First of two parts

I am just back from an eight-day stay in Ireland. I went there first in the summer of 1970, then again in February 1997. This time, I was asked every day by Irish friends how I thought the country had changed.

No longer can Ireland be described, as it was by author Sean O’Faolain in the 1930s, as “a sleeping country.” It has awakened both to the grim realities of its past and to its dynamic potential in the future. But, in 2008, are the stripes fading on the Celtic tiger?

There are two striking aspects to the new Ireland, and the first has to do with the population itself.

“It was some time in May 1993,” Cork poet Tom McCarthy told me, “that I read that the population of Ireland was actually increasing, and I knew everything was going to change from then on.”

The modern history of Ireland is a history of emigration, primarily to Britain and the United States. But, due in large part to the IT boom of the 1990s, skilled Irish workers began returning to the country to invest their futures in it. The old way of showing one’s appreciation of Ireland by getting out of it as soon as possible (to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw) had become a thing of the past.

But it wasn’t only Irish who were flocking to Ireland from the mid-’90s. On this trip I was amazed by the number of immigrants in Dublin from Nigeria, from Lithuania and — especially — from Poland. In 1970, I cannot remember hearing a single foreign language spoken on the streets of the capital. This time I barely walked 10 meters without hearing one. Even the doorman at the posh U2-owned Clarence Hotel spoke Russian.

And there’s a heavenly bonus to this as well. Thanks to the Poles, who, like the Irish, are overwhelmingly Catholic, church attendance during Lent this year was given a boost. One church in Cork reportedly had to lay on extra Masses to cater to the Polish faithful. Praise the Lord and pass the visas.

Death and emigration

The second aspect of the new Ireland is connected to the transformation of the country’s self-image from being a pastoral idyll to an urban fact. Not that rural life was truly idyllic. The great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote of the countryside as a place . . .

Where the seed gets no chance to come through To the fun of the sun Even during the so-called Great Hunger of 1842 to 1852, when death and emigration reduced Ireland’s population by as much as 25 percent, the number of people living in Dublin increased. A century later, in the 1960s, more than half of Ireland’s population was living in urban centers; and, though many Irish denied it, Ireland was effectively losing its fiercely defended pastoral identity. Today, more then 1.5 million people live in the greater Dublin area— amounting to about a third of the republic’s population.

Yet for a long time, the national ethos remains staunchly rural and, as a corollary, deeply religious. Traditionally, Irish villages have despised Irish cities — and most everything they stand for.

James Joyce was the voice of the city — Dublin — par excellence, and as such he could find no place for himself in the Ireland of his day. (In today’s Ireland he is idolized, but this tells another story, that of how a country ostracizes artists while alive and worships the hell out of them once they are safely dead.) The Irish village was a model of backwardness and decay that, for all its pride, held the country down and stood in the way of the modernization that Ireland had to have.

However, the decline of religious fervor in Ireland, coupled with the importance of Dublin in the new Europe-oriented economy, means that Ireland-as-pastoral-paradise does not, in this century, represent the national culture. Once, Dublin was not given its due on the altar of identity. That has changed. In this sense, Dublin is the oldest of imagined cities and the newest of real ones.

Now money has hit the city in a big way. Real-estate values have doubled and then doubled again in less than a decade, and rents have soared. Roads are choked with new cars and morning television shows I saw reported that working people are skipping breakfast and turning into “dashboard noshers.” There is a crying need for an airport befitting a major capital, a subway, and a decent train network spanning out to the provinces.

Ireland’s growth — and, in particular, Dublin’s growth — overcame the country’s infrastructure all too quickly. On March 6, RTE, the national broadcaster, reported that “74 percent of working people have job rage, shouting in the office regularly.” The average Dublin road commuter spends 23 days of the year going to work.

The church and the pub

So, in many senses, both good and bad, Ireland is no longer, in Joyce’s words, “an afterthought of Europe” — no longer on the periphery of the contemporary and the trendy. Its primary polemics between country and city, between faith and skepticism, between growth for its own sake and preservation of what is of value in the tradition mirrors that in other developed countries.

Cultural life in Irish cities had long centered on the church and the pub, both places where the Irish felt they might get close enough to God to smell His breath.

But the pub is on the skids, with smoking now banned there, and a new cafe culture is only just beginning to emerge. The church itself is changing, too. A recent survey found that 63 percent of priests wanted an end to celibacy, and 61 percent were in favor of priests marrying. Such data was unthinkable a generation ago.

Again, a generation ago, in 1975 to be precise, the ugly Dublin City Council building was erected right over Wood Quay, the site of the first Viking settlement. Today, the same travesty toward the national heritage may be repeated with the building of a highway through the sacred landscape by the Hill of Tara — but now there is at least a public outcry over it.

Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund, has compared the projected construction to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.

Countries are most energized and dynamic when in the throes of a polemic on the ethos of the nation. Ireland is smack in the midst of just such a polemic, and I sensed a vitality there that was certainly lacking when I first visited in 1970.

The metaphorical idyll of the countryside is a wistful relic of the past. With 11 percent of the population foreign-born (the United States is about the same, with 12 percent), the country’s identity is experiencing a mindset shift of tectonic proportions.

What will come to symbolize Irishness in the 21st century? That is the question I will address here next week.

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