This article appears in the Chicago ‘Irish American News’ for March, 2017 – their 40th Anniversary issue.
When you say it like that: forty years ago…
Ireland was still something less than two years in my future. I had finished school and was preparing for my Great Tour of Europe and North Africa. Happy days of wandering – and by God, they get happier when I look back on them.
Then it was a few months of graft back in Ayr, Scotland where I had grown up, as I saved to finally take my hitchhiking trip around Ireland.
I had been on holidays to Ireland as a child, of course. You couldn’t have a proudly Republican father like mine – Tam Brady – and not grow up having heard the songs and stories your whole life. I can see him yet, sitting in the living room and blasting out his Makem and Clancy records or poring over a book on Irish history.
He had even been offered a job at Dublin’s Guinness Brewery in the early 60s; but with two young ones as well as a wife who to this day would never live anywhere but Ayr, one kind of love lost out to a stronger and deeper one. Never stopped him dreaming, though. So when I announced my intention of heading for Ireland he was happy out. Especially since I had never taken the blindest bit of interest in Irish history. Truth to tell, hearing so much of it at home tended to have the opposite effect. Human nature.
I figured I would spend a few months in Ireland before seeing what else took my fancy. But this country has a way of getting under your skin – and although I didn’t know it then, I was arriving (1979) at a great time for a young man. The country was still shaking off the iron grip of that old creep John Charles McQuaid and – catching up with the rest of Europe a good ten-fifteen years late – there was a great sense of sexual freedom in the air. And as a young lad who found the women lovely and their accents almost more so, I was in heaven.
There was another thing; and it was something more important than the fact that as I hitched around I was discovering a land of uncommonly beautiful countryside. It was the fact that when I went into a pub I quickly noticed that so many people were astonishingly conversant with literature, the cinema and theatre. And I mean people in the most out-of-the-way places. And as someone with a lifelong passion for all of the above, how could I resist that?
Even so, I didn’t expect to still be here as I begin the slippery slope towards 60. I’ve been lucky enough through work that I’ve been able to travel very widely indeed; but it’s Ireland that has remained my home all these years. And despite my loathing for most of the governments that have looked after themselves and feck the voters over the years, I’ve not regretted it.
I’ve been through two recessions now: one in the eighties that I scarcely knew was taking place; and the recent one, which began for me in roughly 2008 and saw me wiped out to a degree where I’ve been pretty much starting from scratch at a time when I thought I would be looking towards a comfortable retirement.
Well, things happen and some things go pear-shaped; but no – on balance I’ve never regretted spending my entire adult life here.
One word, though: I don’t have any problem with those who left in order to improve their quality of life. That’s a legitimate choice and for many it’s been the sensible one.
But I have an EXTREMELY short fuse with those who left, are now back and who are lecturing the rest of us on how great little Ireland is and how much better everything is compared to…wherever they went to.[Mind you, there are extraordinarily philanthropic men like Corkman-and-proud-of-it Mike Bowen, author of the terrific autobiography A Time of Secrets. Mike left Ireland decades ago and carved out a very successful career in Australia; but he never ever misses an opportunity to give something back to Ireland whilst also being totally realistic about its problems.
He’s also a Renaissance man, able to juggle being a distinguished poet and writer along with being an astute businessman.
Just as he’s proud to be from Cork, I’m proud to call him one of my few and closest friends. Stop blushing, Mike.]
Ireland is not great at the top; at its rotten core; and not in many of its institutions. At the moment we’re being shown clear evidence that those in power were willing to smear and disgrace the name of a man by slandering him with entirely false and truly vile allegations.
That is only one example, but there’s a LOT that has to be done in order to clean up this country. A LOT.
But if you are going to arrive back and after one week spout rubbish at me about how wonderful everything is, then I’ll ask you what I asked the clown who tried that on with me recently: if you find it so great, then why didn’t you hang on during the bad times and help to work towards fixing it? God knows we could have done with a few of you big brains, because those who have been in charge here have been only interested in lining their own nests and increasing their pension. Yeah, it was your choice to make – just spare me the lectures, OK?
One way in which this country IS great, I saw this week, in the kindness of people who rallied around a wounded family.
A man of thirty, who I knew well, decided to take his own life. He is hardly the first and he certainly won’t be the last – if this ‘scourge’, to quote Mike Bowen, was a disease it would be getting called an epidemic. It’s the closest that it has come to my world, though. And it was heartbreaking to see the pain that his parents and his sister are going through even as I write this. His mother told me last night: “I’ve got so many questions that I want to ask; but he’s taken all the answers with him”.
Yet to see the quiet and unobtrusive help offered to the family by friends, neighbours and even relative strangers has been a pure joy. Hands have held this hurting family every step of the way. And people have been unshowy; practical; just willing to listen. Most of all, people have been there.
It’s one of the reasons that I love my adopted country: despite the attempt of the scurrilous, self-centred, poisonous rats at the top, the majority of people remain decent ones that I’m lucky and privileged to live among.