, while the Hollywood portrayal of Ireland as a country stuck in the past may at one time have been accurate, it certainly no longer is.
However, there are several family farms. But the fact that there are still farming communities merely indicates a lack of corporatization of agriculture and not an absence of technological advancement.
There is also a substantial influx of foreign influence and investment. GE is building a biomedical plant near Cork, a move estimated to make over 500 new jobs. Chinese and other investors are pouring in, buying stakes in companies and property. There are vast amounts of immigrants from all over the EU and beyond. All of the interest has evolved Ireland into something of a small melting pot, especially larger cities like Dublin and Limerick.
All of these factors and many more have changed Ireland from a quaint and homogeneous little island nation into a rapidly changing organism.
On the other hand, though, there is the other side of paradoxical coin. Hollywood tells us that Ireland is at constant civil war, fighting itself to death. Does this Hyde live while the Jekyll dies?
First, a bit of history. Until the Good Friday Accords in 1998, Ireland was constantly being destabilized by a war between partisan groups. One of those groups, the IRA, demanded that Ireland and Northern Ireland (which was and is under British rule) be united into a single island state. The North, however, is populated mostly by Protestants, who feel more of a cultural tie with Britain than Ireland. So some Protestants took it upon themselves to defend the United Kingdom.
Needless to say, things stayed pretty intense between these various parties. Car bombings, shootings, and other acts of violence became common place, particularly in the contested areas of the North. This era became known as ‘The Troubles’. *
Meanwhile, Americans became enamored with the idea of a fight just on the other side of the Atlantic. As people are wont to do, they romanticized the conflict, ignoring the horrors.
Some believe the struggle to continue. They imagine a country filled with resentment to the other side and constant suspicion.
However, that mostly ended with the aforementioned accords and a slow disarmament. While the tension has not disappeared, it has lessened drastically. In fact, free movement between the North and the Republic is now possible, to the point where I have lost track which country I’m in; an advertisement with a £ instead of a Û being my only hint.
Of course, nothing is every truly over. There are still many people who hope to see a united Ireland. However, most of these are now organized into political groups instead of paramilitary ones. Granted, those still exist, but they are much smaller now and mainly operate in Belfast and Dublin.
So that’s it. The fantasy is cleared, showing a modern, cosmopolitan and complex country in place of the hazy outline that existed before. Of course, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks, so my view will continue to change and grow. Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe The Quiet Man was practically a documentary? But I don’t think so.
*Please note that this is just a quick summary of the basic players in the conflict. It is not to be taken as a complete sequence of events. There are several historical reasons for the conflict, going back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1100s. Any attempt to understand modern Ireland should take into account all the major events in the island’s history, which could not be provided in this short article.