I’ve been in Ireland since Wednesday and have been on an emotional rollercoaster for most of it. This has been my longest absence in years – four and a half months. In the usual run-up to Christmas, people are in a reflective mood and for the most part these reflections make for depressing hearing. Tales of foreclosures, untimely deaths, theft, suicide, and barely making ends meet are rampant. In the villages of Ireland, isolated incidences vault to the top of the list of evidence of why the country is going to the dogs. In Clane, three girls stole four dresses from the local boutique (one each for them and a fourth for the getaway driver). Another girl had her handbag nicked when she was stopped by a man in a car asking directions. His job – to distract her. His partner’s job – to leap out grab the bag and jump back in. And then just last week, the tyres on ten cars were slashed – randomly. And this is just our village.
Taxi drivers in Dublin warn me of the simmering racial angst that is just waiting to explode. They tell me of the drunken mess that Dublin turns into after 2am. They explain the cheap shots and cocktails that have tempted less seasoned drinkers away from the stable fare of beer and wine and have turned our youth into a vomiting mass of blowdried hair teetering on six-inch heels. Add to that heady mix the rumours filtering through that things are kicking off again up North.
For me, Christmas in Ireland is a time of tradition. I’ve been meeting the same three lads every year I’ve been home since I left in 1994. We’ve all aged. And the Bank we used to work in has disappeared, both in spirit and in substance. But Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this annual homage to times gone by. And every year since God knows when, the Nugent-Manning’s have had a Christmas party where people who might not see each other from one end of the year to the next catch up on what’s going on and the morning after is filled with ‘Did you know….’ At home, we say the rosary, sit around, drink tea and catch up on who’s dead or dying. Every Christmas Eve, after mass, our neighbours come in for a drink or three and the whole country is put to rights as opinions abound and experiences are shared.
When I balance the two – tradition and reality – I worry about Ireland’s future. I worry about Hungary, too, but that’s a different sort of concern. For Ireland, I worry about her people. For centuries, we’ve been the toast of the world – everyone wanted us to visit. But now, Australia and the USA are having second thoughts because the type of people we are sending are not of the same calibre. There’s a latent aggression – a feeling that the world owes them something – a hardness and a meanness that was never there before. The landscape, too, has changed. Modern architecture sits in subdued silence with the Georgian buildings of old and I can’t help but compare old and new.
I took the bus to Dublin one morning and as I sat, ears ringing from the chorus of disillusion I’d met with the night before, I watched the bus driver. He was a Dub, in his early fifties. He had a word for everyone. The return fare was €9.20 and those that hadn’t the 20 cent were forgiven. He helped people on and off with their bags and wished everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. His good humour never faltered, despite the manic traffic and dangerous drivers. He stopped before a bus stop to pick up a couple making a mad dash for the bus. He stopped beyond one to shorten one woman’s walk in the rain. He sang along to the radio and over the 20 miles slowly restored my faith in Irish nature.
I had a box of Hungarian chocolates in my bag, intended for another home. When we got to Busáras, I was last off. I gave him the chocolates and told him that since I’d been home, I’d heard/seen nothing to give me hope that Ireland would right herself. And then I’d seen him in action. It was shortly after 11am on a Thursday morning in the Central Bus Station in Dublin. The two of us were hugging like long-lost mates, both of us close to tears.
At the end of this penultimate week of 2012, I’m grateful that I got to travel on this man’s bus and see for myself that the spirt of Irishness for which we are famous, is still alive.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52